10 August 2015
“Show me your little map.”
I am sitting in a bus that takes me from the airport to an apartment owned by a platinum-blonde woman named Helena. The driver looks at my map and guides me to the exact point where I should be. It is one in the morning and I am attempting to navigate the dark streets. The mountain air is fresh, but biting. I lug two heavy suitcases up a slight incline. My phone has just lost power. I follow Helena’s directions – walk up a driveway, look left, go up one flight of stairs, and hopefully find a little apartment. I nervously tap on a thick wooden door.
“Julia, is that you?”
Helena re-configures a small blue love seat into a bed.
“My current guest leaves early tomorrow,” she whispers in a slight accent, “she goes scuba diving. I tried to make a little bed for you. There’s the bathroom and we can go over everything else in the morning.”
I wake to the smell of cedar. The shower water smells like sulfur. Helena tells me she is an independent filmmaker, working on documentary films with her two sisters, both of whom live in Los Angeles.
“I lived there for many years, working in the hotel industry. Now I am back in Reykjavik. My sisters and I just finished a film that must now be translated into English from Icelandic, then we can submit it to festivals in the US.”
I unpack stockings, wool socks, and my green jacket.
“It’s a pity, you just missed some nice weather.”
Bleach-blonde men with worn skin and austere expressions walk along the water wearing Patagonia and khaki pants. The air is cold and I wrap myself in scarves.
My room has slick wooden floors. In the morning the wind seems to sing. Everything is white, including the walls, sheets, and soft blankets. The design is spare and clean. A black cat with white fur on his neck rests along Helena’s shoulder. Helena has blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an insightful, kind manner. She tells me more about her film, which is about a ship that went missing off the coast of Iceland years ago. Photographs of Helena and her sisters hang in her bedroom.
“This is the ‘Oscar of Iceland,” she indicates an award.
Helena’s father loved adventure. He moved the family, three girls, one boy, and her mother, to what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, when she, the oldest, was ten years old. Their home customarily came with servants. Segregation dictated society. Thus, they stayed just one year before the conflict forced them to return to Iceland. Helena has clear memories of her childhood, including the magical year in Zimbabwe, and of her rambunctious father and highly ambitious, giving mother who worked as a nurse. Her mother maintained the household stability. Helena moved to LA first to study and then work in hotels. Her sisters then followed, one became successful in film editing. She holds her award and motions to a poster that depicts she and her two sisters, looking up at the camera from below.
A blonde boy whispers to his mother. Spit flies from his lips when he hits the words beginning with shhhhh.
“You are supposed to be here ½ hour early!” A driver in blue barks at me. I am enjoying an early morning cappuccino with a drizzle of chocolate designed like a leaf until I see the bus arrive and leave before I can race over. The neighboring hotel phones the company and the bus turns around. I abashedly walk into the violently cold, rainy street with my bag, packed with bikini and black soap.
A woman at the ticket counter speaks in melodies.
“The water is best experienced in this weather, it’s good to be in the warm bath when it is so cold.” She hands me a grey towel, white robe, and a sample pack of seaweed cream and minerals. Another platinum-blonde girl hops on a chair to announce important instructions to a long line of travelers, hankering to experience on of the twenty-five wonders – a crystal blue mineral pool that has natural healing powers to rejuvenate the skin.
“I am now going to sing you a traditional Icelandic tune,” she quips from atop her fold-out pedestal “No, no, I’m just joking,” she speaks in rapid, robotic sentences, “I am going to share some very useful information before you enter the pools! Be sure to put conditioner in the hair before entering or you’ll have a huge, puffy nest on your head the next two days.” She motions animatedly around her head. You will receive a plastic bracelet like this,” she presents a chunky green watch strap, “ You must wear this the entire time and not lose it or we will have to charge you thousands of dollars for a replacement. No, no, just joking, but do not lose your bracelet.”
I disregard her conditioner instructions and use my faceless watchstrap to buy prosecco, espresso, and a waterproof camera case. The strap is a vehicle for everything – bar snack payment, locker key, and admission to and from baths. Bathers coat their faces in a thick, cool cream and become white creatures, moving between green seaweed forms, battling strong waves, frigid winds, and relentless sleet. The water feels like a warm towel, draped around every part of my body. The rain bangs on my head. The pool is a sea of heads, moving slowly through the bath without bodies.
My hair feels like hay for days, my skin years younger.
Elda moved to Reykjavik over a decade ago. She grew up in Haiti, where she met an Icelandic man. He was working in Haiti, hoping to help in some way. She moved to Reykjavik with him, had a son, and opened a small coffee stand in an open market. Her father, a serious man, worked in the coffee industry. She loves the smell of strong espresso. She started selling sandwiches and eventually the business grew. Café Haiti now occupies a one-story building along the harbor, beside a famous diner that sells kebobs of fresh fish. The small cluster of concrete buildings line a few perpendicular thruways between the city and the sea. The air is bitter and the rain cuts through my bones.
In 2013 Elda’s husband died. Her son is now fifteen and she has a new partner in business, Raggi. He embodies the traditional impression of an Icelandic man, burly, blonde, big-boned. He lived in New York for many years where he ran his own business.
“Elda has been waiting for you! She’s getting all dressed up for your photo-shoot!” Raggi jokes, or so I assume. I approach the café in the rain. Elda is busy coloring her lips a dark shade of red. She wears a beautiful black and white striped dress. Her skin is like dark brown silk, covered in blush and foundation. She smells like roasted perfume.
You look beautiful!” I exclaim, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I brought fish.”
“Oh, Okay! Here,” she sets a plate on the counter of her small kitchen and retrieves a set of silverware for me.
“No, no, it’s for all of us.” I motion to the kebob of grilled halibut.
“Oh, okay, let’s eat!”
Elda speaks with a thick accent, tinged with notes of French.
“What languages do you speak?” I ask slowly, as if she were three.
“Um, Creole, French, English, and Icelandic.”
“Icelandic is quite difficult, no?”
She laughs and rhythmically moves around the café.
“We start with espresso, okay? I always have one espresso in the morning, one in the afternoon, nothing else.”
Her eyes are deep black, her manner deeply genuine. She loves the camera and poses with each activity – making coffee, roasting beans, and heating thick soups of vegetables and sweet potatoes. She shows me the pictures on her phone, most of which depict self-portraits and her son. She pours me a white wine and Raggi returns from his break. Another blonde man wearing a red plaid shirt talks to American tourists.
“This is his fifth drink,” Elda tells me, “he has already had four red wines, now he has beer! People drink very much here.”
The man is steady. He has large, blue eyes. He tells me he is a bartender at a nearby hotel restaurant.
“You have many American customers then?”
“Ja, but it’s okay. I always enjoy.”
Raggi pours Gull beer into a paper cup.
“I think I have a beer now! We are not allowed to while working, it’s against the law, but why not!”
He becomes increasingly animated with each sip, like a wind up toy that can’t stop spinning. The pace of his heavy speech heightens.
Elda shows me articles printed about her café.
“Your son must be the darkest kid in his school.”
“Oh, yes,” she laughs.
A young, Haitian woman works for her. She is quiet and seemingly shy until I ask her to pose with Elda for pictures. They share a charisma, like dancers moving with animated elegance.
Elda makes me a rich vegetable soup.
“Do you like spicy?”
“Okay!” She adds hot peppers and onions that marinate in glass jars.
“Really? More? Okay!”
I taste the hot sweet potato base until it’s extremely spicy. “Okay, done!”
Elda toasts soft whole-wheat baguettes until the crust is deep brown. We sit together and blow on hot sweet potato and broccoli.
They invite me for a drink. I return later in the night, after packing quickly. My flight leaves at 7am and I must meet the shuttle bus at 4 am. Raggi offers me the equivalent of $40, 5,000 Kroner, and I take a cab to the café where he waits for me while Elda prepares herself at home.
“Have whatever you like,” he motions to the liquor bottles on a shelf above the bar and pours me a cognac. Elda arrives and leads us through the now dark streets of Reykjavik. We pass a busy Friday night bar scene. Elda and I drink gin and tonics. Music pours pop tunes from the speakers at a tapas bar. We stay until 2am. She hands me another 5,000 kr for a taxi back to Helena’s silent apartment.
“See you in a few months,” she gives me a strong hug, “I hope!”
Snaps Bistro & Bar | Þórsgata 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
22 August 2015
White-haired men play cards to the sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which resounds from a wooden stand beside a round table of card players. Cigarettes hang from wrinkled lips. The sun sets soon. It is bar time – beer, wine, aperol, and small snacks of pizza, peanuts, and chips.
MUNCHEN to MILANO
I am sitting on a toilet, drinking a one-euro screw top sekt. It is 17:00 and the only place to charge my phone is the bathroom on this high-speed train to Geneva that I am on because I took the wrong train from Verona. Instead of moving forward to Milano, I move backwards to Bologna. I only noticed my mistake when “Treno” appeared, a sign familiar because the train from Munchen passed it when traveling to Verona. Thus, a new reality that must be handled with grace, unless the connecting train that I am currently on is fifteen minutes delayed, crowded, and I am wearing an olive oil stained top that is meant to be covered with layers, but now it is sweltering hot. I am bombarded by bikes and a café truck that is forcing me to stay in one standing spot, just above a scarred and pot-marked baldhead. A man from Glasgow warns me that it is not advisable to leave my phone charging in the public bathroom. I say, “I agree, that’s why I’m standing here,” referring to the exit door where I am drinking my sekt from the bottle, watching the countryside pass like a vivid film reel in fast forward.
“I lived in Miami for six years,” he continues, “I’m a big DJ, or at least one of the last who can fit that title. It’s a lost art.”
“Oh.” A person leaves the bathroom and I run in, retrieve my phone, sit on the toilet until my beverage is empty, and grab my beast-size blue suitcase. Deep breathe. I dive in, suitcase first, rolling down a narrow train car isle.
“Pardon, pardon, scusi, scusi.”
I bang elbows and destroy toes. I am desperate for a seat at the café car. One more passenger car to go. I pass women wearing headscarves; tired, dark eyes staring at crinkled newspapers; children wrapped in blankets, on an endless trip to Switzerland.
It is passed midnight. Miriam waits for me at Ventimiglia station. The train carries me there, three hours later than initially planned. A group of molasses-skin girls wear scarves around their thin faces. They help me carry my suitcase off the train car. Police officers are waiting on the platform. They let me pass. A woman with a navy blue uniform asks them in English, “Where are you from? Passports?” They are silent. She repeats in English. A man helps me carry my suitcase down the stairs to the thruway, which leads to another staircase. I lug the beast up to the exit platform. The air is cool and moist. Mocha-toned men sleep on blankets on the cement ground. Boys gather to smoke cigarettes near a line of cabs where drivers wait at a line of cabs for their last chance.
He makes caramel colored white wine from the grapes growing around his white home. We drive up a thin road that becomes increasingly steeper until ending at his small garage. Raphael is eighty years old and lives alone with his large garden, two cats, and dog on a hill, ten minutes drive from Castelvittorio.
He has two sons, one died in a car accident, the other lives in San Remo. Raphael hopes that his half-Brazilian granddaughter will study in San Remo. He wakes up early to cook us a feast.
We are a party of seven with Miriam’s cousins – parents and three children – visiting while on holiday from Germany. Celine is the oldest and loves studying English. Mario, the German father, is a police officer and martial arts specialist. He is the driver and thus cannot drink too much, which is difficult since after a grand meal of hand-made gnocchi in red sauce, stuffed eggplant, fried pumpkin flowers, roasted vegetables, meat, bread, and homemade wine, Raphael emerges from his cramped kitchen with champagne and fresh peaches. Moments later he brings espresso, grappa, Sambuca, and Cuban cigars.
“Oh my goodness!” Mario’s petite wife looks overwhelmed.
“We never eat like this at home,” Mario laughs.
Rain beings to fall and we move our liquor and cigars into a large room with windows that overlook the mountains. I show Miriam’s cousins my wallpaper prints and Raphael takes the show-and-tell cue to retrieve old family photographs. He once had dark brown hair and smooth olive skin. He sits with friends drinking wine. His granddaughter is beautiful. She sits with her Brazilian mother. Raphael dances with his wife who died years ago. She is strong and demure.
Raphael leaves for a moment and returns wearing red pants and a pink dress shirt. He drives to the café to meet a large group of grey-haired men who congregate daily at the bar in the afternoon to smoke and play cards.
6 am, the church bells ring from the foggy mountains. Another sleepless night.
Miriam is from Germany. She works as a print designer, her work is stunning. She started studying tai chi a few years ago. A workshop in Munich brought her to a workshop in Castelviottorio. Over time, she returned to Italy more often. Just over a year ago, she decided to rent a small apartment with a balcony that overlooks the mountains. She painted the walls and filled the two-level home with art and jars of homemade marmalade. Now she lives here a majority of the year. The other part of her time takes place in Munich where she has a design office in the center of the city. She makes jams, limoncello, reads, practices tai chi when she feels inspired, and meditates on her balcony.
I stay in the brown-circular textile-tile floored bedroom. The walls are pure white; there is a window that looks toward the mountains and a mosquito net over my bed. The air smells of smoke. There is a fresh spring outside the front door, where I fill a glass bottle with drinking water.
The town sleeps. Roosters sing. Everything and nothing feels still.
I lie almost naked in a small room. A masseuse offers a thin, white paper thong and turns to leave while I change.
I see her long, tan arm turn the light off and the music on. A woman’s voice sings alongside thick beats under a blue light.
The bus to Dolceacqua runs fifteen minutes late. I wait along the side of the road, fighting nausea in the sun.
“Due Cinquante,” the driver names what feels like a random price for the ten-minute journey. I leave one town too early because the restaurants look familiar, but not because it’s Dolceacqua. I walk into a shop with produce, fresh meat, cheese, and groceries. A white haired woman wearing a red apron charges 29 cents for a golden delicious apple.
“Non, non…” She explains in words I pretend to understand.
“Oh no! Parto l’autobus troppo subito!”
“Alora, aspetta.” She walks outside and calls to a blonde-haired man. He is driving an old white truck to Dolceacqua and I will join him.
We sit in his car. It smells of stale cigarettes. He wears a stained white shirt with cropped sleeves. We smile and struggle for conversation, talking about “caldo, redo and d’ove di sei.”
Julia studied tai chi in Taiwan. She grew up in Saratoga. While at university she signed up for a class in Classics with the code CL. But, the registrar made a mistake and recorded CI, Chinese.
“That might be interesting,” she thinks. Consequently, she took a course in level-one Chinese. After graduation, she researched travel opportunities, applying to teach English in Taiwan. But, no reply. She moved to New York City, but knew it was not right. She panicked. Then, an acceptance letter arrived. Julia was invited to study and teach English in Taiwan in one month.
“I thought, how am I going to pay for this?” she explains in a naturally graceful manner. Her hands are expressive, forming an “O” like a dancer. “So I bought a one-way ticket.”
She stayed for thirty years, studying Mandarin, Tai Chi, and teaching. Eventually she became a tai chi instructor, which led her to workshops in Munich where she met a student named Petra who encouraged her to buy an affordable farm in Northern Italy.
Now Julia lives with three sheep, fig trees, and a small farm at the top of a steep road, moments away from the center of Castelvittorio. A little more than a year ago a torrential storm caused a mudslide that destroyed Julia’s mountainside home, which she shared with another person and multiple dogs and cats. At 4am her intuition told her it was time to leave. She couldn’t see anything. The dark fog was so thick, it was difficult to step forward. At the time, it was impossible to understand the storm’s destruction.
“I woke up and just knew we had to go.” Everyone left three minutes before the door to the bedroom was blocked – the wind had forced a bolder to fall on the small house. One of the dogs was trapped inside.
“We could see his little paws. My friend grabbed him and we ran to the car. We were in our pajamas and just had plastic sandals. The two of us and five animals stayed in the car.” They were trapped. Eventually they met a French man who also lived on the isolated mountain. The road was consumed by mud. They couldn’t drive down to Castelvittorio. Soon it became clear that they had to walk. Carrying all of the animals, they hiked down to the village, where the community nurtured them until they could return to see their home, destroyed. They stayed in an apartment in Castelvittorio.
“Neighbors used to leave tomatoes at our door.”
The kitchen and office were desecrated. Rubble now spills out of the stone edifice. Julia lives alone in a rustic home that used to house the sheep. She has a small bed, bathroom, oven, and manual pencil sharpener. Her tai chi gallery is located in Castelvittorio. Throughout the year she teaches workshops in the States, Rome, Munich, and elsewhere.
The men drink at Bar Buscian throughout the day. At lunch time they walk home for a meal, likely cooked by wives and mothers, hands clutched behind slightly hunched backs. After siesta they return to play lively games of cards. Smoke fills the open room. A round woman with black hair and thick-rimmed glasses tends bar in a white t-shirt that reads “Shine Like the Stars.” An old man with warm eyes, thick glasses, and a pink button down shirt runs the bar. White tuffs of hair sprout above his naturally puffed chest. He greets me with a smile when I arrive in the morning to work, “Ciao, ciao.” When I leave he grabs my hand, “Subito.”
His wife runs the Ristorante. She has short white hair, held back with a blue bandana. Terry invites me to photograph she and her assistant as they make vegetable ravioli. She forces a smile that makes me feel at ease in an awkward way. Her moods range from testy to manageable. She wanted to be an artist and studied printmaking, but her parents forced sensibility, so she pursued cooking. Her mother is from South Africa, father Italian. She draws a long inhale of her cigarette. We are in a dark basement with one window through which light streams, catching waves of dust. A picture of a lion that her son drew decades ago when he was four hangs on the concrete wall. She flattens dough through a press and spreads it out on a long table. Her assistant, a dark-haired woman with thick arms and wrinkles painted across her face pinches and cuts dough with a grated razor.
Terry applies green filling in long strips and rolls the dough over to create long, thin coils. Then, she pinches the dough and forms multiple little pockets that she cuts to make baby raviolis.
“This is a real Castelvittorio ravioli, not like the big, square ones that everybody knows.” Her voice is thick and rough. The tone of her voice flows in whines.
“I work all the time! I would love to have time, but I work almost everyday. There is no extra money to travel. I would sell this, I want to open a bar in the piazza and just some drinks, pastries, coffee, small things. Then I could have time in the winter to make some art, but there is not extra money to start something like this.” She takes a gulp of beer. “I do everything here, there is no time.”
Terry and her assistant continue the quiet repetitive kneading, cutting, filling, and pinching. I walk upstairs to the bar to drink an aperol. It is a Saturday and the room is alive.
A dark haired man named Giacomo tells me in English about his life, divided between Paris, where he does financial work, and Castelvittorio, his hometown.
“I have an accent to this region,” he says with pride. A bus driver sits with Giacomo and a pretty brunette woman with bronze skin. The driver wears a sky blue polo and eats ice cream bars until 17:50, when we leave for Dolceacqua.
The bus is hot. The large, wide sides of the vehicle barrel down the narrow road. In Doceacqua I walk down a road that extends back to a quiet thruway, just a block from the busy main piazza. Araianna waits outside, greeting customers. She and her husband, Dan, own Zaffereno pizzeria. Dan is from the Caribbean. He is one of the few black men living in the area. Arianna is Italian. She was raised in Castelvittorio. Her father watches their two-year old son, Yanik, while Arianna and Dan devote entire days to working in the restaurant. Yanik and his grandfather, a large, jovial man with a round belly, walk hand-in-hand through the town’s winding streets everyday. They take day trips to the beach and play with a little dog, named Bingo. The grandfather liked to hoist Bingo on his shoulders. Arianna and Dan met at a hotel where he worked in the kitchen. She managed the hotel side. Arianna studied English and Spanish at University in Turin. Her words flow seamlessly from Italian to English and French, which is Dan’s first language. He wants to move to Paris, but Arianna is a small village girl. Only two customers dine, it’s a Saturday and the crowds are in the main square.
“I want to focus on American travelers more. We had a group of tours from a company called ‘Go Ahead.’ They ordered all of our home-made pasta dishes and shared everything.”
Dan makes everything from scratch. I photograph the interior and fluorescent white kitchen. In payment, I sit outside and eat multiple courses, beginning with aqua frizzante and vino biano a la casa. A beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a hot pink blouse brings warm rolls and a small cup of vegetable soup to cleanse the palette. Tanya speaks Russian and Italian. She lives in Dolceacqua with her husband and daughter, Michaela. She works at Zaffereno daily, returning home between lunch and dinner to eat an early dinner.
“Preferisco pasta!!” She has a beautiful, lively manner and dark, misty eyes. She brings a first course of octopus salad, followed by a grilled whole sea bream, roasted vegetables, salad, and more bread. The night is warm. I eat in the glow of the restaurant’s interior light and greet people walking home to small apartments with open terraces. A concert and fiesta draws Italian teens to smoke and dance in the neighboring courtyard. A white man sings hip-hop, regaling a sea of dark, dreaded bodies.
VENTIGMILIA á MILANO
I stay with Joanna, who worked first at Four Seasons in Philadelphia and then on to Dublin, where she goes to defeat her timid nature. She meets her husband, Roberto from Milano.
Then together they worked at another hotel in Hong Kong, where women at the market pointed toward her belly and said “Baby!” They had their son in China, and then moved to D.C., Atlanta, and now Milano. They also had a stint in L.A.
Silvano waits for me at C’a D’oro, four stops from S. Lucia on the waterbus. He is tall and lean, wearing a blue button down dress shirt and frameless glasses. We haven’t seen one another since 2004, when I au paired for his granddaughter, Bianca. I was supposed to speak English so she could learn, but ran from me and responded quizzically when I spoke in my broken Italian. Silvano’s daughter, Marta, created a home in an abandoned stone edifice with her partner, Christiano, who once worked as a lawyer. They met in Venezia, where Marta studied dance. They called their Amalfi home, “La Selva,” The Wild. La Selva grows organic vegetables and produces olive oil, limoncello, marmalades, grappa, wine, and, now hosts yoga retreats on a grand stage overlooking the Mediterranean.
Silvano lives in Venezia where he makes glass vases and large-scale photographs depicting his father’s form against a black expanse. His home is filled with books, art, pictures of dead writers, including Kafka, and art materials.
“It is work and home and sometimes too much of nothing.”
Just beside the sunset, a pink hovers over a canal. We walk quickly to the apartment of a designer, an older man with grey hair, a mustache, and protruding belly. His apartment smells only of cigarette smoke. He is situated in a dark, first story apartment with a small courtyard, devoid of furniture. Silvano and the designer work on a new catalog for his current exhibition at a palace on the Grand Canal. I walk back to Silvano’s home, passing teens partying on boats along the water and in mystical passageways. A soave man greets me at a restaurant, across from Silvano’s home. He tells me I have beautiful eyes. A couple from England eats spaghetti, lobster, and gnocchi at a nearby table. They say the food is delicious and exchange few words between one another otherwise.
I listen to the BBC, Syrian migrants trapped in the Budapest train station. They are then forced to walk to the Austrian border. Hungarian buses finally arrive to carry them to the border where hot drinks and food await. People can stay in Austria or move on to Germany.
“The people here are good, the state bad.”
I walk to the pier to catch the boat-bus to Lido. At the harbor I drink an aperol at a lonely wood paneled bar and walk along the cool stone road to a crowded boat. Lido is alive. I take a bus to the cinema where a film festival fills a large area by the sea. Everything is white, from the round tents, theater, and staff uniforms.
“Alora, the film is sold out!” Silvano apologizes.
“No problem.” I’m happy to be still for a moment. The surrounding area is filled with well-dressed, good looking people, drinking bubbles and chatting pre-show. Behind me the beach is peaceful, devoid of people but for a few figures. We walk back toward the bus and return to the harbor where we catch a boat to Santa Croce where we run through a rainstorm to a theater in the center of the city. The film begins in one hour. It has a French title, but is in Arabic with English subtitles. We return to the rain and walk to a corner bar where Silvano and his elegant friend, Christina, order turkey and ham sandwiches on white bread and aperol spritz. We eat chips, drink, and run back to find good seats in a theater with wide, thick cushioned stadium seating.
The film is set in Tunis, Tunisia. It is about a girl who sings songs with daring lyrics and approaches the world with bold fearlessness. She falls in love with a beautiful man. It is not kosher to speak ones mind in Tunisia. The police arrest her and destroy her confidence through interrogations, mockery, and physical threats. She is eighteen. They play a recording of her boyfriend during questioning. He says, “I used her, I never loved her…” We, the audience, don’t know where the truth falls. Perhaps he was tortured. The rebellious girl returns home lifeless, without hope. Her mother, who at first seemed domineering, now is her greatest comfort. Then, the film ends with what feels like no resolution, but perhaps there is none.
I walk passed crowds on a glistening street, tired from the rain, through hoards of partying tourists and dark café’s. The city is a stage set.
THE REGATTA on THE GRAND CANAL
“They know they are educated. That is why they want them.” Christina explains. We stand on the narrow terrace of a palace, watching the famous Regatta on the Grand Canal. The boat race occurs annually. Throngs of bronze bodies cheer riotously from long boats, eating grapes, chips, and drinking white wine. When a segment of racers pass, the audiences holler and spin wooden noisemakers. A man with black, short-cropped hair blows an antique horn.
“It is a big problem, of course, but there are many people migrating from different countries. Germany takes people from Syria for a reason. They’re middle class and educated. They have money.” Christina speaks in a soft Italian accent. Her voice sounds like a lullaby. She has caramel brown hair with blue extensions. Dressed entirely in dark blue, she watches the race with Guillaume, a glass sculptor from Lyon, Silvano, an artist from New York named Judi, and myself. Silvano says Christina is his third love. She speaks French, Italian, and English and has two daughters.
“I see what you mean,” the crowd cheers as a line of racers pass, “those who can afford to buy passages on the ships are the ones who can leave. But, many arrive with nothing.”
“Ah yes, this is true, but they have skills.”
The men’s section flies by. “WHOOOHOOOOOO!”
Guillaume and Christina clap loudly. Silvano and Judi run outside to see the activity. A boy below wears blue and hollers at neighboring, smaller boats that bump his freshly painted vessel. He is thin and wiry, but his voice is louder than the cheering fans. Guillaume smokes from a flavored vaporizer. The scent of vanilla and cinnamon linger along the stone terrace.
Silvano and Judi are the main two artists in the exhibition, which is housed in an ornate palace facing the Canal. The show presents their glasswork. Silvano’s gallery is elegantly designed. He re-envisions the original objects that would have traditionally appeared in what appears to have served as the dining room.
A long, clear glass table sits in the center of the coral colored space. A plate, fork, spoon, and cup are carved out, representing a standard dinner setting. Frameless color pictures hang along the walls, depicting the original scene. The tone of the background in each picture blends in seamlessly with that of the exiting one. Beside each photo, Silvano re-imagines a present day rendering in glass.
It is my final night in Italy. I am sitting at an outside table along the canal in the Ghetto that I have earned. This is my fifth time at Bea Vita. I found it the first night in Venice, it is situated next to the smoke-filled home of Silvano’s graphic designer. The two worked late into the night and I ate salad and shrimps with heads.
11 September 2015
I hear seagulls in the morning. They compete with the voices of people walking by Do Bolhao bakery and drills pounding cement streets. I stay in a tiny room on the third floor of a grey building.
Hugo helps me carry my suitcase up a steep, winding staircase. He is twenty and has dark eyes. His girlfriend, Ana Rita, and her mother own the apartment. Hugo lives here and responds to the needs of the guests. There are three rooms, including mine, as well as a communal living room, kitchen, bathroom, and balcony that looks onto an expanse of smoke stained buildings. “This is where you go if you want to smoke,” Hugo explains. Ana Rita is in her early twenties as well and about to begin school to study fine art. She has powder white skin and black curly hair. She wears a white shirt with lace linings and speaks with a soft accent.
“The only thing we don’t like is when people say that we’re Spain. We are no Spain, we are our own country.”
A dark-haired man with thick glasses explains after taking my dinner order. I eat shrimps with heads in olive oil – beady eyes stare at me. Food arrives tapas style, salads, cod with olives and onions, green soup, and a fried egg. Vinho Verde is delicious and costs two euros. I listen to the waiter explain Portugal and it’s raw, intense dynamic.
The streets are lined in stone and white, mosaic tile. Buildings feature stained facades, decorated with tiles in solid greens and blues and geometric patterns. I walk by restaurants with lively music and fluorescent-lit café’s where people eat snacks of French fries and sandwiches. A man asks me for eighty cents so he can return home on the metro. I give him change and he smiles and walks in the opposite direction. He wears a tattered, cotton v-neck. The waiter tells me he is likely buying drugs and I helped.
“I think I ate enough for three people.” My dishes are all nearly empty.
“Hah, yah, you did.”
The scent of roasting fish lingers from the neighboring outdoor restaurant. I drink a 1.50 euro vinho verde. A woman with white hair sweeps cigarette buds on to the street.
“Yes – Lisa?”
“Yes. Are you okay?” She asks me in a stern manner. Lisa wears a red coat and stoic expression. She is the former sister-in-law of my friend Maria, an American living in Rotterdam. Lisa and I emailed for weeks about meeting in Porto, where she has lived for twelve years. She has brilliant grey hair and skin like folded fabric. She is reserve and direct.
“We don’t follow time so much here in Portugal. You come at a general time. We are relaxed here.”
I have already missed meeting her son André, a photographer who works in a studio in the center of Porto. In our brief correspondence, he writes come tomorrow afternoon. I arrive late in the afternoon and the door is locked. Let’s meet at an art gallery in an interesting arts area, Lisa writes, André will be there. I leave the dark hallway of his studio building and race up hills and down uneven stone pathways to a quaint area with natural goods boutiques and buildings with vivid tile exteriors. My phone dies and I am lost and late. I step into the first café I see. A handsome bald man pours me a glass of light white wine and I charge my phone. I am just blocks from the gallery. I order tapas, calamari and sardines on whole grain bread, and then race to the opening. A group of black-haired men wearing chunky glasses gather outside. I tell Lisa I am walking through the area until she arrives. “Okay.” I meet an anxious gallery director and walk by bars where silver-haired men with round stomachs drink Super Bock beer. “I am here.” Lisa writes an hour later. I run back to the gallery where more people have gathered. They drink Sagres beer and dance to music that a man spins on an electronic recorder. He controls the loud beats with a large IPhone. Hours pass and the gallery becomes a dark party scene. A shy girl tells me she draws. Lisa says she has lived in Holland, Belgium, and Portugal. She learns languages easily and devoted many years to a day job in administration.
“I don’t like, but I do, I need to do to live.”
She introduces me to stunning woman with long black dreads. Andreia and her boyfriend are architects who make their living through renting rooms in their renovated home on airbnb. We drink Super Bock and Sagres and walk around the corner to a bright café where everyone from the gallery converges to eat fried eggs, ham, cheese, french fries, and the local dish, Francesinha, a large sandwich with meat that is smothered in gravy.
“I don’t eat that,” Lisa says, “too heavy.”
The waiter brings me an omelet wrapped around a salad. A man with a thick beard takes a sip of beer that leaves a foam decoration.
“Would you like to join us for a concert? It begins at 1am!” I am too tired to wait three hours. I walk back to my Porto home. The streets are animated with the chaos of late night crowds drinking cocktails and wine.
“Tonight is a big party in Porto!” Rosa, a waitress at my favorite café explains, “All over Porto, concerts, and many people out, from 2pm to 4am, you will love!” People wear blue costume glasses made of paper and drink Super Bock from plastic cups until the sun returns the following morning. It’s Raining Men blares from a concert stage. A girl wears a leather jacket and sings loudly along, wrapping her boyfriend’s arm around her.
JOSE SILVA GARCEZ
A man with tattoos and short grey hair wraps a fleece blanket around my shoulders. He runs a small café just along the river in center of Porto. He brings me a small ceramic cup of white porto that is cold and doesn’t sting my throat with sweetness like the other varieties. A sign outside his stone-walled café reads: Salads, Tapas, Sangria, Wines. I talk to a couple from Holland who plays cards at the next table. A young girl in a light blue top rides a red bicycle with a plastic seat and huge tires. The air is pure, but for the cigarette smoke that lingers from neighbors with rough, leathery skin. The owner’s name is José and he opened his café one month ago.
“I learned English only through television. I followed the accent.” He speaks in almost perfect English. The bathroom is built into a stone cellar. There is a grocery store inside, selling cabbage, root vegetables, fruits, coffee, tea, and local chorizo and cheeses. In a tiny kitchen, José prepares salads, cod, tuna, and olives with fresh bread. Tables line an outdoor strip of a fenced area that is covered by yellow and red umbrellas. I look to my right and see the river, glowing from the late day sun.
“In the winter I will serve hot, local dishes like soups with vegetables, cabbage, potatoes, and meat. This is only the beginning.” José leads me up a narrow stairwell to an upstairs area that is surrounding by crumbling walls and a white ceiling with exposed wooden beams. It is a construction site.
“Soon, this will be our winter dining room!” He hands me the bill, 6.50 for two wines and a big salad. “I hope to see you!” He smiles.
Rain rattles on my window. Water collects beneath the opening on the floor.
After a foolish night, a dark day.
“You have such a beautiful energy all around you.” Yan eats a traditional meal of pork and cabbage and speaks in a thick accent in between bites. He is a DJ from Cameroon who now lives in London. He’s broad and black with long tucked tightly behind a white scarf.
“My parents died when I was fifteen and so I moved to London. I love travel.” He drinks red sangria and speaks words like music. The atmosphere moves quickly. Women wearing white uniforms and hair nets make rich dishes of meat and roasted fish with potatoes, rice, and salad. José brings me another salad of onions and tomatoes. He is my waiter for the third night in a row. He is bald and has a salty mustache. An expression of reactive alertness paints across his face on the busy nights at Ramao Ristorante. The first night I ate there it was crowded and José served me with a quick gruffness. The second night he remembered me and brought out an extra egg and delicious steamed cod. I didn’t have enough cash so I said I would return the following night. On this evening, José greets me with a broad smile. He has prepared a table. It is a slow Monday night and the large extra rooms are closed. I smell fresh olive oil crackling around vegetables and red meats.
José knows my order and brings my normal wine with water. He sees my cameras and encourages me to photograph. While I wait for bronzino, he rushes me through the entire restaurant, presenting a large room with amber tiles and a large black and white photograph depicting Porto. The room feels timeless with white tablecloths dark cushioned chairs. The tables are set for ghosts. I meet the two women in the kitchen. They laugh shyly and pose for the camera. “Facebook, facebook.”
I sit down and feast on steamed whole fish with salted skin. Yan appears. He has a charismatic presence.
“May I sit with you?”
“I must try this dish that everyone tells me about!”
José brings a large plate of steamed cabbage, carrots, and a variety of meats in an oily orange sauce.
“I think you have been a lot of places. I go all over Europe for shows. My parents died when I was young and I am an only. I moved to London when I was fifteen and started working.”
“So now you’re alone, no family? You’re the first person from Africa that I have met who is an only child.”
“Yes,” he laughs, “we exist.”
He gulps sangria and the restaurant begins to empty. José brings my bill, forgetting the previous night’s loss. Yan finishes his sangria. Ramao closes. José and I say final goodbyes, the following evening is his anniversary. Yan and I walk outside. He asks two women how to get back to his hotel, which is just outside the city. They say they are driving that way soon and can take him.
“Aaaaaah! I must take this ride.”
He leaves in a second, just as he arrived.
I buy passion fruit sorbet on a cone and walk back to my room. Hugo and his friends, a couple, are with him.
“Would you like to join us? We’re going to the water.”
New guests appear, a husband and wife from Poland. The six of us walk to the river. The Polish couple leaves early. They’re tired from the trip. Hugo and his friends buy large plastic cups of strong mixed drinks – lemonade and vodka’s, gin and tonics.
“It’s like a bucket!” Hugo laughs, “I buy yours, it’s only 2.50.”
The girl has long brown hair and pretty black eyes. Her boyfriend is quiet and carries the weight of solemnity.
“His mother just died,” his girlfriend tells me, “he hasn’t wanted to go out in months! You must join us to go to the club now. I can’t believe he wants to go.”
Young students, partying with buckets in hand, surround the river. The air is cool and I would stay, but the girl grabs my arm and we race up toward her car, peeing en route in a dark street.
“We must pee fast,” she whispers, “if the people who live here see us, they will throw cold water down!”
“I would not go to this club,” Hugo says, “but I will go if you want to.”
“Please!” the girl begs. “I can’t believe he wants to go out.”
“Okay,” I say, “let’s just go.”
The club is black. Blue and pink fluorescent lights illuminate a dance floor. I can feel the gin from my bucket. I grip my bag and seek a quiet space in the bathroom. I emerge countless minutes later. Time moves to fast. I have lost everyone and am now wandering through the chaos. Hugo finds me and I take his arm and we walk uphill through dim streets toward the apartment.
“My camera! I can’t remember if I left it in the room or had it with me!”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, if it’s not in your room, I’m sure we just call the club and they find it. Please, don’t worry.”
I’m frantic. I run to my room and the camera is on the bed. I’m excited and then a tornado takes effect. The room spins and I fall asleep after a storm. I wake to the rattling window, shaking from the might of the wind. The city is gloomy and grey. A hurricane like rain rages throughout the day. Hugo leaves a magnet that reads, Porto, in bold letters and leaves for Spain.
18 September 2015
Lisbon | A Story in Photographs
ANA | O ADAMASTOR
21 September 2015
Ineke and Pim wait for me at the airport. The flight is an hour delayed. I feel like I’m floating after sleepless nights in Portugal. In just a brief stay in Lisbon, I photograph a striking cook with a weary disposition and speak French over dinner with strangers from Lyon. My final night ends with spicy seafood stew and a live performance of traditional Portuguese music. En route to Holland, I sit on a cramped plane, beside a Dutch man who speaks four languages and has a profession that he describes as, “the idiot who climbs up to the highest point to fix technical things during festivals and concerts.” He has short blonde hair, sausage-size fingers, and massive shoulders. He smiles and says, “Eh, you had a rough day?” I am falling asleep on the plane window.
Ineke and Pim live on a floating home just outside the center of Nijmegen on a quiet waterfront. They bought the vessel five years ago and slowly renovated it from simple living quarters into a stunning home with kitchen, laundry room, living room, two bedrooms, and a workshop where Pim works on new construction projects. I sleep on an air mattress that slowly deflates overnight. I feel like I’m floating as I dip in toward the center. The home is completely self-sustaining, drinking water is filtered and the toilet uses resources from the lake.
Ineke’s parents tend to a large garden. Her father has long legs, a lean build, and wide, friendly eyes. He grows tomatoes, cabbage, squash, zucchini, potatoes, and berries that cannot be eaten since little worms inhabit the center. We sit in their small home with coffee, tea, and pie. Her mother wears a wig. She is in the midst of chemo.
Ineke and I pile into her 2006 Russian car and listen to the motor hum loudly as we drive below a blue sky filled with clouds that seem low enough to hold. In the distance we can only see grey.
“I think the rain moves toward Germany.” Ineke laughs.
We eat homemade stew of fresh red and yellow tomatoes from the garden and “little noodles.” At night we wear nice shoes and scarves and tap our way along stone streets to a party where I meet a towering man who wears a size 15 shoe.
“My girlfriend and I traveled in 2008. We went around the world in a year. In the Middle East, they thought I was them,” he explains. He has dark, tight curls and a beast-like build. I yell toward the ceiling as we talk over the noise of the crowd, drinking lager from a keg and eating cubes of cheese, pepperoni, and sliced cucumbers.
“We almost went to Syria. Everyone traveling through the Middle East said go to Syria, but we didn’t have time. We stayed in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Now we travel in our motor home. It’s not as big as those in the States. We sleep in the place where we dine. But, we can go everywhere with it.”
Our last train back to Nijmegen leaves at midnight. Pim, Ineke, and I run back. Tap tap tap. Heels clank the cobblestones. The train speeds through black villages, speckled with light that emanates from dim lamps behind perfectly lined rectangle windows. A sea of speckles illuminates from homes made of concrete and hay.
On Sunday we bike through beaches where cows drink salty water along the shore and passed green fields that neighbor crops of corn and wheat. I use Ineke’s folding bike. My first attempt is with the classic Dutch bike. It is heavy and too high for my short legs, even with the seat at the lowest position. I attempt to move forward and immediately fall to the ground.
“Well, now I can say I had a bike accident in Holland.”
“I don’t think you were even moving,” Pim says.
A festival takes place across the countryside, singer-songwriters, rock bands, and naked seaside dance performances.
25 September 2015
I sit on tram twelve, moving toward the Jordaan from the studio of a gorgeous jewelry artist from the Czech Republic named Monika. The sun sets in amber strokes. An autistic boy with curly brown hair screams to the sky.
A café with the unfortunate name of “Salad and the City” appears beside and old bar and flower shop. The man across from me cramps his long legs beside the window. “Eh! Museumplatz!” the autistic boy screams.
Monika Zampa has a long body, narrow face, and elegant blonde hair that frames her eyes, with are alive with curious enthusiasm.
“I remembered you with brown hair!” she walks into Coffee Company with a model’s flair, dressed entirely in red. She is born in Prague, where she lived for six years. Then, six years in Poland, followed by ten years in London, and finally in Holland.
“I don’t have a home,” she says, “there is no one place.”
Artistic Researcher | Printmaker | Weaver
28 September 2015
The train from Amsterdam to Vienna is delayed one hour. Someone is walking on the tracks. I am typing and barely notice. My day began at 6am and adrenaline carries me through. Riki meets me at the train station, Wien Hbf. She is waiting more than the hour.
“I hope it wasn’t a terrible wait!”
“Now everything is good that you’re here.”
Refugees from Syria fill the waiting area. A man asks an officer for a broom and sweeps trash that has collected on the floor around a group of women and their children. Some people have bags, some not. A dank smell of weeks-old clothes makes the station air even mustier. The Syrians wait under fluorescent lights, amidst the chaos of travelers rushing from their trains to the small grocery store where long lines form. Everyone is waiting.
ONE WEEK LATER
I try to give a family two euros to buy a croissant at the train station.
“Those boys are not a part of the family!” a woman behind the counter seems upset. “The family has money. I’m not sure what their complication is. The boys are not with them though.” The group seems to be having trouble gathering money to buy bread. The situation is entirely ambiguous.
“Do the boys have money?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay, so I’ll buy them croissants.” I walk over to the family to be sure they have what they need. I am at the train station bakery, which is now frequented by refugees. I pay for one croissant and hand it to the boy, who seems to be around eight years old. He eats quickly and I walk away. I eat half of a soft pretzel until I realize I am not hungry. I try to find someone in need of the other half, but finally leave it on a pile of bread that someone placed on a ledge in the subway. I take the U1 Volkstheater metro to meet Riki.
RELATED TO THE SEA
Sophie and I meet in front of the Opera House at 14:00 and walked through the rain to Secession, where the work of Gustav Klimt hangs on the basement floor. The top two galleries are filled with contemporary art. There are a lot of video and multimedia pieces, the current trend.
Next, we walk to an area that is filled with the top galleries. Unfortunately, many of them close early on Saturdays so we only see one exhibit. In the gallery there is no work on the walls. At first I think it is a cafe because the semblance of a real coffee shop is installed in back. Wooden chairs and tables fill the space, adjacent to what looks like a real kitchen. But this is all a part of the show, which is to simulate a cafe where everyone stares at their phones. The artwork is entirely online and can only be accessed on the smart phone. There are even beverages. I drink an aperol spritz and looked through the show on my IPhone. It feels silly, but so does staring at my phone in all other cafes. We end our tour at the art museum, Albertina. The popular exhibit is Munch — mostly woodcut prints positioned beside explanatory text and quotes that are meaningful to him and his work.
“Humans are related to the sea. They wish to return to it. The sea can be hypnotic.”
He suffered from depression and led a rather dark life in general. The highlight of the museum is Drawing Now, a show about contemporary works on paper. While looking at the work I come to the title that really fits my work at this stage — When I Meet Myself.
The museum closes at 18:00 and we walk through the market. At a busy bar we drink white wine beneath heat lamps outside. After apertivo we meet Riki and her boyfriend Rauol at a Chinese restaurant that Sophie knows well. She worked at an artist residency in Chengdu in 2011 and has a good smell for great Asian food. The décor is subtle – yellow walls and plastic tables lined with chopsticks. The food is fatty and hot. We share shrimp and chive steamed dumplings and sautéed bok choy. Sophie eats a huge bowl of soup with thick noodles and beef. By the time we leave it is pouring. Sophie and I take the metro to a small concert venue where her boyfriend, Paul, plays mixed media, ethereal compositions. He and his partner work an electronic soundboard like a true instrument. The small room could be described as almost deafening. The sounds hit the core of my eardrums. Sophie plugs her fingers in her ears through three sets of musicians from Oregon, Italy, and Austria.
It is election day in Austria. I walk through the biting cold with Riki to a community center where polling stations are located. Elders, pushing walkers and riding wheel chairs, wait in short lines. Riki walks into a wooden kiosk and votes for the Red party, social Democrats. A woman wearing a black head-scarf enters as we leave. I see a bi-racial couple and their caramel colored son ride a scooter. Riki holds up her I.D. and smiles for my camera.
In the evening we go to the local tavern to hear the results, but there is no television and most of the diners drink silently.
“I think they are not voting for my party,” Riki admits. We share local gruner veteliner and I eat fish soup consisting of tomato broth and a boney carcass of carp. A mealy tomato salad and whole, deep-fried trout follow. The fish’s flesh is dry. Riki eats a blood wiener and warm sour kraut. The tables are communal. We sit near an old woman and her daughter. The mother chomps on her jaw between sips of white wine. Her daughter has a nervous disposition. I motion to show the mother my soup, which seems like something special added to the standard menu of meat and potatoes. She thinks I am offering her a taste and yells, “Nein!”
“I think she doesn’t vote for my party.”
I photograph an artist named Vero who is born in 1953 and lived in D.C. for a year as an au pair.
Her host family helped her through school at Corcoran College of Art and Design. Before returning home she bought a greyhound ticket that took her from Montreal to Toronto and on to California, Denver, Alberquerque, and New Orleans in just six weeks. She said that Americans were so open and kind. Of course this was in 1972, but nonetheless, nice memories.
VIENNA to MUNICH
A lively night leads to a terrible morning. I wake up with a stinging throat and attempt to quickly pack. I am on a crowded train to Munich with Syrian immigrants. A man angrily asks another to leave a seat that is reserved. A family sits in the waiting area. A toddler cries in the corner seat while a woman wearing a blue scarf covered in sequins makes faces in attempt to mellow his screaming.
A man laughs with his son. They stare out the window, watching the red and yellow trees. He wears a baseball hat with that reads “Greek,” with a blue and white striped flag. A woman besides me listens to loud music on her earphones. I listen the hint of Arabian classical music. A large man with an intense limp sits beside a young Austrian woman. She has long auburn hair and wears ear buds, but he still attempts to speak with her in broken English. He shows her his Syrian passport and a New York State license card that depicts him as a young man. His hair that is now white and sparse was once thick and dark brown. I watch a man view a slideshow on an IPhone. He reviews photographs of he and his young son. They lie in bed and pose for the camera. Rain water glides along the train window.
The Border between Germany and Austria
“Out, you have to go out.”
The train reaches Passau, where offices wait. A tall man in a black uniform walks through the aisle.
“Afghan? Syrian? Where are you from? Can I see your passport? No passport? You must leave the train.” People are forced to leave the train and register and questioned.
“Sir, you must go. We send you to the refugee camps.”
Women wearing head-scarves, kids in puffy coats, and men in blue jeans pile out. Nobody asks to see my passport.
“I am from Afghanistan,” says the man wearing the Greek baseball cap.
“Okay then, where is your registration?”
He hands him a piece of paper.
“No, this is not a registration. You must leave the train.”
He collects his two kids and wife wearing the sequin head-scarf and they join the others. The officers talk to the son of the old man from Syria with the limp. He is too sick to leave and stand in the cold. He wears sandals and no socks. His toes are swollen and his mouth drips to one side.
“He can’t walk,” the son tells the police.
“Can you carry him out? I’m sorry, but you must register here.” The second officer seems gentler. The son supports his father on his right side.
“I wish you so much luck,” the Austrian girl with long auburn hair says apologetically. “It was so nice to meet you.”
It is cold and the train is nearly empty when it moves again.
“Are you English?” A woman with mocha toned skin and olive shaped eyes asks me.
“And you, where are you from?”
“Where do you think I’m from?”
“Oh my, I have no idea. I can’t even make a guess.”
“Greek? Italian? Where do you think?
“I’m sorry, I have no idea.”
“I am from Syria.”
“Yes. I wonder why they didn’t question me.”
“I don’t know, maybe because you’re not wearing a head scarf and are really well dressed.”
“Yea, it’s interesting.”
“Your English is so good. It sounds you lived in England.”
“Thank you. I studied English literature in college. I also taught Arabic and English in Turkey.”
“So you have been away from Syria for a long time?”
“I was in Turkey six months and Greece. I have friends in Vienna. Now I go to Berlin. My Uncle lives there, he is a doctor. My degree in Syria is not equivalent to Europe so I must continue my studies and get a degree. I am Alawite, do you know it? It is the religion of our leader.”
“You are the minority?”
“Yes, we are not Muslim. We are like Christians. We don’t wear the hijab or have the Muslim traditions. My family is still there, my parents and siblings. We live near Nusra and it’s too dangerous. There are bombings and violence all the time. I had to leave, but will return someday, maybe in ten years. Even if I die, I will go back. But I had to leave now, to live. I lost two family members, they were in the army. I also lost ten friends. My uncle was captured and held for a year. He returned 35 kilos. He’s taller than me, so thin. People don’t understand how difficult it is for us, families of soldiers.”
“I’m so sorry your family is still there.”
“It’s scary, but they couldn’t all leave.” “Can I ask, how old are you?”
“You’re so young. So you’ll stay in Berlin?”
“I hope to go to an English speaking country. I speak English well and German is so hard for me.”
“What is your first language?”
“Arabic, then English, Turkish, and I speak a little French. Turkish is quite easy, it’s so similar to Arabic.”
She reads a book by Claire Hajaj, Ishmael’s Oranges. It’s written in English.
“It looked interesting. I bought it because Elif Shafak said it is ‘Timely, captivating, and beautifully crafted.’ Do you know Elif Shafak?”
“No, I don’t.”
“She’s a famous Turkish writer. You should look her up. I read much of her work. I also studied many American writers. Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I also loved Waiting for Gadot. In Syria we learn a lot about American authors.”
“I read these books in school as well.”
“I think people don’t know Syrians like me. We only hear about refugees. I listen to BBC and the World.”
“What is happening to Syrians is heartbreaking. My family immigrated to America many years ago for various reasons because they had to do so. It’s unbelievable to witness what is going on now.”
“Where are your parents from?”
“They were both born in America. My ancestors came over a long time ago.” I hesitate and then explain, “My dad is Jewish and they had to leave Europe. I only know stories, but of course I understand the importance of being accepted when you’re forced to move.”
She smiles. I have Jewish friends on facebook. We used to have a Jewish population in Syria, but not now. It’s far too dangerous. We had one of the most beautiful temples for Jews.”
“I wish I could have visited Syria. I’ve read so much about how beautiful it was.”
“Yes, I used to go hiking in the mountains with my family, five years ago, before the war. You know, I really can’t believe the officers didn’t question me. Maybe because I’m clean and well put together”
“Yah, you’re not wearing the head scarf and you’re so well dressed. You look better than me!”
“Hah, no, I like your green jacket. I just bought these clothes the other day. I stayed with my friends in Vienna and we went shopping.” She looks down at her new outfit, black slacks, a pressed black blazer, and a black and white checkered button up blouse.
We approach Plattling Hbf, where I change trains en route to Munich.
“It was so nice to meet you!”
“Yes, I’m sorry we can’t talk longer.”
“Well, I’m in Munich until Nov. 7th. Who knows, maybe I can come up to Berlin at some point. It would be nice to talk more.”
“Yes, please let me know!”
We hug and I run. The train was meant to arrive at 15:55, leaving just a few minutes to catch the 16:02 train to Munich. Now it is 14:15. People crowd around a train official with long, curly red hair. The ride from Austria to Germany is always late now and the woman in the information office is used to telling travelers that the next will arrive in one hour.
“Sorry,” she says, “this is almost everyday now.”
15 October 2015
Michael and I met in 2008 when he visited Philadelphia to talk about the work that his former employer, Franz Mayer of Munich, did in fabricating art onto glass and mosaic. We met for a beer after his talk and quickly after became friends. Over the next six years, Michael continued to visit the US. One morning he called me and said, “let’s work together.”
I was in California where an earthquake had just occurred. “We’re on,” I replied.
Michael meets me at the Munich station and hands me a key to his apartment. He and his friend, Andre, attend a meeting at an organization run by and to support gay men that aims to help gay refugees.
“We can only help gay men because that is what our funding specifically supports,” Michael explains when he returns home later the night. “It’s quite tricky because first someone has to out themselves to their own community, which may not accept it, before receiving any services.”
The first day in Munich Michael and I walk to an architecture studio where I photograph a man in a fur vest while he describes his work in ‘pure design.’ Afterward we find a quaint café with thick-cushioned seats and Michael tries unsuccessfully to teach me how to say “wild” in German. “Ww-uu—ld,” we repeat to each other. At night we make soup and review the many photo-shoots to come, as well as an exhibition, a shop page, and new products with hand-woven fabric. I take a scalding hot bubble bath with sandalwood scents and fall asleep.
At 3am I wake to an insomnia daze that leaves me thinking until a pink sun appears, when I sink into film reel of vivid dreams.
THE NEW BAVARIA
Michael’s sister, Verena, is a teacher in the Bavarian countryside where the incoming refugees from Syria number in the thousands each day. She is in Munich for a 30th Birthday party of a close childhood friend. A large cake with the portrait of a disliked high school teacher sits in the refrigerator, waiting for a loud party that will last until 5am.
“In my class there are only a few white German students. Most are from Turkey, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. There are so many migrants entering Barvaria. We will have classes just for students from Syria so they can learn German.” We sit over coffee and pastries. German appertivo consists of coffee and cake. The autumn sky is a flat light grey. The air smells of newly-burnt wood.
“There are so many people from Syria and Afghanistan coming to us now. Some people are welcoming, but others say that it’s too much, that Angela Merkel is being too diplomatic. For instance, we are not allowed to have a cross in the classroom wall, but students are allowed to wear the hijab and aren’t permitted to take part in required activities for religious reasons, like swimming, because their religion says they can’t. Most of the students believe what their parents say and there can be fights between those from warring nations. It is very difficult. Many parents don’t speak German and they have been here over twenty years.”
“Interesting,” I respond, “Classes where white Americans are the minority is not uncommon in the city, but of course everyone must speak English. If their English is broken because someone has just arrived, that’s fine. But, t’s important to become a part of the culture where you may live for the rest of your life.”
“That’s it though, many people plan to return to their original country so they don’t want to spend time learning, but many people end up staying because we have such good services, or, it is never possible again to return home.”
Verena has a soft, assertive tone. Her face is shaped like a heart, with a sharp chin and smooth complexion. She is dedicated to social services and is pragmatic, but empathetic.
“We are taking so many people now. Germany cannot handle it all, other countries must help as well. We do have people who are very close-minded. I teach an ethics course in which I have everyone read Krieg – Stell dir vor, er wäre hier by Janne Teller. She basically says, imagine you were forced to leave your home countryand move to Egypt, or a place as such, with new climate, language, culture, and, you must integrate.”
“Right, if we were forced to leave and say, cover our heads. It would be quite a shock.”
“Exactly. We need to understand where everyone is coming from and what they have been through.”
“I’m quite sure no one decides late in life that it’s time to crowd on a fragile boat and cross the ocean to a place with entirely different customs.”
I take a sip of strong drip coffee. Her husband, Andy, and three-year old son, Elias, watch a cartoon on a Samsung tablet.
“We had nine men speak to our classes. One young many, Anas, arrived from Syria a few months ago and speaks perfect English. He said that at University he would receive a mark after every semester. Toward the end of school, instead of a report, he received a notice that he had to submit papers to the military office. Then, he was told that he was enlisted, forced to enter Assad’s army. He said that all the family knew it was time he had to leave and somehow raised funds to bring him here. He would not kill his own people only to be killed himself. He told us that most people seem to not realize that Assad is cruel to his people. He won’t do anything about ISIS – and they are not the only danger. People are threatened from all sides. He is quite handsome. He isn’t able to work yet, so he studies German and tries to continue his own reading. He works at the train station, helping new Syrians just arriving. He speaks fluent English, so he can translate for everyone.”
Mahbuba was born in Afghanistan. She studied art for four years with a teacher four years her senior who became her husband. He moved to Russian to study in St. Petersburg and she soon followed. Mahbuba lived there for fourteen years until she finished art school and was forced to leave. Russia had no refugee visa. Afghanistan was closed to their family after the war began. They had no country. Mahbuba would have stayed in Russia. She spoke the language and loved her life in St. Petersburg. Her husband was offered work for his glass art in Munich, so Mahbuba raised their toddler son in St. Petersburg until she was able to move to Munich. She lived there for two years on a refugee visa and studied German and Bavarian culture. After her stipend ended, she started working at Franz Mayer of Munich, creating large works of stained glass art for churches throughout Europe and the US.
“I didn’t know how to draw on glass then. It was like drawing on an invisible plate.”
We eat a four-course meal – fresh figs, green onion soup, brown bread, green salad, fatty carp, spinach stewed with cinnamon spices, potatoes with parsley, and wine. Her two sons return from work at separate times. One is the owner of a small café and works twelve hours a day with his beautiful, platinum blonde haired girlfriend. She is from Poland. Everyone lives with Mahbuba. The couple returns as Mahbuba serves salad. They are exhausted and go to bed after friendly introductions. Mahbuba’s younger son is 30 and works at Apple. He speaks English fluently, as well as German and Persian. He returns home with curious questions about the US. He wants to visit someday. We talk about his work until it’s time for him to go to a friend’s to watch a major football match.
Mahbuba tells me about her husband’s death and we cry together. They worked at Franz Mayer as glass artists until he was diagnosed with cancer. I met him May of 2010. He showed me the stories he painted on his personal glass work. We had a dinner of salad and stewed eggplant and I photographed he and Mahbuba together. “We were hippies!” he said. In December he was quite sick. Mahbuba spent every moment with him until he died in the winter. Mahbuba shows me photographs of his grave stone, which was crafted in glass. She visits him frequently and focuses on her own work – both personal glass artworks, as well as a collaboration with a German writer, with whom she documents her personal story.
“I can’t depend on people. I must work.” Her smile is warm and comforting. Her home is situated just outside of the city. Afghan carpets cover the floor, deep red and vibrant. Artwork lines cream-colored walls. Her kitchen is small with a brilliant mosaic tile floor.
“I want to learn Russian!” her son returns and sits at the table with us as we finish our fatty carp. “My mother speaks fluently. It would be good to know it as well.”
Mahbuba serves us icecream with melon. The room smells of burnt spices and nutmeg. At 12:30 Mahbuba drives me home after a tour through her ceramic collection.
“You are always welcome.” I crawl into bed at 1:30am.
Romana Munzinger picks me up at noon. She is a painting restorer who I photographed in 2010. She drives a BMW, “a traditional Bavarian car.” She tells me it’s cheaper in the States. Many people try to import the car from the US for this reason, despite the illogical irony.
We drive to Wasserburg, it feels like New England. The country roads are lined with golden and amber colored leaves. Romana once lived in Alexandria, among other places. She misses the blood red of the maple tree leaves. She and her husband bought a barn seven years ago and then leveled it. Over the next four years they rebuilt it into a stunning, dynamic home with window-lined walls, high ceilings, and natural curves in unexpected corners. Romana studied design. This was her personal project. In the summer she swims with the fish in a pond in the backyard. She also grows vegetables and flowers in a fenced in garden. She told the government that she wanted to take in refugees since the home has a completely separate area that is like a separate home; but, officials advised her not to do so since she would have no say in who lives there. The government would have all the control. We drink tea and eat dried fruit bars with a crust like, “the wafer you get at communion.”
She and her husband and three sons spent their first Christmas Eve in the home when the original structure was completed. This was before the electricity or the kitchen were installed. She made pizza in a clay oven at midnight since her husband was in a minor car accident en route. Then the pizza dough started to harden and needed flour that her son had to borrow from the special-ed school room where he works.
Romana’s father was a photo-journalist. He preferred to travel. Her mother raised she and her brother. Romana laughs and says, “She was a character.” Her father photographed in Budapest after the Hungarian revolution in 1956. He said the poverty was unimaginable. Romana’s mother wanted to help so she collected all of her maternity clothes and sent them to Budapest with the family’s address inserted in all the pockets. The authorities removed all of the addresses. But, one day a letter arrived from a Hungarian woman who wrote that her husband, a tailor, found a paper with her address deep in one of the pockets when he was taking the coat apart. Romana’s mother gathered her two kids and they drove to Budapest.
“We could wait ten hours at the border,” Romana explains. Everyone was inspected and the officials could just say that someone wasn’t allowed for no reason. Nonetheless, they subsequently traveled to Budapest twice a year. The woman who wrote to her mother is now eighty years old. Romana is quite close with the kids.
After tea and the house tour we drive to the center of Wasserburg. It feels like a quaint New England town with Bavarian buildings. Every edifice has a different color — yellow, pink, blue, red — because each one used to be a different brewery and the color of the facade indicated one from the other.
On Sunday I speak with Anas, a refugee from Syria.
“I love photography,” he says. “It is my hobby. Anas has lived in Germany for eleven months. He arrived after endless days, walking through Europe until he arrived in Bavaria.
“I am here and my journey is done, but it is not for so many.” He talks from Passau, where he begins a week-long holiday from German classes.
“I don’t know why!” He laughs. German sounds too foreign. He loves English, but has trouble following British English. He studied English literature at University, before he was forced to leave Syria. He wanted to receive a PhD and teach. His words are spoken with beautiful fluency.
“The news is not speaking any truth!” he says with exasperation, “They know nothing.”
“I am an artist who wants to share your story,” I tell him, “I don’t write or photograph for any specific publication. I believe that telling first person stories, intimate narratives, can help to create an understanding. This problem is so large. It’s incomprehensible. I would like to share your story. If a publication were to express interest in publishing anything, I would check with you first. It’s important that you know you are in a safe place. It is heartbreaking to think that people are forced to leave their homes, go through so much to find safety, and in the end face the possibility of being met with hostility.”
“I experienced prejudice,” Anas discloses. “It is hard.”
I tell him I hope I can be a microphone of sorts, a louder voice.
“No one should be faced with ignorance after fleeing from war.”
How do I begin to tell the story of Anas Naser.
“Where did you begin your journey in Europe?”
He wears a white, collarless shirt, blue jeans, a heavy jacket, and black headphones, wrapped around his neck. His hair is short and dark with wisps of grey. Verena, her three-year old son Elias, and I meet him outside Café Aran in Passau, where he can now stay after being placed in villages outside the small city. He traveled from Syria over seven months. He was one of the first to receive his paperwork to stay in Bavaria. His new routine is to wake early, go to German classes, return home to make pasta and study, and go to the train station to help incoming immigrants. He translates and carries bags, helping people to find their way.
“A woman from Syria heard my accent in Arabic when I asked if her child wanted me to bring him a seat. He was so tired and I am there to help. She is alawite, I come from a minority group, the Druze. She said ‘no’ when she heard my accent. Even here — the prejudices from home travel.”
The four of us sit outside at an Italian café on the main street that leads to the river.
“I used to be so happy – I had my family, great friends, my girlfriend, my home. After the trip here, I am changed. I lost myself on the way. I am fifty inside.”
“How old are you actually?”
“I’m 27, but really, 50 inside.”
The sun is strong and the air feels cool.
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” Verena asks.
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“I walk everywhere. There is so much to show you here, it’s a beautiful city. I just walk all day when I can.”
Elias moans, a cold crept up the night before. He woke up in the night feeling sick. After a nap in the car he seemed fine, but the autumn’s dry air seems to weaken his little body. We order tomato soup, toasted bread, white wine, soda, and a beer for Anas.
“I grew up in many places. My mother was the principal of a school where she started as a teacher. My father worked for the city, but he was against the regime, against the authorities, so when others would make ten thousand a month, he would make three thousand. The regime is powerful. We have seventeen people monitoring this small country. Everyone sees everything. If you vote no for the main candidate, Assad, our dictator, then you are placed in prison and tortured. Everyone sees what you do. My father is an intellectual, he thinks for himself. He does not just follow, so we didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t have a home that was a real house owned by my family until 2010. We just rented and moved around. As soon as I met friends, we had to move. I never felt settled.”
“How many siblings do you have?”
“I have a brother who is four years older and a sister who is four years older than he. We are lucky, we grew up in an open-minded home.”
“Is your family okay?” Verena asks. Elias curls into her thin body. He rests his head under her narrow chin. His white cheeks have become red. We wait for our soup.
“No one in Syria is fine. But, my family is okay now. It is not easy. Last week my cousin was killed just outside our house. Jus shot.”
“And your girlfriend? Is she okay?”
“She is good. She helps refugees coming from different parts of Syria. Our area, Suwayda, is still safe. He smiles when he talks about her. She is 26 and finished school.
“Why did you have to leave your town?”
“Every year I was forced to submit my papers to the army officials and say that I was a student.” That was my rightful reason not to go into the army.Assad’s army is evil. They are killing their own people. I do not want to kill. I studied English literature. I wanted to get a phd and teach or write. I had dreams. Now I have nothing. How can I go into an army? If I don’t kill my people – if I don’t kill, the other shoots me right away. I was not going to do this. Right away, at that moment, I packed a bag with a couple of shirts, my computer, and I left!”
Elias moans become coughing. Verena pays for her soup and soda – coke combined with lemonade.
“He must be home,” Anas says. He has a warm smile and weary, but resolute stare. We collect uneaten bread into a take-away container for Verena’s ride home.
“In truth,” Anas begins,” I am anti-American, not the people, but the State. “Ban Ki Moon stood up numerous times and said, I am worried about Syria. This statement is a joke now in Syria, we laugh at it. No one did anything. The media is terrible. They focused on ISIS, they helped build ISIS – the politics and the media. They did nothing but put guns and weapons into the hands of the most corrupt people. People are dying from chemical weapons that were outlawed after WWII. Each country had it’s own incentive, they passed bribes and now we suffer. Syria has oil and this is what interests the powers. The media just continued to speak about ISIS. They spread their name and made them even more powerful. There were thousands of people in Syria, doing beautiful work during the year of our silent revolution. Syria has always been an intellectual country. Damascus was the first capitol in the world. We were the center of art, poetry, sciences, and thought. And then the media, they can only talk about ISIS when they cover Syria.”
“I don’t believe in god. How can there be a god after everything that has happened, after what I have seen? There is nothing, there can be nothing.”
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