Saturday, December 29, 2012

Where Moth and Rust Destroy

December 29, 2012 – Where Moth and Rust Destroy

My brother and sister-in-law drive up to Dallas from the Austin outskirts with my niece and their dog Rien for the weekend. I’ve been back in the United States for all of six days and I don’t know how I feel about it. Only eight days ago I was at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. A month ago I was in Sweden. A month before that I was on a ship sailing the open sea. I try to keep from making the comparisons aloud. There’s such a fine line between relating experience and being pretentious. I bite my tongue and just tell these things to myself. The distances I’ve traveled seem unbelievable at times. What I’ve seen, whom I’ve met, and the paths I’ve taken are like fiction and poetry—unexpected in their turns and a little bit like rhymes. The memories are my own, but so far removed from this familiar place.

I look around. The trees that line my parents’ street are comforting in their grandeur. The roads are unchanged enough so I can still, and always, find my way around.  The house, with its generationally thick familial ties, beckons me inside. And I have future plans that move me onward and forward. Despite the unconditional love that hovers cloudlike in the air, I have a subtle fear of having to live here again. It’s a subtle fear that tastes like regression. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family. I even like coming back to Dallas several times a year; it’s comfortable for visiting. I always say, “It’s a great place to be from.” I lived twenty years of my life here, but Dallas seems, once again, too big a city for me.

With the noise of Lima far behind me, miles of towns and kilometers of countries passed beneath my feet, States lived in and left; I’m not sure where I belong. I’m not sure where I really want to be. After all, I’ve been tempted with the splendor of the globe. I feel both disconnected and at ease. Life is duality, right?

My culture shock in returning to my native soil is my yearning for the tranquility of Sweden, for the perfection of Croatian coffee, for the wine of Italy that no matter how cheap to buy was always good. I already miss the freedom I’d had with my travel budget—the world had seemed so accessible and adventures so affordable. That season is past. It’s time to buckle my proverbial moneybelt and settle down.

By settling down I mean living for two months in the Northwest with a friend and then staying for a yet unspecified amount of time with the aforementioned brother and his wife.

The thought of being in one place for longer than a month does have its appeal. I imagine the streams of uninterrupted time. I imagine writing a whole book (I’ve got the idea for it in mind, and surely I’m that productive). I can finally catch up on my blogs. I can read everything I’ve neglected reading.

I might have forgotten how time flies by.

I’ve already been in America six whole days when my sister-in-law Marie, art lover and artist, suggests we venture over to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to see the Lucien Freud Portraits exhibit. We leave the niece and dog with my mom and dad, and Marie, Ben my brother, Jesse my oldest sister and I take the highway to Fort Worth.  

The disjoint between the old world I’ve so recently left and the world I’ve returned to dissolves a little when I see the Richard Serra construction outside the museum. His work is easy to recognize. A tower of rusted panels stands nearly twice as tall as the museum itself. Richard Serra, I think without any doubt. I feel learned. Knowledgeable. Artistically educated. I saw Richard Serra in Spain and I’m seeing him here in Texas. The world isn’t that far apart. Everything is connected.    

There aren’t the ubiquitous signs telling us not to touch so some of us do. We venture inside the sculpture and my brother stomps his boots. The sound echoes up through the spire and my sister joins in on the percussion. I look up. The sky is the universe, the universe is us. We might have sung there inside the rusted metal. Or maybe we just hummed.

In the museum, we make our way through the permanent exhibitions and then find our way upstairs to the Lucien Freud. We split up and view the portraits on our own time, with our own thoughts.
I’m not just thinking about art. I’m not just reflecting on the layers of paint, on the depressed expressions, on the thought of what it must have been like to be the grandson of Sigmund Freud, on the portrayal of the nude form or of the muted colors, I’m also thinking of transition, place, work, life, questions, money, living and how I fit into it all. How my life is exactly what I make of it. Or don’t.

I’m the same me who left this area so long ago and I’m completely different. In fact, I’m more me than I’ve ever been before and I don’t want to lose the fullness of experience. I don’t want to stagnate. I’m outside the box and I want to stay outside. I want to be one who even says, “What box?” but always without pretention; a natural eccentric without affectation.

That’s not too much to wish for, is it?

I sneak away from the Freuds with my doubts held in my closed up hands and venture into a hall, find a back room with a chunk of art that looks like a stack of gigantic bricks. It’s an untitled piece made from Texas Red Granite. The plaque on the wall says: The universal quality of these forms in a sense makes Rückriem’s work a metaphor for the way humankind makes his way in the world.    

I stare at the piece again and raise my eyebrows. I’m not disagreeing with the plaque—to be honest I don’t really understand it--and I’m all for art being metaphor and for metaphor being art, I’m just hoping my way through the world is a little less blocky, a little more organic in form and maybe even just a little less red. I open my fists and let my doubts fall to the ground. I tuck my desires and dreams into my pockets where they’ll be safe and accessible. I know that my future is one I write myself. After all, I am universal quality, metaphor, and crazy enough to live by the seat of my pants.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

December 9, 2012 – Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

I’ve got my feet back on U.S. soil. Thousands of miles, an ocean, and time have separated me from a land I was only barely getting to know. It’s hard to stop my mind from thinking, “Only yesterday I was in Spain” or “Just a week ago I was in Rome.” Texas is my stopping off place. I’ve left things at my parents’ house that I need to collect before heading off to a cooler, damper climate. I’ve got family to hang out with and friends to visit. It’s a place to reset, catch my breath, and step off from. Although I no longer live here, and don’t necessarily want to, it’s home.
The same way Arkansas is still home to my grandparents no matter how many decades they’ve been away from it.

Sometimes home means: where you come from. So I’m home.

Texas in October has fewer mosquitoes, less smothering humidity, a lower temperature and the State Fair. There’s no State Fair that equals the State Fair of Texas. I’m saying this with all the unbiased authority of a fourth generation Texan. It’s true.

So, when two days after returning Stateside Kirk asks me if I’d like to go with him to the Fair it’s an easy answer to say sure.

The State Fair of Texas is childhood. It’s wide-eyed me and my five siblings, not knowing what to look at first, tripping after my parents through the Arts and Crafts building with the amateur photographs, paintings, watercolors, hand stitched quilts, homemade jams bedecked with all those blue ribbons for first place, reds for second, whites for third and the heartfelt yellows for Honorable Mention, past the car showrooms where if we were lucky we got to sit inside and smell that new car smell, and by the demo booths where we could learn how to make waffles, French fries, and burgers on the same griddle, sharpen knives, buy unbreakable plates or be shown how to cook the perfect bowl of rice without cooking. It’s the smell of funnel cakes, corny dogs, and fried everything. It’s the alluring, hanging bags of pink cotton candy made with sugar that seemed to melt in my mouth just by looking at it. It’s the giant Ferris wheel turning slowly round, it’s the Flying Bird Show, the Sheep Dog demonstration, the petting zoo.

The State Fair of Texas is autumn; it speaks to me of seasonal change more than an equinox, more than a solstice. It’s hard to know if the smell that hints of cooling days, longer nights, shifting falling leaves is  brought on by the tilting of the earth or something more innocent, more tangible, and much safer than the carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes—something as nostalgic as a yearly Fair. From anywhere in the world the smell of dampening leaves, chill-bit air can send me straight to homesick and take me back in time.

And here I am. A few big drops of rain hit the ground as Kirk and I head through the gates. Hold off a little longer, I think. Please. We’re in time to catch The Killdares’s, a Celtic Rock band and Kirk’s friends, show—if the rain doesn’t put a stop to it first—and early enough to walk around before they start. As we make our way through the park we collect free toothpaste and energy drink samples from the outdoor booths, make a quick run through the car showroom, and duck through the doors into the magical world of the Arts and Crafts building.  

It seems smaller than I remembered. A little more commercial. A little less magical. But that’s just me looking out at the world with older eyes. The magic still lingers in the corners of the room like a shy ghost, I can just smell it beneath the aroma of fresh roasted nuts, it’s in the gaze of a child that walks by me hand-in-hand with its parent.

Where else are you going to see sculptures made out of butter? Seriously.

I smile as I look around. “The State Fair to me,” I tell Kirk, “is the Arts and Crafts room, the stockyards, and Big Tex.”

Kirk comes every year and often more than once to catch the different shows and events; it’s habit, tradition, part of fall. He’s even got jams with Honorable Mention status here in the Arts and Crafts building and he’s won bigger ribbons in years past. For him, this is just another outing to a familiar spot where he’s a participant (while I’m just an observer), so he’s willing to keep pace with me as I retrace the footprints of my childhood.

After we’ve made it around the entire room, we go back outside. Up ahead a grey cowboy hat competes with the clouds for sky time. Everything is bigger in Texas, right? Big Tex, true to his name, is certainly big. He’s the endearing and somewhat creepy mascot of the State Fair of Texas. I stand with my head leaned back, looking up, waiting for him to move his hinged jaw and say, “Howdy, y’all, I’m Big Tex.” From this far down I might as well be a child again. He’s still grand.

Kirk chats with one of the truck show guys and I snap pictures of Big Tex. The clouds shift and a few drops of rain splat on the cement, a streak of lightning breaks the darkening sky, a distant clap of thunder sounds. 

After a while, Kirk checks his watch and we head over to the stage. Although the rain can’t decide whether to pour down or not, there’s just enough water to disagree with electrical equipment and to cancel the Killdares’s show. Kirk helps the band bring in the equipment from the state and I try to stand someplace out of the way.  

When everything is back inside Kirk and I go into the band’s break room and linger with them for a while. I’ve met some of the band before. There’s the quick catch up on How are yous and Hows it goings and some comfortable chit chat.

From here Kirk and I are going to get vegetarian food at Kalachandji’s Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant and Palace and my stomach is voting for sooner rather than later. Kirk seems to feel the same way. We say our goodbyes and see you laters and go.

Having remembered my What Makes the Fair the Fair to Me list, Kirk steers us to the stockyards on our way out. I say hi to the chicks and ducklings, look over the fence at the goats, walk down the milking cow row and lean against the fence to stare at the impressive 1335 pound Champion Big Boar Boris. He’s asleep and we let him lie.

We’re almost back to the car. We’ve made it to the exit gate where two Fair Park staffers are standing. “You just missed Ronald MacDonald!” the guy tells us.

Kirk and I exchange a glance. I smile. Neither of us really feels any worse for the missing.

“Have a good night,” I tell them, or they tell us.

I look back over my shoulder at the purple, blue, and red lights illuminating the Ferris wheel. 

A quasi-rainy evening isn’t the most happening time for the State Fair, but it’s enough to remind me of days long gone and a childhood that, although not perfect, was just about as close to perfection as a childhood could get.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Headless Ones of Madrid

December 3, 2012 – The Headless Ones of Madrid

Devilish in Bilbao

It’s sunrise over Bilbao. I bid Maman goodbye (I don’t know that a “See you later” would be truthful), climb up the stairs to the top of the bridge, cross the bridge, walk the mile or so to the Metro, take it a few stops and then get off and go up more steps to the bus terminal. I’m early so I get a coffee from the self-service machine, sit on the edge of a nearby bench, and pretend to read while I people watch. The minutes tick by and I’m just about to go find my bus’s parking slot when a shadow touches my peripheral vision. I turn my head to see who’s stepped into my personal space.

It’s a meek looking, tentative creature. “Do you speak English?” the girl asks me. She looks like she’s been traveling for weeks; a little weary, still adventure-ready, and somewhat bedraggled.

“Yes,” I tell her. It’s the truth.

“Do you know how to get to the Guggenheim?”

As a matter of fact. “As a matter of fact, I do.” I pull the Metro map from my bag, open the double fold, and point out where we are. “This is where we are now. If you take the Metro from here to here—only two stops—that’ll put you within a fifteen minute walk from the Guggenheim. Here you can have this,” I hand her the map.

She takes it tentatively. “Really?” She glances at it. “Can I walk the whole way?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I gauge it out in my head at my walking pace, “it’d be about a forty-five minute walk. But it’s only a euro twenty for the Metro,” I tell her this even though I completely understand saving those precious nickels by walking as much of all distances encountered as possible. It’s what I’ve been doing. “Oh here!” I say as I unzip my bag and pull out the map of Bilbao that I’d gotten from the hostel. “Here’s where we are. You can walk from here to here and that’s the Guggenheim right there.” It’s circled.

She looks at the map like she’s memorizing it. “This is the historical center of Bilbao.” I stick my finger over the spot. I know where it is even though I didn’t visit it. “I hear it’s really nice.” I’m starting to feel like the Bilbao English-Speaking Visitor’s Center. I pass the map to her. “You can have it,” I say.

“Really?! Don’t you need it?”

I shake my head. “I’m leaving,” I tell her. In a fit of brilliant insight, I pull out the brochure I’d gotten at the Guggenheim and give it to her as well. “It’s got the hours and the address and some information about the exhibits. You lucked out when you asked me.” I actually say that out loud. What are the odds though?

“Is it worth paying to see?” she asks about the museum.

“Absolutely!” Absolutely. “It’s amazing. You’ll love it. You won’t regret going!”

“Thanks,” she says.

“Sure!” I say. I watch her walk off with her nose pressed down to the map. She doesn’t head down into the Metro station and I wish her walking luck and good visiting.  

Roughly five hours and 247 miles later I’m in Madrid. I’ve seen more of Spain through the windows of buses than I ever imagined I would. Actually, I never envisioned that I’d come to Spain at all. It hadn’t made my Must See list for whatever reason (which seems ridiculous now). I’m glad that I’m here. I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. I could stay. Longer. Forever.

It’s a fitting country in which to end my season of travel.

Madrid is my last stop in Europe. I head Stateside tomorrow. I have mixed emotions about this. I’m ready to head back and I don’t want to leave. There are so many other places I haven’t visited, for instance, the whole rest of the world. Yet, I’m looking forward to being in one place for longer than a month. So, it’ll only be two months, but heck, I’ll take it. I have this idea that two months is plenty of time to write an entire book. Even though I know the speed at which I write. Even though I know the kind of research I need to do. I just have too many books in my head crowding up space.  

But for now, I’m here.

Once I get checked in to my hostel (I only stop for directions once and then somehow manage to find the place through a series of random turns down whichever streets I chance upon) and shown to my room--I’ve reserved a private room as a last night’s extravagance--I leave my things behind and head outside. I have the whole day to do away with as I will. I don’t have anything specific I need to see, no tours set up, no sites begging me to visit, just a day out on the town. It’s an exhilarating way to visit a new place.

I’ve snagged a city map from the hostel and use it to get to the Plaza Mayor. It’s pretty grand. It’s a nice plaza. I mean, Spiderman is there. He’s a little out of shape and looks dejected whenever he doesn’t get attention, but he’s there. I take a surreptitious picture of him because he’d yelled at someone else who’d taken a picture and not paid him for it and I don’t want to get yelled at. I don’t want to pay him either.

The headless ones of Madrid are also here. Actually, they’re old style Spanish garb mannequins that I could go stand behind as if it were I dressed that way, and have my picture made–also for a charge. I watch as several groups get their photos snapped as redressed individuals, as a couple enacts a drama with Spidey for posterity, and as another man gets startled by a real head stuck between two fake ones.
Madrid is the city of live human-statue art.  

Silver man, gold violin man, sad looking Chaplin-esque man, a muppet (?), Mickey Mouse to name a few.

Then there are the amazing balancing acts. I briefly consider this as a new line of work. Maybe one of my siblings would move here with me and we could be the hottest non-moving act of Spain. Or not. Some of these are pretty unbelievable. Also, I have a hard time sitting still.

Instead of changing the course of my life, I decide to go sit (and fidget) somewhere and have a cappuccino. I walk down Calle de Alcalá intending to see as much of Madrid as possible without making a frenzy of it. I go past more live-human art, street musicians, museums, palaces, churches, a post office, businesses, trees, non-live statues, theaters, fountains, cafés and restaurants until I finally come to the Arch of Alcalá. There’s more to see, more of Madrid, more of Spain, around the roundabout, but I’m done. I want time to sit and think about all the places I’ve been, all the things I’ve experienced, to wrap everything up into a form in my head, to see it there as live art, to understand how I’ve changed, if I have, and what that means, if anything. I want to be. I want to live. I want to be and live in this here and now. I want to sit in this moment. I just want to enjoy the last bit of Europe I have.

Fortunately, just behind me there is a café with outside seating and a good view of the sidewalk, the road, and the arch. I get a seat, order a coffee, take out my notebook and reflect.

I want to be like the wind;
able to blow anywhere I want to go.
I want to be like the sunshine;
filtering in through even the smallest spaces
filling, changing darkness, being warm.
I want to be unfetterable—
I could get around as wind, as sunshine without being trapped by things like convention or walls.
Can a cage hold the sunshine?
Can a fence hold back the wind?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are You My Maman?

November 27, 2012 – Are You My Maman?

Art is weird. Powerful. Destructive. Edifying. Surprising. Distressful. Inspiring. I wish I could remember the first piece of art that drew me out of reality and into imagination. Or out of imagination and into reality. Because art can spark an idea, a story, a dream, a nightmare. Where did the love of art begin in me? When did a form first make me cry? Or laugh. Or say, “Good god! What the hell is that?” What is it about a painting or a sculpture or a building that can draw me across countries with magnetic force? How is it that color can stop me in my tracks, make me do a double take, induce me to return for another look? When did I become so susceptible to lines and forms that I allowed them to imprint themselves on my mind? Or get them inked on my skin?

I’ve come to Bilbao specifically to see Louis Bourgeois’s Maman sculpture. And I’m thrilled by it. I’d cross any other number of seas to visit her. I’d even endure another cruise trip to get to this end point (I think). I’m captivated by long legs. Entranced with the marble eggs set inside the metallic sac. Possibly obsessed. I’ve ranted before about how this sculpture for me symbolizes embracing fear and seeing the good in what is often deemed as terrifying. (Spiders are good for the world!) I’ve gone so far in my art appreciation as to have Maman tattooed on my right ankle. It still surprises me. I never thought I’d get one. Yet, here I am, there it is. Several people have asked me what my tattoo stands for and I always warn them saying, “It’s a long story.” Because it is. It’s about art, fear, beauty, connection to my sisters and sister-in-law, death, motherhood and spiders. Sure, Maman is a statue, but it’s also an idea, a dream, a memory, a hope. Maman in some strange way acts as a reconciliation between having a nurturing nature and my lack of desire to be a mother. It’s a reminder for me to do the things that frighten me. It’s also just a really cool piece of art.

Being here in Bilbao and seeing Maman in person is like living a life out of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but one in which all the endings are good.

Seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is like the icing on the arachnid cake. I hate to admit that I’m not really up on architecture and I don’t even know who Frank Gehry is. But I look him up after my friend Erin says, “I’ve always wanted to see a Frank Gehry building up close”, and find out that he’s perhaps “the most important architect of our age” according to Vanity Fair.

When I get my audio guide at the museum and start my tour of the Guggenheim I’m informed that “every surface curves,” that Gehry “draws with a free association,” and that “robots cut and shaped the panels” because of the mathematical problems Gehry’s design made impossible for humans to solve by their own handiwork. I fall in love with Frank Gehry just a little when the voice tells me, “Frank Gehry has always found inspiration in fish” (how could I not love someone who finds inspiration there!), and that I’ll “notice the fish motif throughout the building.”

It’s an incredible place. Where has architecture been all my life? I find myself looking for the fish motif (and finding it) everywhere and not once do I find a surface, not even in the bathroom, that doesn’t curve. There’s a compelling comfort in the glasswork, stairways, windows and walls. There is a warmth in the curvature, an inviting sensualness in the concavities, a deceptive softness to the titanium outer walls.

As if Maman wasn’t enough. As if the Guggenheim wasn’t enough. Then there are the exhibits.

Off to the right of the main foyer, there’s a giant room dedicated to Richard Serra’s huge rust covered steel constructs in his exhibit called The Matter of Time. There are plaques along the walls and a side room with videos, drawings, to-scale models and long-winded explanations. Serra says, “[The Matter of Time] is the idea of multiple or layered temporalities.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but I do know that walking through the objects is fun. I skip most of the reading and just head from one construct to the other. Each one is a different shape, has “torqued ellipses, spirals, spheres, toruses” and is supposed to “engender the spatial continuum of their environment.” Serra likes to talk about his art with words like that. I like to interact with interactive art. Instead of trying to make sense of his descriptions, I wonder what it’d be like to sing from the inside of one of these (would there be a bell-like echo?). To run. To see if the differing space from top to bottom, from side to side would make me dizzy, giddy, or temporally changed. But there are too many cameras with their eyes on me, too many people around. I keep myself in check and act like a respectable art-appreciating adult (on the outside).

In another room, a small and cozy room, 1200 black and white photographs line the walls and are lit by free hanging, differing leveled, bare-faced light bulbs. Only ten people are allowed in the room at a time and I stand behind the line waiting for the attendant to wave me in. The exhibit is called Humans and is by the photographer, painter, sculptor and installation artist Christian Boltanski. When permission is granted, I enter the room with a tentative step. Some of the bulbs hang so low I have to weave carefully between them to stand up close to the walls or to move from one side to the other. The dim, glowing incandescent lights give the exhibit a fragile and sad aura. The pictures are of faces. Twelve hundred different faces. “Our faces,” Boltanski says, “are collages of the dead.” I want to look at each one. To see the expressions, to look into the eyes of the past, to gaze at the faces of people I’ll never know. To try and imagine what “fleeting experience” these photographs have captured. What lives they must have lived. What histories, what joys, what pain, what glory. But there are too many, and I can’t grasp one face to keep forever in my memory, they blend and meld and fade. This exhibit is, the voice from my hand held guide tells me, “a vanitas – a reminder of the ever-changing nature of the world and the brevity of our time in it.”

Even this viewing feels like a vanitas; sobering, beautiful, and full of stories I’ll never hear.

So much of art is sad.

So much of art is disconcerting.

Take, for instance, Mona Hatoum’s Home. Hatoum has taken common kitchen items like a colander, cheese grater, and a meat mallet and added electrical current to them “making them lethal to touch.” I stand on the safe side of a wire fence, mesmerized as the electricity surges, bringing the metal to life in a sort of horrific way. Hatoum’s added the element of sound to the scene by amplifying the buzz of electricity through speakers mounted on the wall. The exhibit is intriguing, macabre, sinister and delightful. She’s changed useful things into dangerous ones.

Maybe use is always dangerous.

The simple fence is all that separates me from death. From that fatal impulse to touch. To touch things. To touch art. To have a tactile sense of the unsafe.

It’s art as instability.

Changing comfort into menace
menace into comfort
is the trick of art
of warping
of bends and curves
lines and shadows
shapes and images.

In all its disconcerting statements about the traditional role of women, of use, of domesticity, of comfort and of danger it’s one of my favorite works of art within these walls. I don’t know what that says about me.

And then I get to Egon Schiele. Egon Schiele was influenced by Gustav Klimt and the Viennese Jugendstil and had a sad view of the world. “Everything is dead while it lives,” he said. His art is vivid, colorful, nude, bony, sallow, grieving, beautiful, plaintive and full of unflattering self-portraits. I love it.

What would art be without a reaction?

Outside, from the patio, I can see Maman. The air is refreshing. This museum, though less frantic than the ones I visited in Italy, still has so much to absorb. Art, Guggenheim style, takes all sorts of shapes and forms. In the shallow pool of water next to the museum are five fountains conceptualized by Yves Klein. They’re fire fountains and every night, gigantic flames shoot up in glory at timed intervals from early dusk until just after dark. The museum plaque says that the Five Fountains were his “most ambitious work in fire.” Yves Klein did a lot of work with fire. He did a lot of work in blue. He was also a black belt in Judo. The Five Fountains were fabricated for the Guggenheim in 1997, thirty something years after Klein’s death. I bet he’d have liked to have seen this controlled explosion of heat and light for himself.

I’m glad to see them. Flames are art too.

So is fog. Fujiko Nakaya’s Water Fog is a permanent feature of the museum since 1998. But Nakaya has been working with fog since the 1970s. She’s also the first artist to ever use fog as a medium. If that’s not greatness then I’m not sure what is. At various points of the day, a film of fog shape-shifts over the bridge, hugs up against the side of the museum, evaporates into the open air and billows around the visitors who find themselves in its way. It’s art in motion, in disorientation, in fog.

Back inside, I see the LED sign columns by Jenny Holzer the American Conceptual artist. The front face streams phrases and words in blue and red, in English and Spanish. The back face gives the same words in Basque—the forbidden language. I don’t understand it at all, but I don’t think that’s the point. I understand exactly what it means.

Art is strange that way.

I take a look around. Stretch my neck back to see upwards into the heights of Gehry’s building. Twist to gaze back into the rooms I’ve been in, at the artistry I’ve encountered today. I’m surrounded by words like oeuvre, overt, line, structure, form, allegorical encounters, solids and voids, ephemera, motif in this fishlike building that feels like it could be a home. I feel full.

Not so far away, through the double doors, down the steps, and across the bridge, a giant spider waits for me.

I’m going that way soon. I can’t stay away.

How many perfect days do you think one person is allotted in life? Is there a limit? I’ve had so many lately, and this one takes a spot at the top. I don’t want them to ever stop. But, if I have used them up, it was worth every second to have had today.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain

November 25, 2012 – The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain

Arriving to Spain is like touching down on the terrain of some newer planet. A modern planet and a more relaxed world. Italy had felt old, still restless. Unsettled and discontent. As if it were trying to attain the glory it had lost, to cling to all the greatness it still holds. Spain doesn’t feel that way to me. Maybe it’s because I can understand the national language. Maybe the relaxing is only in my posture, in the release of the straining to hear, to listen, to know. 

Maybe it’s because I brought no expectations over the border with me. It’s not exactly like coming home, but it is like meeting a good friend for the first time and knowing the days together will be enjoyable.

That said, I have no real clear picture of what Spain is, only faded-edged images of mountainsides and trees taken from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and stories of Toreadors and red-eyed, frightened, angry sword-pricked bulls. I know of the Conquistadors who bullied their way across the Americas, erected monstrous churches, and left their language to the subsequent generations. And that’s about it.

As the ferry eases into port Russell Watson’s Barcelona coincidentally, serendipitously, appropriately starts playing through my earpieces. I smile and shake my head. Spain! I never in my life thought I’d be listening to this song in the real place. The wind is a gentle breeze. The bells are ringing out. They’re calling us together. Guiding us forever. Wish my dream would never go away. Never go away. Never go away. Barcelona. Barcelona! It’s a space-world place with buildings like rocket ships and flight control towers and strange half circle sculptures.

I only stay in Barcelona one night, that’s all the time I have. In the morning, I admire just enough of the statues in the plaza near my hostel to give me the illusion that I saw something of the city. Then I’m off to the Barcelona Sants station where I climb on a bus that’s going to take me the 379 miles west and north to Bilbao.

I settle in for the seven hour trip. I’ve got music, snacks, a book, and a window seat. We drive through towns with names like Zaragoza, Logrono, and Vitoria. We pass countryside that reminds me of Joshua Tree National Park, dusty border towns of Mexico, parts of barren Peru and even some of the Texas panhandle. It’s dry land, sparse land, decorated sporadically with spots of fertility in the midst of nothing. There are old Spanish plantations, vineyards, solar farms, wind turbines. It feels like everywhere and nowhere at all. I love it.

The man sitting next to me, traveling with two women who I assume are his wife and mother, has ignored the fact that I’m listening to music and occasionally makes some light conversation. They’re from Argentina traveling to Bilbao to visit his son who is there studying Visual Arts. It’s their first time to Europe and the man is amazed by the harsh, barren, hard nature of the land.

“But aren’t parts of Argentina like this too?” I ask.

He concedes that there are, but we both stare out at the landscape because it’s captivating and austerely beautiful. The whole world is the same, I think. The whole world is completely different.

A bit of silence settles and I’ve turned my music back up when he says, “A history lesson?”

I turn the music off and fold my hands in my lap. “Okay.”

“Napoleon, you know of Napoleon Bonaparte?” I nod (thank goodness I do). “France is just above us,” he says. “Napoleon came down from France and marched through this part of Spain on his way to attack Portugal.” I look out the window at the wasteland. I bet that was one logistical mess. The man continues to tell me that because of Napoleon’s conquest of Spain Argentina rallied up enough gumption to stage a revolt and secured their independence from Spain. He includes dates and events that I don’t write down, that don’t sink into my forever memory. Now here he is, this man and his family, in this country that had been a heavy handed ruler over his, but whose conquest and influence enables him in this day to come so far from home and still speak the same language.  

It’s a short history lesson with good visuals.

For the rest of the trip, I’m thinking about armies traveling across countries in all kinds of weather, on horseback, on foot, and for subduing and conquering purposes. I’m glad to be on a bus.

In Bilbao, my seatmate and I bid each other safe travels and happy days.

I’m gathering my things while he’s hugging his son. While the women take turns hugging the son and my seatmate stands nearby with his hand on his son’s shoulder.

I swing my bag into place against my back, give a last glance backward to make sure I haven’t forgotten 
anything, wave an unseen goodbye to the man and head to my hostel. I’ve got approximately one hour to get there before the end of check-in time. The confirmation instructions had warned that once check in time had expired there was no checking in at all. So I’m hurrying up. I’m a mile and a half away and thinking it’ll be easier to walk it than to figure out how to use and pay for the transit system. If I book it, I can make it there in twenty minutes. If I take my time, I’ll still have a buffer. This distance is nothing and a leg stretch sounds nice. Ten minutes later, it starts to rain. Soft, hesitant, big drops. “Please hold off just a little longer,” I tell the sky. It’s Spanish rain. I’ve been collecting rain experiences all along the way. Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Croatia, Italy, now Spain. “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” I intone in my best Eliza Doolittle voice. And then I’m singing the words (not just in my head) in time with my rapid steps. I only have to ask for directions and totally retrace my steps once. 

I’m wondering if an hour for a mile and a half was really enough. But then I arrive to the La Salve Bridge and cross under Daniel Buren’s L’Arc Rouge and know I’m close.

Two flights in my bridge descent, I see her.


The very reason I’ve come to this place.

I stop, gasping for breath, cursing my windedness, and leaning too far over the railing in exaltation. I could leave now. I’ve seen what I came to see. All the rest, anything else is just a bonus.

“You’re beautiful,” I tell the spider.
But I have no time for a real conversation, I’ve got twelve minutes to get checked in before I’ll find myself sleeping at the legs of the giant bronze and steel arachnid.

Only slightly less out of breath than a few minutes previously, I stumble up to the door to my hostel, press my nose up against the glass and wave at the girl behind the desk. She buzzes me in.

“Are you Amanda?” she asks.

I nod.

“We were so worried about you! We tried to get ahold of you to find out where you were and when you’d arrive.”

Worried? I feel as if she’s waited up all night for me, yet it’s only just shy of 8:00. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. I’d marked a tentative five o’clock arrival time on my online reservation form. I hadn’t realized the Spanish took these check in times so seriously. “The bus took a little longer than I’d thought.”

“We called your mom,” she goes on. “You should call and let her know you made it safely.”

Oh lord, they called my mom. “I’ll call her right away.”

The girl gives me the tour, shows me my third-story bunk bed and locker, and then leaves me to get settled in. I call my mom and let her know I’m safe and where I’m supposed to be, grateful she’s not inclined towards panic and hasn’t spent her hours imagining worst case scenarios.

Once that’s all squared away, my stomach tells me that it will be thinking up worst case scenarios for me if I don’t feed it soon.

A few doors away from my two night home is a little pub called Crazy Horse. They have a salad on menu and that’s good enough for me. I sink into one of the outdoor patio chairs and look up to find that I’m right across the river from Maman.

“I’m having dinner with Maman,” I say. Probably out loud. “I’m having dinner with you,” I tell her in a low voice.

And sure enough, that’s the truth.

Here I am. There she is.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

I Like Big Boats I Cannot Lie

November 17, 2012 – I Like Big Boats I Cannot Lie

Cruise ship or not, it’s not very comfortable sleeping in a non-reclining chair. I think back fondly, wistfully to my cabin on the DALIAN. Despite the sign on the wall that says “Do not put feet on chairs” and something like “Do not try to move the chair” which I think is bolted into the floor – I eventually put my socked feet up on the seat next to me and try to curl myself into sleep. With the help of music I block out the very loud Italian group who has descended upon the room like a gaggle of geese, and find a few fitful hours of rest.

In the morning, the Loud Italian Group (LIG) is up early and off to get breakfast. Or to crinkle plastic bags for an indefinite amount of time. Or to walk by me, as one old man does, and poke my feet with his rule-enforcing finger. 
I glare at his retreating back. Seriously? I turn up my music, growl internally, and try to get back to the dream I imagined I was dreaming.

It’s no good. So I call it a night and get up.

In a situation like this, what’s called for is a cappuccino. I go to hunt one down. At the restaurant entrance, I glance at the menu. Too much stuff. It’s not as expensive as I would have imagined, but I don’t need anything extravagant. I just want a good coffee and a croissant.

There’s a restaurant steward standing by the line and I tell him in Spanish, “I’d just like a cappuccino and a croissant.”

“You can’t get that here,” he says. “You have to go to the bar for that.”

“Gracias,” I say and go to find the bar.

There are a few wait staff members milling about near the bar. There are a couple of other people sitting in the plush seats in the seating area. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to seat myself or order first. I stand in the middle of the room trying to get one of the staff to notice me. I go sit in a chair. I get back up and look for a menu. It’s no good. It’s like they’re trained to ignore. Even the girl behind the bar won’t turn around. Another couple comes in, they head straight for a side desk where I now notice a cash register, get the attention of the male staffer, order their drinks and get served as I’m telling myself, “So that’s how it’s done.”
I pretend I haven’t been standing like a witless fool for the past five minutes and go the register. The man there is my old friend who’d told me all about pilot boats in Italian the night before. He remembers my name, calls me by it as he gives me my receipt. I give him a friendly smile and go hand the paper to the girl at the bar who magically has come to life now that money has passed hands somewhere.

I get my cappuccino and a croissant.

A bite or two into my breakfast the restaurant staffer comes in and approaches me.  “Did you get what you wanted?” he asks.

“Yes, thank you,” I say, feeling the irony that now that I’m served I get attention.

He gleams at me and goes back away again. The pilot boat staffer is standing behind me talking with another staffer and I’m afraid at any minute he’ll come talk to me. It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s just I’m not feeling very social and my Italian is so limited it makes things interesting, difficult, and exhausting. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep and that always makes things even harder. If only I’d learn to just walk away. If only I’d just learn to try not to understand at all. I finish off my breakfast and beat a hasty retreat.

My plan is to go up on deck, find a quiet, lonely spot and stay out of sight for the remainder of the trip. There are ten hours to go.

Up the stairs and out in the open air, I take a walk around first. For a while I lean up against the starboard 
side railing and stare out into the blue. I’ve missed the sea. I’ve missed the changing textures of the water. I’ve missed the way the sky melts into the horizon, into the waves. Ah solitude, how I love you.

Just that quickly it’s gone. One of the LIGs comes alongside me and stares off into the distance as if that’s all he’s doing. But he doesn’t fool me. Especially when he starts talking. After I tell him that I don’t speak Italian very well he tells me that we should be able to see the shoreline of France at some point, that he’s with the Loud Italian Group for a five day Spain tour, that he’s separated from his wife (or she’s dead, I’m not sure which), that he has kids, and that he takes trips quite often.

I smile and nod politely, and when I can, I excuse myself and rush away.

The aft side is peopled, blast it all, so I go down a level and sit underneath the stairs. I’ll be out of sight. I’ll be out of the way. I’ll be in the sun. I put my music on and open my book up.  This is the life.
Then the door next to me opens and out comes my restaurant staffer. He looks down at me and smiles. I smile back, but cringe inside. We chat a little. In English and in Italian. 

He’s on a quick break and as he’s heading back inside he asks, “Do you want some water?”

“Actually,” I say, “That’d be fantastic.”

He goes back in and returns in record time with a cup of ice water. I thank him properly and then get back to my book.

The water churns out beneath the boat, the sun gathers strength, I read on.

The door opens again. It’s a different guy this time. He looks down at me and holds out a cup with cubed pineapple. “Do you want some?” he asks.

I don’t know that I’ve ever said no to fresh pineapple. “Thank you very much,” I say and take the cup.

With his act of kindness accomplished he disappears.

I enjoy the pineapple, think about moving into the shade for a while, and keep on reading.

The door opens again, it’s my restaurant friend. This time he has a foil package in his hands. “Would you like some grapes?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say. At this rate I won’t need lunch, possibly not dinner. I’ll take free fruit anytime. Thanks, Cruise boys. I open the package and start to pull off a bunch of grapes.

“No,” he tells me. “You can have the whole thing.”

“Really? Wow. Thanks so much,” I gush a little.

With my grapes, with my book, with the sun, I’m left in peace for minutes, maybe hours. I sit there long enough that I get hungry again. My boys don’t return with any other treats so I gather myself up and go to the deck bar. I order a bad for me snack and get an individual sized bottle of wine.

The guys at the bar speak Spanish and I chatter at them like a loon. I may not be bilingual, but I’m fluent enough to understand. It’s like putting on a well-worn coat. Comfortable. Warm. I wonder how it’ll be when I’m back in the States and I won’t feel guilty about not knowing the local language.

I take my wine and go sit at a table out of the main throng. When the cook hands me my snack I tell him “Gracias.”

“A ti, corazon (to you, sweetheart),” he replies, and I’m not offended by the term of endearment. It doesn’t feel like a come-on. But then again, what do I know? He tells me about his family and life at sea and I can finally ask questions and tell him I bet they’re beautiful. From across the way, the LIG old man is staring at me. I give him a friendly grimace and turn my attention back to the cook. Once we’ve gotten through his kids’ education he goes back to work and I determine to finish the last twenty pages of my book.

All the while I can feel the steady, intense, creepy gaze of the LIG. I try to ignore it. I try to act natural. But I feel vulnerable. Defenseless. Like prey among a boatful of predators. It must be the lack of sleep, the crunched-chair slumber that has me thinking in such extreme terms.

I glance around. The old man is still staring at me.

Am I ugly?

Am I beautiful?

Do I have something in my teeth?

These are the questions I write in my notebook to make a mockery of myself.

I finish my book. I finish my snack. I finish off the wine. I’m thinking about coffee again.

Just when I’ve decided to get up and order a cappuccino the LIG stands up and comes over. Huh, I think.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asks me.

“Uh sure,” I say, or something along those lines. There’s nothing like honesty. I figure he’ll get two coffees and we’ll chat like solitary traveling souls and that’ll be that. But he comes back with only one espresso. “Do you take sugar in it?” he asks in Italian, and he adds sugar to it and stirs it up before pushing the cup over to me. “Enjoy,” he says.

Now I’m hoping he’ll go away. He hovers for a moment. “Do you mind if I sit?” he asks.

What can I say?

He sits. “Please,” he says, pointing at the coffee, “drink.”

It’s like being on display. Awkward. “Thanks for the coffee.”

He talks to me and I listen. I figure everyone just wants someone friendly to talk to. Why do I have to look so friendly? It really messes with my need for solitude. It’s a long standing problem. I should work to resolve it.

“Tu ves bellisima (you are beautiful),” he says, apropos of nothing. The language slows me down. Keeps me from understanding what’s going on. Dulls the words, make them a simple compliment and nothing more.

“Uh, thanks,” I say, thinking I’m probably the only non-attached single female on this ship.

He reminds me that he’s separated, traveling, out seeing things. He asks me if I have a boyfriend. I lie and say I do. “He’s back at home,” I say.

The old man takes the news in stride. When my coffee is drunk I collect my things. I’m looking for the words to say thanks and then gracefully break away when he says, “Would you like to take a walk?”

Okay... I think. We can make one round and then I’ll split.

We make it halfway down the starboard side when he puts his arm around me. We make it a few steps more when he tries to kiss me. Um, hello. Wake up, little naïve thing. “No, thanks, but no,” I tell him in Italian. I know that much.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I apologize.”

I put some space between us, but he’s not that easily cowed. He goes for it again. Maybe old men are just braver. Maybe it’s just Italians. I should have known there was no such thing as Good Will Coffee. Why couldn’t the pilot boat staffer have tried to kiss me? I wouldn’t have let him get any farther, but at least he was cute.

“No, thanks, no thank you,” I say again and make more distance. I wish I had the fortitude to run off screaming dramatically. We make it kisslessly around the ship, thank goodness. He apologizes throughout. I don’t know how to tell him, “Good on you for trying.” and “They do say that persistent will get you all kinds of places, they just didn’t realize that it wouldn’t work with me.” and “I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression.”

He wants to sit on the ledge of the pool. He wants to put his arm around me again. I’m done. I’m jaded. A touch of anger stirs inside me. Just leave it, man, I think. What about my boyfriend back home? I stand. “Thanks,” I say. “I’m going to go now.” I wave in a friendly manner and leave him by himself.

I don’t have even a twinge of guilt. I’m angry at him, the lonely old lecher. I’m angry at myself for missing the signs. For being oblivious. For being too innocent when I should know better.

Rule Number One, I chide myself. Say no to everything. Including coffee.

I sigh.

And another thing, if they tell you you look beautiful – in any language – that’s a warning sign.

I sigh again.

Will I never learn?

Sick with disillusionment, heavy with cynicism I find an even lower deck and hide. It’s a place that I think I’m not really supposed to be on as a passenger. But I don’t care. I’m hiding from everyone. Because I don’t have enough sense, enough jungle smarts, to be out among the animals.

Eventually the warmth of the sun evaporates the edge of anger. The familiar motion of a giant boat stills my disenchanted soul.

But the magic, if it had ever been there at all, is gone. I’ll take a freighter over a cruise any day, I think. It’s more like being at home instead of at a club where you can’t find the exit.

It wasn’t a glitch free ride from the start there either, I remind myself.

I know, I remember.

Sure, it had taken me a moment to find my place on the DALIAN, to fend off a boy or two, but I knew where I belonged, I quickly learned how to navigate and before long I fit in.

There’s just not time for that here.

“You have to go forward to go back,” Willy Wonka said. And I realize that there’s no going back. Those thirty days aboard the DALIAN can only be relived in memory, in the written word, through pictures, through the friendships I gained. If I am fortunate enough to make another voyage like that someday it’ll be perhaps on a different ship with a different crew. And, it’ll probably be a different me as well.
How can I stay the same? I’m changing every day.

I look out at the sea. This boat is a whole different kind of boat. A whole different kind of world. I turn my music back on, lean against the metal wall of the ship, and wait for us to reach Barcelona. I’d been right all along; I’m not suited for cruises.