Artist Date 86: On a Scooter, With a Boy in Front and Chocolate in my Pocket

Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France.  I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.
Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France. I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.

I leave for Italy in 39 days.

I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.

This is highly unusual for me.

By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed.  I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays.  He has lovely pictures of the outside.

I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport.  My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.

I have done none of this.  I’m not sure why.

And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything.  Fodors.  Rough Guide.  Lonely Planet.  Thick books on the whole of Italy.  Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  Artist Date 86.

I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel.  I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad.  Everything was handled for me.  Flights.  Hotel.  Itinerary.  And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.

Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different.  I wasn’t alone.

One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid.  By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time.   Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.

And at 37, I do it.

At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations.  I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.

I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive.  It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined.  It feels scary and lonely.  I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying.  A few days later I join my team in Avignon.  Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free.  I have found my place, my role.  I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.

Building walls in the South of France. 2006.
Building walls in the South of France. 2006.

Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore.  I do not have a husband anymore.  These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago.  This time, this trip, I must lean into myself.  My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense.  I am afraid.

And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe.  This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia.  This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place.  This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements.  People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.

My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home.  She tells me that I am brave.  That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone.  I do not feel brave.

And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.

Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia.  Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.

Artist Date 77: Rekindling the Romance

I am writing my morning pages – one of two “core practices” in The Artist’s Way, my unofficial roadmap through the past two years of transition – the daily purging of random thoughts taking up real estate in my head.  It is Saturday, the end of the week, and I realize I have not planned an Artist Date (The Artist’s Way other core practice) for myself.

2014-05-24 15.20.01A part of me rejoices in my loosening the vice grip I seem to have on everything.  A part of me laments.

Am I entering the transition from passionate love to either compassionate love or break up?   The six-month mark in a relationship when partners finally rouse themselves from bed and can think of something other than sex and one another.

If it is, I’ve had a hell of a run – 77 weeks of Artist Dates and only recently have I become somewhat bored, lazy with the idea of planning a solo excursion for myself.

Trouble is, I am the type that loves to be in love – the first six-months girl, as evidenced by my blogs.  The Southern Svengali.  Mr. 700 Miles.  My Divorce Buddy.  Ridiculously romantic stories with heartbreaking endings.

My lament is about wanting to hold on to my ridiculously romantic story with myself – with my Artist’s Dates.

——————–

Italy – quite possibly the sexiest, most romantic place on the planet – calls like a siren.

I Google “volunteer, Italy” and in minutes am poring over possibilities.

I have volunteered overseas twice before – in the South of France and in Rwanda (the trip that gave form to this blog).  Traveling this way gives me a deeper sense of people, place and purpose.  It is cost effective.  And I meet other unaccompanied adventurers I might not otherwise know.

I find “my trip” through Volunteers for Peace – two weeks with the Milano Film Festival.  Only seven volunteers are accepted, and a letter of motivation is required.

I get writing.

I send my short essay to my friend, Melinda for feedback.  She likes most of it, and gently offers, “Is this an opportunity to introduce yourself as a creative, fun, movie-loving, gelato-eating event coordinator who is a world traveler and wants to visit Italy without referencing your divorce?”

Yes, it is.  And so I do – removing the reference to my divorce from the essay before hitting “send.”

——————–

And so this morning, noodling over my morning pages, I settle on a trip to the library or bookstore, to pour over travel books.  Artist Date 77.

I think about Powell’s and flash on a date I treated my ex to when he completed his first year of residency – a bike tour of Chicago, highlighting book stores, record stores and pastry shops.

Recalling what I have done for someone else but am not doing for myself lights a fire in my belly.

2014-05-24 15.20.08It is warm and stuffy in the library – a small, neighborhood branch.  I am surprised how many people are inside, considering outside holds the promise of the spring we Chicagoans have been waiting on.  Most of them appear to be studying – determined.

I find the Italy section in the stacks and am disappointed to not find a single travel book.  No Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet.

I pull La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, Traveling in Italy with Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence and Italy from the stacks.  I finger through the first, I am somewhat amused but it is not what I want to read.  I am distracted by the underlining and highlighting that mars the second.  I put them back, hold on to D.H. Lawrence and check out – unsatisfied.

At the Book Cellar I grab three titles and settle into a somewhat comfy chair wedged in the corner of the shop.

I am quickly overwhelmed.  My plan is to travel on after the Film Festival (I am already assuming I am going.).  But where?  Venice? Rome? Florence?

The Amalfi Coast? Sicily?

Too many choices.  Too much for a single trip.  Too much to consider.

This was supposed to be fun.  It isn’t.

I close the books and return them to the shelves – still unsatisfied.

Perhaps it is enough to know they are there when I am ready – tomorrow, next week, next month.  When I know more, like if I am in fact going.  (I will receive notice in three to five business days.)  Or if I am going somewhere else.  Like to Reykjavic for its film festival, or Portugal to help restore a traditional, community bread oven – other possibilities.

Perhaps all that really matters is I took action to rekindle this romance – the only one I have any control over.  I recall our couple’s therapist, Robert insisting that even if only one of us is doing the work, the relationship will change.

Today I did the work…and wait for the change.

Artist Date 57: California, Coming Home

My friend Sherrod was the first artist I knew personally who made money at her craft.  Which meant she covered her expenses and then some.

I remember seeing her painting on Liberty Street, where I lived in San Francisco.  Victorian houses in oil.  She was prolific.  One night, as the sun began to go down, I invited her in for dinner.  It was the first time she met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband.  Being somewhat filter-less, she named him “Pretty Boy” on the spot.

That year Pretty Boy bought me a copy of one of Sherrod’s pieces for my birthday.

It was a view of Dolores Park, from above it, and downtown San Francisco in the distance.  Done in watercolors.  Light.  Almost cartoonish.  Nothing like her other work which was darker and moody.

Pretty Boy put it in a white-wood frame he found in the alley and hung it over our bed.  It followed us from San Francisco to Oakland, Chicago and Seattle – where I left it – a little piece of our first shared home.

I get emails from Sherrod now and again, telling me about her shows in the Bay Area.  But I hadn’t really thought about her work much until now, standing at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I am at the “Dreams & Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection” exhibit – Artist Date 57.

My friend Jack suggested it.

I like the sketches in the process of becoming – Degas’ “Grand Arabesque,” Matisse’s “Still Life with Apples.”  The ripe, sexy suggestiveness of Rodin’s “Leda and the Swan,” Povis de Chavannes’ “Sleeping Woman.”  The eerie, ethereal quartet in Toorop’s “A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path.”  But I don’t quite see how it all hangs together.

2014-01-16 15.35.01
Francis Towne’s “Naples”

Francis Towne’s “Naples: A Group of Buildings Seen from an Adjacent Hillside.”  An accurate, albeit not terribly inspired, title.  It is from 1781, done in pen and black ink, with a brush, and black and gray wash over traces of graphite.  Italy.  But all I see is Dolores Park.

I am wistful and happy at the same time – remembering this place I used to call home, where the sun wasn’t a stranger in January and, rumor had it, Tracy Chapman lived on my street.  This place where I met and married Pretty Boy.

It is the second time I’ve rubbed up against California today.

“Nevada Falls, Yosemite Valley, California,” painted in 1920 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach.  The dreamy, translucent watercolors whisper to me of Sherrod’s Dolores Park.

2014-01-16 15.26.12
Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s “Nevada Falls”

I know the view.  I’ve seen it many time,s driving down from Badger Pass to the Yosemite Valley floor, coming through the tunnel carved into granite.  Surprising and spectacular.  I’ve hiked a part of it, along with Vernal Falls and the John Muir Trail, forming a loop.  I was with Pretty Boy and our friend Tim –my first foray into camping.

We stayed in Curry Village in a canvas tent cabin with a wood platform and a single light bulb.  Tim threw baby carrots to the squirrels, although the signs all around instructed him not to.  Hilarious – until one scurried into our tent.

We bought water and painted wood disks strung on elastic at the adjacent store.  “Camp beads,” I exclaimed, handing a strand to Pretty Boy.  Not unlike the ones he had given me off his own neck on our first date.

I got boot bang on the trail descending and had to rip off my toenail.  And once back at Curry Village, I jumped into the Merced River, and then sat on a rock, drying and shivering in the sun.

After that trip I graduated to a real tent, the lightweight kind I could use to backpack in for a few days.

2014-01-16 15.18.59
Marc Chagall’s “Das Haus”

“Das Haus.”  The Marc Chagall woodcut jumps from the wall.  All four woodcuts, displayed in a row, do.  But it is Chagall who paints my heart.  Lead glasses my heart.  Woodcuts my heart.

A house erupting from a man’s shoulders.  According to the placard, it was produced following Chagall’s exile from Belarus.  “…the work can be seen as an image of the artist metaphorically carrying his home with him.”  Like the movie, Up.  Like the painting in my living room, “You Can Take It With You,” that I bought from my friend Scotty before leaving Chicago in 2011.

I return to the placard at the exhibit’s entryway.  It ends, “Even with its diversity of artists and time periods, the Hilliard collection possesses a remarkable consistency in sensibility: these works are unified by their ability to transport the viewer to other eras, other worlds.”

Chagall’s house.  My stories.  Towne’s Naples.  My California.