The Vermilion Coast

Photography, Poetry, and Reviews

Category: Travels

Venice (1)

Early morning in Venice was quiet, only the sound of distant boat motors and water from the canal lapping up onto the walkway.  The walls in Ariel’s grandmother’s apartment stretched well above our heads alongside baroque white pillars, meeting an ornately patterned white ceiling.  All the air in the rooms seemed to drown out the sounds drifting in from outside.  Even the red marble floors felt soft.  The air was so hot at night that we both slept with little on and only a sheet to keep the mosquitoes off.  A little before nine in the morning the heat would suddenly subside, and it would seem like the perfect time to fall asleep were it not for having lain in bed for eight hours already.  I would wake up with the light from the broad bedroom window and wander over to the kitchen.  The kitchen held few things, but they were necessary ones: coffee (and an espresso pot); fruit juice and amaretti cookies.  Ariel would wake up about the same time and had our coffee and juice in silence in the kitchen.  At some point while we ate his grandmother wandered in.   She would say good morning and stand or sit, admiring Ariel, and then ask what seemed like a series of questions (they were all in Italian) along the lines of “Well, what are you going to do today?” and then make a series of observations along the lines of “Oh, no no no, you have to go the such and such.”  She was short and thin, with short, curly hair and wore tasteful, long dresses.  She smoked about a pack of Virginia Slims a day, still at eighty, just as she had when she was eighteen.  She moved slowly, methodically and elegantly around the house and never in my life have a seen another person so gracefully and delicately occupy a space.  One morning after she had presumably asked us what we would do that day and Ariel had mentioned the name of a museum or church and then she had recommended the beach at Torichello or something like that she told a short story that made Ariel laugh so hard he almost fell out of his chair and nearly made him spill all of his espresso.  Apparently the subject of tourists had come up in their conversation and she said that she (and all of the older women she knows) couldn’t stand “backpackers.”  When Ariel asked why she replied that they never look where they are going along the canals, and they have a habit of suddenly turning to take a photograph of a building and knocking an old woman into the water.

Our first night in Venice we met up with a friend of mine, Lizzie, who had already been in the city.  She met us at the Piazzale Roma when we arrived from the airport and walked us back to Ariel’s grandmother’s in the the Canareggio where we dropped our things and Ariel spoke to his grandmother as Lizzie and I sat with them.  It was an odd scene, to say the least.  Each of us was a stranger to at least one, if not two of the others there.  Only Ariel spoke Italian and English.  The last time I had seen Lizzie we were a couple.  The last time we had spoken on the phone she had hung up on me, crying.  The last time Ariel had seen his grandmother he was much younger.  She was ratehr formal, but warm and throughout her first conversation with Ariel- whom she had not seen in years, and since she passed only a few months after we ourselves left Venice, and would never again see after that visit- her eyes were wet with tears.

The Santa Maria della Miracoli church embodies the rhythm, sometimes tense, sometimes fluid, of the city of Venice.  The building is small but forceful, constructed, in a residential section of the Canareggio, alongside narrow canals, almost literally an island onto itself.  Varied colors of marble ornamenting the outside of the church makes the building appear to be larger than it actually is.  The structure is simple, rectangular, with a rectangular apse and marble walls.  This simplicity reveals minute, subtle but dramatic flourishes; the marble slabs themselves are a natural wonder, reflecting with some irony the lines created by water surrounding them.  The reliefs carved into the pillars at the entrance present a surreal version of the beginning of the book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve have porpoise-like tails curving around infinitely entwined flora.  The ceiling is divided into squares, in each of which are portraits of Saints.  Two small, almost imperceptible busts appear facing each other at the top of the stairs leading to the apse.  Upon walking up the stairs we recognized immediately the Assumption: Archangel Gabriel to the right, and Mary to the left.  But despite the vitality of the colors, the lush imagery and the central image of Mary’s conception, and owning to the particular rectangular structure of the building, from afar the church appears unmistakably to be a giant tomb.

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Rules for the Traveling Gentleman (#2)

2.) Travel comfortably.

J. Krishnamurti (I’m paraphrasing a friend of mine) said that things cannot truly be learned by fear of punishment or anticipation of reward.  A similar maxim could be applied to traveling: traveling can not be done amidst chaos.  If you cannot make the trip without fretting over finances, or without sleeping comfortably, or without eating well: don’t do it.  If you have too many events on your schedule to pause to ruminate later over one over a coffee or drink for a good long while: don’t do it.  If the transportation is too hectic to allow you to read a whole newspaper, which you should always do when traveling: don’t do it.  It is that simple.

Traveling is a kind of translation.  You are a person, of your own origin and culture, specific all the way down to the very place in which you were born, in which you were raised.  You have, in a sense, your own language of existence.  This language derives from your history, from your family and friends.  When you travel you confront a different language.  There before you is a different language of existence, made manifest in people, habits, architecture, food, literature, music and so on.  If you are to understand the language before you, translation must occur.  But what kind?  How?  A small simile from Walter Benjamin evokes the style of translation that ought to occur when traveling.  “Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity, a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.”

Where others saw a tension between fidelity and freedom, Benjamin saw the potential for harmony.  So too the traveler must reconcile these two forces: do I stick to the purest interpretation of this form of existence (e.g. these people only eat this sort of thing at this particular time; there exists a well defined rhythm of life here, so I should not change it), or do I wander aimlessly with open eyes and ears, letting things happen to me.  (More along the lines of this last sentence will appear in the next section).  The traveler must find harmony, recognizing that tension only comes from severe discomfort with his own language of existence, and also that harmony cannot arise from hunger, lack of sleep, anxiety, or the misleading idea that complication is the same as profundity.

Some Travels in Europe: Barcelona and Collioure (1)

I have tried to travel sincerely and thoroughly, and I believe that I have been in a few places worthy at least of some small amount of descriptive prose.  Soon I will travel to Italy and Greece, and I have high hopes of keeping a thorough journal and taking photographs, which I will ultimately turn into entries on this site.  For now, however, I would like to go through a few places that have touched me.  Some are noteworthy for their food, some for a particular festival or season.  Some are noteworthy only for a person who was there at the time.

Good travel writing is either good on account of the expression of the experience of traveling (which is universal), or it is good because it touches on the heart of the particular place visited (which is not really traveling at all: rather it is living).  I imagine that great travel writing contains something of both.

Collioure is that it is not properly Collioure, it is Cotlliure, which is to say that it is not properly French: it is Catalan.    But, then again, neither is Perpignan (or, rather Perpinya), it’s parent city to the North, properly French.  But then again, what is properly French in the south of France?  All along the southern border and then the Mediteranean coast languages and cultures overflow into French soil.  Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan and, more recently, the Maghreb all pour in through books, songs, foods and immigrants.  Further complicating this medley are the thousands of tourists who visit the region, which has the odd effect of simultaneously suppressing and augmenting these particular identities.  Thus, we may find that we know more about the Catalan from their desire to assert their identity, but less about them from their equally ardent desire to protect the integrity of that identity.  Moreover, and to complicate matters further, we may discover quite a bit more about some parts of the Catalan identity (say, for example, political) than others (aesthetic, culinary).  Typically, for most American and European travelers, this deep and pervasive tension is resolved through Sangria.

Those, however, who dig a bit deeper will find resolution in a cold glass of Cava (in Barcelona, and all along the Costa Brava) or Muscat (in and around Perpignan) or Banyuls (in and around Collioure, Argles sur Mer and Cadaques).  Cava is a very dry, very light sparkling white wine which, to quote a film, “almost takes the sting out of being occupied.”  Cava, which is best at the bar-I mean literally at the bar of the bar-across the small plaza in front of the Santa Maria del Mer Cathedral, goes well with the abstract expressionism you find in the galleries of Calle Moncata, which is on the opposite side of the Cathedral.  The Museu Picasso is further up the street, which I mention only because “Las Meninas” goes fantastically well with Cava, a whole bottle of Cava, which you can’t drink inside the museum but you can drink, figuratively speaking, though the galleries on the walk from the Cathedral there.

No one ever really drinks Muscat in Perpignan, or really anywhere else around, unless there is a very strong cheese to be eaten.  And then, one only has a very strong cheese at home.  Rivesaltes, which is the best place for Muscat, has nothing to offer by way of cultural or culinary entertainment, and so one must simply purchase a bottle there and drink it elsewhere.

Now, Collioure is a very different matter entirely.  The Banyuls is a spicy, sweet wine, nearly purple in color and generally of a higher alcohol content (16-18%).  Banyuls can be drank in a restaurant, at home or on the beach.  While most are best accompanied by fruits and chocolate, some are dry enough and light enough to be eaten with meat or fowl, but it entirely depends on the age and color and winery.  If one drinks too old of a Banyuls too early in the evening, it is entirely possible to miss the vibrant scenery and unique variety of of shades of blues engulfing the town on all sides by sky and sea.  In particular, the contrast between the bright pastels of the narrow houses and the brilliant blues and whites of the sky and clouds and waves would be utterly lost with too much Banyuls or too young of a Banyuls or by choosing to drink too nice of a bottle on the sand in the sun.  One must consider that the artists who came to Collioure, unlike those who came to Bacelona, came to represent the landscape surrounding them; the wide promenade covered completely with green and yellow covered wicker chairs; the nearly hidden church of Nostra Senyora dels Angels with it’s stout, beige tower; the steep, bright green hills shooting up to the south of the town set against the tall, round hills to the north, terraced with vines from which they make all the Banyuls.  Matisse, Derrain, Braque and Picasso all came to Collioure at one point.  Some stayed for years on end and all together there are hundreds of landscapes that have been painted in and of the town.  Thus, it would be an injustice to this tradition of vibrant, vital representation to color it all over prematurely with wine.  They were Fauvists, after all.  Even Braque surrendered his cubism to capture the bright sparkling light of Collioure.