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How to stand guard at a Tokyo bathroom

“I don’t speak English,” the ñato said, pressing an index finger to his nose. Ñatos is what we Cubans called flat-nose people. In English we might have called him pug-nosed, but it’s not the same. I don’t think ñato is an offensive word, some men go by that nickname, but I wouldn’t go crazy with it.
“I don’t speak Japanese,” I replied, fighting the urge to press an index finger to my nose. For all I knew the gesture was a Japanese insult.
It was my third night in Tokyo. Before boarding the direct Pan Am, JFK-Narita flight, I’d promised myself that I would eat whatever was placed in front of me—I was a picky eater—and would be extra careful to avoid cultural gaffes. I didn’t want to offend anyone, least of all my new friend, who in broken English had told me he’d boxed professionally, as a welterweight. Judging by his boneless nose and the constellation of scars around his eyes, I could tell he’d used his face to stop many a punch.
This 1981 business trip was my first visit to Japan. I’d been tremendously excited, never imagining I would get to travel to such an exotic place. As a bonus, I got to stay at the luxurious Okura. The hotel, which features an ever blooming, Japanese cherry tree in its foyer, was located across the street from the American embassy. Also across the street was Rudi Bey’s, a peculiar bar at which, for some reason, we were sitting drinking beer.
I did know the reason: Kennedy. He liked nothing better than beer and that made Rudi Bey’s his preferred choice; a German rathskeller where one sat at long communal tables hoisting steins of beer while belting-out German lieder. I didn’t know what was more disturbing, the waitstaff—skinny Japanese boys wearing ledenhosen and zaftig Japanese girls wearing Bavarian dirndls—or that the all-Japanese clientele knew the lyrics, or that Bauer, one of my colleagues, also knew all the words to the German songs, or that I was one of the bar patrons, or that the songs were performed by a Chilean band.
The previous night we had enjoyed a traditional twelve course dinner seated on tatamis. Our hosts had arranged for a fabulous meal in a restaurant in an ordinary looking building in the middle of the city. But once inside, we were transported to a different world, to a traditional Japanese restaurant whose rooms opened to a perfect garden surrounding a coy filled pond and populated by peacocks and flamingos and cranes and other wondrous creatures. It had been my first Japanese meal and I’d been apprehensive but the dishes were exquisite and the service outlandish. Kimono garbed women served each of us, one by one, kneeling and bowing when entering the room, kneeling and bowing before serving each of us, kneeling and bowing when taking their leave and once more before exiting the room and sliding the shojis closed. (Those women must have had great abs and calloused knees).
Naturally, I’d expected that on our first free night we would expand the experience by doing something Japanese, like visiting a typical bar to sip warm Sake.
Instead we ate at the hotel and walked across the street to this German bar in Tokyo. To dial-up the bizarreness of the evening, someone informed the Chilean band—certainly not me—that a Cuban was in attendance. The band leader called attention to my presence by requesting that I stand and take a bow and calling for a round of applause from the audience. I had to take not one, but two bows. In my honor, the band leader announced that the next set would consist entirely of Cuban songs.
I was stunned. Had they never seen a Cuban? Of course I was touched, and amazed. I would have been even more impressed had I recognized any of those obscure songs, if they were Cuban at all. But hey! It’s the thought that counts, I told myself.
Not that it mattered. The crowd went on drinking and humming/singing along and laughing and my boxer friend was mighty pleased to learn I was Cuban and therefore a boxing aficionado, considering the many great boxers Cuba had produced. I did a lot of nodding and clicking of beer steins and so much smiling my face started to hurt.
After a few more beers and many kampais, we finally—and thankfully—called it a night. We followed Joe, our leader, to the front, to settle the bill with the cashier, who did double duty behind the crowded, gleaming, wooden bar. Kennedy was warned to stay away from the large bell at the end of said bar; striking it meant the ringer would be buying a round and there must have been well over a hundred people at Rudi Bey’s.
While Kennedy contemplated the bell, my Japanese-boxer-friend asked me to guard the men’s room door while his woman-friend used the facilities. Apparently she couldn’t wait for the Lady’s room to come free.
I am not sure how I get into these situations. Even before agreeing, I spied her entering the men’s room. I was considering how to point out that he would be much better suited to guard the door when I noticed that he too had slipped into the men’s room.
Kennedy rang the bell. Some animated discussion followed between the barman speaking Japanese and Kennedy, whose command of English wasn’t great, even when sober. He continued the discussion with a typical Kennedy response; he rang the bell again. Joe had paid and was urging us to leave but I couldn’t: a young Japanese man wanted to use the men’s room.
I speak a couple of languages and can communicate in a couple more, but none of them were Japanese.
I realized my predicament as I tried to explain the situation in English, augmented by improvised sign language. It only frustrated the man who decided to slip past me using some fancy footwork. I managed to keep my body between him and the bathroom door until, eventually, no doubt viewing me as a lunatic, the type of crazy, ugly American he’d been warned against, he gave up and returned to his seat.
By the time a cackling Kennedy rang the bell a third time, I had had to turn back another two men. I was being pulled away from the men’s room door by Bauer while Joe tried to get Kennedy out when the boxer and his woman-friend emerged from the men’s room.
He waved the two men into the bathroom and bowed his thanks to me.
It was a relief to step outside. It was brisk and the coolness on my face felt good. Best of all was the sudden quiet. Joe wasn’t pleased with how the evening had proceeded. He was a thoughtful, measured, serious man, not given to outbursts, but he didn’t approve of Kennedy’s behavior. He felt it reflected on him, on us, on Americans.
Joe, a tall, white haired man, had served in the Navy during the Pacific campaign. That afternoon, while he, Bauer and I were enjoying a boat tour of Tokyo bay, he mentioned that it had been thirty-six years, almost to the day, since he’d first been on Tokyo bay. Back in 1945 he’d been on deck of the USS Missouri witnessing Japanese dignitaries in formal dress and top hats signing the WW II terms of surrender. Since then he’d been to Japan many times. The Japanese treated him with deference, which he returned but, by the way he’d told us about the Missouri, I suspected he had mixed feelings.
I made it back to my room, my head spinning, feeling confused. I had only slept a combined six hours the previous two nights and, between the excitement of being in Japan, the beer, the spending an evening in a German bar in Tokyo and my tiredness, I didn’t feel like myself. I felt weird, as if it wasn’t me on that bed, as if I was living in an alternate reality.
The one guy I knew for sure was happy was ñato, my new Japanese friend. He and his woman-friend had emerged from the men’s room with big smiles on their faces. They were enjoying whatever reality they were living in.

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Do Albino peacocks get laid?

May 12, 2017 1 comment

People ask how I felt returning to Cuba after a fifty-six year absence. In truth, I don’t know. Most Cuban exiles in similar circumstances concentrate on what was versus what is, like the collapsed roof of my childhood apartment in La Habana Vieja, or the sad condition of the streets and parks where we grew up. And so did I, but I’d been told, so I knew what to expect. The best part of my experience was being there.

In general, when Ruth and I travel, I like to wander around, a personal quirk she doesn’t always appreciate. This time, traveling with my sister—who was only fourteen when she left—and our spouses, neither fluent in Spanish, plus having a Cuban travel agent suggesting a framework, changed the tenor of the trip. Our Havana guide, a twenty three year old engineering student, took us along a prescribed route, down calle Teniente Rey, past Sarránow a museum—and toward the cathedral; the sort of itinerary tourists enjoy.

We started our walk on El Capitolio and because of new construction I was disoriented. When I asked our guide if this was calle Egido (it was) he didn’t know; he’d never heard of calle Egido. I soon recognized where I was and paused to peer down calle Bernaza and, of course, detoured on calle Villegas to point out the store where I worked—now people live there—and the spot where I chased and caught the bra thief, and where “Our Man In Havana” was filmed, and the hole in the wall were I drank my daily eight or ten cups of café, and the spot in the colonnade where the ostiones man had his little stand. The excitement was all mine.

Next day, when we took an enjoyable day trip to Las Terrazas, a former coffee plantation in Pinar Del Rio, now an Eco-community—I may do a full write up of the place—what stuck with me the most was the unexpected: there was a regular peacock on the parking lot, showing off his colors even though he was being harassed by tourist but, on a side patch I spied something even more magnificent. An albino peacock. ,

Of course that was my judgement, as personal as when comparing what was with what is. From the peacocks point of view the one opinion that counts will be rendered by the peahens.

A day in Ronda, Spain

September 23, 2016 2 comments

Entering Ronda, a small city in the south of Spain, on a hot, sunny, September Saturday, we were surprised by crowds that made it seem as if everyone in town and the surrounding, picturesque, Pueblos Blancos, White Villages, were jammed into the city streets.
At first we assumed they may be celebrating Santa Teresa de Jesus, whose hands are kept in the Madres Carmelita Descalza convent at the center of the city. Franco, who helped by Hitler and Mussolini led the fascists to victory in the Spanish civil war and ruled the country until his death in 1975, was so fond of Santa Teresa that he ‘borrowed’ her hands to kiss them nightly. The hands, encased in a silver reliquary, were returned upon Franco’s death. But no one was lined-up at the convent, not even to buy the delicious cakes baked and sold by the unseen nuns.
The reason for the crowds was next door, for la corrida, the bullfight. The best toreros and the fiercest bulls were to meet at the Plaza de Toros for what many consider the best bullfights in Spain.
I am not a fan. Bullfights are controversial, even in Spain; Barcelona has already banned them. But as luck would have it, we had visited a fierce bull breeding ranch and learned much about bulls and bullfighting.
The young bulls are raised in a fenced pasture where they lead a life of leisure, eating—4,000 euros per bull yearly upkeep—and sleeping. They are so lazy that their food is placed uphill and their water downhill, to get them to move a bit, leading one to wonder how they develop their tremendous strength, other than by testing themselves against their contemporaries, sometimes with fatal consequences. They never, ever, see a man on foot until fully grown, and at 1,500 pounds, enter the arena.
Bullfighting is considered an art. To become a torero remains the poor man’s dream; the best earn up to 250,000 euros per corrida. But a bullfight is carried out according to tradition and strict rules; the various toreros have very specific duties. The number of charges, just as the number of passes is prescribed. Plus the bulls are very intelligent; after only a few charges at the cape, they will charge the man.
A bullfight is the ultimate reality sport. The fiercer the bull the better, though some are duds, disinterested Ferdinands; no one knows till the moment of truth.
Attending a corrida was tempting. But the small arena sits only 5,000 and with tickets costing thousands of euros and long gone, we settled for people watching and sightseeing—we came to Ronda to see its spectacular gorge and bridge. Everyone was in a festive mood with many, mostly women, wearing colorful costumes from yesteryear and happy to smile and pose, even for a dumbfounded tourist.
It was lucky we were there that day, enjoying the atmosphere and an unhurried lunch of tapas and sangria at a shaded outdoor cafe. A most memorable day.

Could Bob Dole ever be an Eagles fan? I hope not.

June 12, 2016 Leave a comment

I am an Eagles fan and yes, it is frustrating. They haven’t won a championship since 1950. Even worse, I became an Eagles fan during the seventies, when they put on the field some horrendous teams. Fortunately I have some escape valves. I root somewhat for the New England Patriots. They became my team when I lived in Boston and first started to follow football. This lasted even after I moved to the area, until I switched allegiance to the local team. I also have a sentimental attachment to the Green Bay Packers; because they are from a small town and are owned by the townspeople, they feel like a sort of national underdog. I would think they should be considered America’s team. But make no mistake: The Philadelphia Eagles are my team.
Some people have been Eagles fans for life. They revel in it, they paint themselves green, tailgate at games and make the team a central part of their life. However, I doubt any of them would unconditionally support Nelson Agholor, a wide receiver recently accused of rape by an exotic dancer.
There have been a few instances where women have accused well known, affluent athletes of rape hoping to make a financial killing. For Agholor’s sake, I hope that is the case. Alas, those are the exception. A teeny, tiny exception. Overwhelmingly, women claiming to have been raped have been raped. And then they are made to feel responsible. They are accused of bringing it on themselves by drinking or dressing in a provocative manner or being an exotic dancer or even of being a whore. Rape is rape. There are no extenuating circumstances. None. Zero. No respectable Eagles fan would condone Agholor’s alleged behavior.
Which brings me to Bob Dole. This is someone I respected. Senator Dole, who ran for president in ‘96, seemed a responsible, sober public servant. Whether I disagreed with his views or not, I respected him, till a few days ago.
Bob Dole just said “I’ve been a Republican all my life, and I know that both candidates are flawed, and Trump has done some things that would curl your hair, things that he shouldn’t have said…I mean, what am I gonna do? I can’t vote for George Washington, so I’m supporting Donald Trump.”
I would have hoped Mr. Dole would have said: I have been a Republican all my life but I have also been an American all my life and while I cannot support Mrs. Clinton, my conscience, common sense and abiding love for my country will not permit me to support Mr. Trump.”
That’s what a decent human being would have said. What this Eagles fan says about a player who commits heinous acts or says odious things.
Being a Republican or a Democrat is not like being a sports fan. We aren’t rooting for a team, we are voting for our future.

Are Parisians rude?

December 28, 2015 Leave a comment

The first time Ruth and I visited Paris was the first time we went anywhere. After my cousin Manolo—nicest man I ever knew—died in his early forties, I told Ruth that, no matter what, we were taking the next trip.
By next trip I meant the MIT travel brochures we received regularly, featuring vacations we couldn’t possible afford; my classmates were obviously doing better than me. Incredulously, the next brochure offered an inexpensive week in Paris. Paris was at the very top of places I wanted to see.
My parents and sister offered help. They drove the 300 miles from Boston to baby sit Evan and Joanna. My sister Sara loved the kids as her own, my mother adored her grand-kids and my father loved them as well, in his own way. Nonetheless that was quite a nice thing to do.
Other aspects of the trip proved nerve wracking. Not being a US citizen—though Cubans could become citizens after living in the US for one year and I had been here for fifteen, I hadn’t gotten around to apply—I needed the IRS to certify that I didn’t owed them anything within thirty days of departure. Afraid I might lose the plane/hotel tickets I’d paid for in advance, I showed up at an IRS office one month before departure only to be told I was early. Our departure date was late April and since March has thirty one days, I was required to return the next day. “Thirty days before you leave, not thirty one,” the IRS clerk said.
The French government didn’t help either. Because I was still classified as a political refugee, they didn’t grant me permission to visit until a week before departure. They had been concerned I might decide to remain in France, but just in case, I had to fill forms providing detailed information about my education, income, etc.
Evan who was six and a half, and Joanna who was only twenty seven months old, were happy to have everyone in the house. But the kids had never been separated from us and I had concerns about their reaction. To get to Kennedy I had rented a car I would drop-off at the airport. The evening of our departure, after stowing our luggage in the trunk, I noticed Joanna sitting in the middle of the rental car’s back seat. She had dressed herself in her little pink raincoat and had somehow snuck out of the house and into the car.
“Lets go to Paris,” she said, and broke my heart.
What made me think of that long ago trip—other that Joanna is in Paris with her husband, children and in-laws as I write this—is the book I have been reading, “The Speechwriter,” by Barton Swaim and in particular some examples of extreme rudeness. Swain’s memoir spans the three years he spent writing for then governor Sanford, infamous for ‘hiking the Appalachian trail,’ and mentions examples of his rudeness.
It reminded me of Parisians’ rudeness. I was taken aback the first time a Parisian allowed a door to slam behind him rather than holding it open for me. A simple gesture. Then I noticed they did it to everyone, not just tourists, not just me. Store employees did not wait on you either and when they finally did, they made it appear as a favor. Alas, that habit has spread to the US.
But the rudest episode took place our first day in Paris.
Our charter flight, ‘the sardine express,’ left hours late. By the time we landed, got through formalities and were bused to our hotel, it was early afternoon. And we were staying in La Defense, not in Paris. Nowadays La Defense is a destination favored by business people but at that time it was a remote suburb. I didn’t understand any of it. I thought we were in ‘Paris’ and I wanted to see it. We took the hotel’s shuttle to the train station, which I thought was a subway stop.
I didn’t speak French but I had done a bit of preparation. Back in 1977 people in Paris didn’t speak English and if they did, they kept it to themselves. The lady selling tickets asked where I was going. When I said Paris she asked something else. I shrugged. She shrugged back and sold me two tickets.
A group of fellow tourists who’d come along in the shuttle were so impressed by my French speaking skills that they asked me to get them the same thing. I warned them that I had no idea what I had bought. They insisted.
La meme chose,” I said to the lady and she sold them tickets.
We got off at the first train stop and as we ascended the escalator into Paris, the sky was filled with a magnificent sight. The Arc de Triomphe. Who knew it was so beautiful and so massive. A most impressive way to be introduced to the city.
We started to walk down the Champs-Élysées when Ruth, who was four months pregnant with Michelle, announced she was starving.
“Right now. I have to eat now. How about there?” She pointed at a restaurant across the street.
It was past four in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten anything since leaving home. I bought a Michelin guide and learned that “Le Fouquet’s,” the restaurant across the street, had four dollar signs. And it was way too early for such a fancy place. I found a more reasonable restaurant on a side street, where we ordered as planned: spécialité de la maison. I figured if they feature it, it it must be good, and I didn’t want to try and interpret a French menu.
I even had a prepared answer for their next question, “une poisson et un viande,” one fish and one meat. But their next question threw me. I had no idea what the waiter wanted. Eventually he got another waiter plus the maitre’d plus a diner—everyone was quite nice—and I finally understood the question: how I wanted the meat cooked.
“Medium,” I said. “A point,” the waiter nodded. No use asking for medium-rare in French.
Ruth was served the fish, a lovely Dover sole she thoroughly enjoyed. For my first meal in France, I had their specialty: T-bone steak and French Fries. A raw steak at that. In subsequent business trips to France I learned the French prefer their meats cooked less well done than we do. In addition to raw hamburger (tartare) they have ‘bleu,’ (the meat heard of fire), saignant or rare, (once saw a flame), à point (their medium) and finally bien cuit, which my Parisian friends refer to as McDonalds.
At least I could look forward to dessert. We were seated on a table for two, one of many arranged side by side and a mere few inches away from each other. A pair of New Yorkers (I could tell by their accent), sitting two tables away, were served desert as we were being served our main courses and I instantly decided that would be my dessert as well, but, between my tiredness from the sleepless flight and the tension of navigating into the city and finding an affordable restaurant and ordering, my mind went blank. I could not think of the name of the dessert.
I leaned forward, excused myself, and asked the New Yorkers the name of their dessert.
Que?” One said.
Je ne comprend pas,” the other said.
“Oh, stop it. Cut the horseshit,” I said. “Just tell me the name of the dessert.”
They hesitated until one said profiteroles before dramatically turning his head away.
And so I discovered, albeit based on a very small sampling, that New Yorkers are ruder than Parisians.
I have been to Paris and New York a few times since and have found no reason to change my opinion.
As far as governor Sanford rudeness, (he had to resign and yet last year South Carolina elected him to the House) apparently he liked to read while seated on the passenger seat of his chauffeur driven car. Once done with whatever he’d been reading, he threw it onto the back seat, whether anyone was sitting back there or not.

Was that Joe Louis?

August 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I’m pretty sure that was Joe Louis at the far end of the platform. I don’t look for celebrities or get a thrill from spotting them, but I seem to notice my fair share. I may have a hard time recognizing my neighbors, but celebrities often make it easy.
This past Monday I flew to LA next to a ten year old boy and his mother. She quickly revealed they were on their way to meet with the kid’s agents and managers. I’m sure she used the plural. The kid sings, dances and acts. A very polite kid with lovely dreadlocks and a proud, nice mother. I’m sure he’ll be famous. Someday.
Which made me think back to another celebrity sighting, long ago, in the early eighties, in the Hilton hotel in Brussels—I can place it exactly because that first business trip to Europe included my first ever visit to Germany, which is a whole nother story. The elevator doors were closing when a young woman, accompanied by two other giddy young people, barged in.
She was a vaguely familiar, pretty little thing. What intrigued me most was the young woman’s jacket, an elaborately painted bombardier’s leather jacket.
I have such a jacket. It remains a favorite even though its old and its lining its shredded: I would never consider decorating it with paint. The blond girl looked away from her chatting companions to smile at me, before performing a graceful 180 degrees twirl. Three oversized letters painted on the jacket’s back spelled out P-I-A. She twirled back to face her friends but kept an eye on me.
Pia Zadora was a fleeting minor celebrity whose rich old husband was promoting her film career. The marriage was later lampooned in a “The Bonefire For The Vanities,” by Tom Wolfe.
I was considering a comment along the lines of, your mother made sure you wouldn’t be losing your jacket in summer camp, when the elevator reached my floor and we were spared the razor sharp edge of my wit.
But Joe Louis was no ordinary celebrity. He was Joe Louis. Thinking back on that day, I didn’t wonder what he was doing standing on the New York bound platform in the Trenton train station, but what was I doing there, heading to NY City, by myself, on a weekend afternoon?
Such are the thoughts that scamper across my mind while trapped for six hours in a metal cylinder flying to the West coast. (Seven and a half, if you count the delayed departure)
In the end I deduced it must have been one of the times I went to see and help translate for my cousin Manolo when he came from Venezuela to the Sloan Kettering for diagnosis and treatment. My cousin Manolo, for whom the phrase “the good die young” must have been coined, first came to the States for treatment around 1970.
But there he was, Joe Louis, the man who knocked out Max Schmeling and Hitler’s-Nazi-Aryan-superiority line of bull.
I’m never sure what to do in these cases. Being an iconoclast I tend to do nothing, but this time I nodded. Joe Louis was by himself. The few other people on the platform were at the other end. Mr. Louis smiled back.
I have been next to more “important” people—although I could have easily survived without seeing Fidel or Che in the flesh—but Joe Louis was a bit of a thrill. I remember going back upstairs for some reason, maybe to buy a ticket. When I came back down Joe Louis was gone.
I got into a conversation with a uniformed guard. When I mentioned seeing Joe Louis he became agitated. He hadn’t seen him. He said he normally looks for big people that may be of help in case of an altercation. He hadn’t noticed anyone resembling Joe Louis.
“Are you sure it was him?” he said.
It was him. No question. Joe Louis had a recognizable, innocent face. A nice man’s face. And even if it wasn’t him, by the guard’s own admission, he should have noticed a really big guy. And gray hair or not, sweet face or not, even in old age, I bet that Joe Louis could punch like a mule.

A visit to Brasov

July 25, 2011 1 comment

Today we visited Brasov. Though the excursion was listed on the schedule, it came as a bit of a surprise because it was mentioned so casually. I’d read interesting references to the town in a travel book and though I can’t say for sure whether I saw any of those items—I’m afraid I forgot what I’d read—the visit was a highlight. Brasov, pronounced Brashov, is a city in the Transylvania region of Romania, some 30 miles from Sinaia, the town where we are staying.

Sinaia was so named because an impressed Wallachian nobleman returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land founded a monastery late in the 17th century and named it after Mount Sinai—the biblical site, not the hospital. The town grew around the monastery.

It had been raining heavily all night and into the morning, with a bit of a chill which is common around these parts, when we left for our first stop. The Sinaia monastery, a three towered structure entered through impressive arched doors, remains a working church and indeed we found a couple parishioners praying while a monk—Greek Orthodox, the predominant religion in Romania—prayed out loud in a manner that brought to mind Jewish davening. I’ve noticed that the repetitive cadence of prayers is often similar regardless of religion. This was on the new section, dark inside except for the scant illumination provided by some candles and a few small stained glass windows.

I wondered if light plays a role in ceremonies. The chapel had a couple enormous candelabra which if lit would stun those present with the splendor of walls covered with icons, paintings, gilded columns, statuary, paintings and frescoes. As it is, in the dark and quiet interrupted only by the monks chanting, the chapel felt small and intimate and the rich adornments could only be discerned one at the time, on close inspection. No photos were allowed and I can see why. It would disturb what is a nice spiritual refuge—except for trampling tourists of which we were but the first busload. The monastery charges four Lei per visitor which allows them to do their work and stay afloat. This was by far the prettiest of the churches visited.

As we resumed our trip, the intermittent rain eased off, and by the time we reached Brasov the sun was out and the weather had turned summery hot. Brasov was founded by Teutonic knights in the 12th century at the bequest of the king of Hungary in part to serve as a frontier town and perhaps as a reward for those coming back from the crusades. Though the crusaders were expelled in the 13th century, their accompanying settlers stayed and Brasov (originally known as Kronstadt or city of the Crown) became quite prosperous, partly because it was at the crossroads between the Ottoman empire and the Western Europe Christian states.

As is common in these parts, different peoples controlled the area at different times. With all these comings and goings and inescapable intermingling, one would think great tolerance would exist among the inhabitants, but the savagery of the recent Balkan wars tells us different. Nevertheless Brasov is considered a tolerant town though, while the Germans controlled the city, Romanians were excluded and prevented from practicing their trades or crafts. Eventually everyone got in, even the Jews, starting with a man named Aron Ben Jehuda, early in the 19th c. Some 4 to 6,000 Jews lived in Brasov in 1940 but only ten families remain today. Jews were either deported to camps during WW II (Romania was a Nazi ally) or left for Israel soon after the Soviets took over. Germans too were gone after the war. Though as plentiful as Romanians in 1840 (40% each), either the Soviets shipped them East or they left to relatives in Saxony and similar. Less than 1% remain today.

As usual a central square constitutes the town’s focal point, albeit this square is triangular in shape and features the former mayor’s office in its center. (There is also an incongruent fountain in the square featuring abstract tile constructions, maybe a Soviet leftover.) The square is surrounded by diverse buildings, all with red roofs and interesting architectural details, many with a Teutonic influence. A few of them serve as restaurants where a reasonably priced lunch can be enjoyed. Ruth and I did.

A bit off the square we found another interesting structure, the black church, so named because it was blackened by a fire a few centuries ago. (I doubt they have plans to clean it; for one thing they’d have to rename it). The building itself resembles other Gothic churches but is unadorned, by church standards, lacking the exuberant architectural features that distinguish other churches. Other than being black. Based on shape and style I guessed it was a Catholic church, which it is, but didn’t learn till later it’d originally been an Evangelical church. Inside, the black church houses a collection of antique Anatolian rugs left over from the Ottoman empire and rescued from an island on the Danube prior to it being flooding as the large Danube dam was built in the late sixties. Alas, I didn’t see them: I didn’t go in. But I didn’t go into St Nicholas church either—sometimes one gets ‘churched’ out in Europe, the abc syndrome, as I’ve been told—in spite of its impressive multyspired beauty and its impressive iconic St Nicholas facade rendering. I chose to wander around its adjacent cemetery instead.

I did enter into the Schei Synagogue, which can be found a few feet from the Poarta Schei—one of the two remaining city gates—and which in the past demarcated the Jewish quarters. From outside, the Synagogue’s front features an arch within an arch and its stained glass windows make it resemble a church—perhaps, as was the case in Budapest synagogue, the architects were non-Jews whose experience was limited to churches. Even its color scheme is not too different from the Sinaia monastery we’d visited earlier in the day.

Inside the synagogue is white, with the only color accents provided by the stained glass windows and a lit dome above the ark. Moorish arches, a central Bimah, a proliferation of Menorahs and a second floor probably for the women complete the picture. The shul was recently refurbished and can be visited and photographed. The caretaker didn’t speak English. She left after we did, at noon, to eat lunch I presume. Good timing on our part. For once.

The best part came later, as we wandered the streets taking this and that narrow cobblestoned, curving alleyway to emerge onto a plaza or a string of gabled houses—all sort of gables, eyebrow, square, deep, shallow, plain or greatly embellished—with flower pot adorned windows, (red mums being dominant) or filigreed decorations along their painted walls. Brasov wasn’t bombed during WW II which makes it a bit more real than so many other old cities whose charms have been reconstructed.

Later, walking around the plaza, waiting for our bus to return us to Sinaia, we chanced to look through a wide door and saw a small church. We entered and saw a small Greek orthodox place holding services, a pleasant little jewel and, to top it off, outside I found a stand selling ice cream; two Lei a cone. I bought two and surprised Ruth with one a few minutes before leaving Brasov. We’ve had these a number of times—we paid only one Lei at Carrefour’s—but even two Lei isn’t bad for a simple, single small scoop of tasty refreshment.

Even after spending a few hours in Brasov, it is difficult to explain why it is so charming. The city isn’t that small, some 600,000 plus inhabitants make it the third most populous city in Romania as per Mircea, our very knowledgeable tour director—Wikipedia claims it only has 250,000 and it is the eighth largest, which underscores that it’s size has little to do with the enjoyment it provided—but whether it is the town itself, or the dramatic background provided by the surrounding, densely green and fir covered Carpathian mountains, Brasov is just one of those places one has to see in person, that makes you feel good about traveling, about being there and experiencing a place no one—more or less—had ever even heard off.

By the way, the Romanian leu (lei is the plural) is worth about $0.30 or three to the dollar even though we were told that in the good old days—whenever that was—it traded at a par with the dollar.

Categories: Travel