Sunday, September 30, 2012

Fireflies / Week Five: Flight

Dear Friends,
Sitting at a French cafe in Hoboken (!), the final Fireflies have been hardest to write; an admission that the journey begins again, just beneath my feet. 

I love and thank you all for your hearts and hands along the way,


Monday, July 30

The American Embassy speeds me to a new passport and, as a montage of her wonders shimmer through the panes of our departing train, I thank Paris for all she has given me.

The French countryside bears little resemblance to her crown city; she's filled with a beauty all her own: sheep grazing in peppermint pastures; vineyards winding their way to salmon sunset.

I arrive in Avignon where I am picked up by my first Couchsurfing hosts: Roseline, her boyfriend Jo, and another guest, Zenobia of Hong Kong. We drive an hour by moonlight to the tiny village of Goult in the Luberon region of Provence, where Roseline and I pick fresh eggplant and tomatoes from the neighbor's farm for dinner. I sleep in a field, stars winking above my tent with the knowledge of what comes tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 31

I awaken to discover endless vineyards before me; a lavender field to my right, and the farm from which we drew dinner to my left.  I spend hours meandering before Roseline prepares breakfast: coffee, fresh cantaloupe and baby peaches, rustic bread with jam and chocolate spread.

We venture to the cliffside village of Gordes for their weekly market. A flautist plays Sounds of Silence as we purvey fresh vanilla beans, sachets of lavender and handmade scarves sold for a song. From there we turn to Goult proper, where grapes hang pendulously from picture windows and cicadas accompany our investigation of tiny streets. We hike the ochre footpath of Roussillon and revel in the town's doorways of every complementary color. 

At home, we're welcomed by Roseline's neighbors and landlords, Francis and his wife Geneviève, who are in their 80s but look 20 years younger. Conversing in the lost language of Provençal, we learn that Francis' family has lived on this land for 400 years. He produces a bottle of wine from their vineyard, which we savor before heading to a neighboring farm for dinner. The quiet lesson of these people is, What is worth having this is not deepened by sharing it? 

Walking home through the forest, I am the firefly guiding our path. Stopping by a private pond, Roseline, Zenobia and I strip and slide down its mossy walls into the water for a midnight skinnydip. I fall asleep with lavender in my hair and ladybugs minding the tent.

There are days when universal forces converge toward total and utter harmony; this was three of them.

Wednesday, August 1

At sunrise, I join a mob of huddled sunflowers on a hill, knowing I could live or die beneath their restful watch.

Back at home (home!), I write letters while Geneviève hangs the day's wash in the wind, then walks Zenobia and me through the grapes to her lavender distillery - source of the most exquisite scent I've ever inhaled. Francis teaches us the process of distillation and gifts us with tiny vials of the plant's very essence.

I ride home on a tractor and, with fond farewells, catch my bus in the village of Lumières. The driver, as enamored of the landscape as I am, is 22 minutes late to Avignon and I miss the train to Spain! Fortunately, I find another Couchsurfing host, Damien, who offers me accommodation for the night. We spend the evening walking the walled city and its famed half-bridge, where I once sat 15 years ago in existential crisis after seeing Genet's La Voix Humane at the Avignon Theatre Festival.

Thursday, August 2

My host's tiny sliver of a cat plays with my face (and a tiny mosquito, my ear) all night and, as a consolation, Damien gifts me with a mandala and Aznavour recordings before I go.

There is a marked change as you pass through the Pyrenees and the language shifts to Catalan, a hybrid of French and Spanish (exit, which is sortie in French and salida in Spanish, becomes sortida here). French modesty is discarded, necklines plunge and passions grow basic. The Spanish countryside is marinated in olive oil, burnt sienna, shades of dusk I never knew existed, and wildflowers.

Before landing in Barcelona, I make two stops - the first in Figueras, to see Dalí's stunning Theatre-Museum - the second in Girona, for its unexpected Museu del Cinema (where Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie dress lives, as does Streisand's from Hello, Dolly!), Museu d'Historia dels Jueus (Jewish Museum) and Banys Arabs (Arab Baths), built in 1194. They call me guapo in Ethpaña... I don't object! 

Friday, August 3

Barcelona immediately scores points in my book; on street corners there are recycling receptacles where, in addition to the usual suspects, unused medication and cooking oils are accepted.

For the next ten hours, my indefatigable host, Dani, takes me on a no-stone-unturned tour of town. We venture from Ciutat Vella (Old Town) through El Born, El Ravel, El Gotic and the beautiful Parc de la Ciutadella, absorbing the city's signature Gaudi architecture and exquisite Gran Teatre del Liceu and Palau de la Musica Catalana. At Picasso's Museu, I find the artist's Flowers on a tiny jewelry box for my mother; it is an image which has followed me home-to-home throughout my childhood, and finds me again here.

Barcelona: loud, colorful, crowded... not France.

Saturday, August 4

Dani and I head to Gaudi's garden city, Parc Guell, followed by his heaven-bound basilica, Sagrada Familia, under construction for the past 130 years. Visiting the kaleidoscopic Boqueria for lunch and Bareceloneta beach for drinks, the best part of the day comes after climbing Mont de Montjuïc, when we revel in the Font Magica!  The Magic Fountain's synchronized water and light show - framed perfectly by the Arc de Triomf on one side (yes, they have one here, too) and Palau Nacional on the other, is breathtaking. The 9pm display starts with a recording of my patron saint, Freddie Mercury, belting Barcelona, which he originally performed here at the '92 Olympics. How does it get even better than this?

Sunday, August 5

Dani is asleep, so his Polish roommate Jacek (YAT-zik) and I leave for Sitges (SEE-chez) a pristine white beachside colony on the southern coast. There I perform one of my favorite rituals:  lying on my back in the ocean, imagining family and friends linking hands with me, blessing all those lives who've touched mine. (If you are reading this, you're one of them!) We down claras (beer with lemonade) and sensational paella, and that night we dance - dance! - 'til the rain pours down and the morning rises.

Monday, August 6

Breakfast on the beach, horchata and nude sunbathing by the glow of Sitges' alabaster villas. Before heading back to Barcelona, I observe an exceptional child, autistic perhaps, dancing (choreographing?) a pattern on the sand to the sounds of some inner soundtrack. He moves with such pleasure that his mother, her own long forgotten, grabs him by the arm and shakes him violently. I pray the music never leaves him.

After a final ramble through Barça's Ramblas, Dani, Jacek and I enter a tiny, Moroccan-style teahouse, Salterio, whose interior is over a thousand years old. We devour "slow food made with love" while Anouar Braheman's Le Pas du Chat Noir plays softly in the background (  

Tuesday, August 7

A tearful exit from Dani and Yatzik's as I head to Spain's center.

The vista is gorgeous; clay villages dotting foothills, thick-legged laborers who look as if they're grown from the land itself. A Russian translator, Tatiana, is my host in Madrid, more peaceful and less peopled than Barcelona, and we head straightaway to the Real Jardin Botanico (where I see a flower whose geometry would stop an atheist in his tracks), the majestic Retiro Park, and finally, El Prado - one of the most moving museums I've ever seen, in both content and design.

While a Spanish guitarist strums outside, I swim inside with Bosch, Raphael, Goya, Sorolla, Greco, Caravaggio, The Garden of Earthly Delights, a bouffon exhibit, Hermes and Aphrodite's lovechild, Hermaphrodite, Miró's Dragonfly with Red-Tipped Wings in Pursuit of a Snake, and the thousand tiny painted figures of Carnicero's Ascent of Monsieur Boucle's Montgolfier Balloon in the Gardens of Aranjuez, each somehow emanating thought and noise.

We meet a Ukranian Couchsurfer, Kostia, who continues to tells me, The Universe cares about me! a mantra I vow to adopt. At a stranger's birthday dinner to which we are heartily welcomed, I remember that Spanish men can really cook (just don't ask them what you've eaten, you won't want to know). From there, we stumble to a street party featuring anti-establishment bands from Franco's rule, and the bitterness of Spaniards today - their anger towards the national banks and government - is palpable, vocalized - and danced!  Are Americans really as stupid as they appear? I am frequently asked. You have all the liberty in the world - but what the hell do you do with it?!

Wednesday, August 8

After a final, citywide stride through Chueca (SHWEK-ah, Madrid's Greenwich Village), the Jardines del Campo del Moro (filled with rich-hued pheasants and black swans), the modern art mecca Reina Sofia and the William Blake exhibit at CaixaForum, I land at Plaza de España, where I weep at the feet of Don Quixote tilting toward his windmill - the ultimate idiot with the beautiful dream. How similar I feel to him today, my last. I trim my moustache at Juan, Por Dios!, whose hairdressers come directly out of an Almodóvar film (as does the businessman who passes me in a fine-tailored suit with pink-painted toenails peeking out from his flip-flops). While passing through Plaza del Sol, I run into Aarón, a dear friend from the clown course! A feather falls into my hand and I think, Yes, yes, it's true - the Universe cares about me, too!

Thursday, August 9

Time to integrate all I have learned. Every remaining euro is spent to a cent on my lunch at the Madrid Airport; universal accountability. On the plane, everyone around me is glued to their mini-TV monitors and, scoping the panorama, every image onscreen seems to be that of an attractive young American bracing a gun.  I brace myself for what's to come...



We only dissect what is dead, says my friend David Zellnik, so there are omissions here; private moments which live and should remain alive; fireflies hidden in the recesses of my heart, offering glow in moments of darkness.

Fireflies - an homage to the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore - and to those fleeting moments when biology channels electricity - though hearts do that all the time, don't they? Perhaps we only become aware of it upon resuscitation.

Just as one wouldn't extract a crumb of color from a pointillist painting, it's delicate, this trying to draw single moments from a mosaic of five weeks'. Luckily, each moment boils down to a single one, wearing the mask of time, shifting prismatically before my eyes.

The key to travel is acceptance, it seems, and it must be done once a year (at least) to scramble the nervous system - dissolving any sense of entitlement or nationalism which so often shrouds our eyes from the riches of others'. To quote Couchsurfer Kostia, Everyone is a guest in this world, after all!

Writing, I've learned, should be edible, art audible, and time honored - for without that, we cannot accept the wisdom that comes with it, nor with waiting. Perhaps this is the great folly of our country today.

Paris, for me, shall always remain in special light; the buildings radiating a halo borne of eating the sun, day in and out. With her rise and fall, they seem to utter, Rappelez-vous - rappelez-vous, mon petit - pourquoi vous vous êtes ici, pendant que vous êtes ici! (Remember - remember, my little one, why you're here, while you're here!)