BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
(Editor’s Note: On October 24 our vibrant travel writer and friend Brigitte Treumann died after a short illness. We couldn’t resist re-reading all her columns in our archives which you will find by putting in her name on our site. Below are excerpts from some of our favorites which tell more about what an extraordinary woman she was.)
On April 9, 2016, Brigitte Treumann took Classic Chicago Readers on the first of many adventures which began in her beloved Andersonville, then ventured into Edgewater, Old Irving Park and Bowmanville. She titled her column The Perennial Biker. An archaeologist, historian and photographer, she later took enchanted readers to hidden wonders throughout the world, but here is how it first began. We could think of no better way to honor Brigitte than by her own words and a few of her incredible photographs
From her very first column:
“Among the many of Chicago’s glories are her lively, diverse, and fascinating neighborhoods. How to best visit them? Get on your bicycle and start peddling! Which is what I have done, and continue to do, throughout most of the year (unless there is a polar vortex freezing my breath or a microburst pulling trees out of the sidewalk). I love my bike and, obviously, I thoroughly enjoy biking.
I have no systematic plan when I go exploring, but sort of go whither the spirit, or my energy, drive me. I don’t have a map or compass, because one can’t get lost in Chicago.”
We asked her children Julie and John-David Treumann to tell us about their mother. Here is what John-David shared:
“Brigitte was born in Berlin in 1938, but after the war moved with her family to Munich, where her father was a bank executive. By the time she was a young adult, she’d travelled extensively in Europe and to the young state of Israel. Her early vocational life included work as a librarian, a radio journalist and an airline hostess in the earliest days of jet-age glamor. A trip to New York in the early 1960’s would mark the beginning of an enduring admiration for the United States, and would lead, eventually, to her moving to Chicago as a newlywed and, soon after that, becoming a new mother. She raised her family on the Near North Side of Chicago, but her restless intellect led soon led her to seek out her second family, in Hyde Park, at the Oriental Institute of Chicago, where she took up graduate studies. After a full day of classes on campus and corralling two young children, she spent her late nights poring over Hebrew grammar and archaeological monographs. She got her master’s degree from the “OI” and started the Alpine climb towards her PhD working on a dissertation that vividly depicted the ancient Mediterranean trade in timber and ore that kept her beloved Phoenicians on the move from Tyre to Cadiz.
“While steadily negotiating the switchbacks and crevasses of her academic pursuit, she started a career as a non-profit development professional, first at the University of Chicago, then at George Washington University and later as a consultant working with cultural and educational institutions in the U.S. and Europe and as far afield as the Near East and India. In 1997, she was awarded her Ph.D. by the University of Chicago — unquestionably her finest and proudest non-offspring moment. With her doctorate achieved, she continued a life of professional engagement, intellectual challenge and inveterate exploration, travelling extensively, encountering Sufis in Syria, taxi drivers in Jerusalem, Roma families in Leipzig, Anthroposophes in Egypt, and so on. But she always returned to her beloved Chicago, which she crisscrossed on her bicycle and explored as avidly as she travelled the rest of the world by plane, train and every other mode of transit. Her conversations with Uber drivers in Andersonville were as much a part of her life as far-flung academic conferences, archaeological excavations and spiritual awakenings. She loved Chicago and she loved the world.”
Knowing that she was such an intrepid traveler, Classic Chicago asked Brigitte to take us around the world. She told her readers in her first column on Syria: “I fell, head over boot heels in love with the country: its stark beauty, the ancient sites, the contemporary liveliness of its cities, the overwhelming majesty and elegance of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the glorious suq in Aleppo, and, of course, the hospitable and welcoming men, women and children whom I would meet on many subsequent visits.”
“I came upon my diary from October 1999 when I spent a month in the first season of the Syrian-American Joint (Archaeological) Expedition to Hamoukar, one of the largest pre-Classical mounds (tells) in Syria. Not only was I a neophyte working as an “area excavator” in such a big-league archaeological enterprise (I had previously participated in several smaller excavations in the Near East and in southern Spain), but it was also my first time in Syria.
“How could I pass up the fantastic opportunity to participate in a major excavation in Syria, led by one of the most prominent American archaeologists, McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute, the University of Chicago?”
Mac Gibson, now Professor Emeritus of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute, served on her dissertation committee. “It dealt with the distribution of forests around the Mediterranean and was one of the most brilliant and imaginative dissertations I ever read. She found little sites at the end of rivers along the coast of Spain around Malaga explored by the Phoenicians in their search for timber, and other sites in France, Italy and Sicily. I always encouraged her to write a book because her research stands as a major contribution to the field.”
She called a visit to Damascus as one of her most meaningful personal journeys.
“Undaunted by fatigue, linguistic challenge, and near total ignorance of the city’s layout, I immediately headed out in search of the mosque. I was intent on seeing the Minaret of the Bride (madhanat al-Arus) against the moonlit sky. And, al-hamdullilah (thanks be to God), I got there in time, shortly before the last prayer of the day when the mosque closes.
“At the visitors’ center, I donned the obligatory black gown, required for secular women (and men in short pants), and was admitted to the grand courtyard of the Great Mosque and eventually the mosque itself. But I lingered for a long time outside, sitting at the edge of the ablution fountain (ablution is the Islamic procedure for washing parts of the body, a type of ritual purification before entering the mosque for prayer), absorbed in the glory around me: the full moon shining on the glittering green; golden mosaics above the formal entrance to the sanctuary; the vast, white, highly-polished marble floor reflecting the shadows of the two-storied porticoes that flank the courtyard on three sides; and a flight of doves whirling around the Minaret of the Bride. I now remember that it almost brought me to tears of the happiest sort.
“Slightly dazed, I entered the mosque itself. Somewhat in sensory overload, I was just able to take in brilliant lamps suspended from the ceiling; ruby red ancient rugs spread on the ground; and the faithful moving to and fro, praying in long rows, facing Mecca.”
“I have been in, and at, the Great Mosque many times since then, always enchanted by its magnificence, but that first time will live with me forever.”
Articles recalling her trips to Egypt were favorites among our readers:
“My plans to continue upstream to Aswan and from there to Abu Simbel succeeded more marvelously than I could have possibly imagined. The road runs pretty much parallel to the Nile, following its gentle bends and curves, traversing rich agricultural land with occasional glinting vistas of the river. I have a particular memory of this early morning drive, I call it the Shapoura drive. Shapoura is an early morning fog that hovers above the ground, soon to be dispelled by the sun. I was so taken by its diaphanous nature, the filtered light, mysterious and poetic, that I then wrote a poem about it:
Mysteriously rising above the dew-soaked fields.
Softening the sharp outlines of sugar cane.
Hovering in mid-air, cloaking what is beneath.
Ancient souls breathe out, and women in red dresses
Gather greens, singing as they go.”
Brigitte told me that her favorite photo was this one of the woman and child in Egypt. Remembering how wonderful she was with little children in Chiapas, Mexico when she joined my husband John and myself on a volunteer project, it didn’t surprise me that she chose one with a child rather than one of her magnificent architectural shots.
Brigitte was one of the best grandmothers we have known. We loved reading about her trip to Europe to introduce Hazel and Hope, accompanied by their parents John-David and Julie, to her relations there.
“My big summer story this year was traveling first to Munich to be part of many entertaining familial meetings, Kaffeeklatschs (informal social gatherings where coffee is served), ice cream orgies, pretzel-munching, and sightseeing extravaganzas. My granddaughters Hazel and Hope and, of course, their parents ferried about to meet far flung German cousins, nephew, nieces, and a jolly great-uncle in his idyllic Upper Bavarian retreat. Slight language barriers notwithstanding, it was an exciting and merry experience eating under spreading chestnut trees, swimming in alpine lakes, visiting the fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein, and retracing the von Trapp family’s life in Salzburg. I do hope the girls will have sweet memories of meeting their European family and the fun they had on their first big trip abroad.”
On a subsequent trip to Berlin, we learned more about Brigitte’s family:
“Being in Berlin is always a little bit like coming home. I was born there, in what was once called Der Alte Westen (or Der Noble Westen) neighborhood of Schoeneberg in my maternal grandparents’ house. It was built by my great-grandparents in 1904 and miraculously survived the bombings of World War II. I sometimes stop by there and am always touched when I see my great-grandparents’ initials, EJM (Elise and Julius Mueseler), romantically entwined in a medallion above the façade. Trip and I marveled at the survival of the house and much enjoyed wandering around and admiring the handsome nearby vintage apartment buildings.”
She loved traveling with daughter Julie and in January 2019 she wrote about meandering in Madrid, one of her favorite cities where mother and daughter welcomed in the New Year. Known always as a glamorous dresser, she collected scarves and other treasures from exotic markets which she mixed and matched.
Paula Barker Duffy, former Director of the University of Chicago Press, called Brigitte her “go to friend when I wanted to know what was going on in the world.”
They traveled together to Bavaria and Italy in 2009 and 2012, and Paula shared a few photos of Brigitte for us:
“She was an extraordinary friend who loved intellectual challenges. She had such a deep appreciation for family. Brigitte also had such an eye for textiles and other treasures from around the world.”
Brigitte told us more about her parents through an article on 1950’s postcards of their travels through Italy:
“When I recently organized my basement I came upon a stack of elegantly bound photo albums, their solid covers in carmine red, black snake print, and a discreet linden green held together by matching silk cords. As I was turning the heavy, dark gray pages, covered with wonderfully evocative, glossy black and white postcards in sharp focus, labeled vera fotografia (genuine photography) 1953, I remembered “curating” these albums for my parents. They always enjoyed poring over each page, memories of perfect vacations on their beloved island of Ischia and sundry culture trips across Italia.”
It seemed to us she was always peddling somewhere, discovering but she also took us to front porches where she visited with some of the city’s fascinating people, including Trip Driscoll who said about Brigitte:
“Brigitte was a passionate explorer of the world and a boon traveling companion. Her curiosity and indomitable spirit took her on many splendid adventures. Sometimes those adventures required air travel and a passport, other times just a bike and a plan to search out and photograph the best sitting porches in a favorite neighborhood. Her departure from this world is a profound loss, but those of us who adventured with her carry her spirit with us.”
Her last column on August 9, 2020, was “Images of Istanbul” which she considered the “queen of cities” and had first visited with daughter Julie. Until early October, Brigitte and I walked weekly in Winnemac or Warner Park to talk about future columns. You would have loved her ideas!
Brigitte wrote: “Many centuries ago, Damascus was honored as “the earthly equivalent of Paradise.” A medieval traveler, Ibn Yubair (1145-1215), spoke of her as “bedecked in the brocaded vestments of flowers.”
Brigitte was our rose of Damascus.
As she worked meticulously on her columns, she relied on our outstanding Classic Chicago copy editor Omar Vilchez. We asked Omar to share his thoughts on the experience and some of his favorite Brigitte photographs.
“Brigitte was a true professional. Whenever she sent me stories to edit, they were organized and laid out with precise detail. You could tell she was enthusiastic about what she produced, and that enthusiasm was portrayed in her work. Her amazing stories, adventures, and the eagerness with which she shared them, will be dearly missed.”