Happy 25th Anniversary Berlin!

Happy Friday everyone! During the last 10 days or so, we’ve been enjoying another road trip around Europe during the kids’ fall break from school. Although I have yet to evolve a stress- and anxiety-free way to enjoy these longish, multi-country excursions with Stefan and the kids, they will undoubtedly still go down as one of the best parts of our time living in Italy.

This journey ended up taking us to interesting places that aren’t only historically significant, but that intermingle with our own families’ histories as well. We found connections in Dachau, Prague, and Vienna, but it was our visit to Berlin and its infamous wall that once separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany, that was especially meaningful for me, and not just because this weekend marks 25 years since it fell. My family emigrated to the US from communist Cuba, and it was both comforting and frustrating to uncover just how similar the German and Cuban experience has been. As in the case of East Germany, the communist government in Cuba has erected obstacles, much like the very long and winding Berlin wall, which have split families apart and isolated a population.

That’s probably why I was glued to my little TV set in my college dorm room in 1989, teary- eyed at the sight of East Germans insisting on passage through the wall. A still very young news network, CNN, was broadcasting all these jaw-dropping images, and I remember calling my mother to ask if she was seeing what I was seeing. We sat there in silence on the phone just flabbergasted by the moment. Most of the East Germans weren’t interested in staying in West Berlin, although some had surely been yearning for that freedom for decades. Instead, the majority just wanted to be able to go where they wanted to go, see who they wanted to see. Shop, eat, visit with family and friends, and then head back home.

Somewhere between the long silences, we decided that my mom should just come over to my dorm room, so we could watch the coverage together. She was there within the hour and we watched as the gates opened and hundreds of faces poured through. Some were crying, others yelling happily, yet others looking completely astonished, as if they couldn’t believe this was happening at all. We were overjoyed for these Germans, as we saw a sister run into the embrace of a brother waiting on the West side; a group of teens, in all their late-80s gear, dance on top of the wall; and an East German soldier smile widely and give a rose to a girl on the other side, as if no one in the whole wide world was more relieved than he was. It was quite emotional up in that university high rise apartment. In part, of course, because the parallels to our family, stranded behind the formidable waves of the Caribbean instead of a cement wall, were far too clear. We couldn’t help but wonder, what if…


(Click on photos to enlarge.)


The part of the wall that has been preserved with murals commissioned right after its fall, is part of the East Side Gallery. The neighborhood now feels like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grittier and cooler than the rest of Berlin, but just as sophisticated and modern:



This one’s for you, Mami!



Leeloo’s come up with a very endearing new habit… listening to history through architecture. “Mom! It’s like I’m there and the soldier is giving the girl the flower!”





For my Italian peeps/ Per i miei amici italiani:IMG_0512


This image evokes a way of life with which I’m quite sure my relatives are painfully familiar:



How do you say “perestroika” in Spanish?




Somebody made sure that I didn’t get too romantic about the whole thing with this insightful graffiti, in Spanish nonetheless! (Sons of bitches. Stop lying. We haven’t learned anything.)



Yet, a girl can keep dreaming. IMG_0545



I like that Leeloo serendipitously added her face to the hundreds in this scene, re-playing what I saw on my TV in ’89. She’s got quite a few cousins that I can’t wait to see pass through their own wall someday. Hopefully, not another 25 years from this anniversary.






Art School by the Archways of San Luca

Antonio has been teaching art to people who missed the bus to art school for over twenty years. He not only teaches a whole lot of us older folks who never found the time to explore our fine arts abilities, but also twenty-somethings whose need to pay rent keeps them from developing their skills full-time, teens who still have time to explore oil painting, drawing, watercolor painting, etching, etc…, and little kiddies who, although somewhat over-scheduled (here too!), always have the time and will to create. His cozy studio, tucked away on a sunny, quiet street named for a famous “Gino” and close to the beautiful arch ways leading to the Cathedral of San Luca,  is exactly what you’d want it to be, all white, light-filled and packed with art supplies. Tabletop easels, wooden palettes, oil paints, watercolors, color pencils, etching equipment, canvases, paintbrushes of every size and texture, sponges, painting knives, charcoal, and on and on. For anyone who gets a rush when they step into a stationary or art supply shop, this place would delight you. Finally, the students’ work lines the perimeter of the large room, all in various states of completion, some just a sketch of what they will eventually become, and others, finished and drying before being mounted on a frame.

The real allure of the place though, is the joyful and friendly atmosphere that Antonio has created. The coffee and tea that’s always brewing or the cakes and snacks that are always available probably have something to do with it, but there’s something else. When I’ve been there, the room is usually populated with 6-8 adults ranging from well-heeled Italian grandmothers with beautiful taste and a good deal of painting experience, and the South American immigrant honoring his gifts before rushing off to his night job, to an array of middle-aged Italian men and women with a range of skills, and the international ladies, which include quite a few talented women who are also mothers of children at our school. But it’s not just the eclectic mix of artists that make it such a happy place. It might be the 2 or 3 languages that generally fly around the room at once, or the static-tinged Italian pop/rock flowing from the old, beat up radio, which usually dominates the room as everyone gets down to work. Or it could be Antonio’s congeniality or gentle but prodding way of teaching by doing, in mostly Italian but with Spanish, English and French slipped in occasionally.

I suspect, though, that this warm, welcoming ambiance persists, because we all have one important thing in common. We’ve all made the decision to take two or three hours from our busy weeks to explore what we are capable of creating. Knowing what a challenge it is for me to paint (or write!) instead of run yet another errand, or get that one more thing done on the computer, I can’t help but feel respect towards (if not kinship with) others that enjoy creating and figure out a way to get to it. Maybe that’s the underlying thread that ties us, and brings into being this vibe of openness and contentment. Whatever the case, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite spots in this Bolognese life, and I’m thankful that I finally made time for it.

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My first completed painting at Antonio’s studio! (Homage to Emily Proud, the artist who created the original that I copied!)
















































































































































Guggenheim Bilbao

Last week’s trip also took us to Bilbao, Spain, about an hour west of San Sebastian, to check out a structure that I’ve seen a thousand times in pictures, and that people universally seem to love or hate, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. I confess that I’ve mostly stood on the hate side of that argument, mostly because it’s always struck me as more architectural gimmick than refined or advanced artistry. But…  lo and behold! it’s actually a joy-inducing sight when you first see Frank Gehry’s “silver fish” from across the Nervión River flanked by a modern pedestrian suspension bridge on one side, and another traditional cement walkway on the other, with a regular ol’ city just a few feet behind it. It’s all shimmery and reflective and undulating and what not, like a happy marine animal swim-dancing to its favorite tune. It’s hard not to smile at it, and feel good about the silly ideas that humans can conceive and later actually implement, for better or for worse. I still don’t feel it’s a miracle of architecture, but I’ll concede that it makes the world a shinier place. On the inside, however, the museum is strangely small given the volumes you experience outside, and awkwardly laid out, and the craftsmanship of the surfaces and their upkeep are surprisingly poor. The temporary exhibits, though, were so entertaining that we easily whiled away a whole day in there with only a short trip back outside for a delicious Thai/Chinese lunch! Here are a few pics of our excursion and a bit more information about our favorite bits.

I’m pretty sure Stefan’s favorite part of the whole road trip is this picture that he took from across the Nervion River.
Stefan making himself at home on a piano in the middle of a fantastic exhibit by Brazilian artist, Ernesto Neto, who creates enormous works which he believes should be entered  inhabited, felt and even smelled. This and another room featuring a giant netted and climbable worm that rose high above our heads were my son, Zoel’s favorites of the day!
Another Ernesto Neto installation. And yes, I realize that these nylon sacks are uncomfortably close in appearance to a certain aspect of male anatomy, but these suspended ovals were filled with clove, lavender, pepper, sage and many other herbs, along with candy and other pretty things. The strong and varied scents in the room were delightful!
Leeloo had loads of fun in the Neto installations but surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly if you know her) she most liked the Yoko Ono (yep, you read correctly) retrospective, especially this 1965 film of her “Cut Piece” performance art work. She and this little Spanish boy watched it 7 or 8 times. His mom and I were a little bewildered but the idea captured them.
The four of us were riveted by an art installation called The Clock. Christian Marclay’s audacious and inventive work is in effect a film, “a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in “real time””. I can’t fathom how it was put together but it’s beautiful and mesmerizing. We sat motionless for 45 minutes, literally watching time go by.
Mural under the bridge and across the river from the Guggenheim Bilbao.