Category Archives: Art and Architecture

Remembering Gudmund Vigtel of the High Museum of Art


The High Museum of Art, August 1985.

My friend and former boss Gudmund Vigtel died last month at the age of 87.  For nearly thirty years, Vig, as he was generally known, was the face and guiding force  of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.  He became the museum’s director in 1963, when it was a fledgling institution in a provincial backwater, housed in a nondescript building adjacent to its first home, the Peachtree Street mansion of the High family.

Vig led the High through two pivotal periods of extraordinary growth.  In June of 1962, 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent arts patrons, returning from a museum-sponsored trip to Europe, were killed when their plane crashed on take-off at Orly Airport in Paris.  Since Atlanta’s founding in 1836 as Terminus, the end point of a railway hub, its citizens have tended to value business over culture.  But they are a resilient lot, determined not to be bested.  The Orly tragedy, like General Sherman’s burning of the city during the Civil War, inspired a deeply felt resolve to regroup and rebuild, bigger and better.  Gudmund Vigtel, then assistant director at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., was hired to head up the new, expanded arts facility to be known as the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center.

Vig must have stood out as a cosmopolitan, dashing European figure in the Atlanta of the early 60s.   Born in Jerusalem to Lutheran missionaries from Norway, he had lived in Vienna and Oslo before his family fled (on skis, as I’ve always heard) from Nazi-occupied Norway into Sweden.  But Vig had Georgia ties as well.  Having studied art in Sweden, he received a Rotary Scholarship that first took him to a small college in north Georgia.  It was not a good fit.  He recounted how he spent lonely afternoons sitting on a big rock, asking himself, Why am I here? Before long, he managed to transfer to the Atlanta College of Art, where the more urban environment suited him better.

I met Vig during the second pivotal period of his  tenure at the High.  During the 1970s he became increasingly convinced that his museum was still too small. When, in 1977, the blockbuster King Tut show bypassed Atlanta for New Orleans because the High lacked sufficient exhibition space, it was clear that Vig was right.  He launched an impassioned campaign for a considerably larger and more striking building.  Despite the board’s initial preference for a local architect, he managed to persuade them to choose the as yet unproven Richard Meier of New York.  Meier would go on to to design the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture.

I had the  good fortune to work for Vig as Secretary to the Director during the High’s first two years in the new Meier facility.  (There are, of course no secretaries at the museum now, or perhaps anywhere; they have been promoted to other titles, if not in salary.) Thanks to my dentist, a family friend, avid art collector and museum patron, I learned about the job opening.  It was the summer of 1983, and I had just graduated from UGA with a degree in Art History.  I was coming to terms with the realization that this was, as I had  suspected, hardly a golden key to a lucrative or, perhaps, any career.  Luckily, I could type.  I applied at the High.  I wasn’t hired; there was a better, faster typist.  About three weeks later, I got a call from the museum.  The other applicant hadn’t worked out, for various reasons. When Vig had referred, for example, to the artist Botticelli in his dictated letters, this secretary had repeatedly transcribed Buddy Chelly.  Was I still interested?

The postmodern Meier building, its undulating facade clad in white enamel tile, was due to open that October when I began work in July. The offices had just moved into the new quarters, but the galleries and atrium remained unfinished.  Heavy plastic sheeting kept some of the dust out but did nothing to diminish the loudness of the construction noise. The pace of construction was quick and constant, and it only added to the excitement of working at the museum.  I loved my front-row seat in the living theatre that was staging the airy new building’s completion.  And I soon became fond of my boss and the rest of the museum staff.

Many of us spend our lives knowing and regretting that we have not yet hit upon the perfect career fit.  Vig found his, it would certainly seem.  He had a broad knowledge and true devotion to art of various genres and styles.  But he lacked any trace of pretense or conceit; he bore no resemblance to the stereotypical artsy intellectual.  Not a single aspect of the life of the museum was beneath him, and he was apparently tireless.  What’s more, Vig had a real  gift for the human connection; he was thoughtful, warm, empathetic, funny and charming.  He inspired the best in every staff member, and we held him in high regard.

As Vig’s dramatic vision for the new building was nearing completion, it was a heady time to be part of the HMA team. The museum opened on schedule in October, with a dizzying flurry of celebratory events  held in the soaring central atrium.  Vig treated his staff with the same respect and courtesy as the most generous or sought-after patrons.  HMA parties were equal-opportunity events.  Security guards danced with curators; art handlers and secretaries rubbed elbows with Atlanta’s civic leaders and the occasional celebrity.  Vig was always there at the heart of the party, like a joyful father of the bride, surrounded, in his elegant home, by those he loved best.

Vig’s oddly spelled Norwegian name confounded most homegrown Southerners.  Yet its pronounciation was straightforward:  Good mund Vig tel, with the accent on each first syllable.  I was amazed by the vast volume of unsolicited letters (many of them very strange, to say the least) that the museum received.  The majority of these erred comically in the spelling of Vig’s name. They variously addressed him as Gudmund Viglet, Gudmund Vigtoe, Goodmood Vigel, Goodood Wigtel and even, somehow, Tubmund Eigtel.  Vig never took himself too seriously, and he found these permutations as amusing as I did.  He also laughed and reassured me when I realized, too late, that one of the letters I typed had gone out to Ms. Roberta Goizueta instead of Mr. Roberto Goizueta, then the Chairman of Coca-Cola.

Vig’s impact on the arts of Atlanta was profound.  Like so many others whose lives he touched, I will think of him often, and with affection.  In my mind I see him now, and it’s 1985.  He’s coming back from checking a new painting in the  galleries, crossing the wide atrium.  He’s walking his characteristically jaunty walk, grey curls bouncing a bit, suit slightly rumpled.   As he approaches, I hear him speak my name in the Norwegian accent he never lost, and I see the customary twinkle in his eye.  Gudmund Vigtel will be greatly missed, but lovingly and gladly remembered.


On this T-shirt, made c. 1985 by the HMA staff to celebrate Vig’s birthday, he is surrounded by some of the more egregiously erroneous misspellings of his name, collected from letters. Vig’s uncharacteristically gruff expression was intended for comic purposes.  I wish I hadn’t worn the shirt for painting; the splotch on Vig’s jacket is a later, accidental addition.

In Provincetown: Serenity on Commercial Street

Commercial Street begins in Provincetown’s quiet East End, just across the line from quiet Truro.  The street name appears misleading at first, in this almost exclusively residential stretch, a mix of cottages, grand homes, and historic guesthouses.  The crowds of tourists are absent for the first mile or so.  My daughter and I especially enjoy exploring this serene section of the street, where lush gardens flourish and the waters of the bay provide a bright, sparkling backdrop.


 A favorite subject of local artists, this white Dutch colonial, with its pristine lawn overlooking the bay, is the first home on Commercial Street’s East End.


Pigeons keep watch over Commercial Street from the dormer of the sturdy brick house where Norman Mailer lived and wrote for 25 years.  After the author’s death, the home became the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.


An eighteenth-century Cape Cod cottage, glimpsed through the garden gate.



The gardens of Provincetown, though typcially small, are vigorously hardy, dramatic and colorful.


This spacious expanse of lawn, with its rugged old schoolyard swing set, is an odd, unexpected luxury in Provincetown, where bay-side land is at a great premium.


An artfully styled P-town compound, with a patriotic tableau of American flag and exuberant red and blue flowers in white window boxes.


At the Sea Urchin cottage, a profusion of wild roses and a sandy path to the water.


Tranquil spaces may be found even in the busiest section of Commercial Street, as here on the shady porch of Shor, a home furnishings showroom.  Next door is the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, built in 1847.  The church’s front lawn, when not hosting an open-air market, offers an inviting escape from the crowds, as does its gracious interior, notable for the trompe l’oeil sculptural paintings in the sanctuary.


             The beautifully detailed tower of the Meeting House.


This charming book store, located in a little house behind and surrounded by art galleries in the midst of Commercial Street, is reached by a tree-shaded pathway.  D and I stop in at Tim’s to browse the shelves for interesting bargains and to enjoy the quiet.   


Artists began to discover the small fishing village of Provincetown in the last decades of the nineteenth century.  It quickly became established as an artist’s colony after Charles Hawthorne opened his Cape Cod School of Art in 1899.  Now, over 40 galleries display a wide range of styles.  In the hands of local artists, the regional tradition of atmospheric, Impressionistic landscapes, still lifes and figurative work remains vital and fresh.  The gallery above specializes in bold contemporary Asian art.  Many of the galleries are staffed by the artists themselves, who tend to be friendly and unpretentious.


The 200-year old Red Inn, which hosts one of the town’s most acclaimed restaurants, is in Commercial Street’s far West End, past the reach of the heaviest crowds. The deck, with its view of the harbor, is a spectacular spot for a sunset drink. Here, in the repose of early morning, neat white chairs welcome the promise of another beautiful day. 

In Provincetown: The Heart of Commercial Street

Even though I’m glad to feel the September chill in the air, I find myself looking back fondly on August, to our time at the Cape.  Perhaps because the school year has begun, bringing its steady stream of routine duties and a deluge of paperwork, the echoes of those last lazy days of summer are especially sweet right now.

The appeal of our quiet little cottage complex in Truro is heightened by its location next door to bustling Provincetown, shoehorned into the narrow tip of the outer Cape.  It’s a tiny town with an expansive, generous spirit, urban flair, and an edgy sense of humor.  Eccentrics of all stripes, as well as tourists from the heartland, find a warm welcome in P-Town, where ecumenical diversity flourishes.

The central section of Commercial Street, the narrow main artery, is one long party during beach season, when it’s crowded with pedestrians and vehicles.  In Provincetown, the architecture is historic and charming, the street musicians are inventive and mostly talented, the food is excellent, offerings of art, musical theatre and comedy are vast and easily accessible, the drag queens are witty, the world’s most expressive T-shirts are available, and bay breezes blow.  It truly has something for everyone.


Above, the busy heart of Commercial Street, catching the ever-present Cape Cab in transit.  Its sister vehicles include two wildly painted mini-limos known as the Funk Buses, which offer on-the-road karaoke.  Provincetown is no place for a sensible Lincoln Town Car.


Another view of Commercial Street, above. The umbrella-shaded outdoor dining area at Patio is an ideal spot for people and dog watching.   Provincetown is an enthusiastically pet-friendly town, despite the notable absence of any dogs in this photo.  I counted thirty dogs in one hour last year during dinner at Patio.  Most were on leashes, others were pushed in strollers or carried in handbags.  There was even one puppy in some sort of dog-Snugli.  Because our place in Truro doesn’t allow pets, we can’t bring Kiko, but we almost always see at least one Shiba Inu.   My hope is that someday, somehow, he’ll be able to accompany us.  I like to think he has an artistic sensibility and would feel completely at home here.


Provincetown, fiercely protective of its unique quirkiness, is resistant to national chains. You won’t find a McDonald’s, a Rite Aid, or a CVS.  No Starbucks, no T.G.I. Friday’s, no Applebee’s.  No Burger King, although, there is, appropriately, a Burger Queen. The Little Red, above, is a friendly, well-stocked convenience store, housed in what appears to be a brightly painted Victorian playhouse. 


Like many buildings in densely populated Provincetown, this gray turreted house, which could easily feature in an Addams Family film,  has commercial space below and living space above.  The towers of the Pilgrim Monument and the Unitarian Church peek out from behind.


A living statue often occupies a prime spot in front of the Town Hall. Above, during the summer of 2010, Cady Vishniac posed regularly as a bronze figure of a Depression-era hobo. Richard Mason, inspired by Provincetown’s World War I Memorial statue nearby, occupied the corner in 2011, in the guise of a WWI soldier.


Above, the sun sets on the Lobster Pot and the Governor Bradford bar and restaurant across the street.  I’ve tasted nothing better, ever, I believe, than the pan-roasted lobster at the Lobster Pot.  If you think lobster is lobster, and cannot be improved upon, this will change your mind.  The Pot is always packed, but it’s worth the wait.  Get your lobster buzzer and wander through the nearby shops.

The yellow banner for Mary Poppers prompts me to note that this year, at last, we had a John Waters sighting.  The director and author makes his summer residence in P-Town.   I’ve never seen him riding his bike down Commercial Street, as many have, but we spotted him, unmistakable in his pencil-thin moustache, walking with friends on Bradford Street.  They were heading toward the Provincetown Theatre to see the popular Mary Poppins parody.


The haunting neon glow of The Lobster Pot, a beacon for hungry tourists and locals.

Look for another P-Town post to follow soon: Serenity on Commercial Street.

Moving on Up, In Virginia-Highland

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St. Louis Place, a typical street in Virginia-Higland

Virginia-Highland took a bit longer than Morningside to get back on its feet after our neighborhoods succeeded in stopping the superhighway. A substantial section of Virginia Avenue had been decimated to make way for a highway interchange. The destruction had taken its toll on the surrounding homes that survived, many just barely.

In my early teen years, Virginia-Highland was old-school, no-frills and decidedly untrendy. When we filmed a Super-8 movie for a school project, the neighborhood stood in for a sleepy fictitious Kansas town, quaint but down on its luck. There were vintage barbershops and gas stations, untouched since the 40s, family-owned grocery, drug and hardware stores, and the city’s oldest operational fire station, built in 1925 in the bungalow style like many of the homes around it. Some of the proprietors wore overalls and spoke with accents now associated only with deepest South Georgia. The two burger and beer taverns, Moe’s and Joe’s and George’s, which opened respectively in 1947 and 1961, were not yet hip. (My father appreciated both places when he first arrived in town and rented a room on Ponce de Leon. Mama and I spent that summer with my grandparents in Kentucky while Daddy looked for more permanent digs). I didn’t enter either bar until I was in college, but the predominantly elderly good old boys inside could be seen in the neon gleam of the Pabst Blue Ribbon signs.

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The revitalization of Virginia-Highland (according to my, perhaps flawed recollection), began with the opening of Taco Mac at the intersection of Virginia and Highland in 1979. It started as a cheap spot for beer and Buffalo wings. In its first incarnation, its décor recalled a fraternity house rec room, all plywood and bad lighting. But for the first time in years, a younger crowd began pouring into the area. College kids from Emory and Georgia Tech found Taco Mac and then discovered the dingy ironic charm of Moe’s & Joe’s and George’s. On weekend nights the crowds in Virginia-Highland rivaled those along Peachtree in Buckhead.

My daughter caught her reflection in the door as she took this photo of one of her favorite VA-Highland boutiques.

These days, the area is healthier and busier than ever, at all hours. The cost of gentrification, of course, was the loss of many of the old mom-and pop stores that had served the area during the decades when it limped along. Still, the neighborhood remains a mix of the affordable and the aspirational. Highland Hardware, which began as a hardware store with a great woodworking section, evolved into Highland Woodworking, a specialized mecca for expert woodworkers. Jimmy Carter has been a regular patron of both. Now, if you’re not an expert of any kind, and you simply need a hammer, the nearby Intown Ace Hardware will happily sell you one.

In the clothing, accessory and home goods stores, my daughter and I enjoy browsing the interesting array of items, and occasionally she finds a great little something she can afford with her own money.  But we are not really big shoppers, and when we do shop, we like bargains.  Virginia-Highland isn’t the place for bargains.  It’s not the actual merchandise that draws us.  What we particularly appreciate in these boutiques is their fanciful atmosphere and their imaginative decoration of unique old architectural spaces. Owners tend to be fun, funky and welcoming, to humans and their dogs. There’s usually a furry friend snoozing peacefully beneath a sales table or behind the counter.  It’s good to know Kiko would be welcome, should we ever get him to Atlanta.

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D and I were sad to see that Mooncake had closed when we returned this year.  An especially charming shop, it was mentioned in one of D’s favorite books, Peace, Love and Baby Ducks, by the Atlanta author Lauren Myracle.  Mama bought me a pair of my favorite earrings here, silver disks resembling manhole covers, stamped NYC Sewer.

Virginia-Highland is known for its wide variety of restaurant choices. Atkins Park (which dates from 1922 and is Atlanta’s oldest operating tavern) caters to a diverse crowd by managing to be simultaneously up-and downscale. A boisterous crowd enjoys the front bar area, while elegant comfort food is served in a quieter, classic restaurant setting in the back.  Highland Tap, a fixture since the 80s, follows suit.  Depending upon the mood of the patrons and the hour of the evening, the subterranean space may feel like a loud college bar or an urbane steak eatery.  At Blind Willie’s, it’s possible to get basic food and listen to world-class blues and folk music. And for traditionalists and hipsters alike, Moe’s & Joe’s and George’s remain vital. These two spots have changed very little in appearance, other than the addition of flat-screen TVs (and a much younger wait-staff). My parents join my daughter and me for lunch at George’s each year after our boutique walk. I find it reassuring that there are some things in my fast-moving hometown that don’t change, at least for a few decades.

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Invitingly restored apartments on North Highland.

Best of Budapest, II

Back on the bus, we saw many more Pest landmarks, such as the immense Hungarian Parliament building, its tall central dome surrounded by a flurry of lacy Neo-Gothic turrets. In a drastic juxtaposition of scale, not far from the Parliament, is Budapest’s intimate and moving Holocaust Memorial. Sixty pairs of 1940s-style cast iron shoes are anchored to the promenade along the Danube. They memorialize the Jews who were shot near the spot during World War II by Fascist militia. Before the execution, the group was ordered to remove their shoes. Their bodies fell into the river and drifted away.
Fisherman’s Bastion.
We crossed the Chain Bridge toward the hills of Buda, where our next stop was the Citadel.  One of the city’s highest points, it affords sweeping bird’s-eye views. From the Fisherman’s Bastion, a Neo-Romanesque collection of gleaming white towers and ramparts, we began another walking tour. Immediately adjacent to the Bastion is the Matthias Church, known for its single, ornate tower. The first church on the spot dated from the eleventh century, while the current building was begun in the high-Gothic style of the 14th-century and completed (and heavily restored) in the 19th. The nearby bronze equestrian statue of St. Stephen, patron saint and first king of Hungary, looks as though it may have escaped from Heroes’ Square. Street entertainers tend to cluster around the statue’s monumental base. A falconer with his falcon was commanding some attention during our visit.



View of Budapest and the Danube from the ramparts of Fisherman’s Bastion.


The Matthias Church, named for Hungary’s King Matthias.


Statue of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king and patron saint.

As we headed away from the Matthias church, our guide stopped us by a small white car parked in what appeared to be the center of the cobblestone street. A Trabant, an East German relic from the Communist period, it made the Datsun 1200 my mother drove in the 70s look as luxurious as a Jaguar. Our guide spoke passionately and eloquently about the difficulties of day-to-day life during Communism. For decades, the Trabant was the only car the average Hungarian could hope to afford. It was notorious for its tiny engine, heavy black exhaust, and hard plastic body made of recycled materials. Months and sometimes years passed between the time of order and delivery. But it could carry four people and some luggage. Our guide clearly considered the sad-looking little car a symbol of the daily indignities the Hungarian people suffered during the totalitarian regime.


The East-German-made Trabant, a relic of the Communist period.

After parting with the Trabant, we had free time to walk on our own. Just steps away from the busy area of the Bastion, the narrow streets were quiet and serene on this beautiful Palm Sunday morning. My parents accompanied D and me for a while, but before long they headed back to the bus, leaving us for more adventurous exploring.  We like to go “off road” when we have the chance.  I’ve learned that beauty often hides in unexpected spots.  Winding around behind the rather sleepy Budapest Hilton, we found a secluded brick and stone stairway of medieval appearance that led down to the wild and overgrown banks of the Danube.  Through window-sized openings in the massive stair wall, the distant towers of Parliament could have been Sleeping Beauty’s spellbound castle.  Much like during our meanderings through the Four Seasons the night before, we seemed to have Budapest to ourselves. We had stumbled upon another marvelous secret in this ancient, enchanting city.  My daughter and I will always remember Budapest as a gracious place that seemed eager to greet us, to reveal something truly special when we took the time to really look.


The towers of Parliament glimpsed through the stair wall.


D enjoys a lookout post in the wall.

Local Color at Budapest’s Thermal Baths

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It was such a relief to be on the plane that the physical discomfort of an overseas flight in coach couldn’t really touch me. I was no longer worried. D and I synchronized True Grit on our seat-back video screens, pausing at regular intervals to try to decipher Jeff Bridges’ mumblings.  At the Munich Airport we made our way along endless meandering hallways, up and down countless stairs, to reach the gate for our flight to Hungary. Several hours later, we were at the Budapest Airport, where the cheerful Viking Cruise staff awaited us.

Our ship was docked in the heart of this ancient and strikingly beautiful city, immediately adjacent to the majestic Chain Bridge. The room that D and I shared looked out onto the bridge and the hilly Buda side of the city, with Buda Castle and the medieval Matthias Church nearby.  A bit farther away, we could see the sleek new Elizabeth Bridge and the statue-topped Gellert Hill. My parents’ room was across the hall facing the flatter Pest side of the city.

Hungary is a land of abundant hot springs. Budapest has more than twenty thermal baths, all owned and operated by the government. According to every guidebook I consulted, the quintessential Hungarian experience is a trip to one of these baths. In the most celebrated baths, indoor and outdoor pools are grandly enclosed by elegant nineteenth-century architecture. We chose to visit the recently renovated Széchenyi Baths, which attract fewer tourists than the more upscale Gellert Baths. The friendly young woman at our ship’s concierge desk happily called a taxi when we inquired about getting to the baths. Our driver, a pleasant, talkative woman about my age, was soon whisking D and me through the city in her spotless white Mercedes. We left my parents to relax and unpack on the boat.  In a quick ten minutes, we had arrived at the ornate entry building.

To foreigners, the entry procedure at the Széchenyi baths can be befuddling, to say the least. Few attendants speak English, and the notoriously difficult Hungarian language can hardly be picked up in a weekend with the help of a phrase book. Rick Steves’ e-book on Budapest offers a comprehensive guide to negotiating the baths.  I had reviewed it on the plane, but we were still confused. Upon entering, one pays admission and rental for either a locker or a changing cabin. In anticipation of a trip to the baths, I had exchanged some dollars for Hungarian forints (a currency I find just as confusing as getting into the baths). Like a child, I paid by laying out the money and letting the attendant point to the required bills.  I thought I had rented a changing cabin, so we wandered through the complex until we found that area, only to be told that we had paid for a locker. We roamed through additional subterranean corridors and finally located the women’s locker room. An attendant attached a wristband to my arm and showed us how to activate the lock using the attached metal disk.

Having worn our bathing suits under our clothes, it wasn’t long before we were back in the labyrinthian halls in search of the towel rental station. In an effort to be upstanding guests, we hadn’t smuggled towels with us from the boat. Next time we will not be so virtuous. The rental towels bore little relation to typical American terrycloth towels. Made of smooth heavy cotton, they were more like tablecloths. For those desiring further adventure during their baths experience, bathing suits can also be rented.

Getting out to the pools was easy, and it was wonderful to be in the open air again. Surrounded by the golden yellow Neo-Baroque buildings housing the entrance area, indoor baths, saunas and massage rooms, there are three spacious outdoor pools. The afternoon temperature was in the high 60s, and the warm water felt amazing. We spent most of our time in the semicircular “Fun Pool” which has a current circle in the center. We kept to the less populated edges.

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 The “Fun Pool” where we spent most of our time.

The clientele was primarily Hungarian, although we heard various other languages, including British and American English, French, German and Russian. I have never before seen such an eclectic variety of swimming attire. And no, this is not one of Budapest’s several “clothing optional” baths.  Hefty grandfatherly men strutted about in tiny Speedos. Svelte young model types posed at the water’s edge in daring bikinis and spike heels. A number of older, well-covered women protected their hair with puffy shower caps. In the center lap pool, a cap is required. While some swimmers wore actual bathing caps, others sported baseball or shower caps.

The water began to feel cooler after a while, so we decided to have a look at the indoor baths. I was hoping for warmer water there. These pools were far more crowded than those outside. Along the edges, people, mostly men, stood shoulder to shoulder, staring unabashedly at any newcomers who ventured in. I was determined to test the water, so I made a quick circuit of the interior until I found a spot where the multitude was less pressing. When I dipped my foot in, the water was no warmer. We gladly returned to the unintimidating outdoor pools.

As the time approached to meet our taxi driver, the late afternoon air was taking on a serious chill. The abject deficiency of our rented towels made it difficult to emerge from the water. Our completely saturated tablecloths were icy and offered no comfort. Other towels, real, fluffy towels, folded invitingly, temptingly, seemed to mock us. I hope to never again feel such overwhelming towel envy. The comparative warmth of the taxi was especially welcome. We were invigorated by our plunge into the warmth and local color of the Széchenyi Baths.  And we were glad to return to our floating haven on the Danube, which appeared even more inviting than it had at first sight.

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The “Relaxation Pool” where some bathers play chess.

Helpful note on payment: Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the baths, which allows you to avoid dealing with forints.  Our taxi driver preferred to be paid in Euros.

Anticipating Disaster on the Danube


I still find it hard to believe that a little over a year ago, my daughter, my parents and I were on our way to Budapest. We had decided, uncharacteristically, to use spring break for a Danube River cruise. Typically, we go no place more exotic than Atlanta during this time. Even more typically, we rest, recharge and sleep late. But the European river cruise was highly recommended by several friends, and we had been considering it for a few years. The time was right, it seemed. None of us, after all, was getting any younger or healthier. The longer we put it off, the more medications we’d have to drag along, and the less sure-footed my parents and I would be on ancient, uneven cobblestones and cathedral steps.

My husband opted out, as I had expected. He likes to remind us that he doesn’t get a spring break.  He had accompanied me and my parents on a trip to France when our daughter was three. One European vacation with the in-laws, he decided, was sufficient. The river cruise, with its set itinerary, didn’t appeal to him; he preferred a more free-ranging vacation. Had he come, we would have needed another stateroom on the ship, or a suite. Traveling in uneven numbers isn’t ideal for river cruises.

The previous September, when I had asked my parents about the Danube cruise, they responded enthusiastically. I had found what looked like the perfect trip, with a stop in Regensburg, where Daddy had been stationed with the American occupational forces after World War II. His time in Germany had been cut unexpectedly short, when his father died suddenly. Daddy had not returned, and he was beginning to think he never would. While Mama, a dedicated Anglophile, would have preferred another trip to England, she was fine with Germany. My daughter’s top vacation choice would have been a bustling Caribbean cruise, but she was happy to be going to Europe for the first time. I looked forward especially to accompanying my father to Regensburg, an unspoiled medieval town that was spared wartime damage. I loved it that he would be returning with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

As the departure date approached, my excitement gave way to anxiety. I would have worried less if my husband had been coming with us. While we disagree about the highlights of travel (I prefer historical sight-seeing, he goes for action and adventure), he has a gift for keeping a clear head and making good decisions when adversity arises. As Mama once noted, while H drove us calmly out of Paris, after negotiating various bewildering aspects of French bureaucracy at the airport and rental car agency, he would be a formidable contestant on The Amazing Race. Not long after we had begun dating, we were on our way to Newark Airport in my VW Rabbit, when it broke down on Route 1. I was headed to Michigan for a friend’s wedding.  H spotted the office of a car service, persuaded the owner to awaken the off-duty driver (her son), and got me back on the road in no time.  As I waved goodbye to H, who waited beside the Rabbit for a tow truck, I had complete confidence that he and the car would make it back to Princeton safely.  From that moment, I began to see his potential as a permanent feature in my life.

Without H on this upcoming trip, I would be the Adult in Charge, and that was frightening. It had been nearly ten years since I was in Europe, but, as I tried to remind myself, I was no travel neophyte.  I had spent a summer in France during college, and as a grad student I had become accustomed to traveling throughout Europe, with friends, family, even alone. I had enjoyed it. I had not been riddled with misgivings. As for my parents, they are sturdy and capable travelers. They visited me during the year I lived in England, and we zipped around the countryside for three weeks in a rented red Ford Escort. We explored out-of-the-way castles and hard-to-reach ruins that only the locals knew about.

But we were all younger then. So much younger, it appears, when I see the photos from those trips. Still, none of us is ancient, doddering or especially fragile, and we have my daughter to help us. Even as a baby, she was a spirited and adventurous traveler. While fellow airline passengers crossed themselves during bouts of turbulence, she was all smiles, clapping her chubby hands and yelling “Whee!.” She had grown into a highly competent traveling companion. Like most of her peers, she has a facility for technology. She is her father’s daughter, and she would be a good stand-in for him. We would be fine, I told myself over and over. We would have a wonderful trip.

But then again, what if? What if one or more of us got sick? What if someone fell or met with an accident? I remember taking a flying fall on the marble steps of a Renaissance church in Italy. I couldn’t afford to do that now. What if my parents’ passports, which expired in five months instead of the recommended six, led to some difficulty? This point caused me extreme consternation, and after many calls to various European embassies that should have eased my mind, I was still worried. What if, after all these plans, we couldn’t make this trip? Or what if we did, and disaster struck? What if, what if. . .. The what ifs were exhausting me.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, similar worries dogged my parents. Our family tends to make plans eagerly for a date that appears comfortingly far-off. As the actual event nears, the second-guessing starts. It’s tempting to say, “Oh, never mind. Let’s just stay home.” Stay safe, be comfortable, avoid the risk.

But the time was ticking by, and it looked like this trip was going to happen. The day arrived when Mama and Daddy drove up from Atlanta, healthy and looking good. We would be flying overseas together, first to Munich, followed by a short connecting flight to Budapest. I expected that once we were on the plane, my worries would vanish. The river cruises cater to a predominately elderly clientele because so many of the usual travel worries simply disappear.  We would be in the capable hands of the Viking River Cruise staff.  The ship would be our well-equipped floating hotel.  On land, we would, no doubt, be herded onto “motor coaches” like preschoolers on a field trip, but unlike H, I was fine with that.

The weeks of worry were at an end.  We would soon be flying to Hungary.

On the left bank, the hills of Buda. On the right, Pest, with the dome of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building.


Back When the Movies were Big, and the Theatre was a Palace: Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox

My trove of movie memories was neatly packed, sealed, and hidden away in my mind, and it took a while to access them. I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of home viewing, of DVDs, streaming video and Tivo, that I had nearly forgotten the thrill of the old-time movie-going experience.

Having grown up in Atlanta during the 60s and 70s, my most colorful movie memories center on the Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929. Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Mosque, national Shriners’ headquarters, its flamboyant style is best described as Islamic with touches of Egyptian. When escalating costs jeopardized the project, William Fox stepped in and oversaw the completion of the building as his newest movie palace. The fanciful exterior is a wealth of onion domes, minarets, ornate tile work and arched colonnades.

The movie that stands out most clearly among the many I saw at the Fox was, strangely, a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South, truly a remnant from another world. I was with a group of fifth-grade friends, and it was the first time a parent had dropped us off at the theatre. Maybe the movie was chosen by that parent simply for its “G” rating. Had we been younger, we might have taken some delight in the singing, dancing, southern dialect-spewing animals of the Uncle Remus stories. We were mature enough to be uncomfortable watching wise and contented former slaves extolling the joys of life on the old plantation. (Because it is now generally considered a racially offensive film, it has never been released in its entirety on VHS or DVD.)

The movie wasn’t a good fit for us, but it didn’t matter, because the Fox Theatre was dazzling. Gilded opulence was everywhere, from the box office window, to the concession stand to the luxurious Ladies’ Lounge (no mere utilitarian restrooms for the Fox). The auditorium was vast and atmospheric, with nearly 5,000 seats. It resembled an enchanted courtyard from the Arabian Nights. Before the movie began, we marveled at the gradually darkening and slowly rotating twilight sky above, flickering with crystal stars and the occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Just before show time, the famous pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit. The second-largest theatre organ in the U.S., it filled the great space with the music of an entire orchestra, a variety of brass instruments and sound effects, such as thunder and lightning.

By the mid 70s, as potential movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, the Fox was struggling financially. Down at the heels and seedy, it had become the Blanche DuBois of movie palaces. The City of Atlanta, always quick to move on in the name of progress, proposed demolishing the theatre to make way for Southern Bell’s new headquarters. This plan awakened Atlantans, at long last, to the urgent need for hometown historic preservation. (The city’s once-magnificent Terminal Station, designed in the Spanish Mission style by the architect of the Fox, had been torn down in 1972.)

Perhaps because so many Georgians clung to their own unforgettable memories of the old theatre, the Save-the-Fox campaign gained support quickly. The building was not only saved, but eventually fully restored. It now serves as a popular concert venue, with a film series every summer, complete with organ sing-a-longs. The historic old girl looks better than ever. Blanche has bucked up, gone through rehab, become fit and healthy. An active, happy grandmother, it looks as though she has many good years ahead.

My daughter has never been to the Fox.  My husband hasn’t either, although he and I have eaten dinner across the street at the Georgian Terrace, while crowds flocked to a performance of Celtic Woman. I hope we can catch a summer movie at the Fox this year, so H & D can see that magical, indoor amethyst sky.