Postcard from the Poet: Chicago, 9:05 A.M.

CHICAGO, 9:05 A.M.

I’d flown to Chicago
the night before, last
flight from LaGuardia
before thunderstorms.

Due to meet clients
at the Hancock Building,
I came down to the hotel
dining room for breakfast.

A bounty of silverware
glinted in morning light,
napkins folded on the tables
like a flock of swans.

The waiters wore white
aprons, patterned vests,
smart black bowties.
The bartender’s sleeves

were rolled up. Everyone
stared at a television. No
one spoke. On the screen,
I saw the upper stories

of a single building,
miles of empty blue sky
around it, and the caption:
Moments ago in New York.


Postcard from America

It’s Tuesday, July 4th, 2017.

Jan and Bruce and I are hiking some trails in Albemarle County’s Mint Valley Springs Park. It’s just a few minutes from their new home in Old Trail Village – temporary dwelling, while they have their retirement dream home built part way up a hill in the woods in a more exclusive community in the country surrounding Charlottesville, Virginia.

Me at Mint Valley Springs Park

Old Trail Village is a “development” – townhouses and single-family homes of varying sizes and configurations, some apartments, limited retail – the kind of growth you see all over America on the edges of even small- and medium-sized cities. We’re still pushing on that frontier: wooded hills cleared or farmland giving way to a mixed-use variation on a theme of middle-class community living – the new suburbs. Shopping centers, professional parks and big-box retail cannot be far behind.

This morning Jan and I walked to the village pool for the first summer session of water aerobics offered by the fitness center. “Ready for choreography?” a trim young man named Chris shouted from the pool deck to the mostly grey-haired, somewhat portly school of retirees thrashing about in the water. “A little shimmy never hurt anyone,” he chided, as Aretha belted out “Respect” over portable speakers.

On Saturday, we joined friends Jack and Candace for live music night at the Batesville Market – a small, country general store that’s transformed itself into something of a gourmet market and occasional entertainment venue. Pork tacos were the special that evening for those who were eating, though a number went for the Kale Caesar Salad with grilled chicken. Every so often, the young woman behind the counter would look over to where we were sitting, wave the bottle of a local Sangiovese she’d recommended to me and raise her eyebrows to say “Another?” If I nodded, she’d refill me and add it to my tab, held by my Starwood AmEx at the cash “register” – an iPad she’d flip over toward me to sign with my finger when I settled up.

There’s a small dance floor at the Batesville Market. Das Homage, a local Beatles tribute band, was playing. The “young actives” – as the surgeon identified 60-something-year-old me when I was a “candidate” for knee replacement – were tearing up the floorboards to “A Hard Day’s Night.” Everybody seemed to know bow-legged Peter, who looked a little like an aging, new-age version of Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show and who was dancing ecstatically in tune with a higher power he kept reaching toward with his eyes as well as his hands.

Later, back in Old Trail Village, we hauled our canvas folding chairs into the street at the end of the block to catch the fireworks we could see above the tree line over in Crozet Park. There’s no traffic to speak of in the Village yet, but we waved at the occasional turning vehicle to make sure they spotted us. After the finale, we applauded, though the only people who heard our appreciation would have been the neighbors walking their dog and someone who’d come out onto their second-story deck to see what could be seen.

When we were visiting Jack and Candace on Sunday at their home, the conversation on the back porch turned to genealogy – where “our people” came from. Candace has some French, though she can trace her ancestors back to the English settlement at Jamestown. Jack comes from the untitled “second-son” side of British nobility. Bruce can claim lineage from quintessentially American writer Stephen Crane. Although our father always told us we were “Scotch plaid” – Scottish and English on his side and French and Irish on our mother’s – Jan’s research suggests Hogle might be an Anglicization of the Dutch name, Van Hogelboom, and we might be descended from someone of that name who settled in New Amsterdam. Which would mean that in moving to New York City forty-one years ago, I was simply returning “home.”

The trails at Mint Valley Springs Park snake around a series of small lakes. A beach with a bathhouse has been constructed around the lower lake and there are picnic areas surrounding the beach. As we skirt the beach to get to the trails, I notice that most of the families here are Hispanic – large groups of extended family and friends, Dad-types barbecuing on blackened grills, lots of children and teenagers, someone picking a guitar, singing songs from the homeland in a language I’ve studied for years, speak reasonably well, and still struggle to understand when I hear it spoken, forget about song lyrics.

These families have driven recent-model cars to get here and left them in the parking lot. We were given free lifetime passes, being seniors and county residents (we didn’t mention I was out-of-state), but they either paid for a season’s family pass or three bucks a head for the day at the entrance gate. Roofers, house-painters, kitchen help, laborers, we say to ourselves, getting a regular paycheck, paying their taxes, enjoying their day off.

We pass a couple of people fishing off the trail at the edge of the lake. Hola, que tal? I say when they look up as we pass. Muchos pescados? How’s the fishing? No hay nada, one guy says – there’s nothing – and we all laugh.

We’ve brought our bathing suits to change into at the bathhouse, so we can cool down after our hike. Soaking in the green lake, I look around me. There are one or two white families and a handful of African-Americans, but mostly I’m surrounded by young, light brown bodies with ink-black hair. The boys are pushing each other or doing cannonballs off the floating dock they’ve swum out to. A gaggle of teenage girls is next to me, chatting in English among themselves.

And I think to myself, this is America now. Yes, I’ll have another Sangiovese. I’m ready for choreography.  I’ll take a hamburguesa con queso, por favor, y dame otra Coke Zero. Where was your family from originally?

Mint Valley Springs

The beach at Mint Valley Springs Park, Albemarle County, Virginia, July 4th 2017

Postcard from Sarajevo: In Parts

Bosnia and Herzegovina is one country made up of two geographic regions: Bosnia in the north and east, roughly; Herzegovina in the south and west.

But since the Dayton Accord that ended the Bosnian War in 1995, the country is also made up of three autonomous regions: the Republika Srpska — two swaths ringing three sides of the country which are the largely ethnic Serbian parts; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rest of the country consisting of the ethnically Croat and Muslim Bosniak parts; and the city and district of Brčko, which was unable to be negotiated at Dayton and was placed under an international supervisor.

Sarajevo, as the national capital, was always a multi-cultural city. However, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wars of independence, it has become majority-Muslim or Bosniak.  The greatest reduction was in the Serbian population, which as a percentage of the city’s total population went down by almost two-thirds — presumably people leaving or forced to leave for Republika Srpska.

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Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Serbian Orthodox Church, Sarajevo

Nonetheless everything seems to get done in three parts representing the three historic ethnicities and religions — Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks.  The national government even has three presidents.

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Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral, Sarajevo

Our hotel, the Hotel President, is nearest the old Ottoman part of town; in the closet, along with the extra pillows and blankets, there is a prayer rug. I kept meaning to use it for my morning yoga stretches but kept forgetting it was there. My window looked out on the Abu Dhabi Hookah Lounge, which is popular with young people here — young men in black leather jackets and jeans and young women in tight jeans and heavy make-up.

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Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

Asked by one of our group about her ethnicity, our young local guide demurred — she is a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said. Later, when asked about ethnic tensions today, she minimized them — everyone gets along.  Our tour guide said they have to: they fought each other to the death, and nobody won, everybody lost.

Reminders of the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs are all around. Many buildings are pocked from shells shot from the Serb tanks surrounding the city. Where there is a spot in the pavement where a shell hit and killed at least three people, the shell marks have been preserved and outlined in red — they call them Sarajevo Roses.

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Sarajevo Rose in Old Town

On our free day in Sarajevo, many of us visit the City Hall, which was formerly the National Library. Built by the Austro-Hungarians in the late 1890’s, it was destroyed by shelling in 1992, most of the national collection of historic manuscripts and texts lost. It was rebuilt to its former glory — and eclectic mix of fin-de-siecle Vienna and faux-Moorish Orientalism — and re-opened as the City Hall in 2014.

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City Hall, Sarajevo

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City Hall Interior

The Siege of Sarajevo was made very real to us when we visited the site of a tunnel that was dug from inside the besieged city, underneath the airport, which had been placed under the supervision of the United Nations to allow humanitarian flights such as medical evacuations. The other end of the tunnel was in territory just beyond the airport that was in the hands of the Bosnian National government that was fighting the Serbs.

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The house behind which the Sarajevo side of the tunnel was dug.

Of course, no visit to Sarajevo would be complete without a visit to a spot that was one block from our hotel — the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a 19-year old Bosnian Serb in 1914, who was part of a group advocating the unification of Bosnia with the Kingdom of Serbia. That assassination, and Austria-Hungary’s subsequent declaration of war on Serbia, is considered to be the start of the first World War.

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Corner at the foot of the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo where Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated (with a passing local boy giving me the thumbs-up.)

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Marble plaque at the spot of the assassination

We started our trip with bad weather in Belgrade in Serbia, and we ended it with rain and a plunge to near-freezing temperatures in Sarajevo.  On our last day, we had a wonderful lunch of filet mignon at an old house in a fashionable neighborhood in the foothills above the old town. As we were eating, it began to snow: big, wet flakes that stuck to the evergreens and the shrubbery, but disappeared the moment they hit the ground.

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Snow Falling in Sarajevo



Postcard from Bosnia and Herzogovina: Bridges

The very name of this country is made up of two parts bridged by a conjunction. Coming together and coming apart seem to be what this part of the world is all about.

Our entry into the country from Croatia was in parts. Driving up the Adriatic coast we left Croatia and passed into the Bosnian city of Neum. There was a passport check at the border.

But Neum only exists to give Bosnia access to the Adriatic Sea — for a stretch of 12 miles, to be exact. Then we exited Bosnia, and passed back into Croatia. There was a second passport check. Turning inland, we headed toward Bosnia and Herzogovina proper, crossing the border a third time. There was a final passport check.

Herzegovina is the southern part of the country, and sometime during the Middle Ages it was a duchy in its own right before being absorbed into Bosnia. Its regional borders are somewhat undefined, but Mostar, its regional capital, was our destination.

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Mostar on the Neretva

Mostar is on the Neretva River and was an important trading center back to the 15th century. From 1468 to 1878, Mostar was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Their influence is to be found all over Mostar in architecture and culture. We visited an old home in the Turkish style that had belonged to a local family.

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Courtyard of the Old Turkish-Style Home

Coming out of the old home, we encountered what is unfortunately another common aspect of Mostar – residual damage from the Bosnian War of 1992-95.

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Building with Damage from Shelling, Mostar Old Town

Most means “bridge” in Serbo-Croatian, and the town’s name comes from mostari, meaning “bridge-keepers,” referring to those who guarded a bridge built over the Neretva by the Ottomans around 1557. It stood and was in use, joining the two sides of the town, until 1993 when Croat forces destroyed it during the war. They admitted it was done intentionally, claiming the bridge was of strategic importance. Others disagree about its strategic importance and claim it was purely an act of cultural destruction.

The bridge was reconstructed in 2004 and re-opened by Prince Charles of Great Britain, representing the international community that provided the funding. In late July, a tradition that dates back to the Ottoman era takes place in which young men jump from the bridge into the river below.

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Stari Most, the reconstructed Old Ottoman Bridge

There is another famous bridge over the Neretva, or rather “in” it. In a famous battle in World War II, when Tito was fighting the Axis powers with the local partisans, he blew up a rail bridge over the Neretva near Jablonica to make the enemy think the partisans were retreating.  For a 1969 Yugoslav film commemorating the battle (which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film), the bridge was reconstructed and then blown up in the filming. The wreck of the film bridge was left as a memorial to the battle and is an attraction today for tourists like us.

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The Wrecked Film Bridge in the Neretva

In the late afternoon, we pressed on toward Sarajevo, where we would hear and see a lot more about the falling apart of “bridges” that had been connecting peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina for centuries.

Postcard from Cavtat: Boats, Buses, Pizza and Prostitution

Our second day in Dubrovnik was at our leisure. Three options were suggested: a half-day boat trip to the nearby island of Lokrum, where there are ruins of a monastery and a nature preserve; a full-day boat trip to three other populated islands; or to ride a cable car to the peak above the city for a bird’s-eye view.

There was considerable weighing of pros and cons, perusing of weather apps, and waffling of decisions as to who would do what. In the end, I was the unofficial leader of the half-day boat trip. We bussed with the others down to the old port, which was the departure point for both boat trips. Our boat was moored at the dock. I was told someone would arrive in ten minutes to sell tickets.

Ten minutes later, someone arrived to say the morning boat trips were cancelled due to high winds and rough seas, and unlikely to resume for the rest of the day. The full-day three-island trip was still going; then it wasn’t; then it was, but with another outfit, leaving from a different port. One of our group, Carlos, had already chosen to go on his own by bus to the nearby town of Cavtat (pron. TZAHV-taht), and nine of us decided to join him where he was waiting for the Cavtat bus.

It wasn’t exactly clear where that was; something was said about a stop near the cable car. But logically, we made our way to the bus station just outside the city walls in Pile. Gil, who is extremely tall and likes to take charge of things, ascertained we should take a bus from the old city to the new port in Gruž, and get the #10 bus for Cavtat there.

We did, but no sign of Carlos. On the #10, we passed a stop at the foot of the cable car closer to the old port where we’d been, obviously where Carlos had also been. The confusion  notwithstanding, thirty minutes later we arrived at the small town of Cavtat, where Carlos was sitting in a café having a coffee.


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Cavtat on the Adriatic


After the requisite toilet stop, the ten of us split into two smaller groups. Gil, Ken, Ty, Norman and I walked along the waterfront, scouting restaurants for lunch later. We stopped in at the little church of Saint Nicholas.


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Church of Saint Nicholas, Cavtat


Back in Dubrovnik, we’d been told a story about Saint Nicholas that I’d never heard before. The man who became Saint Nicholas was a wealthy man. He had a neighbor with three daughters who was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry to marry them off, and who had forced the girls into prostitution as a means of supporting them. Nicholas took pity on them and wanted to help them anonymously. So one at a time, he tossed three gold balls down their chimney, which fell into the stockings they’d hung to dry by the fireplace. With the gold from the three balls, each was able to offer a dowry for marriage.

So if you see a picture of a bearded guy holding three gold balls in a Catholic church, you will know it’s Saint Nicholas. And now I know that those stocking stuffers I get at Christmas – lip balm, a thumb drive, an airplane bottle of Maker’s Mark – are saving me from a life of prostitution.

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Easter flowers on the altar, Saint Nicholas Church, Cavtat

There was a panoramic walkway around a wooded peninsula. After crowded Dubrovnik, Cavtat was quiet and peaceful. The sun had come out, and at every turn there was a terrific view. By the bent trunks along the shoreline, you could tell that the winds were always strong here.

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A tree bent from the wind, Cavtat


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Shore walk, Cavtat


We circled back to town and had a nice pizza lunch in front of the harbor. After a stop for gelato, we returned to the bus stop and caught the #10 back to Dubrovnik. This time we got off near the cable car, walked down to Pile, and caught a #3A bus that dropped us off right at our hotel.


Postcard from Dubrovnik: Within Walls

The Old City of Dubrovnik sits on a peninsula, some of it reclaimed from the sea centuries ago, which creates a natural harbor on the Adriatic. It’s the southern tip of a narrow strip of coastline that belongs to Croatia. The modern part of the city surrounds the peninsula and climbs the steep surrounding hills, as does the eastern edge of the Old City itself.


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Old City, Dubrovnik



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Sidestreet, Old City, Dubrovnik


We began our tour as most tourists do, passing through the Pile Gate. Lovrijenac Fort perches dramatically above the sea just outside the gate.


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Fort Lovrijenac, Old City, Dubrovnik


Many have called Dubrovnik “The Jewel of the Adriatic,” because it is a gem of a city. Long part of the Venetian empire, it’s reminiscent of Venice – minus the canals and with more space. But like Venice, the Old City is an open-air museum and tourist attraction: only about a thousand local people still live within the city walls.

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Placa, the main street in the Old City, Dubrovnik


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Tourists on Placa, Old City, Dubrovnik

That said, it’s a beautiful city and delightful to explore despite the crowds. We began our tour at Big Onofrio’s Fountain, built in the 15th century and still a source of fresh water, now mostly for tourists refilling their water bottles from one of the many taps.


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Big Onofrio’s Fountain, Old City, Dubrovnik

After a thorough orientation by a local guide, we were given free time to wander on our own. In the Roman Catholic Assumption Cathedral, I peeked inside the priests’ vestry, where two nuns were folding altar cloths.


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Vestry of Assumption Cathedral, Old City, Dubrovnik


Outside, at Little Onofrio’s Fountain, a blind cat napped at the fountain’s edge.


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Blind cat at Little Onofrio’s Fountain, Old City, Dubrovnik


Our local guide Timea gave a moving description of three years’ spent living within the Old City as a child during the siege of Dubrovnik by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s. At the entrance to the city, there’s a map pinpointing the places hit by shells and bombs and indicating the extent of the damage at each place; there are probably a couple hundred marks. In the Franciscan Monastery we saw where a shell passed through a wall and struck the wall opposite. The shell holes are preserved behind lucite. There’s a small museum and memorial to “The Defenders of Dubrovnik” – those who lost their lives during the siege.


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Some of the “Defenders of Dubrovnik” with Croatian flag


Following our free time, we had a seafood lunch in the old port, after which Gil and Ken and I decided to climb the Old City walls, which you can do for a fee of about $20 in local currency. The sun came out, and we made a complete circuit of the city, catching fantastic views out to the sea and over the old city itself, including a voyeur’s view of everyday life going on within the walls.

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City Walls, Old City, Dubrovnik


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Fort Lovrijenac from the city walls, Old City, Dubrovnik


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Boys showing off their Michael Jordan moves, Old City, Dubrovnik


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The Old City and Lokrum Island beyond, from atop the City Walls




Postcard from Montenegro: On the Rocks

My plot to seize control of the Toto Tours empire was foiled by Dan Ware’s complete recovery from his fall. He emerged at breakfast in the pink, if still slightly bruised, and bursting with energy. Next time, I will have to push him harder.

We had the luxury of a late departure and headed back to Kotor where we were to have lunch.  We drove above the city to get a panoramic view of the bay before descending to the restaurant in town.

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Beautiful Kotor Bay

After an exceptionally good meal of penne with a lamb ragù, we followed the coastline  until we reached the charming town of Perast, which occupies a tiny stretch of land at the water’s edge and climbs the steep hills behind it.

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Perast, Montenegro

Perast would have been a lovely place to sit in a café having a coffee in the afternoon sun, but that’s not the reason we stopped there.  There are two small islands just offshore.  One of them is the island of Saint George, where there is a 12th-century church.  But our destination was the other island — Our Lady of the Rocks.

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Our Lady of the Rocks in the Bay of Kotor off Perast

Music was playing on the small open boat that carried us to the island, the sun was out, and we were all in a festive mood. I caught the attention of our Mexican contingent when I snapped a photo of the group.

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Hector, Laura and Rafael on the boat to Our Lady of the Rocks

Our Lady of the Rocks is the only artificially-built island in the Adriatic. Legend has it that in 1452, when Perast was part of the Venetian Republic, two Venetian sailors found a picture of the Madonna and Child on a rock. Some say they were caught in a storm, but made it back to land after finding the picture. No one had any idea where the painting came from or how it had come to rest on this rock protruding from the water.

Either in thanks for the sailors’ safe landing, or having taken the finding of the painting as a sign of divine intention, the people of Perast began piling rocks around the original rocks and sinking old shipwrecks filled with rocks around it, until an island large enough to hold a church had been made. The painting that was found now sits on the altar of the church that was built.

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Altar of the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks with painting of Madonna and Child

There’s a small museum attached to the Church with ex-votos, gifts of thanks or supplications to the Virgin.  The most famous is a small embroidered tapestry of the image of the Madonna and Child made by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović from Perast over a period of twenty-five years.  Legend has it she embroidered it while waiting for her husband, who was a sailor, to return from a long journey. She used gold, silver and damask threads for the embroidery.  But for the hair of the Virgin and the Christ Child and that of the angels with which she surrounded them, she used her own hair — brown in the beginning, but gray toward the end of her task, from which she went blind.

No one knows whether her husband ever returned. Some say yes, and the embroidery was a gift of thanks; others say no, and the story is a tragedy. You can decide for yourself and have it end however you want. I’ll end with a picture of the modern-day sailor who accompanied us on the boat trip to and from the island, with the flag of Montenegro flying at the prow.

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