Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sweet Vincent, Who Still Brings Tears to my Eyes

It's been happening for more than two decades, the tearing up when seeing a favorite painting in person, a painting I have admired in art books or college course slide shows. But Van Gogh seduced me at a young age, in my first art history class where we blazed through the Renaissance to mid-20th century modern all in one semester.

It was a combination of things that made him one of my favorites, but it started with a few specific paintings, before I knew anything about him. It started with color.  And maybe at some level, because of his style and subjects, I intuited his humanity, his compassion and respect for the poor, the hard working peasants. But as I remember it, it was first the colors. Night Cafe in Arles, The Bedroom, Stary Night, Sunflowers. It's an aesthetic that I now recognize, all those bright colors, the impressionistic style, sometimes cartooned a bit but always complex in some inexplicable way. It is a thread that runs through some of my favorites - Conrad Felixmüller's The Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner; Matisse's Red Room; David Hockney's Laurel Canyon. They've all moved me in a way that feels related. 

It was at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, that I saw my first Van Gogh, the first time I was moved to tears. It was almost 30 years ago and I remember it vividly, Portrait of a Peasant, with paint so thick and textured it reminded me of peanut brittle, like you could break off a piece and take a bite. I remember standing there a long while, feeling awed, happy, sad, lucky, appreciative. And then there was Starry Night at the NY Met. It was 1989, my first trip to NYC, my first trip anywhere urbane outside of the LA art scene. And I was on a mission to see Starry Night. Again I found myself transfixed, humbled, appreciative standing squarely in front of the canvas, thinking of little, feeling it instead.

And a few days ago it happened again, Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London. I stood there grinning, holding the tears back, feeling lucky and alive.

And today, after almost 30 years since that first art history class, that first exposure to Van Gogh, I spent the afternoon in his homeland Museum, a whole building dedicated to his art, his influences, his story and lagacy. And again I teared up, Portrait of the Artist (1887-88, Paris) was the first. The painting stopped me in my tracks. And then The Bedroom, one of my all time favorites - the honest simplicity of the subject, a few mundane possessions all neatly in their place, the simple comforts of a bed, a chair, a coat, art on the walls - there is no excess, but the bright colors make it all cheery and comforting. At least to me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Coldcocked by Jet Lag

Considering most folks on this planet spend their days fetching water and looking for firewood to cook a modest meal, I sometimes feel guilty for kvetching about the problems that come from privilege. But hey, they're still problems. And mine is jet lag.

I have travelled quite a bit across the USA, taken red-eyes to NYC, Boston, DC, Miami. I have travelled south, red-eyes to Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, all of which have precipitated some fatigue and/or sleep weirdness. But never anything that a few beers with friends or a plate of ceviche and a nap couldn't cure. During all these trips I never travelled across more than three time zones. And when I am in NYC, I always stay up late with friends so it's less of an issue. But a direct flight from the US west coast to Europe has absolutely kicked my ass and I did not see it coming.

I now think being in three different countries in the first five days was a bad plan. And my Monday morning quarter-backing has me swearing I will never again take a direct 13 hour flight from San Francisco to London, or anywhere else on this globe, unless it's a damn emergency. I will be stopping in NYC next time - dinner and drinks with friends and a good night's sleep before hopping the pond. Even if it costs more time and money.

Since landing in London a week ago I have been sick, nauseous about 80% of my waking hours. And several times I have thought I was going to puke. And I am not usually a puker. I don't get seasick. I don't puke from booze (tequila has been a rare exception). Even when I am sick in the gut, I don't usually puke. But I found myself sweating and trying to think happy thoughts on the London underground while I also considered where to aim if nature demanded that I purge. And it happened again today while walking towards the Van Gogh Museum - the sweats, the "where could I most inconspicuously barf should I have to" thoughts,  I turned back towards Ana's apartment where I arrived with my stomach intact. So instead of contemplating the work of one of my favorite artists, I spent the day nibbling on crackers and reading, waiting for it all to pass, so to speak. Van Gogh would have to wait until tomorrow. By evening I was feeling better and Ana and I had a nice dinner (sans alcohol) at a sidewalk restaurant.

All this was starting to get me a bit concerned, thinking there was something really wrong with me, that maybe I have a bug that needs some antibiotics. I decided to google "jet lag" to see if that was possibly a factor. Um, yeah Mer, you pretty much got a bad case of the jet lag. My research revealed that all my symptoms could be attributed to the 'lag.

I've never thought much about jet lag, figured it was solely a sleep thing that I would quickly recover from with a couple of naps. Not so much. Jet lag is a real physiological disorder that can disorient and really fuck with a travelers body. And the fact that my first five days were non-stop running about, I didn't give myself a chance to recover from my 13 hour flight across eight timezones. And speaking of timezones, the experts say it takes about a day to recover for each timezone crossed. That would be eight days for me. I am on day seven. And I have a good feeling about tomorrow, day eight. It's Ana's birthday, Van Gogh is waiting, the weather is good, and I have taken two days to slow down and chill out. I think tomorrow peace will be declared, between my body and Greenwich meantime, plus one. I hope.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Dispatch from the Land of Natural Blondes

For my family, who all, god bless them, want to know some of the details of my adventures.

It has been a whirlwind so far and here's the quick and dirty. Landed in London and was by all measures jet lagged out of my mind. Slept little on the plane even with a sleeping pill...what with my large self in one of those Smurf-sized seats they put in airplanes for the to a Nigerian woman with a very different sense of personal space. Thirteen hours in coach is a unique kind of torture for those of us lucky enough to fly about the world yet silly enough to complain about it.

My sweet and generous friend Maria took the hour long train ride from London and met me at Heathrow and guided me back to London, to her apartment in fact where she put me up for two days. Maria is a gorgeous woman whose father is Guatemalan and whose mother is British. She grew up mostly in France but has a British accent which shocked me when I first heard it come out of her mouth in Guatemala. We chatted a bit and then I crashed and wrestled jeglag in the wee hours. Dear Maria took the next day off from work and we walked and walked all around central London. I was struck by how neat and orderly and huge the place is. The underground is immaculate, the streets are clean, the infrastructure is healthy, and the architecture gorgeous.

We spent some time in The National Gallery looking at some of my favorite paintings that I have only ever seen in books and art classes, including Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Chair. We sipped lemonade on the south bank of the Thames before heading to Camden Town to meet our favorite booze peddler (Ilegal Mezcal, of course) and Cafe No Se friend, Steve. Also met another member (Jen) of the Pamplona Pussy Posse (PPP), a self-named group of women who have been going to San Fermin for the running of the bulls for the last 20-30 years. We all met in a pub and drank. It's what you do on a Friday night in London. So I learned. And so we got pissed.

The next day I flew via Copenhagen to Aarhus, a City in northern Denmark where Astrid met me at the gate waving a small Danish flag. We drove to her father's house in the small town by the sea where she grew up, and behind her fathers's sweet little house we sat on the deck drinking Danish beer and talking till 3:30am. Back to Aarhus the next day for a fabulous time in Aros, the art museum, and some ambling through the narrow cobblestone streets. Then a dinner to rival any fancy SF restaurant. Creamed spinach with smoked salmon, beef so tender it melted in my mouth, all served in a quint old house that had been made into a restaurant.

Today we visited an 1864 Danish frigate preserved in Astrid's town. Of course a tour of a ship makes me happy. A stop at the glass museum and then we were off to the train station. I am headed to Copenhagen to catch a plane to Amsterdam where I will stay for a few days with my friend Annemiek before heading to Paris. It is Ana's birthday the 29th so I have lucked into helping her celebrate.

Now for the really down and dirty. I have been sick since I landed, nausea and severe diarrhea. Maria and Astrid say it could be jetlag but it has gone on for days now. I am just bucking up, enjoying myself despite the infirmity...and it is a relief to be staying with dear friends that I know from Guatemala, a place where everyone talks about poop as everyone gets the shits! I think it's the law.

More soon.