Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Never-ending Judicial Scandals

Philadelphia NOW, Pennsylvania NOW, and Americans for Democratic Action have voted to oppose the measure on the April 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges from 70 to 75.

There are many good reasons to oppose the retirement age, some of which I noted in Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for PA judges.

Judges routinely win retention elections despite well-publicized examples of incompetent, corrupt behavior. Mandatory retirement at 70 is one of our few opportunities to get rid of these judges and make room for candidates who bring new perspectives and experiences to the bench.(Judges have the opportunity to work part-time in retirement, so those who have much to offer can continue to do so on a part-time basis.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

As a recent Daily News editorial. acknowledges: "The state's courts (and elected offices) are crying for more diversity - not only in gender but in race. Diversity doesn't eliminate bad behavior, but it makes it more difficult to sustain the kind of insular culture that can encourage the sense that "everyone does it," no matter how bad "it" is."

The ever-widening scandal has made the case for reform more urgent than ever. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices Max Baer and Kevin Dougherty were among the many judges and court officials who received misogynistic, racist emails circulating through the judiciary. The emails received by Baer and Dougherty were sent by former Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery who also sent offensive emails to about 15 Common Pleas Court judges and court administrators across Pennsylvania.

From what we can glean from news reports so far the only recipient of these emails who formally protested was former Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille who told the Inquirer that in 2010 he had asked McCaffery to stop sending him inappropriate emails. Castille sent an email to McCaffery, with copies to all other justices, “warning him that his emails could end up embarrassing the court.” But why didn’t he take the further step of calling for an investigation by the Court of Judicial Discipline?

The recipients of the emails have been defended as “victims” who might not even have opened the emails. However, these emails have subject headings which give some indication of their contents:

posted at PA Penn live

Also thanks to Castille’s letter condemning McCaffery emails, it was generally known that he sent racist, misogynistic material on government computer systems. When Baer and Dougherty and others received these emails--even if they did not open them—they surely were aware the emails had nothing to do with court business. By averting their eyes, they were complicit in the widespread failure to challenge the old boy network. This is not what we expect from a Supreme Court Justice.

Voters have the right to know the identity of the other 15 judges who in the best interpretation of their behavior took the “hear no evil, see no evil” approach and like Baer and Dougherty were at least passively complicit.

McCaffery, apparently the primary offender, continues to defend both senders and recipients of the hate-filled emails: According to the Inquirer, he claimed he and others involved in the email exchanges had been wrongly criticized: "It was all harmless banter between friends." McCaffery’s characterization of the emails as harmless banter raises questions about the relationships among the judges involved. Davie Davies reported on concerns raised by former U.S. Attorney Pete Vaira:

"Wait a minute," Vaira said. "All these people are exchanging ex-parte communications of something very nasty and sensitive. What do they do otherwise?"
In other words, you wouldn't send raunchy stuff like this to just anybody. It would go to somebody you know well enough to trust with material that could embarrass you, maybe even get you fired.
If judges and prosecutors and lawyers were doing this over a period of years, Vaira said, were they also having improper conversations about cases?

Both Vaira and Ron Castille have called for an investigation to determine if this has occurred. Davies points out the difficulty of finding a truly independent investigator, given how many members of the judiciary have been embroiled in the scandal--e.g., the chief counsel for the State Judicial Conduct Board was cited for conflicts of interest in the Eakin case.

Confidence in the judiciary has been badly shaken as the Inquirer report of Mallissa Weaver’s case clearly illustrates:

Mallissa Weaver knew she faced long odds when in 2008 she sought to convince the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that unrelenting sexual harassment by her former boss was so egregious that the justices should overturn a state law that barred her from suing for discrimination.
Much as she expected, she lost. She left her job at a small financial planning office in rural Snyder County and resolved to put the experience behind her.
But as the statewide Porngate scandal continues to widen, Weaver is finding it more difficult to remain at peace with the outcome of her case.
"It's so frustrating to think about," Weaver, 48, said in a recent interview from her home in Kreamer, some 50 miles north of Harrisburg. "There I was complaining about degrading sexual treatment from my boss. Now, I found out that the judges were making the same types of jokes about women while they were deciding my case. How am I supposed to believe I got a fair shake?"
She's not the only one asking that question.

Judges have enormous power over people’s lives. Those who wield that power must be above reproach. We must have an independent, unbiased investigation of the email scandal and, in the long term, thoroughgoing reforms of the judicial system. In the meantime, let’s not freeze the current judiciary in pace by raising the judicial retirement age to 75.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Reproductive rights are human rights!

Every year I look forward to the Roe v. Wade visibility event. It is gratifying for this aging abortion rights supporter to see so many young women picking up the torch!

Unfortunately, I didn’t make it this year as my husband was sick and I didn’t want to leave him—although he insisted that I should go.

I’ve heard from friends that the event was a huge success. I am a gratified to see the movement for reproductive justice becoming more diverse in race, ethnicity and gender. There are increasing numbers of young men, such as candidate for the PA house Chris Rabb( pictured above) who see the struggle for reproductive justice as their fight too.

The bad news of course is that we are still fighting this battle. In the 1970’s I never, never thought we would still be fighting to defend abortion rights in 2016. We have to win this battle once and for all.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Special Elections Craziness

Special Elections Craziness

Special elections have been widely criticized as undemocratic--as reporter Patrick Kekstra put it in his report on the August 7 2015 special election, “grotesquely undemocratic.” In special elections to fill a vacancy, Democratic and Republican Party ward leaders in the district, not the voters as in a primary election, choose the candidate to run under the Democratic or Republican Party banner. If another Democrat or Republican wants to run, that person must run as an Independent along with any minor party candidates who choose to run. Given Philly’s 7 to 1 Democratic voter registration edge and poor track record in electing independents for local offices, the endorsed Democrat is almost certain to win and has the advantage of running in the next primary as the incumbent.

The turnout for the special election on August 7, 2015 was pathetic. The special election to be held on March 15, 2016 rates to be worse, as it will be held just six weeks before the April 26 primary election, rather than concurrently with it, as had been expected. Taxpayers are now burdened with the expense of two elections.

Although the ward leaders are the decision makers in the 2016 special election, somewhere back in the mists of time committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidate. Democratic Party activist Joe Driscoll discovered that, unknown to most committeepeople, the party rules had been revised in 2014 to eliminate the participation of committeepeople. From Driscoll’s summary of changes in party rules: Rule X, Article 1 was amended to change the method by which [candidates for] State Representative are chosen for nomination in Special Elections, transferring the power of choosing nominees from committeepeople to ward leaders. Previously, State Representatives were chosen by a special meeting of the ward (if the district is comprised of one ward) or a joint ward meeting (where the district is comprised of more than one ward). The newly amended version provides that the nominee shall be chosen by ward leader(s) in which the district is comprised.

At some point, the joint ward meeting required by the party rules was no longer held, and the decision was made solely by the ward leaders—-with the exception of those very few wards in which committeepeople vote and the ward leader is bound by their vote. In order to change the rules to make them consistent with current practice, the party bylaws stipulate certain procedures must be followed: a committee charged with revising the rules must be appointed and must make a written report to the County Committee. A notice must be sent to all members of the County Committee advising them of the date of the meeting to act upon recommendations for revision of the rules. (Party Rule XIII: Revision of These Rules)

The rules seem to have been revised without any of the above procedures being followed—-thus no discussion of the rationale for revising the rules, no opportunity for ward leaders and committeepeople to raise objections. Over the years the Philadelphia Democratic Party has gotten used to doing whatever it wants to do with very little scrutiny, but recently progressive Democratic Party activists and journalists are taking a closer look at the Party's modus operandi. If committeepeople were among the decision makers it would be an improvement. There would be hundreds of people involved in the decision making instead of a handful of ward leaders. But this still leaves voters out of the process of choosing their party’s standard bearer.

Instead of having the political parties choose the candidate, why not allow all those who want to run under the Democratic banner [or Republican banner] do so. The political parties could still endorse their preferred candidate who would presumably have an edge as the endorsed candidate. But the voters would ultimately decide which candidate they want to fill the seat for the remainder of the term. In most of Philly’s largely Democratic districts, one of the Democrats would no doubt win--but at least Democratic voters would have a choice of which Democrat. The winner would serve for a relatively short time and soon would face the voters again as a candidate in the primary and, if successful, in the general election.

When I’ve asked friends and neighbors what they think of this approach to handling special elections, the response has been positive. Unfortunately the current system gives a powerful tool to leaders of political parties-- a way to maintain loyalty and control. Those who aspire to elected office and who don’t want to run in a contested election curry favor with party bosses, hoping their loyalty might be rewarded by endorsement in a special election. Thus many would-be elected official see special elections as a very easy route to political office and quite a few of our elected officials have begun their careers this way. See a list of winners of Special Elections for State and Congressional seats compiled by Joe Driscoll and posted on the Democratic Committeeperson Facebook page.

Since the rules governing special elections are a matter of state law, the rules would have to be changed by the PA legislature. Since the current system gives considerable power to party insiders, legislators would be under considerable pressure to oppose any changes—and many would not need any persuasion to back the party insiders rather than the voters. It sure won’t be easy, but it’s time to change the rules governing special elections.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Kenney Inauguration Euphoria: Now comes the hard part

It was a happy crowd and a lot of youthful energy in the room at Jim Kenney’s Inaugural Block Party. This was an event consistent with what Kenney represents to so many his supporters —a down-to-earth guy, with deep roots in Philly and a real appreciation for what’s special about this town. My guess is that Philadelphians are going to feel a lot better about their city with Jim Kenney as Mayor.

A remarkable coalition coalesced around him as soon as he announced his candidacy last January. I appreciated that Kenney had been a leader on issues that I care about : LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, decriminalization of marijuana--not so we can all get high in peace, but because so many lives of young people, primarily African-Americans and Latinos, were being destroyed by criminal records.

The campaign Jim Kenney ran reinforced my belief that he was the right person for the city. I liked the issues he emphasized—especially his commitment to public education and to universal pre-K. I was also impressed by the coalition he put together including people from every ethnic and racial group. And the appointments he has made underscore his commitment to racial/ethnic dieirsity and gender parity. Jim Kenney has sure earned his NOW endorsement, as the majority of his appointments so far have been women. And the appointments include some of the most talented people in our city.

But will all his enthusiastic supporters stick with him when he tackles some of the really hard problems? Yes, business and philanthropic groups can contribute to a fund for public education and for pre-k, but the real solutions must involve public money and that means more revenue.

Jim Kenney received a lot of support from the progressive community who can be a fickle lot. Yes, we should let our candidates know when we think they’ve voted the wrong way or made a bad policy decision. But let’s not be so quick to turn on candidates who disappoint us on one issue. Jim Kenney will need the long-term, rock solid support of all those happy folks at the Inaugural Block Party. He can’t do it alone.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child--the best book of 2015

With the Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante brings the final volume of the Neapolitan novels to a powerful, deeply moving conclusion. Reading the book was an exhilarating experience—finishing the book was a depressing one. There are no more Ferrante books to read.

I’ve read everything Ferrante has written and it’s not clear whether anything else will be published. So there’s nothing left but to re-read, and Ferrante’s books are meant to be re-read.

I’m now re-reading the first book and picking up nuances I missed the first time around. The first time I was so absorbed in the story and reading quickly to find out how it would all turn out that I missed a lot of the subtleties.

In an interview in the Sydney Herald, Ferrante has said that the four books are to be read as one long story, which in fact existed in the initial draft:

I don't feel a great difference between my first three books or this last one. Certainly the set up counts: in the past I've written about women in an intolerable moment of crisis, here [in the Neapolitan Novels] the joys and wounds of an entire life are told and it's important how characters react to the alternating currents of good luck or misfortune over a long arc of time.

Most of the major themes of the Neapolitan novels are present in the three earlier books, although without the rich social context. The theme of women’s friendship is not in the earlier books but emerges as the narrative framework of the Neapolitan novels. The life-long friendship between Elena Greco and Lina (Lila) Cerullo is usually considered the main theme of the Neapolitan novels.

To my knowledge, only one reviewer questioned its centrality. But is it more about envy/competition rather than about friendship? Or how the two can become inextricably linked? I no longer see friendship as the central theme of the Neapolitan novels but rather the framework for exploring the choices available to women whose options are constrained by gender/class.

As in the earlier books, there is no one theme—but rather an elaborate tapestry of interrelated themes. Claire Messud has called Ferrante “Italy’s answer to Doris Lessing, Elena Greco is her Anna Wulf, and her tetralogy The Golden Notebook of our era.” Ferrante is a far more powerful writer than Lessing and (I think) a more powerful feminist.

The complex interplay of feminist themes is present in all four books; in the final book the theme of motherhood—-the tension between wanting a life of one’s own and love for one’s children; the fear of failing to protect one’s children, the fear of losing them—-explored in The Lost Daughter, one of Ferrante’s earlier works——emerges as the dominant theme of the Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante explores the horrible consequences that can result from a moment’s inattention.

For me, Ferrante’s books often trigger vivid memories of experiences only dimly recalled.Story of the Lost Child triggered memories of two such incidents. When my child was young, I was always afraid of losing him, of something horrible happening to him. In 1972, we were in Santiago de Chile in the Moneda Palace . I don’t recall exactly how it happened but I was holding my son and put him down on the ground and then looked away for a second and he was gone. He was just starting to walk on his own. I was in a state of total panic and then I looked across the room and there he was looking at me with amusement. I’ll never forget the fear and the overwhelming sensation of relief.

The second time was during the same 1972 trip to South America, this time in a remote village on the Ecuadorian/ Columbian border. We had stopped in a little tavern and a woman grabbed my son and ran off with him. I was in a state of panic. His father who had the advantage of speaking Spanish said I shouldn’t worry as she was just showing him to the other people in the village who had never seen a baby who looked like him. They thought he looked like the Christ child. He was a very beautiful baby with blond curls, enormous brown eyes and a serene, almost Buddha-like smile. But I was not as sanguine as his father was that he would be returned and I spent a very uncomfortable half hour or so. He was returned in a very good mood; he looked like he had enjoyed the tour of the village, but in both cases what I remember was the sheer terror.

SPOILER ALERT: Reading the Story of the Lost Child brought it all back. On a crowded Neapolitan street, Lila looks away for a few minutes and her daughter disappears without a trace, never to be found—-an unforgettable conclusion to an unforgettable series of novels.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Blooms of my December Garden

Winter jasmine

I've been keeping garden records for over 20 years and this has been the warmest November-December in decades. The cheery yellow flowers of winter jasmine which usually blooms in early March are popping up all over my garden.

Probably not the last rose

An early December rose isn't all that unusual but I have quite a few rose buds which just might be blooming in late December

The first snowdrop appeared in early December. I've had December snowdrops before but always in late Decembder.

The intoxicating perfume of Lonicera Fragantisisma--that sounds so much better than fragarant honeysuckle--which usually blooms in early March started this year in mid December.


Quince and forsythia have never bloomed before March but those gorgeous quince blossoms are on the verge of opening and I even have a few forsythia blooms.

And the biggest surprise of all--my giant viburnum which we refer to as "the monster" and which usually blooms in early May is blooming in mid-December.

Not quite sure how I feel about all this...

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for PA judges

I never thought so many judges and prosecutors including state Supreme Court justices, would routinely exchange vicious racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails. Yes, I know that many white men resent the gains that women and people of color have made in recent decades, but I never expected anything this ugly from those entrusted to administer justice. It’s even more of a shock that they felt safe doing this.

This scandal will no doubt lead some voters to reject the proposal on the 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. I can certainly understand the desire to clean house.

But there’s another more urgent reason to reject this bill. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. Maintaining the current retirement age is not a solution to the current lack of diversity on the Bench, but at least it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) documents the lack of judicial diversity: “In many states, the judges do not look like the defendants and plaintiffs who stand in front of them. .. that glaring lack of diversity calls into question the overall fairness of our justice system.

The CAP report argues that if we are to have a diverse judiciary reflecting our increasingly diverse citizenry, we must reduce the influence of money in the judicial selection process. The report recommends reforms, such as public financing in states that continue to elect judges.

The report further argues that “merit selection (a system of appointing judges in which a commission chooses a list of potential nominees based on their qualifications) can be an effective tool for achieving diversity, when the process is structured to take diversity into account.” Although a 2009 American Judicature Society study found that states with merit selection had more diverse supreme courts, the CAP report cautions that some merit selection systems have not resulted in a diverse judiciary: “Even when diversity is mandated at certain points in the process, lawmakers in some states have ignored the mandate.”

It is unlikely that in PA we will have public financing of judicial elections or merit selection anytime soon, so while we fight for substantive reform, let’s not exacerbate the problem by freezing in place the current judiciary by raising the retirement age.

I’ll grant that there are some fine 70-year old judges who could make a contribution for another five years and that mandatory retirement can be viewed as unfair to these individuals. Yes, maybe some of them, as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Program director Suzanne Almeida has argued, get better with age: According to Almeida “Judging is one of those jobs that the longer you do it the better you get.” Well, maybe with some, but I doubt that judges like Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin are getting better with each passing year.

So yes, maybe mandatory retirement is unfair to some deserving individuals, but if the issue is viewed in terms of what is good for society, mandatory retirement has clear benefits. The baby boom generation is the first generation to really push back on mandatory retirement and it's having an impact on job opportunities for the young--certainly so with professional jobs. There is some evidence that when mandatory retirement for well-paying professional jobs is eliminated, retirements fall sharply.

The reluctance to retire on the part of many university professors has had unfortunate consequences for a generation of younger scholars. From a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education , “The Forever Professors:”
American academe has created a continuing disaster by resting faculty retirement solely on the cornerstones of senior professors’ self-interest and self-assessment. Unless higher education comes up with a mechanism—or social consensus—that makes retiring by 70 the honorable and decent thing to do, everyone’s individual "right to work" past 70 will crush the young.
We must base our decisions about mandatory retirement on what is good for society as a whole rather that what may be in the interest of a particular individual. Moreover, with the judiciary, mandatory retirement is not just about creating job opportunities for the young but about a justice system which reflects the diversity of citizenry. This matters.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Return to Prague: You can’t step in the same river twice.

Tyn Church overlooking Old Town Square

I fell in love with Prague in 1989; at the time, I was expecting a beautiful city with a rich, well-preserved architectural heritage, but I wasn’t prepared for the astonishing beauty of Prague.

This was near the end of the Communist regime but neither we, nor most of the residents of Prague, knew we were on the cusp of radical change. Rick and I were there in July of ’89 and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November of ’89. In July ’89, Prague was still hardline communist. You couldn’t buy a foreign language newspaper--except for the Stalinist British Morning Call. The French and Italian communist papers were deemed too liberal to be sold in Czechoslovakia. It was no doubt a good experience for someone like me, who actually briefly flirted with support for Communism, to get a sense of what it was like to actually live under real existing socialism/ communism.

At that time Americans were segregated in ugly hotels on the outskirts of Prague and the food in the restaurants was truly horrible. Now there are good hotels and restaurants and we had no trouble getting the international New York Times. Among the restaurants that I highly recommend:

Cantinetta Fiorentina
Fred and Ginger’s

Clearly life is much better for the citizens of Prague and I’m happy for them. However, for me, the magic was gone. Gorgeous Old Town Square was as packed with people as NYC’s Times Square during the holiday season. It was really difficult to cross the Charles Bridge because of the crush of people and the gauntlet of souvenir shops. We found ourselves avoiding the places we loved and lingered at in 1989.

The Charles Bridge as I remember it--without tourists

Like the Poles in Krakow, the Czechs have realized the tourist potential of the old Jewish Quarter which in 1989 was shabby and neglected, with very few tourists. In 2015 the Jewish Quarter is beautifully restored and packed with tourists, cafes, restaurants, trendy shops. The money generated by the tourists is no doubt responsible for the restoration and for the very moving memorial dedicated to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed by the Nazis.

Maisel Synogogue

Memorial to Holocaust Victims, Pinkas Synagogue

I was very happy to revisit Prague, but Rick and I both don't think we will be back. Prague no longer has a hold over my imagination. I returned to Santiago de Chile after many decades and had the same reaction. You really can’t step in the same river twice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DRESDEN: The Germany Diaries, Part IV

In every trip there is always something we wish we had done differently. This time we wished we had given more time to Dresden. Much of Dresden was destroyed during World War II but its historic baroque architecture has been beautifully restored. Dresden has a wealth of museums to rival Berlin’s and deserves a week rather than the two days we gave it.

If we ever get back to Dresden, we’ll try to stay in the same charming, centrally located hotel, Buelow Residenz. It's connected to its far more expensive sister hotel the Buelow Palace which housed a 2 star Michelin restaurant and much less expensive but quite good bistro. One consequence of widening income inequality is that the Michelin star restaurants have become much more expensive than the average restaurant. When we travelled a lot in France during our working years we usually managed to fit in one Michelin star restaurant. Now we don’t even try.

I also recommend Restaurant Daniel, a kind of German equivalent of French Nouvelle Cuisine—much lighter than traditional German fare with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes.

Despite our limited time in Dresden, we did manage to fit in the Dresden Opera’s production of the Flying Dutchman. I’m no Wagner fan and wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, but Rick assured me that Dutchman is one of Wagner’s more accessible operas and the Dresden opera house one of Europe’s most beautiful, so we decided to get tickets.

I’m glad we did but it didn’t change my feelings about Wagner. Sure, there was some thrilling music, impressive stagecraft and very good singers, but it was such a ridiculous story. Granted the plots of beloved Verdi operas are also ridiculous, but I’ll put up with that because I love Verdi so much. I have a lot less tolerance for Wagner’s absurd plots.
Dresden's Rococco Opera House

Outside the opera house there was a demonstration organized by the members of the anti-immigrant group Pegida who gather every Monday to protest what they consider Germany’s too liberal immigration policies. They were a very sedate crowd; the expressions on their faces were nothing like the hate–contorted faces of photos I’ve seen of anti-immigration, Tea Party demonstrators in the US.

However in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris the demonstrations have changed dramatically. On November 16 around 8,000 people carrying gigantic crosses joined the Pegida movement for a rally in Dresden, protesting Angela Merkel's decision to allow up to one million migrants into Germany.

Sure glad we weren’t in Dresden for this and happy to live in a city where although there is anti-immigrant sentiment, I can’t imagine anything like the November 16 Dresden rally in Philadelphia.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part III

Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

Since we had seen most of the top tier attractions on our first trip to Berlin, we had time to explore some of Berlin’s neighborhoods such as the former East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg. It reminded me of Greenwich Village about 40-50 years ago.

While wandering around Prenzlauerberg, we stumbled on a fascinating museum, Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, about daily life in the former GDR. What I found most fascinating was the government’s attempts to foster group think – what they saw as socialist solidarity. Workers were organized in brigades and were expected to keep tabs on each other informing on those seen as slackers. They were expected to socialize with those in their brigade and even vacation together. Each apartment building had someone charged with keeping detailed records of those who visited residents’ apartments. Of course I knew about the omnipresent Stasi but the details of daily life made it more chilling, more soul-destroying than I had realized.

The Germans are honest about their troubled past and all the history museums we’ve visited in Germany reflect this. In addition to the GDR museum we went to the German History Museum which is worth far more time than we gave it. In addition to the compelling exhibits, the building has architectural interest with an annex for special exhibits designed by I. M. Pei.

Annex to German History Museum designed by I. M. Pei

There were two museums we visited last time and planned to return to. Sadly, one was closed for restoration--the Neue Nationalgalerie with a very impressive 20th century art collection housed in a building designed by Mies Vander Rohe. One of my all time favorite museums was thankfully open--the the Gemäldegalerie with its astonishing collection of European painting from the 13th to 18th century beautifully displayed.

Maybe I do want to go back to Berlin one last time.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part II

Frederick the Great's Summer Palace, Sans Souci in Potsdam

We moved a lot more slowly this time—no doubt in part because we are four years older. We are so glad we travelled a lot during our working years because it is getting harder. It takes a lot longer to get over jet lag than it once did.

We decided to skip Museum Island this time. This is one of the great cultural treasures of the world and we certainly hadn’t exhausted it. It would take months for that—but this time we wanted, at least to some extent, to get off the beaten tourist track. Our first full day in Berlin, we didn't try to pack much in, but rather spent a relaxing half day at Berlin’s very impressive botanical gardens and the nearby Dahlem museums. It is a testament to Berlin’s wealth of museums that Dahlem with its impressive Asian and African art collection is considered a second tier attraction.

Photos from the Botanical Gardens:
Alpine Gardens

Colchicum, one of the gems of the Fall garden

Our second full day we went to Potsdam which we had not managed to fit in on our first trip to Berlin. We soon discovered that Potsdam is worth more than one day and returned to Potsdam before leaving Berlin. Potsdam was Frederick the Great’s creation, with all his passions and eccentricities on display. I was intrigued by the king who composed music, collected art, was seriously interested in architecture and corresponded with Voltaire at the same time he was waging war and building his empire. Frederick was also something of a penny pincher. At Frederick's imposing New Palace I thought I was having an optical illusion. The bricks looked fake. And when we went up to them, sure enough the façade was painted to look like a real brick building.
Frederick's fake bricks

According to our guidebook, Frederick didn’t want to spend the money on real bricks! However, he spared no expense on the interior of the New Palace and on the jewel in Potsdam’s crown, Frederick’s Summer Palace, San Souci. For me the great attraction of San Souci was the Italianate formal gardens.
formal gardens, San Souci

At this stage in my life I'm likely to prefer a garden over a museum—-some exceptions of course. More on Berlin’s museums to come.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part I


My husband Rick wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday in Berlin. I enjoyed Berlin, but certainly didn’t fall in love with it and thought that it would be the last time I saw Berlin. Rick, however, had an itch to get back there and so this year we decided one more time in Berlin. We take turns with vacations. I’m drawn to Southern Europe; he’s drawn to Eastern and Central Europe and this year was his turn.

To my surprise, I liked Berlin better the second time around—probably because we were more relaxed. We weren’t ticking off all the “must see” tourist attractions—Museum Island, the Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum etc.

Another reason no doubt is that this time there were no hotel hassles unlike last time which was something of a horror show—the charming hotel we booked was certainly charming enough, but our room was a 6th floor walk-up.

We spend a little more on hotels now—a comfortable bed is a necessity. We loved our hotel—-Louisa’s Place in the Charlottenburg neighborhood; it is a suite hotel with really large suites and a great staff. Right next door is a seriously good restaurant, Balthazar.

We used to traipse all over town for a highly recommended restaurants. Now we take the hotel’s recommendations for good restaurants in the neighborhood and there was quite a selection of good restaurants within easy walking distance: Il Calice;Lamazere;,a wonderful Turkish restaurant Tugra ,and a traditional German restaurant Ebert.

Rick thought that since we were in Germany we should try at least one German restaurant and I reluctantly agreed. We had heard that Ebert was traditional German cooking done very, very well. It lived up to its reputation with the best duck I’ve ever had—with crispy duck skin to die for. However, the dumplings while delicious were incredibly heavy. I could manage only one bite of the dumpling and could not manage even one bite of the huge bowls of red and green cabbage.

I wasn’t interested in any more traditional German restaurants--not my type of food--but Rick convinced me that since we were in Germany, we should try at least one more German restaurants. So our last night in Berlin we went to Marjellchen, a highly recommended, incredibly friendly restaurant with reasonably priced German comfort food. The restaurant owners made you feel like guests rather than customers.

Berlin is more affordable than other major European cities—possibly because it’s not a major tourist hub like Paris or London. And we certainly haven’t exhausted the museums or tourist attractions in Berlin. Rick is already talking about going back one more time.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Ravenna: the Northern Italy Diaries, Part VIII

There’s always something we regret about the way we planned a trip. This time it was shortchanging Ravenna, once the capital city of the Western Roman Empire. We knew that Ravenna’s 6-7th century mosaics were a major attraction, but we did not know how incredibly beautiful they are. If we had known, we would have given Ravenna more than a one night stop.

We stayed at a wonderful, affordable hotel in the old town, the Albergo Cappela. The hotel had a very good restaurant and the rooms were beautifully furnished. I’ve never before stayed in a room with 14th c. frescoes!

It probably won’t happen, but I would love to get back to Ravenna again and give the city the time it deserves.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Pistoia and Montepulciano:Northern Italy Diaries, Part VII

Cathedral in Pistoia

In addition to revisiting hill towns we had fallen in love with love like Siena and Lucca, we also went to towns we hadn't seen on previous trips to Tuscany, towns often overlooked by tourists such as Pistoia immortalized by Dante . The main attraction is the cathedral with a very impressive facade. Unfortunately the facade was all we saw, as we arrived during the 2-hour mid-day closing. While major tourist spots like Florence have generally stopped the traditional midday closing, in towns off the main tourist track the mid-day closing still prevails and should be taken into account when planning a trip to Italy.

In addition to the Cathedral, Pistoia has a spectacular Piazza del Duomo, bordered by well-maintained medieval and renaissance buildings, including a perfectly proportioned Renaissance palazzo, now the town hall. Campanile in Piazza del Duomo,Pistoia

Siena and Lucca have been supplanted as my favorite hill town by Montepulciano, the most beautiful Tuscan hill town that we’ve visited. Perched on a steep hill above the lush vineyards which produce Montepulciano wine, it has spectacular panoramic views.
Views of surrounding hillsides from streets of Montepulciano.

At first we didn’t think we were up to trekking up the hill to the Piazza Grande, but the town is so beautiful that we kept climbing the hill and eventually reached the Piazza Grande—certainly one of the most impressive piazzas in the country of beautiful piazzas.

We set in a café on the Piazza drinking Campari for far too long, and didn’t have time for the visit to the Abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore we had planned for that day. Cafe on Piazza Grande in Montepulciano

When you find yourself in a town as beautiful as Montepulciano, you just have to take the time to savor the experience. It’s always impossible to see everything you’ve planned, and maybe that’s a good thing—a reason to return. If there’s a next time in Tuscany, we’ll see the Abbey and we’ll make sure we get back to Montepulciano.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Tuscan Hill towns of Siena and Lucca:The Italy Diaries, Part VI

At this stage in our lives we are slow travelers and we no longer try to pack several towns into one day. We gave Siena and Lucca one day each and I could happily have spent a week in each. The problem of course with using Fiesole as a base and making day trips to hill towns is that we don’t see the towns at night. I recall that the medieval streets of Siena were truly magical at night.

This was our third trip to Siena –the first in the heat of summer, the second in the chill of winter. Finally we saw Sienna on a gorgeous sunny October day. The austere, brick buildings of Siena’s medieval old town really need the warmth of sunlight.

When Florence defeated Siena in 1300’s, it prohibited any further building, so that old town Siena was frozen in time as a medieval city--an open air architectural museum. The Piazza del Campo where the famous horse races are held was every bit as impressive as I remember as was the enormous cathedral which my little son on our first rip to Italy called the cathedral with zebra stripes.

Whereas Siena is impressive, Lucca is welcoming--with its narrow streets opening up to gorgeous piazzas crowned by churches in what is known as the Pisan style, characterized by slender columns in white, pink, and green marble.
One of Lucca's most beautiful churches, San Michele

This was our second trip to Lucca and and sadly we have yet to see Lucca at night--and probably never will.