Life

Trip down memory lane

So I returned to the Lehigh Valley this past weekend to attend the performance of Evita and the specialty dinner at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. I'm on their board. It made sense I would go. This was the first time I've been back since leaving last year, and I was wondering what I would feel. I did spend 11 years of my life there, not counting the year I was on sabbatical. I might very well never stay in one place so long ever again. And I stepped out of the plane into the airport and I didn't feel anything. I can cry when I read feel-good stories, I can laugh to tears when I watch puppy videos, but I stepped inside the airport terminal and I just thought it looked like just any small-town airport, of dubious architecture, looking a little drab. I walked toward the exit and thought about all the times I had walked past that checkpoint and still didn't feel a thing. As a matter of fact, I had felt more when I had booked the tickets and imagined returning than when I was actually there. I felt like a business visitor landing in a small town for a conference - just something I had to do, and I hoped I'd have a pleasant trip, but that wasn't home anymore and I wasn't even thinking about the fact that it'd ever been home.

What struck me was how rundown everything looked. I didn't remember it like that. Of course there had been many rundown places in the area when I lived there, but I hadn't planning on driving past them. I stayed at the Hyatt Place (the place to stay if you're in that area, in my opinion - great large and modern guestrooms, great breakfast included in the price, great location) so my Uber driver picked me up at the airport and drove the familiar route along Route 378 to the Historic District. I was shocked when we got off the exit at how shabby the houses looked like, and the sidewalks were all uneven with grass growing in-between. This was right behind the historic block with the supposedly tourist attractions. Even the Historic District itself looked drab and dowdy. Not awful - the way the boarded-up furnaces of Bethlehem Steel looked when I first moved to the area and only knew how to go to work using Route 412 - but nothing to go out of your way to see. Some empty stores, some stores with moss on top of their signs, hite walls that had turned to gray, that sort of thing.

I checked in at Hyatt Place and I walked to Moravian Bookstore, which has a lot of home-decoration items on sale and a room full of books. Back in those days I was very proud to live in a city with an independent bookstore. And I still felt like a professional on a business trip - I had no emotion about being in the bookstore - but I also was impressed by the exceptional quality of the books on display. Since the bookstore has little space, the staff has to be very selective in what they put on their shelves, but they have a very strong selection in a wide range of categories, from fiction to history to poetry. They seem to stock a lot of the Indie Best books, so it is no surprise I like their selection so much. I did buy two books from them, although I had brought plenty of reading on the trip, including When the world stopped to listen by Stuart Isacoff (about Van Cliburn winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in April 1958 - Van Cliburn was from Texas and the famous International Cliburn Piano Competition is organized every four years in Fort Worth, TX near where I live now, of course given my love of piano I watched this year's competition and it was amazing, hence, my decision to buy the book. But I digress. Except for that fact that there are many more cultural things to do for me in Dallas.)

Anyway, I like to support independent bookstores, so I'm now the proud owner of LaRose by Louise Erdrich (I still remember picking up The Round House at the Seattle Airport and reading it cover to cover) and Elizabeth: The Later Years by John Guy, about Queen Elizabeth I. Then I went to Apollo Grill and had a kale salad with tuna, like in the old days. It was delicious. In fact it probably remains the best kale salad I've ever eaten, with strawberries, blueberries, gorgonzola cheese, cucumbers, almonds and balsamic dressing. Their bread is very good. I recognized a lot of the staff. 

Two things that struck me when I was walking through Historic Bethlehem were that (i) many people seemed much more overweight and/or seemed to have more health problems than in the area where I live in Dallas, which is admittedly a rather posh and pretentious area, and (ii) many people also seemed to have a far healthier attitude toward clothes and appearances (even the two young women who looked like the absolute sorority girl types - long straight flowing hair, designer's purses, fancy jeans - walked into Apollo Grill in flip flops). In a way, it was as if the health was in the inside. The economy in the LV isn't as good as it should be (it lacks large companies that would provide lots of middle-class jobs for local residents) and a lot of people eat cheap because they can't afford to shop at the more expensive organic stores. I believe that in the long run there are health consequences for, say, eating beef that has been treated with hormones or maybe chicken treated with antibiotics, but some people don't have the luxury of selecting other options. I did find all of them vastly more interesting-looking than the cookie-cutter pseudo-yuppies types. I wish some good companies would finally move to the LV and provide solid employment to a lot of those people, who deserve it. That's what they had when Bethlehem Steel was still around. But perhaps it is unrealistic to hope that companies still behave like that anymore.

My second day I went to Promenade Shops. (I also worked on my novel and a research paper, discovered a new lunch place in the Historic Bethlehem, Cachette, which has a great kale salad with chicken and got a massage at Healing Hands. The reason I arrived a day early is that there was no good weekend flight itinerary on the airline I wanted to fly and I figured I could use some time to work.) I used to go to Promenade Shops almost every week to shop at the organic grocery store (Fresh Market) or get a salad at Cosi - I liked to sit at a high table along the bay window and work on my laptop. I also liked to go to Barnes & Noble. On the way there I had a nice chat with my Uber driver who was telling me she had to go from full time to part time (by doctor's orders) at her job as a packer at a local warehouse because her employer was making her lift 50-100 pounds and that was causing her severe health issues. She said that when another coworker had tried to ask for an improvement they fired her as soon as they could find a reason. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote beautifully about what it is like to be poor in America in Nickel and Dimed many years ago but I still don't think we fully get it, or perhaps things have simply gotten worse for everybody now. I want to read Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city when I get the chance.

At Promenade Shops I went to Barnes & Noble, which was, well, similar to any Barnes & Noble in the nation, except that this one was even more focused on toys and I found its selection not as good as the B&N near Northpark in Dallas. But that bookstore carried me through for many years and I can't criticize it too much. Promenade Shops only opened in December 2006 and my first 2 1/2 years in the LV were, shall I say, a completely different experience, and not in a good way. I was really glad to have it for about 10 years. Then I went to Melt, and the lump crab cake salad with avocado was excellent, although I'm not sure why things are called salads when they don't have greens. And on the way back I looked around me at the road I had taken so many times to go home from Promenade Shops, and the foliage along the road could have used some cutting, and the cars parked in the grass looked beaten up, and I didn't remember there was a Dollar Tree store in the small shopping center along the road. Yet, one thing that appealed to me when I moved there (because I'm full of contradictions) is precisely that it reminded me of my maternal grandmother's small town. 

The third day I went to the Evita-inspired specialty dinner at the Shakespeare Festival, followed by a performance of Evita, and that deserves its own post. The DeSales campus was absolutely gorgeous, and the performance phenomenal. In a way, DeSales was my home during my time in the LV much more than Lehigh was.

When people in Texas talk about Bethlehem as a small town I tend to correct them - it's bigger than a small town - but when I saw what it was, with the distance that the year away has given me, I had to admit it very much looked like a small town. While I lived there perhaps I convinced myself that it was way better than it was. Just about everybody wants to find something positive about where they live, even if they end up spending most of their time in New York City. The contrast with my neighborhood in Dallas has been quite eye-opening. Or perhaps the lack of good jobs has taken its toll. Sometimes you don't notice things change around you when you live somewhere because you see the place every day. I still wonder how the blue-collar hard-working people of the LV are going to have the opportunities they deserve and send their kids off to college, even community college. (The area has become a distribution hub, but a lot of the warehouse jobs are minimum wage.) I so wish I had witnessed a renaissance of the area while I was there, and some pockets have done well, such as the Center Valley area, but I don't think the LV has done as well as it should have.

I do love the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, incidentally located in Center Valley - one thing Dallas doesn't do as well as the LV is Shakespeare, and the LV has the extremely talented folks at DeSales and PSF to thank for that. I plan on coming back. There is, after all, still one key advantage to Bethlehem compared to Dallas, even keeping in mind that Bethlehem has humid heat rather than the much-preferred Dallas dry heat: the temperatures weren't hitting 100 this weekend. 


Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art

ZadieSmith-SwingTimeOn Saturday I attended a reading and talk by Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she promoted her latest book, Swing Time. The ticket included a copy of the book, and I also picked up her first novel, White Teeth, and her collection of essays Changing My Mind from the DMA bookstore since - dare I admit it? - I'd never read a book by Zadie Smith before. As a matter of fact, the only piece I'd read by her before was the phenomenal On Optimism and Despair, published in December in the New York Review of Books

Smith began by reading from the middle of her book for about 15 minutes (the 2nd trip of the narrator to Africa) and then spent about 45 minutes to 1 hour in conversation with Kris Boyd, host(ess) of the Think! program on the KERA TV/radio station, before opening to Q&A. Throughout, she proved herself to be an articulate speaker who thinks on her feet. I didn't take down any notes, so I bear all responsibility if I remember something incorrectly. 

Overall I was struck by how down-to-earth yet well-spoken Smith was. For instance, when asked about blackface (the book starts with the narrator watching on TV Fred Astaire in the 1936 movie Swing Time, Astaire who imitates Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap dancing while he wears blackface), she was careful to speak against general statements and preferred looking at the details of each appropriation instead. In this case, Astaire doesn't have his lips painted white and doesn't make wild, grotesque gestures, as would be expected in blackface. Instead, according to Smith, he does his best to imitate Bojangles as well as possible to provide a record of the way the man danced. Bojangles was a tap dancing icon and nothing would remain of his performances if it hadn't been for Astaire trying to record himself as Bojangles for posterity. 

A powerful moment in the evening was when she talked about the obscenity of people being denied the opportunity of realizing their potential because of how they're being written off due to their poverty. She also talked a bit about her mother, the first trip to Jamaica (where her mother's family is from) where the two of them stayed in a hotel instead of with relatives and the dichotomy between those two worlds, the Jamaican world of her family and the Jamaican world of the tourism business, especially given that the hotels tend to be owned not by locals but by German or Swiss companies,  the small hut, now half-destroyed, where her mother had grown up, and the current political situation, especially the possibility of the incoming president reducing aid to Africa, where Smith brought up the fact that developed countries have had a long tradition of exploiting African resources through some of their companies established there and that the African situation can't be resolved without a hard look at what those companies are doing to the African ecosystem. She mentioned Liberia but stopped short of referring to a specific company by name.

She also remarked that some reviewers had believed the unnamed African country that provides the backdrop for a part of the book was Senegal, when in fact it was its neighbor Gambia. I haven't read that part of the book yet but apparently she uses city names from Gambia, and compared the mistake to setting a novel in Paris without saying it's France and having a reviewer says it's set in Spain, but was also the first one to forgive the reviewers, having been a book reviewer herself and gotten boxes with one hundred books inside to read in a matter of weeks.  

To read the rest of my account of the evening and my comments on the book, please click here


Paris, Chereau, Isolde

I've been thinking about the late French director Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) a lot since this summer, when I saw the Ring at the Bayreuth Festival in the production by Frank Castorf (more on that some other day, but my summary is that the first two operas in the cycle are superb and the last two underwhelming). I primarily knew Chereau as a French movie director and stage director, but it turns out he was made famous, at least in certain circles, by his centenary production of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1976. By a stroke of luck, I managed to buy the very last new copy of Chereau's Ring Cycle on Amazon (back when it was offered at a reasonable price; it's now being reissued with a hefty price tag) so I've watched it from beginning to end and was very impressed by Chereau's creativity and ingenuity, although the production is sometimes a bit dark (visually) for my taste. And he was only 32 at the time! Imagine that. He also directed a landmark stage production of Phedre in 2003 with one of his favorite actresses, Dominique Blanc, in the title role.

But Chereau for me remains first the director of many movies that have marked my youth. He tended to work again and again with actors he liked and he happened to like many of the foremost French actors of that generation. I feel American movie-goers don't know what the trend toward blockbusters is depriving them of, with either ad-hoc casts put together for each movie or franchises using cardboard characters in the same lifeless roles. In France when I was in college I remember the movies by Chereau the most and also by Arnaud Desplechin, who also tended to hire repeatedly the actors he liked to work with (Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, etc).

Last week I watched Queen Margot again starring the superstar Isabelle Adjani, as well as Vincent Perez, who disappeared from the screens when he got tired of the heartthrob roles (or didn't negotiate the transition successfully, or didn't find roles he liked and decided to do something else with his time), Pascal Greggory, who was Chereau's long-term partner, Dominique Blanc, Jean-Hughes Anglade, and so many actors such as Emmanuel Salinger who make a cameo at the beginning of the movie as wedding guests that you just know from the cast list how much of a privilege it was to take part in a Chereau movie. I remember that movie, at the end of my high school years, before I moved to Paris. How my girl friends and I all chatted about the movie (Isabelle Adjani! Vincent Perez!) instead of studying for the baccalaureat.

I also remember Those who love me can take the train. The movie isn't particularly action-driven and so wouldn't be to most Americans' liking (you can tell this is the case from the fact that the movie isn't offered on Amazon Instant Video, contrary to Queen Margot). In some French movies and French novels, nothing much happens - people argue, people reconcile, and so on. We French people like to talk. I remember watching the movie when I was in Paris - I was in engineering school back then, I think it was the end of my second year.

The movie is about people who are on a train to go to the funeral of someone they knew, who wants to be buried in Limoges. I went to see the movie because Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was in a leading role (sister to Carla, but a very different personality), as well as Charles Berling, and Jean-Louis Trintignant (names that may mean nothing to my American readers), and Vincent Perez cast as a transsexual who is transitioning to being a woman (how many young, handsome male actors who had half the teenage population in love with them would dare do that? and this was 1998, let me remind you). Chereau wasn't afraid of being ahead of his time on certain topics - the sign of a true, uncompromising artist.

There is a final twist to this post. I've been researching Wagner's Tristan und Isolde because of a novel I'm writing (I saw that at Bayreuth too this summer, in addition to the Ring), and the very best production I've ever been able to watch, whether live or in DVD, is the one with Waltraud Meier and Ian Storey at La Scala in 2007. I love the use of light and shadow, the spare sets that avoid being too abstract, the choice of costumes - I love absolutely everything to the DVD, except that in the third act, the person who was making the DVD decided to use a lot of "fading to black" between scenes, which is distracting and sometimes downright aggravating. But besides that, I worship that production like few others (Luc Bondy's Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera comes second). And guess who directed the Scala production of Tristan? Sure enough, Patrice Chereau. 

People who are not particularly creative are quick to dismiss creative people. What is it, they wonder, that those creative folks do that is supposedly so important? And it is true that a lot of "art" produced by pseudo-creatives is drivel. But when you see the work of someone like Chereau, or Yael Farber today, you really understand what makes exceptional artists so needed in today's society. They make us see the world in ways we hadn't imagined before - they offer new perspectives, fresh insights, shed a new light on a well-known play or opera, bring an aspect of human relations to the forefront by making a movie about it. Chereau died at 68 from lung cancer two years ago (read his obituary in the New York Times and in The Guardian). That was much too soon.

Next on my viewing list:  his very last production, opera Elektra by Richard Strauss at the 2013 Aix-en-Provence festival. I have no doubt it's going to be spectacular.


#BlogOctober Don McCullin and Sebastian Junger in conversation at the 92nd Y

92YYesterday I attended a conversation at the 92nd Y between celebrated war photojournalist Don McCullin, now 80 years old, and Sebastian Junger (of Restrepo fame), at the occasion of the re-issue of the book of photographs Don McCullin by Aperture. McCullin is truly an inspirational figure who spoke movingly and powerfully of his childhood during the Blitz, his lack of formal education, the stroke of good luck that led to his career in photojournalism, the shame he felt when covering conflicts at not being able to do more for the people he photographed, especially since the war photographs that receive the most attention in the press are generally the ones that show people getting killed.

Some of the particularly arresting stories he shared included one about his interaction with the Christian Phalange in Lebanon and one about photographing a woman beating her chest when she saw her building had been completely bombed out - woman who died in another bomb explosion only moments after McCullin left the scene. He was very lucid about the experience war has on young soldiers and the difficulty in separating, within the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a profoundly traumatic experience that happened during the war from the inability of young men who lived such an "exciting" tour of duty to face the return into ordinary, civilian life back home. Both he and Junger made the point that some of those men who led flamboyant lives during military duty may have led very obscure and uneventful lives without the war. In a way the war allowed them to realize themselves. The effect war has on soldiers is a complicated topic.

Early-years-imageHere is the story behind McCullin becoming a photographer and selling his first picture, which I show at the left (photo credit: National Media Museum website): he had purchased a camera when he was in the mandatory service at someone's recommendation, although he had failed the test to become a photographer because he could not remember the theory due to his dyslexia, and when he went home this gang, the Guv'nors/Governors, wanted him to take a picture of them. There was a bombed out house in the neighborhood whose entire front was missing so one could see the interior on each floor, and he had each position himself at the edge of each of the rooms. In those days even gangsters wore suits, as you can see. The picture is available in bigger format here. McCullin said at the talk that he only took one negative, which seemed to amaze Junger. He also told the story of how he got (when he was photographing) picked up by the police who claimed there was a stolen camera in the neighborhood and required that he show them the receipt and escorted him home to that end. And he showed them the receipt and they suddenly became very nice but he did not have much respect for the police after that.

He also told stories about his time in war conflicts such as Vietnam, a photograph he didn't take when a bomber got murdered by a crowd in a very theatrical execution (if I understood correctly), his relationship to God (he lost his father young and so lost faith after that, but still when he came under heavy fire while he covered a conflict he could not help praying God for a second chance), his feeling of powerlessness when he went to an orphanage in Africa and 800 malnourished, dying children stared at him with hopeful eyes while there was nothing he could do for them besides taking photographs. 

The event was a conversation between McCullin and Sebastian Junger, who spoke eloquently, asked excellent questions and truly listened to their answers to build upon them in follow-ups. I was familiar with Junger's work as a nonfiction writer but he truly impressed me as a speaker and interviewer. He absolutely was the right person to involve so that McCullin could share his life story in the most impactful manner. The event was accompanied by a slideshow of some of McCullin's pictures (most of war scenes and all in black-and-white dark/"dusky" printing, his signature style). Many of those were jaw-dropping in their sheer beauty and intensity. The man deserves to be a legend.

You can purchase the book here.


#BlogOctober Goddess Parnashavari at the Rubin Museum of Art @rubinmuseum

IMG_3051(All pictures mine. -Aurelie Thiele) I had the most amazing experience at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City the other day. The Rubin is a museum dedicated to Tibetan and Himalayan art. Given my interest in Buddhism and art, I often go to the museum, which represents an oasis of calm in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC and - in addition to superb collections - has a wonderful, mostly quiet coffee shop (perfect for writing) and a well-stocked bookstore on the first floor. Although I am very familiar with the Rubin, I had never bothered in front of a large banner-type piece of art on the third floor, in spite of the oddity of seeing a floor-level cushioned bench on top of the two stairs leading down to it (see picture, the work I am talking about is at the center), and noticing a person or two sitting there for extended periods of time once in a while. 

IMG_3052Last week when I was at the Rubin after getting some writing done, I did come closer to this work of art (read more about it here), and ended up sitting in front of it on that bench pictured above for about 45 minutes. I hadn't planned to but this painting (technically it is more a painted banner than a painting because it is painted on cloth as a mural, but I'll keep things simple) gave me the most amazing feeling of peace when I sat in front of it, so that I only left because it was time to go to a meeting I had scheduled. At some point I even felt like crying, but in a good way. The painting shows Goddess Parnashavari, Goddess of Healing or Forest Goddess, and of course I concluded that the painting was telling me it was time to heal. Which it is. And I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I came to it from a place of poise and strength and grounded-ness.

IMG_3014The painting follows the tradition of Himalayan art, with the central deity (here, Parnashavari) in the middle and the root deity, from whom the teachings originate, immediately above her. Here, it is a blue buddha (Akshobhya). On his left and right are fellow teachers in the lineage. They play an important role in the picture because they play(ed) an important role in the transmission of knowledge from teacher to disciple. On the left is the Four-armed All-seeing Lord (Avalokiteshvara) and on the right is White Tara. The landscape around the central deity helps turn the painting into a visual narrative. Finally, at the bottom of the painting are the protectors, who generally are wrathful deities. You can see them at the bottom of the second picture I posted. 

I am a big believer in energy and I must have been putting out a really strong vibe because someone who had looked at the painting while I was sitting in front of it, not even trying to meditate, just sitting and feeling the most amazing calm, later came up to me as I was leaving and told me "I bow down to your devotion, it is really very strong" (this is the sort of things that happen at the Rubin, and happen to me on a regular basis... and I knew right away what the person was trying to say, and made a big grateful smile and said thank you, and went on my way.) Although I also meditate at home in front of the pictures I took of Parnashavari, the feeling does not even begin to compare with the peace and awe and safety I felt when I sat in front of it. The impact of the sheer size of the painting cannot be reproduced. You can see on the picture I posted that the lady has three eyes and three heads. She looks fierce and determined to protect and heal the people under her care. In fact, she looks like someone who does not look for fights but will fight to death for the things she believes in. 

For a while now I had felt I should go to the Rubin and I couldn't understand why, except that I couldn't remember when I had last been there (the museum was actually between exhibitions when I went, so the top two floors were mostly closed). But when I saw the mural of Goddess Parnashavari I knew that was what I had come for. I would come and sit in front of it every day if I could. I can't put in words the feeling of peace this experience gives me. Now I strive to bring the same feeling into my everyday life.


The Met's Young Associates Preview Party

PhotoI attended the Young Associates Preview Party at the Metropolitan Opera a few weeks ago - I am not a Young Associate but I get their emails for their events open to non-members, it happened to be an evening I'd be in town, it would feature singers from the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and I've always enjoyed more events with up-and-coming singers than big stars (a reason why I've enjoyed Opera Philadelphia so much in recent years), so I thought, why not. 

In the end I have mixed feelings about the preview party. As a party, it was great, with excellent food, open bar and no less than Peter Gelb giving introductory remarks before two young singers alternated singing a few arias. The party didn't really preview anything, since no mention was made (at least that I can recall) about the upcoming season. The ambiance music before the musical program was a cross between club music and elevator music - not opera. The event, apparently heavily advertised to non-opera young New Yorkers, drew crowds more interested in the food than in the music. Of the two singers, the one who sang easy crowd-pleasers drew loud appreciative whistles, while her colleague, who raised the bar by singing difficult pieces (such as the equivalent of The Little Mermaid in Czech, whose name eludes me, and yes she sang in Czech), drew polite but lukewarm applause by an audience who clearly had little clue how good she was. Her name is Clarissa Lyons, and she was truly phenomenal. Remember that name! 

The most amusing moment at the party came when I realized that I was the only woman in pants. This was an early-evening "party", from 7pm to 9pm if I recall correctly, and every other woman was in skirts or dress and stilettos (some had come with their stilettos in their purse and argued with the security guard when he didn't let them in early into the opera house to take off their flats and put their pretty shoes on). My pants were nice, mind you - appropriate for a business party or a night at the opera - but, well, they were not a dress. In addition, I was wearing heeled booties rather than stilettos, a long tunic and an unusually long scarf, which also did not seem to be something the crowd of young wealthy New Yorkers was used to seeing in this context, although I liked that my outfit was both sophisticated and unconventional. I've never been someone who liked abiding by other people's ideas of what I'm supposed to wear, what can I say. I'll respect the spirit of the rules (dress up for the party) but not the norm (wear a socialite's outfit). And I have a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT, but after the looks I got that evening, I've never felt I've done something more pioneering than wearing pants at the Met's Young Associates Preview Party. I'm not sure how I'm going to top that! Maybe next year I should bring a book. 

So I have mixed feelings because I'm not sure how this event furthered the Metropolitan Opera's long-term goal of drawing more youngish people to opera. It was a great party, and the Met got plenty of business cards from people who entered a raffle with several over-the-top prizes (I don't think they had anything to do with the Met itself, but consisted of goods donated by the sponsors), and thus the contact information of many potential attendees to send emails to. But nothing happened at the party that would really make people want to buy a ticket for a forthcoming opera. (Using the event to gather names of potential attendees to one of the "Fridays Under 40" cocktails+performances is a good idea but once you have seen the sort of crowd attracted by the preview party, you might think twice about going to the "Under 40" event, if you love opera.)

I suppose that people don't need to attend opera to give to the Met (the real goal of the party might be to cultivate future potential donors rather than attendees) but hoping to achieve that goal without promoting the season does seem curious to me. There were small brochures about the season on a table and that was about it. No video of highlights, no handout about what - if anything - made the season special and a must-attend. The names of the Lindemann artists weren't even provided in writing anywhere, so that I had to walk up Lyons afterward and ask her to repeat her name for me because it was so obvious she is enormously talented and has a wonderful career ahead of her. But, plenty of alcohol and plenty of food. And the opportunity to stand six feet away from Peter Gelb, which at least is something.

I'll leave you with a 60-second video of this season's highlights that I found on the MetOpera YouTube channel. Enjoy - and buy tickets!


Berkshires

Berkshires MASSMoCA
Here are a few pictures from a last-minute weekend trip I took to the Berkshires back in July out of Boston. It was a weekend filled with art and theater. I stopped by MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA on the way and stumbled into a wonderful Sol LeWitt retrospective, then saw Kyra Sedgwick in William Inge's recently rediscovered play "Off the Main Road" (played in a comical deadpan way in the first half that had the audience laughing at the characters' drama, until the play took a turn for the much darker in the second half, which could have benefited from tighter editing).

BerkshiresWCMA
 I also enjoyed a long stroll through the galleries of the Williams College Museum of Art. Williamstown struck me as a delightful little town, although the college grad working as a waiter at the MASS MoCA cafe seemed to find it very, very isolated and looked forward to finding a job in a bigger city. I stayed at the Williams Inn for the night - literally across the street from the Williamstown Theater Festival - and am excited to report I ate the very best chocolate croissant I've ever eaten at the inn's breakfast. (Being French, I fancy myself an expert in chocolate croissants.) I also highly recommend the inn's tavern. It's become a marketing tool for a restaurant to say it's "farm-to-table" and only uses locally sourced ingredients, but the food at the Tavern at the Inn really tasted amazing. 

BerkshiresClark

In Williamstown I was also fortunate to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, Van Gogh and Nature. It was amazingly good, with several paintings I had never seen before and that have now become my favorites by the artist. While there were a lot of people, the crowds did not compare with those that would have attended such an exhibit in New York City or Philadelphia. (I mean that as a good thing.) If you missed it, you can still look at the exhibition catalog.

Then I headed down to Lenox, MA to see Henry V at Shakespeare & Co, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet at Jacob's Pillow. Henry V was one of those bare-bones productions where each actor is multi-cast and audience members have to use their imagination a lot, but it worked. Such productions rarely resonate with me - this one did. What did the trick, I think, was the use of the very minimal furniture and an extra here and there to help the audience's imagination along - for instance, a chair draped with a blanket and an actor pretending to pray, to evoke being in a church. Sadly, the chairs were by far the most uncomfortable I've ever sat in as far as theaters are concerned, which took away from the enjoyment of the production. But overall the production was very powerful. 

JacobsPillow

But the best part of the trip was Jacob's Pillow, which was deemed by the New York Times to be the center of dance in the United States, or something of that order, according to Jacob's Pillow's promotional materials. And, frankly, it is. The dancing was first-rate, there was a lot of young or young-ish (like me!) people, and the audience seemed to really appreciate the modernity of the ballets. (I sat next to a Juilliard grad who used to run her own ballet school and now is head of ballet training or similar at a local dance school. She actually was at Juilliard the last year Martha Hill worked there.) I love ballet and modern dance - I used to dance as a teenager - and for some reason I lost touch of that over the years, until very recently. I find myself fortunate to have reconnected to it at the right time. I would only advise to arrive very early to also enjoy the restaurant or the pub on the premises. If your schedule allows, also consider taking a free morning community dance class. And if you can't go, at least you can enjoy Jacob's Pillow Interactive

I didn't get to go to Kripalu or Tanglewood this year. That's one more reason (two, technically) to try to return to the Berkshires next year! 


Utah

Back in late March I went to southern Utah - a trip that turned out to be life-changing, in a very good way - and I've meant to post a few pictures for a while but never got around to it for some reason. I had been in that area only once before, in May 2009, and this was even better, perhaps because of the contrast with the Northeast when I left. (This is not Salt Lake City at all. Temperatures when I was there averaged 85F.)

Here is a picture I particularly like.

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The funny thing is, I love New York City and big, bustling metropolises with art, culture and a sense of excitement on the street, but my best trips have been long weekends spent far away from home in nature: Ojai, CA last year (alright, so I stopped by Santa Barbara on the way, but Ojai itself was very peaceful) and St George, UT this year. It quiets my mind in a way that even the most powerful meditation cannot, and I come back from every trip centered and poised and with great insights into the direction I'm taking. And more.  

I'm not sure when I'll get back to Utah, but hopefully I won't wait six years for my next trip. Here is another picture. Enjoy!

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Fifteen years: New York, Montreal

Not too long ago it occurred to me that this month marks the 15th anniversary of my discovering New York City. Yes, I remember things like that. It was on a weekend trip organized by the European Club back when I was in graduate school. At the time I couldn't have known the importance NYC would later play in my life, and frankly I wasn't particularly taken by the city the first time I went. I liked it enough, but the trip didn't kindle any specific dreams of moving there. (This might sound incredible given my love of performing arts, but mostly on that first visit I felt that Manhattan was a crowded tourist trap. It wasn't until I returned to NYC in the fall of 2004 that I started loving the city.) 

I remember that for that first trip we stayed at the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th Street. One night we ended up at the bar of a restaurant nearby where we had frozen margaritas, and I couldn't understand the concept of a frozen drink. (Bubbly is usually my go-to drink... Don't you ever freeze my prosecco.) I have many more vivid memories of that trip - curiously, since it has been followed by many other trips, to New York City and elsewhere, but I can tell you a lot more about that trip than I can of many trips I took more recently.

For instance, I remember that we had great weather that Saturday and ended up strolling through Times Square, but the following day surprised us with snow (and not just a little bit of it), so we all ended up at the old MoMA - this was before the renovation and before the onslaught of tourists - where we enjoyed a quiet Sunday afternoon with great art and great company. I also remember, because it seemed like the perfect scene in a NYC movie, that we stopped by a Dunkin' Donuts nearby (the one on East 46th St?) to warm up and avoid the snowfall. And on Saturday we had also strolled through the Village near NYU and were supposed to meet with other people from the group but they were waiting at West Broadway and we were waiting at Broadway (or was it the reverse?) so we never connected. People didn't have cell phones in those days. Or at least not us.

The last thing I remember about this trip is wandering into the now defunct Borders on Park Avenue, and for years when I found myself in that part of NYC I would often stroll through the many floors of that store and I wouldn't say I thought about my first NYC trip every time but that first trip certainly was a big reason why I often returned to that store, although there were better bookstores elsewhere in the city.

About three months later, I discovered Montreal for the jazz festival, on a trip organized by the Graduate Student Council. (Another bus trip.) I was thinking about Montreal the other day because I'll be going to a conference there in a few weeks - another great city, and unsurprisingly - being French - I love the food. I still listen sometimes to the albums I bought there. We went to the museum of fine arts and wandered into a creperie (in a different part of town) and the food turned out to be delicious. Later when I returned for a conference I ended up by coincidence in the very same creperie. I'll have to look up the name if I find the place again and post it here. Good memories there too, and the crepes were still delicious. 

Details of later trips are all blurry now - I've traveled a lot in the past fifteen years - but those trips were the first two trips I took after moving to the US, and how well I remember them surprises even myself. I guess they also mark the beginning of my wanderlust, since I wasn't much of a traveler before. It's telling it all started with a trip to NYC and the most French city in North America... Hoping that I discover many more cities in the next fifteen years!