Twenty-two years ago, for Christmas, I got this:

You can see it hasn’t been used. I’ve been doing little watercolor painting/drawings and last night I thought, “It’s time.”

Whether I’m actively making art or not, I think of art supplies as “real wealth.” That’s an idea I got from Alan Watts during an ethics class in college. He made the distinction between symbolic and real wealth. Real wealth is things you have and can use. They don’t lose value. Symbolic wealth (money), on the other hand, is tied to purchasing power and CAN lose value. Of the two, Watts insisted, REAL wealth is more important. It was his argument against debt and in favor of frugality and minimalism.

When I got my Christmas present from my Swiss family ($200 CHF) my friend and I walked down to Jelmoli, a beautiful department store then in Glattzentrum in Wallisellen, a suburb of Zürich, where they lived, and bought this set of pencils.

It was too precious and too beautiful to dip into. That’s kind of absurd because I’ve been using and re-stocking a 40 pencil set for nearly 30 years. It’s real pencils and no different from what I’ve been using, but all this time it’s represented magical potential.

Anyway, I’m going to start using them on the little consequenceless watercolors I’m doing.

Caran d’Ache

When I moved here four years ago I followed the instructions of every moving company and put my treasures in the car I drove myself. My treasures were Lily, Dusty, and Mindy (dogs), and my art supplies. I especially treasure two sets of Caran d’Ache materials — watercolor pencils and Conte crayons. I know that never in my life would I be able to replace the sets. I don’t use them. I work with a smaller set (40) and I replace each pencil as it wears down. These colors are made in Switzerland.

A long time ago I had a Swiss family. It’s a long story — pretty interesting one — but I’m not telling it here. For a few years, I spent most Christmases in Zürich with them. Often, I was given cash as a present, and one year I went to the Glatt (big shopping center in Wallisellen) and bought a giant sent of watercolor pencils. One year I wasn’t able to go to Zürich, and when my friend returned to California from time with his parents, he gave me my Christmas presents. One was the set of Conte crayons.

I have a set of Caran d’Ache gouache that I used once in a while and a set of oil pastels I’ve never used. So far they haven’t fit my technique.

For me these colors are wonderful in themselves and in the way they connect me to a time in my life that was these colors.

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Navigating Time Travel

Reading a street map is becoming a lost art. Is that OK? I rely on my phone, too. It’s like having a wife who sits in the passenger seat with a map and tells me where to turn. I’m sorry for the sexist remark “wife” here but in my life that person was either my mom or me so it isn’t all that sexist. When I was in Switzerland with my friend L I opted NOT to pay extra for GPS because I was going to have a “wife” who could navigate. I wasn’t thinking that, 1) L drives everywhere in her life because 2) her husband is blind and 3) not everyone LIKES maps as much as I do and 4) she wasn’t really good at reading a map and 5) Switzerland is what one from out here where the second largest town in an area as large as Connecticut has only 4000 people, well, we might call Switzerland “compressed.” Where the next town HERE might be 14 miles away, in Switzerland it might be half a mile.

I can tell you, it led to some pretty ugly moments, but we always got there, and L got better at map reading. All was well.

As for me here in the wild and woollies, my cell phone service data plan doesn’t cover the San Luis Valley. I have a Rand McNally road atlas in my car, but with no co-pilot that’s a bit of a problem but there is this little trick of pulling over and looking at the map. I’m pretty good at that.

Maps fascinate me. In the process of writing my historical novels, I found old maps to be like time machines. While writing The Brothers Path I tried to imagine the moment when Felix Manz was drowned in the Limmat and what kind of panic that might have inspired in some people — including my characters. In fact, the first line I wrote of that book was THAT moment, the moment when the brothers Thomann and Andreas realized they were about to witness something that had never, ever, ever happened before* and one of them, Thomann, quickly apprehended that it could result in a lot more deaths if not a riot. Thomann told his brother to run. In fact, the first line I wrote of that novel was, “Andreas! Run!”

But where? Zürich today is not Zürich of the 16th century. It was a walled city — and it had been walled more than once, a series of walls ever reaching outward as the city grew. I found a map. A beautiful 16th century map with the names of the various gates clearly marked. I saw the roads (old, old roads, still there, paved, lined, traffic filled, but old) that would have taken them out of the city that horrible day. There was a squat little tower called the Ketzitzturli (sp) that would have put him right on the road home.

Many of the streets in Zürich carry the names of the towers to once they led. I found it pretty easy to drive in Zürich because I knew this old map so well.

*The leader of the Reformed church, Huldrych Zwingli, executed his former friend, the Anabaptist, Felix Manz. It was the first execution of a Protestant by a Protestant and it happened only 3 years after the beginning of the Reformation. Both men had once been priests.

Winter has Returned…

Six degrees F this morning. I’m watching the sun rise slowly (everything moves more slowly in the cold). I invariably get sick when it first gets cold and here I am, following my personal tradition. Getting a cold when you have asthma is like overloading an exotic sundae. Too much of a good thing. So, I got up at 6, sucked on the albuterol (which I very seldom use), and shocked the dogs by letting them out in the dark.

Mindy stood at the back door looking bewildered.

I was driven by the thought of hot bitter coffee flowing down my esophagus, opening my chest.

Long, long ago in the sainted land of the Helvetians, which I have been privileged to visit many times, I had a family. How that came to be, and what the family was, isn’t important now. But one year I was given a genuine American WW II B3 bomber jacket. The father of the family — who was like a brother to me — sold furs. He was also afraid I would be cold in Switzerland, coming as I did from California.


Zürich, January 1997 on the Lindenhof

Not only was this jacket warm, it was companionable. Those were very hard times in my life, and I remember flying back to the US on a crowded jet after the Christmas season, cuddling my jacket and wishing I hadn’t had to come “home.”


In St. Gallen under the statue of St. Gall, the Irish patron Saint of Switzerland

Ultimately it stayed in Switzerland for a while (it’s colder there than in California and the jacket is fur, after all) then it moved to Italy with the mother of the family who was like a mother to me. Last year she died and her son — who’s like a son to me — brought it to Colorado for me.

I was so happy to have it.

The curly depths of its sheepskin hold my Swiss Christmases, the love shared between us all and its own intrinsic warmth. Perhaps that’s why it is so heavy.

If I had worn it to the parade Saturday, I might not be sick now. 😦

Smokes, 1994

The summer afternoon thunderstorm left streams between the cobbles. They reflect the acidic green neon of the Hard Rock Cafe sign above my head. This Hard Rock Cafe is not one of the international chain of Stratocaster strewn designer hamburger joints from La Jolla to Abu Dhabi. This is a labyrinthine dinge palace replete with a jukebox playing Aerosmith, Nirvana, Metallica, old Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains. The bartender splashes Hurlimann beer into glasses and hands them to the adolescent customers who otherwise sit on their high bar stools, rolling long Euro-joints of hash mixed with tobacco shaken from eviscerated imported Marlboros.

When I go outside, the smoke follows me; I sit in my own layer of it, tobacco, beer, the heavy sweet hash smell. My first trip to Europe is an exclusive tour of Zürich’s post-adolescent hash bars, concealed park benches and castle ruins. I take a deep breath of fresh air, washed in the rain, the wind and the evening. People pass, earnest and young, in black clothing, everyone, and everyone is smoking.

Although I’m bored and depressed by the scene, by everything, I don’t think of leaving. My ride, my DATE, my LOVER is one of the teenagers inside, and it isn’t like he’s going to drive ME. He will certainly emerge so completely fucked up he’ll demand I drive HIM home. Besides, I have no idea how to get anywhere, either on the tram or in a car. Zürich is a maze, a scary, dark and twisted tangle of identical streets with no landmarks and no horizon. It’s a living Giger painting. Giger even lives here; he’s drawing from life. I sit on a bench and prop my feet on a flower box that has Switzerland’s only dead geraniums.

I stayed inside long enough to beat the local high-scorer on the Tetris game in the corner and then beat my own high score twice. As I played, I wondered what sense it makes to be in Switzerland playing Tetris. There is something very wrong with that. I’ve never been in Europe before.

To my left, down the street, only a little ways, is Zürich’s one McDonalds, a magnet for all the American-culture idolators of the Niederdorf. A Big Mac is about $7 US, fries $3, but the milkshakes are much, much better than any I have ever had anywhere. There is really something about Swiss cows.

A boy and his girlfriend sit down on a bench near mine. He lights her cigarette. She inhales deeply.

“Could I bum a cigarette?” I ask, in English.

“Are you American?” the boy asks, shaking  a Marlboro toward me. I take it and lean forward for a light.

“Yes,” I answer. “Danke.” Smoke rises between me and the green rivulets of light threading down these solemn cobbled channels to the river.


Part of a collection of autobiographical episodes, each centered on a cigarette. I’ve had a dozen  cigarettes in my life, each attached to a particular moment that called out, “This is one! Bum a cigarette!” So…my smoking is more in tune with the Native American tradition that treats tobacco as a sacred herb.

Zurigo é una bella citta, no?

“Marta, Zurigo é una bella citta, no?” asked my friend’s father during my first visit to Zürich in 1994.

I shook my head. I didn’t think Zürich was beautiful at all. I thought it was strange and scary like a di Chirico painting. Of course I was jet-lagged and terrified and lost, but…


La Strada by Giorgio di Chirico

One night in the winter of 1996/97, at the Bodega Española, an old bar in Zürich where Lenin used to go, a professor from the University of Zürich hit on me. His pick up line was bizarre, yet provocative though not in the way a pick up line is “supposed” to be provocative. “What brings you to the crossroads of western civilization; James Joyce’s grave?”

Well, OK. Why would Joyce have been buried in Zürich? What made this grim backwater of a European city the “crossroads of western civilization”? I found the guy creepy, and he moved on. I was with two friends who thought the whole thing was hilarious (they were right), but the next summer, when I returned, I visited James Joyce’s house (but not his grave). Time would show me why Zürich was the “crossroads of western civilization” and the city would wrap itself around my heart and my mind as I finished writing Martin of Gfenn and moved on to writing other stories set in and around Zürich.

Some cities are instant lovers. Chicago was one for me. Shanghai. Beijing. Milan. Other cities seem to need courtship, time spent getting to know them. Zürich was like that. In my recent visit with my friend I felt happy that I still knew the streets, even after eleven years. That I could show her the things I think any visitor to Zürich should see — the ruins of the Roman baths visible through the gratings of the metal stairway in the narrow alleyway of Thermengasse, for example, or a small but excellent chocolate shop.


Thermangasse, Roman Baths below

It’s not that Zürich hasn’t changed — it’s changed a lot. I have studied maps of Zürich from the 13th century to today and a Zürich resident of even 100 years ago might have a difficult time with the changes to the city. There are no longer any walls. Around the edges of the city, old buildings have been torn down to make way for new. Villages that were once outside the walls are now part of the city and can be reached easily by tram or train. But in the historic center of the city, changes to buildings can only be INSIDE; the old city must remain the same outside. And this is why, after 11 years, I can still find my way around the labyrinth that scared me so much in my first visit.

Zürich fascinates me more than any other city in the world, though it’s not even considered much of an attraction in a country that is filled with attractions. It is not Geneva or Bern; there is no great and beautiful mountain nearby. It’s a serious looking — grim looking — place on a cloudy day. Zürich is banks and business. But for me it has become a sort of home.

When I said goodbye to my friend Rainer — whom I hadn’t seen in eleven years — and his girlfriend, Kirsten, Rainer said, “Come back soon. Don’t wait another ten years.”

I thought, “Wow, in ten years I’ll be 74 or maybe dead.” The thought shocked me. “I won’t wait ten years,” I said. “I love Zürich.”

Rainer looked a little surprised, but then he said, a little nervously, “And Zürich loves you.”

Funny, but I kind of believe that.


Rainer and I at the Navel of the World, Cabaret Voltaire

 Alp Horns

My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.

Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.  

At 5:30 we we to meet a friend of mine, Rainer, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. They are both historians, one working in the state archives and the other in the city archives. 

I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!

Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought. 

I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice. 

Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.

I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”

A Leper’s Christmas

Daily Prompt Getting Seasonal The holiday season: can’t get enough of it, or can’t wait for it all to be over already? Has your attitude toward the end-of-year holidays changed over the years?

Christmas Eve morning, Brother Hugo spoke to Martin, “Come with us. We are going to the forest to cut a tree and boughs to decorate the sanctuary. The Preceptor arrived last night.”

Martin had no interest in the chapel though all around him saw it as a great boon, a sanctuary for those banished from all others, but his habit had become simply to go along. He followed Brothers Hugo, Lothar and Heinrich outside the gate where a peasant waited with a sled. The sun had finally risen, though fog- bound and dim.

The four lopsided men in long black tunics followed the sled across the frozen fen and into the wood, the ice-covered pine needles clinking like crystal as they passed. Martin felt the forest’s magic pull and filled his lungs with the open air, cold though it was. “Take care, Brother; you are not used to this. You’ll catch your death,” warned Brother Hugo.

They stopped in a small clearing surrounded by pines. With a sharp saw, the peasant cut branches, while the four lepers looked for a fir the right size for the Paradise Tree.

“Will this one do?” called Brother Heinrich a few yards away.

“We may find nothing better.” Brother Lothar was anxious. He and Brother Heinrich were assisting at the mass and he feared they would not return in time.

After a few strikes of the peasant’s axe, the tree fell in a cloud of fresh snow.


Martin and Brother Hugo lay the pine boughs around the base of the altar and set high candelabra and large candles throughout the chapel to light the dark corners. The peasant made a stand for the tree, and Sisters Regula and Ursula tied apples and candles to its branches. For this day, the sisters had sewn a new altar cloth of white linen embroidered in white silk thread, with symbols of worship and the Lazarite cross entwined with grapevines. Benches were set near the front for those who could not stand or kneel. Minutes before the midday mass in which the chapel would be consecrated, the dark room had been transformed.

Martin stood in the back against the wall.

Brother Lothar entered first, swinging a censer to purify the air. He wore the white cape with the black cross of a Teutonic Knight. Brother Heinrich followed, in the black robes of the Knights of St. John, Hospitaller. In one hand, he held a branch of hyssop and in the other a silver dish from which he splashed holy water to cleanse the way.

The Master General entered wearing a sword and carrying an ornate silver cross. On the left shoulder of his black woolen cloak was appliquéd the cross of the Knights of St. Lazarus. He knelt before the altar, then stood to remove his sword and lay it upon the altar. The sword lay beside the gleaming silver chalice, reflecting the light from dozens of candles. At first, Martin could not tell if the Master General were a leper, but the wrappings on his hands answered Martin’s questions.

The Master General then stepped to one side, and the ritual was repeated by the Commander who served as Deacon. Brothers Heinrich and Lothar helped the Commander to kneel and then lifted him to his feet. He removed his sword and laid it on the altar, and made again to kneel. The Master General, who had seen his difficulty, motioned him to remain standing. The Commander bowed to the crucified Christ and said his silent prayer. Brothers Heinrich and Lothar, in their turns, laid their swords on the altar.

Asperges me,” said the Master General to the Commander who, in reply, dipped the hyssop twigs into the holy water and sprinkled the Master General. “Domine hyssopo et mundabor; lavabis me. . .”

The lepers spoke, together, those who were able, wheezing and hoarse many of them, “Thou shalt sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. Amen.”

The hyssop was used in the Bible, yes, Martin remembered, for cleansing lepers, but these were the words of Mass when all of God’s world was cleansed of the accumulating filth of human life. “Everyone is unclean,” had said the wandering priest of the Zürichberg.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy on all,” responded the Commander.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.”

Expecting no mercy from God or man, Martin crossed himself in an automatic gesture of pious anonymity.

The Master General offered the Host as a sacrifice to God, and asked for God’s forgiveness. All those around Martin responded, “Amen.”

Ejus divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus et particips Jesus Christus Fillius tuus Dominus noster…

Martin had heard this in every Mass since his boyhood, that Christ was God humbling himself to participate in the bitter, confusing struggle of man. Martin wondered if being human were not more difficult than being God.

The Commander waved the censer over the chalice to purify it before this first communion, purifying it for lepers. No clean lips would ever drink from it.

The air grew heavy with incense, the scent of fresh-cut pine, wet wool and human breath. It took a long time for the lepers to take their communion, and Martin stayed, kneeling on the stone floor, head bowed, eyes closed, his mind dragged through time on the voices, the singing, the words and the smoke of the incense. Confusing present and past, he listened for Michele’s pure Latin accents. The sun broke through the clouds and sent a bright flash through the chapel’s east window, the body of Christ. Startled by light pressing his eyelids, Martin lifted his head. He opened his eyes, but the sun was gone, and he was surrounded not by bright paintings, but by bare rock. Memory and hope collided, and he crumpled unconscious on the stone floor.


This is an excerpt from my novel, Martin of Gfenn.  If you like it, you can read more at In those days, people did not have Christmas trees as we know them, but they did put up what they called “the miracle tree.” It was an evergreen tree with apples tied to it.

They Found ME

Writing Challenge Digging for Roots In this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge, tell us about what makes you, you.

I cannot imagine anything more “Twilight Zone” than writing a novel set 800+ years ago and discovering you had written accurately about your own family of whom you had known nothing.


While writing Martin of Gfenn, I became fascinated by one of the characters, the Commander. In 2005 I set out to write a prequel that would tell the story of the Commander’s life before he came to Gfenn.

Anyone who’s written a novel knows that characters have lives of their own and at certain point, a writer must allow the characters to tell their own stories. I had no idea where that would lead me when I set out to write this book. I finished a draft in 2005 and put it aside; other (rather dire) circumstances had captured my life and I had to attend to them. In 2010, when I returned to this novel, I was a different person and a different writer.

In what was going to be the “prequel” to Martin of Gfenn, the Commander was going to be the oldest son of a minor noble, a simple knight, who bred horses and lived…where? I decided he would live in Aargau. I put his castle on a hill (small castle, more fort than castle) and using some interesting information about a ruined castle near Solothurn, I built my character’s childhood home.

I gave him a brother named Hugo, a father named Ulrich, a mother named Anna and a fiancée named many different things I can’t now remember, but her name became Gretchen. The protagonist was named Rudolf.

He and his brother happily went to the Crusades — Rudolf to save his soul and Hugo to have an adventure. At a certain point in my writing, their father’s name, Ulrich, no longer seemed “right” so I changed it to Heinrich (bear with me; I know you feel like you’re in a bad dream with this half-assed plot summary and a Tolstoyan list of changing names coming at you). The family became: Father — Heinrich. Mother — Anna. Sons — Rudolf and Hugo. Fiancée— Gretchen.

Meanwhile, Martin of Gfenn came out. I sent copies to four newspapers around Zürich. Three interviewed me and published reviews of the novel. Martin of Gfenn became a big seller in a small part of Switzerland, and I got a email from a Swiss fan asking if I had Swiss ancestry. I believed I did, but I had no proof. I had looked, to no avail (I looked because my grandmother’s cooking was exactly the same as a few “typical Swiss” dishes I’d eaten in Switzerland), so I gave it another shot and I found…

The earliest known of my grandmother’s progenitors came from the Albis region between Zürich and Aargau. Some of them lived in what is now Aargau; some in Zürich. They were a large family of relatively minor knights in the service of the rising Hapsburg family. My grandmother’s — and my — progenitors names were….

Heinrich, married to Anna, with children Rudolf and Conrad. Heinrich’s BROTHER was named Hugo. Rudolf married a girl named Margaretha which is normally shortened to Gretchen. They lived in a castle on a hill looking over the Reuss and the village of Affoltern am Albis in Canton Zürich. There were visible ruins of the castle until the early 20th century; now there is just this wall (see photo). It was a197a3727-01f3-42aa-a472-131462fe9125 small castle, mostly a fort, and, apparently, judging from the supports and old records, it had had a large tower.

Of Heinrich and  Anna’s two sons, one, Rudolf, lived a very long life (well into his 80s) and the other, Conrad, was lost to time. In my novel, Rudolf survives a significant and bloody battle, while his brother is killed.Once I found all this, I changed the name of  my character, Hugo to Conrad. That was one of two important changes I made to adapt my “creations” to historical fact. The other?

The original ending of the novel really didn’t work, but it seemed to me to fit and to be effective and sufficiently mysterious. It left the door open to possibilities. A big fan of French film, I prefer equivocal endings to those that are neat and tidy, but having learned that the REAL Rudolf lived into old age, I felt a responsibility to him to extend his story, to give him one more chance to fight and win over his demons. The “real” Rudolf had also had children (and so I’m here 🙂 ). I loved “my” Rudolf and I didn’t want to shortchange him of his future. As I thought about it, it seemed more and more that equivocal or even sad endings can be as big a cop out as happy ones.

Though it is impossible, it seems that my ancestor was pushing me as a writer to do something new. I will not say what, as you might want to read the book someday! There are two chapters posted on Rudolf’s blog.

I also Lunkhofen Coat of Armsremembered how, in 1994, on my first trip to Europe, I had been taken into some old hall in Zürich and told to look at all the coats of arms up around the wall. I remember not caring one bit. The Twilight Zone aspect is that the coat of arms of my own family is on that wall. Heinrich’s older brothers (Heinrich was the youngest of three) became very powerful. In Aargau there are towns that bear their name. Over time, “my” side of the family changed its name. That name was Anglicized in the 18th century when some of the members emigrated to America. The last person in my family with that name was a woman. Her daughter was my grandmother’s grandmother. All of my grandmother’s female ancestors (and most of the male) were Swiss (Amish!). That explained her cooking.

Cities and Time and Maps

  • It’s a big world out there — and in here, too!
  • I had been here before, a long time ago — Now I remember. 
  • I was uncertain, but kept going — and ultimately, I died.
  • In my dreams, I envision a place — but the world is wider – and wilder! – than my dreams.
  • Loneliness is an interesting feeling — no, it isn’t.

I like the city picture. It is not as chaotic as many of the places I’ve been… So… 

A city with busy, chaotic streets.

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

All cities are chaos until you know them, until you allow them to teach you who they are. You see, all real cities are living things. Shanghai, for example. 1983 (It’s a different city now). We had only a map of the city in Chinese, none was available in English. For us it was no problem. We had our Fodor’s and we had a year of experience navigating through the labyrinth of Guangzhou using only a map in Chinese that had bus routes. We’d used our skills to get around Beijing and Hangzhou? Small city, piece of cake. So in Shanghai, with my Chinese brother, Xiao Huang, we were fine. And we had only one day… It was our last day in China. A brand new 747 carrying only 11 passengers would take us to San Francisco the next day.

Xiao Huang had been assigned to accompany us from Guangzhou to see we would not get in any trouble and maybe because the “heads” knew we would miss each other. Our “watcher,” Xiao Huang had become our good friend. The flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai was his first plane flight, a rickety Aeroflot. I don’t think he enjoyed it.


“Where did you get that map, Ma Sa?”
“In the hotel bookstore.”  Hotel amenities were alien to Xiao Huang who had learned English from Voice of America while on “political study” in a factory in Dun Huang during the Cultural Revolution. Free soul that he was (and is!) some bourgeois artifacts nonetheless inspired his disapproval. The hotel was one of the great art deco buildings still found in Shanghai, left over from the glittering 30s.
“How can you read that?” he asked, looking at the map.
“It’s OK, Xiao Huang. I have a book, too.” I showed him my Fodor’s (I still have it.)
“Your plane leaves in the morning. I am afraid we will not have time to sight see.” I realized he was scared.
“We have all day! I may never again come to Shanghai!”
We were notorious in Guangzhou for going everywhere. It was all the PLA and the police and the Foreign Visitor’s Bureau could do to keep track of us and protect us (it had happened…). I think Xiao Huang was afraid there would be no one in Shanghai to keep us out of danger. He also thought we would get lost. Of course, we never did. We saw many things that day, especially in Old Shanghai. Yu Yuan, a pleasure garden with a moon gate.


In that old Chinese part of the city we saw men making abacus(es? ii?) with drills that had to have existed in medieval times. I bought one, wishing I could give it to my dad, the mathematician, but as he had been dead ten years already it would have to be a votive offering such as the Chinese made to their ancestors. I couldn’t burn it, so just yesterday, I packed it once more. We walked past the shopping area of Shanghai’s glamorous 20s and 30s on a street where pedestrians had one full lane, bikes another and the few trucks and cars were relegated to a narrow lane in the middle.

Xiao Huang had a great time.


Now I look at the cities I’ve visited as not only places navigable via two dimensional maps in languages other than English, but in the way I might imagine three dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe. Chinese cities and European cities are layers of time. Under the streets of Zürich (and other cities) are other cities. In one spot in Zürich you can look down on the excavated ruins of a Roman bath. 34776829

Maps from the past are a big help navigating the time warp of old cities. This map of Zürich was a great help (and a time machine!) when I was working on Martin of Gfenn.  Even though it’s a 16th century map, it’s possible to find the older Zürich and its walls.


Chaos is ignorance waiting for light. As Nietzsche said in Zarathustra, “Unless you have chaos within you, how can you give birth to a dancing star?” Navigating the superficial chaos of an unfamiliar city is one of the great things about traveling!