Tuesday, January 31, 2006

In the last ten months, I’ve touched ground on three continents outside of my own. March saw Australia. The month of June took me to Asia (Tokyo). And last week I found myself in Europe with a business trip to Nice, France.

My route was the best possible: San Diego to Nice with a three-hour layover in New York’s JFK. It could be tricky to get out of San Diego and awkward to get into Nice, so a one-stop layover, more or less on the path, was pretty good.

My flights went well, although for thirty minutes we experienced violent turbulence over the Atlantic. There were times when it felt like the plane’s floor dropped out beneath us and every passenger clutched instinctively and desperately at his or her armrest. A flight attendant walked through the cabin and a frightened passenger pleaded with her to get the turbulence to stop. “Oh, this is nothing,” the flight attendant said casually. “It’s always like this in winter.” I couldn’t tell from her tone if she was trying to put the turbulence into context, or just make us feel better.

This was my third trip to Nice. I made a stop there during my solo European backpack trip in 2002, and visited again on business in August, 2004.

I arrived in Nice and took a taxi from the airport. There were two things to note about taxis. First, they were all Mercedes. I just found this part to be interesting. The second part, pertinent to my story, was that the fare display was located very low on the center console – near the base of the gearshift. Depending on where the cabbie placed his hand, it could easily be obscured.

My hotel sat near the airport. However, a marathon took place that morning so certain roads along our natural route were blocked to traffic and we had to take a roundabout, trial and error path. I caught occasional glimpses of the fare, and near the hotel, it was at 14 euros. We arrived at the hotel. The hotel’s doorman walked to the back of the car and the cabbie popped the trunk. The cabbie asked if I wanted a receipt and I replied yes. I looked down at the meter and the cabbie had already reset it. He handed me my receipt and it read 25 euros. I felt like I was being screwed and didn’t know how to react. I neither sought out nor instigated confrontations, but admittedly I enjoyed them. It was a battle of wits. But I was in a foreign country, I had no idea if the doorman had retrieved my luggage from the trunk, I was jetlagged, and it was company money, so I acquiesced without debate, and paid the 25 euros. I should have been angry at him, but I found that I was only angry with myself. This feeling lingered through the afternoon.

I stayed at the Radisson, with my room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The room emitted a modern vibe. For instance, my headboard had lights installed inside.

Readers of my travel writing know about my fascination with foreign bathrooms. In America, you could go into any hotel in any part of the country, and the bathroom would be fairly standard. But if you traveled outside of the States, there were constant surprises. In my room, the toilet was so high that my feet didn’t touch the floor. And then there was the shower.

I appreciated innovative and engaging designs. But at the design’s core, functionality must be retained. A bicycle with hexagon shaped tires may look cool, but at the end of the day, you still need to pedal it.

My shower had a glass door that swung on a hinge, and only extended a few feet. Needless to say, it didn’t do the job. Water still covered the floor after taking a shower.

To further promote the modern style, my shampoo, shower gel, and lotion were stored in containers like chicken nugget dipping sauces and placed in an acrylic rack.

I wanted an iron in my room, but instead I got the infamous pressboard. I must use it wrong, because it actually seemed to add wrinkles to my clothes.

The weather was beautiful for both of my previous trips to Nice. Perfectly calm and serene.

I faced a completely different type of weather this trip. It was chilly and incredibly windy. The normally placid Mediterranean spawned waves that crashed dramatically onto the rocky shore. Since I live in San Diego, I never get to wear cold-weather clothing. It sits orphaned in my closet. This trip gave me a chance to bring these clothes out of retirement. I got to wear my scarf, which made me feel special and like I had some semblance of fashion. However, I never knew how to wear it. I tied my scarf like I said bonjour – frequently – with no two times being the same.

Nice was nestled cozily between mountains and sea, rising up onto the concave hillside. It funneled naturally down into its famous crescent shaped section of beach. My hotel lived on the west side of the crescent, with the main section of Nice situated two miles away on the east side. The hotel was isolated – with no restaurants located nearby – so I made the walk along the windy boardwalk to Old Town.

The city changed dramatically between opposing seasons. As vibrant as it was during the summer, it was equivalently subdued in winter.

I walked along the promenade, occasionally strolling through back streets. The combination of Sunday and winter left many stores closed. Along the way, I spotted an interesting hotel façade.

Once I reached Old Town, I circled its morning market, and out of the myriad of restaurants, I selected one that I had eaten at on my last visit.

My workweek consisted of very long days. I returned to my hotel between 7 and 9pm, collected myself, and then searched for a meal. My hotel was isolated so it made dinner an adventure. Fortunately, most restaurants closed late, since many didn’t open for dinner until 7pm.

In the middle of the week, I changed to a hotel in St. Laurent du Var. The Holiday Inn sat on the boardwalk with thirty restaurants lining the promenade. It made the search for dinner infinitely easier.

I hoped to find an iron in my new room but was confronted with the same ineffective pressboard. I looked through the hotel guide and found this entry next to the ironing section: “For security reasons, ironing is strictly forbidden in the rooms.” After reading this information, I felt safe wandering the hotel hallway knowing that I wouldn’t be attacked by an iron wielding criminal.

I have a problem sitting still. I get restless. My mind constantly plots and plans and worries. To borrow from a cliché, I’m not good at taking time to smell the roses. I would love to sit in Balboa Park and read a book for hours. I would love to spend all day painting. I can’t. I have a problem enjoying where I’m at. I’m just not built that way. It’s something that I’m working on.

After I got laid off from my job, I decided to take two years off to paint, write, and travel. I was petrified of wasting this opportunity by sitting on the couch all day. To remedy this, I decided that I would be out of the apartment by 9am every morning. One of my usual morning haunts was the Eggery in Pacific Beach. I selected this place for three reasons. The breakfasts were good. The waitresses were friendly and attractive. And most important to me, when you ordered coffee they brought you your own pot that they left at your table. The coffee pot became my timer. This forced me to sit and write. Because I wouldn’t leave until I had finished drinking the entire pot of coffee. Of course this had later consequences since I would wander the beach having to pee every twenty minutes. But still, this morning ritual guaranteed that I would write for an hour and a half every morning.

I rejoice in spontaneity, but there is something comforting about ritual and routine. I stayed at this hotel two summers ago. There are few places better than Nice in August. I woke up early every morning and went downstairs to eat breakfast on the hotel’s outdoor patio. And every morning, the same family sat at an adjacent table. It consisted of a man, a child, and a woman who always wore sheer tops sans bra. I would bid them bonjour and they returned the salutation. The hostess brought me a pitcher of coffee and left it on my table. This became my timer. So every morning I would engage in this beautiful ritual where I would sit for an hour in the Mediterranean sun, eating croissants and cold cuts, enjoying coffee, and writing in my journal, with nearby boobs floating in a see-through top.

For this current visit, it was too cold to sit outside on the patio. They also didn’t deliver a pitcher of coffee on my table. The hostess circulated among the room to refill cups. But I still tried to maintain some semblance of routine by writing in my journal during breakfast.

I had three English channels available in my hotel room: BBC News, CNN World, and Eurosport.

The problem with BBC News and CNN World is that they’re on such a tight, repeatable loop, if you’ve watched them for an hour, you’ve seen all of their programming for the next three days. During my stay, the channels were consumed with two stories: bird flu in Turkey and Iran’s nuclear program. It was like driving an ice cream truck and hearing the same song over and over again. You wanted to drive the truck off a cliff. It gets bad when you start praying for a natural disaster just to see alternative programming.

As an aside, I found it mildly funny that bird flu was found in a country named Turkey.

The Eurosport channel used the word ‘sport’ loosely. To be expected, it had soccer. But it also showed darts and snooker. With the exception of introducing pigeons to America, I loved the British, but they have an innate ability to take something and make it infinitely boring (if they didn’t invent it boring right out of the chute). You could accuse America for taking things and ruining them. Sucking the life out of them. Bastardizing them. But we’ll never make them boring.

Snooker is similar to pool except it’s played on a larger table and has many more balls. All shots are direct line-of-sight. No bank shots. No massé shots. No Donald Duck in Mathematic Land geometry.

You can almost see the British sports channel brain-trust sitting around a table, trying to find a way to make snooker more boring.

Let’s make the table bigger… no, no, no… let’s add more balls… not quite right…. Egads! I got it! Let’s make the game a best of 19!

Yep. A snooker match was a best of 19. And let’s just say that snooker is not a quick game. Keep in mind that one of the most popular sports in Britain is cricket – a game that is played six hours a day for five days. Only the British would take something as boring as cricket and decide to extend it over a week. If American’s played cricket, the game would be shrunk to two hours and have explosions and cheerleaders.

After a long week of work, the weekend finally arrived. While Cannes and Monaco received most of the press, my two favorite cities along that section of coast were Nice and Antibes. Without the film festival, I felt that Cannes would be largely ignored. It’s rather bland. And while Monaco was beautiful, I didn’t find it engaging. It was like being in a museum where you couldn’t touch anything.

I decided to spend Saturday in Nice and explore Antibes on Sunday.

I took the train from St. Laurent du Var to Nice’s Ville station. From the train station, I made the long and steep climb to the Matisse Museum on Cimiez Hill. The museum is located within a beautiful park, adjacent to an ancient Roman city, and housed in a 17th century villa.

I walked through the museum and paused to sketch Matisse’s painting, Figure Endormie (1941). I had drawn the painting once before when I was here in 2002, during my first trip to Europe.

With artists that are known for their middle or later work, I’m always fascinated with how they began. People frequently dismiss Picasso’s cubist work as simplistic and vague, but if you look at the artwork he did when he was 16, you see that he could paint the hell out of anything. I’m curious why an artist who can paint realistic paintings decides to paint abstract or simplistic forms. The same with Matisse. He’s known for his line and color heavy paintings with symbolic shapes. That’s why it’s impressive to see the works he created in his early 20’s. It gives the later work an additional context. You’re less likely to dismiss it because you’re aware that it’s intentional, and not due to an artistic skill deficiency. All of the lines and colors are choices.

The museum began by Matisse himself having donated a few works. It had a small collection of paintings, some sculptures, and a few drawings. The problem with the museum was that it felt like an appetizer to me. I left wanting more.

Next to the museum sat the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Cemenelum.

Another angle....

I followed a path through the park,…

I found myself in front of a beautiful church. Connected to the church stood a long stone wall with a narrow arched entrance. I walked through and found myself amid sepulchers and tombs. I was in a cemetery.

The cemetery was located on the hill’s crest and overlooked a valley. I descended a stone staircase. And there it stood. Nestled serenely in a grassy alcove sat Matisse’s tomb.

I don’t connect to many external things. I’m inside my head too much. But here I stood, and in solemn peace I found myself genuinely touched.

The sociology of what drives human behavior has been theorized and studied. One could argue that it’s love, greed, and sex. But I believe that even these could be funneled down to a universal truth: we were driven by the fear of death.

There are other reasons, but it’s an underlying force that drives me to write and paint. It’s the simple idea that you want a part of you to carry on. It’s why others have children. Trust me. It’s never about the children.

Just in case that whole afterlife doesn’t work out, it’s good to give the current life relevance.

I had spent the previous hour admiring his art, in a building that promoted his immortality. And here I stood, in front of his tomb, faced with the absolute. His death.

In an act that was either apropos or ironic, I took a seat on a short stone bench and drew Matisse’s tomb.

When I become engrossed in a drawing, I lose all association with time and environment. I’m not sure how long I sat there in the shade, enveloped by the cold wind. But upon completion of my drawing, I realized that I was absolutely freezing. I was shivering and my fingers and toes were numb. I paused in front of Matisse’s sepulture, bid a solemn adieu, and sought the sun.

I walked down the hill and along Nice’s main artery, the Rue de Jean Medecin, and passed by Notre Dame.

Eventually I reached the beach. It was a windy, but beautiful scene. I sat on a bench and watched the people pass by the promenade.

On Sunday, I went to my favorite town along the Cote d’Azur: Antibes. I caught the train near my hotel in St. Laurent du Var.

It was a half-hour train ride to Antibes. The journey revealed the romantic town of St. Paul de Vence from the window.

Antibes is a picturesque town, surrounded by stone walls, with the isolated Fort Carre standing guard.

It’s fun to simply wander the streets, with each turn sending you down a narrower street than the one before.

I was starving, but not quite ready for lunch. I passed by a bakery and found tasty looking treats in the window.

I entered the bakery and through broken French and pointing I ordered four. There was no price next to them. The cashier told me the total in French. I handed her a ten euro note. She instantly handed me 3.80 back and I was happy with the deal. I turned to walk away and she said something to me so I stayed. She reached into the drawer and pulled out a five euro note. It turned into a fantastic bargain. I ate them immediately and they were delicious. I could have easily eaten two dozen.

I reached the central market and squeezed through the narrow lanes to check out the produce, meats, spices, wine, and flowers being sold.

I ate lunch at a cozy little restaurant called Le Rustic. It had six tables. I went with the fixed price menu and selected soupe de poisson (fish stew), lasagna, and chocolate mousse. For beverage I went with kir (white wine and crème de cassis). It was an amazing meal.

I finished my day in Antibes with a visit to the Picasso Museum housed in the beautiful Chateau Grimaldi.

After ten days in Nice, I flew back to the States. Thirty minutes northeast of New York City, we passed over a tiny archipelago.

Whenever I’m in a plane, staring out the window, I always wonder how my life would be different had I grown up in the area that I’m gazing upon. An isolated farm. An oceanside community. A mountain top chateau. The center of a metropolitan city. Would I be involved in art at all? Would I be a CEO? A lead guitarist? A drug addict? Or would I remain intrinsically the same? Who would my friends be? What experiences would I have collected? Who would I have dated? What would I dream of?

I landed at JFK and wound my way from terminal eight to terminal two through a curious maze of hallways, escalators, alleys, stairs, shuttles, and crosswalks. I bid my six hour layover by trying to stay awake and teaching myself new features on my cell phone.

When I travel to a location, I work hard to adjust to the local time. But when I return, I’m haphazard about my schedule. In the first week that I returned my bed times were as follows: 2am, 4am, 8pm, 5pm, 8pm, 7pm, and 8pm. I had the sleep pattern of a seven year old. It was a small victory when I finally stayed up past 11pm.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Drawbridge (View from Chicago River). Oil on canvas board. 16x12".

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Happy New Year everyone!

I spent the weekend in Colorado and had a great time.

Normally I fly to Denver via Frontier Airlines. It's an easy and direct 2 hour flight. At the airport, you know those first class assholes that get to skip to the front of their own line while you're waiting 20 deep in the loser line? Well for a whole year, I got to be one of those first class assholes. It was wonderful and spectacular. For some reason, Frontier gave me a first class membership card for the 2005 year, so I got to skip to the front of the check-in line, bypass the security line, and board the plane first. It was beautiful. The thought of having lost my priviledges makes my eyes tear up.

Well to save $40 on my airline ticket, I opted to fly America West instead. And that my friend, made all of the difference. I flew from San Diego to Denver with a layover in Phoenix. It sounds like a simple flight, but perhaps it's the extended simplicity that makes it seem so tedious and long. I had an hour and fifteen minute flight from San Diego to Phoenix. An hour layover in Phoenix. And then a two hour flight from Phoenix to Denver. It just makes for a long evening.

But once in Denver, everything was aglow.

Kim planned a fantastic New Year's Eve for us. We started our evening by eating at the Highland's Garden Cafe. It was one of the ten best meals I've ever had. Normally restaurants of this size and sort have a fixed entree list of five or six items. This menu had 20 entrees available -- all of them amazing. Half of them were seafood, and no fish was duplicated. You could have thrown a dart at the menu and I would have been enthusiastic about the selection. It was the hardest time I've ever had selecting a meal. Since I'm a whore for Spanish food, I opted for the seafood paella. My plate arrived and it was a work of art. There was a towering pillar of seafood piled on top, including an enormous lobster claw posed brillantly at the apex. We capped the meal by sharing a delicious cheese cake.

The rest of the evening would be spent at the Oriental Theater to see Devotchka perform.

We arrived before the doors opened so we grabbed some coffee across the street at the charming and friendly Parisi. The Oriental Theater doors opened at 8pm, but we still found ourselves standing outside for twenty minutes. Remember, this is Colorado in December. It wasn't warm. It was the theater's grand opening, so I'm guessing that they still had some kinks to iron out since during our wait, we saw people carry bags of ice and cases of beer from their cars to inside the theater.

The main theater floor has a tiered arrangement where there are five plateus. Fortunately, Kim and I were able to grab some chairs and pull up to the front of the third tier, with a perfect view of the stage. There were two opening acts. First up was The December Question. They sounded great and gave off an infectious energy. The lead singer, Becky, has an amazing and powerful voice that resonates. Definitely catch them if you're in Denver. The second band was the very interesting Mannequin Makeout. From an image perspective, it looked like each member was plucked from a completely different band and placed on the stage. There was the school girl outfit. The guy in the ruffled tux shirt. The girl in the sweater. A guy that could be a lumberjack. And a guy that seemed like John Belushi in a fraternity. From a music perspective, it was a bit like organized noise. Each musician seemed to play whatever he or she wanted. It was like someone called out the key the song should be played in, and then everyone went at it. From an entertainment perspective, it was top notch. I couldn't stop watching. It was like performance art with a soundtrack.

And then out came the headliner. Devotchka. You've got to see them. It was an amazing live show. They carried us past midnight where the whole theater toasted. It was so much fun. Their musicianship and songwriting is superb. You could pick out any member of the band, watch them solely through the whole show, and be completely engaged and entertained. You throw all four of them out there and your eyes are wandering furiously across the stage.

On Monday we dropped down into Colorado Springs to see my family. Kim, my dad, and I went to Garden of the Gods. The visitors center offers a great view of the park and Pikes' Peak.

And a closer view of The Peak....

We drove through the park and stopped at a few sights. When I lived in Colorado Springs there were at least a few deaths every year from inexperienced people climbing the rocks and falling. You can see a few people climbing in this photo.

The remaining scattered days were spent throughout Denver. The weather was relatively nice, although the wind gusts were powerful and frequent.

I returned to San Diego last night. My flight from Denver was delayed by an hour because the airplane's toilet had a leak. They had two options. Repair it and potentially delay us longer, or clean up the mess and keep the bathroom locked during the flight. They opted for the quickest option and went with the latter. We flew into Phoenix and mere feet upon touching down, the pilot reved the engines, aborted the landing, and took off again. He either made a bad approach or there was something on the runway. Neither option was good. He circled again and proceeded to deliver one of the roughest landings I've ever experienced. There must have been enough criticial mass traveling to San Diego on this plane, because they delayed the launch of the Phoenix to San Diego flight so that we could all get on. Despite being over an hour late. I finally arrived in San Diego tired and glad to be in my own place.