Thursday, May 31, 2012


A day of transitions: from Vienna to Athens. Arrived in the afternoon to headache, exhaustion, hunger but after a lunch of pastitsio and an ibuprofen, all is well.

We go to buy a radio for mom. She likes to listen while having lunch. The radio she has now is vintage 1972 Chicago. Lots of crackling sounds, loud volume only. We walk out of the apartment building and stop at a several shops along the way to say hello and talk about Vienna. She knows every shop owner and clerk up and down her streets. It takes a while to buy the radio because we have to tell the shop owner about our lives but finally we do buy one and head to the cafe in the square for a cappuccino. We need to rest after all that talk.

On the way back we stop at the small supermarket and spend a good deal of time chatting, updating everyone on our travels. She buys fruits, milk, wine. The owner and his son offer to carry her bags home. They do that when she's got a heavy load. It is only a block away. Very convenient. Her doctor is also one block away as is everything else she needs. And everyone knows her.

We stop often so she can introduce me: my daughter from America. I smile, say nice to meet you, thank you. I'm on display. Better be nice, friendly, better smile.

In the evening we walk to St. Lazarus Square for a late supper. It's almost 11 pm. We are exhausted!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


This is the day to see "The Kiss" or else.  We take a taxi to the Belvedere: what a view!  Magnificent gardens as far as the eye can see.  Prince Eugene of Savoy had it built when he came to help the king.  There are two buildings: upper and lower Belvedere.  "The Kiss" is in the upper Belvedere thankfully because the lower one is a very, very long way to walk and mom, well, mom is not exactly a walker.

There are three floors of art: impressionism, realism, expressionism, etc. etc.  We walk in the first floor galleries to look at Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and Klimt works.  I've decided I really like Schiele's paintings.  I like his hands: long, thin.  He died when he was 28 of influenza.  We look at Klimt's works and finally "The Kiss" is in one room where many people are standing staring at it.  Three Japanese girls seem transfixed by it.  Vienna is so full of "stuff" with this painting that to see it in real life now is fairly anticlimactic.  Why did this painting become so popular? 

We spend about a couple of hours looking at the paintings yet I really enjoy looking out of the windows in this palace where you can see the expansive gardens where Eugene had the first giraffe in captivity in Europe and, farther away, you can see the city and the mountains behind it.  Enchanting view! Hence the name: Belvedere.

The gift shop sells just about anything you can think of with "The Kiss" on it: cups, napkins, nail files, boxes, aprons, oven mittens, scarves, thimbles, notebooks, candles, is that enough?  It is pretty funny actually.

Lunch is at a Greek restaurant across the street: we're hungry and don't want to search for something more typically Austrian.  The waiter is, of course, Turkish.  Mom chats in Turkish as usual.

Take a taxi and go to the opera but there are no tours today.  Rats!  So? the next best thing: go to the Cafe Sacher for a sacher torte and caffe sitting outdoors.  Suddenly it starts to pour.  Every single tourist is running for cover.  After the rain subsides we come home where mom takes a nap and I go to see the Hundertwasser Haus.  I realize that it is only about five blocks away.  Who knew!

Pretty blues, yellows, reds, greens; undulating surfaces, tiles, trees coming out of the roof, and a lot of tourists, of course.  The video narrated by Hundertwasser himself is quite informative: he believes that a straight line is immoral, that houses should be designed by the people who live in them, and every rental contract has the "right to window" clause.  The tenant can design, decorate the windows as far as he or she can reach.  Every apartment is different and every window too.  I wouldn't mind spending a few months in one of them.

Tomorrow we fly back to Athens.  More later...

Note:  here I am a senior citizen.  Therefore I get a discount at museums.  Yeay!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


At last!  I am on the Danube.  On a river cruise this morning we sail on the Danube Canal first from Schwedenplatz and after about an hour we turn into the Danube.  It's wide and green/blue.  We sit on top first and watch the Urania observatory as we pass by.  Later we go downstairs to have lunch.  Along the shores we spot mallards, swans, and at one point a line of what look like river houses.  Small wooden structures on stilts, each one sporting a huge net hanging outside.  We have to go through locks and wait for the water to rise from canal to river and viceversa.  All is calm around here.  By the time it is over - three and a half hours later - I'm sleepy but must push on.

We take the tram and get off at Burgring and walk to Heldenplatz and the area around St. Stephens Cathedral.  The Spanish Riding School shows a video of the Lipizzaner horses to the passersby.  I need to walk.  Stretch my legs.  I convince mom to sit at a cafe while I look around for a while. 

The Hoffburg is teeming with tourists.  Actually, the entire city is filled with them.  Is it always like this?  The sunny, warm weather attracts people from all over the world.  The horse-drawn carriages make crossing the streets difficult around here but I go the other way and find some narrow streets to look at buildings.  The wide pedestrian streets Graben and Kartner amaze me with shop after shop and cafes in the center.  Then a never-seen-before statue calls me: two people - one sitting cross legged on the ground holding a walking stick, the other sitting cross legged above that one as if floating on air, just holding the stick.  We all look and look trying to figure out the trick.  I have no idea where this person is sitting.  And just when I am ready to take a photo I find out the battery on my camera is dead.  What?!  I must take a photo of this. 

Walking and walking I find my way back to mom and convince her to come with me back to the pedestrian street.  We are tired since it is by now about 5 o'clock and we've been out since morning.  Mom needs her nap.  I figure we better stay out a bit longer, have supper, and go home for the day.  My craving for pizza takes us to Il Camenetto but the pizza disappoints; the beer however goes down splendidly. It is 8 pm by the time we get home to watch the French Open.

Monday, May 28, 2012


I walk over to the post office this morning to mail some of mom's postcards but it is closed.  Strange.  The streets are very quiet too for a Monday.  The supermarket is closed.  Must be a holiday I know nothing about.  We take the tram and go to Cafe Landtman for breakfast across the street from the Rathaus Park.  A gorgeous open air behind glass walls deck with Viennese breakfast where Freud used to go.  Today I must go to the Leopold Museum.  I am proud to say that I figure out the tram stops and we get off at the right spot, cross the street, and walk into the Museum Platz.

There are museums galore here!  We walk through the Maria Theresa Platz into the Quartier where the Leopold stands on one end and the MOMUK on the other.  In between there are four cafes, one in each corner, and these red and green plastic chaise-longue kind of chairs where people recline or nap under the sun. 

The Leopold doesn't disappoint.  All of Klimt's personal things are here: hundreds of postcards he wrote to Emilie Flogue, chairs from his summer place, a telescope, Emilie's clothes, and paintings of landscapes, portraits, drawings, photographs a plenty, and a good video about his time in Lake Atersee.  The other galleries hold works of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and other Secession artists.  I just love these works!  You can sit in some of the galleries and listen to music by Mahler or Schonberg with headphones.  There is a room with Otto Wagner's map of the city and other designs.  The notes on the walls inform me that Klimt had six children by three women who were his models but his life-long companion was Emilie Flogue; that Richard Gerstl slept with Schonberg's wife and when she left Gerstl to go back to her husband, Gerstl committed suicide.  These Viennese were something else!  What a time!  What a place!  I'm still waiting to see Alma Mahler somewhere and go to Freud's home and Mozart's.  So many key figures of the 20th century lived right here and went to the same cafes and restaurants I've been going to.

After lunch we go to MOMUK for a Claes Oldenberg exhibit where I have a small altercation with the ticket taker because she wants me to check my bag even though at the Leopold they didn't make me.  I finally do and she lets me in.  Oldenberg's huge soft sculptures are sweet.  I want to take them home.  I especially like the mixer, the toilet, the ashtray with cigarette buts and the saw.  There is also a Pop Art exhibit with works by Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and others I cannot remember right now.  The MOMUK is very industrial looking with pipes and grates and plenty of glass.  After we stop at the cafe for a coffee (what else?).  It starts to rain.  Just a drizzle though. 

Tomorrow I must go to the Belvedere to see Klimt's paintings.  These Austrians have spread his works through several museums to make us spend more money I think.  Still to come: Danube tour, Staatsoper, Hundertwasser Haus, Hoffbrun, and only two more days left. 

Last night we walked over to a Turkish fest but didn't eat, choosing instead the Gasthaus Wild across the street, one of the best restaurants in Vienna according to Time Out Vienna.  And if Time Out says it's good, it must be.  Actually it was: wiener schnitzel again.  Good wine.  Waiter translates the menu because my German is nonexistent.  I find that the friendliest service people are the foreigners.  Is anyone surprised?

Sunday, May 27, 2012


A sunny Sunday begins early for us because we want to get to all the three routes of the Vienna Sightseeing tours: red, green, blue.  We start with the blue route and drive near the Hundertwasserhaus but I don't see the colorful houses.  I need to go there on my own another day.  Then the Prater comes into view with the giant ferris wheel and rides for children and the Danube Tower.  We drive one way and cross the Danube Canal and go the other way to return to the Staatsoper. 

Before the next ride we have lunch at Oasis Cafe owned by a Kurdish young man from Turkey.  The food is nothing to write home about but mom speaks Turkish and I have a delicious ice cream dessert: tropical cup with mango, raspberry and coconut icecream, pieces of kiwi, bananas, strawberries, grapes, and oranges.  Makes up for the pasta carbonara.

There are many Turkish people here.  I know there are many in Germany but I didn't expect it here.  After lunch we take the green ride and drive by the Schonbrun palace, Belvedere, returning to the Opera house once more.  Ok, there is one left to do.  What the hell!  Let's do it.  After all we've paid for the whole day: 20 euros each for the hop off/hop on service. 

The red ride is the Ringstrasse ride.  Heroes' Square and St. Stephen's Cathedral are the main stops.  We get off at the Stephansdom and walk around the square teeming with people buying stuff in kiosks: food, jewelry, trinkets, clothes, postcards.  Inside the cathedral it's rather dark but I manage to take a couple of photos.  Many faithful light candles. 

After the end of these rides we walk to one of those other platzes and have a coffee to recuperate.  I've seen so many things and heard so much history, I need time to process it all.  The sightseeing buses are really awesome, equipped with headphones narrating what you see and a bit of history in 12 different languages.  We should do that in Chicago.  Really.

More later...

Saturday, May 26, 2012


I sleep well tonight for a change and wake up refreshed, ready to go to the supermarket on the corner and buy provisions.  I have to put one Euro to take a cart so I opt for the free basket.  Reading labels is very challenging.  This is one of the few times in my travels when I don't know the language.  I can empathize with immigrants everywhere. I stand in line to pay but I have no bag.  Must pay for a paper bag.  The little things one needs to learn.  Sugar? sugar?  I end up buying powdered sugar.  Never mind.  I can still use it in my coffee.  I forget the paper filters.  Coffee grounds drip all over the carafe, the counter, my cup.  Fudge!

Mom and I take the tram and go to the Opera in Karlplatz.  Thousands of tourists have gotten there before us.  Holy Moly!  Men dressed in 18th century costumes peddle opera tickets.  We sit for early lunch at the Opera Cafe and then walk to the Albertina museum.  Impressive building where an exhibit of Klimt's drawings and a Monet to Picasso show call my attention first.  The drawings are not what I had hoped.  Must go see the paintings soon.  We like the gift shop but everything is frightfully expensive.  Time for coffee and torte: Cafe Mozart stands across the street next to Hotel Sacher. Mom and I loiter hoping for a table outside.  There is a fierce competition between three young men and a family.  After ten minutes or so I spy a couple leaving and run over.  Is it true?  Did I really get the table?  I fear any second now the waiter will tell me it is reserved.  Waiters, sales clerks, are kind of surly, not exactly friendly.  Is it because I don't speak German?  Anyway,  I do not eat a sacher torte however; I have a Mozart torte.  Delicious!  Crowds mill around.  People-watching must be my favorite sport. 

We walk around some more and take the tram back so mom can take a nap but we go the long way and it takes us an hour to return.  I thought the tram went around and around the Ringstrasse but it doesn't really.  Live and learn!  After a well-deserved rest we venture out again to go to Holy! Moly! (really, that's the name of the bar/restaurant on the Danube Canal) the water.  We descend the stairs but there is a wedding and we sit outside for some Prosecco.  No dinner here.  All the tables are taken.  Go up the stairs, walk and walk (mom is not happy) and after a long search I find the restaurant I wanted to find: Greichenbeisl.  Open since 1447.  Yes, 1447.  Originally a neighborhood eating house where Greek and Levantine traders ate and stayed, later frequented by Beethoven and Schubert and Mark Twain (according to Time Out Vienna).  A quaint outdoor space besides the old building where we have venison and lamb chops. 

Walking back to find the tram stop we pass by throngs of young people drinking and shouting I don't know what.  Lots of drinking outside and smoking and yelling.  Must be Saturday night.  Tomorrow we'll go have a gelato on Schwedenplatz.  At home the Eurovision contest has everyone on pins and needles around here.  At least my mother.  Why don't we know anything about this in the USA?  I suppose because the US is not in Europe? 

Friday, May 25, 2012


In the land of Freud, Mahler, and Klimt, the streets are wide, very wide, and the buildings massive.  We arrive in the afternoon under sunny skies, take a taxi to Radetzkystrasse 15 to meet our landlords: Mani and his wife.  The apartment is small, clean, white, on the first floor.  There is no land-line phone: the Internet is our only access to the outside world.  And the router has problems but we manage. 

Mom takes a nap and I go out to explore the neighborhood.  There is a tiny urban beach nearby on one of the Danube's canals.  I see a bunch of people all crammed together on a small piece of land under red and white umbrellas.  Must learn how to navigate the streets, take the trams and trolleys, find bus tours so mom doesn't have to walk a lot. 

I return to the apartment to pick up mom and we go out on the No. 1 trolley that runs around on the Ringstrasse.  Coins ready to pay I find no way to do so.  The orange machine on the trolley doesn't work.  I pocket the coins and sit down, crossing my fingers that no one asks us for the tickets.  I'm sorry Vienna I rode for free.  On the way back however I do get to pay 2.20 euros each.  We have supper at Stein's sidewalk cafe.  Excellent meal!  Chicken escalope with potato/corn salad for me, baked potato with ham and zucchini for mom.  I'm so hungry I devour everything.  Plus a tall glass of beer. 

And back at the apartment the problems with the internet start.  I attempt everything I know but nothing works.  I call Mani who comes to help.  He's a very nice man.  Indeed.

Now I must go to sleep on the wide bed with mom.  Cross my fingers that I can sleep and rest.  I haven't slept very well the last few days.  Cross my fingers that I can sleep tonight and rest for tomorrow's museums and cafes and parks.  Vienna awaits me!  I can't miss her.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Every morning the accordion player walks by under our windows, hoping for an Euro or two.  After he passes by, the truck with the loudspeaker buys old rags, iron, cardboard, whatever you have to sell.  A very loud loudspeaker.  When I stroll over to the square to withdraw cash from the ATM I see three African men selling bags and purses spread on the sidewalk.  In the streets, the trolleys, the number of Asians and Blacks is astounding compared to the past.  Even on television, the sitcoms and dramas show Black people.  It is somewhat peculiar to hear them speak Greek.  I suppose that means that they have entered the mainstream.  I had not seen that the last time I was here in 2006.  

In the evening I go to a gallery opening with Katerina and later to a cafe/bar called Magaze near Platia Eirene (St. Irene's Square which also means Peace).  A building from the 1830s stands on the other side abandoned, used to be a hotel but now it is empty.  There is a movement of Atenistas who want to reclaim the old buildings and teach the population about them. 

Tomorrow we fly to Vienna.  See you there!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Blue purple acacia tree flowers carpet the sidewalks around downtown Athens. Bitter oranges hung temptingly (too bad you can't eat them). Jasmin bushes spread their aroma as I walk by on the narrow sidewalks trying to avoid bumping into an open window or a car's side mirror. Most everything seems narrow here. Sometimes even downright claustrophobic. Like my mother's neighborhood. If I stretch my arms long enough from the balcony I can touch the little boy playing on his balcony across the street. Most of us walk on the street instead, running the risk of being hit by a car or motorcycle. I don't like to walk in the middle of the street. Mother insists it is the only way to go.

In the afternoon Maria takes me to another neighborhood near downtown with zig-zag streets and old, peeling buildings with old fabric shops and new, trendy cafes. Anything old is new again. Some try to rehab, remodel, make old, abandoned spaces habitable again. One large space is referred to as "the chickens place." I think the owner raises chickens but no, there are large paper-mache colorful chickens hanging from the ceiling. Underneath the chickens large tables accomodate customers reading, drinking, working on their computers. Huge paper-mache chickens!

Later we go to a large cafe behind a bookstore and enjoy a respite from the walk. Many of these spots open cafes and bars in the back, away from the noise and fumes of the streets. A variety of plants add to the spirit of "green" that they try to develop. Except, of course, for the cigarettes. Everyone smokes. Everywhere. Inside and out. So much for rules and regulations! And the pedestrians have no right of way. Cross the street at your own risk. And the roaring of motorcycles wakes me up in the middle of the night. But I complain too much probably. I don't know. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The Acropolis Museum is very white. And expansive. Marble everywhere and, where the marble is missing, cast to reproduce what was stolen or broken. The Parthenon's friezes and pediments, the sculptures, were all painted bright colors: blue, red, purple, yellow. They are now all white. It is impressive and slightly challenging to walk into the museum because the ground (the floor?) is glass over ruins that have been left semi-excavated. Mom gets dizzy on the transparent floor and holds on to my arm. Worth a visit folks! Come. But I must quote the immortal words of Paul's mother after her visit to Athens: "too many steps and everything is broken." Love that!

The evening is another surprise today: first a magnificently quiet film from Argentina called "The Acacia Trees." Absolutely delightful, poignant, left me speechless. Maria and I went to the Palas Cinema in Pangrati to see it. The Palas was built in 1925 and nothing has changed since then. It's like walking into a time warp. And at intermission - because movies here have intermission - we go to the "cafe/smoking room/WC" and buy chocolate cookies. A glass plate with slices of cake seems to have been there since 1925. The owner - a man in his 80s - knows everything about films and brings independent and artsy films to this corner of Athens. Unfortunately there are only five people in the audience. More Athenians should patronize this theater. Our initial plan was to see the film in the Summer theatre: on the roof, outdoors. But that showing starts at 10:45 pm. These Athenians never sleep.

After the movie we head to Syllabi Cafe and Bookstore in a narrow street. We are the only customers at this pretty place, small, with books and excellent music. The owner - Philipos - plays tango music for me and then brings out his guitar to sing a song for someone that Maria and he know. What an enchanting melody! Maria calls the woman for whom the song was written and we all listen. The woman by the way lives in Crete. (An interesting love story between a married priest and a young woman.) (I think they had to go to Crete after that.) Philipos is a sweet man who knows his books and his music. I must return some morning to sip coffee and read. Maria reminds me that there are some kind people here too and some quaint places to visit.

She's right: I must get out of the house and explore. Explore. After all - what kind of travel writer am I if I don't explore?


Monday is cloudy again.  Isn't Greece supposed to be sunny all the time?  Another quandary. 

I sleep late as usual here.  The hours are turned upside down.  Noon is morning, evening is afternoon.  No matter.  When in Rome...(or is it when in Athens?)

Today I venture out on my own: going to meet Maria for a long stroll in the center.  I am proud to say that I buy the trolley tickets, get off on the right corner (both times), and find my place.  Athens is not an easy city to navigate, especially downtown and some of the neighborhoods: very narrow streets with even narrower sidewalks that are either broken or populated by motorcycles, trash bins, construction sites, cats, and even cars sometimes. No matter. The bitter orange trees are delightful to see as are the acacia trees with their bright blue/purple flowers.  Legend has it that when the Germans occupied Athens during the war they went crazy eating the oranges.  Note: they are not edible.  Go figure those Germans...

Maria takes me to a cafe behind the Numismatic Museum where quiet reigns.  It reminds of the cafe in the Museo de Arte Decorativo in Buenos Aires.  We talk for a long time about our lives before setting off for a walk towards Exarhia.  We stop at the Goethe Institute, a fantastic bookstore/cafe called Free Thinking Zone where the owner tells me that John Cass from The Chicago Tribune had written a nice article about her store a few months ago.  Exarhia is an old neighborhood filled with graffiti and young people dreaming about a better future.  We walk by a small square where junkies are shooting up (seriously - in the open) next to the Law School.  After a few more sights we settle in Alexandrino Cafe for a beer and bruschetta.  We make plans for the next day's visit to the Acropolis Museum.  On the way back to the trolley stop another group of junkies starts fighting and chasing each other (right in front of the university).  No matter.  We watch and keep walking. 

Monday, May 21, 2012


I scan the news online, I look at my FB page, I see the turmoil in Chicago: heads split open, thousands of marchers on Michigan Avenue, I want to be there too. But - alas - I am here.

In the morning Mom and I go to St. Lazarus Square for a cappuccino and the newspaper. A fountain stands in the center of the square surrounded by cafes and restaurants. Finally a sunny and warm day brings everyone out this Sunday. Where is the crisis?

Transistor Bistro's party is a delightful surprise. Katerina plays an eclectic selection of tunes from Lila Downs to Mozart and from Rufus Wainwright to Bee Gees. New and old friends come by. My friend Evelyn and her husband appear suddenly behind me. OMG! I met Evelyn in 1971 when I first arrived in Chicago. That's a long time! She moved back to Greece in the 80s which means I only see her sporadically. Mom doesn't even recognize them. Who are they? she says. Mom, I say, it's Zach and Evelyn. They look familiar she says. Finally she figures it out. We laugh.

Maria, Samantha, Chrisa, my cousin Andoni with his family help me feel welcome. We talk (more like scream since the music is kinda-loud), we drink sangria, white wine, beer. I eat bruschetta and mom orders linguini. We dance some, more people arrive (not for me). Where is the crisis?

The discotheque in an old section of Athens attracts 20 somethings who drink and smoke (a prominently NO SMOKING sign displayed above the bar notwithstanding). Graffiti decorates the walls all around the cafe, impossibly narrow streets parked with cars (how do people drive and park here is a total mystery). Where is the crisis?

Around 11:30 pm we take a taxi, come home. I go to sleep around 1 in the morning. I am not used to these hours. I am not used to getting up at 10 in the morning. Hours are turned upside down here. Yet people are out trying to enjoy every minute. I will too.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


The rain subsides but the clouds remain.  Not an ideal environment for my psyche.  I need sun.  Can't sleep well yet.  Must be the change, the jet lag, whatever...

I take a walk to withdraw some Euros from the ATM.  Streets are narrow in this corner of Athens.  Crowded with cars, motorcycles, I can hardly walk by.  Shop signs scream SALE, EVERYTHING 20% OFF.  Many shops vacant, empty, dusty.  Signs of trouble are evident.  I find an ATM near a spot where African men sell bags and purses on the sidewalk.  Cafes filled with men and women smoking (smoking has been banned for a few years) and drinking coffee this Saturday morning.  I make way back home without much dillydallying lest my mother worry I am lost.

Noisy.  I can hear people talking in the apartments across the street, next door.  Motorcycles, dogs, trucks selling or buying with megaphones.  It's a miracle anyone sleeps here.  A woman's plaintive cries from next door upsets me but my mother assures me she's ok. 

In the evening I go to a restaurant in Exarhia - a funky neighborhood - with my cousin Katerina.  Rififi is the name of restaurant and I tell the waiter that was the first movie I saw when I was about 5 or 6.  We eat stuffed mushrooms, green salad, feta cheese covered in honey and sesame seeds, drink white wine.  And we talk and talk.  She tells me her woes and dreams.  I offer support and encouragement.  I come home after midnight. 

The hours here are confusing: midday meals are eaten around 1 or 2, afternoon is after 8, and night starts at 10.  Naps are obligatory.  I finally sleep well.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


It was raining when the plane landed in Athens yesterday.  Who knew it rained here!  I knew I should've brought my raincoat.  I was blamed for bringing the rain with me from Chicago, the USofA.  It was raining cats and dogs as a matter of fact but, never mind.  Fortunately Maria and John were waiting for me.  It's always heartening to see friendly faces when you arrive in a strange land.  They drove me to my mother's apartment and left.

It takes me a while to get comfortable and used to a new place (even if I have been here many times before).  The dark cloudy sky didn't help matters.  Weather affects me in a major way.  I need sun!  Warmth.  But, never mind.  I'm here and must adapt. 

Today is Saturday, the second day.  Yesterday's biggest accomplishment was getting the Internet going.  My cousin Katerina bought a USB stick to access the Internet and I spent a couple of hours figuring out how to do it and registering and logging in.  The Greek instructions didn't make matters easier.  But, never mind, I did it and here I am.  In the evening Maria, mom and I went to a nifty cafe called Aerostato.  Noisy, kind of smoky (even though you cannot smoke indoors) but fun nevertheless.  Yelled at each other for a couple of hours about politics, life, art (yelled because it was noisy, not because we were angry).  Drank wine, ate little sausages and cheese.  Came home.  Couldn't fall asleep for a long time even though I was exhausted.  But, never mind.  Here I am this morning.  My first blog from the trenches. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Emergency Poems / Poemas de urgencia
Beatriz Badikian-Gartler

Neither here nor there I stand, one foot
on this side of the border, one on the other. Were
I to have three more feet, I'd easily place them on
three more lands. Neither here nor there, where
am I? And the people say: you are everywhere, multiple,
you are fortunate. But I respond: 'many' carries
the danger of becoming 'none.' Invisible I stand.

                I am Latina and an immigrant: born in Argentina and reared there by immigrant parents: Greek mother, Armenian father. From the moment I arrived in the United States at the age of nineteen, I have had to deal with the same questions day in and day out: "What do you feel more, Greek or Argentine?" "You're not really Latina, are you?" "What kind of name is Badikian? It doesn't sound Hispanic." "Argentines are not really Hispanic; they're very European, aren't they?" I have been forced to choose between nationalities, forced to explain the apparent contradictions of my background, and, when I have answered naturally that I'm Argentine, I have had to defend this self-definition. My explanation: my identity was formed in a Latin American country with all its cultural components: language, customs, foods, music, traditions, the small things that are crucial in the development of the larger constructs. My intellectual and cultural formation can be credited to such figures as Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Alfonsina Storni, and Julio Cortázar as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, and Louisa May Alcott, among many others. I danced to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, listened to Mercedes Sosa and Astor Piazzolla, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff. The late sixties was the heyday of civil rights and peace movements, revolutions and flower power, and Argentina was no exception to those worldwide events.  

                I remember October 1968, the one-year anniversary of the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, my last year in high school. That afternoon my classmates and I staged a pegada: surreptitiously affixing small stickers on desks, walls, and toilet stalls, celebrating his life and mourning his death: a courageous act given the military dictatorship had just been installed a year earlier. After about an hour, when the administrators found the stickers, they immediately stopped all classes and gathered the entire school in the yard. The principal demanded that those responsible step forward. We stood for a long time in silence. No one moved. Finally, they gave up and sent us all home for the day. Everyone knew who had done the audacious deed but no one said anything. We were a bold and radical group of girls. I learned from them how to stand up to injustice, how to take a risk for the benefit of society, how to defy authority when that authority is oppressive .

                I am also a poet. I have always been a poet and always will be. Over the years I have heard the same question: why write? Why poetry? Mining my memory for the answers I return to the beginning: to those high school years and beyond. 
      1968: For the last five years I have been keeping a journal. Since I cannot afford to buy all the books I would like to own, I borrow them from friends and libraries and copy down my favorite poems in the notebook. Then I illustrate its margins with drawings of peace signs and flowers, and photographs from newspapers and magazines depicting hippies, anti-war demonstrations, race riots, and rock concerts. When I am lonely or bored I read these poems out loud in my room in front of the mirror. Such a simple pleasure! And when I eventually write my own poems, these other verses flood my mind and spill themselves in bits and pieces on the paper.  
          I am going to Academias Pitman to learn how to type. It is December, summer in Buenos Aires and I have just graduated from high school. At this point, my mother believes it will be useful to know typing. "You can always be a secretary if you can't get into college," she says, enrolling me in a three-month class to learn "the blind method."

                Academias Pitman is a secretarial school where young women learn shorthand, bookkeeping, typing, and other useful skills. On the first day of class we are given a handbook with instructions and told to take our seats at a long wooden table where manual typewriters are placed every few feet. Eventually I come to enjoy being in this big room where, surrounded by other young women, I learn how to type on big, bulky machines, black and silver, with keys that stand high. I type each letter for several pages before going on to the next one. The "a"s and "z"s and "q"s make the little finger on my left hand hurt. But I persevere. 

                After a few weeks father brings home a used typewriter for me to practice on. When 1969 rolls around I write my first poem on the typewriter: "Poema No. 1."

                I am sitting at the kitchen table, next to a long wall of windows, typing. It is very hot in that room because the sun shines in all day and air conditioners are a foreign luxury. I am so focused on what I'm doing however, that I barely feel the heat. In this way I spend my summer afternoons practicing typing and writing poems. After "Poema No. 1" comes "Poema No. 2," then "Poema No. 3," and so on. I keep the poems in a manila folder, certain that no one will ever read them. They are one page in length, as long as the sheets of paper I have: my self-imposed limit. They describe the world around me, my house, my neighbors, but mostly, how I feel and what I want out of life. At eighteen everything should be possible yet my poems speak of loneliness, alienation, an existential sadness difficult to explain. They also speak about flowers and trees, the stars and the moon, music, and love, and about other poems. 

                In the warm kitchen my fingers press down hard on the typewriter keys while Mother sits outside, on the stoop, with the neighbors, trying to catch a cool breeze. Father is not at home. Most days he comes late in the evening and leaves early in the morning. On the rare occasions when he is home, he sits in the bedroom watching television, the oscillating fan murmuring noisily. He doesn't like to mingle with our neighbors and their chatty gossip. My poems include everybody: Father's moods, Mother's complaints, the neighbors' funny ways. I fancy myself a chronicler of this place and this time: the end of 1968, the beginning of 1969, Buenos Aires, the world. 

           It is March, 1969. Typing class has ended. It is time to find a job. "College can wait," mother says. In the mornings I fill out applications, take typing tests, and go to interviews. In the afternoons I come home, to the kitchen no longer unbearably warm, and write poems until suppertime. Less than a year later we leave Buenos Aires. Against my own wishes I have to follow my parents to the United States, put on hold my plans to attend college and study philosophy and literature. "We'll work hard for a few years, save our money, and then return," father promises. 
        1970: Shortly after arriving in Chicago I go to work at Western Electric as a wiring technician. Fresh out of high school in Buenos Aires, working in a factory on the southwest side of Chicago was the last thing I ever expected to be doing at nineteen years of age. I'm supposed to be attending the University of Buenos Aires and studying literature and philosophy. Instead I spend eight hours a day, five days a week, inside a gigantic warehouse where the only natural light barely squeezes through small, square windows near the ceiling. Holding a wiring gun all day and firing tiny coils into the insides of telephones in that vast, dark place is not the life I have imagined for myself, the life of the poet, the life of the student and scholar. That life seems so far away at this moment. And it seems impossible to attain. Ever. 

        It takes me almost ten years to gather the courage to say to myself and to my parents that I don't want to work full time anymore, that I want to go to college. I enter the University of Illinois at Chicago in the winter quarter of 1977. Life is beginning to change.
                1979: In June the first issue of La Voz is published at the Centro Cultural Latino Americano Rafael Cintron Ortiz at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The editorial on the first page explains: "it is . . . amazing that the Latino population of this university, having obtained recognition after long struggles and created cultural and study centers, does not possess publications that could allow them to reach other ethnic and Latino [sic] sectors, to express their points of view, problems, plans and objectives." Jorge Gilbert, a Chilean professor, is the center's first coordinator and publisher of La Voz, a typed and mimeographed newsletter that includes articles on Mexican oil, the crisis in Nicaragua, the struggle in Vieques, undocumented workers in the U.S., the Middle East crisis, and many other issues. It also contains poetry by Ernesto Cardenal, Socorro Loza, Nicolas Guillen, and me. 

        From 1979 to 1980 I work at the Latin American Studies Program as a secretary while attending classes at the university. In this way I meet Gilbert, who advocates the creation of a publication. Together and with the assistance of students and other faculty members we publish, first La Voz, and the following year Ecos, a printed Latin American literary journal. The title of the publication is my idea, after the name of a similar publication in my high school in Buenos Aires. This slim volume of twenty-three photocopied, stapled pages is the beginning of several years of publication of this journal that eventually is taken over by Carlos Cumpián and MARCH/Abrazo Press.
        1981: In the fall I make the momentous decision to "become a poet." I decide that writing will be my mission in life, my job, my contribution to the world. I credit the artist Judy Chicago with the impetus for this resolution. 

        Chicago's monumental art work "The Dinner Party" is being exhibited in Chicago. Volunteers are needed to guide people through the maze of artifacts, to talk about the diverse sections of the exhibit, to offer information and to clean up at the end of each day. I join the collective of women (and some men) who work at the exhibit and, in the process, I learn about women's history. I learn so many things I never knew before, things I was never taught in school. Amazed at the beautiful artwork that Judy Chicago and her staff have produced, I decide that I want to do something too. I want to contribute in some way to society, to leave a legacy for the future. But how? I don't know how to throw a pot or to weave. I can't paint very well nor embroider. But I can write. As a matter of fact, I have been writing for over ten years. That's it! I decide to be a writer, a poet, and to take myself seriously. 
        1982: I join a writing workshop led by Sandra Cisneros and Reggie Young. The workshop, called "City Songs," meets every Saturday at Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Milwaukee Avenue and Damen sometime between noon and four in the afternoon. Every week a different guest writer visits us and talks about writing, poetry, publishing, and leaves us a writing assignment to be workshopped the following week. Some of the guest writers are David Hernández, Carlos Cumpián, Salima Rivera, William Bradford, and Sterling Plumpp. The small grant Cisneros and Young received is used to pay a small honorarium to the guest writers and to purchase copies of an anthology of poetry for the students. The workshop ends with two final readings on April 24, one in the afternoon at Ruiz Belvis and another in the evening at Cross Currents. Some of the readers that evening are Sandra Cisneros, Reggie Young, Salima Rivera, Joe Roarty, Margarita Lopez Flores, Gregorio Huerta, Yolanda Santiago, and Lalo Cervantes.

        After the workshop ends some of us keep meeting to work on our writing and to socialize. Also, we're invited to read around the city for diverse groups and causes that need to raise funds: Central American human rights, Latino student groups. In this manner, we form a core group that eventually becomes the group that organizes the Galeria Quique readings and later publishes Emergency Tacos. We often read at a bar in Wicker Park called Get Me High Lounge. These readings are the seed that eventually blossom into the Poetry Slam in Uptown hosted by Marc Smith.

        Galeria Quique or Kiki is a monthly gathering of writers, painters, musicians and the general public in Enrique Cisneros's loft in Printers Row in 1983-84, just as the area is becoming trendy. The first gathering takes place on December 3 with a reading by Cisneros, Cortez, Cumpián, Niño, and me as well as music with guitarist Carlos Cisneros. 
That summer I resign from my full time job as housing counselor and go to work typing, filing, bookkeeping for José González, a visual artist instrumental in the creation and development of the Latino art scene in Chicago, having founded MARCH, the Movimiento Artistico Chicano. In later years, the organization develops into MARCH/Abrazo Press under the direction of Carlos Cumpián, a publishing house that publishes my first chapbook Akewa is a Woman in 1983.
        1987-1994: After seven years I return to the University of Illinois at Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in writing. I read, write, publish. I also teach composition and writing in English. My presence and ability in a language that clearly isn't my native tongue reinforces the principle to the students that you can do it too, no matter how foreign and difficult this language feels right now. Non-native speakers, especially Latino/a students, identify with me, finding a sense of comfort and safety that encourages learning. Native speakers also learn to abandon preconceived notions of foreigners, immigrants, those of us who speak with an accent. When I teach African-American literature, the black students who often make up the majority of the class, if not the entirety, see me as an ally who can speak about these writings with knowledge and affection, who is (in their own words) one of us. As Henry Louis Gates said, it is more important to identify with the other than to single out the other's identity. 
        As my doctoral dissertation I produce a book-length collection of poems: Mapmaker. The collection includes poems in Spanish, old poems, new poems. It is the culmination of twenty years of writing. It includes a prologue poem by Sandra Cisneros. A few years later I reissue this collection with a few new poems: Mapmaker Revisited: New and Selected Poems. This book takes me places. It becomes my signature, my presentation, my identification card. I have achieved a milestone in my writing career. I can legitimately call myself a poet. And I am also a professor now, a doctor in literature. Yet life in Chicago as a Latina does not change that drastically, that quickly.
                1997: I walk into a fancy boutique in my neighborhood to browse. As I see a wallet that interests me, I ask the young female clerk if it comes in other colors. I speak in grammatically-correct English, albeit with an accent that signals me as a non-native. Her response is "sí" (yes). At first I am confused. I expect her to answer me in English and the word see doesn't fit the question. Soon I realize she is speaking to me in Spanish, not to mention loudly. I am immediately uncomfortable, having been singled out in this manner. All eyes in the shop turn to me. When I question her, she claims that she sensed I spoke Spanish. When I wonder if she does that to every customer, she answers, "Sure." I ask to hear it in other tongues but she confesses, "You got me, I lied." As I am paying for my purchase the clerk proclaims that her favorite music is salsa and names half a dozen musical groups I never heard of. I try to change the conversation to the sweet smelling candles on the counter and the beautiful silver clocks in the window but she relentlessly returns to the topic confiding that she has just bought a Julio Iglesias tape. I can't wait to leave, to stop being targeted. On my way out, she notices my feet and says, "They're small: what size are they? Five?" When I respond, "Seven," she can't believe it. As I am walking home I realize that I felt obligated to buy something not to be thought of as cheap or poor. I realize I have internalized her stereotypes, her prejudices. I haven't been able to step into that shop since that incident. 
        1998: I stand in front of the post office window to ask a question. The clerk insists in answering "sí" to all my questions although I ask them in English. Then he wants to know where I am from. When I answer Argentina, his response is "Oh! The land of Crocodile Dundee." I correct him, explaining that Crocodile Dundee is from Australia, not Argentina. As I leave the post office I think: "he is not only prejudiced but also ignorant. What a deadly combination!" This experience drives home the concept that prejudice is a form of ignorance. It is not the lack of knowledge that concerns me here, but the unwillingness to learn and to accept others as they are without emphasizing our differences. 
        2000: During a day-long workshop at a recent academic convention I sit among twenty colleagues, teachers of writing and literature in English. Once more I am the only one with an accent, the only one who did not grow up nor go to school in the U.S. I am perceived as different and told so in subtle ways. My accent draws attention as does my personal writing during the workshop exercises. For a short time I am celebrated and exoticised; then, for the rest of the day, my comments and suggestions are politely ignored. I am invisible once again.
        Forty years later I am still writing poems. Some are longer than one page, some shorter, most of them in English now, poems that speak of this new world I live in: Chicago, the United States, the end of the century. And, although they sound and look different, a certain melancholia still envelops them, a sadness understandable to those familiar with the nostalgia for a home left behind. I realize that writing poems is like having a friend who never leaves you, a friend who is always there when you need her. That is how I started to write and why.