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)
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)
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)
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.
Not everyone gets buried, you know. The sculpture in the image below is one of a series entitled Pieta by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. His is a disturbing vision, replete with insects crawling all over Jesus’ body and that of Mary, herself not a grieving mother but Death itself. His aim was not to offend, but to represent a mother’s true feelings when she “yearns to take the place of her dead son”. The bugs made me think immediately of the original Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. If you’re not familiar with this charming place, human bodies are scattered about here in various stages of decomposition and predation by scavengers, studied and documented intently by people with stronger stomachs than I possess. While not pleasant to contemplate, the knowledge gained here is critically important to forensic pathologists, police, and others seeking to unravel the mysteries of the unexplained death. The myriad CSI-Wherever shows would lead you to believe the science of crime has been long understood, but to the contrary…while there are now a number of such places in the US, would you believe it was not until 1981 that this first open air lab was created just outside Knoxville? So the next time the beautiful medical examiner hooks up with the handsome detective after putting the time of death at roughly six o’clock…she owes something to that little garden of death in east Tennessee. (20 September, 2011 Venice, Italy)
Venetians have a long tradition of using masks to cloak their identity, and the masks themselves are truly works of art. The practice arose during Carnival, though it became useful on any occasion when the wearer desired to disguise their identity and social status…to mingle with the herd, party-down without consequences. There are many stock characters based on theater or folktales or simply tradition, and the artisans in the narrow alleyway shops skillfully apply paints, gold leaf, and feathers or other baubles to make each a unique artistic statement. The guys with the long beaks are called Plague Doctors, and the costume is typically completed by a black tri-corner hat and a flowing black cloak. Unsurprisingly, the term “plague doctor” comes to us courtesy of the Black Death. Back in the day before science and Big Pharma had solved all our problems, the bubonic plague was thought to be caused by “miasma” or bad air, and the plague doctor protected himself against infection by stuffing that long beak full of nice-smelling goodies. Turns out the plague is a bacterial infection, passed along by the nibbles of fleas or their hosts and running-buddies the rats, and for all we know both the rats and the fleas may have quite enjoyed their lilac-scented plague doctor lunch. In any case, being plague doctor was a somewhat hazardous occupation, though I imagine you did have job security going for you. So that’s the relationship between Venetian party masks, the role of the artist in the modern economy, and job security in the Middle Ages! (19 September, 2011 Venice, Italy)
The great John Prine wrote that song about old people, when he was quite a young man and shouldn’t have known as much as he seems to have about the human condition. To me, the image below is not just the face of age, but also the face of want. A volcano erupted in Iceland recently, disturbed a lot of flights in Europe and caused vacation consternation, but it’s not the first time that happened there. In 1783 the Laki volcano started an eight-month eruption cycle with unbelievable consequences for Iceland, and indeed the world.
Iceland: 25% of the population died from starvation and fluoride poisoning, as well as 80% of the sheep and 50% of cattle and horses. They literally have never recovered.
Europe: an estimated 120 million long tons of sulphur dioxide was emitted, with amazing consequences to the weather. They had long, hard winters, absurdly hot summers, record crops and crop failures…in short the weather was off the hook, and not in a B-52s “party in the Love Shack” kind of way.
World at Large: nerds with too much time on their hands and a keen grasp of statistics will tell you that North America had one of its worst winters ever, that the monsoon in India and Africa failed leading to famine in Egypt that cost it one-sixth of its population, and that the general poverty and famine due to the freakish weather contributed to the French Revolution.
This sculpture by Rolf Lunde, called Tårnpeter, stands in Oslo outside the National Gallery. (30 August, 2011 Oslo, Norway)
Before the discovery of oil, going down to the sea in ships was the best, if not safest, occupation in Norway. Some people are called by the lure of the sea, while for some it’s simply a question of mouths to feed at home, but fishing checks in as the deadliest occupation worldwide and in almost every country that has a commercial fishery. For much of its history, the primary occupation for most of Norway’s men was also the most dangerous job in the world… we assume leading to a disproportionately large population of widows. As the country has been desperately poor for much of its history, this means a lot of poor widows as well. I think this may contribute to Norwegians’ well-known stoicism. They have much experience with hard work, loss, and picking yourself up and moving on when tragedy strikes, as it has often for them over the centuries. These thoughts ran through my mind when I came across this statue on the edge of some woods near Oslo. I don’t know the artist’s mind, but I see this young woman holding her infant son as a fisherman’s wife, her expression slightly anxious but also resolved. I imagine her keeping the home fires burning, and dealing with what had to be dealt with if it came, and running through my head is Gary Burr’s song about what happens when you’ve made a promise to someone who’s gone. (30 August, 2011 Ekebergparken, Oslo, Norway)