Monday, January 5, 2009

Notes on Greece and Istanbul.

I am including below a note to a friend back in the States. It features some thoughts on my recent travels to Greece and Turkey.

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Davide, caro amico!

Grace arrived home last night and among the treasures she brought from the States was your thoughtful Christmas card. Thanks so much. She delivered the goods because I opted out of a trip home this Christmas, deciding instead to use the time for some much needed exploration of other places in Europe. I headed to Greece and Istanbul for 11 days and, while the weather could have been better (especially in Crete, where the temps are sometimes in the upper 60's in winter) I had a fantastic time. A friend from Rome came with me and we shared a lot of laughs, along with too much coffee and honey-drenched, Turkish pastries. I've regained a bit of my 46 year-old paunch after months of gym and running had trimmed it to respectable proportions. Alas, it's back to the square one and as I write this note I am readying myself for an hour at the gym, prepared for the humbling realization that I have a bit of work to do.

Being in a fundamentally Muslim country for the holidays was intriguing, and we explored Istanbul at dawn on Christmas day, following the somewhat haunting call to prayer as the sun rose over the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. We also subjected ourselves to the joys of a hamam—a 15th century Turkish bath in which I was lathered up beyond recognition, had every joint, tendon and muscle brutalized and was tossed around like a slippery fish on a slab of marble by a half-naked, 250-lb Turk, whose only words to me were "you leave tip." I'll never forget this experience.

Turkish and Greek food was fantastic, primarily because of its pronounced difference from Roman fare. Every once in a while I go in mad search of a hamburger, which usually costs me the equivalent of about 18 US dollars. I've never been much of a foodie anyway, and while I enjoy stracceti e rucola, saltimbocca alla romana, and spaghetti alla carbonara as much as the next guy, the reiteration of these dishes on every menu in the city has me wanting a little variety.

Back to the trip. We managed to take an inspiring hike in the mountains outside of Chania in Crete, accompanied by dozens of goats, whose distant, melancholy bells defined the space around us. We came upon an ancient chapel built into the side of a hill and found a dead goat inside, along with makeshift preparations for offerings such as oil, candles and incense. We visited Knossos (what an insulting "reconstruction!") and I was thrilled to make the journey to the Dikteon cave, the supposed birthplace of Zeus. We were the only visitors there, and the constant rain made the experience even more chthonian as we were many meters inside the earth, surrounded by the sound of dripping water and light reflected in dark pools and on the surface of organic rock formations. We spent several days in Athens as well, and I really enjoyed placing King Aegeus on the steps of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, scanning the horizon for the white sails of Theseus' ship and finally ending his own life over a tragic misconception. The Archaeological Museum was great as well, and I saw many beautiful sculptures that I'd studied for years in books. In Athens we stumbled on a confrontation between riot police and protesters, who tipped over a police car in the middle of the street. We missed the peak of violence in the city, but I was sternly advised by a young woman to delete the pictures I took of her companion, who had spray-painted anarchistic graffiti on a wall.

I haven't done a tremendous amount of traveling while here but now that the end is in sight I am considering a couple of essential trips centered on museums. Berlin and Madrid are the most important to me, given the art holdings, but I'm also interested in Prague, Vienna, Cairo and Morocco—the latter because it's where my parents met in 1954 or so. Who knows if I will be able to do it all, but I need to try my best.  I am not sure when I will have the opportunity to be so close to this stuff again, so I think I should stay on a while after the job is done, perhaps living with a friend for a couple of extra months in order to see a few more of the world's great places.

I'm on sabbatical next year and I've begun a series of paintings here, trying to take advantage of my huge studio and the wealth of precedents surrounding me. I have scheduled a show of new paintings at the Cenci in May, so I have my work cut out for me, although I am off to a good start, I think. I was on a roll but the job sometimes consumes a lot of my attention and this means putting my painting on a back burner for a few weeks at a time. 

And you? How are things? How is Lois? And Marjorie? Who will be department head next year? How is the search for a new colleague going? I am privy to vague stirrings from Jon and Melissa now and then, but wonder how their independent lives are taking shape. I think often of you and I have fallen out of touch with everyone—Susan, Jean, Jon, Mel, Nick, Fritz. 

I've been up for hours now and while I could write much more I should prepare myself for the pains of the gym, surrounded by cruel mirrors and tiresome disco music at 8:30 am, Roman time. Later in the day, I'll head out for a trot with my friend Johnny who, at 32, runs circles around me. Another cup of coffee and a self-administered pep talk and I'm ready for action.

Thanks again for the card, dear friend. Please fill me in on life back home.

All the best,