As an unabashed Francophile, I have always taken notice of the French connection to places I have visited: The amusing presence of bidets in parts of the Sahara for example; the military-looking line up of women by a toll road outside Hanoi, armed with … baguettes. Small wonder then I would seek the same in the most French of all U.S. cities, New Orleans.

The name itself conjures many associations for me. Decades ago, I did a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Charles, Duke of Orleans, in whose name Joan of Arc lifted the English siege of Orleans in the 15th century. Seeing her statue valiantly raising her sword as a symbol of the American city certainly links to its deep French roots.

As of course, do the names of its founders, the brothers Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville who finally found the elusive mouth of the Mississippi in 1699. D’Iberville died soon thereafter, but de Bienville lived to found the city in 1718, named to honor the Duke of Orleans. By 1722, the grid plan for the city, the part now known as the French Quarter was laid out. It includes streets named Iberville and Bienville.

The brothers envisioned a great trading city on the mighty Mississippi, but who would build it? The Native Americans of the region, notably the Houma and the Muskogeans had largely already been hugely diminished by European diseases and cruelty. To populate the new “French” city, a P.R. campaign was launched to lure Europeans–that is French, Germans and Swiss–to the lush “paradise,” failing to mention infestations of mosquitos and annual flooding. Moreover, to sweeten the pot, French criminals and prostitutes were offered freedom in exchange for relocating to the colony. Then there were the Africans, brought in as slaves in the early 1700s. A cultural shift was setting in already.

To be sure, French speakers from everywhere were drawn in. Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750s after the English takeover of Canada; aristocrats fleeing France after the revolution in 1789; Haitians, both white and black, after the slave rebellion of 1791.  A happening success culturally perhaps, but from a financial standpoint, not so much. Not seeing the anticipated pot of gold, the French happily dumped the less-than-profitable enterprise on the Spanish in 1756 in exchange for military support in the Seven Years War.

So, with a Spanish flag flying over New Orleans, and Spanish language and Spanish law in place, it was a Spanish city, right? Not so much.  With the arrival of different classes and races, a population of mixed peoples, high-born, low-born, slave and free—Creole— had quickly arisen.

Mardi Gras parades, a mixing of Catholic ritual and African traditions began when the Mistick Krewe of Comus took to the streets in 1857, and is still going strong.

Music that started with slaves drumming and dancing on Congo Square morphed into brass bands, then jazz and all that came after:  honkey-tonk, swing, rock n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop.

The Acadians, or Cajuns, also created their own strong culture—with unique versions of French, music, and cuisine–steeped in their agricultural roots, on the land and bayous outside the city.  Black residents in the neighborhood of the Treme started their own parades by adopting tribal names and elaborate feathered costumes in solidarity with the Indians who had been pushed aside. Then the Yankees came, building an English-speaking enclave in the posh Garden District. So by the time the territory–still not an economic golden egg–was passed back to Napolean from Spain then quickly purchased by Thomas Jefferson for the U.S. in 1803, what manner of place was it?

My guess is, what it had been from the beginning: at heart French still. But French with a twist, closer to a culture born of Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba, than one of Paris or Montreal or, mon dieu, Washington. By weather, custom, instinct, cuisine, and music a place more Caribbean than continental.

And so, to my mind, it remains–tropical and French, but with that twist. On my family’s first trip there long ago, my father ordered milk for my young brothers to drink. The waiter at the famous restaurant, Antoine’s (established 1841), scoffed and brought them wine mixed with water.

The French Quarter, with its iconic architecture built in the Spanish style after fires burned the city down in the late 18th century, has always been considered French.And now, with its crazy Bourbon Street, its multi-colored parades, its jazz, its beignets,  its po’ boys, gumbo and jambalaya

never found on a menu in Paris, its French words in a town where the language is rarely spoken, its laissez les bons temps rouler philosophy? I see the French connection, somehow holding it all together.


On my most recent trip, we made a visit to a restaurant in the 9th ward which had been particularly devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This was at the invitation of a friend who had grown up there. Though the ward has been much restored, the address we had was on a dark and pot-holed street, and an uninviting wood fence didn’t seem to indicate a restaurant. Yet behind it was a lively, attractive space for outside dining, a happening bar filled with locals of every race, an impressive menu and a superb wine list with many French wines, and a Japanese chef. When we asked the young waiter what the restaurant’s name, N7, meant, he replied: “It’s for the national highway. The one that goes through Provence.”



This title, in a bow to the famous book by Gabriel García Márquez, is intended to draw attention to two major features of Love in the Time of Cholera: the marvelous love affair of two very old people in an ancient, unspoiled environment. The resemblance to my own story is slight, but evocative. Márquez’s lovers are very old and find themselves in the fecund embrace of the Amazon jungle. My husband and I first came a few years ago as a less old amorous pair to an ancient city in Southern France, Aix-en-Provence, and fell in love with it. We have returned  many times to renew our bonds of affection.

But this year we came in the time of canicule—heatwave, extreme weather—and find our affection tested. Rather than the overpowering humid heat of the jungle, our beloved city faces desiccation, thirst, withering. It is a city transformed.

One of our great pleasures in Aix has always been to wander the narrow streets, with medieval towers and arches bordering Renaissance beauties, such as the great clock tower in the central square, and running along side the graceful private houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, with their massive wooden doors and elegant staircases. We’ve taken comfort from the sun in their shadows and warmth from the cold in heat of their walls, reflected in the earth tones of their colors—pink, yellow, beige, terra cotta.

But in the canicule, their passing heat creates an oven, their contours quiver, and beneath, cobblestones and marble of the streets appear to melt. We are dizzy in this present, trying to find our breath.

The fountains, for which Aix is famous, reflect this new reality. In many the usual welcoming sprays are reduced to a trickle. An exception is the most famous fountain, the Fontaine de Quatre Dauphins, on rue Cardinale. After a recent renovation, it is gushing with water from the mouths of its Four Dolphins, and residents are taking advantage of it by plunging in.

At the other extreme is the fountain at the base of the statue of the “Good King,” Roi Réné, who stands as protector of his city at one end of its main, wide boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau. Among other things, Réné was a poet who enjoyed poetic sparring with his famous cousin, the Duke Charles d’Orléans, himself a renowned poet. One of Charles’ celebrated poems, Je Meurs de Soif Auprès de la Fontaine (“I Die of Thirst next to the Fountain”) perhaps finds new meaning here. Hot and thirsty citizens sit under a sparing shade at its bone-dry edge.

Everywhere we turn, it seems, we are confronted by Aix’s altered state, exacerbated by the hot sirocco winds from North Africa. At the beautiful Caumont Centre d’Art, the formal French garden with its maze, on fine days filled with visitors, is empty.

Inside, the paintings of Nicolas de Stael, featuring his year in Provence (1953-54), reflect the burning colors of the region, the colors of canicule.

At a party organized by friends in the neighboring town of Puyricard, the Provençal feast is interrupted for a great celestial moment as we watch the close passage of Mars. The Red Planet. The Burning Planet.

As the night sky is transformed, so is the city we have come to love, as we experience it through unforgiving, shimmering heat. It feels a tinge desperate, newly exposed, its drying façades showing cracks like lines in old skin. Like ours.

So, in heat, are we still in love? The charms of Aix—its beauty, music, art and architecture, its high culture, its books—are all still there. As are dear friends. Of course, we would prefer to return to them in temperate weather, under blue skies with a hint of breeze. But we now know, the heatwave is everywhere. Europe, from Scandinavia to Greece, is burning. Islands and coast lands are drowning. Giant storms spawn terror on land and sea. The Amazon forest, “lungs of the Earth,” vastly deforested, bakes and struggles to breathe. Our homeland, California, is in flames.

So will we return to this alternate Aix? Again and again, as long as we are able. We, a late-married couple, understand especially that the vows of love are taken “for better or for worse.” That includes Love in the Time of Canicule.




It’s a given nowadays that at some point in our distant ancestral past, bipedal and no doubt hirsute forebears marched out of Africa. Thousands of years later, mine showed up in Northern Europe, from whence they sailed to North America only hundreds of years ago—hardly a blink in the continuum of time.

But in the millennia between the African exodus and their establishment in the British Isles and Northern France, where were they? What were they doing?

I have no idea in specific terms. But in general terms, the limestone rocks and caves of Southern France offer rich clues to our passage from nomadic early humans to our present, early 21st century version of Homo sapiens sapiens—Sapiens for short.

I had only to look at the extravagant limestone cliff overhangs in Les Eyziers en Tayac—with what appear to be window holes in them—to see the ways that rocks and stones connect us through time. For there, below the ledges that sheltered early humans, dwellings, hotels and restaurants are still built into the same rocks. And elsewhere, in nearby Rocamadour above the Dordogne River, for example, castles and church spires tower over an entire medieval town spun from rock, making its residents truly cliff dwellers.

But our remote ancestors did not actually live inside cliffs any more than they lived in caves—which were too damp, dark and dangerous to occupy. What they did is take and make shelter there—and in many cases extraordinary and symbolic works of art—while they lived in portable shelters, rather like the Plains Indians of North America. These were easier to heat and pack up for relocation when the need arose for hunting.

Les Eyziers is the site of Le Musée National de Préhistoire of France, and as such, houses artifacts, displays and an astonishing number of flint tools which were the bedrock of the stone-age culture. But for me, hunting my ancestors, what stopped me in my tracks was the model, based on fossil remains, of a Neanderthal woman (named Wilma to be sure) and her baby. Her slightly furrowed forehead told me that it was no easy thing to bring up and protect that child in the environment in which they lived, a small ice age with tundra to live upon and herds of wild animals their best resource for survival.

But what also moved me was her coloring—reddish wisps of hair over freckled white skin and gray-green eyes. The coloring of members of my family. This, of course, is quite possible considering that for most people of European (and Asian) ancestry, Neanderthals are us. For several thousand years, beginning about 40,000 years ago, the two species, Neanderthal and Sapiens, coexisted until the Neanderthal…disappeared. There are many ideas about what happened, but one thing is certain: in part they disappeared into us. From 1%-4% of the DNA of most modern Europeans and Asians is Neanderthal.

Even as the Neanderthals were beginning to fade, an even closer ancestor, Cro-Magnon, was busy making highly sophisticated art inside caves throughout Southern Europe and the Middle East. For me, experiencing the images inside the reconstructed cave of Lascaux II was astonishing. The cave itself is small, and was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys in what is now a lush woodland. The pictures, with one exception only of animals, project colors and a realistic knowledge of the animals’ anatomy and movements that become transformed into stylized scenes of ritualistic meaning.

Many experts believe the paintings are shamanistic, and the shamans themselves are seen in the form of horses that disappear beyond the rocks, symbolizing that they themselves also go beyond the known world into one unseen. The portrayal of light, shadows and movement would be best seen by torches carried into the darkness.

Although there are also many different theories about the meaning of these cave paintings, one aspect of them seems beyond dispute: that the rock structure with its arches overhead and its narrowing passages leads the artist, and the viewer, deeper and deeper into the heart of a mystery. And that the space is a sacred one. Not unlike modern places of worship inside stone structures with domes, narrow passageways, and refracted, mysterious light.

Not unlike European Gothic cathedrals, with their high arching ribs, their stained glass windows and candles scattering holy light, their altars inside naves containing the heart of their mysteries. I sense my ancestors felt at home first in one, then migrated to the other.

Beauty and the Beast


It is a day during spring break for my grandchildren, the lucky ones, who have a lovely home, an thriving family, a marvelous school. It is a day we are sharing with those who are refugee children, who have none of the above. After playing at their house, after games and toys and selected gifts of books and a fine lunch, we all pile in a car and go to the nearby mall to see the newest hit children’s movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”

No continent nor country has a monopoly on the blatant gap that exists between its citizens who are materially blessed and those who live among them in desperation. But as I am again a visitor to Jakarta—and an avowedly “blessed” one—I am today painfully aware of how the gap becomes a gilded crevasse Asian-style.

Today I spent much time with some of these refugees, who number in the thousands here and represent only a small percentage of our fellow humans who are trying for mere survival. By fleeing impossible homelands for unknown futures, they are ensnared by separation from home and family, by poverty, uncertainty, and the imprisonment of endless waiting.

Today, I chatted and walked among them because of my daughter, Heather, who with her friend Ashley saw the need, and two years ago took on the arduous task of founding a school, a center, a gathering place for these desperate and misplaced persons trying to find a safe harbor somewhere in the world. The center is called Roshan, meaning Bright in Farsi, the most common language for its habitués who mostly come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Today while in the reception area for the school, I chatted with R., a young man from Iran who has been here for three years. He now works at the school as a guard in exchange for a room, good digs for one in his position. In decent English he tells me his story. About wanting a life for his family, about the little three-year-old daughter he left behind who is now seven, about missing her terribly. About waiting. “How is it with Mr. Trump?” he asks. “Always we hear news from Internet.”

I leave the Roshan Center to return to my daughter’s house, where S., from Pakistan, is waiting at a table in the sitting room, her round, smooth face looking up from behind her headscarf. My grandchildren and her four children are playing in various corners of the house—a palace by the standards of the shelter where they are now living. Twice S. has fled her abusive husband—a culturally courageous act, and in these circumstances, also a dangerous one. A refugee—a woman– with no means of support and no legal protection, she has tried to keep her family together under horrible circumstances.

 The first shelter she landed in kept them as virtual prisoners and often forgot to feed them or bring water. The mosquitos were so prevalent that she contracted dengue fever and was sent to a hospital while the children were left to fend for themselves. Someone contacted my daughter, who got S. released from the hospital and brought the family to her own house until a different, better shelter could be found.

Still, the abusive husband is on the prowl to find them, which makes going out very difficult and  renders it impossible for the children to return to school, where they were thriving and the girls at the top of their classes in English. For an hour S. and I sip tea together while she tries to explain her plight in the English she, too, acquired at Roshan Center, when she was able to go. “Mr. Trump?” she says, as if posing an existential question. “For me, my situation…” she shakes her head to complete the thought.

The mall where we have come for an afternoon’s distraction is a marble and gold splendor, similar to others I’ve visited in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore. We thread our way past the name brands vaunting the first-class tastes of the world’s wealthy—Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to find our plush seats in the air-conditioned theater. There, together, we watch the unfolding drama of the rough-hewn beast and the feisty girl with a wise heart in a crumbling castle where wolves in the forest and vain and heartless men from the village threaten to crush all vestiges of human hope.

Hope, and love—this is a fairy tale—prevail of course, and the children, move on to eating fancy gelato,  giggling and discussing the meaning of the story they have, however briefly, shared. Then S. and her children get back in the car to return to the shelter, where the next day it will be again impossible for the children to go to school. Where, today, they will wait. Meanwhile, my children will return to the lovely house with sunlight and a garden, the house on the other side of the crevasse, and resume their lives among the blessed, which will continue tomorrow.




The answer seems to be a resounding “Oui.”

Doug and I pulled into our beloved Aix-en-Provence a little over a week ago, and returning had the familiar feel of coming home after a long vacation.  The traffic signs, the bends in the road,the first great embrace of spraying fountains.FountainLarotonde Except we didn’t exactly know where we were going.  

This time, instead of going to the lovely country house with its shaded terraces 600 meters from the city limit where we lived last year, we were coming to a small rented apartment in the center of town. This time, instead of coming in fall when the honeyed light of summer turned the buildings golden and came to rest in the plump vegetables, we came in early spring, just at that season when the leaves seem to leap from the skin of empty branches. TreeTowerSt.J.deM

This time, while the food markets are full of first strawberries and asparagus and the usual mounds of olives, cheese, bread, sausages and wonders as far as you can see, my eyes are drawn even more to the flower markets, where the scent leads me, too.marche aux fleurs


And even more, this time, instead of wandering, and getting lost in the winding medieval streets like the ingénues we were, we go purposefully through the maze wherever we intend, brushing past the newly arrived struggling with maps. We cross town by foot several times a day (it’s easy, especially since to Doug’s relief we’ve ditched the car), hop on the bus system we know well (I even had a valid ticket) and have plugged right back in to where we left off.


 My first day back I tended to the essentials: I went to the fabulous Cité du Livre and renewed my card for the Bibliothèque Méjanes. Within minutes I had my hands on valued books I need to revisit. Next act—whip out my “fidelity” card, still valid, at the local Monoprix and save a few Euros.

 But the main sense of being back, of belonging, is not so much in plugging into a well-functioning system as it is being back in the embrace of wonderful people. There are of course, friends, like our incomparable pal Maurice who rushed to meet us at Deux Garçons (see previous blog) our first night back, who comes to films with us, who had us to dinner, and who is ever ready to bail us out of whatever mess we might be in.  

Then there are those who greet us like friends. Isa, manager at the nail salon who loves kooky sneakers and wears her hair piled up in rolls like conjugal snails, leapt to give me kisses on the cheeks, saying “Where have you been?” And, while filing my nails, coyly quizzed me as to whether I would say nice things about her in my next novel.  

There’s Anne, the manager of the one-in-a-million bookstore Book in Bar (see previous blog), who came from behind the counter to give me a big hug and say, “I just sold one of your books two days ago, so I knew you must be coming.”



 And there are all Doug’s hiking pals who arranged a “low-stress” hike just for him along an old Roman canal last Saturday because of his foot issue (7 ½ hours, but on flat terrain) and welcomed him like a long-lost member of the tribe. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” they quizzed him, knowing our stay here is a shave less than a month.Hikers


And then there  are Alain and Alexis, the Click and Clack of brotherly love in the French wine trade. When we stopped by their shop for the first time (note this is on our regular route), Alain, who was about to leave, gave us both a bear hug. “Ah, c’est vous enfin,” he said, then immediately began pulling bottles from the shelves that he remembered we had liked. “Un bon Paradis,” he said, handing one to Doug before reaching for a white Cassis he knew I would like, then moving onto some highly recommended Côtes du Rhône. We chatted briefly—about his kids, who sometimes waited in the car when he made deliveries to our house last year—about the weather. “It’s perfect,” he said. “You have brought it from California. 

When he left, we turned to chat a bit with Alexis behind the counter. He acknowledged that terrorism is up this year, and tourism is down. The state of things is not good. There are problems with the Euro, the terrible situation with refugees, a great cynicism about politics, and open talk about the break-up of the European Union. He had just been to a “dégustation” in Paris and the whole city seemed tense and afraid. 

I nodded sympathetically, instantly tuning into that French pessimism that I know so well. “What is the solution?” he asked despairingly.

Then he gave the perfect Provencal answer, adjusted to the season.

“Drink rose,” he smiled. “What else can one do?”





Virgin Mary in Cordoba

Virgin Mary in Cordoba


It began in Seville the Saturday before Semana Santa, or Holy Week. On the evening that my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I took our newly arrived Wanderland Writers group to a welcome dinner through the winding streets of the old city, we passed a local church en route. There, for the first time, we encountered members of a local parish, or a brotherhood, wearing their characteristic headgear that could be described as “desert Bedouin” waiting to follow—or carry—an enormous “float” consisting of a statue sacred to that church ( a “paso”) and mounted on an elaborate carriage.

From their home churches, floats are typically paraded through the streets on a prescribed route, including circling or entering the cathedral before returning to their home churches sanctified. In the case of this, our first procession in Andalusia, the statue was of a Jesus on the cross, so realistic one of our writers thought it was a real human and feared the throngs surrounding him meant to do harm.PaseoSev.
To announce the coming procession, floats are frequently preceded by gold and silver staffs, banners and incense burners from the church, carried by officials, and followed by very lively bands heavy on drums and horns. Most disconcertingly for North Americans unaccustomed to Spanish Catholicism, often a phalanx of the marchers wearing robes, with covered faces and pointed hoods, march in front of the floats.
These are meant to be penitents, using the hood and mask as a mark of humility and anonymity, but the costumes are identical to those of the Ku Klux Klan, which adopted them (there is no relationship between them, I have often been assured) and may be green, blue, black as well as the familiar white.white hoods
Before our several days in Seville finished, we had seen many of these processions, as well as the inside of dozens of churches lit with candles, packed with worshippers, and celebrating special masses. To some of the faithful, these rituals of Holy Week, reminders of the suffering of Christ and the promise of redemption to come, are so powerful that they emerge from church weeping. At the same time, in perfect summation of the wonderfully contradictory nature of Spaniards, Semana Santa seems to be an enormous and often joyful party.
As my husband and I left Seville and crossed Adalusia, we found the same spirit everywhere: streets crowded, bars, restaurants and “tabernas” packed, families, young people, older couples, children—most dressed in their finery—staying up late on chilly nights to applaud the processions, follow in the streets, then celebrate with food and drink.FamilyG.

While “early-bird” Americans might be ready to fold their tents at 9:30, the Spaniards, including babies in strollers and well-behaved tots folded in their parents’ arms, were just getting started.
Although Seville, once a powerhouse of trade and wealth following the voyages of Columbus, is known for its displays of gold and silver—and its lavish processions during Semana Santa, as we left Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, and Seville behind, we found much the same fervor everywhere.
In Cordoba, the original Visigoth church was taken over by the conquering Moors in the 8th C., and eventually turned into the remarkable Mosque, or Mezquita, by successive reigning Caliphs through the 10th C. The site, at the center of the most prosperous, tolerant and cultivated city in Europe, was so awe-inspiring, that after Christian Reconquest in the 13th C., the new monarchs left it alone, and new Christian church structures were simply fit inside. Cordoba’s Cathedral with gothic, Renaissance and baroque features is contained within the cascades of Islamic arches and design. Indeed, 16th C. Emperor Charles V, having given permission to rip out the center of the mosque to build the altar area and choir, is reputed to have said to the architects, “You have destroyed something that was unique to the world.”

Even knowing the Mezquita/Cathedral’s storied history (it is now a World Heritage Site), it was still jaw-dropping to see throngs of worshippers gather in front to greet hooded penitents and the intricate floats—including one of a Virgin Mary in an elaborate white gown, gold crown and long purple robe— that emerged into a holy Christian night from the perfect Moorish arch over the Cathedral’s front door.


Surely, we imagined, away from these ancient and important cities, the celebrations would be on a smaller scale. So, as we entered the beautiful, small Renaissance town of Ubeda (which, along with its sister town Baeza is also a World Heritage Site) we were in no way prepared for what would greet us. Maunday Thursday, as the day is named on church calendars, is a national holiday throughout Spain and meant to recall the night of Christ’s Last Supper. If rolling floats with Jesus suffering, his betraying companions, and his weeping mother were now our familiars, so were impassible streets, crowds of elegantly dressed citizens, and the pounding of passionate drums, the wail of horns. Little Ubeda was in every way the equal of its more famous Andalusian cousins. In fact, it added something new (at least to us).
Following the processions of floats, musicians, hooded penitents, came a formation of exquisitely dressed women wearing black from head to toe, their coiffed heads topped with combs and mantillas. Like widows, these women in black meant to invoke mourning for Jesus. MantillasU
Grenada, the luscious “Pomegranate” and last stronghold of the Moors so coveted by Queen Isabella that she finally conquered it in 1492, followed. It was our last stop in Andalusia, and, we thought, we had seen what Semana Santa had to offer. That did not take into account our garage right on the parade route being “closed for religion” for 24 hours at a stretch—nor what Good Friday had in store. We had learned from our travels that Seville, while blessed with huge quantities of gold and silver from the treasure of America, did not hold a monopoly. All the towns and cities of the region seemed to have plenty to display. It seemed to us that this display of wealth, which formed kind of foundation for many of the “pasos” must have a symbolic meaning—perhaps of balancing the messages of suffering with those of the Church’s strength.

But as the Good Friday processions rounded the corner where we were staying in Granada, we witnessed a different balance: a bedrock of gold work so dazzling we could hardly see the body of Jesus hanging on his cross. Only his nailed feet were visible beneath a cloud of incense; the gold dazzles in our sight still.


Hong Kong Tree

Decades ago, I spent a few magical days in Hong Kong, and since then have only flown over or through the airport. This time, en route to Indonesia, I thought my husband and I could break our trip with a bit of rest and a quick look at that iconic city.

I imagined crowded, crooked streets, noise, hawkers, blinking lights, noodle shops, lanes of fabulous cloth bordered by the signs of fabled tailors. In my mind’s eye, fancy hotels and glittering high rises were somewhere on the periphery, and the beckoning harbor busy with ships always in view.

As it turned out, fatigue overcame adventure and we slept more than intended. In fact, we never left Hong Kong Airport, a city in itself. Instead of the bustling, pungent metropolis, we encountered only a clean, air-conditioned version of Santaland that could put most American malls to shame.

It started with the multi-storied Christmas tree in our airport hotel. The closest comparison that came to mind was Neiman-Marcus in downtown San Francisco with a gigantic frosted tree filling its Victorian atrium. Well, a tree is one thing, but what to make of surrounding scenes of snow-covered houses, twinkling lights, colored balls—and Santas everywhere. And, of course, sales. What to think of the endless American Christmas music, 50s-style, with long-dead crooners throbbing from every loud-speaker: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and of course “Rudolph”?IMG_1237

Trying to make sense of this, I rummaged through what I know of Hong Kong—it’s famed Buddha, its British past, its (presumably) Communist present, to account for the Christmas boom.Airport Scene While pondering and waiting for our flight, two elf-like young people in seasonally red suits with Santa hats followed the moving walkway singing Christmas carols. I was with them through “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” But when they burst into “Feliz Navidad,” my Buddhist-British-Communist construct fell apart.

Landing in Jakarta, where we’ve been many times in recent years, I figured I’d be on surer ground. I figured wrong. We’d actually never been here at Christmas. Encountering streams of blinking lights, ubiquitous Santas, greetings, holiday sales, vast decorated trees, and oh, yes, did I mention American Christmas songs? in this capital of the most populous Moslem country in the world did come as something of a surprise.

I had never imagined people greeting us with “Merry Christmas” here; nor taking our grandchildren ice skating on a rink crowded with bundled-up Indonesians, many of them gliding by in hijabs;skating nor watching them climb on fake polar bears. As for Santa climbing a frosty Eiffel Tower nestled between Cartier and Louis Vuitton….Tour Eiffel

Outside the palm trees bend in a thunder storm and the bougainvillea climbs up my window sill clamoring for the sun. I strain to hear the call to prayer, as I always have on previous visits. But this time I hear “Jingle Bells” and wonder at the transformation. I try to picture other great Asian cities I’ve visited—Shanghai, Saigon, Bangkok, Singapore—and imagine them as variations on the same. That is, I imagine them with dazzling displays of Christmas greetings, none of them having to do with Christianity.

That big C writ everywhere? How about Commerce, Cash, or Capitalism—far from humility, charity and loving thy neighbor as thyself, but powerful global messages for our time.Jakarta Mall