Doors Like Breadcrumbs, Leading Me Home

A few days ago a friend of mine from university posted this message on my Facebook page — “Read this and thought of you this morning. Smooches bubbala!”

Every year, The New York Times recommends 52 Places to Go, one place to dream about exploring each week. The list is an ambitious forecast of which beaches will remain unspoiled, which starchitect-designed museums will live up to their renderings and which culinary treasures are worth hopping a flight to eat.

This year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.

We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world. This person should have a well-worn passport, the ability to parachute into a place and distill its essence and to render a compelling tale with words and images.”

As part of my application, I had to write (only) 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been to. It was fun to go back on the Marrakesh Express … Fingers crossed!!

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

Marrakesh – I expect it to smell otherworldly like Tangiers, fragrant with spices mixed with sea water, but it doesn’t. Instead, I notice steam rising from the black-tar cement and yellow maze-like lines that direct us inside the airport where there is no air-conditioning, no Wi-Fi, not even a vending machine selling over-priced water.

Outside, under a white tent, wooden benches teem with drivers holding signs, like breakfast, it is included with the price of our riad.

We pile into the car and drive towards the old city. A woman wearing a cobalt blue kaftan and matching head scarf keeps pace with us as we circle the roundabout. The streets are lined with palm trees and resorts tucked behind colorful walls.

marrakesh scooter

We stop abruptly at an uninspired entry point to the medina. Our driver hands us over to a small man with a wheelbarrow, who tosses our luggage into it. We follow him down cobblestone streets with no names to an unremarkable door, behind it is a courtyard with a small dipping pool and our host, waiting with mint tea. He takes us to our room — white-washed and pristine with wooden shutters that look out across the courtyard to its mirror image and upward to the sky. He marks our location on a map with an X and shows us how to reach Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square.

riad 107

We snake down dusty paths with no street signs, but that more or less match the design of the map, taking photos of the low archways we pass through and doors on each corner – my own version of breadcrumbs that will lead us home.

marrakesh doors

The streets are loud with a language I do not know. Tongue-y and shrill. Spices are piled in the shape of cones – mustard, orange and saffron-colored. Babouche, brightly colored slippers with pointed toes, line the walls. I have been advised not to look unless I am prepared to purchase, so I avert my eyes, the same way the women walking two-by-two avert mine.

The labyrinth-like streets drop us on to the main square where there are rows and rows of pop-up restaurants with metal picnic tables covered with plastic, checkered tablecloths. Each host carries a stack of laminated menus and tries to pull us in. “You are so skinny. You must be hungry. Come. Eat.”

There are tall stalls with men selling fresh dates, dried apricots, cashews and almonds. Sitting perched at the top, they grab their wares with long, metal claws and hand us samples, then fill cardboard cones with our purchases. We drink fresh-fruit smoothies served in real glasses at a make-shift bar.

Snake charmers sit on the warm cement playing flutes called pungis while serpents dance to their melody, as if agreed upon before the show. Monkeys on leashes pose for photographs. Amidst the pandemonium the Muslim call to prayer sounds from tinny speakers that crackle. It passes through me like a breeze and reminds me I am a long, long way from home.

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Artist Date 114: Residence

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Image by Anna Katharina Scheidegger. Collection 2016. Casa de Velazquez.

I’ve lost some work.

Last week my boss forwarded a text from the company where I’ve been teaching. They need to cut costs and will not be continuing with English classes. So I have to cut costs.  Or find more work.

I mention this to S over lunch.

He doesn’t inquire about teaching. Instead, he asks why I am not submitting my work to writing contests with cash prizes…like he has done. Or artist residencies where I can be housed and fed (and occasionally paid a small stipend) while I write.

I don’t have an answer.

He continues, casually mentioning that he will be living in Italy for five weeks this fall. In a castle. Writing.

“How’d you swing that?” I ask.

“Artist residency.” he says, right on cue. “I applied. You can too, you know.”

Yes, this is the same S who, a little more than two months ago, casually mentioned I might consider applying to the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School. (Which I did. And from which I am now eagerly awaiting an answer.)

Clearly he is a messenger, sent directly to me.

That night I poke around the Writers and Poets website, researching writing contests with cash prizes. I am too fixated on financial concerns (and already dreaming of New Haven) to give much thought to artist residencies.

Not until the next day. Artist Date 114.

My student A has invited me to Casa de Velazquez for “Puertas Abiertas” – literally “open doors” or , more accurately, “open studios.”

A has warned me that it is a bit difficult to find. And that Google Maps isn’t particularly helpful.

She is right.

My mood is low and the weather matches it. Windy. Grey. Cold.

But I’m determined.

I walk up and down the same street again and again, looking for Avenida Arco de la Victoria, only to learn I am already on it when I finally ask for directions.

I am reminded of a huge billboard on I-75 North, on the drive from Detroit to Saginaw, Michigan to see my nana. A picture of Jesus with a caption that reads, “Are you on the right road?”

I am now.

And eventually I make my way to the large, stone structure that is less than a 15-minute walk from the metro – although it has taken me close to 45.

I send A a message, letting her know I’ve arrived. She meets me outside of the library and takes me on a short tour – at which time I learn it is not her work I’ve come to see , but that of more than a dozen artists in residency.

The timing is not lost on me.

I tell A about my conversation with S. She smiles. “Yes, you could apply for an Artist Residency,” she says, gently adding “Just not here. Because you don’t speak French.”

Indeed, I hardly speak Spanish. And some days, I’m not sure I speak English anymore either.

We walk down the hill, past the empty swimming pool and a sculpture of a pig face, to the cottages where the artists live and work. A introduces me a photographer who speaks English, and who wears the same haircut as me.

We do that, “I like your hair.” “I like YOUR hair,” elbow-nudging thing. I ask where she is from.

Everywhere. Nowhere. Last stop – Paris.

I understand. When asked the same question I pause, stymied. I’m from Detroit. But I lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Chicago for seven. A year in Seattle…I never know quite how to answer.

We talk about this. About creating a life with the whole of one’s belongings fitting neatly into one or two bags. She feels liberated by it. I feel a bit untethered.

For her, this residency is as much her residence as any other.

I leave, thinking about the word residence. Later, I look it up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, among them:

1b: the act or fact of living or regularly staying at or in some place for … the enjoyment of a benefit.

2a: the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or a place of temporary sojourn.

4b: a period of active and especially full-time study, research, or teaching at a college or university.

And then I understand the difference in our perspectives.

What I have is a room in a flat in the center of Madrid. What I crave is a residence. A residency.

 

 

 

“I Love You.” “Thank You.”

My divorce buddy signed his final divorce papers today.  It’s been a long time coming.  At least from the outside looking in.

My divorce buddy took this photograph of me.
My divorce buddy took this photograph of me.

I remember the day he called and told me that he and his wife were separating.  My then-husband and I made the same decision three weeks earlier.

I call him my divorce buddy because we walked through this thing – the dissolution of marriage – together.  Hand in hand.  On occasion, literally, but mostly figuratively.

A buddy, like in kindergarten, required for just about everything.  To walk down the hall, ride the bus, go to the bathroom.  I don’t know if it was because two are harder to lose track of than one, or that if one should stray, at least he or she wouldn’t be lost alone.

That’s what it felt like.  We weren’t lost alone.

We would talk on the phone nearly every night for hours. And on the nights we didn’t talk, we texted.  Until I came to Chicago that summer – 2012.  Something changed.  Seemingly everything.

There was a chasm.  One that hadn’t been there the night before when we talked for three hours when my red-eye from Sea-Tac was delayed.  I couldn’t get close no matter how hard I tried.

My Rabbi laid it out in simple terms.  We no longer had a phone and 2,500 or so miles between us.  We were standing face to face.  I had feelings.  And expectations – although I tried not to.

I don’t know what he had.  I often said I was not “in this” alone, but face to face, I was no longer sure.

And then, when separated by miles and a phone again, we seemed to fall back into a comfortable intimacy.  I spent two weeks in Rwanda that summer, and called him from Belgium, where I stopped for a few days before coming home.

My travel companions continued down the long airport corridor to their connecting flight home, while I found myself in baggage claim – orange hard case in hand.  I ran my credit card through the phone and dialed.  It was 2 a.m. in Chicago.  I knew he’d be up.

He sounded surprised and excited to hear from me.  I told him we had to talk quickly because I had no idea how much this call was going to cost but I had a feeling it would be a lot.  (It showed up as $65 on my credit card statement.  Worth every penny.)

In Brussels, with my friend Tim.  Not my divorce buddy.
In Brussels, with my friend Tim. Not my divorce buddy.

He gave me some practical instructions about Brussels — the airport, the train and the city — and I began to cry.  He was doing “that thing” that he does.  “That thing” I always loved about him.  Even when we were both married and I had a crush on him but he had such good boundaries that I never worried about it.

He made me feel safe.  I told him that.

And then I told him I had to go and blurted out quickly, “I love you,” and before I put down the receiver he said, “I love you too.”

He had said it just once before. The night he called me to tell me he was getting a divorce.  At the end of the conversation.  When I promised him he wouldn’t be alone.  That it just wasn’t possible…thinking but not saying, “You can be with me, silly.”  Instead, I said, “I love you, my friend.” And he said, “I love you, too.”

It wasn’t a romantic “I love you.” From either of us.  Either time.  Regardless of my feelings, in those moments, my expression was pure heart connection.  I believe his was too.

Tonight he told a group of us that he signed his final papers.  My eyes welled up, tears of empathy, of gratitude and of memory.

Later, I took him aside, and told him I was sorry.  That I understood.  That I knew.  That his “news” reminded me of what we had walked through together.   He nodded and wrapped his arms around me.

I leaned into his ear and whispered, “I love you.”  Silence.  And then he said, “Thank you.”

Awful.

I wanted to tell him I knew he loved me too.  But I didn’t.  I guess because it wasn’t necessary.  Because I already knew.

Because I’ve changed just a little.  I am no longer interested in proving myself as necessary.  Indispensable.

And because our situation has changed too.

Learning he has signed his final papers, that his divorce is nearly complete, feels like an ending.   (My divorce was final in September 2012.)  That we have fulfilled our obligation to one another.  That our karmic contract is complete.

I felt a little something break off.  It felt sad.  But also necessary, right and true.

I didn’t join him and the others for dinner.  I came home – alone – instead.  Also right.  True.

Our friendship isn’t over.  We’re just no longer lost together.  We can let go of one another’s hands.