We shot the image below out walkin’ after midnight in Amsterdam. You’re probably thinking “stoners oozing out of the coffee shops, headed to the red light district to spend some time with a stranger who loves them”. It’s that too, of course, but it’s not just that. There is so much more to this fun, vibrant, and attractive city, so compact and such a pleasure to explore. Numerous canals ring the city, beautiful architecture from Renaissance to modern is all about, and the laid-back residents seem proud and happy to show off their town. The Van Gogh Museum is just the place to deepen your understanding of and appreciation for his tortured genius. It’s arranged to lead the visitor through Vincent’s life and development as an artist, and showcases not just famous works but also the sketches and lesser paintings made while he was learning his craft. Nearby, the Rijksmuseum features art from the Golden Age of Dutch painters. Countless Rembrand’s including Night Watch live here, along with some of the greatest hits from Ruysdael, Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and four of the thirty-seven Vermeers known to exist. Around the corner is the little house where Anne Frank lived her short but meaningful life, hidden from the Nazis by her father’s Dutch employees at their considerable peril. If you’re not very good at math, or I guess if you’re feeling lucky, there’s even a casino in the neighborhood that will be happy to accept your donations. The eye-popping glories of Holland’s nurseries await you in the gorgeous flower market, and you can even get your raw herring on in season…I tried it, you can have my life’s share! So much to see and do, such friendly people in a city easy to get to and easy to get around. And the coffee shops are still open, if you just want to sit slack-jawed and drooling on a park bench and do a little navel-gazing! (8 October, 2011 Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
That’s from Jimmy Buffett’s Boat Drinks, a song that instantly transports me to the land of sunshine, wind on the water, and a criminally under-developed sense of personal responsibility. It wasn’t until we moved to Norway and experienced long northern European winters first-hand that I gained a full appreciation for “This mornin’, I shot six holes in my freezer. I think I got cabin fever, somebody sound the alarm”. The sun may not come out to play for weeks on end, only to suddenly pounce and sear the retinas like a Class 4 laser. The oppressive cold seeps into your bones, until you scurry like startled cockroaches from errand to errand whenever you absolutely must go outside. Nights at home are dominated by comfort food, couch-camping, and fervent worship of Television Almighty. If the grocery stores should fail to open for two days, I fully expect my neighbors to enthusiastically take up canibalism. Times like these, St. Anywhere would be a good alternative! You study old vacation photographs obsessively, desperately trying to remember the taste of warm sunshine. Holiday packages anywhere south of the equator get intense scrutiny, and your standards for personal safety plummet (sure, they call them “warlords”, but is it really worse than Jersey? ). In the end, it becomes like most trying times: bear what you must, live in the moments cherishing the good times, and know that there’s a better day a-comin’. The image below is one of those that are lovingly pressed to the heart…a warm summer day hiking above the Aurlandsfjorden in Norway, wonderful friends, and sunshine on my shoulder. (18 August, 2011 Aurland, Norway)
Who else but John Prine could work Quasimodo, the famous Hunchback of Notre Dame, into a contemporary song? John is to me the “thinkin’ and drinkin'” man’s singer/songwriter: few others seem to have his gift for clever, whimsical wordplay. The dramatic lighting in the image below makes Notre Dame pop, and it’s gorgeous at night, but really it’s wonderful at every time of day. It’s sits where the Romans of Jesus’ time constructed a temple to Jupiter, alongside the River Seine. After the fall of Rome, Jupiter fell into disrepute and his temple into disrepair. The Parisians broke ground for the cathedral in 1163, finishing some two hundred years later. Generations of the faithful toiled on the project, led by a succession of master builders and craftsmen who devoted their lives and entire careers to Notre Dame. During the French Revolution, the Church was seen as allied to the nobility, and clergy lost their heads while the Cathedral was turned into a saltpeter plant. By the mid-1800s, the Gothic style had fallen out of fashion and the cathedral had become so run-down that local builders wanted to dismantle it and use the stone to build a bridge! Luckily, the Cathedral had an admirer and ally in Victor Hugo, who it is said set his novel in Notre Dame in hopes of rekindling interest in the Gothic masterpiece. His strategy succeeded beyond imagination, as the public rallied behind his beloved church and raised necessary funds for its renewal. It remains a classic monument to the faith of man, a symphony of delicate flying buttresses, imposing towers, and grotesque gargoyles of every description. If you go, take time to climb the tower and join the chimeras enjoying one of the finest views in the City of Lights…you’ll be glad you did. (30 November, 2011 Paris, France)
Alan LeQuire’s bronze and limestone sculpture presides over the Music Row Roundabout in my hometown of Nashville, intended to convey “the importance of music to Nashville”. If you know much about my beloved South, you will understand that those easily offended (they’re naked!) called for its removal at its installation in 2003. We all calmed down eventually, or at least got tired of shouting about it, and these days it is a mostly beloved iconic figure representing music in all its forms (we have a wonderful symphony too). I love music, and many of my posts feature lines from songs I particularly enjoy and/or find relevant. A case in point would be My Darlin’ Hometown, a song by the great John Prine that speaks to those of us who live far away from home. My hope is that anyone interested might dig a little deeper, check out the music in question, or even better buy a song or a CD and give it a listen…you waste more money than that driving driving around every day, and music is much more fun! (30 March, 2010 Nashville, TN)
God knows, I love listening to Dean Martin. Here, have a sip of vintage Dino…That’s Amore clip. He was born Dino Paul Crocetti, to Italian immigrant parents in Ohio, and spoke only his father’s dialect of Italian until he went to school. He was, and still is to me, the King of Cool. Sweetie and I went to the land of his father on our honeymoon, and this image was taken while we were in Florence howling at the moon. Sweetie was a breech baby, born backwards and we fear she hasn’t changed since. She has what the Prophet Omega termed “crossed-up condition”…tends to say “right” when she means “left” and so on. Smart as a whip, but does things backwards. We did the honeymoon first, followed with the wedding reception some months later, then went to the Grove Park Inn and were married! It was just the two of us and the padre, in the garden of a home that hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald and in which Nina Simone took piano lessons. So, I guess I’m backwards now too, and the only thing I’d do differently is to do it all again! And if anyone’s looking for a honeymoon recommendation, try Florence and the Arno River by moonlight…and bring a little Dean Martin with you to set a fine romantic mood.
(5 September, 2006 Arno River, Firenze, Italy)
When Gary Burr sang Silence is King, he might have been thinking about Manarola. It’s the second smallest of the five tiny seaside villages that make up Italy’s Cinque Terre, and is inundated by the tourist hordes during daylight hours. The poor permanent inhabitants must hold their collective breath during each day’s onslaught, but at night peace and a more soothing pace returns to remind them why they stay. By dark-thirty, as they sit on their porches overlooking the Ligurian Sea, sipping wine and talking in low murmurs, the only sound’s the wind and the water far below. Liguria is a coastal region of Italy, bounded by France to the west and Tuscany to the east. It has been variously ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, Saracens, Normans, Milanese, French (repeatedly), Austrians, Sardinians, and of course the Germans…that’s a lot of national anthems to memorize! Today, its people are Italians to the outside world, but as you find often in Italy many see themselves more as Ligurians, or even Manarolans. After all, history has shown them the flags may change, but you still have to go down to the harbor to get the freshest seafood! Go see the place at night some time… not so many lights, but they are employed to effect. (14 September, 2011 Manarola, Liguria, Italy)
Sitting on Top of the World (Sitting on Top clip) has been recorded about a zillion times, but the version I heard first and fell in love with was sung by Jimmy Martin on the second Circle album from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In the image below, ant-like people scurry atop Preikestolen (Preacher’s Pulpit) in Norway. I’ve written about the place before…a chunk of rock sitting about 1,800 feet above cold, hard water. Have you ever been close to the edge of some precipice, maybe a building top or high bridge, and had this feeling that if you stay long some irresistible urge would lead you to jump off? Not because you wanted to do so, but out of some weird misfiring of synapses in your brain? You would not be alone. Many people have this sensation, and I felt it myself atop Preikestolen. Not the fear of falling off…the fear of jumping! In “The Imp of the Perverse”, Edgar Allan Poe describes it as carrying out an act simply because we know we should not- the imp that sits on your shoulder and whispers self-destructive encouragement in your ear. Poe had issues of his own, no doubt, but the man also had creative genius. He is usually credited as the inventor of the genre of detective fiction, paving the way for generations to enjoy crime-solving maestros from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon (“the Da Vinci Code”). So, if you read detective fiction, you might want to check out Poe’s short stories featuring the Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin so you can see where it all came from. And if you might enjoy a rollicking old bluegrass standard, give the Dirt Band’s Circle Volume II some ear time…I think you’ll be glad you did. (15 August, 2011 Preikestolen, Rogaland, western Norway)
If you want to get a good argument started, gather a few blues aficionados and ask them to define “blues music“. Boz Scaggs knows the blues (Ask Me Nothing clip). People who are into the blues tend to be really into the blues, and it’s a fascinating subject that attracts attention from scholars and schoolboys alike. Blues music was brought to us by poor blacks in the rural South, building on West African traditions and their own home-grown ingenuity. To the early recording industry market segmenters you had the terms “race music” to define music by blacks for blacks and “hillbilly music” to define music by whites for whites…but the two types differed little musically, differentiated mostly by the race of the performer and the target of the record salesman. Both hillbilly and race music spoke of the hard times and sometimes desperate circumstances of your rural Southerner, white or black. When black Americans migrated to the North in search of economic opportunity the music went with them, morphing as innovations in technology such as electric amplifiers opened up new creative possibilities. As American tastes changed and local gigs dried up, performers took their sound to willing and appreciative audiences in Europe. Europeans musicians in turn took what they were hearing and incorporated it into their own sounds, with which they stormed the American market…ever heard of the British Invasion, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, or guys by the name of Clapton or Jagger or Plant? And the process of innovation continues today, each succeeding generation adding their bit to what came before, and sometimes even getting interested in where it all started. You’re not going to hear Robert Johnson’s version of Cross Roads Blues on commercial radio any time soon, but you hear derivatives of it all the time. Matter of fact, going back and listening to recordings by early guys like Johnson, Son House, the Reverend Gary Davis and others can be a real revelation if you haven’t heard it before! Yeah, it’s not everybody’s sound, but it’s IN everybody’s sound. The image below was shot at the harbor in Menaggio, on Lake Como in northern Italy, on a lovely evening’s walk with my sweetheart when the only blues in town were the harbor lights! (11 September, 2011 Menaggio, Italy)
“I see her everywhere I go. Sometimes I see my father too, pourin’ over blueprints that he drew. He made his way with sweat and brains, so I could ride this first class train. Well, he didn’t even know where to, only knew it wouldn’t be long…always moving on.” Those are the opening lines to another great song by John Hiatt called Moving On. The song speaks to me about how life’s all about change, about the process of “moving on” to the next thing or maybe the next phase of life. I think about this often, living here in Oslo. The panoramic image of Oslo you see below is something I created a few months ago for a fellow blogger at The Oslo Eye: he writes a very useful and entertaining series of articles about local commerce from the expat’s perspective. Being the capital city and home to the royal family, Oslo is the largest and arguably the most cosmopolitan city in Norway. I’ve mentioned before that Norway is a very wealthy country, and you can really see it in the architecture of the modern buildings that are scattered around the waterfront and other sections of town. You see it also in the many cranes that rise above construction sites and the city skyline, testifying to some deep Norwegian pockets and confident visions for the future…we don’t see a lot of that in a world that is hunkered down trying to ride out a grinding economic downturn. The good news is that while change is unsettling, it also always signals opportunity for those who can see it and are willing to embrace it. So good luck, keep calm and carry on, and wear glasses if you need ’em. (1 September, 2011 Oslo, Norway).
The great Florentine sculptor Donatello of the early Renaissance is known for his work in stone, but the image below demonstrates he could deal with wood too! The carving portrays Mary Magdalene after years as an ascetic hermit, living in a cave and doing without in penitence for her life of sin. In the good old southern Protestant tradition in which I was raised, we all knew Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, the first to proclaim of Jesus “he is risen” after he rejoined his heavenly father. Would it surprise you to discover that the major religions are not exactly in agreement about this interpretation, and that she has been viewed very differently through the years? She is considered a saint by many religions, is one of the most frequently named women in the Bible, and in the years after the crucifixion was frequently cited as the “apostle to the Apostles”…but never specifically identified as a lady of the night. Indeed, it was not until 591 that Pope Gregory the Great first ventured the opinion that she was a member of the oldest profession. The story may have gained traction as it was useful in reinforcing a point the church was trying to get across…that the way to salvation was through acknowledging and repenting your sins, and here was a poster child that already had brand recognition among the faithful. It was not until 1969 that the Vatican quietly backed away from that interpretation, though that’s not to say that all other religions have necessarily followed suit. In any case, whether the subject was a lady of sporting morality or not is beside the point to me in regarding the art…it remains a powerful portrayal of the human condition, and a monument to an artist nearing the end of his life but obviously still in full command of his gift.