October 19, 2008

Don't look now

Most of my work is finished for the year. I can dream about travel.

I think of Venice. A traditional birthday or New Years trip since
I saw ‘Don’t look now’. (This is how I remember movies. Location and stage setting, musical score, plot, in that order. You figure).
Venice is a visual mystery in the off season and I have spent some interesting moments there. No tourists, no guides and precious little light as a bone-chilling rain or snow fall and the gray clouds hang over the city like a shroud.
Venice in winter. The big hotels lock their doors. Tourist flee, and the Venetians take back their city. Sounds punctuate your walk along the silent waterways.

My steps echo through the Palazzo Ducale. The Council of 10 – here’s their chamber. Chilly bastards, they. I go looking for that little room of to the side, for the
Boca di Leone, where you slip in secret denunciations (‘Dear Doge, it’s about my…’).

I hear the footsteps before I see him. He strolls into the room.
‘Do you speak English?’ I nod. ‘Give me a tour? Buy you lunch if you do.’
He’s lonely. It’s New Year’s Eve, a day most people spend with someone else. I know why I’m alone in an empty city far from home-I like to be alone in an empty city far from home. I wonder about him, and don’t ask.
I look up at the ceiling and say ‘See that Veronese, bad restoration.’
‘Oh’, he says ‘looks fine to me, how do you know?’ ‘Art History, and a friend that does restorations.’
We walk for a long time from painting to painting. The rain beats on the windows and the place grows darker, more mysterious. We walk on. He begins telling me what I’m seeing.
We exchange no names, no personal histories, no geographical quizzes.

‘You must be hungry’ he says. ‘How about Harry’s?’ I nod.
The wind blows across the lagoon. The piazza is deserted. We stroll past Florian’s.

The captain at Harry’s is happy to see us. ‘Buone ano nuovo’

We eat, drink and talk. He tells me of the old Jewish ghetto. ‘Not much of it left, I’m afraid. You should read Levi.’
Harry’s is turning into a New Years Eve party. Everyone is speaking English and listening.
My companion says, ‘You really must see St. Michele cemetery. Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Ezra Pound are there.
I say, ‘Yes, I know. Like a Studio 54 for dead people. Pound’s tombstone is only his name- sans date, sans everything. What do birth and deaths really mean to a poet or to Venice? Life is instantaneous and eternal.

I like the triple gates (now filled in) looking onto the Serenissima, and the living. You should see it on All Saints’ Week a sea of white, pink and yellow chrysanthemums. The living have done their duty. They return to the vaporetto, satisfied. Perhaps the dead are, too.
The Lido on the other hand belongs to Venice geographically, but less so spiritually. Once upon a time Byron ran his horses there. One must always beware of poets - they set fashions. Casanova cultivated grapes here. On the Lido’s strand, the beautiful Venetian women - their type once summarized by Gozzi as "biondo, bianco e grassotto" – mingled at the turn of the nineteenth century with women from Austria, Hungary, and Milan, with brunettes, slender and pale women, with widows and demimondaines, those worldly women who did nothing by halves.
Basta! Those days are gone. I want to believe that the real, everyday life of Venice, at least the one I love, is far from the Lido.'

‘Where is your Venice?’ he asks.

‘ Where? On San Lazzaro degli Armeni, whose perfectly quadrilateral shape makes the island seem abstract. There are still paintings by Tiepolo and Longhi.

Or, the sublime little island of San Francesco del Deserto, dressed in cypresses that seem painted by Böcklin. A handful of Franciscan monks turn their thoughts to God in a thirteenth-century monastery of unparalleled sobriety. This little island could make one desire faith, never to doubt if such a thing were possible.’

He smiles, I get indulged.A late dinner with my landlady.
Afterwards, we walk through the Dorsoduro, a lonely part of a lonely city.
People have moved away. We can feel it as we walk. Our shadows climb the walls, run out ahead, then beneath, then stretch out behind. No one is about.
In its sadness, Venice is the most magical city in the world. Especially in winter.

In the meantime I will travel to Catalina and Sonoma enjoy the wisps of fog bloom amidst the rocks and make friends again with old forgotten places.

October 17, 2008

I sit down

In a space of time
It is a backwater of silence

-I love you for beeing you, not for beeing young or old, beautiful or hip.
-I write because I feel, and I write this because I want you to know how I feel.

October 09, 2008

évocation poétique

Past twelfe-still feeling
an unexplainable urge
to stay up all night

¡Ay qué trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!
Por tu amor me duele
el aire y el corazón.

Oh, what an effort it is
to love you as I do!
For love of you, the air
and my heart hurt me.

October 03, 2008

Elsie and West Point

My friend Elsie,

was a grande dame par excellence she lived high up the Hudson Valley in a house overlooking the river.

Horses, goats (‘perfect lawn mowers’), bees (best honey I ever had), chickens, on occasion my father, and the best cook I can remember, shared their lives with her.

She had married a Swedish diplomat (Dad was chagrined) had a son, divorced (Dad was happy), and returned to the United States.

After I settled in the States, Father ask me to visit Elsie (‘you’ll love her’). I did. For many years upon arrival at the house her first question always was ‘how’s Hans ?’ I was too self-absorbed to take notice. Much later did I realize, that they shared a love for each other that lasted to the end of their lives.

Vlasta was Elsie’s cook. I tasted strangely exotic yet subtle food, unlike anything I had ever known.
It was not, I thought, so much an unplaceable national cuisine as an evocation of a profound past, which stirred some atavistic memory I could not trace. Something with aubergine? With nutmeg, unnamable spices and cream…This was not haute cuisine as we generally know it: it was immensely intricate and yet bold. I tried again to analyze it. Here was suavity and opulence too, without in any way being the cuisine of stuffed peacocks and pieces montes.
‘Ah! That is Vlasta’s secret,’ said Elsie. She has been with me ever since she left Europe. She was an assistant to her Parents and Grandparents at the great houses of Vienna.’
She added that Vlasta seldom let anyone to her kitchen and preferred to work alone, jealously guarding her secrets.

This was cuisine of crossroads. West co-mingled with the East in the best Balkan tradition.

When I much later was to be admitted to her confidence, I knew that I in fact was watching some of the last rituals of the great old houses.
Thus echoes of the Balkan sounded even in New York in the late decades of the last century.

When I stayed with Elsie and I should find myself depressed by the state of America, she would send me to West Point.
‘Why? I ask, ‘You’ll see’ she said.

After dark one evening I made my way alone to the Plain, the great playing-field and parade ground of the Academy. This was like an American fiction. The moon was rising, the Hudson lay dark below.
A train wailed somewhere. A military police coasted by. There was not another soul about.
Over four thousand young American men and women I knew were hard at work there: steadfast before computer screens, deep into ballistic theories, economic principles, translations from…, comparative equations or historical relevances. They were prepared as an elite to lead the armies of the Republic.
The police came back again. ‘You okay, ma’am?’ Sure, I said.
West Point is a world of it’s own. A place where the old American values counted still. Honor and duty were watchwords and to tell a lie was to betray ones heritage: a place too, so it appeared that evening, where purpose was so exactly matched by appearance that the whole scene became an allegory.
I was observing only from the outside, but nevertheless I was greatly cheered by all this. A quarter of West Point’s cadets drop out, and I don’t blame them, but the ones who survive seem to me just fine. I tried hard to detect symptoms of fraud, hypocrisy or arrogance in the ones I met, but they seemed to me, to resurrect a phrase, ladies and gentlemen every one. If this is an elite West Point produces, it is a very attractive elite, and hardly homogenous: there are cadets black, brown and yellow, Jewish, many be-spectacled, short and even some who look like a little plump for press-ups. They come from all backgrounds, and the one thing they have in common, so West Point likes to think (me, too) is the devotion instilled to them, during their four years in the place, to principles, that the Founding Fathers would have approved of.

I am anything but a militarist and I was surprised as I pottered around West Point to be so affected by it’s atmosphere. Partly, of course, it was the contrast between this place of old-school values, and the contemporary world outside. Partly perhaps it was the aesthetic appeal of order and tradition, set against the glorious landscape of the Hudson valley. But perhaps it was chiefly a sense of nostalgic déjà vu.
Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Hyped up as I was by these conjectures, West Point never lets you relax, just as it never lets the Long Grey Line drop its guard.
The sundial presented by the Class of ’33. ‘Duty, Honor, Country’, thundered the text around General McArthur’s statue.
‘To be good officers, you must be good men’, said the shade of General Sherman.

‘If you admit you’re wrong, a coach said, ‘you’re already right, and you don’t get yelled at.’
Best of all was a little scene a witnessed on Saturday afternoon, visitor’s day.
A young cadet emerging from her barracks in her semi-dress uniform, very smart and very flattering.
I followed her down the path towards the Eisenhower statue, brisk as could be to where her father was waiting to meet her: and then-talk about symbolism! Here was your very image of a kind countryman, a figure from an old magazine cover, wearing boots and a floppy brown hat, his face shining with pride, and happiness. She broke into a run, her cap went skew-whiff for a moment, and into his arms she fell.

Thank you, Elsie.