2017 Grateful 34

If memory serves me correctly, something it rarely does these days, it was this weekend two years ago that I took a bus trip out of Budapest, a trip that would have life-changing consequences. When I bought my ticket to visit friends in Zala county, little did I know that I’d end falling in love with the village and buying in to their idyllic way of life.

When they first upped sticks, selling their flat in the city to move into and renovate a ramshackle country manse, I thought they were mad. Although just 10 minutes off the motorway, Balatonmagyaród isn’t exactly a hive of activity. There are two shops (of a sort) serving a population of about 430. One, opposite the church, seems to trade in bread and UHT milk with very little else on the shelves. I bought the entire stock of washing-up liquid one day – both bottles. The other doubles as a dohany nemzeti (a cigarette shop), a coffee shop, and a pub. It’s standing room only when the first six through the door take their seats.

But during the week, various suppliers come through the village in their vans, each with their own distinctive jangle. My favourite is the butcher van (with its Old MacDonald tune) staffed by a young couple who come on Wednesdays. They have sausages to die for. The breadman I’m steering clear of, as I don’t need that daily temptation. The frozen food guy will have to wait until we get a freezer. And the household supplies won’t get any business as I have that hording gene that ensures I always have a bottle of whatever I need in reserve.

In the 2-hour drive from the city, I play my country music and sing my head off to Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt and the like. If the mood takes me, I think along to Blues. But when I pass the county line into Zala, I start to breathe more easily. When I drive through the village of Zalakomar and come out the other side (right now greeted by a haze of yellow with fields planted with oil seed rape) I can feel every ounce of tension dissipate. That couple of miles before I hit our village is one of mounting excitement. What will have budded in the garden? Will the carpenter have been to put in the windows? Will Gyöngyi Néni (my neighbour) have left some eggs on the doorstep? Will the view over the Kis Balaton have changed?

The house is a work in progress. It’ll take a while (as in years) to get it to where I want it but that’s okay. The process is one I enjoy. When work has stalled, I find myself shopping for old furniture. I’m trying my hand at shabby-chiqing and plan on giving upholstering a go, too. I get to do the inside; the outside I’ve left to himself.

I’m not a gardener. Never have been. Laziness saved me from uprooting weeds only to discover this week that they are actually irises. But the fruit trees are budding and we haven’t a clue what we have. Peaches? Cherries? Plums? Apples? It’s all a matter of wait and see. And that’s the beauty.

Time down here takes on new meaning. Everything is laid back. They say they’ll come around 8 on Tuesday – but which Tuesday, whose 8? Things happen when they happen. On days I have work, I work; all day and half the night, cooped up in my dark room that just got a fabulous new window. My coffee breaks I take on the terrace.

We eat when we’re hungry, stay up half the night watching West Wing dvds, get up when we feel like it. There’s no schedule. There’s nowhere to be. There’s nothing to do but live.

Two years ago, when I got on that bus, I never for a minute imagined that this would be the part of my life that I miss most when I’m not living it. And if JFW and CsRW hadn’t paved the way, I’d not be here. So this week, with the new windows in place and the painter set to start next week, I’m truly grateful for that May day invitation two years ago. Who’d have thought that I’m really a country girl at heart.

The shame counter

It’s 10 degrees outside. It’s cold. It’s wet. The wind is blowing and the rain is puddling. Last week, it was snowing. And I was cold then, too. Two weeks ago, I was walking a beach, contemplating an ice cream. Nothing wowey there except that I hadn’t known there was a beach in Barcelona to walk on.

My geography is atrocious. I don’t give much thought to where places are situated on a world map. I’m still getting over the trauma of seeing a sign welcoming me to Europe as I drove from the airport towards Istanbul. I’d no clue where I’d been. I hadn’t even realised I’d been on another continent. It’s sad. But such is life.

I was in Barcelona a number a years ago and knew it had a harbour. And boats. Big boats. Very very big boats. Very big boats from the Cayman Islands, from Malta, from Trinidad. But I never realised it had a beach, nine of them, in fact, all blue flag beaches stretching along its 4.5 km of coastline.  I think the one we hit was Barceloneta, close enough to the Olympic village. Barcelona is one of the few cities to get anything lasting from the Olympics. It got the beaches. Back in 1992. And some odd looking buildings that were used to house the athletes and administrative staff  and are now housing companies and residents.

 

 

The landmark crooked tower is really an art installation commemorating the 1992 Olympics called L’Estel Ferit (the wounded star or the injured comet). Am not quite sure how it celebrates a neighbourhood that was traditionally populated by sailors. Perhaps the four steel cubes are stacked to look like a lighthouse?

But, back to the beach. It was a hive of activity. Temperatures hovered about 20 degrees and the tops were off, the legs were out, and the beach babes were bathing. Older men sat around playing dominoes as the kids climbed the climbing frame and the young hipsters pulled out the kettle bells and did their thing. The creative types were building sandcastles. Most everyone else was sipping coffee or drinking wine at one of the many beach-side cafés.  We had a late breakfast at the Club Nautica Catalunya, a beach-front café with a terrace looking out onto the sea that cost an extra 10% to sit on. There’s nowt free (or very little) in this city. But it was all rather lovely.

Alongside all this activity, African traders plied their wares. Fake handbags, cotton throws and tablecloths, sunglasses – the usual fare laid neatly on white sheets. I was taken by yet another tower, this one switched LED number displays from 2016 to 2017. I looked at the numbers, 5079 and 663, respectively. And I wondered what they might relate to. They seemed a little high to be deaths at sea. But that’s what they were. I was shocked. The Barcelona shame counter started ticking in June 2016, backdated to 2015 to track the number of refugees who died trying to reach the city’s shores. Som i serem citutat refugi (We are and always will be a refugee city), it says, adding that ‘this isn’t just a number, these are people.’

A quick glance at the Barcelona Refuge City plan suggests it’s an impressive one. And yet when I saw the traders, standing with ropes wrapped around their wrists, ready to cinch their groundsheet and haul away their goods the minute the police appeared… I did wonder a little. But perhaps it’s the lot of street traders everywhere. The Barcelona boys are just better prepared.

   

 

 

 

The kiss of death

The origins of words and phrases are as fascinating as the words themselves. Some say the term the kiss of death grew from Mafia lore where, if the Don kissed anyone on the lips, it was time for them to sort out their will. More likely though, it refers to Judas betraying Jesus when he identified Him by kissing Him (Matthew 26: 47–49).

The Kiss of Death is immortalised in a 1947 film noir directed by Henry Hathaway based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky (who, if you’re fond of your trivia, served as legal counsel to the Mystery Writers of America). Later, too, in 1995, there was a loose remake of the original, starring Samuel L Jackson and Nicholas Cage (note to self to watch it, as I’m quite fond of the pair of them). It’s also the title of a rap album and rap by American rapper Jadakiss. Can’t say I’d heard of him or that I was particularly taken with the rapping (am I even getting the terminology right here?). But, of far more interest to me, is that it’s also the title of a sculpture. 

Topping the grave of textile manufacturer Josep Llaudet Soler, El Petó de la Mort can be found in Poblenou Cemetery in Barcelona. It was created in 1930 by either Jaume Barba or Joan Fontbernat. I can’t find any information on why this is disputed, except perhaps that as Barba has actually signed another sculpture in the same cemetery, it might seem odd that he didn’t sign this one, too. Or perhaps it was designed by one and carved by the other. Who knows.

Said to have inspired Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the tomb carries a quotation from Catalan poet, Jacint Verdaguer. The unattributed translation I found reads:

His young heart is thus extinguished. The blood in his veins grows cold. And all strength has gone. Faith has been extolled by his fall into the arms of death. Amen.

Dating back to 1775, the cemetery was the first to be built outside the city walls. Destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1813, it was rebuilt and opened again in 1819. It is interesting in that it is a cemetery in two parts. At the front, are the burial niches – seemingly for the hoi polloi. At the back are the individual tombs and the mausoleums, eternal home to the city’s wealthy.

The monuments include one by Italian sculptor Fabiesi of an angel carrying a young girl up to heaven. And while this suited the blue-sky day, I would imagine the El Petó de la Mort would look even more striking against stormy grey clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As in Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, this cemetery, too, has its pilgrimage site. Francesc Canals Ambrós, who died at the age of 22, is better known as el Santet (the little saint)He was first buried in one of the higher niches, but as this was impossible to reach, he was moved lower down. The 12 niches around him are full of mementos left by his followers – those who believe that he works miracles. In front, there is a mailbox of sorts, where believers post their petitions. In life, this young shop assistant reportedly gave his wages to the poor and collected old clothes to keep them warm in winter.

After his death (either from TB at home or in a fire saving his neighbours) those who’d come into the shop where he worked, started to drop by. Belief quickly grew that el Santet would grant wishes as long as they didn’t relate to money. And like Havana, there’s a ritual to be observed.

You say a prayer, post your petition, and then walk to the right of the niche without retracing your steps. When you get to the end of the row of niches, look back to look at the tomb in the distance. This is said to confirm your favour. And, once you’ve received whatever it is you prayed for, you need to return to give thanks. Judging from the flowers, it would appear to work.

Elsewhere, the gypsy graves, with their flowers are a colourful respite from the stonework.  Other graves have pictures of those interred, showing them as them as they were in their prime. One I was particular taken with, and a marked changed from the usual homage to holiness, was of a young man, with a beer bottle in his hand, cigarettes in his pocket and his sunglasses tucked into his shirt. It marks the grave of two brothers (perhaps?), Antonio and Juan Luis, but as to which one stands guard, I’m not sure. It’s definitely a deviation from the norm. But will it catch on?

If you’re interested in cemeteries, check out this great blog that has a wealth of information on opening times, locations, transport, and who’s buried where.

Where’s Gaudí gone?

Mention Barcelona and the first person to come to mind, if you’re not a football fan, is most likely Antoni Gaudí. Any fridge magnet collection is bound to include one inspired by the architect. He’s synonymous with the city. But we walked miles in search of his work and came up short.

Born back in 1852 to a coppersmith, young Gaudí knew he what he wanted to be when he grew up. Part of the Catalan Modernista movement, his distinctive style wasn’t long in coming to the fore. He set geometric shapes in pattern brick and stone and rather fancied both flowers and reptiles. [His salamander in Park Güell, is probably his best-selling fridge magnet.]

Showcasing his work at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878 brought him some attention and a commission to work on the Güell Estate and Güell Palace in Barcelona. We tried to visit but they had sold out for the day. A park. Selling out. Madness. We had to content ourselves walking the free space and looking down on those who’d been better prepared, catching only glimpses  of the great man’s work. Be warned. Book in advance.

In 1893, Gaudí was tasked with building a cathedral – Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family). The plans had already been drawn up and construction had begun when he took over, but he managed to make it his own. It’s still a work in progress – more than 120 years later. But it’s coming along. It’s another venue that needs advance booking, though.

Gaudí died when hit by a trolley in June of  1926. He was nearly 74. It is hoped that the Sagrada Familia will be finished by 2026, to mark the 100th anniversary of his death. We can but wait and see.

We went in search of  Casa Vincens, what’s billed as his most famous and best ever. And we found it. Under renovation. And I really wanted to see Casa Mila but the La Pedrera Google gave us wasn’t quite what we had set out to find. We did stumble across Casa Batlló. Mind you, it’d have been hard to miss, with the hordes of picture-snapping tourists queuing up outside. Pretty spectacular though.

 I’d looked to see if any other architect of note was hiding in Gaudí’s shadow and a Josep Puig i Cadafalch popped up. Turns out, he designed the Casa Amattler right next door to Casa Batlló. We found this out after we’d traipsed the back streets hitting various shops and such by the same name but they never quite measured up. I wonder if Josep’s rocking around heaven wondering what life might have been like had he been born a century earlier … or later.

We gave it time – the best part of a day. But we hadn’t done our homework. We hadn’t plotted our route or signed up for a tour. I didn’t want to be constrained by someone else’s timetable. So we wandered the streets and happened across many other equally stunning buildings that would require time to research. I contented myself with a look.

And we found the smallest theatre in the world, El Teatre més Petits del Món. Set in the home of pianist Luis de Arquer [carrer de l’Encarnació 25], a gig here is now top of my list of things to do, should a return visit to the city be on the cards. It would be, according to the New York Times, the most enchanting musical evening the city has to offer. 

Gaudí’s work is world famous. He’s quite the ambassador for Spain. His style has influenced many artists from all over (Fuster in Havana, Cuba, is an example). But I wonder if you can get too much of a good thing. He’s been hijacked by the tourist board and the souvenir industry and is on the verge of being tatted. Which is a shame. Entrance fees to see his work are extortionate. And yet the masses come. And pay. Too many of them.

Earlier this year, the city of Barcelona approved a new law to limit the number of tourists coming to the city.  People took to the streets in protest over the collateral damage of too many tourists – soaring rents and property prices, increasing numbers of evictions, lack of parking facilities, etc. Add these to the rising costs of eating out and the low salaries paid in the tourist sector, the locals have a gripe or three.

 

 

2017 Grateful 35

My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first visit to Subotica (which I now know isn’t technically in the Balkans) and continued later that year with my first trip to Belgrade. It’s been a few years since I was last in Belgrade (I’ve been to many other cities since) and yet it’s still held its position as one of the top five cities in which I could live – were I to leave Budapest.

Back at the request of DiploFoundation to run a two-day public speaking workshop, the few days were packed solid, Serbian style. I’ve yet to meet a people with anything approaching the same capacity to live life to the full. And the hospitality, as I remembered, is first class. (India comes a close second.)

Serbia has its fans and its detractors. I can’t ever hope to understand its history or even come close to anything approaching empathy for the past that has shaped its present. I can only speak from my experience. It may well have been four years since I was there, four years since I worked directly rather than virtually with the Diplo team, but it felt like yesterday. From that first welcome dinner at Patlidžan with its excellent piadina sa biftekom (steak wrapped in flatbread) and my re-acquaintance with Tamjanika wine, I felt at home. Conversation flitted between the serious and the banal. International development policy, cybersecurity, Trump, Brexit, the recent Serbian elections, village life, modern education; everyone at the table had something to contribute. That evening, on our way back to the fab Crystal Hotel, we stopped into Le Petit Bistro, lured inside by the strains of live music. Stubovi Pop Kulture are now on my list of bands to check out, next time in town.

Over a late lunch the next day in a fabulous local Italian  restaurant, Amici, the conversations continued.

The workshop started Friday evening at 5. Participants, keen to learn the secret to effective public speaking (if there is one), came from work, probably the last thing most people would want to do at the end of a hard week, but they came. Everyone was an expert in their own field. And again, the diverse backgrounds and experience added to the quality of the communication. Serbians, in my experience, are rarely, if ever, stuck for something substantive to say.

Each had their own demon to tame – be it anxiety at determining what to say, lack of confidence in their ability to speak English, fear of facing an audience – and they brought their demons with them. My mandate had been quite broad. There was only one specific ask: the workshop had to be dynamic. They didn’t want a lecture. Or a seminar. Or an ex cathedra presentation.

It’s impossible to turn someone into a public speaker in two days. It takes time and effort and practice. But what can be done is to raise the level of their awareness of what makes a speaker good speaker and what makes a message an effective message. Practical tips to address the demons, opportunities to put the theory behind public speaking into practice, and immediate constructive feedback on performance – that’s where it’s at.

It’s always a good sign when participants are in no rush to leave. So much can be learned from others in the room. And very often, chance encounters at workshops where participants are given a safe environment in which to expose their vulnerabilities and experiment with finding their voice, can lead to future co-operation.

Dinner that evening was a quieter affair, just four of us. Villa Maska, with its fab floral Trabant, is yet another gem on the Belgrade culinary route. My sixth encounter with the hospitality industry this trip and my sixth time to comment on how seriously they take their business. From the coffee shop on the corner to the local restaurants and kafanas, the service was warm and welcoming, delivered with ease and efficiency. Service in Belgrade is the stuff textbooks are written about.

The second day, Saturday, ran from noon to 5pm and again, participants stayed over. The overriding feedback was that it had been different to the type of soft-skills training they were used to. They got floor time. They got to speak. They got to experiment. They got to practice. And they learned. Mission accomplished.

Dinner that night was at the home of old friends in New Belgrade. A smorgasbord of Serbian delicacies that left me daydreaming of having the time to grow paprika and make my own ajvar  and making a note to myself that I had to try the boiled eggs in horseradish and sourcream at home. As we sat around the room sampling homemade rakija and Montenegrin wine, again the conversation leapfrogged around the world with everyone contributing. Life in Serbia is extremely social. And inclusive. And entertaining.

Sunday, we had plans to visit the Tesla museum but it was lashing out of the heavens and I was knackered. Workshops drain me. Having to be on my game for hours on end is physically and mentally challenging. We were picked up from the hotel at 2.30 for a Sunday afternoon lunch at Milošev konak, noted for its delectable desserts. In this remnant of old Belgrade, with its platters of roasted meats and lively music, we spent the better part of five hours. Had the yawns not begun to get in the way of conversation, I might still be there.

As always, the musicians were an integral part of the experience. The music was like a rollercoaster ride – from happy to sad, from upbeat to melancholy. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the lyrics, the sentiments were clear. My new favourite song is Dimitrijo, sine mitre, a tearjerker if ever there was one.

It’s been a long week. And I’m heading into the next with a backlog of work that will take days to get through. But as exhausted as I am, I’m grateful that I managed to hold my own, and to keep up with Belgrade. I’m grateful, too, for the spirit of friendship and the shared belief that working together is how we change the world, one thought at a time.

If you’ve not been to Belgrade, you’re missing out. The food, the wine, the music, and above all, the incredible hospitality, is something everyone should experience. I can only hope that it won’t be another four years before I get to come back.

 

 

Market mecca

Barcelona is a veritable mecca for shoppers. The city is big on leather, big on recycling, and big on style. It more than makes up for the usual high-street cohort of Zara, H&M, Mango, and the like, with a host of small boutique designers that smack of individuality.

But the markets are where it’s at. La Boqueria (Rambla 91) is probably the best known of what’s on offer but if you’ve been spoiled by produce markets in Budapest as I’ve been, it’s just another day at the stalls. Nope. It was the fleas I was after. Other people’s junk. Other people’s treasures. And the place to go is what’s billed as one of Europe’s biggest flea markets – Mercat dels Entants (Carrer de los Castillejos 158).

While there’s the usual dose of tat – both Chinese and Turkish – there is plenty to look at. Morning auctions bring collectors from all over searching for a bargain. Had I had checked luggage, I could have done serious damage. It’s a brilliant place to spend a few hours.

Over on Placa Real, we stumbled across a craft market where everything was made from recycled stuff – bags, jewellery, clothes – everything there had once been something else. The last time I was in the city, many many years ago, we stayed in a boarding house on the Real. Each night, we’d nightcap in what was then the tiny Glacier bar before heading to the Pipa Club. The Glacier has now expanded and the Pipa Club, with its collection of Sherlock Holmes’s pipes, has a sign outside letting the world know it’s there. Back in the day, it was only for those who didn’t need to be told. Street entertainment in the city is good – particularly the acrobats. A glass of cava to sip on, some sunshine to bake in, and an acrobatic display to keep you entertained. Not a bad way to pass an hour.

And if it’s art you’re looking for, there’s no shortage of art markets either. The one we found was the Mercadillo de la Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol i del Pi. What was meant to be a quick buzz around to see if anything leapt off the easel screaming my name, turned into a buy. An original watercolour – boats on a beach in black and white by  Jordi Serrat Jurado. Having walls has unleashed a madness in me. I have bookshelves of unread books and now I am accumulating tubes of unframed paintings.

That said, it was a lovely way to spend the day.

 

2017 Grateful 36

My first baseball game was watching the Padres at Murphy Stadium in San Diego. When the crowd stood at the top of the seventh to sing Take me out the ball game, I thought I’d passed into a parallel world. I don’t pretend to know the rules, even if some of the lingo crept into my vocabulary while I was Stateside – home stretch, third base, in the ball park, batting zero.

Stuck for something to read last week, I picked up the first in Troy Soos’ Mickey Rawlings booksMurder at Fenway Park. If you like whodunits and you’ve a thing for baseball history, this is just what you’ve never known you’ve always wanted to read. Lightly written, Soos explains the nuances of the game without preaching, describes the wonder of it all without waxing, and paints a realistic picture of what it was like to live back in the day. It’s 1912. Fewway Park has just opened. And Ty Cobb is the man everyone is talking about.

I think June is my favorite month for baseball. It’s late enough in the season so that the players are warmed up and their reflexes sharp, but early enough so that the accumulating aches and pains haven’t yet taken their toll. It’s the time of year when one can best appreciate the beautiful balance of the game. The warming weather has the pitchers’ arms loose, and gives them a more sensitive feel of the ball. But the batters have their hitting eyes honed, so the pitcher-batter matchup remains even. The legs of the base runners are limber, and they get quick jumps in their sprints to steal bases. But the catchers have developed snappier releases, so the catcher-runner duel also stays close. The critical matchups are ideally balanced this time of year, with all of the combatants at the peak of their powers, and every skirmish of mind and body a close and exciting contest.

But baseball and murders aside, one line really struck me:

I heard once that if you grow old with someone, nature has a charitable way of making you both always look the same to each other: as one of you gets more wrinkles, the other’s eyes get worse, so the aging is never noticed.

I spent the week looking at elderly couples wondering what they see. Do they see the person I see or the person they fell for so many years ago?

That I’m not too jaded to find such flights of whimsy fascinating is gratifying. This week is already promising to be a manic one. I’ve just unpacked from Barcelona with enough time to pack again for Belgrade. For the  chance to travel [even if I’d prefer to be motoring down the M7 to the village sooner than heading to the airport] I’m grateful, too. But more than anything, I’m grateful for a love of reading that makes even the most miserable of days worth living.

 

Giving it soul

I’m not a great follow-upper. If I’m out, at some do or other, and if we get into conversation and I agree to send you information, I will. I’m the product of a convent-school education. The nuns are still hovering in the outer reaches of my consciousness. I’ve always done my homework. I still do it. But if there’s nothing tangible said, no specific action needed, then I’ll rarely, if ever, follow up.

At a gig in March, I ran into Budapest-based artist Michael Pettet. The name didn’t mean anything but when we got to talking, I had some vague recollection of being invited to an exhibition of his that I couldn’t make. And, as I’ve recently come into possession of some blank walls that will eventually need adornment, once they’ve been plastered and painted, I handed over my card and said I’d like to see his work.

He followed up.

Pettet’s life to date was made for serialisation. It’s got all the ingredients of a good TV drama. He was born and raised in the plummy SouthEast of England where leaving school to pursue a degree in Fine Art didn’t raise an eyebrow. He lived next door to portrait artist Simon Goldring, a graduate of St Martin’s in London who is now making a name for himself in Madrid. Pettet, himself a graduate of Kingston University, has seen his work hang in galleries around the world, including Knights Park Gallery in London, Centro Colombo Americano in Santa Fe de Bogota, Colombia; and Museo del Ex-Convento, Tepoztlan, Mexico.

From living in a squat and painting on an Enterprise Allowance of £40 a week, selling mainly to friends and friends of friends, he went on to be a part-time art technician in a sixth-form college in Esher under the benevolent brush of Joe Turner. Rather than waste Pettet’s talent on cleaning paintbrushes and palettes, Turner gave him a small studio so he could paint. He wanted his students to be around a working artist. It was as close as Pettet would come to being an artist in residence.

Everything we’ve done till a particular moment in time has brought us to that moment … for a reason. I firmly believe that. In 1993, Pettet met Joanna, who had joined the school as an English teacher. They’ve been together since. Their story is a pleasant change from the usual, where Mrs follows Mr as he’s posted around the world. It is Joanna who is offered the jobs abroad, the first a 10-month maternity cover in Milan (they travelled there from the UK by motorbike). A choice between Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, and Bogota saw them up easels and move to Colombia. And later to Mexico City where they’d spend 14 years before moving to Budapest.

Around this time, computers were making headway. Graphic art was taking on new dimensions. Digital art had come into play. And rather than cling to the traditional oils and watercolours, Pettet embraced it. He wanted, he says, to give it soul. Recognising that the digital age, although still in its infancy, would soon become an intricate part of our daily lives,  he experimented with binary numbers and started painting.

The morning I went to see his work, I wondered what I’d find. A few years ago, I visited a working studio belonging to Goya von Gerendássy Ács György, known and loved by many as simply Gyuri. There I saw the easels, the canvases, the pigments, the paints – everything I expected to see. Pettet’s canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop (which he uses rather than one of the many dedicated painting programs  that try too hard, he says, to simulate traditional techniques and therefore produce images that look fake and overly synthetic).

We sat and had a coffee as I leafed through some of his catalogues. I was blown away. It was clear that his environment influences his work. His body of work from his earlier time in South America consists mainly of landscapes – I particularly liked one of Colca Canyon in Peru and another of Hierve el Agua, a set of natural rock formations in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Colca Composition IX

Hierve el Agua I

But these weren’t challenging enough, intellectually. Although the medium is radically different, the approach Pettet takes to his digital art is much the same.

I approach the paintings in exactly the same way that I did using traditional materials […] the intellectual process which is at the core of what I do. The images form themselves through the working process and my dialogue with the way they are taking shape. The resulting piece is therefore something that was not imagined at the outset. To this end there is no difference in my mind between techniques whether oil on canvas or digital.

During his last six years in Mexico City, he hearkened back to his childhood holidays in Scapa Flow. It’s mesmerising, the Lament, in particular, and Sandstorm with its animalistic forms that are at the basis of all human emotion. A series of portraits completed in Budapest based on photos of friends is particularly striking. As I listened, my walls were taking shape in my head, with rooms being redesigned around them.

Scapa Flow – Lament III

Sandstorm

I asked the usual question – Why Budapest? It was another choice for Joanna – Budapest or Rome, and they plumbed for Budapest. The contemporary art world here is not quite as suspicious of digital art. Places like the Art Factory are fielding some talented artists being recognised abroad (Márta Kucsora currently has a solo exhibition in London). But the distrust is still there driven by the underlying doubt as to how much of the art produced is the artist and how much is the computer. And while the latent texture and sensitivity that many associate with traditional art are more difficult to master digitally, the blend of the virtual world and the real world is something we need to get a handle on.

Think of it. Our interaction on social media is limited to the construction of sentences and ideas in Tweets, Facebook updates, Skype newslines. We write, we share, but it takes a sympathetic reader to reconstruct the feeling, the emotion, the latent meaning behind it. Emoticons don’t capture all the nuances. So, too, with digital art. Its beauty is in its interpretation. Its soul is in how it reflects what we think we see.

Drowning 2016

Each piece is limited to a signed, numbered run of 50. No more. And he doesn’t do commissions (the portrait series is stunning – I had to ask). Life, he says, is too short to reproduce someone else’s ideas.

As my walls are nowhere near ready for anything other than paint and plaster, I’d planned on taking my time to populate them. But I’ve already picked my Pettet piece, from the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), in southwest Bolivia. I just hope that 50 other people haven’t had the same thought. Check him out.

Uyuni VIII

 

 

Zika-free noises in my head

I’m spending a lot of my day sitting and wondering, watching the world go by. Just like they do in Cuba. More than a month after my trip, I still have whatever bug it was I brought home. Lab results tell me it isn’t the Zika virus and any day now, or so they say, my ears will pop and life will return to what approaches normalcy in my world. In the meantime, I will continue to do battle with the noises my head that are making it difficult to hear myself think, to concentrate.

People have asked me about my trip, about whether I enjoyed it, about whether I’d go back. And yes, I enjoyed it in that it was different. It wasn’t the type of holiday where reality is suspended for a few days and all unhappiness and angst put on hold. It wasn’t a mindless quest for fun and frolics that required heels, accessories, and the stamina of a 23-year-old. It wasn’t a capital city tour with a list of sights to be seen and restaurants to be seen in. It was different.

Cuba feels like something waiting to happen. There’s a palpable expectancy in the air. It’s an excitement of sorts. Not the Christmas Eve waiting for Santa excitement but more like a ‘let’s see what life throws as us next’. People watch. They watch life unfold around them with a detachment that speaks volumes. The line from the Brandi Carlile song – The Storyall of these lines on my face, tell you the story of who I am… comes to mind. They sit by the side of the road, on steps in the towns and cities, on balconies, on buses, and they watch. Waiting for what happens next.

It’s as if the entire country is facing the front door wondering who will come through it next and all the while, western influences are sneaking in through the back.

It was a complicated trip. It was a sad trip. My overriding feeling was a heady mix of resentment and shame, seasoned with a massive dose of confusion. I resented the disney-ing. I was embarrassed by the flaunting of the tourist dollar. And I was confused by the whole Fidel/revolution signage. If Fidel’s Cuba increased literacy to 100%, dropped the crime rate to one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, and fostered the best healthcare system in Latin America, then was he as evil as the west has painted him? I don’t know. [Quora has some interesting comments on how Fidel is seen by Cubans.]

Selfishly, I want Cuba to stay as it is, to preserve itself, to protect itself from the consumerism and materialism of westernisation. I want it to keep its character, to stay intact. But after 57 years without elections, without independent radio or TV, without a choice of labour unions or political parties, literacy, security, and healthcare may well lose their sheen. The people want the freedom that comes with having a choice. They want to travel. They want money in their pockets. They want a taste of what the outside world is enjoying. [I can’t help but think: Brexit, Trump, and ISIS.]

It is a fascinating country, what little of it I managed to see. In terms of after-effect, it ranks up there with South Africa and India for its potency and provocation. It makes you think. Everything about it makes you think. In terms of taking a vacation from reality, it doesn’t rank at all. Instead of allowing me vacate my own reality, it hijacked it.

Go for the architecture. Go for the beach. Go for the art. Go for the music. Go for the rum. Go for the cigars. But go soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Sugar, sugar

I read somewhere, I think it was one of the Shardlake novels, that back in Henry VIIIth’s time, sugar was such a sign of wealth that women of society would deliberately blacken their teeth to make it look as if they were rotting from having had too much of the white stuff. Oh, to be a slave to fashion.

Sugar and slavery are two words that have appeared way too often in the one sentence over the years. In Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) outside Trinidad, remnants of Cuba’s sugar plantations bear witness to a time when slavery was very much in vogue. These three interconnected valleys – San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer –  were where it was at, back in the day. More than 30 000 slaves worked anywhere between 57 and 70 mills and plantations to keep the world in sugar. Fifteen of these mills belonged to the Iznaga brothers, Pedro and Alejo.

(c) Steve Jacobs

In the village of Manaca Iznaga stands a look-out tower, the tallest in the whole Caribbean sugar region, built by Alejo around 1816, some say to house his unfaithful wife. It served as an observation post from where the supervisors could watch the slaves working the fields. Standing seven stories high, it takes 136 steps to get to the top which makes it about 45 m tall. I didn’t go up but I sent my camera 🙂

It housed three bells, each with its own distinct sound, there to communicate to the fields. The larger of the three marked the start and the end of the working day; the mid-size one rang for a holiday; and the smallest was reserved for prayer times to the Virgin Mary in the morning, midday, and afternoon. But it didn’t end there. If the two largest were rung together, that meant a slave had escaped. If the biggest and the smallest rang together, a rebellion was afoot. And if all three rang at the one time, pirates were invading.

Like Walter Raleigh bringing the potato to Ireland, it was the Spanish who brought sugar to Cuba – back in 1512. And for years, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Cuba was the world’s leading producer of the sweetener. It had the climate, the soil, the ports, and the internal infrastructure.

I hadn’t given much though to why slaves were needed if there were locals to work the land but like Hawaii, the natives were nearly wiped out by disease through contact with the European settlers. Those who survived the disease often met their death as slaves.  So the Spanish plantation owners had to look further afield – and they did – to Africa. The Spanish didn’t abolish slavery until 1820 and this, coupled with the Wars of Independence, saw the demise of the plantations.

In Manaca Iznaga, the owners house has been turned into a restaurant. Out the back is one of the original threshers. It didn’t take much to imagine slaves breaking their backs turning it around. Through the canefield, the barracones (save quarters) are still visible. I got quite a land when I saw a guy, sitting on his steps, minding his business. It was way too real to be comfortable. My imagination was running riot.

(c) Steve Jacobs

(c) Steve Jacobs

It didn’t help that we had to walk a gauntlet of traders to the get to the tower. And while prices for table cloths and the like were much lower than in Trinidad or Havana, the approach was more full on. It was here that women came up and asked for soap. One young lad asked a tourist for his shoes. Another wanted a jacket. Had I known, I’d have come prepared but the cache of soap and toiletries I’d brought were all back at the house.

I bought beads from an old lady, paying five times what she was asking because I wasn’t listening and was too addled to care. Not for the first time I wondered what it must be like to see well-heeled tourists walk through your streets when you have little more than what you’re standing in. I was back in South Africa, wondering what sort of person would go on a bus tour through a township.

Cuba is a heartful of happening, a wealth of contradictions. At times I felt like a welcome guest, at others I felt like an intruder. My emotions were all over the place. There is so much to it, so many layers, so much to understand. It can’t be done – not in a week or 10 days.