FutuRetro

One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

The True Breakfast of Champions

digital illustrationIn Praise of English Breakfast

Here’s to the English breakfast, dears,

That’s brought, for lo these many years

Sustenance to both health and heart

To give the day a proper start,

The source of warmth and vital grace

Beginning the day with our needs in place:

A rasher of bacon, an egg or two,

Some toast, some tea, some tomatoes; who

Wouldn’t love some beans, some mushrooms? Nay,

Don’t start without English breakfast, pray!

Foodie Tuesday: Some Things Never Change. And Why Should They, Eh!

It’s unclear where the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ originated (though it can easily be believed attributable to Texans before its wider popularization), but the precept is in my mind particularly apropos when it comes to foods and eateries that reach a particular stage of development that makes them Classic. Every town seems to have a diner, joint, cafe or pub that has essentially congealed into a certain form and is revered to the point that its regulars and even unattached fans will gladly rally in defense of its remaining unchanged forever. Where else would we go?photoGreatness is not essential, but being the paradigm of whatever it might be that the place or food represents gradually becomes codified as something very nearly sacred. The comfort in being able to revisit one of these places any time and find the familiar favorite food, drink, decor and ohyespeople, people is pretty much a saving grace in the midst of a dull or dark spot in life, whether it’s been a bad day or a bad decade–or just a time when you’re hungering for something more than just calories.photoMe, I’ve got a passel of favorites from all of the phases and places my life has crossed thus far, and doubtless I’ll find new ones as long as I do live. That speaks less to my personal obsession with food, good food, lots of food and equal amounts of fun and atmosphere than it does to the wide availability of tremendous cooks, distinctive and colorful rooms, buildings and locales, and fantastically personalized recipes for nearly everything imaginable. The fundamental dish, drink, dining space or clientele need not be genuinely unique or even world-class (not that that hurts!)–it’s about the combination of them and the way that the parts all strike one on the occasion that lures her back. And then back again.photoAll I should really say on the occasion of such fond reminiscences is that if you don’t already have favorite spots that you’ve visited often enough for the people running them to recognize you, exchange information about life outside the eatery, and then bring your order with all of its weird customized combinations and/or deletions without batting an eye, you had better get moving and find one or ten.photoAnd further, I should say Thank You, Tea Leaf and Harbor Lights [here, if you read the critic’s linked review of the recent renovation and its early results, is living proof of my thesis, should you be interested], Ranchman’s and Miko Sushi, Anglea’s and Mi Ranchito and 42nd Street Cafe & Bistro [an example of a place that has kept a fantastic balance between changing over time and maintaining high quality food and great people]; Thank You, Dave and Hallie, Francisco and Tony, Blaine and Cheri, Teresita and Allessio and Abuelita and all of you other wondrous souls who have been keeping the rest of us contented and coming back over all these years. Yeah, you too, you people over there in England (ohhh, that fabulous Chinese hole-in-the-wall with Sizzling Lamb, and the suave Indian place across from the V&A) and Sweden (I’m looking at you guys making us shrimp pizzas in the wood fired oven in the Stockholm train station and the people creating amazing steak frites with cognac and green peppercorn sauce in Gamlastan) and Panama (Italian salmon pasta in Central America? Oh, yes! Oh, boy!) and so many, many more. Thank You.

Worlds Apart

photoOn Not being Quite Specific Enough

An Athabascan lady and a young Mauritian man

Met on the bus while shuttling to the airport in Japan

And planned a summer get-together in the town of Dent,

But didn’t think of all details—yet still, one day they went

To meet each other in that little place—the town so small

They didn’t guess there would be need for detailed plans at all—

Sadly, the lady was in Minnesota, with no clue

Her friend was off in Cumbria, the Dent of English hue,

Completely unaware as well that continents away

His lady-friend awaited him, unknowing, that same day—

And so they never met again, each sad the other failed

To know how much they’d hoped to meet, and what it had entailed

To reach their distant rendezvous and keep their destined date,

And neither learned there were two towns named Dent until too late.photo

My Baroque Gesture

The first time I heard Early Music performed in period-appropriate style I experienced, not surprisingly I suppose, a full mixture of amusement, bemusement, mild horror and deep curiosity. It was in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal opera Orfeo at the English National Opera; I was a mere college stripling who had probably not even heard the phrase Early Music at the time let alone known what it might mean, and ‘performance practice’ was in something of a time of transition. Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the title role with, if I remember properly, a rather nice overall sound, but a straight-tone and senza vibrato style and a strangely stuttering kind of ornamentation that might well have been an authentic recollection of the opera’s original character and an accurate and historically informed version of the way it would have been presented by its composer and first performers. I, having never been taught such things, merely heard sounds quite foreign not only to my ear but to my concept of skilled and artful performance, let alone prettiness. I do remember thinking that either this was all far over my head (entirely possible) or it was a pointless and poor imitation of what the ENO imagined the average amateurish opera company of Monteverdi’s day must have been capable of doing (less likely), or poor Mr. Johnson, who later went on to receive his OBE, just plain wasn’t up to the job despite a naturally pleasant voice.

Years later, I may not be much smarter than the young squirt of those days, but I’m far more experienced and have heard worlds more music, both the great and the terrible and, of course, a massive quantity in between. And I’ve been taught a thing or two about the fine points of what is beautiful and magical when it comes to singing or playing with any amount of vibrato–or none–and the many elements that combine to create tone and color and variety and character in a performance. I’ve learned some useful stuff that changes how I perceive both the level of virtuosity in playing or singing and its aesthetic appeal, two aspects that do not always coincide in my ear, mind and heart but when they do, that combine to create a kind of joy that is virtually unattainable in any other way.

When my husband conducted a production of Orfeo over a quarter century after the first one I’d heard, I had a whole different understanding and appreciation for what the many performers were doing and why the stage director would expect them to do so both from a visual standpoint–training them, along with other coaches, in appropriate ways of moving and posing and gesturing as well as in those of vocal ornamentation, since she is a superb and well-trained Early Music singer herself–and an historically suited musical one. Just as there are countless styles and types of music known to us nowadays, which you can multiply by the number of individual teachers, performers and audience members to get a rough sense of the variety you’ll encounter, there were historical strictures and structures and stylistic trends and ideas that shaped earlier generations (centuries) of music and musicians and listeners, and while some have perhaps remained relatively unchanged since their inception, many more evolved over the ages. Our expectations of music have certainly changed, and our guesses as to how it was first conceived and perceived are only as good as the lines of scholarly inquiry and oral tradition can attempt to make them.

In all, it makes rich fodder indeed for both the ear and the imagination, and I for one am mightily pleased that I have had the opportunity to live a life immersed in all kinds of music and to learn along the way. I still like much of what I heard, whether ignorantly or not, in my younger days, and much of what I like now I learned to love along the way. While my form may be far from historically accurate or artistically impressive, I will still happily bow and curtsey to all the musicians who have shared their gifts with me in my life, and to all of those who work and are inspired to play more, to sing onward.graphite drawing