Authors Posts by Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

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This past weekend started for me with a stellar performance, as usual, by the Emerson String Quartet at the Staller Center on the Stony Brook University campus. This marvelous string ensemble comes to us directly from Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center or at any given time, from other musical capitals in the world. They are, incredibly for us, in residence at Stony Brook and as part of the deal struck with SBU past president, Shirley Kenny, they give four performances a year here.

The quartet features Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate at first and second violin, Lawrence Dutton on the viola, and now Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel in 2013, playing the cello. The original group formed when they were students at Juilliard, then turned professional in 1976, and in the course of their career they have released more than 30 albums and won nine Grammys along with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. They were inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

Friday night, they played two selections by Haydn and two by Beethoven. Attending their concerts is made even more delightful for not having to drive more than a few minutes from door to door and being assured of convenient and free parking upon arrival. The audience routinely gives them a standing ovation.

Moving onto the next day, three friends and I joined up to view the 37th annual Candlelight House Tour, traditionally held on Friday evenings and Saturday daytimes, and made possible as a fundraiser by the hard work of the Three Village Historical Society. Members take care of the myriad of details from selecting to decorating the homes, along with professional help made possible by local contributions. Each year homeowners graciously allow hundreds of visitors to traipse through their rooms, checking out the decor and listening to the history explained many times over during the day by society members and helpers. This year the homes were centered in Old Stony Brook, and the weather cooperated magnificently. Many of us well remember in past years waiting in line to enter the homes in subfreezing, or snowy, or rainy or sharply windy days. Sunny Saturday was a Goldilocks day for touring: not too cold, not too hot, just right.

And if house tours are your thing, the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce has worked hard to organize the Lantern Light House Tour, this year centered in Harbor Hills. Also a fundraiser, the event is scheduled for this Saturday, Dec. 12, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Like the one in Three Village, the tour is very much a community effort with generous contributions of time and financial backing.

As if this weren’t enough activity for a satisfying weekend, we enjoyed the lighting of the splendid Christmas tree on the Stony Brook Village Green, sponsored as usual, by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization Sunday night. WMHO has been happily celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout this past year. On Jan. 19, there will be a special anniversary commemoration of the night Ward Melville hosted a dinner at the Three Village Inn for the owners of the sundry shops and unveiled his plans for the first shopping mall in America, a crescent village on the hill overlooking Stony Brook Harbor. After much good food and drink, the shop owners agreed to join the effort. The result was the picturesque Stony Brook Village Center, designed by architect Richard Haviland Smythe that we enjoy now, three quarters of a century later.

The ongoing vibrancy of the village was further illustrated by the ribbon-cutting party later that evening at the site of the latest business to join the Stony Brook shopping center. Blue Salon & Spa, formerly Legends, welcomed guests, who devoured delicious hors d’oeuvres provided by owner, Cathy Hansen, in her newly renovated salon. It was a symbolic end to the evening’s festivities.

Meanwhile in the other direction, Port Jefferson Village offered the Dickens festival last Saturday and Sunday for the 20th year. Originally the brainchild of former mayor, Jeanne Garant, churches, schools, the theater, stores and restaurants all joined together to transform the village into a Dickensian wonderland, replete with 19th century characters walking the streets and engaging the public. (And throughout December you may stop at Santa’s Workshop, a brilliant creation of the talented Pat Darling.) Encouraged by the wonderful weather, visitors came out in droves to the festival, putting Port Jefferson on the map as the glorious destination village that it is.

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If you are looking for a holiday gift that is out of the ordinary, I have a suggestion for you. In fact, this particular product has been written up recently in The New York Times in the Fashion & Style section so dramatically that it has caught people’s imagination. Perhaps that is because the giver of the gift can realize as much benefit as the receiver. Ready for the offbeat suggestion?

The Times sums it up with this headline: “The Cult of the Toto Toilet.”

What? You may say that you have had indoor plumbing all your life. You may even have a commode previously manufactured by Toto, the Japanese plumbing company. But the object of this cult, dear reader, is no ordinary bit of plumbing. If you own one, it will change your life. Let me explain.

While this Toto marvel may look the same as a regular toilet bowl as it quietly sits in the bathroom, when you lift the lid the differences become obvious. You see several buttons in a housing alongside the seat. And like many of the latest electronic luxury items, its use is intuitive. There is the on-off switch, two different buttons that regulate temperature and a couple more that control position of the flow. This seat, you see, is actually a bidet, with all the benefits brought right to your doorstep, so to speak.

Called a Toto washlet, the product has inspired unbelievable devotion. This Japanese creation boasts a heated seat, a bidet function for a thorough cleanse and, if you have one of the more recent models, “an air purifying system that deodorizes during use,” according to the Times. There is even an air dryer, virtually eliminating the need for toilet paper if you have higher tolerance for risk.

I first saw the washlet when I visited Japan seven or eight years ago. It seemed like such an upscale item, yet it was so widespread: in hotels, department stores, restaurants and airports. I was so impressed with its functionality that when I returned home I called my plumber to see if I could order one. He thought I was kidding when I described how it worked. I challenged him to call his supplier before he totally laughed me off, and then call me back with the answer. He did, 20 minutes later, and added that in addition to mine, he was going to buy one for himself.

I was not so surprised on my trip to China this past September to find such a seat in the home of a Chinese family. Though they are still a novelty here, they are more common in Asia, and they are now made by more companies than just Toto.

The installation of the washlet is a little complicated in an existing bathroom. In addition to bringing a water line to the seat, an electric outlet needs to be placed within a cord’s reach of the commode, and this is counter to the normal safety regulations for distance between electricity and water. Therefore this outlet has to be one certified for use near water, like the one near the bathroom sink used for shavers or hair dryers, and the electric line probably has to be snaked over behind the bathroom wall from the nearest source of electricity. This is not impossible, however, but it is the largest expense in making this change. I can tell you, and so can everyone who has one, that it is well worth the effort and not just as a luxury or convenience. There is a real health component.

The washlet I have is the most basic, and the entire transition cost in the three figures. But now there are many more upscale and sophisticated models. They can also be a lot more expensive. Features can include urine testing and other medical data that can then be relayed via the Internet directly to physicians.

But you can still get the stripped-down version, like the most basic model of washing machine or dishwasher, and that is quite sufficient to take you to a better place.

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In recognition of the major role small businesses play in our national economy, Saturday, the day after Black Friday and two days after Thanksgiving, has been dubbed Small Business Saturday. Small businesses play an even greater role in our local economy and quality of life, and so we urge you to shop locally this Saturday and every day for the following reasons:

This year we have partnered with the chambers of commerce to urge you to do your shopping locally.

In fact, around this time every year, I urge everyone to shop locally. This is in part self-serving, for the community newspaper benefits directly from sales in the local store. The owner or manager of that store then has the money to advertise in the newspaper, which in turn brings them more customers, which brings more money, which brings more advertising and so on.

And while the sophisticated media buyers will tell us that they need more advertising than usual because their business is off, in practical terms, for local store owners, it is hard to put out money for advertising when the dollars are not in the cash register. So, when business is good in the community, it’s good for the newspaper; the converse is also true.

The point of this, however, is that when business is good in the community, it is good for all of us. We are tied to each other inextricably, and anyone who doubts that must not be conscious. With the ending of the Cold War, small defense subcontractors here on Long Island quickly had to adjust production to serve other markets.

The idea that no man is an island has never been truer than in the economics of today’s global village, and even as we are tightly bound together on a macroeconomic level, we are much more so on a microeconomic level.

For one thing, most of the stores in our communities are managed by the owners who perhaps employ one or two local people to help them.

More often than not, the owners, too, live locally. But even if they do not, chances are they will run out during lunch to do some errands and spend their money locally.

Hence the dollars spent at home tend to stay at home, circulating and recirculating with a multiplier effect that enhances our standard of living and maintains our quality of life.

The more that dollars turn over, the more necessities, like groceries, are purchased, the more discretionary income is spent on the likes of toys and presents, the more durables, like cars and refrigerators, are bought and, finally, the more movies and concerts we attend preceded by dinner at a fine local restaurant.

There is another aspect to the charity begins at home message. Local business people have been generous toward community groups that routinely approach them for contributions.

And that, too, is in part self-serving. Many of those business people have children who play for the Little League teams asking to be sponsored. Ditto for the soccer league, the marching band, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and the myriad of talented groups in need of underwriting. Their first thought is always to appeal to local businesses for help, and those have responded in the finest tradition of giving something back to the communities.

When we think of “downtown” in our villages, we think of where the stores are congregated. If those stores are largely empty, there will soon be more For Rent signs in the windows, which in turn bring fewer shoppers and weaken each shopping center, which then tends to encourage litter, then vandalism and a continued downward spiral. Pride of place is eroded, and that is directly connected to pride of self.

Which brings me back to the basic message: Let’s all be self-serving, in the sense of helping ourselves. This holiday season, more than ever, shop locally.

Your reward will be service with a smile.

Earlier versions of this column were previously printed.

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More police cars lined the front of Lincoln Center Plaza on Monday than I have seen anywhere else on an otherwise uneventful night in New York City, and the police officers were standing shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk. It was three days after the horrific attack on civilians in Paris by the ISIS group, according to their own admission. More than 130 people in the French capital, who were doing little more than enjoying the beginning of a weekend at restaurants, a concert hall and a soccer stadium, were killed by at least eight suicide jihadists, and that number could still double if those hospitalized should die. Most of the victims were gathered to hear a rock band from California known for its wit, but now with the unfortunate name of Eagles of Death Metal, and a hostage scene ensued after gunmen burst into the Bataclan performance hall and fired into the crowd. “Carnage,” posted one concertgoer on Facebook, according to The New York Times.

So it was a welcome sight for our little group to see the extensive police presence as we walked toward the entrance to the Metropolitan Opera House and our evening performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The police were relaxed, and when we chatted with them, they told us that they were expecting a demonstration. They said that was what brought them. I asked several officers if they had ever been to an opera, and they laughed and said “no;” some offered that they would like to see one. One of our group asked if they were on overtime. They said that they were not, that they had just come on duty. We told them that regardless of the reason, we were glad to see them and hoped they would one day enjoy an opera.

The jihadists, through their despicable acts, have succeeded in alarming the world, even as messages have poured forth from all corners of the globe asserting solidarity with France. In one such instance, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, under the baton of Placido Domingo, played the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, before the matinee this past Saturday. The words to the rousing song had been inserted into each program so the spectators could sing along, and they did with feeling. Other performances, sporting events and places where crowds gathered offered such support to France from all quarters throughout the weekend. And once Monday morning dawned, the French authorities were grimly examining the extent of the destruction: physical, emotional, psychological, and economic.

Those costs are not just for France, but are felt worldwide. Police and military presences have been increased everywhere crowds assemble to reassure citizens they are protected. Tourists are not so quick to roam the globe or even to get on airplanes. Families are afraid for their distant members. Performers are reluctant to perform for crowds. Parents and educators are deeply concerned about how to explain these events to children. And triggered by profound anger and fear, more death reigns down on militants in Syria and Iraq from governments pressed to retaliate, creating more militants who will be willing to die to avenge their brethren killed in those attacks. Killing begets more killing. The world remains a dangerous place, as I suppose it has always been. Mass murder of innocents has again become part of life on the planet, winning points for the causes of the
murderers. The more gruesome the deaths, the more attention paid, the more points.

What to do?

I liked what the French celebrity, Shy’m, was quoted by The Times as saying. “After much reflection, doubt and fear, but above all a powerful and profound need to respond, to respond to fear, I decided to go onstage.” (She has concerts scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Paris.) “What has happened to France and humanity is unspeakable and unbearable, but it is out of the question to hole up and stay silent.”

If past is prologue, the intensity of this latest horror will recede, and people will, in time, go on with their normal lives—until the next time.

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A dear friend is moving away, and that is sending all sorts of shock waves into my life. For one, she is going a long distance, and while her friends are promising to visit her after she is settled in her new home, we all know that’s not the same as being able to pick up the phone and set a time to get together later that day. Also lurking in the back of our minds is awareness that she will be out of reach should we need the vital help of a friend. While we are happy for her in her choice of a next chapter in life, we are selfish in viewing sadly our imminent loss of her regular companionship.

We have known each other, she and I, for almost 40 years. We met through the newspaper, as I have met so many wonderful people, and over time our friendship developed. We share a lot of the same interests: zipping into the city with tickets to the theater and enjoying a good dinner and glass of wine before or after the performance; lustily cheering on the Yankees in their stadium; wandering through museums to chuckle over the same funny exhibits; being in awe of James Levine as he conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in Massachusetts; comparing notes after a fabulous concert by the Emersons at the Staller; playing competitive tennis singles in the good old days; and talking over problems with our children as they were growing up. The idea that she will not be easily available to share those activities makes me morose.

I am at the age where friends are, for one reason or another, leaving. While I lost my husband 28 years ago, I have always regarded that as an anomaly. Who expects one’s spouse to die at 50? But now we face a fearsome trend: Two close friends have died in the recent past, as have three first cousins; now one more friend is joining the parade of those moving away.

She is, of course, entitled to her own life. And while it is hard to forgive her for leaving, all her many friends and I understand why she is moving.

She has gone through the many-tiered ordeals of picking up roots and going elsewhere: getting her house ready and then putting it up for sale; researching movers and hiring one; sorting through her accumulated stuff of half a century and countless souvenirs dragged back from many trips in the world; taking care not to leave behind dental and medical records; shutting phone service and arranging to have mail forwarded — and heaven knows what else.

Then there is what I would imagine to be the hardest part of all: saying goodbye to longtime and maybe not-so-longtime friends.

As she ages, our friend doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone. This is one noble aspect of her character, and she believes she has found a solution to that perennial dilemma of every generation. Our times have provided facilities to meet the needs of the aging with assisted living, where an individual’s physical and mental requirements are met, even as they change with the years. And she is moving to a place where she will have her children nearby to oversee those needs but without having to be the primary caregivers. It sounds like a good deal.

Which drives the question home to the rest of us: How will we best cope with the inevitable infirmities of aging if we are lucky enough to live so long?

Reality is tough. Dealing with it is even tougher. My friend has implemented what she believes will be the least burdensome, most efficient solution for herself and her family. In so doing, she has underscored yet again her totally unselfish nature.

Not all of us are of such exalted character. We cling to our comfortable possessions and the familiar structure of our lives as if we could forestall change. But of course we cannot, and so each of us has eventually to come to terms with the endgame of our lives.

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There is a fascination with stories about the Holocaust. Maybe it has to do with trying to understand pure evil. Maybe it is an exploration of the depths of man’s inhumanity toward man. Maybe it’s a terror that could happen again, to anyone who is somehow chosen to be a victim, and that could be any one of us. And just when one thinks, “Enough, I don’t have to read or see any more of these stories,” another one comes along, bringing its own compelling detail — and the fascination continues.

Elsewhere in this newspaper, in the Arts & Lifestyles section, there is an article about a film, recently shown at Suffolk County Community College, telling the story of a different Holocaust survivor. I’m writing today about Thomas Blatt, who died this past Tuesday at the age of 88, and who was one of those escapees from the Sobibor extermination camp after a massive revolt by the prisoners. I had never heard of this particular death camp, nor of an uprising there, and so I read his obit with interest.

Blatt was 15 and his brother just 10 when they were taken from their largely Jewish village in the Lublin district of Poland, along with their parents and neighbors, and put into a ghetto by the Nazis in 1942. From there, they were deported to Sobibor, where Blatt’s family was gassed immediately after arrival. For some reason, Thomas, who was fair and blue-eyed, was pulled out of line by one of the guards and given odd jobs to do, thus being spared his family’s fate. His jobs included fixing fences, burning documents, cutting the hair of women before they were herded into the gas chambers and sorting the victims’ belongings.

“I recognized my mother’s clothes and I realized my parents were no longer alive,” Blatt said.

Six months after he arrived, there was an uprising and mass escape from the camp, with some 300 prisoners running for their lives. Only some 60 managed to survive the war, including Blatt; the other escapees were hunted down and executed by the Nazis. There had been about 150 Ukrainian guards and 15 German SS officers at the camp, and many of them were killed in the escape. The site was knocked down and bulldozed by the Germans, who were trying to hide the death camp and the event. Blatt hid for almost a year until the advancing Russian troops pushed back the German army from Poland, despite having been shot in the jaw by a Polish farmer during the escape.

Blatt eventually emigrated to Israel in 1958 and the United States a year later, ultimately settling in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he lived with his family and owned three electronics stores. Years after he had arrived in America, he was asked to testify at the trial of alleged camp guard, John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker who had been living in Ohio. Blatt wasn’t able to identify the accused, but he became a prominent witness for the prosecution with his many details about the brutality unleashed on the prisoners by all the Ukrainian guards. Demjanjuk was found guilty but died before his appeal could be heard.

“I never escaped from Sobibor,” Blatt said. “I’m still there — in my dreams and in everything. My point of reference is always Sobibor.” Described as “quiet and modest,” by a longtime friend, “Blatt suffered from recurrent nightmares and depression, and said, “Witnessing genocide is overwhelming; writing about it is soul shattering.” But according to his friend, he never harbored malice toward the Germans, the Ukrainians or those Poles who were anti-Semitic in his lifetime. He urged others to do the same. He worked tirelessly, traveling back and forth to Poland, to preserve the site of one of the few uprisings by Jewish inmates against Nazi guards during World War II.

Blatt was haunted by regret all his life for the last words he said to his mother just before they were separated at the death camp. “And you didn’t let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted to save some for today.” He fervently wished he could have instead hugged her and told her how much he loved her. Blatt, who wrote two books on the horrors of Sobibor, is survived by his three children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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Inside this issue is a treasure trove of first-hand information about the candidates and the issues in the coming election. How do I know? Because we, the different members of the editorial board of Times Beacon Record Newspapers, personally interviewed 16 people running for office across the three towns that we serve: Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington. The offices the candidates are running for are all local, which means that these are the officials who will have the most direct effect on our lives. The positions range this year from county executive and county legislator to town supervisor and town council, to highway department supervisor and family court judge.

We asked them questions without bias, seeking only to understand who they were, what they believed and what we could expect from each of them, should they be elected — or re-elected, as the case might be. The setting in our conference room was relaxed, and we hoped comfortable, with opponents for each office seated together around the table responding to questions put to them by our editors and reporters.

Sometimes there were four candidates, sometimes only one who might be running unopposed or against a shadow opponent, but mostly there were two during each session. Most of the time, the hour goes by calmly, but occasionally the opponents get testy with each other — they may even become openly hostile.

At one such session some years ago, one of the candidates invited the other out to the back parking lot “to settle things.” When the other began to take off his jacket, we quickly intervened. But there was no such flare-up this year.

The answers were timed in an attempt to get to the main ideas without running on too long. There was ample time at the end for each visitor to tell us anything more that perhaps we hadn’t elicited with our questioning.

We have written up the details of each interview in a separate article for the election section. And we discuss the candidates at the end of each hour and come to a conclusion for the endorsement.

Most of the time, the editorial group was unanimous because the choices were fairly direct. But for a couple of races, we talked over the pros and cons of each candidate at length before making the selection. These endorsements are based on both the in-depth interviews and the considerable information we know about the incumbents since we have been covering them closely throughout their terms in office. Of course, after reading the stories, you may or may not agree with our conclusions. Our job is to get you thinking.

The many hours that are given to this task, throughout the month of October, are a service for our readers. We are privileged to enjoy an extended face-to-face time with those standing for election, and we feel an obligation to pass along whatever information, facts and impressions we gather during these sessions. We sincerely hope we help in the sometimes-difficult job of casting a responsible vote.

Each year we include in the election section a sample ballot that we are able to procure, with greater or lesser difficulty, from county election officials. This year the effort took most of an entire day until we got to the right person. It was finally our art director who located the prize. We believe it was well worth the trouble, because readers have told us that it is a great advantage for them to receive the ballot at the voting poll already knowing how it is laid out.

Our editorial board is made up of staffers with different political leanings, but when we put our journalists’ hats on, we try to judge each race strictly on the merits of the opposing candidates. And while it is technically possible for me to be tyrannical about the final selections, that is almost never the case. We decide by majority rule.

Sincere thanks to the talented staff who join in this extra work each year. We truly believe that we are watchdogs for the people, and nowhere is that more necessary than in reporting about government and its office holders. We hope we have helped you, whether you read by newspaper and/or online. Now please vote.

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The Cold War is back in Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Bridge of Spies.” Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, the movie is based on a true story that I well remember for I am a child of the Cold War era during which the United States and the Soviet Union had been competing over who could amass the most lethal cache of nuclear weapons. I was 6 years old and in first grade when a movie company producing news segments that routinely preceded the featured film in theaters came to my school. This was before television. They filmed my class doing a “duck and cover” in which we pulled our raincoats over our heads and scrambled under our desktops. This action was to protect us from the effects of an atom bomb, should one be dropped on New York City by the Soviets, and the news short was shown in local theaters. I was the child in the front.

With my life as sort of bookends of that era, I crossed into East Berlin in 1989, six weeks before the Berlin Wall was torn down. I was visiting a friend whose husband was on sabbatical in West Berlin at the time, and she booked us on a bus that regularly took tourists to view the museums behind the Iron Curtain. It happened to be the weekend of the 40th anniversary of the East German state, called the German Democratic Republic, and Soviet Union general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was joining East German leader Erich Honecker for the celebrations. Stuck behind the Wall for security reasons, we witnessed torchlight parades through the streets from the bus for hours before we were able to return to the West. The woman in the seat ahead of us audibly thanked God and wanted to kiss the ground when we did.

It was an inside look at the crumbling buildings, the cameras, dogs, challenging border guards and tensions that existed in East Berlin, which my gut still recalls because it clenched at the sight and atmosphere realistically portrayed in East Berlin by Spielberg

I feel fortunate to have had that experience because we who so automatically enjoy all sorts of freedoms need to know what lacking them means to the citizenry of any country. People were killed trying to scale the Berlin Wall to escape, and “Bridge of Spies” recaptures that desperation even as it tells the story of how two Americans were freed.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his last months at the White House when Francis Gary Powers was flying his U-2 spy plane over Soviet Union airspace and was shot down. That was in 1960, when coincidentally a Soviet KGB spy known as Rudolf Abel was serving a prison term in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He had been nabbed by the FBI in what was termed the Hollow Nickel Case and was serving a 45-year sentence.

After Powers was captured the Soviets initiated a back-door effort to trade Powers for Abel, and the negotiator in that highly tense situation was, improbably, an insurance lawyer named James Donovan from Brooklyn, where Abel had lived and posed as an artist. It had to be someone without government ties, and Donovan was selected first to defend Abel in order to give him the right to a fair trial, according to the movie, and then to unofficially represent the United States in such an exchange.

With Cold War tensions high, Donovan was initially vilified for defending Abel, and death threats were made against him while his wife and children were threatened. But through a whole series of gutsy experiences, including giving up the coat off his back, Donovan was able to successfully trade Abel for two Americans: Powers and a Yale economics grad student who simply had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We who were alive then or have read about the U-2 incident know that the negotiations were ultimately successful. Powers and Abel were marched to the center of the Glienicke Bridge, which spans the narrows between West Berlin and Potsdam, and returned to the protection of their respective countries. The Yale grad student, Frederic Pryor, was simultaneously allowed to cross at Checkpoint Charlie. Yet even though the outcome is never in doubt, Spielberg manages to keep the film moving at a high frequency, largely by focusing on Donovan.

Written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman, and distributed by Disney and 20th Century Fox, the film has already garnered considerable praise. So has Hanks in this Cold War epic.

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There were highlights in each city we visited in China, and I would like to share those with you in this last installment of my trip tagging along on my son’s speaking itinerary. We flew 16 hours to Shanghai, the gateway to that huge country. Someone likened Shanghai to New York and Beijing to Washington, D.C., because the Chinese federal government is in the latter city while the former is thought of as more of a cultural and fun place.

Shanghai is dazzling for its skyscrapers, night-lights akin to Times Square and history, particularly as displayed by its impressive 19th-century architecture along the Bund on the riverfront. The western powers, that forced China open then, built their customs houses and administrative headquarters there, and now those buildings are icons of success because Chinese in corporations and government offices people them. They look out across the Huangpu River on the newest and most luxurious section of the city, Pudong, which was originally swamps and slums but now houses the Shanghai World Financial Center in futuristic high-risers and the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower.

My favorite place in the city is the Shanghai Museum, with its four floors displaying cultural relics and artifacts from more than 5,000 years ago. The architecture of the building itself symbolizes “a round heaven and a square earth.” Most impressive are the bronze items, largely for cooking and wine, that speak to the sophistication of these people thousands of years ago. Inside the museum is a large atrium from which the floors above are visible The collections may represent antiquity but the escalators efficiently carrying visitors from floor to floor convey modernity. And typical of Chinese zeal for business, there is a small gift shop on every floor in addition to the main one at the entrance. Calligraphy, pottery, jade, sculptures and bronze reproductions offer the visitor take-home reproductions of the treasures exhibited in the museum.

Shanghai is also known for a humanitarian action taken between 1933-41. At that time the city welcomed 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. Despite orders from the Nazi leaders demanding the refugees be turned over by Japan, their allies who then occupied China, the Jews were not. But Mao expelled all Westerners after his victory in 1949.

Suzhou, a half-hour bullet train ride from Shanghai, is famous for its canals and gardens. An outstanding example we enjoyed was the Humble Administrator’s Garden, a 16th-century gem with small ponds, bridges and secluded pavilions.

Hangzhou, another short train ride from Shanghai in the other direction, was termed by Marco Polo, “the City of Heaven,” and surrounds beautiful West Lake. Every evening on the lake is a sight to behold. Called “Impression West Lake,” it is a water, light and animation show created by Zhang Yimou, who co-directed the 2008 Summer Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. The entire production appears to take place improbably atop the water.

Nanjing, a walled city on the banks of the Yangzi River and in front of Purple Mountain, was next, one-and-a-half hours farther by train. Often the capital of the country through the centuries and the site of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, the city is also known for the brutality perpetrated by the invading Japanese army in 1937. Up to 400,000 people are thought to have been killed during that time which is still angry subject matter between the two countries. However, that doesn’t prevent China today from using police cars made by Honda.

We then flew a couple of hours northeast to Changchun, which is well off the tourism path. Once the capital of the Japanese–controlled state of Manchukuo, known to those who have seen the 1987 movie, “The Last Emperor,” the city is the center of car production. From here we were driven six hours, over every type of roadway from wide new highway to bumpy and twisting dirt surfaces and through thousands of acres of undeveloped forests, to a spectacular volcanic mountain jutting up against the border with North Korea. Changbaishan has a crater lake in its midst at better than 8,000 feet and is reached via a roller-coaster drive. The circumference of the mountaintop is an easy 9 miles hike, but we were severely warned not to do so lest the neighboring border guards arrest us.

Last stop was Beijing, another airplane ride southwest. There we managed to walk through the three tourist musts: the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. These have been dramatically commercialized since my last visit 10 years earlier, but they still are worthy, as is this most ancient and modern country, of everyone’s bucket list.

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How is the food in China?” That is one of the most often-asked questions when people learn that I have just returned from my trip accompanying my son (see also last week’s column). The answer is the same as it would be here: It depends where you eat. As my son was invited to speak at a half-dozen medical centers, his hosts graciously provided some meals that we enjoyed, although we didn’t always know what we were eating. Yes, the food was somewhat different from that served in Chinese restaurants here. In China, vegetables can be eaten, especially greens, at every meal with abundant tofu. Some of the dishes I had not seen before, and also some of their delicious fruits were new to us. There were fewer heavy sauces, less fried foods, lots of fish and seafood and smaller portions of meat — pork, chicken and some beef — often in combination with vegetables. Depending on the region, there was varying emphasis on sweet or spice. Dumplings were a constant, and soup with noodles came at the end of the meal. Dishes were placed on a large Lazy Susan in the center of the table, and each person plucked morsels with chopsticks as the turntable rotated. There were almost never any dairy products; many Asians are lactose intolerant.

A treat for the Chinese, and therefore for us, was “hot pot.” We sat in a restaurant at a round table, in the center of which was a heating element topped by a pot divided into two compartments. One half was for herbs floating in a consommé, the other for “spicy” — and they mean it. The wait staff brought dishes ranging from fish to meat to vegetables and tofu, all cut into bite-sized pieces. We had prepared ourselves with small bowls of spices that we had chosen from perhaps two-dozen offerings on an adjoining side bar. As the liquid boiled, we dipped in our bits of fish or spinach, much as you would with fondue. But instead of coating the food, we were actually cooking it, for a few seconds or however long we wished, then dragging it through our bowl of spices on the way to our mouths.

During our trip of more than some 3,000 miles, we visited six cities and a dramatic near-9,000-foot volcanic mountain with a crater lake in the center. The cities were Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Changchun and Beijing, while Changbai Mountain is right on the border with North Korea. All had their special sights, and all had their stories. Throughout, the people were friendly and open, spontaneously answering a smile with one of their own, and interested in us. We knew they were curious because they stood in front of us and stared, something that is not frowned upon culturally. Some of those who spoke English came up to practice and to inquire where we were from and why we had come. The majority of tourists in China, especially this past year, are Chinese which speaks to the growing middle class; most of the rest are from other Asian countries.

We moved from place to place but only rarely saw the sun and blue sky. Pollution sits atop the country like a bathing cap on a swimmer’s head. As we rode on their bullet train, a high-speed marvel traveling at some 300 kilometers per hour (about 190 mph) from Shanghai to Hangzhou, we could understand why. Through the window, we could see tall buildings with a school in their midst and children playing in the schoolyard. Adjacent to the residences were a couple of factories with thick black smoke rising from their chimneys. Beside the factories were a number of farms, their produce neatly growing in rows carefully tended by the farmers. This pattern was repeated often. There appears to be no zoning; water has to be boiled or bottled for drinking; and agriculture is poisoned by the toxic air. The people and the government well realize the situation and they are trying to rectify matters. It is a price the population is paying for their incredible economic leap forward.

An American woman, living in Beijing who grew up in Northport, told us that she and her husband were staying only one more year because they feared for their baby’s health. Why were they there at all? Both of them were making such high salaries teaching English in the schools, and household help was so cheap.

China is a land of contrasts.

Final installment next week

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