Last stop: Paris

October 16, 2009

Today was the last day of my 2 ½ month trip. It was not an easy day: I came to Paris for two days to visit a friend who is seriously ill. I visited the public assistance hospital in a neighborhood that most people don’t see. It was difficult and absolutely worth it. My friend told me that it was the first time in the month he’s been in the hospital that he’s felt good, and laughed. Of course it was also very melancholy and when we said “Ci vediamo,” we’ll see you, when I left, we pretended but both knew there’s not much chance. But then I’ve never known when and where I’d see him again. In any case, if you have the chance to visit someone who has been important in your life who is seriously ill, even if it’s difficult and far away, do it.
After my visit I needed to walk, so I walked all the way back to my hotel, basically from Montparnasse to Montmarte, crossing all of Paris. This was a wonderful thing to do. Usually I take the Metro to the Musee D’orsay or some other museum or just wander around the center. I saw so much more of Paris, all the diverse neighborhoods.
First I wandered north to the Pantheon and the Left Bank, with all its students and camping stores and bookstores and cafes. I cut across to the Ile St. Louis and windowshopped along the street, then headed toward the Marais, where I checked in at the Place des Voges. I wandered through the Jewish neighborhood and the gay neighborhood and passed the most chic boutiques. From there I headed east and wandered through a wholesale fashion district, like the cheap ribbon and handbag shops ear 7th avenue in New York. Then I came upon what seemed like a little Chinatown.
I kept angling west and came upon a gallery opening near the Arts-Metiers metro stop (I only had a metro map). It was an interesting Chinese woman who does giant industrial Chinese landscapes and poses in front of them in traditional Chinese dress. The huge photos were good. I was glad I was wearing a black dress and boots because the crowd was unbelievably chic. I sipped some white wine, which was not quite as bad as the wine at an American opening, and then headed northwest again.
Pretty soon I came to an old gate of the city and an area filled with cheap ethnic eateries and shops filled with Chinese goods. It reminded me of 23rd St. in New York, or 14th before they cleaned it up. Mostly Africans, some Middle Eastern people, all those little trench coats and scarves disappeared for a few blocks. I was starting to lose my bearings when the hill started to climb, which meant that I was nearing Montmartre. I finally hit the cheesy tourist shops and, too tired to climb the hill, took the funicular up to the top of the Sacre Couer. From there I dropped down the other side of the hill to the little hotel where I was staing on Rue Lamarck. I had an unexceptional steak and some Languedoc wine and listened to some 80s new wave music as I wrote in my journal before heading back to Hotel de Flore, not a bad place at all for 85 euros, even if it’s about the farthest place in Paris from the public hospital.
Now I’m on my way to London and finally home tomorrow. It’s been an amazing trip, but I am so ready to back to San Francisco. I hope my friends remember me.

Lisbon, like San Francisco

Lisbon, October 13, 2009

I got off the National Geographic Explorer this morning and was quite disoriented to see the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a replica, of course, but made me feel deeply how much I miss San Francisco! I’ve been gone from home too long, 2 ½ months.
That said, I LOVE Lisbon. What a picturesque city. Today is a stunning day, just the right temperature, too hot in the sun and perfect in the shade. This, too, is strange, since a month ago I was sweltering in Sicily, then flew to St. Petersburg where it was abruptly the middle of a cool autumn. Now it really is autumn and I’m back in a tank top and sandals. Strange to go against the seasons on the boat by traveling south.
Before I left the ship I had an amazing experience, the kind of thing that makes Lindblad famous for its journeys. On one of the last evenings I was having a drink at the bar with some of the naturalists, and one of them, Richard White, slipped out. I headed toward my cabin on the deck after that and he came running: “Bioluminescent dolphins surfing on the bow!” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but of course made my way to the bow. I leaned over and there were the glowing silhouettes of six swimming dolphins. They were dancing with each other, really, criss-crossing paths, leaping and diving. It was amazing: the plankton in the water makes them glow independent of the lights from the stars and the ships. We watched them play in the water and then they suddenly came upon a huge school of luminescent fish, fanning out like 1000 firecrackers. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was worth two months on a ship to see those dolphins; a sight of a lifetime. Up there with watching the volcano on Stromboli erupt.
So today we disembarked in Lisbon. I was happy to be on my own again, and on solid ground. It’s been a month since I’ve slept in something other than a mattress on a big waterbed. After a morning tour of monuments—get me off the bus!—we landed at the hotel, and I took off with a couple of friends from the boat for the center of Lisbon. The city is so beautiful, with its tile-faced houses with slender balconies (to allow room for carriages to pass). We wandered up to the castle, had some vinho verde and sardines, and then made our way to Barrio Alta before they departed. Then I was on my own to explore. I wandered around the neighborhood and found the botanical garden, which was full of palms and earthy smells and tulip trees. Then I found a lovely spot above the ocean to watch the sun sink red behind a distant cathedral.
[Note to men: skip this paragraph]. I kept walking along, a little too early for dinner, and not sure where to eat, and wandered in to a little boutique. I’ve resisted all the European boutiques up to now, but this woman had great taste and dresses that look great on me, so, well, we made a little deal and I have a couple of new dresses that make me feel good. That’s not such a bad thing after wearing the same Patagonia clothes for 2 ½ months. I brought too many clothes, anyway. I spent so much time packing into a carry-on and I still brought twice as much stuff as I needed. All you really need is that Patagonia black dress, a couple of Ts, jeans, the Patagonia black pants, and a few scarves and the Patagonia long sweatshirt. Patagucci all the way for a long trip, but now I’m delighted to have a couple of dresses from a French designer at Lisbon prices. The only other purchases on this trip were a pair of Tod’s engineer boots at a used clothing store in Brugge for 100 euros, great deal, and some espadrilles in St. Jean de Luz, a high-heeled black pair by the people who make them for Hermes, and some striped beach sandals, which are darling.
Okay, men, safe to start reading again.
I found dinner in an alley in the upper barrio, some giant squid, which always make me happy. There were some street musicians playing bad Neil Young songs, but they were cute, and looked like they stepped off Haight St. circa 1984.
Lisbon has so many hills and alleys and houises with tiles and red roofs, so lovely. Sorry to have only one day here, but the day was great.
Tomorrow I am off to Paris for the last leg of my trip, on a not completely happy visit, saying hello to a friend who is seriously ill…
The cab driver back to the hotel today asked me where I was from, and when I told him San Francisco, he lit up. “We have the same bridge,” I told him, only ours came first. “We both have seven hills,” he said, and I suppose that is so. I certainly feel at home in Lisbon. I don’t feel at home in the language, though: it seems like Portuguese should be a lot easier if you speak Spanish and Italian. Half the words are completely familiar, but the accent is impenetrable. For now. I’ll be back!


Bilbao/GuggenhaimBilbao/Guggenheim/espadrillesDER October 9

This morning the National Geographic Explorer docked on the outskirts of Bilbao, Spain. Just before daybreak, we disembarked to the sounds of a Basque accordionist at the port and made our way down the River Nervion to the Guggenheim Museum of Contemporary Art. Bilbao, once famous for its shipyards, iron and steel—Shakespeare mentioned the town in Hamlet and the Merry Wives of Windsor–has been reinventing itself as the world’s center of contemporary architecture, with Frank Gehry’s museum as its centerpiece. After many days of exploring towns with gorgeous medieval buildings, it was exciting and refreshing to see that humans are still capable of wonderful architecture.
All the top architects in the world now want to make a statement in Bilbao. On the way to the Guggenheim, we saw many new and not-quite-finished shopping centers, skyscrapers, convention centers, hotels, university libraries, and other developments planned by Pritzker Prize- winning architects, including Cesar Pelli, Zaha Hadid, Arata Isizaki, Alvaro Siza, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Jean Nouvel, among others. It’s amazing to see a city that allows architects free rein with their imaginations, full of sweeping expanses, unexpected lines, and delightful shapes, and which has been experiencing an economic boom as a result, attracting millions of tourists and conferees.
At the Guggenheim, Jeff Koon’s “Puppy,” the 12-meter-tall West Highland terrier, was in full bloom even getting shaggy with its 50,000 flowers (the Puppy is in danger of becoming an even more important icon of Bilbao than the museum). The museum itself—a successful $100 gamble by the city to bring in tourists, opened in 1997–is startling and splendid with its curvilinear walls made of fish-scale titanium and limestone. The building is a massive computer-designed sculpture with an astonishing 55-meter-high glass atrium.
Many people say that the museum is more important than the art it houses, but while the building may be fabulous, it has some equally impressive pieces of modern architecture. Richard Serra’s massive The Matter of Time, completed in 2005 and a site-specific creation for the museum, is an astonishing statement about the nature of space, sculpture itself, and sound. Walking through the seven sculptures, with their curving walls, narrowing spaces, and changing angles, makes one feel at times like walking through a medieval maze of a town. The sculptures challenge your perceptions of space, and create a sense of motion and movement as you walk through them.
We missed the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit by days, but were able to see Jenny Holzer’s cascading neon piece, putting words of love, heartbreak and loss in the idiom of information, advertising, and impersonal information. The exhibit of contemporary photographers was also a highlight, such as Vik Muriz’s huge photographs of delicate portraits etched in dirt and trash, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s time-lapse photos of entire films shot in drive-in theatres. Sophie Calle exhibited one of her complicated games, “The Shadow,” in which she had herself followed by a detective to present “photographic evidence of my existence,” and also photos of the spaces where the Flinck and Vermeer paintings used to be exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, before they were stolen in 1990, with reflections from people who work in the museum about the images.
After our morning visit to the Guggenheim, we made our way to an overlook of the town, and back to the ship, where, once again at sea, we enjoyed Spanish tapas (boquerones, chorizo, lomo, manchego cheese) and wine (Rueda, Toro) on the aft deck. Que rico!

Copenhagen and Christiana

Copenhagen- September 28, 2009

Like Stockholm, Copenhagen is a city I immediately felt comfortable in, one I could spend a lot of time in, if not live there. Everyone seems so cheerful after all the formerly Soviet countries we visited, riding around the tidy town on their bicycles. The Explorer docked right near the little Mermaid, which is a small and fairly unimpressive statue for such a large tourist attraction.
Copenhagen is perfect for wandering, though all streets seem to lead to a shopping district, the center street of which is full of the same kinds of chain stores you find anywhere in the world (with the exception of Ivan Grundahl, who is my favorite designer–even though I’m not much of a shopper, his stuff is more like art—and good thing I had a friend who could do math along to assure me that 3400 kroner was far too much to pay, even for the most gorgeous dress in the world). We had to get off on the little side streets to see some interesting Copenhagen design.
My friend Casey and I found a lovely botanical garden and made our way back to the little harbor where we had our fill of herring, enough to send him back to the States having satisfied his Scandanavian-rooted appetite. That evening the group from the first journey disembarked, along with Casey, and I felt quite alone. I was happy National Geographic photographers Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coultson invited me to their house, only a ten-minute walk from the ship in the rain, for dinner. Sisse made all kinds of Danish treats—herring, rye bread—along with wonderful salads. Their apartment was full of gorgeous art and photographs; their own photographs are on their website,
I was glad to have a second day in Copenhagen, where I saw the opera house and then wandered with a shipmate over to Christiana, a town within a town, which the locals call “Freetown.” You know you’re approaching when you see graffitied walls and smell the wafts of pot in the air. The town began in 1971, when locals knocked down a fence to a military area to acquire a playground for kids in the green space between the apartment blocks. Over time, people began to squat in the former military barracks. An alternative newspaper, “Hovedbladet,” or “Head Magazine,” published an article about Christiana with the headline, “Emigrate with bus number 8.” Squatters and anarchists came from all over the country. The police tried to remove the people a few times, but gave up. In 1972, Christiana came to an arrangement with the Ministry of Defence, which owns the area, about paying for electricity and water, and was approved as a “social experiment.” In 1973, the government did a turn-around, and Christiana was abolished. Struggles continued, squatters refused to move, and Christiana started a lot of communal baths, children’s houses, garbage sorting, recycling, communal shops, and workshops. Rock groups made a hugely successful record in support of Christiana.

Christiana became a haven for drug dealers, with its lawlessness, and members of the community tried to team up with the police to get hard drugs out of the area; instead, the hash traders were busted, too. In 1980, Christiana took matters into its own hands and declared that junk dealers had to dry out or move out; dealers were removed. In 1994, Copenhagen authorities once again tried to bust the hash dealers, but gave up after a series of hearings with locals. In 1997 Christiana introduced its own currency. In 2000, Bob Dylan came for two sold-out concerts. Now Christiana is Copenhagen’s second-largest tourist destination, with several restaurants, workshops, crafts stalls, and alternative health centers.
After all that history, I was expecting Christiana to be a tidy little hippy utopia, but in fact it was one of the grimmest places I’ve ever visited. The people who lived there seemed tough and unfriendly. The place was dirty, especially compared with clean Copenhagen—I saw piles of trash with rats. Everywhere it looked like the Rainbow Gathering had built itself some haphazard houses. There were pockets of beauty in the place, but overall it seemed ramshackle and hard. We went in to a little hut for some morning coffee, and watched the locals come in with their dogs. Everyone looked like an old hippy: The last remnants of hair piled on top of a guy’s head in a bun, scruffy dress, lined faces, dreadlocks. Hash was available at the bar and on Pusher Street, where people spread out blocks of hash in stalls (they didn’t take credit cards ☺).
Christiana wasn’t a happy place; the people seemed beaten down, not free.
I was happy to leave Christiana to meet Sisse on her bicycle for a traditional lunch of smorrebrod, traditional Danish open-face sandwiches; I picked one of herring in a sherry marinade and tried another pork one with crispy skin. A great restaurant: Slotskaelderen Hos Gitte Kik, Fortunstraede 4 (make a reservation: 33 12 61 25). Sisse took me windowshopping before she left on her bike and I reboarded the ship for the next voyage of the Explorer: the European Odyssey.
A couple of notes on Copenhagen authors:
–Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1805 near Copenhagen, and died in 1875. As a child he made puppet shows and could recite the works of Shakespeare. After his father died, he sang at the Royal Danish Theatre until his voice changed, when he was encouraged to write poetry. A patron paid his way to school. As a young writer, he met Dickens, his idol. Ten years later, he visited England, mainly to visit Dickens. He stayed there for 5 weeks, oblivious to hints to leave. Dickens’ daughter wrote of him, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” After he left, Dickens published David Copperfield, with the obsequious Uriah Heep, who is said to be modeled on Anderson. He had a lot of unfulfilled relationships until his most lasting, in his 50s, with a dancer named Harald Scharff.
Best known for his folk tales and fairy tales, he broke new ground in using the idioms and constructions of the spoken language in his books. He identifies a lot with the unfortunate and the outcast. The Princess and the Pea, the Little Mermaid, the Match Girl, the Ugly Duckling, the Red Shoes, and the Snow Queen are children’s classics. April 2, Andersen’s birthday, is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.

–Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). A wonderful storyteller, Karen Blixen was born in 1885 in Denmark to a privileged family and lived a remarkable life. Her grandfather, Adolph Wilhelm, was a soldier, and traveled through Italy for a while, joining up with his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen between Milan and Rome. In her biography of Dinesen, Judith Thurman writes how Andersen, not yet famous, was large-nosed, effusive, virginal and greedy to be loved. Dinesen, a little younger, was peremptory, dogmatic, self-centered, and good-looking. He got fed up with the sensitive artiste and went his own way. “How very much,” Andersen wrote in his journal, “I have learned from this young, determined person, who has so often hurt me in my affection for him. If only I had his character, even with its flaws. Adieu, D!”
Dinesen began publishing under a pseudonym—she had many—of Osceola, the name of a Seminole Indian leader, a nod to her father’s connection with the Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, among whom he lived from 1872 to 1873 (Karen Blixen is the name on her tombstone). Close to her father, when he hanged himself with Karen was nine because he was diagnosed with syphilis and didn’t want to endure a feeble end, it was a big blow. She married her second cousin, Baron Blixen, and immigrated to Africa on the eve of World War I, where they had a coffee plantation and became big game hunters. She had a passionate affair with Denys Finch Hatton; after her divorce she continued to operate the plantation for 10 eyars until, the farm failing, she was forced to return to Denmark. She remains one of Europe’s great storytellers, and the author of the magnificent memoir, Out of Africa. More characteristic are her polished Romantic tales, which have a feeling of folk and fairy tales. Winter’s Tales is the most Danish of her books, filled with descriptions of rural Danish life and mythology, as well as the landscape—its stillness and light.
One of my favorites is Anecdotes of Destiny. Stories of “Tempests” and European fables. “Babette’s feast: mysterious Frenchwoman prepares a sumptuous feast for a gather if religious ascetics and introduces them to the true essence of grace. In “The Immortal Story,” a miserly sea-trader turns an oft-told sailor’s tale into reality for a young man and woman. In Ehrengard, the relationship between a noble Wagnerian beauty and a rakish artist.
Another is Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow). This book (1992) set in Copenhagen by a Danish author, is a mystery that also delves deep into Danish society. Brought to Denmark from Greenland as a child, Smilla investigates the death of a neighbor’s child whom she befriended—which leads to decades-old conspiracies in Copenhagen and then a voyage on an icebreaker ship to a remote island off the Greenlandic coast, where the truth is discovered. Great for a sea voyage!
Hans Christian Anderson, The Complete Fairy Tales
Isak Dinesen: Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (includes the story “Babette’s Feast)
Winter’s Tales
Isak Dinesen: The Life of Storyteller, by Judith Thurman (winner of the National Book Award).
Peter Hoeg: Smilla’s Sense of Snow