A penny for your thoughts.

Nixon, Mao and Stephan.

John Adams’ Nixon in China is today’s entertainment. For once since the start of our confinement, the Opera is in English, with subtitles, and it’s a welcomed change as we can (most of the time), understand the singing. It’s a war between two men, between two ideologies. One cannot help but draw more opposite arrows between Nixon and Trump, one president opening China for US profits and another trying to close it because he thinks China has profited enough.
Today one million people have been infected with covid.

Carolle thinks we have another month of confinement, we should be so lucky. I believe we will be fighting covid until summer. The country is not on the same level of urgency, with some states still edging their bets. One governor who claims not to have gotten the memo about the highly contagious nature of the virus is fighting with town officials closing beaches, threatening jail if they go ahead with their own protective plans. If all the states lock down, there is a chance of containing the virus in hotspots, otherwise the health community will be playing wack a mole for a long time. I am not optimistic that the duration of this lockdown will be short.

I feel bad for Carolle, I have basically cloistered her. She can’t visit stores, for fear she would get ill. Shopping is taken away from her, and I sense in her question that she misses it. She is longing for normal. Normal has gone and will not be back any time soon. I believe one person doing the errands is risky enough, but with all taken precautions, the risk is more or less controlled. So far, so good, and I intend to keep it that way. The Opera had an entertaining perk, a wonderful ballet, another form of art very much loved by Carolle. The ballet of women workers overtaking their abusing rapist boss was powerful, women taking charge of the revolution. The scenes are violent in nature, Pat Nixon was so frightened by it that she thought it was real and, reacting to it, jumps onstage to help the poor flagellated woman. All that makes good theater until we learn that it actually happened and we start thinking, what’s wrong with that poor woman, was it a reflection of her husband’s well known paranoia, was she medicated?
The next day’s Opera, Don Carlo by Verdi, gave us the Inquisition and the burning of folks for heresy. The good thing about these rather horrible scenes, always accompanied by arias sung in gusto, is that one really feels better about one’s condition, considering what others have suffered before. Like , don’t complain, in the old days you’d be skewered or like Saint Lawrence, grilled on a charcoal pit. Small consolation but in these days of confinements, the ability of rationalizing is very helpful.

Today, the number of fatalities in New York have reached 3000.

The guitar I sent my grandson has arrived and he seemed excited by the surprise. He is just the right age to start and can learn fast if he sticks to practicing. They say it takes forty thousand hours of practicing any trade before mastering it. I am pretty sure I have past that threshold long ago but I still feel that my fingers get in the way. I was elated to see him happy, as I’m sure covid must be frightening to him and his peers, perhaps this instrument will distract him from the fear. When I was his age, I was terrified of the atomic bomb. I was in school in France during the Cuban crisis during Kennedy, we though atomic bombs would rain on us. I was in school also when his assassination was announced. They interrupted class I remember, and we where not only sad, but also scared that some war would result of it. I know what it means to grow up scared. I hope this guitar brings him as much joy it has brought me for the short time I was it’s custodian. And it should keep him occupied for awhile.

Our days are a roller coaster of bad news and extreme sadness. Countless artists or well liked personalities are succumbing from covid. Today, it’s Mr Pizzarello, the virtuoso guitarist. First, I thought it was John, his son, the musician I listen to on his radio show from time to time. But it turned out that covid took his father, a guitarist seemingly more famous than his son, but whom I had never heard of. Discovering the two playing together filled me with delight, and jealousy. Although I knew a few of  licks, watching Buckey, John’s father,  play, reminded me that I would never attain the skills to make such melodious sounds. Not that my aim was to become a professional guitarist, like my friend Danny, beached in the Islands on account  of covid and the hope that he is safe there. For all the glamour, it take a whole lot of work to make a living as a musician, even for the ones backing folks like Etha James, Buddy Guy or Otis Rush. My guitar playing is a hobby and mostly for my amusement, but perhaps once, my fingers would land on the right string at the right time to produce the perfect note. That does not keep me from playing and enjoying it as well. A bit of bipolar feelings masochistically self administered, a ying and yang of self punishment for daring to play a noble instrument.

I abandoned France and my prior life when I was twenty years old and together with a new found friend, a self proclaimed poet whose name I have forgotten. I left my car at the ferry docks, and took the next boat to England where we spent a few day, then crossing the channel in the opposite direction, to Amsterdam. Finally out of my money, he went back to France and I ended in Vondelpark, were hundreds of hippies, were converging in the 1970’s. There were drumming and music playing and a the sweet odor of hashish was everywere. The police was very lax about it. In the park, I met a German man and his friend Charlie, Stephan playing some instrument, a simple flute I believe, traveling like I was, and nice enough to let me share their food. Stephan, a musician and an artist, had been in Amsterdam before, he knew his way around, and let me tag along. We slept in communal house boats found on the canals, or in large lofts equipped with bunk beds where sleeping for a couple of hundred people was provided on the cheap. Food was offered as well, a lot of yogurt and Musli I vaguely remember. His favorite place, besides Amsterdam, was Zanvoort, on the shore. We decided to go there to meet his friend Richard who was on the rebound from a nearly deathly overdose. A good Samaritan woman found him passed out, lying half naked on the street. She took him home and nursed him back to life.
Richard was born in Belgium ten years before me,  he had travelled to the US and had a job in commercial art. He was always vague about what exactly he was doing in the US and how he ended up in Zanvoort. I liked Richard and we became friends. One day, a miserable cold and foggy day, we took refuge in an abandoned bunker on the beach. Often, since my youth, I was afflicted by periodical bouts of bronchitis day I was feverish and feeling miserable, huddling by entrance of one of the open bunkers, pill boxes built in the Second World War by the Germans, for defending the beaches against invasion. I was tucked in enough that I could stay warm and dry, but still able to look out. My friends were gone to buy food when my bunker was approached by two young men my age,  seeking shelter. I said fine, and told them they had to find room in the rear. The bunker was half filled with abandoned lounging chairs, that had been piled up inside and, most likely, not used in a long time. After awhile my two new tenants emerged from the back of the bunker, holding a heavy looking plastic bag. When they opened the bag in the light of day, I could see it was full of coins. Asked if the it belonged to me, I said no and asked them to wait for my friends, perhaps it was theirs (knowing perfectly it did not belong to them either). They agreed and when Richard and Stephan were back, Richard took charge of the situation.
First we debated, what did we find, how long had it been there, what to do with it. The consensus was that we had found a treasure and as such, we could claim it ours. Finders keepers. Here we were, a group made of a French, a German, a Belgian and two Swiss guys. The two Swiss boys were our guests and as such counted as one entity (Richard’s reasoning), we would split four equal share and give one to each. We divided the content of the bag and the Swiss guys went their ways. The merchants were a bit incredulous when we were buying groceries with silver guilders having a face value much less than the weight of metal they had been minted with.

The influx of cash changed our plans . Richard had taught us we could make money drawing with chalks on a sidewalk. If we were not in the way of pedestrians, the cops would not bother us. He drew a clown’s face, from memory, and I would do a candle behind it. That was simple, dramatic enough to make people stop and “Encourage our art studies” as we presented ourselves as traveling art students, and I learned to work with the medium, a super sized pastel whose substrate is concrete or asphalt. Eventually, our street paintings lost its luster in that town and we decided to move on to Germany. Stephan had left earlier, perhaps to alert his parents of our planned visit. His father was a commercial artist, his mother did not work. We were welcomed like we were part of the family. In Stephan’s home I saw the home I wished I had been born in. We spent about a week there, had a great time listening to Stephan play the guitar or the sax as he was adept at both. My friend was multi talented, music and art came easily to him. On Stephan’s guitar I learned the first chords I know, he was my first teacher. I looked at him in admiration, he was smart, talented, educated, gentle, every words coming out of his mouth, I swallowed. I had never known anyone like him, except perhaps the man who had suggested, some years back, that I enlist in the military. I was impressed by Stephan. His girlfriend, was a pretty Turkish woman, her shiny black hair framing a pretty middle eastern face. She had to go back to Turkey as her work visa was expiring, and we decided to follow her, on our way to India, were Stephan spoke about going to, like everyone else then. Stephan was practicing meditation, sometimes sitting for long periods, looking inside, it was better, more beautiful, he said, than anything else he knew.
We travelled across Europe by trains, buses and cars but avoided flying altogether. We crossed the Bosporus to Istanbul, the gate to the orient, not only a cliché, but an opening to a new world, experiencing perfumes and colors like I never had before. Normandy was very far away indeed.

I enjoyed a few days visiting the wonderful markets, the Souk with men holding trays filled with small cups of tea, above the crowd filled aisle of the market. One would grab a cup enjoy it while the vendor zigzagged along the line until no cup. His tray empty, he would hit back to the shop, collecting money on his way back, as well as the cups if they were empty. He ran the line with trays all day, seen thousand different faces all day. I had never seen anything alike and was impressed By a culture I had never experienced before. Unfortunately, things went awry in Istanbul, The hotel we stayed in was raided by the police, there were questions about Stephan’s girlfriend and her passport. We were arrested and put in jail. Without explanation, for a couple of days we were locked up in a dark dungeon like cell, whose construction, without a doubt, dated back to the time of the crusades. The heavy wooden bars separating the cells, the stone floor and the thick walls were lending me to think that if I was held there long for a long time, nobody would know.

It was not the best of time, I would be telling lies if I said that I was not scared. Fortunately, without any explanation, we were let go and our passports given back to us. It was becoming more apparent that traveling all the way to India would not be a good idea, after all. Stephan stayed in Istanbul and I caught a bus going back to Germany. The bus went up and down the mountains crossing country after country until we got to the German border where the vehicle was forbidden entrance because the breaks were deemed defective. I thanked my luck for still been alive and entered Germany on foot.

A few month later, I crossed path with Richard. The news he gave was devastating. Stephan had been found sitting in a meditative pose, dead on his bed, in the hotel we had been staying while in Istanbul together. So young, so talented and his life wasted.
Even now, I often think about Stephan, it always makes me sad. It was the first time death had claimed a friend.

I mourned the covid dead together with the long loss of Stephan. Time stands still when you lose someone you love.

The Fishers of Pearls by Bizet, our next Opera, is the story of life in a poor seaside village on the shore of the Indian Ocean. Stephan would have liked the marvelous opening scene of the deep blue sea divers, perhaps reminiscent of what he saw inside himself in meditation. Perhaps he dived too deep and, like covid, what he found took his breath away. The scene, for all its beauty, can’t attenuate the sadness lingering among us.