We spent a couple weeks in Malaysia this spring. Most of that time we stayed in the classic tourist destinations: Georgetown and Melaka for their rich layers of Dutch, Portuguese, British history.
We tried to see some of the incredible nature, too. My personal highlight was Sarawak on Borneo. We went to the UNESCO global geopark on Langkawi Island and took a bus inland to the tea country of the Cameron Highlands.
Everywhere we went, I was struck by two things. The first is that in a predominantly Muslim country it can take a while to find alcohol. Evening mealtimes for Uwe and me are when we want to linger over a glass and talk about what we saw during the day. In Malaysia we’d peruse the menu at the front of a restaurant and turn the pages to the very back where the drinks were listed. If it didn’t serve beer or wine, often we’d smile and say thank you, and head further down the street feeling slightly like jerks.
The second thing I noticed is that in every place we visited, streets in Malaysia contain the houses of worship of different religions. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Tin Hau and Chinese temples, one next to the other line a street. Everywhere.
We explored many of them and I was delighted and calmed by the sweet atmosphere in these roads. The world feels more and more divided. But the Malaysians we talked with are proud of the religious tolerance and multicultural blend that makes up their country.
And that’s a concept I’ll gladly raise a glass of wine to….
I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother recently here in Stuttgart. I arrived early and sat awhile in the silent cemetery chapel. First, I lit a slim yellow taper in the entrance to the church.
The family is Greek Orthodox. I’ve lit candles in lots of Orthodox churches throughout Greece, and once went to a church service in a tiny church in Thessaloniki that stands on a spot where the Apostle Paul preached.
I’d never been to an Orthodox funeral. Huge wreathes of white flowers bought by the families of her children were arrayed to the left of the altar. Candles in red glasses flickered around a framed photograph of Olga on a small stand; a cake in a white box and a bottle each of wine and olive oil were placed beside the photo.
The priest prayed and sang in Greek; he lifted the icon set on the casket and kissed it. Believers in the chapel crossed themselves at the right places in the text. Later, it was time to bury Olga.
A man played horn music, the priest chanted as the coffin was lowered into the ground. He opened the bottle of wine and poured it, in the shape of a cross, in the grave. Next (after wrapping his long black robes between his knees to keep them from getting soiled) he poured olive oil in the shape of the cross. He took the white box of cake that my friend had carried out of the church with her and, cutting it, spooned some of the cake into the grave as well.
We approached the grave one by one. When it was my turn, I tossed in a blooming flower and then a spade of dirt onto the casket.
The musician started playing Amazing Grace, which almost put me in tears. Some pieces of music transcend time, and continents, and cultures. In any language, for any generation, they bring solace and peace.
Then we went to a restaurant for the Makaria, the “Meal of Mercy” that follows an Orthodox funeral. This one was a German/Greek hybrid of coffee, Butterbrezel (large buttered pretzels), cakes and Greek pastries. My friend went around the long table and spooned out some of that traditional funeral cake onto each of our plates. “My mother used to make this dish herself,” she said. “Koliva. It’s traditional; every Greek family has a recipe. I didn’t have time to make it myself, so I bought one at a Greek bakery.”
I ate the Koliva, a mix of sesame seeds, almonds, oats, ground walnuts, cinnamon, sugar, and anise amongst other ingredients…
I missed only one summer afternoon when I was supposed to clean. Mr. Bond telephoned early that evening; it was still light out. Had something happened? Was I okay?
I was off with my boyfriend somewhere that day, and the time (ahem) had run away from us. “I’m so sorry!” I said. “I’ll be right over.”
Mr. Bond had to go to the store, so he said he’d swing by and get me. When I came out to the road, he stood in the driveway talking with my parents. The three of them were laughing. I bet it was something along the lines of, “Teenagers, what can you do…”
I hadn’t thought about Mr. Bond in years. But I’d open my old photo album and every once in a while I come across his photograph.
I’d remember that for a time I’d known this kind man.
In these last few weeks I sat down to write about him, and both memories and words rushed out. An avalanche of elements from long-ago strike me. Some details are so clear. The heavy gemstones in the baroness’s jewelry. The frank eyes of Mr. Bond’s daughter. My astonishment that my simple notes had such a huge effect.
We communicated via those notes. I had a key to his home, that I used to let myself in the door on the days I cleaned. We didn’t see one another to talk often.
But I recall the ease I felt with him. Young people are unsure of themselves. Mr. Bond was a thoughtful conversationalist and I never felt foolish, or too green. And that is a remarkable thing. It’s a rare adult who can make a teenager feel like he sees and hears without being condescending.
Leaving notes was second nature; I can easily imagine that I told him I wanted to write. Let’s leave aside the fact that it took another 40 years before I actually made that wish a reality.
I can’t remember what the notes said. I probably scribbled things like, “Dear Mr. Bond, enjoy the salad greens. I’ve already washed them. I hope you’re having a good summer. PS: Have a nice day.” “It’s autumn! I brought carrots and zucchini. They’re in the crisper. PS: Have a nice day.” Or maybe, “I have Spanish Club after school, so I’ll be late coming to clean on Thursday. PS: Have a nice day.” I just don’t remember.
How I wish I’d asked Mr. Bond’s daughter if I could see his manuscript! At the time I assumed it was an autobiography, but how can I be sure? Maybe it was fiction – maybe he was writing a novel – maybe I was a character in it somewhere. I’ll never know. I was too startled by the information that my notes had inspired him to write a book, and I was definitely way too surprised and shy to ask anything further. I was sixteen. I had zero context for even one single part of this experience.
His passing was my first direct experience of the loss death brings. A few months later one of my best friends died in a car accident, and then a classmate’s father died. I’d never been to a funeral before. During that hard autumn I went to three. I was suddenly forever aware of how terribly fragile our hold on life is. For the longest time when I thought of him, I thought about dying.
I have two last comments to make as I close my album of ancient memories. I’ve discovered a gift in here. All these years later, when I look back what strikes me is a realization: sometimes my heart was in the right place. Those thoughtless teenaged years contained moments of generosity, and grace.
And, finally, this story about Mr. Bond and me has turned itself into a story about the living. When I write about Mr. Bond now I think about life, and living; what we give to others; and what lasts in what they give us.
I was going to tell you about Malaysian Borneo when I got sidetracked by their neighbor Brunei. Moving on quickly (which is what we did as we flew over the sultanate on our way to the state of Sarawak), we landed in Kuching. What a lovely, lovely city. Kuching should get its own post, and likely will. We roamed along the riverfront walk and slurped down laksa noodle dishes with gusto. Kuching is a great spot to head out to various national parks to see wildlife.
Borneo is home of the native Dayak tribes. Remember childhood tales of the wild headhunters of Borneo? The Dayak call this ritual Ngayau. We visited Dayak long houses. Smoked skulls still hang at the hearth in the central long house.
The most important tribal figure is the head chief, closely followed by the shaman. This medicine man, also known as a balian  is responsible for the health of the tribe as well as interceding between the worlds.
During our time in Kuching I’d been glancing in shops without actually entering any of them. Among the streets of tourist trinkets, one store fascinated me. On the last day I made a beeline for that shop. 
And then I made a beeline for a shelf lined with containers topped by human figures.
Jerry Ang, the soft-spoken shop owner, kindly answered all my questions. He told me these were Dayak shaman medicine containers. The figures are hand carved from polished buffalo or cow bone. A shaman had hand-etched the jar with scrimshaw patterns. Dayak shamans used the containers to store herbs, magic powders and betal lime to make medical potions. Some still contained resins – Jerry and I opened each jar and sniffed.
The carved figure indicates the illness the potion was intended to treat. Some of the figures held their heads (aches and pains of the head) or their stomachs. Some figures even depicted a person crouched over… the traveler’s curse of diarrhea for sure.
My piece has a prawn carved on the back: Jerry thought maybe prawns were one of the main ingredients in the medicine. Or perhaps the prawn indicated the woman who made the potion (he said the figure was female), or an ancestor. An on-line source tells me the scrimshaw work represents animals that bring good luck. If anyone can give me more information, I’d be most grateful!
NOTES:  Balian is the term used for traditional healers on Bali, too. Healing arts are passed down through generations. Twenty years ago I did a massage exchange with the son of a balian there; he had been taught by his father. To learn more about the Dayak shamans go to http://factsanddetails.com. The article gives the following information: “Shamanic curing, or balian, is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because illness is thought to result in a loss of the soul, the ritual healing practices are devoted to its spiritual and ceremonial retrieval. In general, religious practices focus on the body, and on the health of the body politic more broadly. Sickness results from giving offense to one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession.” [Source: Library of Congress, 2006] Or see Wikipedia: The Dayak People  See also Unika Borneo, the shop where I found my figure. I receive no commission for mentioning the store. I just think they deserve to be mentioned. More figures can be admired at https://borneoartifact.com and https://www.esotericstuff.com
The island of Borneo is very special. Its territory is divided up between Malaysia (the Borneo part), Indonesia (Kalimantan), and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. Brunei is currently in the news as the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also acts as prime minister, insists that Brunei will implement sharia law. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled non-stop for 52 years.
Harsh penalties have been in force since 2014; the second and third stages to the penal code just went into effect a few weeks ago on April 3. People convicted of being gay men or adulterers die by stoning. Thieves lose the right hand for a first offense, and the left foot for the second. Blasphemy or leaving the Muslim faith earns the death penalty. The new laws criminalize ‘exposing’ Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. Cross dressing earns imprisonment. Abortion shall be punished with public flogging. Lesbians get flogged with 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in prison.
These laws mostly effect Muslims, though some aspects apply to non-Muslims. One-third of the country’s population is not Muslim.
Human Rights Watch condemns the new penal code as “barbaric to the core”. In ‘fairness’, it’s not entirely clear whether death by stoning will actually be implemented. A high burden of proof is needed.
We just finished up a trip to that part of the world and had an amazing time on Borneo. It repels me beyond words to think that we might have visited this barbaric regime.
But I digress. I wanted to tell you about our trip. Come back later; I promise I’ll be in a better mood. I’ll have stories about orangutans, rare frogs, and Dayak shaman medicine to share with you.
In You’ll Be Sorry! I gave you Schifferstadt’s Walk of Shame for medieval and Renaissance miscreants. And shame on you for enjoying my Tale of Schadenfreude.
Today I give you the city of Speyer…. Speyer is a mere 5 miles /8 kilometers from Schifferstadt. Coincidentally (?) both cities are known for their Walks of Shame.
Speyer was the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. Five German kings and eight Holy Roman Emperors are buried here, and the Speyer Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city is beautiful. Speyer is on the River Rhine, and cool beer gardens and restaurants decorate the shore. The streets are filled with bicycles of students from the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer. From 1084 to 1349 an important Jewish community flourished in the region. You can still visit the medieval mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath house, first mentioned in 1126. 
Speyer’s main street is lined with gorgeous old buildings like the Unicorn Apothecary from 1703.
As you leave the Speyer Cathedral, you walk past a huge basin known as the Cathedral Bowl. In a custom that began in the Middle Ages, the bowl is filled with wine on special religious occasions! Everyone gets to partake, citizens and visitors alike. [2, 3]
One last fact matters most to this post. According to the website Speyer.de, “[s]ince its construction in the 14th century, it played a significant role in the execution of a prison sentence: whoever had broken a state law and fled to the cathedral bowl was protected from prosecution.” Reread this sentence, because it takes on ominous importance with the next factoid….
At the other end of the main street stands the Altpoertal, the Old City Gate. Building began in 1230 and the Old City Gate marked the terminus of a road pompously called Via Triumphalis, extending from the Cathedral to the city walls. The Holy Roman Emperor and his retinue paraded from the Gate to the Cathedral on major religious days. However, the Altpoertal tower also served as the town prison, and the road in the opposite direction, leading from Cathedral to prison, was the scene of Walks of Shame.
Some guilty women were forced to parade down the street naked, with a stone tied around the neck. Males were allowed to keep their clothes on. If he had enough money, a man could pay a hefty sum and avoid the Walk of Shame.  Reaching the gate to begin a prison sentence might have been a relief. It would have been a looong walk from the Cathedral to the Altpoertal.
The top of the Altpoertal tower provides a great view of the route taken by the humiliated. But I want to know more about that Cathedral Bowl and how it provided sanctuary!
NOTES:  While Crusaders busily slaughtered Jews in the Rhineland, a Speyer law stated that anyone who harmed a Jew would have his hands cut off. Wikipedia/Speyer But then the Black Death struck Speyer in 1349 and Jews were blamed for the plague, proving that stupidity has a long history.  The bowl was filled in 2011 for the Cathedral’s 950th dedication anniversary. It holds more than 1500 liters of wine!  The Church knows how to throw a party  Sexism and the ogling of female bodies, along with wealthy men buying their way out of trouble have long histories too. Go to these sites for more on Speyer: Speyer Tourism; Speyer.de
Christmas is a tricky holiday for me. My family always celebrated this time of year with gusto, and my mom made it really special.  The first year I spent Christmas with my German husband’s family I was hit with a bout of longing for America, for my dead mother, for all things beloved and familiar.
“I’m really, really homesick. God, I miss home at Christmas time,” I confessed to my mother-in-law.
“Well, this year you’re with us. This is your home now.” Her mouth was pinched. I had just royally offended (to say nothing of hurting the feelings of) my new husband’s mom.
I was on the brink: I was going to start crying and not be able to stop. “I think I’ll go for a walk,” I said. I put on my boots and coat, fast. I walked by myself through the snowy dark streets. Of course, on Christmas Eve the roads were silent and totally empty; everyone was in the lit-up homes, celebrating the birth of Christ with their families. I walked for probably forty minutes, until I was worn out and too cold to remain outside any longer.
And then I went back to the house and smiled.
I still get homesick this time of year, but after being here so long Uwe and I have our own traditions. Putting up a tree and decorating it always helps. We used to just walk up the street to a yard that sold trees, select one, and carry it home between us. Now Uwe purchases the tree at a shopping center parking lot, and I trim it with all kinds of ornaments.
The former Eastern Germany is known for wooden ornaments. I bought three in Leipzig, for both my sisters and one for my own tree. I also hang special ornaments that remind me of where I grew up.
About twenty-three years ago we spent the holidays in Sofia, Bulgaria, where my sister Pam was teaching. I bought some insanely delicate glass ornaments there.
I’ve never seen anything like them, before or since. When I sat down to write this post, I googled Bulgarian ornaments, hoping to get some info on where they were made. But instead I was directed to cheesy sites selling images of Bulgaria, probably mass-produced in China….
So I have no idea if these quirky (and highly breakable) ornaments are still being made in Bulgaria. I get them out each year, though. Aside from the kitty-cat missing an ear, they’re all intact.
Wishing everyone the blessings of the holiday season. Do whatever you need to in order to make the occasion joyous. Happy holidays, and see you all in 2019.
The rest of us will be enjoying Schadenfreude, the fine art of taking pleasure in someone else’s humiliation.
Anyone who follows Game of Thrones (if you haven’t heard of it, you live in a cave somewhere) knows about the infamous Walk of Shame. Cersei was forced to parade naked through the streets while the locals –always happy to take part in a public spectacle – threw hard objects and body fluids at her.  We watched in horrified fascination!
I thought that was a great scene and a nicely creative bit of Schadenfreude script writing. It seemed like a new version of the old tradition of locking up criminals in stocks for public shaming. Until, in the space of 24 hours, I visited not one but two places where the Walk of Shame really did occur as official ‘justice’…
In the Pfalz region of Germany, history is writ large for the little town of Schifferstadt. Let’s start with the Bronze Age. In 1835, the amazing 3,400-year-old Golden Hat of Schifferstadt was found by a farmer named Josef Eckrich. 
This Golden Hat is the oldest Bronze Age magical headdress ever found and was worn around 1400-1300 BC. Only four Golden Hats are known to exist, and this one was deliberately buried.
Schifferstadt’s local church St. Jacobus is over a thousand years old, dating back to 1101. It’s an imposing Romanesque sandstone edifice with a lovely wooden ceiling.
It contains an unusual crucifix, displaying three figures rather than only Christ, and includes a woman in the depiction.
Schifferstadt’s Town Hall is sweet, charming and historic. It was built in 1558 and is one of the oldest and most beautiful Rathäuser in the Rheinpfalz region.
But don’t let the beauty fool you. The Town Hall could be the site of gruesome cruelty. It served as the court of justice and trials took place upstairs. Conveniently, the building also contained a prison; a pillory and working dungeon were utilized under the stairs.
Outside, the corner of this charming building was put to use for punishments of a more public nature. Once found guilty of a crime, you were paraded in disgrace through the streets. When you arrived at the Rathaus, you perched on the stone pediment/platform (ingeniously constructed right on the building) to endure the jeers and abuse of your fellow townspeople.
In my next post I’ll tell you about another glorious spot known for its Walk of Shame. God, I love history….
NOTES:  Body fluids. Yuck.  Josef Eckrich sold the Golden Hat for 570 Gulden. 120 of these Gulden were paid in a reward from König Ludwig I, who wanted it for his Staatssammlung (collection). For more information on these astonishing magical hats go to Jaunting Jen, Ancient History Et Cetera, or Wikipedia: Golden Hat
At the end of August I made a visit to the Pfalz region of Germany with friends. We went to visit friends of my friends (if you follow). The couple I’ll call Josef and Beate showed us around the historic city of Speyer. The Speyer Cathedral is the most important Romanesque church on the planet.
A bold boast, but true. For starters, it contains the world’s largest Romanesque crypt. The crypt has been described as ‘the most sublime monument on German ground.”  Speyer is the last resting place of both kings and emperors. The Pope had to crown a king (always men, natch) for him to be officially titled Holy Roman Emperor. Depending on political conditions, the Pope might – or might not – name the ruler “Imperator Romanum”.
The oldest grave belongs to Emperor Conrad II, who died in 1039. Take that date in for a moment. This church was consecrated almost a millenium ago. And it’s built on the site of an older church, founded hundreds of years earlier. Speyer is the heart of ancient Germany.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl came from the Pfalz and is memorialized with a plaque in front of the cathedral. Kohl was notorious for bringing dignitaries to admire the cathedral and then making them eat Saumagen for lunch. 
Speyer’s Cathedral was placed on the UNESCOWorld Heritage List in 1981. Yes, the breathtaking and harmonious proportions make this a site and sight to see. But what really blew my mind was the story of Josef, which he told me as he showed me around the cathedral and the crypt.
He spent much of his childhood in a boys’ home run by nuns, just around the corner from the church. The sisters had plans for him to become a priest. Each Sunday he served as altar boy, taking part in the church services.  Then he met Beate, the woman who has been his wife for 52 years, and that took care of that.
As we stood at the high altar Josef talked about the years after his mother died and he came to live as part of the religious community. I looked out over the vast interior of the Cathedral and almost felt dizzy. Yikes. This wasn’t some great monument for him. He wasn’t describing a thousand of years of history; he’s literally at home here. This grand space helped formed him as a human being. Josef, his story, and the soaring church are beautiful.
NOTES:  – German poet Reinhold Schneider.  Saumagen is the German version of Scottish haggis. Instead of suet and sausage in a sheep’s intestine, the Pfalz version uses pig’s stomach. I’ve tried it, and it’s not bad. Tasty, even.  Josef is 74 years old, so the services would have been conducted in Latin.
While I’m posting about China and Xi’an, I want to mention the yummy traditional foods. I’ll keep this post brief, and allow Uwe’s photos from our visit to do the talking. Besides, my mouth keeps watering just looking at them.
In Xi’an’s historic Muslim quarter, vendors were baking, frying, steaming and cooking all sorts of delicious treats. These ranged from food that was deep fried in woks to marinated meats on skewers.
I couldn’t resist the piles of beautifully plaited and stamped breads,
as well as the stacks of sesame and bean paste desserts…