Ravenna is, at first glance, very similar to other Italian towns. There are the houses in every shade of yellow from cream to orange. There are the leaning towers and the churches with scroll-top facades. There are the narrow cobblestone streets, the random gates where walls used to be, the statue of Garibaldi, the stone wells in courtyards, the loggias.

But there are a few nuances. The first, of course, is mosaics. Just as everyone I’ve read on the subject promised they are magnificent and impossible to describe or adequately photograph.

Here are a few photographs of Roman and Medieval mosaics. Note also the stone windows. The colored mosaics are mainly walls and ceilings, while the black-white-red ones are floors, and tend to be older.

And here are a few of the modern ones from the MAR museum

The beige rectangle below is a great example of why it’s pointless to photograph mosaics. It’s called Motion. It looks exactly like a field of dry grass in the wind – very alive and fascinating. One can spend a lot of time standing in front of it, but the photo is just a beige rectangle. I think part of the reason is that our eyes constantly move, and mosaics, especially deep ones like this one, change with the angle of view without the viewer consciously noticing the change except as a suggestion of life and movement.

And, of course, the street signs are also mosaics. And there are mosaic flowers all over to assure me that Ravenna is a friendly city for women.

Besides the mosaics there are less striking differences. Ravenna thinks of itself as a green city, and while it would not be considered particularly (or at all) green in North California it is more green than any other Italian city I saw. There are little “parks” everywhere – just squares with a few trees or bushes, but they do gladden the eye. And lawns, and trees. And there are at least three large parks, one of them in an old Venetian tower.

Another difference is the cult of Dante. Dante lived here after his exile, finished Paradise, and was repeatedly buried here.

There is not one, but two Dante museums and a learning center, and multiple statues of Dante. Note the two statues sharing a lawn, and two portraits of Dante sharing a wall. At first I thought that people wandering the streets wearing laurel wreaths and carrying bouquets were cosplaying Dante or on their way to offer him homage, but no – that’s part of the college graduation here. It was, however, a very natural mistake. Every day, at sunset chosen citizens come to Dante’s tomb to read a canto from the Divine Comedy. This started on the 700th anniversary of his death in 2021, and was supposed to only last one year, but they enjoyed it so much they plan to keep doing it forever.

In fact, Dante was not merely buried here once in 1321, near the cloister of St. Francis’ monastery. Dante burials are like Dante statues – why stop at just one? They do something with his bones every century.

In the 15th century they moved his sarcophagus into the cloister. In the 16th century the Florentines realized how wrong they’d been and started asking for Dante’s bones. This request was supported by the Medici popes (Florentine) and Michelangelo (employed by the Medici popes) and finally succeeded in 1519, but the Franciscan monks hid Dante’s bones in the wall. In 1677 they took the bones out and put them in a box. In 1781 the bones were put back into the sarcophagus and the whole thing moved into a brand new tomb outside of the cloister. To show how sorry they are Florence supplies the olive oil for the ever-burning lamp inside the tomb. In 1810 Napoleon came around and the monks hid Dante’s bones again. Florentines, meanwhile, sneakily bult another tomb for Dante in 1829 and waited. In 1865 the bones were found and put on display in a glass coffin, then re-buried again, disappointing the Florentines. In 1944 they were taken back out and hidden and re-buried in 1945, perhaps forever, but I bet Florentines are still hoping.

Below you can see the tomb, the glass coffin, the box, the place Dante’s bones were buried during WWII and the laurel leaves in jute bags designed by Gabriele d’Annunzio that were brought from Rome and scattered over Dante’s grave by four very brave pilots in 1921 on the 600th anniversary of his death.

But the coolest thing in that neighborhood is actually the crypt of St. Francis, where Dante’s funeral was held. St. Francis is a simple church, almost undecorated except for some fairly typical baroque frescoes, an elaborate animated nativity scene, and a lovely coffered ceiling. But their crypt is beautiful. It’s flooded (Ravenna sits on a marsh), covered with mosaics (of course), and populated by goldfish. Supposedly it contains the remains of bishop Neon who finished the construction of the city’s oldest standing monument, the Neonian baptistery (there’s also an Aryan baptistery built by the Ostrogoths half a century later). I am particularly glad to have seen it, because I’m unlikely to see the Istanbul cisterns and I have long wanted to. Of course, this isn’t the same – but columns, and water, and arches…

Yet another special thing about Ravenna is its history. It was the capital of Western Rome Empire in the 5th century, then the capital Odoacer, and then of the Ostorgothic kingdom (also 5th century) under Theodoric. Theodoric originally agreed to rule jointly with Odoacer, and they even held a banquet to celebrate this, but during the banquet Odoacer was somehow killed. Accidents happen. This is why so much of the architecture here is different – Ravenna’s important period came earlier than those of the surrounding cities.

In the 6th century it was taken over by Byzantines who proceeded to put mosaics everywhere the Ostorgoths missed. Having done that Byzantines were overwhelmed by the Lombars in the 8th century. Lombards were promptly overwhelmed by Franks led by Pepin the Short (first Carolingian king), who handed Ravenna to the popes. The popes showed their gratitude by encouraging Charlemagne (Pepin’s son, the important Carolingian king, first post-Rome emperor in the West) to take anything he liked from Ravenna to his capital in Aachen. He took a lot and Aachen definitely moved much higher on my list of places to visit after I saw what he left.

In the 13th century they had a lot of wars that ended up with the pope on top, but in the 15th century, just like everyone else around here, Ravenna was conquered by Venetians. Venetians built the awesome castle that is now a public park, and then the popes took over again and continued ruling all the way until unification of Italy in 1861, with a brief interruption for Napoleon.

All this means that they were relatively poor at the time when their neighbors were tearing down Romanesque churches and building Renaissance ones and couldn’t afford to destroy all the mosaics. In fact, Ravenna seems relatively poor even now. I haven’t seen churches with peeling ceilings and ivy climbing in through the windows in any other city. It also means that unlike their neighbors they had three kinds of Christianity – Aryan, Byzantine Orthodox, and Catholic, which makes the iconography refreshingly diverse.

The last different thing about Ravenna is that it is so quiet (and I say so despite the one loud restaurant they have that’s right under my window). There are few people on the streets, no lines anywhere, and in the MAR museum I was one of maybe a score people on the first floor (modern mosaics) and the only one on the second (everything else). Having empty museum rooms light up before me was interesting, but at the same time I felt oddly responsible to the artworks and probably looked at each of them more carefully than I would have otherwise.

Btw, did you know that the place where the Goths held on the longest was Crimea? Apparently there were some Gothic villages there as late as the 1940s. The Goth capital was Mangup, near Sevastopol. Their kingdom eventually was overwhelmed by the Huns in 5th century, but they kinda sorta held on as a Byzantine client state until the Khans came around in 15th century. It’s really amazing how much I don’t know about Ukrainian history.

Bologna- Last Day

My last day in Bologna started wonderfully. On my third attempt I finally made it to the Sette Chiese complex. It’s a group of seven churches centered around St. Stefano Basilica and while the basilica can be seen at any time the other churches are on an odd schedule.

Note St. Peter looking almost exactly like Bodhidharma.

And outside St. Stefano’s there was an antiques market. Now, there’s a flea market just about everywhere I go, but antiques? That was much more fun.

I even found one doll of the kind I like, but, unfortunately, not in a good shape. Those markets are always interesting, but can make me sad if I let them – there are so many obvious collections there – puppets, or bird brooches, or porcelain figurines. I saw two bouquets made out of beads – some woman spent hours on these and no one wanted them after she was dead. It’s the kind of thing that makes one want to stop making things and embrace strict minimalism.

From there I went to Palazzo Albergati to see Fantastic Animals.

It’s a really beautiful exhibition around the concept of fairytale animals and their unity with humans. Here are some of the more striking things I saw:

Cow with houses (or castles? or towns?) inside by Mario Consiglio. For me a cow is the essence of peaceful life, a cow filled with small towns a perfect metaphor for civilization. This cow grazing and sleek, warm light shining through, looks like someone who’s been through a lot, and has scars and wounds to show for it, but is at peace and letting their inner beauty glow through the gaps. Consiglio’s message is, as much as I understand it, about surviving catastrophe and shining with a shared hope.

Unnatural history exhibits by Dario Ghibaudo

Giraffes by Sandro Gora, including Marylin on the grid, with air lifting up her spots.

Some completely flat canvases by Mario Ricci

Tangram rabbit and three-sided prism puzzle paintings (bird/fish/sea creature/animal/human) that viewers are intended to reconfigure by Camilla Ancilotto

Overall an exhibition it will be very pleasant to remember.

Afterward I went wandering, and found one of Bologna’s lost canals. This area used to be called Little Venice and the water served the local silk-making, but the canals are closed off and paved over now. There’s a small window to look at the small piece of canal that remains and a large queue to do so. I decided that I can do without a window view πŸ™‚

At the end of the evening I took a random train tour of the city center and was glad to recognize all seven of the “secrets of Bologna” the audio guide riddled at the end.

Between Pelagio Palagi, the ceiling of the anatomical theater, the Fantastic Animals exhibit, the Lamentation for Christ, and the beautiful porticos in the quiet hills leading to St. Luca I’m glad I went to Bologna. As I travel more through this region I find more things I didn’t know about (like the whole Italy vs Pope thing, or the fact that Bolognese citizens were strong enough to keep Friedrich II’s son a prisoner for years or a view of WWII that is very different from both the Russian and the American ones).

Bologna 2.5

For my second full day I decided to get out of the city center and go to the San Luca Sanctuary, 5 km uphill. It’s a pilgrimage destiny, people go there to view an icon of Madonna and child known as “Madonna of St. Luca”. It’s supposed to protect fields from excessive rains. The sanctuary itself was unexpectedly unlike other churches and very beautiful.

But what I really wanted to see was not the icon, but the portico leading up to the church. It’s made up of 666 arches, to symbolize a serpent Maria crushes under her foot and includes 15 chapels (one for each Marian mystery) and numerous exvotos.

I expected a crowded place and was amazed that most of the people who rode up with me didn’t even get off the bus. Of the few that did I was the only one who bought a cupola ticket. The view from the cupola was arcadian.

The cupola itself very interestingly lined with rushes over the bricks. I’m guessing that rushes are there to help hold whitewash if and when the walls and ceilings were to be whitewashed, but it’s just a guess. Perhaps it’s for warmth, or perhaps rushes somehow hold the lime in until it dries.

After coming down I wandered around the city, saw

1. The Saragozza gate

2. A nice statue of Padre Pio

3. Graves of glossators (a kind of founding jurist in middle ages) and cool lion gate toppers at San Francisco

4. A playground in park Della Montagnola surrounded by huge statues of mermaids and predators gruesomely killing prey and each other (no pictures because taking pictures of playgrounds is kind of creepy)

5. The other Lamentation over Christ (good, but suffers from comparison with Della Arca) in the local cathedral (no pictures because people were praying).

6. Yet another monument to the capture of Rome. Seriously, these are everywhere and are one of the big differences between US and Italy.

Bologna 1 (.5)

The best part about my hotel in Bologna is the terrace.

On the first evening I started by strolling to Piazza Maggiore, saw the Neptune fountain, and saw the San Petronio Basilica. My hotel is super-basic, but right in the middle of everything.

Unfortunately, Chapel of the Magi, the place in San Petronio I really wanted to photograph is forbidden to photograph from the inside. You’ll just have to trust me that it was worth waiting for 5 reboots of the credit card machine ;).

Then I just walked the streets. Bologna is known for its 25 miles of colonnades and its multiple towers. Many of those towers are leaning. In fact the famous two towers are currently not accessible and after seeing them from the outside I think I know why.

The next day I walked all over old town and saw

  1. Maria Della Vita with two incredible sculptural groups. The first one is Nicolo Dell’Arca’s Lamentation over Dead Christ, which deserves much better photographs than the ones I was able to take. It is indescribable. My photographs and all others I ever saw seem cheesy. It is cheesy (complete with a gratuitous nipple). For a while the hospital which owned the statues hid them to avoid frightening the patients. It’s not beautiful. It’s not consistent (note the wind that blows on the two Maries at right and not anyone else). It’s striking and unforgettable.

The second group, Transit of the Virgin by Alfonso Lombardi, represents an attempt by the High Priest to overturn Mary’s coffin (An apocryphal and unlikely story. The statues were paid for by the Flagellants, who united to whip themselves and hate Jews). The next day I also went to St. Peter’s cathedral and saw Lombardi’s Lamentation. After Dell’Arca it comes across as almost stoic and sadly staid.

2. Horological tower and views of the city from the top (I had to sign an actual disclaimer to go up these stairs).

3. The Communal art collection – a typical small North Italian museum meaning that they don’t have enough Tintorettos to cover all the walls. I absolutely loved it, because what they do have is walls and walls of Pelagio Palagi, author of one of my favorite paintings. He combined the eighteenth-century kawaii with nineteenth-century drama. Born and raised in Bologna he left a lot of his artwork and his large collection of art that inspired him (including an incredible ancient Minerva’s head and an Egyptian cat) to the city.

They also have plenty of Gaetano Gandolfi whom I love primarily for his name and only secondly for the above-mentioned kawaii. Below are his self-portrait and portrait of his wife.

Part of the museum is furnished rooms and I do love museum furnished rooms. The last room was my favorite – frescoed as a garden and containing nothing but an Apollo by Canova. Well, Apollo and an elderly museum guide who, disappointed in my Italian, spoke Spanish to make sure I was really, truly, indeed, very much impressed.

They also have a room with three (3, Karl!) versions of Death of Virginia, which is at least three more than I ordinarily enjoy seeing, beautiful as they are.

And at the very end (no photos because they closed the museum on me. Again.) they have the Argonauts’ gallery. The local Jesuit school for high-born boys picked the best student each year and gave him a highly-coveted medal with an image of Argo. Each of them posed for a portrait with the medal. That means there are two rooms of portraits of young men of the same location, the same age, same religion, same class – the only things that change are fashion and personal preference (which at that age, let’s face it, is subordinate to fashion). Eighteenth through nineteenth century. Fashion historians probably come there to pray. Sometimes I wish I was a fashion historian.

4. Archiginnasio palace, especially the anatomical theater. It is very different from the one in Padua – shorter, wider, brighter (140 years difference is a lot), and has a truly insane ceiling.

Besides the theater (look at the skinless guys! and that Apollo!) there were coats of arms, and the Stabat Mater room (with a peek at the library). All beautiful, and I especially liked monuments to the lectors.

    And yes, of course I walked through the medieval market, and the shopping streets, and the fancy gallery, and the awesome made-from-porticos gallery πŸ™‚


    Padua was the first city on my solo stay and it was even better than I expected. I’m glad I stayed for two nights – was getting burned out on planning and needed down time. Here’s what I did:

    1. Arrived around noon. Because this is the relaxation I picked a Hilton – bed I can sleep across, giant shower and all that. They upgraded me to a terrace room, which, although completely useless, really perked me up.
    2. I decided to walk the 20 minutes to the hotel despite rain and suitcase and am glad I did – the non-touristy part of the city contains some truly awesome towers, frescoes, and canals. It also has narrow one-point-perspective cobblestoned streets. My favorite!

    4. The central part of Padua turned out to have not only cobblestoned streets, but also colonnades. Almost every building has a stoa, which a) is beautiful b) allowed me to ignore the rain.

    Of course, if they want to honor someone important they also put columns around them. Behold the statue of Dante, and tombs of Antenor and St. Anthony.

    In fact, St. Anthony is so important he gets two colonnades, a real one and a trompe l’oeil one. And a church that’s way nicer than the local cathedral.

    I really like completion, even in little and unimportant themes, so seeing St. Anthony’s churches both in Lisbon where he was born and in Padua where he died felt very satisfying.

    Speaking of tombs, you’re probably curious about Antenor. He’s a fictional character, the only elder of Troy who counseled returning Helen with apologies. His grave belongs to a wealthy Germanic or Hungarian warrior killed in battle around 3rd or 4th century CE, a woman, an animal, or some combination of the above. The grave next to him (without columns) belongs to Lovato dei Lovati who conveniently discovered a bronze plaque on the sarcophagus when it was dug up in 1274 saying that the body inside is definitely that of Antenor, Elder of Troy and Founder of Padua.

    Other things I saw that day were

    1. The cathedral (poor, but clean)

    2. The baptistery (that’s where they keep all the art that didn’t go into the cathedral)

    3. The Scrovegni chapel (where Giotto invented Renaissance painting)

    4. Palazzo Bo (headquarters of the university thoroughly redecorated in 1930s and 40s)

    5. Prato della Valle (largest square in Italy), which is in fact not a square but an ellipse 90,000m2. It’s probably beautiful and impressive, but being entirely covered by the local flea market is a bit hard to see.

    6. Cool modern sculpture mainly near the (unfortunately closed) Francis Bacon collection. Even though it’s closed one can still look through the mirror and see the hanging rhinoceros.

    7. Lovely stenciled graffiti

    8. The thousand-plus-year-old market plazas, Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza Della Frutta (because you wouldn’t sell vegetables and fruit on the same giant plaza, right?).

    I’ll do separate posts for the baptistery, chapel, and university, but in the meantime here are some photos of the market.

    I spent approximately 8.5 hours walking, ate at a really striking restaurant (which is a chain, so I might eat at one again), and generally had a wonderful and relaxing day. Two nights turned out to be just the right amount of time in Padua although if I was doing this with someone I’d probably add at least one more day.


    We spent two and a half weeks in Japan, Nov. 21st through Dec. 8th, and it was, just as I expected it to be, amazing. Japan, for me, feels effortless, exciting, interesting, convenient (safe food, walkable streets, and clean bathrooms matter a lot to me), endlessly explorable, and full of small delights.

    I was afraid that it would change from when I came first, but although, almost all the constituent parts of the experience changed, the whole remained remarkably consistent. It’s strange that places don’t change much, even if one does completely different things or comes at different seasons. For instance, whenever I come to Venice the weather is lovely and there’s an interesting exhibition going on, whereas whenever I come to Russia, be it July or December, it’s cold, miserable, and Day of the Paratrooper.

    Things that changed:

    • Instead of traveling alone this time I went with the whole family – all six of us for the first week, and four for the subsequent weeks. This means that our time was very structured and that we barely ever walked. The first week, in particular, was structured by Amazing Spouse in half-hour increments in an act of sheer heroism. None of my usual “roll out of the bed whenever, exit the hotel in a random direction, eat on the way” and no “spend an hour reading in this cute cafe” – we ate three sit-down meals a day and didn’t search for variety.
    • It was November and not May which greatly increased the frequency of persimmons, children in fancy outfits (November is the month for 3-5-7 celebrations), and, oddly, flowering cherry trees (I did not expect fuyuzakura aka winter cherry).
    • There were fewer school children out and about.
    • It was cold. “T-shirt and overshirt and puffy vest and jacket and hat” cold. And dark by 5 pm, so random wandering around time was cut short. This means that gardens and parks closed early and that there were fewer creatively-dressed teenagers around and way more elegantly-coated ladies.
    • It was crowded as heck. Everyone wanted to see momiji fully as much or more as we did. I never thought I’d queue up for an hour for anything other than staple food, let alone for maples, and yet – it was completely worthwhile.
    • Fall foliage and not temples or restaurants, was the theme of most days. Mind you, fall foliage happens in temples and around restaurants, and we visited both – but the foliage was more striking and noticeable than the buildings.
    • We went to museums! Tokyo National Museum, MIHO, Osaka Castle, Nara Crafts museum, Nara Toy museum, Iwasaki garden (and especially mansion), Drum museum, Samurai museum, Sword museum, Hokusai museum, Yayoi Kusama museum, and finally Team Labs (which is less a museum than a museum-sized installation, but I’m including it anyway) – these were unexpectedly more memorable than temples on this trip.
    • We stayed at hotels with onsens, which means there was no going-out-to-bathe.
    • We did more shopping (or, at least, more window shopping) and more animal petting visiting a dog cafe, Bengal cat cafe, and capybara cafe. I love capybaras, although on a nearer acquaintance, cats are definitely more awesome.
    • And, of course, because of traveling as a family and because of the cold I was out-socialized by the end of each day, and completely incapable of noting things down. I did sketch, however, and will try to recreate what I saw in each day based on that. At some point. The issue, of course, is that I don’t have a clear audience for this – future me is academic, adult kids even more so, outside blog readers a remote and unlikely possibility, and the guy I wrote to last time was right here with me. Crying in the wilderness is, if not sensible, understandable enough, but traveloguing? Not that I’ll let the lack of an audience stop me πŸ™‚

    Lucky day

    Today was an incredibly lucky day. Below is a partial list of all the things that were lucky:

    • In the morning it turned out there’s even more really interesting stuff to learn about tea ceremony than I thought
    • Ginkakuji turned out almost completely uncrowded, and far more beautiful than I remembered
    • Right outside of it there were chestnut cream puffs, which aren’t sold except in the Fall
    • Our route to Nanzenji happened to go along Philosopher’s Path, which I wanted to see again but didn’t really have time
    • Along the path we met a gentleman named Marita, who taught us to make bamboo flower boats and drop them into the Lake Biwa canal (this trip has waaay more Lake Biwa canal than my first one) for luck. Mine floated πŸ™‚
    • Sanmon gate at Nanzenji was open, unlike the last time, and we got to go to the top.
    • Nanzen-in was open, and I didn’t make it there last time either
    • While everyone else was eating I made it to Konchiin temple, and saw the crane and turtle garden and the shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu (with his statue and the famous dragon ceiling). The garden was beautiful and completely empty.
    • While there I was exactly on time to also see the tea room designed by Kobori Enshu (see the first bullet point – how timely that my morning reading told me who he was) that contained Hasegawa Tōhaku’s Monkey Reaching for the Moon’s Reflection with it’s heart-stoppingly elegant fingers. On normal days one can’t even see it – it was a special exhibition. On this day one more minute, and I would have missed it. There was also the Wet Crows screen, which I know I’ve seen before, but cannot remember where, and can’t find images of it. It’s hilarious and beautiful.
    • Just as I ran out of time it turned out the Einkando temple was hosting a night-time illumination
    • I had to wait for it, and accidentally walked into the cutest cafe, full of statuettes and old cameras. A very nice old lady with Brezhnev eyebrows waved a coffee cup at me. I didn’t have the energy to refuse, which was lucky, because as it turned out I needed coffee.
    • I took a spot in line and everyone made it to me just as I was about to go in. Given that it was a half-hour line that was miraculous timing. I also got into this line just in time, behind me it became far longer.
    • As we came out there was exactly one taxi waiting and it was waiting for us
    • Right as I was rested, bathed, and becoming human again B. told me that Naked Flowers at Nijo castle were on until 10 pm and there was no line. Naked Flowers turned out to be a combination ikebana exhibit, illumination, and flower-themed cartoon show on castle walls with great music and aromas. This also means I got the leisurely walk through the castle gardens I was missing.
    • Nita Prose’s latest dropped just as I was running out of books

    Nanzenji turned out not to have been the temple I thought it was. That is to say, the ineffably peaceful temple I thought was Nanzenji is a completely different temple, and I don’t know which one. But, on the bright side, it gives me a reason to come back and search for it. Thoroughly. Kyoto has less than 2,000 temples – how hard can it be? πŸ™‚

    Mission Bay

    One of my favorite neighborhoods in SF – clean, futuristic, walkable, and full of tasty things.

    This is a futureform called Orbital that expresses optimism about the future with diversity, equality, and inclusion. Its makers also describe it as a contemporary folly. I don’t think they thought through the more cynical ways one can interpret this, given that “folly” is not just foolishness, but one that specifically results from lack of foresight or practicality. Arguably, it’s not even a folly, since follies are, by definition, buildings, and this is more of an installation or a sculpture. But it’s lovely and joyful and it made me happy today.

    This is Ichiren-Bozu, “a mythic character that implies consciousness by Masako Miki. It also implies growth and prosperity, which I choose to take as a good sign as I enter a period of conscious (get it? get it?) growth.

    I love SF 1% art tax almost as much as I love SF’s POPOS.

    It paid for this installation, as well as the Mokumokuren at right. The idea of continuous eyes, a demon that leaves in torn shoji until it’s repaired, being actually a protector is pretty awesome. I believe it’s the artist’s own, since in the legends I read the eyes were anything but protective.

    The ghosts of the old umbrella and back-scratcher below also seem very friendly and helpful.

    Today’s aesthetic experience has been brought to you by taxation, as are so many of the other things I enjoy, which is probably why I’ve never felt bad about paying taxes.

    One thing I learned today is that the Bay Trail is already 350 miles long, and projected to be 500. I think this would be a fun walk and should definitely remember it as a future project.

    Washington, DC 8

    On our last day we missed seeing the International Spy Museum and the National Air and Space Museum for the same reason – it was a Saturday and I didn’t think to get tickets in advance. Kids, fortunately, were stoic (like Zeus) and patient. I gave them a choice between the National Portrait Gallery and National Building Museum and they picked the latter.

    The Building Museum is located in an enormous magnificent empty building. It’s surrounded by a frieze by Casper Buberl detailing the units of the Union Army that deserves a separate exhibition on its own. There are photos on the museum site: https://www.nbm.org/about/historic-home/

    The middle of the central hall normally has a fountain which is currently covered by a sculpture, Look Here by Suchi Reddy. The point of the sculpture is for the viewer to see themeselves reflected in photos of historical acts of protest printed on the reflective forms and to consider that they, the viewer, as well as architecture, are both parts of shaping our society for the better. The small grey squares you can barely see in the middle are bed-sized pillows and rocking chairs on which tired parents recline while their children take part in the LEGO build on the second floor. It is a beautiful and restful spot, which qualities distract from the message of protest and activism.

    Besides the LEGO build there’s an empty room with posters about the life of the founder, General Meigs, a room with a collection of animals in sculpture (very beautiful, but insufficiently explained), some great doll houses and scale models of historical homes , and a really cool exhibit showing different ways of framing a house.

    There are also a lot of empty rooms and a general feeling that we should’ve come during an event or performance. Totally worth it for the beauty and the LEGO break, but next time I’m looking at their calendar before visiting.

    Traveling with kids means that there’s only a short window to see things, and it’s approximately 9 am to 3 pm. After that it’s food and physical activity time. Younger Kid requires 3 hours of physical activity per day plus bed-flopping breaks.

    Overall, it was a great trip – much easier and less stressful than I expected. We saw completely different things than I thought we’d see, ate different foods than I thought we’d eat, and spent far more time at the gym with more enjoyment than I would have believed.

    Washington, DC 7

    As much as National Children’s Museum was a disappointment Planet Word was an unexpected delight. My expectations of it were low, 3/5 – but Younger Kid put it as a 5 and Older Kid as a 4, besides it was two blocks away from the hotel. I feel very lucky that we went there and will come back again if I can. Planet Word is a museum dedicated to words and language, and it’s absolutely beautiful inside and outside.

    One enters through a courtyard with a lit tree and a statue of someone that seems to be trying to pull themselves together out of letters. I’m not sure whether this is what the sculptor intended, but it’s an image that I can really identify with (yes, the dangling participle just here is ironic).

    The tree was not lit when we came, but as we were leaving we saw the first few lamps turned on.

    Inside there are three floors and one starts at the top. The first room contains a lit globe surrounded by tablets, each containing short videos by language carriers about their language. I must have been very tired, because I became a bit teary-eyed at the explanation of how to say some simple thing in Amharic.

    The most interesting things I learned are that Miriwoong (one of the 250ish Native Australian languages) has not words for hello and good bye, but only “How are you”, that Wolof speakers in Senegal do not refer to anything as “mine” if they can plausibly call it “ours”, and that Senegalese in general are so reluctant to talk about their accomplishments that each family has a designated praise giver, whose job it is to bring up the achievements of family members as needed.

    Next is an interactive video played against a wall of 1,000 most common English words, talking about where they came from (1/3 each Saxon, Norman, and borrowed apparently, I assume not enough remains of the Celtic languages to count). An interesting factoid from the video is that teenage girls have been the most active new word inventors since the 15th century at least, and are responsible for introducing “you” instead of “thou” and “does” instead of “doth”. It’s a relatively simple video – a disembodied voice talks, audience shouts answers into microphones, the voice either says “yes, the answer is” or “no, the answer is”, visuals are spare (fire, water, animal silhouettes) but the whole is very beautiful. In fact “simple and beautiful” really defines Planet Word.

    Another fun fact – apparently there’s no agreement on how many words English has, because there’s no agreement on how to count words like “run”, which has 345ish definitions

    The second floor is where I’d stay forever. It starts with a quiet library – color-coordinated books, mirrors in the ceiling, a table for coloring and a center table on which one can place a book from the shelf and see played out on top of it a short video explaining the book or telling some interesting story about how it came to be written. One of the library walls is actually a secret door, leading to a small quiet room with a couch where one can sit and listen to poetry being read out loud and shown on a screen. Here is that door seen from the inside.

    Walls of the library are inset with large mirrors in gilded frames. Underneath each one is a quote from a book that, when said out loud by someone without an accent (I drafted Younger Kid) temporarily transforms the mirror into a diorama from the book while another disembodied voice continues the quote. Each diorama is in a different style and range of material (e. g. The Little Prince is an all-white globe with paper cut-outs inside), all are remarkably beautiful, and many quite realistic, but it’s very hard to make a good photograph of a mirror, so, unfortunately, I can only show two.

    Besides the beautiful library there is a purple room devoted to karaoke, a yellow room (I want a yellow room. Preferably one where I can drink tea in the morning) all about jokes and how to tell them, and a green room in which kids can dip brushes into adjective pails and alter a virtual landscape on the wall by painting over it. For instance “autumnal” turned the leaves yellow and “crepuscular” introduced twilight.

    The bottom floor had a spiral exhibition on ads and the techniques they use, stories of language and a room to record one’s own story, and a gift shop where I was surprised to learn that Older Kid prefers Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter (yes, that same HP that they’ve been reading non-stop for the last 4 years), and the Phantom Tollbooth to both. I read the Phantom Tollbooth in either Odessa or Moscow as a kid, and remember almost nothing except that I liked it and the word “cacophony”. Will have to re-read.

    Younger Kid requested and received a manual on writing jokes for kids and a book about the history of punctuation marks. Can’t wait to see whether he’ll read these. Right now he’s reading a biography of Michael Jordan, acquired as part of his search for gifts for Older Kid (they got a cupcake cookbook in that particular store).

    Washington, DC 6

    Wednesday was a lovely and relaxed day. We strolled Georgetown at random using my favorite process – picked something to look for, in this case a playground. We found three playgrounds, all of which were really cool. One was locked, the other was occupied by a camp, and the third devoted solely to toddlers. We stopped there anyway, because it had fountains. Younger Kid now wants a balance bike and a red Radio Flyer tricycle.

    Georgetown is full of very similar houses, all of which have big enticing balconies, towers, and ornate cast-iron front steps. It seems very cohesive and I would’ve enjoyed walking there more.

    Strangely, DC seems to have very few homeless people, and passerby seem sober and friendly. The streets overall seem safe, clean, and populated. I’ve yet to smell cannabis anywhere, but that may be because we’re more or less staying in the same small area.

    It was really great that Younger Kid was into strolling and discovering a neighborhood with me and seemed to understand why it’s fun. I wish I knew how the day was for him.

    Once we got tired of walking I gave Younger Kid a choice of another museum, historical house, or an aquatic park. Once it became clear that the aquatic park is a boardwalk hike in a swamp with lotuses he picked the historical house. Specifically, Tudor House, inhabited by descendants of Martha Washington for six generations. She did not have children with George Washington, but he raised her kids from a prior marriage and this is the house where they lived.

    The house is surrounded by a beautiful garden. We kept getting lost at it, because we expected the scale to be similar to Filoli. It’s actually (being a city and not a county house) a lot smaller, so we’d constantly look for paths that we’ve passed awhile ago. Younger Kid was somewhat disappointed at not being allowed to touch those lead dogs, but I really liked it that he came up with the prohibition himself, all I had to do was to confirm it.

    The tour is built around the day Marquis de Lafayette came to visit in 1824. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the house and its inhabitants and history, good and bad. It was more the idea of learning things about the past than what those things were – so she was equally enthusiastic about Lafayette, General Lee (who also visited, being a near connection by marriage), the gardener whose name unfortunately I’ve forgotten, and Martha Washington’s punch bowl (very beautiful, Chinese, made for export to Britain).

    Younger Kid requested souvenirs, and got a hat (he’s been begging for a natty hat for awhile now) and lemon balm tea, which he said Older Kid will love. I need to figure out how to resist this particular sales approach.

    Just outside, on the same street we found (and lightly sampled) a neighborhood herb garden. Younger kid also noted the rainbow and Ukrainian flags and concluded that these must be very good people. I’m inclined to agree.

    Next, we went along the Georgetown Heritage Canal. Unfortunately, we were too late to get a boat tour, but we did examine the locks in detail. The next day we missed the same tour because of bad luck with Uber πŸ™ It was a beautiful area and I hope Older Kid feels well enough Friday that we can attempt the tour again.

    Sunday, and Monday we finished the day at the pool. Tuesday we were very tired and the pool was, according to Younger Kid, too full of people. That is why Wednesday we went to the gym. The gym at this hotel (Hilton Embassy on 10th) is well hidden – it’s on a lower floor accessible by only one of four elevators and unmarked. But it’s big, and well-equipped, and we spent an hour and a half there. Would’ve been more, but we forgot water bottles and there were no cups.

    Thursday, unfortunately, was almost a complete loss as far as touristing goes – we went to the National Children’s Museum, which is an indoor playground.

    There’s a cool climbing structure with a slide, but the one in San Diego is much more interesting.

    There are some exhibits pretending to be scientific, but after Exploratorium they look weak.

    Younger Kid enjoyed building a swing from wooden blocks and tackle (we tried to fit in a pulley, but there was no rational place for it), using an air stream to lift balls into a basket, and doing baseball practice hits. I was really impressed at how organized the line for the baseball was – kids intuitively, without discussion, agreed on the length of turns and kept to it politely and without fuss.

    Afterward we walked back to the hotel, did another hour and a half of gym, and three hours at the pool. I barely pulled Younger Kid away by telling him the hotel restaurant will close. Fortunately, he really loves this restaurant.

    He’s being quite adventurous with food – ordered a quinoa salad for breakfast (ate out pomegranate seeds and raisins and left the rest, but still) and an apple and cheddar salad for dinner (ate all the apples and cheddar and half the arugula, the waitress even commented on how much he ate – it was a very big bowl). Even more strikingly he followed up the salad with an “exotic mushroom” pizza, as opposed to his normal extra cheese. I’m becoming more and more optimistic about foreign travel.

    Washington, DC 5.5

    Tuesday evening we went on a ghost tour. I picked it because younger kid has never been on one before, and because I thought he might be bored on a historical one. Given how much he’s begged to go on the historical canal tour I may have been wrong about that one.

    The ghost tour was fun, and more story than ghost, although it’s nice to know that the capitol building is haunted by a demon cat (DC, get it, get it?). None of my photos came out well, and the main thing I took away from the tour is the desire to see the Library of Congress from the inside and to do a Halloween overnight at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

    The tour guide was funny, interesting, and generally great (Ghosts of D. C. tour – highly recommend) and it ended next to a very cool thing – a robin roosting tree full of robins. They were asleep and completely ignored us, even though we were almost close enough to touch them (I could’ve reached them if I’d jumped). They seemed fluffy from below, cozy, and somehow magical.

    Washington, DC 5

    On Tuesday we went to the zoo and took literally hundreds of pictures. There are way too many to show here, so I’ll just go with a few favorites. The zoo is big, but we saw all of it, except North American mammals, because we were tired and most of those we’ve seen in the wild.

    Washington Zoo is not especially big (I believe San Diego and Miami may be larger), but it has two outstanding features that other zoos lack. The first, of course, is the pandas. Notice the adorable toe beans. Both kids believe that it looks exactly the same as our cat (the cat, while large, is somewhat smaller and tabby, but also has adorable toe beans)

    My favorite part of the zoo was the Small Mammal House. Unlike other zoos that I’ve seen Washington Zoo has a lot of buildings, and most of them seem larger inside than they are outside. Small Mammal House looks small, but it’s very cleverly planned and positively enormous on the inside.

    There were porcupines. Look at that lovely nose. No, seriously, look at it – isn’t it wonderful?

    This is a chinchilla. Yes, I do feel guilty for eating beef. Yes, there is an obvious connection.

    This is a rare desert sand cat. Younger Kid thinks it looks like our younger cat, but he says that about every non-chubby feline.

    This is a lemur, on his way to goose another lemur and run away with an evil laugh.

    Dwarf mongoose – much cuter than the regular-sized ones.

    Very cute meercats grooming each other.

    Of course it’s not just mammals. We saw at least a dozen different species of turtles and tortoises. This one is definitely threatening.

    One of the coolest buildings was the Think Tank. Also small from the outside, on the inside it’s a full-sized museum of thinking, with lots to read, fun puzzles, interesting historical exhibits, a cool rat house (with a cool rat in it), and two large enclosures – for chimpanzees and orangutans. Orangutans get the option of either staying there or taking a high wire across the whole zoo to their regular enclosure. The point of them being there is to conduct experiments that would help figure out whether or not they are thinking, and if so, what and how. For instance, the experiment described while we were there had orangutans look at their main enclosure on a screen and tracked whether or not they are more likely to go there if they notice the other orangutans do something interesting.

    Orangutans, of course, are impossible to photograph.

    Lastly, we visited the Amazon building, which had really great birds and rays.

    It also had lots of different frogs and toads, a waterfall, and water dripping everywhere from walls and balconies to form stalactites, which was a bit disconcerting.

    Washington, DC 4

    Monday we went to the Hirshhorn Modern Art museum. This is one Younger Kid specifically asked for. I was surprised, but went in with no expectations.

    We started at the sculpture garden outside – sat next to creepy headless people, and ate ice cream. They watched us.

    We also really liked these three:

    Pretty awesome spider made out of strings or wires, thus less scary than a normal spider.

    Miro, because of the amazing textures. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the box is corrugated cardboard.

    Typewriter eraser. Younger kid felt betrayed – both parents told him there’s no such thing.

    White tree of Gondor (Younger Kid recognized it)

    The Thinker – reminded me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down

    But our favorite was House I, by Lichtenstein. We did not make it spin, but the moment of going from thinking “it’s flat, but the illusion is that it’s 3D” to realizing that it is 3D was really great.

    Hirshhorn was dark. Like an avalanche of gloom and terror.

    Between the one spiky and beautiful globe of rainbows by Eliasson and the glorious prisms by Mary Bauermeister (above) was

    1. A funereal purple installation about consumerism killing the world https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/john-akomfrah-purple/
    2. A deadly green film about the jungle (I wish I had photographed the leaves dripping paint) and the actor’s need to be constantly seen (a very sad and cynical riff on Socrates, but gloriously green, wet, and liquid)
    3. An exhibition of modern Chinese photography. I was most struck by a series of portraits of the artist’s parents (from revolution to old age, sickness, and death), a collage of hundreds of identical 3-people family photos, and a version of the traditional four seasons paintings (circle in a square with a branch and a bird) in which all birds have been messily killed. Keep in mind that I steered away from the scarier walls. https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/a-window-suddenly-opens-contemporary-photography-in-china/
    4. A floor dedicated to an abstract Pickett’s Charge – chaos and violence in torn paper. https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/mark-bradford-picketts-charge/
    5. An overwhelming, chaotic, complex and screaming black and white room about ravens, flood, absurdity, and inevitable destruction of the world, which may be a dream anyway.
    6. An exhibition centered on the pains and troubles of being a non-male artist
    7. A red white and black room about current politics and the world in general https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/barbara-kruger-beliefdoubt/
    8. A desert-colored meditation by Dana Awartani about impermanence of home and memory. There was a mosaic tile, re-created with sand, on the floor, and a movie about the destruction of the same in an abandoned home in the village where her grandparents used to live before history happened, as it does. She made an immensely complicated pattern with colored sand in order to sweep it up, a melancholy mandala.

    Therefore it’s not surprising that we went straight home afterwards, pausing only to admire a small enclosed and fragrant garden. What is surprising although it probably shouldn’t be is that Younger Kid paid careful attention to all of the above (esp. Dana Awartani’s film) and seemed to be thinking about it.

    Washington, DC 3

    On Sunday we started at the Beauvoir Playground, which is big, and lovely, and which I mainly did not see because I was sitting at the top guarding our luggage.

    The playground is right next to the National Cathedral, lucky for me. Kids were a bit aghast at the idea of visiting a working church, but I managed to convince them.

    The cathedral was just as beautiful as expected. I particularly enjoyed the carving of hell fire above the main entrance and the space window.

    That done, we dropped off Older Kid in their first-ever strangers-only sleepaway camp (Animal Sciences+Leadership) and went on a tour of all Washington DC souvenir shops because Younger Kid wanted to buy a gift for Older Kid.

    We made it through approximately 8, and bought a rubber duck and sunglasses. There is MAGA merchandise everywhere, and it’s really unpleasant. My compromise was buying from a store that had both kinds of merch.

    Three hours at the pool, and that’s Sunday πŸ™‚

    Washington, DC 2

    Oddly enough the 30+ degree heat is not too bad, nor is the humidity. In fact, I could use a bit more of the latter – the grey rainy weather is wonderful. I’m not really enjoying the sun, but the rain this morning was wonderful.

    There is a lot of greenery everywhere, and all of it is either blooming or fruiting. Hibiscus flowers are amazing irl.

    The kids were still very jetlagged and unhappy because of lack of sleep, so did not take heat well. They did perk up for a bit when faced with a row of 20+ food trucks in front of the museum of Natural History, at least half of which were selling ice-cream and boba, but Younger’s ice-cream turned out to be yogurt, and Older was just plain miserable. So, we decided to skip walking the National Mall, and went to the Natural History museum. It was amazingly beautiful.

    There are random unconnected areas. We went to Mammals (Older Kid), Cell Phones (accident), Butterflies (joint decision), Insects (while waiting for butterflies), and three gift shops (Younger kid). Gems were insanely crowded, we peeked in and went right out.

    Mammals are mainly stuffed mammals, which excited Older and saddened Younger and myself.

    My top three things about that section were the statue of the Earliest Mammalian Ancestor

    The elephant family tree (I would love having something like this on the wall)

    Insects were great, and I could’ve used more of them.

    Overall, each section was too small, and none had enough explanations, but I may just be spoiled.

    The butterfly garden was small, but very full of butterflies and fragnant. It will, however, have to be a separate post πŸ™‚

    Washington, DC 1

    The flight was full of pleasant surprises, from the send-off (I don’t normally giggle through the security line) to the short lines, to the kid packs distributed in the plane.

    Unfortunately, the sleeping on the plane idea did not work. Neither I nor Older Kid slept, and Younger Kid slept little and fitfully πŸ™

    Fortunately, we were able to check in at 8 am and have breakfast at the hotel. This cost less than the breakfast anywhere else would’ve, and really simplified my life.

    The hotel is right next to the park, and we saw some lovely things on our walk.

    Suddenly running into the Ford Theatre and the house where Lincoln died (across the street) was odd. It’s the feeling of history I got at Paris and I did not expect it, although I probably should have.

    One of my favorite buildings was the Woodward & Lothrop building, richly decorated in newly-re-painted ironwork.

    The anguished face underneath the W&L logo is Zeus, known for his stoicism, while the horrifying ones below are self-portraits (sic!) of Horae, who, apparently, have major issues, probably as a result of being raised by Zeus.

    I am unsure of which Hora portrayed herself above, but she is certainly fair-haired.

    Chinese Historical Society of SF

    Today was an awesome day. I went with a friend to the Chinese Historical Society Museum on Clay St to see their collection of miniatures by Frank Wong and they happened to be having an exhibit on Bruce Lee.

    The miniatures were even better than I expected. Here’s a 3D view of the biggest one. Do check it out, it’s mind-blowing. The whole thing is smaller than a carry-on.

    And here’s my favorite one – the Chinese New Year.

    Besides the miniatures there were also some really cool and funny murals celebrating Bruce Lee and an adorable collection of miniature models of imaginary statuary by the local students. The statues were LEGO-sized, made of anything from cardboard to 3D printing, and celebrated important figures of progress. I am not quite sure how these are connected to Bruce Lee, but that’s probably because I did not have the time to watch the accompanying videos yet.

    The We Are Bruce Lee exhibition in general was very interesting and heavily tilted towards showing his importance as a builder of good inter-racial relationships, his impact on race relationships, and his all-around good-guyness. I think I understand better why he was so beloved during his life time and will probably watch some of the movies. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one and that is obviously an oversight. The exhibition included a short excerpt from Fist of Fury where Bruce Lee kicks a “No Dogs Or Chinese Allowed” sign – it looked awesome, especially the complete indifference of the Japanese woman who is seeing her entire escort smashed up.

    What really made the exhibition for me is the digitally-enhanced giant mural. It is a triptych, with the side pieces being entirely digital and showing things like rain, hills, trees, and quotes from Bruce Lee, and the center piece showing Bruce Lee as the Burning Bush.

    The underlying mural is awash with motion. The dragon moves. The fire running over his body is occasionally replaced by lightning. There is rain and flood. Neither my words nor the picture below, nor the picture accessible through the 3D view of the exhibition can convey the least part of the mural’s magnificence.

    This is Bruce Lee as God. The accompanying text says that he transcends space and time and is worth reading in its entirety.

    It was so amazing to be able to share the experience of seeing this worship with a friend. It is impossible to describe, and the moment of stunned amazement is so much better when shared.

    Here are more art works by the Macro Waves Collective.

    We continued to lunch at the Hang Ah Dim Sum which has been on my list for awhile. It’s over 100 years old, and is the first Dim Sum place in SF. After tasting the shrimp and coriander dumplings I fully understand why they lasted so long. After lunch we dropped by the Fortune Cookie Company to see the cookies being made and get one of the hot crispy discs. It was very hard to resist buying a bag of glazed cookies, but the long line helped.

    Overall a perfect outing and now there are two more places on my “love to visit” list.

    Yet another good day

    Garden at the Black Bird Bookshop and Cafe

    Went to see Sargent in Spain. Legion of Honor often shows non-representative works (e. g. gaunt men by Rubens, or full-length mythological males by Greuze), and this Sargent exhibit was not an exception – not a single socialite! (OK, there was one pre-teen boy, but).

    Sargent loved flamenco, so much of the exhibit is flamenco dancers, with paintings accompanied by thoughtful and interesting notes by members of a Roma advisory group. Consequently one learns almost as much about the mode of living of Roma in Spain as one does about Sargent’s ditto.

    Some of the notes are merely informative, some are amusing (e. g. the facial expression of the Spanish Roma Woman is said to be difficult to understand, or some words to that effect. I think the difficulty in understanding is due to the lack in English of the words “всС достало”. Others are poignant, such as when the notes author addresses the Spanish Roma Family to tell them of his worry that his daughter will not grow up to be Roma.

    This speaks to me very directly, because, unless something horrible happens, my children will not grow up to be Jews in the visceral way that I am a Jew. They are aware of their Jewish heritage, but I think it’s no more real to them than the (theoretical) Vikings somewhere up the Russian side of my family tree are to me. To my grandchildren it will probably be even less. I feel that this is a loss, but cannot explain why, or what it is precisely being lost. Certainly I myself do not feel the lack of a visceral attachment to my Slavic heritage as a loss.

    Getting back to art, it’s really amazing how much better art is in conveying an experience than realistic representation, how much more real it is than reality. Compare this video of La Carmencita dancing with Sargent’s portrait of La Carmencita dancing – the video does not really let (me, now) understand why her dancing ( to contemporary eyewitnesses) felt “wild” and “breath-taking”, but the second at least gives an idea of the wildness and beauty they experienced.

    After Legion of Honor I went to the Black Bird Bookshop, which, besides a most beautiful and peaceful garden, has an unusual and lovely selection of books. I got Igbo Mythology for Kids; Forests, Fairies, and Fungi Sticker Anthology, and an amazingly lovely The Eyes And The Impossible. I don’t even know what it’s about, but I couldn’t put it down.

    I have the hardest time resisting beautiful books.


    Turns out to be so much lovelier than I thought it would be. It’s weird how many prejudices one has without realizing that one has them.

    Today was a perfect day

    Saw the Gregangelo museum for the first time (and will definitely come back). It’s an overpoweringly beautiful place, there’s so much color, texture, detail, so many reflections and little surprises, so many hidden meanings and references. We spent 1.5 hours there and saw what Gregangelo Herrera (whom we were super lucky to have as a guide) says is approximately 1/3 of the rooms/installations.

    It was infinitely better than I expected, and is now firmly on my list of favorite places in the US.

    It’s odd how many things lately turn out to be even better than I expect them to be. Perhaps I need to raise my expectations.

    We were additionally lucky to have the kids with us – originally we planned an outing without them, but this is exactly the kind of thing I’d want to share with them.
    That being so we followed with games and snacks, and then I got a half-hour to meditate looking at one of my favorite views.