Friday, November 1, 2019

Moscow - Another Look

After visiting Saint Petersburg, it is easy to overlook Moscow as chaotic, sometimes ugly, built, destroyed and rebuilt again. This is what happen with us two years ago when we visited Moscow after a long break. Between the crowds of Red Square, Stalin Empire style subway system, hundreds of churches hiding between grandiose monstrosities built by Stalin, seventies international style decrepit skyscrapers and Putin’s highways, it is difficult to make sense of the city. Moscow is a place where you need a certain level of awareness to understand, because its allure is not presented in impeccable architecturally planned plazas, parks and streets, but rather comes in historical layers. Because the layers are temporal, but we see them at the moment of our presence; the layers appear not in any particular order, but all together. One needs to be able to identify the buildings and the sights and put them in the context of the time and then Moscow opens up in four dimensions, where the fourth dimension represents the history of Russia in all its complexity. We were very lucky to have friends who are not just aware, but have encyclopedic knowledge of the city and helped us to understand how to see the layers and to inhale Russian history in Moscow. Our friend Andre Monams is the author of several Moscow guide books.

Andre walked us thru hidden passages, old churches and secret courtyards to uncover Moscow’s fourth dimension. 

In some ways Moscow is similar to London. It is old, it was burnt, destroyed and rebuilt again, different every time, but it is all works and breathes together as huge live organism. 

This time we stayed in a little hotel in Clear Ponds neighborhood which was built during one of the prosperous periods of Moscow history. Luckily it wasn’t destroyed over the centuries. Moscow appears at its most charming and it is almost as harmonious as St. Petersburg. 

While it is impossible to even start in one visit or in one blog post to analyze all of Moscow layers, here are a few observations about latest contemporary additions. The infrastructure layer: Russia was infamous for poor roads and infrastructure. The classical Russian novel “Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow” by Alexander Radishchev describes many severe problems of Russian serfdom and the horrors and lack of any infrastructure between major Russian cities. While the book was written in late 18th centuries and prohibited until 20th century, very little has changed until only 10 years ago. But now the high speed Sapsan trains connect major Russian cities. Old Moscow streets were expanded and rebuilt as highways. 

Moscow became car-oriented city with infrastructure to please newly rich and well to do upper middle class. Because Soviet Russians were deprived of car ownership, cars and driving became an obsession. This new highway layer represents a new reality. As it always happens, car-oriented cities become a bear for everyone including car owners. The noise, traffic and lack of parking made some old and lovely streets noisy and unwelcoming to pedestrians. Like in many cities stressed by cars, a few central streets are closed for traffic and have become purely pedestrian. 

Park VDNH represents one of the layers which was recently rebuilt. The Monument to the Conquerors of Space, which stands directly outside VDNH

Built in 1939, VDNH was designed as the main showcase of the socialist economy and lifestyle. It was opulently decorated in the Russian Stalin Empire style. The park was almost abandoned in late Soviet and post-Soviet times and glorious fountains and pavilions became neglected and ruined. Nothing is more symbolic than the grand renovation which occurred a few years ago. It is a showcase of revival of the empire. If you have any doubts about Putin imperial ambitions a visit to VDNH is must. 

Zaryadye Park is a landscape urban park adjacent to the Red Square in Moscow on the site of the former Rossiya Hotel. Hotel Rossiya was a Soviet layer and has been replaced by a new layer. The park has an gigantic walkway over Moscow river with panoramic views of Moscow. The Zaryadye Park is the first public park built in Moscow for over 50 years. 

Moscow is the only place in the western Christian countries where I have seen new churches being built. In my neighborhood in central Washington DC churches are being abandoned, bought up by developers and converted to luxury hotels and restaurants. In contrast, the Russian Orthodox church is experiencing a significant revival. Soviets prohibited religion and destroyed many churches. Just like with cars something which was prohibited or unavailable for a long time became very desirable and fashionable. Religion, of course, is a very sophisticated tool of manipulating the people, and it is no wonder that the Russian Orthodox church is in a very tight relationship with the Kremlin 

The new layers show the stress, the fears, the talent and the infinite ambitions. Moscow is definitely the place where important things and changes are happening fast, and these changes have a serious impact on the small world we all live in.

And finally reporting from location 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Saint Petersburg Encounters

This Saint Petersburg (SPB) post will be devoid of pictures. Three years ago, we visited SPB and I posted a blog with a lot of pictures and everything I wrote there about the city still stands. But this post has a description of a few encounters and events which I wanted to tell without being distracted by pictures. All of this happened over a short five days visit at the end of September, 2019.

The encounters started right away at Pulkovo airport as we landed on a bright September afternoon. The taxi kiosk outside of the airport was closed and we were too tired after a long flight to search for the official taxi stand. Being stupid Americans, we allowed ourselves to be picked up and driven to the city by one of the con drivers who always search for people like us in international airports. The chap was super friendly and entertained us all the way. When he found out that we are coming from US, he expressed a lot of concern about our situation with immigration. He was very well aware about caravans arriving through the southern border. It felt like he is listening FOX News every morning. He said that criticality of the US situation with immigration is even worse than in Russia. I mentioned that I am an immigrant myself. He said that I am clearly a different story, because I am an intelligent and educated white woman not a Mexican or Muslim. He compared immigration from Latin America with Uzbeks and Tajiks who take Russian construction and driving jobs. He said that immigrants drive most of the taxis in SPB. And that all of the crime and troubles come from them. Never mind that he was running little illegal business himself. His attitude and arguments were an exact copy of the anti-immigrant attitude in the United States. He recommended that we use a local taxi company which prides itself in hiring only Russians. Unfortunately, the name of this fine company escaped me right away.

Otherwise, he delivered us to our hotel safely and made sure that we were able to get in, since our hotel was on the second floor and the door was not marked. In fact, he called hotel and said that the guests are awaiting downstairs.

Somehow, the shyster driver set the tone for another encounter and couple art events which put me in the anxious state of mind.

I really wanted to get a taste of SPB theater scene and finally decided to see one actor performance of The Yellow Tango (Жёлтое Танго) in the very famous SPB art cafe Wondering Dog (Бродячая Собака). This café is an old time cultural institution which hosted the most prominent artists, poets and writers for over 100 years. The play was based on the life of a brilliant Russian performer and singer Alexander Vertinsky. The actor enacted the stories from Vertisky’s dairies and performed some of his songs. Vertinsky, originally from Kiev, immigrated from Russia right after revolution and lived abroad for almost 30 years. He moved around the world following the Russian immigrant community and sang nostalgic and beautiful songs about longing for illusive home and unrequited love. Very much in French chanson style but in Russian. The expat Russian community was his only audience and way to make a living.  During WWII he finally wrote a letter to Molotov (Soviet apparatchik close to Stalin) begging him for permission to come back to Russia. The permission was granted and when he returned, he was made an example of the prodigal son whose sins were forgiven by the generous party leaders. Most other Russians who decided to return died in Gulags. The main theme and emphasis of the play was about people strong connection to their motherland and suffering of uprooted people. In the intermission I wanted to share my feelings about actor and his performance with an intellectual looking woman sitting next to me and clearly was enjoying the play. She was about my age and I gathered, based on overheard conversation with her friend, that she is part of SPB theater world. I told her that the actor is very brave by attempting to play Vertinsky. While he is good, he always be compared with original and this is a tough act to pull off. The lady immediately engaged in the conversation. We started to talk about Vertinsky special almost French annunciation which he acquired while living abroad. She changed the topic of conversation to Kiev before revolution. According to her, Kiev was an amazing city with booming high Russian cultural scene. Kiev inhabitants were speaking perfect Russian. The unrefined and rude dialect appeared later when after October Revolution when Ukrainian peasants and Jews from the pale of settlements like Zhytomyr moved in and destroyed the high Russian culture. Fortunately, the intermission was coming to the end, I turned back to Patrick who was bored and whispered that I am glad I am not living in this country.

Moving on. The next cultural event was a show of internationally celebrated Russian artist collective AES+F: Predictions and Revelations. The show consisted from three digital movies, photographs and sculptures. It was amazing, thought provoking, imaginative and flawlessly executed spectacle. The overall theme of the show was anxiety about the future. The future brings the end of Western civilization, which is being replaced by inhabitants of mixed races, not binary sexes, and global government. The new world is weird, scary, violent, cosmopolitan and rootless. The images from the show still occasionally come up in my dreams. As I promised no pictures, but here is a link to some promotional videos to get a feel.

The next art event was a sample of something which wanted to appear as a counterculture. The setting was as cool as it could be. A small gallery located on the top floor of one of the charming old SPB buildings. No charge, opened only a few hours a week. The Pigs Snout Gallery had one simple concept to present certain personalities or group of people as a pigs or in other ‘funny’ ways to express artist ironic, satirical cool attitude toward the person or a group. The genre was represented by cartoon type posters and graphics. Some of the images were very funny in a strange Russian idiosyncratic way. Some not so much. One of the popular Russian rock musician (Mackarevich) who is openly critical of Russian government and has strong pro-western attitude, was depicted as a pig with an explanation inscribed right on the image: Trying too hard to please the West. The separate room in the gallery was dedicated to antisemitic cartoons and posters. It started with variation on the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic. The woman on the painting had her jewel necklace replaced with prominent Star of David. I have several samples in photos, but don’t want to post and promote this art.

I have been thinking about these events and encounters for a while and feel that they are all strangely related. The xenophobic, nationalistic driver, the sentimental Vertinsky show about motherland longing, the chauvinistic, antisemitic intellectual lady at the art café, the counterculture antisemitic art and even highly aesthetic futuristic show by AES+F artist cooperative. The connection appears to be that they relate to one very basic emotion - tribal instinct. The connection to people like me, who were born at the same place, the fear and rejection of others, the anxiety about future devoid of the original tribes and relationships. It is easy to attribute it to Russia and its propaganda machine. And while it is definitely part of the story, but only a small one. As I am writing this post the news about killing Jews in synagogue at Yom Kippur is coming from Germany. The recent uptick in these feeling comes as a backlash to the fast changes caused by automation and globalization and anxiety of people who lost and left behind by these changes. The fear and stress as always exploited by unscrupulous, power hungry politicians, but there is nothing new about this as well. Leo Tolstoy more than hundred years ago wrote essay “Christianity and Patriotism” in which he said:  “Governments assure peoples that they are in danger from the attacks of other peoples and from internal enemies, and that the only way to escape from this danger is through slavish obedience of peoples to governments.” How this is different from what we hear from our government about the dangers of immigrations and caravans of refugees coming from the southern border?

How important is the tribal instinct in the modern world? Over the course of human history, the tribes were expanding from nuclear family, to extended family, to villages as people learn to grow crop, to medieval cities and feudal kingdoms and now to nation states. The recent EU entity, while new and flawed, seems like natural progression in the expending idea of tribe. The Brexit is a backlash to the effort to expand the tribe. The borders are becoming less enforceable and people are migrating at the scale unimaginable even hundred years ago. I can only guess that every consecutive tribe expansion was more painful and met more resistance, but humans persevere and found a way. Will they do this time?

With that, the old and intrinsically Russian question comes to mind: What is to be done? And this is where I am going to leave you my friends to think and contemplate if you have nothing better to do…

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why Fascism? The Secret Is Out

I started to write this blog two weeks after the presidential election of 2016. I wanted to understand the reasons for Trump’s victory and I was hoping that writing about this would get the grief out of my system. After working on it for a while, I gave up because the conclusion I reached was so sad and depressing that I decided to abandon it. Even though I abandoned my writing, I kept thinking about it. I recently started to read a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book was written in 2012 and it has, as an epigraph, a quote from Spinoza: I have striven not to laugh at human actions not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them. This book made me to go back to my writing and turn from emotions to thinking and research.

Around 8 million people switched their vote from Obama to Trump in 2016 election. Given that the election was decided by 40,000 votes, it’s fair to say that the Obama-Trump switchers were one of the key reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss. The prevailing opinion in the mainstream media after election was that the desperation of white working class, especially in the rust belt, motivated people to vote for Trump. However, this opinion was not based on data and was completely speculative. As the social scientists and statisticians started to survey and analyze the results, it was abundantly clear that concerns about identity and race were the decisive issues in the 2016 election. Understanding the deeper reasons why race played such a pivotal role will help us to understand why racism and xenophobia will continue to have a vital impact on politics in US and globally for the foreseeable future.

The first question, which comes to mind as we look at results of these studies, is why American voters elected a black president for two terms if race and identity were so important. The Obama presidency would clearly indicate that racism is not a valid explanation and therefore other traditional economic-related factors are much more important. After election of Obama, there were a lot of voices saying that we live in post-racial society. Not so fast. If you look at the candidates Obama was running against, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both were moderate, traditional Republicans who were campaigning on the usual GOP platform of low taxes, pro-business, a strong military and containing the cost of social programs. Racism, xenophobia and immigration were not a part of their campaigns.

Now let us turn to Mr. Trump. Donald Trump is a man of great ego and no ideology. While he never associated strongly with any major political party, he had presidential ambitions all the way back in the 1980s. In 1999 he contemplated to run for president as the candidate for the Reform Party. Back than he bashed Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, saying that he has a “love affair with Adolf Hitler”. He stroked some leftist positions including saying “I believe in universal health care. I believe in whatever it takes to make people well and better. It’s an entitlement to this country if we’re going to have a great country.” As his presidential ambitions matured, he experimented with several themes and strategies including running with Oprah. His campaign topics kept changing and in 2010 he fueled the conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside of the country and was therefore ineligible to be president. That turned out to be a winning theme. Building on racism and xenophobia, he made the vilification of Obama, grievances of whites as victims of politically correct (PC) culture, and immigration from Latin America the major themes of his presidential campaign.

The rise of fascism is traditionally attributed to economic conditions, disenchantment with politics, corruption and anger at elites. The problem with the traditional analysis is that these conditions are persistent and always exist everywhere to some degree. They are attributes of the power structure in any state. The extension of this argument is that fascism happens when one or more of these attributes become extreme. Germany in the 1930s had extreme levels of poverty, unemployment and unsustainable inflation. There was no hope that the situation would improve, since Germany had to pay retributions after WWI. The rise of Hitler is attributed to this desperate economic situation.

After WWII the civilized world shouted Never Again! But less than 70 years later nationalism and fascism are on the rise again all over Europe. The political analysts are using traditional explanations and blaming the economic recession, following the 2008 stock market crash, and unrealistic underlying assumptions in the creation of the EU, which contributed to the misery in Spain, Italy, Portugal and especially in Greece. However, the welfare states in Europe protected their population from the worst impacts. People were not hungry, they didn’t lose homes and still had basic services and healthcare. But the nationalist parties were increasing their presence in most countries even if they were less or not affected by economic downturn.

Then, suddenly, new events provided a strong argument to the army of opinion makers: the refugee crisis and mass migration from the Middle East. Finally, the European countries had a rationalization for rising nationalism: unsustainable level of immigrants with a very different culture which feels like a real threat to European civilization. There are a couple things are important to note: 1. The rise of nationalistic parties preceded the refuge crisis 2. It affected some countries, while other with the same conditions did not experience this trend (Greece vs Spain).

Back across the Atlantic, we live in the country which prides itself as a country built by refugees and immigrants with famous poem by Emma Lazarus engraved in the most famous American monument:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

With that we elected the man who after multiple attempts to run for president finds a winning theme in railing against immigration. While the immigration issue was on the national agenda occasionally; it was never the number one concern. The racist and xenophobic rhetoric used by Trump was unheard of since the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago. This also happened in a period of extended economic growth with no apparent signs of weakness, at least, on the surface. The last economic recovery left behind a large segment of the working class. The recovery in the manufacturing sector produced very few jobs due to globalization and automation. In the US, with a weak social safety net, these global trends were particularly devastating. They led to the disintegration of communities, an opium epidemic and a population disenchanted with the American Dream. This economic devastation of the working class is a ready to use argument for the rise of nationalism. But there is a caveat to this argument. The number of manufacturing jobs in US peaked in 1979 at 19.4 million and it has been on a steadily decline ever since. The decline started not just before latest economic crisis, it started even before NAFTA which went in effect in 1994.

The more carefully we look for objective prerequisites for the raise of nationalism, the more elusive a eureka moment becomes. It feels more and more like a moving target.

That made me think that we are looking in the wrong direction. For a long time people accepted the Marxist approach to human history in terms of systemic processes, based on modes of production, the ways in which societies are organized to employ their technological powers to interact with their material surroundings. While this approach makes perfect sense on historical scale, it has been extended too far and has crossed the boundaries of political process, including how people behave as political actors. By doing so we assumed that specific economic conditions will determine how people will vote and what leader will come to power.

In societies where people are entrusted to elect their own leaders, most candidates campaign on assumptions that people will vote their interests and promise them a basket of goodies (health care, education, social security, pensions, low taxes, more police, jobs etc.) The results of these campaigns vary mostly based on how charming people found a candidate. With whom would you rather have a beer: with Bush or Gore? Remember that? Jonathan Haidt’s book, which I mentioned earlier, talks about how humans make moral decisions and form their political preferences. When making moral judgments which support our political decisions people are subjects to moral intuition and make these judgments emotionally before they even review and analyze any relevant facts. After the judgments are made our brain kicks-in and creates justifications for these judgments. The real reason for leaning one way or another on a question usually has little to do with a set of facts and reasoning, and everything to do with minor variations in their evolved brains, and how they were acculturated. In other words, we normally respond to a situation emotionally, and figure out how to justify our positions later. This makes people an easy target for manipulation. Invocation of certain emotions (fear, disgust, anger, pride) can produce predictable results. His conclusions are supported by extensive research which is accepted by most political scientists.

Most people find it hard to accept that our political choices are not result of well-thought out principals and rational evaluation. The people including politicians and political scientists assume that citizens vote selfishly choosing candidate which will benefit them the most. This believe is based on the idea that people are reasonable creatures and can objectively gauge the safety of their environment and economic condition. While we continue to believe that people vote their interest, we observe and are flabbergasted when it doesn’t happen. There are plenty of examples: parents with children in public schools not more likely to support aid to schools than other citizens, people without health insurance not more likely to support programs like Medicare for All than people covered by insurance. Every time we are shocked at how stupid the opposition is but we find a rationalization and explanation for the results.

Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion is that people vote as a group. The group or tribe is generally defined not by who is in the group, but who is out. Candidates who understand this dynamic base their election campaigns not on promises of goodies, but on defining a group and eliminating others. This is done by the direct invocation of basic emotions and instincts such as fear, disgust and tribal instinct. In modern history, the first time it happened on a major scale was in the 1930s in Germany. It was shocking that the country which gave the world so many geniuses in many fields and made major contributions to the ideas of the Enlightenment could produce such monstrosity. And there were plenty of reasonable explanations that this horror was bound to happen.

This brings us back to Donald Trump. After testing the water for so many years, his winning election strategy was almost entirely based on the tribal attribute of human nature. He stroked the fear of the tribe losing its dominant position and projected himself as the tribe’s savior. This basic story sailed him through the Republican primary so fast, that the rest of the very crowded field of candidates didn’t even understand what happened. The general election played on the same themes and with a little shove from his Russian friend, Trump finally got his wish. The race-based anxiety, which Trump arose in his campaign, could be a reason that for the first time election opinion polls were so unreliable. Because racism was a taboo in American politics and Trump’s campaign was so unapologetically racist and xenophobic, many people didn’t want to admit to the pollsters that they liked it, but when time came, in anonymity of the voting booth, the primordial instinct took over and the people voted their fears.

The surprising victory was analyzed over and over again, and the secret is finally out: there is a sure way for a Duce wannabe to get elected. Any existing issue, economical, demographic, cultural, racial can be exploited, manipulated and turned into a mortal danger to the group which the potential Duce will use as a base. What took Trump more than a dozen years to figure out by trial and error is now pretty much common knowledge among social scientists and ambitious political consultants. Steve Bannon travels around the world and advises political candidates on how exploit tribal instinct and fears to get elected. He recently was involved in election in Brazil and now the largest country in Latin America is led by a very dangerous Jair Bolsonaro, who some people call Trump on steroids. We humans have a very strong tribal instinct which in the past let us overcome multiple evolutionary challenges. However, technology moves much faster than evolution and in this new environment with powerful weapons and communication this instinct without being properly managed and tamed is rapidly becoming the major threat to civilization and maybe even to our species survival.

Haidt J. 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, New York

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Tale of Two Cities

The targeted destination for our vacation was Lisbon. It happened that the best deals on tickets entailed flying through Dublin. After playing with different date scenarios we ended up spending a full 5 days in Dublin on our way back to United States. Lisbon and Dublin turned out to be a very thought-provoking combination by their obvious contrast and unexpected similarities. 

We arrived in Lisbon on a beautiful September morning after a long flight. Our rented apartment was in the oldest Lisbon neighborhood - Alfama. The Crooked House apartment in Alfama looked super cute and charming on the website where as in real life the charm was overwhelmed by its ultimate crookedness. When we arrived the place was being cleaned from the previous occupants and we went on a stroll to look around and to get something to eat. A few blocks up from the Crooked House we saw a stunning classic medieval cathedral. It turned out to be the oldest Lisbon Cathedral (12th century). We walked in and were instantly enchanted by the beauty and grandiosity of the old church and I took a few pictures. A half hour later, in a lovely restaurant near Cathedral, I discovered that my wallet had been stolen in the main Lisbon house of God. Lisbon has specialized police department for crimes against tourists and I have an artifact from there as a souvenir from Se Cathedral. With that unfortunate beginning our stay in Lisbon turned out to be stressful, exciting and beautiful at the same time.

Alfama is one of the parts of Lisbon which survived after devastating 1755 earthquake. It is a network of narrow picturesque medieval streets built on the side of steep mountain. Alfama is filled with tourists at all times of the day. Locals, who are mostly relaxed and lazy during siesta hours, turn into enterprising business people at night trying to make the best of the tourist trade. Our Crooked House was across the street from a Fado bar, which came to life at 9 pm every night; the bar’s booster owner, a huge and loud guy, spent his night hours trying to bring customers into his establishment. The spiel about the family business with his mother in the kitchen, his son-in-law behind the bar, his uncle playing guitar and his daughter singing we knew by heart by the second night. The beautiful Fado songs with flamenco and gypsy overtones are so dramatic and emotional that the words are irrelevant – you cry and sing with them. We could hear and see performance right from the window of our apartment in the Crooked House. But by 3 am the singing and drinking party was still on-going and we were somewhat Fado-out and exhausted.

Fado bar downstairs

Lisbon tourist trade brought an innovative Times Out market. One of the old central markets was rebuilt to accommodate small kitchens for the city’s best chefs around the perimeter of the building and the middle of the market filled with communal tables. The food is great, the prices are high, the place is buzzing, crowded and exciting. A good lunch experience. 

We had a more pleasant dinner in the charming bohemian Café Tati, across the street from the TimeOut market, with live jazz and a spontaneous encounter with a lovely couple from Brazil who had been living in Lisbon for a few years. A lot of laughs and a bottle of organic wine.

We also had a surprising conversation about wine with a waiter. The night before we had dinner in a fancy restaurant and drank a couple glasses of Alvarinho which we loved and we suspected that it is the same wine as our favorite Spanish wine Albarino. Our waiter was particularly friendly, and we asked him if this is the same wine. The waiter immediately lost his smile and said with cool pride in his voice that he knows nothing about Spanish wines. We realized that there is some tension with the big neighbor on their eastern border. And even with a similar language, food and culture, there is a natural rivalry and a striving for identity even though there is no major conflict and a lot of cooperation and trade between them.

A few highlights from our visit include the symbol of Portugal late Gothic Jerónimos Monastery with rope motives in decoration which symbolize and celebrate maritime explorers and the tomb of Vasco da Gama.

We took a short trip to lovely Porto, one of the oldest European cities with amazing bridges, cobblestone medieval streets, steep hills, and beautiful river views. I had one of the best meals of my life in SEMEA restaurant on Rua Das Flores

n the city former stock exchange (Bolsa do Porto) in this room in 1992 was signed Oporto Treaty for creation European Economic Area

Back in Lisbon, the Gulbenkian Museum contained an amazing collection of art from antiquity to modernity with top of the genre in every time period. Calouste Gulbenkian made his money developing the oil reserves in Middle East. By the end of his life he had become one of the world's wealthiest individuals and his art acquisitions one of the greatest private collections. One of the stars of this amazing collection is a room with best samples of Lallique glass - something special!

The Azulejo - porcelain tile is craft identity of Portugal. The streets of Lisbon and Porto are open air exhibit. The National Azulejo museum located in an old convent houses a beautiful collection of tiles and porcelain from the past five centuries.

Outside of Lisbon a picturesque royal resort town Sintra with magical gardens, parks and fairy-tale castles. While beautiful, the crowds of tourists were a little too much for me. 

And Lisbon streets with surreal graffiti, great restaurants, insanely steep, paved with polished marble mosaic, stressful slippery and beautiful. The color of Lisbon is peach.  

So here we are – a small beautiful country with rich and dramatic history, beautiful music tradition, and a proud people with strong identity and a bitter rivalry with their larger neighbor.

The sadness of leaving Portugal was relived almost immediately as we arrived in Dublin. Dublin met us with surprisingly sunny day and a very comfortable old hotel remodeled from an even older schoolhouse.

We stopped for lunch in the first open bar; being Sunday, most places were closed. As I went downstairs to the bathroom, I heard beautiful male choir. The bar had a downstairs room where 5-6 older guys were drinking beer and singing together in the middle of a Sunday afternoon just for fun. What a joy!

The sunny days don’t last for long in Dublin; the clouds and rain came back fast. But the stereotype about Ireland being an emerald island is overused and therefore doesn’t describe the meaning of Irish green. In Lisbon the light is coming from the bright blue sky, in Dublin it is coming from greenery in the parks and flowers everywhere.

The Irish people are super friendly, not in the somewhat artificial American way, but rather authentic and sincere. They are also obsessed with their history of fighting for their independence from Great Britain and this struggle against an imperial neighbor became the most important part of their identity.

The Little Dublin Museum has an amazing tour with guides who are very knowledgeable and entertaining. They lead you through an old townhouse filled with countless artifacts about Irish life and struggle under British control.

The National Art Museum has a respectable collection of European art and the best collection of Irish artists who are mostly unknown outside of Ireland. The Irish artists well represented by old masters and modern pieces. While talking pictures is prohibited and strictly enforced in the Irish section of museum (I only have few), the remaining collection is free to photograph including a lovely and priceless Vermeer.

The brother of great Irish poet William Butler Yeats is best known 20th century Irish painter John Butler Yeats

One of Dublin’s main sites is Trinity College; one of the oldest colleges in Europe and home of the 9th-century gospel manuscript Book of Kells and the Irish Harp. The main chamber of the Old Library is the Long Room; at nearly 65 meters long, it is filled with 200,000 of the Library’s oldest books and is one of the most impressive libraries in the world.

Ireland has an amazing literary heritage and many writers which we get used to think as English were actually Irish. It is probably not a news to many, but I was surprised to learn that Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin. The house where Oscar Wilde was born is located across the street from Merrion square, where relatively recently (1993) Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture was installed.

The old pharmacy where Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses used to buy lemon soap hosts daily James Joyce readings organized by the small team of volunteers. After reading participants go to the pub next door to discuss Joyce’s writing. The pub is located on the first floor of Lincoln Inn formerly Finn's Hotel. In 1904 James Joyce first met Nora Barnacle as she was on her way from Finn’s Hotel. Nora was working as a barmaid in the hotel when Joyce met her.

Dublin’s streets are insanely lovely and beautiful, with rows of Georgian period buildings austerely looking at the parks with amazing greenery. The Dublin color is emerald

So here we are – small beautiful country with rich and dramatic history, beautiful music tradition, and proud people with strong identity and bitter rivalry with a big neighbor next door.