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People, Places, Stuff

China via Peter Hessler

When I started reading River Town, by Peter Hessler, I little expected that I’d get hooked. But after finishing his first book about serving with the Peace Corps in Sichuan Province, I went on to Oracle Bones which weaves deep Chinese history together with the author’s experiences living in Beijing, covering the dramatically-changing PRC for The New Yorker. His greatest gift is the way he tells the stories of average people—from students he taught in Sichuan to migrant workers—upending many assumptions proliferated in news reports about the lives and feelings of contemporary Chinese. Country Driving,Hessler’s third book, depicts the automobile revolution in China, with millions of newly-middle class people now buying cars and highways unfurling all across the country, a phenomenon that mirrors what happened in the U.S. some 60 years ago.
Now Hessler latest, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, published earlier this month, is on my list, too. Required reading for China-watchers.  Read More 
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Camping in the Wind

Stopped for a night at Jalama Beach County Park, about 30 minutes southwest of Lompoc, CA. One of my favorite places on the California coast. But April is windy season and it howled all night. I had to put big rocks in my tent to make sure I didn't blow away and couldn't sleep without Ambien. Oh, the joys of camping! Read More 
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The Motya Charioteer Visits LA's Getty Villa

Just saw Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, an extraordinary new show at the Getty Villa in LA. It's a special joy for Sicily devotees, not least because it includes the exquisite Motya Charioteer (pictured to  Read More 
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Geo Quiz

Here's a Geo Quiz derived from National Council for Geographic Education curricula and questions devised for the National Geographic Bee. The bee, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, will draw the winners of state contests to Washington, D.C., to compete May 20 to 22 in the nationals. First prize includes a $25,000 college scholarship and a trip to the Galápagos Islands.
No prizes given for correctly answering these geography-related questions, just bragging rights. Read More 
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Rome by Way of New Haven

Went to New Haven last week, two hours by train from New York with familiar Connecticut coast stops along the way, from Stamford to Bridgeport. It’s all just as I recall from my days in school there. But New Haven has changed. The year I was there back in the 1970’s a freshman was shot while moving into his college and walking around at night was a fool’s gambit. Now everything looks better, especially along Chapel Street, home to the Yale University Art Gallery which re-opened in expanded quarters last year.

Yale’s collection, the oldest university art museum in the country, is encyclopedic—from glorious mosaic floors taken from the Roman town of Jerash in present-day Jordan to marvelous Cezannes and Gauguins—commodiously arranged in three interconnected buildings. Plus, it’s free, as is the Yale Center for British Art across the street where I sat in on a lecture about English landscapes, part of a stunning exhibition called “Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the 20th Century” (through April 13).

But my real reason for the trip was to see a small show in the gallery at Whitney Humanities Center on Wall Street, Alexander Purves: Roman Sketches. I got to know Alec, who teaches in the Yale School of Architecture, while I lived in Rome; every spring he takes graduate students there for a four-week workshop devoted to sketching monuments in and around the Eternal City, in the belief that hand-drawing remains “a critical mode of investigation and expression,” despite the broadening use of the computer in architectural design. When the group got special permission to sketch at the Villa Madama—a High Renaissance marvel originally designed by Raphael, now used as an Italian government guest house for visiting dignitaries—I tagged along and never forgot it, especially the Elephant Fountain in the garden overlooking Rome.

On display in the New Haven exhibition are renderings from Alec’s sketch books—mostly using ballpoint pen, but some in watercolor—of St. Peter’s, Borromini’s La Sapienza, the Piazza del Popolo and other sites well-known to Rome aficionados. Vastly more evocative than photos, the stuff of a bad case of homesickness for Rome.  
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Hot Tubs I Have Known

Don’t laugh. It’s no stretch to include hot-tubbing under the cultural travel heading. Though the past-time took on racy overtones in the 1960’s and has spread to prefabricated tubs in backyards everywhere, it has been practiced more or less continuously since the Roman era, with fascinating, cultural variations. It’s all about the therapeutic benefits of soaking in water, but visiting a wood-lined bath in a Japanese ryokan where you have to wash off before entering the hot tub is a vastly different experience from the numbing shock of plunging into the frigid Baltic after a 200-degree roast at the Finish Sauna Society on Lauttasaari Island near Helsinki.

So I seek out baths wherever I go partly for the sybaritic pleasure, but also because some things can only be transmitted through the skin and bone. I like unfussy, workaday bath houses in L.A.’s Koreatown where women gossip and scrub each others’ backs; the public facilities in the fabled old European spa town of Karlsbad (now part of the Czech Republic) where $15 buys you what the brochure describes as a “water cure slightly exciting,” actually an almost painfully-powerful hot and cold water hose down; and a far more restful, even less expensive soak in a Balinese flower bath lined by an open window where I watched a giant spider spin its web.

As something of a connoisseur, I view the aesthetics as paramount. Here are my three favorite places to soak the world over.

The hot spring-fed Esalen Baths are perched along a rock shelf 50 feet above the Pacific Ocean on one of the most stunning stretches of California‘s Big Sur coast. Part of the not-for-profit Esalen Institute, an alternative education center and counter-culture hotbed founded in 1962, they are reserved for workshop participants, except between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. when the public can enter, by reservation. The bath house, elegantly designed and landscaped after damage from 1998 El Nino storms, has two levels of indoor and outdoor tubs, surrounded by decks, and treatment rooms where Esalen-trained massage therapists practice their art. Booking a treatment is another way to visit the baths, but note: Clothing is optional. For the whole fascinating story of the institute and its springs check out Jeffrey Kripal’s “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.“

Schloss Elmau is a spa hotel in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps about 70 miles south of Munich, erstwhile realm of Mad King Ludwig. The German national monument was built as a cultural retreat by philosopher-theologian Johannes Muller in 1916, then served as a sanitarium for Holocaust survivors after it was confiscated at the end of World War II. When it burned to the ground in 2005, the founder’s grandson Dietmar Muller-Elmau gave it new life as a luxury retreat with a panoply of elegant spa facilities. My favorite is the heated, rooftop pool where you can swim while snow falls on the nearby Wettersteinwand massif. Suites cost almost $500 a night (including breakfast and dinner), but there are less expensive “Purist” accommodations available under the eaves in the East Wing.

Therme Vals is an extraordinary community bathing facility about 120 miles southeast of Zurich, reached by a precariously winding road up the gorge of the Valser River. Hot springs along its course have long drawn health-seekers and attracted a bottling plant in 1970, but it was the construction of a new bath house in 1996, financed by revenue from an electricity plant, that put the place on the map. Designed by Peter Zumthor who went on to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2009, Therme Vals is a sort of post-modern cavern made of locally-mined metamorphic rock with meadow grasses growing on the roof and dramatic, cantilevered platforms jutting over the pools inside. “Our spa is no fun far with the latest technical gadgets but focuses on the feeling of water and physical contact with primordial stone,” wrote Zumthor. Though built for villagers, outsiders are welcome during regular bathing hours; from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. the premises are reserved for guests at the adjacent hotel where rates include spa entrance.  Read More 
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All across Germany monuments like Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial have arisen to engrave the Second World War on the mind of man. And historic sites have opened telling different chapters of the story from the birth of the National Socialist Party in Munich to concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Eagle's Nest, Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat atop a network of bunkers and tunnels built as last-ditch hideouts for top Nazi brass.

Some of these World War II memorials attract international travelers. But increasingly, it seems, others have opened in out-of-the-way places visited chiefly by Germans.

I’m thinking specifically about Vogelsgang, a Nazi site I virtually stumbled upon during a visit to Schnee Eifel National Park, a lost pocket of northern Europe where Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg meet. My sister and I were going hiking across the region’s high plateaus, cut into puzzle pieces by impounded rivers like the Urft and the Rur. One afternoon our path took us to Vogelsgang above the Urftsee reservoir.

There was a village once. But since its opening to visitors in 2006, Vogelsgang has become better known as the site of an academy for Nazi youth, part of an ambitious program begun in 1934 to train the next generation National Socialist Party leaders. Several other academies--known as Order Castles--were planned. Vogelsgang was never completed because manpower and materials were diverted to build Hitler’s Siegfried Wall, part of which runs through the national park.

Even so, Vogelsgang is impressive, a 12-acre complex poised at the edge of a cliff, with terraces and staircases leading to amphitheaters, parade grounds and sports facilities below. The ensemble of barracks, dining halls, class rooms and auditoriums is a sterling, if eerie example of the Nazi building style which took notes from the monumental architecture of ancient Sumeria, Greece and Rome, all supposed cradles of the Aryan people. Cologne architect Clemens Klotz added Teutonic carved roof beams, lattice windows and dormers along with dour stone reliefs of naked horseback riders, swastikas and imperial eagles.

In this strange, isolated place elite Nazi cadets--or junkers--studied racial theory, history, ideology, military science and sports. Religion was replaced by unquestioning obedience to the Reich, worshipped in a church-like Cult Room with a statue of the archetypal Aryan man at what would otherwise have been the altar.

Between 1936 and 1938 the Vogelsgang Order Castle graduated 800 junkers who, like other young people, fueled the German war machine. When the Allies crossed the Rhine it was occupied by American and British forces, then turned over to Belgium as an extra-territorial military installation that could be visited only by special permit.

Now young people have returned to Vogelsgang, most of them born after the war, come to learn and teach their children about Nazi Era. Seeing them there made me hopeful that the past is not being forgotten in the new Germany.  Read More 
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Some families get together at a cabin in the mountains or a house at the beach. My family never owned a vacation home so I can’t rhapsodize about the old place. When we assemble it’s in rented condos in Palm Springs because that’s where my mother and father used to spend a month every winter.
Mom and dad are gone now and the family is widely-dispersed. But a little band of Spanos keeps returning to Palm Springs, last year for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. My sister Martha, the planner and keeper of the family flame, arranged the get-together, much-needed in this year of economic insecurity and change. With some of us moving, others changing careers, the only constant was the Palm Springs condo complex my parents found back in the 1980’s.
They lived in Washington, D.C., at the time so the weather was a big attraction. But my niece, their first--and as it’s turned out, only--grandchild had just been born in L.A., an even bigger inducement for grammy and poppa to winter in Southern California. They tried Santa Barbara and San Diego, then met up with the Angelino branch of the family one year in Palm Springs. Maybe the desert is in our genes; anyway, they took to it. Little Sarah brought her water wings and tattered blue binky, loaded by my brother John in the back of their car, together with board games and jigsaw puzzles.
For the first few years mom and dad were peripatetic. They must have tried every moderately-priced hotel in town, sometimes moving after just one night from one to another, ever in search of perfection. One year they scored affordable rooms at the luxurious La Quinta, but the place didn’t have to be fancy. It just had to have a swimming pool and hot tub; we Spanos are a slothful people.
Everything fell into place the year my parents landed at Mesquite Country Club. Its two-story condo units built around a manicured public golf course on the east edge of town are divided into what the rental agency calls phases, each its own little gated community. Mom and dad liked having a kitchen, barbecue and patio and for a post-war couple who’d raised a family in the middle-class suburbs of St. Louis, there was something familiar about Mesquite’s quiet, well-ordered subdivisions. The layouts repeated from building block to block, but some of the units they rented over the years were better-equipped than others, and the decorations--pastel sketches of mystery people, cheery welcome mats, fake flowers--always reflected the taste of the owners who moved out to earn high-season rental income. A neat trick. But where did they go? we wondered.
Mom and dad usually got there first and settled in, followed John’s family, Martha and Scott, also from D.C., then me, the New Yorker. The reunions have run together in my mind like an old home video, but I still remember my first trip to Palm Springs, landing at LAX where John picked me up in his yellow Chrysler LeBaron convertible. A recent transplant to L.A., he was awfully proud of that car, symbolizing the golden California lifestyle, then still a novelty to him. It wasn’t all that hot but, of course, he had to take the top down. I watched in a jet-lagged haze as we passed West Covina, Pomona and all the other towns along the 10 east of L.A., only coming to attention when the scenery asserted itself in the windmill-lined pass between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.
That year I got to know my niece, a toddler who had hair so baby-fine she couldn’t stand for it to be brushed. She scared me at first because I wasn’t used to children. What do you say to them? I wondered as I watched her riding her trike. One night before dinner we were on the couch watching the news when I felt something soft against at my side: Sarah, cuddling. No words required.
She was probably 8 the time we all came down with rashes from the Jacuzzi: Hot Tub Fever. On other reunions we took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, drove through Joshua Tree, hiked into Indian Canyons and got date shakes at Hadley Fruit Orchards. Eventually we exhausted the tourist attractions, never saw a movie star and all but missed the town’s Mid-Century Modern rejuvenation. We Spanos traveled far and got sophisticated, but never lost our affection for Palm Springs, in all its kitschiness. This past January, driving Palm Canyon Road, which links all the little communities--Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert--that have grown up since our first desert reunion, my brother pointed and said, “There’s Sarah’s favorite place in Palm Springs.”
Boomer’s Miniature Golf Course.
Every year, there was a dinner at Melvyn’s in the old Ingleside Inn, with pictures of movie stars who’d passed through, a jazz club where wannabes croon Dean Martin‘s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,“ velour banquettes and bananas Foster, flamed at the table.
I doubt anyone in my family will ever forget celebrating my parent’s 35th anniversary there, a big event with a cleverly oxymoronic theme Martha devised and printed on tee shirts: The Unique Pair. Which they were, as individuals and as a couple who stayed together for almost 50 years without ever getting boring.
Who would have predicted that when they both died in 2002 holding a reunion in Palm Springs would be so important? After all, we‘d already seen each other twice that year at their funerals. There was a certain quiet to our Scrabble games and poolside sunning, but it was a happy quiet, full of remembering two lives well-lived, no less a celebration than their anniversary.
Are you bored yet? Does anyone care how one family stayed together by renting a condo in Palm Springs, like birds that keep stopping in the same place on migrations? Why didn’t we try the Caribbean or Hawaii, or break down and buy a place if we were so crazy about the desert?
With the town’s real estate sector on the rocks, we thought of that in January. In fact, a few days before we arrived the rental agency that handles Mesquite called to say we had to choose another unit because the one we’d reserved had suddenly become unavailable. A foreclosure, we suspected. While the town isn’t at the top of the California distressed property list--according to Irvine-based RealtyTrac, that title goes to Menifee in Riverside County--it’s definitely a buyer’s market.
I even stopped by Palm Springs Realty Pros when I was there last time and chatted with agent Richard Pearson who said that two-bedroom condos at Mesquite like the one we’d rented were currently selling for as little as $130,000; and despite economic hard times, business is booming as buyers snap up bargains. Canadians who weren‘t laid low by the financial crisis and continue to enjoy the benefits of a favorable exchange rate especially love Palm Springs. Pearson told me that many of them buy a place anticipating retirement, renting them out in the meantime, earning as much as $10,000 a season.
Sounds good, but where would we go when we vacate? Would we want strangers sleeping in our beds, using our microwave, making jokes about our tchotchkes? Besides, it wouldn’t be the same if we owned a Mesquite condo. It would be home, with all the responsibilities, plus a few palm trees. And even if we could buy a vacation place somewhere, I’m not sure we’d choose Palm Springs. The thing that makes it so right for Spanos doesn’t have to do with movie stars and golf courses. It’s us, our history, the way we keep nesting under the same rafter, laughing, barbecuing, arguing over Scrabble. Remembering the people who aren’t there anymore and tightening the ties that keep the rest of us together. Read More 
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I’m not afraid of plane crashes, pickpockets or most other sorts of travel-related hazards. But I am deathly scared of flash floods based on stories I’ve heard about them. Remember the tragedy that occurred at Zion National Park in September, 1961, when rapidly-rising water trapped 26 people and killed 5 in the famous Narrows of the Virgin River?

At the same time, I find hiking in watersheds where flash floods are common incredibly enticing, which is why I agreed to tackle Orderville Canyon, a tributary of the Virgin River, with my brother several years ago. The park runs a shuttle to the trail head, but issues stiff warnings about flash flooding in the deeply-incised slot canyon. The sky can be perfectly clear, but if it’s been raining in areas that drain into Orderville, the park service cancels the shuttle. That’s what happened the day we planned the expedition and I felt deeply relieved.

My brother, a desert canyon rat if ever there was one, was disappointed, even though he has lived through a couple of flash floods in southeastern Utah, once taking shelter in a small cave where he watched water in the stream below build, crest and then die away, all in about 30 minutes.

I can vividly imagine flash floods in a slot canyon but even so failed to take account of the danger they pose in flat land while driving through the Amargosa Valley just east of Death Valley National Park in the big El Nino winter of 1998. It was dark and raining hard with water breaching drainage culverts and streaming over the shoulders of the road. Pretty soon my car--an insubstantial economy-class rental--started to surf and there was no safe place to pull over. I didn’t breath easily until I saw the lights of Barstow where I finally admitted to myself that I’d just driven through a flash flood.

Before that, while passing through Red Rock Canyon State Park on the northern edge of California’s Antelope Valley, I caught a video shown at the Ricardo Visitors Center of a flash flood that tore through the area in September, 1997, burying vehicles in the muck and undercutting the highway. It was the most damaging flash flood in recent history at a park especially prone to them. “If you look at satellite photos, a very large area (approximately 20 square miles) of drainage is channeled into one main dry wash that flows through the park,” explains Red Rock Canyon Peace Officer Matthew Williams. Other people speculate that flash flooding occurs with unusual frequency in the state park because of off-road vehicles that plow across the fragile desert terrain, scouring off vegetation, leaving the land unable to soak up and hold back fast-flowing water.

If you’re ever in the Red Rock Canyon area, it’s worth stopping to see the 1997 video--not just for the wow factor, but because it teaches you to respect the power of a flash flood. Half of flash flood fatalities occur in vehicles, which is why safety experts say you should never drive through a flooded area; if your car becomes submerged, take off your seat belt, roll down a window, then get out and seek higher ground. And remember, flooding occurs not just in narrow canyons, but on wide-open ground. “Travelers should look out for low, dark clouds on the horizon,” says Matthews. “Even if it is not raining where you are, a heavy cloud burst only 5 miles away can trigger flash flooding.” Read More 
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Visitors to Florida generally don’t have history on their minds. It’s all high-rise condos, malls and theme parks. Right?

Wrong. Just ask the Naples Historical Society which offers tours of the oldest part of town, founded in 1889 when Kentucky newspaper publisher Walter N. Haldeman, who shrewdly bought up most of what is now the historic district, opened a hotel on the narrow spit of land between Naples Bay and the Gulf of Mexcio. At the time, the only way to get there was by boat so the pier just west of the hotel served as the reception desk, welcoming sportsmen who came to fish for giant tarpon and hunt for game in the nearby Everglades. But word got out--especially among wealthy Midwesterners--and pretty soon families arrived with heavy steamer trunks, eager to frolic on 7 miles of silvery sand lining the warm gentle waters of the Gulf.

Along the way from the pier to the hotel, folks passed a cottage built by Haldeman for Henry Watterson, the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal who spent 11 winters there, telegraphing editorials that won him a Pulitzer Prize during World War II back to the paper. Overflow guests from the hotelwent on to win a Pulitzer Prize. After Haldeman's death the cottage went through other hands until 1996 when it was restored as a museum by the Naples Historical Society.

Historical Society tours like the one I took last winter meet at Palm Cottage, as it’s called, where visitors get acquainted with an historic architectural style once common in the area (the subject of “Dream Houses: Historic Beach Houses and Cottages of Naples,” by Joie Wilson and Penny Taylor), characterized chiefly by Tabbie foundations made of sand and sea shells. One of the last remaining Tabbie homes, Palm Cottage is entered through a screened-in front porch where people slept on hot night, decorated with green wicker furniture (thought to have come from the old Naples Hotel) and a Gulf shell collection. Inside are two floors of rooms with whirring ceiling fans, Dade County pine plank floors, leather-backed Stickley chairs, vintage photos (including one of the Orange Blossom Express train which reached Naples in 1927), a graceful cantilevered staircase, fully-equipped circa 1930 kitchen and other period accoutrements like a Naples mink, a kind of loosely-knitted stole with pompoms, much cooler than the furs ladies could leave at home when the came to Naples in the winter.

I’d spend my winters there, too, if I had a place like Palm Cottage. Of course, development has eaten up many historic district classics. The beachfront around the pier is now lined by walled estates, though high-rise buildings aren’t permitted.

Thankfully, some of the old places remain on the streets and narrow back alleyways around Palm Cottage where the tour continued. We passed secretive little Mandalay House (1908) just off the beach, the former home of Dr. Earl Baum (1921), a community notable with a passion for taxidermy, at 107 Broad Avenue, and Martha‘s Cottage (1922), 205 11th Avenue, made of board and batten. Another residence built in 1935, but now clearly a fixer-upper, had flyers from a real estate company that said the asking price was $1.6 million, including the guest cottage behind.

I could spend my golden years there, no problem. For the moment, though, it was golden enough to walk through the banyan and orchid tree-lined streets of old Naples with a historical society docent. Read More 
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