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.

Advertisements

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

How to Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag

It’s Day 7 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project; the question of the day is (fanfare, please):

What kind of packer are you?

What? Too much?

What? Too much?

I like to think that I travel pretty lightly. Though I’m not a backpacker, I usually head overseas with a small suitcase filled with a few sets of mix-and-match clothes, a toiletries bag, extra shoes, a notebook, and a voltage adapter.

Though there was that one time, about 10 years ago, when my life seemed to be falling apart and I fled to Spain to foist my sad and broken self on my friend Maria and her family…

The night before I was to leave the States, I pulled a small suitcase out of the closet, threw a pile of clothes on the bed, and realized that there was no way they were all going to fit. So in my emotional exhaustion, I did the only thing I could:

I got a bigger suitcase out of the closet.

I crammed all my stuff inside, zipped it shut, and hauled it to the airport. Because of storm delays, the bag got lost in Madrid; though I was going on to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, my giant suitcase went to Barcelona. When the airline finally delivered it to Maria’s mother’s house the next day, my friend, knowing that I’m usually an efficient packer, marveled at its size. I just shrugged; I was too wrecked to care.

That weekend, we were to head to the north end of the island to stay with Maria’s sister for a couple of days. “I’ll give you a small bag,” she said, “and you can just take a few things and leave this one here.” I shook my tired head. “No,” I said, pointing to the mammoth. “THIS is my weekend bag.” I simply was not capable of curating clothes and sandals and putting together a weekend wardrobe. So the giant bag got hoisted into the trunk of Maria’s mother’s car along with everyone else’s little totes and duffels.

Yep, I was mocked. Yep, I didn’t wear half the things I had taken. But in the end, it was okay–the healing properties of that trip, the magic of tapas and helado in the middle of the day, the homemade wine decanted into an old Johnny Walker bottle, the drives into the mountains, the walks beside the sea, the wandering amidst the centuries-old architecture–and the ability to rest, to bask, without judgment, in the comfort of an old, deep friendship–made it all okay.

So. The moral of my packing story is this:

Travel heals; so go. Pack lightly, yes. Plan properly, yes. But if you just can’t, if you’re just too tired and sad to think clearly, if you simply have to flee the country or burst into flame, then just take a bigger suitcase out of the closet, and go anyway.

Postscript: The title of this post is from a World War I marching song, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” No, I wasn’t around when it zoomed to number 1 on the charts. But yes, I remember it from watching old cartoons in the 70s. It used to be a well-known piece of popular culture. But now…who knows? Thought I’d identify it for the young’uns.

Image: By BazzaDaRambler (… luggage. Uploaded by Oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Way to a Nation’s Heart is Through Its Stomach

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta. Culinary Diplomacy in action.

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta: Culinary Diplomacy in action.

When people from one nation gather around a dinner table with people from another nation, they create goodwill along with good eating. If you travel internationally, you know how true (and delicious) this is. Is there anything that disposes us more favorably toward a culture and a country than sharing its food with its natives? When English friends offer buttery homemade shortbread that dissolves on your tongue or you slurp along with Japanese colleagues on the rich, comforting broth of nabeyaki udon, it’s easy to feel at home in a faraway place.

Recently, The Splendid Table–one of Glorious Curious’ favorite public radio shows–interviewed Sam Chapple-Sokol, who writes about how food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” (Read the interview here.) The name for this practice is Culinary Diplomacy. Chapple-Sokol notes that while we all understand the importance of food in carrying off a successful state dinner between world leaders, we may not know that this brand of diplomacy is also employed by governments to proactively create a positive impression of their country in other nations. He explains that about ten years ago, Thailand created a program called “Thai Kitchen to the World,” through which they sent Thai chefs around the globe to start Thai restaurants and raise awareness of–and appreciation for–Thai cuisine. South Korea did the same sort of thing with its so-called “kimchi diplomacy.” These governments understand that food, with all its good associations, is an effective way of making your culture familiar to and sought out by people in other countries. Food has the tasty power to break down barriers and provide a welcome to the world.

Food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” -Sam Chapple-Sokol

I’ve enjoyed many meals in other countries, but one of the most memorable was provided by friends of friends one summer night in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The islands, about 200 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, are volcanic and gorgeous and owned by Spain. The cuisine is heavily informed by Spanish cooking but is replete with the seafood and goat cheeses and tiny potatoes (used to make the salty and addictive papas arrugadas–“wrinkled potatoes”) that are indigenous to their geographic location.

That particular night, we all met up at a tiny, dingy bar/restaurant in seaside Bajamar, on a minor road overlooking the Atlantic. (Though to be fair, on small, mountainous Tenerife, most places overlook the Atlantic. That’s part of its beauty.) As darkness fell, about a dozen of us sat at long wooden tables pushed together under a covering made of bamboo in a dirt lot outside the bar’s front entrance. The new friends–a doctor, two sculptors, and some musicians among them–had ordered island specialties to impress–and just maybe to alarm–the American visitors. Plate after plate came out the door of this somewhat questionable-looking establishment and was deposited in a row down the center of the tables, ready to be washed down with local tinto–red wine. There was pulpo (octopus), grilled and waiting to be dipped in olive oil or mojo verdegofio, a wholemeal flour mixture combined with fish stock and mojo; breads, for dipping in the green and red mojos; fried local fish; the aforementioned papas arrugadas; and the most “exotic’ dish of the evening, morena–fried moray eels, with their jawbones and tiny ferocious teeth still intact. The Spaniards seemed particularly gleeful at serving us the pulpo, imagining perhaps that its bright pink sucker-studded tentacles might send us Americans running for a hamburger. I’m half Sicilian, though, and what we call purpu is my favorite Christmas Eve treat–it’s hard to find in restaurants here in the States, but when I travel to countries that love their seafood, I enjoy it wherever I can get it.

And that night was no different–I made short work of my plate of tentacles, I dipped my bread, I drank my wine, and I picked tiny bones out of the morena. I spoke my limited Spanish, they spoke their limited English, and my bilingual best friend Maria-Jesus filled in our gaps with her expert translation. For a while, I spoke French with one of the party who had lived in France for a number of years (my French is far better than my Spanish). My artist daughter was at the other end of the table with Maria-Jesus’s daughter, creating tiny watercolor images of the food and the people. There was a great deal of laughter and conversation and goodwill between nations.

After we had stuffed ourselves with all those local delicacies, we picked up and moved to a nearby nautical club that claimed our new friends as members. More wine was presented and we staked out a large table on the deserted pool deck. Out came a guitar, and a cajón–a flamenco box-drum–and then the music started. The musicians played, the ocean roared, and our little party sat at that table and sang and drank and laughed and danced until three in the morning. The Spaniards sang old Spanish songs that they all knew. Then they sang old American rock-and-roll so we could sing along. As the night wore on, we all became drummers, beating time by banging crushed soda cans on the table as our wineglasses shuddered and danced precariously close to the edges.

At several points during the night, I was close to tears, so moved was I by the beauty and camaraderie of the celebration of which these lovely people had so graciously made me a part. The hospitality, the music, and the food reached across borders, took my hands, and drew me into the culture of Spain and the Canaries. On a real and personal level, Culinary Diplomacy was in action, doing its very effective and tasty job.