All’s new in Christchurch

In Auckland, in Queenstown, and most dramatically, in Christchurch, one’s overwhelming impression of NZ is new, new, new. Partly that’s because of the ever-flourishing greenery (Christchurch calls itself “the green city”), yet many other factors contribute to the country’s perpetual sense of freshness. Owing to its isolation –a bunch of islands seemingly floating around in the Pacific – this was one of the last terrains that humans settled, with Pacific Islanders arriving sometime between the 11th and the 13th centuries CE. Since the Maori lived in tribal settlements in wood and thatch, which they rebuilt over and over, the country’s oldest surviving buildings, as far as I can tell, are a handful of dwellings by British colonists from the 1840s onward.

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William’s Cottage, now an art gallery, in Queenstown (1864) — note oval bronze plaque to left of front door

Many if not most landmarks date to the early 20th century, including (surprise!) a  sumptuous little Carnegie Library in Hokitika on the west coast, which we stumbled upon en route to Christchurch, driving up the South Island’s west coast.

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Carnegie Library (1902), Hokitika, now the Hokitika Museum

Despite, or perhaps because of these comparatively slender historical pickings, everywhere we went, we were struck by the determined celebration of local history. (Having spent my 20s with my head, arms, and mind buried in archives, it occurred to me that the availability of records, and the manageability of their number, surely helps facilitate this apparent preoccupation with history — NZ’s land area measures around the size of Great Britain, while its peoples number fewer than five million, which is one-fifth the population of New York City’s metropolitan area). Wherever we went, we frequently found ourselves standing in front of bronze plaques and laminated wood signs, telling tales of the explorer who first navigated this or that fiord, who first huddled into this spit of land, accompanied by his herd of sheep; of the colonist who planted this or that specimen tree, died here, did that.

Also, references to and artifacts of Maori culture pervade linguistic and visual culture, appearing in place names and dual-language signs; celebrated in museums, alluded to in decorative patterns on printed clothing, jade jewelry, statues, stenciled wallpaper. DSC04297_DxO.jpgThe Maori people were never very numerous on these islands; currently, they account for three per cent of the country’s population. Such gestures go part way to redress past wrongs to these indigenous people, to be sure, but I suspect it and all these other historical markers serve a larger function: that of constructing a robust narrative of NZ nationhood and identity.

Even with these historical markers, in cities, the impression is that you are immersed in the recent or the now, and Christchurch, a city of 240,000 on the east coast of the South Island, is the newest of all this new. In 2011, “the shakes” – a 6.3 earthquake – devastated the central area of the city, severely damaging its large cathedral (built between 1864 and 1904), as well as many other historic buildings.

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Rebuilding a small church downtown

95% of the buildings in the central business district were either destroyed in the earthquake itself, or declared unsafe, and subsequently demolished.

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Yup, that’s adjacent to the Central Business District

In residential areas, of the 100,000 homes damaged, approximately 10,000 had to be demolished.

Built environmental junkie types will know Christchurch from Shigeru Ban’s gorgeous, inspiring Transitional Cathedral, aka Cardboard Cathedral, which stands in as the seat for the Anglican ministry, as Christchurch’s old, heavily damaged Cathedral continues its embattled way toward reconstruction.

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Entrance, Shigeru Ban’s Transitional Cathedral

The first major building completed after the earthquake, Ban’s TC was constructed largely of recyclable and/or inexpensive materials: huge cardboard tubes comprise the nave’s vaults; translucent, polycarbonate for the roof;DSC04444_DxO

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The four rectangular rooms with windows are recycled shipping containers

disused shipping containers serve as the ministry offices. The slight curve of the roof off-axis (the shape is not a perfect triangle), DSC04462_DxO.jpgwhich creates a subtle, compelling dynamism in the nave,DSC04459_DxO

matched the bubbly personality of Hilde, a sweet, lively woman who welcomed us by proudly revealing that she was “in her tenth decade”, before she told us, quite informatively, about the city, the church, and her congregation.DSC04434_DxO

All in all, in Christchurch you get to see something both rare and thought-provoking. If you were to build the best city you could ex novo, what would you do? Other such experiments exist. In the past: Brasilia, New Delhi, Chandigarh. Today: Masdar in Abu Dhabi by Foster and Partners, and countless new cities in China, but the former remains largely unexecuted, and the latter exercises are so vast in scale that speed of execution and developer profits were systematically privileged over sophistication in design.

Christchurch may be different. It’s too early to tell for sure. Much of downtown remains a vast construction site littered with empty plots of land, monuments to the city’s ravaged state. But even the way the city has approached those voids is impressive. To keep people’s spirits up amidst all those vacant lots, public art has been installed. DSC04477_DxO

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Glulam arches make a pathway downtown

 

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The brightly colored animals resemble the sheep, for which NZ is justly famous

And there are murals, along with informal installations, too.

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Mural to the left, temporary stage for impromptu performances at right

DSC04415_DxOBuilding has proceeded slowly in the Central Business District — Christchurchians grumble about it, then shrug, adding, it’s a great city. The CBD has been divided into precincts for retail, “innovation” (which I gather means hi-tech), health, performing and visual arts, and “justice and emergency services”. Dozens of large new buildings are under construction: a new metro sports facility, a new central library, a new convention center. A new transit and bus station opened recently.

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New park under construction, with Ban’s Transitional Cathedral to the left

Large green strips of new parkland and green plazas solves one of the central problems of rebuilding; namely, so much less office space is now needed downtown because of people’s increasingly mobile work practices.

If the residential areas are any indication, the results promise to be both instructive and impressive. Christchurchians needed to build homes quickly, so residential development has outpaced commercial and governmental projects. Our Air BnB, called the Little Black Hut, served as a temporary residence for husband-and-wife real estate developers, who had lost their own home during the shakes. Vertical wood siding, stained black, encircles the exterior, and white-stained plywood sheets line its interiors.

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Little Black Hut, Christchurch: A place to stay

DSC04501_DxO.jpgA couple of days of walking around the city suggested that the Little Black Hut’s design finesse was not unusual: most homes are small, but the detailing and compositional sensibility even in little cinder block, wood, or corrugated-metal-sided homes looks pretty well done.DSC04344_DxO

 

DSC04341_DxODSC04332_DxOHow little we missed the “sense of history” so prized amongst Americans! Running into the few remaining Victorian houses, grand and modest, provided enjoyment but not the sense of relief one finds when stumbling upon even modest historic structures in the United States. What we found in Christchurch substantiates the argument I advanced in WtYW that the problem in the US built environment is less old (better)-versus-new (clueless), but the poor design quality and craftsmanship of new construction. In Christchurch, high quality new homes, commercial, and retail buildings could be found everywhere. Even the mediocre buildings are good. DSC04476_DxOStay tuned, then, for the new iteration of New Zealand’s garden city — and dream.

— Sarah

A Journeyer’s Bargain

Change of pace: New Zealand.

 

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Sky Tower, Auckland

 

No targets on our back. Not unicultural. Women not effectively absent from public sphere. What relief. It’s enough to lead an atheist to say Thank God (a pluralist one). Of course, each country, city, landscape must be seen in its own terms, just as, of course, it is undesirable to do so and, strictly speaking, it is cognitively impossible.

First impressions of New Zealand derive from a day (of, after 30 hours of traveling over two days, post-travel resuscitation) in Auckland (North Island) and then a few days in Queenstown and its environs (South Island). Auckland offers the face of a multiethnic and multicultural world.

 

 

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Free food next to honeybee garden in Auckland

To our surprise, walking around the downtown area, we came across sections and cafes where Asian faces predominate. When we asked a fellow on the street for a direction, we discovered, as we walked together, that he was from Thailand attending cooking school in Auckland to learn European cooking, with the hope of remaining in New Zealand (more opportunity, better weather, and welcoming society). The locals (our Thai aspiring-chef included) all – without exception – interact in a friendly, cheery, and open manner (even the customs officials tasked with enforcing New Zealand’s stringent food importation laws hosannahed us, as if we were doing New Zealand a solid, as we ticked off the permitted items in our possession). Women and men mix openly and equally in all discernable places and phases of the public sphere, something the world teaches is not to be taken for granted and therefore merits a mention.

 

 

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View from plane from Auckland to Queenstown

Then, there’s the landscape, really the landscapes of the southern part of the South Island, which are magnificent in myriad describable and indescribable ways. About such natural wonders in particular, we will be offering up considerably more words and images in coming posts.

 

All told, New Zealand promises a relaxing and rewarding time, so far confirmed by limited experience. Traveling can be stressful, even when nothing goes wrong. Traveling’s continual progression of logistics – routine barely exists, so nearly everything every day needs to be figured out and decided — often entails executive-function demands which can tax the system, especially when the system is composed of three systems. New Zealand, land of (seemingly) easygoing people, functioning infrastructure, pleasingly accented English, abundant gluten-free food, charming urban areas (sample so far is small),

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Funky new neighborhood in Auckland

and breathgiving landscapes, so far has taxed us less and rewarded us as much as anywhere. A journeyer’s bargain.

 

— Danny

Morocco’s Architecture and Tradition

Frozen in time. From the first day we entered the Kasbah in Marrakesh through the end of our trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site Aït Ben Haddou, that was my overwhelming impression of Morocco.

IMG_20170928_165716_776_DxOThe exception was Casablanca, but Fez, people tell me, confers this impression with even greater intensity. In its sense of arrested time, Morocco felt very different from other developing societies I’ve encountered. Take India. In India, people’s lives are saturated with tradition, but they do not, or at least did not appear to me to reject modernity. In some of Morocco’s most distant reaches, people seem only dimly aware that modern societies even exist. What are they watching on satellite TV?

Traditional Moroccan architecture, which is most Moroccan architecture, can be characterized thus. Walls, walls, and walls.

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That’s first. Next: extreme complexity in surface patterning.

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Last: extreme simplicity of spatial organization. Whether it’s the riad courtyard houses, or a palace complex such as Bahia Palace, or the Ben Youssef Medrasa, spatial arrangements vary very little. Small rooms, or concentric layers of smaller and larger rooms, encircling open air courtyards.

DSC03526_DxO.jpgSometimes, in larger buildings, internal rooms with tiny windows butt up onto rooms opening onto subcourtyards with skylit roofs.

DSC03784_DxOSpatial organization, spatial sequences – all are straightforward, even banal. (If the site varies topographically, sometimes there’s a little more action, as in the palace at Telouet.) So the colorful, intricate patterns constitute the only means of arresting our visual interest — or, to invert the formulation, to compensate for the lack of design complexity.

On the drive from Aït Ben Haddou back to Marrakesh, Danny, Gideon and I discussed this, noting that although we’d seen many of central Morocco’s premier monuments, we’d discerned scant artistic development. Always, Zelig (ceramic tile mosaics) stretching from the floor to shoulder-level; intricate, lacy plasterwork above; then wood, painted and carved, on top (the wood needs to be on top because it spans ceilings, windows, doors).

DSC03765_DxOIn no place we visited did that differ.

To explain to Gideon the difference between the architectural tradition as we’ve encountered it in Morocco and the western one, I used painting, with which he is more familiar. Think about what a Giotto looks like, I said. Then compare it to Leonardo’s Madonna and Child in the Louvre, and then compare that to Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The subject is the same; the paintings don’t look at all alike. Each artist, in some way, was trying to express something new, even if he was also building on established traditions. Here, the mosaic work in Telout’s Kasbah (early 20th century) resembles the mosaic work in Marrakesh’s Ben Youssef Medrasa (16th century).

So, art or craft? Reluctantly, I concede: Danny’s correct.

That’s it for Morocco.

–Sarah

 

 

Taking Us to Marrakesh

The flight to Morocco lasted twenty-five hours, thanks to two things. Nonstop flights among African countries are often non-existent and connections can be circuitous and rare. Many travelers between two African countries find themselves connecting in Europe. We had that option for booking a path between Windhoek and Casablanca, but instead opted for the Gulf, going through Doha with a midnight connection between the two flights, as this offered the best (which is different from a good) itinerary. Then, a couple or weeks before the trip, Qatar Airways rescheduled our initial departure (perhaps owing to the tiff with the Saudis and others, preventing Qatar from using a lot of airspace), rendering our connection moot, and mandating that we layover in Doha for seven hours, from midnight to seven AM. As we have become practiced long-haul travelers, the twenty-five hours did not pass too badly, in part thanks to the airport lounge we could use, where Gideon and Sarah copped beds for sleeping. I stayed up the whole journey, and happily worked and worked and worked, off and (mainly) on for the long day. As I had a manuscript I was close to finishing writing at hand and I wanted to make a full run-through it, I had (for me) a perfect sustained project to keep me going for the trip.

We arrived to the ninety plus degree heat of Morocco after spending a month in overall coolish (some warm) weather. If I were differently oriented, I would offer a disquisition on the many ins-and-outs (more like ups-and-downs) of weather for our travels. All I’ll say here is that the heat was at first appreciated, though, especially as time wore on, less so by me than by Sarah and especially Gideon.

Upon landing, we procured our rental and headed for Marrakesh, which, three hours later, presented such a charming and salmon colored (the hue of virtually all the buildings) bustling face,

DSC03728_DxO_DxODSC03758_DxOthat Gideon and Sarah, immediate enthusiasts, lobbied for staying even longer than the planned week. This was even before we saw our Airbnb riad in the medina, with which they instantly fell in love.

DSC03812_DxODSC03815_DxOA consistent theme of our time in Morocco was that I liked what we saw and what we did somewhat less well than they did. To what extent this was owing to our different appreciations of the temperature, different temperaments regarding the hustle and hustling of the medina (where we walked with big targets on our fronts and backs), or differential ability to ignore or look beyond the manifestly subordinated place of women, rather than to different judgments about what is interesting or meritorious, is hard to know. Nonetheless, Morocco certainly presented a different face, or many different faces, from what else we had seen in Africa. This alone made it interesting.

Our stay in Marrakech centered on the medina, which is the interior of the old walled city, where we became instantly almost locals,

DSC03570_DxOtraversing the narrow alleyways of our residential area to the end of what was a dead end where our entrance lay. Once inside, courtyard open to the sky,

DSC03814_DxOwe were contained in our own mid-century, stoned Moroccan world, except for the five-times daily (the first occurred at 5:45 AM), insistent call to prayers to the various nearby mosques, which loudspeakers made impossible to ignore.

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Kasbah Mosque, Marrakesh

I joked with Sarah that it was great, just as it would be to have a guy put his head through your window and shout into your house. Anyway, we rather easily got used to this characteristic feature of Islamic countries, though we also learned that the volume and character of the call to the faithful varies. In Casablanca, we stayed a (long) stone’s throw from the gargantuan Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco and one of the largest anywhere.

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Hassah II Mosque, Casablanca

Its call to prayers are less intrusive, more subtle, and, to my untrained ear, more melodious.

The medina, with narrow streets and pathways, ancient chaotic feel, non-stop small commercial activity – an offer, a deal, a special price just for you, at every step – is worth a visit or two, so you get a sense of what the world of the Marrakech, perhaps the Arab, market once was like.

DSC03585_DxOOf course, today most of it is oriented to tourists, with on the whole more appealing offerings (rugs, ceramics, silver and beads in all kinds of constellations)

DSC03578_DxOthan the norm, but especially where we were, it also provided the lifeline of daily needs for the inhabitants – small grocers, stores with household essentials, laundries, and cafes for the men (singly, paired, in clusters) to while away the day.

After a few days of wandering the pathways and byways of the medina, including in the further walled-in Kasbah, and seeing its prosaic and more touristically sacred sights, we had had our fill of the new-old (which by then had lost much of its luster), and spent more time in the unabashedly newer part of Marrakesh, which is a modern and expanding city, except perhaps in its monochromatic insistence. (The riad, open to the sky and with its roof deck, continued to capture Sarah’s and Gideon’s fancy, while I had had more than enough of its walled-in offerings.) We finally got around to visiting the Jardin Marjorelle,

DSC03679_DxODSC03675_DxODSC03677_DxOa garden of desert plants, purchased and rejuvenated by Yves Saint Lauren and his partner Pierre Berge. It is as memorable and spectacular a contained garden as we have seen, a fiesta of specimen planting and display, with cacti of every sort as beautiful and wholesome as even your imagination could want. Marrakesh has its charms and its magical salmony-colored quality, rendering it, together with its impressively massive walls and the medina they enclose, a city of distinction, and worth visiting. It’s historic and contemporary marquee attractions – including palaces and tombs, museums and villas – are however mainly underwhelming.

DSC03681_DxOBut the Jardin Marjorelle… the magical Jardin Marjorelle…

— Danny

Swakopmund

Six months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to locate Namibia on an unmarked map, except to say that it’s in Africa. Danny and Gideon collaborated intensely on this part of the trip, so I decided to simply sit in the passenger seat and enjoy the view of the road, letting them decide upon places to skip and places to stop, and for how long.

The flight from Cape Town to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, took us up and over some of the Atlantic coastline before circling back over land. No, dirt. Or dirt and sand. As we neared our destination, dozens of what looked like dirt paths appeared on the surface of this parched land, lines stretching miles from one location to another without any clear signs of why one would embark upon a journey where the road began, nor travel it, nor reach the equally vacant destination visible at its other end.

Those dirt paths turned out to be roads, and they constitute most of Nambia’s transportation infrastructure. DSC03249_DxOOnly one paved (in local argot, sealed) highway, admittedly with arterial branches, stretches from north to south; a second, west-east, connects the adjacent towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund on the Atlantic with Windhoek. This one runs through the most economically developed regions of the country. Mostly, mines: diamond mines, copper mines, tungsten mines, and two of the top-ten uranium mines in the world.

Hiss, Mom, Gideon advised as we passed it. That’s what they make nukes with.

The first time I’d heard the name Swakopmund was when we asked Jan, the proprietor of the Witsieshoek Lodge in South Africa’s Drakensburg, where he came from. He replied, uttering his hometown’s name with swagger – SWA KUP MUND—and from then on Danny, Gideon and I could utter the word no other way. As if this remote city – town, really—were in actuality the unspoken center of the earth. “It’s a strange place,” Jan continued. “Completely German. Like a little German city, set on the coast of the Atlantic in the emptiest part of Southern Africa.”

That sold me. We must go. We’d planned to anyway, because it self-advertises as the extreme adventure capital of Southern Africa, and Gideon was determined to hurl himself out of an airplane in tandem with some stranger to whom he would entrust his very life. (As it turned out, he never did. Too cloudy, too cold.) But my determination became relevant during our visit to Sossusvlei, when the possibility of skipping Swakopmund arose more than once. And not without reason. The driving distances in Namibia seem absolutely endless: desolate hours upon hours pass, and you begin to feel as though you absolutely absolutely MUST be approaching your destination, when a quick check of the road map or the GPS ETA reveals that you’re less than halfway there, and before you lies miles, endless miles, of scrub brush, heat, and emptiness.

DSC03414_DxOThe wide, long, rattling journey from Sossusvlei to Swakopmund will surely always be one of most beautiful drives I have ever had the good fortune to enjoy. It’s not spectacular, like the drive from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Sea Ranch on the Pacific Coast, or the drive from Geneva to Lausanne. You really have to watch. I passed the hours gazing out onto these often flat, sometimes rolling expanses of land, parsing out how the sense of deep space came mostly from variations in color saturation, hue, and temperature, DSC03439_DxO_DxOand noticing subtle shifts in the layered bands of browns, grays, thin, struggling greens. DSC03256_DxO_DxO_DxOWhen the arid ground shifted from flat and sandy to inclined and rockier, my heart leapt, delighting in the textural variation.DSC03452_DxONothing, nothing, nothing. Until you realize that nothing is something. Burrow into these muted colors and thin layers, into this topography. This landscape settles inside you, then stays.

We’re going to that little German city, I kept thinking, perched on a remote coast of southwest Africa.

A little history here. Germany unified much later than many other European countries and, mainly landlocked, had no fleet. So by the 1880s, whereas England, France, and the Netherlands all had multiple, economically vibrant colonies begotten during the so-called Scramble for Africa, Germany, an aspirant to world power, was bereft.

Southern Africa had been almost completely carved up with the exception of the land that is now Namibia. This arid desert was unclaimed, except of course by the peoples who had always lived there, the Herero, Nama and San tribes, who lived in mutual enmity, competing over land and resources. Germany settled, and in the subsequent years, grabbed more, then more. The indigenous peoples had the audacity to believe that the land they and their ancestors had always inhabited was in fact theirs. Despite their enmity, they unified, forming an army to rebel against the German occupation. The German colonists’ response was swift, and brutal: by the end of 1905, somewhere between 24,000 and 100,000 Herero and Nama had been starved or slaughtered.

The end of the Swakopmund-bound drive comes suddenly. Civilization!

DSC03514_DxO_DxO_DxO.jpgPaved streets. A new shopping mall under construction, outside of town. Two-story concrete frame buildings – nearly everything is concrete frame, not steel– housing the warehouses and offices of various local companies.

Then, suddenly again: Victorian buildings everywhere. Some sedate in their detailing, others florid.

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Notice Atlas on the corner, holding up the world

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Churches, commercial blocks, a post office.

DSC03517_DxO At the edge of the commercial area, near the shore, sits a little enclosed complex with an arcaded courtyard and a charming lookout tower; once, it housed a boarding school. DSC03498_DxO

Tastefully restored arts and crafts detailing grace the pilaster capitals and string courses.

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Most of the earliest buildings are proudly dated: 1904.

They slaughter the local population, then build, Danny said grimly. The genocide ended in 1905. Later that same day in the main public square, we ran across the gruesome statue Danny mentioned in the previous post, and then, nearby, an equally unsettling sight: this monument commemorating German soldiers who died in both World War I — AND World War II — surrounded by a small little fence. DSC03524_DxO_DxO.jpgTo locals, this place, like the graciously-planted, serpentine beachside pathways, was just another instance of tidy Swakopmund’s gracious provision of landscaping and street furniture.

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Beachfront landscaping, with bike path at left

 

Shopping typically figures hardly at all into our traveling lexicon, but the merchants of Swakopmund have figured out that while its more adventurous visitors risk their lives on this or that perilous thrill, their more sober companions might well seek alternative forms of entertainment. We found a nice pedestrian shopping area, new, but in the Swakopmundian, quasi-Germanic mode. DSC03489_DxOIn it was an excellent new-and-antiquarian bookstore, filled with German-speaking latte-drinkers and German-language paperbacks. DSC03506_DxOWe poked around for a good half hour, turning up a battered Herero-German dictionary, published in 1904.

Must have been early in the year.

–Sarah

Wonderful People, Broken Parts

We spent close to two weeks in Cape Town, said to us ahead of time by two reliable friends, to be a European rather than an African city.

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My regard for them notwithstanding, I had my doubts that such a baldfaced statement might withstand the test of our exacting social scientific eyes. Boy, or — not to commit a micro-aggression — girl, was I wrong.

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The Cape Town of our visit was overwhelmingly first-world and WHITE, and that’s because Cape Town might be fairly described as a post-apartheid city. That’s not to say that Blacks and Coloreds – these are standard apartheid legacy ways of categorizing people among all South Africans – aren’t in evidence. They are – often as waiters or clerks serving almost exclusively Whites. The continuing residential and spatial and wealth segregation of whites and non-whites, a de facto without being de jure apartheid, is manifest in a thousand different ways, which makes it impossible for a person not to be conscious (if at times only in the background of the mind) all the time. Whatever else it is, Cape Town can be conceived of as a soft-apartheid city. Massive townships, some with hundreds of thousands of residents and scant infrastructure and services, ranging from awful to dehumanizing, emanate far outwards from the city’s central, White core, or are sequestered off from the posh, gated and barbed wired, White suburbs.

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The Cape Town townships – and therefore statistically Cape Town – constitute the most dangerous city in Africa. Gangsterism is a frequently heard term to characterize the quality and quantity of danger and violence of many of the area’s townships. Public transportation is appalling, creating effective commuting times of hours for many township residents to travel to their jobs (those who have them) in the central city. Cape Town, for all its fine features mainly for Whites, is sickening.

I can see how a (White) person with means, if willing to overlook or become inured to the larger degrading context and the human suffering it produces, could live well in Cape Town. Table Mountain (overrated as a natural and urban wonder, but nonetheless fine enough), great weather, inviting urban pockets, excellent restaurant, and perhaps enough cultural vibrancy, dirt-cheap cost of living (including wages for domestics), stunning beaches nearby and garden and wine country within an hour or two – it all adds up to a cushy and commodious existence. But the spiritual corrosiveness is unavoidable, whether one hardens one’s heart (QED: corroded) or not (it would eat away at you).

To be sure, I do not have the answers to the many questions of what to do and how to bring it about in a country of such massive economic (see Gini Coefficient), social (crime and violence rampant), health (HIV off the charts) spatial (de facto apartheid, built environmental disaster for most Blacks), racial (a country structured by race, racism, and racialism), and political pathologies (the government is massively and hopelessly corrupt). And it is easy for us to spend our three plus weeks in South Africa developing all our just criticisms while we enjoy the natural wonders, marvel with and at some of the wonderful people we meet, and viscerally experience the ordinary horrors that are the commonplaces of this country, and then to leave on our merry way, bequeathing little more than a few withering blog entries in our trail. So, we – Sarah, Gideon, and I – talk, and talk, and talk, and who knows what it will yield.

Among the wonderful people we have met, we spent several days in Port Elizabeth with Kevin Kimwelle, a personally winning and professionally admirable architect and social activist, with whom we will surely keep in touch (and about whom we, probably Sarah, will write more).

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Mark Coetzee (see https://www.conceptualfinearts.com/cfa/2017/06/30/mark-coetzee-interview/), the director of the just-to-be-opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, hugely impressive and thoughtful, spent a couple of hours with us, touring the museum and explaining to us the building process and choices – of mission, art, staff, and institution – in a society characterized and riven by all the features (and more, such as violent homophobia) I have mentioned.

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We learned a great deal from Mark in a short time, and even received a fairly spirited critique of our, in his view, blinkered critique of South Africa – though it was unpersuasive as the defense mainly took the form of pointing to the inequalities and horrors of other countries (real or exaggerated). Lest I leave the wrong impression, Mark told us that he had been a long-time anti-apartheid activist who had to flee the country in the 1980s, that he decries the ongoing soft-apartheidism of South Africa, and that he works to privilege and give voice to African artists (mostly non-White), and to create as progressive an institution as possible. It may be more complicated than Mark’s self-representations (how would we know?), as he, a self-proclaimed Marxist, comfortably and successfully works at the highest and wealthiest echelons of the notoriously non-Marxist art world, which suggests that he may be caught in what the Marxists call a contradictory position, one of less than full self- or self-representational enlightenment. In any case, for us, Mark, memorable as he is, will just be a memory.

In the Drakensberg, we met, climbed with, and broke bread with a range of people, mainly Europeans, who gave further support to the well-established notion that people who appreciate nature enough to want to hike along or up it are generally nice people, or at least they bring their better selves on these adventures. Of particular note, aside from the always helpful and earnest South African staff of the lodge, were two Germans who were more or less permanently in Southern Africa to bring the word of their God to others. They were full of the well-meaning passion which I have encountered in Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they were. Miriam and Mike have devoted themselves to living by their humanistic (if godly inspired) principles, going door to door giving witness and spreading their enlightenment. Even though their understanding of godly issues is decidedly not mine, I like such non-self-righteous-righteousness, and admire those who espouse and practice such an orientation’s maxims. Salt of the earth was coined to describe such people. Their optimism and positive spirits are infectious. We shared a couple of lovely meals and a bunch of laughs with Miriam and Mike. Who knows if we will ever be in touch with them again. If we do, I will be happy.

There were, of course, all the many South Africans of whatever skin color (race) and station we encountered. All-in-all, nearly without exception (except for a few race-coding Whites), people were lovely and kind, with smiles all around (except from the flow of beggars). We talked to as many people as we could, mainly Blacks and Coloreds, with the passing questions and conversations that can come with such chance and fleeting encounters. Our impressions of those we encountered is that the people were well-educated and thoughtful, with much human capital and ambition, and therefore ready to take off if economic and professional opportunity were to come their way. From our end, all we had to do (we usually offered more) is mention New York, which has cache with everyone.

The densest and most significant contact we had with South Africans was orchestrated by Gideon, who in his by now typical manner, went about on his own, and met a group of Black (perhaps some designated as Colored) young men and women, who integrated him into their squad (he immediately was let into their group chat) and with whom he ran day after day and became friends, real genuine friends. They met over a rap song in McDonalds (Gideon was rapping along, the others, sitting nearby, laughed, and they all started talking), and the rest is history. They – Larnelle, Clyde, Llewyn, Judah, Henry, and Octavia – poor enough that on the last day we were there, they didn’t have enough money to come into Cape Town. Sarah and I suggested that Gideon offer to pay for their transportation and food, which he did. They accepted eagerly, saying in the seemingly ubiquitous youth vernacular we there, and had a wonderful day together. Though for Gideon, the time with the squad was mainly sweet — as he really liked them, they had great and memorable times together, and his friends showed him their Cape Town and their humanity – it was also bitter.

As Gideon was acutely aware, compared to them, he is a billionaire. While after a day with the squad, he returns to the perfectly nice apartment we rented, they have to somehow get back (or walk the streets at night—no joke) to their townships about which Octavia, upon saying goodbye to Gideon one day, said, now we go back to hell. And of course, all the fellow-feeling notwithstanding, Gideon and we resume our privileged trip-around-the-world and then our privileged life in New York, while they, his good friends, just because they were born with darker skin in this apartheid structured country, will try to overcome (with what success? and what will failure mean?) the seemingly multiple insurmountable hurdles which may auger a life of privation and suffering.

When it was time the last evening for Gideon to take his final leave, Larnelle and Clyde accompanied Gideon to our apartment building. I went down to the street to let Gideon in, and got to greet them. Big smiles, sweet faces, vigorous handshakes, words of thanks to me for letting them meet and spend time with such a great kid as Gideon. With equal enthusiasm and gratitude, I thanked and complimented them in turn for their kindness and generosity towards him, before the farewell hugs warmed and broke my heart, and more so Gideon’s. Gideon fears he may never see them again, though social media (Gideon has friends all over the word) will keep them in touch.

The whole situation, and especially the contexts of the lives of Gideon’s friends, breaks my heart. It breaks Sarah’s. Most of all it breaks Gideon’s.

 

— Danny

South Africa, the Ugly

One day in particular, on the drive from Drakensburg to Port Elizabeth, crystallized an early impression of South Africa that subsequent experiences have done little to shake. Clarens is a touristy town encircled by spreading luxury resorts on private game parks, with horseback riding and fine wines on offer. Hunting too, maybe. It’s located in South Africa’s Free State, which is where Dutch Afrikaaner settlers retreated after the British had muscled their way in, grabbing the reins of colonial power. The story of how Afrikaaners fled to the mostly (and still mostly) empty, arable Free State, settling there with their retinues of slaves, reminded me a bit of those contemporary, right-wing anarchists in America’s Pacific Northwest, inhabiting huts in the rural forest regions.

Lonely Planet, our ever-inadequate, spunk-filled guide, described Clarens as a funky, hip town. Art galleries, restaurants, boutiques; it was on our way south anyway, so we thought, why not? And initially, it sort of delivered.

 

Cappuccino plus above-average pastries nestled into a tastefully funky shopping complex, which also housed a “farm-fresh” restaurant with outdoor seating, a lifestyle boutique selling hand-mixed face creams and funky bamboo sunglasses, a gourmet cheese shop, counters arrayed with little custard cups offering with tastings. Nearby, historic, single (or at most double) story brick and stone buildings slung around a large central open area—in New England, this would be The Green. Surrounding it all were the dramatic, burnt umber and red ochre mountainscapes of the Golden Gate National Park.

Clarens occupied a pleasant enough hour or two. The “antique” shops and “art” galleries were, predictably, a joke. Nearly every face we saw was white, including the settlers gazing out from the historic photographs hanging in the foyer of the simple, ochre-brick 19th-century Protestant church. The locals spoke Afrikaans among themselves. In the boutique, two women effortlessly switched between it to English, graciously explaining local customs and answering questions regarding the origins of their goods.

Time to go. Piling back in the car, I nodded at the black construction workers repairing the sidewalk outside our café.

We were barely out of town when we spotted the slum. This one, worse than many we’d seen, but better than the disgraceful shantytowns in Johannesburg. The typical – horrifyingly typical — one-dark-room, dirt-floored tin shacks. Unpaved dirt pathways. (Cars are mainly unaffordable for underprivileged South Africans. Hitchhiking is common.) Electric lines, yes, though scant evidence of running water, and plenty outhouses indicating its scarcity.

Cheek by jowl. Clarens proper, which reminded me (without really resembling) my summer hometown in Woodstock, Vermont, and this destitute, garbage-strewn slum.

That’s where those construction workers, to whom I’d politely nodded, probably lived.

The racism, the grotesque inequality. Inescapable.

Wrestling with the Stench

Writing about South Africa could consume a whole book. In light of what else South Africa has consumed, that’s no surprise, and that book would hardly constitute a footnote. In a sense, that’s true about whatever we write of everywhere we’ve been or will go, making South Africa no different. But South Africa stands out nonetheless, not in the trivial sense that all countries are singular along any number of dimensions, but because it is fundamentally different – and its marks of heart-wrenching distinction are palpable with nearly every step and in virtually every waking moment.

I do not intend to write the treatise South Africa warrants, merely to note elements, just kernels of them, which arise in the course of where my writing takes me and you. Yet one eloquent fact can help justify my opening, and set the stage for more. Of the 149 countries listed by Gini Coefficient in the CIA Factbook, South Africa has the second highest – meaning second greatest degree of economic inequality – exceeded only by the poor country it entirely surrounds and dominates, Lesotho. The most recent census (2011) revealed that the household income of whites is SIX TIMES that of blacks. (In the US, we rightly decry a white-black income gap where white households on average earn 60% more than black ones. In South Africa the figure is 500%.)

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The gaping inequality is literally impossible not to see because it is manifest everywhere. Sumptuous villas sit a stone’s throw away from shacks.

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Gleaming shopping centers share roadsides with garbage strewn shantytowns. Just sitting and writing about these human and inhuman contrasts – as it further focuses my attention on them — increases my already considerable disgust that has been our constant companion in this country of uncommon natural beauty.

We sailed through the entry sequence at the Johannesburg airport, got our Toyota Rav 4 for the expected rugged driving in the rugged areas, and headed, only several hours behind our initial well-laid schedule, straight for the Drakensberg Escarpment. It didn’t take but a few blinks of the prepared but still disbelieving eyes for us to be introduced to the physical squalor of the “settlements” and the individual structures which shamefully qualify as homes, to which so many black South Africans, though no longer legally so, are effectively still confined.

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Of course, in Tanzania, a much poorer country, with per capita GDP not even one-fourth as high as South Africa, we saw much poverty and “homes” which, in their inadequacy to their name, would break your heart should it not be of the hard-hearted variety, which we have good reason to believe characterizes many of the more materially fortunate hearts here in South Africa. But to see the contrast, to put it starkly in coloristic terms, between black and white in South Africa, and to know that the abject physical, social, and security conditions in which so many blacks live here is systematically structured by race, by once-racist law, politics, and state-violence, and by the ongoing thoroughgoing legacies of this racism, makes the impoverished physical lives of black South Africans so much more disturbing.

The beauty of the Drakensberg is overwhelming.

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As much as anything could clear the moral and human mental-stench from our minds, Drakensberg is it. When below the escarpment, and when above, it offers breathtaking views on the order of the Grand Canyon, as different as the formations, stone, and coloration are. I hope Sarah writes about it, for two reasons. Her hand is niftier for using words to convey what we saw, which she also sees better, as she has the better eye. Second, she saw more, because she climbed to the glorious top, which I did not because my vertigo finally got the better of me when we came upon a six-inch ledge above a straight drop down. I turned back, while Sarah went on alone, as spry Gideon much earlier had steamed ahead with a couple from the Netherlands. As we couldn’t count on cell-service to communicate with Gideon, Sarah had to venture on solo because we couldn’t leave Gideon, uninformed, on the mountain alone. When I started to descend from the high-point of my vertigo, we, a solid-threesome starting out, were, as far as Sarah and I knew, three isolated individuals — not ideal on a climb which is dangerous, even if it is not the north face of the Eiger.

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Sarah and Gideon finally met up on top, shared memorable views and times, and touched-down safely and fulfilled about four hours after Sarah and I had parted. Sitting and writing in our lodge’s restaurant/common area, I was relieved when Gideon texted me that they were driving back from the base of the climb, as his words washed away my many worries about their safety. No surprise, I was even more overjoyed than usual to see them, and to hear their tales of climbing courage and visual wonders.

–Danny

 

Amsterdam

Veronica has joined us.

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In coordinated flights along two vectors, we intersected almost perfectly temporally and spatially – thus, along the (by now) four classical dimensions — landing us within fifteen minutes (that’s a temporal blink of the eye) within a few hundred yards (a spatial hop) of one another in the space-time continuum known as Schiphol Airport on July 29, a little after 11 AM.

Among the many things that the twenty-first century has us taking for granted is the ease with which we move over vast spaces (planes), with stunning surety (schedules), and with amazingly easy coordination (the web). Sarah commented to us a few days earlier during our six-hour walk from Myrdal to Flam that completing such a slow, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other sojourn reminds us, and more conveys, how arduous and time-consuming moving from place to place has been for most of human history.

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Sarah, Gideon, and I know that for many reasons we are fortunate – we know it every waking hour – and are also historically fortunate to be able to undertake our global venture. One additional reason that is germane here is we do so in an age when Veronica can easily hop on a plane in New York and with stunning precision land within easily measurable feet and minutes from us in Amsterdam.

In an instant, our family of four is reunited, is whole again, though it turns out, only fleetingly for the first couple of Amsterdam-days because Gideon’s good friend Mike from last summer’s Madrid program has come to Amsterdam for the weekend, so Gideon and he, late-teenagers that they are, have intensive one-on-one life-experience to share. That’s okay in a way, because Veronica, who is twenty-one, and we have much to catch up on and discuss as well, even though we saw her but a seeming blink of an eye of a fortnight ago.

We all (including Gideon and Mike on their own) spend the first few days doing what central Amsterdam invites visitors to do with such grace. To walk and walk and walk. I’ve never been in another city which so tempts and rewards (a rare enough combination) human ambulation.

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Some might say Venice, the archetypical canal city does, but for various reasons — including it is hardly a city or, being a relic as theme park, it is hardly a real place — it doesn’t come close. London and Paris and Tokyo and Barcelona (and Gideon’s beloved Madrid), oh yes, New York, offer their own significant ambulatory rewards, but, again, for many reasons, including their vastness, they rise not to the same walk-about level as our Dutch champion does.

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Of course, I haven’t been everywhere, so a city or two or three unvisited by me might yet capture my anointing-fancy. But no matter, or the existence of such inviting urbanity would be stupendous and a future treat to behold without it altering Amsterdam’s distinctive quality compared to so many other cities I love to walk around – I do, by the way, love to walk, and as with my other loves I do my best to keep as narrow as possible the gap between precept and practice.

I realize that my characterization of Amsterdam, tailing off without further elucidation, stands a bit totteringly as a tease. I may make good on its promise, and straighten its as yet unexplained posture, with my next post, but as there are so many things and themes to write about (the notes I jot down are already voluminous) perhaps some other topics will tempt and capture my compositional fancy and, if so, I hope will (that rarity again) reward yours.

— Danny, 6 August 2017, posted from Ghent

Graciousness, Public Space, Oslo

Gracious wins my vote as the word that best describes Oslo. The capital city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, sidewalks are wide, cobblestoned paths and alleyways well-maintained, DSC01053_DxO

and its abundant public spaces carefully, thoughtfully designed.

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Parks are everywhere, although for overall greenness, several studies, including this– (https://www.siemens.com/entry/cc/features/greencityindex_international/all/en/pdf/report_en.pdf) — indicate that Copenhagen and Stockholm surpass Oslo, though not by much.

DSC01045_DxOIn many open areas and public spaces, art installations are carefully installed, including this one, which combines a phone charging area and seating. The public art varies widely in quality, at least it’s there.

Anker Brygge, the newly developed waterfront area, looks out across water onto Snøhetta’s Opera House and Ballet Theater, which is as good as its press indicates.

DSC01077_DxO_DxONot a great building, but an excellent one. (Few projects of any sort, artistic, architectural, or literary, rise to the level of great.) All over Anker Brygge, new, new new:

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Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum bridges the end of a long boardwalk which, at its opposite end, is edged by a few older warehouse and storage buildings, meticulously renovated, along with many newer mid-rise commercial and residential buildings.

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This time it was Danny, not I, who fantasized about spending some time every year in a place we’ve traveled to see. More commonly I am the one who pokes around the nicer places we encounter– Marbella, Spain; The Sea Ranch in northern California; the Lakes District in England — all have received their due consideration, all for naught. Here the reverie evaporated rapidly: real estate agencies advertise both new and older residential properties at staggering prices: $2.3 million for a 500-square-foot studio apartment.

In the older part of the city, my favorite place became the Oslo Cathedral and environs.

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The Cathedral is the most spacious 17th-century central plan church I’ve seen, and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with murals painted in the 1950’s narrating the life of Jesus – each episode carefully drawn in a Norwegian landscape.

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To one side of the cathedral sits the Basarhallene, an arcaded brick neo-Romanesque courtyard built in the mid-19th century to house butcher shops. Even it is graciously arranged and beautifully detailed.

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In our walking, walking, walking, we also ran into the old copper-banded, round-cornered modern commercial building (ca. 1960) that I recalled seeing when I exited the Oslo train station in 1975, forty-two years ago. Hadn’t thought of it once since that day, and my recollection of it was pristine, clear, as if it was only days when I’d walked by it last. Unbelievable how place-based our long-term autobiographical memory really is: Just a glimpse snapped it in place.

Decided not to shoot.

Then in our perambulations around the city, we skirted the park in which I found a bench and, exhausted from a crowded, overnight train ride here, slept for several hours in the early morning sun. Later, Danny showed Gideon and me the exact spot where he lay down, at age 20, on the grass under a tree and also slept (pictured above). Gracious, peaceful. That is the experience of Oslo.

Accompanying me throughout Norway was Karl Ove Knausgård. I had read the first volume of My Struggle several years ago, and was impressed by Knausgård’s intelligence while at the same time I recoiled from his nihilism (“what was man on this earth other than an insect among other insects”), and endless self-examination. A couple of days before we boarded the plane bound for Norway, I decided it was time to give Volume Two a try. (In total, there are six, each between four and six hundred pages.) Better than One, Two narrates an account of his leaving his second wife in Norway and moving, somewhat impulsively, to “that shitty little country”, Sweden. There, he reconnects with Linda, a poet and dramatist five years his junior and falls in love with her tender, wounded soul; they become a couple, and Knausgård subsequently settles, uneasily, into a husband’s and father’s life.

As ever, Knausgård remains tortured.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something that I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it.

Yet each each successive account of his turbulent ruminations is recounted in such a soulful, authentic way that reading the book necessitates a depth of emotional involvement that is rare, even in the best literature.  And his descriptions of life’s joyful moments absolutely soar. Some have called Knausgård a contemporary Proust, with all the insight and none of the lace: few metaphors; blunt, declarative sentences; exacting descriptions of life’s daily activities. An account of washing the dishes after supper or a trip to the supermarket can run five or ten pages; somehow, it just doesn’t become flat or dull. Curiosity compelled me to read on – did this account of Linda’s sour mood and petulant conduct (both of which seems to Knausgård’s specialize in) — portend an incipient crisis, or was it just another thing that happened in the course of that one day? As James Wood wrote in his review of the book’s first two (400-600-page) volumes, even when I was bored I was interested.

And his fond accounts of Norwegian cities, landscape and culture rang true, over and over again.

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This is the Radhus, (City Hall) seen from the terrace of Piano’s Museum.

— Sarah, 30 July 2017, posted in Amsterdam, written on our last day in Oslo