Tuesday, January 29, 2013

abakanowicz in istanbul

I first heard the hypnotic name Magdalena Abakanowicz in college. I was creating life-size human figures out of wire mesh, paper and beeswax, and during a critique, my professor asked me if I had ever seen an Abakanowicz. "Abawhat?" I replied.

It took one look at a book in the library (remember those?) for me to fall in love. Abakanowicz is a Polish sculptor, who is known for creating what I can only call eerie and beautiful impressions of human existence in hardened textiles and sometimes bronze. Her pieces feel like faint memories of a person— of something left behind, like the dessicated mummy of a person who once walked the earth full of hopes and desires and irritations. At the same time, their featureless (and often headless) bodies are lost in anonymity.

On a corner of Istiklal Caddesi, the Akbank Sanat gallery became the temporary home to several installations of her pieces.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

a fine Saturday

Our Saturday began with a drizzly walk to Van Kahvaltı Evi, where we were greeted with smiles and much warmth, after our last visit's sketching incident— even our favourite stoic waiter grinned, and shook our hands. We dined on menemen with sucuk, a spinach gözleme, cevizli çemen, and the heavenly combination of honey and kaymak.

We strolled down Istiklal Caddesi, hopping in and out of bookstores, spying on books we plan to save up for (a particular brick of a book about the Neolithic era in Western Turkey has caught my eye), then treated ourselves to gelato and a rickety ride on the Nostaljik Tramvay, back up to Taksim. Not ready to go home yet, the idea of a tea at Leman Kültür Café, home to the cartoonists of Turkey's subversive Penguen and Leman comics, was deeply appealing.

As we got lost in sketches and conversation, our paints and pencils spread across two tables, a curious man with a silvery beard and a smile came over to inquire about our drawings. He sat down and leafed through our sketchbooks, asking us where we were from, what we are doing in Istanbul, and how we learned of the café. While attempting to explain how I had once met one of Leman's cartoonists in Karaköy, who encouraged me to come by for a tea, my Turkish failed me and our waiter came over to translate.

The man left us with a grin, and a drawing in the back of my sketchbook.

Monday, January 21, 2013

to the fishmonger

Pedro and I settled on the Kumkapı fish markets by the Marmara Sea in Istanbul. It was a grey day— cold enough for your fingers to lock around your pencil, and your nose to be in constant need of a tissue. In between showers of icy rain, we split our time watching gulls and sketching fish, much to the delight and surprise of the burly fishmongers. They took turns bellowing "BUYRUNBUYRUN!" at potential customers, and hovering behind us tsking, while making hand gestures of approval.

Just as I became aware of a presence behind me, I received a heartfelt "Maşallah!" from one of the fishmongers. He asked if there was an equivalent expression in my language, and I replied that there wasn't— but assured him that I understood what it meant. Maşallah is hard to explain, but it's an expression of praise and appreciation, with the added benefit of warding off the evil eye.

We stood for nearly two hours, each of us working on our spreads—I could feel my knees protest, and goodness, it was cold, but then the sketch would absorb me, and I forgot. Every so often, a fishmonger would yell "Abi!" at Pedro (which means brother), wave at him to move, then hurl an arc of seawater upon his fish— the tail end of the arc landing where Pedro once stood. I was routinely bumped out of the way by customers, and narrowly avoided getting drenched by a sheet of water being emptied from a bowed awning. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

sketches of snacks devoured

A cake and a Turkish coffee on a cold, black winter evening, and mussels stuffed with spiced rice for a rainy afternoon by the Marmara sea. The waiters at the fish shack were delighted by the portrait of their dish, and even more so by the actual grain of rice I had spilled on the sketched rice, which blended in beautifully.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

farewell, my atlantic

I've licked her salt from my lips in Rhode Island, and ran off with her enamel offerings in my pockets— and Ragan, remember that black night when we watched the horseshoe crabs? Their smooth armour, shining in the moonlight— we were witnessing the stuff of myths, our toes sinking in the sand.

The Atlantic is in my blood. My great-great-great grandad was a Danish sea captain, and named his daughters after the seven seas.

We walked along the barnacle-encrusted tide pools that December day— Pedro counting birds and I, spying on anemones and urchins, with one eye on the crashing green waves. I'll be leaving the Portugal posts behind for now, with this last collection of photographs from the edge of a continent.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

at the end of the day

In Sítio das Hortas in Alcochete, the sky was an incredible thin veil of pink and lavender, and the light glowed golden. I felt my heels sink gently into the soft sand while an amorphous cloud of thousands of Glossy Ibises descended upon their roosting grounds.

Friday, January 11, 2013

the search for the snow bunting

When the proposal to search for Snow Buntings on Serra da Estrela came up, I did not hesitate to say yes. Have you ever seen a Snow Bunting? I hadn't in person, but that little upturned curve in its beak—which makes it look like it's smiling— and the pretty white plumage mixed with rust and umber was enough to make me actually hop up and down. I was warned that it might not be easy; the mountain was capped in snow and the birds are easily camouflaged. At 1,993 metres, Serra da Estrela is the highest peak in mainland Portugal, and often the only place which receives snow.

We drove up the long, winding road to the top, past stunning landscapes of rolling nothingness— I have a space in my heart for such places, where man made objects are either nonexistent, or few and far between. It's as though the absence of man makes room for mental wandering— of course, we were on a road, and my imagination was pulled back to earth with every passing car. Stepping out at the top, which had a tiny ski slope teeming with Portuguese and Spanish families, I was thankful for my down jacket and mittens. We hung our binoculars around our necks and secured our scarves from the biting wind, crunching satisfyingly through the patchy snow. Not a bird in sight.

Suddenly small flock of about 25 little birds appeared— could it be? The light was harsh, and it was difficult to see anything but silhouettes, but when we looked though the binoculars... Alpine Accentors. Taking note of these delightful birds, we watched them until they took off, and continued our search.

We walked until we couldn't see a soul but each other—nothing. We walked back up to the old observatory at the top of the mountain— nothing. We walked back down the road to a little reservoir— nothing. About to give up on our search, we decided to check the left side of the parking lot before hopping back in the car, and just as soon as we headed in that direction, four little birds flew past, and landed on the roof of a barn.

"BUNTINGS!" Pedro exclaimed.

Running discreetly is not an easy thing to do, especially on icy road. We were afraid they would fly away, so we wanted to get there quickly, but we were worried our movement would make them fly away. Eventually (and I am sure quite comically), we shuffled close enough to take a very distant and blurry photo— then they flew. Fortunately for us, they landed in the patchy grass below, inspecting the earth for something to eat. We moved in.

Just to give you an idea of how well camouflaged these little guys are, three of the four Snow Buntings are in the photo below. Can you spot them?

What a fine little bird!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

the concept of heaven

The concept of heaven to me, is of this earth. It's flexible and passing— sensory. I feel it in my fingers when they are wrapped around a mug of tea, I hear it in the laugh of a loved one, I smell it in a good carrot soup. It's everywhere, and if you are mindful and aware of what is happening around you, it will always be with you. There's a heaven for me in the heart of Portugal— the Interior, as Pedro calls it. It's in that honey morning light, the song of a wren, the scent of soil, and the warmth of a wood burning stove.

I feel a tremendous peace here, and if I let it, it swallows up my worries like a glassy pool. It's amazing— the meaningless chatter that can occupy a head, but I am convinced that every inhale of this intoxicating air will cure.

Monday, January 7, 2013

the portuguese boil

I can't think of a better way to start 2013 than being with a warm and kind family at a table heaped with delicious food. How lucky am I? I was warned in advance that the New Year's Day feast, known only as The Boil, would involve copious amounts of meat— but I never imagined this:

The Portuguese don't mess around with food. Nor with portions, as you can see from the above photographs. Our dear hostess, with a little mischievous grin, generously piled my plate high, in spite of my previous moaning about the growing pudginess of my belly. Suddenly I felt like I was in Lebanon, with my aunties lovingly creating architectural masterpieces upon my plate. Food that comes from the heart is the most divine— and goodness, do you feel cared for with each spoonful.  

The Boil, includes a variety of Portuguese sausages including chouriço de sangue, and the tasty but deadly farinheira. Then there's the boiled pork, cured pork, pig ears, rice cooked in pork fat, the beef, beans, boiled potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Bread. Wine. Lots of wine.

It's amazing.

But wait— there's more! Following the main part of the meal (oh and I forgot to mention the shrimp and presunto appetizers): roasted chestnuts, fruit (to cut the fat of the meat), coffee, and ginjinha. I was deliriously happy and full, and feared this meant I would be a lousy co-pilot on our road trip to the interior, which was to begin shortly.

Sleep was descending heavily...