Friday, December 31, 2010

The Wishing Tree

With help from my sister Ruthanne, who is a history scholar and an expert researcher, I have been working on a family tree.  The process is like assembling a jig-saw puzzle, fitting parents to their parents and grandparents, gathering details of births, marriages, and deaths, finding the missing link that connects a distant branch.  The chart that we're building shows a mixed heritage of farmers, businessmen, merchants, military officers, teachers, lawyers and accountants, some Anglican, Jewish, Quaker, Baptist and Catholic, hailing from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, British India, Canada and the U.S.  Our ancestors include salt of the earth and book-learned people, rich and poor folks, a few famous and most quite ordinary.

My grandmother
As one works further back in time, it becomes clear that nothing much has changed throughout history.  It's true that families are smaller today, and more spread out geographically, but in the course of our lives we experience the same trials and triumphs that our distant relatives dealt with.  There are losses: babies who don't survive, sons who go off to war and never return, failed marriages, mental illness, bankruptcy, flu epidemics, and tragic accidents.  There are successes and celebrations, too: graduations, awards, job promotions, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and the honour of special recognition from colleagues and friends.  I know that the cycle continues when I see the happy face of my baby granddaughter Victoria reflecting her mother's sweet smile.  Our wishes for the next generation (and the ones after that) are the same hopes that my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had for their children and grandchildren.  It makes me feel stronger and more capable when I look at the enduring, widespread branches of the family tree and find my place firmly rooted there.

"The Wishing Tree" a poem by Kathleen Jamie, expresses this sense of continuity with simple, resonant words and imagery.  The poet writes, " One day walking in Argyll with my husband, we encountered a wishing tree which surprised us a great deal because I didn't know there were any in Scotland.  I mean a tree people have bashed coins into for a wish or desire - I knew they existed in Ireland but had never seen one in Scotland."

I love the way past and present merge in this poem, just as our family tree brings the deceased closer to the living.  As we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another, and make our resolutions for change in a period of global uncertainty, the wishing tree reminds us that "hope springs eternal in the human breast."

The Wishing Tree

I stand neither in the wilderness
nor fairyland,

but in the fold
of a green hill,

the tilt from one parish
into another.

To look at me
through a smirr of rain

is to taste the iron
in your own blood;

because I bear
the common currency

of longing: each wish
each secret visitation.

My limbs lift, scabbed
with greenish coins; I draw

into my slow wood, fleur
-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.

Beyond, the land reaches
toward the Atlantic.

And though I'm poisoned,
choking on small change

of human hope, gently
beaten into me, look:

I am still alive;
in fact, in bud.

                               - Kathleen Jamie 2002

To hear a recording of the poet reading this work click here.
Wishing you a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Dazzle and the Aftermath

Instead of decorating their houses with strings of coloured lights, the Uruguayans choose a more dynamic way of celebrating  - FIREWORKS!  Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve and all of the eves in between are punctuated with the explosive sound and dazzle of petardos (commonly called bombas.)
Dramatic display

Fireworks vendors set up shop on street corners to sell a variety of products imported from Brazil and Germany.  In our Parque Rodo neighbourhood, there's a ten year-old boy who does  this in partnership with his younger brother, as a source of income during the school holidays.  Their grandmother tells us that they save every peso and re-invest their earnings in new stock for the following year.  They have become experts in pyrotechnics, and can describe the special effects inherent in each of the models they carry.   Grandma takes great pride in the boys' growing business acumen.  When we tell her that children are not allowed to buy - let alone sell -  fireworks in Canada, she is shocked.  "Your country must be very uptight," she says, casting an I-feel-sorry-for-you look in our direction.  

Held together with a shoelace, waiting for repair

From the 25th floor restaurant at the Radisson Hotel, we admired a spectacular display of fireworks over the skyline of Montevideo just after midnight on Christmas Eve.  There were bursts of red, green, gold, silver and blue exploding over the harbour, in the streets, and from every balcony in the city.  It was an amazing sight.  But the downside of this tradition was brought home to us very clearly the next morning, when we were jolted out of bed by an incredible BANG! and our power went out.   Shards of plastic blown from the electrical meter attached to the facade of our house were scattered all over the sidewalk.  Someone had apparently lit a firecracker, placed it inside the box, closed the door, waited for the boom, and then quickly dismantled the exposed, damaged guts of the equipment.  Why would anyone do such a stupid, dangerous thing?

Our friend Jorge, who owns the hardware store just around the corner, explained that the culprit's motive was to steal copper from the meter.  Copper can be traded for cash, and apparently it's common practice for drug addicts to engage in this activity as a means of financing their habit.  The availability of fireworks at this time of year makes the "copper harvest" easy.

So the adults and children who sell fireworks for fun and profit and seasonal excitement are partially responsible for a lot of damage to electrical meters in Montevideo, and a subsequent high annual repair expenditure that's added on to individual household bills.  I don't want to be a party-pooper, but I would suggest that some sensible government regulations prohibiting  the casual sale of fireworks on the street would help to cut down on this type of vandalism.  A word  of advice to Grandma: try to get the boys interested in selling strings of coloured lights next year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Around Parque Rodo

The holiday season has been full of events and we've been busy enjoying the city's diverse offerings. Here's a sampling of some of the interesting things we've seen in our neighbourhood during the month of December.

Prior to Christmas, the Teatro Verano presented an evening of "Ballet under the Stars" featuring the Ballet Nacional Sodre directed by Julio Bocca.  The outdoor venue is a fully-equipped bandshell style stage with stadium seating carved into a hill in Parque Rodo.  The evening's program included Act II of Swan Lake, the Pas de Deux of the Black Swan, both beautifully performed with classical precision.  The breeze ruffled white feathers on the dancers' tutus as a storm blew over, but a minor rainshower did nothing to dampen the spirits of the audience.  I love the fact that this type of casual plein air venue and the reasonable ticket price (130 pesos) attract viewersto a performance that they might never take in at the more formal Teatro Solis or Sodre. The acceptable behaviour code is more relaxed for an audience seated in a large amphitheatre, a setting where it's perfectly okay to leave your seat to go and buy a Coke at the concession partway through the performance.  There were lots of families in attendance, teenagers, seniors and babies, too.  Everyone had a great time and by the end of the evening the sponsors had raised a considerable amount of money for a good cause, to benefit Montevideo's pediatric hospital Pereira Rossell.

Bird by Oiva Toikka
Another highlight of this star-studded season was an exhibition called "Northern Stars: 20th century Finnish Design" presented at the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales located at the south end of the park at the corner of Av. Tomas Giribaldi.  This show, curated by the Museum of Design in Helsinki,  included stunning textiles, ceramics, glass and furniture, objects marked by the ultra-sleek styling, nature-inspired forms and bright colours of the Nordic aesthetic.  The installation featured large swaths of vivid Marimekko fabrics hung as room dividers in a stark white gallery, framing small groupings of exquisite clothing, chairs and kitchenware.  If you avoided looking out the windows at the palm trees in the park, you had the sensation of being in a Scandinavian interior.  I coveted the bird designed by Oiva Toikka, which cleverly suggested feathers by incorporating undulating veins of coloured glass.

Fabric design by Sanna Annukka 2008, Marimekko

Outside the hushed atmosphere of the art museum a bustling Christmas Market was going on in Parque Rodo, with stalls showcasing the work of Uruguayan artisans.  Jewellery, candles, silk scarves, fine wool sweaters, leather work and wooden objects were displayed and sold.  Often this type of show has low-level, homemade goods, but the quality of the work was excellent, as this craft fair was a juried show.

 I bought a beautiful Jugart wooden box for 360 pesos, secured with a  puzzle piece locking system in the shape of a bird.  This petite treasure chest has a pleasing smooth surface and exudes a sweet sandalwood fragrance when opened.

On Sunday afternoons during the summer months, Parque Rodo is a non-stop fiesta, throbbing with the resounding heartbeat of Montevideo - candombe drumming.  A form of music that originated in Africa, candombe was introduced by the black male population (read slaves) in Uruguay and appropriated by whites who made the art popular.  Read more about the history of drumming here. Today the troupes are mixed, with both black and white, male and female participants.  

The audience joins in as the hypnotic beat goes on for hours, alternating tempo and rhythm.  Women get up and dance a form of samba with fast, fancy footwork.  This is street ballet, with no strict rules or choreography, just a spontaneous celebration of joy.  As the sun goes down, the party continues....

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Deco Details

The elegant style that originated in Paris and gained momentum following the1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, migrated to points south of the equator and had a strong influence on architecture in Montevideo. The 20s saw a booming economy in this city, and Uruguay was, at that time, one of the richest countries in South America.  The new style represented all that was modern, sleek, and avant-garde.

The past was not entirely abandoned, as a growing interest in ethnography and archaeology brought elements from Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Mexican Aztec traditions together to enrich Art Deco style.   The opening of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 revealed a wealth of beautiful objects that inspired European designers.   Geometric shapes, stepped forms, repeated hieroglyphic patterns and series of overlapping planes were incorporated into surface decoration.  The triangle, trapezoid, chevron, zig-zag and sunburst motifs appeared in architectural design as well as furniture, textiles, jewellery and graphics. Deco suggested luxury, and original works were often made from expensive materials such as silver, obsidian, ivory, marble, bronze, crystal, jade, turquoise and exotic woods. For a good overview of Deco sources and characteristics, see the Victoria and Albert Museum's virtual tour of a 2003 exhibition.

1920s dancer in marble and bronze, displayed in the window of a local antique shop

Palacio Salvo is considered a prime example of Art Deco/Gothic architecture in Montevideo.  Located adjacent to the Plaza Independencia, this landmark building was designed by Italian architect Mario Palanti, and completed in 1928.  At the time of its inauguration, it was the tallest building in South America.  Originally intended as a grand hotel, Palacio Salvo is currently used for office space and apartments .  

Palacio Salvo in downtown Montevideo

This bas-relief mural covers the front courtyard wall of a house on Boulevard Espana.  The dockyard scene, rendered in a stylized Deco carving, is set off with a stepped frame border.

The lines of this Montevideo house are frequently interrupted, or slip beyond the edges of the main forms,  techniques typical of Art Deco design influenced by Cubist paintings and Constructivist sculpture. The "pencil" suspended over the door adds a surreal element to the facade.

The main entry to this Parque Rodo apartment building is an imposing square doorway decorated with concentric circles of stainless steel.  The effect is target-like, a definite symbol of  machine-age moderne. As Art Deco matured into the late 30s, more man-made materials such as glass, steel, chrome and plastic were incorporated into designs.  

Touring the streets of Montevideo is like walking through an architectural museum.  I'm not sure the local population is even aware of what they have here, as it's common to see the most amazing buildings in a bad state of repair, or abandoned and vandalized.  Just as organizations in North America offer Greyhound Rescue, it would be a worthwhile project to establish a Deco Rescue in Montevideo, aimed at preserving the elegant vintage houses that have heritage value, but desperately need an injection of cash for restoration. 

Sunburst motif on a neglected Deco style facade

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tolstoy in Uruguay

November 8th was the 100th anniversary of Leon Tolstoy's death, and in Montevideo, as in many other cities worldwide,  the day was honoured with wreath-laying at a memorial and a special reception at the Russian embassy.  I was fascinated to read in an article in the magazine "Galeria" that the great-grandson of Tolstoy lives here in Uruguay, at a home near Punta del Este.  
Leon Tolstoy (left) and his great-grandson Sasha Tolstoy(right)
Sasha Tolstoy's connection to this country began when he was fifteen years old.  His father Sergio, wanting to curb his son's unruly behaviour, sent him from France to Uruguay in 1953 to live with his mother's sister.  Aunt Wryoubova's household included her husband - the Russian prince Gortchacow - and four daughters.  Sasha attended school in Nueva Helvecia, where in addition to his academic studies, he learned how to milk a cow and make cheese.  Four years later, his father insisted that Sasha return to France to serve in the military.  He fought in the French army during the Algerian war, married, settled in Paris and raised a family there.  

Tolstoy memorial in Montevideo
 Following the death of his wife Marie-France in 2000, Sasha returned to Uruguay and established a fishing supply store in Montevideo.  He had pursued big game fishing as a serious hobby in places such as Africa, Panama, India and Alaska and combined his travel experiences with notes on the intricacies of the sport as the subject of 14 published books.  If you wish to meet the great-grandson of the literary giant, on January 7th, 2011, Sasha Tolstoy will be signing copies of his latest work entitled, "Como pez en el agua" at La Posta del Cangrejo in Punta del Este.

Sasha Tolstoy attended the opening of a special exhibition of family artifacts and previously unpublished photos of Leon at the Russian Embassy in Montevideo.