Thursday 29 April 2010


After having read the posting “Japan Town” you may nurse the impression that this exotic part of San Francisco is a well organized and calm oasis in the middle of the town’s hubbub. You may be right most of the year, but there is an occasion, in mid-April, when things get turned upside down and the blocks around Post and Geary Streets sizzle with activity.

New experiences are the more exciting the more unexpected. Back in April 1977, Alice (my former wife) and myself had an errand – I have forgotten which – in San Francisco and were driving along Polk Street when we suddenly saw a kid dressed in very colorful costume. Ever ready with my camera I jumped out of the car and got a picture before even looking at what I was shooting. It turned out to be a small girl, beautifully dressed in a pink kimono, shyly waving a small sprig with flowers in its tiny hand. Looking around some more, other girls started to appear and I gradually realized that something big might be developing.

Sure enough, soon sounds of exotic music started to be heard, a group of uniformed police on horseback came jogging along, with flagpoles raised like ancient lances, and the most colorful, stimulating and intriguing parade evolved before our delighted eyes. Groups of kimono clad “Geishas” with gracious steps danced before us, moving like reeds in a gentle breeze, waving sprigs of cherry blossoms in their elegant fingers; robust drummers with fierce miens hammered away at strange looking pommels; a group of youngsters in Chinese costumes did their best to out-drum the former; exotic looking golden shrines where carried by excited worshippers, with barely dressed guardian-priests clinging to the sides: In short, it was a feast for senses thirsting to sample esthetic sophistication.

As if that was not all, in the middle of it, suddenly pure beauty started to shine like sun rays glinting from behind dark clouds. Two young women strode majestically on golden and silvery bare feet along the street, one representing the sun, the other the moon, accompanied by a court of flowery pages carrying flags and placards fluttering in the breeze. Shortly behind them a red open carriage brought with it the mayor of San Francisco, poor Mosconi, waving happily to the crowd and not suspecting that this would be among his last appearances in public. To round up the whole event, a small rearguard of veterans from WWII, of Asian complexion, with gilded helmets and just barely firm knees, came marching on as if to safeguard the cultural heritage folded out before them. And all around this an enormous cheering crowd.

The images I took that day are being cherished even now and many are the friends back home, who shared my excitement about all this, when being shown this marvelous parade, as conserved in slides kept safely locked into a cupboard back home. I also made a print of one of the drummer groups for my brother as a wedding present; it was kept hanging on the wall until its colors were faded, and highly admired all that time.

When thinking back at this extraordinary day, I am reminded of the intricate relationship between the Japanese immigrants and their new homeland. There is a large cultural divide between Japan and the US, which leads the immigrants from Nippon to cherish their origin and its culture with a vengeance rarely observed in immigrant groups stemming from Europe. In my view, the efforts spent on this grand parade, the quintessence of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, are an eloquent sign of this.

The cultural divide did not originate from, but was certainly deepened during, the more than 200 years that Japan was essentially closed to outside influence. It was due to the US that it opened up again and was able to do so in a peaceful manner, even if the initial impetus was far from peaceful. Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor in the mid-1850s with four steamship frigates, armed to the teeth with cannons, and demanded to be granted a meeting with the authorities, carrying a letter from President Fillmore to the Emperor. When he was refused access he started bombarding the harbor facilities until it was finally granted. Still, it took two years of negotiations until a trade and co-operation treaty finally could be signed. Perry was the right man for the job, being a descendent, on his mother’s side, of the fiercest chieftain in Scotland – come to think of it, he has that in common with one of the faithful commentators on this blog.
Two portraits of Commodore Matthew Perry

After the opening up, there was a steady immigration trickle over the decades with a sizable Japanese colony first being established in Hawaii and soon after in California. Things went along fine until the 1920s, when the first signs of immigration hurdles were introduced (to diminish, if not ban, immigration from Asia and to prohibit Asian immigrants from buying land in California). But worse was to come, when during WWII, first, Japan attacked the US and, soon after, the US showed a large distrust in its Japanese-descended population on the West Coast by summarily enclosing it in concentration camps.

But these events are now long gone and new generations tend to look more into the future than into the past. If looking into the past at all, emphasis is put on the long-run friendship between Japan and the US, underpinning the wellbeing of the Japanese descendents living in the States. Not for nothing, the business centre of Japan Town is called “Japan Town Peace Plaza”, as can be seen in a picture on an earlier posting (“Japan Town”). Notably, there is a round of events being organised all over the US this year to celebrate the 150 years’ jubilee of the arrival of the first official Japanese Delegation ever to the United States, bringing with it the ratified version of the treaty negotiated by Commodore Perry.

"Oops!", I see to my consternation that this posting is lingering unduly on past history. The thoughts expressed above were intended as a short prologue but have apparently taken up a life of their own. Not any more! Time to go back to traditional blogging. The topic of today is, of course, the grand parade of this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival on 18 April last.

As you can understand, with my brain full of the impressions from 1977, I was curious to learn, first, if my first excitement from that year would be matched by witnessing new wonders, even if, this time, I would not stumble upon the event by happenstance. Secondly, I was looking forward to study how the event itself had developed over the past 33 years and what possible changes could tell us about the integration of Japanese living in California.

So off I went to San Francisco on another cool and sunny Sunday morning, as made for a parade, and followed the event from its start at the Civic Centre to its finishing strides past Japan Town along Post Street. It turned out that my expectations were more than met. Again I could witness the “cavalry with lances” leading the procession. Ladies dressed in splendid kimonos, in gracious stride and waving like reeds in the wind, with cherry blossoms in their gentle hands, again delighted my palate for exotic beauty. There were drummers aplenty and full orchestras sounding off in Asian rythm. There were ancient “Samurais” swinging their swords over the head of “frightened” audiences. And they all delighted me as much as they had back in the ‘seventies. Apparently, the taste for exotic experiences from Asia remains unsaturated for us Europeans.

As to the second query, a number of new elements in the parade could be discerned. Foremost, the outstanding tableau, from 1977, picturing the sun, the moon and their entourage, was sorely missed. Apparently, it was the special theme of that year. Instead, there treaded a hurly-burly procession of characters, played by a multitude of youngsters, pretending to be heroes from well known (to the youngsters) Japanese cartoons, the so called “Anime”. This clearly is a sign of the times. Out goes eventually traditional Japanese culture and in comes the new one, no longer exclusively Japanese, but part of a global, more integrated civilization! Interestingly, almost half of the Anime characters were being played by Westerners, an additional sign of increasing integration.

Secondly, interspersed among the traditional female groups, waving like reed in the breeze with cherry blossoms, there were now at least two groups with flowers in their hair and around their neck, dancing sensuous hip gyrations. It appears that Hawaiian Hula dancing is getting mighty popular, both in Japan and in California, and has also been infused into the broadened, more global Japanese culture. This mirrors the earlier remarks on Japanese immigration as initially being directed towards Hawaii. That state still holds the largest Japanese community after California.

Thirdly, this time a prominent role in the parade was played by two or more integrated schools, where pupils are being taught in Japanese, be they of Western or Japanese origin. It was charming indeed to see children of all races dressed like the traditional Japanese female dancers and, like them, waving like reed in the breeze with fans in their tiny hands, smiling the toothless smiles of small kids having a marvelous time. Not to be bested, one or the other, more portly, adult Westerner also attempted to mingle among the Japanese beauties, doing her utmost to emulate traditional Asian graciousness. Seeing all this indeed helps us believe, that there may be a future for our disparate world after all!

To sum up, it was another marvelous day in my voyage down memory lane, which more and more appears far too short to take it all in, in this California that seems to take the whole world in its embrace.

As an aside, do I understand it right that you would like to have a good look at all my pictures from the Grand Parade, presented with better quality and in the form of a slide show on your screen? If so, your wish is my command. If you go to the web-address below and, once there,
click on the word “Slide show” up to the left, your wishes will come true!

Friday 23 April 2010


Time to regain the mission thread! Where we left off was me getting lost in the maze of crooked streets when leaning towards left on Euclid to gain Spruce. But rescue was at hand! A gentleman of a certain age – let’s face it, about my age – with the biblical name of David, whom I approached, told me that the route was too complicated to explain but that he was heading in the same direction and invited me to accompany him.

As we mounted the hills, taking it easy on the many stairs, a certain abundance of what looked like religious buildings was notable on the way and I asked David about this overflow. I am glad I did so, since the explanation was intriguing indeed. Apparently, the hills in question were called “Biblical hills” since they housed the majority of Christian colleges in Berkeley, other faiths’ institutions of higher learning being located at less exclusive premises. Within the catholic faith alone there were three such institutions: one each for the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits. As explained by David, contact between these three colleges was minimal, each being convinced of its own rightness of ways.

As he was speaking we passed one of the more proficient such institutions, looking somewhat like a debonair monastery, unsure which variant of faith it abided by. When approaching the centre of it all, a nice young lady passed us by in speed and opened its door for us, believing us to be distinguished visitors. Her smile was so inviting that it could stem only from recently having been blessed by salvation. We were sorry to disappoint her and continued our journey with, I trust, her blessings.

David confessed, when queried about why he was so knowledgeable about these colleges, that he was himself involved as teacher. His speciality was Hebrew and Latin, which pleased me no end, since my favourite conversation topic is the use of spoken Latin in contemporary society. We dived deeply into this topic and commiserated about the sad decline in such use. This gave me the opportunity to ponder on my early student days in Vienna, when Latin was still very much alive in the teaching of Roman Law. David was intrigued to hear that, in my student days at least, lawyers became Doctors of Law not by writing a thesis, but by holding a learned conversation with their professor in Latin, the so called “Romanum”.

He was the more pleased to hear that Finland was still a valiant bastion of traditions. In that country there is, in fact, a radio channel that is emitting the latest news in the language of Cicero. There is even a pop orchestra singing, maybe not in the idiom of Cicero, but surely in that of Virgil, Horace and Ovid. To our mutual pleasure he could in turn enlighten me about the official languages in use in the former Parliament of the Kingdom of Hungary, prior to its sad demise after the Great War. They were no other than Hungarian and LATIN! So there is still hope for the world.

Discussing such noble matters made the time fly and we soon arrived at a crossroads where he took off further up into the hills but I could already glance a street sign indicating that I had arrived.

Just some blocks down the street a yellow building with the right number of 1780 was discerned. This is a nice little apartment building you resided in, Lars! It looked recently painted to me and well kept, not to speak of well secured. My original plan was to try to locate the owner or manager with a view of gaining access to the penthouse, since Lars in his comments was lyrical about the vista from his former balcony and I would have loved to take a picture of the Golden Gate from there for his benefit. Unfortunately, the building was firmly locked, without even a list of tenants outside or means of contacting them. I waited for 15 minutes or so, hoping for a resident to either exit or enter, but, in the middle of the day as it was, nobody appeared. Slightly disappointed I started my return.

Since Lars had talked about an undisturbed view, I guessed that the block immediately to the West of the building must have been an open plot back in the ‘eighties. So I decided to make a detour on the route back home to investigate. Sure enough, the whole block consisted of what looked like a big “Schrebergarten”, a garden colony. There was an open gate, so I entered the compound. From a suitable angle I tried to get a glimpse of Lars penthouse and believe that I was able to get at least a tiny corner of it into the view, just behind a blue building on the street opposite to the garden.

A pair soon came to question my presence, in a friendly way, and it turned out that this plot belonged to UCB, to be used by students under the supervision of a biology teacher. In fact, the pair contacting me was the don and his faithful disciple. "No", it is the guy to the left who is the don. As always, I presented the blogging project to foreclose any possible admonishments, and took a picture of the pair. Upon hearing about my activities they suggested that I contact the research station uphill of campus, to gain further material for the postings. Some interesting nature research was apparently going on there, for instance, there was a colony of “giggling hyenas” and it had already been established that the frequency of giggling showed the status of the hyena in question. Nervous giggles in quick succession denoted, you may have guessed, low rang, whereas more stately giggles indicated a more elevated position in the flock. This was clearly worthy of looking into at some later stage. But isn’t it nice to see that, whatever topic may stroke your fancy, you can always find on-going research about it in the University of California?

These refreshing thoughts accompanied me whilst retracing my steps towards and back through campus. By then it was early afternoon, and extracurricular activities were, as always on campus, blooming to the full. This time the campus was warming up for the first ever Berkeley Open Campus week, which would culminate in a huge outdoor festivity the following Saturday, at the same time rounding up that event and introducing that of next week, the Annual Earth Day. More about all this at a later posting!

The Vietnamese student association was still going at it, this time aided by what looked like an Asian hellhound or dragon, asking to be fed. Another group was, more in earnest, working hard to get the student audience interested in the great American Census which is being carried out at present.

Last, but not least, standing on the Campus edge towards Telegraph Avenue, a big surprise awaited me. The Communist Party of the Americas was alive and kicking, welcoming me with clenched fists and “Revolution” slogans, made palatable by big smiles in the good old Campus tradition. I do not recall that I had ever seen their representatives on campus when I was a student. Maybe they were personae non gratae back then, in the middle years of the cold war. But, just like our own communist parties back home, they have re-invented themselves after the Soviet breakdown with messages more closely geared towards the views of the general public. The party is very active now in the field of climate change and advocates world revolution as the (only?) means to get to grips with that global threat.

I felt obliged to point out, to the agreeable pair representing the party, that I did not believe in revolution as the cure all. Furthermore, I tried to make them aware of the old adage of “Revolution eats its own children”, indicating that the originators’ best intentions generally risk being ignored by more brutal successors that tend to rise as the pioneers are being made redundant. These thoughts did not fall on fertile ground, to my regret, so we soon continued our brief discussions on other topics. It emerged that the gentleman in the picture used to study at Berkeley and, furthermore, that he did so precisely in those years when I myself was a student. His major was in philosophy and I could not help myself thinking, that such a gentle and learned person would be among the first to be devoured if revolution would be taking off in earnest.

Normally I would have proceeded along Telegraph to return to Stuart, but there was an additional task urging me on. You may recall our friend Harry that we met on the Sunol hike. To my intense pleasure he has since then become an active reader of this blog and found a way to reinvigorate its interactivity. As you can judge for yourself, when reading his comment under the posting “Mission in sight”, he is actually a born “Berkleyite” and his childhood home was located on Channing Street, at its corner to Shattuck Avenue, just 10 minutes’ walk from where I am living at Stuart. Below you see a charming picture of his former home, taken in the late 'thirties by his father Charles A. Pottol (1899-1967). Harry himself is in the picture, on the scaffold in the back. This is going down memory lane with a vengeance, reaching back more than 70 years, rather than the 35 we usually have as reference in this blog. I trust you understand that I could not resist the urge to pass by his old quarters, on my way home, so that I could bear witness of the past vs. the present.

As Harry said in his comment, the house, a beautiful example of what in Sweden is called “snickarglädje” (the carpenter’s delight), is sadly gone. I tried to take a picture from approximately the same angle as the valiant cameraman in the ‘thirties. As you can see, progress is not necessarily presenting us with better vistas and, furthermore, planning restrictions must have been more relaxed in the old days to permit such unwelcome transformation.

As a bonus gift to Harry, I was pleased to notice, that the building just opposite his former home is still alive and kicking. This is the house you saw every day, Harry, when stepping out on your porch on the way to school. Hopefully, the painting has kept its nuances, to bring you fully back to the days of yore!

Being mighty pleased with myself after having been interactive all day, I traced my final, by then weary, steps back towards Stuart along Shattuck, the big and busy business avenue cutting Berkeley in two. But another adventure was yet awaiting me not too far from Channing. Amongst terrible ruckus, with sirens wailing, cars sounding the horn and traffic at a complete standstill, a giant geyser had suddenly appeared right in the middle of Shattuck, just in front of the firestation. It was as if we suddenly had to be reminded of nature’s inherent violence, foreboding greater calamities to come. Or, hopefully, this was only a reminder of the recent huge eruption on Iceland, so nicely documented by our friend Thorsteinn on his website. Thorsteinn, if you read this, is there a possibility of sharing your most dramatic picture, that with the flashes of Jupiter accompanying the wrath of Vulcanus, with us here on the blog?

Coming back to the Berkeley geyser, some observers told me that a truck had driven into a hydrant, placed in the middle of Shattuck, causing this sudden eruption right before the firemen’s noses. But this is probably a wrong interpretation of the event, as Harry has explained to me. That notwithstanding, it is an irony of fate that it took the experts close to an hour to shut down this dynamic spectacle. But it is probably more important for the firefighters to be able to open the water sluices if needed, than to ­­close them after use!

Wednesday 21 April 2010


No, this posting is not about the ”Big Game”, the annual football match between UCB and Stanford, which takes place in autumn. Neither have I misrepresented the second part of the sentence. The title alludes to Memorial Glade, the largest university green and playground that I have ever experienced and I would like to share with you the youthful boisterousness and creativity in playing games that is exhibited there, when students, wary from their study work, are letting off steam and having a good time.

Lest you believe that campus life is all play and fun, let me start by pointing out that study work at Berkeley generally is hard and demanding. In my days, the academic year consisted of three “quarters” of 10 weeks each. In each quarter you had to enrol in, and study in parallel, at least three classes à three lectures per week. In week 5 there were mid-term exams WITHOUT ANY PRIOR STUDY RECESS. In fact, exams were given the day after the last lecture and questions asked also on that lecture’s content. This forced the students to start learning from day one and never let go. For the final exams, a grace period of three days was granted for preparations. You had to achieve a minimum grading in all three classes. If you failed in one of them, you were already at risk of being thrown out of College and forced to descend to an institute of lesser distinction.

Since I was a visiting graduate student, I did not have to strictly observe the rule of three parallel lectures, but abided by the regime nonetheless, for my own sake. I can safely say that I learned more in that one year than in all my other 15 years of graduate studies! The intensive stuffing with three concurrent themes did wonders to my brain capacity and I learned for the first time in my life what it means to have a disciplined study plan.

There was no 8 hours’ day to speak of for the students. The main student libraries were open long into the night and always full. I could observe students literally collapsing over their books, suddenly waking up half an hour or so later and forcefully continuing their stuffing as if nothing had happened; this until the small hours and still having to make it to the next lecture at, possibly, nine o’clock in the morning.

Just before writing this I had a short conversation with two undergraduates at the student cafeteria and they confirmed to me that work conditions are pretty much the same as of yore. As the main difference, the academic year is now divided into two semesters of 15 weeks each.

As spring arrives and the sun is starting to warm up the campus towards the evenings, the bent up energy of the students, having to remain fixed to their chairs far too long, tends to erupt into joyful playing, in particular on Friday evenings, with a weekend beckoning. This I was lucky to witness on some occasions during the first weeks of April. A major part of the action takes place on Memorial Glade, as well as in the area around Sather Gate.

Let me start by presenting to you the nice young lady on the cover picture, Catherine, whom I met late on a Friday afternoon, whilst entering campus from the North. She had invented a rather sophisticated game all of her own. As she explained it to me, the aim was to get the table she was sitting at from North Gate to Sather Gate. Every time someone signed her “petition”, placed on an immense parchment roll, the table would be moved one meter, or so, southward. I of course signed my name immediately, whereupon she moved the table so quickly that I could not manage to take a picture. When asking her to move it again, she said “not without another signature, otherwise IT WOULD BE CHEATING”; so I had to sign again. All this was done with obvious glee and we both had a marvellous time during the conversation. For me, Catherine represents the quintessence of intelligent campus playfulness. If your read this, Catherine, please let us know how long it took you to arrive at Sather Gate.

Continuing at a quicker pace than hers, but along the same trajectory, I soon arrived at a wonderful vista, with the outstretched greenery of Memorial Glade spread out before me, bordered by two of the most beautiful buildings on campus, the University Library and the Campanile, all bathed in the glorious warmth of late evening sunlight. The library, in particular, stroked my fancy in this flattering light, reminding me about the Pallas Athena temple on Parthenon.

Far down on the glade I glimpsed a couple running around as if playing football. It turned out that they were not the only ones chasing the ball; there was strong competition from a dog, who had misunderstood the nature of the game. But this delighted the youngsters even more and a merry chase could be observed all over the glade.

At a later April Friday I was out somewhat earlier and found the glade yet more full of pouncing students. A small group of more mature youngsters, some of them already engaged as teachers, were engaged in a charming game they called “playing hacky sack”, a bit like European football with a small ball they balanced between them. It would tire you to hear about all the other games having been played at the glade that day but I feel obliged to emphasize that the reclining young man, in the picture that follows, assured me he was smoking tobacco.

Moving on from the greens to Sather Gate and Sproul Plaza at the southern entrance, the crowd was as vivid and creative there. Japanese drummers geared up for a performance to be given the week after; the Student Octet was giving an improvised performance, much admired by a youthful audience; swing was being danced with enthusiasm on the square; and a large dancing group practiced for a performance just in front of Sproul Hall. Last but not least, a group of newcomers, MBA students to be, enticed passing students, including myself, to participate in the venerable Telephone Game: we were all told to stand in a circle and to whisper a message from ear to ear, only to find out at the end that not much of the original message remained.

To sum up, if you approach the Berkeley Campus at the right time of the year, week and hour, you will find it to be one huge outdoor theatre, with a manifold of scenes, all being occupied by enthusiastic and creative performers, to the observer’s delight.