Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bruges, Belgium.

Bruges is a moderate size city in the small but important country of Belgium.  Belgium is currently the home of the governing body of the European Union. More on that later. 
Bruges is a city of canals, cobble stone streets, chocolate, cathedrals & beer. 
The sound of the hoofbeats of the horse drawn carriages on those cobble stones still reverberate in my ears a week later. 

For a city of that size there are so many old red brick Cathedrals or Abbeys.  One has to wonder what drew the society of the 16th century to migrate to that area to build such a number of huge magnificent structures constructed to worship G-D.  Religious artwork, statues and paintings boggle the mind as we traverse this city.  Needless to say we did not spend allot of time inside the churches. 
                Besides religious symbolism Bruges is also famous for brewing beer. Many varieties of the beverage are brewed in this country and this small city had its own brewery which provides us with several different varieties with bbbvarious colors and strengths. Some so strong just one can knock a novice off his feet.  With those hard cobblestones one would be wise to wear a helmet after leaving a pub. 
Rivaling the amount Cathedrals and pubs were the chocolate stores. Belgian chocolate is quite smooth and rich. So many different options to choose from one is attempted to try them all. During the brief time we were in town my method was to sample the darkest, most nut or fruit filled I could find. The combination of almost pure cocoa, berries or citron is indescribably delicious. Cheska seemed to prefer the the more lethal creme filled morsels.  Strong flavored chocolate truffles brought smiles to both our faces.  Pictured below are marshmwellows covered in the rich confection. Reminiscent of the American mallomar but so much more. 
We just spent two or three days there and I felt that was quite enough. It is stunningly attractive in monastically sort of way, but that weekend it was too filled with with tourists searching for that quiet beauty to feel the hush of monks. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Planet Of The Apes (Belgium style)

Took some time off from being a tourist and went to the movies in Brussels with some friends to see this American Blockbuster.  This episode of the series took place sometime in the future in a place I am quite familiar with -San Francisco. Always have been a fan of the Apes. 
Going to the cinema in a foreign country has the usual routines: schedule checking, ticket purchase, locating seat in darkened auditorium and settling in while watching trailers and assorted commercials for junk food. 

However each culture can have its own nuances.  Belgium is no exception.  First of all this theatre was ultra modern with comfortable chairs, huge screen and superb audio system. It sounded like the apes were hovering all around us as well as seemingly in the trees above. Nice affect. 
Chose the 3D option and the special affects were spectacular. Unlike in the US theaters the glasses were distributed in unopened plastic bags and you did not have to return them. 

The film was predominantly in the original English, however the Apes often spoke in their subliminal sign language which displayed in sub titles both French and Flemish.  Two lines representing each language. Took a little while to get used to that.  For the most part I was able to comprehend the Flemish as it is close to German.  I did have a little help from my friend Gab who whispered some interpretations that were key in understanding the flow of the Ape dynamic. 

Seeing a film located in the futuristic badly damaged Bay Area made me long to walk past SF city hall and the Hall Of Science again soon.  Hope the Apes will not take over before Mid August. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Epernay. Champagne anyone?

This part of France is known for the grapes, it's cool white clay caves and ultimately the bottles of fine champagne that is produced by there.  That first photo shows the hillside grapevines that are cultivated as far as the eye can see 
We had the pleasure of visiting there for a couple of days and scored a few bottles from a small family producer who had eighty year old vines with roots that go deep in the ground. Those grapes had a sweet dry earthy tone with those distinctive small bubbles. Great stuff. 

Always nice to buy from the proud producer. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Blanzay France

We have a great friend who had the vision and wisdom to purchase a 300 year old farmhouse in in the French countryside.  To me this place is a palace. Cream colored stone walls, multiple solid out buildings,  acres of land with multiple fruit trees and rooms so large you can park a truck in them.

The area is totally flat with limited car traffic, within easy reach of a cute town that fosters a friendly community. Has a wonderful Bread bakery  and patisserie that produces warm crusty bread in the morning as well as the most delicious pastry. The sort of stuff that one only dreams about.  
It looks like their version of a black and white cookie oddly enough is called a divorce. Struck me as funny. 
Sunflower and wheat fields dominate the horizon as far as the eye can see making for a truly majestic scene. Sunsets are golden painting this place as a paradise on earth. 
Best of all though it brought two long time friends Cheska and Janet together who were as happy with each other as I was with the countryside. Thanks Janet for sharing a bit of your world with us. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Haifa Israel.

There are places that I will remember all my life and this city is one of them. I had pictured a small port city with nice Mediteranian beach similiar to Tel Aviv.  I was pretty much wrong. 
It had a short coastline and then rose up in steep hills. Most of the residential area was located among a narrow concrete warren of switchbacks leading up into the hills. Much of the homes were multiple floor apartment buildings, many in various states of disrepair. 

I was there for a brief two days during war torn stressful times.  At the time this northern city itself was relatively safe from Gaza rocket attacks from the Hamas in south but I was still glad to make my exit. 
Driving south to Tel Aviv on July 9 to catch the flight to France brought thoughts of rockets on the Ben Gurion Highway, at the airport or a direct strike on the Air France Airbus.  Fortunately we arrived in Europe safe and sound. 
The jewel in Haifa's crown The Bahai Garden seemed nice enough but we did not have time to explore especially a reservation to enter was required. Photo opportunity from the outside should suffice.

The apartment we rented was located up in one of those hillsides overlooking much of the city. It could have been a spectacular view but made me feel even more unnerved listening to reports of military actions and the vehement rhetoric of hate coming from both sides. 
Now I am writing this in the serene summer of the French countryside where every business closes between 12:30 -14:30 just to appreciate life and joys that it brings. Strongly wish some of that love could be transfered to the Mid East on an airbus like I was able to safely get out of Haifa. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

War zone in israel

I have always wanted to visit this country for many years but had been hesitant to do so. Partly out of the social justice issues that color relationships between Jew and Arab. That ensuing bitter hatred that tends to boil over hotter than the desert sun. 
As well as my own personal fear that something very bad would happen to me there.
So after Marley safely returned from her Birthright trip and extolled the virtues of the Israeli experience I became more intersted and slowly became more inspired to give it a whirl. 

So while planning our three month retirement journey we scheduled two weeks of travel around Israel.  Lots of planning went into it. Car rental, airbnb arrangements and the creation of a travel itinerary that would try and include much of the varied countrysides and sights. Not being particularly interested in religion and history I tried to focus more on fun and nature.
At that time all was relatively calm there so I that would continue into July.  With no problem and certainly no destructive rocket fire and bloodshed. Boy was I wrong. 

While in Berlin we learned that the three Israeli teenage boys were kidnapped. The search was on to locate them to no avail. It seemed like the Israeli media could think of nothing else. 
In the midst of this we left the cool civility of Berlin and landed in hot Tel Aviv.  Swimming in the warm Med was so much fun. We both began to forget of the politics of this country starting to enjoy conversations with its people, the delicious food and the general atmosphere. 
It became time to leave the seaside and head to Arad to climb Masada and dip in the Dead Sea. 
Climbing the ancient fortress of Masasada at dawn was challenging. Floating in the hypersalinated water Dead Sea was strangely euphoric yet somewhat unpleasant. 
Cheska and I then regrouped and went out to a pub in Arad for dinner. Good food, World Cup on the big screen.  The place crowded with families and soldiers of both genders drinking cokes with assault rifles in their laps.  
The football game was interupted by a bulletin and although I speak no Hebrew I knew the news was grave. 
I asked the family sitting behind for a translation and was told by the woman with tears in her eyes that the three Jewish boys kidnapped and missing for 18 days were found dead. 
At that point the mood in the room became both somber and bitter.   Funerals, revenge killings, riots and arrests were spelled out regularly in the local news.  Not speaking Hebrew I relied on the internet to absorb as much info as I could. Live reports were reported constantly. 
At that point our journey through Israel was transformed into an adventure filled with fear and hate. 
My fear and the locals hate.  
That realization became a personal hell and followed me around until I flew off to Paris on July 9 amid multiple reports of rocket fire from Gaza. 
Traffic jams on the highway with cars watching rockets near Tel Aviv get obliterated by a anti ballistic Iron Dome missiles. 

Points of view of this conflict vary from multiple circumstances and political opinions.
My perspective as Jewish American kid raised by a family of holocaust survivors was that this experience put me more in touch with my parents sense of anxiety and how they felt the struggle for survival with each breath. 
Throughout my life I have not felt such a strong sense of imminent danger as well as the outright acrid hatred of one group against another.   
Sitting here in my friends centuries old stone farmhouse in central France I thank my lucky stars I got out of the Middle East alive, but my life will be changed forever.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Kibbutz Inbar

Leaving Jerusalem and arriving in a Northern Israel is like going from the congestion of Manhattan and arriving in Vermont. 
Surrounded by cow pastures, olive groves, pomenegrante trees and cool fresh air the Tiberias region is certainly tranquil. 
Many of the small Arab villages are populated by the Druze.  Who have shown us their warm hospitality.  
The Inbar Kibbutz itself seems to be made of up of an eclectic bunch of Israelis who express interests in good coffee, yoga, Tai Chi and puppies. 

From this jumping off point we traveled to the Kinnaret for a swim in the fresh water lake, climbed windy Mt Arbel for a birds eye view of the caves & took a spiritual journey to Safed  to try to learn more about the Kaballah.  

The lake was wonderfully refreshing. Met some nice people there who all wanted to share their experiences traveling around the USA. 

Almost did get blown off the high ledges of Mt Arbel.

Somewhat disappointed in Safed as the narrow streets did not take us on any spiritual magic carpet ride. 

It seems that many places we stay in we leave with some regret that we could not stay longer.  Here in Inbar we met two sets of people whom we exchanged email addresses with. Perhaps establishing longer  lasting friendships. Time will tell. 

Now on to Haifa our final leg of the Holy Land adventure. 


Thursday, July 03, 2014

Holy City

Jerusalem is hot.....
Not just the temperature but the political climate as well. 
I have always been conflicted about visiting this part of the world.  Sometimes out of fear as well as concern over issues regarding social justice.  That said though in have more than curious so at the ripe old age of 63 I needed to experience it for myself. 

Trips are planned months in advance so when the flights were booked it was a time with relative calm. By the time we were ready to enter the country a kidnapping occurs and while there we learn the victims were murdered. While in Jerusalem the news hits that there was a revenge killing.  I see smoke rising in the hillsides. Dogs bark throughout the night. There are young soldiers carrying assault rifles wearing green uniforms in groups of five or six or all over the place.  I feel a sense of unease. 

Despite all this the population goes about their daily routine. Many are extremely friendly striking up helpful conversation all the time. Throughout my travels I have not encountered a more welcoming group of people. They invite you to their studio, their home, give you tastes of exotic fruits while walking in the village. Amazing. 
Grapes, apricots, pomegranate all grow in our yard.  Discussions with locals exchanging stories about heroes including Bob Marley,  Bob Dylan, Che Guevara and even The Allman Brothers.  More amazement. 

I once heard an interview with singer/songwriter Dar Williams who had a scheduled tour during Americas 9/11 crisis who said that traveling during times of great upheaval is difficult but tends to draw people together.  I know this to be true. 

Tomorrow we leave Jerusalem for the North of Israel where it will be cooler. 
   This is written while staying in a foggy, small Vineyard in Germany near the French Border. 

With the passing of time and place The Holy City continues to haunt the news as well as my personal psyche. 
As the sad reality of this conflict fans out through the diaspora. I listen to media reports of people taking it to taking it to the streets in major cities worldwide and I sense a fever spreading.  

This war and it's David & Goliath story has flipped the switch to make it okay to express hate against the Blue & white. Palestininian suffering has touched a nerve and perhaps as a result it seems to me that it may have spilled over creating a climate which allows expressions of blatant anti Semitic comments. Some signage at demonstrations already reflect that.  Physical altercations have even occurred at rallies and sporting events. 
Jewish stores in Paris have been attacked. 
While in Brussels I noticed that a local kosher bakery has police protection during its limited hours. 

What is the best way to react?   Hide my head in the proverbial sand, personally confront all racial attacks or to just ride it out hoping it will not will get any worse.   Are they any other choices?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Busy Monday in Southern Israel

Woke up early at 4 to ride to Madada to catch the sunrise and to have a more cool, comfortable walk up the steep slopes to Masada. It is an ardourous task to make this climb but it is so worth it. Seeing the ancient fort is indescribable in words. I took so many photos in the morning light that it will take some time to distill them all. 

Following that we drove to a beach to take in the hypersalinated waters of the Dead Sea.  You cannot swim in this as the buoyancy affects your equilibrium. It feels like you are defying gravity.  The water temperature is hotter than a bath tub and has a thick almost oily consistency.  
We are told that it holds beneficial dermatological properties.  People with skin conditions flock ther as evidenced by the folks present taking it all in. Not pleasant to look at it and it makes one feel grateful that they have good health with intact skin. 

Following that we headed up the hill to a forested area that held flocks of sheep and vineyards.  Grapes on the vine were beginning to form with a promise of harvesting in several weeks. 

While at dinner we were watching the World Cup when the game was interupted with the news that the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli boys were found. This sent shock waves throughout the restaurant. Once again a grim reminder that beautiful land will not know peace. 

Tomorrow we drive on to Jerusalem with the hope that we can continue on this wonderfully in eventful journey and somehow this part of the world can live together without war. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tel Aviv

Been so involved in the life force of this city that I have neglected posting. More than other locations we have visited so far this place embraces so many of the senses I find it hard to slip away and write. 
Between swimming in the warm blue Mediteranian, visiting the Carmel market with its spicy smells, roasting coffee, bright colors and the loud cacophony of the sellers calling out their wares.  Samples pushed into your fingers difficult to resist I often surrender.
Be wary at this place because they can easily take advantage of ones innocence to the ways of the bazaar. 

The old city in Jaffa with its narrow alleys, limestone walls and steep granite staircases holds many artistic treasures, too many take in with just one visit.  It is here that we first heard the haunting Muslim sunset call to prayer. 

We tried to run early in the morning to escape the scorching sun. This morning was hottest so far. Returning to air conditioned apartment I was drenched. Feeling each drop stream down my back was another sensation not often felt quite like that. I will spare you the selfie. 
Tonight I say good bye to Tel Aviv and it's glorious beaches for the dry Negev desert of Arad. Am certain this will be a totally different experience.  Nothing is however like I expect.