Bella Italia & The Gift of a Renaissance Outlook

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“I am still learning.” Michelangelo, age 87.

We travel for many reasons — adventure and renewal among them.  Most often the real gift is a change of perspective which I received on a recent two-week tour of Northern Italy with my mother, Milly Hubler, a retired Spanish teacher who has traveled extensively. In many ways her identity has been defined by the places she has visited.   Travel is important for those who have the health and resources to do so, especially for those who are older. The stimulation and connection to the wider world that travel provides is a sustaining and reinvigorating experience for those who have the energy and enthusiasm for exploration and learning about other cultures.

Marian Hubler, with Milly Hubler by a fountain in Rome

Having a good tour leader also makes all the difference as we did with Luigi Arveda, on our recent fall trip with Grand Circle Travel to Tuscany, The Italian Riviera and The Alps.   In addition to being thoughtful and attentive to all the details, his philosophical bent and sense of humor added greatly to the enjoyment of our time in Italy.  Not only did he lead us to so many places, but he always encouraged us to look and to make our own discoveries.  “It’s time now,” he always said, “for a Kodak moment.”

We began our journey in Rome.  I found it hopelessly tantalizing to be there for all of 24-hours so recommend getting there a few days early to recover from jet lag and to explore this great capital of the world.   After arriving and checking in to the Hotel Victoria, we took a whirlwind city tour and from the top deck of the open bus felt like drunken sailors on a spree snapping photos of over eighty major sites.  Truly astonishing to see the many architectural and cultural landmarks so thoroughly integrated into this bustling modern city — around one corner, Vatican City and around the next, The Roman Coliseum.

Rome is ever evolving with so many things of enduring beauty created out of the ruins of a different time with its storied past.  Walking through the Piazza della Repubblica on our way back, we stopped to visit the first of many astoundingly beautiful cathedrals, the Church of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs.  One enters through the ancient Roman wall into what was once the great central hall of the baths transformed in the 16th century into a church designed by Michelangelo.

As we walked around the church I noticed many of the women were wearing these transparent butterfly scarves.  My curiosity was immediately engaged as the butterfly as a symbol of transformation has appeared in different forms in so many of my life’s journeys.   I wondered was I merely experiencing a new Italian style trend?  So I stopped to ask two young Italian girls who were wearing the scarves.  They told me simply that a man at the entrance was handing them out to cover the bare legs and shoulders of the women in a respectful manner so they could enter the church.  An elegant and practical solution to a timeless problem, the sight of so many colorful butterflies in this beautiful cathedral seemed like a positive omen to me.

I quickly learned that the fusion of style and practicality is part of the uniquely Italian approach to life.   I noticed so many young attractive girls in Rome, fashionably dressed with high heels driving Vespas, the ubiquitous Italian motorcycle, with their long hair trailing in the wind.  All over Italy we would see parking lots full of vespas next to the beautiful churches and historic landmarks.

A sea of Vespas in the port city of Genoa

Soon we were on our way to Florence, leaving our hotel just inside the old Roman walls near the Villa Borghese.  I would like to return someday to walk in Rome’s Central Park a stone’s throw away with its beautiful gardens and tall cypress trees surrounding a sumptuous art gallery in a cardinal’s mansion complete with Etruscan Museum.  I did not need to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to know that I would someday like to come back to Rome to explore…  All the main roads in Italy really do lead into Rome as we discovered as we headed out on the Via Campania through beautiful high-walled neighborhoods into the Roman countryside along the Tiber river valley heading north to the region of Umbria and then Tuscany. The Italians have a reputation for being “creative drivers,” as Luigi would say, although a recent points system for traffic violations has done much to keep people calm on the highways.

The door to the ladies bathroom at the Hotel Victoria in Rome

We stopped at Orvieto, a beautiful medieval hillside town just off the highway in Tuscany.  A short ride on a funicular and a shuttle bus took us into the main piazza where the imposing Cathedral Duomo’s towering facade set the tone.  In the old town, beautiful shops selling brightly painted local ceramics lined the streets, now largely pedestrian walkways.  We had a panini for lunch, buying a made-to-order sandwich of fresh mozzarella and tomato to eat and enjoyed it Italian style while wandering and window shopping. Afterwards we tasted the local olive oil from a family-run business savoring its fresh flavor and peppery sharpness.

A ceramics shop in Orvieto 

I bought a little cutting board made from the local olive wood and a mezzaluna, a special Italian kitchen dicer in the shape of a half-moon with a curved blade. Now when I chop parsley or garlic, I will think of Italy and remember that It is all about essence, particularly in relation to food.    I was surprised to find that even in the Autogrill in the middle of the highways where we stopped on our longer traveling days, one would find chefs making custom dishes like risotto to order — their fast food made from scratch right in front of us and replenished frequently.

Medieval towers in the hill town of San Gimignano

In the center of San Gimignano another enchanting medieval town with fourteen towers, we enjoyed gelato made by an Italian world cup soccer star in the most enticing of deep and unusual flavors.  I tried saffron and vin santo gelati, which had the flavor of the sweet dessert “holy wine”.   I also learned that the pasta that looks like a bow-tie, in Italy is called farfalle, meaning butterfly wings.

In Florence at the modern Hotel Londra, we stayed a short walk from all the historic and architectural treasures.   Our local guide Simone Giovannoni gave a lecture on the art of the renaissance.     He told us how during the 1400s the merchants, wealthy through trade, became the bankers of the larger Italian city-states like Florence and Siena.  They began to compete with each other to see who could build the most beautiful churches and make the most inspiring art particularly in the realms of architecture, painting and sculpture.   The ruins of ancient Rome, still very much visible throughout Italy, have continuously reminded all who live or visit of their glorious past. The artistic renaissance that flowered during this time was a kind of rebirth of the beauty of the earlier classical forms.

The view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Galleria Uffizzi

The next day we had much to think about when we saw Michelangelo’s famous statue of David and his powerfully unfinished Prisoners at the Accademia Museum in Florence.   One could see all the emotions the young David was experiencing as he readied himself to kill Goliath — his determination and focus masterfully sculpted into the marble, as he readied his sling and shifted his weight preparing to fire his shot.

Michelangelo’s David

A copy of David in the Piazzo Vecchio in Florence near the Uffizi

As we walked the streets of Florence, we joined the throngs of people marveling at all its architectural wonders.  At the Uffizi Gallery, we looked in reverence at the paintings particularly Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, an image that resonates with me, for as a woman I seem to be ever continuing to come into my own.

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

I also loved Fiorentino’s Musician Angel and its sweetness. In the painting, a young angel with curly hair cradles at close hand a lute-like instrument with a dedication to playing…

Musician Angel by Fiorentino

Ever conscious of these extraordinary accomplishments, I think of our own American culture and how we could benefit from more of a Renaissance outlook. I wonder how we can evolve into a culture that shapes everything we create in its most glorious possible form?

There seems to be a symmetry of beauty throughout Italy.  Particularly in the Tuscan countryside where all is harmonious and the loveliness of the landscape cannot be over-described.  I felt a deep pull to go back to Tuscany to stay in one place for awhile and to get to know its people.  The glorious Tuscan light shines through the grapevines and olive trees which appear to be planted in perfect rows on hillsides among the earth-based colors of the Tuscan farmhouses and agriturismos where guests may stay. With not a billboard or piece of litter to be seen anywhere, our advertising images in the United States seem to be a curious anomaly in comparison.

The Italians also seem to know how to express their appreciation to others.  We experienced this directly on a visit to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, one of the highlights of our time in Tuscany.  The cemetery site was a gift in perpetuity from the government of Italy to the American people for the soldiers who lost their lives during World War II in the Allied campaign liberating Italy. Managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission,  outside the memorial is a beautiful sculpture on a tall pillar The Spirit of Peace bearing olive branches as it hovers over the graves of the fallen soldiers. The beauty of the cemetery is astounding with the symmetry of its headstones, Latin crosses and Stars of David laid out in harmonious relationship to the memorial itself.

The symmetry of headstones at the American Cemetery outside of Florence.

One of the amazing things about visiting another country and learning about another culture is the capacity one receives to sift through one’s family stories about that time in a more focused way. Many people know someone who has fought in the military and after that time have visited the country where they were assigned.  In this case, I am trying to imagine what it must have been like to have fought as an American soldier during WWII.

Lucky Eddie “The Life, Times, and Family of former U.S. Congressman, Edward G. Breen by Edward Focke Breen www.thelocalhistorycompany.com

A cousin, Edward Focke Breen, wrote a memoir about his father “Lucky Eddie” aka Edward G. Breen, a former U.S. Congressman.  He tells stories of all the incredible things that happened to his Dad, then known as Major Breen, when his unit fought in Italy during the war.  Amidst the horrors of battle and all the bombardments, one of the more intriguing stories he told was when the King of Italy Victor Emmanuel III gave his father his war-torn limousine when he could no longer care for it.  The limo was repaired in an Army yard and a big hit with all the men while the unit was in Naples for seven months.  When the unit was ordered to move towards Rome, Eddie Breen was able to leave the limo for the use of his cousin John Ferneding who was arriving in Naples on a Navy ship the next morning.  To John’s utter amazement, Eddie left him not only the limo, but two motorcycle escorts and the use of a villa with a fully stocked wine cellar.

Eddie was one of the lucky ones who survived the war and returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio.   I remember as a child at family picnics, he would line us all up to march in military parade fashion to the appointed barbecue for our hamburgers.

The author at Castello di Oliveto

One of the things I did during our trip was to completely unplug from my iphone, imac, Facebook, watching the news or reading a newspaper. I was surprised that after a few days of wanting to reach for my phone to check emails, that I did not miss the barrage of messages and enjoyed being present to the lovely times we were having.

For it is not every day that one can have dinner with an Italian family in a 600-year-old Tuscan farmhouse where our hostess was a lively little girl who spoke charming English. Or dine in the open air at the 14th century Castello di Oliveto (Castle of the Olive Grove), now used for special events and cooking classes, where our group had a private wine tasting and multi-course candle-lit dinner.  One of Tuscany‘s most beautiful historical residences, I found out that the same King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III had stayed there along with three popes Leone X, Clemente VII and Paolo III.  Before dinner we toured some of the rooms in the castle and saw the bedroom where they slept.

The bed where King Victor Emmanuel III slept

In Italy it seems as if there is always something even more spectacular to see around the next corner.  The hill town of Siena is one of those places that takes your breath away with its medieval charm and the astonishing fact that it is a real city with people who engage in its history in an ongoing way.  We were fortunate to have a local guide, Mariela, who was a member of one of the districts, or neighborhoods within Siena that has a special club “The Contrada of the Forest” that sponsors a horse, rider and a contingent to participate in the pageant for the Palio, a centuries-old bareback race held every summer in the famous Piazza del Campo.

The clubhouse of La Contrada della Selva

The clubhouse of this particular contrada, dating back to the mid-1500′s, was part chapel, historical museum and gallery of the palios (or banners) won through the years. The morning we visited, we saw a Sienese father coaching his sons in the courtyard with the twirling of the flags that was part of their role in the next pageant.

Young Sienese boys practice with flags for the next Palio

Interestingly, Siena was the first city in Europe to banish auto traffic from its main square and one is ever conscious of its history with the colorful fluttering flags of all its neighborhoods and the narrow streets lined with iron rings to tether its horses.  The Palio is held twice a year — July 2 and August 16 — with the contradas of seventeen neighborhoods competing against each other.   The winner receives a palio, or hand-painted banner by a local artist featuring the Virgin Mary.

Some of the beautiful palios won by the contrada over hundreds of years

Before the race, the horse is brought into the chapel of each clubhouse to be blessed by the priest.  A riderless horse or scosso can win the race if it makes it around the course.   During our all too brief time on the Piazza, we saw a wedding party from the Netherlands with a beautiful smiling bride and groom take their first walk across the plaza.  As they made their way out of the church onto the main square, they crossed a parade of vintage cars beginning a road-race throughout Italy, a memorable start to their life as a married couple.

Drivers of vintage cars begin their road race in Siena’s main plaza

on to our road trip to The Italian Riviera.  Though a wondrous thing to see so many sights, I made a silent vow that I’ll return to spend more time in Tuscany someday. On our way to the Cinque Terre, we stopped at the town of Pisa to see its leaning tower.  There we recalled another story told by the late Walter Bayley, the father of Susie Bayley one of my childhood friends from Dayton. Another American soldier in Italy during WWII, he was in a unit that was being fired upon by unknown snipers from the leaning tower of Pisa.   They discussed whether they should bomb the tower, but Walt replied that they could not do that to a national treasure. Instead he asked for volunteers to go after the snipers. A small contingent of brave Americans quietly climbed the 294 stairs, killed their adversaries and stilled the shots from the tower.

The leaning tower of Pisa

On to Santa Margarita in Liguria with its changes in landscape from the rolling countryside of Tuscany to the northern Mediterranean where the mountains and steep cliffs drop dramatically into the sea.  We stayed in the lovely Hotel Tigullio et de Milan not far from the small port where we took a boat ride on our first afternoon to the neighboring town of Portofino.

The Via dell’ Amore (or Path of Love) closed for restoration

We had hoped to hike the famous path the Via dell’Amore the next day.  Our guide Luigi escorted us to the station where we took a train to Vernazza to wander one of the little seaside towns of the Cinque Terre.  While in Vernazza, we found out from our local guide in Genoa that there had been a landslide two hours earlier on the path we’d hoped to take. Four women from Australia were taken to the hospital and the trail was closed.  So we got back on the train and skipped the town of Manarola going instead to Riomaggiore where we contented ourselves with exploring and looking up at the place where the path ended.  Even with the addition of major nets along the hillside above the trail, we learned later on that the trail will be closed for at least a year while they make repairs and decide when it is safe to open again. Will it be my destiny to go back to hike the path another time?

“Love is stronger when ‘two hearts combine’ ” (song lyrics by Robin Laing)

Many of the special places to visit in Italy are UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The towns and hiking trails of the Cinque Terre fall into that category along with many of the medieval hill towns in Tuscany.  Italy, Mexico, France and Spain are at the top of the list with the most UNESCO sites — a compelling reason to visit any of these countries.   We made a side trip to Genoa, the sixth largest city in Italy, to see the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and a replica of his galleon along the waterfront.  On the way in, we passed Lord Byron’s rented villa.  We saw where the city was bombed during the war and how it is still being repaired.

The birthplace of Christopher Columbus in Genoa

We had lunch in a special restaurant in the town of Reche on the way back where we saw a regional focaccia being made in the kitchen by a young chef who was tossing the dough like a very thin pizza, adding small clumps of a very fresh cheese called crescenza, then layering on another crepe-like pancake before sliding it into a large blazingly hot oven where it was served immediately after being taken out — Just the right therapy for an overcast day along the coast of Liguria.

The next day was our transfer to Bolzano, our gateway for exploring the Italian Alps, the south Tyrolean countryside and the Dolomites.   On the way, we stopped in Verona to see Juliet’s balcony.  In the small courtyard jammed with tourists, we learned there is a group of kind Italian women who patiently answer letters that are written to Juliet from all over the world asking for advice in how to find love.  We were told, just address your letter to “Juliet, Verona, Italy” and you will receive an answer.

Juliet’s balcony in Verona

One of the grandest sites in Verona is the ancient Roman coliseum that is still functioning as one of the largest open-air opera houses in the world and has a celebrated two-month opera festival each summer.

The ancient coliseum in Verona, home of a renowned opera festival

At the Hotel Luna Mondschein (moonshine) in Bolzano, we launched the final phase of our adventure in Northern Italy. The south Tyrol area, formerly part of Austria, was ceded to Italy when Austria lost WWI.  Four out of ten residents of this area speak German and the area has an Austrian feeling.  Bolzano has a lovely old town with a Dominican Church where we heard an impromptu organ concert.  We spent one of our days whisked out of town on the cable car to the lovely village of Renon on a near mountainside where we had tea at Hotel Bemelmans where Sigmund Freud celebrated his silver wedding anniversary in 1913.  At dinner at the Wunder Gasthof Restaurant in Ritten, we were serenaded by two young Tyrolean musicians.

Musicians in the South Tyrol play traditional instruments (accordeon and hand-made percussion stick called a diablo or devil’s violin) passed down from generation to generation

At the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology the next morning, we discovered Otzi, the Ice Age man who was found by some German hikers on the Italian/Austrian border in 1991.  When he was excavated out of the glacier with his Bronze Age hatchet nearby, they realized they had found a 5,300 year-old frozen mummy who was almost perfectly preserved with his clothing and tools in excellent condition.

Going up to the Dolomites the next day. we took the cable car from Passo Pordoi to the top of these strangely formed pale mountains of limestone and carbonate.  I looked at the glacier across from us and remarked, that must be Otzi’s bedroom…    At last I thought, a place where someone famous perhaps  “slept” that is not marked as such?! Must return to find the exact spot where he was found which undoubtedly has a sign…

Beyond The Dolomites lies Otzi’s bedroom

Outside the oldest hotel in Innsbruck is a sign, John Glenn was among the last to sleep here, will you be the next?!

The mountainside and ski country leading up to the Dolomites was beautiful and pristine.  We saw hang-gliders among the mountain tops and bungee jumpers from the Europa Bridge in the Brenner Pass outside of Innsbruck.  The ski trails were beautifully designed, some of them winding under the roads so skiers could then pick up lifts on the other side.    On our way up we stopped for a hike around a small exquisitely beautiful mountain lake called Carezza.

The Lake Carezza, home of the enchantress

The legend was that this gem of a mirrored lake is said to be inhabited by a mermaid, enchantress or incantatrix She refused a wizard who was in love with her. In his fury, he threw his rainbow into the lake so now everything is reflected back for all eternity.   This beautiful place is said to have inspired music, art and literature for centuries.  Leading to the lake is a pedestrian tunnel lined with a vertical marimba-like instrument made of the local red fir wood from the Rosengarten Dolomites where it is possible to play a song.  I found out later from Luigi that this wood is prized for the making of very special sounding violins and other instruments.

In Venice before heading out, we made our way to the Hotel Continental  by vaporetto, a large water taxi. We enjoyed a walk around the town watching all the gondoliers on their boats in a kind of open-air theatre entertaining their passengers in the canals. I spotted a few musicians on board some of the gondolas, even an acoustic finger-style guitarist.

An acoustic finger-style guitar player entertains on a gondola

We spent some time in St. Mark’s Square where a chamber orchestra played for the cafe-goers.  The town has a festive feel with its crowds of tourists and canals everywhere.  Our trip to the Venice airport was dramatic as we departed in the dark early morning hours to the dock.  A small water taxi with our luggage perched precariously on the bow took as to the airport as we huddled in the stern waving goodbye to our ever-accommodating guide Luigi who was there to see us off.

Guide Luigi Arveda with Marian Hubler in The Dolomites

After experiencing northern Italy, it is impossible not to fall in love and to want to go back — to see the southern part of the country, to stay longer and get to know every region of this enchanting country.  On Stevie Nicks new CD In Your Dreams, her song Italian Summer talks about falling in love during a rainstorm at the end of an Italian summer… Love is everywhere, You just had to fall…  Her film Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams is a modern renaissance project in and of itself as it gives an inside look at her creative process as well as a road map for the next generation in how to engage in creative collaboration.

Since my return, I have realized a new appreciation for Italian culture of all kinds.  At the recent 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival the film  Italy Love It or Leave It  speaks of Italy’s challenges as a modern country with many of the same problems — corrupt politics, pollution, poverty & unemployment — that are facing nations throughout the world.  Seeing the film-makers’ interviews with people throughout the country who are working to change things for the better gives me hope that Italy can retain its spontaneous essence and charm.

The author with a rhinoceros from the courtyard of the contrada in Siena

I have noticed here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are some modern Renaissance men, as well as women, like the late Warren Hellman, wealthy financier and banjo player who created and endowed a wonderful annual music festival Hardly Strictly Bluegrass held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park each October for three days.  Or the pioneering dancer and movement therapist Anna Halprin, whose Tamalpa Institute trains dance educators from all over the world in her therapeutic life-work process.

I wonder how more people in our contemporary time who excel at doing a number of things well might be inspired by those who lived during the Renaissance to leave a lasting legacy benefiting mankind?

The Gothic cathedral in Siena, home of the beautiful Pinturicchio frescoes in its library

For Future Exploration

Grand Circle Travel has a Grand Circle Foundation: Giving back to the world we travel that supports cultural and humanitarian projects in countries throughout the world where it organizes tours.

Restoration is a beautifully written novel by Olaf Olafsson about the ethical dilemmas of the residents of an Italian villa during WWII as the Allied forces meet the Germans on the front-line in Tuscany…

Text and photos by Marian Hubler, Copyright October 2012  All rights reserved. Images of Birth of Venus, Musician Angel & Lucky Eddie book cover from open source.  For permission to reprint, or to be added to the blog email list, contact the author marian@marianhubler.com

ElaGaia, Greece: Celebrating Arete in Art & Sport

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Greece has been in the news a great deal recently with its precarious financial situation and the European Union on shaky ground.  With a government heavily burdened by debt, massive bank bailouts, austerity measures and rioting in the streets, what can one possibly do to make a difference?

In the heart of ancient Greece on the Peloponnese peninsula, a centuries-old stone farmhouse has been restored in a beautiful valley near Argos, one of the oldest cities in Europe.  About two hours journey from Athens by car, one steps out into the air of the Artemesian mountains surrounded by olive trees.  Adjacent to the house, its threshing circle or aloni, has been transformed into an outdoor stage by gifted stone masons following their centuries-old trade.

Dedicated as a center for cultural exchange by Steve and Dianne de Laet from California, the programs sponsored at their Greek home ElaGaia through their Arete Fund, shine a bright light on places historically important to art and sport in Greece.

ElaGaia, the name of their home, celebrates mother earth in this ancient land that has given birth to so many of our collective myths.   Perseus the Gorgon slayer was said to have lived close by and one can see Agamemnon sleeping in the outline of the mountains near Mycenae.

Greece has always had a strong pull for the deLaets.  They were married at a young age on the neighboring island of Spetses, where they had gone for a year to run a sailboat chartering business.

Dianne de Laet in particular has always felt that Greece was her spiritual homeland. As a child, she loved the stories of the Greek myths.  She ran her first marathon in Greece on the same grueling route first run by a soldier from the ancient town of Marathon.

At the invitation of the Revival of the Nemean Games in 2004, Dianne first performed victory odes for modern athletes running in a re-creation of the ancient race as part of the cultural programming held in collaboration with the Greek Olympics.  At the Nemean stadium, she collaborated with Greek composer and musician Yannis Iordanaglou.  In 2005, she performed with Yannis in his hometown of Argos. It was a fateful trip for there she and her husband found the site with the abandoned farm-house which they have transformed into their home, now also a cultural center and artist’s retreat in Greece.

Dianne is a best-selling author, harpist and poet.  She is also a praise-singer who embodies the spirit of the poets of ancient Greece who sang victory odes to the athletes for their accomplishments.  Her first book is an ode to her father Y.A. Tittle.   “Giants & Heroes:  A Daughter’s Memories of Y.A. Tittle“, does much to celebrate the Greek word for Arete, or “excellence of striving” that her father modeled as a star quarterback for the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.

Proceeds from the book helped establish the nonprofit Arete Fund which gives entry-level college scholarships to seniors who show excellence in either art or sport and need support to reach their educational goals.  The Arete Fund also assists with humanitarian projects and cultural programing in a variety of countries throughout the world.

On June 23-24, 2012, the de Laets have invited their friends and neighbors in the U.S. and Greece for an incredible weekend of art and sport.  The Fifth Nemead , or re-creation of the Olympic games, is now held every four years in the ancient stadium at Nemea under the guidance of U.C. Berkeley Professor Stephen Miller and with the help of many others. Over a thousand athletes from a hundred countries in the world will travel to Greece this year to run the course barefoot and to be crowned in olive branches at the finish line as they were in ancient times.

On the day after the race, the Arete Fund will host a cultural exchange of music and poetry at ElaGaia. Yannis Iordanoglou will play original “earth music” inspired by the Artemesian.  A San Francisco Bay Area dancer, Marie Soderland will present her “Dance of the Mother’s Tears” to highlight the theme of peace that underlies the ancient games.  The Arete Fund hopes all will celebrate shared humanity and  remember those whose lives have been lost in the religious conflicts of our time.  This year’s program will benefit young Afghani women who have had their human rights violated and are in need of support for their education.

I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in the inaugural event at ElaGaia four years ago. I sang along with some musician friends from the San Francisco Bay Area, guitarist Bruce Victor and singer-songwriter/guitarist Stevie Coyle, in an ad hoc group called “The Sirens of San Francisco.”  We performed Americana music in collaboration with guitarist/singer Steve de Laet and Yannis Iordanaglou on the aloni in the evening as part of a cultural presentation that included other artists from California and Greece.

Though sound and lights were powered by generator on the night of our concert, as the music progressed on the aloni we could feel the presence of the dramatic mountain valley in the darkness.  Just as a full moon rose at midnight over the Artemesians behind us, we found ourselves playing Peter Rowan‘s Midnight Moonlight.  “Look, the moon…” said our Greek friends in the outdoor amphitheater, a sign from the universe that somehow we had made a connection.   Later in the evening, our audience serenaded us with their own well-known Greek songs in an emotionally cathartic way. Even though we could not understand the words, we received an idea of the meaning of the songs from the spirited feeling in which they were sung.

Many strong impressions remain, especially from the fellowship that grew out of the wonderful dinners in the outdoor tavernas in the nearby charming Venetian port city of Nauplion where many of us stayed.  At our field trips to various architectural sites in the area, we learned of the importance of music and healing to the ancient Greeks.   At Asklepios, one of the earliest centers of holistic health, we discovered that the musicians were called in to uplift the spirits of the patients for an early palliative treatment before the attending physicians made their rounds. During a side-trip to Epidaurus, we also had the chance to test out the amazing natural acoustics in the ancient amphitheater and to marvel at the way it was designed.

We learned songs that were popular in Greece like the children’s song Kemal that had whimsical English lyrics “In the land of Ali Baba near the sea of Galilee, lives a man who plays a fiddle with a pronoun on his knee.. ” I felt the dramatic sense of emotion in the lyrics to the song Dedication by popular Greek composer Mamos Hadjidakis  (1940-1990) “Feels like I’m getting older, I’m not afraid, although I’m worlds part from yesterday, and yet I can’t believe I’m old enough today, to be in love, and feel in love and see if love is the way… And you can sing, as long as there’s a song…”

To be able to witness an ancient sport through its re-creation and to share cultures through musical exchange is an extraordinary way to experience the Peloponnese.  The ancient Greeks celebrated both art and sport in their communal lives. Someday I hope to have another chance to return to Greece.  As I traveler, I know I will be asked to go beyond my boundaries to find a sense of arete or excellence of spirit.  And in my traveler’s quest to illuminate another culture, my journey will be aligned with the ancient Greeks in a timeless way.

By Marian Hubler — Copyright May 26, 2012 All Rights Reserved

Cultural Journey: For more information about this year’s cultural exchange visit ElaGaia or The Arete Fund.  For more information about the Fifth Nemead, visit the Nemean Games.  Visitors can be based in the beautiful Venetian port city of Nauplion, just 20 minutes away from ElaGaia in the mountain valley outside of Argos.  A week-long guitar immersion music retreat will also be offered by guitarist Rick Vandivier at ElaGaia in May of 2013. Support cultural exchange programs whenever and where-ever you can!

Email marian@marianhubler.com for future blog posts.

 

Remembering Mimi Fariña in Carmel

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On a road trip with friends through the Carmel Valley, I thought of the late Mimi Fariña, singer-songwriter/guitarist and the founder of Bread & Roses, the nonprofit organization where I have worked since 1996 bringing live music to people who are isolated and need it most.  It was Mimi’s personal story and the harmonies within her music-making with her husband,  the late Richard Fariña, that compelled me to understand as well as feel her inextricable connection to the healing power of music. And in a series of related life events, drew me like a clarion call to work as a concert producer for Bread & Roses.

How could I journey to Carmel so many years after she died and not feel all the connections through the fine mists that drifted like ethereal scarves transparently through the valley? On the beach where the Carmel River meets the Pacific Ocean, reflections arose as waves crashed into the sea, waves roaring immensely over the sand bar giving dwindling numbers of salmon and steel-head trout a fighting chance to find their way upstream to spawn.

Carmel River State BeachThe beautiful sands where Mimi may have danced at the Carmel River State Beach

Maybe that is all the time that any of us have — a short window, a defined span, to move ahead, to take the plunge, or not.  As we drove up the valley road, amidst the greenest hills of late winter, I wondered how it was for Mimi when she lived there with Richard Fariña, her husband, her love.  The man with whom she eloped in a fit of rebellion when she was 17 and living with her family in Paris, then came to live with in a little cabin in the Carmel River Valley. There they loved each other, wrote songs and rehearsed their harmonies for their best-selling album Celebrations for a Grey Day.

Mimi and Richard Fariña Album Cover “Celebrations for a Grey Day”

And the story goes that at a surprise party for her 21st birthday, he headed out on the back of a motorcycle taking the twists and turns of the road east to Cachagua, going 90 in a 30 mile-per-hour zone.  He was thrown into a field and the next time she saw him was at the morgue.  I cannot fully imagine the shock and grief she must have felt at that moment but I understand as a result why she dedicated her life to healing.

Near the Carmel Mission was the Thunderbird bookstore where Richard Fariña had his last signing of his novel I’ve Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.  In a photo from that day one can see that Mimi had a strained smile, thinking Richard had forgotten her birthday.  But shortly thereafter, he’d surprised her with a party. And after he died and she returned to their cabin, she found wilted flowers that he had bought along with a new pair of shoes that she’d admired in a shop window.

The man she’d loved at the pinnacle of her young life she put on a inevitable pedestal through all the years of healing work and giving back to others.  There were other men who did their best to love her, often finding an uphill climb.

How quickly it all happens sometimes — they had three years for what they were to accomplish as a team, several best-selling albums and a novel that captured the spirit of the 60s.  They forged their own authentic sound with guitar and dulcimer and dulcet harmonies.  When they traveled out from that little cabin they were the toast of the town.  But just as quickly, it was all gone –  the dashing young couple on the dance floor, never to dance together again.

In the Bread & Roses office are three photos of Mimi dancing exuberantly as a very young woman on the sands.  At the Carmel River State Beach, I imagined where she may have danced with limber body at the edge of the surf in wild arabesque.  Those photos were given back to her when she had cancer in her mid-fifties so that she could remember her wild, unbridled passionate self as she fought for her life.  She was taken before her time.  At 56, she was in her prime.  She had things she still wanted to accomplish — a book and more to add to the legacy she’d left after 25 years directing Bread & Roses.

The blog author in front of the writing tower at Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel

Often we travel with a destination in mind but then find that the detours provide unexpected richness.  I had intended when I was in Carmel to visit a literary landmark, the American poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House.  While I was there, I wondered if Mimi ever took the path to the beach lined with abalone shells and if she saw by moonlight the house built stone by stone? The house, where poem by poem, another couple — Robinson and Una — loved each other and lived simply in a little house by the sea.  With his totem, a hawk, and hers, a unicorn, they played music for their friends by candlelight and inspired each other to write.  Carmel and its river valley, a fateful site for young artists with the grace and pluck to live together there and for their creative collaborations…

For Mimi Fariña, who would have been 67-years-old today, happy birthday

By Marian Hubler, Copyright April 30, 2012

Email marian@marianhubler.com to be added to list for future blogs.

Cultural Adventures:

Journey to Carmel to visit the poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House and take a docent tour to learn about his life.  Seek out other literary museums whenever one travels. In Salinas, don’t miss the John Steinbeck Cultural Center and house where he was born.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Journey of Mothers” to San Juan Bautista

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On the road between San Jose and Monterey, CA, is a tiny town that has not changed much since stagecoach days.  San Juan Bautista stands at the crossroads of California.  From the back of the mission, one can see the original El Camino Real, little more than a dirt track where four stage lines used to bring travelers to more than ten hotels and seventeen saloons.

Today, walking the charming main street of this town, one can easily imagine that this is a place that time has forgotten.   Yet in an 1850 adobe house,  Galleria Tonantzin is dedicated to contemporary women’s art where one can see an evocative exhibit of sculptures and photographs of special figures called “A Journey of Mothers” by multi-media and multi-genre artist Dianne Tittle de Laet (through April 22, 2012).

Dianne de Laet at Gallery Tonantzin for her exhibit opening

In addition to being a sculptress, Dianne is a also a poet, writer, praise-singer, harpist and performance artist.  Amazingly receptive to the clues she finds in the universe and unique in her ability to transform these into beautiful artistic metaphors, she responds in a positive way to the world at large no matter how difficult or tragic the issue with which she is confronted. In her own singularly focused way,  she sets the table, inviting all of her muses to dinner so they can mingle and inspire each other.

Hand shrines lovingly hold figures of mothers on a journey in miniature

Dianne had noticed the gallery on Third Street in San Juan Bautista on many trips to the mission through the years.  Founded by Jennifer Colby, who has long been involved with the Monterey Women’s Caucus for Art, the twenty-year-old gallery is the only woman-focused exhibit space on California’s Central Coast. Dianne saw that the small adobe house dedicated to presenting women’s art would be a perfect place for an exhibit of the figures she has long been making from objects found in the natural world.

On her many daily runs through varied landscapes throughout the world, she would see beautiful things that nature had left by the wayside.  The figures she fashioned from driftwood, eucalyptus pod, bone, feather, stone and shell became the perfect complement for the books she was writing and the images of the poems that came to her while she was running.

Often her figures are inspired by heroes and saints, both local and legendary, seen in churches or mythology books, and sometimes only in her dreams.  “The Journey of Mothers” in particular was called into being by the heroic journey that all mothers take. For in giving birth they are compelled to protect their children as well as other innocents who find themselves in tragic circumstances through no fault of their own.

A mother's journey along the road of lifeA mother’s journey along the road of life

The exhibit is a tribute in particular to Quatie Ross, wife of the Cherokee Chief on “The Trail of Tears” in 1838, who during the forced removal of the Cherokees gave away her only blanket on a freezing night to save a sick child and died of exposure during a blinding snowstorm. It is said that the child survived.

Lieutenant John Burnett was present when Mrs. Ross died.  He said in a story written on his 80th birthday that “The Anglo Saxon race should build a towering monument to commemorate her act of compassion. ” Inspired by the old soldier’s story, Dianne’s extended family of figures began to spring quite literally from the things she found that came from the earth.

The tribe also grew by leaps and bounds through an invocation she made to the earth when marking the previously unmarked grave of her own Cherokee great-great maternal grandmother Madge Watts.  She asked the earth to tell her a story.  Soon we may all read her forthcoming real-life historical novel based on the lives of her Native American ancestors. In the meantime we may glean an intimation of this story from her sculptural figures.

On Saturday March 10, 2012, the night of the opening, a circle of her friends traveled to San Juan Bautista to commemorate this day when the assembled generations of her figures could be seen in one place for the first time. Poet Ryland Kelley from Palo Alto told the story of Lieutenant John Burnett.  Father Martin of the Woodside Priory played Navajo music on his Native American flute.  Dianne read from her “Song to the November Moon” in praise of a Native American hero of compassion.

Although the organic sculptures are not for sale, beautiful photographs of the figures taken by Dianne’s husband, photographer Steve de Laet,  can be purchased and all proceeds benefit the Arete Fund.  Created with the proceeds from her literary memoir “Giants & Heroes: A Daughter’s Memories of YA Tittle,” the Arete Fund is a nonprofit organization that recognizes excellence of effort through educational scholarships and extends global good will through artistic and humanitarian programs.

Dianne de Laet with her figures and photos in the “Journey of Mothers” exhibit

Sales of the photographs as well as over sixty necklaces made by the artist (that are now on display in the gallery) will further Arete’s mission by benefiting the Rahima Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists refugees from war-torn countries living in the United States who need basic support for food and other living expenses.

On an altar in the exhibit is a newspaper photo of an Afghani woman with the following caption.  “You put us in a dark room with stone walls; it was dirty and they kept beating us.  Your husband ran away with our wife and dishonored us and we will beat you.”

With the story of this woman in Afghanistan deeply in mind, I bought a necklace to help this project of the Arete Fund ( “arete”, being a Greek word for excellence in all things. ) As I now trace these stones with my fingers, I  am reminded of the importance of ever-affirming our collective humanity.

A necklace made by Dianne deLaet for the Arete Fund

Another friend who was there that night is a cancer survivor.  She was the most beautiful woman in the room, her short hair growing back again under a felt hat that framed her pretty face.  Radiant in an iridescent beaded shawl, it struck me that the one who had come the closest to losing everything was the one who dared to shine the most. Fully at play in the gallery, I shared her joy as she found a necklace with a strong woman’s figure as an amulet, a pendant from Thailand with a heart carved on the back.  Dianne had sat with her during her chemotherapy, so this was a contribution that also simultaneously honored their friendship, a truly heartfelt connection.

Dianne sees this showing of her “Earth Icons” as something that she can do as an artist to speak symbolically against injustice in the world.  In reaching out to extend a hand to those in need among our closely intertwined global neighbors, she hopes we might as yet find a place to celebrate our collective humanity.  She says “When times are dark, one must light a candle” and sees herself as but “a hummingbird with a drop of water in its beak.”

She asks “How do we find a way to show love in a time of war?”  The creation of her figures is a way to claim her passion and fly with her own wings to San Juan Bautista and out into the world again.

What might each of us do through creative self-expression to change the life of someone else for the better?

 

Cultural Journey:  Visit the exhibit of the “Journey of Mothers” through April 22, 2012.  Dianne de Laet will do a special performance at the Galeria Tonantzin, 115 Third Street, in San Juan Bautista on Saturday April 14 from 5 to 7 pm.  In an extended celebration of Women’s History Month, she will recite from her poetry in praise of women throughout history accompanied on her concert harp.   While visiting the town it is recommended to arrive earlier in the day to see the beautiful chapel and museum at the San Juan Bautista Misson and to walk throughout the historic town.

Copyright Marian Hubler 2012, All Rights Reserved

Email marian@marianhubler.com for future blog posts.

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True Inspiration Frida Kahlo Channels Emotions into Art

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Inspiring Frida Kahlo — a Flower-child Ahead of Her Time (open source)

Amidst an explosion of giant, brightly colored roses hand-crafted from paper in a neighborhood mercado in Mexico City, I kept thinking of Frida Kahlo’s incredible drive to keep painting all of her life’s challenges.  A day trip over the holidays took us to San Angel, site of the Bazar Sabado Market, a wonderful Saturday street fair of creative handicrafts on the outskirts of this enormous city.

Starting at the “Museo Casa Estudio of Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo.” we learned from the excellent film at the museum about Frida’s life with Diego.   Surrealist Andre Breton remarked that she was in essence, “like a ribbon around a bomb.”

Her candle of life burned brightly for only 47 short years.  She made the most of her time as she prolifically painted her life experience and was known particularly for her self portraits.  Badly hurt during a street car accident as a young woman, she battled painful spinal injuries for all of her adult life.  Many people continue to be inspired by her example as they see how she transformed her pain by expressing her emotions though her art.

That day at the museum watching the film of Frida’s life, the woman sitting next to me was weeping. When it became too difficult for Frida to sit in a chair to paint on a regular easel, she would lie in bed and paint on a canvas that her mother had suspended from the ceiling for her.

She had a tumultuous relationship with the renowned muralist Diego Rivera who she married twice.  He loved many other women, including her sister.  She said he was the other great wound in her life, as well as her great love, muse and mentor.

When I saw the house they built together after they married for the second time, I was struck by the duality of it — two artist studios with a connecting passageway, separate but equal.  Her Casa Azul in Coyocan and the collection of her art at Museo Dolores Olmeda near Xochimilco in Mexico City help to round out her story even more.

Frida’s determination to express herself through her paintings, despite challenges both physical and emotional, resulted in a prolific chronicle of her entire life.  To this day, her authentic aesthetic is revered and she is one of the most famous women artists in all of Mexico.

How amazing it would be if one could transform all of one’s most difficult emotions into creative expression;  channel the energy behind the raw emotion into some greater gift, some higher contribution.  It’s something to think about — what it might be like to be truly married in this way to one’s muse…

Frida Kahlo Looking Radiant with Roses in Her Hair (open source)

Cultural Adventure: (San Francisco) Visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see some of Frida Kahlo’s paintings. Look at the hand-painted murals at Coit Tower and the Beach Chalet in San Francisco.  Imagine Diego Rivera guiding their design with Frida Kahlo at his side.  Visit the Mexican Museum at the Ft. Mason Center in San Francisco and Precita Eyes in the Mission District on 24th Street near Portrero to learn about contemporary mural painting.  Walk north around the corner to Balmy Alley to see some recent murals.

Copyright Marian Hubler 2012, All Rights Reserved

Email marian@marianhubler.com for news of future blog posts.

Off to See the Wizard – in Ohio

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Louis Ohmer Hubler with Marian age threeMy paternal grandmother Louise Ohmer Hubler with me, age three

When I was a very young child, maybe four or five-years old, I have clear memories of my grandmother bringing me downtown to see plays, mainly musicals.  It was a thrill to be in the audience for these live performances and what I remember most is the music, the songs like June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’ from Carousel or 76 Trombones from The Music Man. “Marian the librarian” must have been a nick-name from that point in time I love you madly madly Madame Librarian Marian…

I did not know how lucky I was until years later when I found myself working for Bread & Roses and bringing music into juvenile halls — where I learned in shock that some of the teens who were in detention had grown-up in urban San Francisco and could not tell time, had never seen the ocean or been to a live play.

On Martin Luther King weekend, I flew to see my two nieces, ages 8 and 12, in Dayton, Ohio “follow the yellow brick road” in the Muse Machines production of “The Wizard of Oz.”  And what a production it was — with a budget rumored to be in the $250,000 range, a live orchestra, a New York trained director by way of California, Broadway caliber stage sets and costumes.  This unique program is an extraordinary accomplishment for the greater Miami Valley considering the drastic cuts for arts funding in so many school districts throughout the country.

I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to be an eight-year-old munchkin like Allie or the youngest member of the town hall ensemble as a seventh grader like 12-year-old Katie.  What a fantastic experience to have the opportunity to be in such a grand production at such a tender age with the discipline of auditions and rehearsals, the camaraderie of the extended family in the cast who called Katie their “little Sis” and the thrill of feeling the connection with audience in the live performance itself.

Niece Katie Hubler with godmother Aunt Marian With god-daughter Katie Hubler in the lobby after the musical.

I realized that I had seen “The Wizard of Oz” as a film, but never as a live stage production.  There were some surprises in the stage adaptation including a large and energetic jitter bug scene.   And seeing the munchkins brought to life by so many sweet-faced children brought some poignant feelings to the surface.    There was Allie swooping across the stage with a flock of children.  There was Katie arm and arm with the dancers.  Because I live at a distance and do not have children of my own,  this experience of seeing them growing up on stage seemed all the more important.

it was a real joy to see them blossom, during the performance and in the flush and afterglow of the show. Katie’s poise — after being part of the Muse Machine as well as many productions of the Children’s Performing Arts Theatre of Miamisburg – was evident.  The eight-year-old Allie seemed to have grown-up almost over night.  I was surprised by her cultural sophistication when I found out she sang Seasons of Love” Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes from the Broadway Musical Rent for her audition song.  And backstage she learned a politically incorrect, though hilariously depicted monologue, whose punch line had to do with a “dead dog, a dumb daughter and no coffee.”

As an introduction before the play, the Muse Machine had some college students, former participants of their theatre program, come back to talk about the impact of the program upon their success in life. The students spoke of the confidence it had given them, leadership skills developed for college and competitions successfully undertaken.  They said it was truly “transformational philanthropy” this experience of the arts that helped them increase their achievements on so many levels.

The mission of the Muse Machine, which is largely for high school students from around the Miami Valley, is to bring “arts experiences to life in everyday learning.” Now a 30-year program founded by Suzy Bassani, it is a tribute to those in the Miami Valley who have kept it going for so long and to the funders as well, people like the late Virginia Kettering whose father-in-law invented the self-starter for the automobile and whose Kettering Families Foundation has provided support for so many artistic endeavors through the years in Dayton.

It was indeed going down memory lane for me to be again in Dayton’s historic opera house, the Victoria Theatre, which dates back to the 1880′s. I remembered so vividly the musicals I had seen there with my grandmother in the late 50′s and 60′s.  Visceral memories came flooding back while seated in the historic theatre and standing again under crystal chandeliers in the grand marble lobby waiting to congratulate my nieces.

That night, since we had come such a long way, my mother Milly Hubler treated us to tickets to see the play. Several weeks later she took Katie for her birthday to see Jersey Boys at the Schuster Performing Arts Center and so because of her generosity, the tradition continues…

Muse Machine's Wizard of OzYoung theatre-goers at the Muse Machine’s Wizard of Oz at the Victoria Theatre

Sitting behind us during the musical were four of Allie’s eight-year-old friends, some of the most beautifully dressed and enthusiastic theatre-goers that I have ever seen. They were all dolled up in velvet dresses with hair of cascading curls and arms full of flowers waiting in the lobby afterwards to see their friend.  I cannot stop smiling even as I think of them now, for I imagine they will undoubtedly be theatre-goers and arts supporters for the rest of their lives now that they have had this experience as I did — indelibly etched at such a young age…

Holly Hubler with Allie Hubler (second from left)My sister Holly Hubler with god-daughter Allie Hubler (second from left)

Cultural Adventure: (Mill Valley & Berkeley California or where-ever you are) Treat your children or a friend’s children or your nieces and nephews or your grand-children to tickets to a live musical, better yet, one that features children in the cast.  The Throckmorton Theatre’s Youth Performance program in Mill Valley presents musicals featuring young people and is a worthy cultural organization to support year-round. The Freight & Salvage in Berkeley also hosts weekend musicals for children.

Copyright Marian Hubler 2012, All Rights Reserved

Email marian@marianhubler.com for news of future blog posts.