Wednesday, August 31, 2005

M26 "Keats and Yeats Are on Your Side, While Wilde Is on Mine"

Sunday I went off to explore Buenos Aires' most exclusive neighborhood, a gated community, so to speak. I wanted to see its fabulous architecture and art. There, I met a girl so beautiful she brought tears to my eyes.

The streets are too narrow for cars, cats run at the feet of the pedestrians. It's the most elite neighborhood in town and to get in, you have to have money and know someone in the highest echelons of Argentine society. The eclectic styles of architecture run the gamut from classic Greek and Roman styles, to Italianate, Art Nouveau and Deco and mid-century modern.

I didn't go to any art museums in BA, but Recoleta was a better substitute than I could possibly imagine, especially when it came to sculpture. Every building was a work of art onto its own. Two or three levels in some cases all seeming to stretch themselves all too thin in their reach toward heaven. As beautiful as Recoleta is, it's absolutely the last neighborhood in the city I'd want to get stuck alone in a night.

And it's not because of the crime.

Recoleta is a cemetery. It's BA's most exclusive and famous cemetery and one of the city's prime attractions. The likes of Eva Peron, "Evita" and the elite of Argentina are buried here in mausoleums bigger and more ornate than most homes. Notably, her husband, Juan was not interred here. Some of them have open windows displaying racks of family coffins.
Most have glass doors and waiting rooms with chairs so you can go into the family mausoleum should you like to literally be right next to your deceased relatives' coffins. I am pretty sure that when there is a shortage of cherubs and angels in heaven, God imports them from Recoleta.

Much of it, however beautiful, seemed more a monument to vanity than memory. The rich and famous and powerful and their preoccupation with death and eternity. It seems no matter what worldly can power can buy them, they end of up dead just like the rest of us. What was equally as striking was the conspicuous absence of flowers or other evidence that the graves had been recently attended to by relatives. All that effort and no one even shows up or even bothers to remember.

There was one notable exception.

It was the most moving monument in the entire "marble orchard" as my grandmother likes to say in her thick Pawtucket, Rhode Island accent. Mahbull orchid.

I stumbled upon a beautiful, life-size bronze statue of a young woman who had died of cancer. There was a plaque with a poem in Italian dedicated to her. She seemed decidedly human and yes, sad, but not in the utter throngs of grief like so many of the grief-stricken cherubs imploring the heavens.

Now that I recall, it was the only statue of an actual deceased person in the enitre cemetery. She stands with her beloved dog. His nose shinning, as though polished, from where people pet him. Interestingly, the same could not be said for her as if she were beyond reach.

Her hand held freshly cut flowers as if in an offering to the living. As if the only antidote to grief were carried by her, by the power of her life, her beauty, her energy, her love for her family and even her dog. As if we could only be consoled by and through her and her alone. Not through god or even a combined army of bereaved cherubs and stricken angels.

As I pondered her life, tears welled up in my eyes. There was something powerful, tragic and moving in her and missing from the rest of the cemetery. Something that was able to move me, a stranger, thirty years after the death of someone I had never met.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

M25 Closing One Chapter and Opening Another

I feel relieved. I finished my (paper) journal today. It's 120 pages long and it took me a year and a half to write. It's only the second journal I've ever completed in my life. The other one took four years to complete.

On the first page of my newly completed journal, I wrote:

"My last journal was something of a watershed for me. What I'd like to do with this journal is, firstly to continue the habit of writing more regurlarly and secondly, build upon it by pushing the limits of recording events and devling into the creative realm of fiction."

I didn't write any fiction, but that doesn't mean my journal wasn't filled with its critical elements; drama, action, conflict, love, hate, passion, change and all too occasionally, glimmers of happiness. I often feel I am flying standby on an emotional roller coaster.

Today, in a fabulous and newly discovered cafe in Colonia Roma, Azul y Blanco (Blue and White, Orizaba 161 y Queretaro), I reflected on the last page of my journal.

"I am feeling more relaxed. I rode around the city taking pictures. It's nice to reconnect and continually rediscover a city with a seemlingly infinite supply of new and interesting places such as this fabulous cafe from which I write. The cafe has an antique espresso machine and art by a Mexican artist named Carlos Marquez. I stumbled apon the cafe just riding around and I decided to stop and check it out. Even the music agreed with me. They were playing some wonderful Brazilian Bossa Nova.

One of many incredible blue and white paintings by Carlos Marquez at Cafe Azul y Blanco, stumbled upon while riding the photogenic streets of Distrito Federal.

Maybe I've been pushing things too much as my friend Peter suggested yesterday."

Peter, a Dane and founder of DF's only bike messenger company, CiclosMensajeros, is acquiring a taste for baseball in general and not surprisingly, the Boston Red Sox in particular. Peter didn't know much about baseball, and unprompted, he watched a Sox game the other day. This is what I like about Peter, he is completely and totally open to new things and needs no prompting. I find this is a very rare trait in people and this is perhaps why I consider him to be one of my better friends these days.

He was impressed by the relaxed batting stance of David Ortiz Boston's super-slugger. He said this guy was just so chilled, it was like he was just waiting for the perfect pitch to come so he could knock it out of the stadium. And he was. Peter picked this up on first glance, perhaps because he is a similarly relaxed and unphased person. Minutes later, he hit a grand slam and the Red Sox won, continuing a great follow-on season to last year's World Series win.

It's not like getting stressed really ever gets you anywhere. The best athletes and most efffective people in the world, are also the most relaxed.

I am "putting that one on a shelf in my brain".

I wrote further, "It's all about embracing what is right now, because it's not always going to be and I am going to miss it when it's gone. As much as I want to be the author of my own endings, that is simply impossible in life. For endings are only beginnings. And neither are necessarily good or bad because because they are in or out of concert with the outcome we set out to write".

The fact is when I am here, I often bemoan the fact that I am single, the fact that I can't exacly ride my bike in Rock Creek Park or out the Potomac, the fact that I am sometimes feeling trapped and claustraphobic and the fact that for the time being I am powerless to change that and there is no exit strategy in what was supposed to be a one year move. But today I felt like I could be here for another year.

I just enjoyed DF for what it is, a fabulously diverse, interesting, colorful and world-class city filled with amazing cafes, art, restaurants and yes traffic and pollution. It's an up and coming city. The kind of city that is not yet acclaimed and concomitantly, not overwhelmed by acclaim. It's like a city of cool neighborhoods before the suburbanites discover they're cool.

I am in on the ground floor.

The other day at a work lunch some co-workers asked me jokingly if I had been to Giribaldi. When I replied "yes", they laughed in disbelief that a gringo would have gone there. But I had gone, and in fact, it's home to one of my favorite antique markets. I buy little paintings of miracles on tin there. I learned at the Frida Kahlo museum that Frida loved these little tin paintings too and there's, in fact, a whole room in her house devoted to them. They have a Spanish name that I am forgetting right now.

Perhaps they laughed because they themselves hadn't been and could not imagine a foreigner going where they themselves don't go. But sometimes it takes being a foreigner to appreciate what's right in front of your own eyes. But I take pride in the fact that I do not hold myself up in my house or in my car (that I don't have any more). That I get out on my bike to see things that others don't or have long since forgotten.

I wonder how much people see of this city cruising around everywhere in their cars? Always going somewhere yet never being anywhere.

As crazy as riding bikes around DF sounds, it's the best way to see this city to connect to it and to discover its fabulousity. And in that way, to me, cars, buses and taxis all seem like ways not to see this city. Weekends provide a rare, relatively traffic-free window for exploration and recreation. On the bike I've seen more things than would be humanly possible by foot, taxi, car, micro or subway.

Perhaps that is how I've seen as much in so little time. Almost everything cool I've discovered has been on bike. Whether archictecture like the fabulous old theaters and buildings of Roma, cafes, monuments, the art garden, San Angel, the antique markets, street art, parks or old hulks of buses, I've found it all riding. I am pretty sure that aside from some of my fellow cyclists, I've seen more than most people who've lived behind the winshield of a car. I wonder if they know what an incredible city is in their midst?

But I know what it's like not to see. I am not talking about just because you're behind the wheel of a car. Much of my life is spent behind the windscreen of my own brain. Perpetually wrapped up in thought. Fears of the future, regrets from the past, neglect of the present. Not living in emotional time instead of living in real time. In that way, I am just like the drivers missing out on the city.

When I got home from the cafe, I somehow felt a chapter of my life was closed. I was both glad and releived. I can only hope that I will be happier or at least more accepting than I have been since I started my last journal.

Finishing a journal should seem like a rather arbitrary event with no greater significance than say a birthday or New Year's. There's no real reason I should feel differently, yet I do.

Maybe it because the pages of my new journal are still blank.

More pictures from today here: Photography by Brian Kemler

A note on Carta Products

The most fabulous of fabulous of paper journals are to be found here for your writing enjoyment. They're handmade from recycled leather in Italy and designed in California. They will inspire you to write as they have me:
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Monday, August 01, 2005

M24 Get Out of the City

"Summer days are long and lonely.
Cars are moving slowly.
The streets are filled with air so still.

I'm trying to get out of the city.
Trying to get out of the city.

Everybody's angry.
It's hard not to be lazy.
It's a bad time to have work to do.

I'm trying to get out of the city.
Trying to get out of the city."
Ivy - Get Out of the City

I've been feeling an inexplicably urgent need to get out of the city for the past two weekends.

It just didn't jump off. I suppose I am like the jets here; in need of extra fuel just to get off the ground at 7,300 feet above sea level.

I got the extra boost I needed this weekend. Friday night late, my friend Peter, the Danish founder of Mexico City's only bicycle messenger firm, Ciclos Mensajeros, his girlfriend Arlette, her daughter Gala and I made the five hour trip to the Pie de la Cuesta, a small, rustic and waiting-to-be-developed Pacific beach just north of Acapulco. We didn't arrive until 3am.

The next day when I wasn't sleeping in, I was lounging in the hammocks at Casa Blanca, a sleepy hotel abutting the beach. It's the kind of place that's so chilled out it takes just a day to get used to. Here in the shade you can relax as a parade of beach vendors proffers fruit cups, mango cocktails complete with spicy jalapeno pepper and salt (!?), shrimp, clothing, pot and even - this is my favorite - taxidermied squirrels. I hope I didn't give away anyone's Christmas gift.

The hotel has an unpretentious vibe and is owned by a friendly and unsurprisingly flamboyant Frenchman. During the day mellow dub vibes flow from the outdoor speakers segueing to a more up-tempo house vibe at night. It's the perfect aural back drop for a perfect place.

The place attracts mainly in-the-know European tourists and Mexican middle class beachgoers. There is nothing chi-chi about it yet, that's precisely its charm. There is not much to do save lounge, relax, swim, eat and fish. Did I mention watch the sun rise and set? It's not overrun by any stretch and you won't find ridiculously luxuriant accommodations, internet cafes, tourists shops or fancy restaurants. If you want that, you can have it in spades up the road in Acapulco. The entire weekend, I left my cell phone off. When I came back, there were no extreme emergencies that I missed out on.

Surprise, surprise.

What did surprise me was the conservative beach attire of the typical Mexican beach goer and their generally shy attitudes toward their bodies. My perspective may be a little skewed since the last time I was on a beach I was in Rio de Janeiro where thongs are de rigeur. Here, however, I was shocked to see people swimming in the ocean fully clothed. I also saw full peice bathing suits on young women. And alas, there was not a single thong to be spied. Truth be told the excess clothing shielded us from the dark, unspoken underbelly of libertine Rio; the specter of grandma in a thong.

It was still an interesting visual commentary on the contrasts of the two societies that seem much one the same in the eyes of most Americans.

We often confuse Mexico with Brazil and vice versa. But the two countries aren't a whole lot more similar to each other than they are to, say, Canada.

Firstly, the girls in Mexico are not all hot goddess-predators throwing themselves at the feet of men. Quite the opposite is true. Most live at home and display a shyness and innocence I witnessed the beach when I saw two Mexicanas reluctantly disrobe then run to the ocean in their full piece swim-wear only to return again an instantly cover themselves again. And one of them was actually kind of hot.

Thongs can be witnessed on the city streets of Rio. Do I need to say more? Yes, and it gets even better than that but I will save the good stuff for another post.

Further, Mexico is a country which is more conservative, inwardly focused, Catholic and "family value" oriented. (Hey they have a presidential election coming up next year, maybe they could take our family value president off our hands?) Brazil on the other hand tends to be more focused and open to the outside world due to its the links to the rest of the world stemming from its relatively open immigration policies. Everyone knows it's more liberal in its sexual mores but this also holds true with its progressive politics.

For the record, in Brazil Portuguese, not Spanish, is spoken. And speaking of Latin America, both Mexico and Brazil are in Latin America, yet only Brazil is in South America. So if I am asked "how do you like living in South America?" I have to say, "I don't know because I still live in North America". A lot of people think it's hot in Mexico. But much of the country is mountainous, D.F. included, so the thermometer never goes north of 80F degrees and there's no humidity. It's the land of perpetual spring. Most of the population of Mexico is urban and interior. A more rushed urban culture like New York City is prevalent. Contrast to Brazil; while most of the population of Brazil is also urban, it is situated near the near the hot, humid, equatorial coast and thus a more laid back beach culture akin to say, California, is predominant.

So that's the cultural and geographic lesson for today. I know a lot of it seems obvious, but based on the queries I get, apparently it's anything but.

Over the weekend I couldn't get enough of the water and the waves. The sound of the sea. Sand. Sun. Pelicans skimming the cresting waves with the guided precision of one of Donald Rumfeld's "humane bombs". Saturday night the entire beach was gathered to watch the sunset. It was one of the most spectacular I have ever witnessed. The sun, a giant burning sphere descending into the sea. I half expected the sea to start boiling. When the sun was below the sea, the beach goers spontaneously applauded. I will post pictures when I resuscitate my .mac site which is still down, by the way!

Monday we headed back to D.F., a theoretical four-hour drive. We were making good time going 100mph down the toll road, the most expensive mile for mile in the world, with repeated tolls exacting the kingly sum of 100 pesos or nearly $10usd a pop. The road does a good job at masquerading as a first world autobahn. That's until you bottom your ride out and scrape pavement on one of the many hidden drop-offs. We saw a fallen motorcyclist due to the selfsame drop that woke up our entire car. Ouch.

As we neared the edge of D.F. it was my turn to drive, in a Brian Kemler first and likely last, manning the helm of a motor vehicle on the mean streets of D.F. I actually thought I would get to work by noon. That was until I helped get us lost, and practically had a panic attack. People drive in this madness on a daily basis. Now I know that the reaction of just laying on the horn is a reflection of how these people feel on the inside. I know, I felt it too. But I didn't lay on the horn.

It took another three hours to get home and I didn't get into the office till a shameful 3pm, as noted repeatedly by my co-workers who seem to be quite good at making mental time stamps of the office comings and goings.

Let the record reflect, I stayed till 8pm the last two nights out of guilt and shame in violation of my own policy to leave by 6pm!

D.F. seems to have a gravity all of its own, but outside its borders lie vast, varied, interesting and relaxing places. I wish it were easier to come and go, but the difficulty makes the trip all the more worthwhile.