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A. POOKIE’S ADVENTURES IN SACILE, TAMAI, AND VENICE:

Sacile and Tamai

On Saturday, Vittorio and Teacher Brian intend to go off on a 30 hiking pilgrimage from France, through the Pyrenees Mountains, and across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela a journey of about 500 miles. Their friend Marco decided to hold a bon-voyage party for them at his house.

Both Vittorio and Brian are accomplished hikers. Vittorio hikes 20 kilometers several mornings a week. Brian, an American originally from South Dakota, who now teaches physics and other sciences to high school students at the nearby American military base (hence the nickname Teacher), has an interesting back story about his commitment to hiking. When he was a young man serving in the military he was diagnosed with a large growth in his lower spine. After its surgical removal, it was feared he could never walk again. But he did and now hikes regularly through the Veneto plain and the pre-alps.

Anyway, we gathered at Marco’s for the party. I was pleased to see Professor Hank and his wife there. He is a professor (hence the nickname) of economics at a college in New Jersey and used to teach the same at the military base. Like Teacher Brian, he and his wife have a home in Sacile and spend summers there.

The dinner, in good Italian style, lasted from 7:30 when we arrived and until 1 AM when we left. It began with Prosecco, moved through Thai main courses (Vitorio’s wife and several other people there are Thai) and finished off with Italian pastry, sweets, liqueurs and cherries marinated in grappa. It was a truly multi-cultural meal.
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Professor Hank, a thoughtful gentle man whose company I find extremely enjoyable. As usual, when he and I get together, we talked about many things including the possibility next summer of he and I traveling together to visit his friend who lives in Marshall Tito’s old villa on the Ischia coast of Croatia. Thereafter we would take the ferry to Bari and tour Calabria, his wife’s birthplace. After that, I could go on by train to Sicily and visit Antonio and my family before setting off to Thailand. This excited me because I had hoped to take a similar trip this year but had to cancel it because I had not yet fully recovered from my treatment.

Venice

On Monday I set off to Venice. I wanted to see how the Biennale exhibits had changed since I visited there almost two years ago.

Although I visit it often, Venice is not my favorite city. Perhaps, it is because of having read Thomas Mann or seen the movie made from his book. Perhaps, I am terrorized by people who creep about at night in masks and garish costumes. Perhaps, it is the signage for the route back to the train station that always seems to lead me through a section of the city I had never visited before, usually, one that I never even knew existed, and lose me there (this visit was no different). But mostly I think, it is because I have never eaten a good meal in that city. Despite whatever it is that puts me off, I still find myself returning again and again and happy I did so.
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Back in Sacile and Tamai

The rest of the week included trips to the markets, mornings and evenings in the cafe’s talking with Hank, Lucia and others. I marvel at how these few people, Vittorio and Anita, Lucia, Professor Hank and Teacher Brian have become such close and important friends of mine despite having first met them only a few years ago and having visited with them only briefly since. I consider them as close and as dear friends as any I have made in my life.

On my last full day there like my first, I accompanied Vittorio to a nearby town where he marched with his band in a religious procession. Although growing up in Tuckahoe where religious processions were common, I have rarely seen them since then. Along with the procession, the town held a soccer tournament and hosted a dinner beneath a grand tent where I watched some men play “scopa” (a popular Italian card game) well into the evening.

 

B. POOKIE’S ADVENTURES IN ROME:

On Friday, Vittorio drove me to the train station for my five hour trip to Rome. The train ride was uneventful other than when somewhere in the middle, I noticed my suitcase was not where I had left it. After some frantic searching, I found it at the opposite end of the car. The car itself was full of American college students on their way from Venice to Rome so I guessed it had been moved to make room for their mountains of luggage and backpacks. I otherwise dozed, read, or watched the hill town pass by my window. Sometimes, I tried to guess their names and recall if I had ever visited them.

Having lived in Rome for three years back in the late sixties and early seventies, I consider it my home. There are four cities I think of as home; Rome (and Sabina), New York City (and Tuckahoe), San Francisco, and Bangkok. I have lived for a considerable length of time in all of these cities. Whenever I return to any of them, I find myself just as happy sitting quietly or strolling around as I would in some more energetic or social activity; so it was with this trip. I am still too weak and ill for anything more than the briefest of walks. Nevertheless, on Saturday morning I ambled to my beloved Borghese Gardens and sat on a bench near the magnificent Borghese Museum that as usual had sold out its tickets for admission about a week in advance.

I sat where I usually do, on a bench near the accordionist. I have been coming here for about 10 years now and sitting on that bench listening to him play. He bills himself as “The Ukrainian Organist,” but I suspect he is just an ordinary Slavic accordion player. He plays light classical music which I always felt had been written specifically for sunny days in a park with breezes rustling the leaves of the trees, filtering the sunlight and dappling the ground in shadow or destined to be stolen by some modern musical comedy composer caught in a momentary lack of inspiration. Today alas, he, the musician, seemed distracted. He’d play only a few bars of a piece before jumping on to another. Even his piece de resistance the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach(what the phantom of the opera plays in his grotto under the Opera House whenever he has agita) seemed forlorn and discordant — at least, more so than it usually sounds.

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The “Ukrainian Organist” at the Borghese Gardens

On Sunday my delightful cousin, Federica picked me up at my accommodation in the Castro Pretoria section of Rome. She first drove us to the “Quartiere Coppede a fantastical mix of Ancient Greek, Roman Baroque, Mannerist, Medieval, and, overall, Art Nouveau mixture created by the mostly forgotten architect Coppedè in 1919.
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Fede and Pookie Footloose in Rome.

After that, we drove out to Sabina where we had a great lunch with her parents and another cousin Andrea.

Lunch was the typical 3 or more hour affair. It began with kisses and hugs all around followed by the antipasto. I do not recall all the ingredients included in the antipasto but I remember fried zucchini and potatoes, tomato and peppers (or perhaps just red peppers) and olive oil on a lightly baked breaded cracker of some sort, I think. Small mozzarella balls, mixed vegetables, and cantaloupe with Parma ham. The pasta course contained cold Ziti (?) mixed with vegetables. Then we had turkey involtini and a salad. A fruit compote followed by ice cream cake (chocolate) made up the dessert —followed, of course, by coffee. This was all accompanied by interesting conversation and a very good chilled white wine that I, unfortunately, was unable to drink more than a sip.

We also spent some time looking at old family photographs and watching the finals of LeMans on television. (Andrea is service manager for Ferrari and had a professional interest)
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The Cousins and me

After the lunch, Fede drove me back to Rome and the next day I set off for Thailand.

 

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I arrived in Bangkok, the city of the “Sidewalks of Death.” Should one stroll about the town one might: find the sidewalk beneath of him suddenly open up, plunging him into the fetid miasmatic water below and carrying him off to the equally pestilential waters of some ancient canal, there to drown — trip on a crack in the pavement sending him tumbling into the street where he is maimed or killed by hoards of crazed bikers trying to beat the traffic light — be attacked by rabid soi dogs and sewer rats who gnaw off his ankles — be abducted by an evil tuk-tuk driver and disappear forever — be set upon by a group of manic ladyboys pouring out of an alley who either ravish his body or beat him senseless and steal his money. I love this city.

 

The flight from Rome to Bangkok was uneventful except during the leg from Kuwait to Bangkok where the young man sitting next to me, who appeared to be a religious of some sort, insisted that I listen to a recording of incessant chanting by some Iman or something. That was OK because there is nothing I prefer to sleep through than chanting.

 

Bangkok is hot (but not as hot as is parts of California right now). It rains every afternoon and evening— often big grumbling thunder showers. So, I go about whatever I go about these days in the mornings and lie in my bed and stare at the ceiling or tap away at my computer in the afternoon and evenings.

 

Thailand is billed by the Thai Visitors Bureau as the “Land of Smiles.” Thais have at least 15 types of smile, none of which means I’m pleased to see you — except for of shopkeepers, grifters and bar girls who unfortunately see you only as an ATM machine.

 

In the morning, as I walk from my apartment to the health club, I check to see which of the denizens of the street I have come to recognize over the years are missing since the last time I visited. The massive homeless young man often seen sprawled in a stupor on the sidewalks of Soi Nana or wandering in a daze down the street seems to be gone. The one-legged “king of the beggars” as I named him because of his handsome features, meticulous trimmed hair and beard who I now and then see entering for lunch some of the better restaurants on Soi 11, has resumed his post on the sunny corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 5.

 

My part of Bangkok continues to change and disappear. The old buildings with the cheap restaurants, go-go bars, and nightclubs get torn down, replaced with gleaming silver towers boasting that they contain the greatest award winning condominiums, or offices, or the finest of the three or four other luxury hotels with the same name in the city. The people who lived, worked, or played there move out and new people move in — the ongoing migration of a vibrant urban area. The extent of pain and dislocation caused by it is usually a function of how rapidly it occurs.

 

One of Thailand’s major preoccupations is with massage. It is ingrained in the religious and cultural subconscious of the country. The Thais even developed their own brand of massage that is taught in the most prestigious temples throughout the nation. It consists of vigorous application of the hands, elbows, forearms, and feet by the masseuse to various points on the customer’s body accompanied by periodic sudden stretching or wrenching of his joints. Although a Thai massage can make you feel great after it is over, many people find the process too painful. As a result foreigners often, after a brief flirtation with “the real thing,” eventually turn to more traditional massage with its vigorous rubbing of the body with oil, with or without a happy ending. Many “legitimate” massage establishments do not provide happy endings (it is, in fact, illegal).

 

Speaking of legitimate massage in Bangkok, I would like to make a pitch to those who may visit the city to try Silk Spa on Sukhumvit Soi 13. It is rated by several travel magazines as one of the best massage parlors in Bangkok. My old friends, Gary and Pui, own the place. Gary is Canadian. He plays ice hockey in the Thai ice hockey league. The Spa is located on Soi 13 about 50 yards off Sukhumvit. Inside, it is a little gem of a place. Gary spends many days designing and building the interior. The evidence of his craftsmanship is everywhere, from the handsome gray slate floor and attractively painted walls of the massage rooms to the marvelous two person sauna with its shining blond wood. I go there three or four times a week after I finish my mornings at the health club.
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Although I like Bangkok a lot, there is one thing I despise. That is when I am riding the bus or the Skytrain and hanging onto the strap because it is crowded and I see someone, who I am convinced is older and more decrepit than I, get up out of his or her seat and offer it to me. I usually reject the offer somewhat coldly, unless of course, I am very tired. Then, I take the seat and sit there mortified (a word not often used anymore) on the one hand and relieved on the other. It is these internal conflicts that…Hmm, I think I’ve gone on about this long enough.

 

I spent a couple of delightful hours with my friend the Old Sailor. He is a kind man who has lived a fascinating life as a sailor, commercial deep sea diver, treasure hunter, and the like. He lived most of his life on or by the sea in South Florida (Key West), the Virgin Islands, Easter Island and French Polynesia (Bora Bora). He now resides in a second rate hotel in Bangkok. The walls of his room are covered with photographs organized by year. When I asked him about that, he said that he was beginning to have trouble remembering things. He had, he went on, an interesting life and he did not want to forget any of it before the inevitable dimming of the light.

 

One day, at a nearby Italian restaurant, in the course of our rambling conversation, he began a sentence with the words, “I sailed the Windward Passage three times.” It seemed to be an interesting story was in the offing and I was right.

 

One time, he either worked for or partnered with the Captain of a boat docked somewhere in South Florida. The Captain was having a dispute with someone over money or ownership or something like that. So, in the middle of the night, he and the Captain took the boat, leaving with no money between them and almost no gas to power the engines. So, they broke into a nearby refueling dock during the dark of night, refueled, and set off for wherever. Needing money, they stopped in the Virgin Islands and found a gig towing a large sailboat through the Windward Passage south of Cuba to Jamaica.

 

Somewhere near Cuba, a storm came upon them. At that most inopportune moment, their engine decided to quit and the boat slowed down. Unfortunately, the large sailboat did not and it smashed into their stern grabbing onto it like a shark grabbing onto a seal. Even more unfortunately, the bowsprit of sailboat broke off and began thrashing back and forth across the deck making it impossible for the two adventures to get to it and untangle the lines and separate the boats. So, they spent the night hoping they would live to see the sunrise. The tale stopped there. Obviously, at least the Old Sailor survived. I do not know what became of the boats or the Captain or whether whatever he was fleeing from eventually caught up to him. I see in this a potential Hemingwayesque novella, “Captains Not So Very Courageous.”

 

A few years ago, some travel magazine commissioned a poll in which people from many countries of the world were asked if they thought it was ok to cheat foreigners out of their money. The citizens of no country responded with acceptance of such callous amoral behavior anywhere near 50% except for the Thais, over 80% of whom could see no problem in that conduct.

 

On Wednesday, I had lunch with the Gemologist. He is also a well-known ethnologist (The Vanishing Tribes of Burma), artist (sculpture and painting), adventurer, writer, businessman, raconteur, and man about town. I have written about him before. He has recently returned from several trips into the hill country of Burma where he photographed one of the hill tribes in their traditional dress and re-established his trading connections with the Gurkha miners and gem merchants working there. He has resumed trading high-value rubies and sapphires and showed me photographs of several beautiful examples (in the one million dollar and up each range).
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A Million Dollar Flawless Sapphire Recently Sold

 

It is always a pleasure spending an afternoon with him. We spoke of many things, mostly our disappointment with the political situation in America and the rigors of getting old.
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I just finished a John Gresham short story about a lawyer who gets fed up practicing law, rips off a few clients and runs off to a tropical paradise and lives happily ever after. While I like Gresham, he is no Sheldon Siegel. Once a week I trundle the two miles to the outskirts of hell, where the English language bookstore is located, to check for Sheldon’s latest publication. While his mystery and courtroom scenes are great, it is the latest doings of his main characters Mike and Rosie that I look forward to. They are more real to me than my life here.

Two of my favorite authors are Sheldon Siegel and William Kotzwinkle. At least Sheldon Siegel sounds like and author. Kotzwinkle sounds like a character in Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Speaking of Pee Wee, I am waiting for a revival of Pee Wee Herman and Soupy Sales’ great performances. In case you do not recall (or are not old enough to recall) one of Soupy’s more memorable bits was to tell his juvenile audience to go into mommy and daddy’s room while they were asleep and go into daddy’s pants, take out his wallet, extract a dollar and mail it to Soupy. While most 5 to 10-year-olds got the joke, their parents had Soupy thrown off television.

Pee Wee, on the other hand, is the metaphor for our generation, a happy life in a children’s playhouse exposed in the dark theater of history. Pee Wee’s comeback was in one of my all time favorite movies “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the original) where he plays a vampire’s assistant. You should see it. There are memorable performances in it by Rutger Hauer as the chief Vampire and Donald Sutherland as Buffy’s instructor in vampire slaying.

One of my ex-clients, Danny Elfman, the oscar winning musician, got his start in movies by writing the theme songs for the Pee Wee playhouse movies. Danny told me once that he was an “Artist,” not a doped up guitar player. I wonder if Willie Nelson considers himself and artist.

Danny’s brother Rick was also a client. Rick is the director of some of the worst movies ever made. Movies so bad that they appear in the cult movie section of video stores. Movies so bad they use a pseudonym for the director’s name. He directed such classics as “Forbidden Zone,” “Shrunken Heads,” “Streets of Rage” (Wherein he uses the pseudonym of “Aristide Pierre Laffite Sumatra of the Ton Ton Macoute”) and “Modern Vampires.”

The last of which, I made my film acting debut in a walk-on role and crossed off item one of my bucket list. The movie was about a war in Los Angeles between the Vampires and the Mafia, one of the last movies in which Rod Steiger appeared (and justly so). I of course played a Mafia Don who, in my one scene, holds open the trunk of a black limousine into which my two mafia henchman, dump the “Queen of the Vampires”(played by Kim Cattrell in one of her earliest and most regretted roles) tightly wrapped in strings of garlic to keep her comatose (I kid you not). Sic Transit Gloria.

Ciao…

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One day while at my sister’s house in Mendocino recovering from an illness, I decided I felt well enough to spend the afternoon out on the deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As I sat bundled up on a bright red Adirondack Chair, my mind wandered into contemplating stories that I might write someday or not.

Feeling a little better the next day, I drove to Ft. Bragg, a somewhat larger town than Mendocino up the coast a few miles. I parked the car and went for a walk along Ten Mile Dunes, a California State Park containing huge sand dunes and a long broad beach. I liked walking there along the beach because I rarely ran into other hikers and enjoyed the solitude. Becoming tired, I sat on a flattened grass tussock with my walking stick propped on my knees and stared at the ocean. The fog had moved in shrouding the place in pearlescent mist, the ocean placid and dark. I noticed a seal or sea lion playing in the waves not far off shore. It seemed almost like it was performing a dance of some sort. I smiled, delighted by its exuberance. It stopped its play for a moment and stared at me with a liquid dark eye. I waved and it plunged back into the surf.

Then, I saw a shadow and a fin of what I thought was a shark rippling through the waters heading toward the seal. I jumped up, ran across the sand and shouted, “Look out! Get away!” I even threw my beloved walking stick at the shadow in the hope it would drive it away. The exertion of getting so quickly to my feet brought back the fainting spells I had been suffering recently. The world started to go black. I began to spasm as I fought the sudden loss of muscle control. I felt terrible, not because of the panic of losing control of my body but because I knew I could not help to save the seal. I settled back on my haunches onto the wet sand and passed out.

I do not know how long I sat there hunched over, but the next thing I became aware of was a hand on my arm pulling me up and someone saying, “Are you OK mister.” The darkness receded. I looked for the seal in the water or for blood but saw neither. I then noticed the person holding my arm, she was a slight young woman, short not slender having that soft layer of fatty tissue that can round off the hard edges of a woman’s body. I guess she was beautiful in her own way. She looked slightly Asian or Amerindian, perhaps Intuit. She seemed to be about 30 years old and wore what appeared to be leather clothing, a light fawn color. Her hair was thick dark brown that hung down in wet strings below her shoulders.

As she took my hand, a sudden warmth flowed through me. I felt much better. Better than I had felt for quite some time now. She said, “Thank you for what you tried to do,” and handed me back my walking stick .

She accompanied me back to my car. Holding my arm to help my balance should I become dizzy again.

I drove her to her house and spent several hours there talking, having a simple dinner of cheese fruit and wine.

We saw each other every day thereafter. One evening about a week after we first met I learned she was a Selkie. Although I was not surprised that there was something strange about her, I was incredulous that she believed she was one of these legendary creatures.

She explained that many years ago the Selkies, recognizing the threat from the far more populous and aggressive Humans, like many of the spirit creatures, decided to hide among us rather than fleeing deeper into nature. Although Selkies were extremely long-lived, they still could be killed. So, they tried to live wherever they could avoid becoming the objects of violence. She, for example, lived in the isolated house on the banks of the Navarro River in which we now sat as the darkness gathered. She chose it because she could secretly slip into the water whenever she wanted and change into her Selkie self.

The Selkie elders, worried about the long-term welfare of their tribe at the very beginning, presciently established an investment program that over the past 400 years made the few remaining Selkies quite wealthy, despite their usually modest living arrangements.

There are many things I could tell about those first few days after we met and thereafter, but that is for another time. I should mention, however, that one day I asked her why she, a young woman, was so interested in a friendship with me, an old man. After mentioning her gratitude for my actions on the beach when we first met, she added that she also saw I was one of the spirit ones.

It seems, many years ago, in the Apennines of Italy and especially near Mt Vergine there lived a group of mountain and forest spirits. When not in their human shape, they cavorted among the peaks as large black bears. With the movement into the mountains by men, they knew their times were ending. So they bred with humans when they could and their sons and daughters lived among them eventually forgetting what they were.

After a lengthy process, she enabled me to reassume my identity. Unfortunately, in my human form, I would always be an old man. Nonetheless, I began traveling to the tundra of Alaska where I built a tiny remote cabin. There I would change into my bear form. I loved standing up on my hind legs, feet planted in the muck, front paws flapping at my sides, and roaring my head off at the other bears in the area. I had to be careful, though. I could mix it up all right, but one of the massive paws of those big boys and girls could tear your head off. I also liked getting drunk on the spring berries and rolling around in the mud. Sometimes, I would spend most of the day standing ankle deep in a crashing stream batting salmon onto the banks. That was fun.

I hated hunters, though. Not all hunters. I ignored the other hermits living in the wilderness hunting for food. Trophy hunters, however, would enrage me. Sometimes I would bring a rifle with me. If I discover hunters lurking about, I would resume my human shape, hunt them in turn, and kill them. Now and then, in my human shape I would join up with the hunters and just when they would get ready to shoot a bear or an elk, I would turn back into a bear grab them and throw them off a cliff or something like that. I liked to see the fear in their eyes. Once, I came upon hunters who had just killed a magnificent elk. I grabbed them, one in each arm. I called a herd of elk over and allowed some of the bigger and stronger bucks to drive their antlers into them and carry them off screaming and bloody into the woods.

I also hated that in my bear shape I was addicted to honey. I despised sitting there with a silly grin on my mouth stoned on honey, all sticky with honey covering my paws, snout, and fur while angry bees crawled all over me. I’d then fall asleep and wake up all groggy and promise myself I would never do it again.

I felt my sister shake my arm. “Hey,” she said. “It is getting late. You have been sitting here dozing all afternoon. It’s time you come inside.”

A few days later, feeling better, I decided to visit 10 Mile Dunes the site of the Selkie story I dreamed about. The parking lot was a bit of a hike from the dunes and the beach, but I managed to shamble along the path and across the dunes to the kelp littered beach. I walked along the beach searching for a tussock on which to sit. I did not find one. But I did find some suitable rocks beside a spooky sculpture someone made out of a kelp stalk.

The mist was not quite so pearlescent as in my story, the ocean not so placid and dark. Nevertheless, I sat there on the rock stared out at the waves and waited. I wanted to see if a seal would appear dancing in the waves. I know, silly — but being silly is a prerogative of the very old and the very young.

After about a half an hour, I got bored. As I slowly rose from my rock, I noticed something light brown twisting among the waves. “Oh my God,” I thought. “I don’t believe this sort of shit.” I tottered toward the water. My heart beating so hard it was almost painful. Alas, when I looked again, it was gone — probably just a piece of kelp torn from its mooring and tossed about by the waves. As I slowly walked back along the beach, I stopped for a moment, looked out at the ocean, and shouted, “Selkie” — not too loud because I would be too embarrassed if anyone heard me — Also, I felt stupid. But after, I shouted I felt a lot better. I don’t know why.

Back in the car, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if people who lived adventuresome lives could live one last adventure when they get old — this time with the supernatural.” They could, of course, always make it up. That would be almost as good, I think.

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Yesterday was the last day of the week-long celebration of King’s birthday. The little masseuse and I went to the palace grounds for the evening. Unlike his birthday itself when there were almost a million people in attendance and the evening was occupied mostly with pomp and speeches, there were fewer people yesterday and the emphasis was on entertainment. The absence of the overwhelming masses allowed us to visit the several pavilions at the site that mostly contained photographs about the King’s reign and Thai history.

The entertainment began with a big band orchestra made up of either high school or college students and a number of singers, two of whom appeared to be professionals and the rest students.

While most of the singers sang pop tunes in Thai, a young man, who clearly appeared terrorized to be performing, sang a pretty good blues tune. Its minor cords seemed to require a lot of effort from him. He later sang a fine rendition of “My Way” in english but he blew the last note and seemed to die right there on the stage. I felt like crying for him. He did not come out for the finale.

A group of musicians followed playing traditional Thai instruments mostly hooked up to amplifiers. The group included two heroic drummers who banged on their drums with what seemed like every part of their body except their penis, and I am not so sure about that. They were followed by a team of traditional Thai dancers equally divided between young women in traditional costumes and tall thin young men dressed in attire that looked like it came out of the late middle ages in Italy. Although they appeared to be tall thin young men, in Thailand you can never tell. This was followed with a dance that looked like a Thai boxing match between monkeys (they had furry tails) and young men. There was a lot of jumping about and pushing each other.

Finally, just before we left, we watched a dance with the long sticks (I am sure many of you have seen a version of it) where some of the dancers rhythmically strike two long sticks together and the other dancers jump in and out of without getting their ankles broken.

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