How we left Berlin without our leased car is interesting only to those ploddingly linear minds like mine. But we did, and drifted into the enchantment that is the grassy coast of the North Sea.
The winds of the Wattenmeer rough wild. Low tides bare raggedy wooden teeth in the endless mud flats. The setting sun gleams on the slick surface for miles, casting a spell of distance and yearning. Behind the berm, trees tamp eastward to hold the Danish land down lest it dissolve into storm. On the berm, spirits fly with kites. Solid square brick towers glowing red in the evening dully gong the hours for the cows, horses, and thatch. Overly ambitious cyclists return against the wind, riding hard on even roads as if they were going uphill. This is a flat mountain that never ends while there is still breath coming off the sea.
We sleep in a fisherman’s cottage, under a skylight letting in rolling thunder but no light. This brings me back to a night in Cornwall, twenty-five years ago, talking the storm through with my sister in our cozy Mousehole.
Briefly, we breeze through Copenhagen, which I vaguely remember from a short visit when I was six years old, and to a pizzeria in the Meatpacking culinary district that I remember from a shorter visit in 2013. The pizza is even better than the one I had in Naples. Copenhagen is even more magical. However, I can’t tell Danes apart.
Unable to break the spell cast by the sea, we avoid Copenhagen a few days and wander into Dragor instead. A clutter of sea-merchants’ thatched, ochre cottages dating from the mid-1700s, hollyhocks run amok, the echo of clattering footsteps on cobblestone, fragrant rotting seaweed, and sunny skies restore summer and tame the grumpiest of boyfriends. Our hostess, fey in her enchanted hut, dates from the same era, her wispy white hair parting to reveal large, luminous eyes glinting with humor, some confusion, and well-considered views on life. She admits not caring as much for her great-grandchildren as she should. She too can’t tell Danes apart.
While jumping on the couch to swat mosquitoes in her living room, redecorated by a great-great grandfather to resemble his captain’s quarters, I uncover a long-lost treasure: a silver bangle torsaded in the Baltic manner, given to her by her father for her confirmation in 1944, last seen fifteen years ago. She wears it all over the village to proclaim its resurfacing. She grants me use of her shower, which was last renovated under Queen Ingrid, as was the lovely wall-papered and doilied bedroom stolen from attic space where the masts were stored. Even her wise little dog Sofus takes to me.
Eager to be riddled with parking tickets, we drive to the Tivoli Garden. At 176 years old, it is a thriving study in blending performing arts and entertainment. It has found a way to offer something to young, old, in between; locals, tourists; families, friends, couples. I’d work there in a second if living in Copenhagen weren’t so expensive that I’d have to commute from Poland to make the money work.
There’s the double-decker merry-go-round that I last rode when ABBA was in Casey Kasem’s Top 40. Summer, winter, rides, gardens, ponds, pavilions, ballet, and our find, the superlative vegetarian restaurant Gemyse, set in a bower. For dessert, a smoking open fire under the clematis trellis, tongues of herbed bread-dough wrapped around a long bamboo lance, and marshmallows. A savory ’smore. I’m in Hansel and Gretel’s maleficent cottage and I don’t care. Roast it.
Some people hook a bike rack onto the back of their car. We need a wine rack. We’ve collected in the Jura, in Switzerland, in Alsace, in the Rhine valley. We pass up a cuckoo clock the size of a small chapel at the shop in the Black Forest. At the absinthe distillery in the Doubs in France, the warm vapor of anise clads us. Laura, I got some absinthe whipped cream in a can. I have some winter cocktails in mind.
We stop in Stuttgart to visit an old friend Guy (vintage 1987) and his lovely family. He reminds me that my favorite band was Sacrilege, and that I once stood in front of a Lincoln Towing truck to stop them from taking my car. He’d never mentioned the Flophaus to Bettina. I should have kept my mouth shut. He’s known me so long that he knows how to press aaaall my buttons. Then his family is amazingly gracious, go figure. Seems his DNA is recessive. Even he says that only fatherhood could blunt his edges, because he doesn’t want his daughter’s social life to suffer from having a jerk for a dad. Even so, I have my Alrik humor-shield with me. I grow hoarse from laughing all afternoon in a biergarten. They put an entire day aside to catch up with us, despite not having heard from me in five years. Stuttgart goes on the list. Guy definitely belongs there, though he misses Chicago.
We’re in Berlin to get things fixed. There’s Alrik’s knee. An old ice-hockey injury in Montreal in March is acting up after a long catering assignment and a few days walking Paris. Then there’s the car we’d leased in Milan, which we’d started to understand. It was parked just east of the line in the pavement marking the former Berlin Wall when a truck backed into it.
Most sagas are boring, and this one of musical chair-car is no different. With some resuscitated high-school German language skills, we get an upgraded loaner. German tow-truck drivers have advanced degrees in hydraulics to elegantly raise up a bashed car and to make you almost happy the accident happened so that you get to watch. A crane lifts the SUV and floats it onto the flatbed. I’ve never seen a car levitate.
After so many wasted days on the phone with the police department and the rental car company, we haven’t seen much of Berlin. But the afternoon we spend with Janet having day-beers in a street-corner park, flashback to twelve years ago. With the bohemian brick storefront homes, the cast-iron art nouveau train station overhead, and people pouring out through the swinging oak doors, this could be Bucktown. I lose sense of where I am. A little uncomfortable.
Janet and I draw the figure together on a barge and at the museum. The model inspires lyrical lines and a sense of ease, that I’m in the right place doing the right thing. My hand and my brain know this craft, though it’s been years. Life modeling: still one of the noble professions. Janet tells me about all the artists we used to model for in Chicago ten, twenty years ago. Great people are gone. Passionate, gruff, gentle, genuine, exacting, caring people who taught me to be decent, to live as I am, and to stand inside my creative worldview. This was my first master’s degree. I owe these teachers so much, and I didn’t get a chance to thank them, I was so desperate to get out of the Midwest. And now in Berlin, I feel like I’m there again. Pleasantly reassuring, but much too familiar.
Last spring, there was a duck and her thirteen ducklings in Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Every few days, a duckling went missing (picked off by a hawk, crunched by a rowdy dog off leash, carried by the current down into the sewer) until by July, the duck was alone again. Observing how one more from our cohort of thirteen drifts away from Milan each day, I told this story to my remaining fellow students. They didn’t find it very funny.
Then it’s my turn. The morning after a dinner of pasta in cheese and licorice sauce (I couldn’t stop eating it, but it was weird), we pack our five suitcases, dog, and box of Italian liqueurs in a leased car, and climb into the Swiss Alps, squeezing through the Simplon Pass. New friends in Milan, who had lived on Arthur Ave in the Bronx down the street from my work at Fordham, recommended a restaurant in Sierre. Our faces get stuck in a fondue pot there. We’ll be eating zucchini bake for a week in atonement.
We move on to the French Haut Jura and its deep gorges and high meadows ringing with more cowbell. Hikers twice my age crawl out of the woods to show off their ultralight gear and taunt me with their wholesomeness and skinny thighs.
After days spent winding around perilous roads to talk to cheese producers, absinthe distillers, painters, and bakers, we sit on the balcony and watch the swallows sail at sunset, up to the Moon. In Milan, people are just now coming out, but Septmoncel is completely quiet. If you’re not out on the town square filling your water tank at the fountain by 8 AM, you’ve missed the village’s social life.
There is no agriculture up here. Only hay and cows can negotiate the long winters, steep rocky terrain, and altitude. All the ingredients for great cheese. Local fromagers make it with an earnestness that convinces me that if they stopped, the world would end. There are some things one doesn’t do, like break up with a lover over a plate of cheese. I once saw this in Montreal’s Old Port and felt bad for the bereft cheese first, then the ditched lover.
We’ve curated a collection—morbier, comté, bleu de Gex, mousseron. As is our custom, we’re rolling deep with cheese. It’s all in the car’s glove compartment because it’s time to move on again.
Back in Milan, I’m buried under my dog. She’s known throughout the Navigli as La Patatona. I’m getting to know all the commeres du quartier. When I was a kid, they frightened me. Now we walk our dogs together. They must have become nicer, or I’ve become meaner. The WWII widows all in black are gone. A lot of time has passed since I lived in Europe in the 1980s, and so do lives. They are deceased now, along with their sons, husbands, brothers.
I live in a semi-permanent state of future nebulousness. As uncomfortable as it sounds, it’s better than living with the inevitability of a hard return date to North America. I will be here next week to eat the gelato, so I don’t have to stop at every gelateria I see. I will walk the dog in the park again tomorrow and see the same people. I might as well make an effort to speak Italian. I’m here for melon season and it’s turning into apricots and cherries. Make fruit salad.
It dawns on me that I haven’t cooked a meal since July 26 2018. I realize all I’ve put on hold for the past eleven months. Sewing. Stretching. Sketching. Kvetching with friends. My sister’s wedding. Sitting outdoors just thinking. With so much reading to do and papers to write, interviews to conduct and exhibits to not miss, every hour mattered. Keep going.
By the end of the next three months, I’ll have in effect written four theses: a business plan for food as cultural heritage; a consultancy for a ballet company’s conservatory; a case study on neuroscience in museums; and a policy paper about diversity in dance. This snowjob should frighten away any employer.
I dream that I’m sitting in a transmittal meeting in Hindi, that I’m trying to plug my US computer to a Euro converter connected to a Chinese outlet that’s falling out of the wall, or that as a Canadian citizen, I’m applying for a British Columbia visa. I think my brain scrambled Vancouver and the Vatican. I still need lots of naps to sort it out.
Naps are more frequent as Italy heats up for the summer. To avoid the sun, the morning dog-walk is coming earlier; the nighttime dog-walk is falling later. Soon they’ll merge into a 3-hour middle-of-the-night walk. Time to head north to coolder weather.
Just because the Chinese ground control can, it had us sit on the tarmac four hours in Beijing. I sent a note to Amnesty International begging them to put pressure on the Chinese government to open the plane in seven days if we still haven’t shown up. Just to bury the desiccated bodies. It didn’t come to that, but we missed every connecting flight until the end of time.
I’ve had this recurring dream that I wander down endless high-rise hallways looking for a specific door. It was practice for the real thing. In Hong Kong, I searched for room 2694, which is room 94 of 100 on the 26thfloor of a 50-story hotel. I lived that dream in a hallucinatory state of fatigue, but the silver lining is that the dream has left me definitively. I ate all related and appropriate breakfasts: Indian curry and Chinese dumplings in Hong Kong, madeleines slathered in confiture and slices of Brie wrapped in croissant peel in Paris.
Stuck in a middle seat with the window blind down, I stayed in touch with the land below me because the airplane had a camera mounted to its belly. The camera’s imagery broadcast to my screen. We threaded our way over the clouds of China (between both deserts), Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, and France. When the skies cleared and the rolling green hills of northern Europe appeared, I sighed. This looks like Bavaria, like the Ardennes, like Champagne. With any luck, I am home.
I was thoroughly enjoying my body odor when I finally got to Milan, 3 days late. I’ve been in Italy two weeks and I’m still incredulous. We’re not done traveling. We retrace the steps of the 18thcentury romantics and 19thcentury nouvelle bourgeoisie to round out our education. The Grand Tour of Naples, Rome, Venice, and the Italian lakes is mythical. Centuries later, Rome still abides; Venice still spellbinds; Naples still enchants. Hills, volcano, catacombs, canals and biennales. But also heritage sites, festival organizers, art-activist friars, and ecumenical humanitarians: I am exhausted and annoyed at myself for not fitting in more.
First, I plug calories in their respective empty compartments. When we left NYC, I solemnly swore I wouldn’t eat pizza again until I reached Naples. With steely determination, I held out 11 months, until my first night in Naples, when I had the worst pizza of my life. That’ll teach me. Since then, risotto, pasta, gnocchi, pane pizza (which is neither calzone, bruschetta, nor tomato bread, but a moist, elastic pizza dough shaped as a baguette, split open with the pizza filling overflowing the center-part), burrata, nocciola, stracciatella gelato, salads, fennel, endives, broccoli rabe, melone, albicoche.
Food is my second signal that I’ve come home. It took me to an exalted state even before I realized where I was. Did I mention I’m also studying food as cultural heritage? Jin-Ya at Break Bread Break Borders in Dallas says food creates a zone of safety and comfort that is more basic than language and philosophy. It welcomes people in a new environment or in a familiar one. I was humbled to discover that for myself.
Back in 1982, our neighbor Mr Verly said that it took a decade to wrap up a deal in China. He usually didn’t expect a direct answer from his associates in Beijing. I got a glimpse of that. It’s not efficient, but it’s complex-system thinking: in a place as layered as China, all is relative. Yes and no don’t exist. I won’t earn an artist’s trust just because I flew 24 hours to get there. They’ve been doing their thing for thousands of years even with the speedbump of the Cultural Revolution, which looks horrific to me but they felt was necessary. I won’t change anything besides myself by being there, so let’s start with me.
Oops, we land at the wrong airport: Chengdu, Panda capital. After we sit 4 hours on the tarmac getting smelly in a closed plane, the skies clear enough in Beijing to finally get there. The storms have blown out the smog and we have cool blue days all week.
The city seems familiar: trees, lanes on the highway in which drivers stay, signs, sidewalks, building construction nearing completion. I step into another situation when I try to talk to people. The self-protective fear of getting involved with complicated foreigners is still there. English is rare, even and especially at the higher echelons. The voice-activated translation app on my phone is a magic wand. Suddenly, smiles and a moment of mutual recognition appear when I explain that I’m here to study arts advocacy.
To my dismay, people in Beijing don’t eat Indian food. Chinese food in Beijing is no more to my liking than the Chinese food I’ve had in the US. But there is more of it. It’s not appropriate to order a plate of food for oneself. The servings are too large. Everything is destined for the whole table. A long hunger begins. But with sweetened bubble milk tea, I stay hydrated and energized.
When our guide advises us to bring a picnic to the Great Wall because there are no lunch spots, I imagine we’ll get dropped off on the Mongolian border. How am I supposed to assemble a lunch from a grocery store where I don’t understand the labels? I pick up a package and I don’t know whether the contents are sweet, salty, vegetarian, eaten raw, boiled, or pickled, with fingers or chopsticks, and whether they need to be peeled or shredded. Instead, we pack 12 lbs of cheese popcorn, cucumber Pringles and Oreos. The Great Wall is an hour outside of Beijing. We’re now sitting on a two-week supply of junk food and we feel a little sick.
Photos of the Great Wall don't show how steep it is. I work my skirt up that thing just in time to attend the program director’s marriage proposal to his companion, in front of us kids. Sorry, those aren’t tears pouring down my face--it’s sweat. The next day, the massage therapist finds the great wall all up and down my thighs. Now I’m crying, in pain.
Cheesily, I also cry during our visit to the ballet theater. The photos of dancers taut in their expression, striving to negotiate gravity, bring me to tears. I’m homesick. Or I’ve realized that I’m still inspired by dance, even half-way around the world.
Most souvenirs look a lot like made-in-China plastic junk. But hey, I’m supporting the local economy. I get a teddy-Panda for Tibby, who will tear, gut, and dismember an iconic symbol of animal extinction. My apologies to the WWF. Belatedly, I find the Liulichang cultural district, and the stunning paintings strengthen my resolve to return one day to learn about scrolls and purchase a well-curated set. Surely, days spent staring at them will help me find inner tranquility. First, I need a home to hang all that stuff. No plan for that yet. Urgently paging Inner Tranquility.
I was anxious to leave Mumbai but to my relief, there’s Indian food in the north as well. I claimed I could be happy eating nothing but pizza on odd days and curry on even days. With classes held at the Italian Cultural Center in New Delhi, my dream has come true. Our Dallas professor reappears in India. It seems improbable that I ever lived in Texas. Montreal, just three weeks ago, is a distant memory. My sister’s engagement party in February, a childhood dream.
The story of India’s heritage sites is an epic poem. The quoted number of gods, rupees spent, or years toiled expand and contract for maximum effect. We set off on a night bus to Agra. The red, red orb of the sun rises through the mists of the flat, flat pale green fields. The oxen are already plowing. The Taj Mahal is already glowing. Even as I walk under it, through it, around it, it remains inaccessible. A tomb to a woman dead from too many childbirths.
The Ashkardham Temple, on the other hand, is alive with prayer, evangelism, ongoing story, Pirates of the Caribbean-style boat rides retelling the story of India, and Disney-engineered light & water shows. The crowd loves it. Kids go wild. If you want to get people hooked on culture, start them young. And for that, it has to be entertaining. This week’s key lesson.
The Sanskriti artist residency is a dusty, tranquil collective of mud huts and lotus ponds. It reminds me of my time at Ox-Bow in Michigan. The earth exudes the same sigh on a hot midafternoon, pierced by the shrilling cicadas. Artists sigh to find themselves in their art. I half expect to run into a blissed-out Robert Plant.
I haven’t gone shopping because I stink at negotiating with vendors. 150 rupees off the price is sport for me, but food for a day for their family. Helen taught me this. Also, it’s 2 dollar 15 cents. I’ve coveted a robin’s egg blue silk rug that’s priced so high that it should fly, but where would I fly it to? I am without abode. Our people in Rome have moved to Milan. The city has adopted Patatina Nera. She huffs at stray cats and ambles around off-leash like she owns the place. She provides relief for homesick Aussie and American tourists who pay to pet her.
Besides Helen, the years have also taught me a bunch of stuff. Stick around long enough, and you will have eaten most things, dated most people, tried most art forms, made most mistakes. With age, I correct my mistakes faster. And then I go on to make bigger ones. I can’t wait to see the next doozy.
No problem means everything: “I need more time”, “We don’t understand one another at all”, “This isn’t going to work out”. The apartment’s caretaker would like us to get out of his no-problem zone so he can do his work. But we’re just not leaving the apartment. We take turns refalling asleep, waiting for our group of 13 to wake up from last night and get its collectivity in gear. After tons of “You Guys!” between ten women and three men, we’re finally underway.
First, I eat. Constantly. Everything vegetarian goes in my mouth. After feasting ten days in Bombay, I’m relieved to see when we get to New Delhi that there’s Indian food here too. Except that there is no such thing as Indian food, or Indian fabric, or the Indian language. This place is big, and more varied than anywhere I’ve ever been. I’m learning about a whole new cuisine, for which Devon Ave in Chicago and Jackson Hts in Queens have barely prepared me. Milk tea is a revelation--not that scented water I used to drink, but chai with condensed milk served espresso-sized.
The art museums we visit assure us that funding is not an issue. They have transcended this and are able to focus on their programs. We ask them the same trite managerial questions we’ve asked in South and North America, and we are surprised, then contemptuous, when we don’t get the answer we were taught. We know the jargon well by now, belying the fact that we’ve never actually used the concepts. And I realize that the concepts won’t help me here. I can’t merely carry my ideas over. I have to learn the place, and that’s not going to happen inside of three weeks.
Walking down the street, I nervously overtake a slow cow. She bleats some sound that blends with that of the honking scooters. A constant river of bleeps rises from the streets from sun-up until midnight. Not the passive-aggressive honking of Manhattan that expresses frustration. A happy short bleat of the tuktuks to say “I’m here”, “Move over”, “Traffic jam ahead like you wouldn’t believe”, or “Remove your veg stand from the middle of the highway”.
Lessons that cabbies the world over could learn from tuktuk drivers: 1. Why wouldn’t you split a single lane so that three vehicles can fit abreast; 2. If u-turns are not permitted because of construction, drive through the construction site to get to the opposite lane; 3. Honk fervently and everything should come out no problem.
The cruise ship experience begins. Laura and Arianna said, if you can make it through Montreal, you can make it anywhere. I’ve washed up gasping on the shores of Colombia.
I am doing everything the nurse said not to do. Eating delicious and unknown fresh tropical fruit in an open-air market and filling my water bottle from the tap. I have to taste these gems and I have to drink water at 2800 meters altitude. I’ll suffer the consequences. Then, a terrifying massage. Head neck face and jaw. All the stress and disappointment of the winter semester. Man did that hurt. Well, I studied ballet all my life. A certain level of discomfort tells me I’m alive.
Which takes us to Villa de Leyva, Colombia. No discomfort here. Does that mean I’m dead? We’re in the lobby to paradise. The mountains surround the white walls which nestle the cobblestone square. Cheerful flowers and starving dogs break the severity. I’m dreadfully weepy. The thunderstorm comes muttering over the crest of the hill and puts me down for a nap. Rain slides off the terracotta tile roofs and spatters noisily on the street. Like a ball of lint, the longer we travel, the more people we pick up. We are now a rowdy 21 people for dinner in the tree-planted courtyard of a traditional house, strung with tiny lights under the arches of a portico.
Of course I’ll miss the singing and dancing until the wee hours in the central square. There’s so much to learn tomorrow: the ritual site of the Muisca people with its standing stones and its tomb, on the flank of a verdant, sunny hill. The sunrays chase the cows, horses, goats, sheep crawling up the mountains. Swathes of gray sheets of rain threaten us as we broil under the tropical sun. Birdsong—it’s been months.
One of the white-walled farms is within the confines of the heritage grounds. The site is beautifully preserved, but so vulnerable. The Colombian government has other things to do. It’s up to individuals to finance these cultural initiatives. Philanthropy is unknown here. And we thought the arts and culture had it bad in North America and Europe.
Ahm, has anyone seen my passport?
We’re all at the end of our rope. I had to intervene when a prof started bullying a woman student in the cafeteria. He told me to mind my business. I told him that bothering someone before my very eyes was my business. He ended up apologizing to everyone involved. That’s the nice thing about being a middle-aged madame now. People take a second look at my burgeoning wrinkles and stop assuming things—that they can indulge in unacceptable behavior, for one. I wish I could get all women to this place with the wave of a wand. My favorite saying: “A wise woman once said, Fuck this shit, and she lived happily ever after.” Punk rock forever.
Anyway, for this month, this blog isn’t supposed to be about me, but about my brand. But that’s the beauty of it: my mission is my brand, and my mission is to help and encourage women and artists and their advocates. And so, back to the thesis. Everyone wants a more just and inclusive world. You’d think that’s easily done in the arts. After 3 months in Montreal buried in books and furiously tapping papers out on my laptop, I made an art date. In one day, I saw the Kent Monkman exhibit at the McCord, I met the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and I encountered Brendan Fernandes’s art, which combines ballet with contemporary African art. Does it get any more relevant to equitable representation in dance?
I’d love to talk to you about the quality of each experience. But that’s not what I’m supposed to do, which melts my mind. I have to talk to you about the messages and promotions that lead me to these events. I get it. The Promotions class isn’t about the beauty or importance of the art, but about how we make people aware of its existence. So I asked my aunt, how did she hear of the Kent Monkman exhibit? It somehow sneaked through her filters. We have strong filters, which means that we take in just 7 to 12 messages a day, out of 1200! What percolated through your filters this week? What about it struck you?
Remember The Artist’s Way? Yeah, I know, I haven’t written my pages in two decades either. I didn’t mean to stir that up. But make an art date sometime this year. [Gratuitous plug:] Get down to the Quartier des Spectacles for the light show or a lecture about art and urban renewal.