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In their own Words (and Pictures…)

Charleston SC is a city practically devoid of street art. There are a few official murals.

To find graffiti you have to scout the outlying areas, and even then the results are meager, hidden behind empty malls and off traffic arteries.

What you can spot in the city is small and unobtrusive.

The occasional writings in shop windows or on banners are supposed to be funny, I let you be the judge.

I was puzzled by this since I associate the East Coast with a lot of tagging activity and some really cool art works, in Miami in particular. Good weather leaves the stuff intact.  Not here, though.  And with these few exceptions, not political.


Luckily, there always photography….


A Walk on the Beach

The price you pay for traveling with your mother – or the adventures you experience, depending on perspective – is guaranteed to include visits to art museums, cemeteries, botanic gardens, explorations of graffiti  and the beach. And the occasional detour, if your mother is Frau Heuer.

The beaches around Charleston are diverse, and pretty empty during the winter. I presume during the  summer they are a zoo.

Beach towns vary. There are upscale neighborhoods (Isle of Palm), where the degree of wealth can be inferred from the car models rather than expressions of taste.

There are rather seedy neighborhoods (Folly Beach), which reminded me of spring break scenarios, minus the drunken crowds, given that it was December.


And then there are nature trails leading to somewhat hidden beaches, good for long walks and conversations;

the topic this time centering around race, as you’d predict. We would laugh around tidbits like this one:

In Search of the Black Confederate Unicorn

and think through issues of reconciliation (a topic I plan to explore in more depth at some future point here – I think it would be interesting to look at the various ways across time and places that people tried to come to terms with prior injustice.) For now, let this link with a conversation between the descendants of Dredd Scott and those of the other side be food for thought:

And speaking of food: the nice thing about traveling with your mother is that there is always a good meal guarantied.

With the appropriate drinks  

mystery deserts, refusal of  pumpkin spice

and strangely named waiters…


Magnolia Plantation

Gone with the Wind was a book that I devoured as a tween, blissfully oblivious to the historic context and fully caught by fantasies of emulating Ms. O’Hara.  Neither Wilkes nor Butlers in plain sight as love interests for this 12-year old, alas. I should have visited Magnolia Plantation then, my ignorance of slavery a shield against conflicting feelings.

The plantation was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, and continually held and expanded by them, with wealth from slave-produced rice crops. I did not visit the slave cabins, which were in use from early on until 1990 (!) and only have been subject to historic protection for the last 5 years.

I focused on the gardens which are astonishing, even in winter. Again, the dialectic of suffering and beauty seems a Leitmotiv in my S.C. sojourn. The man who created the gardens at the beginning of the 19th century had unexpectedly fallen into the inheritance of the plantation at age 22; he really wanted to pursue his career as a minister, a devout man. He also saw his Philadelphia bride languish for home and tried to cheer her with the gardens. He was the first to bring azaleas to the country and cultivate camellia Japonica for southern climes. A good guy, in essence, deeply anchored in a love for God and nature – and a slave holder.

The plantation suffered from the losses in the civil war and opened up, thus able to survive, its gardens to the public in the late 18oos. In our century the Audubon Society is also represented, having created a swamp walk of breathtaking beauty, where you practically stumble over the wildlife.


The slaves and their descendants were buried in the swampy woods. 

The Draytons were by marriage related to the Grinkés, an elite Charleston family that produced two of the most remarkable women the South has ever seen. Born among 13 children into a rich, pro-slavery household, their father a Supreme Court Judge, Sarah and Angelina both escaped Charleston around 1820 to become Quakers in Philadelphia and start careers as abolitionist writers, thinkers and lecturers. The older one also became a feminist and tried to test the 15th amendment (allowing men of all races to vote) by trying to vote when she was almost 80 years old. Contrast here, too: the abolitionists welcomed women among their brethren but the moment these started to argue for women’ rights they were told to let go and were actively oppressed.

The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was eventually ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote after a 72-year struggle. 6 months earlier, the League of Women Voters was founded during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. A good thing, one might think, but also riddled with complications: it has been argued that the women’ right to vote was needed to counterbalance the rights granted to Black men and that the suffrage movement discriminated strongly against their Black sisters. Link below gives a short summary of the claims:

Harriet Simon brought the LWV to Charleston, standing out among her class as a moderate liberal, and seemingly progressive. She did a lot of good, fighting on the right side in questions of desegregation, but also had a problem admitting Black women into the fold of the League. I think it is important to value what these women accomplished surrounded by overt racism that few of us experience in our own personal lives as sheltered, Northern US Whites or Europeans, accused as traitors to their own race. They showed courage and persistence, despite slow, incremental steps toward more equality.

Should you feel inclined to see her grave, these signs will greet you. The place is filled with birds, confederate flags and inscriptions longing for the past.




Charleston is located at the Atlantic coast, the latter dotted with small islands, some natural and some man-made to accommodate forts that were intended to protect the city and the commercial trade. Marshlands extend inland, providing perfect conditions to grow rice, and a habitat that accommodates alligators, snakes, all kinds of bugs and birds.

And no, the snake not photographed in the wild, but in the local Aquarium

Fort Sumter was built on a manmade island on top of a sandbar, and it was there that the first shot of the civil war rang, where soldiers from the union were attacked by the confederate forces from Charleston, who laid a three months siege until the unionists surrendered due to impending starvation. Not a single life was lost (except an accidental death), and the troops and officers were sent back to the North on union boats – a stark contrast to the still mind-boggling number of 700 000 or more dead in the war that ensued. (In today’s numbers that would be 12.5 million US dead.)


The National Park Service museum has a simple, effective display of the history of the secession; some facts about slavery, but few details on the horrors other than stunning statistics about child mortality (33 % of all black children died before the age of 10.)

From the museum’s pier you can take a boat tour to the fort and listen to guides give a canned speech, but then also answer your questions in one-on-one conversation.

Much of it centers around the abolitionist cause, the desire to abolish slavery for moral principles or ethical or religious reasons. I have not seen a lot on the issue of economic competitiveness that was so much part and parcel of the conflict, or the other reasons that propelled the seven southern states to secede from the union (this from a Yale open course lecture on secession): So what caused the Civil War? Somebody said “slavery.” Can I hear a “states’ rights?” Can I hear a “conflicting civilizations?” Can I hear “unctuous fury?” Can I hear “fanaticism?” Can I hear “fear?” Can I hear “stupidity?” Can I hear “Goddamn Yankees?”

Jefferson Davis, first and only elected president of the Confederation, pointed to reasons quite contradicting themselves, depending on what time you caught him. Before the war he claimed the South “is confronted by a common foe. The South should, by the instinct of self-preservation, be united. The recent declaration of the candidate and leaders of the Black Republican Party must suffice to convince many who have formerly doubted the purpose to attack the institution of slavery in the states. The undying opposition to slavery in the United States means war upon it, where it is, not where it is not.”

After the war he argued in 1882 that it had nothing to do with slavery whatsoever: “Slavery was in no ways the cause of the conflict but only an incident….“Generally Africans were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and sold by heathen masters. They were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity, put to servitude, trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization. They increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachments secured faithful service. Never was there happier dependents of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the Serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word, freedom. He put arms in their hands and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.”

The link below gives you a detailed and convincing analysis of some of the other factors mentioned above, including an interesting parallel to our times: the conflict between agrarian traditionalists and an urban intellectual class perceived to be foe.

Alas, the parallels don’t stop there – the racism of a plantation-based economy has not only not disappeared, but is re-emerging from its underground retreat.



In Judaism the number 18 is synonymous with the word chai, life, formed by the eighth and tenth letter of the alphabet, chet and yud, adding up to 18. The number is considered fortuitous. So I take next year’s date as pointing to life, promising us all something precious.

I have been thinking a lot about how precious life actually is, and how people cling to it, fight for it, refuse to give up in the face of threats to it; I spent the last week in the former heartland of slavery, the city which fired the first shot in the civil war and a region that unfortunately up to this day often claims a “way of life” more important that the inalienable right to a safe, free and equal life for us all. Much food for thought.

Yes, I visited Charleston, South Carolina, one of the biggest harbors of the slave trade, located in a region whose economy depended on the cultivation and trade of rice, cotton and other southern crops, impossible without slave labor.

Behind the beauty of a historic southern city, a landscape filled with water, tropical plants, majestic palm trees and swampland rich with wildlife, lies a dark past. Yet, like so often, there are quite a few contradictory factors merging into a complex pattern.

Charleston is nicknamed the Holy City; it has more than 400 churches ( for a population of slightly over 100 000 people) with more denominations represented since the 16oo’s than you can possibly name. Who would have thought that, in addition to being a stronghold for the principles of slavery, the city was incredibly progressive in allowing diversity among faiths, embracing every possible form of worship, including the integration of the persecuted Huguenots fleeing from France and Jews – the second oldest synagogue in the US is located here –  and eventually Catholicism in the 1800s. The churches incidentally were built with high enough towers that they allowed safe navigation for the ships coming in from the Atlantic.

Ships that brought chained and famished humans who were seen as property, sold, exploited, raped and killed at their masters’ whim. Who subsisted in freezing cold and infernally hot summers, exposed to the elements and the masses of insects and dangerous animals around here, for one reason only: economic enrichment (talked up by some version of “we’re saving those subhumans’ souls.)

Charleston today celebrates its beauty, acknowledges its history (to some degree) when you visit the national park monuments, hints at clinging to old traditions, but generally is a predominantly white city filled with friendly people and an incredible food scene. You only get glimpses of the dark past if you stumble into some museum or happen to stop behind this or that bumper sticker..

I hope you’ll take the vicarious tour of what I experienced, share the joy that the week provided as well as the inability to understand why racism in its many forms simply refuses to die. Photographs today are architecture from the city center,


and the neighborhood (below) where I rented a lovely apartment in walking distance to town, 

surrounded by what’s poor

and what’s scooped up by the burgeoning IT business folks.

May 2018 see us all healthy and strong so we can dedicate parts of ourselves to a fight for more equality and  justice. Happy New Year!

And, of course, travel…..

Christmas in SoCal

I guess they are dreaming of snow….

Rumor has it that decently-sized christmas trees in Laguna Beach go for $200 and up this year. (I guess you might as well drink Irish whiskey to make your own tree…). Generally there seems to be price increases –

But never underestimate the ingenuity of people welcoming this holiday, particularly the boat owners. Every corner I saw at the harbor had something to contribute, from heartfelt to saccharine to truly funny. And definitely no shortage of poinsettias, plopped strategically among the succulents.

As one who celebrates Hanukah I can report that the Chabad of Laguna beach were not missing out, either. Alas, I did no get a photograph of their huge Hanukiah, or their oversized announcement of a Hanukah beach party this weekend. Just wonder how they play dreidl in the sand…..

I hope these images taken at Dana Point Harbor bring us all into the mood of some kind of celebration or another.



Even nature donned the requisite colors…

Here is a song about x-mas in LA…

Mission San Juan de Capistrano

If I were the praying kind, I’d say my prayers have been heard with last night’s Alabama election results. Maybe where they would have been uttered would have given them extra clout: at the oldest mission in California, San Juan de Capistrano.

That place has a colorful history, and is actually beautiful to visit, as half a million annual visitors can attest to, coming from everywhere to practically nowhere, a small spot along the Pacific coast. The grounds are beautifully maintained, the exhibits accessible, with quite a bit of attention given to the history of the Acjachemen, the native tribes who were converted in droves.

For the full recoding of the history, you can go here

The short version is one of religious zeal to make it happen (the name is no fluke: it honored an Italian “warrior” priest.) The mission was founded for a short year in 1776 until the missionaries were attacked and killed by the Indian tribes who knew a bad thing when they saw it… so many decimated by European disease in years to come, so many proselytized from the beginning.

But the friars returned, built a stone church, the only and oldest of its kind and tended the first vineyard in California with the Criollo grape. A 7.5 magnitude earthquake during Sunday services that killed everyone in it did not deter them, nor did the 1818 day in which French pirates came to shore and sacked the mission. Flooding came later and destroyed parts of the compound; eventually the Franciscans left and the place declined, only lately restored to some impressive historical monument.

Last weekend they celebrated the upcoming holiday with a creche in the ruins, baby Jesus looking suspiciously like a space alien.

I will perhaps return around my birthday; apparently March 19 is the day the swallows used to return en masse to nest in the eves of the ruins.

The American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) is a migratory bird that spends its winters in Goya, Argentina but makes the 6,000-mile (10,000 km) trek north to the warmer climes of the American Southwest in springtime. And perhaps they will feed on these bees…. IF they come back.

Climate change, build-up of the surrounding marshes, as well as repairs to the mission church have had an impact. But before we get all gloomy – we have a democratic senator from Alabama. Let’s take the joys when they come!




Orange County

Known for Disneyland and surfing, Orange County south of LA is often mistaken for the stereotype of liberal California. Which turns out to be wrong. It is one of the most conservative places in all of the US according to recent census data (altho it did vote for Clinton last year, the first time a Democrat won since 1936.) The survey  listed three Orange County cities as among America’s 25 most conservative, making it one of two counties in the United States containing more than one such city (Maricopa County, Arizona also had three cities on the list.) 

It is not only extremely white and wealthy but also home to large numbers of Latinos and Vietnamese, who have joined the ranks of the Republicans.

It is filled with gated compounds, some accessible by typing in a code at the entrance box, others only with gate guards who you have to explain yourself to. Some on top of the hills remind me of castles along the river Mosel.

The landscape around here is beautiful, arid,

until you hit one of the frequent golf courses;

the beaches are stunning. I hiked to Dana Point yesterday.

They are good for tree poses,

automatic garbage disposal,


and above all surfing.

They sport  the young.

The fast learners.

The pros.

The ex surfers.

And those advanced to owning a yacht.

Afterwards you can retire to one of the posh hotels, (here the Ritz Carlton) and rejuvenate at their Spa – see price list before you faint when presented the bill… facial, anyone?

And then you can be floored by the beauty of the sunsets.

Orange, indeed.  (This was Laguna Beach, Catalina Island in the background.)



Hard to keep up the cheer after this week’s news, from California to Israel, but I am determined.

For the last installment on cemeteries, then, we’ll look at who they provide sanctuary to beyond the obvious.

Well, they are veritable nature preserves; when you have large green spaces in urban settings the birds will come.

Particularly if you provide appropriate bird houses…

If the birds come, the cats come.

If the cats come, the fleas come – or their cousins, as the case may be, lots of little critters.

And finally, this is where I will photograph the next round of birds and cemeteries, 2 weeks from now:

Now there’s a reason to be cheerful!


Some of the things that are left behind in cemeteries have a heart breaking quality. Others are fan fare. And some just lift your spirits because they demonstrate the strength of human faith and willpower.

In the first category was this little toy I saw in an Italian cemetery.

The next photograph belongs to the second category – there are so many pilgrims to so many graves of famous people, this being a good example of devotion.

The third category is amply visible in New Orleans. St. Roche is not only a beautiful place with elevated crypts to prevent damage from flooding; it also has a chapel where many people leave evidence that they were delivered from their afflictions with the help of the Saint. You wonder about the “Thank you, my leg grew back” but rejoice at the many “Thank you’s, I no longer need crutches.”




And then there are the words that linger (this one from Cambridge,MA) echoing my very thoughts since I had a difficult time finding the grave of the “real,” (behaviorist) B.F. Skinner.

And the plain strange.

I like to reassure myself  that a sense of humor gets us through the gravest situations. I even laugh at cheesy cemetery jokes.


Top 5 Cemetery Jokes