Enigmatic England: Bletchley Park

Eighty years ago on August 31, the German army invaded Poland and started World War II.  I was watching some movies about World War II and came across “The Imitation Game,” which was about scientists and mathematicians that worked at top-secret Bletchley Park. As a student in London, my sister was lucky enough to visit Bletchley Park, and wrote the following vignette:  

The really striking thing about England, particularly to an outsider, is how much of its national character is shaped by the two world wars, particularly World War II. It seems that no family was left untouched by the war, and every sacrifice, great and small, that can be made for a nation, was made. The number of young lives lost is incomprehensible, and the number would have been much larger but for the brilliant people who worked at Bletchley Park. 

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction – it is at least true in the case of Bletchley Park.  If you put all the spy movies, thrillers, and novels together, they would still not match the intrigue of Bletchley Park, its intense secrecy, its brilliant people, and the unbelievably intelligent decoding and deciphering work that was done here during World War II.  The fact that toward the end of the war over 8000 people worked here and yet its existence was not disclosed until decades later, gives an inkling of the level of secrecy maintained, and the characters of the people that worked here.  The mathematicians at Bletchley Park were deciphering Germany’s war time communication codes, and to do this they built the world’s first computers.  These brilliant people were able to decipher Germany’s supposedly indestructible codes and in the process saved many lives including at Dunkirk, D-Day, and were instrumental in finding Germany’s most powerful warship Bismarck so the British Navy could drown it. 

Women at Bletchley Park (image courtesy of http://www.bletchleypark.org)

After the war, Bletchley Park and its brilliant people all went home, and never spoke a word because of the oath of secrecy they had all taken. Many had parents that died without knowing their son or daughter’s immense contribution to the war effort.   Clearly this was a generation of greatness. How did we get from there to our current generation of selfies, Facebook, Instagram – we can barely drink a cup of tea without informing the whole world about it. Over 8000 people. Over three decades.  Not one word.  Let that sink in, and perhaps one begins to understand England.

(Both images from http://www.bletchleypark.org)

What did you do during your lunch break today?

This summer, I participated in a New York Times Reading contest which involved reading an article and writing a personal reflection to the article. The article I wrote about is by Alex Vadukul, “How Big Mike, a Barbershop painter, Broke into the Art World.” Mike Saviello works at a barber shop and during his lunch break he paints. Here is my reflection on this article:

If you scroll past all the stories of immigrants, dreamers, migrant crisis, political debates, you will come to this truly heartwarming story of Mike Saveillo, a barber from New York who has become a sought after artist. This too is a story about America: about the opportunities that still exist, about simple working class people, about cities like New York with long lasting barbershops, about wives who get cancer and husbands who get shattered, about barbers who dare to dream and use bold colors and have art showings at big name galleries – all of this is possible because Mike Saveillo lives in America.

There is a Mike in most people. People often give up on something they are passionate about because it is the practical, sensible thing to do. We stop playing the cello because it interferes with math tutoring, we give up singing for science fairs. Mike gave up art for football, and then a well-paying job so he could support his family. But his passion for art never left him, and in the end he found a way to paint. That’s why I liked this story so much. Because in the end, Mike found a way to do something he had always wanted to do since he was a child, and because he lives in a country where he could dare to dream, and to be, in the words of his wife, “a disrupter.”

All paintings from Michael Saviello’s Instagram

The Things They Longed For

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, there is a piece of America that transported me into one of my favorite books, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”.

Sometimes on a regular day out – well this one was a daytrip to see waterfalls in the mountains of Georgia – one comes across the most unexpected people and places. While driving to see the Tallulah Gorge, I took a last minute side detour to a scenic overlook. For me, there was so much more than the overlook here – by the side of the road there was the kind of place that I think Tim O’Brien and his platoon would have made for themselves in Vietnam, a place that would transport them, if only momentarily, to the America, the home, and the things they longed for so desperately. It was almost a mise-en-scene for a play or a movie about the longing for Americana that the boys in Vietnam must have felt – except this was real, and the boys were – well – middle aged bikers by now.

The roadside shack, with a flag and a bald eagle on its roof, proudly calls itself “Hillbilly’s Hot Nuts & BBQ.” The shack was adorned with every possible American thing a boy would long for in Vietnam –all kinds of Harley Davidson models, banners, and paraphernalia, music records, Coca Cola bottle cut outs, a smiling Marilyn Monroe, a sexy Marilyn Monroe with James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Humphrey Bogart in a café, a sultry Rita Hayworth selling Coke, Coke selling Coke and hot dogs for 15 cents, Big foot crossing sign, a Native American chief with a glorious feathered headgear, a faded Uncle Sam, a black and white electric guitar – it was all there. And to the right was a place to sit, relax, chitchat, and as the picture shows – enjoy a Coke. Here a large flag covered the entire back wall, and a welcome committee, in the form of a faintly Asian looking mannequin, stood in front of the shack.

A third shack with a tin roof provides a welcome respite for the riders.

The entire space seems more like a setting for a Vietnam war movie than a roadside shack next to a scenic overlook. But there it was, and bikers rode up to it, bought their roasted Georgia peanuts and Coke and hung out for a while chatting with each other. One of them even happily posed for a picture when I asked if I could get a picture of his bike.

Happy to pose

And I was reminded of Tim O’Brien and his platoon; young American boys longing for the comforts of home in Vietnam, and I imagined that this is what they longed for. Suddenly, this place took on so much meaning for me – it was not just a roadside food shack, but a place for the boys who returned home, and for those who did not. None of us will ever understand what they went through in Vietnam. They have only each other to turn to; the shared experience is theirs only, the rest of us are outsiders looking in, trying unsuccessfully to understand. And places like the Hillbilly Nut & BBQ Shop, make it possible for these brave men to stop for a few minutes, talk to each other, perhaps reminisce about someone who didn’t make it back – before they ride off into the mountains.

“The Way of The Red Flag”

Dresden is almost too beautiful to be real. When the late afternoon sun shines on its churches and palaces, it almost takes your breath away. The Frauenkirche (Lutheran Church) sits in the middle of the old town center like a beautifully iced cake on a platter; just one of the many baroque architectural gems in this town which, until 1989, was part of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). The city was completely devastated by Allied bombings in 1945, practically every building was demolished. For 45 years after that, Dresden and its old town lay in ruins. Mountains of rubbles lay everywhere, untouched by the communist government, as a propaganda about the devastation of capitalist warfare.

 The Frauenkirche in Dresden Old Town was rebuilt after the fall of Communism

The GDR constructed numerous buildings around the old town, punctuating the once baroque town with low and wide glass and concrete buildings that are quintessential socialist and communist architecture. The Kulturpalast (Palace of culture, 1962) at the edge of the reborn old town is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order. One side of the building is decorated with a striking mural called “The  Way of the Red Flag,” adding color, albeit a symbolic red, to an otherwise grey concrete exterior.

The Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture) was built by the GDR government in 1962 and is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order.        

The long narrow mural, is approximately 95 feet high and 325 feet wide, and tells the history of socialism. Almost to the center stands its most striking feature, a woman with a scarf typical of the socialist working class, her left hand stretched out in a welcoming gesture, while her right hand holds a red flag. The raised flag leads the eye toward the hammer and sickle symbol of the GDR. The story starts on the left half of the mural where Karl Marx (with a document in his hands) can be seen standing with Freidrich Engels. Below them a group of three men arm themselves in protest, and to the right we see the Red Star a sign of the Russian revolution of 1914. World War II, and its suffering, is depicted to the right of the flag bearer. The victory of socialism is seen in the depiction of groups of men of various professions, some holding guns while others raise their right fists. All seem to be looking towards the central figure of Walter Ulbricht the communist leader of GDR.

  The Way of the Red Flag : The mural on the Kulturpalast tells the history of Socialism  

I discovered the mural almost by accident and stood in front of it for a long time, marveling at it, and shocked both by its existence and its contrast with the baroque architecture of Dresden’s old town. The fact that the Kulturpalast and the mural exist to this day, 30 years after the fall of communism, is a testament to the people of Dresden. The people of this Dresden have rebuilt their town back to its former Baroque glory from the debris that remained after World War II. Their love for art and architecture is evident from the fact that despite the passage of time, almost 40 years passed before communism fell, they started rebuilding brick by broken brick as soon as they could after reunification . It is only a city that has suffered and lost so much that will not be quick to tear down art, even if it is communist art. And we, the visitors, leave  Dresden enriched, by both the people and the art and architecture of this beautiful city.

Berlin Wall


It fell with almost the same speed and surprise as it had risen 28 years earlier. From the evening of August 13, 1961 to the evening of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin, effectively cutting it off from East Germany which surrounded it on all sides. The wall was a physical barrier that cut through a city dividing friends, neighbors, and family, but more importantly it was an ideological barrier between capitalism and communism, and a powerful symbol of the Cold War.

This summer, I traveled to Germany, a country I have wanted to visit since I first read about the Berlin Wall in world history. The wall was constructed almost overnight on the night of August 13, 1961 by the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) communist government. The wall was called “Antifascistischer Schutzwall” by the GDR government who claimed that the primary purpose of the wall was to keep the West German fascists, who wanted to undermine the socialist regime of the east, out of East Berlin. In reality though, the wall was built to stop the mass defections that were occurring daily with people leaving East Berlin for the west. The GDR government was concerned about their dwindling population and the impact it would have on the East German economy.

With the slow demise of communism in parts of Eastern Europe, the GDR government too, in a most unexpected and unplanned way relaxed the barrier and on November 9, 1989 announced that “effective immediately” East Berliners would be allowed to travel to the West. The euphoria that followed this unexpected announcement was such that people started to climb the wall and started chipping away at it the same night. Within a couple of days, Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor of Germany, started to address the issue of “German Reunification,” thus putting events into motion that have eventually led to the Berlin of today – a city that seems to be bursting with life; still celebrating reunification.

While most of the wall is gone for good, an almost 1.5-mile-long section of the wall remains standing along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain section of Berlin. This longest intact section of the original 90-mile-long wall has become the world’s largest outdoor museum of sorts. The 105 sections of the wall have been painted by artists from all over the world, each one a unique showcase providing its own commentary on the wall, its fall and freedom.   

Unlike the graffiti artist of the 1980s, these artists painted by invitation and had no fear of getting shot by the East German guards patrolling the wall. So while the East Berlin Gallery is an incredible piece of art that celebrates freedom and humanity, it does not have the intensity and  rawness of the street art that covered the wall prior to 1989. The first artist to paint the wall was French artist Thierry Noir, who lived along the wall and painted sections of it with incredible street art almost on a daily basis. The amazing gallery that stands today is because of pioneer street artists like Thierry Noir who by painting the wall attempted to psychologically destroy it.   

Ragged Old Flag

On this Flag Day, I wanted to honor the flag with this poem by Johnny Cash.

Ragged Old Flag

I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench an old man was sitting there
I said, your old courthouse is kinda run down
He said, naw, it'll do for our little town
I said, your old flagpole has leaned a little bit
And that's a ragged old flag you got hanging on it

He said, have a seat, and I sat down
Is this the first time you've been to our little town?
I said, I think it is
He said, I don't like to brag
But we're kinda proud of that ragged old flag

You see, we got a little hole in that flag there when 
Washington took it across the Delaware
And it got powder-burned the night Francis Scott Key
Sat watching it writing say can you see
And it got a bad rip in New Orleans
With Packingham and Jackson tuggin' at its seams

And it almost fell at the Alamo
Beside the texas flag, but she waved on though
She got cut with a sword at Chancellorsville
And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill
There was Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, and Bragg
And the south wind blew hard on that ragged old flag

On Flanders field in World War one
She got a big hole from a Bertha gun
She turned blood red in World War Two
She hung limp and low a time or two
She was in Korea and Vietnam
She went where she was sent by Uncle Sam

She waved from our ships upon the Briny foam
And now they've about quit waving her back here at home
In her own good land here she's been abused 
She's been burned, dishonored, denied, and refused

And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land
And she's getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she's in good shape for the shape she's in
'Cause she's been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more

So we raise her up every morning
We take her down every night
We don't let her touch the ground and we fold her up right
On second thought, I do like to brag
'Cause I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag

(Images Courtesy Smithsonian.com, US Govt and War Archives Websites)

Town & Gown

I attended graduation in my school today – and this got me wondering about the tradition of the cap and gown – where did this almost worldwide custom originate from? 

The custom of caps and gowns is as old as universities – and dates back to the 12th century. At that time gowns and hoods were worn in university on a daily basis by the clergy who were the teachers and the aspiring clergy who were the students – they were the only ones who attended these church owned universities. Wearing these gowns visually separated the scholars from the lay people in the town  – hence the term town and gown. Also wearing the same apparel gave a sense of unity to the college students and professors.

Quad at Oxford university

The gown and the hood kept the clergy with the shaved heads warm in the unheated university buildings. Later the hood was replaced by the skull cap we see today.The square shape of the skull cap is said to trace its origins to the quad at Oxford – but this is only one of many theories.

At universities like Cambridge and Oxford, gowns were to be worn according to the strict specifications of the university – and professors in these institutions wear a gown and cap on a daily basis even now. Students wear the full academic regalia for special occasions.

Harvard, Princeton, and Brown that started during colonial times in the US followed the customs prevalent in European universities and required the wearing of gowns on a daily basis. It was not until after the civil war when there was dislike for everything English that gowns and caps as college uniforms dropped out of fashion in the US. Their use continued only for graduation ceremonies, which also made the cap and gown signify achievement.

Howard Willis Dodds (1889-1980),President,Princeton University in academic regalia (pr.princeton.edu)

The long history associated with the caps and gowns makes them even more meaningful and special.

My Poor Overworked Phone

In 8th grade we were asked to write about our relationship with technology (or something like that – i cant remember the exact prompt). I don’t think this is what my English teacher was expecting:

            I should unplug and connect with my family because I think it would be nice to give my poor overworked phone a break.  All week long the phone is a workhorse – it works at 2000% capacity.  At any given time, it is playing music for me, letting me search various extremely important things on at least ten different browsers, letting me send and receive texts at the speed of lightning, downloading email form my personal and my school account, keeping me up to date on all activity on Snapchat, refreshing my Instagram feed, keeping me apprised on everyone’s every move on Facebook, letting me switch between a movie on Netflix and a movie on Amazon Prime, and telling me exactly where I am every second of every day on both Google and Safari maps. 

I may not know for extended periods of time where my family is – but I know every second that I am awake – and probably asleep too – exactly where my phone is.             

My phone needs a break from me so it can relax, rejuvenate, and recharge its batteries by connecting in peace with its charger – without the constant interruptions from me even when it is trying to charge itself. 

And perhaps while it is doing that, I too will get a chance to recharge my batteries, and to connect with what’s really important in my life.  I too will get the chance to nourish my soul by spending a few peaceful and meaningful uninterrupted minutes with my family. 

The Power Shift

Dress, 1960s
Museum of London Display Case   

How do you roll up the Vietnam War, the civil rights marches, the youthful and modern presidency of John F. Kennedy, the voice of Martin Luther King, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the landing on the moon, Twiggy, the liberation of women, and above all the magic of the Beatles into one thing? For me the answer lies in the Museum of London in a simple short black and white polka-dotted mini dress with a diagonal line across it;  the faces of the Beatles on one side, and a guitar on the other. 

The power of this dress lies in its simplicity, its lack of fussiness, and its revolutionary length – all of which defined a generation.  The generation that was born at the end of World War II, came of age with the uselessness of the Vietnam War, spent their college years marching for equal rights for all, refused to dress like their parents, or listen to their parents music – this generation perhaps made the world a better place for future generations more than any generation before or since then.

It was a simple shift dress, the kind that is worn by a young girl – it defied the hold of Paris couture houses and rose from the streets where the young people marched and demanded a better life for the rest of us.  It was a dress that an unskilled young girl could have stitched together – but it made the most skilled designers in the world sit up and take notice.  The shift was shifting power – from the couture houses to the street tailors, from the upper classes to the middle classes, from the elite to the masses, from Harvard to Greensboro state college, from Oxford to Liverpool, and for the first time, in tiny amounts, from men to women.

A sense of gratitude washed over me as I stood in front of this dress, and the generation that wore it – they made it possible for me to be in control of the length of my hemline – and of my future. 

Beatles Dress.4

This is a guest post from Tara Sawhney who is studying in London for one semester.  This was a vignette she wrote after a visit to the Museum of London.

Scaramouch , should we fandango?

I fell in love with Queen when, strangely enough, I was working on my National History Day project in 8th Grade.  The topic that year was a person who had made a difference, and I picked Bob Geldof for his work in the 1980s to help the Ethiopian famine victims.  It was while working on this that I saw Queen’s Live Aid performance and fell in love with their music.  For the next few weeks I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “We are the Champions” endlessly – especially “Bohemian Rhapsody.”   The song just mesmerizes you – it’s a magical combination of opera, rock, with international melodies thrown in and the most unbelievable lyrics.  The song was written by Freddie Mercury himself – and it’s evident from the lyrics that there was a lot more substance to him than one would expect from a self-centered rock star.  Let’s look at some of the words that one never hears – Scaramouch – what exactly is a Scaramouch?

“I see a little silhouette of a man

Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the fandango”

According to the Webster dictionary a Scaramouch is a character in the Italian commedia dell’arte that burlesques the Spanish don and is characterized by boastfulness and cowardliness.

Ummm….. Ok? – well that clears that up. Again – more substance than one expects from a rockstar.

And a fandango for those who care to know is “a lively Spanish dance for two people typically accompanies by castanets or tambourine.”

No one really seems to know what exactly the song means – and that perhaps adds to its enduring popularity.

 

Freddie Mercury T-Shirt
Freddie Mercury’s Image on T-Shirt

Freddie was born Freddie Bulsara to a Parsi family. Like so many colonial families, his family relocated from India to Zanzibar, and then to England.  All of these influences shaped his life and his music.

Freddie was not only a brilliant songwriter, singer and piano player – he was also a marketing genius. By the time of Live Aid, Queen’s popularity was on a decline.  Freddie knew this, and saw Live Aid as a chance to change all that. In a short performance, he sang all of Queen’s best hits and was in complete control of the crowd on both sides of the Atlantic.  He gave an flamboyant, charismatic performance – perhaps the best ever in a live concert.   With that he ensured his  music would live on forever.  And last week, more than 25 years after his death,  when I walked into a store, I realized he had managed to do just that.

Freddie Mercury.1