A paradoxical land of brilliant greens and dusty browns

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We are in Florida where I sleep soundly and sense a kinship with my surroundings. We make a day trip to St. Augustine, the oldest port in the U.S. and the oldest occupied established European city, a step back into time. It feels natural to me, being on a peninsula and a colonial city where aspects of culture live on in captivating stately buildings founded by Spaniards. Late at night, we arrive back at my brother’s and sister-in law’s home where I dream of my paternal grandmother.

We have come to the annual fundraiser for Temple Beth Shalom, the synagogue of my brother-in-law and where both brothers will perform in a concert held in a fine art museum.

My husband’s humor goes beyond telling jokes. On stage, he does quite a bit of mugging, an actor’s way of playing up the fun and comedy of a show. He takes the liberty of improvising and embellishing Yiddish songs. As a consummate reactor, his large expressive blue eyes roll as he flips from one character to another. Sometimes, with a nervous mannerism, he reminds me of actor Gene Wilder, delivering a mad spark that explodes into manic hilarity. But it’s his Yiddish that hurls me onto the floor, although I don’t understand a word, it sounds like he’s either coughing or spitting in your face, and the audience cackles from his animation.

When he performs Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, he is praised for his versatility, and with his wide range—from tenor to baritone—his voice projects a strong resonance and a clear, ringing tone. It is clear to me why he is admired for his stage presence, musicality, and the impressive numbers that he masters.  His voice deep, triumphant from his standing ovation,when the formal concert comes to an end, the audience crowds around the stage, demanding more.

He pleases them with an encore from Porgy and Bess.
“…Your daddy’s rich
and your mamma’s good lookin,
so hush little baby don’t you cry…”

His liquid voice captures the hearts of everyone present. He is the highlight of the concert—and his voice has no equal.

He travels with me because he understands geographical variety stimulates and nourishes my soul. Before we go home, I yearn for a sun-kissed shoreline. We will be celebrating our wedding anniversary in a few days, and, wanting old and cosmopolitan, we fly to Puerto Rico. There is a slower pace of life, where nature lovers like us can soak up centuries of cultural legacies.

Besides the magnificent Spanish Colonial architecture and picturesque plazas, it’s blessed with a tropical rainforest, El Yunque. The sounds of El Yunque comes from an occasional wild parrot. It is quiet, serene, cool, with a variety of plants and trees that have managed to grow along a pristine hiking trail. A mist of fog surrounds its highest point with a waterfall cascading at the bottom. Its beauty is overwhelming.

The next day we head to El Morro, a fortress with a the dramatic Castle of San Cristobal perched at its summit. I am looking out at the Caribbean, taking photos, and reading historical facts in my city guide, all of which triggers a snippet of my memory.

Back in the city, one of my favorite pastimes is photographing the tropical fruit-colored facades, wrought iron balconies, European archways, and cobblestone streets.

We sit in a neighborhood restaurant after ordering tapas. Through the window, I can see the lights hitting the palm trees and the pale orange facade of Old San Juan. This is the ideal restaurant, surrounded by clusters of high-rise buildings and the people going about their lives. It prompts me to reflect on my ancestors, their history, their accomplishments, and how imperative it is I continue the propagation of who they were to understand who I am.

I recall the dream of my grandmamma. My father was her change-of-life baby. Once when I was drawing her portrait I asked her, “Cuantos anos tienes, Grandmamma?” How old are you, Grandmamma? She replied, “Eso es un secreto de mujer, que no se pregunta,” that’s a woman’s secret and a question not to be asked. “Pero como eres nina te dire que soy major que tu.” But since you’re a child, I’ll tell you—I’m older than you. When I showed her my artwork, I captivate her age by drawing deep laugh wrinkles. She found it humorous.

In her day, she had been a fiery redhead who, no doubt, had been the center of attention with her green eyes. She had  high cheekbones, thick eyebrows and a generous nose. A very slender woman, there was nothing frail about her—she had an air of aristocracy, and her finest attribute was her perfect posture. Whether sitting, walking, or dozing, she stood straight at all times—offset by a thin, elongated neck. Her long slender hands that once had been lovely were crooked from acute arthritis, but she never complained.

As a nine year-old my parents purchased new bedroom furniture for me—French Provincial. The set included two twin beds because my grandmamma and I would be sharing a bedroom. Seeing the room for the first time, she stood at the door and looked around. “Tu tienes un espiritu ordenado. Mientras el sitio de tu hermano es un monton de libros abiertos, ropas reveladas y una cama sin hacer, la tuya es un santuario de orden.” You have an orderly spirit. Where your brother’s room is a mass of open books, unfolded clothes and an unmade bed, yours is a shrine to order, she remarks. My straight-backed dolls are neatly corralled and my dressing table with miniatures suggest an even space where one could assume they are awaiting orders. Feeling offended that I hadn’t anything to offer other than organization, “Tengo algunas cosas que son mías, solamente mias.” I have some things that are mine, only mine, I pointed out, referring to the secrets in my lockable diary that I had stashed in a tin box under my bed.

A few days later, my father came home with a large gift basket given to him by a client. In it were cheeses, olives, salami, and a large jar of pickles. I love the sour pickle juice. It seems that every time my hand is in the jar, my grandmamma was watching me. The late afternoon snack spoiled my appetite for dinner.

My father had given me a lesson in addressing her with the formal pronoun ‘usted’ versus the familiar ‘tu.’ “Grandmamma, porqué usted tiene nariz tan largo?” Grandmamma, why do you have such a long nose?

“Yo también comi muchas salmueras cuando era una muchacha.” I ate too many pickles when I was a girl, she says with a straight face. Gullible, I stopped eating pickles, altogether.

Smetteneh is sour cream in Yiddish, but Prague is far from sour

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After attending the Frankfurt book fair, http://www.buchmesse.de/en/fbf which is actually a publishing convention minus writers, I settle in to begin a new chapter

Me standing the balcony of my Berlin home

of my life in Berlin. Taking my photos to be developed, I meet a new friend, Karen, ironically I know two other Karens.  I often meet people with the same name in threes.

Unlike the other two gals who are German, this Karen is American, originally from Washington, D.C. She has come to live in Berlin with her husband, a French Canadian cinematographer.

That same afternoon we go for coffee and she spontaneously invites me to her home that weekend.

On Saturday I arrive with apple strudel and my favorite vanilla ice cream, by Movenpik.

There is an easy flow between us, by the end of the night her question puzzles me, “You know a lot of Jews don’t you?”

Remembering Mrs. Rubin, my friend Beverly’s mother from adolescence, “they have been instrumental in my life.”

“I thought so, there is something about you that is soulful, I see it in your eyes, a depth of some kind. Next week is Yom Kippur; my husband will be out of town, he’s gone for stretches of time. He’s not Jewish and won’t participate in Jewish things. I’d like to go to a synagogue in the East- will you join me for services?”

“I’ve only been to a Passover Seder. What do I need to know or do?”

“You don’t have to do a thing. It begins with Kol Nidre, the night before is Yom Kippur, it ushers in the holiest day of the year, traditionally a fast day. We begin with dinner. Be here by 4:30, we’ll eat and services start at 6.

For dinner, Karen serves chicken and makes a blessing over the wine.

We enter a cavernous red brick synagogue on Rykestrasse in a courtyard and I’m amazed that the Temple is still intact with what seems to be much of the original exterior. Inside, I look around-only a handful of humble worshipers. How could they stay and why after having survived hunger, treachery and disease? Were they left behind, forgotten?

“How was this synagogue not destroyed?”

“It survived Kristallnacht http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristallnacht through an act of fortune-it’s surrounded by housing.”

The ark and bimah are tremendous, ornate marble columns and balustrades. A deep balcony, swathed in stone and supported by low Romanesque pedestals, runs along the flanks of the building. There’s also a choir loft and an organ. “This Temple resembles a church.”

Karen looks at me and says “Jews had to identify with the culture, as a way to survive.”

“So what’s the significance of this day?”

“All vows, obligations and oaths are absolved and forgiven.”

“Between who?”

“Individuals and God.”

If it’s Jewish to make a deal with God, I’ve been doing that kind of bargaining my whole life. That night I go home and journal the experience feeling as if I have lifted and mended a piece of my heart.

Two months later vacationing with Werner in Prague it’s the eve of the New Year. We walk through the cobblestone streets of the historic Old Town Square and head for the famous Charles Bridge. The charming streets are lined with quaint old buildings straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. Most would believe that Paris is the most beautiful city in Europe but I can’t agree after having seen Prague. Both cities share great architecture, character, layers of history and a river that divides the city. At night Prague is illuminated in golden hues that give the Art Nouveau buildings a beautiful cast that make me feel I’m walking on a stage set. I also don’t see a speck of trash or graffiti. Even the pavements are decorated with colored mosaics.

After a long morning of walking and almost hobbling from the bumpy cobblestone streets, we go to lunch and encounter crowds of Italian tourists. The waiter comes over to greet us and after a few minutes of placing our order, he comes back to tell us that the trout I ordered is no longer available.

“Fine, do you have any soup” I ask.

“Certainly, Mademoiselle” he says in very clear English.

“I’ll take a cabbage soup, but please make sure it has plenty of vegetables,” I add.

Ten minutes later, he appears again. I begin to think; now what?

“My regrets, we are out of cabbage soup.”

“In that case, I’ll take chicken noodle.”

“We haven’t any chicken today,” he says.

Knowing the Czechs have the same fatty rich diet as the Germans do which lacks vegetables, I order what I believe may be stocked in their pantries.

“I’ll have potato soup.”

“We are out of potatoes.”

In my mind, this is beginning to sound like the I Love Lucy episode where she, Ricky and the Mertzes on their road trip to California have a hard time finding accommodations. They locate an Inn only to find one selection on the menu.

“What do you have?”

“We have cheese, ham and bread” he says.

Werner sensing my frustration and knowing that I don’t eat ham says, “A cheese sandwich for the lady and a ham sandwich for me.”

After lunch, we find a shop with records, books, and postcards. The man behind the counter is dressed in a sport jacket with suede patch elbows like a Professor taking notes behind the counter. Werner speaks to him in English and the man shakes his head, indicating he doesn’t understand. He tries German– still no luck. I speak to the shopkeeper in my broken German and we have a conversation, albeit a brief one, we understand each other perfectly!

“What did he say” asks Werner.

“He said we could look around if we wish, the maps are in the back of the store.”

The shopkeeper disappears into the stacks.  When he is gone, I look through a pile of CD’s in a box on the counter. I choose one by Smetana.

The shopkeeper returns and unfolds a map before me of Prague, he begins to circle areas, “You find interesting,” he says in broken English.

Werner and I leave and locate a cozy bench to study our map. We hear music being spilled out from a nearby open window, a piano is being tuned.

Prague is a city in which classical music is the core of all life, untangling the emotions, like the air one breathes, it’s to be inhaled, and it is– either in chamber music by way of the city’s churches or street musicians or simply by what we’re listening to now, someone tuning and then playing a piano.

We head pass Josefov Street, the Jewish Quarter, a neighborhood of the past, to visit the sixteenth century Pinkas Synagogue http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/apinkas.htm but our timing is off, a man with a lined face and shriveled body meets us at the gate “Geschlossen.”

“The names of the Bohemians killed in the camps are painted on the walls” I tell Werner. Curious, he replies “we should try to see it, we’ll come back.”

That night we go to see a cabaret, it promises food and wine and a glass of champagne to ring in the New Year. We are served an open face sandwich as an entrée. I look down at my plate– biggest difference between Paris and Prague– in Paris you dine, in Prague you don’t. No doubt, I will live on stale cheese sandwiches during my stay.

Veni, Vidi, Vici-I came, I saw, I conquered

There’s something about visiting a city again that brings on a moment of anxiety. I hadn’t been to Rome in a decade, would the city be as I remembered it?

My memories of it were like looking at an old Scrapbook. The enormous city had never revealed itself to me as a real place. Grand and ornate, I never got a sense of people’s lives, or how they lived, the rhythm of a city remained to me, a story untold. Maybe it’s because the city was developed by the Roman Empire, it had to be  spectacular, but the sprawling city with its impressive architecture with huge majestic squares leaves me feeling like another number, an outsider. I prefer Venice, it’s manageable, and its influences of art, architecture and literature I relate to.  

The traffic in Rome is like that of a juggler- constant movement. Inside a cab, the driver makes loops, it’s making me car sick and dizzy. I yell out to the driver, “Are you going in circles, to make money off me?”

Going to museums and churches with many people never appealed to me but when in Rome, it’s the only way to admire the neoclassical architecture and opulent ancient villas. Entering the Vatican, I am in a reverie, how can religious art uphold love while there is so much hypocrisy, a guise for having transgressed, or was it only man that transgressed by committing acts of violence in the name of the church? It raises more questions in my mind than I can answer.

David, our guide calls me, he’s flipping his pamphlet and crooking his finger motioning for me to follow him to another room. After we step inside, he says, “These are paintings you won’t want to forget.”

I wrinkle up my nose. “But, I don’t think we can take photographs here.”

“Right. You’ll have to visit the bookshop for a book or image to remember the trip.”

“Actually last time I was here, I bought the creation of Adam on cloth, where God gives Adam the spark of life as cherubs look on. The original is in the first room, we missed it earlier.” Now I’m being the guide, “Shall we go see it?”

He smiles, as if his inner cupid is released – a blaze of adoration coming over him.

“Okay.”

David takes off his glasses and wipes them clean. “You have taught me more than any tour guest I’ve ever known.”

I perk up. “Really!” I’m flattered and at the same time shy to acknowledge this facet of myself. I change the subject, “Where to now?”

“We have ten minutes before we go back to the bus and head out for lunch.”

It was hard to tear myself away from the perfection of the Sistine Chapel- but the lure of places yet to be visited drove me forward. I didn’t want to miss anything since I had no idea when I’d be back. In the gift shop, when it came to buying Art, I knew I couldn’t carry much on the plane. I tried to commit to memory every painting. Later that day at the Borghese Gallery and Museum, I make my purchase- a white marble of a woman seated, partially nude, the favorite and scandalous sister of Napoleon, titled Venus Victrix by Antonio Canova.

Days later, I arrive in Florence, I decide to focus this trip on photographing locals and architecture, medieval and gothic. I walk the cobblestone streets pass the Renaissance piazzas with rustling pigeons to see Michelangelo’s David and il Duomo. My eyes scan the area looking for a way to take photos of the masterpiece without people in the background. It wasn’t possible. To my amazement, a man approaches me, “Would you like me to clear some area for you?” he asks in a jokingly manner.

“Sure,” I say. “I’m ready.”

Actually, his comment brought me back down to earth. My sense of wanting everything so, is often hard to live with, even for me. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine for my exactness. More often, what develops if someone tries to help me achieve my perfectionism, is to no avail. Within the crowd, there are children and suddenly a couple kisses so I snap immediately.

“There was such fearlessness in your face when you took that,” he remarks.

I add, “I hope it turns out to be like a Robert Doisneau, with a couple in love, while children play.” As I walk the city streets, I think of why color prints could never approach the beauty of black and white.

After lunch of Tuscan crostini, a chicken liver paste on unseasoned bread I peer into shop windows and see some amazing antique jewelry, each time I look at it as if to question, shall I go in? I come across a high-end boutique that catches my eye where I try on a slim fitting black gabardine wool trumpet skirt. When I come out of the dressing room, all the merchant can say is, “Bella.”

The next day after visiting the Uffizi Gallery while carrying my Botticelli print of the Birth of Venus in hand, I come across a vintage store where I purchase an off- white silk poet’s blouse to compliment the skirt. I accessorize the ensemble with black high heel lace-up boots, a turquoise and silver chain belt and black cashmere shawl– this is about to become one of all-time favorite winter outfits.

After a few days with no tangible destination and no goal to my wandering, I want to go home. At the Santa Maria Novella railway station, I step outside as rain begins to fall. In the distance a mist is gathering. Slowly the white vapor moves like a ghostly presence and I watch the vaporetto penetrate the misty curtain and disappear. Soaking wet, why this moment should make me as happy as it did is a mystery to me. Was I to accept this as an unexpected windfall, with complete pleasure and without questioning its origins? As if to answer, the church bells in the Square begin to sound their chimes, telling me: Yes, yes, yes.

Fortresses and Castles that time forgot

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The minute I step off the train, I hear a saxophone coming from a street musician. Lisbon breezes reminds me of San Francisco, but it is prettier, all the narrow streets where worn flights of steps carry one from one level to another beside the clear blue ocean.

Checking-in at the 18th century hostel with old lamps hanging on each side of the portico, I walk in onto slick marble floors the large reception area looks sterile, the smell of pine cleaner pricks my nose. A crowd gathers at the reception desk discussing the sites. A German woman looks at my embroidered blouse and assumes I am Portuguese asking me where one can get traditional craftwork. “It’s store bought, and I have no idea where you can buy anything embroidered in Lisbon, but I can share a fact or two about the city, if you’d like.”

“Naturally.”

“The city is built on seven hills overlooking the River Tagus so it has many faces. It has leafy avenues, and narrow streets. The Portuguese claim to have as many fish off their coast as there are days on the calendar. And there is Fado music- which lies at the heart of the Portuguese soul.”

It is as if my last statement wins over the entire group, the young woman extends her hand, and says, “I’m Renate.” After handshakes someone says, “Let’s go eat” and I am invited, the sextuplet of this merry group.

We have a seafood lunch in a turquoise painted inexpensive restaurant situated at the top steep streets in the Barrio Alto, people stand both at the bar and at the door waiting for a table. The interior contains rustic artifacts and lots of original art and photographs. The menu offers several preparations of codfish, including one that becomes a favorite, bacalhau, a fried codfish with port wine and cognac.

After lunch we discover the city’s rich architecture; Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Modern and Post Modern. By evening, we head back to the Bairro Alto.

The Barrio Alto is a place where many shop the boutiques by day, but at night, it becomes a trendy place to people watch and meet friends. As we sit down in what appears to be a club, actually is a Fado house, a 17th vaulted cellar of a house that survived the earthquake, I take a load off my feet. I order soup for dinner and ask the waiter, “What time does the floor show come on?” “Midnight” he responds. “Our curfew is 12:30″, says Renate. “So we’ll listen a bit then go.” I begin a conversation with the Swedish man sitting next to me.

A female vocalist comes on with two accompanists, one plays Portuguese guitar the other classical guitar. She sings a song about nostalgia;
“Tem este meu coração” … my heart has this …

Dressed all in black with a shawl draped over her shoulders, her voice is melodic but earthy. By 12:10, emotionally tangled into the music, when everyone gets up to leave the Swede and I stay behind.

Ten minutes later, we make our exit grab a cab arriving at the hostel at 12:35 to closed doors.

My fists hammer at the huge double wooden doors but no answer. The Swede tries a couple of rounds. After 30 minutes it’s useless, they have enforced the curfew and are trying to teach us a lesson. I’m fuming beyond mania, in spite I’m going to break a window and cause the biggest raucous ever! I take off my shoe throw it at the second floor window and it is stuck in a tree! Shaking the massive Oak tree nothing moves, “I’ve lost my shoe!” I yell in a panic.
The Swede frustrated, “What a mess you got us into!!
“What are you Laurel talking to Hardy?”
His face is blank.
“Forget it, a cultural remark,” I add. “This is no time to point fingers.” “Help” I yell out wanting someone to come unlock the door.
I take off my other shoe use the heel to bang on the door, and the buckle busts.
An hour goes by. “Hey, lets’ both scream Fire, ” I suggest.
We try it- not a peep from the other side.
Hearing footsteps from around the corner, I hobble on my broken shoe to the end of the block recognizing a man I saw earlier inside the hostel. “Hey, you over there, stop!”
He walks in my direction.
“We got locked out; can you get us back in?”
He removes his cigarette from between his lips. “I work in the kitchen. I don’t have a key, but if you need a place to sleep, I know a lady with a house on the next street- but she’ll charge you” he says.
My eyelids are so heavy that I will agree to almost anything. “Let’s go” I call and the Swede comes running.
While ascending the flight of stairs, through the skylight I see stains on the steps that feed my imagination—could this be spilled blood of a body that tumbled to its death. A painted lady answers the door, with a red light glowing behind her, “I’m out of here” and speed away.
The Swede follows me, “We could have slept there.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re a man, besides I’m the one whose doing all the thinking!”
His ego now shot, he leaves.

I recall earlier having visually mapped out the area. The Avenida de Libertad is flanked by major hotels. Inside I tell the clerk my story. “Without a passport, you can’t stay here,” he informs me in a bored voice. Planted in the lobby, my eyes fly from one side of the room to another, as if I’m watching a tennis match, sweat running down my back. A housekeeper pushes a vacuum at my feet; the manager comes over asking me to leave.

A drizzle begins and I haven’t a coat or sweater, barefoot, I stumble along in a frenzy. A pay phone is close by, I call the American Embassy, and an answering machine goes on with no way to communicate an emergency! I slam the phone down pick it up and slam it again, as hard as I can, vibrating the glass partition. Through the glass, I see my reflection and laugh at my appearance in disbelief.

A police officer walks by, maybe he has a suggestion.
“I get off at 4; want to go for a drink?”
My face flushes from his indignation, “what’s your name?”
“Viera.”
Rummaging through my tote, I locate a pen and scribble it on the back of a receipt. “Give me your badge number!”
He casually flicks his ID with name and number hidden from sight beneath his right lapel.
“You’ll hear from me again” I warn. Storming off, my ferocity melts into a weep, smelling like a wet cat from dripping hair mousse, running mascara, clutching onto one broken shoe like a pathetic lost creature. I dare not leave this main boulevard because there are too many dwindling streets that become alleyways.

No one can ever claim that getting around Lisbon is easy but it is now 4 a.m., hearing a disco beat- I follow the sound.
The bald bouncer in a cream-colored suit says, “Miss, there’s a dress code here.”
Thinking that nothing is more troublesome than a woman with the temper of a wild cat, “My husband is in there. If you let me in, I’ll find him and we’ll leave. If not, I’m making a scene.”
He unties the cord for my passage.
Seated in a booth in a room of thick smoke, two nights with little sleep, a ten-hour train ride from Madrid to Lisbon and a full day of walking up and down hills, nothing can be more enticing than sleep! I close my eyes and feel I am being watched. Three men surround me, with offers, “Cigarette”, “Drink”, and “Dance?”
I don’t know who to hit first.
The bouncer comes by and asks me to leave.

An idea strikes me- I’ll find a policeman and ask him for directions to the police station.
Ironically, I see the same policeman as before, he rattles an apology, but I am in no mood for decorum, “Take me to the station,” I order.

At the small reception area of the police station, my companions are the city drunk who sleeps on the only seat in the room, a wooden bench, and a lady of the night clad in a bright purple mini skirt with red platform high heels, chewing bubble gum she talks to the Captain behind the desk while his wickedly cackles in intervals.
I make myself cozy on the floor.
Twenty minutes later, the Swede sheepishly comes in also to use the station as his haven. He gives me a half smile.
“Come on, sit behind me” back to back we get some shut-eye.

A couple of hours later, the police officer offers to take both of us to breakfast.
“No thank you, but can point me in the direction of a shoe store?”

Strangers on a Train

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Years ago, as a student, I found an intimate connection between the sensibilities of Europe and me. I also discovered that Paris is astrologically ruled by the sign of Libra governed by the planet Venus paying homage to love and beauty.  I fell in love with the city, losing myself in the art captivated by the attractive and astonishing city.

Strolling along the Seine turning into the heart of the Left Bank, into the picturesque narrow lined streets filled with bookstores, galleries and cafes, I am drawn into shop after shop in the early morning where shopkeepers wash down the sidewalks.  From patisseries, I smelled bread being baked. The perfumeries and flower shops called me in, but because of my student budget, I stand in the shadows.

The best part of being in Paris is getting lost; as I walk, I saw huge wooden gates hiding courtyards and further back mansions and I find secret hidden places.  Parisian beauty tucked in recessed surroundings, like a mysterious woman, the best part of her is hidden from sight.

A boutique window catches my eye with tarot cards decorating the portal.  Inside I splurge by buying myself the Marseille Tarot deck and a pair of pumps reminiscent of the 1940’s. They are round toed stack heels in suede taupe with very thin leather brown piping.  It sets me back financially for a few days but I rationalize my purchase by concluding that for the next three days I will only consume apples, bread, and water purchased from the grocery store.

On my last morning in the youth hostel over a continental breakfast, I sat at a communal table next to Joao, from Portugal.  He runs a graceful finger through his dark curly hair.  He is rugged handsome, a square jaw, green eyes and what appears to be a slim body.

When I find out he too is traveling alone- he’s thinking what I’m thinking- we say in unison, “would you like to see the city together?” We spend a lively day sight seeing, taking photos and visit the Rodin Museum.  We eat savory crepes from street vendors, our dessert – in season from the fruit stands.

I excuse myself, “I’ve got to make a call, to my friend’s cousin.  Are you available tonight?”  Joao nods.

Mildred’s cousin Sophie lives in Paris, with her parents, she’s fluent in English studying at the Sorbonne. She answers the phone telling me she just got back from holiday. We agree to meet at Gare d’Austerlitz the famous train station, I tell her I have a male acquaintance with me, she replies, “I too will bring my boyfriend.”

“But he’s not my boyfriend,” I insist.

“Don’t pay atencion,” she said in her trilling accent. I sense there are hundreds of commuters at the station, so I ask, “How will I know you,” she goes into a self-description that includes, “I am tall and elegante. My hair is dark, my eyes are large,” (she rolls her R’s). I think to myself – oh my God, I am meeting a Goddess!  I had better change into my best blouse.

Joao and I arrive, slightly early and pace the famous train station. “Are you sure you’ll know her,” he asks after a 15 minute wait. “Yes,” I say with certainty.  I cannot possibly be stood up by one of my closest friend’s cousin.

The clock strikes seven. I ask Joao since his French is better than mine to go to the ticket counter to see if we can have, Sophie paged. Standing in line behind is a girl with platform tennis shoes, she looks around constantly, and wears thick-rimmed glasses. I’m daydreaming thinking what lay ahead when I hear her speak to the man she is with and the voice is vaguely familiar.

I tap her shoulder, “Sophie, is that you?”

“Ahh, Linda” she expresses with gaiety.

After introductions, we head to Montparnasse and go to a café. Sophie smokes while the boys drink café noir and I ask for a mineral water.  Since we’re all students, we chat about what we will do with our lives. Joao says, “I plan on going into finance, I like handling large sums of money. And you, Linda, what are your plans?” “I want to write… only I don’t know if I’m good enough.” The crowd goes, “Ahh,” they are impressed and Sophie begins her habit of starting a conversation switching subjects then switching to it a half-hour later, as if it were natural. I love this mental game, because I do it too, but I’m the only one that can keep up with these interrupted lines of thought. When I double kiss Sophie and bid her “bon nuit,” I feel I am saying good night to a family member.

The next day is my last in Paris; I visit the Louvre and spend the entire day there.

In the evening I head to the train station and sit on a bench reaching into my suitcase changing from open sandals into my pumps, then decide they really don’t work with my outfit so I go to the ladies room and change from a floral skirt into a rust colored one.

Inside the compartment, I make myself comfortable for the thirteen-hour train ride from Paris to Madrid, since my pocketbook mandates that I not spend additional money for a couchette, I’ll sleep sitting up.

Two loud American men wearing tennis shoes come in, sit next to me talking to one another.

A French woman walks by murmuring, “Mon cheri” to the poodle she holds in her arms.

“Geez that dog is smart” one man says to the other.

“How do you know that?” Says his partner.

“Well, he understood French didn’t he?”

I bury my head in my book, Les Miserables, but can’t help but notice when in walks an elegant older man. I put my book down when I hear the voice come over a loud speaker announcing a delay. The two Americans grab their bags and leave, sparing me from their mindless yakking all night.

The older man sits across from me. I begin to journal and stare out the window, twenty minutes into the journey the conductor opens the door asking for passports.

“I see you’re an American,” says the man.

“Yes, and you most likely are French” I say with formality.

“Yes. What may I ask takes you to Madrid.”

“I’m traveling to understand my roots.”

“You do not have French lineage?”

“What makes you ask that?”

“Because Mademoiselle, you have the style of a French woman,” he says as he views my crossed legs proudly displaying my new shoes.

“I’m Hispanic, and a student.  But now that I have told you about me, may I ask your vocation?”

He reaches over to shake my hand “Allow me to introduce myself, I am Claude Dubois. I am a journaliste,” (he emphasizes the e), for LaMonde.

Enthusiastic that I am chatting with a writer we talk about non-fiction, politics- and the recent Republican national convention. He asks my views.  After I express them he smiles like a professor proud of a student, “good point.”

Our conversation turns to genealogy, culture and language. I decide to take a chance and tell Monsieur Dubois a joke. “There are three cats- their names are un, deux, and trois. They are standing over ice, are hungry and decide they have to get to the fish below for consumption. They find a saw, and saw a block around themselves.”Then in my best French possible I deliver my punch line,“ and that is how un, deux, trois, quatre cinq.” He manages a polite smile, but I’m rolling in my seat.

In the morning, I awake to hear the train wheels getting louder as we slow down. Monsieur Dubois in a polite gesture hands me his business card and wishes me a bon voyage.  When I stand, as a gentleman he reaches over to where my luggage has been stowed. I carefully file the card in an outside zipper of my suitcase knowing I will never do anything with it but thank him.

Unknown to me at the time this begins a new phase in my life- chance encounters with strangers- genuine conversations that by all accounts feel like a mental bond has been formed as in friendship, at least temporarily.

I soar like a kite onto the street, happy and adventurous, going wherever the wind takes me.

Dreams filter through Imagination

writingI like the word  “dreamer” it conjures up images of a Victorian romantic clad in silk and lace, who glides instead of walks, whispers instead of talks, and is easy on the eyes. However, for many a dreamer denotes another image altogether- not solely an adventurer who nightly checks into the land of dreams but as someone with a weak mental alignment. They are incorrectly labeled as escapists, immature, irresponsible, seekers of unobtainable wishes. The assumption is that today’s dreamers can be cured from fantasies by returning to the mundane reality of life.

In the past, the dreamer had an entirely different status, they had a gift and were encouraged to investigate the hidden meaning and significance of their dreams, as opposed to rid themselves from them. They received approval and credibility of their dreams as a hidden panacea through a dream interpreter. The role of the interpreter was to decipher the symbols and facilitate their understanding.

Unfortunately, the dream interpreter is now extinct and our appetite for dreaming has been curtailed.

In my dreams, I encounter the collective consciousness of yesteryear and venture into the magnificence of tomorrow land. They are ever so powerful that in my waking state I have to ask myself, is this happening now or did I dream it into being?

One of my earliest dream memories took place at the age of four. Realizing I was a child with limitations, I became terrified, so petrified I could not cry. The shocking dream made me feel that I had uncovered a secret, and the mystery shook my foundation. My small body immobilized; my eyes wide open. With my imagination playing tricks on me, I saw configurations emanating from the knotty pine wood closet doors. They tore at my being. My world in jeopardy; I was numb by keeping the dream to myself, but was jolted each time the dream returned. And for years, it recurred without an explanation.

During my years in Berlin, I was drawn to paint a part of me that intentionally lay dormant from the criticisms I had received as a student in art classes. After years of absence from the canvas, between states of consciousness, I would view joyful symmetrical compositions. I took out my oils and a 4×5 canvas not knowing what to paint. When I finished my work my painting was a depiction of physical torture, bodies flying into ditches, while fire blazes culminating in a zenith of destruction. One central figure kneels with arms out-stretched to the heavens asking “why.”

Unconsciously, I had unraveled the mystery and painted what I had been shown for decades, in doing so I concluded my haunting dream. By tapping into the inherent wisdom and power of dreaming I laid my turmoil to rest.