How long do you need to sit doing nothing before you become extinct? This ancient rock heap in front of me holds that secret deep inside beneath the earth’s crust. Palo Huerfano, as the caldera in these Picacho Mountains is called, has a 12 million year history of dormancy according to geologists. That would seem to qualify as “extinct” because even in geological terms that’s a good long while.
I remember when Mount St. Helen’s blew back in 1980. At the time, I was working at a retreat center in the North Cascades above Lake Chelan. The volcanic eruption was hundreds of miles south of us but I still heard it pop. That event changed a lot of people’s minds about what an “extinct” volcano was.
Palo Huerfano might be the oldest inactive volcano in Mexico. In a country with around 48 active volcanos the underlying volcanic geology has apparently moved on for Palo Huerfano in the 12 million year interim. But who knows for sure?
I hope nobody calls me extinct just because I lie dormant for a while. Some of my naps did seem like 12 million years.
We did a little excursion today to see if we could circumnavigate this friendly neighborhood volcano of ours. Our house outside San Miguel de Allende is on property up against the north side of the Picachos, in the small town of Alcocer. I was always curious to see the other side. We had twice attempted to climb into the caldera from here. From Alcocer it is a strenuous hike. Twice we were thwarted short of our goal.
So, driving! I thought I had mapped out a route around it on our handy apps. They showed roads connecting villages around the southern perimeter. These lines on the map proved to be referencing only a bare approximation of navigable byways.
We went east and then south on a very good road to Jalpa, a small town we had visited once with friends who thought of living there. The drive was lovely on a fine day, through acres of yellow blooming Huisache trees optimistically throwing their finest to the bees in the driest of seasons. In Jalpa we toured the central church, the interior spare and unadorned, apparently under some kind of rehab. We walked the courtyard accompanied by two tranquil burros who seemed caught off guard by our presence and by a locked gate.
Stefanie is the International Delegate for Burros. She has a deep-seated affinity for these gentle creatures, a connection which they return as enthusiastically as a burro can be. We enjoyed tousling their mops of top hair and speaking affectionately with them.
The map showed a road short of Jalpa heading west which we struggled to find. We had only a very limited cell service but Stef kept me current on her best guesses while I paused periodically to scrutinize my previous screen captures of the area.
We got off onto a really bad road, or something vaguely similar to an actual road, aiming west for a village called Jalpilla outside Comonfort. The path struggled its way in tortured fashion around the landscape, changing on a whim from rock strewn clay to boulder infested ravines.
After a mile or two wondering if it would get any better we turned back because it only got worse. We backtracked to the main road and bailed on today’s plan to find the loop around Palo Huerfano. We made a note of two other options which we plan to explore someday. The circuit is out there somewhere!
We looped back around through San Miguel to take regular pavement to Comonfort. I had another idea for a route mapped out (danger!) that showed a way into the caldera of this sleepy volcano. Just north of Comonfort was another small village called El Refugio that appeared to be the launching point for this road.
The effort turned into a brief redux of Dave’s Bad Roads Tour. By trying to follow our phone map’s indications, we took on the mistaken belief that a road actually existed, one that would take us into this volcano’s caldera, this time headed east. This belief turned out to be as illusory as the previous dream. So after two strikes I was out and we turned back again. Stef was up as navigator.
She helped me point our way through Comonfort to a smooth piece of road down a lovely green valley all the way to Jalpilla from the other side. The road continues on after that towards Potrero which is a mere 5 miles or so west of Jalpa but we decided to turn back to Comonfort. The full circuit lies just there I am confident. But on another day.
Back in Comonfort we toured an Iglesia and and discovered an impressive hotel with a gorgeous courtyard that felt like old England. I got my boots shined within an inch of their life in the jardin. We eventually met our friends Michael and Victoria for lunch at a nice little spot called Citronella.
On the way back to San Miguel we had time for a second social stop at Las Frailes at the lovely home of friends Doug and Judy. Snacks and drinks in their back patio under breezy palm trees gave us a chance to recount our day.
So… turns out you can’t get round there from here. At least not so far. And our scale of experience with bad roads was enlarged by a few notches.
The choice of transportation down from Groningan was a no-brainer with the train wanting 22 Euros and the bus 7. So we jumped on the FlixBus for a three hour ride down the neck of the Netherlands, across the long bridge that crosses the IJsselmeer and into the capital city. We negotiated the hubbub at the bus station to find the intercity train to Central Station and soon found ourselves in the large plaza in front of the ornate train station flanked by the cathedral and the canals. Amsterdam at last!
Onto the tram to our lodgings a short distance away, a room in a row house on Ijburg, a small island east of city center. A very prim and functional collection of modern buildings, orderly and sensible as only the northern Europeans can be. We let ourselves in with the new gizmo electronic lock and app thingy, met the owner and the house dog (a sweet bulldog named Arthur) and unloaded our gear. Dinner was Thai at a hopping little place that was a beehive of activity, table service, carryout, delivery via van and bike. Everywhere the “Koh” restaurant logo bags were flying every which way towards their hungry recipients.
The next morning we set a plan starting with the Jordaan district since that promised to be the “Greenwich Village of Amsterdam” in our guidebooks. We trammed back to Central Station and jumped on the number 13 which promised to take us there. When it didn’t take a turn west as indicated by my tram guide we jumped off and hoofed it. Back a few blocks we found the tracks torn up on that leg of the tram which might explain the detour. But the walk didn’t disappoint.
Lovely shops and cafes, canals lined with boats and river cruise boats descending, we crossed the Westerkerk church square in front of the church, the one mentioned in Anne Frank’s account of her attic stay as a beacon of hope in her desperation. We walked up the Prinsengracht along a lovely canal and then enter the Jordaan district. We strolled the lanes full of others doing likewise, past restaurants and shops, crossed a canal every two or three blocks, just generally soaking in all the sights of this city.
We became fully engaged with this city’s beauty. Less frenetic than Paris but every bit as full of life and wonder, the classic old merchant’s residences framing the canals. Amsterdam is a gift to those fortunate to visit.
We found one of the old courtyard buildings called Hofjes, this one called Sint Andrieshofje, which appeared to be closed. Then just as we were turning to go a lady exited and bid us enter. Small and formal, but with a communal sensibility we seem to have lost in urban life, the residences all faced a common garden area. We pictured the denizens sharing a morning or evening conversation with their neighbors in this convivial setting.
Our map pointed out another church square which we rounded looking for an entrance. This may be the first church I’ve ever seen that didn’t seem to have a front, back or side. Small locked doors here and there, one tiny private chapel, no stepped portico, mysterious and closed off. Strange place.
Next we looked for a gallery that Stef had identified way back along the Prinsengracht. Stopping halfway at the Westerkerk we shared a hot dog in the church square before entering the church. Westerkerk is just down the street from both Anne Frank’s house and Rembrandt’s.
He was buried in the church floor but since he died a virtual pauper his bones were exhumed and destroyed after twenty years. Just the way things were done.
Back along the canal we found the gallery and the painter/artist/owner, full of her bright swirls of variegated paint daubed tulips. Actually very nice and my description doesn’t do them justice. I told her I’m not a huge fan of flower painting but hers I liked.
We found the tram to the Rijksmuseum. This place was always high on my list and it was a real thrill for me just seeing it. Rembrandt and Vermeer live there. We entered through the arched courtyard and stopped to hear a quintet playing in the great acoustics. Two violins, two accordions and a large triangular bass guitar made some glorious music. Beautiful. Stef picked up their latest CD.
We descended into the very modern museum entrance area (much like the Lourve set up) and made our way into the galleries. We saw the “Night Watch” signs and followed the crowds. Turning into an amazing old, stately ornamented gallery, Rembrandt’s masterwork glowed on the distant wall ahead. I was drawn to it but Stefanie wanted to take in some of the smaller pieces first so we agreed to meet up later.
The painting is so full of action and life, Rembrandt’s well rehearsed penchant for chiaroscuro and the emergent glow of warm humanity rising from in full display.
The Vermeers were tucked in a side gallery and his lovely and sedate image of the milkmaid in yellow and blue pouring out of that pitcher looked every bit as worthy of all the attention that’s been given it. I became attached to another Vermeer just a few paintings away. A street scene, very common and unremarkable as such but lovingly captured in fine detail. Later, I noticed Stefanie lingering in front of it and, as is frequently the case, our compared notes highlighted the same painting. We both agreed it was our favorite.
This art house is one of the wonders of humanity. Beside the stunning masterpieces on display, the setting elevates the viewer’s senses to receive them.
The clean understated design ornamentation, the muted colors in the stonework, in the tile and wall paint, every element is adjusted to enfold the viewer in a calmness and presence and so prepare them for the experience of high art. Its enough to re-establish my faith in the power of culture to redeem us from banality.
We passed several hours in the museum until the voice over the P.A. told us the museum was closing and to make our way to the exits. Back outside the classical quintet was still working the crowds.
We found a nice Indian restaurant via our handy mobile wi-fi and once again took the tram, this time north towards city center to find it. We were now on a 72 hour tram pass since our first 24 hour pass was up. We got off at the nearest stop and walked towards Rembrandtplein where we found a great meal of curry stew and tandoori. After dinner we enter the square named after the great artist and they had a sculptural rendition of his most famous painting, “The Night Watch”. People posed for pictures with the main figure head honcho guy. But Stef found the only female character in the work, and posed greeting her with a curtsy.
That ended our first day in Amsterdam. We returned to our lodgings and restored for the second day.
Our first stop on day two was the Catholic Cathedral, Nicolaaaskerk, that dominates the central square, just adjacent to the train station. The church’s existence is an amazing thing in itself since Catholicism was forbidden in Amsterdam by William of Orange after the peaceful Protestant coup which appropriated Catholic property and drove all religions except the state-sanctioned Dutch Reformed Church underground.
The church is dark and somber inside, no doubt mirroring this period of history which turned one Christian faction against another. Another model for what not to do when the founders of our country built on the ideas of John Locke and others by instituting strict separation of church and state.
We continued our walking tour by taking in the tower called the Schreierstoren that dominate the old harbor. It was from here that Henry Hudson set off to found New Amsterdam in the U.S. and the city of New York (which it later became) has a plaque attached to the structure commemorating that event. We poked our heads inside to see the great little restaurant that takes up the space today. Walls lined with cool oval ceramic flasks, each with the name of a different fine liquor.
Stefanie used her guide book to direct us towards the next destination, the “hidden church” called Museum Lieve Heer op Solder. The guide book showed a general location but we got off track and wound up wandering through the Red Light District. We first became aware of our location when Stefanie noticed some decidedly erotic wrought iron fence work depicting two different varieties of hetero sex acts. At first I thought that this was just a remnant from bygone days as a randy seaport until the next store front window presented a woman in lingerie pantomiming a none too subtle suggestion of available pleasures.
I guess 10 am is as good a time as any. We laughed and acknowledged that we had indeed crossed over into Amsterdam’s own “Storyville”.
We finally found the church museum tucked away in this land of the purveyors of carnality at a price. This place was in stark contrast to that section of our visit. As mentioned. Bill the Orange drove Catholics into private worship and the result was the construction of a number of these “house churches” which served the faithful of the Church of Rome for several hundred years. The structure is a maze of winding halls and staircases, leading up from the living quarters into an amazing clere-story vestibule that looks just like a tiny church but built into the upper floors of an Amsterdam house.
This is the only remaining example of this phenomena of religious persecution. At one time there were dozens in Amsterdam. This one has been lovingly preserved. I recommend it highly to any visitor.
The next stop on Stefanie’s wonder tour was the Beginjhof which necessitated another tram ride. Finding it was tricky since the entrance is not well marked. We actually walked around a large city block and that included a stroll through part of the Amsterdam Museum. We viewed a great exhibition of the city’s history there, purely by an accident of unintentional wander.
Discovering that our destination was closer to the area back where we started (another “swerve”!) we took a break at a small cafe for coffee. Stefanie wanted to visit an antique shop so she lovingly allowed me to stay at the cafe. She found a beautiful round silver box which she snapped right up.
Coming back around the block our GPS finally locked us into the small door entrance. The Beginjhof is an active convent but the main feature is a simple frame structure that gives the place its name. Possibly the oldest building in Amsterdam, having survived fire and decay. The courtyard was a lovely stroll and we enjoyed the quiet respite from the urban bustle.
It was getting on towards dinner so we looked for a restaurant that served Indonesian Rifstaffel. The one that looked inviting was a bit of a distant tram ride south but it was near a park so we jumped on then off and walked there.
The park was full of people walking the paths and lounging on the grass. Ducks and geese swimming in the pond. We snapped some shots of an unusual looking pair of geese for later identification.
Back on the tram we found the Indonesian restaurant was now the former Indonesian restaurant, no longer in operation. So, back on to our plan B site, this one back on Rembrandtplein. We crossed the now familiar square to enjoy a full Indonesian/Dutch Rijstaffel dinner. Maybe twenty dishes layed out because apparently, not making up your mind about what’s for dinner can work to your advantage. Really tasty though, great chicken/pork/beef curries and chutneys and spicy vegetables and rice. Amazing what excess can bring.
Our last excursion was to be the Eastern Docklands, what used to be the main commercial shipping area before the main action shifted to the west side. We got off at the end of the line and walked to a bench overlooking a huge sea access, just in time to see a giant black barge leaving the harbor.
On the way back we transferred to another tram by walking past an enormous windmill as the evening came on. This one now houses a hot after work spot for young Amsterdam professionals as the crowd spilled out all around al fresco. I took some nice sunset pictures of Stef with that classic Dutch landmark in the background.
The darkening Amsterdam windmill provided the fitting final image to our memorable stay in this most engaging city.
We rode the train from Switzerland through Zurich and Bern towards the Rhine, switching in Mainz for the train headed for Koblentz. As we moved up the valley into this gorgeous part of Germany we began to see the river cruise boats wending their paths in grand procession with the barges up the Rhine. Then appeared the small villages; church-steepled with castle ruins and vineyards above, those that we and the cruise patrons so prized.
Reaching our destination of Bacharach we found no taxi or bus and so wheeled our luggage into a quaint little German village with our very own Stahleck Castle rising above. We got to town center and took a little breather, asking for directions to get to our hotel. Hotel Bluechertal is just two kilometers uphill or so we were told and we launched off into the afternoon sun. The town in lovely but the joy of the sights began to fade as we moved up past the old Tor at the city walls. After about one fully laden mile my calves and feet began to burn. Our hotel street address was in the 300’s and counting up to get there we ticked off house after house, way past the estimated 2K.
It was my reservation plan to book this place and both Stefanie and I were soon wondering at my choice. She began pointing out other accommodations with vacancies along the way… just saying. I was in my one-step-at-a-time mode racking my brain for the reasons of economy and vacancy which made me choose this distant abode. Eventually we passed the highly symbolic cemetery. House number 213 below it and house number 214 above.
We eventually made it there and all was forgiven (I think) as we met our young host at the lovely pink and white guesthouse. He was from Romania and his Aunt and Uncle bought the place as an investment, rehabbed it into a real gem and put him in charge. Nice guy. We collapsed in our room.
Our evening meal was just down the hill a ways at Gasthouse sur Alten Muhle. The propriaters were hustling to serve the full house but got us a fine spread of sauerbraten and duck with a raspberry “is” to cap it off. The beverage of choice was Apfelsaftschorle, a carbonated and slightly dry apple drink that made me an instant convert.
We returned by way of the cemetery where we took a break to sit and admire the graves, each heaped with fresh flowers.
We had only one day to scout Bacharach so in the morning after a more than ample breakfast at the hotel we scampered back down the hill to find the path up to the castle. First though we poked into the Lutheran church at the center of town and tried to read the Reformation information written on large posters in German. Then we looped through the far end of town downriver, crossing the old city walls towards the Rhine. There was a river cruise boat docked that looked tempting but we took a pass and crossed back into town.
We bought some snacks for the hike up to the castle and clambered up the hill. The Rhine river and the town of Bacharach soon lay spread below us. The castle is impressive and largely intact, now a youth hostel which was today full of excited children on a day trip from school. We took in the views of the valley as a light rain commenced.
Down another path to the old unfinished cathedral dedicated to the former St. Werner called the Wernerkapelle. That just happens to be my middle name, which I got from my Grandfather Werner Gieschen! That and the songwriting team of Bacharach and David seemed to form a perfectly sensible explanation as to why we chose this town to visit. The story of Werner is both tragic and hopeful. He was a murdered child who the locals used as an excuse to commit yet another pogrom against the local Jews, accusing them of the murder and of using his blood in their rituals. The boy was canonized (since revoked) but now the hollow shell of the cathedral is used as a monument to the dangers of intolerance.
We finished our stroll downhill and spent some more time exploring the town. Finding a lovely high trail on the opposite side of the the road we headed back towards our hotel.
This path led through vineyards laden with red and white grapes prime for harvest. The green rows of vines ran up and over the hills above out of sight.
Our evening meal brought us back to the same restaurant. It was the only one serving near our hotel and after our meal the previous night we were happy to return. We felt the same about this town of Bacharach. Maybe next time on a bike or boat tour to see more of this remarkable river valley.
In the morning we had the hotel proprietor call us a cab to the the train station (see above).
Our interest in travel has something to do with our need to find the swerve. The led-by-the-nose tours suit some but not us. We set out to build adversity and surprise into our personal all-inclusive package. We want to be able to remind ourselves that things like sitting between train cars as a result of thinking it was a good idea to save nine Euros on unassigned seats is nothing more than a gift from heaven to enhance our lives.
The hitches and unforeseen hesitations are the swerves that create the pulse of travel.
This was our plan as we set off to grab a slice of Northern Europe. I have never been to this part of the world and neither has my wife. It was a gap in our travels that we needed to fill. And it was the draw of meeting friends in Paris and Switzerland and the Netherlands that set the outlines for our itinerary.
Our overnight flight left me wide awake with excitement while Stefanie was able to snooze a bit. The route to Paris ran first to Frankfort with its awkward funnel through customs that a weary business traveler commiserated with us on, “The worst!” he said. No ranks of Uzi toting police at the airport as I was led to believe. Then on a jump flight to Charles De Gualle arriving in Paris in the early morning. We got help with our transit connection from a group of young travelers who like us were trying to find the best and cheapest mode to city center. The bus into town seemed promising but more expensive then the Metro so we found our way to the train station and rode into Paris. The outskirts were unimpressive but after popping out of the subway tunnel in city center we emerged onto the glorious limestone and Mansard roofed landscape of Paris I’ve known from pictures and film. Cafes seemingly every three storefronts, busy Parisians hustling off to work, we spilled onto these streets with our luggage in tow and tried to get our bearings.
Promises of easy access to free WI-fi went unfulfilled (as they would continue to be) so we asked the kind shop steward for directions to Petite de Champs, the address of our lodgings. He pointed us off on a tramp of about ten blocks which we accomplished and proceeded to turn down the street that had Petite de Champs in the name. We found the address over a door that was supposed to be green but wasn’t. Door locked. Asked at the cafe if we could borrow his phone to call the lady and she described her place in variance to what we were seeing. We should have known something was up.
She said the key was upstairs under the mat. Since we couldn’t get in the street door the cafe guy somehow produced a key and let us in. We lugged our travel belongings up four flights and upon winded arrival found no key under the mat as promised. We collapsed in the hall and a dog bark inside one of the flats brought a young lady to the door. Yes, address and apartment number were correct, no she didn’t know our host’s name. This is truly weird. We were clearly missing a piece to this puzzle.
Back we go down to the cafe to discover through a second call and the cafe man’s astute observation that there were TWO Rue Petite de Champs. This one was Rue Croix Petite de Champs (“the road that crosses” our Petite de Champs). So off we march to find the correct Rue and the aforementioned green door and all the details familiar to our host’s descriptions. Our first swerve.
To get to our real Paris abode we climbed another four flights of well worn stair treads to the sound of our screaming calf muscles and behold, find the key under the mat! Our room was tidy and totally sufficient to our needs. We managed to contact our friends who had been if France now touring alredy for a week and made a plan to meet that afternoon. After a long travel day with swerves large and small we settled in for a snooze.
That didn’t last long because we were in Paris and the city was waiting just out there! Off we went to find our friend’s lodgings which were in the same area of Paris, the First Arrondissement north of the Seine. We mapped out the walk to get there but to no avail, missing a turn and requiring further instructions from yet another in our chain of kind shop owners who served us so faithfully. Turning down Rue de Hyacinth we were greeted by our friend’s “Bonjoir” from his second floor balcony. We reunited with our good friends Wolf and Charlotte from San Miguel de Allende and Charlotte’s son Ethan. Sat in their salon (this is Paris after all) to catch up and make our plans for the next few days.
We launched off for an afternoon walk through the gorgeous and immense Lourve courtyards where a cellist was busking under an arch that led towards the pyramid.
Great acoustics there that did his talents proud. We lingered a while to listen and became acquainted with the magic that is The City of Lights. Then down to the Seine to see Notre Dame in one direction and Musee d’Orsay in the other. Our original lodging was to be on a barge in the Seine in front of the Musee but our host there had to cancel due to some hitch with periodic maintenance. Sadly, it was not to be for us but we had moved on. Walking back through the Louvre courtyard back into our neighborhood we found our dinner restaurant. I had duck confit which was fittingly outstanding. The waiter helped me learn to say “I don’t speak French” so I could beg off as needed. I was using “no parlez vous” which accused the person opposite me of not speaking the language. I was also working hard on my “Ravi de vous rencontrer” (“nice to meet you”) which served as my only accomplishment of a multi-word French phrase during our stay in France.
The next day Stefanie and I went back to the Louvre, this time actually going inside. We entered through the pyramid and sat down to map out our visit since this most enormous of art museums requires a strategy to trim the seemingly infinite possibilities. We headed first to the French and Italian painting of the 16th and 17th centuries. We were both stopped dead in our tracks in front of the Holbein portraits. Soft and pulsating flesh that has actual blood flowing through it as best I can tell. Firm and telling hands. Eyes that beg conversation. These people emerge from the years as fully alive and unburdened by any mists of obscurity history presents.
We found an amazing veiled bust of a woman in the Egyptian wing that stood our neck hairs on end. She had all the mystery of the ages wrapped in her half hidden face and could easily have been mistaken for the work of a modern master.
Rooms and rooms of paintings. On through early Renaissance Italian works where Stefanie called me back to pause because I had rushed by a bit. She was right as usual. These were delicate and everyday human renditions that broke from the religious/aristocratic subject matter.
Then rooms and rooms of furniture for the era of the the King Louis’. Seemingly endless collections of amazing craftsmanship but largely vacant of people who, including me, find the style overbearing and fusty. All that effort by expert furniture makers who I’m sure thought their efforts were proffered in a style that represented the pinnacle of everlasting beauty.
Finally, and more by chance than design we crossed by the famous “Winged Victory” to the more populated wing where the icon of all things art resides. “The Cult of the Mona” was in full throng and the packed rooms focused their cameras on the tiny, charming, sedate portrait that causes people with only a nodding familiarity with art to change their life’s course in order to view. The painting looks just like the reproductions and is just about poster sized as well. Nice but I wasn’t exactly moved to tears by the encounter.
“The Cult of the Mona” throng who were taking pictures, on the other hand, were more interesting to me. The cultural anthropologist in me was interested in expanding on the theory of large groups as they relate to cultural icons. I also wondered how time will operate on this painting. Will we ever actually get over it? Is there life outside the cult? In my picture of the swooning multitudes I counted three who where actually looking with their own eyes at that particular moment.
The next room is where I found my true joy. Against a side wall in a room full of absolute masterpieces was the monumental “Raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault. Depicting the crisis moment after an apparent shipwreck in tossed seas (based on an actual shipwreck with tragic loss of life), the painting presents the survivors huddling and comforting each other while the more intact denizens of this piece of flotsam raise a red cloth to signal a far distant ship. An image of human struggle to maintain hope in the face of nature’s imposition of mortality.
We headed to our rendezvous (Paris thing again…) with our friends in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. We were late but they were later. Our plan was to walk into Sain Germaine across the Seine and time was getting way from us. That and the long line into Notre Dame led us away to cross the river leaving the famous Cathedral for our next visit to Paris.
The West Bank of the Seine is where we came upon the well known green boothed book sellers called “bouguinistes”. We strolled the Seine’s bank and examined the wonderful contents of each booth. Some had the uninteresting plastic tourists mementos but most had great old posters, postcards and photographs tracing the history of Paris. Several vendors were selling truly beautiful etchings and lithographs, many with cityscape and landscape subjects from the past centuries.
We turned back to review the stands once more because our target was the famous Shakespere Booksellers shop. This landmark of Paris was owned by the person who first published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and did it while others were still scratching their heads over it. Tight little aisles and racks of books new and old. And full of my favorite variety of human beings; those who read actual books!
Upstairs were small nooks and rooms like comfortable pockets with chairs stuffed right for a relaxed afternoon read. Quiet people with heads pointed towards some tome of literate fantasy or other account of the human project.
Outside we sat on a bench for a little refreshment and it turns out our choice was a famous place of repose. A group of tourists wanted to sit and have their pictures taken there. I obliged, by getting up and saying “What, did Hemmingway sit here?” which seemed to amuse them. I’ll have to dig into the bench’s provenance.
We then walked into the neighborhood of Paris that took the prize from us both: Sain Germaine. Here is the true pulse of Paris; in the voices from the cafes and in the silence from old churches, in the beat of the people strolling at ease in the slanting rays of the sun, in the rhythm of five and six story grey limestone edifices capped with the Mansard roofs rising up to shout “Paris!”. I did not want this episode of our travel to end. The pulse had become my own.
Our last full day in Paris found us in the antique market in Saint-Ouen. We were only able to walk a corner of the endless warren of tent and booths but there was an abundance of unique things to wonder at. I bought some small metal plates for some future art project but we mainly just wandered around amazed.
In the afternoon we taxied to the site of the Klimpt Lumieres show. This exhibition was supposed to have closed before our arrival but was extended because of the large crowds interested in seeing it. We waited for our friends to come because they had the tickets but they had taken the Metro in the wrong direction and so we waited. We finally managed to find Wi-fi and she emailed us the file with the magic scan code to get us in.
The room was in an old factory building and had several block-like structures breaking up the space. The light show was in progress. People were sitting everywhere lining the walls, becoming part of the colors and shapes projected on everything. Floors, ceiling, walls, people all becoming part of the animation. The first segment we saw was based on the work of another member of Klimpt’s Vienese art scene, Egon Schiele. Bright, childlike drawings of people and cityscapes flowed and pulsated around us. Our friends finally arrived and found us gaping at the show.
Next was a black and white pattern show that was truly astounding. Set to electronic music it was a out-of-body transportation event that came as close to psychedelia as any non-chemical experience I’ve ever had. I guess it goes to show that the real chemicals that do the trick are already in your brain. I became an instant convert to the power of this new psychic force and began telling everyone within earshot that all of humanity would benefit by being in this room, right now, seeing this!
The portion of the program with the Klimpt images was set to classical music and the gorgeous paintings of this artist became for a time a world we could inhabit. The entire production was very moving. We stayed to watch the entire sequence of these three exhibitions several times. Art immersion.
That evening we gathered one last time in Paris for dinner to enjoy the one thing I wanted most before leaving, the famous French crepe. I had a savory crepe with cheese, potato and smoky ham bacon for dinner and a raspberry/creme fraise one for dessert. We walked back home in full Parisian glow.
The next morning we wheeled our luggage to the Metro and headed to the Gard de Lyon for the train to Switzerland.
The distance is only about three miles. A short drive down a very bumpy cobblestone road from San Miguel to Rancho Alcocer. Its a drive we’ve made repeatedly during the year and a half it took us to build this casita out here. But actually its a lot further.
The charms of San Miguel de Allende are by now legendary. With its delicious blend of old Mexico and contemporary vibrancy, it has all the elements for an exciting stay in Mexico. We discovered it to be an incomparable place to visit but seriously flawed as a place to actually live. Through a series of surprising happenstances, we ended up building our house in a small village just outside town. Did I mention “very fortunate” happenstances?
We thought of that distance on the drive back from San Miguel last night after visiting with friends there. A short distance to drive reveals a huge difference in kind.
It takes no time at all to remember the difference from there to Alcocer. The light pops off the hills here through the crisp air and jumps back to me in sharp delineation. The rains of July have turned the hills green and they rise up against white clouds and a too-blue sky. In the other direction, the old dam holds the lake above the valley that falls to the far plain, then draws my eye on away.
The silence is predominant, but not pure. It is punctuated by the coo of a dove, the crow of the rooster, the squeal of some delighted child in the distance. But it hovers and enfolds and embraces. Without it, the small rush of wind that ‘hoools‘ in the windows might not be heard. It provides the character to this pause.
The dogs that bark at night and the speaker trucks that occasionally blare through the village reel me back in from the idylic. But they are only some small bit of bother. The massive might of the peacefulness remains. Its strength becomes mine over time.
When will your house be done? When are you moving in? How long dear Lord, how long? When you build in Mexico you have to get ready for the hurry up and wait. No schedule is firm, no crew is consistent, every budget is filled with bubbles and shadows. But “poco a poco” the thing gets done. You watch it happen day by day and the changes are so incremental that you sometimes miss the effect. Certain features appear rather rapidly and you go “Wow, look at THAT!”; a spiral column to support the front porch roof, the shaped bricks that form the top edge of our stepped stair rail, the finial at the top of our onion-dome cupola. But the mass of changes accumulate slowly over the course of days and weeks. That and the fact that our focus is always on whatÕs still left to be done all militate against awareness that any real progress is being made.
Stefanie poses with our friend Floyd in front of our house in Mexico
The best way to see what has evolved is with the help of friends. It’s time like these when you just need to borrow some eyes. We invited a group of friends over a few days before leaving for Florida even though our construction site was still a mud and gravel lot, the exterior paint job half finished, the second floor is still a work in progress with tile-lights-bathroom in various states of completion. But inviting them over was the right thing to do because those borrowed eyes helped us to see what we’ve actually done. Where we see an unfinished structure set amidst a chaotic heap of construction rubble, they see a little gem of a house with no mention of those other distractions. I’m always looking at what’s left to be done instead of what’s right there before my eyes. The accumulation of details needs a fresh set of eyes to appear whole.
Hermilo does the brick rail on the staircase
Our friends were generous with their praise for our efforts. All of them had experience with the distinctly Mexican process of home construction, to one degree or another. We had good conversations up on the roof patio, comparing notes and swapping horror stories. But I benefited most by being made to see the whole thing at once, as something to be appreciated and celebrated, instead of just a pile of unfinished details moving glacially towards completion.
The cupola. Mario said “This is art” This is right.
The first floor is largely done; the terracotta tile is sealed, the walls are painted. Our bed frame and headboard arrived a day before our mattress. And we had one lovely night sleeping on it before we had to leave for Florida. The refrigerator was moved in just as our cooler arrived from our rental casita. The built-in closet was installed the same day our car arrived with a pile of cloths on hangers. “Just in Time” construction. And just in time to leave for Florida and another rounds of art fairs.
Paint on walls of the dining room. Cat installed in the chair.
We’ve left the house to our work crew; Mario the head maestro (“El Mejor”), Hermillo the other magnificent maestro, and Diego and Francisco our two helpers who endlessly mix cement and carry it up to the maestros. Oh, and our cat. We’ve actually built the place for her I think. Paintbrush will get to enjoy the fruits of our efforts more than we will the next two months. She’s got several prime sunny spots to lounge in and a place to look out the window there. Our previous rental casita had virtually none of those kitty amenities. And she’s got Margarina to come every day to tend to her needs.
Our full crew will be working for two more weeks while we’re gone and after that we might just have ourselves a house. We’ll return in April to touch up paint, put some plants in the ground, put our feet up. Take a look around. Start to “see” the place.
In general, things don’t turn out the way you had planned. Have you noticed? If you can just accept that on principal life becomes one sweet kick in the pants; an adventure, instead of ruthlessly inconvenient. The problem arises from the fact that you have to make plans in the first place. We focus on our well laid plans in order to confront our fear that otherwise life will just happen to us in some random, chaotic fashion. So we diligently make plans; to change jobs, to move to a new town, to travel to foreign countries. But in the process life happens to you in some random, chaotic fashion anyway.
The trick here I guess is to make plans but also to plan to be flexible. And definitely don’t be too surprised when life forces a hard right just as you were trying to veer left.
I talk a lot with Stefanie about us being “plan junkies”. Since we’ve made the big break with our past lives to work as artists (what we called “The great leap into the unknown”) we have seemingly been in continual plan mode. And one wild plan begets another. In the context of our current lives as international gypsies our recent plan seemed perfectly reasonable; drive up from our home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to complete a small looping circuit of art fairs in south-central and midwest states of the U.S., spend a few days in between settling details on our other house being built in Paducah, Kentucky, and then head back to Mexico. All done in roughly four weeks.
Well, the drive up through Mexico went without a hitch, unlike a previous trip during which we ran into a problem with our radiator coolant pump. That required some serious Mexican mechanical improvisation to get us across the border. This time it was a smooth trip up to Shreveport for our first art fair.
That’s where things started getting squirrly. Stefanie developed an issue with her cochlear implant. With some troubleshooting we determined the problem to be with the implant itself. Not good. After the fair we drove to Dallas for a consultation with a specialist. In talking with her we realized that we would need to make a trip to Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, the home of her original surgery.
We scheduled an appointment for her and mapped out a new plan. We could do one one last art fair we had scheduled for me Houston and then grab a train to Chicago. Houston didn’t have a station (because who knows why) but there was an Amtrak rail stop north of there in Longview, Texas.
After the fair we were sailing along out of Houston when we cracked a bolt on our alternator bracket and began thrilling to the sound of a loud “Schreech!!” coming from the engine during acceleration from a dead stop; the classic engine noise from loose belts. At the first repair shop we found the mechanic pointed out the problem and said the broken bolt would need to be drilled out which would cause us a delay of at least a half day.
Our train was leaving from Longview that evening around 7 pm and we still had a three hour drive ahead of us. It was around noon. After the mechanic described the problem as being caused by the broken bolt sliding out of position (it was a hinge bolt on the alternator bracket) I suggested that he just “slap some goop on the thing” to keep the bolt in place for a few hours until we could get to Longview and have it repaired properly during our week in Chicago. I was half joking in desperation but after a moment’s thought the mechanic shrugged and said, “Might work. Can’t guarantee it in writing though.” Sensible man.
I’m not sure what made me even say it other than my experience with the many ingenious rigs that our Mexican friends devise to solve problems on the fly. It actually worked like a charm and helped us get up to Longview for the train, eventually.
The rest of the drive from Houston was a wire-to-wire thrill ride because we needed to maintain an average speed of at least sixty for three hours plus. All I remember from that segment is a white-knuckle-gripping David (me) at the wheel of our heavily loaded RAV4, zipping down hills at over eighty on a rolling Texas highway, Stefanie saying “Slow down!” and me yelling “Ya gotta go eighty downhill to clear the top going at least 45!!!” or something.
Stefanie thought there was a reasonable chance that I had become a danger to her livelihood. While her priorities were on continued earthly existence, my sole purpose in life was to make it to the Toyota dealer by closing. Survival came second.
There were some further antics ahead as we approached Longview. Mileage signs toyed with our emotions by tacking on an additional 3 or 4 miles here and there. A seriously screwed-up Mapquest printout had us driving down a small weed-choked road near the edge of town as the clock ticked mercilessly down to 5 pm (their posted closing time on the web). Stefanie is trying to get me turned around and headed back towards town while I’m insisting that “Mapquest says it’s right here!!” and she’s saying, “Does it really look like a car dealer might be around HERE somewhere???”
Heading back into town we used a bit of blind guesswork to stumble on the place, pulling into the dealer’s lot just after five to read “5:30 pm” posted as the new closing time on the service department’s glass door. I strode into the office high on some naturally occurring substance in my blood, announcing “We made it!”, and blurting out “Your closing time on the web is 5!”, and “Take a look at this set of crappy directions from Mapquest!”. The kind people in the office had a somewhat different energy level. They just smiled and waited for this invading force to settle down a minute before asking, “Help you with something?”
Sometimes the biggest obstacles are internal; as in internal combustion. Our well-traveled vehicle gave us great service and no surprises on the trip to Chicago and back over Christmas. Such is the case with aging autos that recent history provides no guarantees for future performance as our second major trip began less auspiciously. We left San Miguel for Florida in the early morning darkness and began to notice the windows fogging up, a problem that was eventually diagnosed as being related to a failing water pump. In between San Miguel de Allende and the border at McAllen, Texas we spent some quality time with two mechanicos who helped stitch the old Toyota Rav4 together with various temporary rigs (some of which may have included actual bailing wire) just to get us to Los Estados Unidos. We spent an extra night in Monterrey at a sweet little fleabag while we weighed our options after enduring a second rig job by the highway. The trick for these guys is to get you moving again as quickly as possible with the best fix they can devise, after siphoning off as many pesos as possible from their grateful unfortunates. I shouldn’t sound ungrateful since they are extremely resourceful and without them we’d probably still be broken down by some Mexican highway. By Monterrey we were zeroing in on the water pump issue after a few wrong turns down thermostat and head gasket dead end lanes. With the previous rigs in place we only had a small leak to managed by packing extra water and stopping every hour or two to cool down and refill the radiator. In that fashion we finally limped across the border into Texas. The car spent about 28 hours in the Toyota dealer’s shop in McAllen where we had them fix the water pump and change the timing belt, which was about 40,000 miles overdue for replacement.
The “Golden Crunches” along the Gulf Coast
The “Golden Crunches” along the Gulf Coast
We left McAllen, miraculously just a day behind schedule. Driving through part of Katrina country we saw plenty of twisted and broken trees, and blue tarps covering roofs still in need of repair. The commercial property came back the quickest of course but there were still many tall blown-out signs visible from the highway. Remarkably normal though, considering the magnitude of the disaster and the fact that this monster storm ripped through here just six months ago. The causeway bridge at Pensacola east bound on I-10 is in the process of being replaced and we inched along across the old, patched up structure. Our Super 8 in Baton Rouge was still pretty trashed out, not from the storm directly but instead from the refugees who crowded into these rooms and made a provisional life here for quite a while. That whole place may need a gut rehab after the punishment it took from being a full-time family housing facility for five-plus months. There were even some displaced people still living there in the process of sorting out their lives.
Stefanie’s watercolors on display at Ft. Pierce, Florida
Stefanie’s watercolors on display at Ft. Pierce, Florida
After another overnight in Tallahassee we drove down to Sarasota for the first art fair where I got to hang my batiks on our newly fashioned display panels for the first public showing. Stefanie and I began the first of many discussions we would share over the course of the next four weeks regarding the look of our display. We were very pleased with the panels themselves, crafted in Mexico as a team project between a local metal fabricator and us. We got lots of compliments from other artists who were curious to know where we got them. The other features of the overall presentation will be refined over time, adding nice name plaques, sign banners outside the tent, maybe even some accent fabric to add color and a friendly softness. All in good time of course. This trip was the great shakedown cruise though Florida, to “learn by doing,” to see what worked and what needs to be improved.
…she didn’t have to wait long for the crowd
…she didn’t have to wait long for the crowd
As for the show itself, it actually turned out well for me. We talked with many people who were fascinated with my approach to batik-making. Many of the guests who came in to chat were exceptionally knowledgeable about the batik process and art in general, really a sophisticated art fair crowd. At the very end of the show on Sunday a couple came back for a second look at my “Market Watch” batik. She wanted to know more about how to care for the piece and, since it is not framed with glass, how it would fare. I reassured her that it would not be a problem; I told her to keep it out of direct sunlight, and that it was treated with water-resistant spray so any accidental moisture would just roll off. She said she really loved it and her husband said, “Take it down!” Of course I was tickled to hear that since it amounted to my biggest single sale ever at $2,200. In the process of wrapping it up and completing the credit card transaction I asked what they did for a living and he said he was a “storm chaser’, working at construction contracting in the hurricane corridor along the Gulf coast. While we initially had concerns about the amount of discretionary funds available for art purchases due to all the hurricanes, that sort of turned it on its head. Depends on which end of the stick you sit I guess. By now “Market Watch” is probably well settled into its new Victorian home in Alabama.
A Lesser Blue Heron goes after lunch near the shore
A Lesser Blue Heron goes after lunch near the shore
That was the major highlight of my two art fairs since the second show in Tampa provided absolutely no sales. I met another painter named David in Sarasota; he also showed his work at the same Tampa art fair. He offered good counsel for me with tips on improving various aspects of my presentation. He told me that the no-sale shows (called “zeros” on the circuit) come with the territory and over time you begin to sort out the promising shows from the not so promising. The goal, of course, is to have more of the former than the latter. Ultimately, it’s all a crapshoot since it all falls to the luck of the draw and a profitable show one year can be a bust the next. A sculptor in the booth next to us in Sarasota said that after ten years doing these fairs he was still trying to figure it all out.
A White Ibis in a high perch at Ding Darling
A White Ibis in a high perch at Ding Darling
Stefanie’s shows in Marco Island, Fort Pierce and Holmes Beach garnered some sales and she sold her beautiful watercolor “La Maceta” to a lady who teaches with her sister. That piece has been a favorite of mine since she created it. I told the buyer quite sincerely that she has excellent taste because I really think it is one of Stefanie’s best pieces.
Two Great Blue Herons look to filch fish on the beach at Captiva
Two Great Blue Herons look to filch fish on the beach at Captiva
So, our first spin through the Florida art fair circuit is over. Our relatives in Ft. Myers were gracious and generous hosts for us in the days between shows. The weather was spectacular with no rain and very little wind (the bane of Florida art fairs). Our little art fair travel kit held up well and with some small repairs will be ready to go in the fall. We even got in some quality wildlife viewing time with a memorable day spent on Sanibel Island viewing various critters at the spectacular wetlands reserve called Ding Darling.
We’ve returned to our casita in San Miguel now, seeking forgiveness from our emotionally starved kitty cat, getting on with the next phase of our lives here. That will include some long hours happily creating more art, completing our small house on our land in Alcocer, and attuning our senses more acutely to this life we have in Mexico.
A tiny green tree frog came to visit the other night, just one of the many improbable creatures that are here amongst us that I seem to be focusing on these days. Turning on the light in our bathroom I caught the quick blurred movement of a greenish spot no bigger than a thumbprint. Looking more closely, I spotted a bright green frog clinging to the wall, flattened and in a disk like one of those tin clickers you get for parties. I gathered him up in my hands but he squirted out a couple of times before Dave could open the front door for his release to freedom into the night.
Our blessed casita
Similarly, a small praying mantis startled me when I sniffed a large pink rose blooming along our front property wall. He moved from behind the blossom just as I brought it to my nose, putting us eye-to-eye. After such a rude introduction he ambled off onto the rose leaves where his sweet green blended more perfectly, awaiting other more fruitful encounters, no doubt.
“Our”palacial veranda -percs with our rental casita
The grapevines outside our door, I’ve found, are home to a couple sphinx moth caterpillars. Big as a man’s thumb and about 3 inches long, their grayish-brown skin with diagonal stripes along their sides makes them difficult to spot as they glide along the thick vines. Our maid’s little boy, Eddie, pointed them out to us as we stood last week contemplating whether or not the peaches on the tree outside our front door were ripe enough to pick. After Marta swept them off the vines with her broom I had to convince her that the mariposa nocturna (moths) that these rather frightening creatures would eventually morph into were worthy of saving. Their horn spot, meant to look like an eye, gives them the appearance of a Cyclopes, though in reality they are blind. I picked one up and placed it back on the woody vine and Eddie followed my example with the other, though not before menacing his mom with the little wormy.
Horseplay at the side of the presa in Alcocer
The improbable indeed has seemed to have crept into our lives of late. Weeks of looking at property around San Miguel after our hoped-for lots in Colonia Mexiquito fell through made our prospects of finding something reasonable within our price range and specifications seem all the more questionable. We were turning over every rock but finding little to inspire us. Worse, our time frame to get underway seemed to be slipping rapidly away from us. Obviously we could not go on indefinitely looking for property without consuming the very funds we would need to build our house.
Our little bit of paradise in Alcocer
After some days in a funk over our situation, we began to hash out the possibilities before us. Maybe San Miguel wasn’t right after all, we wondered. But the question always came back to where, if not here. Paducah, Kentucky crept into the conversation. It seemed a likely candidate because of its central location and its artist relocation program. Our trip there last summer had piqued our curiosity but hadn’t quite convinced us. But now, with the sands seeming to shift under our feet, it deserved another look. A peek at their website showed promising progress within the community with new artists and intriguing houses at reasonable prices.
Toward the presa from our property
Flocks of sheep graze the slopes of the Picachos
It’s funny how when a decision is finally reached, especially one that seems almost inspired, doubly when it’s been within arms’ reach all along, that the rest of the puzzle falls into place. Realizing the rightness of Paducah for this point of our lives as a home base for establishing our art careers in the States, within hours we also found the right piece of property to suit us in San Miguel, a place to fulfill our dream of an artists’ retreat. One that is a mere fraction of the price and twice as big as anything else we’ve looked at in all these past months. And if all that weren’t enough to convince us, the charm of the surrounding village of Alcocer and the bucolic countryside trumped the deal. Like the little green tree frog, the improbable and unexpected had landed in our laps.
We were invited to a birthday party for a four year old boy, a son of some friends of our former landlords. We went along with another couple who are renting the same downstairs apartment that we lived in last fall. The boy’s extended family live in a small village about a half-hour’s drive west of San Miguel. The entire village was moved to higher ground years ago when they dammed the river to make a reservoir . As we drove out there we could tell that the recent rains had only lightly colored the hills with fresh green. What is supposed to be a drenching, daily thunderstorm this time of year has so far only materialized as infrequent showers. The reservoir is of no use to them because they don’t have the water rights and the money isn’t there to put in the pipes and pumps.
Meeting Boniface’s sister and her burro
We turned down a dirt road by the town’s shuttered clinic which is staffed only on weekends, and pulled up alongside the Aunt’s house. Boniface and her sister and brother came out to greet us, “Boni” gave us the welcome of special guests by offering her cheek for kisses. We entered the property briefly to meet their burro and some chickens ambling in a tidy little courtyard. The brother brought out a small stone sculpture of a dog he had made and gave it to our friend. It was a special order for someone back in San Miguel that she was enlisted to deliver. The hound was a sad-eyed mutt but sensitively carved and we passed it around with compliments to the artist.
Riding to the maize field
The party took place up the road a little further at a modest house with a wonderful view towards the Presa de Allende (the reservoir) and San Miguel behind. We met the entire family of aunts, sisters and grandparents. We also met the honored guest, the serious faced little four year old who was to have his “cumpleanos” celebrated that afternoon. Tables and chairs appeared from inside and we gathered around for an early supper of tomato-y chicken soup and crisp tortillas.
The Presa with ruins of an old hacienda
The grandfather was an unending source of merriment for us as we listened to one story after another emerge from him accompanied by his smiles and laughter, all directed at us through piercing, playful eyes. Stefanie and I tried to follow the Spanish with our growing (still brutally limited) language skills. With key bits of help from our translating friends, we were able to mostly follow. And certainly the spirit of joy in the story-telling was not lost on us.
Stories and smiles from grandpa
After “tres leches” birthday cake (a fantastically moist Mexican concoction) and “Happy Birthday to You” (in English, which really tickled our hosts), we headed out into the campo to see their bean and maize plots. Listening to our friends talk about the dry weather and seeing the obvious concern on their faces, it was apparent that the maize crop, which had been planted a second time this year, was again hanging in the balance. We headed down a dry canyon and up onto the far side where the maize plot sat, small shoots inching up tentatively from the dry, rocky earth. Spread out in front of the field was a spectacular landscape. Below us was the lake in which stood the ruins of an old hacienda’s grain storage tower. The old pueblo’s church was there too, but it held to dry land and at the water’s edge.
Dave gives the slingshot a whirl
Beyond we could see San Miguel up against the side of higher mountains and all around lay the rolling desert foothills, glowing in late-afternoon sun. The grandfather, in fine mid-sixties form, entertained us by whipping rocks into the far distance with his rope-style slingshot. He talked about having rock fights in the past with others on distant ridges and about how he could rangle cattle back onto the trails with a well-aimed pellet. The guys all had to have a go at the handmade sling. I let two rocks fly and I think I felt something pop in my shoulder on the second.
Trying to “make it rain”
The grandfather regained the sling and let go on one last rock, sending it high into the sky. Someone yelled “Make it rain!” and we all laughed. Returning to the village, Boniface recalled years when the dry arroyos would fill with the runoff from abundant rainfall. This year is different as they are made to sit in their new town high above the reservoir, to watch the skies and wait.