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Frogs in France

i am on a train cutting a path through the beautiful french countryside going faster and faster. today i am traveling from a village outside of lyon, france to paris. it is a high speed train and now the meaning of high speed is becoming clearer as it shakes like a space shuttle. this is an odd way to travel through such a slow moving landscape. the country rolls and sways in patches of sunny green and yellow with gentleness. the word beautiful does not do it justice. perhaps the the french words for beautiful, belle and beaux are so short because there are so many things in france that need to be described this way.

when i arrived in lyon i was greeted by Jérémy, a longtime supporter of mine and a big american music fan. if not for his thick french accent i could have taken him for an ohioan–he wears cut-off tee-shirts, sunglasses and sandals and walks with the casualness and unhurriedness of someone who lives in the country. he is average height and about my age. from the airport we drove to lyon, the second largest city in paris although maybe you haven’t heard of it and i really hadn’t either.

we took a funiculare (that is the italian word but i cannot remember the french word) to the top of a mountain and looked out at lyon from the foot of a the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a castle-like cathedral that can be seen from anywhere in the city. lyon (pronounced kind of like lee-own) is sprawling and not very tall, the way most old european cities are. it has one or two or three skyscrapers and a river snaking through many clay roofed buildings looking like tan and red-orange legos dropped onto a green shag carpet fading into the hills in the hazy distance. french cities and villages look a lot like italian cities and villages and when i noticed this Jérémy reminded me that italy is not far–they are both southern europe. the language and culture however, could not be more different. in europe you can travel less than an hour and find that everyone speaks a different language and eats different food and even in the same country they greet each other with a different amount of kisses and in a different order from left to right. in america, i told Jérémy, “you can drive for 20 hours and see the same stores, meet the same kind of people, and speak exactly the same language.”

we found our way to the art museum in downtown lyon kind of by accident. Jérémy had never been to the art museum and didn’t know where it was. i just assumed as we were walking that there would be an art museum and it would be a good one since we were in a large french city after all, and the french impressionists and post-impressionists had made arguable the most important contributions to painting ever. sure enough, in the most historic area of town we found it. unfortunately the beautiful old stone building did not have air conditioning, or the air conditioning was out of order. on one hour of sleep (as i had played a late acoustic show in london the previous night), the heat was quite uncomfortable. but i was in france dammit, and i was determined to see some great paintings. we wandered through room after room and made our best conversation considering Jérémy has only some interest in art and my tiredness made it difficult to communicate anything with enthusiasm.
“i will sleep when i get to america,” i told him when he realized how short the previous night must have been. between blinks of sweaty tired eyelids i saw some monets and pissaros and vuilliards and bonnards and other artists that i know a little more about than a lot of french people. i thought about trying to make a list of all the art museums i have been to in the last two months and realized what a daunting task this will be.

so i can name some french artists and what their main contributions to painting were. that is the only thing that prevents me from feeling completely ignorant in the company of french people.
“do you know our president?” Jérémy asked me and i responded “no” with a little embarrassment (it’s Nicolas Sarkozy, btw). but that is why people travel, right? to learn things? later that night his friends and family members would ask me questions like
“do you know our music?” or give me the name of some french singer or movie star who i could not place. france, we wikipediaed, is about the size of texas, although maybe the french know much more about texas than texans know about the french. i think that is a safe bet, if george w. was any indication. i told them that austin texas, is a current american center of progressiveness and that there area always exceptions to stereotypes. as as sidenote, the french have never heard of grey poupon.

these kind of conversations, not unlike the conversations i had in germany, holland, and england, were nearly constant for the next two days as we ate and drank and wandered around the beautiful old towns and villages of saint-clair-du-Rhône, Saint-Pierre-de-Boef, and Chavanay, described by the official website as a pleasant village at the foot of Mount Pilat. the Rhône river weaves through the area and is so blue-green it is like a ribbon strip of water cut directly from the fabric of the ocean.

Jérémy lives with his wife blondina (a local name) who is one of those people who glows warmly like a sun, and two beautiful daughters in a typical french house with stucco walls and the red-orange roof, a house they built themselves recently. sitting in the backyard you can see vineyard-covered mountains. every inch of available hillside in this area of france is covered with grapevines. over the weekend we would spend many hours in the backyard eating bread, cruissants, pork, frogs, snails, duck, more bread, patte, drinking local wines and watching the sun set behind the vineyards.

Jérémy’s friend jeff is the most french man i have ever met. maybe i am not qualified to make that kind of assessment as an american. but with the limited knowledge i acquired in three days i think it is true and i said so the other night and nobody at the table argued. jeff is pensive and stoic, with a knowing smile, very dark hair and a stubbly face. he is a jazz piano virtuoso and an amazing chef.
“everything jeff does, i do,” i said as jeff applied a large amount of homemade mayonnaise to his duck medallion and i did the same on my plate. i would follow his lead in matters of food and wine pairings throughout the weekend.

jeff’s father grows grapes and jeff worked on a nearby vineyard for three years when he was younger. the vineyards that cover the Rhône-Alpes area of france are planted on extremely steep mountainsides and hillsides that makes harvesting hard work, work that is more akin to mountain climbing–complete with a pack on your back of sticky bunches of grapes–than it is farming. it is hard to overestimate the importance of wine in french culture.

the weather is the greatest enemy of all farmers and winemakers are no exception. in some areas of france, upon the first signs of hail–which would utterly destroy a crop, authorities will launch missiles into the air to break up the ice balls. yes, missiles. i guess this is called cloud seeding and is used for various purposes in different parts of the world, but i cannot imagine a defensive military maneuver being a component of winemaking in the united states.

jeff’s father has thousands of bottles of homemade wine locked away in a cellar, bottles which would be illegal to sell on the french market since the vineyard is unlicensed.
“then what will you do with all of it?” i wondered.
“drink it. we are hoping that maybe we will inherit some of it,” jeff said. “when i was sixteen i learned about wine. i kicked the door open with my foot and stole some bottles. you can still see the…on the door. what’s the word?”
“footprint,” i said.

my acoustic guitar, which was lost in London by the airport, eventually found its way to Jérémy’s house. saturday evening i played a living room concert for Jérémy, his wife, jeffs wife nathalie and their daughter Charlotte, a wide-eyed fifteen year old who wears a lot of colors and is quickly learning english, and a handful of other friends. Jérémy plays the guitar and teaches guitar lessons, his wife blondina is an excellent singer and toured with a choir, and their friends are music teachers and pianists and clarinetists et cetera. i was a bit intimidated in a room full of musicians but i played well enough and everyone seemed to enjoy it. afterwards, they played some of their french and english songs for ME and we played some cover songs together.

“good bread, good cheese, good wine.” those are the perfect ingredients for a happy french person according to Jérémy. that combination made for one happy american too and last night my happiness was mixed with the knowing sadness of the impending end. Jérémy and company told me that maybe the french as a romantic people was just a stereotype. but that night with Jérémy and his loving family and friends with our stomachs full of the most amazing food and drinks, lying on our backs looking up at a clear warm sky translating words like milky way and satalites to french and english as we spotted shooting stars, i cannot think of a better word.

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tastes of england

i am sitting in a holding pen on a runway on lyon, france. i flew on the low cost express airline easyjet across the english channel from london. easy jet is not at all an easy way to travel although it is a jet, as far as i can tell. you can only bring up to 20 kilograms of luggage, it can cost over 100 euros to check bags, and they make you wait in line after line in the airport of departure and now on the runway where i have arrived. i’m in a white tent with other passengers; it is as if we have some disease and have been quarantined. i have never waited so long on a runway just to enter an airport and i’m now realizing the wait must be because of customs and i guess they are actually worried that we might have a disease. but i do not.

*** update the airports or airlines have lost my acoustic guitar. i was forced to check my guitar and it has not arrived from london to lyon. we shall see how this shakes out. but the day is a beautiful day and the sky is a perfect blue to white gradient, a vast improvement from dreary london.

i try not to stereotype. one stereotype i had hoped to disprove is that the british do not have good food. in every place i have visited i have made an effort to try the local cuisine and england is no exception.

on the front cover of the menu at wetherspoon pub, a successful chain of pubs perhaps equivalent to applebees in the states, was a beautiful photo of a dish called a Ploughman, which includes a Melton Mowbray pork pie, a special kind of pork pie which comes from a specific region of england. the picture on the menu is the classic restaurant food picture: the light is perfect and the depth of field is very narrow allowing the focus to be on the pie while the side dishes have a bit of atmospheric blur as if all the components are in some kind of dreamy food heaven beckoning you to taste. i was confident that the featured entree at one of the most popular restaurants in england would be delicious.

when it arrived it was cold, which is the traditional way to serve it. okay. but it tasted slightly like sausage, except with almost no flavor. i thought maybe sausages were just flavorful by nature, as they are in germany or the usa, but i guess there is a way to make pork into sausage while making sure no flavor accidentally sneaks in. maybe they have a strainer which removes the flavor. between the cold pork substance and the cold crust there was a layer of what appeared to be some kind of industrial window caulk or perhaps animal fat that had congealed into a hard murky gelatin. in short, weatherspoon’s Ploughman was one of the worst entrees i have encountered in europe. but i ate almost all of it because i was hungry and i slightly enjoyed the humor in it, knowing it would at least make a good bad food story later.

having little luck with restaurant food i turned my search to grocery store cookies and candy. one of the most popular cookies here in england are “digestives”. the label says “Digestives” in white lettering against a bright red background and underneath “Dark Chocolate”. “Digestives” has got to be the worst name for a cookie i have ever heard. for me, and i don’t think i am alone here, digestion is what happens after i eat. before i eat, i don’t need to think about digestion. if you’re going to call your product digestives why not take it a step further and call them “poopers” or maybe “excramentives”? i guess it’s hard to know where to draw the line, but where i draw it is with chewing or before. charleston chew–acceptable. charlston esophogus slider…eh, on the cusp.

i did have one delicious plate of fish and chips, naturally. but i think it is safe to say that england is not known for it’s cuisine.

however, none of this is or was the fault of my kind british companions tom and joe, two brothers from Bushey, just outside london. tom and joe cannot singlehandedly affect the food taste crisis their country seems to be undergoing, but they were kind enough to put me up at their place and show me around. tom introduced me to “revels”, my new favorite candy. they are like american whoppers, milk duds, raisinettes, chocolate orange, and one other thing that i cannot remember all in the same package. and it is a surprise which flavor you will get! so for someone like me who enjoys surprise and adventure, it is a wonderful mini taste odyssey that is predictable enough to be pleasing but unpredictable enough to be exciting, the same way a great pop song works. after talking for two days, tom suggested that i buy some revels for my band mates john and dan. my bassist brian ives, however, gets the more consistent tasting “Maltesers” because of his occasional aversion to fun.

we spent one evening with tom’s parents and found that we had a great deal in common. for my sake tom’s father did some independent research focused on Bushey’s rich art history which included Von Herkemmer, a german immigrant who was a painter and filmmaker and founder of an important art school in Bushey, and Lucy Kemp-Welch, the illustrator of the original edition of the classic equine book, “Black Beauty”. the next day at the very small Bushey museum, i saw several enormous canvases of masterfully painted horses, and one smaller quick painting by Lucy Kemp-Welch of a horse and horse owner near the Santa Trinita, a bridge in florence italy where i studied art last month. my eyes saw the painting but i did not feel it until my heart recognized it as florence and a bolt of something came through me, one part longing for florence and one part appreciation. the painting is actually just a sketch for a larger work, and although the sketch is lonely and nearly forgotten in a dusty corner of a small town museum it is masterfully executed in a fresh, quick style, which i prefer to her larger canvases which occasionally feel belabored. but me as an american looking at the little painting of florence italy executed by an english artist who was trained by a german i felt a connection with all these different places i have been and times i have studied and the entire history of creatively minded artists and adventurers and in this moment i knew for certain that i was on the right path.

that night i played an acoustic show at the Dublin castle, a famous bar in london which hosted acts such as Madness, Travis, and Blur as they were getting off the ground. i played one of my better acoustic sets in a while, complete with one-night-only trumpet and trombone accompaniment from tom and joe, respectively, for the song “mitral valve prolapse”. tom and joe are both extremely talented university trained brass musicians. unfortunately, i started the song a half step too low but i just went with it and forgot to let tom and joe know. joe is one of the rare human beings with perfect pitch and knew immediately my mistake while tom, who like me does not hear pitch as well as a robot, was left to struggle through the first chorus until it became clear to him what i had done. but by the second chorus everything came together in a triumphant brassy rendition that was truly special.

i am here in lyon, france for three days.

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rock and roll and raw fish in amsterdam

i am looking out at the north sea from a great ship about ten decks tall. i am on the stenaline ferry, a six hour boat ride from hook van holland (“the corner of holland”, near amsterdam) to Harwich, England. a few hours ago i left amsterdam, a city in the netherlands (the netherlands is also known as holland and people from this country with at least two names are called dutch, as is their language). it is overcast and a little chilly and there is a furious wind in my face and my hair. the ocean is choppy; “white caps” i think they call them, dot the surface of the water. i have never been on a boat this large and i have never been on a boat this far out at sea. i am sitting alone on the top deck on a blue floor near a row of round windows. if i were to cast myself over the edge right now, it would take days for anyone to notice and my body would probably never be found. i am the only one here but occasionally a mother or father and a kid find their way up the stairs and are so impressed and frightened with the force of the wind, the vastness of the sea and the speed of the boat as they look out over the rail that they laugh or smile and pretend that they will blow away, confronting the power of nature with their body and feeling their smallness although maybe they wouldn’t say it like that.

friday i was greeted and hugged heartily near the train station in amsterdam by tom and tim, two handsome bachelors in their late twenties. thomas and tim are the kind of guys who can flirt with anyone, talk with anyone, and get anyone to smile from old ladies to pretty women to bus drivers and taxi drivers. tim is a rock star. “i have led the life of a rock star,” he says. when you have a story about waking up in an alley somewhere in south america with no clothes on and not remembering exactly what happened, you have truly led the life of a rock star, despite not having played an instrument. thomas is also charismatic but more quiet, and the two have a dynamic which is hilarious, sarcastic and playful. they are the most american europeans i have met, having a free-spiritedness and idealism that evokes california. before leaving their spacious, contemporary apartment in white shoes and big sunglasses tim says “let’s rock and roll baby” with a conviction that overrides his dutch accent. this is the culture of amsterdam and in a lot of ways, i fit right in.

friday night we sat on the porch as tim grilled out and made some fancy salads and we drank heineken beer, which is brewed in holland and very popular there. thomas and i spent a lot of the night (and the weekend) sharing music for each other. in his room he has shelves with thousands of CD’s–complete discographies and b-sides and rarities ranging from groups like bone thugs and harmony to sting and mew. in europe i guess you would have to be a big music fan to have discovered albums from a relatively unknown songwriter from Ohio like me. thomas has been here in the netherlands following and supporting my work since the first independent albums i did with SWIM right out of high school. since then i went on to sign a deal with MCA records under universal umbrella, and somewhat coincidentally thomas went on to work for universal records, which is i guess the best place to work in holland if you are such a big music fan. between thomas’s connections through universal music and tim’s job as a sales rep for cocoa cola, they never wait in lines and can get into any concert or show or bar in town for free and often drink for free too and we may or may not have done just that. basically, if you are traveling to amsterdam thomas and tim are the exact two guys you want to stay with.

on saturday we went to the van gogh museum where i saw one of the best collections of post-impressionist works i have ever seen and for once on this european adventure i felt just slightly more knowledgeable than the locals, although i was excited to see a painting by van gogh that included the side of a house where thomas’s mother was born. traveling to these places and seeing the art where the artists lived and worked their legacies become much more real for me and i feel more directly connected. or as one of my painting instructors told me, it will make me feel like more of a part of the “continuum of painting”, which is a good way to put it.

after the museum i took a personal scooter tour of amsterdam with tim. they call amsterdam the venice of the north because of its network of canals. it is a beautiful old city and easy to travel by public transit, scooter, or by walking although i think scooter is the most fun and now i want one for myself. we went to vondel park where there were hoards of beautiful teenagers and twenty-somethings strumming acoustic guitars, playing bongos, and sunbathing as the smell of marijuana floated on the hot air. amsterdam is usually cloudy and rainy but it was beautiful and mostly sunny for me all weekend.

then tim and i made the obligatory visit to the red light district and saw window after window of beautiful girls for sale. these girls are not the crack-heads we have back home in the dark corners of cincinnati at night. this was in broad daylight and the amsterdam prostitutes look like sports illustrated swimsuit models. they stand around looking sort of listless and bored but smiling slightly. many of them are paying their way through college. this is the oldest job in the world and in amsterdam it is quite profitable and well regulated. red light district is one of the safest neighborhoods in the town. the police do not want any trouble there and the pimps and girls don’t either, so regular patrols and lots of cameras limit theft and violent crimes to almost nothing. all of this seems quite surreal for a someone from a country founded by puritans. tim and i spent about twenty minutes walking through the neighborhood going over the regular moral arguments for and against prostitution or at least for its legalization which was a good way to keep our minds occupied and to avoid looking at the merchandise too much until we scurried back onto the scooter reminding ourselves of our beautiful girlfriends back home.

after heading back to the apartment and eating tim’s delicious thai curry for dinner (a recipe which i will take with me back home), we hopped on a train and headed downtown where i played an acoustic show at a place called the waterhole, a medium sized bar with a good stage in a lively area of town. the waterhole is made to look somewhat american or british. the interior is weathered wood and rock posters and random things nailed to the ceiling and the walls, creating an overall aesthetic that is part CBGB’s and part Friday’s restaurant. i felt very at home there. even the very british sound guy was cranky in the way that most american sound guys are until they hear you play and realize you are actually good. toward the middle of the set, more and more people began coming into the room where i was playing. by my last song, i began stepping off stage but the crowd applauded and wanted an encore, something i don’t think i have never experienced at a solo acoustic gig. for the set i played a cross section of solo material new and old, some july for kings songs. for the encore i played “futureflies” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “dancing in the dark”. i wanted to have something upbeat and very american in my back pocket just in case, and it is a good thing i did.

later that night after visiting a lot of tim’s cocoa cola clients we hit the local FEBO stand. FEBO is a chain of fast food restaurants in and around amsterdam which are basically giant vending machines with fried foods instead of candy and gum. you put your money in and you open a glass window the size of a shoebox and retrieve one of many fried snacks. i suppose there are actual human beings that are preparing these fried objects and putting them in the windows for your retrieval but i have no actual evidence of this. as usual i trusted the judgement of my local escorts and was handed a frikandel and a croquette. they were both quite good. only later did i discover that one of them may or may not have contained cow eyeball or horse-meat. they do eat horses in holland but only occasionally.

we all slept soundly that night feeling a bit like rock stars which is a good way to feel and a feeling i only get every once in a while these days.

the next morning we had breakfast which consisted of breads and toppings and ontbijtkoek, a dutch spice cake which i said is “pretty good but we would only eat it for christmas and stuff” although they eat it for breakfast all the time in holland. that day we went to the beach, a beach thomas found online that claimed to be the “finest beach in holland” and once we arrived and saw the sand and felt the sun and everyone seemed happy we figured that maybe it really was the finest or certainly among the finest. tim who is a food enthusiast and proud of the local dutch cuisine and also a bit of a sadist led us to a herring vendor. a dutch specialty is souced herring which is essentially salted raw fish served on a paper plate. with diced raw onions if you are lucky. traditionally, you take the fish by the tail, suspend it above your face and lower it into your mouth for a bite. repeat until it is gone. even grandmas eat it this way, as i learned from a sign on the side of the booth featuring a smiling grandma suspending a herring a few inches from her wrinkled mouth. but i had mine the sissy way with a toothpick and onions and it was kind of gross but i ate all of it as we all laughed at the ridiculousness of the dish and probably at the faces i was making as the slimy pieces touched my tongue. thomas abstained completely. tim ate his in the proper dutch manner and loved every second of it. i was impressed.

that night holland lost the world cup as i stood in an orange hat outside a bar with all the locals. it was an ugly match and a shame and that’s all i’m going to say about that.

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venice reborn and reborn, fellow studentes

everything they say about venice is true: you can only get there by water. you can only travel by water or by foot. the water is dirty and smells slightly. it is beautiful and enchanting and romantic.

but i did not understand venice at first. i have always loved water but never enjoyed crowds. the banks of the city are extremely crowded with tourists. i did the obligatory gondola ride with friends and it was nice and relaxing although way too short for 80 euros. we looked at souvenir store after store and got lost in the maze of streets and sidewalks and crowds. a shop another shop and another. finally i ran off by myself and stumbled upon the rialto bridge. standing on the rialto looking out at the boats moving in the grand canal i could finally appreciate the grandeur of the city. the boats rearrange themselves continually like a ballet or an exercise in visual composition coming up from the corners becoming diagonal, horizontal lines and shapes everywhere as the sun glimmers on the green water like an impressionist painting reborn and reborn with each moment. venice is a breathing work of art. after the rialto i ducked into a cool quiet alley and the thought of leaving so soon after i had arrived made me want to cry.

36851_10150219360655006_6195689_nthe city is a maze. two turns and you are lost. the streets are narrow and in some places it would be inaccurate to call them streets or sidewalks even. they are more like tunnels between buildings and you have to suck in or move your bag to let people pass the way you might on an airplane. in areas dense with shops there are tourists on every corner staring into very tiny maps. there are little photographs waiting to be made everywhere. i saw two crabs scurrying up an algae covered stone wall. the light from the sun plays in blue green streaks on the undersides of bridges. venice is truly magical, mystical even, but functional.

until a few days ago i had always kind of dismissed the venice as a novelty or curiosity because of its extreme uniqueness as a town on water. however, i know now that it was an extremely powerful city in its prime. the fact that it was on the sea and had canals for streets could be seen as an inconvenience now, but at the time the oddity must have provided its citizens with an unparalleled knowledge of boating and water navigation. they literally lived on the water and the city is strategically positioned in a natural mediterranean harbor. this enabled them to travel and to accept ships and seafarers and trade in a way that no other city could do in the quattrocento. spices, jewels, and things came through venice from the east, including the plague. the plague is said to have come into europe through venice on rats. it was especially devastating there.

although venice has traded its past imperial power for tourism, the symbols of its greatness remain and there seems to be plenty of money that still flows through there like the water. tourism keeps some of the ancient pastimes profitable including masquerade mask making and murano glass blowing. renaissance music still floats in the air and red flags with winged lions still fly. in venice, as with many other areas of italian cities, the clothes and florescent yellow nikon camera straps of tourists are the only indicators that it is 2010 and not 1500.

* * *

i am on a study abroad trip with other american art students and some italian culture/language students. my favorite people here are the people who like me are enamored with Italy and do not resist otherness and newness but go deeply into each moment. i have always been a pretty independent traveler, but when i am not exploring on my own, my usual companions and photography subjects are my roommates three incredibly talented artists and adventurers shohei, blake, and nathan, and two girls from tennessee hannah and alyssa, the classiest most well-mannered people on the trip. i have nominated myself the unofficial photographer for everyone and people have begun asking me to take pictures of them. sometimes including a person in these touristy locations is the only way to make the shots feel human, and instead of snapping a bunch of pictures of myself, it is nice to have so many kind beautiful people around who have become accustomed to my camera in their faces.

being with the guys reminds me a great deal of touring with JFK during the swim album era. there is a particular kind of free-spirited openness and rambunctiousness that comes with the early twenties. a lot of the time i just laugh with them and at them. our room often smells like sweat, crap, and tuna fish due to the frequency of all of those things happening. there is no fridge or microwave in the room, so we eat dry goods for one or two meals a day to save money. for a long time i ate only nutella sandwiches and apples and bananas. shohei has since discovered canned tuna and passed along this important knowledge. i added lettuce and tomatos. we are now all on the tuna sandich boat, and nathan has also recently joined the tomato and mayonaise boat. to avoid literally sweating tuna juice the way shohei does when he returns from his morning run, i alternate days between tuna and nutella. today i had a triple decker nutella sandwich, which admittedly was not very satisfying but i am no longer hungry. i have also discovered these incredible strawberry cracker biscuit things at the market. i am considering taking some home with me.

my roommates are conveniently my favorite artists on the trip. so we talk about art and draw and show each other our drawings and images of our work from back home. shohei’s art is very graphic and bold and precise. nathan has been working on his rennaisance cross-hatching with great success. blake’s figures are somewhere between. the four of us have a lot of common interests including mysticism and physics and art of course and we are always sharing our finds throughout the city.

i am running out of deodorant. if i didn’t know better i would assume that deodorant did not exist in Italy. in the morning, the narrow crowded streets of florence are full of the scent of perfume and cologne and flowers. the people smell amazing and wealthy and look amazing and wealthy. by noon, all of these same people smell like armpits. maybe i am being ethnocentric, but deodorant really seems like a product that would sell itself: for three euros, you can not smell like a armpit by noon!

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slow like a memory

it has been hot. today is the first cloudy day in over a week here in Florence. i walk and draw and walk in the sun, some days to the Santa Maria Del Fiore, or the Duomo for short, one of the grandest cathedrals in the world. it provides sanctuary from the daily bustle of tourism–a cacophony of languages negotiating an endless selection of trinkets emblazoned with “Firenze” but made in China–as well as shelter from the heat. Unlike my hotel, which proudly advertises its two-star status on its website and has no air conditioning, the sun does not penetrate the enormous stone walls of the Santa Maria Del Fiore. its coolness is an old coolness, since the 1400’s. As I learned from an old Italian businessman sitting on a stoop the other day, the church was built over a period of 200 years beginning in the 1200’s. It took so long that upon its completion, the first sections that were built had begun falling apart. It has been in a constant state of restoration for hundreds of years since, which is not uncommon for the innumerable magnificent buildings in Italy. The Duomo is an enormous, magestic space. I don’t exactly consider myself catholic or even christian anymore. But it is something that stays with you if you are raised on it. At the great risk of sounding exclusionary, I feel proud knowing that a structure as magnificent as the Santa Maria Del Fiore exists for people raised on the same spiritual principles and tenants that I was. With this in mind, Saturday I attended mass for the first time in a long while. The masses are usually in Italian or Latin but on saturdays there is an english service. A middle aged priest pontificated with an accent that reminded me somewhat of Dracula, but friendlier and more subtle. The Homily was about Luke 7, 36-50: a sinful woman weeps at Jesus’ feet and cleans them with her tears. He explains to Simon that the sinful woman is forgiven because she loves much. I thought about my encounter with a beggar woman at dinner the previous evening. She practically stole money from my hand while kissing my arm and attempting to sob dramatically. I had never been so furiously attacked by a beggar. The experience was awkward and sad and made me feel dirty partly because i have been so privileged and partly because I have been taught to distrust strangers but I think of Jesus.

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here are some drawings. i wish i could make drawings as fast as i can make pictures. i miss my paints. i brought my guitar but i have little time to play it. i am also keeping a gelato diary, and i am on a european scavenger hunt for centaurs and nuns on bicycles.

I went to the leaning tower of Pisa which yes is still leaning and yes I have a photo of myself pretending to hold it up. They fixed the tower in the 1990’s apparently, so that after some 800 years of trepidation, the people of pisa are no longer worried that it will fall over. I never was worried but I guess I was too young to worry when it would have been a rational thing to do and Pisa is so very far from Trenton Ohio where nothing looms so high. I tried to imagine Galileo conducting his famous gravity experiments from the top of the tilted side. Galileo was born in Pisa, which is a much sleepier town than I expected. However, the downtown was bustling with clothing stores and restaurants and different kinds of people conversing and sharing ideas. You have to walk through the downtown to get to the tower from the train station.

In American cities like Cincinnati and Middletown the downtown areas have been largely abandoned and allowed to descend into poverty and disrepair while money is poured into suburban outlet malls and plywood houses which will collapse or be leveled in a few decades. america is a new country and maybe that explains what seems to me to be an infatuation with novelty verses a reverence for history. here in Florence (Firenze), age and the gravitas of age is everywhere. it is in the stones of the street, the surfaces of the buildings, in the food, in the air, in the people. the pride the people feel for their old structures is unparalleled. It helps that as the capital of renaissance thought and art, there are a great amount of beautiful famous old structures to be celebrated.

On one of my first nights here I was walking with some friends by one of the bridges that crosses the Arno river. We were stopped by a man who saw us taking pictures. he looked to be about fifty and wore dress pants with sneakers. he asked where we were from and we told him america and he was quick to explain that “this bridge is important,” speaking of the Ponte Santa Trinita where we stood. then he pointed further down the river to the Ponte (bridge) Amerigo Vespucci, near our hotel and said matter of factly, “that bridge is not important”. the importance correlates with age as three of the five bridges were destroyed by Nazis. but the Ponte Santa Trinita was unharmed and very old and beautiful and important. It is the oldest elliptic arch bridge in the known universe. you could feel his pride. not an arrogant pride but a congenial pride, a happy pride, a willingness to share. he lived in an apartment near the bridge and was watching the sunset waiting on an old friend to meet him. When his friend arrived they walked away together at once and were very happy arm and arm and i wondered if that was a normal thing to do with an old male friend in italy or if they were gay but regardless i wished for a second I was him and could walk happily by the Arno river watching the sunset forever and ever.

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Yesterday I went back to the Santa Maria Del Fiore for inspiration, cool air, a place to sit in peace, and free entertainment in the form of Vespers, a Catholic evening prayers service consisting entirely of ancient Latin songs in Gregorian chant with organ accompaniment. during the day when there are no services the cathedrals here function more as museums of religion more than places of worship. in the afternoon people from all over the world come in in a steady stream with their heads tilted back looking awed, snapping bad flash photos of faraway frescoes while mumbling
despite “shh’s” from guards and signs that say “SILENCE”. Vespers in Gregorian chant provided a stark contrast for me, a very personal experience of the space as it was meant to be experienced.

About fifteen old men in purple robes hobbled up to the alter, all of their bald heads shining from the lanterns and hanging objects above. I smiled at once of the priests struggling to walk and he smiled back at me although I could tell it was even difficult for him to smile and it wasn’t the best smile but I forgave him for that of course. I was one of twenty attendees in a space that can hold thousands. maybe tens or hundreds of thousands if people could be poured in like holy water or stacked up like pyramidal cheerleaders or by using scaffolding. The frail voices of the old men echoed in the hallowed space, each sacred phrase lingering for over ten seconds after leaving the wrinkled lips of clergy and the wrinkled lips of the Italian women in the front pews of the small congregation who still remembered the words. not singing is also singing; silences become echoes, swirling enveloping refusing to forget or let go of the passing seconds. in this way time moves slow like a memory, slow as it must move for god.

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there is a group of about fifteen buzzing flies hovering in tight circles between the open hotel door and the check-in counter as if they were placed in the air one by one and given specific instructions by a movie director. the scene is typical: green plants with broad leaves, stucco walls and thick italian accents floating on the muggy air blowing in from the Mediterranean. i am on one of several bright red couches surrounded by very poor reproductions of french artworks. kandinsky, mondrian…
I am in Ostia, just outside of Rome, Italy.

i am here studying drawing and michelangelo for a month. in my few days so far I have read about galileo and the invention of astronomical telescopes while sitting on the beach, bought a great deal of pizza and gellato, enjoyed the worst possible service in restaurants, discovered new fruits, and have begun drawing a few sketches a day.

yesterday in Vatican city for the first time i saw famous works by Michelangelo and Raphael including the sistine chapel and the school of athens, one of my favorite paintings. my catholic upbringing and catholic schooling has given me a special sentimentalism concerning these churches and artworks which remind me at once of my youth, my family, and my more recent art school education. in a carmellite church in rome, i was momentarily overcome with spiritual emotion, which is i guess what is supposed to happen with a catholic or former catholic visits the holy see. a river entered my mind filling it like a flood with god, mary holding her son, the love of my own mother and my sisters and my family, jesus’s death, my father’s death, kneeling sitting standing, the sign of the cross in latin, art music science and heaven and human potential and in all the chaos of the universe there is always peace.

i have been thinking about the roman catholic church. despite the atrocities committed by the church throughout the ages, the fine arts would not have evolved in such an extraordinary way without the church’s patronage. there is a tendency to scorn at the church for its outrageous wealth (much of which was collected during the crusades through pillaging) and its extravagant collection of art. the truth is–and this didn’t really sink in until yesterday–that to create great art it takes and great amount of money. artists have to survive while they work, and i believe that the less an artist has to worry about making money, the greater the potential of his or her art becomes. that doesn’t justify the crusades. but by providing people like raphael and michelangelo with a public space in which to show their work, and the money to live, the church is responsible for advancing the art of painting, which developed at an exponential rate during the renaissance (if you prefer the french word, or the quattrocento, as it is called here in Italy). if you are looking for reasons to forgive the church (as i am since i’m in rome), maybe you can put that on the list.

the sistine chapel is about painting. it is about spirituality or religion or god only insofar as the idea of god is wrapped up in humanism–it is about the extraordinary potential of one individual human being. we are all divine. we are instruments of the divine and the fine arts are the ultimate expression of human potential and god. Michelangelo may have been a holy man and was painting biblical scenes, but first and foremost he was an artist and these paintings were about his ability to paint. Raphael too.

Michelangelo was working on the sistine chapel in one room of the vatican, while Raphael was working on the school of athens just down the hall. each room was private and they worked in secrecy. eventually raphael saw michelangelo’s sistine chapel in progress. Raphael was so struck by it that he put a portrait of michelangelo in his own nearly completed work, the school of athens, partly as an homage and partly as a jab. while the other philosophers and artists and thinkers are interacting with each other and sharing ideas, michelangelo is painted looking down and aloof, as he was seen as quite independent, to put it nicely. however, i believe michelangelo was the superior painter and sculptor of his day, and when one is the very best at something, i think it becomes difficult to relate to others in general, especially those working in the same field.

the idea of the “renaissance man” has always appealed to me. michelangelo was a sculptor, a painter, and a poet. i have begun to relate to him personally, which is a good thing since i will be studying him for a month. i’ve heard stories of him carving with such strength and voracity, clouds of marble dust flying up into his face and hair, and to produce such serene works! i love that push and pull between violent intensity and gentleness. i like to think my own art has that quality occasionally, especially my recent paintings. i live for attacking the surface or the song. not that i claim to be a michelangelo, but i know what it means to be an artist, to be full of ideas, to be progressive, to balance pride and ambition, to be poor, to be at the mercy of patrons or an audience, and to live with all these things artists live with and have always lived with. i can relate to these characters and envy them. oh to be a renaissance man during the renaissance.

i woke up this morning and had tea out on the porch as a brazillian man with a blue guitar strummed caetanno velloso songs. it was euphoric.

i have no ticket home and i don’t know where i’m going or what i’m doing after June 29th. if you are europe and want me to come play songs for you, i will do so for somewhere to sleep and the cost of a train ticket to your country. also if you are in the medici family please get ahold of me.
i am going to go eat yet another nutella sandwich, which is how i am living to save money. i couldn’t find american style peanut butter and figured what the hell. when in rome!
carpe diem

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