Dreaming in Greek

Athens’ past is so strong – as idea, as dream – it dominates the dirty white sprawl which extends 300 degrees around it – 360 degrees, if it weren’t for the sea. In contrast to this vertical spread, the Parthenon stands as the city on the hill. It keeps its marbled watch during the day, is warm at sunset and has the starry gleam of electricity at night. My arty literary daughters, seeing it all for the first time, felt themselves in a great, powerful presence.

The Parthenon with its statues, many of them removed to the nearby Acropolis Museum, and the Archeological Museum, lodged in our being, and continue to haunt as afterimages. What is it that inserts itself? Why is this taut grandeur with exquisite sensitivity engage us? As an ideal, it’s moving and distant, then disturbingly intimate. We’re witnessing high drama – the human struggle of the spirit in communication with a body, recognizing its potential for freedom and limitation of our darker selves.

We were staying on another hill, Lycabettus, and got to see the Parthenon at all hours, from our slope to hers. We arrived on the deadest day of the summer, August 15, Assumption, when the city of one virgin, Athena, pays homage to another virgin, Mary, and the people go happily to the islands. The gates were rolled down over shops, in some neighborhoods completely graffiti-covered; it was unclear whether they would ever open again. Other neighborhoods were spiffier and kept up. In the crisis, Greeks we met were uncannily sanguine, current woes balanced by their long historical legacy, their love of country. There is much pain under the surface, no doubt, but they recognize their country’s beauty. We were lucky to have a swimming pool on our rooftop. We felt on top of the world.

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Shape-Shifting in Thessaloniki

Portrait of a Jewish Woman from Thessaloniki

The Thessaloniki experience has to include both ghosts and crowds.  Walking through the old souks on a mid-August holiday, its corridors are full of shadows, smells but no people, plastic bags flapping on the skeletal rafters.  This is a good image for a polyglot city that has shifted, lost and gained identities countless times through its 24-century history.

On the same holiday, there are families and students having coffee and cake, strolling along an arching seaside esplanade that could be a twin of Nice or Tel Aviv.  Hipsters get cooler in the creative urban planning of giant city fans, make use of the endless possibilities for renovated spaces which have become coffee houses, clubs and bars.  Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city after Athens, yet known as a kinder, more dynamic place.

It’s hard to beat Athens’ history but Thessaloniki is dosed with fascinating past.   In 15-17th centuries, the Roman agora that centers the city was part of a large Jewish city – large population of Jews settled after leaving Inquisition Spain, eventually becoming the majority.  The Ottoman Empire allowed them to coexist, coopting their skills.  As mosques, the ruling Muslims were using the city’s early Christian churches, which themselves borrowed imagery of peacocks and gardens from classical sources.

100 years ago this month, a massive fire wiped out most of the Jewish Ottoman city.   Many residents of this Jerusalem of the East became refugees and fled, after manipulative urban planning, to other countries.  In one of the 20th century’s crueler ironies, most of  the remaining Sepharads who had survived fires of the Inquisition and an uncontrolled bread oven were exterminated by the invading Nazis.

Thessaloniki stories continue – when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Greeks took the city back in the early 20th century, a massive exchange of population took place: huge population of Muslims moved to Turkish lands and Greeks moved from Turkey back in.  Minarets were all torn down, disappeared.  It’s a little known “ethnic reorganization.”

All this is in a place that some describe as a “teenager” city.  Pegged by some to be the next Barcelona.  Stay tuned.

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Blue Cosmos, Greek Style

Struck by the linear perfection and balance of the Acropolis, a literary observer noted how nervous the ancient Greeks must have been – how high strung, highly sensitive, neurotic.  They were delicate and high maintenance, thus the ancient Greeks quested, they built and calmed themselves with high aesthetic achievement.  They conquered chaos through beauty and order (cosmos).

Traveling through Greece, I think about how elusive that balance is.  Greece is straddling, struggling, highly sensitive to its lack of balance and desperate to find some poised ground.

Greece is poised between many things – Western Europe and the Levant, American business and Russian orthodoxy, the market and the common good, the sensual and the ascetic.  The eagle symbol of the Byzantine Empire, which Greece was a part of for twelve centuries, faced both east and west, and Byzantine means something tangled and intertwined.

There are stony cities which are unforgiving in the heat and current economic crisis.  They feel closer to Cairo or Tunis, with patriarchal families calling the shots.  There are gentle villages and old women dressed in black and vast olive groves.  Picturesque white-washed villas and perched domed churches  and truckloads of sheep.  There is the sea – consoling, for everyone, the public good.  It’s possible that the azure blue beauty of the sea provides Greeks with their good humor and kindness.  It calms their high-strung nervous systems naturally.

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Parisian Late-Capitalist Blues

What an irony it would be if Paris becomes yet another generic European city where slick kids move from trendy cafe to darling bar to hip-chic restaurant. The French have always been such maniacs about preserving their rich culture and fabric of life – yet Paris is changing so fast, every corner sprouting a Brooklyn-style cafe, a super cute concept restaurant. The shoemaker and tabac can’t last long; the ateliers and scruffy bistros and all those cafes owners from the Auvergne will fall for new buildings, the latest trend in American hipness that entrepreneurs will sense and recreate in a pack.

The beautiful new restaurants – Daroco in the old fashion boutique of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Le Dapuhin, a white marble square designed by Rem Koolhaas and Clement Blanchet – are lovely, and widespread, and packed. Who fills them night after night? You’d hardly remember the crisis, all that unemployment, threat from the National Front. You’d hardly realize the shifting earth plates at the edges of the city, the traveling soup kitchens near Gare de L’Est, at the edge of Porte de la Chapelle where huge lines of mostly men gather as free meals are dolled out. The tent cities that are pitched under bridges.

Perhaps that explains – in an odd French way – the Parisian preoccupation with the decline of American capitalism, particularly the Depression. This year Pompidou Center hung a giant retrospective of Walker Evans, last year l’Orangerie had an extensive survey of American painting in the 1930s. It’s unclear if they are casting a superior gaze at their favorite cowboy culture, calling out the dangers of rampant consumerism. Or if they recognize shared precedents and vagaries of Western culture. My guess is the first; they snigger as they become more American, and anxious on the way.

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Summer’s Inefficiencies

We recently met a German vacationing in the South of France – all paradoxes of modern time were laid out, right there on the table, in front of our pastis.   While saying that France has the best quality of life in Europe, he briskly termed and complained, while taking a black Nicoise olive, about “southern Europe inefficiency.”   I remember another friend, a Parisian, who defined the South as “a place to waste time.”

There are vestiges here of the way time used to be experienced, before codification and regularization in clocks, train schedules and digitization.  In this corner of the countryside, the alienation from nature isn’t complete – work starts with the sunrise, the fierce wind dictates whether or not to work in the fields, the year culminates in the fever and fullness of la vendange, when sun and heat has been so absorbed by the grapes that they must be picked, and the winemaking begins.   There is also “the time of the cherries,” (synonymous for fleeting pleasures, carpe diem); sumptuous peach harvest which, gratefully, lasts as long as we’re here.

We watch a friend, born and schooled here, go about her day – at every turn, in town and in Perpignan, she embraces friends she meets, (two kisses on the cheek), stands close as they exchange great news, confidences, troubles.  Voila – the mystery of why she’s always “late!”

Then there’s the food – the food!  But not to digress.  This immersion in time (which for me becomes Proustian as well – the surging of all parts of the past, including those I never lived!) was luckily  a boon for writing, “inefficient” only to a northern German.

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It Happens

It Happens

Let’s set the stage: a manicured college
of pure measure.  The lawns roll greenly.
Circumferences of mulch surround the trees.
Reason that has devised an equation for entropy
can answer every inquiry, mightily.

The forest is a mess of holy randomness.
The warp of vines wrap spruce and pine.
The maples having poisoned other seedlings,
soar through the roof of their own making.

They are timeless and totemic (a phrase from my notebook),
except for an elder felled by sickness or wind;
we tunnel under.

Overhead soar the turkey vultures.

Although a songbird screeches “teacher
teacher” as we descend, nature
has the upper hand.  Before he died,
an old man was epitaphin’
in the graveyard we’re passing.
On his headstone he got it right: It Happens.


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Lost in Celebration


Fourth of July
In the aimless wind,
             tree tops luft…

Luft!  How brilliantly the poet conjures
the circular motion —
rudderless! – of old trees shifting,
hapless sails billowing.

Trapped under a humid blanket
neither fish nor fowl
nor sun nor air
nor active compass

we’re captive, vagabonding,
shuffling, going nowhere
with a flurry of anxious
distracting motion.

On S. Main I seek refuge: millennials
sipping coffee, cold press, Internet.
I savor luft on the screen
in Dave’s air conditioning.

Now spellcheck acts up — first lift,
then left.  Utterly directionless.
When alone with nothing else to do,
looking for kicks, Google it.

Luft is short for Luftmensch, “an impractical
contemplative person having no
definite business or income.”
Luft, German for air, mensch, human being.

Beside me, a girl drawing, some tattooed kids
joking.  Jesus!  In whose eyes are we
Luftmensch American?  Careful, be
sophisticated, be mindful of the Yiddish.

Consider irony and humor with a jot
of bitter truth.  Be faithful to your word,
even in this hapless process.  Google, a second time
around, makes meaning more elusive:

One side has the word,
one side has the definition.  Microwave and
dishwasher safe.”    I’m not kidding!

The Fourth cometh – that we are going nowhere
is obvious.  We don’t know anything.
The American flag lufts like Saran around its pole.
If only I knew what luft meant.


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Back from Poets’ Camp

Back from Poets’ Camp
At poets’ camp, I wrote, I thought and read
and took the fullness as the world. 
Then I returned. Real life! So double,
Magnficent in its archly grinning way; 
the things we touch amidst the vast 
uncaressable disarray.
       There are mortal things to be taken care of
devolving fences, lost opposum, children,
unwatered lawns, crabgrass,
your hernia, those crenelated tubes and mass
fitted back in the ventral packet.
       Sedation made us notice a new
harmonious; your tone, smoothed down
a notch, brought miniparadise.  It’s not 
the heat to spark a forest fire that matters;
it’s caring for the one-worded poem between us.


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The “Food” Thing

Food is not unsung these days, quite the opposite.  Our foodie and consumer culture fetishizes it.  The constant spill of images whetting desire to look and to own almost obliterates its origins of sustenance.

A day without food – a fast, hunger strike, poverty – will bring its essential quality right on back.  Food, glorious food!  Muslims are currently observing Ramadan, a month of neither eating nor drinking, from sunrise to sunset.  The traditional custom of breaking the fast is a glass of buttermilk, a handful of almonds and harira soup.  Imagine the tang and silk of the first sip of buttermilk, the blossoming spices in the warm harira.  Maybe the sun glistens on a layer of olive oil, and underneath the diner finds a substantial puree of earthy legumes.  There is a bit of grit, a nose of minerals, a head of fragrant odor.  Most cooks make harira with lamb, but a vegan version, with plenty of lemon, is complete. The “kitchen sink” soup of chickpeas, lentils, vegetables, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, pepper binds together like a world. Harira, as an object of worship, will last only a few minutes; it beckons, it is met, and the body are soul are nourished.

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The Breathing Gallery at RISD

This spring has been cold and dark, and it rains all the time, and Trump is pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord. And I’m working on a dark book project.   As soon as I walked into the RISD Grad Show in Providence, I saw a reflection of my mood.

The guts of some object – a cotton mattress or futon – were unraveling on the floor.  Its soft layers were exposed.  On a nearby pedestal sat a handmade book, like a family relation – same color, same fabric.  Those fiber guts had been transformed into a book!  Artist Vanessa Nieto Romero may not have been using the actual literal material. But the equation bed + guts = book seemed apt and ultimately inspiring.

Once my self-indulgent viewer was exorcized, the massive space of the convention center blossomed like an exuberant garden. Yes, it has been raining – but the rain over at RISD has been creative. As an antidote to dark times, it was inspiring. The artists – graduating master students – represent all departments, so the range of response to “our times” came in graphic and industrial design, jewelry, print, painting. There are portraits of urgency, of dislocations in nature and population on grand, ambitious scale. Students are asking serious questions and making inquiries into existential issues, minus the usual snark.

There is a video that creates a soundscape.  On its own, this amplified recording of heavy and desperate breathing would be disturbing and exhibitionist.  I peeped behind the black curtain and watched the actress as she pressed her mouth against glass, creating mist as she squeezes, shrieks and moans out the essential act of breathing.  She fills a whole wing of the whole gallery.   With her, the artwork in the room was breathing – young artists are alive and well.

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