Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Travelogue 86 -- June 29
Fictions, Part One

I haven't been to this theater before. There are about four or five discount movie theaters in the area. This one's in a suburb called Roseville, (which hosts the mall called Rosedale, as opposed to Southdale or Brookdale ….) It shares space with a run-down supermarket. The seats are slowly collapsing forward. The lobby seems vaguely eastern European, and the theater is dank. But we're here to beat the humidity and while away some time. I get a chance to escape obsession over my foundation. We're going to travel to the Sahara: that's the name of the movie. We pull up for the late show, just as the summer sun settles into its bed of angry reds.

The movie is better than expected. That means it's entertaining. That means it has beautiful co-stars. That means it’s unbelievable in less irritating ways than most Hollywood productions. It’s set in Africa. It begins in Nigeria and moves into Mali, both of which are real countries. The last Hollywood movie I saw that was set in Africa, “The Interpreter,” made up a country. The Mali in “Sahara” is ruled by a photogenic, evil general named Kazim. Hollywood claims a lot of dramatic license in Africa.

Maybe it’s that Hollywood identifies a kinship with Africa. There’s something otherworldly about both. I visit Hollywood the night before I leave LA. I stroll Hollywood Boulevard with Carolyn, Ben, and Lauren. I’m unabashedly staring. It’s been twenty years since I’ve been in Hollywood. It has evolved. Note: there is a reason we have separate words for “improve” and “evolve.”

There are helicopters hovering noisily overhead. Ben says it’s either a premier or a pursuit, two of the most characteristic of LA happenings. There’s activity ahead. The boulevard is blocked in front of Grahman’s Chinese with cop cars and tape. We advance.

It’s late at night. We encounter a group of break dancers. They’ve gathered a small crowd, many of whom seem more interested in their own dancing. We pass Marilyn and Elvis impersonators. We pass a clown who is apparently on break. He’s smoking and gossiping with friends, and I remark how his face paint loses coherence without the actor’s participation. We pass tables where Scientologists are staring down their would-be converts. The signs on their tables say, “Stressed?”

They’ve built a huge mall on Hollywood Boulevard. Above it are strange monuments – homage to the old movie “Hollywood Babylon”, Ben says – huge elephants and a pseudo-ancient gateway. We’re closing in on the block in question. Ben’s guessing it’s a premier. Maybe it’s because on one side of the street is a movie theater lit to noontime intensity advertising “Herbie.” A cop is pulling down tape. Competing with the roar of the copters, we ask. It was a pursuit.

We only have a minute to prowl the courtyard at Grauman’s Chinese, looking over the handprints. I came here several times when I was a kid, sticking my tiny hands in the wells left by the greats. We head back down the boulevard, and I watch the stars in the sidewalk, test myself. We stop in at Musso and Frank’s, an old-time Hollywood watering hole. Dark wood and red lights and golden wallpaper above us, depicting pheasants in the woods. We sit at the bar, and Lauren tells me about Fung Shui and her movie career. I’m guessing Carolyn and Ben are discussing restaurants. Carolyn is a connoisseur. I’ve done a lot of fine dining on this trip, and I’m starting to enjoy it.

I’m thinking of the plane flight into LA. It’s mid-afternoon. My view of the sprawl is too clear. I’m leaning my head against the cabin wall, staring down at the grey blocks and highways unfolding. I’m thinking I may pick out the neighborhood I grew up in. I’m thinking it’s funny I’ve my hair grown out, so it looks just about the way it used to when I lived in California. I’m thinking, “My God, I hate this place.” A week later, staying up late in Hollywood, I have to admit to Ben that I’ve had a good time. It might be the first time I’ve had anything nice to say about California.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Travelogue 85 -- June 25
In Our Skins

I'm back on my bike, headed toward the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis's notorious modern art museum. The sun is intense. It heats the stew we're all moving through, the Midwestern humidity. Everything glares and the glare swims. I'm making very slow progress, stopping every chance I can, for coffee, or for a bit of staring at the green grass in a park. Vaguely, I worry about my skin. I brought back a bit of brown from my week in LA. Carolyn's dad, whom we visited in Oxnard on Father's Day, was telling me about his periodic visits to the doctor, where they burn off the proliferating little skin cancers that always come back. He served in embassies in Africa and Australia and New Zealand. Skin is my only distressing thought. I stare at the grass, savoring the fun of the trip.

I'm going to see Paul Auster talk at the Walker. He's a contemporary author, another one whom I don't know whether I like or not. After eleven novels, I'm not sure what's he's said. He's more interesting talking about art than producing it -- a common phenomenon these days. But I enjoy seeing the Walker, just re-opened after a major expansion. The first time I saw the new building was in a story in Newsweek that I read on the trip home from Ethiopia. It's the first effort by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron in America. They're big in Europe, and they're designing the Olympic stadium in China.

I saw the new Walker from the freeway a few times, once I was back. It looks like a grey box standing insolently over the tangled skeins of traffic on Hennepin Avenue and on the freeway, beside the brick box of the old Walker, which stands beside the glass front of the old Guthrie Theater. (The Guthrie is getting new digs of its own by the river. The building is just taking shape, looking like a stout tugboat with a rounded bow and two planks for bad performers, all being covered in skin like midnight blue glass.) In front of these two venerable cultural institutions is the sculpture garden and its hedges, and the iconic cherry-and-spoon sculpture. Behind is one of the few sets of hills in flat Minneapolis, home to our own little Beverly Hills, Kenwood.

The new building is a grey box. From a distance, it could be dull plastic. Closer, there's a sheen to it. The surface undulates. "Herzog and de Meuron are into skins," a Walker worker tells me. This "skin" is made of aluminum tiles that are actually fine screens and shaped with wavy patterns. They were put in place randomly, according to a plan generated by a computer. All materials were cheap and local, dictated by the philosophy of the architects. Inside is fun; there are no straight lines. Halls meander; you walk uphill and down among white walls and strange shapes.

Frank Gehry doesn't like straight lines, either -- (though I'm told he hates the new Walker.) Carolyn and I get a tour of his new building in downtown LA, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The inside is crooked and unpredictable, like the Walker's, like a carpeted maze, where views over railings take in several other floors. Windows and skylights show you bits of superstructure and the back sides of those wild silver wings that surround the exterior. The outside, the skin, will remind you of the Weisman here in Minneapolis, also designed by Gehry, with its gleaming metallic curves. Apparently, when the concert hall first went up, its crazy walls, burnished to mirror intensity, were baking neighbors in their apartments. The walls have been brushed now to a duller glow. Still, when I step outside after the tour, I'm squinting painfully from the LA sun off silver walls and white pavement and car chrome. It's all a bit dizzying.

Downtown LA is coming back, they'll tell you. I remember it from years ago as silent-film era brick and stone with dirty sidewalks hosting hordes of homeless and poor Mexicans. That still exists, down by Broadway. Some of the architecture there is gorgeous, and sadly neglected. Carolyn points out the grand old theaters, open only once a year for admirers. But walk down in numbers, and up the hill, past Pershing Square Park, and you emerge on this shining plateau, presided over by the concert hall.

Carolyn takes me to work one day. She works at the Getty Center in the hills above West LA. I wander the complex all day, somewhat blissed. And why wouldn't I be blissed? It's as close as I've ever seen to heaven in modern architecture. No modern building has seduced me into believing in human potential like this one. For skin, this set of structures has Italian travertine, big blocks cut to preserve its textures, and cut to exhibit hundreds of fossilized leaves. The Center glows on its hilltop, especially as the sun sinks toward the hills to the west. You can stand on a variety of beautiful terraces, looking out over Brentwood and Bel Air, or over hazy LA all the way to downtown, or over the hills to the sea. You meander among buildings designed by people with a refreshingly classical taste of beauty. You meander among fountains and meditative niches between buildings, where stones sit in suggestive little arrangements. You amble down through a wonderfully tasteful garden that is oriented toward the Pacific. You return to the galleries, where you stand in front of Monet or Van Gogh's "Irises" or Renoir's "Promenade" among a rabble of school children. I suppose children do get admission into heaven, though maybe they won't be as noisy in the real thing.

And here it is at the Getty, it must be said, that I met my first knight. Carolyn has made an appointment for me with "Sir Ken," who works in their education program. I'm not sure whether to bow. I wouldn't do it properly, anyway, so I make myself uncomfortable on the edge of the chair, and I marvel, as he addresses me genially enough. I marvel how much he looks and sounds like Michael Caine.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Travelogue 84 -- June 15
Neighborhoods, Part Three

Just up the coast from Duino, the train stops at a town called Monfalcone. I stop at Monfalcone. I have my bag with me. I used up my two nights at the James Joyce, and all other hotels are full. Besides, I'm sick of the Teutonic haughtiness of Trieste people. I have to stay in the area because I fly out of here in a few days. Monfalcone is close to the airport. It's a short ride from Trieste. It's a couple hours from Venice, which I'll revisit on my last day in Italy.

Monfalcone is a port city. You walk downhill from the station. People look at you curiously. There's a small downtown, with cafes and restaurants and a miniature basilica not yet a hundred years old, adorned with a mosaic of a big-eared Ambrose. There aren't many hotels. The first one I see is far too expensive. The second is little less. I sigh and ask the clerk where I can find a cheaper hotel. "You can't," she drawls. She looks at me with classic Italian indolence. Her eyes are bright blue, though her hair is black. "Okay," she starts again, and she offers me a lower price. I ask again. There must be somewhere cheaper. She reacts with lazy irritation; she lowers the price again. I shake my head sadly. In her languorous accent, she continues the argument, touting the virtues of the hotel. She's kind of pretty. She's gangly. She bites her nails. She has a big nose in a long face, but there's sex appeal. Maybe it's the "wonder bra." Later, she proudly tells me all about it. This is Lisa. I begin to haggle, having fun now. She eyes me with heavy shades of irony. We find her last price, and I agree, though I shouldn't pay that much. Over the weekend, she tells the story of my haggling to all her co-workers, with a mischievous grin.

"Why do you stop in Monfalcone?" she asks with distaste. She hates the place. It's so boring. She likes Trieste, where she went to school. She's from Trento in the north. She lives here with her boyfriend, Ranieri, which I think is a great name, especially so near Duino. But he has sexual problems. I hear all about them over wine that night. She wants children very badly, and the problems make that difficult. She sighs and shrugs. She attacks. "America," she spits. "It's a culture of violence." She laments over Iraq. I nod. I say it reminds me of Mussolini in Ethiopia. She smirks and drops it. When I say I don't like the people in Trieste, that I think they're snobbish, she says, "What do you expect? You look like a German tramp." I laugh. I'm happy with that.

Lisa promises to take me to a nice beach town nearby, but she doesn't. Instead, she takes me home the next night and makes me dinner. I'm surprised by her place. It's a picture from a bourgeois magazine, stainless steel in the kitchen, huge TV screen in the salon, cabinets with doors of smoked glass. She shows me her collection of lingerie and then starts cooking. I get to hear more about Ranieri's sexual dysfunction, and some about other men. There's a famous professor in Venice who takes a shine to her. He won't touch her, except for her feet. He keeps stool samples. She shrugs dramatically. "Why do I find these men?" She smokes and smokes. "You don't mind?"

Her co-worker in the day shift is a stout, grizzled old fellow who arrives on a Vespa. He reads crosswords under his glasses and glances wryly at Lisa when she tells her stories, implying he doesn't want to know. She tells him about her new negligee. "Hmm," he replies. Her co-worker at night is a young guy. She tells me he has three girlfriends. He nods contentedly. We pour ourselves sangria from the counter stock. They talk rapid fire and I almost understand. They laugh. He says Lisa's bed is even cheaper than the deal she gave me at the hotel. She informs him with an evil grin than I am a gentleman. A friend of the other night clerk mistakes the schedule and comes in with a black hooker. Lisa stares balefully. After they make their retreat, she comments, "They say white men take black wives because they want slaves." I tell her she's full of shit. She grins and fixes me with girlish blue eyes. In the morning, I'm sad. "Lisa, I'm leaving for London." She smiles, and those round, blue eyes take a moment to rise to meet mine. She shrugs.

Arrivals and arrivals. I make it to Psycho Susie's, the bar in Northeast Minneapolis next to the car wash, the one with the line of motorcycles in the parking lot. Entering the patio area, you wade through dense stares. These are the hoi polloi of hipness. The waitresses are exhibitions of blue and green and orange skin. I find my table. They're a boisterous group. It’s Stella's birthday. She introduces all the woman. They've nearly all slept with one another at one time or another. I can't keep track. They shoot each other with water pistol watches. Talk turns to sex, and turns again to sex. I learn some things I didn’t know. I have more indirect proof of Woman's elusive libido. It capers about before me in the dusk, dancing among the sprays of water from plastic clocks, among the bawdy laughter. I don't fit in at all. I'm happy. I'm home.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Travelogue 83 -- June 13
Neighborhoods, Part Two

There's not a soul on the street as I bike. I don't mind. It exaggerates the eerie beauty of the sundown. Just me and the animals. Their kingdom has gone riot. While we of the dominant species scrupulously observe our routines, the animals crowd into our yards. Every day now, I see baby grackles hopping around the grass irritably, while a parent screeches at it from the safety of a tree limb. It looks up at me with exasperation. "Yeah," I say, "that's kind of how it goes in this world. You may as well play along." I keep an eye out for cats. This very morning, as I exit my daily café, my cute barista is bent over a baby bird gasping on the window sill. Its gangly half-wings are spread. Its bill is gaping angrily. She's shooing it with an ad for a local band, until the poor thing has retreated along the sill away from the sidewalk and into a doorway. The human shrugs to me with a sunny smile. "That's better, isn't it?"

With a shrug and a mordant smile, the hotel clerk acquiesces. He doesn't have to give me the cut rate on a holiday weekend. But it's the first quote he gave me over the phone. Maybe it's because there's construction going on outside the window. Maybe it’s because he's Croatian, and details are all a matter of shrugs to a Slav. He's as friendly as they get in this town, which means he always greets me with an ambiguous grin, and he modulates his sarcasm. I usually find him slouching outside with a cigarette.

This neighborhood of Trieste, just south of the great piazza, seems to be the analogy to New York's Village or Minneapolis' Uptown: where the hipsters have built nests. There are strange little cafes with alternative flair, manned by people with unorthodox hair and humble mien -- that half-friendly, half-mocking fatalism that marks the savviest youth these days. There are lots of people walking dogs in the late afternoon as I explore. They stop for earnest hello's among themselves and then push on. I push on with my exploration, passing pretty but forlorn little parks, passing Svevo in bronze, but eventually the town exhausts itself against the steep hills that run into the sea. Uphill are residential streets into the clouds. I turn back. This is it -- Trieste: a gem of imperial beauty abandoned to this somber bunch of dog-walkers. In the day, they dress up and jostle each other along the avenues. They don't look up.

One night, there's a classical choral performance in the church of San Nicola by the water. I arrive early, but not early enough for a seat. I stand behind the reserved seats in the middle, most of which remain empty until the show is well under way. Shrewder people have arrived early enough for the beautiful wooden benches along the sides. I'm excited. The combination of nations that is so unfortunate out on the street should make magic with the opera. Indeed, once we finally get going, the spectacle is dazzling: the choir, all women, stand in black evening gowns in the midst of this sumptuous Orthodox church that is choked with icons and silver and electric candles. The music soars. The locals check each other out. The citizens with reserved seats stagger their late entries for effect. I've made the mistake of carrying in the books I've had with me all day. I keep them in a plastic bag. Afraid to rustle, I stand still on the stone floor until my hips and knees and ankles are screaming. I beat an early retreat.

The next day, I take the bus up to Duino. There, a small castle clings to the rocky coast just north of Trieste, the humble retreat of a princely family that owns it to this day. The von Thurn und Taxis were an enlightened bunch, fond of inviting artists and poets like Rilke, who made the place famous with his Duino Elegies. The bus drops you off right at the castle entrance, in the heart of the tiny town, which is really only a few cafes and some winding residential streets. You take the tour of the castle and its gardens, looking at family portraits, climbing the tower, gazing out windows over the sea. When you're done, you walk down the street to where the "Rilke" trail, (having nothing to do with the poet, in actuality,) leads you along the top of spectacular cliffs all the way to the nearby town of Sistiana, where yachters gather in a pretty half moon bay. You try to compose poems as you walk. Or, when it's clear the Muse has abandoned this coast, you improvise limericks.

There was a young man named Maria
Who never once practiced santeria
Instead he wrote lines
For circular minds
Saying love is God's best panacea.

And then you give it up, and you look at the blue sea instead.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Travelogue 82 -- June 6
Neighborhoods, Part One

I'm happy. I'm bicycling to Psycho Susie's. That's a bar in Northeast Minneapolis where there's a large outdoor patio, where the waitresses all have extravagant tattoos, where I'm due to meet Scottie and a merry pack of lesbians for a birthday party. I'm happy. The sun has been out a few days now, even as it dodges stubborn legions of clouds. Right now, it's setting and teasing the clouds with blasts of pink. I'm biking through blocks and miles of peaceful neighborhoods, house after staid house. The sky and its gentle colors seems like an extension of the neighborhood, a field of contentment. I'm so happy it starts to feel like a burden.

You travel up the east coast of Italy, up past Venice, and you might notice a certain change in atmosphere. For a while, it seems like a normal day on the Italian trains. Black-haired students jabber; a businessman spars on the cell phone; an old woman trains unwavering black eyes on you and frowns. Outside, the fields roll by, punctuated by cute towns and their small stations. Tame hills undulate out to the horizon. And then, you may notice some of the teenage girls getting on have rosier cheeks than they should. Some are blonde. But they chatter blithely on with the same twang as the rest, popping bubble gum in their teeth, and oblivious to strangers, just like any Italian kids. There's something disturbingly Aryan about them, nevertheless. And then, suddenly, rocks push out of the peaceful hillsides, pushing them up, making them mountainous in a scrubby, Sierra Nevada way. The coast emerges again, and it’s eerily similar to the Greek coast. Not so eerie, I suppose, since you've turned the corner onto the east coast of the Adriatic.

I arrive in Trieste, and the first thing I notice is the grandeur. I walk out of the train station onto the bustling streets, and I wander into town, my jaw opening a bit wider with every block. Admittedly, it's because I'm tired. My bag has grown heavier at every stop. And the hotels are a ways from the station. But it's also the impact of the city. I'm back in the Empire, back in Vienna. This was, after all a Hapsburg port for centuries, and one that experienced a boom in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. You see its wealthy nineteenth century lining the streets, neoclassical beauties rich in the grandest ornamentation, in the wide avenues and the proud plazas.

I learn something new about Italian culture right away. There's a holiday they call Liberazione in April, commemorating Mussolini's political and/or mortal demise. It's a three-day weekend, and Italians make the most of it. All the hotels are booked. One nice hotel clerk calls around for me. She finds me a room in the James Joyce Hotel. I should explain that Trieste was home to the Irish author for some years.

I pass Joyce himself on the way to the hotel. He stands in bronze beside the Grand Canal looking dreamily into the distance. The quote says he left his soul in Trieste. I'm not sure what Irish visitors think when they see that. Maybe they don't see it too often. One thing I notice about this city: you are hard-out to find any tourist literature or even postcards. Apparently, the city has yet to wake up to its own attractions, or maybe it resents them in some hybrid German-Italian way.

For I'm also quick to notice the change in attitude among the citizenry. Sidewalks are crowded with frowning people who won't vary from the straight line they're walking. Pedestrians wait at traffic signals. They rush into office buildings after brusque and functional conversations. I have strayed across some border.

Making my way to the hotel, I pass through several of the prettiest areas of the city. One of them centers around the Grand Canal, where Joyce dreams of being where he is. Stately structures line the sides of the canal. Small boats are moored beside outdoor café tables, where a chilly wind chases away all but the hardiest. At the head of the canal is the stark, green soul of neo-classicism, the Sant' Antonio Nuovo Church, Roman temple from dome to steps. More interesting is the Serb-Orthodox church on the canal, St. Spiridon, with its blue domes and gilded mosaics.

Walk on, south and parallel to the sea, and you come upon the Piazza Unita, heart of the town, and stunning every time you see it. It opens up onto the sea, and on three sides it's lovely facades. In front of the ornate City Hall with its clock tower is an eighteenth century fountain with allegorical figures cavorting among rocks, a la Piazza Navona. Behind the City Hall, behind the piazza, the town runs up the sides of the mountains, pausing at a Roman amphitheatre and, further up, a medieval castle and cathedral. Just before sundown, you'll want to enter the piazza from the south. The sun is descending just out of sight, to the left, making the mosaics on the Palazzo Governo shimmer with color. You approach the sea. Crossing the seaside road, you walk out onto the pier and you watch the sun set over the water. The hilly coastline stretches off toward your right, catching all the last glow, and diminishes in the direction of Venice.