Posts Tagged With: wedding

Prague Slog

We walked around the city for 8 1/2 hours today, courtesy of our knowledgeable and unstoppable guide Martin, who showed us far more than I can possibly remember. So partly out of exhaustion and a desire to get to bed at a reasonable hour, I’ll let the photos do the talking today with less narrative than usual. Probably.

But first, the required dose of surrealism. You probably think this happy couple on the Charles Bridge has just been married:

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But you’d be wrong. Or more charitably, you’d be about 3/4 right. This couple is participating in a hot new trend in mainland China, in which (1) you and your spouse-to-be travel to a foreign destination with a photographer; (2) rent wedding outfits and have all your romantic wedding photos taken; (3) return to China and make a photo album to show to the family; and then, finally (4) get married in China. It’s kind of a destination pre-wedding without the guests. Or the wedding.  When China takes over the world there are a lot of things that are going to take some getting used to.

In case you’re wondering how I know all this, Martin has on occasion been hired as a photographer or a factotum to help rent the wedding outfits.

Weddings make me think of religion, so now it’s time for a good old fashioned dose of Central European antisemitism, in the form of this delightful statue, also on the Charles Bridge:

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Yes, that’s Hebrew encircling Big JC, and not just any Hebrew: it is the Kaddish, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. How did this come about? Well, the cross — minus the Hebrew — was installed on the bridge in 1659. In 1696, a local wealthy Jewish merchant, one Elias Backoffen, was convicted of dissing Christianity by having been witnessed sporting a blasphemous facial expression. (Yes, really. It was pretty hard for Jews to avoid breaking the law.) He was fined a bunch of money and the local authorities decided to put the money towards humiliating all the Jews in the vicinity — always a popular move — by decorating the crucifix with their most sacred invocation. Classy.

It took a little over 300 years of enlightenment for the city fathers to figure out that in the 21st century the current population of Jews might find this just a wee bit offensive. But by virtue of having been there all this time, the statue had acquired some perceived historical significance, and so in the year 2000 a solution, such as it was, was put in place, in the form of a plaque at the base of the statue that basically says, “Yeah, we know this is offensive, but here’s the background….”

OK, on to the pictures so I can get to bed. First, a monument to Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in protest of the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Next, a baroque garden — complete with white peacock — adjacent to the palace where the Czech Senate meets.

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The garden also includes this weird black melty stuff, which is an art installation called the “Dripwall”.  It is actually a sculpture designed to look like a cave, that has assorted whimsical faces hidden in it.

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Now we move up the hillside in “Castle Town” on the east side of the river, working our way towards the Prague Castle. Our first stop is the Furstenburg Gardens and its sundial, on the hillside just below the Castle.

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And now Prague Castle itself, a looming Gothic melange of architecture from about a half dozen different eras starting in the 10th century, whose centerpiece is St. Vitus Cathedral (makes you wanna dance!). First the enormous, terrifying outside:

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And now the interior of the cathedral. A lot of the stained glass is contemporary, designed in the 20th century:

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The locale affords us a view back towards the town to the east of us.

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Our last stop of the day was the highlight: the Strahov Monastery. It has a truly glorious library that includes a wonderful collection of terrestrial and celestial globes, and the whole place belongs in a Harry Potter movie. We were extremely lucky to be with Martin, who is able to get authorization to go into the library itself, as opposed to viewing it from the doorway. We had to put on soft slippers to avoid damaging the floor, but we had the place to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Here is what we saw!

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Prague 2018-297There’s even a hidden staircase behind a fake bookshelf, so you can sneak around and kill people. Or steal books. Or something.

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The library was the highlight of the day, and it was a very fine day. We’re exhausted. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain, so we will probably visit the National Gallery, which has a big photography exhibit going on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Meiji, Meiji Not

Remember when Commodore Perry muscled his way into Tokyo in 1853? Of course you do: we told you about it a couple of days ago when we visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, although in fairness we did not warn you that there would be a quiz. Anyway, that more or less marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s Edo period, when the shoguns ruled the roost. They continued to lose ground after that, until finally in 1867 the biggest, baddest shogun of them all, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, ceded power to the emperor Meiji and thus ushered in the eponymous Meiji Period, also called the Meiji Restoration.

Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, opened Japan up to international trade and diplomacy, and generally built the country up into a world power. When he died in 1912 it was  literally the end of an era. His son Yoshihito ascended the throne and with the assent of parliament built a large elaborate shrine in his honor; its grounds cover 174 acres and include a lake and gardens. Here is the entrance gate to the grounds.

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It is a much-visited and much honored place, which is one of the reasons that the Allies firebombed it to ashes during World War II. It was rebuilt in the 1950’s. The shrine itself faces a large courtyard where amulet and votive vendors ply their trade, as they do at all large Shinto shrines. Just as in Kamakura, you can buy oddly specific good luck charms, e.g., for passing an exam, or finding a job, or improving your health, or (my personal favorite) “traffic safety”.

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We were milling around the courtyard when to our delight a Shinto wedding procession exited the shrine, crossed the courtyard, and disappeared through the gate.

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“I can really feel that you’ve been working out.”

This was very exciting: our first Shinto wedding, and at a big-name shrine at that! How often does that happen?

The answer, as it turns out, is “about every ten minutes”. Because it was only a few minutes later that a wedding procession came back in through the gate, across the courtyard, and into the temple. Our first thought was, “Hey, why did they come back?” But no:

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Different couple! It appears that the Meiji Shrine is the Las Vegas wedding chapel of Shinto nuptials. So, mazel tov to these happy couples, and any others that happened to go through the mill today.

Despite my personal flippancy, many Japanese take this place very seriously; Meiji transformed Japan and is still venerated. We saw a number of visitors — including young people — come to a stop as they were exiting the gate, turn 180 degrees, and bow repeatedly to the shrine before leaving. We obviously did not, but we did linger long enough to stroll around the grounds and lake.

Cutting this of early today as we are off to get a panoramic nighttime view of Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower, at 800 feet.

Next time: the curse of the cat people.

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bargaining for Jewelry and Wives

Hold the pepperoni.

Today was a slower day than most… literally, since we spent a certain portion of it slowly wending our way up a tortuous mountain road to visit a scenic gorge. More on that in a moment, but first a word about Berber Pizza.

We were told upon departure this morning that we would have a mid-morning snack in the form of what Momo described as “Berber Pizza”. Whether or not this is the actual local term I have no idea, but we parked our bus adjacent to a small Berber family compound and were led to a dark smoky outbuilding where one of the family and her son were busy making said pizza, as you can see here. She had prepared a savory filling of meat and spices (coriander, cumin, and the usual repertoire of Moroccan seasonings) and was busy pounding out flat loaves, spreading the filling, folding them over, and inserting them into the poorly-ventilated earthen oven that you see in the photo.

We went outside and sat low stools to be served a batch that had been prepared earlier, along with the required tea. It was tasty, nothing earthshaking, though I would like to report for the record that a much more accurate term for the dish would be Berber Quesadilla.

An interesting part of the encounter was the conversation with the homeowner. We talked about money; the average Moroccan income — which is about what he makes — is around $4000 US per year. Obviously the cost of living is very low here, but even so it is a struggle for many people. The good news is that health insurance only costs $40 US per month.

Then it was on to the locally famous Dadès Gorge, for which visit we ditched the bus in favor of two large vans, the better to navigate the mountain road. The gorge is about 500 feet high, very similar in appearance to the Toudra Gorge that we visited two days ago (and which is only about 15 miles from here).  

As you may be able to tell from the picture, we are once again back in territory that strongly resembles the American Southwest, right down to the architecture. All of the buildings are adobe and have a squared-off appearance; constructed out of local clay, their color matches the hillsides in quite the same way as American pueblos. For this reason the drive, though scenic enough, seemed a little anticlimactic; we felt like we had more or less seen it all before.

Descending from the valley, we returned to the Berber village where we had eaten our non-quesadillas and parked the bus. Adjacent to the parking lot, though, was a jewelry store where Momo gave us (and by “us” I mean the ten women out of our group of 16) time to shop. But, he cautioned, with Berbers you must bargain, bargain, bargain. Take the price they offer, he added, then halve it, and halve it again. Seemed a little extreme, but in we went.

At this point I feel compelled to observe that Alice, despite her many virtues, is uncomfortable with bargaining in much the same way that Dracula is uncomfortable with sunlight. Indeed, in one memorable incident that I have been using to embarrass her for the last ten years, she once bargained a Tijuana jewelry vendor UPWARD from the price he quoted. (I should also remark in context that this woman had a successful career as a mathematican and system engineer at NASA, which just goes to show something, though I am not sure what.) in any case, she declared that I was in charge of bargaining. 

She found two pieces of jewelry that she wanted and I asked her how much she was willing to pay for them, in the sense that she would be willing to walk away if the price was higher than that. She considered this and declared the value of the items to her to be $100 (I will speak in US dollars instead of dirham for convenience). So we got the owner’s attention and asked him for the price. At this point Momo walked over and got in on the bargaining action. The scene played out like this:

Owner: <Speaks rapidly in Arabic>

Momo: <Looks disgusted, says something back, turns to me, and makes a finger-twirling motion at his temple> “He’s crazy. Says he wants $200.”

Me: “I’ll pay $80.”

Owner: (in English) It’s real turquoise and coral. $150.”

Momo: “What? Come on! <puts his arm around me> This man <i.e., me> is my cousin! Give him a break!”

Me: “$90”

Momo: “You heard him! $90! That’s all the money he has in his wallet! Go on, Rich, show him your wallet!”

Me: “Here.” <reaching nervously for my wallet, which holds considerably more than $90>

Momo: “That’s it. $90. Put the items in a bag. Rich! take the bag and go.”

…and that was that. $200 asked, $90 paid, which was $10 below our limit. My father, who loved this sort of thing and was very good at it, would have been proud. Even if Momo did do the heavy lifting. Seriously, my cousin?

Our final stop of the day was lunch and a discussion at the family compound of a local imam. The world being what it is today, the word “imam” evokes mental images of wild-eyed bearded fanatics, at least to many Americans. But Morocco is a very moderate place, and this imam was neither wild-eyed nor bearded and seemed like a real gentle soul. He did not speak English, but served us a very nice lunch and then sat down with us to answer any questions we might have about Islam, with Momo interpreting.

The group had a lot of questions on a wide range of topics, including:

  • Extremism (he described the Islamist fanatics as “criminals” whose activities were highly un-Islamic, and averred that literacy and economic reform were the keys to combatting it); 
  • The attitude of the Moroccan clergy towards the liberalization of family laws and the empowerment of women (he stated that the changes are both welcome and consistent with the Koran); 
  • The Sunni-Shia schism (basically a continuing war of succession following the death of the Prophet Mohammed);
  • How one becomes an imam (various selection criteria including memorization of the Koran and seven years of specialized religious education);
  • What an imam actually does (leading religious services at the mosque, and personal counseling; however most imams in addition to their state salary have day jobs);
  • Sharia law (applied only to matters involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance);
  • ..and circumcision. (They do it, at anywhere from 7 days to 5 years of age depending on circumstances.)

It was quite the discussion, lively and interesting, and the imam was unfailingly patient and thoughtful. I decided to pursue the discussion about mitzvahs that I had had with Momo out in the desert camp two days, and asked a lengthy question about whether Islam had an analogous concept of an act of personal responsibility or good deed without expectation of reward, either now or after death. His answer came at considerable length as well, which I can pretty succinctly boil down to one word: No. Islam is very strongly oriented towards achieving paradise in the hereafter. He elaborated that faith (the first pillar of Sunni Islam’s five pillars) is much more important than deeds, but that ultimately it was all about getting into Paradise. In this respect it seems that Islam more resembles Christianity than Judaism. All in all, an interesting and enlightening chat. We all really liked the guy.

At the conclusion of the conversation we held an ambush Islamic wedding. That is to say, Momo and the imam selected one of the couples in our group, the very outgoing Michie (pronounced “Mickey”) and Tom, and “remarried” them to demonstrate an Islamic ceremony. It was pretty cool, and very charming. (I should also add that Michie was totally in her element here: she’s all about getting involved in things, and in fact was the organizer of 10 of the 16 people in this group. They are all part of her understandably large circle of friends whom she convinced en masse to come along on this trip, which they inevitably dubbed “Michie’s Camel Ride”.)

So. Michie and Tom were first dressed up in full wedding regalia. That’s the imam in the middle (wearing glasses) while Tom waits behind him. Notice the curved knife at Tom’s side… you can’t be too careful at a wedding.

Michie was properly veiled (but you can still see her smiling):

…and after vows are exchanged and the veils lifted (yep, that’s her all right!), the couple sits down with two witnesses (friends Jerry and Betty from the group) to negotiate the marriage contract. Seems to me that that is the sort of thing that one would do rather earlier in the process, but hey, we travel to learn things.

Tom offered as dowry his entire fortune, which he declared to be two camels. Michie demanded five. Tom countered with two camels and two poodles. (Poodles are not a typical Islamic medium of exchange. I gather that there is something involving poodles in Michie and Tom’s history; they have been married 19 years. Or nine hours as I type this, depending on which starting point you choose.)

The contract was written (in Arabic, of course) with a bamboo or wood stylus dipped in ink. Both witnesses signed it, and here it is in progress:

They got to keep the contract and the pen. So here is a final look at the happy couple just prior to their honeymoon, which consisted of getting back on the bus with the rest of us. But we did raise a toast to them at dinner tonight, at a very elaborately decorated and beautiful casbah restaurant.

How do you say “Mazel tov” in Arabic?

Tomorrow: on to Marrakesh. No “Marrakesh Express” jokes, please: we’ve already heard them.

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

About Those Sheep…

A few people were understandably intrigued about yesterday’s rather cryptic blog snippet, “men in truck with sheep (dowry)”. So here is the story.

The road between Casablanca (on the coast) and Chefchouen (to the north, in the Rif mountains) is pretty cleanly bisected by the town of Souk el Arba, which, were it relocated about 5000 miles to the west, would be called “Tijuana”. Indeed, the two towns are nearly indistinguishable: wide dusty streets lined with sketchy-looking pharmacies and auto repair garages, thronged with tourists and pushcart vendors and lined with trash; open air restaurants on every corner; and the din of every vehicle known to man, from tour buses to donkey carts. (The third photo from the bottom in the last blog post is a donkey cart on the middle of the intersection.)

Oh, and on the subject of its Tijuana-ness, I should also mention that this part of the country has a heavy Spanish influence. Remember my description of the female hajji wearing a djellaba and what seemed to be a sombrero? That was a sombrero: they are a thing here. (In fact, if you wear a djellaba and a sombrero whilst wearing Dutch wooden shoes and eating your food with chopsticks, you will achieve Peak Multiculturalism.)

Anyway, amidst these lively and seedy surroundings we had an excellent meal consisting of the local fresh oven-warm flatbread — somewhat like pita but airier and with a crunchier crust — been kebabs cooked over an open air charcoal grill, and vegetable tagine, a Moroccan specialty that is sort of a stew.

We left Souk el Arba, driving past wilted fields and salt evaporation ponds, and drove for about another hour before taking a break at a pleasant café. By this point the terrain was starting to change, as we approached the mountains. The road became uphill and windier and the surroundings greener. It was still punctuated by low villages full of seemingly unfinished houses with rebar sticking out everywhere, pods of young men milling around among farmers in horse and donkey carts. Every such village is overlooked by an Andalusian-style mosque (meaning that the minaret is square instead of round) that is always the tallest structure. The minarets are usually painted in soothing Mediterranean colors such as white and aqua.

It was shortly after we left the café that Steve asked the van driver to back up: he had spotted (and heard) a flatbed truck full of musicians and wanted to get some photos. And indeed, we thus found ourselves among the preliminaries of a wedding:  a flatbed trailer being towed by a farm tractor, the tractor occupied by a driver, a two other men, one of whom was a dour-looking 30-ish man in a Western suit, pretty clear the groom and not obviously happy about it. (“But Mom, she can’t cook and she’s only got one leg!” “Shut up Ahmed! You’re 30 years old and you’re lucky she has *any* legs!”)

The groom may not have been altogether on board, but the musicians on the flatbed were having a grand old time. They were lounging on the flatbed along with two sheep, which we assume were the dowry. (At least, we hope they were the dowry.) They were laughing and blaring away for all they were worth on some shrill oboe-like instruments, and were more than happy for us to take their pictures (hence the close up photo of the guy blowing his instrument right at me). I even climbed up onto the tailgate to get the shot of the guys with the sheep. Everyone was having a grand time until Grumpy Groom climbed down off the tractor to yell at us and clearly indicate that we were not to take pictures. So we left, and raucous party faded into the distance.

And that is the story of our encounter with the dowry sheep and the musicians. Go to bed now, children.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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