Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On travel and wine

My last night in Rome I sat with friends, ordering dinner along the banks of the Tiber River. Giovanni, my host, ordered a ribolla and, when I asked him about it, he told me that it was about 80% ribolla grape and 10 or 20% chardonnay. I was impressed that he had this information on the tip of his tongue so I asked how he knew so much. "Did you study about wine?" I asked him.

And Giovanni turned to me in that charming way of his and said, "I never study the great pleasures of life." We both laughed and we both knew what he meant.

But, despite what Giovanni says, I took a wine class last week. WINE 101. Wines from the Piedmonte region of Italy. I headed off to my local wine store, Red, White, and Bubbly (highly recommnended) where I walked into a room of about eight people and was given a seat with ten glasses in front of me. Tyrone, our local West Indian sommalier, was pouring.

It occurred to me from the start that I might be in trouble. For years I thought I should quit drinking. Give up wine. Probably I drink a little too much, like it more than I should. So I tried. I made one or two efforts and then realized it was pointless. As the Italians, or is it the French say, a day without wine is like a day without sun. I found that if I drink in moderation I'm fine. But the ten glasses before me, even just for a tasting, seemed daunting.

Still I couldn't agree more with that old saying. The truth is I love the taste of a great rose, a buttery chardonnay, a berry-on-the-nose pinot noir. I really don't know how to talk about wine that much and I'm not sure I care. But what fascinates me, as it does with literature, is landscape.

Terroir. Specific wines come from specific regions. The rain, the soil, the sun. It changes the whole thing. Similarly I have found with stories. The narratives that came out of the island country of Greece are not the same as came from the sweeps of Russia, the expanse of America, the tiny, tidy island life of England. The same with wine. What grows one way in volcani Sicily won't be the same wine on the North Fork of Long Island.

I guess what draws me to wine is somewhat what has drawn me to journeys. Maps. Terrain. So giving up wine would be the equivalent of giving up stories. And that would be the equivalent of giving up on journeys. And it is so intertwined I can no longer tell the one from the other. Nor do I particularly want to.

So I am not really going to learn more about wine per se. I am really going to learn about geography. What makes one region produce something different from another? And what exactly are all those different kinds of grapes?

In fact the class did not disappoint. I knew I'd come to the right place when our teacher, Tyrone, told us that every bottle of wine contains a story. When you open it, you can tell if it was hot or dry that summer. If it rained a lot. You can smell the earth from which that wine grew. A bottle of wine is a time capsule. It contains our past.

I graduated from Wine 101 and staggered in to the night with my fellow classmates. I learned that wines can smell like diesel, barnyard, cat piss, and pencil shavings. And then there are the hints of bitter apple, berry, mushroom, bacon? Beyond the story in the bottle, each sip requires a lot of imagination.

I don't plan to study the great pleasures of life. But it can't hurt to understand a little more. So now each sip is a small journey to another place, another time. Each sip, even on my terrace or local bistro, takes me away.

Child's Play

After ten days in Umbria and Rome (about which I will write soon), I returned to New York. I have two months ahead of me during which I am only going to focus on my own work and this feels like a true gift from the gods. I wanted, and kept, my calendar very empty. But I had one thing written on it for the day after I got back. "Prodigy of Color" at the Agora Gallery. I had read about Aelita Andre before leaving and her show was closing on Saturday. I had only a few hours to see it.

It was a hot afternoon as we set out and I was very tired. Jet-lagged, achy from the long flight. Not entirely in the best mood for some personal reasons and missing the pines, the light, the beauty at every corner of Rome.

New York seemed gray, dreary. Where was the piazza? The fountain I'd stared at for hours at a time. The macchiato and cornetti I savored each morning. But we pushed on to the gallery and there we entered the space where Aelita's work is being shown.

It is a room of vibrant colors, bright canvases with interesting compositions and playful objects (no surprise there) such as colored cotton balls, glitter, masks, and plastic farm animals glued on. I am going to be honest here. I can't say that I love the work. But I was, and am, utterly fascinated by the process.

Aelita Andre is an abstract expressionist who has had recent global success. When her work was shown to the director of the Agora gallery, he was immediately impressed and decided to represent her. He didn't know that she was four years old. But she is.

As an article about her in ARTisSpectrum says, Aelita paints from a preconscious place. She is not aware of her critics because she hasn't had any. She doesn't know what bad reviews are. And, what strikes me most, she isn't afraid of failure because she has no idea what failure is.

That is a notion that is difficult for any artist who is not nineteen (or four) years old to comprehend. To sit down to work and just allow your creative energies to flow. To not fear who will see it and what they might say. To never think of the market place. To inhabit a timeless space.

I know this sounds ridiculous but I wanted to see her work because, in part, I wanted to make this my summer goal - though already the notion of a goal implies intention and intention isn't what Aelita is about. She is about instinct. Intuition. Going with her gut. Unihibited. Completely and utterly unfettered. This is what she's about.

Larry jokingly likened her work to those elephant paintings which are also abstract and which duped one art critic into calling them a fresh vision. But in a sense why is it wrong to compare it to elephant art? Elephants have been shown to have high communication skills, lots of emotions, a work ethic, family ties, and are able to recognize themselves in mirrors (which is a sign of consciouness; dolphins and African grays can do this too and that's about it for the animal kingdom).

So why shouldn't an elephant, or a small child, paint from that preconscious place, unfettered, and, the most significant thing for me, unafraid?

Fear is a bad companion to wake up to or have to live with. At Sarah Lawrence graduation Ariana Huffington addressed this quite well. She said fear is like living with a bad roommate. She also said that failure isn't the opposite of success, but rather a step on the road to success (see post from May 23).

But what if, for the summer say, for just a few weeks of our life we eliminated all notions of success and failure. What if we like the Tahitians turn our notion of art into "doing the best we can." Or as Beckett wrote, fail better.

I don't know what's ahead for this little girl. I don't know if she'll be making art in ten or twenty years. I am going to amssume that her success now is a somewhat freakish, but real, thing. The beauty is she knows nothing (though she is said to admire Picasso and Dali). But she knows nothing of what the world can, and will, do to an artist's spirit.

Last night a friend shared with me a recent success. He was very happy about it and, for the first time, opened up to how difficult it had been. I told him, "We all have to go through something." It is not a straight shot to wherever we are.

Eventually we have to show our work to our editors, our agents, our galleries. There will be opinions and, yes, failures. But what if, just for a brief moment in time, we forget about time. We forget that things may or may not work out.

What if, as Aelita seems able to do, we just allow ourselves to have fun?
What if we go into our little rooms and make a mess and not worry, at least for now, about who is going to clean it up?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Pines of Rome

Since I was a girl, traveling with my mother to Rome for the first time, I'd always believed that these pines were a species of tree. It was only years later after I came to understand the Italian aesthetic that I understand that actually they are pruned like this. To preserve the shade yet let the light in.

It is hard for me to walk among these pines and not think of my mother who loved them. Or remember that it was in this very park that I heard catcalls for the first time and had no idea what they were. Or that they were intended for me.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Phone Home

One of those random things I love about traveling. Ran into this odd couple at Rome airport. Hard to explain what they are really (well, I know what they are, but I prefer the mystery of others not being able to make much sense out of this weird image). Just another day on the road.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What I love about Rome...

When Italians ask me directions. In Italy.
When motorcycles go down one way streets, the wrong way.
When business men in a hurry pause so I can take a picture.
When a dog wanders into a cafe and its owner, dressed in pencil skirt and heels, comes to get it, then walk on.
When people wash their fruit, their faces, their hands, their hair from a fountain.
When they do nothing all day.
When I do nothing all day...

Pictures to come. Next week...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Hot Day in Cold Spring

Over Memorial Day some friends invited us up to their place near Cold Spring. We were excited to go, but we also dreaded the thought of the traffic, heading home after the long weekend. Since Larry and I are on a "staycation," it seems as if we could do what we wanted and we both came to the same conclusion at the same time. "Let's spend the night in Cold Spring," Larry suggested, just as I was about to say exactly the same thing.

That's the way it is with couples some time, isn't it? You know one another. Yu know what you both like. And we knew we didn't need to rush back and we didn't want to spend four hours, honking our horn.

There's a hotel right on the Hudson, the Hudson House. The reviews we read weren't so great, but we'd seen that hotel many times and it's right on the water, above a little park. We'd have this little canon to look down on and lots of revolutionary war history. George Washington stopped here for a drink and liked the water. Hence the name, Cold Spring.

So we had a delightful day with our friends, then went to our hotel. It turned out, as it often seems to happen with us (because we tend to go again the flow) that we were the only guests. It was a little spooky, I must admit. Returning from some burger place, the Depot, on the MetroNorth train line, and I loved to see the trains, packed, heading back to the city. And those other sort of mournful trains, heading out.

We walked back under a viaduct and went and stood by the river. Above us a flagpole banged in the wind. Across the river a long freight train, lit only by the headlights of its engine, snaked along the river's edge. A strange and haunting site. Then we returned to the hotel where we were the only guests. Perfect place for a crime, it seemed to me.

I teased Larry a bit about ghosts (I have a way of staring into space that frightens him). I told him that the hotel had a ghost (I made up some grim story) and if he heard a knock in the night, not to open the door. Then I did some silly knocking antics while he was brushing his teeth.

We slept in the lumpy bed. In the morning we were up and had a lovely breakfast on the porch. And it was then that I envisioned another ghost. That of Kate, circa 1998. We had come to Cold Spring to hang out for a day and Kate had lain on the rocks, reading a book, right across from where we were sitting. So I took out my watercolors and painted this image of her. It is actually my first, and perhaps only, image of a human figure.

I missed my daughter. Not the daughter who lives in DC, works as press liaison for a great not-for-profit, has a terrific chef boyfriend, and cantankerous hound. Not that daughter of whom I am very proud. I missed the one who was little once. Who lay in the crevice of two rocks to read on a lazy afternoon in another life, it almost seems. And I had a strong feeling that that little girl still haunted this place.

It was Memorial Day weekend, after all. A time ripe for remembering.

After breakfast we went down to a local spot on the Hudson. A beach just half a mile out of town and a short walk over a railroad bridge. On our walk Larry and I found a dead butterfly with blue wings, the pod, I think, of a poplar tree. I kept them.

Just before leaving, I swam in the Hudson as another freight train was passing across the way. The water was clear and cold. Later I mentioned this to a friend who lives in Cold Spring. "You swam in the Hudson?" he said. Apparently nobody who knows better does that. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat.