Saturday, September 25, 2010

Go Van Gogh

When we arrived at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last Friday night, we discovered that, contrary to our guidebook, the museum did not stay open late that night.  However, the Van Gogh museum did so we trotted over there instead.  What a treat it was.

The main building of the museum has three levels.  A choir was practicing while we were there, presumably for a performance later that evening.  The sound of the harmonies wafted through the gallery as we looked at the precursors and influences on Van Gogh as well as the works of the master himself.

One of the finds of the evening was the exhibition of The Bedroom at Arles,  the first of three versions Van Gogh painted, in restored form.  Based on Vincent's letters to Theo describing the painting, the restorers brought out the colors more vibrantly. Here is a copy of the unrestored painting:

In the restoration, the yellows in the bed, including the wood, were much brighter.  The mirror to the left of the window is clearly black and white. The blanket on the bed is red not the maroon you see here.  And the walls were shades of violet rather than the blue you see in this version. The restored painting was placed in the center of a room with a print of what it looked like before the restoration.  Really fascinating.

Other Van Gogh paintings that particularly caught my eye included examples of his experimentation with pointillism. I was particularly enamored of  a series of paintings of wheatfields including the haunting Wheatfields with Crows which he painted months before his suicide:

I also liked the famous The Harvest and the Hill of Montmartre

The Harvest
The Hill of Montmartre with Quarry

In addition to van Gogh, the museum had one of Monet's Japanese Garden paintings, which is particularly of interest to me given that we stood on the same bridge at Giverny ten years ago with a friend who has since passed away. And there was Daubigny's Cliffs at Villerville-sur-mer as part of a special exhibition "Painting in the open air: myth and reality".  Apparently Daubigny did not paint the Cliffs in the open air.  Who would have thought?

Privacy in London Town

I am told that London is one of the least private places around.  Reportedly there are close circuit TV cameras everywhere (over 10,000) watching and recording Londoners' every move.  I also noticed that some London workers seem to tolerate a complete lack of privacy in the workplace, toiling in open rooms with many other people.  Here is an example of one office I visited:

However, the public bathrooms in London are shrines to privacy.  They are like vaults with multiple doors.  First, you have a door to get to the area where the women's and men's bathrooms are.  Then you have the door to the bathroom appropriate to your gender.  Then you have a full length solid door to a fully enclosed room housing the toilet.  No footsie under the doors of these loos.  Even in the hotel room, housekeeping there, unlike my experience in American hotels, insisted on keeping the door to the bathroom closed every time they ventured into the room.  I would leave the hotel room with the bathroom door open, go out for a while and come back to a turned down bed and a closed bathroom door.  As far as I could tell they did not do anything in the bathroom when they turned down the beds other than make sure that the door is closed.

I also found it amusing that there were signs on the interior of the doors to some of the toilets admonishing us to corral our inner pig and clean up after ourselves.  Really?  Is this really necessary?
Here are some of those signs:

So it is okay to spend most of your day having no privacy so long as you can retire to a very private and clean bathroom.  Yes, I get it.

Friday, September 24, 2010


When I first went to London 30 years ago, I loved the city but was underwhelmed by the food there.  Staples on the menu then included shepherd pie and prawn sandwiches which involve a gloppy shrimp salad filling.  Also it was difficult to find drinkable coffee.  At one point I found a cafe which served Italian roast and felt that I had been saved.

Even ten years ago, the last time I was in London, the food was better but still not what you would expect of a major international city.  I did, however, at that time discover Pret a Manger (PaM) which suited my "grab and go gal" disposition.  I still stayed away from the coffee.

This trip I was fortunate to stay near Piccadilly Circus and discovered that Piccadilly Street has coffee chain shops, like Starbucks, Caffe Nero and Costa Coffee, every block.  There is also a new take out chain called EAT to compete with PaM.  I still prefer PaM, particularly the tomahto and mozzerella croissant, the tuna and cucumber sandwich and the pain au raisin.  However, EAT did have some interesting soups and one of my colleagues swears by it.

The real difference this trip was the dinners.  I had three excellent dinners out during my four nights there.  The first restaurant was Dehesa, a Spanish tapas bar.  There were a number of us so we shared many items on the menu including venison.  My favorite was the squash ravioli.  And the excellent Spanish red wine.

The second meal was at Moti Mahal on Queen Anne Street near Covent Garden.   Nine of us shared many different dishes and  thanks to bounteous quantities of medicinal red wine I do not recall what I ate but do recall being very happy with the food.  Moti Mahal London opened in 2005. It  is a relative of the  Moti Mahal Delux in India which claims to have innovated different cuisines we recognize as "Indian":
Moti Mahal prides itself on a history of ‘firsts’ - from its invention of ‘murgh makhani’ (precursor to the famous ‘chicken tikka masala’) in the Sixties through to the use of the tandoor in the commercial kitchen. In London Moti Mahal has also been among the first Indian restaurants to adopt the use of the ‘Thatee Grill’ - a hallmark of Indian rural cooking. 
After a break from overeating, on the fourth night we went to my favorite of the three restaurants, Bleeding Heart Restaurant.  This French restaurant is located off a courtyard which houses other Bleeding Heart establishments--a pub, a bistro and something called the Crypt.   I ate lovely sea bass and a small piece of fabulous tarte tatin.  This time we drank cote du rhone in reasonable quantities. On the back of all the menus there is the following legend, which makes for fun reading while you are eating:
The Legend
Lady Elizabeth Hatton was the toast of 17th Century London society. The widowed daughter-in-law of the famous merchant Sir Christopher Hatton (one-time consort of Queen Elizabeth 1), Lady Elizabeth was young, beautiful and very wealthy. Her suitors were many and varied, and included a leading London Bishop and a prominent European Ambassador. Invitations to her soirees in Hatton Garden were much sought after.
Her Annual Winter Ball, on January 26, 1662, was one of the highlights of the London social season. Halfway through the evening's festivities, the doors to Lady Hatton's grand ballroom were flung open. In strode a swarthy gentleman, slightly hunched of shoulder, with a clawed right hand. He took her by the hand, danced her once around the room and out through the double doors into the garden. A buzz of gossip arose. Would Lady Elizabeth and the European Ambassador (for it was he) kiss and make up, or would she return alone? Neither was to be. The next morning her body was found in the cobblestone courtyard – torn limb from limb, with her heart still pumping blood onto the cobblestones. And from thenceforth the yard was to be known as The Bleeding Heart Yard.
Here are pictures of the courtyard leading to the restaurant (left) and away from the restaurant toward the bistro (right).  Great fun!

Not My Cup of Tea

As the Tea Party makes inroads in American politics, and underscores the intrinsic prejudices we have here as reflected in the rise of recent anti-Muslim sentiment, our friends in Europe are experiencing a similar turn "to the right, to the right".  While I was in Amsterdam this past weekend, I was fortunate to dine with two local power couples and discuss the growth of the right in Europe.  In the Netherlands, Geert  Wilders and the Freedom Party are capitalizing on and promoting anti-Muslim sentiment as they work with other more moderate political parties to form a minority government. I must confess that when I see pictures of Wilders, I am reminded of an adult version of the  Draco Malfoy character in Harry Potter films.  Look at these pictures and tell me if you agree.
Anti- Muslim
Anti Muggle

In Sweden this past Sunday, an anti-immigration party,the Sweden Democrats, won its first seats (20) in Parliament.  The immigrant population of Sweden is about 12%, with a visible proportion Muslim.  If you read comments posted  about the gains of Sweden Democrats, you get an unmistakable understanding that their supporters blame everything on the Muslims.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is rising in Germany  and in France the government is repatriating Roma (gypsies).  There is no question that as in this country the far right is rearing its head and pushing its ultimately fascist agenda.  Not a great time to be a muggle.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Creatures of Comfort

Although we love the idea of choice - our culture almost worships it - we seek refuge in the familiar and the comfortable.
Hugh Mackay- Australian Social Psychologist

In reflecting on issues of tolerance and intolerance, particularly as exemplified by the current view of Muslims by Americans, I tend to harken to my roots as a social psychologist to explain why people act as they do.  Nicholas Kristof blames this intolerance on fear of the unknown and other.  However, I tend to agree with the Onion and see the trend as the result of people's inherent unwillingness to learn about new things or to challenge belief systems we hold.  I fear this trend is true of the educated as well as those with less education.  We seek out the familiar, that with which we agree, and avoid the opinions of those with whom we disagree.

As a lawyer, I am trained to look at multiple sides of an issue.  However, as I read an article by Michael Arrington yesterday,  I realized that as a reader I have slipped into the complacence of reading and agreeing with what I believe, and as a blogger I am starting write about what I think my readers want to read.

I have a friend who listens to conservative talk radio to get that point view even though she does not agree with it.  I wish I were that disciplined.  I do not have the patience.  But I did read an article yesterday about education by a conservative writer and found myself agreeing with some of it.  The article' argued that college education is too costly and not a good return on investment.  I agree with that premise but disagree with what should be done.  The author, Michael Barrone, suggests that college education is in decline because it caters to the masses.  Some of his conservative colleagues, he writes, believe that college should be reserved for "scholars" while most people get some sort of occupational training, based on testing done earlier in life.  Under this theory, we would adopt a system like Germany's, for example, where testing determines who will be educated to be the elite and who will be the working class.

Education is exactly what we need for the masses because it is our only hope that we will overcome our inherent need to stick with the familiar and thus reinforce the beliefs we hold dear.  We need to encourage our young people to think, to explore alternative ideas and to open their minds to otherness.  Unfortunately our education system fails at that task early on.  I am hopeful that new national assessment tests being explored  by 44 states that purportedly will measure critical thinking will help in that regard, as teachers start to teach to the new test.  However, we all need to examine our desire to close ourselves off to other points of view.  We need to get comfortable with our discomfort in the face of difference.