Saturday, May 31, 2014

messina on the mind

Messina is not one of the world’s cities I would have put on my “must see” list.

If you imagine that Sicily is a deflated football being kicked by the Italian boot, Messina would be where the air needle attaches.  Up there in the far northeastern corner.

The place staggers under its history.  Settled by a group of fleeing Greeks in 800 BC.  Destroyed by the Carthaginians.  Conquered by the Romans, the Vandals, the Normans, the Berbers, and a long list of other invaders who sound as if they were auditioning for college mascot names capable of passing the smell test of the Politically Correct.

Even though it may not have made my “A List,” Messina is not a stranger to me.  It sits on the Messina Strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland.  I have known that body of water since sixth grade (Miss Dixon’s class) when I became infatuated with Greek mythology.

All of us know the story of Odysseus sailing between Scylla and Charybdis on his extended journey to return home to the faithful Penelope on Ithaca.  Well, this is where those two classic killers (a sailor-eating giant on his rock and a whirlpool that really sucked) worked their chaos.

And, of course, Messina is the city where General Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery worked out their personal rivalries -- while killing their share of Germans.  Their meeting in Messina in Patton is one of my favorite cinematic moments.

But Messina is far more than mythology and movies.  There is all of that history I mentioned earlier.

You would think the place would be knee-deep in monuments.  Unfortunately, that has been too true of the history of Messina.  It tends to end up being knee-deep in rubble.

What classic conquerors have not destroyed, modern armies and Mother Nature have.  The town was almost completely leveled by an earthquake and a resultant tsunami in 1908 -- just as the rest of Europe was in dress rehearsal for World War One.

The Sicilians set about restoring what was left of their historical city.  And then came World War Two.  American and British bombing toppled much of what had been reconstructed.

Seventy years later, it is hard to tell that the cathedral (with its roots in the 12th century) was ever destroyed.  Its new church look takes away from its ancient roots.  But the huge Byzantine style mosaics, which were designed to make the viewer seem insignificant, work exactly as intended.  They blend perfectly with the multiple blocks of tiles on the floor.

When I looked at these ancient churches, I often wonder if there was an overall design (as Gaudi had in Barcelona) or if they grew up as free-style architecture.  Probably, both.

My favorite spot was the little Norman Catalani Church with its Moorish-influenced arches and tiles.  And I know exactly why I liked it.  Its scale was human -- a place to meet with God. 

Unlike the Cathedral, where humanity appears to be an afterthought.  It is the difference between a personal relationship with one’s creator and humans constantly searching in vain for God’s presence.

When I was done with magnificent vistas and churches of varying quality, I did what I have done in most ports.  I headed off to a local wine shop to buy cheese and meat for my afternoon snack on the cruise ship.  Gorgonzola and prosciutto, in this case.  (And, yes.  The cheese on the ship is that bad.)

Now, we are on our way to Malta.  By the time you read this, I should be enjoying the pleasures of Valletta. 


Friday, May 30, 2014

last train to rome

We did not make it to Rome yesterday. 

One of the little snags of European travels is strikes.  While I was in Mexico City awaiting my flight to Barcelona, the Air France pilots went on strike.  Fortunately, they were back in the cockpit when I was ready to fly.

But I was not so lucky yesterday.  The trains were stopped due to strikes.  Well, not all of them.  Some were.  Some weren’t.  The board in the train station promised trains to Rome.

Dennis decided that he did not want to take the risk of getting to Rome only to find out we could not get back to the port in time to get back on the ship.  I was trying to see the downside of his concern.  After all, there are worse places to be left behind than in Rome.  Instead, we decided to enjoy our day in the port town of Civitavecchia -- one of Rome’s ports.

There is not much for a tourist to see in this sleepy port town.  But it is a great spot for a traveler.  Especially, for travelers who are interested in seeing Italy distilled.

Politics, for instance.

The town is plastered with posters from the recent elections to the European parliament.  I have a great photograph of a poster to share with you at some point.  It sums up the chaos that is politics in Italy. 

There are slates for 11 separate parties.  Some that did not exist during the last election.  Some that will not exist for the next.  And some, like the communists who have survived the collapse of communism and Stalinism everywhere else in Europe.

Whenever I hear people in The States moan that neither major party represents their interests, I have one reply.  Italy.  Try living in a country where the interests are so fragmented that one government after another is extinguished before newspaper editors learn their names.

But, speaking of Italian communists, I have another photograph I wish I could share with you.  A large hammer and sickle hangs over the door of the local party’s headquarters.  Right next door is the municipal police department.  It appears that the revolutionary spirit has become just another cog in the bourgeois power structure.

A woman I know on the east coast of Mexico has had several conversations with me about the similarities of Mexico and Italy.  And I have noticed it again on this trip.  The town plazas.  The haphazard bureaucracy.  The indifference to time.

But there is a huge difference.  The Churches.  Not necessarily the exteriors.  Both countries are socially Catholic and have their shares of Romanesque, Baroque, and Neo-Classical facades.

It is the interiors that are different.  In France, the counter-Reformation resulted in Enlightenment-inspired interiors that are just one step short of being Episcopalian.  In Mexico, the bloodiest aspects of The Messiah’s execution and the torture of saints is played out in Quentin Tarantino technicolor splash patterns.

Not so Italy.  If bathos was a religion, Italy would be the home of its leader.  (Oh?  Really? -- He is? -- Francis, you say?  Well, I’m leaving it in, anyway.)

It may be because Italy is the home of opera that the interior of its churches look a bit like La Scala on opening night.  The lighting is dramatic.  The shadows are deep.  And saintly figures stand piously in spots of light, their shadowy profiles playing out in the middle distance.  If Saint Francis had started belting out nessun dorma, I would not have been the least surprised.

All of this would work much better with accompanying photographs, but I discovered that the internet on shore -- the free internet in gelato shops, that is -- is just as slow as the ship’s system.  If any of you have an interest in seeing them in a future post, let me know.  I am, after all, your obedient servant.

Even without the trip to Rome, it was another good day.

And, unless the cruise line manages to change our itinerary again, we will be back to Sicily for a visit to Messina -- another city that played a big part in George Patton’s military career.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

casey at bat in naples

When I strike out, I do it with style.

There are about twenty of you who will be saying “I told you so” by the time you finish this tale.  And you will have every right to do it.

I have mentioned before that I do not like the bus tours sponsored by the cruise lines.  Everything one should expect from travel (spontaneity, surprise, awe-inspiring wonder) has long ago been sucked out of what the ships euphemistically call “excursions.”  I avoid them as much as possible.

For whatever reason, I ended up on one to Pompeii yesterday.  I wish I could tell you why.

Well, I can tell you why I went to Pompeii.  It has been on my “to visit” list since I read those enthralling stories in National Geographic when I was in grade school.

You know the type.  With the graphic paintings of how Vesuvius destroyed the city and turned many of its inhabitants into fleeing fireballs.  The next photograph was inevitably a plaster cast of what had once been a Roman citizen.  A photograph with the type of detailed clarity that made National Geographic famous.

Because that twelve-year old boy stills lives on, and because of my personal experiences with the eruption of Mount St. Helens, I knew I needed to get to Pompeii.

Of course, there were other options.  In most ports, I simply head off on my own to see the sights -- or I hire a local cab driver to show me around his town.

Not yesterday.  I joined 42 of my fellow passengers in a 40-minute bus ride to Pompeii.  Where we congealed with what must have been half of the passengers on our ship along with passengers from a Costa cruise.  And, of course, there were the usual crowds that troop to Pompeii each day.

But we were not yet ready for our tour.  These ship tours inevitably start with some form of craft shop designed to separate tourists from their Euros.  In this case, a cameo workshop -- with its associated sales room.

That lasted about 30 minutes until our group formed up to push their way through the entrance gate.  I found it a bit ironic that our crowd was pushing into Pompeii in much the same way that the inhabitants in 79 AD were rushing in the opposite direction.

We then joined up with the rest of the human Neapolitan traffic jam to attempt to squeeze as many sights as we could into the hour and 20 minutes that remained.  Our guide told us that it would take three days to do justice to the site.

Instead of justice, we settled for a mad-dash to see:

  • A gladiator school
  • A bakery
  • A “fast food” store
  • The villa of a rich Roman family – complete with classic frescoes
  • A brothel – complete with frescoes of classic positions
  • A Roman bath – with two of those famous plaster casts
  • The Pompeii forum where civic and social business was conducted
The forum is featured in the photograph at the top of this post.  Along with Vesuvius in the background.  And hundreds of my fellow tourists.  I must confess that the crowds were large enough to be experience-killing.  It was worse than an amusement park.

On the whole, it was a very bad tour.  But I have learned there is joy in every experience.  And there was here, as well.  After all, I did experience a bit of Pompeii.  A bit.

There is also a moral.  Unless I am absolutely desperate, I will not set foot on another bus tour.  The only reason is to gather some impressions of my fellow travelers.  And those I have.  But they will keep for another day.  Maybe as interesting character studies.

By the time you read this, I should be in Rome -- or somewhere in its environs.  That will mark the halfway point of this cruise.

If you stick around, there should be some interesting tales from the Adriatic.  And maybe a few strike-outs.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

e pluribus unum

“I must find something honorable.”

So says Auda (played by the greatly under-appreciated Anthony Quinn) in the first act of Lawrence of Arabia.  He feels compelled to stay on the battlefield until he acquires something to honor his audacity.

I know how he felt.  I spent the day yesterday snapping shot after shot in Palermo -- hoping that I could capture the essence of Palermo or Sicily.  But all I was getting was one cliché after another.

All of the pieces were there.  Greek, Phoenician, and Roman ruins.  Norman and Hapsburg churches (Hapsburg churches where you could go Baroque on Rococo).  Moorish towers.  An Italian cathedral.  Plaques praising the virtuous revolt of Garibaldi to build the Italian nation-state (and one to take note of Verdi).

It is easy to forget that modern Italy has existed for only 150 years -- and that Sicily, with its pastiche of history, has been united with the boot for only that brief period.  The place is one big stew of conquest.  Each conqueror leaving a part of his culture behind before shuffling off the stage in favor of a new overlord.

And that is why this post is best summed up by the unassuming street sign I discovered at the entrance to a rather run-down neighborhood.  In Italian.  In Hebrew.  In Arabic.  I do not know for certain, but I suspect it was once the entrance to an area known by a term bequeathed to us by the Italians -- ghetto.  The word’s history can still cause me to shudder.

What is interesting about Sicily is that it is not what some people would love to discover: a multi-cultural area that actually works.  Sicily is not multi-cultural.

Its culture has many roots.  But it is Sicilian.  And that is one of its strengths.  Strongly Catholic.  Feverishly protective of families.  Promoter of all things tomato and olive oil when it comes to food.  And far more loyal to Sicily than the notion of Italy.

One of these days, I may share some of those cliché photographs with you.  Until then, let me lift a glass of water (because that is what I have been lifting on this trip) to Sicily.  And Palermo.

It is a great town -- with plenty to teach we Other People of the West who get tied up in trying to re-define and fragment ourselves into granfalloons.  Just so we can pick another fight with each other.

Maybe we can spend a little bit of time talking about what unites us.  That would be nice -- for a change.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

let others be bored

Yesterday was another sea day.

Some of you took umbrage at my spendthrift attitude toward cruise time; that I was wasting my time by enjoying a spot of reading.  Of course, others of you saw through my literary artifice.  I was actually slipping in other activities between my bouts of reading.  I just wanted to tell you about the book I read.

So, I will ‘fess up – as they say in my former neck of the woods in southern Oregon.  Here is what I did yesterday to while away my time.  That is, in addition to leafing through The Oregonian and The American Spectator.

The kickoff?  A full breakfast served on my verandah on a sunny Monday morning backed up by a calm Mediterranean Sea.  OK.  It is not an activity.  But it certainly set the tone for my day.

And I was then in full cruising activity mode until my head hit the pillow last night.

  • Our location guide, KK, (I am not making that up) briefed us on the highlights of Palermo, Naples, and Rome – our next three stops.
  • A digital photography course
  • 30 minutes of team trivia – where I sat by myself and would have placed first had I bothered joining a team; maybe next time
  • A stroll through the art “auction” – a clever device to sell lithographs at painting prices.  And it works.  I have bought my share in the past.  But my art collection is now on permanent loan to my nephew.  I didn’t need any more.  But, the activity is consistent with the hook I promised you for this cruise. 
  • KK tried her hand at lecturing us on Roman history.  She may have some knowledge lodged in her head, but her inability to strip her presentation of colloquialisms left what she did know locked up tighter than Hannibal Lecter’s cell.
  • A showing of the film Her – an interesting look at the classic philosophical dichotomy of materialism and idealism
  • A briefing on Microsoft’s SkyDrive – something I cannot use until I return to the world of inexpensive and speedy internet (The next time I complain about the speed of Melaque’s internet, remind me of this cruise.)
  • Dinner in my white tie costume.  My clothes were cut better than was the pork.
Usually, I would have topped the night off with one of the ship’s live shows.  But, last night’s act was a Memphis-sound rock group I have seen perform nightly in one of the ship’s lounges.  I get the impression that the act booked for last night may not have made it to the ship due to our company-imposed change in itinerary.

Speaking of that change, I ran into a rather nasty display of solipsism in the library this afternoon.  An English couple, sitting next to me on a couch, were complaining about the Tunisia port cancellation.  The wife told her husband: “When they checked in with their Jewish passports, the clerks should have told them they could not get off the ship in Tunisia.  They are just ruining it for the rest of us.”
It was when the conversation slipped from narcissism to anti-Semitism that I asked her “What if the clerks told you that Western women are not allowed in Tunisia, and that you would have to stay on the ship?”  She paused and responded: “Well, that would be silly.  There are a lot of women.  I’ll bet there aren’t even many Jews on this ship.”

At that point two facts occurred to me.  She was stupid.  And my legs worked.  So, I put a bit of sanity between the two of us.

Fortunately, those moments have been few and far between.  But they happen.  Cruise ships may be designed to be happy places, but they are still inhabited by people – with all of their foibles.

While you read this, I will be traipsing through the streets of Palermo.  With no goals.  And no expectations.  We will see how that works out.

I may miss the sea days.

e pluribus unum

“I must find something honorable.”

So says Auda (played by the greatly under-appreciated Anthony Quinn) in the first act of Lawrence of Arabia.  He feels compelled to stay on the battlefield until he acquires something to honor his audacity.

I know how he felt.  I spent the day yesterday snapping shot after shot in Palermo -- hoping that I could capture the essence of Palermo or Sicily.  But all I was getting was one cliché after another.

All of the pieces were there.  Greek, Phoenician, and Roman ruins.  Norman and Hapsburg churches (Hapsburg churches where you could go Baroque on Rococo).  Moorish towers.  An Italian cathedral.  Plaques praising the virtuous revolt of Garibaldi to build the Italian nation-state (and one to take note of Verdi).

It is easy to forget that modern Italy has existed for only 150 years -- and that Sicily, with its pastiche of history, has been united with the boot for only that brief period.  The place is one big stew of conquest.  Each conqueror leaving a part of his culture behind before shuffling off the stage in favor of a new overlord.

And that is why this post is best summed up by the unassuming street sign I discovered at the entrance to a rather run-down neighborhood.  In Italian.  In Hebrew.  In Arabic.  I do not know for certain, but I suspect it was once the entrance to an area known by a term bequeathed to us by the Italians -- ghetto.  The word’s history can still cause me to shudder.

What is interesting about Sicily is that it is not what some people would love to discover: a multi-cultural area that actually works.  Sicily is not multi-cultural.

Its culture has many roots.  But it is Sicilian.  And that is one of its strengths.  Strongly Catholic.  Feverishly protective of families.  Promoter of all things tomato and olive oil when it comes to food.  And far more loyal to Sicily than the notion of Italy.

One of these days, I may share some of those cliché photographs with you.  Until then, let me lift a glass of water (because that is what I have been lifting on this trip) to Sicily.  And Palermo.

It is a great town -- with plenty to teach we Other People of the West who get tied up in trying to re-define and fragment ourselves into granfalloons.  Just so we can pick another fight with each other.

Maybe we can spend a little bit of time talking about what unites us.  That would be nice -- for a change.

Monday, May 26, 2014

an islamist detour

We are on our way to Carthage.

That is what I would have been writing if we had stuck to our original itinerary.  But, we are not.  Instead, we docked yesterday in the unscheduled port of Olbia, Sardinia after the captain announced that we are not headed toward Tunisia.  (So much for my plan to visit three continents within one week.)

When my cousin asked if I wanted to accompany him on this cruise, the selling point was the opportunity to visit Carthage.  I am not certain of the roots of my Carthage obsession.  Maybe it was Edward Albee’s tangential reference in George’s soliloquy in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Or George Patton’s reincarnation fantasies on the battlefield outside the walls of destroyed Carthage.  Or even Cato’s repeated speech coda -- Delenda est Carthago.

Whatever it was, it was my primary motivation for signing up for the cruise.  In fact, it was the first excursion I purchased.(The lawyers amongst you may suspect that that sentence is the first element in a percolating detrimental reliance estoppel suit.  But it isn’t.)

The week before I left for Barcelona, I knew there was a very good chance that the ship would not call at La Goulette, Tunisia.  It appears that politics intrudes even on the high seas.

Several weeks ago, the Tunisian immigration authorities refused to allow Israeli passengers on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship to enter the country.  As a result, the line cancelled any further ports of call in Tunisia.

Because Tunisia had not altered its policy two weeks ago, the ship I am on (the Noordam) canceled its stop in La Goulette and docked in Olbvia -- just as we have.  Cruise lines are as smooth as politicians when it comes to discussing sensitive issues.  The cancellation letter merely referred to “ongoing issues regarding visa requirements for some of our guests.”

I am disappointed to miss walking across the battlefield where
the "Arab women stripped the dead Carthaginian soldiers of their tunics and their swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago."  But, I fully support the cruise line’s decision -- a decision that will be costly to the Tunisian tourism trade.  I would anticipate the cruise line would have made the same moral decision if the Islamists in Tunisia had banned women or Christians from coming ashore.  And the company would have been correct.

The Arab Spring sprouted in Tunisia.  And there have been some hopeful signs that its revolution may actually have introduced liberal democratic principles to one of the more economically-advanced northern African nations.  It appears that optimism may have been ill-placed.

Instead, I spent the day in a town I didn’t even know existed.  Two churches and a rather limited archaeological museum are about all it has to offer.  Even the town itself could be mistaken for main street in Iowa.

But the archaeological museum reminded me of something I knew.  Sardinia was once part of the Carthaginian empire.  Over two thousand years ago, Carthaginian settlers were good enough to make a trek across the Mediterranean and leave a few shards of their empire -- just so I could claim that I finally had contact with Carthage.

See.  It is possible to make lemonade out of lemons.  Or, at least, water with a twist of lemon.

George Patton would accuse me of settling for second best.  But, why do I care?  He’s dead, and I am on a cruise enjoying life.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

riding the rails with benito

Mussolini lives. 

Well, at least, his trains, that he famously made run on time, are still synchronized with the clock.  And, as in most countries with compact travel corridors, they are quite efficient.  If a bit Spartan.

I jumped on board the Il Duce express in Livorno to make a quick assault on Florence.  It is a three hour round trip.  But we were in Livorno for just over 11 hours.  That would give me at least 8 hours to wander through my favorite city in the world.

I have visited Florence enough times to know there is no reason to slump into culture vulture mode.  I know the sights.  And there was only one item I wanted to see on this trip -- perhaps my favorite piece of art.  Donatello’s Mary Magdalene

If you try the search function in the upper left corner, you will find previous posts where I have discussed my attraction to the piece.  It is a direct Renaissance link between Gothic stylization and modern Expressionism. 

I understand the museum curators have recently staged the statue at the feet of a modern crucifixion scene.  That is too bad.  The piece is not about grief.  At least, not other-directed grief. 

It is about the first beatitude.  The realization that on our own, we are spiritually impoverished.  And there is nothing that we can do, through our own efforts, to work ourselves out of our predicament.

Anyone who has been in a 12-step program should feel an immediate emotional link with Donatello’s creation.  And it is a perfect example that there is no distinction between emotion and thought.  Emotions are just a type of thought.

I was prepared to wax eloquent about my most recent encounter with The Magdalene, but it was not to be.  Apparently, the Duomo Museum is undergoing a major reconstruction.

So, not only did I miss my statute.  I also missed the other pieces I have come to admire.  Well, there is always another time to keep my date with my favorite lady.

Instead, I did a tourist swing through town.  The Medici tombs, where the grandiose Baroque chapel with its dark marble is put to shame with Michelangelo's simple sacristy.  That is partly due to the fact that the focus of the room is on the two tombs Michelangelo managed to finish before he high-tailed it to Rome.

I would love to share some photographs, but this is another museum that has fallen to the “no photographs” rule.  Besides, I am still stuck with the ship’s slow upload speed.

Giving a pass on Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo, was easy.  The lines for tickets to the cathedral, the dome, and the bell tower were all Disney-length.  All three are great experiences, but they are not worth the wait required to share close quarters with thousands of strangers.

The Basilica of Santa Croce had almost no wait for tickets.  And I always find it a far more satisfying experience.  One of Florence’s largest churches, it is filled with everything a viewer could want in a Renaissance church -- and more.  Mexican churches have their religious art.  But it really pales in comparison with the Florentines.  The art in Florence is museum art.

The “and more” in Santa Croce are the tombs.  It is the Westminster Abbey of Florence.  A stroll through the tombs is a quick history of Tuscany achievements.  Marconi.  Fermi.  Several Medici.  Rossetti.  Dante.  Michelangelo.  Even the father of political science -- Machiavelli.

(Seeing Old Nick’s tomb reminded me of a tale from the mid-90s.  I was walking through the church with my then-girlfriend.  When she saw Machiavelli’s tomb, she was startled.  “What is he doing here?  Didn’t he betray Christ -- or something like that?")

I even tortured myself by walking past my favorite restaurant in the world -- Enoteca Pinchorri.  And, no, it didn’t make me feel any better that I could not stay for dinner.  Maybe, when I come back to see the Donatello.

The great thing about Florence is that the entire city is a museum.  The city’s legacy of architecture has been carefully preserved.  At one point, I just grabbed a soft drink and sat down to watch the light play across my city’s buildings.

So far, Florence is the only city I have been sorry to leave on this trip.  But I am certain that Mussolini's legacy trains will take me home again. 

One of these days.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

that chair is free

Well, there you are.

Sit down and enjoy the view while I write this up.  We are anchored off of the north coast of Corsica.  At Calvi.

A pleasant little fishing village.  Falsely, but broadly, promoted as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus -- even though Napoleon actually was born further south on the island. 

Once the property of Genoa, now French, even though the vowel-ending surnames in the cemetery predominate.  And it was here that Nelson lost an eye during the storming of the Calvi citadel -- before he sailed into being a Naval Legend.

It occurred to me, as I was sitting here reading and indulging in some incredible Corsican cheese, that I am a fortunate guy.  When I was growing up in Powers, I don’t think I ever imagined sitting high on the deck of a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea.  Doing nothing other than whatever I choose. 

And with none of the yang of responsibility that annoyingly often comes tied to the yin of joy.  That is a rare day indeed.  Or maybe even a rare month.

This afternoon, I am content.  What better treasure could I offer you on a day like this?

Care for another bit of goat cheese?


Friday, May 23, 2014


Running away has its perks.

That is what I did yesterday.  Ran away.  And it reminded me how nice it is to be on my own.

When I browsed the ship’s brochure, I noticed there was a scheduled tour in Nice with visits to the Matisse and Chagall museums.  It provided a hook for the rest of the art tours I want to take on this trip.  For that reason, it was the keystone excursion.

So, you can imagine I was disappointed when the first thing I found in my cabin when I came on board on Sunday was a letter saying that not enough other people had signed up for the trip.  It was cancelled.

I knew immediately what I would do.  When we docked at Monte Carlo, I would grab a train for the 30 minute trip to Nice and spend my day doing the butterfly through modern art.  The fact that I love trains in Europe was the
crème on my Napoleon.

That plan died at 7:30 yesterday morning when the captain’s voice boomed into our stateroom that we would not dock at Monaco because the seas were too choppy to send the tenders to shore.  But he had an alternate plan.  We were going to drop anchor at Villefranche-sur-Mer (between Monaco and Nice) and try tendering to shore.

It worked.  The train station was within a couple blocks of the dock -- and I was on my way to Nice.  So, was rain.  The tropical type I see in Mexico in the summer.  By the time I got off of the train in Nice and ran for a taxi, I was soaked through.

But not wet enough to dampen my art lust.  The Matisse Museum consists of a large collection of the artist’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, lithographs, and personal objects. 

The curators have wisely grouped the work in chronological order to allow the viewer to see how Matisse’s style grew from being an apt copier of Romantic paintings, to discovering the impressionists and pointillists, and then heading off into a linear style he made his own.  Sometimes, stark.  Other times, fantastical. 

The woman at the desk must have been a librarian in her earlier life.  She made it quite clear that my back pack (and especially my camera) needed to be stowed.  It turned out, she actually added to my appreciation of Matisse’s work.  Without the camera in front of my face, I could enjoy the artist’s work fully within its context.

I ended up spending the entire afternoon with Matisse.  Chagall will wait for another visit.  If I had come on the tour, knowing the time that was allotted, my experience would have been truncated.  As it was, I got to spend as much time as I wanted.  Plus -- I got to ride a French train.  Twice.

If you want to see the collection, I have two suggestions.  Come on over and spend time yourself with Henri.  Or, knock yourself out looking for photographs on the internet.  I am certain they are there.

Tomorrow?  We will visit Calvi, Corsica -- where people, who like legend more than fact, will tell you Christopher Columbus was born.  I hope it offers something other than that.

I doubt it has a train.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

van gogh goes missing


The very word sounds alluring.  Arriving in an exotic port with a crowd of polyglot companions and climbing onto a bus tour to dip into the Whitman’s sampler that is the south of France.

But it can also be another round of Russian roulette.

Sometimes the bus tours can be as exhilarating as a fireworks display.  Other times, you get a damp squib.

We were in Marseille yesterday (or as the American sitting next to me has just announced loudly to someone on his mobile telephone – Mor-sellas, Fraaance).  Marseille serves as the gateway to transition tourists from their cruise ships to the villages of Provence.

My choice was St. Remy -- as part of my art hook for this European visit.  The brochure promised we would discover “the classic village of St-Remy-de-Provence, birthplace of Nostradamus and the magical setting for some of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.” 

Before we set off, the tour coordinator promised us we would see several plaques throughout town showing a specific Van Gogh’s painting and the scene that inspired it.  It sounded like a perfect mix to let me see a bit of picturesque Provence while feeding me some obvious material to share with you.

The trip should have been advertised as “Spot the Famous Celebrity – Historical Edition.”  In our very brief walk through about three blocks of St. Remy, we saw exteriors of the birthplace of Nostradamus and the home of the Marquis de Sade.  It was a bit like driving past Jeane Dixon’s house and Jeffrey Dahmer’s jail cell.  (No.  Dahmer’s jail cell would have been more interesting.)

But our guide served up a smattering of French history and plopped us down at or third (and last) stop.  This time at a church that had been leveled during the Revolution and rebuilt in the 19th century.  It now looks as if it had not had any maintenance since then.  Even some of the neglected Mexican churches are in far better shape. 

We stopped to see it solely, according to the guide, because it is “large” for the size of the village.  I guess, in the same way that the largest artichoke in Sioux Falls must have some sort of inherent interest.

And that was it.  Other than mentioning the asylum where Van Gogh was institutionalized as we sped by, Van Gogh was as absent from the tour as challenging writing is from American television. 

What about those vaunted Van Gogh placards?  Our guide said he only knew of one and pointed vaguely where he thought it was – adding with a Gallic shrug that it was too far for him to walk.  It was disappointing.

I forget if it was Gary Denness or Kim (it was one or the other) who commented that the traveler can find beauty in any of the places he visits.  And that was true of St. Remy.  I decided to turn the goose entrails of disappointment into a nice terrine.

We arrived on market day.  Now, market day in St. Remy shares a lot of the same traits of market days throughout the world.  Tarps stretched above tables displaying local wares.

But this is France.  And the goods on the tables emitted that sense of French style that leads consumers to seek them out.

Here is a simple example.  I bought a baguette.  It was mediocre compared to other baguettes I have eaten in France.  But it was ten times better than any bread I have eaten in Mexico during the past six years.  (I know.  The hurdle is set rather low.)  And I was eating it in the south of France.

I had come seeking Van Gogh.  I knew his paintings would not be here.  But, at least, I walked in the same area where he walked before he carted himself off to some hell-hole loony bin in one of his absinthe-induced bouts of insanity.  And before too long he would be dead at his own hand.

I am not dead at my own hand.  I am on my way to Monaco where I had planned on joining a tour to Nice for the Matisse and Chagall museums.  Apparently, not enough people had the same idea.  The tour has been cancelled.

So, I am looking at alternate methods to get to one (or both) of the museums.  I understand there is a train that takes about an hour to get there.

And if I miss Matisse and Chagall?  I have seen their works before.  I will see them again.

Something interesting will happen.  After all, wherever the traveler is, there will be things of beauty.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“what do you do on sea days?”

The people I know seem to have an inordinate fear (to crib an unfortunate phrase from the tragic Jimmy Carter) of boredom.

At least, that is my take.  The same people who ask me what I “do” in retirement also ask me what I “do” on sea days -- those days when the ship is not in port.  More surprisingly, my fellow beach bums in Melaque, the people who should have the “do” down to an art form, ask me the same question.

The obvious answer to both questions is: Whatever I like.  But that is too glib.  I know the fear that lurks in the sea days question: I don’t want to be stuck inside a small vessel with no escape from boredom.  (To me, that sounds like the definition of “having a job.”)

The joy of sea days is you can create your own entertainment (or, if you are really desperate, join in some of the ship activities).  For me, it is the perfect opportunity to read what I want to read.  With no interruption.

Let me share a bit from the three books on my plate this trip.

The first was pressed on me by a fellow blogger.  And a good suggestion it was.  Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out.

When I started reading it, I had no idea whether I was reading a novel told from the narrator’s perspective -- or whether it was an engaging memoir of a writer’s encounter with a character who all Americans would soon meet.  It is the latter. 

About half way through the first chapter I realized I was reading the background to a murder trial we all know.  Christian Gerhartsreiter, who was charged with the murder and dismemberment of his landlady's son in southern California.  You probably know him better as Clark Rockefeller.

The book is a great analysis of how we all create our personalities and then use our masks to manipulate one another.  Some of us with far more grandiose screenplays.

Of course, it turns out that Kirn, educated at Princeton but never part of the Ivy League crowd, was absolutely besotted with Gerhartsreiter’s masquerade as a ruling class Rockefeller.  The irony, of course, is that Kirn had a more authentic power pedigree than the faux Rockefeller, but Kirn continued to draw psychological nourishment -- even when he had a cornucopia of clues that something other than eccentricity was driving “Clark.”

For me, the best moments in the book are when Kirn drops his writer’s mask and lets us inside his own artifice.  Like this gem.

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser.  A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.
More than once people have told me at dinner: “You can’t use any of this in any of your stories.”  I always nod my assurance.  But we both know it is a lie.

Or this dandy bit of confession that comes right off the couch:

Instead of patiently working to get to know people, I’d decide that they were who I wanted them to be and discard them when they proved otherwise.
When Gerhartsreiter is finally convicted, Kirn visits him in prison thinking that he had the upper hand in the conversation until “Clark” begins manipulating him in the same manner that he sees other prisoners manipulating visitor’s from the free world.
I understand now prison walls aren’t solid.  They’re penetrable by persuasion, by attraction, which passes through them like gamma rays.  The inmates beam their wills into the world, adjusting the intensities and wavelengths, turning the dial until they get results.
That brought to mind a former client of mine.  Brad.  I started representing him when he was 18.  He is now 50, and he has spent a majority of his life, not only his adult life, but his full life, in jails or prisons.

Following three of his releases, I allowed him to stay at my house for a week or two to get his feet on the ground.  The previous paragraph tells you he never managed to land where he thought he would.

He is the only person to whom I send hand-written letters these days.  There is no email behind bars.  For good reason.  The letters he sends me are classic works of manipulation.  He has tried almost every possible ploy to convince me that I do not need money in my billfold as much as he needs it in prison.  Because he has learned his lesson.  Because he paid his debt to society.  Because he has polished every rehabilitation cliché known to imprisoned man.

I have felt the personally-programmed gamma rays being dialed up just for me.  And, like Kirn, I have learned to ignore them.  On the other hand, I have manipulated him, as well.  And you are accomplices by reading the tale. 

“A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.”  True words, indeed.

If you love a good crime read and want to know a bit more about the human condition, I join my fellow blogger (whose name I have managed not to mention) in recommending Blood Will Out.

Note:  I told you I was going to discuss three books.  I obviously lied.  And I am not going to re-edit this piece.  Instead, you get this note as a promise that I may or may not get around to writing anything about Margaret MacMillan’s Paris:1919 (which I have finished reading on this trip) and The War that Ended Peace (which I am in the midst of reading).  Whether I share any with you or not, I liked the one and am enjoying the other.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

time to say good-bye

The Noordam is on its way to sea -- and so am I.

I am writing this at 11 PM on Monday as we pull away from the dock in Barcelona.  My visits to this town are always rewarding.  It is vibrant place. 

Not in the way that some cities are -- vibrant in the sense that they suck the energy out of you right through the soles of your feet.  This is the vibrant in a “we’re happening” way.

That make seem an odd description for a big city in Spain.  The country is one of the Euro zone’s current fiscal car wrecks.  And I suppose that some of that must be reflected in how the people of Barcelona live.

For instance, I have trouble imagining how they afford to buy food.  I wandered through two of the city’s traditional markets -- with fresh chickens selling for the equivalent of $7.50 a pound and leg of lamb at $14 a pound.

There are several possible answers.  The obvious one is that most people do not shop in these markets.  After all, they are in the center of town.  The second is an economist’s answer: if the supply is too expensive, switch to a different protein source. 

I also stopped at a downtown super market.  The prices were far more expensive than what I pay in Mexico.  Of course, it is for a far different mix of food.

Expensive or not, the food is delicious.  For lunch yesterday, I had a fruit and vegetable picnic lunch from the Boqueria market.  A juicy tomato we would call heirloom in Oregon.  Just under two pounds of sweet, black cherries.  And half of a dragon fruit.

Yeah, I know.  There are plenty of dragon fruit in Mexico.  It took me traveling thousands of miles to finally try one.  This one was a little disappointing.  Much blander than I expected.  But the cherries and the tomato easily made up for the dragon fruit’s less-than-spectacular showing.

And they were probably not a wise choice for my last day of walking in Barcelona.  If a mother had fed that lunch to her child, her advice would undoubtedly be: “Now, don’t leave the yard.”  But all went well.

So, it is good-bye, Spain -- hello, high seas.  And then France.

But, tomorrow you will discover what there is to do on sea days.  I am looking forward to finding out myself.

Monday, May 19, 2014

docked and loaded

Cruising and I have a complex relationship.

I love boats.  Sailing.  Motoring.  Being on big boats.  Anything that puts me on top of the water.  And if you throw in some exotic destinations and a few new interesting personalities met on board, I am hooked.

The food?  It’s moderately good.  Banquet food.  You know, the type you would receive at a political dinner.  Nothing you would find at a good restaurant.  Unless, you book dinner at one of the specialty restaurants.  The food always justifies the hefty surcharge.

And the cabins?  Far too many people have concluded that they will be assigned to live out their otherwise-disappointing existence in Rose’s sitting room.  Too many times watching Titanic.  (But I am being redundant.  Once is too many.)

In reality, cruise ship cabins will remind you of your college dorm room.  That is, if you rent an expensive cabin.  If you end up with a run-of-the-mill cabin, you might want to re-read 1984.

On this cruise, my cousin and I have opted for a larger suite.  It is quite nice -- as you can see from the photograph at the top of this post.

What you cannot see is the bathroom.  When I started cruising, the shower in the cabin’s bathroom was barely large enough to hold a much-thinner version of the current Steve.  This cruise, we have a double-sink bathroom with a large Jacuzzi bathtub.

The ship has another clever solution for the challenging hotel shampoo bottle.  For its suite guests, the cruise line has opted for the same solution used in high school boy’s locker rooms -- with a girly twist.  Though, I do not recall that conditioner had even been invented the last time I frequented one of those shower rooms.

We also have a wrap-around deck large enough to sponsor the type of house parties that could get a fraternity kicked off campus.  With our fellow cruisers, we could probably attract some guests.  If we served Geritol.

Get this, I even have a packet of personal stationery -- just the thing to write appreciative mash notes to the captain in the hope that he will invite me to dine at his table.  My reply on the next sheet of personalized stationery?  “I didn’t pay good money for this cruise to dine with the help.” 

So, here I am on board Holland America’s Noordam.  All settled in following our life boat drill.

It was the life boat drill that got me thinking.  What type of people come on cruises -- other than the obvious answer from this photograph: very old people.  Obviously, they are people who feel comfortable in a regimented society.  There are enough rules on board the ship to make a federal regulator’s heart skip a beat.

Times to eat.  Times to gather for tours.  Times to get on and get off the tour bus.  Times to meet other people for dinner.

But, even a libertarian like me, can work out his own destiny by choosing my own places to eat, not going on ship tours, and simply ignoring the phalanx of rule-shouters.

We stay in port in Barcelona until 11 PM tonight.  That gives me a full day to share more treasures with you. 

Now, I need to go get my dance card filled.  To dance the dances I choose.

(P.S.  The internet on board the ship takes too much time to load photographs.  And the Starbucks I am now sitting is was just as bad.  From here on out, I may post only essays.  The photographs will have to wait until I return to Mexico.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

tuning up

Let's see.  Where did we leave off?

Oh, yes.  I was just leaving the hotel in hopes of getting to the concert before it started.

As I was heading out the door, I grabbed my mobile telephone and slipped it in my pocket.  Most concert halls do not allow cameras.  But cameras in telephones never seem to bother authorities.  At least, concert authorities.

You will note, though, the only photograph is one I took of the auditorium earlier in the day.  The exterior looks like a cross between a community college and a Motel 6.  The interior, however, is stunning.  The place obviously was built for the production of music. 

So, why no additional photographs?  Simple.  I left it in the taxi.  It is now gone.  And don't worry about making suggestions.  The moment I sat down in the auditorium, I was reconciled to the fact that it has disappeared.  It is not worth worrying about -- or having further discussion.

But, if you would like to talk about the music, I would love to.

I almost didn't buy a ticket.  The fare was rather thin gruel.  A Beethoven concerto I have heard multiple times and Ravel's Bolero.

I am glad, though, I went.  There is something about watching live music being performed.  And even with amplification, it sounds better than any recording possibly could.

The Beethoven piece was his Violin Concerto in D Minor.  With a Danish soloist -- Nikolaj Znaider.  I have heard recordings of his work, but I have never seen him perform live.

Great composers know how to surprise us with their music, while leaving us with the sense that the direction of the music is inevitable.  Beethoven is one of the masters at working that magic.

Znaider teased out new bits from a familiar piece -- leaving the audience feeling as if they had heard the piece for the first time.

The second piece was new to me.  A recent composition (2005) --Trilogie Cosmique -- by the French composer, Guillaume Connesson.  A piece very much in the modern style. 

But with an accessible form.  Even though it is made up of many low, soft tones that aging ears may find challenging.  (The woman in front of me wanted to know why the orchestra had stopped playing while the conductor was still waving his baton.)

For me, it was the best piece on the program.  Not so, for most of the audience.  The applause was tepid at best.

But the next two pieces -- regular fare on pops concerts -- met with sporadic standing ovations.

The first was Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  It is often a brave piece to play now that Disney has subsumed it into the Mouse Empire.  There is probably not a western person alive who can keep Mickey out of his head when the first soft note floats through the auditorium.

But it is Dukas's tale; not Disney's.  Or, actually, it is Goethe's.  Dukas borrowed the tale from a Goethe poem to create his tone poem.  But all of the characterizations are there.  It is pure program music.

That does not mean it cannot be rousing good fun.  And it was.  Helped, of course, with the tonal richness of a live orchestra.

I was ready to leave when it came time to roll out Bolero.  It has never been my favorite Ravel piece .  Its primary reliance on rhythm is hypnotic.  And not in a good way.  I wonder if 10 had never been filmed if the piece would still be lingering in concert halls -- with all of its sex tape provenance? 

But the orchestra played it well -- pulling out what little originality and surprise lingers in the piece.  And the audience loved it.  Demanding an encore.  For which we were served up the last two minutes of the piece repeated.

Was it worth the walk?  And the money?  And the rush to get to the auditorium? 

You bet!  This is my grand tour of Europe.  Without concerts, there is no grand in the tour.

Later today, my ship will be coming in.  We spend the night here and then sail away at 11 PM on Monday.

Here's hoping for a good internet connection.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

where there never was a church

Today was a day of improvisation.

I had one goal in mind -- to get a ticket for tonight's performance of the Barcelona Orchestra.  The easy way would have been to take a taxi -- or that spiffy Maserati that has been parked in front of the hotel for the past three days. 

The day before there were two.  I suspect it belongs to the top-hatted doorman in the background.

By now, you know that I like walking.  Google Maps told me it would take me just under an hour to walk 3 miles.  That seems awfully slow.  But Google knows its customers.  I tend to wander off of the path.

Google suggested that I take a short cut through a park honoring the heroes of Barcelona who fought against the French invaders in 1715 or thereabouts.  Spain wears its history like a ragged trench coat.

And I was distracted.  By a church honoring Spain's military.  By a flock of green parrots (escapees from the neighboring zoo, I suppose).  By the Catalan Parliamentary building (which may one of these days be a national parliament).  And by this rather gaudy fountain that looks as if it is a cross between the Queen Victoria and Victor Immanuel monuments.

If I remember correctly, this thing was built for the same exhibition when Columbus was erected on that column we discussed earlier.

And just to prove that Barcelona has not lost its touch in architecture, take a look at this beauty.  The Torre Agbar -- 38 stories of metaphors in the making.  I call it the pickle, but it looks as if it could be a crashed dirigible.  Or any number of other things.

Agbar is one of those multinational companies that owns other companies.  Maybe they keep them stashed in boxes on the top floors.

When I first saw this, it looked like the opening and closing scenes of Cabaret.  Those reflections are of market stalls below a giant reflective roof set in separate pieces.  Form over substance -- in the Spanish mode.

Finally, I made it to the auditorium ticket office.  And after giving them 51 Euros, they gave me a ticket.

But the day was not done.  As I left the auditorium, I realized I was within walking distance of my favorite site in Barcelona -- Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Família church.  It has been under construction since 1882.  In the crypt are several photographs from the 1920s.  From the exterior, it appears that little progress has been made.

It obviously has, though.  You can see the difference in the weathering of the stone.

I remember seeing pictures of the place when I was 10 or so.  There was something very boyish about it.  The design was right out of a fantasy.  Like this mixture of fruit and vegetables that decorate the spires.

And it looked as if it had been iced, and then the heat had started melting the icing.  It still looks that way to me.

But my big surprise on this trip was the interior.  When I last walked through, very little of the interior had been completed.  Take a look at what it looks like now.

The I-can't-take-it-anymore pope showed up almost four years ago to dedicate it as a minor basilica.  It can't be a cathedral because a bishop will not sit there.  He has his chair in the Barcelona cathedral closer to the center of town.

This place far outshines the cathedral -- literally.  Most European churches seem to be adverse to light.  Gaudi wanted to change that. 

And he wanted worshipers to feel as if they were closer to God's nature by being part of nature.  The interior columns reflect Gaudi's organic architecture style.  I almost felt as if I were sitting in a grove.

I guess it was more appropriate than I first realized because my last view of the church was its spires emerging from the trees of a park across the street.  That view deserves a future reprise.

Wait a minute!  That sounds as if it was the end of my day.  It wasn't.  I decided to track down some of Gaudi's other projects in Barcelona.

First, let me share a non-Gaudi building with you.  It is C
asa de les Punxes -- a grand design by the moderist architecture Josep Puig i Cadafalch. A rival of Gaudi.  I include it for two reasons.  First, it is a very good example of the new style that was appearing in Barcelona in the early twentieth century.

The second reason is that any Potter fans out there may see a resemblance to another piece of architecture.

ere is one Gaudi project I have seen several times in passing, but I have never had time to stop -- Casa Milà, or as it is known locally, La Pedrera.  I remember it from my college art appreciation class.  And it was right on my route.

But it was my day to be a bit disappointed.  The exterior is being refurbished.  However, the contractor was nice enough to provide us with a life-size photographic cover.  Maybe next time.

The last house was the Casa Batlló.  It is actually a remodel.  In 1904.  For a wealthy industrialist who wanted to make an impression in one of the most prestigious areas of town.

It is on the right.  The house on the left was designed by
Puig i Cadafalch.  A slam down on the boulevard of fame.

The area still is prestigious -- for those people who find their self-worth in wearing the names of other people on their clothing.  It seems a bit inconsistent, but who am I to attempt to right the ship of consumerism?

And then I was off to the hotel -- where I arrived just in time to clean up and grab a taxi back to the auditorium.

I will see you after the concert.

walking in pablo's steps

Come walk with me through Barcelona.

Well, at least, a few of the places I enjoy in Barcelona.  Including, a new one.

Just to orient you, we will start at the Christopher Columbus statue.  Actually, that sentence is just an excuse to justify including the photograph to the left.  I wanted you to see good old Chris in the light.

I had one goal yesterday -- to see the Picasso Museum.  When I was here two years ago, it was closed on the only day I was in town.

So, off I trudged.

The problem with Barcelona is there are far too many tempting paths to explore.  I could almost hear the wolf from Into the Woods singing my day's theme song:

Just so, little girl-
Any path.
So many worth exploring.
Just one would be so boring.
And look what you're ignoring...
Well, I didn't ignore much.  But I really strayed off of my path.  I will spare you most of my bunny trails.  Instead, I offer up this sampler.

I was on task until I saw this gargoyle on the Barcelona cathedral in the old section of town.  The 20th century facade is the least interesting part of the building.

What is interesting are the fanciful 15th century gargoyles.  My favorites are an elephant.  And this unicorn.  I wonder what symbolic purpose a black unicorn serves.  (Other than the obvious fact that it is soot-ridden.)

Speaking of fanciful, I have no idea what is going on here.  But it was happening in public, so, I shot away.

He was sitting in a passageway between the cathedral and the chapter house.  There were a few jarring contradictions. 

At first glance, it appeared he was simply looking at a tourist map.  But what was with the purse?  Perhaps, he was a tourist watching his wife's purse while she shambled through the cathedral photographing the relics of long-dead and (often) imaginary saints.

That would make sense if it were not for the little tin sitting in front of him.  With several coins in it.  Maybe he was supposed to be a retro version of the actors who pose as statues on Las Ramblas.

I never pass up an opportunity to visit St. Caterina market.  Not, the Boquerio market in the tourist area of town.  The one I really like is the multi-colored roof market in the gothic section.

This place would be reason enough to spend more time in Barcelona.  Time that I could use to create great meals.

Freshly-slaughtered rabbits and chickens with their heads intact.  Eggs from every imaginable source -- quail, duck, goose.  And some of the most eye-catching fruits and vegetables I have seen in a long time.

Today I am going back to buy enough fresh fruits and vegetables to make myself a nice dinner.  And any of you who have been reading Mexpatriate for very long probably think you know what I will buy.

Cherries.  Of course.  But I tasted some of the best tomatoes I have ever eaten.  I will certainly never see their like when I return to Mexico.

Nor will I find masks like these.

The topic of masks came up recently.  And I thought this would be a good addition to that conversation -- since we all wear our own personal masks, crafted in the not-often-realized belief that the world sees us as we want to be seen.

I didn't buy a mask.  But I was tempted to buy the Magritte-inspired coat hanger.  Even though I would want to keep it in my living room, instead of in a coat closet -- which I do not have because no one wears a coat on the Mexican Pacific coast.

While I was in that section of town, I wended my way through several alleys to find a treasure I discovered several years ago -- the Palace of Music.  What rococo is to baroque, the Palace of Music is to art-nouveau.

The first time I saw the place, I experienced an overwhelming awe.  It looked as if the architect had placed every ornament he knew in a bag, and then spilled them out on his plans.

But if you study the structure of the building, you can see each element has a sequence.  It has all been put together with an eye to structure.

And that brought us to the Picasso Museum.  It has been here in Barcelona since 1963.  That surprised me.  For some reason, I thought it was put together following Picasso's death.

That must be why the woman in front of me was so confused.  She asked her friend: "Why is this museum here?  He was an American."  I am relieved, by listening to her accent, to tell you she was not American.  Maybe she confused him with Jasper Johns.

Picasso was, of course, Spanish by birth.  And he spent several years as a young artist in Barcelona.

His boyhood friend and secretary,
Jaume Sabartés, started the museum with pieces from his own collection.  Picasso donated several major pieces in the 1970s, and his estate donated additional works upon his death.

I wish I could share some of those works with you.  But I discovered there is a no photography rule in the museum -- just like the Tamayo Museum.

Before I was threatened with having my camera confiscated, I managed to shoot these two paintings.

Both are from his early days as an artist.  For people who claim that Picasso painted the way he did in his mature periods because he could not draw, these paintings come as a bit of a shock.  They are well-constructed.  Well-drawn.  Well-painted.

He went on to win prizes in the academically-approved style of his day.  But after spending time in school in Madrid, he decided that the old structures had nothing to teach him.  And like Diego Rivera, he reinvented himself and his art in the series of styles he himself developed.

The museum has also assembled an interesting collection from artists who show the influence Picasso had on their works.  The curators relied on works based on Guernica and
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- two of his best-known works.  Each piece is evocative without being derivative.

But the museum was not the only place I found art.  While walking along the embankment, I saw this couple (probably in their 80s) enraptured in the presence of one another as they were in their surroundings.

And then there was this advertisement on the window of a pharmacy I visited.

I wonder, should this poster show up on a window in The States, how long it would take before the language lynch mob tore it down?  If you are wondering what product is being advertised, it is a self-tanning lotion.

If you want to get the full frontal experience of Barcelona, fly on over.  I will gladly see the Picasso exhibit again.  Or you can share a tomato with me while hanging your coat on my new hanger.

The cherries?  I am certain they will be long gone.

Friday, May 16, 2014

goodbye, columbus

Poor Christopher Columbus.

The Great Admiral can't catch a break.  Once the epitome of initiative and adventure, he is now treated as if he were personally responsible for both Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.

There are several monuments to Columbus in Spain.  That is not surprising.  Columbus sailed off on his big cruise on the dime (or maravedí) of the Catholic Monarchs.  He may have ended up broke and broken, but Spain still honors the old guy.

Well, sort of.

That photograph is of the Columbus statue that has stood on the Barcelona shore since 1988.  People make a good deal of fun of Columbus as a result of where the sculptor has him pointing.  Instead, of pointing to the west (which is the direction he sailed), he is pointing to the southeast.

The less-creative types defend the statue on the very prosaic argument that Columbus is pointing to to sea.  And, in Barcelona, that is where the sea is.

I don't buy it.  The sculptor was a clever guy.  He is simply having Columbus point east because that was his ultimate destination.  To get east by going west. 

We often forget that Columbus's trip was a bit of globalization.  He wanted to find a new trade route to the Indies and China.

And because he knew (and what his Mercator-besotted critics seem to forget) is that if the earth is a globe.  You can get there by going numerous directions.  And he did.

He may have been a crummy administrator and an even worse politician, but he was brave enough to sail across the Atlantic to find a world that brought Spain far greater riches than a trip to the East Indies.  And that route to the orient was finally opened when Spain initiated the annual Manila galleon.

Who knows, maybe the maligned statue will actually rehabilitate him.

One thing that has rehabilitated in my mind is a very small thing, but it is something I have railed about on earlier trips.  The shampoo bottles in hotel rooms.

Well, I have an accolade to hand out.  The Eurostars Grand Marina can add another eurostar to its name with one of the most creative shampoo container solutions I have seen in a hotel bathroom.  Here it is.

Let's start with what it is not.  It is not stylish.  And that is odd.  Spain is a country where the form of design is often prized over its functionality.  A trait it has bestowed upon its former colonies.

But, who cares?  The idea works.

It looks like a juice bag.  An envelope filled with liquid and topped off by a cap.  Easy to open.  Easy to dispense.  Easy to store.

I don't even care if it is a juice bag rip-off.  If that is where someone got the idea, they deserve credit for thinking outside of the juice box.

It is going to be a good trip.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

hasta luego

After a week in Mexico City, I am finally on my way to Barcelona.

By the time some of you read this, I will be either switching air planes in Paris or checking into my hotel room in Catalonia.  Either way, I will be off to the next leg of this journey.

Several times this trip, I have mentioned that I could imagine living in Mexico City.  On Sunday afternoon, I spent several hours chatting with Cristina Potters and Judy at their apartment -- having one of those conversations at the corner of urban and urbane.

On my walk through the Contesa neighborhood, I noticed how much the tree-lined streets reminded me of residential neighborhoods in 1960s Manhattan.  Or Athens.  Or Paris.  Or London.

Big cities have a certain vibrancy about them.  It is not merely the presence of the arts, though that does matter.  There is something else.  Maybe it is just being around people who have places where they are headed and the hope that they can make it there.  The pursuit of happiness without any guarantee that it will occur.

It certainly is not a feeling of peace at the center.  More like nuclear atoms fusing and splitting.  The feeling that life is happening.

And, of course, there are the oases of quiet.  The pocket parks scattered around town.  Depending on their location, filled with children or young couples or the stately elderly.  But always birds in the trees.  And songs filling space that would otherwise be preternaturally still.

Yes.  I think I could spend a year here.  And, if I am serious about getting my Mexican citizenship, I need to start spending more time in country.  It is simply one of the requirements.

But, for now, I will enjoy my escape to Europe.  There are tales to tell -- and I am in a mood to tell them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

making stuff up

A friend, better known for his wit than his subtlety, once told me the difference between historians and anthropologists is that historians rely on facts; anthropologists just make stuff up.

I thought of him yesterday as I was trudging through the National Museum of Anthropology.  If you have even a nodding interest in the wonders of pre-Columbian Mexico, this is your Nirvana.

When I decided to spend a week in Mexico City, I intended to spend two -- maybe three -- days in the museum.  It is huge.  With separate rooms for each of the major Mexican civilizations. 

The museum is best consumed in individual slices.  Either by multiple visits (my intended attack) or by sampling each room.

You would never know it by the number of photographs I took, but I opted for the Whitman sampler approach.

The curators have crafted informative introductions to each of the exhibits.  I decided to digest each of the placards, and then find interesting pieces to represent each era.

I learned a lot -- even though Mesoamerican archaeology is an interest of mine.  But I could not escape the nagging feeling that much of what I read was not factual.

There is, of course, a giant problem in obtaining historical facts about most of the civilizations.  Even though most of them had calendars and were quite adept at astronomic observations, they had no written language.  Or, if they did, subsequent civilizations destroyed what existed.  The Spanish did not invent the technique of absorbing culture through its destruction.

As a result, an historian would say that we know very little about about the civilization that built Teotihuacán -- the monumental ruins northeast of Mexico City.  We can marvel at the ruins. 

But we really know very little about the people who built it.  How they lived their lives.  Why the civilization collapsed.  Or even what they called themselves.  The Aztecs made up the name for the place.

That doesn't keep the anthropologists from filling in the gaps with their guesswork concerning the purpose of certain structures,  As a result, the theories are in constant flux.  Usually there is no additional evidence, just new synapses firing away.

The perfect example are the Maya.  The Maya had a very complex set of hieroglyphs that have only recently been translated.  Even with that history, we do not know why the various city-states in the Maya world collapsed.

But that has not stopped the guesswork.  Internal social collapse was once the chief theory.  Then along came the "too much competition" theory -- that seemed to be a variation on the first argument.

The ever-popular foreign invaders theory had its advocates.  As does the "ecological collapse" theory now popular amongst the green set.  I would not be surprised if Obamacare isn't blamed before too long.

The problem is that, even as interesting as the theories are, there is scant evidence to support any of the theories,  And what evidence there is usually does not consistently support the conclusions for which it is offered.

That is why some people still feel confident that this piece is a space ship piloted by an alien -- thus explaining the god myths.

And some anthropologists believed that the giant Olmec heads were proof that Africans sailed to Mexico and brought the technology of pyramid-building with them.  With all of the soft racism that Indians could not possibly have developed the building techniques on their own.

Using that same logic, I would argue that the Maya were actually the product of a Simpsons episode gone bad.

The Anthropological Museum is often very clever in the way it presents these theories.  The placards slip in a flurry of "maybe," "perhaps," and "it has been argued" to avoid crossing the river into the land of Prevarication.  Other times, the placards toss out theories without any precatory language at all.

As a writer, I understand the dilemma.  A good story is a good story.  And that is what people want to hear.   Lawyers and historians can suck the marrow right out of a good tale.

Of course, it is possible to spend a full day in the museum (as I did), and never have the historian-anthropologist divide come to mind (as I didn't).  There are plenty of monumental pieces to leave you in awe of the civilizations that preceded the Spanish.

And there are even more small pieces to remind you that the people who lived in Mexico -- and their descendants who still do -- were people who found joy in life.  Such as this container carved from a single piece of obsidian.

Well, I guess that proves only that the elite had some joy.

There are also enough pieces to let the viewer know that this was a Hobbesian world -- as ours still is.  Where life could be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.