Platform 9 3/4 . . . or, Ways My Family Travels Diagon-Alley

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At Kings Cross Station, London, Platform 9 3/4, driving a baggage cart through the brick wall like true Harry Potter fans. 2007 maybe?

We try to be normal.  We really do.  But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.

This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:

The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music.  (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.)  Ideally, these photos look a little like this:

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This is the top gate at Mirabell.    (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.)  We spent some time here.  We took some photos here.  But none looked like this.

What did they look like?  Well, look to your right.  DSC_0125   This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens.  Why is he sleeping, you ask?  He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens.  Singing Do-Re-Mi?  Oh no.  No.  This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him.  My favorite scene from that movie, below.  (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)

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I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter.  In another year, she’ll be heading off to college.  And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August.  They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing.  I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels  on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.

 

Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future.  After all, they started before our children were born.  In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon.  On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb.  In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar.  So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm.  Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers?  Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep?  And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn?  Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.

When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious.  It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.

They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?

Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal.  What else can you do?

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In Germany, 2008.

 

Twilight at the Tower Bridge

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Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016
Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016

About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.

Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End.  The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary.  (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me.  And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little.  Seriously.  I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think?  Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me.  I’m lots cooler than that.  Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)

Moving on. . .

Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London.  Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic.  Good plan.  But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill.  One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views.  The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.

It fit the bill well.  The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky.  The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).

We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.

The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning.    I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London.  So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.

First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse.  But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.

The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present.  (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge.  So many.)  There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes  Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens.  The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others.  Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall.  This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper.  (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)

If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark.  Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty  Charles Dickens.  Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.

But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into.  Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart.  We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.

If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.

C’est la vie.  Or, as my London friends might say:  th9sb27hg3

 

 

Van Gogh: Prodigal Art

Art in the Autumn #2   — via Daily Prompt: Facade

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Stolen Van Goghs recovered, Associated Press

I woke up this morning to the news that two Van Gogh paintings, stolen 14 years ago, have been found in Italy.  (The news blurb can be found here.)  After 14 years, there was no expectation that these paintings would ever come back home to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and it’s fair to say that the museum director was absolutely giddy with excitement when the news broke: “‘The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for,'” said museum director Axel Ruger. ‘We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years.'”

If Mr. Ruger had a fatted calf at hand, or if artwork was inclined to dine, for that matter, I’m sure a great feast would be in the works.   In fact, I imagine that a great feast and homecoming celebration are in the works anyhow–centering around the returning art, but fattening up the people who are ecstatic to welcome it.   How could you not celebrate the return of two Van Gogh paintings?  At the very least, you must revel in the return of the property: reportedly worth over 30 million dollars.  But beyond the quantifying, there is the qualifying value of Van Gogh.  The beauty, the daring, and  . . . that other thing about Van Gogh.  That thing, that hard to explain thing.    van-g-starry

Is it me, or is there something radically personal about Van Gogh and his art?  In every way, he and his art are prodigal.  And because of that, they are life.  Your life, my life, each moment of life that is extravagant.   The simple beauty of the crisp starry night that we had here in Florida last night– so mundane, I suppose, but so vibrant when you actually look up to notice it (and though the sky is not swirling, the breeze on your cheek gives the world that effect, if only you will notice).    van-gogh-1

Or the moment when you look in the mirror and actually see yourself today, as you are and without judgment, erasing the 20-some years of what you thought you looked like (and maybe  what you still look like in the right light, with your hair done just so, and your makeup expertly in place)– but at 50 years old, in the stark morning light, before you have raised your facade to meet the world, you find new movement to your face and new tones in your skin.  The jowls are sliding here, the eyes crinkle there, the furrows are surely evolving from expression lines to permanent fixtures.  You see the shade of your ancestors in your own face– and you recognize the movement and energy, and changing moods, of Van Gogh’s own self portraits.   (Some people try to uncover a descent into madness in his shifting self portraits– I see only lighting, only mood, only the natural movements and shifts of life. Changeable; life is nothing if not changeable.)

On the prodigality of his art, it is interesting to note that the two works that are returning home are early works– a traditional seascape and landscape with church.  They are lovely, but don’t show the hallmark of his later works–the lavish, thick paint (a month’s wages spent on one painting!) and movement that so well expresses mood and vigor.  If the earlier works capture moments in everyday life, the later works both capture and release those moments, those energies.

Sure, his work is pretty and bright, but that’s not what instills such fervor in his followers.  Why has my family pursued him in Paris, shadowed his footsteps in Arles, and greedily devoured his work in the form of a birthday cake?  What inspires that devotion?

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We shadowed his footsteps in Arles.
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We  devoured The Starry Night, in birthday cake form.

It’s the capture and release that gets us.  The energy remains.  We feel the life, experience the life, rather than just observing it.

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Self portrait, after ear mishap.

Or maybe it’s the sheer prodigality– in every sense.  Van Gogh went full throttle into his art–whole tubes of paint smeared across a canvas, skies that move and refuse to stand still  on a static canvas, and his proclivity for running headlong into his own canvases (on good days and bad, with ear or without).  Full throttle.

Did you know that Van Gogh left school early (out of financial necessity) to work as a dealer in an art gallery?  When that life turned sour, he threw himself into his faith and began to teach and then minister in the Church.  But in time it was clear that he didn’t fit the Church’s mold and he was released from his post.  He turned back to art, but as an artist, not a dealer.  Full throttle, he painted himself into the canvas, he became the creator.  

But, eventually, disaster.  The well told tale is of an unstable artist who died at his own hand, mad and destitute.  But that’s just one narrative, and recent investigations have brought that story into question. . . because, even in death, he won’t stand still.  Prodigals have a way of returning.

And, today, we can celebrate the fact that their art does too.

In the streets of Arles.
In the streets of Arles.

 

Art in the Autumn #1 – Picasso: A Horse is a Horse

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Of course.  Of course?

Well, actually, not necessarily.

Take, for example, “The Picasso” in Daley Plaza in Chicago.  It is untitled– which is the first tricky thing about it.  No hints to tell you what it is.  I walked by it for years, always assuming it was a horse.  I’m sure I’ve heard plenty of Chicagoans refer to it as “the horse,”  which looked about right to me.  (The long muzzle, the powerful haunches, the glamorous mane– it all fits.)  But on our recent visit to Chicago, my daughter said, “It’s a baboon.”  That’s all, no debate.  Clearly, it’s a baboon.  Duh.  And, guess what?  I totally see that too.  (How could I not have seen that before?)

However  . . .

it turns out that if you view it from the side as you come around it, instead of straight on . . .

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Sculptor’s model.

it’s a woman’s profile.  In fact, at just the right angle, you really see the woman and her cheekbone lines from the front– especially if you look at the sculptor’s model in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The hair, the shoulders, the cheekbones, it’s all there.

Although that model could still be an especially fetching baboon.  Hard to say.

Picasso designed this mammoth statue for the city of Chicago– it’s 50 feet tall and weighs 163 tons.  At that size, whether or not you understand it, you will find yourself looking at it.

dsc_0689But wait– there’s more.  Because it’s a huge piece of art in a huge public space, you will find yourself as part of a community that interacts with it.  People navigate by it, eat lunch by it, stage movie scenes around it (remember the Blues Brothers?), and allow their children to play on it.

Can you do that?  Play on a Picasso?  Is that cool?  Some onlookers clearly think not, but others seem to believe this was Picasso’s intent all along– let the children run and slide on it!

Me?  In my head, it will always be a horse, but Picasso loved bending the lines of life.  I think he’d be thrilled that we are perplexed.  “Keep your eyes squinting at it, your mind chewing over it, your children running up and down on it,” this is what I think he’d say.

Picasso at Home, by Rene Burri
Picasso at Home, by Rene Burri

After all, he’s the guy who said, “Everything you can imagine is real,” and “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”

So Chicago has its untitled Picasso,  a gift given freely by the generous  artist– a little nonsense standing at the navel of a great city, daring its inhabitants to guess its riddle.  Pablo Picasso knew exactly what he was doing. . .because even if we don’t get it, we still get it.

“If I paint a wild horse, you might not see the horse…  
but surely you will see the wildness!”  Pablo Picasso

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