Tuesday, 6 July 2010


The picture you are looking at shows Sophia Church (Sofia Kyrka), just opposite, and due north of, my apartment in Stockholm. As you can see from the church clock, it is precisely midnight. I arrived back home, after 12 weeks of travel, on the evening of 22 June, just some twenty minutes before taking this photo. For you, dear readers, not familiar with Sweden and its peculiarities, you are witnessing the famous white night of the Nordic midsummer.

All was quiet on this blessed occasion. The sun had, of course, already set, but was ambling along, slowly but surely, just a wee bit below the horizon, keeping the northern sky full of light, against which the church tower stood as an enticing silhouette. Suddenly, birds started to twitter, as if being confused between dusk and dawn. And right they were in being confused, since dusk merged with dawn without an intermittent period of dark. Soon the zone of lightness would pass the church, getting more brilliant along its way until, an hour later, the first golden colours of the sun would start colouring its lower fringe, announcing the newly borne day.

It has been a looong trip this time and it was good to be back home again. But my joy at looking at the midnight wonders was mixed with sadness. What I had won in regaining the familiarity of Hammarby Sjöstad, I had lost in leaving Berkeley. For the first time in many years, I nurtured a sharp feeling of sorrow and longing, which had appeared already when mounting the plane in San Francisco, but now came to the fore with a vengeance. But should that surprise me? Had I not embarked on my last great adventure that now had come to its end, at long last?

Thinking back to the many weeks spent in California, it slowly started to dawn on me why I had so eagerly engaged in travelling there and staying there for a prolonged period. It was my subconscious that was responsible for that decision, my conscious self having scant to do with it! Way back in the seventies, when I staid in California as a young man, I was not ready for all the wonders to behold in that benighted region. Too engaged was I in my daily labours of taking courses, studying books, writing drafts of my thesis, to be able to take it all in, the marvellous things to see and to experience, which were literally to be found just under my nose. Still, my mind must have observed all this at the margin, and stored the information as a job unfinished, to be further looked into at a later time, if and when circumstances permitted. This is, I realize it now, what made me jump at the opportunity of going back!

But let us not delve too much into psychological intricacies! This blog has come to an end and it is time to acknowledge it. Let me put the finishing touches by thanking you, dear readers, for your patience and staying power, in following me through the incredible amount of 34 postings. A special “Thanks!” is due to Lars, Per Magnus and Kari, my most faithful and elaborate commentators, who kept me on my toes with their manifold ideas and suggestions; to Richard for letting Eva know about my trip; to Eva, for her cordial welcome, both in the SF Symphony and in Stanford; to Heidi, for gifting me invaluable advice to get the blog started and going; and, last but not least, to my good friends in Berkeley, Nobuko, Akiko and Edward, for taking me along to numerous excursions. Without you all, I am sure I would have tired of preparing further posts long time ago, maybe, already after the first three or four chapters.

As a last, and special, treat for all of you, I would invite you to join me, by double clicking on the address below, in paying a final tribute to this marvellous place that we visited together during all these weeks in spring 2010!

Flowers to Berkeley!

Sunday, 4 July 2010


California already lying behind me, here lies a station for brief resting on my journey back to the old continent. You cannot guess which city is alluded to in the citation given in the title? I think it is enough to mention the name Sandburg, our famous Swedish poet (at least his parents were) and continue citing him to rekindle your intellect.

“HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.”

Now I think you got it: we are talking about the city built on a swampy shallow hill, which so happens to lie on the continental divide; waters running down its one side find their way to the Pacific, those swishing towards the East, soon passing a gigantic lake, belong to the Atlantic. Again using Sandburg’s expressions, I have arrived in “the place of the skunk, the river of the wild onion smell, Shee-caw-go”.

Why on earth did I choose to come to this place, reeking of raw capitalism, aptly underpinned by scholars advocating unleashed market forces as the main driver of progress? And this after my sophisticated séjour at the ivory towers on the Pacific coast!?! Well, there are two reasons for this: a prosaic and a more profound. First, the Windy City is a convenient stepping stone on a flight from San Francisco to Stockholm, if one wishes to make the trip in stages, to minimize the travail of time change. More importantly, Chicago was the residence of my granduncle Ludwig Fassl, an interesting personality, and I wished to retrace the visit Alice and myself paid him back in 1977.

The trip from SF to Chicago was uneventful, if one disregards the fact that there was considerable delay due to a tremendous thunderstorm, moving from the prairies towards Chicago, and stopping all traffic with destination thither. Once arrived, I had to deplore the minimal information service provided at O’Hare, leading me around in circles for forty minutes before finding the station for the shuttle service to downtown.

After a good night’s sleep I undertook the pilgrimage to 2304 Orchard Street, Ludwig’s former residence. My granduncle had emigrated to Chicago from his birthplace, Stegersbach in Burgenland (the easternmost province of Austria), in the ‘thirties. With only short primary education as luggage, he seemed nonetheless to be the right person for that unruly city. Starting out as handyman, he eventually found his calling, to be engineer of a respectable apartment building in a fashionable living area north of center, but close to the lake. Engineer without formal education? Make no mistake; the word denotes, in the US, the profession of caretaker of large apartment buildings. By and by, through diligent investments of his meager savings, he managed to build up a small fortune and eventually became owner of the same building.

Alice and I visited him on our trip back to Stockholm from Berkeley in 1977, after having crossed the Sierras, the great desert basin of Nevada and the Great Plains with our trusted Toyota Corona, filled to the brim with moving goods. It was a memorable experience to meet him and his wife Mary. They received us in style and housed us in their large apartment on top of the building. Both were in their eighties then, but in reasonable health. Notably, Ludwig was still active as caretaker of his own building. Although not very well versed in English, he nonetheless enjoyed the respect of people in the narrow community. I still remember him sitting at the street corner of the small greens surrounding the building, graciously receiving the “Good afternoon Mr. Fassl” of passersby on their way to the lake. He knew everyone in the neighborhood and everyone knew him or of him. Walking the streets with him gave me an excellent opportunity to study the mentality of the inhabitants. The area reeked of raw capitalism, everyone was rushing to make a buck, in particular the most recently arrived immigrants, of which there were aplenty.

Granduncle Ludwig on the right, visiting us in Austria. My mother standing in the middle

Ludwig’s eldest son Richard, after whom my brother got his name, died in WWII as war hero (on the American side). Ludwig, whose personality did not accept defeat, had long pestered the City Council to name a street after him. Since this request was recurrently denied, he finally got the folks in his neighborhood to support him in an improvised ceremony, whereupon the street corner opposite his house was renamed “Richard Fassl Square” and a street sign put up, already in the ‘fifties, which the city authorities did not dare, or care, to remove. So, when sitting on his chair at his small greens, he had the pleasure of reminiscing about his son, with the help of a square, in plain sight from the greens, with Richard’s name on it. You don’t believe this? Well, I have an old slide, taken there, to prove it. Furthermore, the fact is known back home in Burgenland, and the story has also been printed in one of its publications, Burgenländische Gemeinschaft 9/10 1992, nr. 319. You can look it up on internet by searching for “Richard Fassl Square”.

So it was with some trepidation that I took the metro to Fullerton Station and continued on foot from there the 15 minutes to Orchard Street. Would I still find Ludwig’s old house, or would the city’s raw progress have swallowed it already? Furthermore, would the good old street sign with his son’s name on it still be there to honor the war hero?

Well, to my great surprise, the street did not look a bit changed. It was still the same quiet residency area I remembered, with large trees shadowing the sidewalks and the houses all in good order. Even Ludwig’s house stood almost as I remembered it, which means that it must have been refurbished since then. Houses do not keep their appearance without aid for 35 years. I could not resist venturing closer and ringing the bell of one tenant after another, in the hope of finding someone who could still remember my granduncle, deceased since at least twenty years back. After several trials a young man answered my call, at long last, and we had a brief conversation. Apparently, none of the tenants from yore were left in the building. It had been sold soon after Ludwig’s dead and recently been reformed into a condominium: only new apartment owners were living there know. The young man was intrigued by my stories about uncle Ludwig, but could not respond with information of value for me.

Somewhat disappointed, I took nonetheless some pictures of the house and, not to keep you too long in suspense, of the street corner opposite to it, located just in front of a church. Was the sign with Richard’s name on it still there for me to admire and document? To my great regret, nothing remained; sic transit gloria mundi! If it weren’t for me and Burgenländische Gemeinschaft, the interesting story about war hero Richard and his square would now already be buried and forgotten.

You can imagine that this did nothing to keep me in good spirits. To counter a beginning depression I decided to walk back to the hotel along the lake, a nice walk of about two hours. This turned out to be the right way to get rid of my broodings. The walk went first along a large expanse of greenery and glades, called Lincoln Park and followed thereafter the lake shore in streets bordered by elegant high-risers.

Along the walk I could observe some interesting weather conditions. Although still early summer, the late morning had brought with it rather high temperatures, clearly felt on Orchard Street. Coming to the border of the lake, you could suddenly feel the air getting cooler, as the rising heat more inland was sucking in air from above the lake, bringing with it a huge amount of cool humidity, which started to build up as light fog. Just before arriving at the lakefront, the air was still relatively warm and calm and I had a clear view of the skyscraper skyline far in the distance. Close to the lake, the skyscrapers almost disappeared in the build-up of the fog; but this did not disturb me since I was comfortably cooled off by this air current from the lake.

Of course, the closer I hiked to the skyscrapers, the more firmly they stepped out of the haze and, once I was ambling between them, a clear view could again be obtained. And an interesting and educational it was at that. I am not especially fond of these monster buildings, but feel forced to concede that Chicago seems to have mastered the art of placing them out in an interesting and esthetically pleasing context. They never appear overpowering as they do in New York’s canyon-like streets, in short, they are a pleasure to behold.

After a long hike through Lincoln Park and its adjacent greens, I started to approach the downtown again. The path led me down to the lake, on the front of which some pretty impressive conservative looking residences were sitting, a bit like dowager ladies, deploring the departure, long ago, of their beloved relatives. When looking closer at the doorways and accoutrements of these elegant, albeit aged beauties, I suddenly saw that all of them stemmed from the “Roaring twenties”, some even having been finished just in time before the stock market crash of 1929, after which new buildings were hard to conceive for a long time to come. Will we, ninety years from now, have as beautiful a witness of our own excess decade to show for, as the doorway you are looking at in the picture?

As a last challenge in Chicago I decided to take the elevator to the top of the John Hancock Building, the largest scraper way back in 1977, but since then well surpassed by several others. Relatively modest in size as it is, it still provided an excellent view of its brethren, and underpinned my earlier appreciation of this ensemble of monster buildings. There was an interesting exhibition on the history of Chicago all the way up on the viewing gallery. Reading this exposé, I started to understand the reasons for this city being so brutally boisterous, but at the same time welcoming. Among the things I learned was, to my great surprise, that the city was founded by a prominent black citizen, born in Haïti, with a French father, who harkened to the impressive name of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable.

As far as is known, Jean Baptiste left Haïti for New Orleans, then journeyed up the Mississippi River to Missouri and, eventually, settled along the north bank of the Chicago River in about 1773, building a home, trading post and farm on land east of present-day Michigan Avenue, the main downtown thoroughfare. Du Sable, who was married to a Potawatomi Indian woman, presided over a frontier settlement for more than 20 years that in some ways mirrored the diversity found in the sprawling city that exists today. Du Sable's settlement welcomed American Indians as well as Canadians, British, French and Americans.

In the true spirit of white supremacy, this historical fact was conveniently suppressed in the passage of time and various white candidates were put forward as founders in du Sable’s stead. It took the city fathers until 1999 to officially acknowledge the true founder of the Windy City.

That’s about it folks; you can learn only that much on a brief stopover, even in a city plenty of excitement, such as, Chicago.

Friday, 2 July 2010


… the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things: Of shoes –­­ and ships – and sealing-wax – Of cabbages – and kings …”

We are approaching the end of my diligent blogging, dear readers; this will be my last post about Berkeley; only two more to go, dealing with the trip back to the old continent.

This post is difficult for me to write, which is why I saved it to the end. It is dealing with the underbelly of UCB, a short segment of Telegraph Avenue that starts just outside the university, when you are traversing Sproul Plaza, starting from Sather Gate, and crossing Bancroft Avenue. As the eternal nerd I am, I have always entertained a peculiar love/hate relationship with this extraordinary place. Actually, when talking about Telegraph, we will discuss here only the small, rather narrow, part of the avenue, ranging about four blocks southward from UCB’s Sather Gate.

The Avenue continues much farther, about 7 kilometres, all the way into Downtown Oakland. But, already after 300 metres it is shifting character rather abruptly at Dwight Street, at a sharp bend, about where the young lady below is urging on reluctant passersby with her whip. Beyond the bend lies just an average broad city street, with business districts interspersed by residential homes; a far cry from the hustle at its very beginning.

Telegraph Avenue started out, in Berkeley, as Choate Street way back in 1873, when the university was moved there. Already at that time, a horsecar line connected it to Oakland, along the present stretch of Telegraph Avenue. In 1892, the whole stretch, by then already trafficked by electric streetcar, got its present name.

Telegraph proper is a phenomenon cumbersome to describe, being rather remote from the average American street as it is. We may best consider it as an earthly counterpoint to the more lofty atmosphere reigning at the adjoining UCB Campus. Whereas Campus is full of energetic and smiling youngsters, ambling among classical buildings and cooling off on the greens under shady trees, with bright hopes for the future and full of glee and games, Telegraph is more of a sleazy urban canyon through which wallows a most amazing diversity of human beings, often bound on a downward journey through life.

Having said this it is also true that coursing through all this ruckus can be an exhilarating experience for the occasional visitor or the odd student, homeward bound after a day’s good work at Campus. The human condition, exposed in all its misery along this street, is largely mitigated by the generous Bay climate, which leads to a general atmosphere of good humour encompassing high and low, good and bad, fast and slow.

If you are looking for cheap, but amazingly varied and good, food, this is the place to go, keeping company with many a poor student who otherwise could not afford a healthy meal. Sitting at one of the cheap eateries, you can have the most surprising meets of people at any day, from students to beggars, or from artists to IT experts (like the one I met myself at the veggie eatery, see “The green, green Grass of Ho-ome”).

The shopping experience can also be extra-ordinary, at least if you are interested in music and literature. Two large music shops, one of them harkening to the intriguing name of “Rasputin”, can find for you and sell you any CD ever produced; and Moe’s bookshop has an amazing variety of used books to satisfy your most eccentric requests. Sadly, Cody’s bookshop, my personal favourite from 35 years back, has recently folded up; still, its façade can yet be admired from a corner table in Caffe Mediterraneum, the same table where Dustin Hoffman was filmed, sipping coffee and glancing at Cody's in the cult movie “The Graduate”, way back in the mid-sixties.

But, all in all, Telegraph as phenomenon stands and falls with the people living and working on it, or just passing through, quickly or more slowly, over weeks and even years. Have I already mentioned that I never was completely at ease when walking this arena of the human condition? If so, I trust you understand that you cannot expect from me a comprehensive survey. Let me just give you an inkling of it, by drawing sketches of typical fellow human beings that seem to thrive on this amazing stretch of land.

The first, most impressive, category of regulars consists of the PROPHETS, fellows with a distinct and forceful message, sometimes engaging crowds of listeners, but, more often than not, spreading the gospel to precious few. The gentleman above is swearing by the Old Testament and rather knowledgeable about its most hidden stanzas. Out of them he has deduced that Judgement Day will come on May 21, 2011 and end on October 21 2011. Although rather forceful in his speeches, garnered with fire and brimstone, he was easily accessible for private discussions and proved to be quite amiable when queried about details of his bible studies. He even accepted, with a condescending smile, that I did not fully rely on the logic of his analysis, but kept assuring me that his deductions were sound, as was his belief in the One Old God.

Let’s move on to the New Testament. As could be expected, the prophet in question, proselytizing on the basis of this more recent biblical underpinning, shone with a more modern and suave appearance, using a rather laid back approach to teaching his gospel. His message was inscribed on a flag held in his steady left hand (the right hand being used to shake hands with passersby), on which were written the following holy words: “It’s easy to be an atheist if you don’t think where everything came from”. His poise was unmoved by my humble attempts to explain to him the original big bang from which the universe came from, since, as he assured me, someone had had to cause that explosion as well.

Let’s move on to more mundane messages. The Gentleman writing the slogan “UC Berkeley: out of Peoples’ Park” is a forceful politician of native Indian descent, being a Member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and owning the impressive name of Zachary RunningWolf. He is calling himself “Leader” and has been running for Mayor of Berkeley several times, albeit with limited success. When queried about the slogan written on the sidewalk he explained to me that, according to native Indian philosophy, private persons did not have the right to own land and, if such rights existed, they should be attributed to the native population, that is, the Indians. A case in hand in his view was Peoples’ Park.

Now, that got me interested. In the ‘sixties, the University had bought up a residential block, adjacent to Telegraph, with the aim to build student athletic facilities on the land. This plan was met by furious opposition from a coalition of radical forces, squatting on the land, despite heavy police involvement, and effectively transforming it into a park that exists to present days, the Peoples’ Park. Legally, the situation is in limbo, with the University not ceding its right to the land. In practice, the park is a going concern that no public authority would dare to negate, after almost 50 years’ of occupancy. A grove of rather large trees is already dominating one third of the land, the remainder consisting of greens and a scene for performances. The scene’s platform is usually being used as sleeping ground for down-and-outs in between performances.

After this small aside we are moving down from the lofty heights of prophets to their more humble followers, the MARTYRS. These are the people who keep the big leaders going, collecting means for their sustenance and helping to propagate their masters’ voice. It is in their nature to be self-effacing, so we cannot, to our regret, tell any elaborate story about these personalities.

Next in line comes a considerably more colourful bunch of people, the STREET VENDORS. Tourists, paying a short visit to Telegraph, usually believe that these are the main attractions populating the street. There is no denying that they provide spice to the experience, both in terms of personality and the goods/services they provide. These are the schooled actors on the scene, depending on their apparition and performance to attract willing customers.

The products they are selling are usually cheap trinkets, with the occasional good buy, hidden among the manifold, which many a tourist discovered to his/her delight.

One product I found beguiling was the painting of nice young ladies’ hands and feet with “henna”, giving rise to all kinds of colourful tattoo-like adornments, with the additional advantage that the “tattoos” would bleach out in time and not give rise to irreversible mistakes.

Let’s leave this crowd to the tourists and move on to less promising folks, the VAGABONDS. The engaging atmosphere of Telegraph is attracting all kinds of drop-outs, be they former students, runaways from home or simply people having tired of the labours of normal living. They are the most pleasant to behold when they have just arrived and still are exhibiting joy and enthusiasm, whilst sitting on the sidewalk in this marvellous outdoor theatre, being spectators as well as actors.

Circumstances will gradually become less enticing for them, when the charm of the place is wearing off and the play-acting becomes daily routine. The peregrinators are eventually becoming locals, start dressing up in army fatigues, getting dogs and getting “under the influence”. Thus mellowed, they pass their days in patient passivity, living on the street and begging for their sustenance from eager bystanders.

Their artificial mellowness has, of course, to be maintained by continually adding appropriate smoking paraphernalia to the mix. The task of providing this falls on the DEALERS who move around rather circumspectly and can usually be observed and pictured only at a distance.

Quite apart from the usual drop-outs we find the more serene gentlemen without a home who have their fixed abode for sleeping in the small streets adjacent to Telegraph, usually below sheltered shopping windows and other nooks and crannies. When the morning sun is warming up their sleeping bags they pack their belongings in shopping carts or knapsacks and gravitate towards Telegraph, to sit quietly in the sun amongst the buzz, which provides them with company of a kind.

In the middle of the hubbub we can find several nice places, to drink coffee and have a good time, that were my favourite haunts for relaxing and reading a newspaper after lunch. The most renowned of these is Caffe Mediterraneum that, since the ‘fifties, has catered to distinguished customers, such as, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg of the Beat generation. Allegedly, Caffe Latte was invented here, since the customers could not stand the strong espresso coffee on offer in the café, with its Italian barista, and would ask that generous amounts of milk be added to the brew.

Can INTELLECTUALS still be found lingering in cafés like Mediterraneum or, more recently, Peet’s Coffee & Tea? Before answering this question, allow me to issue a warning. The jovial person in the picture below, sitting in Mediterraneum, drinking Latte and reading the San Francisco Chronicle IS NOT an intellectual! He is definitely one of the pretenders, hoping, no doubt, to attract to his table the odd artist still frequenting this café.

Having said that, the person sitting opposite him on the table IS an intellectual. In fact, you are looking at the famous Berkeley street poet Julia Vinograd, the Poeta Laureata of Telegraph Avenue, author of some fifty poetry books and honoured with a Poetry Lifetime Achievement Award by the City of Berkeley. You can appreciate her as the last living link to the earlier, more proficient period of radical poets, having had Allen Ginsburg as her mentor when she was a budding youngster. By the way, Allen wrote his famous poem “Howl” at the exact table were she is sitting.

Not to be bested, also Peet’s Coffee & Tea, even if established on Telegraph only recently, can be seen housing one or the other creative artist. The group depicted below can surely be counted among the intellectuals. We can but guess its members’ occupation. I would wager that we are seeing here two authors, busy with analysing their latest projects, their muse smiling encouragingly at the amiable discourse.

Let us round up the presentation of the human condition by looking at another of Telegraphs’s striking features, the numerous murals adorning building walls. They are found in varying circumstances, from embellishing a school front, like in the picture below, via hiding a raw façade with a colourful banner-like painting, to the most impressive of them all, spreading out over half a block and telling the story of the early, radical, days of UCB and Telegraph.

You can see a small section of the latter, monumental, painting in the picture below. It shows the gathering of the crowds fighting for the creation of People’s Park. The whole mural, which is actually almost as old as the events it is depicting – preserved as it is, no doubt, by the generous Bay climate – is letting us glimpse the curious mix of radical revolution, public elation and inclusive participation that characterized the Free Speech and Anti-Vietnam Movements, in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, as practised at major campus sites and as originating, to a great degree, from this very Campus and city blocks.

You have to be of the same generation as the painters of, and those painted in, this impressive piece of street art to really understand and appreciate its impact. Alas, we are talking about a generation soon to be gone – let’s face it, I am also part of it – and the generations after us may read the monument in different ways, grounded in THEIR experiences and challenges. I could imagine them reading the tale, NOT, as a story of triumphing over repressive forces, RATHER, as a tale of vainglorious efforts by LES MISERABLES, ever destined to fail, to rise against the stream of globalized progress that is forcing ever increasing shares of the middle classes on a down-ward path away from prosperity.

“Wow!” I see that I am getting carried away by my own rethoric, as usual. Let’s stop here and finish this exotic post with a poem by Julia, our beloved Poeta Laureata. The few verses that follow, being rather dear to me, manage to capture the essence of the Telegraph Avenue of our times, putting my more voluminous scribblings and pictures to shame.

Things are so bad
that one of the young street guys
was pimping his puppy.
It was only 5 weeks old, eyes filmy, couldn’t walk yet,
just rolled around trying to play
with a small stuffed flappy-eared white rabbit toy
its owner kept dangling in its face
and grabbing back.
There was a scrawled cardboard sign
saying “puppy love, only a quarter”.
It costs to stop and smile.
The young guy caught people’s eyes to draw them closer.
After all he buys dogfood and deals with the cops,
he’s entitled.
Maybe the puppy will make him enough money
to buy himself a pimp’s classy new cap
with a feather in the band.