Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Nobody has ever described the place where I've just arrived."  Paul Theroux from the Pillars of Hercules. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

At the Start of the New Year

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky."


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Writing in Cafes

Friends often say they'd like to travel with me, but actually I am a boring travel companion. I don't really to do much of anything. I don't go sightseeing. I don't head out first thing in the morning to capture a sunrise or stand in line to be the first into Pompeii. I've never made it inside the Duomo in Florence.

What I do almost every morning when I am in the road is go to a cafe. And there I sit and write and watch the world go by. I sit with my journal and paints and perhaps a book I am reading or one I am writing. I edit, draw, and scribble. And I generate new material. Cafes are is in fact where I do most of my work. And especially when I am away.

I used to think that it was odd that I spent much of my travel time in this way until I read about Graham Greene. Every winter he went to Capri for a couple months and here he did all of his writing. Then he returned to England where he revised and tended to the business of his life, but he never actually wrote anything there.

And so, when I'm away, I search for the perfect cafe. It has to be one where they let you sit for hours. Here I'll work, not on a laptop, but by hand in my journal or on yellow pads. Clearly, especially in Europe, there is a tradition for this. Once when I was living in Rome, I met a screenwriter who told me to stop by his "office" one afternoon and talk about film. His office turned out to be a cafe off the Campo di Fiori where he sat all day, sipping espresso, mineral water, and, later in the day, compari and soda.

I have taken to finding my own office wherever I go. In Vienna recently it was the Cafe Eiles. Truly one of my favorite cafes in the world. One of those Old World places where men and women come and take one of the many newspapers available on those long wooden sticks (I don't know what these sticks are called. Is there a word for them?).

At the Eiles my husband, Larry, and I would find a table that didn't get too much sun, but was light enough. We'd ordered a Viennese breakfast of coffee with whipped cream and bread and butter and jam. And there we'd sit. Hour after hour. The drawing from my journal here is a page I made at the Eiles. In Florence it was the Gilli at the Piazza della Republica. In every city I find one of these cafes and make it my own.

Except Paris. I know this will sound strange, but in Paris I have had a difficult time finding just the right spot. The tables are too small and too close together and, despite France's literary history, the waiters actually don't seem very patient with a writer taking up a table all day long. What's the point of sitting and reflecting if someone is mad because he cannot turn his table around.

In New York, Brooklyn, near my home I have several haunts and this summer in Spain they sprouted up everywhere. Even a short walk from our house in a little square that served wonderful coffee and tapas in the morning and poured effervescent glasses of the Basque wine called txacolin in the early evening. Apparently, I read recently, Americans are reluctant to start and finish their day at the same establishment.

Hence we have our coffee shops for the early part of the day and bars for the evening. But in Europe these places are contained in one so you can literally begin and end your day in the same spot and I must admit I have done this more times than I can remember. I can see why writers have always been drawn to cafes. Life goes on around you, yet somehow you can be isolated and contained. No one bothers you and yet you are never really alone.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ithaca - In Honor of Cavafy's 150th Anniversary


When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Haste and Waste

Yesterday I was standing in line at JFK en route to the Canary Islands.  I was excited by the trip and had lett myself plenty of time but still the lines were long and slow...and annoying.  So I did what most people were doing.  Fanned myself with my boarding pass, checked my phone, sighed heavily.

Then I noticed a girl behind me.  She's 20 something.  Maybe 30.  In a yellow sundress and flipflops, blond hair and she's definitely impatient.  I can't tell if that's just the way she is or if she might miss her flight to Paris but she keeps jockeying for position and making very exasperated sighs.

At last I reach the security line.  The couple ahead of me is slow in taking off their belts and shoes and then they push on.  As I reach for two plastic bins, she grabs two others and jumps in front of me.  Now I don't mind if someone says excuse me but I'm going to miss my plane or just sorry, in a hurry.  But nothing.  She just plunked herself in front of me.

I read about a study recently that said that most people would prefer to wait in a slower line than in a line that moves faster but someone cuts in front of them.  In other words we prefer a wait to rudeness and that sense of entitlement.  Well I'm on the side of the line waiters. But I decided to shake it off.  Her problem; not mine.

As I was preparing to go through the machine, she was huffing and puffing on the other end.,  She had rushed through security without pushing her things on to the belt which I was left to do for her.,
I saw her grab her things and rush off as I gathered up my mine.

The couple ahead of me were still dealing with their belts and shoes and I had a slight wait, but when I went to take my belongings I saw that a blue backpack was left on the belt.  I asked the couple if it was theirs and they just shook their heads.  "Must've belonged to the girl who was in such a hurry," they replied as she had pushed past them as well.

Now I'm not going to lie.  Did I gloat a little?  Did I have a small satisfied feeling rush through me.  I did.  You see, "excuse me" and "thank you" are very high on my list of human exchanges.  But I also thought about what a bad day or flight or year that girl was going to have.  I recalled the time I'd left a bag with my journal, address book, and grandma's earrings in the back of a Chicago cab.  Or my husband Larry's story of being robbed of his backpack and all of his film the day he returned to Canada after a year of travel. Let's face it.  As travelers these are moments we never forget.

Those moments.  When we lose something.  We forget something.  The fact is had she been nicer, had she not shoved ahead, we might have caught up with her.  We might have called out and she wouldn't have forgotten her backpack. 

I don't know the end of this story.  I don't know what was in her bag, but I'm sure it contained things that mattered to her. I don't know if she remembered and went running back.  If she missed her flight.  If she got on the plane and in a moment like the one in Home Alone when the mother suddenly remembers the child they forgot to bring.  I don't know.  I'll never know. 

Travel can be disorienting.  Sometimes we are in a hurry.  But excuse me can go a long way. 

It might mean the difference between someone helping you out or just watching as you rush off to wherever it was that you had to get to.  I feel sorry for her.  I think about her.  I wonder what was in that backpack and if she lost it or got it back.

But maybe this will make her pause the next time.  Maybe she'll even say excuse me as she rushes ahead on the line.