Bellow, To Jerusalem and back

Security measures are strict on flights to Israel, the bags are searched, the men are frisked, and the women have an electronic hoop passed over them, fore and aft. Then hand luggage is opened. No one is very patient. …

Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back, Secker & Warburg, London, 1976.

Reading a memoir written by someone as incredibly able to conjure up images as Saul Bellow is always striking. But it is much, much more striking if the memoir is about a city where you have spent a significant amount of time, also as a visitor, albeit in quite different moments of time. And (I think) it is even much, much more striking if that city happens to be none less than Jerusalem.

… before I left Chicago, the art critic Harold Rosenberg said to me, “Going to Jerusalem? And wondering whether people will talk freely? You’ve got to be kidding, they’ll talk your head off.” (…) In flight, if the door of your plane comes open you are sucked into space. Here in Jerusalem, when you shut your apartment door behind you you fall into a gale of conversation—exposition, argument, harangue, analysis, theory, expostulation, threat and prophecy. …

Bellow spent six months in Jerusalem in the fall and winter of 1976. During those momentous months he meets many people, among them politicians (Yitzhak Rabin who was then the prime minister, Teddy Kollek who was then the mayor – and who officially invited Bellow, as we learn at some point during the memoir, some others – although not Golda Meir), writers (young – back then – A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz at some point but also several less-well-known poets) and many other intellectuals, journalists (Jewish and Arab), family members (Russian immigrants), people like his masseur, the Armenian Patriarch. He even goes for dinner with mathematicians and meets Ilya Rips – Bellow’s wife at the time was the Romanian mathematician Alexandra Bellow and she was visiting the Math Institute at Hebrew U while he was on his official visit to people in the city.

… We are invited to dinner by some of Alexandra’s friends—like her, teaching mathematics at the Hebrew University. Pleasant people. … The conversation, as usual, quickly becomes serious. You do not hear much small talk in Jerusalem. Inflation, high taxes, the austerity program make moonlighting necessary. … Alexandra has noticed how busy mathematical colleagues have become. They have to do more teaching; they have less time for research.

After dinner two more guests arrive, Dr. and Mrs. Eliahu Rips. Rips comes from Riga. When the Russians went into Czechoslovakia, Rips, a mathematics student, set himself on fire in protest. The flames were beaten out and Rips was sent to an insane asylum. While there, without books, he solved a famous problem in algebra. When he was released, he emigrated and reached Israel not long before the Yom Kippur War. Since he had no army training, he went to a gas station and offered to work for nothing, feeling that he must make a contribution to Israel’s defense. So for some months he pumped gas, unpaid. He is now teaching at the Hebrew University. He has become not only Orthodox but very devout. Four days a week he studies the Talmud in a yeshiva. …

All this is interspersed with walks in the Old City, with meetings with people in West and East Jerusalem, with living in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in front of the Old City, visiting kibbutzim or even a settlement (Kiryat Arba!) near Hebron.

… Later in the day my friend Professor Joseph Ben-David takes me to the swelling Souk, the public market. On Fridays it closes early. We watch the last-minute pre-Sabbath rush. Perishables are cheap as zero-hour approaches. …

… On my way home, feeling the vodka I’ve drunk with Silk and Schimmel, I pass through the tourists’ lines. But I’ve just had a holiday with two poets (…) The transforming additive: the gift of poetry. You think yourself full of truth when you’ve had a few drinks. I am thinking that some of the politicians I meet are admirable, intelligent men of strong character. But in them the marvelous additive is lacking. It is perhaps astonishing that they aren’t demented by the butcher problems, by the insensate pressure of crisis.

Slowly, Bellow weaves in a very personal perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, allowing many opposing voices to sift through, capturing the pain and harshness of differing viewpoints (the Israeli parents whose son was recently killed, the fields of ’67 and ’73, strewn with corpses, the existential threat to Israel, the memory and fear  –  all of that very real back then and real now, but also the Palestinian girl who proudly stands in front of well-intentioned Jews and tells them she simply doesn’t want them there).

In other hands this sort of memoir could easily become cartoonish, or with viewpoints too narrow or voices confined to the author’s opinions. The author’s opinions are there, to be sure, but they are so cleverly woven into the Jerusalem tapestry of opinions, plans, harsh stories, that a sort of collective call, of collective worry for the city becomes the voice of Jerusalem.

In the end this makes the reading more difficult. The first encounters, peppered by the presence of luminaries such as Isaac Stern, invited roughly at the same time, slowly become heavier. And here is where the memoir becomes a sort of living in Jerusalem testimony: the ever-increasing heaviness of living there, as if gravity was constantly increasing, as if leaving Jerusalem – forgetting its problems, leaving it behind scenes – became impossible after a while.

The memoir formally follows that path. The sadness of leaving such a city is there, very well depicted, but also the sense of relief I am sure many of us have experienced when going back to “normal cities” (London, Chicago, Bogotá) after time spent in Jerusalem. The fact that it takes him a long time to leave the memoir and it goes on and on after having returned to Chicago via London: the conversations with friends, with other politicians, in those two cities but also in a subsequent visit to Stanford, all of them give the impression of lingering Jerusalem, even as far away as California. The appearance of ever differing, ever shifting positions, some of them quite hawkish, some dovish, some more somber about Israel’s future (in 1976), some more positive…

When you visit the Old City of Jerusalem in search of some specific place you might have visited but whose exact location you don’t quite remember, or a place you saw described in some book or a friend mentioned, finding it can be next to impossible. Which alley? Which little door? Was it in the upper passage or in the lower one? Yes, I do remember it was after the shop where olive lamps – wait, the shop with the guy who offered tea but then haggled crazily? No, the one where the guy switched to Spanish and said he has a Ph.D. in history but is just selling sweets. You almost never can find what you look for yet you always emerge with a sense of having been to a magic (dangerous) place.

Of course, this also happens to Bellow:

… Schimmel and Silk are looking for the weavers’ alley. What they find instead is a big stone stable, once part of a princely establishment. The carved ornaments, all blackened, go back to the fourteenth century, so we are told by two friendly young Arabs who are tinkering with machinery here. Oh, yes, the stable is still used, but the donkeys and mules are out for the day. Dennis Silk sensitively interrogates the young men. They speak Hebrew well enough to give information. The information is for me, of course. (…)

We never do find the looms. Perhaps the weavers have taken a holiday. We buy round sesame buns and…

… Kahn insists on showing me some ancient baths at the lower end of the Old City and we ask our way through endless lanes, where kids ride donkeys, kick rubber balls, scream, fall from wagons (…) Kahn asks again for his Turkish baths. A candy seller, cutting up one of his large flat sticky cakes, a kind of honeyed millstone, appears indignant. His business is to sell cakes, not to give directions. We get into an arcade where a money changer in a turtleneck tells us to retrace our steps and turn left. He offers to pay me two pounds to the dollar over the official rate. (…) We make our way out of the arcade and inquire of a stout, unshaven storekeeper in Arab headdress and busted shoes who deals in chipped green glassware. He lights up at our question. Yes, of course, he knows.

After conversation (and coffee, and mentioning Chicago where the shopowner’s son studies medicine and the “friendship” with Bellow when he hears he comes from that city), he leads Kahn and Bellow to the baths and…

… I find myself to my joy in an ancient beautiful hot sour-smelling chamber. Divans made up with clouts and old sheets are ranged against the walls for the relaxing clients (…)
“This is not the place I had in mind. The one I wanted to show you is much older,” says Kahn. But I rejoice greatly in this one and ask for nothing better. (…) “I suppose we must give up on the still older bath,” says Kahn. He compensates himself by telling me about Max Nordau.

Boris Zilber, during a long walk, at the Gate of Lions. 2016.
Old City…
The “new” city
Tel Aviv – winter – beach



La ambigüedad que permea las visiones y descripciones de Proust es algo que ha sido muy comentado, muy estudiado. Estoy en este momento con el narrador en la playa veraniega de Balbec, en algún lugar mítico entre Normandía y Bretaña. En un lugar de luz marítima y oscuridades sociales, de gente pobre mirando el hotel iluminado de noche repleto de gente rica que se observa, se trata según título o posición social, según provincianismo o parisianismo.

Después de mucha observación acompañada de mucha reticencia, mucha compañía de damas ancianas (la abuela, su amiga noble Mme de Villeparisis – lo de noble es importante en el contexto del comedor del hotel, donde observan siempre quién saluda a quién), mucha conversación y ensoñación simbólica (los tres árboles en el paseo en carro con las dos ancianas – trío de árboles que parece anunciar mucha sensualidad a futuro – que parece enredado al encuentro con el grupo de campesinas que atraen al narrador).

Ahora llegó Saint-Loup, el joven sobrino-nieto de Mme de Villeparisis al hotel. Al principio antipático con el narrador, no le pone atención – y el narrador está embobado con el pelo rubio, la claridad de los ojos, el porte a la vez altivo y despreocupado de Saint-Loup.

[Leer este pasaje justo un día después de escuchar la entrevista a Aciman hace ver la influencia muy fuerte de Proust, de este momento, del encuentro del narrador con el marqués de Saint-Loup sobre el encuentro inicial de Elio y Oliver…]

Finalmente se lo presentan y Saint-Loup pasa de la antipatía extrema a una cercanía enorme con el narrador. Empatía fuerte en gustos literarios e inclinaciones políticas hacia el socialismo en el joven aristócrata.


across a sea / internal voyage / ghosts of Tallinn

None of the usual reasons directly applied in the case of a trip such as last week’s Saturday trip to Tallinn in Estonia. There was no compelling goal, no exhibition opening, no special lecture at some research institute, no direct need to go there – at least in the usual sense.

Yet I booked tickets for a day trip from Helsinki. The week-end had some intense work to be done, in connection to the main reason of my visit to Finland (being the opponent of a doctoral thesis) and several other projects (mathematical and now also philosophical) together with colleagues and friends there – but the need for a kind of freedom to be attained through boat travel on that day – plus the chance to actually work in a nice café in (then unknown to me) Tallinn ended up triggering that day trip.

harbor station, 7 am – about to board the Tallink

(The boat on the way over was quite cheesy – Estonian-owned; glimmering casino-like features, people half-asleep, unedible food and dysfunctional common areas – I had expected the Silja/Tallink boats somewhat different. I managed to secure a spot and work a bit, though.)

9:30 am – December in Tallinn

Arrival mid-morning, with mist rising over the Baltic. Heart pounding. The emotion of boat travel overtakes me.

Entering the Old City

Slowly waking up – Saturday morning of a wintry day in the Old part of Tallinn. Not expecting too much…

A store with lots of old Soviet time medals and paraphernalia – attended by an older Estonian woman who must have seen a quite different Tallinn

I always wonder for how long can they continue selling this sort of “Soviet vintage” in places like Tallinn. How many military (or sports or…) medals? How much interest can this still arise in people?


By a music store

The porches and side-streets do seem to have a different character. Here, a music store that was closed in the morning hours. Later I had the chance to stop there. I was not disappointed.

Tallinna Raekoda

Technically, the Town Hall. It could well have been one of the churches of Tallinn.

I still hadn’t found a “place” to sit that didn’t look too touristy – the only two places that had attracted my attention till then were the Soviet mishmash store and the music store that was closed.

But close to this tower I did find a fantastic cafe where local hipsters (not tourists) seem to hang out.

I continued my morning of work in that café.




Eel Soup. One of the best meals I have had anywhere!

A gem of a restaurant – found by recommendation of Boban. They were nice, seemed to experiment with local ingredients. Here, a creamy smoked eel soup with leeks and various kinds of onions. I also had elk with wild berries.


Part of the Estonia Museum houses the collection of Adamson-Eric. His work was vaguely reminiscent of Xul Solar’s in Buenos Aires. He was banned from his position at the Art Academy of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia by the Soviet authorities, accused of being “a formalist”. This sort of accusation apparently was extremely serious. He seemed to take refuge in an extremely playful internal world – with sculptures, ceramics, paintings, weavings – an extremely rich and varied output that seems to do homage to older traditions of Estonia but mixed it with early twentieth century modernist influences.

A small detail of Adamson-Eric’s work

I slowly started – after the seriously good espresso in the café, the very good meal, the Adamson-Eric exhibition – to sip the pace of that part of Tallinn. Full of corners that seem to hold voices of some distant past (Teutonic Knights? Swedish Riddar? Peter the First’s armies? Local Estonian defendants? German merchants?) the ghosts of a marvelous city started to appear. Was it the misty atmosphere? Was it the echo of swords in the Toompea castle – of Germanic, Slavic tongues invading? Was there a real Finno-Ugric resistance?

ghostly Tallinn – by the upper part near the Castle
as expected – but lonely, snow-dusted, and very eerie

Rising to the tower was crucial for me to see a bit of the city from above. Not extremely high but still a nice ascent… to the mists.

in the back, barely visible, the Soviet era town



And then walking back to the entrance of the Old City, the music store was open. In a third floor, following arrows, the space felt oddly non-commercial, out of somewhere. Not sure where from.

Inside the Music store – a must-see place (the collection of music, on the other side, is quite nice). The atmosphere of the store feels more like a person’s apartment.

In low window sills of course Nativity scenes – some of them quite original. Dozens of them, all different.

a random window

The KuMu Museum (Museum of Art of Estonia), located somewhat faraway from the Old City, in a very beautiful park (I read later the park was commissioned by tsar Peter the Great – a whole area of the city called Kadriorg), is a serious contemporary art museum. Their main exhibition was on Die Brücke, on German Expressionism – and its connections to Estonian art. They also have interesting collections of twentieth-century Estonian art – I took a long series of that. One of the parts of the exhibition that called my attention was Response to Soviet politics. There is a kind of formalism that seems to have been an intellectual response to the obligation of subjects, to the imposition of collectivism.



In other European countries the (re-)construction of a national identity after Independence (from Russia in the case of Finland, from the Soviet Union in the case of Estonia, others from the Austro-Hungarian Empire) seems to have been deeply interlinked with painting or music (or some other artistic manifestation). My visit to Tallinn was too short to really capture how this happened. I am sure composers such as Arvo Pärt must have been part of that consciousness – but I am not sure in the case of painting.


corazones cicatrizados

En un vuelo vi la película Corazones cicatrizados de Radu Jude — obviamente, no era parte del “sistema de entretenimiento” del vuelo; la tenía en una tablilla vía Mubi; no es el tipo de película que se pueda llamar “para ver en entorno de trabajo” pero en los vuelos largos puede pasar que el letargo generalizado le permita a uno ver en la modesta tablilla cine muy bueno, con escenas posiblemente fuertes.

Y qué fuertes algunas escenas: en un sanatorio rumano junto al mar, en los años 30, un joven termina internado pues tiene tuberculosis ósea – básicamente, parte de su columna vertebral carcomida por el bacilo – una de las escenas iniciales es tal vez la mejor representación del dolor físico que recuerdo haber visto en cine. En efecto, uno de los síntomas (o consecuencias) de la tuberculosis ósea del joven es la formación de abscesos enormes en la región lumbar.

En esa escena (que creo, vale la pena ver, aunque no es fácil, y no es de sistema de entretenimiento de avión, pero vale la pena por la honestidad, la mirada lúcida no amarillista y sí muy humana del dolor) al joven le amarran las manos al borde de la cama, pues la punción y extracción de pus de un absceso lumbar enorme que tiene se debe hacer inmediatamente y sin anestesia (por lo menos eso dice el médico de mediados de los años 30). El padre está sentado al lado (lo acompañó desde otra ciudad para el inicio de su internamiento en el sanatorio), el joven está con las manos amarradas, solo se ve su cara y parte de su torso y medio borrosas un par de enfermeras y el médico y tal vez otro asistente – y sin miramientos le clavan la aguja sin anestesia en la barriga y succionan el pus. La expresión de dolor brutal, la fuerza que hace pero sin lograr separar las manos de las barras a las que están amarradas, la apertura de la boca, el grito casi sofocado de lo brutal de todo, es algo que merece ser visto alguna vez. Al final el médico le muestra la cantidad enorme de pus que salió, el muchacho se empieza a recuperar, el médico felicita al joven por su valentía y el padre le dice “casi me desmayo cuando te vi gritar así del dolor”.

Y sí – viendo eso en el avión sentí muy profundamente lo justas que eran esas palabras del padre.

Así arranca todo, pasan muchas cosas – algunas conversaciones entre los jóvenes pacientes, tarde o temprano los temas gravitan hacia la muerte, hacia el sentido de la vida, hacia lo que estarían estudiando en la universidad si no estuvieran en el sanatorio, hacia la posición rumana frente a Hitler – hay en el sanatorio tanto jóvenes fascistas como jóvenes antifascistas. El protagonista principal es judío, y es ya consciente del peligro de Hitler; otros parecen ver a Hitler como un payaso, lo imitan – algo desafortunadamente muy similar a cosas de hoy.

No daño a quien la quiera buscar el placer de ver ese cine. Hay también una historia de amor, y escenas de sexo supremamente bien jaladas en ese sanatorio, entre los enfermos y los convalecientes. Hay también muchísima carga hormonal en ese lugar lleno de jóvenes hombres y mujeres de dieciocho, veinte, veinticinco años. A veces el sexo parece cobrar una importancia vital, un aferrarse a algo de la vida, ligeramente trágico pero también profundamente importante (y a veces ridículo, como siempre).

Es eso: conversaciones, relaciones, algunas peleas por un bully, muerte de algunos, curación de otros.

Y el mar. Y la libertad de escaparse. Y la rigidez de un yeso en la columna vertebral. Y las condiciones un poco chapuceras de la Europa de antes de la guerra. Aunque en ese sanatorio seguramente iba gente más o menos acomodada y se ve que tenía médicos buenos para su época, a la vez da una sensación que hoy en día correspondería a un hospital de tierra caliente en Colombia. Hay un manejo de jeringas, de aparatos que hoy en día parecería inadmisible pero que seguramente era el estándar en Europa hace ochenta años.

to Áncash

Twirling in the mess of year-end (with novels and excerpts of philosophers set astrewn past us), I set sights on Áncash, a region of Northern Peru where the Andes become the second highest chain in the world, after the Himalayas. Such is the kind of things you may expect from Peru.

In fact we have not yet arrived to Áncash – for now still in Huanchaco (the name brings to mind its namesake Juanchaco in Colombia – the two towns share the fact of being located on the Pacific Ocean, yet seem to be extremely different in climate, population, food, activities, weather). We’ll start tomorrow our ascent in the direction of Áncash!

For four days we have been immersed in the mist, the intensity of waves, the harshness of the desert, the suaveness of the accent, the weird cold (even in summer) of the northern Pacific coast of Peru, the region of La Libertad, near Trujillo, Huanchaco:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdays of reading Paradiso, of visiting ancient cities (Huaca de la Luna y del Sol is a Mochic city+palace built between the first and the ninth centuries CE, Chan-Chan is a chimú city built between roughly 900 CE and 1400 CE, Huaca Arco Iris – so named because of the rainbow patterns all over is from a similar age), of eating ceviches and many other variants of seafood – apparently ceviche has been a staple here for millennial times, of walking by the rough and cold and misty sea, of taking ever-honking combis, of trying to read a bit more of The World as Will and Representation, of remembering how brutally modernistic and just surprising and readable Vallejo’s Trilce is, in the city  where he grew up, …

of trying to find books (not so easy here so far, although we already found a very pretty local bookstore with very good editions and translations to Spanish), of having to not try most of the dishes that look so inviting in the menus

of reading, of swimming (yet the knee’s wound reopened thanks to a rock in the Ocean and I had to go to a local posta médica and have a sampling of the public Peruvian medical system – better, much better than expected, and certainly much better than what you would probably get in a small fishing hamlet in the Colombian Pacific coast), of

of tasting and sampling more than tastebuds can manage normally

of never really understanding fresh days and warm nights – I can undress and read and be comfortable at night (open windows, breeze), something hard in places like Bogotá yet when you go to the beach in the afternoon you feel you need a sweater

of listening to honking ever-honking cars – the worst drivers this side of the Ocean, I believe, and a way of dealing with transport that brings back the dark ages of Bogotá and Chía, with overcrowded minibuses blasting sound and with helpers screaming the destination at the top of their lungs, trying to fit 25 people in the space of 10, and the driver honking nonstop and in perpetual competition with all other combi drivers


of admiring the Mochic sense of naturality and beauty that seems to perspire from their representations of sex in their ceramics (interpreted as connecting our world with the earth, with the sea, with water, with the world of the dead, with the bringing of life – the ceramics represent all sorts of variants of reproductive and non-reproductive sex acts – with a common denominator of liveliness – the couples do not seem tortured, possessive, they seem to enjoy themselves – pleasure and its connection to life is perhaps the main point here)

of {\mathbb F}_1 and Zariski schemes and two-cardinals cooking up



El mar de los Sirtos

Perenne espera. Algo que sucedió en pasado remoto pero que nunca se resolvió – y que en cualquier momento puede regresar. El mar como frontera abierta, a la vez puerta y cerrojo contra el enemigo.

El mar de los Sirtos (Basata, 1997)
El mar de los Sirtos (Galilea, enero de 1997)

Subir a la categoría para buscar equivalencia cohomológica que no se ve en las variedades a secas (hoy, Álex). Además, no encontrar equivalencia cohomológica “usual”, pero sí encontrar equivalencia cohomológica cuántica. Tan parecido al paso clásico dado hace ochenta años con las estructuras de entonces (y el inicio de la teoría de modelos). Fernando señala las conexiones con las (\infty,1)-categorías de Lurie.

En la categoría: Mitzpeh Ramon, Negev, Israel. Enero de 1997.
Subir a la categoría: desierto del Negev, Israel. Enero de 1997.

Cuando el semestre pinta eléctrico: ya hay amenazas de paro en la Universidad. Yo nunca creo hasta no ver – me aburre el exceso de actitud casándrica en la gente. Pero pinta tormentoso todo, con paro nacional el lunes, con caos de salones (la Universidad no entiende que ya se masificó), con instalaciones que se derrumban. Pinta eléctrico también por cosas buenas, muy buenas. El curso de cohomología cuántica (Álex Cruz) es una belleza de inicio de semestre – es más un conversatorio que un curso, pero puede uno ver mil conexiones y dejar volar la mente. Y los otros visitantes (más información después). Las formas modulares me siguen persiguiendo. Y la teoría de modelos equivariante.

Hacia más formas modulares: cruzando el Egeo, verano de 2000.
Hacia más formas modulares: cruzando el Egeo, verano de 2000.


(Addenda: ¡cómo me hace falta a veces volver a Israel! Mi vida entera cambió allá – empecé a salir de la concha protegida (muy bella pero muy aislada) de la teoría de conjuntos y empecé esta deriva perenne hacia el mundo. Muchas veces he sentido que para mí Jerusalén fue la apertura de un universo mágico de posibilidades que nunca hubiera imaginado en otros lugares. Es una sensación estrictamente personal y seguramente muy cuestionable. En todo caso, jamás he sentido tan fuertemente la emoción de llegar a un lugar como las veces en que dejando atrás el Mediterráneo el avión empieza a bajar hacia el campo de Lod – y luego sale uno y literalmente sube casi por un ascensor hasta Jerusalén. Sólo evocar eso me hace temblar.)

cielo(s) del Caribe

En el Caribe el cielo (cuando el sol no abrasa y deja mirar hacia arriba) puede ser brutal. Eso es archisabido. Cualquiera que haya leído trozos de García Márquez (o Carpentier, o Lezama Lima) lo intuye.

Esta vez, sobre todo en Cartagena, me sorprendió de nuevo ese cielo. No sé si las fotos alcanzan realmente a capturar el fenómeno de sensación de luz infinita. Tal vez hace falta comer algo de arepa’e huevo o algún pescado frito o posta cartagenera para quedar pasmado. O recordar frases de esos autores.

Ese sábado al final de la tarde con Roman, Tim y María Clara nos dedicamos a mirar el cielo. Y tomar fotos. Y hablar un poco de matemáticas con Roman, sobre todo de su plan de curso de modelos de la aritmética. Y de mil otros temas. Y a mirar el cielo de nuevo. Y tomar más fotos. Y bajar a nadar para refrescarse. Y volver a mirar el cielo. Y tomar más fotos. Y tomar un sorbo de mezcal de Oaxaca. Y un poco de Club Colombia. Y volver a hablar de modelos de la aritmética. Y del volumen dedicado a Jouko. Y de los artículos recibidos y los por recibir. Y volver a mirar el cielo. Y volver a mirar el cielo. Y volver a mirar el cielo.

over the sea to Skye…

For us, the “bonnie boat” was a beautiful ferry crossing to Skye from Mallaig – not the difficult crossing of the young heir Charles of the bloody Jacobite wars, told by this old Scottish song. In Callander, on Friday night at the Lade Inn’s pub, the group sang it, and invited the public to join – we gladly did (the pub had booklets with the lyrics so you could easily sing along, especially in the chorus parts).

Folk music, in many different forms, pervades Scotland, to a degree I had only imagined possible in Europe in places like Lisbon or Athens or Dublin. There is still a strain of resistance against the English, against what is perceived as invasion or imposition of many ways into Scotland by England. It resurfaces through song – song of lost battles, of lost causes, of emigration, of fighting in the battlefields of Europe under many different leaders but always dreaming of the lochs, the glens, the mountains of Scotland “covered in mountain thyme and heather”. Travelling through Scotland one is literally soaked in music – in folk songs of the battles (against the English, between the clans, or of Scottish soldiers in the Tirol or in France), in musics sung in Gaelic or in English with very strong Scottish twinges, vowels and rolled r.

Over the sea to Skye seems to have a rather longish history.

For us, again, the crossing was a beautiful and dreamy event. Skye is one of the strangest, most beautiful places I have had the chance to see. Although we were there several days, it always seems that you could explore Skye for hundreds of days and always be surprised.

These photographs capture (very barely) what Skye (and the nearby islands Rùm and Eigg) look like when seen from Mallaig, before crossing. One of them is on the ferry, during the crossing, over the sea to Skye.

I really don’t know if the pictures can capture the odd feeling of watching islands that looks like enormous whales or other living beings, in the distance. That was the impression I constantly had: the islands were about to move, slowly like cetaceans.

Mallaig (the last point before the ferry) is a very small town, a harbor (where the quality of seafood is amazingly good). It is also the main filming place for the movie Breaking the Waves. And yes. We did go in the late evening (after 9 or 10) to walk on the seashore (full of white sand and coves) during the long sunset, and the movie was there. The fishermen at the local pub could (alas) have been any of the boys who hypocritically were all having sex with the woman and judging her for her actions, in their minuscule religious mind. Of course, modern day Britain seems to have very much left those extremes, but the landscape (and the faces of the sailors and fishermen) still seemed the same.

The crossing on the ferry was beautifully documented by MC  –  I hope she will post the videos at some point.

And here is yet another wonderful example of the sort of music you do hear in those pubs of Scotland (notice here the incredible voice – almost Eastern European or Finnish to my unaccostumed ears, and also enjoy the singing in Gaelic):

Galei Galim: the waves in Tel Aviv.


Laub_TelAvivBeach_16Every now and then I become transfixed with longing for aspects of Israel – for those aspects of Israel that make life there incredibly energetic – like the complex melodies and mille-feuille-like layers and flavors of the Hebrew language. Life in Israel is flavorful.

This time, I came across a collection of pictures of the beach at Tel Aviv and strong memories of the summer of 1997 came back to me. In August the University in Jerusalem had no seminars, nobody was going there on a regular basis. I had a lot of work to do. The best by far, to escape the heat was to wake up early, take the bus to Tel Aviv, walk one or two kilometers from the Takhana Merkazit in Tel Aviv to one of the beaches, while it was still fresh, find a spot under some shadow and spend the whole day there. And work and work on reduced towers, disjoint amalgams, no maximal models, counting orbits, iterating elementary embeddings to get symmetry of independence, forcing failure of GCH at strong unfoldable cardinals, getting indestructibility of strong unfoldables, going back to {\mathcal P}^{-n}-diagrams and source excellence… for a couple of weeks all of this happened in front of the waves, the galim in Hebrew, of the Mediterranean sea in Tel Aviv.

When exhaustion forced me to refresh my head in the waters, I would swim a bit, observe the people, go back to where MC was reading about her Art History topics, read a story, go back to reduced towers…

Day heat would only subside by 5 or 6 o’clock – we would then shower and go slowly back through Sheinkin Street or Rothschild Street – we would stop in the cafes to have a light dinner and back to the bus station, one hour to Jerusalem – arriving there in the relatively chilly evening, refreshed.

The photographs by Gillian Laub capture the amazing “manifold-ness” of the Tel Aviv beach scene: from Arab or Orthodox Jewish women clad from head to toes to immigrants from places ranging from Belarus to Ethiopia, to young fashion- (and body-) conscious trendy Israelis minimally clad of course, to children with threadlocks and older people who seem to have been baking under the sun for a century, to people in wheelchairs who want to partake of the spectacle of the energy of the sea.

Click here to see the whole (amazing, really) album: