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.
I’m going to rope you into my coursework. For a limited time only. It’s part of my social media class, wherein I learn to use Instagram. Do you use Instagram? Who has time, right? My mission: to step fully into arts advocacy. In class, they call it “influencer.” Whatever. I’m not here to influence you. You’ve taught me that culture is vital to our ecosystem, and that it’s high time all people were represented in the images we see, the voices we hear. Helen, Theresa, Angie, Kaara, taught me this, and Richard, Fred, Tom, Dino, Mary, and ... New York, Chicago, and Montreal taught me this. Punk, Hip Hop, and World Music taught me this.
I’m taking this to the streets. And I’m taking the streets online. I guess there’s a way for me to post images on this blog, but instead, I’ll send you to my Facebook or Instagram accounts, OK? Bear with me, thank you. My grade depends on it. And perhaps getting a job.
My thesis also depends on it. I am looking at dance companies’ practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ballet companies in the US are starting to break the ranks of willowy, ghostly pale people with willowy people of varied ethnicity. Will this be a sea-change, or is it a short-lived trend? What are ballet companies’ motives? Is this having an impact on their revenues? Is the overall ballet industry becoming more diverse as a consequence?
You are my influencers. Below, let me know when an arts event blows your mind. And post for me any information you have!
Montreal, I thought you were made of tougher stuff. 2.5 feet of snow overnight and they cancel life. I mean, you can't get around, and I sank up to my pantyhosed knees when I walked out the alley door. But isn't that what's supposed to happen? In Montreal? In winter? This is the only one I get!
It took four red-faced, short, burly Montreal guys to shovel a VW Golf out of a parking spot. Then they all piled in wearing most of the snow. Cyclists ride their bikes through powder toward the mountain, cross-country skis strapped to their back. Parents pull their offspring to daycare on sleds while the kids eat snowballs for breakfast. I'll try dog-sledding Plateau-style: I'll harness a plastic trash-can to Tibby and climb in. Sounds like something my dad would have done back in the day. I'll let you know how it goes. Back on the ranch, Alrik has dig-out cookies ready for whichever hero in a Caterpillar comes dig him out.
I find myself standing in the aisle of the grocery store. I'm holding 4 boxes of cookies and I just dropped two more, plus a box of Pop Tarts (frosted). I'm trying hard not to lose it. What am I doing? School is so intense, and time is going by so fast, and I'm getting so little of Montreal that this is how I internalize the experience: by eating my memories of being in Quebec.
I'm underwater in my Research Methods class. It was a two-day seminar held on two brain-dead Fridays. The presentation is due this week. When I open the analytics software, my mind makes itself into a very tiny, impermeable, tight seed. I tried to figure it out on my own, as I always do. I fell even further behind. So I did something different: I asked for help. The kind and supportive response from my fellow students brought me to my knees. So that's a lesson learned.
Also thrilling, the visit to Cirque du Soleil's HQ and our meeting with Daniel Lamarre. I hope he has 13 jobs for us. The circus, people. Run away with it if you don't know where your life is headed. It's the right thing to do for the past 150 years.
7 in the morning finds me sitting at Paquebot café’s bay window, facing the granite poem that is Mont Royal. Shrouded in fog or sparkling in the frosty light, it watches over the dogs romping in the park. Those little characters cross the street before my very eyes with no regard for how much I miss my Miss Tibby. Nor do the cyclists care that I had to ditch Maple Leaf the Bike in the US.
On Fridays, I pack my being into my snail shell and backpack to the wind-swept fields of the St Lawrence plain. My man and my dog are waiting for me there. The revised room in Montreal was too small to hold us all. After the reunion show-and-tell, we puppy pile onto the couch in front of the fireplace for a weekend of writing and research. Monday morning, I reenact the ritual of my foremothers’ generations. I trek into Montreal from a far-flung rural community to study. A room facing a brick wall is where I rest my head. It wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan. And the neighborhood! If you’ve not heard of the Plateau, it’s a bilingual Brooklyn, with better croissants and cheaper coffee.
Montreal sings its ode, but I haven’t had time to dance to it. I’m knee deep in the preparation for my thesis, and I’m grant-writing for a food museum. I’ve had nightmares that I’ve been in Montreal without knowing it. It’s happening. Every minute of every day is scheduled—even Fun gets planned. How else to squeeze all the learning from this year of reflection and intellectual exploration?
Watching the fine snow lace the trees and blur the woods, I’d extend this moment forever if I could.
They said it couldn’t be done, but we did it: Dallas on a bike. Four months. In hellish heat, in freezing drizzle, Maple Leaf carried me. In flipflops, in heels, in Wellies, in a good mood, in a foul mood, pulling the dog’s carriage, hauling groceries, going out to dinner, going to the opera. Dallas is flat and flooded. The streets are wide. Drivers are so surprised to see us, they come to a dead stop. When I wave at them, they wave back. Only two tried to run me over. Clearly, Dallas needs us. Drop your gym membership and get on your bike.
With only a month between school semesters, I didn’t have enough time to ride Maple Leaf from TX to Montreal. I had to choose: bring Tibby on the plane with me, or Maple Leaf. I left Maple Leaf behind. We explored Chicago and NYC together. You were preceded by Hot Pepper, Rinkydink, and Salmonella. Your chain fell off once a month. You had just three flats in 8 years. Your higher gears either never worked, or were the only ones that did, which was loads of fun going up the Harlem Hill and the Bronx hills. Maple Leaf was a therapy bike: pulling over next to nervous dogs to pet them helped them get over their fear of bikes (looking at you, Jackie the New Yorkie). I’ve not had a home, but I’ve never not had a bike. My wings are clipped. Farewell, Maple Leaf.
So after the 109 degree heat through most of September, which wasn’t supposed to be that warm, the monsoons came. We weren’t supposed to get 28 inches. Manholes burbled mud. Kids’ Halloween costumes turned to paste in the knee-deep puddles. When the rains left, it was 48 degrees, and me with nothing warmer than fishnet stockings because it wasn’t supposed to be that cold. Back in NY, I had wished for the wettest year on record in Dallas, thinking that would break the heat. Next time, I’ll wish for the dismantling of the NRA.
Some people in Dallas have so much money, they swap it. They donate to one another’s causes. They believe in culture, but not on their front lawns. Not a soul stirs in the residential streets. Keep that drumming, those festivals, those crafty markets in Deep Ellum, in Bishop Arts, gentrified for that purpose. On our street: order. We drive to Art on Saturday night. We greet one another and promise a dinner date. We won’t keep it because we’ll see one another at the next fundraising gala, over dinner. And every now and then, we run for president.