Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just Read the Signs

“Just read the signs; we have very good signs.” These were the last words we heard from our Budget Rent A Car agent in Frankfurt as we set out on a three week spin through Germany and France. High speed motor highways are as emblematic of the EU as the Euro, and despite the high cost of gasoline, western Europeans are almost as car happy as we are. But driving there, by the English-speaking, has its perils, as we found out.

Peril number one, the chameleon Autobahn.
Autobahn 5 begins at the Swiss border and tracks the Rhine to Frankfurt before turning northeast to cross the Hessen plains. Seventy kilometers along the route, I was finding my stride behind the wheel of our leased BMW sedan and congratulating myself on my astute navigation. Just then I noticed that the route sign read “4.” Had I missed a turn?

It turns out that there was no turn. Unlike North American Interstates, where route numbers are persistent, European highways act like chameleons. Autobahn 5 simply disappears, maybe like a river in the desert, and number 4 nonchalantly replaces it. If you don’t believe me, look at the map.

Peril number two, the roundabout access ramp.
European highway engineers eschew the cloverleaf to reroute freeway traffic. They use the traffic circle, instead, directing vehicles into a gyre that spins them toward a new direction. Theoretically this approach is an elegant one; a single exit offers the driver multiple alternatives connected to the circle. But as a practical matter, the traffic circle forces a driver unfamiliar with the routes to simultaneously manage where to exit, traffic already in the circle, and traffic entering the circle from multiple points. I often made two or three complete revolutions before managing to escape what amounted to gravitational forces emanating from the circles’ centers.

Peril number three, when dead reckoning fails.
Not always understanding the nuances of signage, I sometimes depended on a general knowledge of European geography. In Germany I reckon that Munich is “south,” and Hamburg is “north.” Those “very good signs” we heard about usually keep this kind of orientation in play. But what happens if the signs offer a choice between a known and an unknown, as they did once on the beltway that surrounds Berlin. I knew that the Munich choice would lead south, and since we were headed north, it had to be the other, unknown, choice. Well, it turned out that the unknown choice also led south, down a road that eventually narrowed to a lane.

We finally righted ourselves through a comic exchange with a garage mechanic. After determining that we would not be able to converse in symbolic language, he grabbed our map and using two jabs of his finger showed why a picture is worth a thousand words. With one gesture he located where we intended to go, with another where we were. I turned the car around, drove north, reentered the Berlin beltway, and found the proper exit. This time I had made the right turn.

Peril number four, when you can’t get there from here.
Often the case in medieval cities and for us in Strasbourg. We arrived from the north, crossed the River Ill and entered a maze that the Queen of Hearts would be proud to govern. At one point my wife saw a taxi and suggested that we hire it to lead us to our hotel. Too late, the cab sped away. Finally, we decided to ask directions and took our city map into a bar across the street from our parking place. Since the bartender had no customers, he spent several minutes explaining scenarios. Seeing us satisfied, he walked us to the door, but on watching me unlock the car exclaimed “you drive?” “My directions no good.” Finally, he advised us to recross the Ill, follow an expressway that circles the city to a point nearly 180 degrees north of where we stood, and try it all again. It worked, but we left our car in the hotel garage until we left Strasbourg three days later.

Peril number five, interpreting the signs (a.k.a., linguistic nuance).
I have already introduced our linguistic ineptitude. It came into play in France as we drove along rural roads in Alsace. Here the traffic circles present drivers with some cryptic choices. For example, the exits of one read “Colmar;” the next “Strasbourg;” the third “autres directions.” Apparently for French signers, if you weren’t going to Strasbourg or Colmar, you must be going somewhere else. We were also bemused by the use of the “/” symbol painted across a city name to signify the end of a municipal jurisdiction.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Land of Shined Shoes

Shined shoes are the stuff of literature and political legend. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman rode on a smile and a shoeshine, and Alejandro Toledo famously rose from shoeshine boy in the 1960s to President of Peru thirty years later. In the United States shoeshining has largely vanished from public space, retreating to airports and luxury office buildings. But the trade remains very much alive in Latin America.

Latin Americans like a luster on their footwear. It connotes self-respect and a sense of style, and it employs a small army of service workers. Some ply their trade at fixed stands, located in areas of high pedestrian traffic. For a small gratuity, their patrons enjoy the comfort of a padded seat as they supervise the shine or read a courtesy newspaper. Far more numerous are the roving shoe shine boys who leave no corner of the city unvisited and no one wearing shoes unsolicited. You can’t miss them, and they certainly don’t miss you.

I have sworn off smooth leather shoes for my Latin American travels. Shoe shiners are likely to accept a gruff “no son lustrables” (“they’re unshinable”) from someone shod in running wear or rough suede. But shinable shoes and a sweet disposition, both worn by my good friend, Paula, attract shoeshine boys like pheromones.

In March Paula and I visited Peru and Bolivia where we scoured bookshops in Lima, Cuzco, La Paz and Cochabamba for our university libraries. We escaped Lima without a single shoeshine; I don’t know how. But in Cuzco our luck ran out. As we waited for the Centro Bartolome de las Casas to open, an eleven-year-old by the name of Christian called attention to the condition of Paula’s clogs. He described, in unflattering detail, how dirty they were and how he could help restore their luster, and their owner’s dignity. No amount of protest on our part would shake Christian’s resolve, and, finally, Paula caved.

For the next half hour, as we sat on a step, Christian demonstrated his skills, pulling bottle after bottle from his kit. “This one cleans the soles,” he assured us, “and this one makes the leather like a mirror,” he said, applying one final coat of polish. In the course of his work, he told us that he was in the fifth grade and that he lived in a neighborhood north of the city, a twenty-minute walk from our location. We were taking it all in and enjoying ourselves until Christian finished his work and named his price. “25 soles,” he said, without a hint of mirth. That’s about $8 US, an outrageous charge for the streets of Cuzco where a good meal can be had for less. I assumed that this was a purposeful joke, intended to take in tourists who might be arithmetically challenged. But no, Christian insisted that 25 was a fair price for such a great shine. I believe that we ultimately settled on 15, and I am sure that Christian is still telling his friends about how easy it is to outsmart gringos.

Paula’s clogs have never been the same.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Back in the Big Easy

To date, New Orleans’ reputation in the arts rests primarily on music performance and literature. (I’d add haute cuisine to that list of artistic accomplishment.) The city has never been known as a fine arts mecca. Oh sure, Edgar Degas paid New Orleans a brief visit in the 19th century and produced work that merited a museum named for him. But from there the list of New Orleans artists runs to regional painters and folk practitioners. In Katrina’s wake (so many sentences could begin with that phrase), a small group of art impresarios organized Prospect.1, a multi-venued, two-month-long biennial intended to bring the city squarely into the international art scene. The exhibition opened November 17, and from that date forward, my wife and I whetted our appetites for a visit by reading what were uniformly positive news accounts. Finally, on Prospect.1’s last weekend, we went to see the art and to avail ourselves of the collateral pleasures that New Orleans always offers its visitors.

The difficulties of travel from Ithaca are one of the staples of this blog. Winter snow adds an additional element of risk for those using small airports and taking multiple flights to reach their destinations. For this trip, we decided to improve our odds by booking a passage through Syracuse. While hardly a major hub, Hancock International hosts twice as many carriers and roughly three times the daily carriage of Ithaca. However, to fly from Syracuse, Ithaca travelers must brave sixty miles of highway, some subject to heavy snows, and, sure enough, heavy snows were forecast for the day before our flight. We reasoned that, given our scheduled departure (mid morning) and bad weather drive time to the airport (who knew how long?), we would be best served by driving to Syracuse the night before, spending the night near the airport and checking in as early as possible. Events were to support our reasoning, but good luck figured heavily in our success. We met people in our motel who had used our strategy only to be stranded for two days.

We managed to find a hole in the weather, and both our flights flew through it. US Airways delivered us to Louis Armstrong International right on time, and we marched out into the balmy weather that held for the entire weekend. A South Asian cab driver took us to our hotel, Soniat House in the French Quarter. For the record, New Orleans cabbies much prefer street numbers to coordinates. My directions, “corner of Charters and Governor Nicholls, please” produced only a blank stare, and the attempted clarification, “near Rampart Street,” proved equally ineffectual. I had a similar experience on the last morning when I took a cab to one of the houses that we had gutted after Katrina. Am I missing something?

One of Soniat’s calling cards is a room service breakfast of juice coffee, and biscuits, served with local strawberry preserves. Fortified with this and a good night’s sleep, we set off to make contact with Prospect.1. Turns out that this was not so easy. First, it didn’t seem to us that New Orleans locals were totally enthralled by the biennial. Perhaps they didn’t see it as a big revenue generator, in the way that Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest is. Perhaps they were reserving judgment, but for whatever reason, neither our hotel concierge nor the staff at the New Orleans Historical Foundation was able to direct us to where we needed to go. Finally, we managed to reach P.1 headquarters, a small desk in a large empty building in the Warehouse District. There a perky, young woman provided us with complimentary passes, an orientation and directions to shuttle bus stops.

The idea of Prospect.1 was to make the whole city an art venue, and there were exhibitions all over town. But many of them, and most of the signature ones, were in the Lower Ninth Ward. That area is still blighted, three years after Katrina. Large swaths of land lie fallow, cleared of its homes, schools and business establishments and of most signs of civic life, including public transportation. The P.1 shuttle service provided an orientation to the art sites and a whirlwind tour of them, but it did not stop long enough for passengers to absorb what they were seeing. We wished we had rented a car, as some of the other visitors did, but we ended up settling for a second visit to the area on Sunday. A pedestrian-paced tour revealed that the Lower Ninth might be on its way back.

The “Brad Pitt Houses,” winners in a design contest sponsored by the Hollywood actor have sprouted up near the Industrial Canal. These brightly painted, raised dwellings offer a flood resistant, energy efficient vision of repopulating the area. Another approach, stressing very low-cost construction, comes from Common Ground, an NGO that has established a beachhead in the Lower Ninth and teaches organic gardening and recycling along with home building. For now these initiatives look like the demo homes at the front of a subdivision. We’ll be watching to see if property owners are impressed enough to buy into them.

I am not a great fan of contemporary art, especially its nonrepresentational forms. So I treated many of the P.1 exhibitions as walk bys. For me the photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at the L9 Center and an installation of film clips on Royal Street that illuminated the French contribution to Louisiana culture were the most enjoyable stops on our tours. But, with our without art, the Lower Ninth is a venue all by itself. On our Sunday morning visit, we took a slow walk around the area, scrutinizing Mark Bradford’s Arc, the signature piece of the biennial, and the haunting metal and mirror sculpture inside the shell of the Battleground Memorial Baptist Church.

On our way out of the city, I picked up a Times Picayune to read on the plane. The editorial page was largely a post mortem on the biennial. Civic leaders and members of the local art scene reflected on the significance of the event and openly speculated on whether there would be a Prospect.2. I certainly hope so, and I hope that when they return in 2010, the artists will find a less devastated New Orleans.