Our time here in Mexico is drawing to a close. Two months has slipped by effortlessly, one day after the next. Cold nights have turned to cool and are trending to warmer. The air has become even drier as central Mexico heads into the zenith of its dry season. We will be home during those punishing months of April and May before the blessed rains start, God willing, in June.
But what a time these past two months have been! Construction on our outdoor sala and shower began in earnest back in January, soon after we arrived. We have finally been able to move to completion a project seven years in the making. Our dream of a modest place for more outdoor living, perfect here in year-round moderate temperatures, as well as a place for art workshops, morphed into something more elaborate with the added bonus of an outdoor shower space. But then things rarely turn out the way you plan.
One question we get is, Why an outdoor shower? Well, that was a dream since staying at a small hotel on the north shores of Bali back in 2005. Our modest room, that was more like a north woods cabin complete with high rafters and plank built-in closets on one side of the room, had a small bathroom with sink and toilet at the back with a door that opened to an enclosed area open to the sky. It’s “floor” was the ground covered in small river rock, and on the outside back wall of our room was a shower head with a squat stump of wood just below for you to stand on while you showered. In that little courtyard open to the sky there were a few tropical plants and overhead were trees and the blue tropical Pacific sky. Dave and I fell in love with it and vowed we’d make something similar some day if we had the chance. And so we do, and so we have built our own rendition.
During our time here in Alcocer I’ve completed a commission that I obtained back in November. This from a dear friend who has always admired my work. I enjoy doing commissions, but this one was special to create something as a treasure for my friend, something that she had envisioned from one of her many trips abroad.
I also have envisioned a new series which I will begin in earnest once we are back in Paducah. I’ve submitted a couple grants to assist with the series as it will be a long-term project which will need some outside backing. Wish me luck. Watch for previews as things progress.
One of the places I insisted on going to for our European trip was Groningen, Netherlands. If you’ve never heard of it you’re excused because it’s not well known to those of us in the States. But I had a reason to go there. To visit my friend, Deniz, whom I hadn’t seen since we met in 2002, when I was one of her subjects for Med El cochlear implant research that she conducted for her doctorate. Deniz’s and my backgrounds couldn’t be more different; she grew up in Ankara, Turkey in a somewhat traditional though nonpracticing Muslim family with one sister, still in Turkey, and several close cousins living in the States. I’m a product of the Midwest with a Protestant upbringing and quite a few years older than Deniz. Yet we hit it off during my five days at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, realizing we were simpatico in our views on women’s rights, our hesitance to marry, and our drive as professional women.
We kept in touch over the years, mostly through Facebook. In 2005 I emailed her when Dave and I were in Istanbul to ask about a dessert made of chicken breast that we’d had to see if she’d heard of such a thing. (It’s a real thing, called tavuk gogsu.) She got married a few years after we met and moved with her husband to Groningen soon after Continue reading “Catching Up In Groningen”
Coming to the end of our first week in Europe, we find ourselves in Bacharach, Germany, a quaint medieval village from the 1100’s. We’ve managed three countries in this first week, though it seems a lot longer than that. Starting in Paris I began to adjust to the travel life like Dave and I managed back in 2005 when we rounded the globe in 70 days. Like then, we planned and are managing the trip on our own. It can be hectic and stressful because you figure the details out for yourself, and sometimes as you go. So train connections, like getting here today, take some patience as you find the track and figure out the system the particular country uses. Humming along in the train always brings me back to those past trips and I feel that connection to the groove of our previous times on the road.
We stayed with our artist friend, Corinne, in Vevey, Switzerland, which took our breath away. The beauty of the towering mountains that came down to the edges of Lake Geneva, enveloping it in their embrace was indescribable. We’re already thinking about how to make it back there and experience more of Lake Geneva.
On our first day in Vevey Dave and I took the Vevey lake tour which rounded the eastern part of the lake into Montreux and beyond and then back to Vevey. The day was cloudless with a cool breeze as we skirted the lakeshore. A group of high school students on a trip lounged on the ferry deck with us, laughing and being boisterous as teenagers are wont to do.
Grand hotels and houses from the Bell Epoch period lined the shores at each city, throwbacks to the early twentieth century when excesses were all the rage. With life as it is more than a century on, I wondered if anything had changed.
Driving north out of town the second day we realized that besides being an area prominent for wine (and stunning landscape), we were in the land of cows. Lots of them, and all looking not very much like the ones from home.
Swiss cows come in cinnamon brown and dusky tan with charcoal markings. Their bodies and heads are blockier. The rolling hills, bordered by mountains, were a patchwork of corn, wheat, and pasture with cows grouped in clumps looking decidedly bucolic. I wanted to hug them.
We drove to Gruyere where there’s a castle and a walled city. Lots of cheese. I’ll let you guess which kind. We had fondue and a special kind of Swiss dried beef that was like heaven. Paper thin and with a creamy, smooth taste. More like a mild ham than beef. Dill pickles and pickled pearl onions to accompany it all.
After lunch we strolled around the town’s main street looking at German tchotchkes and signs with cranes, the city’s symbol. It seemed a fitting place since it was a symbol on our wedding invitation.
From Gruyere, Corinne took us to Mont Cheseause, which is little more than a restaurant at the end of a winding country road overlapped with trees and studded with a delightful farmstead here and there.
At the restaurant, we got two different tarts topped with creme, one with raspberries and the other a condensed apple that was the color of apple butter and the consistency of a firm custard. Nothing like it in the world!
We ate at a small covered outdoor terrace in the back overlooking a grand sweeping valley with the Alps rising across the way into jagged peaks. A bit of the sublime.
We drove back toward Vevey, coming into the upper winding streets, high on the hill above the lake. Corinne found a parking spot near one of the grand hotels so we could go in and look at the view from their restaurant terrace.
Walking down some steps we noticed an older woman, perhaps 70, waiting by the outdoor elevator with her rolling bag. Standing next to the railing there, overlooking the lake and mountains beyond, we began talking about our day and what we’d seen. She suddenly spoke, saying it was so unusual to hear English and asking if we’d been to the monastery on the hill above. No, Corinne told her, we’d not seen it. “I just happened to see the sign. You should go there, it’s so peaceful.” When Corinne countered that we were running out of time, the woman said, “You have to follow your own way. I’ve been all over and would do much more, but my body isn’t what it once was. My mind still wants to, but the body has its limitations.” I stood next to her as she spoke, looking at me and over my shoulder to Corinne and Dave. Her eyes were an intense blue and her voice a soothing alto. Beyond reason I instantly felt drawn to her and realized I was on the verge of tears. Her words flowed over me like a balm, and I sensed something in the moment that went beyond mere words or language or even logic. I restrained myself from hugging her, though that was my instinct. She bade us all goodbye and strode away down the stairs, saying I had beautiful eyes. Or so Dave and Corinne told me. I had not heard that part, stunned to feel the tears rolling down my cheeks and wondering what had just occurred. “It was beautiful,” Corinne assured me.
I’ve managed to fall behind in this blog as usual. But Dave and I put our heads together today and decided to cast off with the old habits of sloth and take charge of our art once more. Nothing like a new year to bring out the resolution-making in all of us, though I’ve never put much stock in that.
In this case it makes a good deal of sense as looking back at this year just come to a close I find I have not nearly the accomplishments I would have liked. No one to blame but myself.
So, off we go. Page turned and heading down a new road.
This little painting was actually completed in the Fall but I’ve been so dilatory that it never got posted. A-hem. This must stop! But however belatedly, it is the first in a new series I got the idea for from a book I read some years ago, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It made a very scant reference to a belief in Botswana that the first thing one sees upon entering heaven is white cows. The idea struck a cord such that I knew I had to paint it. And then later this past year it dawned on me from another reading reference about animals and myths that this could be a painting series.
I’m still feeling my way as to what the series is all about and what to include. For this initial painting I believe it speaks to me of a curiosity of my search for God. How do others define God and what do they see when they speak of heaven and the divine? White cows immediately brought to mind the Brahmans that we see in Mexico with their soulful eyes and graceful gate. Much larger than the Jersey or Herefords I’m used to from here in the States, they command a presence that I find quite singular and mystical. So I have painted them as my vision of those Botswanian cattle from on high.
I can think of so much worse to find awaiting me on the other side.
Fez, Morocco was our last stop on our world tour in 2005 before heading back to reality and our lives. If moving to Mexico could be considered reality. At that point it didn’t seem very real, or sane, for that matter. After two months of constant travel I was tired and weary of ever-changing landscape, customs, food, and trying to find cheap but decent lodgings. Morocco was a bit of a homecoming since we’d been there before, but we’d never been to Fez so it wasn’t familiar territory.
We managed to find a lovely pension on the east side of the Medina, recommended by a Moroccan we’d met on the train. He probably got a fee for finding folks like us but we didn’t mind. It was a nice place with clean rooms and friendly staff. Plus, it was just outside one of the bobs, or gates, to the souk. There was constant foot traffic of laden donkeys and streams of people going to and from the busy souk. It’s hard to describe such a place since the alleys snake endlessly through the old city such that it’s easy to get lost, and most foreigners like us are well advised to hire a guide. Which we did. My only regret, paradoxically, is that I wish we’d just explored on our own and not worried about getting lost. You can always pay some young boy to take you to the nearest bob and then hire a taxi to get back to your hotel.
The second or third evening we did decide to adventure out into the adjacent neighborhood to the east of us. This was reached by way of a winding street through neighboring storefronts that wound up a low hill into a nontourist area of the city. We like to find these spots to see how the locals really live and get a feel for the people. It was early evening, not yet sundown, with people out shopping in open air stalls and visiting. The streets were alive with people strolling and chatting, children playing, and they looked at us, these strangers with strange faces and dress so unaccustomed to their streets. We wandered into a small grouping of stalls selling produce and food to order. At one we stopped to talk with a man making some sort of flat bread to ask what it was, whether sweet or otherwise. He had only to give us a taste to convince us this was something we had to have! Yummy and warm, fresh off the griddle, it was the perfect thing to eat and stroll.
Further along the way we came upon a long line of local women, heads covered in scarves of various design, bodies clothed in kaftans, the traditional garb for women, seated along a sidewalk curb in serious discussions. This was obviously their social time, gathering in the evening to talk about their day or other topics. How familiar it felt, and yet I envied this connection they had with one another, coming together as part of their daily existence while we are stuck behind our computers, televisions, and endless schedules. More than anything else, this line of women spoke to me of community, family, and sisterhood. Though I could not understand their words or begin to know what they talked about, their story reached out to me of this ancient need to connect and share each others’ lives.
I’d lived in and around Chicago for nearly 15 years by the time September 11, 2001 came about. I worked in healthcare, managing a series of community health programs for a local chapter of a national nonprofit, all of them concentrated in the Hispanic and multicultural neighborhoods of Chicago’s west side. Most of my program’s clients were Latino, but Chicago being the cultural microcosm that it is, we experienced a much broader ethnic mix than just Puerto Rican and Mexican. We had blacks, some Polish kids, a smattering of Asians, and even a Palestinian teacher. I loved this cultural stew I found myself in, and I felt I was finally experiencing the real Chicago.
Dave and I lived in a large condo building in Berwyn, a west side suburb adjacent to Chicago, at the time of September 11, 2001. Berwyn is a working class neighborhood with a larger percentage of Mexican immigrants, but there are other groups that live and work there as well. Every morning I’d walk to the gas station next to our building and buy a Chicago Tribune to start my day. The gas station was owned and run by a couple Middle Eastern men. They were efficient, kept the place clean and orderly, and quietly dispensed change to me and standard pleasantries on my daily trips to their business. I never asked them where they were from. It never seemed necessary. They blended in with the rest of my experience.
I began to wonder about the two men after September 11 and hearing reports of incidents of harassment of people locally who looked Muslim. It concerned me that regardless of the atrocities in New York we would indiscriminantly turn on others just because they appeared to be Muslim. A few mornings later, as I handed my money through the safety window at the gas station to one of the Arabic men, I asked him if anyone had given him any trouble. He looked at me ,perhaps a little startled, and said,” Pray for me.”
I told him I would and wished him good day.
He and his partner left several weeks after that, turning the gas station over to someone else. I never heard of what had happened, why they left. But I still pray for him, and all of us, that we look beyond appearances and seek out what lies within each others’ hearts.
I’m hoping to get back to posting daily. This month I’ve had too many distractions, and heading into the holidays it threatens to only get worse. Today’s selection is from a reference photo I don’t really remember taking. But I seem to recognize the scene from a route we used to walk into centro in San Miguel that first six months we were there, along a back street that really was only wide enough for one car. There were several mesquites overhanging the street with their horizontal orientation. I like them immensely for their character of jutting branches and sense of age.
This is a “quick and dirty” study that I just breezed into, enjoying applying the alternate cool blues and warm burnt sienna to form the tree, my central figure. The wispy terminal branches were executed with a thin liner brush after using the side of my round to do some dry brush technique to show the density of those tiny twigs at branches’ ends.
I’ll be at Harrah’s in Metropolis again this Sunday for another bazaar, this time having to do with food and art. Last Sunday was their first Holiday Bazaar and attendance wasn’t where they wanted it so they invited us back for the coming Sunday when they hope to have more folks out for this “taste” event. Stop by to see my daily paintings, if you’re in the area, which is what I’ll have on hand for the event.
Mexico is all about foods with bold flavors and colors. Peppers of all kinds abound, from mild, such as the banana peppers, to screamingly hot, as in the habanero. Their colors are dark and brooding to lemony sublime. Along with the nopal cactus, peppers are the quintessential national vegetable, served in everything imaginable. Even sweeter things get a dash of chili pepper to add some spice.
Another staple in the Mexican diet is the mango. Probably the most common one is the yellow orange variety, smaller in stature than the bright red one we are more likely to see here in the north. These bright, sunny mangos turn a fabulous yellow gold at their peek, and you see people sucking out the fleshing through a hole bitten at one end while they squeeze from the other, not unlike squirting toothpaste from a tube.
The colors in this tableau almost sing from the page. Warmth at every turn and fold, mimicing the sweet pungency of the mangos and subtle flavors of the banana peppers. That purple crimson on the left? Dried peppers of some persuasion, perhaps pablano, perhaps another kind with a bit more potency. Whatever they may be, they bind the whole together in a mix of robust warm and cool saturated colorsÂ that is altogether Mexico.
We love Mexico during the Fall, especially at the end of October when they begin preparations for Day of the Dead. Offrendas begin to go up around town, commemorating deceased family and friends, and the flower vendors around the jardin, the town center, go into full swing. The vendors who sell dried flowers year-round now have a greater variety and more fresh-cut flowers. They especially like marigolds and cocks’ comb, two of the most traditional for the celebrations.
The flower vendors are one of the first people that you notice as you come into the jardin from the west side. They sit on low stools with buckets and buckets of flowers surrounding them and spend the time making intricate baskets filled with dried flowers. The colors and the tableau they create doing their work is unforgettable.
Like a giant serpent, the boardwalk through the Amelia Island marsh meandered its curving way out through the tall sea grasses. Rachel Carson had it right to describe this kind of grass as a sea. The wind whipped it into a current of its own just like the ocean, changing the varied colors from cool to warm depending on your perspective. The marsh was alive. Not with just the multitude of creatures — birds, crabs, insects, mammals — but took on a life of its own, combining into a gigantic organism responding to its environ.
Without the boardwalk we could have only stood in longing at the marsh’s edge, unable to traverse into its interior and discover any of its mystery. As it was, even in its depths we found it gave up what little it did begrudgingly. A peak at a heron on a roost. Egrets skimming its surface. Dragonflies pausing for rest on a reed. What lay beneath we could only imagine.