Monday, July 21, 2014

Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone.  Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.


I'm not sure this post requires any explanation but perhaps a little context.  In Thailand our last morning with friends we went early in the morning to give offerings to the monks in exchange for their blessings.   Then a few hours later at the airport, leaving Bangkok, we were always blessed - by Ronald McDonald.  End of story.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Blackie: South Dakota, October 1986

Last week my daughter, Kate,and her boyfriend moved into a new apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  It's only a few minutes away, near the water, in a place we love.  Her dad and I wanted to help them get settled so we began going through things around the house that we thought they might need or enjoy.  Also, full disclosure, we were happy to clean out the basement and her room a little as we move into this next phase of our lives.

Digging in the basement yesterday I found this photo that I shot almost 28 years ago.  It had hung in Kate's room for years but after she graduated from college, moved to DC, and then to LA, it had stayed behind and finally was relegated to a stack of neglected framed artwork.  When I found it yesterday it was covered in dust, but I brushed it off and there it was once again.  Blackie.

It was in October, 1986  I had gone to South Dakota to visit my friend, Dan O'Brien, and stay for a while on his ranch.  I was almost six months pregnant and my life was, more or less, in shambles.  My partner of many years didn't want to get married and I'd decided to go it alone.  I had no idea what this meant and I had no idea what lay ahead.  But it was beginning to occur to me that, unlike a sweater from Bloomingdales, I could not take this back. 

I had for most of my adult life avoided decisions, commitments.  I'd managed to be fairly undecisive in everything except my desire to be a writer.  That was my one constant.  My work.  And now I would have this child.   I assumed that this trip out to Dan's would be one of my last journeys for a long time.  Maybe years.  I assumed that a child would alter my life so that it was no longer recognizable to me.  

I read once that cowbirds need to go where the buffalo roam.  Their entire food supply comes from the mites on the buffalo's back.  And so they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds because cowbirds don't have time to be parents.  For years I'd just assumed I was like the cowbird.  I had no time for parenthood.  And now here I was, very pregnant, and very alone.  

As I walked through the fields around Dan's place, a loyal dog named Jake stayed with me and I'd decided that if Kate was a boy I'd name her Jake.  I was alone in the fields on this day except for Jake.  Dan was off somewhere, riding the range.  There was this moment when the sky was dark and a streak of golden sunlight came down.  

I got the image I wanted.  This wasn't photoshopped or instagrammed.  It's just the way the sky and the fields and Blackie looked at that moment.   It's one of those moments I'll never forget and I am so grateful that I was able to capture it on film.  This wasn't my last journey, not by a long shot.  In fact when Kate was born in late January, the first thing I told the labor room nurse was that I used to be a travel writer.  "Make her sleep in different places," was her advice to me.  "She'll go anywhere."

So I did.  I made Kate sleep in my bed, in baskets and even drawers, and sometimes her crib.  And the fact is she will go anywhere.  And for years she roamed.  When she moved out west, I thought that was where she'd made her home.  That was where she'd be.

Now she lives a few minutes away and this morning I drove Blackie over to her new place.  I had a car full of other things - artwork from her room, bits of furniture.  She wanted the furniture but didn't want any of the art.  "I brought Blackie," I told her.

And she said in that childlike voice she sometimes uses, "I want Blackie."  So now he is back with her and she is back near us.  As with any journey that isn't exile, there is always the moment of return. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Meal and A Memory: for Urdin

It's a rainy Sunday morning as our flight from Barcelona is landing in San Sebastian in Basque Country, the north of Spain.   We've been to San Sebastian many times and, in some ways, it is our favorite place to be.  We love it water-front city, its food, and its people. We have come to San Sebastian only for the day.  We are going to the house of friends for a meal in the country.

We met our friends, Carmen and Josep, the year before when we did a house swap with them.  We've done many house swaps mainly all over Europe (it is how we travel), but we really hit it off with them.  As Josep said many times, "es un suerte."  It is good fortune that we met one another.  They offered us their flat in Barcelona where we stayed this past May and also invited us to come and spend a night or two with them.  Their oldest son, Urdin, who is "a good cook" would make us lunch.  We would fly home the next day.

Really we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into.  We just assumed that lunch was a meal in the middle of the day. But for the Basque, and Spanish, people for whom food and family are everything lunch is something else.  Carmen had informed me that Urdin, her oldest son, had been planning our meals for weeks, but still it did not prepare me for the feast we were about to enjoy.

Urdin and his wife's house is set out in the countryside.  It is on land that belonged to his wife's family and was parceled out among brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles.  Urdin and his family live in a house that is attached to the house of their in-laws.  Everyone comes and goes.  There seems to be a free flow of people as well as animals, dogs, cats, cows.  We hadn't been there long when buckets of steamed mussels appeared and bottles of my favorite Basque wine, Txacoli.  We made our way through the mussels, then the lobster salad, the baked cod on potato slices, the cooked to perfection chocolate souffle.

It was Urdin's chocolate souffle that brought another memory to mind.  Many years ago Larry and I were eating lunch at a restaurant in Paris that was well-beyond our means.  A friend had recommended and told me the price which I assumed was for two (it was for one and didn't include wine).  When our menus arrived Larry whispered to me, "Order the skate; just the skate."  As in the olden days only his menu had the prices and the skate was all that we could afford.

At any rate we were there, having our meal which was delicious, but not particularly memorable, and, as I took a bite from my chocolate souffle dessert, I dropped my fork because it was so good.  In fact the only thing I really remember about that meal was Larry whispering to order the skate and me dropping my fork.

But after that whenever we had a good meal, Larry and I began to ask each other if it was a "drop your fork" meal.  In truth there haven't been that many in our lives.  There was a great lunch we had in Tarragona near some Roman ruins.  Grandma's lasagna that we ate under some fig trees near Lago de Garda.  A chicken tangine in Tangier that reminded me of my grandmother's cooking.  A night by the Tiber River with our friends, Gloria and Giovanni.  And a few more I can't recall but they all happen while we are on the road, traveling, often with family and friends.  What we came to decide about "drop your fork" is that it's not just about the meal because we've all had good meals.  But it was the memory and the experience of the meal that mattered the most.

We had no idea when we embarked upon it that this lunch would turn into a day, the day into night.  Or that at some point someone would place a blanket over me as I napped under a tree.  And then wake to my husband and our Basque friends dancing to Greek music.  We had no idea that the day would entail many wonderful courses, flowing wine, great laughs.  Or that Carmen and Josef's other son, Iker, would bring with all the watercolors he'd painted in the past year and offer for me to choose one.  It is at the framer's as we speak. We had no idea that hours later, as the sun was setting, we'd be walking in the farmland before we staggered home.

As we walked in the hills, Urdin spoke to me about this blog.  I had no idea he read it but he told me that he enjoyed these short essays about journeys and the images that accompanied them.  He asked me why I had been silent for so long.  I told him that I'd been busy, traveling and living my life.  But I promised him, and
here I hope I am fulfilling that promise, that when next I wrote, it would be about him. 

As we were heading back towards San Sebastian Carmen asked us what we'd like to do for dinner. "Dinner?"  Larry and I were in shock.  We'd just finished lunch.  But not our Basque friends.  As soon as we were home, we headed out across the street to their local tapas bar where we ate more food and drank more wine and stumbled into bed, slept four hours, and managed somehow for some reason that still eludes me to make our flight home.

A few weeks before in a tapas bar in Barcelona we met a young couple.  Actually they shared their ham croquets and then we started sharing beer and stories.  I don't remember her name, but she said as we were leaving that in Spain everything happens around a table.

And a meal that is a "drop your fork" isn't only about the food.  A meal like that is an experience and that experience without a doubt becomes a memory - in this case one we will never forget.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

We travel to lose ourselves... - from Pico Iyer

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” Pico Iyer

I love this quote from Pico Iyer.  Thanks to Naomi Bishop for sharing it.  Here are some recent images from my journeys this past spring.  I'll be writing about them more soon.   Lots of stories and images to share now that the weary wanderer is home.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Flying Home from Chicago during the 50 Year Anniversary of the Summer of Freedom...

I'm on the flight home from Chicago, and the young girl beside me is singing.  I'd been on a research trip where I spent a wonderful day driving around with my cousin Mike, visiting neighborhoods I hadn't been to in half my life, standing in front of my grandmother's apartment building, riding the city's rails, remembering the pavement under my feet.

I was putting the finishing touches on the novel I'd spent the past two decades working on.  It seems as if I began it in another life, but the Jazz Palace, the story of a white piano player and a black trumpeter, will finally see the light of day next spring.  And I'd come to get my Chicago geography right.

I'd forgotten so much about my hometown and in fact as I said to Mike, I feel as if I'm trying to remember a place I never knew.  The city of my novel hasn't existed since before I was born.  But the fact remains that the South Side of Chicago is nothing like the North Side.  That hasn't changed since the first wave of black migration to the north.  Chicago is still, in my opinion, a divided city.  (A good book to read on this subject is Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton)

It wasn't lost on me that it's fifty years since Freedom Summer - when volunteers flocked to Mississippi to help register blacks.  It's fifty years since Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts into law as well as the Voter Registration Act.  I'm remembering all those years of turmoil from James Meredith enrolling at the University of Mississippi to the assassination of Martin Luther King.  I'm thinking of the history of my city, my country and my youth as I ride up and down Chicago from Lawrence Avenue to 47th Street and back again.

It's been years since my friends and I used to come down to the South Side of Chicago to hear the black entertainers at the Regal Theater (something my parents never knew about and would have grounded me for weeks if they'd known, never mind that my father used to hang out in the black and tans all during his youth and my mother did her share of clubbing as well).  Or since we went to the Lyric Opera auditorium to hear Martin Luther King talk about freedom and what it meant to be black in America.  He talked about dignity and he told us that as long as one man isn't free, the rest of us aren't either.

Words that have never left me.

On the flight home I sit next to the girl.  She's got the window and I'm on the aisle. There's nobody between us.  She's black, she's young, and seems to be alone.  I have work to do and just say hi.  She barely gives me a nod, but as soon as we take off she starts singing.  The singing doesn't seem to be about or connected to anything.  She isn't wearing headphones.  She's just singing.

I find it a bit distracting so I decide that maybe she's nervous.  I start to talk to her.  I ask her if she lives in New York or if she's just visiting.  She's just visiting, she tells me in a whisper. I ask if she's flown before and she has.  That morning.  I ask if she's alone and she points to a large black woman seated on the window across the aisle.  "My auntie."

I wonder why they aren't sitting together or even near one another.  Perhaps they both want window seats. It's an odd configuration, but it is what it is.  I smile and go back to my work, but a moment later she starts singing again.  The drink carts are coming around so I put my work away.  The girl is staring at me with big, wide eyes so I ask her how old she is. She's only ten and her name.  Skylar.  We chat a bit.  I tell her I'm a teacher which I am part of the time.  She's only just finished 5th grade.
"Are you from Chicago?" I asked her.
And she looked at me with those big eyes. 'I'm from Hattiesburg, Mississippi," Skylar told me.  She had never been north before.

Then I started to ask her all those silly questions that adults always ask kids when you don't know what else to say. "And what do you want to study when you grow up?"
Now Skylar perked up.  "I want to be a nurse," she told me.
"I bet you'd make a good nurse," I told her.
"Or a lawyer.  I might want to be a lawyer."
I nodded.  "I bet you'd make a good lawyer too."
Now she was smiling, animated.  "And I know where I'm going to go to school."
"And where's that, Skylar?" I asked her.
"I'm going to go to Ole' Miss."

I'd be lying if I said that this moment didn't choke me up.  If I didn't hold back my tears because everything, all of it, that whole past from 50 years ago, I relived it right then.  I was wondering if she could know, if she could possibly know, how improbable such a statement would have been fifty years ago.  I was relieved to see the lights shining outside the plane.  "Look," I said, "that's New York City."  And she gazed out the window, humming to herself, for the rest of the flight home. And for the rest of the flight we both gazed out the window as the city loomed.  And Skylar kept singing.

Later as I recounted the story of Skylar to my daughter, Kate, we both wound up with tears in our eyes.  I said to Kate that Skylar had no idea how far things had come, how much history is behind her, for her to be able to say those words.  And Kate in her wisdom replied, "Maybe she does."

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Nobody has ever described the place where I've just arrived."  Paul Theroux from the Pillars of Hercules.