Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

Friday, February 22, 2013

Part Two of My First Istanbul Hammam Adventure at Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel

There are some discoveries in Turkey that are so delightful, they bring the immediate thought, “why aren’t these global? Why doesn’t every country have these? The Ottoman Hammam, or traditional public bath, is one such Turkish cultural institution. Anywhere the Ottoman Empire conquered and ruled, hammams and hammam culture remain.

I had come to the famous luxury hotel Cirağan Palace Kempinski to experience my first Istanbul hammam courtesy of the hotel. I entered the Cirağan Palace spa on the lower level and enjoyed the beautiful Indonesian statuary everywhere. At first it seemed so incongruous with Turkish hammam, but I learned later that due to the international nature of  Cirağan Palace hotel, many kinds of massage were offered, including Balinese massage. Indeed, just as there were Turkish hammam specialists in the spa, the hotel also had Balinese masseuse staff available for an Indonesian-style massage if that is what guests want.

The spa lobby itself was small yet very inviting. I could see beyond the room through a window to the very well-appointed fitness room which had every piece of equipment someone would need for a great workout. On the coffee table, a tray with pitcher of refreshing water garnished with orange slices awaited spa visitors. Gülay, the receptionist, knowing the unfamiliarity of North Americans with hammams, came from behind the desk and walked me through step-by-step what would happen during my visit.

A Turkish peştamal

Knowing that some visitors could be uncomfortable with nudity, Gülay pointed out there was disposable underwear provided in each locker to wear along with the abundant piece of cloth called a peştamal that hammam visitors strategically use to cover themselves as they move through the process. Peştamals are thin pieces of Turkish cloth specifically designed for the Turkish hammam experience. They are large enough to cover someone's entire body; they don't get heavy when wet and they also dry quickly.

I entered the luxurious locker room and changed into the big white fluffy bath robe provided and took my pestamel. I love these grand hotel locker rooms because, like every part of the hotel, every possible need a human could have had been anticipated. Did you need to sqeeze the water out of your swimming suit? There was a machine for that. Weigh yourself? There was a medical-quality scale. Do you hair? Every possible hair product was there waiting: combs, hair spray, blow dryers, etc. Every possible tooth care product was waiting too: toothpaste, brushes, floss.

Hamam visitors have a choice of prepping their skin in either the steam room or the sauna before going into the hammam. I chose the steam room. Sri, one of the Balinese masseuses dressed in a beautiful Indonesian dress, instructed me to take off my rings and slip them into my bathrobe pocket before I entered. The ultimate luxury provided was trust. I knew I could do that and they'd be there when I got back.

Those five minutes in the steam room help soften the skin for a scrubbing, yet they are pleasurable anyway because of the slowness of the experience. There is deep silence, semi-darkness, and the luxuriousness or warm marble with intense heat and intense steam. Do we have enough moments like that in life - where our only job is to slow down, take deep breathes, and do absolutely nothing but concentrate on restoring ourselves. I felt gratitude for the moment.

Sri came to get me all too soon and introduced me to Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist. Gül was wearing white shorts and a white swimsuit top. During the next hour she would be working very hard in a very warm room so this attire made complete sense. I was immediately comfortable with her. I entered the all marble hammam and took in the beauty of the marble fountains in the side walls, the large marble slap in the center of the room for hammam guests, and the heat.

Gül asked me if I wanted a soft, medium, or hard scrubbing. I chose hard, although it didn't feel hard. It felt just right.  Using a special bath mitt, Gül proceeded to slough off my winter skin. I felt like a baby kitten! It was fantastic and I knew my face and body would have a new rosy glow when she was done. My relaxation deepened.

Next came a foam massage, unlike any massage I've experienced anywhere in the world. A giant sleeve of effervescent foam is squeezed out along the length of the body and accompanied by a rush of  warm water to make a magnificent sensory experience. With the warmth from the foam and the water still present, the therapist slowly massages aromatic jasmine oil into the skin, starting at the feet.

I almost started to doze off as my relaxation could not get any deeper. I was so content and in such a wonderful meditative, joyful state, I hardly noticed when the spa music started to taper off and the room became completely silent. I waited for the next record to start.

A complete surprise! Completely unexpected by me, Gül, my therapist, started to sing a long, slow Turkish ballad. This is what it must have really felt like to be the Sultan, to not only enjoy the physical sensations of the hammam, but to also have a beautiful female voice singing out and silencing all thought with beauty! She sang a beautiful Turkish song called Berivan.

Later, Gül lead me out of the hammam to a sitting area to rest and recover. She gestured with her hand that the sultan's divan before me was where I should rest. I marveled to myself at the perfection of the experience. While I sat there drinking my tea, I understood instantly that the story of Hürrem, Sultan Suleyman's slave who was so inspiring she became his wife, was the Turkish equivalent of the fairy tale Cinderella. I had just received treatment worthy of the best Cinderella tale every written.

I was filled with contentment and expressed to Gül just how beautiful I found her singing and my hammam experience. "Actually, my song is my gift to you. I don't do it in every hammam, the energy has to be right. For example, if a male guest says, 'I don't want to use my peştamal, I want to take it off, the energy becomes wrong and I don't sing. But your energy was fantastic." I'm so glad!

Later, I was explaining to a friend that everyone thinks of soldiers as the great patriots, but truly, Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist, is for me, a true Turkish patriot. In one hour, she communicates and transmits one of the most beautiful aspects of Turkish culture to visitors and sends folks raving about the glories of Turkey all over the world when they get back home.

In case you missed part one of this adventure:

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Cirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

and if you're interested in reading Turks and their Hammams: a couple of stories of how they use them

Hammam photos courtesy of Cirağan Palace Kempinski
Peştamal photo courtesy of

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Eve in Istanbul, Turkey

Singing "Silent Night"
a candlelight Christmas Eve Tradition
all around the world
There were also beautiful soprano and alto solos
and a jazzy saxaphone
Last night I went to the candlelight services of Union Church in Istanbul. It's the oldest Protestant congregation in the city and has been meeting in the cozy Dutch chapel attached to the Dutch consulate on Istiklal Caddessi since 1857. There are as many as 20 nationalities there on any given Sunday: Americans, Brits, South Africans, Netherlanders, Madagascarans, Kenyans, Nigerians, Congolese, Germans, Russians, Slovaks, Moldovans, Australians, just to name a few countries that achieve critical mass in the congregation.

This was an English-language service, although there are also services in Chinese, Turkish and English bilingual services, and another service for the East African community.

Tourists come from all over the world and find weekly services there via the Internet or via the little sign out on Istiklal Caddesi inviting people to English-language church. One week I enjoyed meeting Coptic Christians from Egypt and the next week it was the director of the Fallingwater architectural site in Pennsylvania. It's so interesting to see the variety of people who seek out the church while in Istanbul.

I remember the first Christmas Eve service I celebrated here. The mayor of the Beyoglu neighborhood where the church is located sent plants to all of the churches. I was stunned by how much that signal of acceptance meant to me in a 99% Muslim culture. It made me realize how much just a smile and acknowledgement of someone's right to exist can make to someone who is completely different than me and outnumbered culturally. It is a really, really healthy experience to feel what it feels like to be a minority. 

A particular local gem of candlelight services last night was "The Lord's Prayer" sung in Turkish with Turkish music and rythms. I found it incredibly haunting and powerful. We also sang favorite English-language hymns that would be recognized around the world.

Merry Christmas to all.
Peace and good will to all human kind and our planet.

You may enjoy these other posts from expat Christmases past:

A Neighborhood Christmas

Finding a Church Home in Prague: St. Clement's Church

Come Join Us for Coffee

Photos courtesy of Pastor Benjamin van Rensburg of Union Church of Istanbul

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Marvelousness of Madison

 Sun sets on a beautiful summer evening
at the UW Memorial Union Terrace
It's the perfect place to have a beer and a brat
and mix with all ages while listening to live music.

 I thought I would devote one post to describing what life in Madison, Wisconsin is like because I enjoyed myself so deeply there during my 10 months back in the States.  Madison, Wisconsin has everything I personally need to be happy. Sharing what I find valuable in the States shows what I also value when I travel. Here is some of what made my time there so fantastic.
 I lived on Lake Wingra
A quiet undeveloped lake
Adjacent to the Arboretum
 The Kayak & Boat Rental Dock
At Lake Wingra
 Soaking up sunshine on the dock
 The gorgeous Wisconsin
State Capitol
The Saturday Farmer's Market
is consistently chosen as the best in the nation.
  It's arrayed around the WI State Capitol building.
This is what the promenade of shoppers
looks like from the Capitol Rotunda balcony.
Lake Mendota is in the background.

Beautiful homegrown
flower bouquets for sale
 Morel mushrooms
at the height of the season.
Someone in America is out there in the forest
hunting these but it wouldn't occur
to most Americans to go out and look for these
themselves like it does to Czech people.
 Rhubarb for sale.
What are you thinking?
Pie, muffins, ice cream sauce?

It's impossible not to turn into a foodie in Madison.
Literally, Madison has access to the finest produce
and cheese I have ever seen in my entire life.
The Hmong immigrants from Laos sold the best produce
and the Amish had the best baked goods.
Here the Amish express their
freedom of religion by
serenading shoppers with hymns.
Some people resented this on their carefree Saturday morning.
I cherished the mixture of political and religious expression
at the Farmer's Market. It's what makes America great!
I never took so many pictures of food in my life
as I did in Madison.
Cooking is such an exciting creative endeavor there.
Here, my exotic spinach salad made with tropical fruits
like papaya, kiwi, mango, and strawberries.
My first ever homemade Caprese Salad
 My first-ever Zucchini-Basil Lasagna
Bubbling hot and scrumptious
My first-ever Moroccan Lamb Stew with Dried Apricots
Me and my gal pals out to hear
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
chosen by Time Magazine as one of the
100 Most Influential People on the Planet

Residents of Madison are political animals.  All of the world's top intellectuals eventually come through the UW Campus. I went to hear and was exposed to many thoughtful and beautiful minds. I loved being able to hear Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, one of my feminist heroines and a woman of extraordinary ovaries (courage) for stating her personal truth. It was standing room only. I had read all of her books.

When Michael Pollan spoke, over 8,000 people showed up to hear him.  He's another one of my heros.  Michael Pollan advocates that all of America get to eat the way Madisonians get to eat: locally grown food, mostly plants in extraordinary variety, and hopefully, not too much.  I can not recommend his books highly enough. They will change forever how you think about the food you consume and food systems. Madison feeds both the stomach and the mind!

 Madison-area bumper stickers

Another way Madison political awareness shows up is in bumper stickers.  No where in the world have I seen the amount and variety of bumper stickers that exist in Madison, Wisconsin.  My personal favorite which I didn't capture on film because I was driving when I saw it was "How many Iraqi babies have to die so you can drive that SUV?" Kind of goes to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? The local newspaper publishes a different bumper sticker in the paper ever week.

I thought the bumper stickers on the car above
showed extraordinary political range.

The people of Madison are MASTERS at organizing themselves for anything they believe in whether it be a neighborhood association, a festival, or a cause. I remember the first neighborhood association newsletter I read when I moved into the Monroe-Dudgeon neighborhood in Madison.  First, I marveled that it was 12 pages.  Then I counted the number of names I could find of people who were involved in the creation of the newsletter or involved in some other association activity.  There were 48 different leaders! And those were just the people doing the work, it doesn't even count the people who came to the programs and participated.

 New Orleans showman
"Trombone Shorty"
created incredible excitement
at the Orton Park
Neighborhood Festival

Beyond their neighborhood association newsletters, there were different neighborhood association festivals that brought in national-class performing acts.  Not only was attendance at these neighborhood festivals free, the festivals raised thousands of dollars for neighborhood school activities. Imagine how well you know your neighbors when you all work on a big project like that and then enjoy presenting it to the community together.  What satisfaction!

I went to the Willy Street Neighborhood Festival and heard an amazing band from San Francisco called "Rupa and the April Fishes", I went to 'La Fete de Marquette' and heard a haunting woman from Milwaukee singing in French (I will forever carry her rendition of "Dance Me to the End of Love" in my mind), but best of all was hearing "Trombone Shorty" from the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans.  Trombone Shorty says he learned his showmanship playing for tourists outside the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.  He would work to make his act so compelling he could get tourists to stand there for 45 minutes without moving on down the street. What a showman! I went home with spirits higher than a kite from that evening.

Madison even had a bit of the Czech Republic.
When I saw this sign I knew it had to be a Czech-owned tea house.
It was! They also have a location on Wenceslas Square in Prague.

My very favorite thing in all of Madison
was this bus sign.
A great message in a college town.

Imagine ladies,
how our lives would be different
if this was a globally-held idea.
We could travel to any country on Earth.

The people of Madison
  pride themselves on promoting progress.

Here are some other posts about Madison you might enjoy:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dvorak Embraced Spillville, Iowa; Spillville, Iowa Embraced Dvorak

When I left the Czech Republic last year, I flew back to the American Midwest. Within two weeks, I needed to go to my home state of Iowa for my Uncle's funeral. My mom, knowing how blue I was to have left Prague when I loved it so, suggested we stop in Spillville, Iowa to see the Bily Clocks/Antonin Dvorak exhibit.

Haven't heard of it? I'm not surprised. Spillville, Iowa has all of 400 people.

When famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was in New York City composing his New World Symphony, he longed for the company of his Bohemian countrymen. Rather than going all the way back home for a dose of "Czechness," his secretary urged him to go West instead to the tiny village of Spillville, Iowa which was chock full of Czech immigrants.

The building where he and his family lived has been turned into a museum. It showcases two themes: Dvorak's summer in Spillville, and the breathtaking woodworking creations of some bachelors farmers who became famous handcarving incredible clocks. They are called Bily Clocks and they have to be seen to be believed. It's hard to conceive that the two craftsmen who created them never traveled more than 35 miles from Spillville and only went to school through 5th grade. The tour guide winds up every mechanical clock and shows you it's movements.
It's not every town of 400 people
that have an honest-to-goodness
tourist attraction like this.

If you are the slightest bit interested in woodworking,
creativity, or spirituality you should see these clocks.
The farmers viewed them as a way to glorify God.
Museum guests are not allowed to take pictures of them.

The building can't be missed.
It's on the main thoroughfare through town.

I teared up when I walked into the gift shop
and was surrounded by a whole room of Czech stuff.

Fairy tales written by the famous Czech author
Božena Némcová

I enjoyed learning about Dvorak's stay both in New York City
where he completed his New World Symphony
and in Spillville, Iowa.  
There was lots of interesting background on
American reaction to his Symphony.

Americans, including Dvorak's patroness,
were determined to develop "American music."

When Dvorak, himself an "oppressed person,"
if you want to call him that
as a Czech in the Czechlands
during the Austrian-Hungarian Empire,
suggested to Americans they had all the material
they needed for a grand American-style music
in the music of African-Americans and Native Americans.
White Americans derided his ideas
with a bemused "Imagine he said that!" attitude.
White America said it in Decorah, Iowa
where this article is from.
But they said it in New York City too.

Dvorak was ahead of his time.

His first morning in Spillville
he went down to the Turkey River
and enjoyed the birds singing
even before he talked to anyone in town.

I can imagine being in Spillville
felt very much like being in a Czech village.

Since I worshiped at St. Clement's Church in Prague,
I was delighted to discover a St. Clement's Church in Spillville.

Other signs of Czech life:
the oldest Czech school in America.

The church  and church cemetery
at St. Wenceslaus Church.
Dvorak liked to play the organ here.

A few years after the Velvet Revolution happened, the tiny village of Spillville was newly energized to put on a festival costing $60,000 celebrating their Czech heritage.  That's a lot of ambition for a tiny town of 400.
Bravo to them.  Click on this link to read about it.  Click on my title for more information about the museum.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Smetana's "Ma Vlast" is worth knowing

One of the great attractions of living in the Czech Republic, is that high culture is so alive, so affordable, and so accessible.  Give it another twenty years of capitalism and it may not be so. 

No American could imagine a scenario where every single person in our country knows a specific composer and his works. We all come from too many different backgrounds as citizens.  There is American classical music, but do you think more than 10% of the population knows Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" or Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man?"

When I hear those American-composed pieces, they move me in a way that I consider almost nationalistic because they so perfectly capture an "American" sound and feeling. I wish I could share that pride with every other American when the music plays.

There is a shared culture that everyone knows based on being Czech here in the Czech Republic.  You can assume that when a Czech hears the opening bars of Bedrich Smetana's "Vyshrad" tone poem from his symphonic creation "Ma Vlast" (or "My Country" in English) whenever a Czech train station announcement is played overhead on the train station loudspeaker, they all instantly recognize the opening bars of the music.

One of my blog followers told me that Czech Airlines plays "Ma Vlast" every time they land a plane in Prague coming from out-of-country.

When the Prague Half Marathon began last year, and President Vaclav Klaus set the runners off, the athletes ran from the starting line accompanied by the second tone poem of Smetana's "Ma Vlast" entitled "Vltava."   I can see why.  "Ma Vlast" is a gorgeous, stirring piece of music.  I don't even feel the nationalistic pride that a Czech would but I can imagine how it must make their chests swell.

I recommend a specific album called "Smetana Orchestral Works" recorded by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in Municipal Hall in Prague in 2001 if you are new to Bedrich Smetana's music.  It was recommended to me by the music library staff at Prague Municipal Library.  "Ma Vlast" is included, along with another piece of music that is played often in the Czech Republic called "Wallenstein's Camp."  Click on my title to get your "Czech music soul" stirring and see the album. Where else is Smetana's music used within the Czech Republic in ways that touch citizens?

Do you have favorite pieces of classical music that represent your homeland or that you associate with a specific geographical place?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Evening of Jazz at the Reduta

 At the Reduta Jazz Club

All of this "Obama in Prague" commotion, took me back to a wonderful memory from "Obama in Prague" weekend last year.  My President had just arrived in Prague, it was the night before his big speech and the entire city was jazzed.  What would be a better thing to do than to go hear some jazz?  Actually, that's what the last democratic American president did when he was in Prague in 1994.

A display of photos from that special night in 1994
of the "Two President's Gig"

Vaclav Havel took Bill Clinton down to Prague's most famous jazz club, the Reduta, and therein a night of magic was created.  It's gone down in history as the "Two President's Gig."  President Havel presented President Clinton with a saxophone.  In this small intimate club, so tiny it could almost be someone's rec room, Bill Clinton played "Summertime" on his new sax.  Czech musician Jan Konopásek, now living in Florida but keeping a home in Prague 1, had also created a piece of music that was a blend of the two nation's hymns.  It was played.  Our Secretary of State at the time, Madeline Albright was also there, which was fitting since she has Czech roots. This evening was beyond statecraft.  This was friendship.

 I knew President Obama wouldn't be there on the eve of his speech.  Lightening doesn't strike in the same place twice -- or at least so I'm told.  But I had a very special invitation from Czech bandleader and clarinetist Pavel Smetáček to come hear his Traditional Jazz Studio band play at the Reduta on a breathtakingly beautiful springtime evening.

 Reduta Bandstand

The evening to me was a celebration of deep roots.  Pavel Smetáček's band has been in existence for 50 years.  When you think of how fashions in music come and go, and personnel come and go, and then you add a totalitarian regime harassing musicians on top of all that -- it's hard to underestimate the accomplishment.

The crowd forming - 
music begins at 9:30 p.m.
Pavel Smetáček's band was not the only Czech jazz institution to have lasted for so long and with such a grand reputation.  The Reduta jazz club has also continuously operated as a jazz club for 50 years as well.  Sometimes I think jazz is celebrated more here in Prague than at home! What wonderful memories Pavel must have created over the years at this club.

Vojtech Hueber
Announcer for the Evening

So there was not only Pavel's 50 years of musical leadership present, and 50 years of Reduta jazz history present, there was also the incredible long-standing friendship between Pavel Smetáček and his friend Vojtech Hueber, PhD present. Spending time with them, it's obvious to see how lucky these two men are to have each other as friends.

Vojtech, associated with Czech Radio's jazz department, also has a lengthy career history in international affairs.  These men have their love of jazz to discuss and also global politics.  Pavel helped represent the Czechoslovakian government with new democratic faces after the Velvet Revolution, having served as the Ambassador to Italy in the early days of democracy.

 The dreamy Smetáček brothers.
Pavel on the left, Ivan on the right.
this picture is better.

Pavel on the left, Ivan on the right,
and me chillin' with the dreamy Smetáček brothers!

Oh, and one other long-standing partnership was on display. Pavel's brother Ivan, was also present that evening.  Ivan played the trumpet for years and no longer plays since his embouchure has taken a well-deserved retirement. Both Pavel and Ivan carry themselves with an urbanity quite uncommon in today's world. Can we bring it back?

 I asked Pavel, "where did you learn to be so elegant?"

"From my father, Václav Smetáček; he was a symphony conductor.  He died in 1986 at the age of 80.  He was known for his handsomeness."  He wrote a piece of music for Pavel's band called "Ragtime Echo."

 I haven't met Pavel's son Stěpán, representing a third generation of musical leadership, but he has his own modern band called the New Orchestra of Dreams (Pavel plays traditional dixieland jazz although he says he's a "tolerant traditionalist!"). Dasha, Pavel's wife, is a flautist.  She played in Pavel's band for 10 years.  She now teaches and has a chamber music ensemble with flutes and cellos.

The depth of all these connections was moving!

The band began to play with a power that just blew those of us in the front row away.  Wow, I want to be like this when I'm his age.  It was so fantastic.  They started off the first set with the song Nobody's Sweetheart. and continued with:
Careless Love,
Some of These Days,
I Can't Give You Anything But Love,
and Oh, Lady Be Good.

I was touched when Vojtech introduced me to the crowd as a special guest of the band.  While many of the people were local, quite a few in the crowd were Asian tourists.  Would I be as hip to their fabulous music if I went to their countries?

The trombone player was adorable.  Anytime he did an extended solo and the crowd clapped he did this very cute "aw shucks" schtick that did not get old. He not only played the trombone, he had a trombone 'kazoo' that he would bring out for fun.

The second set, the band played:
All of Me
Pennies from Heaven
Burgundy Street Blues (arranged by George Lewis)
When You're Smiling
Strutting' With Some Barbecue

The third and final set the band played:

I've Found a New Baby
C-Jam Blues
St. Louis Blues
Sweet Georgia Brown 

I especially appreciated hearing St. Louis Blues because one of the seminal jazz moments in my life was hearing Count Basie's band accompany Joe Louis on that number in Nice, France when I was 17 years old. I remember it like it was yesterday! It was yesterday, wasn't it?

Band members on stage:

Armin Reich - drums
Ondřej Cernil - bass
Antonin Bílý - piano (not pictured but jamming in full force!)
Jaroslav Zelený - trombone et al.
Vitězslav Marek - trumpet et al.
Jan Chvosta - tenor sax
Pavel Smetáček - clarinet

Pavel and Vojtech also gave me some tips on who I should listen to in European jazz. I'll keep those recommendations to myself.  I wouldn't want to say anything that harms a diplomatic legacy.   Thank you gentlemen, for an unforgettable evening of music and terrific fellowship!

You might enjoy this earlier post about Pavel's band:

I Could Have Danced All Night
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