Friday, November 5, 2010

In Search of Vincent

Van Gogh

Today our baby, Keir, turns 17.  How in the world did that happen?

We’re late with the blog because we were busy exploring our extended neighborhood – most of central Europe. Keir had last week plus this Monday off school (two Austrian holidays and school break), so we headed via Kangoo to Arles, France, to finally visit Reeve, Melanie and Ocean.

Given that the French had been striking and gas was purportedly rare, and many people (including ourselves) imagined us stuck at the border with an empty tank and nowhere to go, and that Keir woke up Saturday, the day we were to leave, with a nasty stomach disorder, the beginning wasn’t auspicious. 

Snow in the Italian Alps
But on Monday, our intrepid spirits prevailed (actually, we were just desperate to get out of town) and we headed south. The first day we drove in depressing wind and rain for the entire day, but the blurry Austrian scenery was nonetheless impressive, particularly the deepening forests. The real excitement began in the Alps in northern Italy. The rain changed to snow. 

Now, we know snow. I grew up in South Dakota, land of howling blizzards and ice-encrusted cattle and buffalo. In my early 20s, I lived in Wisconsin, which has slightly wimpier winters, but when a VW dune buggy and bicycles are all you own, and public transit is minimal, a Wisconsin winter takes on a very personal dimension.   Then Jim and I spent 20 years in Minnesota (land of 10,000 snowflakes per nanosecond per inch for, oh, nine months out of the year) until we moved to Virginia, civilized environs in which snow makes an occasional grand entrance and graciously vanishes before one can tire of it. It’s like the belle of the ball leaving the gala before her armpits are sweaty and her tresses come undone.  We love Virginia winters.

The Kangoo Challenge
This Alpine snowfall was mesmerizing, enthralling, gorgeous. That is, for Keir and me. For the driver, who was testing out the performance of this used Kangoo, the word would be harrowing.

In Vienna, there is a rule. Surprise. Snow tires are required by law to be put on vehicles no later than November 1. Of course, we would never do anything before a deadline and nothing warned us of imminent snow, at least not in English. The mountain roads were curvy, slushy, slippery and down to one lane populated by an astonishing number of trucks.  Relief was found in the many tunnels, in which Jim could resume normal breathing, if only momentarily, and Keir could indulge his love of tunnel photography.

A Kangoo like ours 
We survived the snowstorm and stopped for the night in Padua, filled with new respect for this un-American-looking French car of ours.

Then, on to France. Driving through Italy to France on this route is defined by Ts: trucks and tunnels, terror and thrill. Hundreds of trucks, which we assumed were heading to the harbor in Marseilles, accompanied us. We stopped counting tunnels when we got to 40. Few things attest to the marriage of human ingenuity and muscularity more clearly than mountain tunnels.  The trust we have in this union as we allow ourselves to be deep inside a mountain that could crush us beyond any remnants of existence is stunning, a peculiar act of faith in our fellow humans.
TomTom and a Tunnel

Once in France, where luckily gas was abundant, we began driving on elevated roads to the left of which we could see the glorious Mediterranean.  The sun was radiant, the wind merciless.  Keir’s pictures show you all you need to know.

Driving the Mediterranean Coast
After all that dramatic scenery, the drive to Arles through land that looked more like the Midwest, except for the wispy trees and lacey foliage (think Impressionist painters) was relatively calm.

After 14 hours total, we arrived in Arles. Nothing in the U.S. resembles Arles, which is in some ways the antithesis of Vienna – dirty, down-to-earth, colorful, irrational, diverse, dark, tattered, lively, subversive. 

Misti and Keir walk to the Hotel du Musee
Arles is on the Rhone River, and its infamous mistral was blowing hard the first day we were there trying to navigate the narrow streets with their confusing signage. It was bitter cold, and we couldn’t get to our hotel from where we were (we gave Reeve and Melanie a break for two nights), so we parked by the ruins of the Roman coliseum and toted our luggage through a maze of dark streets until we reached Hotel du Musee, where the proprietor, frazzled and disorganized, spoke no English.

The four days we were in Arles, we walked miles along narrow streets virtually unchanged for centuries. If there is one thing Americans should learn from Europeans it is the joy of walking. Everyone walks, no one is obese, even those who are disabled walk with canes and crutches. At first, I thought there were more people with disabilities in Europe, but then I realized, that no matter the age or the disability, the people are out walking in whatever manner they can manage. 

Arles is a Roman town, and Reeve and Melanie’s centuries-old home is just around the corner from the ruins of a Roman bath, the Thermae of Constantine, built in the fourth century. One can only imagine the intrigue and romance and scheming and lust that must have played out within that ancient structure. Beneath the town, you can walk in the near-dark, dank and musty, and see the remains of Roman walls.  Julius Caesar himself may have walked there.
Arles street

This is a place famous for bullfights, and both Hemingway and Picasso satisfied at least some of their bloodlust at the Arles arena, first built in Roman times. I’m no fan of bullfights, at least I don’t think so having never actually seen one, but the strange exoticness of that singular violence as entertainment harks back through hundreds of years. What is it that that pageantry and cruelty sparks in otherwise normal people? 

Where bullfights still happen
My mother loved animals and I remember her nursing our tomcat’s disgusting head wounds, resulting from nights out prowling, and feeding with an eyedropper every abandoned bird I ever brought home. She was a force to be dealt with under whose supervision that hunter/tomcat, our cocker spaniel, and our house rabbit all co-existed peacefully in the family room and kitchen.  One of my favorite photos is of that cat lying on a kitchen chair right next to the bunny. The cat does not look happy.  According to my dad, this woman who could subdue the murderous instincts of that tom while in the house with easy prey thoroughly enjoyed the bullfight she saw in Spain. The men thought my mother, tiny and pretty, would be too delicate for the gore. She wasn’t.

Another street 
Given the choice, death to a single animal pitted against a single man, who also risks death, is certainly a preferable way to play out the violent nature of humans to planting indiscriminate car bombs in Baghdad. I suspect that watching the spectacle of matador versus bull brings death into focus.  Perhaps it’s cathartic; at least it’s safe, for everyone other than those in the ring. And, maybe, just maybe, a bullfight is in my future (but I’d better hurry because they’ve just been banned in Spain), so instead of imagining these things, I, too, will test my true instincts, might discover my own dark bloodlust.

St. Trophime
The town square, just outside the entrance to the Roman crypts, is faced by the Church of St. Trophime, built on the site of a fifth century basilica; the current church was begun in the twelfth century. Its statues, on one side a group of the “elect” heading to paradise, on the other the naked damned going to hell, are a bit less playful than many of Vienna’s statues. The interior is cathedral-like but spare. 

Leaving the church and standing in that square, a difference becomes evident. In Vienna, the imagination is ordered, constrained.  Beauty is codified. The statuary, the fountains, the gardens, the architecture, the music (think Schoenberg’s 12-tone row as well as Mozart symphonies) are structured, controlled.  The passion finds expression in music, in opera, but it needs corners and boxes, rules, and palatial surroundings. Even Viennese Sigmund Freud’s intent was to order the mysterious human psyche.
Keir photographing the Rhone

In Arles, the accordion and tambourine players in the town square enliven the very air. They just play. The skateboarders and bikers dare the cobblestones to trip them up, the smokers engage in simple conversation during lengthy lunch breaks, women in rags hunched in corners on the steps of the church beg, protesters holding pictures of Che Guevara and pounding drums pour through the narrow streets. Unruly humanity.

Marching with Che
Here’s an irony. The Viennese of structure and control enthusiastically welcomed Hitler in 1938, a reality for which the city only apologized in the 1990s, and the darkest passions were unleashed. Order was lost, humanity usurped by demonic impulses.

Bullfight? Holocaust?

Arles, too, has its dark side, a small aspect of which concerned Vincent Van Gogh, who was institutionalized there after he cut off his ear. Some posit he mutilated himself as a gesture to the object of his respect, artist Paul Gaugin, mimicking the bullfight tradition of presenting the vanquished bull’s ear to a special person in the stands.  Or maybe he just had a bad day.  Whatever the reason, the Arlesians tricked him into an institution, a place still standing and quite lovely, where he continued to paint.
The painting, the place

Another universal irony. Arles had not appreciated Van Gogh in his time, but after his importance was secured for all of posterity, it embraced all things Van Gogh. I’m reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Main Street,” a thinly disguised and scathing critique of Lewis’ hometown, Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Initially, he was castigated for embarrassing his hometown; the book was even banned in at least one Minnesota town. But, later and still today, the town embraced him. I’m sure in both cases the change in heart had nothing to do with tourist dollars….
Van Gogh and his Cafe 

All of this, of course, is impression, conjecture and presupposition, so let me tell you something I absolutely know to be true: My grandson, Ocean Benjamin Schumacher, is the most adorable almost-seven-month-old baby on the planet. I know that many of you have not yet become grandparents and some of you never will, so I won’t bore you with the details of his huge, inquisitive blue eyes or the perfect slant of his eyebrows, or of the sweet, sweet, sweetness that emanates from his smile, or his adorable bottom, or the beauty of seeing him nestled against his gentle mama nursing contentedly. Aren’t you glad I spared you?

Reeve and Ocean

At 57, it’s thrilling to experience something new, and becoming a grandmother for the first time when Colin was born more than a year ago, was more profound an experience than I ever anticipated. On the days when grandbabies are born, nothing, nothing, matters more than their entrance into our lives.

It’s impossible to truly explain to the uninitiated; it’s like trying to explain sexual climax to a child. I remember the sex book I used to explain intercourse to Reeve when he was quite young. It featured charming frontal drawings of a man with a paunch and a penis and a woman with slightly-sagging breasts and pubic hair, almost cartoon-like. Orgasm was described something like this: After a lot of wiggling together, it’s like being tickled with a feather and then you sneeze. Hmm.

Anyway, the joy of being a grandmother is equally inexpressible.

All of us in the house from the 1600s
Reeve and Melanie are adjusting to life in a town where neither knows anyone, but fortunately, they’re only about an hour from Marseilles, where much of Melanie’s family lives, and they are both people who make friends easily.

Reeve might already be known as the crazy American artist; to promote an opening in their art gallery, he walked on stilts in the town square, and another time, he performed his songs (he has an amazing way with lyrics and melody) in the square with his guitar case, I think, left open for donations. Because so much of his current work involves feathers, he has a relationship with one of the local bar owners, who serves many of the hunters in the area. Recently he spent more than two hours plucking freshly-killed ducks for the guy so that he could keep the feathers.

His current exhibition – sculptures of feather boats – is exquisite. Feathers have been a motif in his life. My mother and grandmother taught me the names of birds and I routinely collected feathers and bird nests as a child. Reeve and I always collected feathers on our walks, especially along Minnehaha Creek, and after he left home for college and even later, he and I would often include a feather in our letters.
Coral King 

One of my favorite feathers is a great blue heron feather that Reeve retrieved for me at the Everglades. It was inside the fence where the alligators were hiding, and since I’m a coward and generally obey the rules, it was Reeve who crossed the fence, dashed to the edge of the water, and returned with the treasure.

When they had their art opening, Melanie’s videos of boats in the Marseilles harbor (Melanie is a video artist) was running in the “cave,” what counts as a cellar in Arles, a musician friend was creating the music, and as the people walked among the boats, the boats moved in response to their movements and breath and cast mysterious shadows.

Here’s my favorite constructed of feathers, bones and petrified coral as the keel.

Reeve and Melanie live here
We had to leave Arles much sooner than we would have liked, but work and school beckoned, and Reeve and Melanie, who had had many visitors in recent weeks, were ready to be alone.

We decided to drive back the northern route through France, Switzerland, and Germany. The trip was less exciting in a visceral way, but the beauty of the countryside was breathtaking. And the sunset high in the Alps with its complicated layers of cloud types and golden hue was perhaps the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. After two days, we drove back into Vienna, mostly happy to be back on the eastern side of things.
Heading home via the Alps

This weekend, we hope to continue our hidden tour of Vienna, but our main objective will be to celebrate Keir’s birthday, hopefully in a uniquely Viennese way. I doubt it will involve stilts.

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