What Happened in Umbria

This story originally appeared on my travel blog at nocommonface.com.

Rosaria makes the best mushroom risotto in all of central Italy. In 1989, she married a man from Paris, and today, the two of them live in a house on a hill in San Venanzo, Italy, that overlooks their 2,000 olive trees. To the left of the olive trees is the agriturismo that they built 20 years ago, in part out of hope that it would help to the cover medical expenses for their cognitively disabled son. Rosaria also has two drawings hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Since business is good, drawing has become something that Rosaria does only in her spare time, which she has very little of. Years ago, a yoga organization offered Rosaria and her husband 8 million dollars for the agriturismo. They turned it down. “It’s my livelihood,” will be her life-long defense.

 Ethan is a 20-year-old culinary school dropout from Petoskey, Michigan who joined the hippie movement after losing his father to lung cancer and his brother to drugs in the same year. He makes the best French toast in America, and, in all likelihood, Central Italy, too. Ethan has come to Umbria on a six-week soul-searching excursion that will, regardless of the outcome, be remembered most as his first time traveling outside of his own country. He has the physical build of a high school quarterback and the face of a cherub. This combination has led to the appropriate nickname of “Bear”.

Sophia is a beautiful 19-year-old German girl who is on a gap year between high school and university. In her country, gap travel is a highly encouraged exploit in which most other German students her age will take part. Before coming to Italy to harvest olives, Sophia volunteered on a horse farm in Spain owned by ‘the world’s biggest asshole.’ Many of her friends returning home for the Christmas holiday will spend their gap years working as au pairs in Paris. Because she has a kind heart, Sophia will invite two American wanderers to her home for the holidays, where they will delight in the German Christmas tradition of a four-course-meal consisting solely of cooked geese and red wine. Subsequently, the three will remain friends for the rest of their lives.

Emmanuel, or ‘Mano’, as he is known, is Rosaria’s mentally retarded son. His remarkable artistic talent, which he inherited from his mother, is one of three ways in which he passes his time; the other two are tai chi and television. Mano has the biggest appetite in all of Central Italy, and, in all likelihood, the whole of Europe. Despite his intelligence and budding eagerness to lean the English language, he will spend much of his life convinced that he is not capable of holding a job or falling in love, because he has grown up in a part of the world that lacks the social and political advocacy mechanisms necessary to his understanding otherwise.

On the third in a series of consecutively cold and damp days in mid-December, these four people, and the creators of this blog are standing on a platform at the Marsciano train station a short distance from Rosaria’s home. Decades of neglect and disrepair have made this one of the least attractive places in Umbria. It is also one of the only places near San Venanzo where you can catch a train to Rome, where Sophia, Ethan, and the creators of this blog will spend the weekend in the company of three Australians, and two Romans. All of whom met while harvesting Rosaria’s 2,000 olive trees.  

Upholding its reputation as notoriously unreliable, the train is nowhere in sight. The group passes the time by taking photos and exchanging stories, and then Mano asks the two creators of this blog to tell the one about how they met.

Jason’s tells the better version:

“I first laid eyes on Meaghan at a Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue,” he says. “She was restocking kitchen gadgets, and when I saw her I thought: ‘I wonder what it would be like to date that girl.’”

“Stop,” says Mano. He looks at his mother. “Translate.”

Rosaria translates and Mano smiles. “Okay,” he says. “Continue.”

“So I go home that night and my roommate tells me that there is this girl she works with that I have to meet. She pulls up Meaghan’s picture on the Internet, and I say: ‘That’s her! That’s the girl I saw today!”

“Stop. Mama, translate. Okay, continue.”

“So I get invited to this party that Meaghan is going to be at, and I’m so excited that I wear my nicest shirt. Before I leave the house, I say to my Aunt: If you saw me in this shirt at a party, would you want to date me?’ And she said ‘absolutely.’

“Stop. Translate.”  

I get to the party and she is on a date with another guy. We barely shake hands and she walks away, and I go home so depressed. But luckily things don’t work out with the loser, and so I invite her over for dinner, make salmon, and we’ve been in love ever since!

“Stop.” Mano says, and then rests his chin between his thumb and index finger for several minutes. Using the same index finger, he points to Jason. “You, normal,” he says, and then he points to me. “You, not,” he says, referring to a slight but distinctive limp resulting from cerebral palsy (a fact of my existence that I have left out of my writing throughout my entire life.)

Mano again turns to his mother and says something in Italian. Rosaria translates:

“He wants to know how it is possible for a normal person to love somebody who isn’t normal, and if he, too, will be able to get married someday to somebody who loves him just the way he is.”

The moments that occupied this conversation will be remembered most for how vividly they stand out against the rest of a nine-month-long soul-searching excursion.  I remember the way everything looked, I remember what everyone was wearing, I remember how deeply in love each of us had fallen with one another over the course of the six weeks we spent harvesting Rosaria’s 2,000 olive trees, and I remember never having felt more grateful for having quit my job.

Travel is a gift in the sense that, if you are lucky, you are afforded a handful of glimpses into the world’s tremendous collection of beautiful and interesting things. It is meaningful, in the sense that, if you do it well, your life becomes enriched by the world’s limitless collection of beautiful and interesting people. All of whom are equally human, wanting and waiting to know love. And if you do it really well, you find yourself standing in the rain on a train platform, with a German beauty, an American hippie, two Italian artists, explaining to the most normal one of them all, that he will, in all likelihood, find it one day, too.

Notes on Amsterdam

This story originally appeared on my travel blog at nocommonface.com. 

The best sex that any classical music enthusiast can have in Amsterdam is at the center of the seventh row inside the Concertgebouw’s Grand Hall, listening to its orchestra play Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and then follow it with Jonathan Tavener’s Svyati. To experience this is to understand that you’ve misused the phrase ‘mind-blowing’ throughout your entire life. 

It is widely understood that no matter how you take your pleasure, the pinnacle of it can be reached here, in some fashion, on nearly every corner of a metropolis that looks like an enormous open-air modern wing dressed in Brett Helquist illustrated clothes. But if you travel to this city and you are under the age of thirty, neglecting to take advantage of the Concertgebouw’s 'junior ticket' discount could be the biggest mistake of your trip. Nowhere else in Amsterdam does a thrill that feels so good cost less than €12.50 and include complimentary drinks at intermission.

Of course there are plenty of things to love about this city, which it knows very well. And that is precisely why Amsterdam collects nearly 4 billion dollars in tourist-generated revenue every year. But if, like many young travelers, you arrive with the rain cloud of a tight budget hovering over your umbrella (an essential Amsterdam travel tool), rest assured, you can still indulge in several of its innumerable delights. Here are a few of our favorites:

Slouched at the corner of Ceinterbaan and Van Ostadestraat is a restaurant whose exterior is as rough as its concept is brilliant. The only menu you will find at the Couscous Club is the one in the picture frame behind its front window. There are only three entrees listed on it, and all of them are some variation on traditional Tunisian Couscous. The presentations of each are an artful marriage of vegetables and grain, and their aromas are as authentically rooted in Tunisia as their creator, Wouter Apituley. Doubling as the owner of this operation, Apitulely makes careful use of opaque crystal chandaliers, antique mirrors and Juliet Greco to create an ambience that is an obvious and effective salute to an earlier love affiar with Paris; where he lived for seven years before coming to Amsterdam to try his hand in the restauruant business. 

The wine menu at the Couscous Club also adheres closely to the rule of three; offering one white, one rose, and one tunisian red that is a particularly nice accompanyment to either of the two dishes served with lamb.

If there are a few extra pennies burning a hole in your pocket, though, they can be put to best use at Eetcafe Ven Beeren. The intimate space that it occupies at 54 Koningsstraat is far enough off of the beaten path to be missed by most of Amsterdam's tourists, but its unique Parisian spin on traditional Dutch cooking should not be missed by you. A meal for two that includes their house wine will set you back between 45-60 euros. And under no circumstances should you pass on the frittes. 

More music
If you are not truly, madly, and deeply in love with jazz music, do those that are the favor of walking straight on past Café Alto. This sepia-toned, poorly wall-papered venue is meant exclusively for junkies of the craft, and many of them gather here on Monday evenings to bask for a few hours in the exquisite talents of Caracas-born Jazz pianist Hein van der Gaag and his trio. Inexplicably, Café Alto charges nothing for this, nor the invaluable sentiments you will inevitably take away from just one evening spent here.  

Once you have managed to peel yourself away from the view at Rustland and Kloveniersbergwal, stop in at The Book Exchange, just 100 yards away.  This independently owned second-hand American bookshop is the greatest thing that has ever happened to a rainy day. There are thousands of titles here, many of which can be yours for an absurdly cheap price, or by trading in a book of your own. 

Gallery Gives Showcase to Iraqi Art

This story originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Since a flower shop closed its doors in November, the walls have been painted modest beige and a vase of yellow orchids rests beside five seats that look like an unfinished game of musical chairs.

In the southwest corner there's a canvas doused with purple paint, interrupted by blue and white lines. Spackled to the bottom left- hand corner is a newspaper clipping that reads "Abu Ghraib." The artist is 42-year-old Assad Al-Saghear.

Every six weeks, they are delivered from Baghdad, 35 paintings hastily wrapped in tubes of tape and foam. Rolled flat, each reveals the oddities complexities exclusive to the contemporary medium. After brief contemplation, they are measured, stretched and hung 12 inches apart and 52 inches from the ground in the world's only gallery devoted entirely to the artists of Iraq.

They call themselves the Iraqi Plastic Arts Gallery. A collective of 17 trained artists from Baghdad who, since 2005, have been sending their work to the United States in hopes of having it displayed and sold. In September, the Peace Museum showcased a selection of the paintings. When that exhibition closed in November, one man felt an obligation to keep it going.

"I was kind of forced into opening the gallery," says 42-year-old Charles Trimbach, founder and curator of the Iraqi Art Gallery, a not-for-profit organization based in Rogers Park that sends all proceeds from paintings sold back to their creators in Baghdad.

"I called about 40 galleries in the area that dealt with contemporary art, and none of them would even talk to me about it," Trimbach says. "I think because, now, there's an inherent controversy tied to anything that has the word Iraq attached to it. The war is such a passionate issue for everyone and I think it was just either an avoidance of controversy or wanting to play it safe. Galleries are now corporate entities for the most part."

Last winter, Trimbach went for it and turned an old flower shop into an art gallery. Funded only by his personal savings and credit, the gallery doors opened in December and were originally scheduled to close at the end of the month. Instead, Trimbach signed a year lease.

"I've had to struggle a bit with finances," he says. "I'm always late with the rent since I've started doing this. But it's a small price to pay to be able to help so many people."

Although the organization is now able to call itself a non-profit, the status wasn't achieved until last month. Stipulations regarding how money was being sent back to Baghdad prohibited recognition as a tax-exempt organization. But with the help of a pro bono legal group called Lawyers for the Creative Arts, Trimbach began a partnership with the 8th Day Center for Justice, which now serves as fiscal agent, enabling Trimbach to accept grants and donations.

The collective has delegated two gentlemen -- an artist and a translator -- who receive the funds and distribute to the appropriate artists and their families.

The primary concern now is funding. Trimbach says that in order to keep running the gallery operating at present level, it will cost $60,000 a year. Sales of the paintings have been fairly consistent. Typically, Trimbach will sell five or six paintings from each exhibition. He has sold two from the current exhibit, "Out of the Breach."

In the coming weeks, the gallery will be representing Iraq at Chicago's first Arab Festival on July 27-30. There, works will be displayed and Trimbach will be accompanied by the head of Iraq's Ministry of Tourism.

Trimbach, who doesn't wish to discuss politics in that cultural forum, says, "If you don't like the fact that I'm supporting the Iraqis -- think about that. Iraqis who are benefiting from this and being helped by an American are probably going to have a much more positive attitude toward the Americans. Aren't we supposed to be affecting the heart's and minds?"

We'll Always Have Paris

This story originally appeared on my travel blog at nocommonface.com.

I never really wanted to go to Paris. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that the thought of never making it to Paris didn’t bother me in the same way that the thought of not returning to it bothers my Aunt: a woman who would consider leaving her reasonably happy near fifty-year marriage to Manhattan if she knew that she and Paris were on the same page about commitment.

During the earlier part of my twenties, when I knew everything, Paris was a place where people went when there was something else they were looking for. And while I took pleasure then in the stories of those who had been there, I hadn’t yet grown old enough to understand what it was they were trying to find. On the other side of my twenties, I took a job in advertising, quickly understood, and a trip to Paris (among other places) was planned.

One of the first people to alter my tepid feelings for Paris was Adam Gopnik, whose book Paris to the Moon is a series of breathtaking short stories that detail his five-year stint as the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker. I read the book for the first time in 2009, in part as a preparatory measure for a meeting between the two of us that a friend had arranged, during which I’d planned to talk to him about what it takes to be a great writer. But the book taught me everything I needed to know: don’t talk about it.  Two years later I would buy my second copy at a used bookstore in Amsterdam.

In September of this year, my husband and I quit our jobs, moved out of our Chicago apartment, and began a seven-month journey around the world. On a flight to London, we thought of Paris, and we wondered what the hell we’d just done. True to his supernatural tendency to hear the calls of those who wonder what the hell they are doing, the opening scene of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris unfolded on the miniature screens in front of us. If you’ve never seen the film, let me spoil it for you: the first two minutes are a series of shots that show Paris in its various stages of dress.  Everything beyond this point is superfluous.

October arrived, and so did we, to Gare du Nord at 4:00 p.m. In my best incomprehensible french, I asked for directions to the number 4 metro line, and we navigated our way to the 9th arrondissement.

Pigalle?” a fragile female voice asked us over the train speakers as we boarded. “Pigalle!” she affirmed, while we, in the same moment asked of ourselves: Have we really made it? Yes, we really have.

Stepping out on to rue Pigalle, it becomes instantly apparent just how beautiful everyone is. Especially the children; many of whom, in their khaki shorts and sweater vests, lag slightly behind their mothers -- consumed by their own happiness and completely unaware of their good fortune. Juxtaposing this are the elderly women, who have the good fortune of sharing a commonality with Parisian architecture in the sense that both have succeeded in making something breathtaking out of their own frailty.

The latter I notice almost everywhere, particularly in the neighborhood Montmartre, which is the place where people go to in Paris when they want to see the whole of it. This view is arguably one of the greatest on the planet, and the best place to see it is from the lawn just outside Sacre Coeur.

In search of Jazz, as we often are, we found ourselves in Montmartre one night at BAB-ILO: A jazz club in a tiny basement space on rue du Baigneur. Here, we sipped banana juice among a mysterious turnout of seven who’d come to hear a regularly featured quintet. The cover charge was five euros; less than I’d paid for an unmemorable glass of wine at Les Artists café before we’d arrived. I still haven’t forgotten about the music. 

Enjoying Paris in the nighttime is habit-forming, and if you do it right, it can also be expensive. For this reason, even the Parisians choose to eat and entertain in their own kitchens. Many of which are wonders in themselves, though not without the help of the markets.

Le Marche de Barbès: Apart from its reputation as one of the most popular open-air food markets in Paris, this bi-weekly public garden of culture and humanity, which can be witnessed beneath the train tracks at the Barbès-Rochechouart stop on the metro, is just as beautiful as any Rodin, Le Vau or Le Brun you will find. It is a place where merchants of all creeds and colors sell goods of all shapes and sizes to crowds of all social and economic classes. Their common thread: excellent taste. Everything at this market is as cheap as it is delicious, and the most unforgettable meals we had in Paris were cooked in a kitchen off of Cite Pigalle by a beautiful French woman who likely spent less than 15 euros in preparation for it.

It was during one of these meals that I caught my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, the taller half of which peeks up over many of the rooftops in the 9th arrondissement. 

When you travel to Paris for the first time, you can expect to be left speechless and satisfied as you savor your first taste of its air: for you are at the start of an adventure that so many long for and never get to have. You can expect to begin each day with pastries and coffee whose richness can never be experienced twice; you can expect to be overwhelmed after a morning at the Louvre and then delighted as you recover from it on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg, but nothing can prepare you for or help you to anticipate just how or when you will fall in love with Paris. For me, it was this moment -- when I was guided up the stairs of a beautiful Parisian apartment and greeted by an inexplicably familiar landmark who was dressed for the occassion like an enormous glass of champagne. It was the exact moment I understood what people go to Paris to find. And even after two and a half weeks of indulging in the whole of the city, it will forever be the primary reason why I return.