Tag Archives: history

From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!

 

 

 

 

 

Every market tells a story…

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Tomatoes with a story

You’ll remember when I wrote my first dispatch from Kazakhstan I hoped for… “a labyrinth of streets and souks that come to life; exotic scenes, smells and intrigues.” I’m pleased to report that such markets are here in Aktau, at least three. They are lively, authentic and represent certain aspects of Eurasian culture and hospitality. Is a market not a place that tells stories and allows glimpses into cultures? I believe that to be true and so I give you….

Three markets known for their meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, plastic goods, cheap clothes and more.

Markets, where many of the vendors are from other lands. Home is Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan; all those new Republics that were suddenly cut adrift from the Soviet Union, encountering unprecedented challenges in the years since. Some people have struggled, the next generation has found it easier.

“Many poor people,” Samira, my Azeri friend tells me.

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A simple market display

We are at the small Volna Market, stalls and stores just off a busy, main street. When the vendors discover that Samira is from Azerbaijan, she is surrounded.

“Please send greetings back home,” they say wistfully…they are homesick. A lady with striking red lipstick and tidy blond hair wraps smoked fish then puts her hand to her heart.

“I’m from Sakhalin, Russia,” she says, seeming lonely despite the bustle around her. Perhaps like many, she was sent here as a dissident, never finding her way back home.

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The friendly vendor from Azerbaijan

 

 

 

 

Eager for our attention, the vendor across the way gestures to her pyramid of eggs. I gladly buy some; she is ecstatic to have her photo taken, to have chatted with Samira in her native language. She pecks me on the cheek bidding farewell, pressing her jolly self against me for a friendly hug. Of course, being at the market with a ‘local’ is a different experience. Even our taxi driver has refused to leave us, now willingly laden with our purchases. He chuckles alongside the humourous Samira; I chide myself for not having kept up my Russian lessons.

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Warm smiles

On other days at two of the larger markets, my husband and I are mostly made to feel welcome. Tea and dumplings are offered, photos taken, stilted but eager conversation. Always we’re asked, ‘Which country are you from?’

“Ah, Canada good, Ottawa?”…our capital they know. Yet on one occasion, we are thought to be suspicious and we’re followed, told brusquely to put the camera away. I comply until I’ve turned the corner.

We buy produce that journeyed across the country by train, from the fertile region of Kazakhstan. Staples such as apples from Almaty. This mountainous area in the Southern part of the country is the ancestral home of the apple…of all apples on earth, genetecists have recently confirmed.

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‘Azerbaijani pomegranates’ and Almaty apples

Many of the ‘greens’ arrive from across the Caspian, grown by the Azeris, the Georgians. The vegetables are plentiful but one day I’m refused service. I’m too choosy about the tomatoes I am selecting. The vendor shoos me away with a scowl, a holler and a flick of her hand. I’m offended until I ponder, Does her family have memories of the ‘hunger winters?‘ Those that starved; the fate of half of the Kazakh population in the winters of 1931-33…Stalin’s forced collectivization. I regret being picky about which tomatoes I was piling into my bag. Perhaps everyone should take some over-ripe and some firm, just thankful that there is food.

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The essential sheep’s head

Meat is ample and readily available as Kazakh culture dictates.

Here, they opine that chicken is merely a vegetable; sheep, beef and horse reign. Vital to any celebration, or dastarkhan, a sheep’s head is displayed and served first to the honoured guest. Then carved bit by bit; a piece of ear given to children, to be careful, to listen well. A smidgen of tongue to become more expressive. The eyes are delicacies, to seek wisdom. The brain, the best bit of all.

The dastarkhan still heeds the ancient ritual of showing respect to guests, to the elderly and relations. And ideally, this is accompanied by shots of vodka, with plentiful toasting, usually every five minutes or so. The most senior starts it off and it goes from there. I have experienced this custom often…a toast, a shot (I forego the vodka), a toast, a shot…the third toast always salutes the ladies. I shall miss this tradition, as it poignantly imbues festivities with meaning and respect. Between the vodka, ample food, speeches and dancing if possible, a Kazakh celebration is not to be missed. But more of the ever present meat…

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Bit by bit…

Besbarmak is boiled meat served in large hunks. Shashlik is marinated meat on a stick, often eaten at roadside cafes. Ulpershek is a dish made from the heart, aorta, and fat of a horse. Prepared in a kettle, it’s often shared between sisters-in-law as a sign of unity. Kazy is a sausage eaten in the spring when a cow has a new calf, sometimes served with rice. Mypalau is a dish made from sheep’s brain. Put the brain in a wooden bowl, add marrow, pieces of meat, salted fat in broth and garlic. On and on, go the meat recipes.

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‘Fresh Meat’

Kazakh culture dictates that bread is never wasted. Furthermore, Kazakh hospitality demands that one must not leave a house without ‘at least having eaten a crumb.’

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The ‘Naan’ baker

One doesn’t actually see much bread at these markets, but we peek into a naan bakery. The scent of fresh baking from the tandoor enticing us to enter. The baker poses proudly while I openly covet his old, weighty scale.

In our market visits, I had been intrigued by white, stone-like pieces that are displayed amongst spices, pulses and grains. Imprinted with knuckle-marks, they have a haunting story to tell.

In the desolate and remote Kazakh hinterland, once stood the gulag, the network of Soviet era concentration camps. The harsh weather and the impossible distances made escape futile. One such gulag, Alzhir, was solely for women and children. Their only ‘crime’; being, a wife, mother, or child of a man convicted of ‘betrayal of the motherland.’

Local villagers, risking their own lives, secretly tried to ease the prisoners’ hunger by throwing ‘stones’ at them. The guards delighted in this…’even your own kind throw stones at you!’ But the ‘rocks’ were actually hand formed, dessicated pieces of cheese curd, kurt. To this day, they are reminders of the repugnant man-made hells and of thousands of lost, innocent lives.

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Kurt on display

When I see kurt in the markets, I am reminded of my Dutch grandmother’s own wartime experiences. She would tell us sternly, yet lovingly, that ‘alles moet op’…you must eat everything on your plate.

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Knitted socks…from women prisoners

On a chilly day a few months ago, it wasn’t food that I bought at the market, but something to warm me. Two things in fact, both reminding of my stoic grandmother. First, a cozy pair of knitted socks, crafted by women prisoners…from dog hair. I remember my grandmother often knitting or crocheting. Through her life she also embodied resourcefulness; drawing from her frugal upbringing, from raising children during the Second World War, to the harsh realities of being new immigrants in Canada.

Across the alley, a welcoming lady nods to her wares; she has crocheted slippers. They are just as my grandmother had made for me. I remember choosing the colour of Phentex I wanted; they are long since frayed and worn.

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‘My grandmother’s slippers’

 

I take my time deciding on a pair, thinking of Margje, knowing she’d be amused at finding ‘her slippers’ in such a faraway place. And the story of the kurt would have resonated with her, having suffered through her own ‘hunger winters.’ I think of her, and of all the ladies whose own trials are etched on their faces. I can’t hear all of their stories, but I can look into their eyes with sincerity and a smile…I can make contact. There is no language barrier to that.

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New friends from Uzbekistan, after tea and dumplings

 

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A mishmash of goods

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A rainbow of plastic

 

 

A lovely Kazakh bride and her ‘prince of the hearth’…

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The lovely bride, Rysgul at her ‘first’ wedding

I first met Rysgul at our hotel where she works in sales.  It was a fleeting moment and our paths didn’t cross again until a recent cocktail evening. I was immediately struck by her warmth and we chatted easily.  When I asked what her name meant, Rysgul replied “It means ‘kind flower.” Her name suits her perfectly; she has a modest grace and classic Kazakh beauty, embodied in dark enchanting eyes and glossy black hair.

“I’m a newlywed,’ she happily announced early into our conversation.  After congratulating her, I steeled myself to ask the question, curiosity getting the better of me. “Did you marry a ‘prince of the hearth?’ “I did,” Rysgul beamed, “so yes, I now live with my husband and his parents.’ I was referring to the Kazakh tradition of the youngest son taking the role of…’prince of the hearth.’  It is his duty to live with and care for his parents.  When one marries ‘the prince’, custom dictates that the bride moves to his childhood home.  This new extended family isn’t for a month or a year; it’s a life long commitment. Rysgul explained that she was raised to respect this tradition and is proud, as is her family, that she’s now in this role.  When I ventured that this would be considered unusual in many Western cultures, she did not waver or appear to desire it any other way.

Rysgul is a modern woman, yet committed to traditions that bind this area of Kazakhstan together, more so than other parts of the country. “I’d love to hear more about your culture,” I said, ‘and of course your wedding.  I’m also curious about your striking wedding jackets and the unique hats you wear.’ Having noticed countless weddings at the hotel, the premier venue in the city, the questions were already forming in my mind. “Yes the kamzol and saukele, we could do an interview if you’d like?” Rsygul responded graciously. What followed the next day was a delightful two-hour conversation and an outing to the award winning showroom, Nur Shah.  It was an unexpected insight into the journey of a modern day bride, one that is still very much layered with tradition.

 Where did you meet your husband Rysgul, how long were you engaged?   We met in a nightclub; neither of us were particularly in the mood to be there.  We dated for about four years, but once you get engaged here it all happens quickly.  In Kazakh tradition, a group from the boy’s family visits his girlfriend’s parents, they sip tea and eventually ask for her hand in marriage. A female relative of the hopeful groom adorns the girl with golden earrings. This means the girl is now taken, engaged. My fiancé offered a diamond ring as well.  A day was agreed upon and it was official. Typically, an engagement is only 2-3 months.

Is anything given to the groom’s family? Yes, depending on the status of the family, some money is given.  It’s like a dowry to compensate for what the groom’s side has spent on new furniture, houseware, bedding items and carpets. There was once the tradition of giving 47 head of cattle for a bride.  This has transformed into presenting a korzhun, a traditional bag with 47 various gifts inside. The bags are decorated with coins, rings and bead necklaces. They are passed down within the family. There are two wedding ceremonies, the first is for me as a send off, which was here at the hotel.  All of my friends were here and my husband’s siblings.

Is that when you wear the beautiful kamzol and the saukele? Yes, the traditional part of the wedding is when I wore the national dress or kamzol.  I felt like a princess.  The silver jewellery is also important, kind of good luck charms.  That’s also when my braids were displayed.

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The traditional image with braids displayed

Tell me about that, the knee-length hair that many young Kazakh women have. It is the custom, if possible, to grow our hair to this length at least until we get married.  It’s considered very feminine and beautiful. Yet when we do reveal it, we should off-set it with big bows or even bells, so as to not appear vain.

Will you cut your hair now that you’re married?  I might, maybe, but my husband doesn’t want me to, it’s well… (Rysgul chuckled coyly as her words tailed off)

I’m sure it looks stunning, to say the least.  Is it shown at home? Only to my husband.  When I get home, my outer image changes. I go into my room and change into a caftan type dress, a white kimishek* covers my hair and we always cover our feet.  It’s then time to cook the evening meal which I do gladly.  My mother in-law will get started if I’m delayed.

So your ‘first wedding’ is traditional.  Is it after this you begin life in your new home? Yes, there was a ceremony after the wedding party, we entered the home to singing and dancing. It’s the custom that my new sisters in-law put a kimishek on my head as I kneel down.  A fabric threshold hangs behind us which is white, but a woven red fabric is then draped over that, symbolizing the new marriage. This ‘artifact’ hangs in the home until I become pregnant.  That evening there was also a dombra player who offered marital advice through music and prose.

It sounds lovely, and the second wedding?

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A bride in the hotel lobby

That was the next day, Western style, when I wore a white gown that I designed.  That wedding was in my hometown.  I’m not from Aktau, but my husband is from this area – from the Adai clan.  They’re more traditional, from the Mangistau area and very respected.  We try to marry from neighbouring clans, but you must prove that your family lines are separated by seven generations.  (I remember reading that it has always been shameful not to know your family lineage that far back. It dates back to the days of Genghis Khan and when they were recited in verse.)

Is there a ceremony at the mosque?  Did you have a honeymoon?  Was it difficult, adjusting to joining his family home? The blessing at the mosque can be done beforehand. No, we don’t have a honeymoon and for me it was quite natural to make the change.  Every morning I greet my in-laws with a type of curtsy and a cupped hand gesture, as tradition calls for. (I had noticed this Sufi symbol of a blessing depicted in an ancient mosque and often see references to it.)  But I’m able to be independent and still work, however some brides that are younger may be required to stay in the home.  The foundation of our culture is respect for elders, this is ingrained in our tradition.

Your family must miss you Rysgul? Yes, but I see them often and soon it is the three month mark.  They will come to my new home for the final ceremony and bring my dishes and household goods that I’ve collected.  Also, my in-laws will give a present to my mother, an acknowledgement that their daughter is now with a new family.

Is there one special present or does if vary? Well, it depends on social status but in our case, it will be a fur coat.

Gosh how lovely. Is that the reason so many women here wear fur coats?  I’ve never seen so many gorgeous furs. Yes, it’s one reason and by that time in life, having a fur conveys a certain status.

Very interesting.  Tell me, is there any chance that having gold teeth was once a status symbol? (I allude to the many men and women here in their 50’s or older that have golden teeth. They’re often conscious that this is no longer ‘in fashion’ and hide their smiles.) Yes, exactly, that’s what it was.  People melted down their jewellery to have it converted to gold teeth.

Do you plan to have children? But of course and as you know, we are fortunate as the grandparents help raise their grandchildren. We don’t have to worry about child care.

One last question. How does your society react when a Kazakh woman marries a foreigner?

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Kazakh tradition in every stitch

My parents would have been heartbroken, probably wouldn’t have allowed it in some way, but I do know a few friends that have.  They love their husbands and lead a different life.  But to a certain extent, they’ve walked away from our proud culture; I could never have done that.

 

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The lovely Nurbibi indulges me

Late the next afternoon, as promised, Rysgul is waiting, ready for our rendezvous.  She directs the hotel driver to Nur Shah, the acclaimed showroom. As we make our way in the rush hour traffic, I’m told that we’re going to the preferred place in which to buy kamzols for a ‘first wedding’ or for celebrations.  The showroom began as a small home business, but the exquisite designs have now become status symbols.

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A short kamzol in black

When we arrive at the nondescript building, its drabness surprises me.  It offers no hint of the sumptuous atmosphere inside. “It’s our custom when you enter a place for the first time, that one should make a wish.” Rysgul tells me as she holds the door for me to step inside.  A massive chandelier hangs in the centre of the room, illuminating a large Persian carpet on the marbled floor.  My eye is immediately drawn to the array of exquisite kamzols and elegant dresses. They’re resplendent with glittering stones, jewels and intricate design work that intertwine symbols of swans necks, flowers, even the horns of mouflon sheep.  Here, a woman’s beauty is compared to the graceful curves of a swan and as they mate for life, their likeness is the inspiration for the ever present motif.  Stitching on garments and hats also echoes the past, but Nur Shah has expertly incorporated an intriguing modern flair.  I can well imagine the excitement a bride to-be must feel as she enters this feast of wedding indulgences.

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With my gracious hosts

Nurbibi, the lovely assistant, kindly allows me to try on a number of Kamzols.  They feel elegant and sensual. I sense the tradition the garment embodies.   Much as I admire the saukeles, the pointed hats perch on the upper shelves, suggesting they are too valuable to try on.  The bejewelled ones are breathtaking and if you’re fortunate enough to have been married in one, you will proudly display it in your home.  Typically, fabric saukeles either have a fur-like plumage or the more expensive ones feature owl feathers.

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Elegance and tradition

The saukele fascinates me.  I’ve read that tribes called “tigrahauda” (wearing pointed hats) once occupied vast territories of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan.  In the 1970’s, Kazakh archeologists found an undisturbed burial place of a Saka chief from the 5th century BC.  His clothes were covered with golden plates and he wore a tall ‘golden headdress.’  Similarly, something akin to the present day Kazakh saukele is depicted on two ancient golden belt buckles.  Both men and women wore this tall, pointed headgear.

Almost two and a half thousand years separate these treasures, yet the Kazakh saukele is still an important element of a wedding ceremony. I ask Nurbibi how long a bride normally takes to choose an ensemble.  Rysgul translates to me that it can take as long as a year, but usually a month. “Yes indeed, how would you ever decide!” I say.  “Will you please give my sincere thanks to Nurbibi for allowing me this opportunity, it’s been a pleasure.” When this is translated, Nurbibi returns the sentiment, a warm smile on her enchanting face.  The subtle elegance of these ladies is in perfect harmony with the luxurious items that adorn the showroom…evocative in their modest, yet beguiling beauty.

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An old depiction of a Kazakh marriage.

As we bid farewell and step back outside into dusk, Rysgul asks me if I had made a wish when we entered. “Yes I certainly did,” I assure her with a smile.  And indeed I had.  I wished this lovely new bride every happiness there is, with perhaps a newborn ‘prince of the hearth’ and a little ‘princess’ as well.

 

* The kimishek is the traditional white scarf that a married woman wears in the home and elderly women in public. They are often embellished with decoration. Once banned when Kazakhstan was under Soviet rule, the Kazakhs have embraced them again since regaining independence in 1991.

Paris, part one…iron and beauty

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On a recent trip to Paris I happened to become a little obsessed.  It wasn’t with the expected landmarks, the chic cafes, or even with the delicate mille-feuille pastries that I enjoyed daily (well just a slight obession with those.)

The graceful , timeless art form of iron

The graceful , timeless art form of iron

No, there’s an element to the city that can possibly be overlooked unless we narrow our gaze and ask; what is it that makes Paris so striking…so beautiful.

And, it’s everywhere.  Winding and curving in the decorative balconies, stairways and lamp posts. Inhabiting charming doorways, gates and the fanciful Metro signs and entrances.

Not to mention, that the iconic Eiffel Tower is also abundant with the material. It stamps its romantic signature on the city; simply, it’s iron.

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Intricate iron carvings ‘inhabiting’ a wooden door

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A flourish of iron protects a Parisian cafe

For me, history and architecture are inextricably linked, especially in the case of Paris.  The iron structure that is the Eiffel Tower would not loom over the city, if… The Metro signs that ‘play’ with iron and grace the streets of Paris would not stand if… if the city had not hosted the International Exposition in 1889.   Up until that period, iron had been a coarse, hard material used as far back as 1500 BC for weapons and tools.  After the Middle Ages, it began to appear in doors and windows for protection from raiders and marauders.  Moving forward, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the ‘village smithy’ was a staple of every town. In fact ‘Smith’ is from the German meaning “skilled worker,” which concurs with the high status they enjoyed at the time, a town couldn’t ‘move’ without them.  From the 1500’s onwards, iron became sophisticated and decorative which leads us to Paris in the late 19th century.

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The tower that Eiffel built. All 18,000 iron bars of it and 2.5 million rivets!

As a city hosting the International Exposition, an iconic landmark was needed for the occasion and a design competition was launched.  Gustave Eiffel was awarded the commission and proceeded to design the iron lattice tower for the entrance of the Expo, all 18,000 iron bars of it! It was fiercely maligned by leading artists and intellects of the time.  They loathed it and pointed out that it didn’t do anything; it wasn’t a palace, a burial chamber, or a place of worship.  Eiffel himself had to admit that he mostly wanted to build it for the pleasure and notoriety, even footing 80% of the cost.*  A petition submitted by three hundred leading artists and intellects of the time ensued with the plea, “We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigour and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower!” Understandably,  it must have been an abomination as it towered over majestic landmarks such as the Pantheon and Notre Dame Cathedral which had dominated the skyline since the 1160’s.

Madame Liberty on display at the World Fair

A part of Madame Liberty on display at the World Fair

But alas, despite the outcry, the massive edifice was constructed with record speed. Eiffel had already established himself as a prolific engineer and his resume included the design and construction of the Statue of Liberty (a gift from France), among countless other projects.  The Parisians would eventually warm to the Eiffel Tower, as would the world, which still does to this day.  More than a century later, all that iron and its millions of twinkling lights is the most visited, paid monument in the world.  C’est magnifique!  Monsieur Eiffel would be proud indeed.

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Iron leaves wrap themselves around the one hundred year old sign

To prepare for the record number of visitors that would soon descend upon Paris for the Exhibition, a maze of underground transportation was planned by the Paris Subway (Métropolitain) Station.  We know it today as the Metro. The Parisian architect and designer Hector Guimard won the commission to not only mark the entrees and sorties to the new Metro, but to positively portray this new mode of transportation to the city folk.   And once again, the Parisians were not amused.

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A stately Metro sign along the Champs Elysees

Initially, they were opposed to the gaping holes in their boulevards that descended to the dark, maze of tracks below.  And they most definitely didn’t appreciate the new Art Nouveau style of the Metro entrances and signs, iron twisting as if to impersonate vines or flowers.  The style was now ‘in vogue’, drawing inspiration from nature and natural forms.  Plant vitality interpreted in abrstract-linear lines. There were also complaints that the freestyle font used in ‘Metropolitian’ was difficult to read.  Guimard certainly would have been offended as it was reportedly his own script that he had used for the ‘flourishing sign’.  How could they have known that eventually there would be people like me that would stand before it and deem it so pleasing, so original.  A pleasant contrast to the stone structures that dominate the Paris landscape.

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The Iconic Metropolitain sign (deemed difficult to read) held between two oracle lamp posts that portray plant stems. Moulin Rouge is in the background.

I can happily declare that on this trip, I mostly mastered the extensive labyrinth of stations, lines and routes that is the Paris Metro.  Along the way, I  adored the Metro signs as I flitted from one stop to the next. From Montmarte to the Seine, from St. Germain to Le Defence, stopping to photograph them as the Parisians rushed past on their daily commutes.  I had time.  Time to appreciate their elaborate designs, fluid despite the iron they’re wrought with.  Whimsical, yet sturdy and reassuring.  They made me smile, and they just so happen to direct more than 4.2 million passengers daily to their destinations. Paris wouldn’t be the same without them.

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A delightful, decorative iron design on a Parisian balcony

And what of those two artisans that elevated iron to a higher level,  Eiffel and Guimard.  We know they left lasting legacies to the city of Paris, but what of their fate?  Eiffel had an illustrious career, eventually making significant contributions in aerodynamics and meterology. He died happily, listening to Beethoven in his lovely Paris mansion.

Guimard however, did not fare as well. He and his Jewish wife fled to New York before the Second World War, perhaps never to again have the pleasure of strolling past his designs that grace many Paris boulevards.  He died in obscurity in New York.

Fortunately, the work of these creative men continue to delight visitors to the ‘city of light’.  Let’s also spare a thought for the unsung heroes that worked in countless foundries, transforming iron into art that adorns a city which one cannot help, but to fall in love with. C’est Paris!

* Bill Bryson sums it up in his entertaining and informative, non fiction book ‘At Home, A Short History of Private Life‘… “Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent and gloriously pointless all at the same time.”

*The Universal Exposition of 1889 was visited by some 28 million visitors. Considering many of them would have travelled by vessels across the ocean, it’s a staggering number.  Attractions included, unbelievably, a ‘Human Zoo’.  I had not realized this had existed.   Also, the Wild West Show was at the Expo, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley lassoing their way to notoriety.