Sunday, January 30, 2011


Favorite Color? My first thought is for brown. My father has beautiful deep brown eyes. I had brown hair (and brown eyes) and for years brown was my basic wardrobe color, shoes, purses, tops and coats. Brown was my neutral. 

Of course there are many shades of the lovely earth tone: cool browns, red browns, greenish browns, yellow browns, but my favorite is and always will be chocolate brown. Dark chocolate that is. I’m not sure which came first, my love of brown or my love of chocolate. I suspect chocolate, nevertheless brown is not the color I settled upon.

Then I think of green. My mother has lovely green eyes. I love the outdoors and all things that grow. Green is so amazingly used in nature. Blue greens next to yellow greens and everything in between living side by side in amazing harmony. In my Dutch Bible, it says that on the third day God said: "there be much green on the land". I love that. Yet green is not the color I chose either.

No, I settled on the most intangible color I know. I chose grey. It’s my new brown. You know grey is an amazing color. Just look up at (any northern) sky. I love the endless cloud formations: the deep, dark purplish grey gathering overhead for a winter storm, the lightest palest transparent puff in a blue sky, the bright and breezy billows of a spring day.

Did you know that when you mix any two colors which are opposite each other on the color wheel, you will obtain a shade of grey? Quick lesson. There are three primary colors: blue, yellow and red. These are not made up of any other color, hence the name, primary. Mix any two of those and add it to the third primary and you will get, yes, grey (by the way if you mix all three you’ll get brown). So for instance blue and red make purple, mix that with yellow and you’ll be a rich mauvish grey and so on. You can imagine how many different shades of grey, how many tints, how many hues there can be... That is a quality I crave, endless possiblities.

Some say grey hair is dead hair and should be colored. I beg to differ. Grey does an amazing job of softening the lines on our faces, it’s much more forgiving that any so called true color. You might say it’s the silver lining for our advancing years.

Out of doors, grey acts as a go between: whether it be silvery leaves or tree bark, glorious grey is the unsung hero of any garden, it acts as the tie that binds all those strong personalities, reds, purples, oranges, yellows, blues, and even the many greens of a well watered garden.

Perhaps the one element I love most about grey is its exquisite delicacy: any particular grey is almost impossible to define in terms of hue or tint and is loveliest in my eyes, next to other shades of grey. Unlike all the other gorgeous colors, grey never draws attention to itself, it never calls dibs on the front row, let alone the stage. No, grey is generally found somewhere in the background,  yet I could not imagine life without it.

So in honor of grey, here is an oil painting I did while I was still *blissfully* unaware they were the cause of my many headaches, it's called Grey Day....

Friday, January 7, 2011

My First Americans


pen and watercolor

Some stories are easy to tell while others are not. Reasons are often complex and, seemingly, as numerous as the stars in the sky. This story should be straightforward but it isn’t. Over time, it has taken on layers of meaning, becoming increasingly textured and rich, like a good painting. In the telling, every nuance matters because now I realize that it was a defining moment in my life.

The time is my middle childhood. The setting was a park in the suburbs of Paris, le Bois de Boulogne. From the bare trees and dead leaves of my memory, I would say we were just going into or pulling out of winter.

When I say park, you may think of a well designed National or even State Park complete with rangers on trails, pine cones and the scent of fir trees, sightings of mountain goats and warnings of bears. No, this was a deciduous forest. It was surrounded on all sides by habitations of men; there were no evergreens, no bears, no mountains. It was a respite from buildings and roads perhaps but it was not really another world. I never remember seeing wildlife save birds in trees or the occasional hare, there was no expansive wilderness to be held in awe. Neither were there inviting clearings with barbecue pits and picnic tables, there were no restrooms, no helpful trail markers, no hiking plans. It was undeveloped and tame at the same time.

I do not remember the occasion for our gathering but a birthday, mine or my sister’s, may well have been the impetus. Maybe that is what makes this story so hard to tell. 

You see France was my mother’s country. She was, after all, French and had resorted there again with the two of us and her Dutch companion after her divorce from my father some years before. My father, on the other hand, was Dutch. In the Europe of that day, different countries were different worlds. Undoubtedly widened by the divorce, the chasm between the two countries had become impassable to me. I never saw my mother again in Holland after that. She had apparently never liked it much and had completely reverted to her French roots, Dutch companion notwithstanding; he, for his part, seemed eager to cross the border and follow her over into the French way of life. 

I did see my father in France many times after that when he would pick us up for visitation and in spite of our adoration for him, that was often how it felt: an artificially designated time, legally instituted and required. It took years before I would understand what it all meant to him.  While he spoke French with ease, he did so without regard for grammar or pronunciation. I did always admire his pluck as he spoke street German, English and Italian the same way:  serviceably but not artfully.  What I admired about him was that he seemed to know no fear, French sensibilities would just have to fend for themselves. True, he was able to communicate but to my young mind it always seemed to underline the fact that he did not belong there.

My father had remarried and begun a new family. By this time, I had two new brothers to play with during those visitations. All were present that day at the park. We must have had a fairly typical picnic of sandwiches for I do not remember it. Camping was the normal way to spend a holiday for us everyday Europeans; it had been honed to a science of tents, fold out chairs, a burner, tea, bread and packaged soup. This picnic was a well organized mini camping trip, minus the chairs, the burner and the tent: a simple blanket marked our grounds. If we had a ball or badminton rackets I do not remember it. We children were mostly left to our own devices when we were not eating, going to school or sleeping and in that sense we were perfectly normal for our day.

As it happened, we had neighbors in the park that day, which, in itself was not unusual; what was extraordinary is that these were not Europeans. How did I know that? Well it was obvious, anyone would have known: first of all they were beefier than the rest of us, their clothes seemed more casual too, a bit looser perhaps. They were clearly of African origin but these, I was certain, were no Africans: again, they were beefier. It reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the Beach Boys. There was that same charming ease in their demeanor, they were relaxed, as if they weren’t trying to impress anyone. I believe it was my father who explained they were Americans. I later realized that my father had met Americans as a lad, when they came to liberate his country from the Nazis.  It was an American who gave my father his first chocolate bar. He has never forgotten them, he remains grateful to this day. At that time, I knew none of that. For me, that day in the park, it was love at first sight.

To complete the picture was the fact that they had what I later came to know as the sine qua non of American outdoor eating: a Barbecue. I was mesmerized. This was not some little contraption close to the ground as what my mother brought out with burning coals for occasional brochettes, no, this thing stood on its own legs and big flames came licking up through the grill at what appeared to be gigantic (I was a child) slabs of meat. I know I stared. The man whom I considered to be the patriarch of the group was standing watch, turning the meat over and waiting.

The others were either lying down or standing around in groups; many had brown bottles in their hands. I was captivated and had to find a way to get closer. I asked my father to teach me the English phrase I hoped would let me in. He told me and, repeating the phrase in my head, I cautiously made my way over to my patriarch, half expecting a dissuading frown. There was none so I tried my first English phrase ever: "may I watch the fire?"

By my childhood reckoning and not in physical terms but relational ones, his arms flew wide open. Not only could I watch the fire but my siblings and I were all given to share in the feast. His generosity was almost overwhelming. I don’t remember the food nearly as much as I remember the kindness. I stayed with him until we left.

As I was observing the group I noticed one man, he was lying on the grassy slope and seemed asleep but I didn’t think it was possible to sleep with all the goings on. I asked the patriarch about the man on the grass, how I don’t know, I’ve often wondered since, perhaps he spoke enough French. He turned back to look at his friend then slowly resumed his grilling duties in silence: “ he misses home” he finally said without lifting his eyes...

I immediately felt sorry for the man, why couldn’t he go home? I was also concerned because something seemed terribly wrong. I had been intensely homesick for Holland since arriving in France but had never found sleeping to take that ache away. I was worried he would wake up just as sad.

I fell in love with those Americans that day. The sorrow of the one man and the way the others bore him along only confirmed to me these people were real, flesh and blood and vulnerable like myself; it made me sad but did not repel me. I knew sadness. What I never forgot was their largesse (a good French word denoting the big giving swing of an opening arm); I never forgot their easy going ways, the utter lack of pretension. My heart was indelibly marked that day. 

Later on, in my teenage years, learning English became a goal and my determination may well have been fueled by that first unforgettable meeting. What I didn't know, is that I would in time become one of them. Oh Happy Day.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Rain, Rain Don't Go Away...

Someone asked me about this poem recently so I reprinted it here. The illustration is pen and watercolor. I wrote and illustrated it out of my own childhood memories for anyone who does not like grey weather.  Perhaps another view will make you smile… Here's hoping.

Rain, Rain, Don't Go Away
Little one here wants to play
Where it's warm
And stay there all day.

I loved it when the days were grey and clouds were low
They seemed to want it so
To be near us, to bring Heaven down
Down below.

It felt cozy and comfy
A blanket from the winter cold
It seemed I could touch them
Yet being so small.

I loved it when it rained all day
It sprinkled evenly, a lot like snow
Then streets would sparkle 
And shops would glow...
I loved it and enjoyed it so.

There were puddles
In shiny street
The rain in gutters
Running on at full speed

I loved how things twinkled
After being so cleaned
The street lights would shimmer
The asphalt would gleem.
Trees became ornaments
Windows were jewels
And the shops 
Just invited you in.

The Bakery is warm
The glass door keeps it dry
And the shelves are crammed full
Of good things to buy;
Breads and rolls
Of all sizes and shapes
Ladies with baskets 
And kids in their wake

The butcher shop bustles 
With shoppers today
They are planning their meals
From the luscious display
And a dog wags its tail. 

Outside again now, 
Quickly back to the car,
With the singsong of splatter
As the tram hurries by.

Briefcases, black hats 
Umbrellas and boots
Bicycles, baskets
And ladies with goods
And all running here
And all running there
Splattering music everywhere
Cars and trucks and cargo-bikes too
Rushing forth with things to do
Cheeks are wet and collars high
Raincoats dripping under the sky.

Now safely home

With lamps that glow

  Get us our slippers

And kettle for tea.
These memories I treasure  

These thoughts I will keep. 

Back then I was little

So young and amazed
And I may be much older 

But some things don't change
 I still and will always
Enjoy rainy gray.


First Impressions Part 3

Welcome in mid-stream here, parts 1 and 2 are below on the Blog. I realize now that this is about a new beginning which seems fitting on this New Year's Day 2011. These events took place in late August of 1971, 40 years ago this year! I have never regretted coming to this wonderful land of liberty, it has truly been my Promised Land. Happy New Year everyone.

...My mother and I made it over to the domestic terminal, where we proceeded to buy to tickets for San Francisco but we found out we needed to put my little dog in a big one-size-fits-most kennel and pay $75.

She was an abandoned mutt I had found in Italy when I was a child. She had tugged impossibly at my heart and I had sent my mother what she later described as a tear jerker letter that no one with a beating heart could have refused. She didn't refuse, in fact, and for that I have always been grateful.

At the American Embassy in Paris, where I lived with my grandmother that last year in Europe, they had informed me of what would be required to bring my dog into the US. Leaving her behind was out of the question. So we got all her shots and a little yellow certificate and off we went. At the travel agency where I reserved my seat on a fully booked chartered flight (much cheaper than a regular flight apparently) they told me she could stay with me provided she sit on my lap. I anticipated no problems. As I walked through the gate at the airport, the customs official looked down questioningly at my dog. "I was told I could just bring her on a leash and here are her papers" with a shrug of the shoulder, he let me pass.

The flight was at least 10 hours from Amsterdam to our refueling stop in Winnipeg, Canada. The other passengers got used to us both walking back and forth in the aisle. After some hours, I could just pass the leash on down and she would get her walk courtesy of my flight mates. However when I realized we would not disembark, I began to fret about my dog. No, I was told, no one gets off the plane. Do you really want doggie do in the aircraft I challenged, as any real mother would? No, in fact, they did not. So they let us off the plane directly onto the seemingly endless tarmac. We circled the wheels of the gigantic plane in the hope these would somehow inspire her. But the roar of the idling engines and the lack of anything even remotely associated with grass or a tree must have all been too much for her. Nothing doing, back inside we went. She made it all the way to LA though. Good doggie.

As soon as we touched down in L.A. the whole plane load erupted in spontaneous clapping and cheers. These people obviously don't think that this exhuberant outburst will make them look terribly immature, I thought to myself; then it immediately occurred to me that better yet,  they don't care if it does! This is good, I reflected, this is really good.

Later, there we were getting tickets on what they called a commuter flight. I was told people went to work this way, leaving in the morning and returning at night. Unbelievable I thought. Meanwhile, we had to get a kennel. Pooling our resources (there went my $50) we came up 25 cents short. What now. My mother tends to panic and she taught me well. So here we are at the counter, fretting and not knowing what to do. A superior who happened to walk by stopped to find out what the problem was; he then decisively reached in his pocket and slapped a couple of quarters down on the counter with a hairy eyeball in the direction of the desk clerk. There you go, he said, problem solved. So just like that, we got our tickets and our kennel.  These Americans were amazing.

I don't remember the short flight to SanFrancisco except for the arrival, this time it did look like we would land on a lake. What an approach grazing the San Francisco Bay: it was a grand! After having retrieved my poor dog out of the kennel and my two suitcases from the carrousel, we headed for the curb. There was mom's friend, an American beauty of Swedish origin. She had come to get us and smiled broadly in welcome, she was so happy to finally meet me she said. Really? Why on earth? She didn't even know me but she certainly seemed to mean it and I melted a little more inside. As if that weren't enough, she then loaned my mother her car for a time to show me around. I was flabbergasted, these people were just popping all my circuits. It was a nice car too, one of those English Rovers with leather seats but I did notice that it has an automatic transmission, cars clearly meant something else here. I liked it in my Promised Land.

I remember waking up the next morning in my mother's Bernal Heights House and staring out the back window at this world renowned city: San Francisco! There it was on this cloudless morning, warming up in the late summer sun. Could this be real? After the increasingly difficult years in Europe, I felt an unforgettable lightness. I realized some time later that the moment I landed on American soil, it seemed as though 1000 pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. The past now seemed to have been wiped away. The present was delightfully different and I did looked with anticipation to the future: I was here, I was really here, it was before my very eyes and it was my new home.