Archive for August, 2012

Portugal and our first art residence

August 23, 2012

We arrived in San Sebastian from Bilbao by bus, to take the overnight train to Coimbra in Portugal. When the train arrived (on time) at around 10:30 we were ushered to our torture chamber, I mean our private room aboard the train. The private enclose was two inches larger than tiny. They did have a shower with plenty of hot water. Immediately we went to the dining car and had supper. The food was pleasant and we almost finished a bottle of  very nice white wine. I did think that an egg omelet was a surprising appetizer selection at 11 p.m. We then retired to out room for a pleasant night’s sleep. Sleep on a train? No bloody chance. It bounced, banged, wobbled and every part in the cabin squeaked.

In the morning I got our first look at Portugal as we clicked and clacked along. It was  dry, dusty and there were olive trees and fruit trees everywhere. Morning breakfast was, as opposed to the luscious supper,  plain continental— coffee and bread and jam. I could have used the egg omelet I ate the night before for an appetizer.

We finally made it to Coimbra and stayed one night at the Oslo (Don’t ask why the name) Hotel. It was clean, and thank God very quiet. Coimbra is a Portuguese college town—-fortunately or unfortunately the kids were not in school. We wandered around strangers in a strange land. Our knowledge of Spanish did help us read the signage but speaking or understanding the spoken word, forget it.  The Portuguese understood the Spanish, but answered in Portuguese which we couldn’t understand.Generally the difference between Spanish and Portuguese words is about one or two syllables, but the words are pronounced totally differently.

The next day we took a bus to Tondela Portugal where we were met and taken to Lobao da Biera,  the village where the ArtTerra artist residence is located. We were now in a very small village in the countryside of Portugal. The village name is translated as “big wolf.” Many years ago they had wolves and the local joke is anyone who does not show up for an appointment, or the kids are absent from school were eaten by the wolves.

The Portuguese people here in our little village are down to Earth — In more ways than one. All the houses have big yards and I mean EVERY person has a garden with grape vines, peach, apple, pear trees, Brussel sprouts, orange trees, olives etc. etc, etc.I am told the grapes are used to make homemade wine or sold to the local winery. The Portuguese drink wine. This is not a beer or distilled spirits culture.

The ArtTerra art residence is quiet — I’m talking 6 cars a day roll by on the street not counting the many tractors. The ambient noise of the village reminds you of Mexico in the early morning — Roosters, barking dogs, and church bells.

Food in Portugal? Plenty of fish, salted Cod and sardines. We had BBQ sardines last week and…and…well, I like salmon better although the sardines on the bbq weren’t bad and they are much larger than the canned variety. The hostess also cooked clams and they were wonderful.

Anita and I have been working our artistic butts off daily and enjoying the time creating. In this small town we really don’t have much else to do so we work on our art with little distraction. We alternate cooking lunch. She is trying to turn me into a rabbit, we have a salad with every meal she cooks and complains if I don’t make salad with EVERY meal I do. I draw the line on a salad with breakfast however. The woman who runs the place is a joy. Besides running the residency she is an actress and does voice over work in Lisbon. Her husband, like most young Portuguese who ARE working, (unemployment is high) has three jobs—he works on weekends as an accountant, works most days in an auto body shop and manages to work as a sound technician when he can. There is a small sound studio here at the residence. With all the gardens and an organic farm close by the vegetables and fruit truly have been wonderful and unbelievably flavorful. Now we know how veggies and fruit really should taste. We also try to take daily walks around the village which we find quite quaint and charming.

This past week we spent several days in the city of Porto, Portugal’s second largest city and in the north west part of the country on the Atlantic Ocean. Porto is responsible for the Port in Portugal and of course port wine. The city is a World Heritage city and (see pictures) very beautiful. The downside of the city it has been hard hit by the economic recession and every block has several houses for sale or a house falling down.  We wandered around for three days visiting a nice art museum, taking a boat trip on the river and walking along the Atlantic shore.  If you come to Portugal see Porto. They also have the world’s fanciest McDonalds (see pictures.)

Our next stop is Lisbon for a week and then on to another art residence in Mertola, which is in the far south part of the country and highly influenced by a Moorish presence.

Peace, love and red wine. Michael and Anita

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Bilbao & San Sebastian, Spain

August 10, 2012

This blog is less travel and more economic commentary on Spain. We left France and (Paris, which is not exactly France) and the French economically are still living the good life. But Spain is one of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) and these countries are the ones in the news, all struggling with their economies, all needing bailouts. Spain has 24% unemployment and half of the young adults are unemployed, so I assumed the country would be visibly hurting and the world wide recession would be in the streets in Spain. Wrong. The tapas are bueno and the wine still flows in Spain. The city of Bilbao is in the north part of Spain, Basque country they proudly proclaim, most of the public signage is in Spanish and Basque. The Basque language really likes the letter X in words. Bilbao is a medium size city, unhurried and there are no empty shops along the main street and no signs of any recession. I was a bit confused. What austerity? After walking around I think it is fair to say the city is on impulse power (think you Star Trek) only. During the go-go days of the 1990s and early XXI Century the city was on an economic rocket ship to the stars. The world famous Guggenheim foundation built a spectacular art museum there in 1997 and it was the talk of the country and the world. Bilbao was destined to become one of Europe’s glittering cities. Then in 2008 Spain and the rest of the world suffered an economic collapse. So now Bilbao is limping along like the rest of Spain, the downtown is calm and not much goes on. Car traffic is minimal which is an indicator of troubled times. One exception is the Iberdrola building (see picture) is 40 stories higher than anything in town and out of place architecturally. Iberdrola is a private energy company in over forty countries on four continents serving 30 million people. It is undoubtedly the only real powerhouse in employment in Bilbao. The international bank in Bibao BBVA, one of the institutions of greatness prior to 2008 is a zombie bank, dependent upon the kindness of the Euro zone. One of the problems and benefits of an EU currency for all the countries is it gives the illusion of stability for the countries in trouble. Normally, like in the USA, our problems have driven down the value of the almighty dollar, we have had to devalue the dollar against most other countries. For all of the countries in the EU the Euro is not devalued and those with jobs and money, most of the people, are doing just fine, gracias, due to the overall strength of the currency. So far. As for the people in Spain, they still take a 3 hour lunch break from 1 to 4 p.m. and the women’s fashion boutiques and shoe stores dot the main street. At night after 8 p.m. when the Spanish end work they fill the bars and cafes. In the old city of Bilbao it is a delight to sit in the plazas and order tapas and wine and drink until midnight with the Spaniards. In Bilbao,  (we have not traveled to the rest of Spain and I have “heard” it is much worse in other parts of the country) times are not the best, but but not the worse.

End of economic lecture. Bllbao is very clean and they have human street sweepers who work all day cleaning the streets. They also have the “green sidewalk monster” (see photo) who work day and night sweeping the streets and sidewalks, and practically running  people down. The city built a modern tram in the go-go years and it is not very crowded. We spent a day at the world famous Guggenheim museum. The featured artist with a one man show was the English painter David Hockney. With the price of admission you get free head phones that explains the paintings and give short narratives by the artists about their work. Their museum’s art collection was all  contemporary and they share their collection with the NYC  museum. BTW, the metal used on the outside of the building (see photos) is made of titanium. The other days we wandered about the city, visited the Bilbao art museum and did a walking tour of the old city. We took a bus from Bilbao to San Sebastian, Spain about an hour west to catch an overnight train to Portugal. San Sebastian is known for its food and glorious ocean beach. The city is gorgeous, the streets wide and beautiful new buildings everywhere except in the old city where there are beautiful old buildings. If there is any depression in Spain it is NOT in San Sebastian. The sidewalks were plastered with tourists surging everywhere. The golden sand beach (see pictures) must have had 20,000 people. (Note: The beach is topless and hopefully we didn’t’ t include any bare breasts to offend people who are reading out blog. Sorry, I tried guys.) Vacationers in San Sebastian were 20 deep waiting to buy ice cream and curio shops were on every corner. It seemed every street had performers of some kind. As a street performer in my youth and not performing at all in over an a year, it was a struggle not join in some of the fun. Next installment, the overnight train and on to Portugal and finally arriving at ArtTerra artist residence.

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Paris, final days

August 1, 2012

We took a night time cruise on the Seine. The cruise started at 9 p.m. and there was light out until almost 10:30. The Seine is a working river especially for large (250 plus people) boats. It seems all the bridges in Paris commemorate some historical event and they only build new bridges that way. Fortunately for France they do a lot of historical events so bridge building (in Paris) is alive and well.

We went to a lovely park on Sunday for an international jazz concert. Some old African American “jazz legend” (We all know you have to be old to be a legend. If you die then you are “dead old Jazz legend?”) The park was filled with Parisians enjoying the sunny day with food and wine (what else) What was missing was I bet not one French man or woman was using sun block. The sun is rarely, or semi rarely shines here and any time the sun comes out people go “Sun-atic” as opposed to lunatic. 3 days later I noticed too many young French men and women glowing with sun burns on the Metro. Anita and I were lathered up with SPF 70 or better. I’ve never been whiter.

We took several “free” walking tours of Paris except you have to tip the guide around 10 Euros each at the end. “Free” has lost meaning I am finding in the world. Again we were lectured on small facts about a buildings history, famous/infamous people who lived in the neighborhood and other bits of trivia. One area we walked through is the Marais, the old Jewish part of Paris. There is a memorial wall, the Shoah memorial, to deceased people who were considered righteous and helped or hid Jews when the Nazis occupied the city during WW2. This neighborhood has also become the very trendy art/gay area of Paris with great shopping and lots of galleries. As mentioned we took several walking tours of Paris, the other being to the Latin quarter and the area around the Sorbonne.

The French in Paris: If you have been to Paris you quickly realize that the French here, the Parisians, are…I think the word is… aloof. They never walk the streets with a smile on their face nor look at people and smile. Amsterdam folks were like that too. I guess people from other large US cities are also that way, a little too self possessed and feel no need to “be nice.” Many of the French spoke English, but when you asked some of them they said “oui”, but with the understanding that they were doing you a favor.

We went to a jazz club Wednesday night in the Latin Quarter and the band was OK. They played more rock and blues than jazz. Miles Davis played there in the 50s. A small glass of Guinness and a bottle of hard cider were 18 Euros, but the cover was free. As I mentioned above “free” has lost its connection with meaning. Maybe I am just finding this out.
One positive matter to report is that the drivers in Paris do stop at red lights. I was a little amazed at that. Traffic is not congested in most of Paris. People here use the Metro to get around and we did every day and are now experts on the Metro of Paris (Questions?) The Metro is great. I do miss the entertainers and vendors you find on the Mexico City metro though. Paris riders are a silent glum group. The majority are on their smart phones playing games, texting or listening to music.

France (the economic report): As some of you may know I am an eclectic guy and I am interested, or take an interest in the “dismal science” of economics. Again, as all of you know, Europe is going through an economic recession just like the US. But not in France. The French are still living in a bubble of good economic times. The wine flows, the cheese and bakeries are jammed, the cafes are crowded, young women still wear dresses and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day to look cosmopolitan and stay thin—To digress, there was an article I read about French girls and they start smoking at 15 and are allowed to smoke at school. They recently stopped the practice of the kids smoking in class. Yea, really. The article said French women would rather smoke than gain weight. And you thought American young women had “issues” about their self image—Anyway, hurry and get here before the French have economic problems— AND ECONOMIC BAD TIMES ARE COMING TO FRANCE. But right now all is good and gay (old meaning of the adjective) in Paris. Wine is cheap and good.

Anita and I took the visual artist spiritual journey to the home of Monet in Giverny. It is about an hour’s travel by train out of Paris. Monet is the father of impressionism and one of the greatest artists of the the 19th/20th Century. Anita sat on a bench in the garden and did a small water color.

The last day in Paris we went to our last museum—the Musee del Monde Arabe. Basically it was Arabic art and had a special show on nudity in Arabic art. Of course art with the nude body was repressed (and may still be) in the Islamic world. Kind of interesting. They had one video exhibit (I’m not making this up) of two guys playing ping pong with a nude women laying across the table as sort of a net.

Scattered thoughts: France is not a coffee culture. Coffee at cafes is served in the smallest possible cup, expensive and not very good…checkout clerks at grocery stores sit down behind the registers…Paris has more ornate buildings in the world, most in good repair…there are one too many women’s clothing stores in Paris… On to Spain, Ole!


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