Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Through Native Eyes: Seeing New Jersey and Brooklyn in New Ways

There's no better way to see a place than with natives in heart and soul who have a strong sense of place and strong devotion to it. And so I saw New Jersey with Alice and Brooklyn with Jon.

Alice's New Jersey, Bergen County. The Palisades, its glorious waterfalls frozen; Don Zirilli reading and local poets (they were all wonderful); the Women's March, part of the nationwide resistance, with Alice, Toby & Anne Cassidy; at the New Bridge, with ever-photogenic Alice. 

My dear friend from Madison, Wisconsin, graduate student days, Alice Twombly the poet and master literature teacher, grew up in the Englewood, Teaneck, Leonia area of an ever-changing New Jersey just across from the Big City. She still lives there. It's home. Sure, you can see Manhattan from this place, but the towns-upon-towns that constitute suburban New Jersey outside of NYC seemed larger this time, more historic, vital, dynamic.  We toured the ancient Palisades, those dramatic cliffs along the lower Hudson River that provide a unique view of the NYC skyline, and are not far from where Hamilton and Burr dueled it out. Yes, lots of duels and lots of history along those Palisades. We went to a poetry reading featuring poet Don Zirilli, a new voice for me, reading from his soon-to-be-published book "Heaven's Not for You" (see poem below, a revisioning and modern-day retelling of a biblical Parable). This Poetry series, held at the Classic Quiche Cafe in Teaneck, was started by Alice and poet friend Zev Shanken many years ago and it's still going strong. We shared dinner together at an Indian restaurant before the readings. We also spent a lovely evening at a Shabbat service and dinner at the home of friends. It was there I learned that a lovely college Sophomore, who I saw shedding a tear during the service, was the girlfriend of the handsome young man who was killed along with his entire family in that Costa Rica plane crash just before Christmas. How small the world is, and how sad it often is.  I felt glad she was among such loving friends from her Synagogue.

We marched in Leonia for women's rights and against the current White House occupant, where I met some remarkable resisters, like Anne and Joe Cassidy, and the dedicated women who organized an outstanding program of meaningful talks and music.  We sang "This Land is Your Land," a heartfelt echo from the 1960s that is as relevant today as ever and still tells it like it is.

We wove in and around Dutch Colonial brick homes, so full of stories, down Main Streets and side streets. Alice introduced me to NJ American Colonial and  Revolutionary War history, with a stop at the Historic New Bridge Landing where George Washington retreated across the Hackensack River with his ragtag Continental army after a great loss at Fort Lee. It moved Patrick Henry to write those famous words: "These are the times that try men's souls.

And so I saw New Jersey through the eyes of a native daughter.

I saw Brooklyn in the same way, for the first time, through the eyes of Jon Kay, a son of  our very dearest best friends Mike and Bettye Ruth Kay, from our shared time at the University of Toledo. Jon wasn't born in Brooklyn but his Dad was, and Jon knows it intimately, honors it.

Brooklyn! The neighborhoods, brownstones, through downtown, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, famous views from the Bridge, with Jon Kay, and a special dinner with Alice's son Jonathan, his wife Kaori & their two daughters, at the Hamilton restaurant. The restaurant, lower left corner, is named after the Fort Hamilton Parkway and Fort, another reminder of Brooklyn's Revolutionary War history. "Can't forget the Battle of Brooklyn," Alice reminds me.
How special it was to reconnect with Jon after so many years, to reminisce about his extraordinary parents, who left such a great legacy in Toledo, and to see the Brooklyn that Jon knows and loves.  Jon conducts tours of Brooklyn, among his many other activities, so I certainly got the authentic scoop on this most populous, ethnically diverse and dynamic of  NYC's five boroughs. Over 2.6 million people live here in dozens of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own demographics, architecture, heritage and culture.  Jon thinks it's among the most special places on planet Earth, and after seeing it through his eyes, I can see why!

Alice and I started with the Prospect Park neighborhood by the Botanic Gardens, the Zoo, and the grand Soldiers and Sailors Arch in the Grand Army Plaza, designed after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to honor "The Defenders of the Union, 1861-1865."  We traversed the neighborhoods around it, admired the famous brownstones in all their architectural delights from over hundreds of years, and took in the sense of the place.

Then we met Jon, and got to see the inside of a Brooklyn brownstone, large, in fine shape, for sale. I could live there, I thought, although the price is astronomical.  With Alice at the wheel, we stopped briefly at a well-known Italian bakery shop, which took me back to my grandmothers' cookies and my mom's, who made them by the dozens every Christmas.  We moved on through the neighborhoods to the Brooklyn Bridge.  Iconic, astonishing, awesome.  Brooklyn in its glory, with the most beautiful views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline across the East River.
Jon made a special effort to take me to his very favorite view from the Bridge, and I momentarily shared his joy in it, his sense of its soul.  This was Jon's paradise on Earth, and in that moment, it became mine, too.

* * * * * 

Here's an interesting fact about the designers and builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, German immigrant John Augustus Roebling and, after his death, his son and wife Washington Roebling and Emily Warren Roebling, taken from Wikipedia.  
"As Chief Engineer, Washington Roebling [who took over following his father's death] supervised the entire project from his apartment with a view of the work, designing and redesigning caissons and other equipment. He was aided by his wife Emily Warren Roebling, who provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on site. Under her husband's guidance, Emily studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting Washington Roebling, helping to supervise the bridge's construction." (Wikipedia) 
The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is detailed in the 1972 book The Great Bridge by David McCullough and Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the first PBS documentary film by Ken Burns. Burns drew heavily on McCullough's book for the film and used him as narrator.It is also described in Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, a BBC docudrama series with an accompanying book.

"Heaven is Not for You" 
       by Donald  Zirilli
If you've ever been angry at your brother,
you're a murderer.
If you've even insulted your brother,
you're a murderer.
If you remember what your brother did to you, 
Heaven's not for you.

If you look at anyone with lust,
you're an adulterer.
If you remarry, 
you're an adulterer.
Heaven's not for you.

If your right eye offends you, pluck it out.
If your right hand offends you, cut it off.

Don't swear by the earth,
earth is God's footstool.
Don't swear by your head,
you can't change one hair of it.
Don't swear by Heaven,
Heaven's not for you.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Amsterdam and Cologne with Granddaughter Alli

Alli loves Amsterdam, at Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, around the Dam, the town center, walking the neighborhoods, having pancakes and great food, with Andy and with Kaaren, Jeff and Parks, our fabulous hosts, having the time of our lives. 

What a special trip this was!  Alli's first trip to Europe, beginning in the beautiful cities of Amsterdam and Cologne.  A college graduation gift, to open her eyes to the world. And she was ready! "The advance team for your next trip, and many trips thereafter," I said to her as she jumped with joy in front of the Rijksmuseum. "I'm ready to go back, Nana!" she exclaimed, after a few days in Amsterdam and a train trip to Cologne. She was already planning an itinerary.

The Concertgebouw, the famous concert hall, near the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh.
Our base was the beautiful urban home of my niece Kaaren and her partner Jeff, creative geniuses both of them, and their precious son Parks, right on Sephatipark. Up several flights of stairs, way up, like almost all Amsterdam homes, unless you live on a houseboat on a canal. It's a lovely part of town.

From there we walked or took a trolley wherever we wanted to go, seeing the sites and the highlights, experiencing the spirit of the Netherlands, absorbing the culture, avoiding bikers, the major mode of transportation in this bustling city. I love the canals, the Museumplein area, and the Dam, the center of town where the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk dominate. I went to a wonderful exhibit at the church, "We Have a Dream," featuring the lives and messages of Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr., so needed once again in our times. The exhibit seemed to come alive in the spiritual glow of the church, with its vaulted gothic ceilings and stained glass windows.

We also took a train to Cologne to spend a few days in Germany, a small but tantalizing taste of this diverse country. Getting off at Central Station, after an interesting ride through German countryside and small towns, we were immediately greeted by the enormous, glorious 13th-century gothic Cologne Cathedral with its intricately carved weathered facade and towering twin spires.  We went inside the next day to see its fabulous craftsmanship, art and architecture. It's the tallest Cathedral in Europe, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It inspires awe and hope.

We stayed in a small but nice hotel near Heumarket square. From there we strolled to a nearby square in search of adventure and dinner. That's how we happened upon the historic Malzmuhle Brewery and Restaurant, famous for brewing the Cologne beer known as Kolsch since the 1800s.  We enjoyed an authentic German dinner of wiener schnitzel and bratwurst, and many glasses of Kolsch. We were happy campers by the time we left the Inn to explore the square, sit at one of the many cafes around it, and people watch.  Alli liked the German beer, and even my sister Andy and I, not usually beer drinkers, joined her to salute Cologne, the largest city on the Rhine river. The next day we took one of those City Bus Tours, getting off and on to explore the sights, including the Chocolate Museum. Yum. We also took an enjoyable and relaxing boat tour on the Rhine, which starts in the Swiss Alps and ends in the North Sea in the Netherlands.  I have lovely visions of strolling the promenade along the river.
Bikes and Art near Kaaren's neighborhood.

Full harvest moon over Amsterdam
October 5, 2017
Then it was back to Amsterdam to explore more of the Netherland's capital city. Alli spent more time with Kaaren and Jeff, taking long walks along the canals and enjoying the special places around the town that is now their home. Andy and I went at a more leisurely pace, stopping often to have a drink, sit at a corner cafe, enjoy good coffee and sisterly talks.

On our last day, Alli and I went to the large Amsterdam Market to browse and shop and enjoy. We bought souvenirs, scarfs, hats, tee shirts, whatever caught our fancy. Alli was practical and wise in choosing gifts, while I went for the magnets, shot glasses, and trinkets. I could see she was thoughtful and open to learning new things, to having new experiences. Every once in a while she'd give me a big hug and a big smile. "I love it. So Awesome. I love it!"

It was thrilling to watch Alli on her first European tour, to see my granddaughter absorb the adventure of a lifetime, knowing in my heart that there will be many more to come.
Sister Andy, granddaughter Alli, and niece Kaaren

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