19…..NINETEEN

Portugal, SPAIN

Romance is immortal.  Industry in the machine age can only become a machine without it… Without Romance the essential joy of living as distinguished from pleasure is not alive… – Frank Lloyd Wright’s words in regards to being a romantic architect.  “The Creative Professions” as they are sometimes called (a title I will use only temporarily as to not deny the creativity inherent to all professions) are very fond of using the term Romantic.  Much the same way popular culture uses the term to signify a magnetism which leads to some sort of seductive process, Romantic for The Creatives are acutely aware of the natural world – the world outside of our control – seducing us to duplicate its engineering, describe its colors, represent its systems and pay homage to its power.

We passed the morning drinking arabic-style tea from delicately painted glass cups, at home on the table of any little girls tea party, and enjoying the slow pace of the small plaza.  Nestled into a corner of metal folding tables, the dozen or so patrons of the cafe were all afforded a wonderful perch from which to observe the activity on the plaza pass by undisturbed.  After we had finished our tea and paid the bill we started out for the bus station, looking for a bus that would take us to Seville. My brother had the Puente del Alamillo in his sights.  Designed in 1992 by Spanish structural engineer/architect Santiago Calatrava the bridge, like many of  his larger projects, clearly echoes the Modernist themes present in contemporaries such as Gaudi or Candela.  He managed to do so while simultaneously presenting  the viewer with his unique personal affinity for combining elements of  human anatomy and those of the natural world.

The several hours it took to reach Seville were spent comfortably enjoying the endless fields of vibrant yellow flowers and a shared picnic lunch as we sped along the open highway.  Seville is a relatively small city embraced by the Guadalquivir River and after a short walk we were at its banks.  To view the bridge with my brother recalled countless family dinners eating out.  Even now, our father is an interior designer for restaurants and it is not unusual for him to turn a chair over in the middle of dinner, to see who the manufacturer is.  I may have seen it as a rather nice chair or maybe not even noticed it at all until he was already startling the other diners.  But he was seduced by a future with the chair; he could imagine a potential relationship, the perfect solution to the patio space he was currently designing or one to buy as a sample to show clients, whatever the vision- everything else stopped for a second.  It was like this with my brother and the Puente del Alamillo.  The bridge had engaged him in a secret dialogue that none of us could hear, it was whispering things to him that made him smile, without even knowing it.   And this, in turn, made me smile and appreciate the bridge through him.

After a very brief stay in Seville we took the train to Lisbon, crossing the Spanish/Portuguese border in the south of the country.  Portugal was not at all as I expected.  Somehow I had a sense it would be more latin, more vibrant and “in your face”.   I have no idea where I picked up this conception, but as a result I needed to do some adjusting as we walked around the city.  The people were stoic, quiet, and they looked at us as if there was some kind of code we had failed to interpret.  The next morning we decided to take a day trip out of the city and headed west on a quaint rural train to a small area called Sintra.  We had read that Sintra had a very unusual castle well worth the excursion.

Pena National Palace is surprising example of Romantic architecture, said to be one of the best from the 19th century in the world.  Segments of the building complex are painted bright yellow, some a contrasting pale red and some the deep bluish grey of the original stone.  Fantastical creatures carved from the walls, whimsical tiled-mosaics, gargoyles and towers that begged for locked-away princesses, it was clear to see we were walking inside of a vision come to life.   The palace was surrounded by a forest of equally surprising components.  Apparently the same seduction that had directed the architecture also made its way into the landscaping, there were trees and ferns from all over the world; China, The Americas, many of the distant corners of Europe… The thick imaginative nature of the entire experience left us all floating slightly as we boarded the train back to Lisbon that evening.

We spent several days in Lisbon, disquieted by the ghost of our expectations.  What we discovered is that Lisbon is filled with stairways and has one really great vegetarian restaurant.  My self-imposed dietary restrictions were especially difficult to meet in Lisbon and it was beginning to wear on my fellow travelers.  As a vegetarian you not only need to find a “non dead animal” option on the menu, but one you have not already eaten that day, one that looks appetizing in that moment, one that gives as close to a balanced meal as possible and one you can afford.  In a word…quasi-impossible.  Fortunately on one of our treks up one the numerous staircases in the city we discovered an excellent vegetarian restaurant which quickly became my solution for at least one meal a day.

When I was 10 years old I developed my own secret dialogue, with food.  I formed a romantic view of myself as a vegetarian and for the substantial majority of the next 11 years of my life the discussion dominated the way I thought about eating.  I had grown accustomed to explaining why I chose to eat differently than almost everyone around me  and as I grew older my explanations became more sophisticated, but never ceased in creating serious logistical problems.  Regardless of the relative suffering of my comrades, I refused to make exceptions to my vegetarian life-style… the whispering seduction of my own essential vision was holding fast.

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17 ……. SEVENTEEN

SPAIN

There are cities you visit, cities you check off your list – Barcelona tilled my subconscious soil and planted something inside of me.  Its roots started growing and Barcelona claimed me for itself.  Nine years later when people ask me why I moved to Tokyo, as if describing a lover betrayed I explain why Barcelona was left at the proverbial altar. Outrageous; how the decisions of a small network of people can direct the course of, for them, completely anonymous individual lives.

My first step off the train in Barcelona, I could tell we had changed directions.   We rang the bell of a small hotel under a canopy of flowers several stories thick.  A loud monophonic buzzing sound followed and we were admitted .  One at a time, we climbed the antique staircase which opened onto a hallway whose centerpiece was a very dusty, ornately carved, couch.  Realizing this was the lobby, we set our bags down and waited silently.  After a few minutes a small door opened  and an equally small woman warmly greeted us as if she were our grandmother, relived to see us safely home.  Strangely settled, and returned to the city street and we navigated to the closest plaza anxious to enjoy an afternoon of  homemade sangria, conversation, people watching and a general state of well-being.

Later on we made our way to the art museum, which apparently doubled as a decent skate park.  A dozen skateboarders were flipping and slapping their decks against the contours of modern architecture, it was somehow a perfect living orchestration of exhilaration, movement and defiance – much of what the art inside was attempting to interpret for its admission-paying viewers.  Another few hours and we were exploring the side streets again, this time happening upon a crusades-era stone doorway, dimly lit and offering a free design exhibit inside.  Museums have an important role in preserving and cataloguing the work of artists for later generations and some museums are able to display genuinely stunning collections.  The problem with museums is that ultimately they are institutions and because of this they are subject to the typical bureaucracy, regulations and agendas of all institutions.   As a result it is nearly impossible for them to engage with artists taking risks, those still untested by the market.  While I usually enjoy art museums,  I must also admit at times it feels more like visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with the focus on the incredible celebrity status of the artists instead of their incredibly inspired ideas.   A hundred times more interesting, the designers were just starting out – just beginning to be able to express their ideas in public.  When an artist is still unknown they work harder to communicate and make a connection with the viewer. The pieces were brave and dramatic – fearless.  I had taken part in several art shows, many in places like this…unused and beautifully raw, but this level of sophistication and innovation was something completely new.  Nearly every piece inspired me, excited me.  I yearned to be a part of it, to be driven and share in the moment of brilliance about to shine on these newly budded creators.  But I was just a viewer and it was time to move on.

The next morning on La Rambla, an extensive pedestrian wonderland  winding through downtown Barcelona, we grabbed a coffee and started walking.  La Rambla was filled with street performers and buskers offering a lot of eye-candy, but I was more impressed with the market.  Drawn in by the stained glass sign and the glimpse of a myriad of delicacies, La Boqueria is a market that haunts me still.  I remained a stubborn vegetarian at this point, mesmerized and floating between overflowing fruit stands.  Never venturing into the visceral legacy held within the market’s core.  The humid blood soaked passageways of the inner sanctum retained their treasures.  Still now these ghosts tempt me while I sleep, with all that I missed as I made selections from the glossy, recognizable bits – the untold pleasures escaped me and for this I am ever repentant.

Sacrilegiously we left the market with a bag of strawberries, not without irony we aimed for La Famila Sagrada.  Antoni Gaudi was an accomplished architect and his iconic style echoes Egyptian design, Gothic architecture and naturalistic themes.  The massive church “La Famila Sagrada – The Sacred Family” even now remains uncompleted, years after his death.  As a building it brings joy, the facade is covered with all manner of creatures, the central towers stretching up like tree branches.  Even the cranes and machinery do nothing to interrupt the sheer glory one feels when gazing skyward.  Taking a breath, it was as if the whole city knew there were more important things for us all to do, more for us to contemplate, to dedicate ourselves to – more ways for us all to use the fertilized soils of our past to produce the gorgeous and newly imagined fruits of our future.