Wednesday 29 August 2012

Marcel Janco and Modernist Bucharest

Regular readers will know that I have a strong connection with Tel Aviv. More than that, I love Tel Aviv. One of the main reasons for this love affair is the glorious collection of Bauhaus and Modernist architecture in the city. I am very loyal and will never transfer my affections, but over the last few days, a rival has caught my eye - Bucharest.

Bucharest does not have the number of Modernist buildings that Tel Aviv boasts. Nor has Bucharest been able to care for and preserve her architectural riches in the way Tel Aviv has. But there is something very special about Bucharest's modernist jewels, many of which are in poor condition, some of which have been lovingly cared for and all of which are interesting. Some of these treasures have severe problems. They are not strong enough to stand up to the major earthquake, which many people believe is not far away. Some are in such poor condition that they may collapse without the help of an earthquake whilst others have been vandalised by low quality renovations. The ownership of several remains in dispute after decades of misappropriations by one government or another and the efforts of original owners to reclaim them can take many years and be extremely complex.

Several of the most impressive of these buildings were designed by Dadaist and architect Marcel Janco. Janco was born into a middle class Jewish family in Bucharest in 1895 and through his long life (he died shortly before his 89th birthday in Ein Hod, Israel in 1984), he achieved much in the world of art. Between 1910 and 1914 he studied art under the careful eye of Iosif Iser and at just 17 he contributed drawings and layout for Simbolul, an avant-garde magazine published by two of his high school friends - Eugen Iovanaki and Sammy Rosenstock.  Rosenstock was to later change his name to Tristan Tzara and go on to be a major figure in the Dada movement, as was Janco whose family was originally called Goldstein. Several Jewish artists Romanised their names to assimilate into Romanian society or to evade discrimination.

Janco studied maths and chemistry in Zurich before switching to architecture with Karl Moser as one of his teachers. Together with Tzara and a number of other Romanians, he founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. In the same year he exhibited at the first Zurich Dada show with amongst others Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee and Tzara. He went on to spend time working in Paris before returning to Bucharest where in 1922 he became the artistic director and editor of Contimporanul - the most important and influential Romanian avant-garde publication of its time. Throughout the 1930's the situation for Jews deteriorated in Romania. In 1941 he emigrated to Eretz Israel with his wife and two daughters, but not before his brother in law had been tortured and killed by the Legionaries - the Romanian fascist organisation. He went on to achieve much as an artist in Israel, founded the artists village Ein Hod in 1953 and is the subject of the excellent Janco-Dada Museum in the same village.

But what of Bucharest? His remaining buildings are spread across the city. Once again, Valentin Mandache proved to be an excellent guide, leading us to each of Janco's remaining works, setting the historical and social context of the times in which they were built and answering our many questions. I will write about four of Janco's remaining Bucharest buildings, but there are several others to see.

Imobilul Frida Cohen (pictured below) is an apartment block built in 1935 and can be found at number 17 Str. Stelea Spatarul. The block has seven floors including the ground floor lobby and according to one of its residents, it was built to house the workers from the nearby synagogue. The same resident, a Mister Costin Dodu was  returning home with his morning shopping at the same time we were peeping through the locked gate at the entrance to the block. After speaking to him briefly, Valentin explained that Mr Dodu had invited us to look inside! I couldn't believe my good luck!

The striking concave facade had not prepared me for the drama of the lobby, with its tiled floors, and asymmetrical staircases on each side, one with a triangular stairwell, the other with a more squared design. The building still has its original 1935 lift which Mr Dodu and I took to the floor beneath his apartment. Unfortunately the light in the lift was not working, so it wasn't possible to see any of the fitments. His apartment had retained the original layout with two reception rooms, bedroom and kitchen. In addition to this, the function conscious Janco had designed a separate toilet and bathroom (very civilised) as well as two pantries to enable separate storage of meat and dairy foods in line with kosher requirements, supporting Mr Dodu's belief about the original residents. The flat contains a beautiful original interior glass panelled door with an art deco relief - completely gorgeous. For a short time we were back in 1930's Bucharest. Our host had assembled a collection of interesting objets d'art - he told us he likes antiques!

Mr Dodu's own story is just as interesting as his wonderful apartment. Born outside Bucharest, he first came to the city after the Second World War to attend university, but at age 20, both of his parents died and he returned home to look after his family responsibilities. There were still a large number of Jews living in his home town and one particular family decided to help him, inviting him to live in the Frida Cohen apartment on condition that he care for an elderly relative of theirs. He accepted and spent twenty years looking after the old gentleman. During this time he married and his wife also came to live in the apartment. When the old man died, his family asked Mr Dodu to stay in the apartment as thanks for his many years of service. He has since visited the former owner's family in Jerusalem and proudly displays souvenirs from the city on his wall. I am extremely grateful to him for sharing his story and allowing me into his home.

Bucharest by Yekkes

A little earlier we had met a much younger resident of another Janco building - the apartment block - Imobilul Jacques Costin, at Str Paleologu number 5. Built in 1933, it features a beautiful sculpted relief to the right of the main door (pictured above). This was carved by Milita Petrascu, a friend of Janco's and for whom he later designed a villa. The relief features wool being woven by two women - one of the products that Romania's inter-war wealth was built on. Valentin managed to get us inside the block by talking to the young man (also returning with shopping!), explaining that he had guests from London who were interested in the building. Deeply suspicious and somewhat sceptical that the building was of any importance, he allowed us into the lobby and the stair well. In Romanian, he told us that he did not like living in Romania, saying he wished he had been born in another country, that it was impossible to make progress here and that he wanted to leave. When Valentin explained the historical importance of Janco, his response was that he was dead so how could he be interesting? Contrast his feelings with those of Mr Dodu who was very proud of his city and his home. (Pictured below - Milita Petrascu's house designed by Janco)

Bucharest by Yekkes

The building is in need of restoration and would be at risk in the event of a future earthquake. It features  Janco's trademark ocean liner portholes on the main facade and on the sides of the building, an ornate front door and a beautiful narrow spiral staircase. We wandered into the basement which was in darkness but which once housed a concierge's quarters and it was still possible to see some of the original features on the interior doors. It has already suffered neglect as well as poor "modernisation" through the substituting of the original window frames with plastic replacements.Valentin explained that this is a common practice in Bucharest, that people generally lack knowledge of heritage issues and genuinely feel they are improving "old buildings".

The stunning Imobilul Bazaltin building, constructed in 1935 is located at Piata Charles de Gaulle number 2 (detail pictured below). This beautiful building must have been the showpiece of this part of the city back in the 1930's, but is now overshadowed by a variety of fairly nondescript modern steel and glass structures. The land adjacent to the Bazaltin is a large, abandoned building site, partially underwater. There are many such sites around the city, the result of the current financial crisis in Romania. Who knows when these sites will be either completed or cleared?

Janco's magnificent block originally housed a building society- not the financial type but one concerned with architecture. There were also a number of private apartments in the building which until recently housed an "exclusive" nightclub. It is currently empty and shows signs of fire damage on the ground floor. Like several other Janco buildings, the Imobilul Bazaltin features port holes and in this case interesting square windows, but for me it is the upper level of the building with the stepped roof of the main tower and the varied voluming that is the main attraction. It also features some beautiful curves which together with the tower bring to mind the much loved art deco/ modernist "ocean liner" look of some of Janco's finer buildings.

Bucharest by Yekkes

My favourite Janco building in Bucharest has to be Imobilul Solly Gold at Boulevard Hristo Botev Number 34 (pictured below). It is a three floor irregular pentagon structure, originally built as a luxury apartment block. Like the Jacques Costin building, it features a decorative panel by the main door as well as a panel giving the names of Janco as the designer and Maximilian Marcus as the builder. One side features some extremely interesting, triangular bay windows, with Janco again demonstrating experimentation and innovation with volume. Some of the original windows have been replaced with hideous plastic frames whilst at the rear of the building the whole shape of one of the windows has been changed according to the "taste" of a more recent owner. But despite this, the building is a jewel. Its corner location adds to its sense of importance. It is a little worn and in need of some care, but this building knows its a beauty. Imobilul Solly Gold was a real highlight of my time in Bucharest and I would have loved to see inside. If anyone has any pictures of the interior, I would be most interested to see them!

Janco was not the only modernist or art deco architect to grace Bucharest with beautiful buildings, but he was one of the more prolific, several have survived and we are able to identify them. The few I have highlighted here demonstrate the richness of the Bucharest of the 1930's and I know there are many more still to discover and enjoy. Yet another reason to return to the city.

You can see more pictures of Bucharest here.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Romania Romania - Jewish Bucharest

Romania was once home to over 800,000 Jews. It was a thriving, vibrant community that included musicians, architects, artists, actors, tailors, cobblers, manual workers, religious and secular communities, Zionists and assimilated Jews. Up to 380,00 were killed or caused to die during the second world war when Romania was allied to the Germans and the other Axis powers. Of those that remained in Romania after the war, a further 300,000 left primarily for Israel between 1948 and 1988, but not before former President Nicolae Ceausescu had received payment from the Israeli government for every Jew he allowed to leave. Today there are about 5,000 Romanians who either identify as, or know that they are Jewish.

This ageing remnant of a once proud community is surprisingly active. It supports a museum, three working synagogues and a community centre whilst the state supports the world famous Jewish Theatre. Last weekend I was lucky enough to not only visit some of the remaining Jewish landmarks, but also to walk through the streets of the former Jewish quarter and to meet some of the remaining community members. I could not have done this without the help and guidance of Valentin Mandache, Architectural Historian, holder of many interesting stories of Bucharest and publisher of an excellent, much followed and highly recommended blog - Historic Houses of Romania.

This was my first visit to Romania. I have been to central and eastern Europe many times, but never before to Bucharest. Its not that I wasn't curious about the city once known as Little Paris, or the Paris of the East - I was. I have enjoyed the compositions of Enescu and the gypsy inspired musical tradition of Romania. I have read the diaries of Mikhail Sebastian. I have been enchanted by the romantic sounding Romanian names - Viscopoleanu, Ionesco, Popescu, Corbu and Teodorescu. When I was a child I was fascinated to know that my name - Adrian - was not unknown in Romania, indeed in the 1970's I remember a Romanian high jumper called Adrian Proteasa - who according to Wikipedia now lives and coaches in Norway!

I am not sure why its taken me so long to visit, but I suspect its because of the undeserved bleak and grim image that Bucharest has in the west. We know about the Ceausescu regime. We know about the orphans of that period and we know that a combination of earthquakes and Communist style urban planning blighted huge tracts of the city. But many (most?) people in the west don't know that Bucharest has many treasures. There are hundreds of exquisite art deco and modernist buildings from the 1920's and 1930's. There are heart stoppingly beautiful buildings in the Neo Romanian style from the early 1900's and later, there are art nouveau buildings, beautiful parks, very good restaurants, a fast developing (reviving?) cafe scene with excellent coffee and yes, you guessed it, great cakes and ice-creams, a small but good quality jazz scene (good for me!) and some remarkably friendly and accommodating people.

But back to Jewish Bucharest. Its hard to know what to include under this subject since so many famous Bucharest residents were at leads of Jewish origin. Let's start with the living. One of the unexpected highlights of my visit came on Saturday morning when Valentin took me on a tour of the remaining Marcel Janco designed buildings of the city. This was exciting enough in itself, but as we approached the State Jewish Theatre, we were greeted by a small group of people outside the building who asked if we were interested to see inside - which of course we were. Thinking we might just get a peep at the lobby I followed the male administrator in (who turned out not to be Jewish), plus an elegant woman who Valentin discretely told me was non other than Maia Morgenstern, star and now Director of the Theatre and well-known Hollywood actress. And guess what? She took us around the building herself, including a visit to the auditorium. The theatre seats about 270 people in the stalls and the circle and I had the experience of looking out at those seats from the stage. Imagine, being invited to stand on the stage of the world famous State Jewish Theatre of Bucharest in the company of its finest actress who also happened to have taken over the job of Director a few days earlier!

Bucharest by Yekkes
Maia Morgenstern, Director of the State Jewish Theatre and Valentin Mandache, architectural historical
The theatre is much loved and cherished by the company - most of whom are not Jewish and who have to learn the Yiddish plays phonetically, being able to neither read nor or understand Yiddish! To make this even more of a challenge, each seat has built in simultaneous translation technology for the Romanian audience but the actors can sometimes hear the translation too which must be extremely off putting for them! The theatre needs investment to secure its long term future. Maia explained that her vision is for a vibrant theatre with a regular audience and that she would like to "restore" rather than "renovate" the building. This was good to hear as a number of heritage buildings have been "improved" when renovated by including plastic windows, covering up beautiful fascias or applying unattractive renderings! The theatre is one of a very few remaining venues in the world where plays are still performed in Yiddish. It is of international importance and not just to Jews, but also to theatre lovers, historians and people who care about culture and heritage. It would be good to see organisations from around the world work together with Maia and her colleagues to ensure the glittering history of the Theatre is preserved and continues.

I also met two other interesting people from the community. A young man called David, in his early twenties and working for the Jewish community in the office adjacent to the beautiful (but under restoration) Choral Temple and a very charming older lady called Hilda Grunman who I met at the Jewish Museum which is housed in the former tailor's synagogue. David wants to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) to join some of his other family members who have already gone. He is active in the Bucharest community, working at the centre that supports older people but also taking an interest in the somewhat impressive programme for younger people which includes screenings, music events, cookery and yoga! He explained that there are a significant number of Romanian Jews who either don't want to, or are too frightened to identify as such and that the more secular activities are offered to offer a way in, or back to the community for these people.

Bucharest by Yekkes
Choral Temple main entrance
Hilda gave us a brief tour of the museum explaining a little of the long history of Romanian Jewry, its long commitment to the country, its contribution to the First World War effort, the suffering of the Second World War years and of earlier pogroms , such as in Kishniev in 1903 as well as the many achievements in the arts, sciences and business that the Jews achieved in and for Romania.  She told me she had lived in Bucharest all of her life. She had learned Hebrew as a child but hadn't spoken it in years - surprising herself at being able to answer my questions when I practised my own Hebrew! She explained that as the community is so small, many Romanian Jews "marry out" and wondered what religion her grandchildren would be in such an environment. There was not time to talk further with her but she did tell me I should come again - and I would like to!

Walking through the streets of the old Jewish quarter, I recognised the sadness of absence that permeates many cities in this part of the world that once had large Jewish communities. The appalling, irrecoverable loss is almost palpable, whilst the thought of what might have been in these cities if history had taken a different course inevitably comes to mind.

Bucharest by Yekkes
Interior of Dr. Moses Rosen Museum of Romanian History
I visited three synagogues during my time in Bucharest. I have already mentioned the former taylor's synagogue, officially called the Holy Union Temple and situated on Mamulari Street. Inaugurated in 1852, it today hosts the Dr. Moses Rosen Museum of Romanian Jewish History. The museum houses a traditional exhibition of photographs, books, documents and religious artefacts on the ground floor, including a few items relating to Marcel Janco, Max Maxy, Tristan Tzara and Ilarie Voronca. I will write more about these avant-garde artists in a later post. There is also a small Holocaust exhibition which includes harrowing photographs of victims of the Iasi pogrom of June 1941. The former women's gallery houses a collection of paintings by important Romanian Jewish artists including Iosef Iser and an early work by Reuven Rubin as well as a small display of graphic design on this floor, including theatre posters and political notices from the pre World War Two years. The synagogue itself is well cared for, appears to have undergone restoration in the last few years and is decorated with Magen Dovids, geometric and floral patterns. It is a beautiful place. It is heartbreaking that its sole (albeit important) function now is as a museum and not as a centre of Jewish communal life as it would once have been. A suggestion - the museum could raise much needed funds through a publishing programme including reproductions of some of the rich collection of photographs as postcards and posters. I have no doubt overseas visitors would buy such items. I certainly would.

Bucharest by Yekkes
Side door to the Yeshua Tova synagogue in Take Ionescu Street
The Yeshua Tova synagogue in Take Ionescu Street is a much simpler affair. "Stories and Images of Jewish Bucharest" by Felicia Waldman and Anca Ciuciu says that it was built in 1840 and extended in 1890, but the interior at least looks more recent, with yeshiva style seating, enabling Torah students to face each other in debate, what appears to be a community kitchen (with the most delicious smells of aubergines being cooked drifting into the prayer hall!) and a permanent Sukkah built on to the rear of the building for communal seders.

The Choral Temple in Sf. Vineri Street was inaugurated in 1867 and is built in the Moorish style. It is one of the largest synagogues in Europe, but I was only able to see the exterior due to restoration works being underway inside. Another reason to go back to Bucharest! There is a fourth synagogue - The Great Synagogue on Vasile Adamache Street which houses the a permanent Holocaust exhibition. Built in 1847 it was modified and extended in 1903 and 1909.

Bucharest by Yekkes

Building in former Jewish quarter, designed by Jewish architect Zilberman

Religious and community buildings are only one part of the former Jewish Bucharest. Much more numerous are the wonderful 1920's and 1930's buildings designed by Jewish architects, often for members of their community and not least those of the extraordinary Marcel Janco. And that story, together with a little about the avant-garde art scene of Bucharest in this period will appear in my next post. But first a musical treat from the recently departed Israeli singer, Yafa Yarkoni, performing a somewhat theatrical version of the Yiddish song "Romania, Romania" which tells about the happy times in this fascinating country.

For more photographs of Bucharest see here

For more information about Jewish Bucharest see the excellent book Stories and Images of Jewish Bucharest by Felicia Waldman and Anca Ciuciu published by media print in 2011 ISBN 978-606-572-001-5. Not currently listed on Amazon so contact the publishers directly if you want a copy of your own.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Picture post number two...Cafe Ein Hod

Israel by Yekkes

Back in 2010 I spent a few days in Ein Hod during one of my many visits to Israel. Just a short drive from Haifa, Ein Hod is a beautiful, peaceful and very friendly place, famous for its artists' colony, founded by, amongst others Marcel Janco, the Dadaist and architect, originally from Romania. I stayed in a "zimmer", an Israeli take on a chalet I suppose. It was a two room apartment - bedroom/living space plus bathroom, with a view all the way to the Mediterranean. It was very comfortable and restful, and I remember watching some great sunsets from my terrace. Ein Hod is home to the Janco Dada Museum, the fantastic Silver  Print Gallery where the owner Vivienne Silver-Brody showed me her collection of beautiful prints from pre-state Israel - I couldn't resist taking some home (!) - and of course, a really good cafe - Cafe Ein Hod where I had my breakfast each day  - an Israeli salad and omelette.  Big Israeli portions of healthy tasty food with fresh orange and strong coffee. Terrific. Sadly, Ein Hod suffered in the fires in Northern Israel during 2011. The Silver Gallery and the zimmer I stayed in escaped the flames, but not everyone was so lucky. But Israelis are resilient. Ein Hod has made a good recovery and is welcoming guests again. 

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Picture post number one...Georgia on my mind

Georgia 2008 by Yekkes

I have been leafing back through old photos and enjoying my pictures from a trip to Georgia in 2008. It was a great experience - Tbilisi is a fascinating city and I surprised myself by enjoying walking in the hills, climbing a waterfall and drinking mineral water directly from the spring - not normally my thing. I had a fantastic guide - Maya and a great driver - Giorgy. They both looked after me, ensured I saw all the things I wanted to see and seemed to share my strange sense of humour. I hope they are well and thriving. This picture shows the entrance to the 17th century sulphur baths in Tbilisi, with the narrow steps at the side leading to the city's only mosque (you can see a little of the minaret) and a traditional Georgian style house with a beautiful loggia. Many of the houses adjacent to the baths are occupied by artists.  The reader was waiting for the baths to open. Georgia remains near the top of my list of most enjoyed trips - I can almost taste the kachapuri cheese bread now just thinking about it! Great cherry juice too...

You can see more pictures from Georgia here.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Doobie doo, run run run - Roy Ayers Live at Ronnie Scott's

Doobie doo, run run run, doobie doo, run run run...

Roy Ayers provided the soundtrack to some of my happiest times during my late teens and early twenties. A succession of brilliant albums by this maestro vibes player, often featuring terrific and little known guest (usually female) vocalists gave us such masterpieces as Get On Up Get On Down, Don't Stop The Feeling, Can't You See Me, Heat of the Beat (with Wayne Henderson) and of course the jazz-funk anthem - Running Away (Doobie doo, run run run).

I discovered Mr Ayers - originally recording under the name of his band, Roy Ayers Ubiquity - when living in my small home town in the north-east of England in the late 1970's. He seemed the epitome of sophistication with the "of their time" album covers (!), unique vibes sounds and totally cool jazz-funk compositions. I made a weekly pilgrimage to a basement club in Middlesbrough - Mandy's, now long gone - to listen and dance to his music as well as to the dance tracks of Patrice RushenGeorge Duke, Narada Michael Walden and others.

A taxi home was about eight pounds and if I didn't have the money and couldn't get a lift, it was a case of walking the 8 miles or so to Redcar and then paying two pounds for a taxi from there. On one famous occasion, a car pulled up with two people who I had passed when walking and offered me a lift. I got in, asked them why they had left their car so far from anywhere to be told "We've just nicked it". I suddenly discovered a desire to walk every one of those eight miles and got out at a set of traffic lights with a cheery "good night".

But I digress. I saw Mr Ayers perform a few years ago at the Wardrobe in Leeds and to be honest was a little disappointed - not with him, but with the sound. Everything was too loud and the sound distorted. Well that wouldn't happen at Ronnie Scotts and last night the 71 years old (!) vibes maestro was on top form, knocking out a string of his biggest hits, starting with Love Will Bring Us Back Together, then a great version of Can't You See Me which led straight into Running Away. Job already done with serious involvement from the audience - many of whom appeared to be of that certain age - my age - that would have discovered him when I did. 

And there was more to come. Thick and fast we had Evolution, Everybody Loves the Sunshine (with compulsory audience participation), Sweet Tears (which appeared on the NuYorican Soul album from 1997 - another favourite of mine, thanks Roy) and a lengthy medley of other well loved tracks include a much too short version of Don't Stop the Feeling - for me his absolute best track ever. Much clapping, cheering, shouting and stamping resulted in a short version of the cheekily named Kiss Me on My Poo Poo La La, and then it was over.

A bit of a lady killer in his day (check his old vinyl album sleeves on the internet and you'll see what I mean), Ayers was in relaxed mode, demonstrating his musically influenced sense of humour and regularly checking that the audience were enjoying themselves. He was clearly very happy to be playing this most famous of venues and paid tribute to Ronnie Scott, saying he had founded the most well known jazz club in the world.

He may be 71 but he can still play those vibes as well as back in my basement bar days and there is still no-one to beat him. There was much interplay between him and the band, especially the vocal versus sax joust that he had with Ray Gaskins Junior. Aside from Ayers, Gaskins was the start of the show, squeezing some incredible notes from the sax and playing pretty good keyboards too. Also extensively featured was vocalist John Presley (no relation as far as I know) who both gave vocal support to the star of the show and was showcased on a new (to me) ballad - You Got It.

Ronnie Scotts was packed to hear this jazz-funk legend and the famous "Full House" sign has been displayed for each of the three evenings of his short residency so far. No doubt tonight (Saturday) - the final night will be the same. Two shows last night, two more tonight and then flying back to New York tomorrow for more concerts. Come back soon.

Oh, and if anyone with influence ever reads this, please can we have Roy's delicious 1979 album No Stranger to Love released as a CD please? Thanks very much.

Sunday 12 August 2012

London 2012, part 2: "Mon-ten-egro, Mon-ten-egro", ball games, wrestling and a posh drunk on the train.

So maybe the website wasn't so bad after all - I managed to get tickets for the women's Basketball semi-final at North Greenwich Arena (O2) between the USA and Australia and then the women's Handball final between Montenegro and Norway at the Basketball arena within the main Olympic park, hurrah! Securing tickets for an event in the main Olympic Park was a real thrill - I had been feeling left out, wanting desperately to see inside the Park whilst the Olympics were still on and here I was with a ticket for the final night (not counting the closing ceremony)!

We will return to this, but first the women's Basketball semi-final. Wow. Basketball has never really grabbed me, but I was certainly gripped by this match. Where did they get so many extremely tall women from? Several were more than 6 feet tall, one was 6 feet 5 and another 6 feet 7! The Aussies led early on but were eventually downed by the Americans after a thrilling, furious, aggressive match full of feinting,"time-outs", personal fouls (boooohhhh!!!) and some frankly bonkers supporters! I loved Liz Cambidge of Australia who was the top scorer for the match and according to my daughter advertises vitamins in Australian TV (!), was taken aback by her team mate, a 6 feet 5 inches Madonna lookalike (the singer, not the nice lady in the religious paintings) with legs so long that her shorts looked like a t-shirt dress and loved to hate Diana Taurisi, a brilliant player in the US team, but (in my not very well informed opinion) was unnecessarily aggressive, pushing and shoving her opponents even when they weren't in possession.

After the match I travelled across the water to Excel using the cable car and enjoying fantastic arial views of North Greenwich Arena (O2 to most people), of the Thames and of the new developments around Excel on the other side. By this time it was after 8pm and the streets around Excel were crowded with people coming to and from the venue as well as people like me - strolling and enjoying the atmosphere, stopping off at the pop up eateries for dinner or snaffling ice cream like me!

The Basketball was great but nothing compares to the handball final in the Basketball Arena. Actually getting there was a thrill - entering the Olympic Park, being so close to the main stadium, walking amongst the thousands of visitors from all over the world, being helped and directed by the "games makers" volunteers. And they really did make the games, helping everyone, smiling, joking and cajoling the huge crowds in order to make everything move smoothly.

After worrying that I wouldn't see the park in all its glory, I was not disappointed. The Basketball Stadium - very simply in its design but very effective, a white box with "golf ball" surfaces, the fantastic curves of the velodrome and the aquatics centre. But the highlight was being able to watch the men's 5000 metres final on the big screen in the area called "Park Live" together with thousands of other visitors. If the roar inside the stadium hadn't been so huge (and we could hear it several hundred yards away), then Mo Farah would have heard us cheering from our patch of grass by the screen. Every time he moved closer to the front, thousands of supporters cheered, screamed and waived their flags in support. But this was nothing compared to that final terrifying lap where he took the chance, took control and held off his opponents to cross the line first for his second medal of the Games. Mad cheering. People crying. Almost hysterical but a moment not to have missed.

And not too long to recover before the start of the Handball final. I first saw handball in Israel where my friend Barak plays for one of the leading teams. Its a great game, easy to follow, very fast but skilful and again, very physical. Montenegro versus Norway. The Norwegians were the reigning Olympic and World Champions. The Montenegrins were in their first Olympic tournament representing a country that had never won a medal in any sport. The stadium was Norwegian wall to wall. They had even drafted in some Danes carrying posters saying "We are Danish but tonight we are Norwegian". Well, I had no choice did I, but to become a temporary and honorary Montenegrin? This boosted their fan numbers by many percent, but I am not sure they really needed me. A few minutes after the game started, three extremely glamorous and excitable Montenegrin women arrived, sat in the row in front of me and set up a continuous chant of "Mon-ten-egro, Mon-ten-egro", dancing for every point their team won and somewhat winningly one of them turned around and said "I wish I understood what is going on"... Well the Norwegians won, but only just, 26-23, and I don't care how much the Norwegians celebrated or how happy the Vikings in the audience were, I don't believe anyone was happier than the Montenegrin team as they were presented with their country's first ever Olympic medal, jumped onto the podium and did a little celebratory dance. I went home happy.

Thirty minutes later on the packed tube home, there was a real party atmosphere with rambunctious celebratory French passengers, friendly atmosphere and unfortunately a posh English woman so drunk that when she first spoke I didn't realise which language she was slurring. Nothing worse than a posh drunk. Her dear husband was somewhat embarrassed as she shouted that she thought it had all been great, that it compared to the "Jean Michel-Jarre concert at Docklands daaaahling except I was freezing my bollies off then". Delightful. She sounded as if she had been on the Bollie to me but sadly lost some of it when hanging her crimson face through the window between carriages making strange noises at the people in the next carriage. High spirited perhaps, or just full of spirits I was glad to avoid a cleaning bill by getting off at the next stop.

I loved the Handball and also enjoyed the freestyle wrestling at Excel - somewhat different to those staged bouts that used to be televised on Saturday afternoons when my mum would be doing the ironing in front of Word of Sport or Grandstand, whichever it was. This was serious stuff and a real "Olympic" sport dating back to ancient times. The mat was graced by wrestlers from most of the "stan" - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan not to mention Azerbaijan (OK so its not a stan but it sort of fits) as well as Cubans, Canadians, Ukrainians, Turks, Americans and Japanese. I hadn't realised how technical this sport is or how quickly the lead can change or a both come to an unceremonious end with  one contestant being thrown and pinned to the ground by his shoulders. Gold medals for Japan and USA, two medal ceremonies and that was it, my Olympics over.

Writing this watching the closing ceremony at home, I can't believe the 17 days have passed so quickly, so peacefully and so excitingly. I don't want it to be over or London's mood to be lost. So, the plan is to  see if the Paralympics website is any easier to deal with and to take Portuguese lessons as soon as I can...its only four years to Rio in 2016!

Monday 6 August 2012

London 2012 - great gymnastics, crap ticketing systems and a strange obsession with lists

I was a strange child. I had an unusual interest in lists. List of British monarchs. Lists of countries. Lists of capital cities. And lists of Olympic Games host cities and medal winners. I can still recite the host city of every summer Olympics from Athens in 1896 to London 2012, including the extra celebration held in 1906 in Athens, and which was out of synch with the usual four year cycle.

I have never worked out quite why I had a special obsession with the Olympics. I was reasonably good at athletics as a teenager, reaching county standard before I discovered drinking and going out, but I never liked team games, doing anything I could to avoid them at school. My current theory is that this strange passion was something to do with travel and the long list of countries that march in the opening ceremony. This is because my other fixation was maps. None of that Ordnance Survey jolly hockey sticks stuff, but maps of different countries, poring over how close Bucharest was to Sofia, how far Vienna was from Istanbul and where exactly is Surinam.

Sitting in my shared bedroom in my little seaside hometown, where nothing much happened and where it was cold even in the summer thanks to the "cooling breeze" (for which read howling gale) from the North Sea, I would dream of one day traveling abroad. My horizons were somewhat limited. I thought of Switzerland as being particularly exotic and wondered if I'd ever visit. Well, I never have been to Switzerland (at least not yet), but I have been to some pretty wonderful parts of the world. My other desire was to participate in the Olympic Games and in moments of reverie, I would imagine myself crossing the final hurdle, approaching the long jump run-up or preparing for high jump take-off, even to the extent of doing a slow motion version in the living room when no-one else was around. It never happened, but 2007 saw the Olympic Games awarded to my home town of the last 24 years - to London - and although (sadly) my chance of competing appears to have gone by, I could at least attend and experience the atmosphere of an Olympic Games.

Applying early on for tickets, I was desperate to see some of the athletics - perhaps Jessica Ennis in the Heptathlon, some of the hurdles events (my favourite), perhaps some of the exciting swimming finals and maybe Handball - a sport I have come to enjoy through my time in Israel. No such luck. I got tickets for Wrestling (August 12th), and nothing else, although most of my wrestling was with the frankly crap ticketing website where I spent hours selecting tickets listed as being available only to find that after hours of waiting for the "15 minutes or more" for confirmation of my purchase, that the bloody tickets didn't exist. But all was not lost as I was invited to see some of the gymnastics finals on Sunday August 5th. Result. And, after many hours of trying, I secured tickets for the women's volleyball. I was going to the Olympics!

We'll come to how it was,  but first I have some early memories of the Olympics. I think I remember the 1964 games in Tokyo (although I was only 4 - so I can't really can I?) - but I do remember the fantastic (best ever?) theme music from the 1964 games - Tokyo Melody. Composed by a German(!), I am told it is still used on Japanese television for major events. I still love it, and here it is...

I also have memories from Mexico City in 1968. My neighbours were a little "horsey" and as they had no television, came to our house to watch the Olympic show jumping. Not my thing at all and I remember being annoyed that we had to watch this instead of the weekly Tarzan TV series with Ron Ely! I also have vague memories of David Hemery winning the men's 400 metres hurdles and a very young Lilian Board being devastated at "only" winning the silver medal in the women's 400 metres. I have a musical memory too - the theme tune for the TV coverage - "Mexico" recorded by Long John Baldry. You can listen to it here

My memories of Munich in 1972 are overshadowed by the brutal murder of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by Arab terrorists and the appallingly poor handling of the situation by the German security forces. Shamefully, the International Olympic Committee refuses to mark the anniversary of these murders at every subsequent Games. Before the terrorist murders, Mary Peters had won the Pentathlon for the Uk, very narrowly defeating the then West Germany's Heidi Rosendahl and East Germany's Burglinde Pollak.

But what of London? Its been "stupendous" to quote a friend. Starting with the torch relay which I saw at St. Paul's Cathedral and then again at Millennium Bridge where wheelchair sportsman Ade Adepitan carried the torch across the river to south London, there have been many emotional moments for me - the absolute thrill of watching the opening ceremony on TV and the longing to have been there; chatting on the tube with one of the managers of the fleet of drivers employed to make sure the athletes get to the competitions on time (it had never occurred to me to think about how this is organised) and meeting a lovely Caribbean lady from Croydon at the volleyball at Earls Court who told me she had travelled to Cardiff by herself to see the football and had spent hours on that damn website trying to get other tickets, and of course seeing the competitions themselves.

I felt nervous and excited at the O2 Arena (renamed North Greenwich Arena for the Games - sponsorship issues and all that). I so wanted Israel's Alex Shatilov to win the floor exercises and despite doing extremely well, a coupe of very minor mistakes held him down to sixth position behind the flawless demonstrations of Chinese, Japanese and Russian gymnasts. There was agony in the women's vault when one of the Canadian athletes injured herself on landing and was unable to complete her second vault. There was also ecstasy from the tall, blonde Romanian gymnast who took the gold medal with a very big score to the obvious displeasure of the sour faced runner-up!

But none of this compared to the breathless tension of watching the men's pommel horse. The auditorium was awash with Union flags and thousands of people just willing Louis Smith to win the gold for Britain. He was the last of the eight competitors to perform and the wait was pure torture. More heartbreak as one of the Hungarians came off the horse and had to remount to continue his routine. The younger British gymnast Max Whitlock performed out of his skin and took an unexpected lead as the fourth of eight men to perform, just about bringing the house down with the roar from the crowd. And then we had the experienced Hungarian gymnast - Krisztian Berki who performed faultlessly with a combination of hand stands, flairs, scissors and assorted speedy and unbelievably difficult twists and turns to easily head the field. Fantastic. And worrying for the Brits. A big group of Hungarians chanted "Hungaria, Hungaria" and made more noise than their numbers would have led us to expect.

And then Smith took the platform. Deafening roars from the crowds. Flags waiving. Then silence. His routine was stunning, technically the most difficult of all we saw and attracting the highest tariff in terms of scores but making it very difficult to execute. A few cheers as he progressed and some clapping, but for perhaps one minute the crowd sat in terrified silence. A great dismount. A massive massive roar and then the score came up. The same as the Hungarian! Surely they had tied and it was a gold medal? But no, the rules defer to the best marks for execution in the event of a tie and the Hungarian did marginally better. Silver not gold. A groan and then rapturous applause as the crowd saluted Smith's achievement and also realised that Whitlock had got the bronze and two Britons would stand on the podium.

The medal ceremonies took place directly after each of the finals and we soon saw two Union flags, flanking the Hungarian flag of the gold medallist as we stood for his anthem. Very moving and emotional but more so for me was the awarding of the medals to the background of Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme. There was something very British about the moment...

And then a mad dash across London to Earls Court to collect the volleyball tickets and to watch the games. This was my first time at a "real" volleyball game and I wasn't disappointed. Fast, furious, noisy, physical and demanding total concentration I could easily become addicted to this sport. There seems to be a great deal of ritual surrounding the game with much high-fiving, synchronised sweeping of the court during time-outs and at changeover at the end of a set and near hysterical celebration and chanting from the fans. Both my teams lost...Turkey went down 3-0 to the USA as did Serbia to Brazil, but both teams but up a better fight than this would indicate. Completely out of character, I found myself cheering, groaning and taking part in a Mexican wave as the evening progressed. Most entertaining of all were the Brazilians who burst into song and dance for just about every point their team won and also the young Turkish man who rallied his team's supporters with chants of "Turk-ee-ay. Turk-ee-ay". It was over too soon, but I still had my wrestling tickets yet!

Who would have thought that the strange child in the cold northern bedroom would one day sit in not one but two Olympic venues in one day and witness real live Olympic competition, not to mention traveling to places a little more exotic than Switzerland (which I still intend to visit)? The strangeness persists a little - I like looking at lengthy lists of results on the Olympic website...

Thursday 2 August 2012

Jewish Sarajevo, a beautiful church and the Bosnian Pyramids

Sarajevo has a Jewish community of about 700 people. About 300 of these are "halachically" Jewish with the rest being offspring of mixed Jewish/ non-Jewish marriages. This is the remnant of a once much bigger presence, firmly established in the 16th century century with an influx of Sephardi Jews as a result of the earlier expulsion from Spain and much reduced during the Holocaust and by the exodus of several hundred community members during the Balkan War of 1992-95.

Sarajevo has been referred to as the "Little Jerusalem" due to the long and proud Jewish history in the city. The legacy of this long presence includes probably the most famous Jewish Book in the world - the Sarajevo Haggadah, hundreds of beautiful songs brought from Spain at the time of the expulsion and still sometimes sung in the original Judeo-Spanish, a wealth of Jewish learning and writing and a story of  largely peaceful co-existence with Muslim and Christian neighbours.

There have been dark periods in this history. The darkest of course occurred during the Second World War when the former Yugoslavia was occupied by Germany and when some 85% of the city's almost 12,000 Jews were transported to their deaths at a variety of camps in the former Yugoslavia. During this period, a number of Jewish intellectuals played a significant part in the resistance, including the writer Laura Papo La Bohoretta was eventually arrested and murdered. There are many stories of Muslim and Christian Bosnians helping Jewish friends and neighbours to evade the German occupiers and there are currently 40 Bosnian names on the register of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. However, this is only one side of the story as the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, who spent much of the war in Berlin and broadcast messages of support for the German regime also came to Bosnia during this time, recruited local Muslims to a special SS Division, who then participated in the killing of Jews and other minorities.
Sarajevo by Yekkes
Ashkenazi Synagogue, Sarajevo

Jews have generally been well integrated into Bosnian society over the centuries and an example of this continuing acceptance included the Jewish relief organisation, La Benovelencija, assisting Muslims, Serbs and Croats to leave the city during the siege by taking them out with groups of elderly Jews and Jewish children who were evacuated from the city. Jewish community leaders have described this as repaying the help given to by fellow Bosnians to many Jews during the Second World War.

There are few remaining Jewish institutions in Sarajevo. The Great Synagogue in the city centre, built in 1581, is now a museum exhibiting a collection of religious objects, photographs and biographies of leading Bosnian Jewish artists and intellectuals including La Bohoretta (who is honoured by a plaque on the building's exterior), Daniel Ozmo and Doctor Isak Samokovlija. There are also exhibits relating to the Holocaust, to Bosnian Jewish life between the wars and a replica of the Sarajevo Haggadah is on display. The building is very well maintained and the damage sustained during the 1992-95 war has been repaired but it is not hard to feel the sense of loss of this once great community as this once "great" synagogue no longer serves a living community. Adjacent to the synagogue is the New Temple Gallery, another building owned by the Jewish community and used for art exhibitions. it was closed on the day I visited the Museum.

There remains one working synagogue in Sarajevo - the Ashkenazi synagogue across the river Miljacka, and a short walk from the Latinska Bridge. This synagogue is one of the largest in Europe and was built in 1902 to the design of architects Karl Parzik and Jungwirth. Built in the Moorish style, it is the only working synagogue in the country today. I understand that the interior is also in Moorish style with arches and wall pantings by Ludwig Oisner, but at the time of my visit the synagogue was locked. I have no count I will return to Sarajevo so seeing the inside of this imposing building will be on my list of must-dos.

One of the most enduring legacies of Sarajevo's Jewish community is its influence on music. The Sephardim spoke, read and wrote in Judeo-Spanish having brought the language with them from Spain following the expulsion of 1492 and many books, songs and poems were written in this beautiful, but now almost dead language. A number of singers such as Israeli's Yasmin Levy and Mor Karbasi are working hard to preserve this music and to promote it to a wide audience. Flory Jagoda, born in Sarajevo but now resident in the United States has recorded many of the specifically Bosnian songs. You can hear one of them by clicking on the video below.

Although Sarajevo has only one working synagogue today, the city is not short of religious buildings with many mosques and Orthodox and Catholic churches. I especially enjoyed visiting the Franciscan Monastery and Church of Saint Antonio in the Bistrik quarter of the city, very close to my hotel. The church was built in a very short period in 1912 and replaced a less robust earlier structure. Designed by architect Josip Vancas in the new gothic style, the church is a very large structure, towering over the neighbouring residential buildings and the famous Sarajevska Pivara brewery. The interior was refurbished in the 1960's and features stunning stained glass windows by Croatian artists Ivo Dulcic, wood carvings by sculptor Zdenko Grgic and a beautiful mural of the Last Supper behind the central altar.

Bistrik is a pretty quarter with many interesting buildings in a range of styles including art nouveau apartments, brightly coloured houses and rows of well maintained cottages. It is also a very green part of the city with many gardens, trees and grassy areas.

The final stop on my short visit to Bosnia was Visoko, a small town just a short drive from Sarajevo and which until recently attracted visitors with its leather trade and handicraft workshops, its fortress and a small town museum. This all changed in April 2005 when Semir Osmanagic, an American based Bosnian researcher noticed two geometrically symmetrical hills close to the town. Osmanagic maintained that the Visocia Hill (now known as the Bosnian pyramid of the Sun) and Pljesivica Hill (now the Bosnian pyramid of the Moon) shared characteristics with pyramids he had studied in Egypt and in South America. As you might expect, his assertions created quite a stir amongst archaeologists and the general public with a great deal of doubt being cast on his views.

After numerous subsequent excavations, he has been able to convince many experts (although not all), that the formations are not natural. Evidence to support Osmanagic's case include geological verification that the Visocica Hill is a massive stone formation in the shape of a pyramid, with excavations showing large slabs of hand carved stone at each level of the hill. Satellite, thermal and radar images of Pljesevica Hill show perfectly identical dimensions - surely indicating that the structure is artificial in nature.

On the morning of my visit, the upper levels of the hills were shrouded in mist and a steady drizzle was falling. Accompanied my travelling partner, I slowly made my way up Pljesivica Hill. There is a small entry fee to climb to where the excavations are exposed and after asking whether or not we spoke German (which we don't), the attendant explained to us (in German) that we must keep to the wooden edged steps cut into the mud (so maybe we do understand German?). Good advice, but some stretches of the climb either don't have steps cut in, or the wooden edges have already been worn away. What did I think? Well, there is definitely a massive sloping rock formation under the heavily forested top soil of the hill and it does look man made to me, although very different to the Egyptian pyramids which have been exposed to centuries of weathering. Osmanogic believes the structures to be more than 10,000 years old and they may have originated when the Balkan peninsula was a refuge for Mediterranean civilisations during the last ice age.

Still the subject of much debate the site is now being further excavated by a number of experts drawn from across the world. One thing for certain, looking down on the exquisite green countryside from the misty and heavily wooded hill top, it wasn't hard to imagine that an ancient civilisation would choose this place as a refuge from the encroaching ice.

And a confession. Visoko wan't my absolute last stop in Bosnia. That honour and delight fell to Samis, where there was just enough time for another coffee and a piece of baklava before going to the airport.