The Woman, the Girl, and the Screaming Horse

PicassoGuernica

The memory. The painting. Picasso’s Guernica.

Greetings from Madrid! I’m here to relax, to learn, to seek similarities, to find differences…to be overcome by the beauty of it all.

And today I was overcome, by the presence of an old acquaintance: the gigantic Guernica, arguably Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. We have a little story, the painting and I.

I have a very clear memory of seeing Guernica, decades ago, with my mother and my sister, in Manhattan. I can picture the monumental canvas from the viewpoint of a young child, maybe six years old, standing left of its center, gazing up at the disturbing figures in their somber colors. It was the horse that affected me the most–the horse screaming in the midst of the broken people, beside the impassive bull.

“What is this? I remember asking my mother as I tried to make sense of the images.

“It’s about a war–in Spain,” she replied. “It was painted by Pablo Picasso.” Mom was an artist herself, so I had heard of Picasso, had seen photos of his cubist imaginings. I nodded slowly, wincing at the horse in his agony. The image never left me.

Years and years later, though, I had cause to doubt my memory when I read that Guernica was housed in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. That made sense–Picasso was a Spaniard, of course–but how, then, could I have seen it in New York?

The answer lay in the painting’s complicated history. Picasso painted it, as we know, to memorialize the victims of the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque country, in the northeast of Spain, during the civil war that saw fascist dictator Francisco Franco take power. Though such complete devastation and killing of civilians would become all too familiar during the rapidly approaching years of World War II, at the time, the destruction of the bombing raid on Guernica was unprecedented and utterly shocking. When Picasso completed the painting, he declared that it would never hang in Spain until the country was released from the grip of fascism and had become a peaceful republic once more. The painting toured the world, and eventually it came to be housed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)…in Manhattan.

So I did see it–on one of the many trips into the city that my mother took us on in the summer and around Christmas, when school was out.

Picasso lived until 1973, and two years later, Franco died. Once fascism had fallen, negotiations between The Prado, Spain’s premiere museum, and MoMA finally brought the painting home in 1981. It hangs now in the Reina Sofia, where the Prado moved its collection of contemporary art when it ran out of room.

So this evening, in Madrid, half a world away from MoMA, half a lifetime away from that little girl in front of a giant painting, I encountered Guernica once again. I tried to be patient about finding it, moving slowly at first from room to room. I examined the Dalis and the Miros, lingered over the photos of Lorca (another victim of the civil war) and his La Barraca theatre group, but finally the suspense got the better of me and I left my daughter–my traveling buddy–behind and went in search of the huge canvas.

And I found it. On a great, white wall all by itself. The crowd was thin, so I was able to move right up close, left of its center once again, and look up at, of course, the horse.

And I was overcome. I mean, really overcome. My hand flew to my throat, tears welled in my eyes, and there I was: crying in a museum. I stood there for a long time, taking it all in, absorbing it, remembering it.

As if that was necessary. The six-year old me saw it once and never forgot it.

Soon my daughter appeared at my elbow. “I see you found it,” she smiled. I nodded. I could barely talk. She stayed a few minutes and then moved on, but I stayed and stayed.

So why, exactly, was I crying? I’ve been occupied by that question for hours, and now, in the middle of the Spanish night, I believe I have an answer: It involves the grownup-I-am knowing so much today–about the painting, and Picasso, and fascism, and suffering. The grownup-I-am cannot help but be moved by the tragedy that incited the painting, by the immense talent that executed it, and by the thought that despite its clear and terrible message, the painting couldn’t possibly stop war, or suffering, or human cruelty.

But it also involves the child-I-was, who was there at the Reina Sofia today, too, along with her sister and her mother–her mother who has been gone now these past three years. The child-I-was was on a trip to the city, holding her mother’s hand, seeing the canvas for the first time, trying to understand the suffering of the horse. The agony of the painting swirled into the happiness of the memory, the absence of my mother colored the memory of my mother–and I short-circuited. And cried in a Spanish museum.

That said, though, there may be a second, simpler reason that I cried; one that speaks to the power of art. As I mentioned, I know a lot about the painting, its artist, and its background now. On that long-ago trip, I knew almost nothing. And yet the painting moved me, a small child, that day, as surely as it moved the grownup me this evening.

I still winced at the horse’s suffering.

That’s the power of great art. You don’t have to “understand” it to be affected by it. Even a child can see the agony in Guernica. Live for a while and it can make you weep.

Standing there today, I could picture us decades ago, my mother, my sister, and I, taking in the same sight. My mother showing us a painting that could have been considered too grownup for us, making us understand that art has power: you can paint a lovely landscape and make people delight at its beauty–or you can paint a war and make people wince at its horror.

Connections, understanding, and memory–I found all of them in the Reina Sofia today. I was overcome. It was extraordinary.

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The Perfect Trip: 36 Countries in 36 Months

The end of April is fast approaching, and because of tax time, Easter, and a delightful visit from my friend Jane from England, I have skipped SO MANY prompts in the BootsnAll 30-day travel writing & art project. So it’s time to mix it up and respond to some prompts randomly! Out of order! Like a literary madwoman!

(I’m usually such an organized girl–it’s nice to be a little unruly for a change.) So:

Prompt #26 in the BootsnAll #indie30 project:

What is your idea of the perfect trip?

Be it ever so crumbled, there's no place like Rome. Or like 35 other capital cities that I want to be in.

Be it ever so crumbled, there’s no place like Rome. Or like 35 other capital cities that I want to be in.

A year and a half ago, I got to celebrate the culmination of a six-year international paperwork odyssey that led to a splendid conclusion:

Dual citizenship with the US and Italy. This brings me joy every time I think about it. Because of my family background, I’ve always been Italian jure sanguinis: “by right of blood.” Europe has always been in my heart, as well. But having your citizenship officially recognized is like marrying your long-time lover: you always knew it was the real thing, but now the government knows it, too.

And Italian citizenship, of course, also means that I’m a citizen of the European Union. Twenty-eight nations whisper Come home, Cora! to me on a regular basis.

(Um, I mean that figuratively, of course. I know I just called myself a literary madwoman, but I didn’t mean that in a clinical sense. Political and geographical entities don’t talk, boys and girls.)

(But our deepest desires do.)

So. The perfect trip, if time and money were not a concern, would be to spend 36 months exploring my 36 “other” nations: the 28 that make up the current EU, the 5 candidate countries, and the 3 potential candidates. Slow travel. Seashores and mountains. Food and wine. Cities and villages. Music and art. Theatre and dance. Books! (Mostly in translation…) Blogging as I go. Photographing as I blog. Absorbing the cultures and the languages, celebrating the feast days, meeting the people.

Throwing my arms around the Europe to which I now belong not just emotionally, but legally. Celebrating all the places I can now call home. Perfection.

 

 

American Paradox: “American Girl” Keeps Shoving This Girl Out of America

Prompt #28 from BootnAll’s #indie30 project:

What song amps you up for travel?

tompetty129130

When I hear Tom Petty’s American Girl, usually while I’m flying down the highway and I happen upon it while pushing buttons on the radio, I start dancing in the driver’s seat, which is good.

But I also get that tight feeling in my chest that says, Cora, why is this car in the US and not on a highway in Europe?? Which is bad.

I know that the lyrics of the second verse are wistful and yearning–the guy pops into her memory, it’s all so close but so far out of reach, people have questioned whether the song is about suicide, et cetera, et cetera…but that’s not the part that sets me to mentally packing my suitcase. It’s the first verse, the part where Tom sings:

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all, it was a great big world,
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise she was gonna keep.

That promise that I keep making–and often keeping–is to travel, to run to everywhere I can, to live, even just for a tiny handful of time, in lots of places in this great big world. With Tom Petty singing in my head.

Click here, watch the video, dance along. Then buy a plane ticket. :)

Africa Has Breathed on Me

Prompt #20 in the BootsnAll #indie30 project:

What part of Africa interests you the most?

Come with me to the Casbah: Delacroix's view of Morocco in 1845

Come with me to the Casbah: Delacroix’s view of Morocco in 1845

Northern Africa calls to me. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt…old and hot and dusty, filled with stories…I want to meet the people, put my hands on the stones of the buildings, eat the food. I have been to the Canary Islands a number of times, which means I’ve been just a few dozen miles off the coast of Morocco, but I haven’t yet made it to the mainland.

This frustrates me. I’ve promised myself that the next time I go, a side trip to Casablanca and Marrakech will be mandatory.

You know, in the Canaries, there are days when the air is heavy and hazy with what looks like the pollution of an industrialized city. It’s not smoke, though, that obscures your view of the landscape–it’s sand, blowing over from the Sahara. The natives say that on those days, “Africa is breathing on us.”

The continent has breathed on me; now I want to breathe on it. :)

 

Image: Eugène Delacroix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Golden Dreams

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Time for prompt #16 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What one landmark, anywhere in the world, would you like to see, and why?

Oh, easy answer: the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Rangoon/Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. I knew almost nothing about Burma until 2006, when it entered my radar through conversations with people who had been there. The stories of the golden temples, their spires poking through the mist; of the activism of the Buddhist monks; of the bravery of the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the popular vote in the previous election and who had been in jail or under house arrest for most of the nearly two decades since–these tales had me wide-eyed. And then I saw the pictures of the Shwedagon Pagoda, 325 feet tall, the most sacred site in Burma, its brilliant, golden skin shining in the sun…and it was like looking at a set created for a fantasy epic. Its beauty was unreal.

It was built either 2500 years ago or sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries, depending on which legend-slash-history you read. It holds relics from four Buddhas, including eight hairs from Gautama Buddha, which are reported to have caused miracles to happen in their presence. I found it hard to believe this building existed, somewhere in the jungles on the other side of the world.

“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”  –Rudyard Kipling, recalling his 1889 visit to the Pagoda

I knew then that I had to visit it someday. And now Burma/Myanmar is somewhat calmer, at least for potential visitors. Suu Kyi is free, and has a voice in the government. The military junta discarded its uniforms and began serving as civilians. Barack Obama has been there! Hilary Clinton has been there! Cruises stop there! There are no more mass imprisonments; the monks are no longer turning over their rice bowls and refusing to accept alms from the junta and its followers.

I’m fully aware that unrest, violence, and state-sponsored persecution of ethnic minorities still take place there. But the willingness of the country to end its total isolation from the West has made it far more likely that the likes of me can, before too long, travel to Rangoon, stand in front of the beautiful golden building, and be astonished in person.

Paradise Has Ice Cream and Elephants

Prompt number 9 in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What is the best experience you’ve ever had while traveling?

What a question. How do you choose? All the amazing, wonderful, joyful things that happen when you travel, and I can pick only one?

Okay, fine then. I pick: Eating ice cream in Spain while a man carved an elephant and threw it into the sea.

I should explain.

In the town of Las Galletas, on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, there is a little heladeria by the sea. And in the town of New Braunfels, in the state of Texas, there is a house that contains my dearest friend Maria–except in the summers, when she goes home to her family in Tenerife, and then she is contained by her mother’s house in Las Galletas. Every few summers I join her there. (Because Keep Austin Weird and all that, but would you rather visit your best friend in Texas or in Tenerife? Yep, I thought so.)

The first time I went to the Canaries, about ten years ago, Maria and I set out on a warm afternoon’s mission: to walk into town and sample her favorite ice cream. We headed down the pedestrian-only shopping streets in the general direction of the sea, and ended up at the promenade beside the narrow black sand beach. “Here it is,” Maria said, pointing to the heladeria. Its sliding glass doors were wide open to let in the ocean air–and the ocean was only about fifty feet away. Tables topped with yellow umbrellas lined the promenade out front. A nice selection of helados tempted us from the glass case. This looked promising. I chose the berry-bright frutas del bosque; I don’t remember what flavor Maria chose, but we took our paper cups and our little plastic spoons and we claimed a table in front of the open sliders.

Helado. Splendid.

Helado. Splendid.

 

As we savored our ice cream (so delicious; Maria was right), we indulged in people watching: mothers herding small children along the promenade; young couples sitting on the sea wall, their arms and legs entwined; grandmothers siting in the shade of the umbrellas, trading gossip in rapid Spanish; British tourists, their pale shoulders and noses turned lobster red by the sun. And a sculptor, carving an elephant.

At some point while we were licking helado off our spoons, a middle-aged man dressed in a black tee shirt and black pants had set up an impromptu studio on the sea wall. He held carving tools, and he was using them to flick slivers of stone off a block about the size of a breadbox. What on earth? I said. We angled our chairs so that we could see better. It took us a while to determine that the emerging figure was an elephant. Animal? we guessed at first. Horse? Dog? we considered as the artist progressed. People stopped to chat with him; some bought him beers. Children stopped to guess; he teased them, told them it was a bird, a giraffe…But as his tools bit further and further into the stone, we finally saw it. Elephant!

Elephant. Also splendid.

Elephant. Also splendid.

I was delighted. I love elephants. I love Spain. I love ice cream. And I love my friend. And this moment contained all of them! Plus the black volcanic sand, the shush of the ocean, the lisping s-sounds of Castilian Spanish in my ears…and then the sculptor hopped over the sea wall onto the beach and directed a couple of his admirers to hand the stone beast down to him. He gripped it tightly, the muscles in his arms straining as he hauled it to the edge of the water–and threw it in.

Oh, no, we laughed, what’s he doing now? Was this some sort of indigenous Guanche ritual, some sort of sacrifice to an obscure pachyderm goddess of the sea?

Not at all. He was letting the waves rinse it off. That block of stone was going nowhere until he hoisted it out of the water and carried it back up to his cohorts. Once he was up on the promenade again, a young woman who had been at the center of his admirers for a long time opened her wallet and handed him a small wad of bills. She smiled once more at the elephant, wrapped her arms around it, lifted it, and staggered off under its weight.

Maria and I grinned. It had been a perfect afternoon. And here’s the very nice postscript: every time I go back to Tenerife, one of the first things Maria and I do is walk to that heladeria, choose our flavors, stake out a table, and talk about the time the man in black carved the elephant right in front of us.

Images: Helado: By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (Montañas de helado Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Elephant: Teresa (Terry) Jackson [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Family Fun With Austrian Pharmaceuticals

Well! I’ve been buried by some of my other projects these past few days, but I’m back now to catch up on the BootsnAll #indie30 prompts that I missed. I feel especially bad about missing them, since BootsnAll featured a number of my earlier posts in their end-of-week article. I was honored and delighted. You can read the article here, on the BootsnAll site.

Okay, time to catch up:

Prompt #8: What is the worst travel experience you’ve ever had?

I haven’t been to any really dangerous areas of the world, so my bad travel experiences haven’t been extremely scary or life-threatening…but I have traveled with children.

Yes, I see the parents among you smiling ruefully and nodding your heads. Taking children overseas can be a fantastic experience–you get to introduce them to places, people, cultures, that they could never interact with at home.

World, this is my child. My child, meet the world.

You get to instill a sense of adventure in them, and a sense of confidence, too. And a sense of wonder worth more than nearly any classroom experience they will ever have.

Traveling with a five year-old can be a challenge, though. You suddenly realize that much of the world is not childproof. You have to hang onto them to keep them from falling off hotel balconies. Or mountains.

Traveling with a sick five year-old is a trial. Fever thermometers that measure temperatures in degrees Celsius…pharmacies that don’t stock familiar medicines…finding a doctor in a foreign country in the middle of the night…all typical, and all stressful when your little one is sick and listless, and you’re worried, exhausted, and trapped indoors with them for days at a time.

I waited all year for this trip; please don't throw up...please don't throw up...

I waited all year for this trip; please don’t throw up…please don’t throw up…

 

Traveling with a sick five year-old whom you’ve forced to swallow her medicine, which came in pill form, from the bottle with the label in German and the name of which you not only don’t recognize but can’t even pronounce, who is crying herself red in the face, and who then, seemingly out of defiance but surely out of illness, gags, leans forward, and throws up all over your host’s kitchen–this experience, though it may not involve death-defying feats, war zones, kidnappings, or explosions, is a very bad experience, nonetheless, and will leave you warning your hosts to STAY OUT of the kitchen for about an hour while you clean vomit out of their sugar bowl, and may even lead you to throw up a little bit yourself from the sight, sound, and smell of what’s going on. It may also force you to find another apotheke–drugstore–to explain the upsetting dilemma to the pharmacist (who, happily, speaks some English), and to endure further humiliation as he grudgingly re-fills the prescription for you in liquid form and hands it to you while frowning and informing you that “Here in Austria, our children can swallow pills.”

Really. It’s a very bad experience.

Even if it is slightly hilarious later on.

Image: “Das kranke Kind” (The Sick Child) François-Joseph Navez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons