Monday, February 03, 2020

The art of the obituary: summing up a life

Back when newspapers existed only in print, aspiring journalists had to make their bones writing obituaries. While those of literary pretensions considered this beneath them, writing obituaries actually requires mastery of the basics of good journalism--accuracy in the who, what, when, where, why, and how. And, if possible, capturing the spirit of a human being's life in just a few hundred words.

Today, many newspapers have outsourced the writing of obituaries to funeral directors and, which means much of the art is lost.

In my first newspaper job, at the Painesville Telegraph in Ohio, the readership included a large community of Finnish immigrants who came to work in the salt mines under Lake Erie. Spelling all the family names correctly in an obituary represented a mighty challenge. Some random Finnish names will give you the idea--Armas Oiva Sarkkinen, Toivo Suursoo, Jukka Kuoppamaki.

Immigrant obituaries offered the possibility for fascinating stories. When and why did they emigrate? What was the journey like? How did they meet their spouse? Where were they stationed during the war? (because there is nearly always a war in these stories).

I remember an editor telling me, "This is often the only story that will ever be written about that person. Their family members clip and save the story. You have to get every detail right." A well written obituary is sometimes the best thing in a newspaper. The drama of one person's life: pain and glory.

Friday, October 18, 2019

When Elijah Cummings sang along with Garth Brooks

This column was originally published in the Baltimore Business Journal 17 years ago (
Dec 23, 2002, edition). Cummings died on Thursday,

Cummings, from Getty Images in Politico
It takes a big man to admit he is wrong, and it takes an even bigger man to admit it in a public forum. That makes Congressman Elijah Cummings a very big man indeed.

Cummings, a Democratic congressman representing Baltimore City and Baltimore County, was recently named head of the Congressional Black Caucus. In this role he will be expected to speak up for African-Americans all across the country, especially when they may be slighted because of their race.

In a speech at a business breakfast last summer, Cummings admitted that he once was guilty of a bit of profiling 
himself. Cummings was invited with other congressmen to a reception at the White House by President Bill Clinton to hear a variety of musical acts, including Gladys Knight and the Pips and other pop music icons.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

From Cold War to independence: what we discovered in the less-traveled Europe this summer

Orthodox church in Talinn, Estonia, built by the Russians in 1900 to remind the locals, Who's your daddy. Estonians regard it as a symbol of Russian oppression and have discussed in Parliament the possibility of demolishing it.
We experienced a massive awakening this summer that came from several directions. 1. First, Cindy and I went on a two-week discovery tour of the three tiny Baltic countries that have been subjected by multiple foreign powers over the centuries, most recently by Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Third Reich--Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. As a kind of icing on the cake, we spent a couple of days in Helsinki, in Finland.

Our Baltic adventure.
These three tiny countries, with combined population of around 6 million, celebrated their independence in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now they try to survive in the shadow of Russia, which is trying to bring back all its former satellites.

Near Nida, Lithuania, on the lovely barrier island known as the Curonian Spit, which borders Russian territory.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

PG17: How to cuss politely in various Spanish-speaking countries

For any of my Spanish speaking friends, I apologize for the bad words that will appear in this blog post. But there are differences in the grossness of particular expressions from one country to another, which might be educational and useful.

A simple example is the word mierda, or shit. Argentinians tend to use this word casually in conversation. For them, it's vulgar, but not too bad. If something is no good, it's "una mierda". However, in Bolivia, when I dropped this word into conversation, I was told it was considered the height of vulgarity. I was warned not to use it casually.

In Mexico, where I lived for several years, men refer to jerks and assholes as cabrones, the literal meaning of which is cuckolds (for any young Americans reading this, a cuckold is a man whose wife sleeps around behind his back). It's definitely an insult, but Mexican men also use this word quite casually among friends, as we might use "pal" or "buddy" or, among the young, "bro". However, here in Spain, when I used it once in conversation, my friends reacted visibly. They said cabrón is extremely vulgar and insulting here, more so than in Mexico. Be careful with it.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Life and death in a Spanish village

Villanueva de Aezkoa, from
A friend of mine grew up in a pueblo about 35 miles from our home in Pamplona, in the mountains near the border with France.

His father died a few years ago, and his mother, in her 80s, was living by herself in a huge house with many rooms that she once rented out as a B&B. For many years she kept a big garden in back where she grew vegetables for the table and raised chickens and pigs.

When her health began to fail, she was diagnosed with an incurable illness. My friend's sister took a six-month leave of absence from her job to care for her mother at home.

In the last three weeks of her life, a doctor and a nurse from the national health care system came to see her every day. This despite the fact that the village doesn't have its own clinic. My friend drove the winding roads from Pamplona each night to be with her. His wife also often stayed with her. Even beating the speed limit, the drive takes about an hour and a half each way.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

10 days in Morocco: a crossroads of different cultures

We started in Casablanca, drove to Meknès and Fez, then crossed the Middle Atlas Mountains, and followed the Ziz Valley down to the Sahara at Merzouga. We made many stops all along the way. Ourzazate is Morocco's Hollywood, with natural backgrounds and some constructed ones used for movies and TV. The trip finished in Marrakesh. We took a fast train to Casablanca and spent an extra two nights there before flying back home to Pamplona.
This was a trip that I was not looking forward to. I pictured an impoverished third world country where rich foreign tourists are accosted on all sides by squads of poor beggars. I pictured endless featureless desert. I worried that I would be unable to tolerate the eight English-speaking strangers who would also be part of this tour. These worries made me realize that I am an expatriate snob and a cantankerous old fart.

But Cindy had it on her list of places to visit, and my sister Nancy and her husband, Tom, jumped at the chance to make the trip.  
First surprise: Our other eight traveling companions turned out to be fun and interesting -- four Canadians from Calgary and four members of a family from Boston and Louisville.

Group shots, Morocco
(Put your cursor on the photo above to see all the photos in the slideshow.)

Second surprise: the tour itself disrupted all of my assumptions and stereotyped expectations about North African culture and people.

Yassin, our guide, introduced us to a nomad family that hosted us in their tent with sweet tea.
Cindy organized everything through, which is a partner of National Geographic tours. One of their goals is that clients are "travelers" on an adventure of discovery, not tourists: in other words, the goal is appreciation, learning, connection, not just gawking and shopping. So we often took "the road less traveled by."

Our tour's main guide, Yassin, is a member of a Berber ethnic group, and there are three main ones in Morocco. Yassin spoke his Berber dialect, Tamazight, as well as Arabic, French, and English. He had personal relationships with many of the people we met along the way. He has been doing this work for 13 years.

A Berber nomad family we encountered on the road from Fez to Merzouga. They herd sheep and goats, and they set up their tent along the highway to invite travelers to tea for some extra income.

Our first stop on the road from Casablanca to Fez (spelled Fes by the French) was Roman ruins at Volubilis.

(Put your cursor on the photo above to see all the photos in the slideshow.)
Volubilis was important for production of olive oil, grain, and various metal ores long before the Romans took control of it. The area is still an important agricultural center.

 We stopped to visit the ancient imperial city of Meknès, famous for its elaborate gates. We also visited the palace of one of its kings, who loved horses and kept 12,000 in his stables. He also had several hundred wives in his harem.
Our guide in Meknès was from the Berber ethnic group.

Berber culture

The Berbers are the people who occupied Morocco long before the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and other invaders.

One of the things that makes Morocco different from the rest of North Africa culturally, socially, politically, and economically is that they were never dominated by the Turkish empire the way that its neighbors were -- Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.

Another difference is how much the cultures of Morocco and Spain flowed back and forth over many centuries, based on the changing politics and power. This affects language, art, architecture, and religion. For example, the minarets of Morocco -- the towers from which Islamic clergy call the faithful to prayer -- are rectangular, like those in southern Spain, where the Arabic and Muslim influence was strongest. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, minarets are circular.

France and Spain in Morocco

Arabic speaking Muslims conquered much of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) starting in the 8th century, and they ruled much of it for almost 800 years until the so-called Catholic kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, conquered Granada in 1492, and expelled all Moors who refused to convert to Catholicism. These rulers are the same ones who hired Christopher Columbus in that eventful year to find new commercial routes to the west. And in that same year, the Catholic kings expelled all Jews. Those who converted to Catholicism could stay.

Along the Mediterranean coast of Morocco today, many people speak Spanish and there are two cities that are declared Spanish soil, Melilla and Ceuta.

But south of the Mediterranean, we found French spoken by most of the people involved in the travel industry. My sister Nancy and I enjoyed using our rusty French to communicate with the local people. The French presence in North Africa began in the 17th century but expanded early in the 19th century.

We were told never to take photos of police or military or there would be problems. Here, though, they were posing to show all of the different branches of military. A few days later, in Casablanca, some naval officers began yelling at Nancy when she tried to take a picture of the entrance to the naval academy.

Fez is cool and green. Its medina (the old city, within walls), is famous for its labyrinthine streets (some 9,000) and many souks (specialized markets for rugs, pottery, shoes, clothing, etc.)

(Put your cursor on the photo below to see all the photos in the slideshow.)
Fez, Morocco

A donkey caravan in the narrow streets of the medina of Fez. Look out.
The tiny tiles in the mosaics are hand cut rather than molded.
Very narrow streets in the Fez medina.

 Our guide in Fez took us to the neighborhood in the medina where he grew up. His mother tongue is Berber, but he also spoke Arabic, French, and, of course, English.

On the dunes of the Sahara

The drive from Fez in the north to Merzouga in the south was about 10 hours, but we stopped several times for lunch or coffee or to see particular sights, such as the oases that lie in the valleys between the mountain ridges.

Some of the towns along the route have become ski resorts with architecture that looks very Swiss with steeply slanted roofs to shed snow easily. Along the roads are snow fences to prevent drifts forming on the highways.

We saw barbary apes -- a species of monkey -- at one place. They are also found on Gibraltar.

On the Sahara dunes

(Put your cursor on the photo above to see all the photos in the slideshow.)

Cindy and Tom decided to take a camel ride in the evening when we got to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara. I wasn't interested, recalling problems when riding a recalcitrant horse on another trip. Their three-hour trek took them far enough out into the dunes that they couldn't see any sign of the town. Just occasionally some other caravans. The quiet and the emptiness were impressive. I regretted not going.

The next morning, we went in a 4x4 out onto the dunes and went for a walk. It would be very easy to get lost in the dips between the dunes. It was astonishing to see how some plants manage to find water when there is apparently none to be found. And around some of the tufts of grass or bush, you could see the tracks of birds or lizards or other small creatures. Life finds its niches.

Arab traders enslaved black Africans to work in their mines and plantations in Morocco starting in the 9th century at least. Some of the descendants of those slaves, the ethnic group Gnaoua, live in the village of Khamlia, which we visited to hear them play some traditional music (click on the video above).

We learned how to take a scarf and twist it into a turban that covers the head, the back of the neck and, when needed, the face, to keep the wind-blown sand away. Morocco is very windy everywhere, all the time, it seems. The video below proves it; but this was later, at Aït Ben Haddou Kasbah. 

Hollywood of the Sahara

The casbah (can mean fort or castle or palace) at Oarzazate (pronounced wahr-ZAH-zah-tay) and the surrounding area have been used for location shots for lots of movies and TV shows -- "Babel" and "Game of Thrones", for example.

Some film and TV production studios have large sound stages here, but they also use the natural exteriors for shooting historical and fantasy dramas. I wondered if the Monty Python movies might have been shot around here, but no; those were shot in Tunisia using many of the sets from Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth."

We stopped several places along the highway from Ourzazate to Tinghir, including to see this jeweler in the slideshow below. We also saw many casbahs that face the Dades River gorge and have their backs against the cliff, for defensive purposes.

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Casbahs and oases
Hotel Tomboctou in Tinghir was filled with African art and sculpture. Each room was unique.


This is a city famous for its markets. In its heyday, it was a place to buy hashish. Not sure that's a good idea today. We spent our first evening there having dinner in one of the pop-up restaurants that are set up nightly in the main square, La Place, or Djema el-Fna in Arabic, a name which few of us could remember.

At these restaurants, you could order the traditional tagine (a kind of stew with meat or fish and vegetables, with varied seasonings) or couscous, which also had many variations. Each restaurant welcomes guests with a little song, as in the video below. Martin, the Canadian wildlife expert, makes a brief appearance in the video and politely excuses himself, in true polite Canadian fashion.

The specialty of our particular restaurant was goat's head, Grande Tête, the most expensive item on the menu at 80 dirham, around 9 dollars U.S.

Goat heads. A local delicacy. The most expensive item on the menu.

(Put your cursor on the photo above to see all the photos in the slideshow.)

We also visited two palaces and a madras, or school. The art and architecture, as you can see in the slides, is magnificent.


We took a train from Marrakesh to Casablanca and ended up in a compartment with two local guys. We started chatting with them in English. Turns out both of them were involved in telecommunications and engineering. One was more on the programming side, the other more on the construction side. With us, they spoke in English. After a while, when they were speaking in French, we commented on their conversation, and then began a lively chat in French on politics, our remarkable government, their remarkable constitutional monarchy.

Morocco on the surface is a lot more progressive, more open, than many of its neighbors, and its government seems to be a lot more stable than its neighbors. The newspapers and TV programming I saw were very timid, very much promotional. So it left me wondering if dissent was being suppressed.

Reporters without Borders ranks Morocco as having among the least press freedom in the world, ranked at 135th out of 180 (Norway and Finland rank 1 and 2, the U.S. ranks 48th). So there is a lot of censorship and self-censorship, and those who don't restrain themselves go to jail.

Tom Lukens, a huge movie fan, wanted to visit the replica of Rick's Cafe from the movie "Casablanca". The 1941 movie was shot in Hollywood on sound stages, not on location. So the Casablanca cafe is a replica of a fake, you might say. Still, it does try to capture some of the atmosphere of the film in its design. The food was good and not pricey.

It was Sunday night in Casablanca, and we went for a walk through the old medina, where local folks were stocking up for the next week's work and looking for bargains in clothing, toys, tools, and what have you. Very few foreigners or tourist types were in the crowd.

(Put your cursor on the photo above to see all the photos in the slideshow.)

The Grand Mosque

This magnificent building was designed by a French architect and constructed almost completely with local materials by local artisans and craftsmen. It is relatively new, completed in 1993. Supposedly the grand square can hold 100,000 people (totally believable), while the inside can accommodate 25,000. The scale is breathtaking, and has a dramatic setting, with the Atlantic's wind and waves buffeting its base.

Tourists are only admitted during the times between the five daily prayers. We heard tour guides speaking in French, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, German, and Chinese.

Very impressive.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

A history of the Hausser family in Cleveland

Note: I wrote this for the Hausser family reunion in 2003 and updated it in 2017. The narrative is based on public documents and interviews with family members. Corrections and suggestions are welcome, as are photos and documents. -- Jim Breiner, 2 March 2019.

Avon Lake, Ohio, 1927. Nan and Gus Hausser and "The Hungry Five" at one of the cottages on Lake Erie that members of the bakers union could rent during the summer. The twins, Kathleen (Curly) and Eileen, age 6, are on either end. Jim, age 3, is next to Curly, then Leona, 10, the oldest, next to, Ruth, 7.
It was a union of a West Side Irish family with an East Side German one when Anna Frances Lavelle and August Hausser got married Nov. 21, 1916, in St. Rose’s Church on the West Side. The bride wore a green velvet dress. Nan, as she was known, was 30, five years older than her husband and very touchy about the subject of her age. The groom, known as Gus, worked in his family's bakery. They had met at a dance. Both of them had lost their fathers when they were teen-agers and took responsibility for raising their younger siblings. Both of them were also children of immigrants, her side from Ireland and his from Germany.

While they were courting, Gus would take the streetcar across town to her home at 4116 Whitman Ave., near the old Lourdes Academy. Many times after their dates, Gus, who rose before dawn to work in the bakery, would fall asleep on the streetcar on the way home and ended up riding it back out to the West Side.

Their marriage produced five children – Leona, Ruth, Kathleen (Curly), Eileen and Jim -- and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and this is part of their story. It is a story of a family and a family business.

Gus Hausser’s roots

August “Gus” Hausser was born in Cleveland in 1891, first child of German immigrants Anna Gilles and August Hausser.

Anna Gilles, grandmother to the Hungry Five, said that her family left Germany so her brothers would not have to serve in the Kaiser’s army. In the 1880s, when the Gilleses left, the Germany of the northeast was Prussian, Protestant, and militaristic. This ideology and political philosophy clashed with that of the German Catholics in the south and west of Germany. They lived in the west, in a village called Landkern, not far from Coblenz and the Rhine River. So it was natural that Anna’s father, Anton, and mother, Maria Elizabeth (Berenz), would decide that things might be better elsewhere. At the time, 90,000 Germans a year were immigrating to the United States.

The Gilleses came from a village near Coblenz.