Author Archives: danielgabriel

FLASHBACK: “Of Youth and Yankees”

19 October 2020

Spoiler alert: things end badly. Only Game 7 walk-off HR in World Series history.







Innocence is a fragile thing. We all know that. Where we get confused is in our notion that innocence is inevitably ‘lost.’ It isn’t lost so much as it is eroded—gradually, in a series of cumulative slides downward from a childish mountain of belief.

I admit, occasionally that mountain is shaken so hard that even some of the bedrock comes crashing down from the heights. After it’s all over we pick ourselves back up and go on living. Only this time we’re standing on some of that bedrock—and we’re a little bit closer to the top.

One of the first serious earth tremors of my childhood took place on October 13, 1960. It was the 7th game of the World Series—Yankees vs. Pirates. I was ten years old. To describe me as a Yankee ‘fan’ was accurate only insofar as that word is short for fanatic. They were my Team—win, lose, or winter—and had been since one night at the age of seven when I’d picked up a newspaper and seen a picture of Mickey Mantle staring me in the face.

I suppose it was a conversion experience. Overnight, the Yankees became my cause. I memorized statistics and pasted up pictures on my bedroom wall. I produced scale drawings of Yankee Stadium and painfully typed booklets of career batting records for the entire Yankee lineup. At night I tuned my transistor under the covers to fading signals from Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. With the fervor of youth I believed in the rightness of the yearly march to the pennant—and the October battles with the infidels from the other league. I was a true believer.

I did not go un-persecuted, however. I lived in Wisconsin, where every kid worth his weight in baseball cards was a Braves fan. The ’57 and ’58 Series (which the Braves had split with the Yanks) had been particularly vicious. Twice I had been goaded into fights with the class behemoth, Butchie Barber. The bloody noses I brought home did nothing to dampen my ardor, but they were a measure of local sentiment.

Revenge would be mine. Of this I was sure. Baseball had seen nothing like the Yankees’ M&M boys (Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who had finished 1-2 in the MVP balloting and were a year away from smashing a record 115 home runs between them) since . . . well, since Ruth and Gehrig. On paper, their Pirate opponents were clearly outclassed. If there was an irony in me, the schoolyard underdog, rooting against my major league equivalent, it escaped my notice. Might, I was certain, would prove right.

Through the first six games the Yankees had pounded the Pirate pitchers, winning by scores of 10-0, 12-0, and 16-3. By rights, this Series should have long since ended, but somehow the Pirates had scraped out three wins of their own, and now the whole show was riding on one final game.

1960 was the only time a World Series MVP was chosen from the losing team—Bobby Richardson drove in a Series-record 12 runs, and more amazingly, came to our church in Minnesota the very next year. Richardson played 2B, and ever after this day, so did my brother Roger.

During the Series, our teacher Mrs. O’Reilly made allowance for the fact that our attention was elsewhere, by permitting us to bring transistor radios to class so we could listen ‘quietly’ at our desks when our work was finished.

Alone, I carried my little radio back and forth each day, my NY cap pulled grimly down over my forehead, reciting to myself the years of previous pennants to avoid hearing the taunts of Butchie and his buddies who covered their frustration at the Braves’ failure to win by becoming instant Pirate fans. Once at school, I raced through my assignments and spent the afternoons with one ear glued to the tinny speaker.

Arrangements for the 7th game would be different, we were told. Interest ran so high throughout the school that the principal announced the final game would be broadcast over the school PA system. Excitement spread quickly through the class, with rude remarks whispered up the aisle in my direction.

Only one other person in the class professed loyalty to the Yankee cause. This was Leonard Millington, a rather slow boy from a farm outside of town, who seemed not quite clear as to who exactly played on the Yankees. Since he had expressed no interest in the team all season, I attributed his support at this time to be merely a passing affectation, prompted perhaps by a desire for attention, be it good or ill. I saw no hope of a true alliance (especially as he sat on the far side of the room) and turned my attention to fine tuning my transistor. I intended to have it on hand just in case problems should arise, such as difficulties with the school PA, or the principal having a change of heart.

We stumbled absently through the arithmetic lesson until Mrs. O’Reilly finally sighed and told us to put our books away. Under cover of the clattering desk tops, several bits of wadded paper hit me in the back of the head. When I turned, six boys in the back rows thumbed their noses joyfully at me and Butchie Barber shredded a Mickey Mantle baseball card into little bits.

THIS is the part of the Series I prefer to remember.

Ah, desecration, blasphemy! I turned the other way, seething with a righteous rage. Then the PA clicked into action. It was game time.

Looking back now, I can see the game for what it really was—one of the most bizarre and exciting in baseball history. As a 5th grader, it was something more. It was a clash of titans; there was significance, anguish, and an inescapable sense that the world hung in the balance.

Things started badly. The Pirates scored two in the first and two more in the second. I took some small consolation in the fact that adversity is to be expected—the champion overcomes.

When ace fireman Elroy Face came in to relieve in the 6th there were muted jeers from the back row. He’d already stopped the Yankees three times. But things began to heat up: Yogi Berra hit a three-run homer, the Yanks added another run, and suddenly they were up 5-4. The jeering stopped.

When the 8th inning rolled around I could bear the public tension of listening to the PA no longer. I flipped on my own radio and crouched over it at my desk.

Anybody who followed the course of those last two innings will remember the tightening screws of pressure that each putout brought. The pace, the flip-flop of momentum, the chance tricks of fate all combined to provide a drama rarely surpassed in Series competition.

The Yankees scored twice in their half of the 8th and led 7-4. Things looked very good. My classmates glowered collectively over the state of events, but I beamed. I even waved jovially across the room to Leonard Millington, more than willing to share the glory. I switched off my radio and sat up to enjoy the play-by-play from the PA. Only an inning and a half . . .

Fifteen minutes later my nerves were shattered. A sure fire double-play ball (the infamous bad hop off Tony Kubek’s adam’s apple) and a squibbler to the pitcher had turned into two runs—and the lead run still on base. My stomach churned.

It nearly erupted when Hal Smith popped a 400 foot shot over the left field wall. The classroom (and Forbes Field) did erupt. The Pirates had suddenly scored five (could it really be five?) runs and led 9-7. My face was drained of blood. I felt weak. I put my head down on my desk, facing away from the other kids, and switched back on my transistor.

It couldn’t end in defeat. It just couldn’t . . .

Top of the 9th, Richardson, Long and Mantle singled—one run in, one run down. My teeth bit at my lower lip. Berra shot a ground-gripper to first that almost ended the game then and there. A burst of static, confused yells, and a long hoarse-voiced commentary from the announcer were needed to explain the maneuvers of Messrs. Berra, Mantle and Nelson (the Pirate first baseman).

When the shouting stopped and the inning ended, the Yankees had tied the game. I wiped my sleeve across my face and stole a glance at the rear of the room. Butchie Barber sat hunched darkly over a piece of rope dangling from his chair. I looked quickly away.

That was the end really. Mazerowski got the high fastball and the rest, as they say so often, was history. For me it was numbness. And disbelief.

I kept my head down on my desk, facing the wall. My transistor crackled with the crowd’s enthusiasm. Butchie was jumping on his desk and shouting “Yankees dive! Yankees dive!” Great cheers came echoing down the hallway from the other classrooms, but the noise seemed far away.

I kept my head down on my desk, facing the wall. I shut off my transistor.

Originally published in the Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Fall, 1982.

So much for despair. By the following summer, we lived in a new state and my Yankee loyalties were being shared with my Little League team.

FLASHBACK: “Mommy was a Shortstop”

7 April 2019

This isn’t my mom—though it sure looks like her. I have no photos of her playing ball; she was always behind the camera.







She had the best arm in the neighborhood. A quick, snap release with the ball cocked off her ear like a quarterback and a burn when it hit my glove. She’d played shortstop at the University of Minnesota during the war and even when I took the field in the late fifties she still had her infield range guns firing. I was a first baseman (left-handed and given no choice by the Pee Wee League coach) and we’d spend hours together practicing in the back yard driveway: me tossing grounders between the broken patches that marked the bases and her eating them up with a quick scoop, then the arm back and the forward blur. SMACK—another runner out.

She could hit too. Didn’t often try it in the yard due to constant use of clotheslines and the nearby overhang of a neighbor’s upper story, but when she did hit, it was line drives hard and nasty. I’d pitch (again my left-handedness exerting an automatic prod from the coach) and she’d come around on the ball with a grunt that warned me to get the glove up in a hurry. Never did see her pop one up, but then maybe my pitching wasn’t all that tough.

Life on the sandlot—note that I'm still wearing my school shoes. Mom understood the need to get the field ASAP.

Life on the sandlot—note that I’m still wearing my school shoes. Mom understood the need to get to the field ASAP.

Nobody else in the neighborhood had a mother who played ball, but then nobody else had a mother who’d hitchhiked through Europe alone in the forties and could out-whistle the noon siren from the police station. When my mom played, she played hard. And when she couldn’t play, she cheered us kids on. If you attended any of my Little League games you knew her. She was the small woman with the unpermed hair and the down-at-heel shoes who sat in the first row of the bleachers and shouted like the Furies whenever I got a hit or made a catch at first. I never had an at-bat without hearing her voice come over the background hum of “heybatterbatterhey” and drop inside my ear with a “Come on, son!” or “Go get ‘em, Danny!” Always cheered at the right things too, not just the flash and overkill.

Other parents got too busy to come to the games, or couldn’t offer anybody rides home. Not my mom. It was line them up, stuff them in the back seat and deliver them anywhere requested. She only had five of her own. What were a few more shrieking voices or sticky fingers on the door handles? She took us out to major league games too, foregoing pork chops or a new secondhand coat to pay for the gas to Milwaukee and back. We even got to wait around after the games for autographs and I still have a photo that shows Wes Covington (smoking a cigar the size of a Little League bat) signing for our gang and me there on the fringe, caught between watching the Braves’ left fielder and my mom behind the camera lens.

After a Braves' game, angling to get near Wes Covington.

After a Braves’ game, angling to get near Wes Covington. I’m center of the back row here, looking off to the side. (“Maybe Hank Aaron will come out next . . .”)

Maybe that split-sided glance is just how the memory ought to stay, because if there was one single serum responsible for injecting me with a double dose of baseball fever, it was my mom and her own rabid joy, not just in the game, but in the effect it had on me.

From my first feeble swings with a taped-up twenty-inch bat (“When you’d hit the ball,” she’s told me, “the bat would fly one way, your cap would go another and you’d run off in a third, to go sliding into the clothesline pole.” to the night in Babe Ruth League when I became the first player in two years to hit a ball into Lake Minnetonka, she was always there. Never riding me, just cheering me on. And as I watched her knees give and her arm go flat—the shoulder stiffening until she could no longer lift the ball above it—I knew there was no room for sadness at what had once been between us. It wasn’t something that had died, it had been passed on.

Thanks, Mom, for not making me come home from school and change my clothes before I hit the diamond. Who could stand to wait? The game was in progress. But you’d be there waiting when I pedaled up in the soft dusk of evening, racing the darkness home for supper. Beat-out sneakers and grass-stained jeans . . . A mud smear under my eye . . . The breathless nine-year-old retelling the bottom of the 7th with both the Pringle twins on base and Haago hitting a smash to first . . .

In the games we played together, losses didn’t count. I’ll remember that when my own time comes. And I promise never to smoke a cigar the size of Wes Covington’s.

Originally published in Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Vol. 8 No. 2, Spring 1989.

Book Hunting on Skid Row

12 February 2019

On Skid Row, patrons might enter a bookstore for any number of non-literary reasons

As a child, I was a voracious reader. It took me years to stop reading every single billboard, every single street sign, every scrap of printed paper I came across. I burned through my school library, my town library, and the handful of Chip Hilton and Hardy Boys books stocked by our local five-and-dime and liberated by me without need for any pesky cash register transactions.

Given the parlous state of our family finances, this might well have been the limit of my acquisitions. But there was one further source of literary access: the used bookstore run by the Salvation Army down on Skid Row, which was confined (unsuccessfully) to the middle of the Mississippi River, on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. All the stores on the Row featured used goods, except for the bars, and even there one could hardly be certain of the provenance of any given tipple.

The Salvation Army bookstore was a musty, dark place, with never-dusted shelves and a cantankerous proprietor who dozed behind a small desk. From time to time he would blink awake with a snort, glare around him as if to blame whomever else might be in the shop, and then resettle himself back in his dreaming-chair, until such time as the making of change might be required.

Frankly, any used bookstore draws me in like a moth to the flame.









There were rarely other patrons in the store, but when there were they tended to be freight riders or bindle stiffs who had wandered in out of the weather, looking for a place to sleep, or piss. Sometimes both objects were achieved along the darker back aisles. Once my search for oversized picture books about knights and castles drew me along the far shelves near the cloth-hung doorway that led to the back storeroom, where my wanderings ended abruptly when I came upon a grizzled figure in a torn army greatcoat who had managed to fall asleep upright, propped on an overflow shelf of paperback romances. From the smells coming off him I could deduce that he had both imbibed a large quantity of liquor and successfully relieved himself in his pants.

I never revisited that particular back aisle—but then I never told anybody about the incident either. I knew it was all too likely that our bookstore expeditions would end, and that would be a catastrophe I could never endorse.

The first few times we went there—a gaggle of mop-haired word-hungry siblings ranging from babes in arms to my eleven years—we were escorted by Grandmom, a former school teacher from the West Virginia hills who took back talk from nobody. Ever since Granddad had retired, he and Grandmom spent half the year traveling North America in their pop-up van, Itchyfoot. (This was in the early sixties, well before a younger generation began filling the roads with live-in vans.) Each summer they’d pull into our driveway and I’d dash out to inspect the latest additions to their rolling home. We always got two shopping trips out of their visits. One was to buy shoes for each of us five children. The other was a journey to that fabled Sally Army store, where we were each allowed to select as many books as we could carry. (Since they cost 5¢ apiece, Grandmom knew we couldn’t empty her purse.)

In those early days, my attention was on completing my collection of Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis adventures, along with the occasional book on pirates, or baseball, or whatnot. I began to learn about first editions, and failed continuity across a series, and the collector’s struggle to find that last final rarity that so often is a justifiably-forgotten side remnant of some author’s oeuvre.

As I grew into my teens, I began making my way to the Salvation Army store on my own, without waiting for Grandmom’s annual visit. Now I was free to look for any old thing I pleased, with no concerns that my stack of books would be studied for “appropriateness” by any of the significant adults in my life. If I wanted to peruse The Last Days of Al Capone, or “The Bikini and Who Can Wear It,” such was my choice. One day I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Another time it was a slim Ace Books volume called simply Junkie, by some guy named William Burroughs. I couldn’t believe that anybody would willingly display their addiction in such a manner—or that a book company would print it.

By the time I was deep into high school, I was an expert at mining the shelves for hidden gems. This is where I first encountered James T. Farrell, via The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Soon I was back for the other volumes in the Studs Lonigan trilogy. I concocted a high school research paper on the dissonance of modern youth as evidenced in the rise of motorcycle gangs thanks to stumbling on a paperback named Hell’s Angels, by one Hunter S. Thompson. On an unpainted green wooden shelf labeled “Music/Art/Movies” one day I picked up a book by an author completely unknown to me—Mezz Mezzrow—simply because of the title: Really the Blues. I was deep into discovering the blues, and bought it at once, though Mezz’s book was all about jazz, and reefer (“the mighty mezz”) and a million nights on the bandstands and stage doors of the American night.

In time, the city condemned Skid Row and both sides of the street were leveled to make way for the brand new Hennepin Avenue bridge. Life on Nicollet Island continues—there’s a small neighborhood of converted boardinghouses, a classic old inn, and the imposing brickwork of DeLaSalle High School. But the island’s real treasures—those innumerable 5¢ books with their hinted promise of bold, nefarious deeds—are lost to the winds of time. Except for the rescued ones that still populate my shelves at home, reminders of younger days.

Originally published in Tampa Review, Issue 55/56, 2018


15 December 2017

I recently finished editing the latest COMPAS Anthology of Student Writing—entitled This Bursting Sound Within. This is no less than the 38th (!) collection of the best student writing that COMPAS teaching artists discover each year across the state of Minnesota:

Subtle and evocative

Subtle and evocative visuals from COMPAS artist Shakun Maheshwari, here on the cover.


This past weekend was the official celebration of the book’s release, and St. Paul’s Landmark Center saw hundreds of people gather for the group reading. The setting was stunning, festivities joyous, and the young readers overwhelmingly brilliant. Folks who couldn’t be there will need to settle for this, my editor’s introduction to the book:


For decades now, COMPAS has been sending the writers in its Creative Classroom Program out into the schools and communities of Minnesota. What began as a handful of poets in the late Sixties, working mostly in Twin Cities urban schools, has expanded into a thriving statewide network of songwriters, storymakers, playwrights, comedians, graphic novelists, spoken word artists, and beyond. The forms may change, but at the center of it all remain WORDS, and the ability—nay, the necessity—to communicate.

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why do people hate? fear? love? These are timeless questions—yet how often do we expect our children to voice them, let alone propose answers?

Out of all those classrooms, and all those clever exercises designed to move reluctant writers past barriers, COMPAS writers and artists selected the best for submission to this book. From that group, we have gone further, and selected the best of the best. The range of styles and topics is boggling. We get everything from the complexity and sophistication of Ekhlas Abdullahi and Nafiso Mohamed’s “Anchor,” to the pure joy of “Let’s Go Camping” by the energetic kindergartners of Mr. Crosby’s class. We get marvelous fantasy adventures (see virtually the entire section of “Diving into Adventure”), noble tirades against injustice (note especially the “Speaking Up/Speaking Out” section), and bold revelations and questions about the world.

Remember the last time you fled your homeland in fear and had to resettle in a new country where people spoke an unknown tongue? Me neither. But some of these students do, and the insights they provide are crucial. Just check “The Roots within Us” by Lay Lay and see if your perspective isn’t enlarged. Ivy Raya considers the impact of adoption in “Nameless”: “My name is who I am, but it has been changed throughout time. Does that mean that I have changed as well?” Hailey Dahl exposes feelings that many of us have in “Anxiety Poem”:

“It’s like a little creature

Sitting on your shoulder

Telling you you’re not worth anyone’s time

Or that everything you’re doing is wrong

You push people away before they get the chance to abandon you.”

Powerful stuff, that.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.


Equally powerful to me are those pieces that offer an almost prescient sense of time passing, never to be regained. My favorite in this vein is Eavan Bobbe’s poem “The Playground.” Replete with imagery and wistfulness, it serves as an epitaph to childhood.

Throughout these pieces, there is a sense that the young writers are often responding to an internal imperative to make their voices heard. It’s that entire concept of this is something that I can’t keep from saying that brought me the title of the book. Cristina Furness Rubio concludes her epic linguistic paeon to the Catalan language (“Tongue Waltz”) with the words:
“I am from this bursting sound within.”

That’s what fifth grader Henry Hilton had in mind, when he wrote:

“A whole page flowing out

Of my brain and onto the page.

A sea of thoughts expressed.

The weight of the world

On a piece of paper.”

Let the sea of thoughts heave and foam . . . rejoice that the bursting sound comes forth!

—Daniel Gabriel, Editor



FLASHBACK: Golden Triangle Prose Poems

7 November 2017

In separate issues, the journal 100 Words (they publish nothing longer) featured two prose poems I’d written about the border muddles in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. The situation is no more clear today than it was back when I first encountered it—for people like the Rohingya, fleeing from further west in Myanmar, it is undeniably worse.  Perhaps these pieces will spark some thought trails:

No Man’s Land: Bridging the Lines on the Map

The bridge over the river Sop Ruak, deep in the Golden Triangle, lies between the border posts of Thailand and Myanmar. At either end, sentries patrol: flags flying, guns at the ready. The border is closed, and has been for years. But out on the bridge, Chinese, Burmen, and Bengali merchants trade in ivory, gems, opium, and silk. Nothing is illegal, for the bridge belongs to neither country.

So the border has caused the bridge—or did the existence of the bridge determine the nature of the border? Does trade exist in spite of the border or because of it?

Bridge vendor contemplates the mystery of the border—or maybe he's just really enjoying that opium pipe.

Bridge vendor contemplates the mystery of the border—or maybe he’s just really enjoying that opium pipe.

Originally published in 100 Words, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1995

Off the Map

The amorphous Golden Triangle region is known for smuggling; only at this spot is anywhere officially labelled "GT."

The amorphous Golden Triangle region is known for smuggling; only at this spot is anywhere officially labelled “Golden Triangle.”

In far northern Thailand, the Mae Sai River flows into the great sweep of the Mekong. Mapmakers call the northwest bank Myanmar, the northeast, Laos. Out in the middle, wedged between the three countries, is a small triangular island of reed banks and empty fields. It appears on no map, but in the light of the falling sun its surface turns from green to gold.

After dark we hear the screams and giggles of children on the Laotian bank getting their nightly bath. The golden triangle in the middle of the river can no longer be seen.

Bath night on the Mekong River.

Bath night on the Mekong River.

Originally published in 100 Words, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1998


FLASHBACK: “Parisian Macabre: Inside the Catacombes”

6 July 2017

Underneath the pavements of Paris lies a world that even most Parisians do not know. I’m not talking about the sewers, though that system holds enough fascination in its own right to merit a museum—the Musée des Egouts de Paris—and well worth a visit it is. (Or maybe I’m just biased. It was my ancestor, Jacques Gabriel, who designed the sewer system.)

The hidden world to which I refer is that of the Catacombes. These catacombes are not like those of, say, Rome, where early Christians hid to escape from governmental persecution. These were disused quarries that never housed anybody living at all—and were filled in far more recent times. In 1785, it was decided to solve the problem of overflowing cemeteries by exhuming bones and removing them to the tunnels of the old quarries. The ossuaries thus created did solve the problem, at least temporarily—and during World War II, the Resistance used them as headquarters.

Today visitors enter via a nondescript dark green door set on the southwestern edge of the intersection just outside the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Once we’ve purchased our tickets, we descend a series of steps and then follow long, dark tunnels further down, running laterally, until I frankly have no idea what part of Paris lies above my head.

Eventually we are led out into an open chamber with a doorway in the far wall. An inscription above the doorway reads: “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la Mort.” (“Stop. Here is the Empire of Death.”)

Despite the "stop" sign, the author's son Evan steps fearlessly into the "Empire of Death."

Despite the “stop” sign, the author’s son Evan steps fearlessly into the “Empire of Death.”

It is too late to turn back.

On the far side of the doorway the bones begin. Heaped and stacked in an implausibly precise mounting of skulls and femurs, tibias and rib bones, they stand at a height of 5-6 feet and, in some places, run back into chambers 40-50 feet deep. “Whoever had to fill this place had the worst job in the world,” says my 14-year-old, Alex.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine the poor souls engaged in the process: the gravediggers, emptying the lonely plots (“What if the person had just died?” says ten-year-old Evan. “Would there be bits of skin and hair and stuff?”); the haulers and stackers, working in the near-total darkness, lanterns flickering, and painstakingly arranging the remnants of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps to mitigate the horror, the authorities have interspersed the bone stacks with whitewashed plaster, occasionally in the shape of a cross, but more frequently as a canvas on which to write appropriate sayings about death and the finality of the grave. One example:

“Aussi tout passe sur la terre

          Esprit, beauté, grâces, talent

          Telle est une fleur éphémère

          Que renverse le moindre vent.”

Loosely translated, that reads

“Everything passes on the earth

Spirit, beauty, grace, talent

It is only an ephemeral flower

That is blown away by the slightest wind.”

The philosophical French don't miss a chance to muse on the meaning of all this grotesque preoccupation with death.

The philosophical French don’t miss a chance to muse on the meaning of all this grotesque preoccupation with death.

Many pundits weigh in as one moves from chamber to chamber, though as we go I find myself curiously uninterested in translating their words. Perhaps it is because the writers seem so distant and their sentiments insubstantial, while around us rise the yellow-white bone towers and the grinning skulls. Who needs intermediaries to interpret our own thoughts in the face of it all?

Our pathway bends and twists, at times doubling back on itself. Hundreds of bones. Thousands. Millions—hundreds of millions, in all likelihood. The area of the Catacombes open to the public (somewhat over a mile) represents only a small segment of the total.

The bizarreness of this Parisian ossuary is heightened by the careful patterning of bone and skull.

The bizarreness of this Parisian ossuary is heightened by the careful patterning of bone and skull.

It is said that there are other entrances, unmarked and unlit, that emerge into the open air on the edges of Paris. Shortly before our visit a film crew infiltrated one of these clandestine entrances, in search of the answer to the death of an unknown videographer, who died of no apparent cause—except pure fright?—while illegally exploring a closed section of the Catacombes. His video camera had been found, with final footage that was reminiscent of the fictional Blair Witch Project, but no hint as to what had spooked him so badly. The crew themselves got lost, though they were later rescued. The mystery remains.

It is on our minds as we complete our visit, stepping carefully along the dim, damp corridors. A set of winding stairs leads up and up . . . Another open chamber, then a final ground-level room where uniformed officials inspect all bags for stolen bones.

Once vetted we emerge, blinking, into the bright streets of Paris, and the damp clutching at my stomach begins at last to go away.

Originally published in Whistling Shade, Fall-Winter 2011.

FLASHBACK: “Europe’s Hidden Corners pt 2: Aran Valley”

12 April 2017

Val D’Aran, Spain

This Pyreneean mountain valley in northwest Catalonia is a fisherman's delight.

This Pyreneean mountain valley in northwest Catalonia is a fisherman’s delight.

When we finally left Andorra, we headed south into Spain, where we drove up and down mountainsides, through crowded little villages, and past Catalonia’s only national park: Aigues Tortes. No roads run through the park, though there is a network of jeep tracks. Izards, wild boar, stoats, and the extremely rare desman (something like a long-nosed mole that swims) all live in the park, though by most accounts they are very tough to spot.

We contented ourselves with walking along the long, narrow fishing lake of Panta de la Torrassa and stopped at the height of a pass—the Port de la Bonaigua—where we saw our first snowcapped peaks.

Fog tendrils swirl around a misty mountaintop in Spain's Aran Valley.

Fog tendrils swirl around a misty mountaintop in Spain’s Aran Valley.

Then it was down into the Val d’Aran, long considered the most remote part of Spain. Most of the Pyrenees are divided at the crestline and watersheds between France and Spain, but in 1312 the Aran Valley was allowed to choose their allegiance in a public referendum. Their river (the tiny Garona, which becomes the great Garonne in France and winds through Bordeaux and on into the Atlantic) flows north to France, but they chose to ally with Spain, in the hopes that it would mean less interference in their lives. Since there was no reason for either side to come up to Aran (no river for the Spaniards to follow; a frontier stopping the French) the valley went along on its own, even developing its own language, Aranese, which is closer to Occitan, or Provencal (spoken in southern France) than it is to the Catalan spoken in this region of Spain.

While the folds of the valley are now sprinkled with ski chalets, there are still plenty of vestiges of the old mountain life. We opted to stay in Salardu, probably the loveliest of the Aran villages. It’s big enough to have a few shops, cafes and lodging spots (including refuges for hikers), yet far enough from the skiing to be absent of modern buildings. We bumped along streets so tiny that I felt I could reach out and touch walls on both sides—while driving! We finally secured a suite in the Pension Aiguamog, a family-run place with windows that looked out and up at the 13th century Romanesque village churchyard, set over the huddle of stone houses.

Many Aran villages are built around Romanesque churchyards just like this one in Salardu.

Many Aran villages are built around Romanesque churchyards just like this one in Salardu.

On another day we maneuvered our car up a series of switchbacks past the renowned Beret ski area (a favorite of the Spanish royal family) and onto a seven kilometer dirt road for a visit to the abandoned village of Montgarri. I would have preferred to make this a hike—there was a five kilometer track along the river that looked appealing—but the light was going and we didn’t want to have to trudge back in the dark.

The road was appalling. Tiny switchbacks with sudden lurches and drops; few places to dodge any oncoming cars; and rolls of dust coating the car. But we made the traverse all right, rolled through a handful of tumbling cottages, and emerged at a riverbank with a tiny bridge, a solid stone mountain refuge hut and an old 16th century church that was a shrine to a forgotten saint. After the dust and heat it was lovely to soak our feet in the stream, and we even got in a further hike along the riverside track.

High in the mountains above Spain's remote Aran Valley sits this 16th century shrine with its stunning frescoed ceiling.

High in the mountains above Spain’s remote Aran Valley sits this 16th century shrine with its stunning frescoed ceiling.

There are plenty of other excursions in the Aran Valley. Many are hikes up into pristine woods and lake-strewn valley bowls. (A variety of mountain refuges cater to overnight hikers.) But the valley is also notable as home to a series of fine Romanesque churches. These are not built on a grand scale, but rather to serve a small local community—yet each offers a unique feature, whether its entrancing setting, or elaborate carved entryway, or delicately frescoed ceiling.

Later, back in the darkness of Salardu, we went out walking in the little town: quiet, sleeping sidestreets in the moonlight; the mountains embracing the town. In the little “Plaza Major” we sat on a bench and watched the village kids play hide-and-go-seek (arguing rules and winners just like our boys would). Around the old stone water trough they went, back behind barrels and across the steps underneath the one open cafe/bar, with giggles and shrieks punctuating the still mountain air . . . an idyllic moment indeed.

[“Europe’s Hidden Corners, Part 1: Andorra” appeared here as a blog on 29 March 2017.]

Originally published in Transitions Abroad, Mar/Apr 2004.


FLASHBACK: “Europe’s Hidden Corners pt 1: Andorra”

29 March 2017

The central Pyrenees offer not just majestic mountain views or ever-expanding ski resorts, but two pocket principalities that few Americans have ever seen, or perhaps heard of. One, Andorra, is the only Catalan-speaking nation with a seat in the UN and has a reputation in France and Spain for fine duty-free shopping. The other, the Val d’Aran, is politically a part of Spanish Catalonia—yet is separate from both Spain and Catalonia geographically and linguistically.

Andorra and Aran—separated from each other by the Noguera Pallaresa river and an impassable stretch of peaks—feature the finest skiing in the Pyrenees and a summer carpet of high mountain hikes and dark stone villages clustered around ancient churches.


Despite modernization elsewhere, the center of Ordino still typifies the old Andorran mountain village.

Despite modernization elsewhere in the country, the center of Ordino still typifies the old Andorran mountain village.

Andorra is a tiny mountain kingdom—really just two valleys tucked into some of the highest parts of the Pyrenees—that has become a duty-free shopping haven because it’s right between France and Spain, yet is not part of the European Union. Gas costs about two-thirds what it does in France; a large bottle of Pastis goes for $3, perfumes are often half price, etc.

But my family and I hadn’t come here to shop. We’d come to experience the mountains and, for me, to relive a very memorable previous visit. I spent a month in Andorra with my parents in the early fifties, at a time when there were only about 6,000 people living inside the principality. While we were there, my mother slipped in a mountain stream and had a miscarriage. Since there were no hospitals, she stayed in the front room of the local doctor’s house while she recovered. Dad and I camped in the main square of the capital, which was still used as a cow pasture and, by the end of our stay, had driven to the end of every road in the country.

Now there are over 60,000 inhabitants and most of the little villages have been inundated with stores and ski chalets. Evan so, the country’s governance remains interesting. Since the 13th century it has been a co-principality, split between the Bishops of Seu d’Urgell in Spain and the Counts of Foix (now the President of France) in France. This dual rulership effectively kept either country from gobbling it up over the centuries. In 1993 the citizens voted for a parliamentary democracy, so the old rulers are now mere figureheads.

We headed straight out of the border shopping town of Pas de la Casa, up over the highest road pass in the Pyrenees (Port d’Envalira, at 7,500 feet), along the main Andorran valley, and then up a side road and through some stunning scenery over another pass down into Ordino in its little side valley. The old core of town (everything built of grey stone, as are the new chalets, at least in Ordino) tumbled down a hillside, the buildings locked together to catch the sun. We wandered the alleys and churchyards, and then drove further up the valley beyond Llorts, to where we found a fine hiking trail along a mountain stream. Just enough ups and downs and bends to keep our youthful walkers interested, but nothing too severe. All around us were sun-dappled peaks, and the incongruous sight of tobacco fields. Tobacco is grown here despite the climate, because American tobacco companies will buy the entire mediocre harvest as a trade-off for selling their own US-grown product in the local shops.

Andorra's high valleys have mountain hikes for all ages and abilities.

Andorra’s high valleys have mountain hikes for all ages and abilities.

There are enough mountain hikes to keep the hardy going for weeks. Even if you tire of the great outdoors, Ordino remains a good base of operations. Try a tour of the interior of an old Andorran noble house, the home of the Areny Plandolits (built in the 1700s, but with most furnishings from the mid-19th century), or the next door Postal Museum, with an extensive collection of stamps issued by France and Spain for Andorran service. (In another of Andorra’s anomalies, it uses dual postal services via both countries.)

This nobleman's house in Ordino is open for tours as well as free walks in the garden.

This nobleman’s house in Ordino is open for tours as well as free walks in the garden.

For us, Ordino offered the best combination of traditional village and mountain-access point. But it’s not the only interesting spot in Andorra. While Andorra’s main activity seems to be duty-free shopping, which certainly suits some visitors, the non-commercially minded can sample other delights.

In the capital, visit the Barri Antic (the tiny old town) and its centerpiece, the Casa de la Vall, which has served as Andorra’s parliament building since 1702. Or drop over to the amazing Caldea spa complex, which looks like a futuristic cathedral. A three hour admission lets you into an enormous heated lagoon and more saunas, baths, and hydromassage than anywhere else in Europe.

The summer house of Andorra's iron-smelting "tycoon" weaves his coat of arms into elaborate wrought-iron work.

The summer house of Andorra’s iron-smelting “tycoon” weaves his coat of arms into elaborate wrought-iron work.

In the winter, of course, there is skiing. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, a range of slopes beckon. Pas de la Casa (on the French border) has the liveliest apres-ski nightlife, but it’s Soldeu-El Tarter that draws the biggest raves for slopes.

[Part 2: the Aran Valley (Val d’Aran) will be released next month.]

Originally published in Transitions Abroad, Mar/Apr 2004.

Portugal’s Far North: Wandering Childless Peneda-Geres Park

8 February 2017

Though still on the frontier with Spain, the castle ruins above Castro Laboreiro no longer serve as border fortress.

Though still on the frontier with Spain, the castle ruins above Castro Laboreiro no longer serve as border fortress.

Away from the coasts; away from the rattling trams and rushing trains; away from the crowds and the nouveau cuisine and the latest twist on Douro winemaking, rise the stark black mountains of the El Minho region—Portugal’s far north, up near the border with Galician Spain—and the empty solitudes of its descending valleys and cliffs. Peneda-Geres National Park is not on the way to anywhere anymore, though signs still proclaim the Portuguese route of El Camino de Santiago.

Despite the arresting presence of thin-bladed windmills set like a platoon of sentries across the bare hilltops, these mountains are where the old Portugal lies. The land of shepherds and cowbells, sleepy villages and ancient menhirs and dolmens left behind from pre-history. Wolves and wild boar still roam the hillsides, though we found ourselves instead spotting wild ponies, and long-horned cattle, and having to wait while a flock of sheep crossed the road on their way home.

Wild ponies dot the hillsides and meadows of Peneda-Geres National Park.

Wild ponies dot the hillsides and meadows of Peneda-Geres National Park.

The land is rugged, and every structure in the villages appears made of stone; hard granite, usually, pulled from these very hills. The most intriguing structures are the espigueiros, which look strikingly like grave sites we remember seeing in the interior of Sumatra. They are granite caskets on stilts, with open slots in the side for drying and storing corn.

Stone granaries dot the hillsides like funerary plots.

Stone granaries dot the hillsides like funerary plots.

Inside the national park, over 100 granite villages still remain. Small places, but solid with the weight of years. The most magnificent is clearly Peneda, its houses scattered down both sides of a ravine in the lee of a granite outcropping that reminds us both of Yosemite’s Half Dome. The village is picturesque on its own, but as we walk the descending steps of the magnificent pilgrimage church of Igreja Senhora de Peneda—where an annual fall festival brings villagers from all over the region for music, dance and prayer, culminating in a candlelight procession through the plaza—we can feel the emotional heart of the historic region still beating strongly across the ridges and plateaus.

The pilgrimage church of Nossa Senora is set between mountain ridges.

The pilgrimage church of Nossa Senora is set between mountain ridges.

Something that festival can’t bring back are children. We hardly see any at all. Young people of any sort are few and far between. Jobs are limited. The future lies in the cities. The eyes of the old ones seem content, if a bit forlorn, but who will take their place? Amidst the stark beauty of the mountains, even alongside the gurgling streams, lies an underlay of sluggish finality, as if the very lifeblood of the region is not being suitably renewed.

We think on this as we climb towards evening. Above us are castle ruins set on a stony ridge overlooking the village of Castro Laboreiro. We struggle up the rough path and through a boulder-strewn wasteland. The view from the ruins runs all the way to Spain, and the descending waves of hillsides ripple with shadows. In the distance, a single cowbell tolls. Sunset is not far away.

Dusk in Castro Laboreiro brings all the animals home.

A timeless scene: dusk in Castro Laboreiro brings all the animals home.


Crypto-Jews of Eastern Portugal

9 January 2017

Both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide have active Jewish museums these days.

Both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide have active Jewish museums these days.

1492 was more than just the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. On the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, it meant the beginning of the end of the centuries’ old life of the local Sephardic Jews. The same Spanish royal duo of Ferdinand and Isabella who bankrolled Columbus also used anno 1492 to declare that Jews within their kingdom must convert to Christianity, or depart the country.

Some 150,000 chose to flee over the border into Portugal, with most settling in the mountainous regions near Spain. Jews had already been living in Portugal for at least a thousand years, contributing in many significant ways to national life. They were diplomats, cartographers, and merchants—even the previous king’s treasurer had been Jewish. But no sooner had the new arrivals begun to build fresh lives than in 1497 King Manuel I issued the same xenophobic decree to all members of the Jewish community, regardless of how long they’d been present in Portugal: convert, leave, or die.

The old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide looks idyllic today, but imagine the panic after the 1497 decree.

The old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide looks idyllic today, but imagine the panic after the 1497 decree.

There were definitely consequences. In 1506, thousands of Jews were killed by raging mobs, and in 1536 a two-century Inquisition was begun, leading to imprisonment, torture and death for virtually everybody accused. Many fled, once again. Of those who chose to stay, most became Marranos, new converts to Christianity, whose doorposts were often marked with a cross to symbolize their status. But Marranos were not trusted, and careful attention was paid to make sure the conversion was real.

In Guarda's Judiaria, several houses still bear the stone-etched cross that signified a conversion to Christianity had taken place.

In Guarda’s Judiaria, several houses still bear the stone-etched cross that signified a conversion to Christianity had taken place.

That appeared to be the final page of yet another shameful chapter of anti-Semitism in Europe. However . . . in the early decades of the 20th century, a man named Schwarz discovered that there were actually hidden communities of Jews still active in the country, mostly in the regions of Tras-os Montes and the Beiras. This led Captain Barros Basto, a symphathizer, to conduct the “Obra do Resgate,” which was aimed to help the remaining Marranos practice their Jewish traditions openly.

Eventually, some two dozen communities of crypto-Jews (in various stages of survival) were discovered. The last to be revealed, in Belmonte, didn’t emerge until the 1980s! (Belmonte’s synagogue, built in 1297, was the oldest in Portugal.) In this community, all the Jewish traditions and secrets were handed down through the female line, unlike in orthodox Jewish practice. This gender inversion may well have been used as another layer of security from prying eyes. In any case, the Belmonte community (currently about 200 strong) is still extremely secretive about exactly which practices were maintained, and how. Marriage arrangements had been particularly difficult to sustain, and the level of inbreeding required means that many community members today suffer from hereditary diseases.

The community in Belmonte stayed hidden until the late 20th century.

The community in Belmonte stayed hidden until the late 20th century.

Nowadays, towns such as Castelo de Vide and Guarda post signs outlining their old Judiarias, or Jewish quarters, and small museums can be found in both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide. The contents of these museums depict those few, fragile items that were saved down through the centuries: Shabbat lights, mezuzahs, a copy of Flavius Josephus’ history of the Jews, a tiny precious Torah . . . Remnants only, to be sure, but it is that faithful remnant that carries the witness forward.

The Jewish Museum in Belmonte is small—few tangible items could safely be hidden over the centuries—but deeply moving.

The Jewish Museum in Belmonte is small—few tangible items could safely be hidden over the centuries—but deeply moving.