Quote of the Day
The police came and burned my cave. But it’s OK, they didn’t burn my guitar or my kevlar.
My understanding is that it is rude to mention the The War to the Germans, so I am striving to avoid insinuating invasion, connoting conquering and certainly blurting "blitzkrieg", but it is hard, I tell you, hard, when, in the furthest reach of Spain, a small island off the coast of Africa, I am surrounded by men and women calling after their tow-headed little ones in the guttural chop of Deutsche. We have been here close to a week and have yet to meet another North American.
Yes, La Gomera is La Germanita. Ernst, we need you! As a vacation spot for sun-starved Europeans, the Canary Islands make brilliant sense. By far the southernmost reach of the EU, this sub-tropical volcanic archipelago is perennially warm, rarely dipping below 60°F on winter nights. Why the Germans in particular have made it their haus away from haus, you’ll have to ask the blond, leather-skinned hippies living in the hills.
Probably, though, it has something to do with the mountains. While the jungle-like laurel forest is unique, the towering peaks and diving valleys must remind them of their beloved Bavaria. La Gomera is ringed with sharp-rocked cliffs and has only a handful of swimmable beaches (one of which we have settled ourselves 100 m from, and on which I type these words), but the center is an alpine roller coaster. Every day, the streets and hills are filled with Germans, young and old, in boots and backpacks, collapsible walking poles wrapped around wrists.
Our hike Thursday, for example, started us in the cloud-clenched mountain-top of Parque Nacional de Garajonay in the midst of a forest that would, with its lush wet greens, make the Hoh Valley seem like Sahara (which, by the way, has spared us the choking clouds of dust it occasionally sends this way). The Canary Islands have the last bit of laurel forest that covered the Mediterranean up until the last ice age and La Gomera’s is the biggest, and it is choke full of species found nowhere else, notably succulents.
Descending from the forest, you move through many different ecosystems in just a few hours: moss-wet laurel gives way to low, dry scrub gives way to banana palm clad coast as your legs tire of down, down, down. Old, stone houses dot the paths and goats, chickens and sheep wander freely.
The town we’re staying in, Valle Gran Rey, is small and charming, as well. The living is cheap and easy, and rolling a close second in population to the Germans are the hippies (albeit often German hippies) that have made the beaches their home. In a delightful surprise, theft seems virtually unknown and there is no panhandling or hawking. With food cheap and the beaches comfortable for sleeping, not much is needed. Instead, days are spent bodysurfing and lounging and the evenings are filled with juggling, music, and laughter.
We’ve met a few folks, since we arrived last week. Some hikers we fell in with on our walks or whom we picked up hitchhiking, as well as Marchello, a talented self-taught (from watching videos on YouTube!) firespinner (who had never heard of Burning Man, we were shocked to learn).
Marchello has been living on the island off and on for a few years, and until last year lived, along with a large community of hippies, in caves on the south coast. Apparently, though, a criminal (not from the community) tried to use it as a place to hide, and the police decided to clear it out, so after decades of living, the caves were emptied and destroyed. He seemed sanguine about the whole experience, though, thankful they chose not to burn his guitar or poi.
(PS A little bit more about the forest over at the Bee Blog)
Somehow, a month has slipped by us here in Florence, and it’s time to leave. We wrapped up our stay by hosting an American-style Sunday brunch for the friends we’ve made while here. Michelle made french toast with real maple syrup and scrambled eggs with basil, mushrooms, peppers and feta, we had mimosas and coffee and tea and a pile of Italian cookies and pastries and other yummies. Fifteen or twenty folks came and frolicked, some braving the rare snowfall that had drifted down into the hills outside of Florence. All in all, it was just the best send off two homesick travelers from the States could have asked for. Thank you to all our Italian friends, looking forward to seeing you when we meet again!
Next, we head to La Gomera in the Canary Islands, off the Northwest coast of Africa, where it’s warm, warm, warm. Here’s what Google Earth says the little town we’ll be staying in looks like. Our only problem is that we didn’t expect to go anywhere this warm, so we’re a bit underprepared in the clothing department. Ah well, such problems are good ones to have.
We popped up to Venice for the day and found it very, very refreshing. Of course, you see the Grand Canal as you walk out of the train station, so there’s that, but as we walked around the city, down the big touristy streets and through the maze of little side ways, there was something else different. There was a peacefulness about it even where it was crowded, something that made it feel a bit more ageless, less hectic.
Michelle eventually figured it out: no cars.
It’s obvious if you think about it, but I guess we hadn’t. A whole city without a single car in it. Imagine how nice that’s going to feel.
Sure, there are boats of this kind and other, but they’re mostly on the one main Grand Canal that snakes through the city. All the sideways and byways are dead-ends, where gondolas and motor boats are quietly parked until needed.
It was so serene, it makes me want to flood Seattle.
Last week, Michelle, Jen and I took the train over to Pisa. It was a gorgeous, warm, blue sky day and the tower, as advertised, was leaning. Easily the most entertaining aspect of it, however, was watching hundreds of people do what seemed to be tai chi poses so they would appear to be holding up the tower in their snapshots. We had fun taking pictures of them from the wrong angle. Enjoy the slideshow!
Best as I can tell, every man, woman and child in Europe keeps bees.
No really, I just can’t get over how every store, every market, every roadside stand is loaded with twenty different kinds of locally produced honey, propolis, beeswax and what have you.
Let’s take an example. Yesterday, Michelle and I were getting ready to dunk in Terme Di Petrioloi, some splendid hot springs (or terme, in Italian) a half hour south of Siena when a shabby looking guy comes ambling up to us with a basket full of…you guess it…his own honey and propolis for sale. We laughed and tried to explain in our broken Italian that no, we don’t want to buy any honey because we have our own hives and we are from the United States. He is puzzled because by "broken Italian", I mostly mean "speaking in simplified English and gesturing", so I hand him one of our Hive Mind black-and-silver stickers and point back and forth between it and us.
He’s excited about the sticker (it’s pretty striking, kind of like a Batman – Dark Knight feel to it, if I do say so myself) and then I notice that the conversation has piqued the interest of the dreadlocked guy standing by a van right across from us. He looks curious about the stickers, so I pull another couple out for him and his girlfriend and try again, by waving back and forth between it and me, to explain that we are beekeepers.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, but he’s a beekeeper, too (that’s his card to the left). I know! His partner, Frederica, spoke English well enough to facilitate our conversation, and it turns out that they have 35 hives over on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and have just popped over for a few days to enjoy the terme. They’re sleeping in their van and plan to head back the next day.
I didn’t get to taste their honey (who brings honey with them to hot springs?) but I did get to taste some their home made grappa, and if that’s anything to go by, I’m sure their honey was splendid.
The terme, too, was splendid. Rushing, clean, hot, hot water with a few different pools deep enough to submerge in. The rock was coated with greenish-white build-up of sulphur and other minerals which was odd to rub, because it had a porcelain-like smoothness to it, but at the same time, had a slightly soft, gripping quality of rubber. The smell was strong, but less like rotten eggs and more like burnt matches.
In any case, despite seeing honey everywhere, I’ve resisted buying a bunch to bring back. I’ve only bought about five jars of various kinds of tasting (forest, wildflower, acacia, etc.) and received one jar (with saffron) as a gift from the beekeeper we bought the other small jars from when he found out we were beekeepers, too. The International Brotherhood of the Beekeeper lives!
A few days ago, I mentioned that Michelle and I had seen an interesting piece of art at the Palazzo Strozzi, Christian Nold’s "Emotion Mapping Greenwich Village", in which he’d created a mood map of Greenwich Village by hooking up perspiration sensors and a GPS to people as they walked that section of New York. I said I thought the concept was great but the aesthetic execution weak.
As if to underline the point, we saw an awesome exhibit today that showed how to do great electronic art that is really, truly art.
The pieces we saw were part of the Florence Biennale 2007, a slightly weird but vast collection of art from all over the world. The show is sponsored by the U.N., and has the artists come with three of their works, where they are displayed one next to the other next to the other in a vast, sterile feeling exhibit hall.
Most of the work was really, really good and incredibly diverse, but the puzzle was "what’s in it for the artists?" Many of them sat uncomfortably in plastic chairs next to their pieces waiting to talk to anyone who came by, but, at least while we were there, there were very few attendees. As most of the artists began by asking us if we were exhibiting our work there, I got the sense it was mostly just them. It was a shame that the production value of the exhibit hall and the advertising was so below the quality of the art being displayed.
Given that there were 840 artists and over 2,500 works of art, I could go on for ages about all the different pieces we saw, but I’ll try to stick the point I started on and focus on the electronic art.
There were seven pieces under the umbrella of Ars Electonica, an Austrian-based group supporting the digital arts.
The most impressive piece was Se Mi Sei Vicino ("if you are close to me"), by Sonia Cillari, Steven Pickles and Tobias Grewenig. From the blurb:
A core element of the work is a sensor floor on which a performer is standing, functioning as a human antenna; when coming close to or being touched by members of the audience, the body movements are registered as electromagnetic activity. Surrounding the floor are large projections showing real-time algorithmic organisms connected to audio compositions, which change form according to fluctuations in the electromagnetic field.
Here you can see it in action:
Beautiful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s one thing to rig an an electromagnetic sensor that can detect distance between bodies and render that onto a computer screen (one really big thing, honestly), but it’s yet another to make it aesthetically compelling, beautiful. These guys pull it off. That it involves you, as the audience, becoming a participant is pure gold bonus.
Another "audience participation" piece was Noise and Voice by Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman (calling themselves Tmema). Here there were two large projection screens that created visualizations based on input from two microphones. Again, what impressed me most about this one was not just seeing my voice realized in color and motion, but how attractively (and whimsically) they’d manage to render it. It’s difficult to see in the (shaky) video, but the objects they create have a very warm, old time woodcut feeling to them, while at the same time moving and undulating with an authentically organic motion:
The last piece I loved mostly because of my previously mentioned fascination with sundials. Watchful Portrait by John Gerrard had two 3-D renderings of a woman’s face, each rotating slowly over the course of the day to face the sun and the moon, respectively.
There were four other pieces that were all equally cool. Instead of describing them, I’ll just invite you to come to Florence and check them out!
Our return to the States is still a bit over three weeks away, but a shift as big as this takes some time to prepare for, so I’ve already begun to plan. Specifically, I’m trying to decide which European habits and customs I should affect when back in the States to constantly remind people who may have forgotten that I’ve just spent three months in Europe.
I’m sure you know what I mean. Suppose, for example, that it’s 6 p.m., I’m talking with some friends, and one of them should demonstrate that he has forgotten that I’ve just spent three months in Europe by saying something inconsiderate like "anyone want to grab some dinner?"
Obviously, this would be an perfect time for me to remind people that I’ve just spent three months in Europe by saying something like "Dinner? It’s only six o’clock! Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot how early Americans eat. You see, in Europe, we don’t even think about dinner until 9 or 10 in the evening!"
Now, under ordinary circumstances, affecting an English accent would be the no-brainer solution to my problem. Asking for a "spot of tea", then exclaiming "bloody hell, I could murder a lorrie of it" when refused is a simple and direct way to communicate that I’ve been overseas to people who may have forgotten.
The problem, in my case, of course, is that we were only in England for a few days at the beginning of our trip (roughly three months ago, if you must know), and so it seems like it might invite a certain speck of ridicule to begin lilting like a limey. Moreover, asking if anyone’s got a fag, in the wrong circumstances, could just get me punched.
Affecting an Italian accent is out, as well, as it would be difficult to explain how being around people speaking a completely different language should change how I pronounce my own. This isn’t a deal-breaker, mind you, but it shuffles the accent lower in the list.
More credible is simply shuffling some Italian, Spanish or French phrases into my everyday speech. For example, when my phone rings, I could answer "Pronto!" Then, after waiting for the appropriate baffled pause to play out, I could laugh and explain "oh, sorry, I mean ‘hello’! You see, in Italy, where I’ve been living, that’s how we answer the phone. It means ‘ready’."
Unfortunately, this one will only work when my phone rings, leaving me high and dry in those long spells in between when my phone is not ringing.
For those times, I have considered eating with my fork held in my left hand, tines down, while using the knife in my right to maneuver food onto the back. However, I’m afraid this may be too subtle. I would hate to have to draw attention to it by repeatedly asking people things like "could you please hand the salt to my right hand, because my left hand is occupied with my fork, tines down as we do in Europe!" A bit of mouthful, if you’ll excuse the pun.
I’m really at a loss here. Affecting coffee snobbery (e.g., "oh, I don’t know how you Americans can drink this…black water!") is right out, as well, seeing as I’ll be returning to Seattle. It would be like acting stuck up about coal in Newcastle, which would be dumb for several reasons.
Wait, I’ve got it! I’ll just greet people by kissing them on both cheeks. This has the advantage of being clearly European, frequent (once per interaction per person!), and virtually impossible to overlook. Spot on!
So get ready America, because next time I see you: kissy-kissy!
Fellow couchsurfer Francesco tipped us off late last week to the opening of the Strozzina Centro di Cultura Contemporanea, the Center for Contemporary Culture at the Palazzo Strozzi.
The Palazzo Strozzi dates to the late 1400’s, when it was built as the home of the Strozzi family, (doomed) arch-rivals of the Medici’s (lesson: don’t be arch-rivals of the Medici’s).
The courtyard was filled when we arrived with well-heeled Italians in high Italian fashion, young and hip as well as older and well-to-do. The swishing of fur was entirely drowned by a good techno-ambient DJ playing behind two large screens with trippy projections, and the Renaissance feel was cheerfully updated by the shifting violet, blue and yellow wash lights. Free champagne flowed along with a tasty, dry cheddar, olives, and tangelos. Good fun.
The art, though, was a bit disappointing. The show, Emotional Systems: Contemporary Art Between Emotion and Reason, promised:
to investigate the topic of emotions, proposing a reinterpretation of the correlation between the contemporary artist, the work of art and the user, in the light of the latest discoveries in the neurological sciences about the human brain and its effects on the emotions.
And, as you entered the cave-like basement exhibition, there were a series of quotes culminating with the could-you-raise-the-bar-any-higher statement
Remember how you feel right now. This exhibit may change how you think about emotion forever.
I dunno, call me an dullard, but after witnessing a concrete pile spraypainted a rainbow of colors and a CGI video of killer whales, I found myself regarding emotion in much the same way I had.
There were two exceptions. Bill Viola had a moving high-definition, hyper-slow motion video of a line of people in grief, apparently viewing a casket (entitled "Observance"). The glacial unfolding of their reactions seemed to resonate with my own muscle memory of pain, creating a disquieting empathy.
The other interesting piece was Christian Nold’s "Emotional Mapping Greenwich Village". Nold wired up a perspiration sensor to a GPS and had over 1,000 people wear it over a period of years as they walked Greenwich Village, NYC. The result was an "emotional map" of the area, a visualization of how different areas made people feel.
The concept, I thought, was brilliant and I tip my hat grandly to him for pulling it off. That said, the actual visualizations, lacked aesthetic quality. They seemed like the kind of maps that a computer geek would come up with, the result more of mathematics and limited tools then something worthy of an artistic study of affect.
Still, beat the pants off the room filled with emotional words hand-scrawled on a wall.