31 October 2019

Stockhom 2019

Stop reading right now if you don't know who ABBA is. Or never liked them.

Sure—pop music, relentless beat, sentimental lyrics. But so full of HEART and the most danceable music ever. I never quite realized what a fan I was ‒ how much that music pervaded my life in the mothering years ("shining like the sun"), the happiness it gave at social events, the comfort it provided when I had to dance alone ("without a song or a dance what are we") ‒ until I knew I was going to Stockholm!

We checked into the Pop House Hotel—Right There on Top of the ABBA Museum! Cousin Mitzi, despite some health worries, shared my excitement in touring the museum ("you'll be dancing once again and the pain will end") and seeing each other again. Mitzi lives in Stockholm and had never been there. Maybe Swedes are bored with ABBA. After all, that was more than a generation ago. Nonetheless, the entrance sees lineups down the street every morning when the Djurgårdssvågen tram deposits them out front.

A special exhibit was featuring costumes from the Mamma Mia movies ("here I go again"). Unfortunately my photos are mostly crap. Between the press of the crowds, mishandling the audio guide, forgetting my reading glasses, and losing my companions, operating my phone camera was a lost cause. Credit is due my companion who did manage.

We blundered into a tiny audio studio where we belatedly understood we were being recorded ("I feel like I wanna sing") in a song whose words escaped us. Never mind, room after room there are stories here, and glamour cutouts of the foursome, and their history, and what they did later ("breaking up is never easy I know").

But oh. Oh look! There's a stage and a complicated karaoke setup and random people from the passing crowd get up there to sing with hologram ABBA. Mine, it's mine! (I have a dream, a song to sing). So I scramble up there in my garish leggings and sandals with about two words of instruction ("you can dance, you can jive"). Do I know the words? Some. Can I bust a few moves? No one told me to practise. I'm awfully busy watching the words on the wall across the room and also the ABBA gods themselves dancing on the floor below in front. My eyes roll up and down. I do that swaying thing to warm up, search my head for words, and remember to smile at the audience ("watch that scene"), getting ready to let loose with the arms and legs ("I can dance with you honey"). And suddenly it's over.

Not exactly as wished for. But oh yes ("I am your music and I am your song").

This is supposed to be about Stockholm. This WAS Stockholm!
Even so, we did see other things, even with my head still in ABBA mode ("thanks for all the joy they're bringing"). Mitzi took us on the ferry to the old town ‒ Gamla Stan – where we tried to ignore the drizzle. Alas, we saw little in the way of tourist or historic sites but managed lunch in a lovely old restaurant on a cobblestone street before it was time to say goodbye.

Otherwise we'd enjoyed a waterfront walk, more drizzle, discovering that so many museums were located nearby ("something good in everything I see").

Our hotel location in the city's Djurgården area was a fluke in that we knew nothing about Stockholm in advance, and it was a lovely choice. It seems the park-like island is devoted to recreation. At night we strolled some of the Gröna Lund amusement park; a pop concert was underway in one section ("make me sing, make me sound"). Next morning we barely touched the outskirts of the Skansen living history park. Our time restrictions kept us contentedly in their shop of fine handicrafts.

A tiny taste of Sweden. So good.

"So. I. Say! Thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing ..."

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

10 October 2019

S'Hertogenbosch, Netherlands 2019

The Netherlands ‒ land of infinite possibilities for day trips to interesting villages, towns, and cities. The city of 'S-Hertogenbosch, better known as Den Bosch, was on my agenda. Mild curiosity about painter-artist Hieronymous Bosch (ca.1450-1516) motivated me, and where better to learn about him than the Jheronimus Bosch Art Centre in his native city.

The Netherlands has many renowned Renaissance artists but this is one I knew nothing about other than the vaguest notion that he created fantastical, sometimes scary figures. Probably nearly everyone has chanced upon a scene from his The Garden of Earthly Delights at some time, or The Last Judgement, perhaps even without knowing it. The Art Centre does not have original paintings; instead it features high quality reproductions for the purpose of being able to view the full opus in one place. But the Centre has more ... from his "wondrous world" as they call it.

The venue is inspired: formerly St James (Sint Jacobus) Church, the gallery occupies most of the interior. Many of the church's original, traditional art works have been left in place, a study in contrasting styles and spirit. Although religious subjects and biblical references were his forte, Bosch had his own inimitable additions.

The Centre also offers art education programs, painting courses, special exhibits, choral concerts, and a replica of Bosch's workshop (he had assistants and family members working for him). Guided tours or self-guides are available.

The Garden of Earthly Delights takes centre stage. I learned that the Dutch name of the triptych is Der Garten der Luste which seems more to the point of humanity's fall from grace. Certainly art critics have not been able to interpret the meanings of many unique symbols and details used by Bosch. Demons and imps, the seven deadly sins, follies, absurdities, are scattered through his visions of heaven and hell.

Centre Panel, Der Garten der Luste
One detail, centre panel

Bosch came from a family of painters and in his lifetime his works were widely sought, bringing commissions from the aristocratic and wealthy of Europe. Triptychs were popular. Clients would be discreetly painted in. What little is known about the man himself comes from his membership in, and the archives of the Brotherhood of our Lady. His penchant for often including unexpected, whimsical figures prompted the gallery to have three-dimensional models made.

From up in the choir loft one gets a wider perspective.

Then there is the church tower, overlooking the city, one view toward the neighbouring Cathedral of St John. It was a drizzly day.

Even some of the city canals evoke the spirit of Bosch. Clearly, his boundless creativity struck a deep chord in his contemporary world. His satire is not so far from the endemic corruption being exposed today.

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

24 September 2019

Wadi Rum, Jordan 2018

They say you can't go back again. Because it's never quite the same. Sometimes you can, and it works. Wadi Rum desert in the south of Jordan has been a beacon to me since first visiting in 2007 and then having the perfect camel ride in 2008.

The expanded visitor centre was to be expected because of the intervening years, but it's almost featureless, and deserted. It's still early morning despite the hour's drive from Aqaba; by the time the sun becomes ferocious at noon, we will be on our return to town. Our timing permits only a hasty once-over in a shop barely opening up; no chance to see if the interpretive display has also been enhanced. Our group is hurried to several old pickup trucks for the ride to a desert rendezvous, perching two on a side in the back with some sunshade. The transport always varies for these desert incursions.

The experienced locals had estimated in advance how many camels would be required. This time three companions decide to join me. Would-be women warriors

They are friendly (indicating well-treated) animals. Who doesn't love a hug as we mill around to mount? The Scot is a magnet.

Taking the lead camel was almost as good as being alone. My problematic hip joint allows some latitude for hooking my knee ‒ so much more comfortable ‒ but not perfect form. No racing today! As we amble along, the handler lets the camels nibble at some low-growing crunchy savoury grass smelling like thyme. Why is the desert strangely colourless this morning?

Riding high ... Ah. There is no feeling to equal this, merged into a timeless, magnificent planet. We drift along the sand, skirting the majestic cliffs. Carvings and petroglyphs on the rock walls are a common sight. Wadi Rum is a Protected Area and a UNESCO-designated natural and cultural landscape.

Always over too soon, our journey catches up with the non-riders who are shopping for crafts in a large tent. Familiarity. There's the boulder remembering Lawrence. Over one hundred years since the Arab Revolution against the Ottoman Empire, "Aw-renz" is imprinted on the collective memory here; this is only one of the modest commemoratives to him throughout the desert of the Arab Revolt.

After visiting the base of enormous dunes that beg most people to climb, away we rattle in the trucks for a refreshment stop at one of the desert camps. The temperature has risen slyly and fast. The large size of Captain's Desert Camp seems surprisingly anomalous to me. Tourism on a managed scale creates income for many Bedouin families. Here is welcome shade, musicians happily entertain as we sip mint tea, eat dates and small cookies.

The sun is then high above us as we finally turn toward the highway. But we're not leaving the desert before we have a look at the Hejaz Railway train. The railway was built by the Ottomans in the first decade of the twentieth century railway for transport to Aqaba and access to the Red Sea; this restored steam engine now shows its stuff only on special occasions. Ghosts of the filming of "Lawrence of Arabia" hover here.

Who can say if that was to be my last camel ride? Thank you, Wadi Rum, and thank you, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, for your hospitality. Please stay as fabulous as you are.

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

19 July 2019

CDMX Sor Juana

Illegitimate child Juana Inés de Abaje became Sor Juana de la Cruz, a celebrated seventeenth-century writer. Falling in love with Sor Juana de la Cruz is easy when you view the Netflix series called Juana Inés. In her lifetime, her intellectual gifts were recognized in both the Old World and the New. Not without a price to pay.

Unattributed portrait at https://www.biography.com/writer/sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz

Many details and intimacies of her life ‒ four hundred years ago ‒ are opaque or unknown. Clearly her humble birth (circa 1650) did not hold her back; sent to relatives in Mexico City, she flourished in self-learning. Her devotion to scholarship attracted the attention of the Spanish vice-regal court where she became a lady-in-waiting. At one point she ‒ this anomalous female prodigy ‒ was tested on a range of advanced knowledge by doubting Church authorities, leaving them astonished at her erudition.

Consumed with learning and writing, and with no interest in the customary path of marriage and domesticity, Juana's destiny was the convent. She chose to be cloistered within the Hieronymite order at Santa Paula convent, Mexico City (aka San Geronimo convent), where she also taught. The convent was not terribly strict; inhabitants were allowed visitors and gifts. Sor Juana and her apartment were "protected" for years by the vice-regents Marquis and Marquise de la Luna who published her works in Spain. It's reported that she had one of the largest private libraries on the continent.

San Geronimo convent
The convent was next door to our AirB&B lodgings. Fittingly, today, it is an active hive of university programs.

Over the years she created a prodigious amount of writing: poetry, philosophy, hymns, letters, theatrical drama. Among other attributes, her sharp wit and staged plays gained a popular following. Secular love as well as sacred is evident in her poetry. If the Netflix script were to be believed, gossip hinted at a special relationship with the marquise. Sor Juana's distrust of men being all-dominant in every walk of life was not hidden; she was a pioneer feminist who deliberately challenged conventional ideas of women's nature and "place" in the world, advocating their right to access education and knowledge.

Such an unequivocal attitude did not sit well with the Church, of course. As her stature and admirers grew, so did disapproval in the religious hierarchy. Among other events, an argument with her confessor and the departure of her vice-regal supporters in 1688 left her vulnerable to criticism of her spiritual commitment. She was not without humility and self-reflection. By 1694 she had retired as a public figure.

A few quotes are scarcely sufficient to give the flavour of her varied output:

"I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus – I was born with it and with it I will die."
"I believed, when I entered this convent, I was escaping from myself but alas, poor me, I brought myself with me!"
"In my opinion, better far it be to destroy vanity within my life than to destroy my life in vanity."
"I walk beneath your pens, and am not what I truly am, but what you'd prefer to imagine me."
"You foolish men who lay the guilt on women, not seeing you're the cause of the very thing you blame –"

The Cabrera portrait is the usual image associated with Sor Juana. A curiosity is the breastplate, or shield, on her habit. Typical of Hieronymite nuns of the time, the shield displayed a pictorial devotion to the Virgin Mary.

A celebrated (and sometimes castigated) person, no one can deny the stunning integrity and magnitude of her opus — words and thoughts that reverberate today. "A woman of genius" is the common judgment, as per Britannica, which has an excellent biographical sketch (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz).

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman

26 June 2019

Nizwa, Oman 2013

Our route from Muscat is climbing the Hajar mountains not on foot, but on a smooth highway as we head south to Nizwa. The mountains are higher here than in the north; giant slabs of rock. Villages we pass have many houses of a common size, as if regulated. Nizwa itself is on an ancient trading route, an oasis of extensive date plantations.

Almost everything here in the town looks new modern development occurred only since 1971. Nizwa had long been the seat of an area of sharia rule by Ibadi imams; the first half of the twentieth century saw periods of armed hostilities between the powerful Imamate and the Sultanate of Muscat. To put it very briefly, in the 1950s the Sultan defeated the rebels with some difficulty and British assistance on a nearby mountaintop here, and the Imamate was abolished. Nizwa's conservative religious history included a period of notable Islamic scholarship. It was sometimes called "The Pearl of Islam," discouraging outsiders.

Nowadays tourists are very welcome. The weather is extremely warm even at this time of the morning and it's a relief to go into the food souk on the main level of the castle complex (entrance above). Here we sample coffee and date treats. And we stroll the aisles of market produce: vegetables and fruit, meat and sweets. The sellers are still setting up for the day; few customers have arrived yet. Fresh date confections, nuts, and spices tempt us to buy. Unfortunately this was not a day for the livestock market where goats predominate.

Adjoining the marketplace is a handicrafts area lined with pottery and souvenir stalls, and silversmiths who create exquisitely crafted khanjars.

The outstanding feature of the large castle is the huge round tower fort that defended the city. Inside, various sets of narrow stairways zigzag to lead up but without a guide you might never find the right ones to reach the top and catch distant views of the date palm plantations and surrounding mountain heights. Dates are the biggest export here. 

The castle museum is a great source for cultural heritage, showing clothing and daily life of this particular region. Although at this hour very few women are about, the museum gives information on the fascinating (what I call) "Nizwa Niqab," a distinctive face-covering that originated among the conservative Muslim women of the area. Known as battoulah, the same practice apparently also spread here and there around the Gulf region; only an older generation wears it more or less consistently.

Certainly I noticed it at a Bedouin camp in Wahiba Sands and occasionally in other Omani souks. Resembling a falcon's beak, the original purpose was simply to keep sand and dust from the nose and mouth. It is generally handmade of such fabrics as silk or leather. Sometimes it can look menacing, sometimes it is elaborately designed for special occasions, but always considered a sign of modesty. [The names of Muslim women's clothing items familiar to us ‒ e.g. burqa or hijab ‒ do not necessarily refer to the same clothing item in different countries.]
Here is the coffee "shop" where we could sit and relax after climbing and exploring.

Nizwa offers more than we were able to see or do in a few hours; mountain trails attract hikers who want, literally, to go off the beaten path into the former rebels' stronghold. Further up those mountains is UNESCO World Heritage (restored)site Bahla Fort, an enormous complex, the original section older than Nizwa's fort. The sheer size is overwhelming, with seven miles of walls and labyrinthine sections within. Beside it lies a village apparently scarcely changed from mediaeval days. And Jabreen Castle, perhaps the most impressive of all, which I deeply regret not seeing. It's a monument built by the seventeenth century imam who encouraged the arts and made it a centre of learning. Full of splendid, surprising architectural details and artistic decoration, it says much for the best of Islam.

Yet another facet of this interesting country.

© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman