Category Archives: Alumni Programming

The Pride of South Africa

Author: David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English & Comparative Literature

Our group first convened at the Fairlawns Hotel, Sandton, Johannesburg, on Friday 6 February 2015. Most travellers had been met at Joburg airport by Tina Kistenmacher, representing Gohagan, our travel company. Tina proved to be a colossus of organizational finesse from the beginning to the end of our journey. Usually she rode herd at the back of the group, keeping a low profile, but if problems arose she would move to the front– and we would notice that she was athletic, very tall, and gently persuasive; she speaks four languages.Tina Kistenmacher

Our itinerary was rather complex, and we never slept in the same place for more than two nights. There were internal flights, and we crossed and re-crossed borders between South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.  This itinerary had never been tried before, although a Gohagan rep. had made a “dry run” to test things out. Everything worked amazingly well, and the group bonded right from the start. The group was small, with seven Penn alums, plus myself as current Penn Faculty, and smaller groups from the two USCs: Southern Cal, including environmentalist Roberto Delgado, and South Carolina.  There were just sixteen of us in all, which was the perfect size for this particular adventure.

Our first full day saw us set off in the tracks of Nelson Mandela. We saw the house in Houghton where he lived with his third wife, Graca, and then the house where he died. Memorial stones had been left by people from all over the world:

Rocks

We then headed towards Soweto, the locality in Johannesburg most famously associated with the struggle against apartheid. En route we passed five well-groomed pitches where the boys of St John’s School were playing cricket at 9.30 in the morning:

Cricket

Progress through Soweto was slow, since funerals are held there only on Saturdays so that working people might attend. About 300 funerals take place every week, and many of the dead have succumbed to AIDS– still a critical health issue. Houses are generally small, with many children on the street, many of them orphans. Nonetheless, despite obvious hardships entrepreneurial spirit was clearly alive in Soweto, with makeshift spaces on the street for shoe repair and hair cutting:PeopleHomes

First stop in Soweto was Vilakazi Street, reputedly the only street where one Nobel Prizewinner lived at one end (Desmond Tutu) and another at the other (Nelson Mandela). The modest house in which the Mandelas had lived, complete with bullet holes from opportunistic drive-by shooters, has become a shrine for African visitors, keen to record their visit:Vilakazi Street

We drove past the site, close by, where 13-year-old schoolboy Hector Pieterson had been shot by police on 16 June 1976, sparking mass protests, and we visited the museum dedicated to his memory. The image of the dying Hector being carried away, with his sister Antoinette at his side, rates as one of the most powerful, galvanizing photographs of the twentieth century. It was thus a great privilege for us to meet and talk with Antoinette. She is a person of great poise and gentleness, and it is to me a great mystery how any person could emerge from such trauma (on the left in the photograph, holding up her right hand) to become such a spiritual, recollected person:Hector PietersonAntoinette

We lunched at a Soweto restaurant established to support local families, especially those affected by AIDS, as the proprietor explained. The food and local beer were excellent:Food

We then headed out past the stadium at which World Cup soccer games had been played to the Apartheid Museum, our next scheduled stop. Suddenly the rains came pouring down, and we learned that the museum was closed for the day due to one of the ‘rolling blackouts’ that plague South Africa. These failures to deliver electricity continue to embarrass the RSA government, since business grinds to a halt and nothing can be planned. So all we got of this museum was a quick glimpse through a rainy window:Museum

Happily, however, inspired contingency planning led us directly to Liliesleaf, the farmhouse in a white suburb that had served as a front and hiding place for leading anti-apartheid activists from 1961-3, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu. On 11 July 1963 this property was raided, many activists were arrested, and Mandela’s (incriminating) papers were found; this led to a trail, with Mandela as suspect #1. That evening, amazingly, back at our hotel, we were able to meet with Robin Binkes, son of one of the men arrested in July 1963 and the leading figure in preserving Liliesleaf for the nation. Robin talked of Jewish and Muslim contributions to the struggle, and of the struggle itself. He joined us for dinner, but then had to return home early after his wife had been hit by a flying champagne cork:Liliesleaf

Next day we headed off early towards Pretoria, stopping off at the imposing Vortrekker monument, built by Gerard Moerdijk to last a thousand years:

Vortrekker monument

Pieter, our congenial Afrikaaner guide, gave booming commentary on his Boer ancestors. The carved reliefs within the monument often emphasized the decisive role played by Boer women when their men wimped out:

carved reliefs

The first public building glimpsed as we headed into Pretoria was the prison in which blade-runner Oscar Pretorius is currently confined. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but given the usual 10% of time served in RSA will likely be out by the end of 2015 (under house arrest). Next we saw the massive, colonial-era Union Building, whose two wings represented English and Afrikaaner rule. Nowadays both wings are best viewed through the arms of the giant Mandela statue set in front of them, a favourite spot for wedding portraits:giant Mandela statue

Following a quick lunch we interviewed a friendly ostrich, who was happy not to be on the menu (as ostrich was later in the week):ostrich

We then headed to Joburg airport for the flight to Cape Town. While awaiting the plane, Philadelphia Judge Harvey Bartle III (L 65) caught up with local news, while Natalie Akin Bartle diligently caught up with her homework for my first lecture:Judge Harvey Bartle III L 65

In Cape Town we transferred to the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel without a hitch. This hotel was opened in 1899 but was immediately requisitioned by the British as campaign HQ for the Second Boer war; Winston Churchill declared it to be “a most excellent and well appointed establishment.” First thing next morning we headed straight up Table Mountain by cable car and shared a magnificent view with dassies, cute creatures of the rocks:dassies

Also found at the summit was a letter box from the reign of King Edward VII (ruled 1901-10):letter box

Such a flood of discoveries encouraged the Penn Alumni group to pose for its first collective picture. The weather was one moment cloudy, the next moment clear; here we seem to find some Scotch mist:Group

At the foot of Signal Hill, en route to the waterfront, we passed through Bo-Kaap, home to Cape Town’s Muslim community. The bright colours here contrast with the raw holes in the ground left in District Six, when in 1960 the homes of Cape Town blacks were razed, and their inhabitants forcibly removed.Bo-Kaap

Such reflections stayed with us as we crossed by boat (40 minutes) from Cape Town to Robben Island, site of imprisonment for Nelson Mandela and many other male anti-apartheid campaigners. The natural setting was beautiful, but the history grim. We first saw the small house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, was was held in solitary confinement. The smaller buildings to the right are actually dog kennels, and they are bigger in size than the average Robben Island cell:Robben Island

We next saw the lime pits where prisoners such as Mandela were set to work for eight hours a day. The work had no practical purpose but bad side effects, as the dust affected breathing and eye-sight; Mandela was sensitive, in later years, to flash photography.lime pits

At the main prison block we had the great good fortune to meet with Itumeleng Makwele, who had himself been a prisoner in that very place.Itumeleng Makwele

Itumeleng told how the regime tried to break prisoner solidarity by issuing identity cards (in prison!), with each man graded A, B, C, or D, and incentivized to ‘improve’ his status by compliant behavior. The prisoners countered this by organizing a hunger strike. Itumeleng, a cook, was obliged to take food to each prisoner, and then to bring it back uneaten.identity cards

Next day we headed south from Cape Town towards Cape Point, stopping en route at Boulders, home to African penguins:African penguins

Hundreds of pictures were taken, and everyone has their prize exhibit:

LonePenguin

We then headed further south, to Cape Point, the southernmost point of Africa, viewed here from a lighthouse built in Greenwich, London, in 1857:Cape Point

This is where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, and where water temperature to the east becomes, after just a few miles, noticeably warmer than the temperature to the west. At the Cape of Good Hope itself we posed for a collective group picture, and I was able to censor an attempt by the USC (CA branch) to smuggle in their banner:Cape of Good Hope

We then headed to Steenburg Vineyards, pausing only to acknowledge a soulful baboon posing in the top of a small tree:baboon

These vineyards in the Constantia valley are surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on a fourth, providing a distinctive micro-environment for viniculture:Constantia valley

The Penn alums then conducted intensive research on a long flight of wines; the Nebbiolo won by a short nose:wines

Next day we caught an early flight to Kasane, Botswana, and then headed out on water to complete the most relaxed, chilled-out immigration procedures ever as we headed from Botswana (on one bank of the Zambesi) to Namibia (on the other). This pointer to Immigration tells us that we are a long way from JFK:Immigration

On first arriving at the immigration post we found nobody at home at all: just a friendly yellow dog. Eventually a lady with her baby came out to stamp our passports, and we headed back down the dirt track to find our boat for the next few nights, the Zambesi Queen:dirt track

The Zambesi Queen has something of the look of a Mississippi riverboat as it glides gently along. The cabins are spacious, and everything is set up beautifully for spotting the endless parade of wildlife and exotic birds:Zambesi Queen

At this point in our journey the mood changed and relaxed somewhat. In my first lecture I had contrasted Nadine Gordimer as a Johannesburg writer to J.M. Coetzee as a Cape Town writer, and we had considered Gordimer’s last novel No Time Like the Present as, in part, a gently satirical commentary on Coetzee’s decision to abandon South Africa for Australia. Our experience of each city helped us to understand the tensions explored in this her last novel, written in her late eighties. On board the Queen, however, we considered the more relaxed topic of Botswana as an African success story. The alums were so relaxed that before my lecture the ladies disappeared behind the screen of my Powerpoint, onto the rear deck, to celebrate the buying of new jewellery with a collective photograph. Once returned, however, they responded with comments as sharp and incisive as ever. I was able to enter into this newly relaxed mood on returning to my cabin, with its own outside balcony. This must rate as my best workplace ever; sunsets were Cecil B. de Spectacular:sunset

From the first, next day, birds and animals began presenting themselves in ever more spectacular postures:bird

We travelled both by the Queen and in smaller vessels that enabled us to nose our way into private parts of the river. Here we approach hippo parents with baby:Hippo

And here we realize, just in time, that Daddy Hippo is giving us the eye– by way of saying, back off:Hippo2

A carmine bee-eater appeared on one bank, and an African fish eagle on the other:eagle

Bee-eater

We switched to smaller craft to cruise the Chobe river, and to visit Kasenu village. Some sixty people live here, all from one family. In earlier generations the elders would select a marriage partner from a neighboring village, but nowadays the young people are free to choose for themselves. Trees are of great importance here: we saw an aphrodisiac tree, an abortion tree, and a tree to shade the chief of the village. We also saw a TV satellite dish: the African Cup of Nations soccer competition was being followed everywhere during our trip.Kasenu village

Victor, grandson of the chief, explained how things work to Lise and Tom Elkind (C 73):grandson

We set out on further wildlife adventuring, and I decided that for me nothing is more exciting and moving than seeing long lines of elephants on their slow and stately way, like a people of the plains:elephants

It was also wonderful to see them come down to the water, and to water themselves, and then frolic and play. They arrive grey, get black when wet, then throw mud over themselves:Elephants2

One fears for the little ones, of course, because not every creature at the water’s edge is a benign herbivore:Croc

Our last night on the Zambesi Queen opened with a locally-produced feast, and the singing of the Namibian national anthem:anthem

The capo Wayne is South African, but all the rest of the crew is Namibian. The company sent Wayne’s deputy, John, a Namibian local, to study for his pilot’s license, and he is set to succeed Wayne shortly. The crew work one week on, one week off, and seem happy with their life and work. They initiated some round-the-table dancing towards the end of the evening, and then persuaded some distinguished Penn alums to join them. Photos are available from me, by private application and for a large fee.dance

Early next day we left the Zambesi Queen and Namibia for a game drive in Chobe National Park, Botswana. It was now Friday 13th February, but all went well– and by now, we had quite lost track of days of the week. In fact, the absence of wifi on the Queen was one of its more relaxing aspects, coupled with its gently swaying up and down the river on its mooring at night. Most of us had taken malaria pills, but insects were never a serious issue, and the hardy Tina (who took no pills) simply doused herself with insect-repellent lotion and slept with her balcony door open– so that she could hear the amorous bellowings of hippos by night.

We first thought that a dry game drive might be an anti-climax after our animal sightings by water, but this was not the case: we saw some animals, such as elephants, from different perspectives and some from much closer quarters than before. Giraffes, for example:Giraffes

When elephants blocked the way of our safari buggy, we graciously gave way– you can see that the camera work here was a tad shaky:Elephant3

Impala, unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, had the sense to hide from the mid-day sun:Impala

Finally we caught up with our bus and our luggage, decanted ourselves inside, and then headed for the Zimbabwe border. This, we thought, might be our trickiest transfer, and there was indeed quite a long tail-back of lorries and busses at the border. But we sailed to the front of the line, and were through very quickly (although the wait seemed long). We were briefed to put on our seat belts, and to take no pictures of any police stopping points that we might see. But we were never stopped, and were soon heading deep into Zimbabwe. Our driver made the correct right turn at just the right moment:Zambia

The Victoria Falls Hotel, set in extensive grounds, turned out to be yet one more glorious monument to English colonial style, c. 1900-1930:English colonial

The mosquito net in my bedroom was not needed, but it added an exotic touch; warthogs and monkeys could be seen frolicking on the lawn below:bedroom

Valentine’s Day saw us heading out to the vast body of water, a mile across, a million gallons a second, known as Mosi-Oa-Tunya (but renamed Victoria Falls by Dr David Livingstone in 1855). Vellon Phiri, our local Zimbabwean guide, was happy to give us pronunciation lessons, and then to pose beneath Livingstone’s massive statue:Vellon Phiri

Equipped with poncho style black raingear, like a strange order of monks, we processed to the Falls:VictoriaFalls

Spray from the thunderous falls, which can be seen from far away, has created a tropical micro-climate in which delicate plants flourish:Plant

Veterinarians Judy Shekmar and Steve Cantner (V 76), who have owned and run the Bryn Mawr Veterinary Hospital for more than thirty years, went ape went spotting vervet monkeys by the Falls:Judy ShekmaSteve Cantner

Before leaving the Falls the Penn alums posed in their wetgear for one last photo; the banner here is held by Judy Shekmar and Betsy Kleeblatt (CW 68):

groupatfalls

Before returning to the hotel we stopped off at a local market. Traders were never forceful, but they were keen to relieve us of our cash and, failing that, of our socks and hats. There are reports of one visitor returning to the hotel almost naked, with a bag full of wooden bowls and statutes. I held onto my Alumni cap but, next day, donated my Phillies cap– perhaps someone else wearing it will bring us better luck:local market

Back at the hotel the Penn group scrubbed up nice and presented itself for our Penn alumni wine reception:winereception

This convivial drinks party immediately preceded Roberto Delgado’s second lecture on bio-diversity in the region, and on what we can all do to help protect the environment. Clear-cutting to produce Palm Oil leads to extensive deforestation of virgin rain forest, he told us, so Honey Nut Cheerios and Dove soap are now off the menu. Finally, the day ended with (another) sumptuous dinner. Next day the group flew from Victoria Falls airport to Johannesburg, and from there we went our separate ways. The main group of alums headed to the MalaMala game reserve, and I flew back to London to continue my sabbatical. The birdlife that I have found here so far has been far from exotic:pigeon

But I am warmed by the memory of the wonderful friendships so quickly formed among our intrepid group of sixteen. And I realize that in a sense your life can be divided between the time before you saw elephants, moving majestically across their natural terrain, and after that moment. And happily, like elephants, we will never forget.

Elephant4

To learn more about Penn Alumni Travel visit our website at: http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel .

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Penn Alumni Travel, Iberian Trade Routes, 2014

Author: Penn Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, History of Art Department

When our plane touched down at 8am in Barcelona the first thing that I wanted to do was make a beeline to La Boqueria, the recently restored and restocked public market in the heart of the city. Filled with vendors selling raw and prepared foods, glistening fish, octopus, and barnacles fresh from the Mediterranean, and ridiculously indulgent Spanish jamón, La Boqueria is a perfect place to have a quick and hearty gourmet meal, counter-style, so that you can keep on moving and see as much as possible of this amazing Catalan city. We had a lovely plate of foraged wild mushrooms, sautéed in olive oil and topped by a fried egg, a small caña of beer, and some bread before taking in the beauty of the Antoni Gaudí designed Casa Battló.

A cured meat and cheese stand in La Boqueria, the premiere public market in Barcelona.

A cured meat and cheese stand in La Boqueria, the premiere public market in Barcelona.

We had such a fun-filled day in Barcelona that we barely made it to the magnificent MV Tere Moana for our sail away at 6pm that first night. I was very glad that we did arrive in time because the itinerary, which included Mallorca, Ibiza, Granada, Sevilla, Gibralter, the Algarve, and Lisbon, was fantastic.

Of the five different cruise ships that I have enjoyed sailing on as a faculty host with Penn Alumni Travel, the MV Tere Moana was definitely the most elegant and intimate. With staterooms for less than 100 guests, it was very much like traveling on a private yacht. The ship’s charming and well-trained staff attended to the needs of each traveler individually. By the second night Jonny, the bartender knew my preference for a little Tio Pepe sherry before dinner and Macallan for afters, and by the third he was beginning to make suggestions of custom cocktails that I might like to try. And with drinks being all-inclusive, why not?

Our home for the week, the MV Tere Moana, was patiently waiting for us in its berth in Barcelona.

Our home for the week, the MV Tere Moana, was patiently waiting for us in its berth in Barcelona.

Well, the very busy itinerary on this trip was a good reason not to indulge too much. Each day was filled with a morning excursion, lunch back on the ship, and then another afternoon excursion followed by just an hour or two of downtime before a lovely dinner. The tour directors from Gohagen kept everything running smoothly and the local guides at each destination made sure that all our questions were answered, from which medieval people had occupied that fortification overlooking the Atlantic in the Algarve region of Portugal, to where to buy the best souvenirs in lovely Mallorca.

The Portuguese Algarve region is home to lovely old villages and fortifications.

The Portuguese Algarve region is home to lovely old villages and fortifications.

And Mallorca, truly the pearl of the Mediterranean, was the highlight of this trip for me. This was the first time that I had visited this delightful, continental-flavored Balearic island filled with gorgeous nineteenth century architecture and an endless harbor jam-packed with enormous yachts. I could have spent the whole week in Mallorca sitting in cafés, drinking coffee and eating lovely pastries.

Almost as satisfying as Mallorca were the stunning cliffs of Gibralter, alive with wild monkeys and riddled with natural caves and military tunnels. I was surprised by how happy the monkeys made me, they were just so cute and funny and absolutely everywhere — climbing on the parade of minivan taxis that snake up and down the side of “The Rock” ferrying tourists to the various attractions that are only reachable via closed roads. As a part of Great Britain with a special economic status, Gibralter was the spot to get a plate of fish and chips and also the best deals on duty free, which seemed to be the main attraction down at sea level.

“The Rock”

“The Rock”

The monkeys of Gibralter are surprisingly fun to watch.

The monkeys of Gibralter are surprisingly fun to watch.

Visit Penn Alumni Travel at http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel

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First September Northern California

First September Northern California

By: Beth Topar

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The Penn Club of Northern California welcomed the Class of 2014 to the Bay area with their Annual First September Wine Tasting.  This celebration was held on Saturday September 13 at DogPatch Wine Works, where some of our alums make wine.  The crowd of just under 100 wine tasters included both undergraduate and graduate alumni with more than half of the attendees from the Class of 2014!  It was fun to see classmates reunite, not knowing each had been fortunate to land in San Francisco.  It was great occasion for Quakers to mingle, nosh and sample wines.

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Ethan Smith, Treasurer of the Club and a DogPatch wine maker, welcomed the new alumni to the area with a toast, and encouraged all to get involved with local Penn activities which include interviewing high school students and volunteering with the Club.  Ethan introduced the Club Board members who were enjoying the tasting but also ready to answer questions about how all alumni can become West Coast Ambassadors for Penn.   He concluded by inviting all to attend the Club and Interview Program Happy Hours in October to kick off the interviewing cycle.

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Penn Serves LA Strikes Again; This Time With Paint

By Leanne Huebner, W’90

Over thirty Penn Alumni and their children joined together for a fun beautification project for El Nido Family Centers in Mission Hills.  We were thrilled that Elizabeth Fields, Julie Gutowski and Kiera Reilly from the Penn Western Regional Office joined us. And we welcomed special guests in town from campus Penn Professor David Grossman, Ph.D., Director, Civic House and Civic Scholars Program, and Katie McCarthy from the Penn Development Office, both lending their painting skills for good.

All in all, the team completed the center’s foyer, a key event room, as well as a hallway in bright white.  The highlight for many participants was contributing to a full wall-sized canvas mural alongside the Pacoima mural artist.  Volunteers brought together her vision for a grand-scale masterpiece to add cheer and interest in the center’s main lobby area.

Stuart Berton, El Nido Board President and Wharton ’61 graduate, thanked the team and provided a great overview of the important work of El Nido, a nonprofit that has served Los Angeles for 89 years.  Each year, the centers reach over 11,000 Los Angelenos  through its community outreach, early education and teen pregnancy initiatives, and gang-prevention programming.  While many individuals come to the center, El Nido social workers are also in the field meeting individuals and assessing families in their homes and schools.

Penn Serves LA's Jane Gutman with El Nido's Stuart Berton

Penn Serves LA’s Jane Gutman with El Nido’s Stuart Berton

A few highlights of their work were shared.  For instance, their GRYD program for gang-prevention has experienced success rates of up to 98% working with at-risk youth.  Their teen pregnancy recidivism rate is 80% lower than the national average, with only 4% of teenage mothers they serve having a second child before they turn twenty years old.

Penn Serves LA's Leanne Huebner is thrilled with the event.

Penn Serves LA’s Leanne Huebner is thrilled with the event.

“We are excited to help El Nido with such a great, enthusiastic group of volunteers,” shares Jane Gutman, CW’73, PAR’14, PAR’16, one of the Penn Serves LA Directors and coordinator of this event.  “And to have David and Katie here from Penn lending a hand makes our day of brightening the facility with fresh paint all the better.”

View all the photos from the day here.

The entire group poses to celebrate a job well done!

The entire group poses to celebrate a job well done!

The next Penn Serves’ event will be Saturday, August 9th from 9 a.m. to noon and you can reserve your spot here.  Penn will be serving LA Waterkeepers in an effort to help identify the impact of debris on our area’s water supply.  “It’s a great opportunity for your science-minded side as we will be surveying and collecting valuable data,” shares Christine Belgrad, W’87, PAR’15, PAR’17, event coordinator.
Many of the past Penn Serves sell out, so please reserve your spot quickly.

Read about our past events:

December, 2013 – Holidays are a Time for Giving

November, 2013 – Sending Holiday Warmth to our Troops

August and September, 2013 – Serving the Environment and LA Leadership Academy

May, 2013 – One on One Outreach

March, 2013 – Habitat for Humanity

January, 2013 – Inner City Arts

September, 2012 – The Midnight Mission

June, 2012 – Turning Point Shelter

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Great Journey Through Europe 2014

Author: André Dombrowski, Associate Professor, History of Art

A few weeks have passed now since our return from a remarkable trip through Western Europe that took us through Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, much of it spent onboard as we cruised up the Rhine River. The trip offered a range of experiences for both lovers of nature and culture: the Alps and the UNESCO heritage site of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley were interspersed with visits to charming towns and churches. It was a pleasure to meet the Penn-affiliated passengers on the trip who numbered 18 and who shared their memories of the university, which stretched from the class of 1959 to the law-class of 1989. My mother-in-law Joan, who accompanied me, would like to thank everyone for including her so warmly within our group. She said she had the trip of a lifetime!

Penn Alumni Group

Penn Alumni Group

When we arrived in Zurich, we were greeted by our charming Gohagan travel directors, Brian and Cory, who accompanied us throughout the trip and proved able entertainers with singers’ voices! It is hard for me to name the highlights of the trip. Lucerne (and also Bern) was especially appealing and our accommodations there just spectacular. Surely the visit to Zermatt was one of my favorites, reached by a slow Alpine train. On the day we visited, the Matterhorn’s peek was visible for long stretches of the day; unlike during my previous two visits…, just one cloud hugging its side. The snow in my hands in June felt good. After our time in Switzerland, we boarded the MS Amadeus in Basel and started our journey up the Rhine from there. I loved Strasbourg, such a charming town with so much to offer; Heidelberg was a favorite, especially the castle ruins, which I had never seen before; and also the impressive Niederwalddenkmal in Rüdesheim, built a few years after the Franco-Prussian War and in response to the German victory over the French in 1871, which I often study and teach in my classes. Finally, I enjoyed going up the Rhine through the famous gorge and see the Lorelei cliff from atop the river. Having grown up not all too far from there—a few hours away in North Rhine-Westphalia where my parents still live—this stretch of the trip gave me a whole new perspective on my own home country.

Lorelei cliff from atop the river

Lorelei cliff from atop the river

Two times during the trip I lectured to the passengers on the ship, one of a total of four faculty hosts who shared their research. My first talk was focused on architectural history. I had taken lots of photos along the way and wanted to provide everyone with some quick tools to understand the style of buildings—we covered baroque, rococo, historicist architecture and some aspects of modern art—and also their various functions, showing especially how both informed each other. My second lecture covered the artistic consequences—from impressionism to early modernism—of the conflict between France and Prussia/Germany stretching from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870/71 to the outbreak of World War I. I wanted to show especially the ways in which military victory and avant-garde expression do not always, if ever, go hand-in-hand.

Rhein in Koblenz

Rhein in Koblenz

 

Cologne

Cologne

 

Alpine Pass

Alpine Pass

The trip was one of the most memorable for me. I had not been to most of the places we visited for many years—sometimes for more than a decade—despite having grown up in Germany. Exploring this part of Europe with other Penn guests made me look at its special and varied beauty anew.

I will participating on the Paris to Provence trip in 2015, I hope you join me!

View all 2015 Penn Alumni Travel trip here!

 

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Penn Alumni Travel: In the Wake of the Vikings

Author: David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English

Most of us arrived at Glasgow airport for our Penn Alumni Travel trip across what were once Viking lands. We were then taken by bus to the headquarters of Gohagan, our tour operator, which is based in Glasgow. The company is housed in a beautiful building in the heart of the city:

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Some of us chose to rest up in the lounge, and some decided to explore the city center. It was surprising to find a statue of the author Sir Walter Scott close by, since he is most famously associated with Edinburgh; a Glasgow pigeon expresses his opinion:

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The nearby Glasgow cathedral contains a chapel known as the Blacadder crypt, after Archbishop Blacadder (1483-1508); a roof boss seemed to cry out “bring out your dead!”

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We were transferred to our ship, Le Boréal, and were soon nosing out through evocative islands in beautiful weather:

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Le Boréal is the sister ship of L’Austral, on which some of us had travelled before, and accommodates some 400 people (passengers plus crew); it was captained by the handsome and youthful Erwan Le Rouzic, and included a French chef, a French pastry chef, and a French wine steward. The Penn group was quite big at sixteen, but we began getting to know one another at a dinner early in the trip. On 15 June we sailed into the Kyle of Lochalsh, viewing the bridge that now connects Skye to the mainland of Scotland:

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On Skye we visited Eilean Donan castle, a fortified castle since the thirteenth century and extensively rebuilt in the 1930s:

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The birdlife here is spectacular, and it got ever more interesting as the voyage continued. Some of us stalked this blue heron:

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A few hours later we were to see a quite different bird, at Armadale castle:

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The presence of this exotic peacock seemed entirely appropriate, since the gardens at Armadale castle were spectacularly lush:

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It seemed miraculous that such a far northern Atlantic island could support such lushness, but one of our local guides informed us that in earlier centuries ships had visited Skye filled with ballast of rich soil. Thus Skye was gradually able to produce gardens that might rival those of Florida.

Our next port of call, following another overnight voyage, was Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Penn alums John and Jean Donaldson had perhaps felt some special affinity for Skye, stronghold of the Clan Donald; on Lewis Eileen Dooling née MacLeod was able to visit an island where every second person seemed to share her maiden name. Eileen was in fact able to make contact with relatives, who recognized her as one of their own immediately, and while visiting the Callanish Standing Stones I received a phone call from the mother of my Penn colleague, Catriona MacLeod; we met for tea later, in Stornoway. The 3,000 year old stones are spectacular, and it was a pleasure to observe them close up rather than, as at Stonehenge, to be held back by a barrier. Here the Penn banner was unfurled for the first time, by Karen and Gary (Penn Trustee) Rose (left) and Charlton and Christa Carpenter (right):

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We then travelled to the Dun Carloway pictish broch, a residence for an extended family built circa 100 BCE.

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Jean Donaldson bravely decided to climb to the top of this ancient monument, from the inside:

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Following a visit to the Gearranan Blackhouse Village, where traditional crafts such as weaving and thatching were demonstrated, we boarded ship and set sail for the islands collectively known as Orkney. This afforded me the perfect opportunity to present my first lecture to the ship’s company, on Orkneyingasaga, an Old Norse account of the region. This is a strange text, since it contains the usual blood-letting, mayhem, and revenge killings that we might associate with Viking sagas, but halfway through we come across a young nobleman who refuses to fight in a sea battle: he simply lies down in the boat and reads his Psalms. He does become joint-ruler of the region, but is eventually betrayed and captured. Rather than allowing the cycle of violent rivalry to continue he takes the violence upon himself and is martyred; the man who kills and succeeds him, the saga says, was very popular, and a good ruler. Viking morals and mores thus remained mysterious to us as we approached the capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, and viewed its magnificent cathedral, built to honor St Magnus martyr:

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While in the cathedral I was looking for something that would support my claim, in the lecture, that Viking culture was able to support or carry over pagan or nature-worshipping motifs even after Christianization. Eventually I spotted a ‘green man’ at the top of a column in the aisle, spewing forth greenery without end:

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Our trip to Orkney also included a visit to the Highland Park distillery, the world’s northernmost whiskey makers, and Scapa Flow, home to the British fleet in both world wars and the site of a massive explosion that killed hundreds of young British sailors early in World War II. This explosion, amazingly, was heard by our local guide, as a young girl– she told extraordinary tales of how Italian POWs came to built stronger defences, and how they eventually crafted a beautiful chapel from spare parts and corrugated iron. It was at this point, approaching the chapel, that my camera lost its charge, but I had been able to take a picture of the San Giorgio (St George) erected by the Italians. Many of them have returned to review their handiwork over the years, and are good friends with the islanders.

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We also visited Skara Brae, home to successive waves of migrants over some 5,000 years. The Vikings came, adapted what they found, and then eventually left– like these Penn alums, trailing off into the mist by the edge of the Atlantic:

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Another night voyage brought us to the port of Lerwick and the Shetland islands, some fifty miles out from Orkney. In driving to the ancient archaeological site of Jarlshof, our driver made a stop at the top of a cliff road. From here we could observe sea birds wheeling in the currents. Most impressive of all were the fulmers, a miniature breed of albatross. They would hang in the breeze, apparently making no effort at all to stay aloft:

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Jarlshof, uncovered by a fierce storm during the winter of 1896/7, is an amazing site, with dwellings ranging from late neolithic to Viking longhouses. It also offers friendly refuge for Shetland ponies, and many of us were tempted into selfies:

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Later that day we were treated to some first class Shetland fiddling before we set sail for Bergen, Norway. The Penn alums gathered for a cocktail party before dinner, and many tales were exchanged. The most spectacular tale of all was told by Bill Pfeifer (M 68), who had recognized, in another alumni group, a long-lost buddy with whom he had served in a five-man MASH unit. Bill can be seen kneeling, far right. Penn alums have handy skills: Bill gave me the best advice on how to treat an ingrown toenail, and Pamella Dentler (immediately above the Penn crest, V 78) was great on cat care:

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In Bergen most of the group visited Troldhaugen, home to the composer Edvard Grieg for 22 years. There was plenty of time to walk the streets, admiring the handsome Hansa houses and contemplating the purchase of reindeer meat:

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The building at left in the background here, with the Gothic pointing, is home to Bergen’s new Starbucks. There was just time to take a nautically-framed picture of our handsome ship before heading back out to sea, for Denmark:

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It was only on this final leg of the voyage, en route to Copenhagen, that we experienced sea conditions that were anything like challenging. As we headed into the open water between Norway and Denmark, admiring the fjords, there was a swell of 10 metres. This sounds alarming, but the wine glasses in the restaurant did not move at all, even as the sea moved up and down past the window– the stabilizers on this modern ship did an amazing job. We did perhaps eat a little more lightly that night, but we all arrived in Copenhagen in good shape and fine spirits.

Lectures had been offered throughout our voyage, and as ever the attendance was amazingly high: lecturers like myself simply wish that we could bottle this spirit of active engagement, and then sprinkle it over our classrooms. For my final lecture I offered an illustrated review of and commentary on our voyage, and then ended it with a quiz. My threat was that the alums would not be allowed off ship unless they scored at least 60% (the mark set for my American citizenship exam last year). In fact, they collectively remembered everything, however obscure the detail. For example: why do farmers in Shetland use green plastic, rather than black, to wrap the bales of hay pushed out by their combined hravesters? Answer: because experiments have demonstrated that seagulls will attack black bags (associated with promising garbage) but not green ones.

Having scored 100%, then, the alums disembarked and went their separate ways in Copenhagen. Having travelled so far by sea, in favorable conditions, we left in greater awe than ever of the intrepid Vikings. I found this to be a terrific, highly varied groups of alums, and I hope that some of them might join me on another water-bound adventure: travelling down the Zambesi, in February 2015.

Penn Alumni Travel 2015 Full Tour Schedule

David Wallace, FMAA

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amazon River Expedition

Author: Anthony DeCurtis, Distinguished Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program & Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone

I’m not a specialist on South America to any degree whatsoever, so I was surprised – and delighted! — to be invited to be a faculty host on a Penn Alumni cruise along the Peruvian Amazon. I’m a distinguished lecturer in the creative writing program at Penn and my writing for Rolling Stone (where I’m a contributing editor) over the years about the likes of the Rolling Stones, U2 and Billy Joel has made me no stranger to wild life, though not the sort I was likely to find in one of the world’s most remote jungles. The advantage of my non-expert status, however, was that I fully shared the sense of wonder and adventure that characterized the redoubtable Penn alums on board. As soon as everyone understood that such questions as “How deep is the Amazon in this inlet?” were better addressed to our fearless and profoundly knowledgeable guides, Robinson and Juan Carlos, than to me, we all settled in to our journey and had an unforgettable time.

So what exactly was I doing on the La Amatista, the beautifully appointed small expedition river vessel that was our home on the Amazon? February 2014, the month of our cruise, marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Beatles in the United States, so one of my lectures focused on that peerless band and the ongoing impact and significance of its music. A second lecture recounted the equally long and riotous career of the Beatles’ great rivals, the Rolling Stones. Of course, this being a Penn cruise, the alums aboard requested a third lecture about writing strategies, which I was happy to provide – and I got a few tips myself! On the evening after my Beatles talk in the afternoon, our guides and other crew members performed a selection of Beatles classics on the top deck to a wildly appreciative audience. Any footage or photos that might conceivably emerge of me singing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “From Me to You” while holding a glass of tequila have been fabricated, I swear!

But before all of that transpired, we first flew into Lima on a Friday and stayed at the Casa Andina Private Collection, a superb hotel. After breakfast there on Saturday morning, we toured Lima’s colonial section, including Casa Aliaga, which was built in 1535 by a family who came to Peru with the Spanish conquistador Pizarro. That setting prompted a discussion with our local guide about the complexities of honoring the country’s colonial past. The Convent and Museum of St. Francisco, meanwhile, included a stroll through the site’s catacombs, which are filled with the bones of tens of thousands of local residents.

The following day we flew to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, which can only be reached by airplane or boat. Iquitos grew enormously during the rubber boom in Peru a century ago, and the downtown area features a two-story building that was used as a warehouse by Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, the rubber baron who is the subject of German director Werner Herzog’s gripping 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo. On Monday we visited the thriving Belen market, which, among its many herbs, foods and native wares included aphrodisiacs that tempted some of the more daring members of the Penn crowd. On the bus ride afterwards to Nauta, where we would board La Amatista, we stopped to visit a manatee rescue center, one of the many sites attempting to preserve the hugely important ecosystem of the Amazon. We were able to feed some of the manatees, which was fun and quite moving.

Once we boarded La Amatista later that Monday, it seemed as if our journey had finally begun, despite all that we’d seen and done already. Each of the next four days we rose early and set out in two small skiffs that each held about twelve of us. Juan Carlos and Robinson were compelling guides – smart, funny, insightful and deeply appreciative of all the glories the Amazon contains. They spoke excellent English and shared personal stories of their upbringing with us in casual presentations during dinner on the ship – one of the absolute highlights of the trip. They taught us how to fish for red-bellied piranha – okay, they fished and aided us in the illusion that we were fishing, gently helping us to reel in our catch – and pointed out the endless appearances of squirrel monkeys, toucans, vultures and macaws. One lazy afternoon a group of pink river dolphins frolicked near our skiffs, and an ordinary day suddenly turned magical. Every sunrise and sunset was just breathtaking, the sky seeming the only possible sight that could draw your attention away from the magnificent river and trees.

The residents, called riberenos [Please note: tilde over the n], of the many villages we visited were uniformly friendly and welcoming. We would hike through the jungle and then sit with them to hear their stories and purchase their strikingly colorful goods. In one village a female shaman spoke to us about the mystical and medicinal qualities of many of the plants in the region. She then performed a cleansing ritual, which was riveting.

By the time we reversed our trip – back to Nauta, then Iquitos, on to Lima, and then, finally, home – we had received an invaluable education in one of our planet’s ecological treasures. As I’m sure you know, the Amazon is under siege by the demands of our modern world. Our last night on La Amatista was the occasion of a spirited discussion about the future of the rainforest and of the Earth itself. Problems abound, of course, but the conversation was inspiring, a vivid reminder that we are all custodians of the world’s treasures, whether we are at home in our houses and apartments or sailing on a river that runs deep into the very heart of our entire human history. The connections felt palpable, and still do.

 

Amazon Group

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