Thursday, August 20, 2015

Elijah's Lightbulbs

“You look Irish.” The Scotsman said to me at the coffee clutch after church in the church.  People often tell me this, but I am a pure American mongrel with partial Irish ancestry. The pastor who pronounced “pahk” for “pink” had just preached a sermon on how with one seed God creates an onion and with another seed an oak tree. This got me thinking about onions.

“See,” she said, showing me the cover of the cook book. I had been invited to a friend’s house for dinner. “I am making you this.  Without the cream.” She added. I looked at the cover of the cookbook in which a piece of salmon was placed in a yellow sauce on a white plate and surrounded by blanched vegetables, including bite sized morsels of a narrow delicate leek. Mostly I wanted to eat the leek. Maybe it was the Irish in me. The whole meal was delicious though, without fault, despite the absence of cream.  She turned over the salmon filets thoroughly and copiously bathed them with spoonfuls of crackling butter. It was beautiful to watch.

“You don’t mind if I eat the mango skin?” She asked. I had brought the dessert. “Shall I wash the mango?” This was her way of telling me that the mango needed to be washed. She had been a nurse before retirement.  I normally don’t wash mangos before peeling them, but somehow I felt I had been terribly incorrect these past 40 something years, routinely not washing my mangos.  She washed the mango. We discussed how to cut a mango.  She came from the Caribbean, one of the old Dutch colonies.  “We did sink some of those German boats. They were all out there.” She stated with pride, waiting for me to insert the knife.

“Here,” she said handing me one half of the mango without the fruit. I took the skin between my hands. We stood at the kitchen counter sucking the half mango skins. She was much better at it than me. My mango skin had a slight covering of dog hair left over it while hers was vacuumed clean. 

I told her the story of how I used to graze as a child in the garden, eating everything until I tried the corn.  It had been a bitter disappointment to me that it had been so hard to eat; I learned, unlike the carrots, snow peas, raspberries, lettuce that corn had to be cooked. She looked at me as if I were a fool. “Sweet corn milk!” She exclaimed. “Of course you can eat raw corn. We did it all the time as kids.”  She shook her heard. “We eat dem sweet potatoes too.” Every once in a while she’d slip a little Caribbean lingo in her sentences.

“Raw?” I asked impressed.

“Make yah teeth go green. Hmmm.” She stood still and remembered trying to clean the green stains off her teeth.  “Give me the pit.” She nodded at the mango pit I had attempted to strip clean with a knife. “Put it on my plate.” She suggested.

“Give us a clean heart.” The pastor had pleaded from the pulpit. I wondered about this information. Since when was it dirty? And what was immer wrong with the flesh of the fruit? Nothing can be clean without dirt.

When my friend had eaten half her meal, the salmon in the soft buttery sauce, she asked me for the jalapeño tabasco sauce, fresh out of the box.

I had divined, upon spying the box of tabasco sauce on the table, that she was making the European tender taste meal for me, her guest and non-Caribbean person, but that at heart she regularly dined with tabasco sauce. I deliberated sprinkling my food with tabasco sauce. I like tabasco sauce, but my American born Euro mongrel nerves twinge a little at the thought of a soft buttery salmon combined with jalapeno sauce and I start to fret thinking that I will mismatch the flavors and miss something important. “My great great grandfather was born in London.” She said calmly.

At church we listened to the story of Elijah and the watery fire. Sitting in the pew I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever patented a product called “Elijah’s Lightbulbs” and simply sold weak lightbulbs with a clever name.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What Men Don't Like

Last week I read an article about what men don’t like in a woman. Correction: The article was more about what men don’t like on a woman. Neon colors, as well as heavy make-up were encouraged. The piece was called “How to Turn Off Men” or something like that.

Coming out of the narrow alley in the mornings, dragging the dog with me past the puke stains, piss perfume and splashes of graffiti on the black brick walls, I step out into the raging beauty of Amsterdam. My eyes open a little wider, I always stop at that point to acknowledge the view. The dog has stopped long before me, of course, but here I let her sniff the black corner of the house by the alley to her heart’s content while I stare in amazement across to the other side. The view has expanded, a broad canal wanders in front of me filled with green murky water.  Boats are moored to every inch of the canal.

The dog can move as slow as she’d like now, I am not in a hurry. We take long pauses under each and every tree, looking down into the boats, littered with garbage in the summertime, before the plastic fades to grey. The remnants of yesterday’s pick nick on the quay. The historical canal houses are flashy but not too flashy. My eyes attempt to accept all those gifts of man and God in one panoramic scan. I constantly worry that I will not remember each and every detail on the houses, and finally after a long wrestle with my conscious every morning, I relinquish myself to the inevitable realization that I cannot memorize it all at that exact moment. “But wait,“ I think looking upwards, “Oh yes, yes, now I remember, there’s the house depicting the man standing with a lit fuse in his hand next to the canon on the top.”

We were just beginning to stand under a certain tree, a door opened, a woman emerged from the house.  A blond woman in her early thirties, wearing no makeup but well-tanned, walked towards me. “Neon,” I thought eyeing her pink shirt. Not blaring neon but see-through neon, the seams screamed a little, the body of the garment shimmered. “Was she trying to turn off men?” I wondered. “Was she all dressed and ready to get out in the world to totally not interest men? Was this the day’s occupation?” I noticed an open window in the house. The naked torso of a man in his mid-thirties was watching her leave.  She wasn’t smiling, he wasn’t smiling. She knew he was watching, he knew she knew he was watching. She didn’t look up or turn when she got to the bridge.  She didn’t wave, he didn’t wave. He left the window open, but he wasn’t standing in it anymore.

“Did she put on the shirt to have a fight, or were they having a disagreement before she selected or put on her shirt? Would things have turned out different if she hadn’t selected neon? Was there a symbolic message in the choice of shirt?” We moved on to the next tree. “Look,” I thought to myself, “There’s the door with Jesus and the lamb.” All meek and mild, in a sky blue dress.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Out of School

When I lived in Paris, I saw everyone.  Everyone comes to Paris. I met up with everyone constantly. 

When I lived in Gouda I had a great group of friends in the area. Not many travelers came to Gouda. I did not see everyone.

Now that I live in Amsterdam, I’m routinely alerted that friends are coming through town.  It’s always a pleasure to see everyone again. I also haphazardly meet people who also live in Amsterdam that I wouldn’t normally make appointments to see.  It’s like this, we run into each other in the tram, like the other day  -- “Persephone!” I heard a voice exclaim and I turned to find a singer I had met at a masterclass a few years ago smiling at me.  Ready to step out of the tram, transport pass clutched in hand, at that very moment I was stressed and needed to go throw myself in the swimming pool to work off a little steam before the pool closed.  She wanted to talk to me, she seemed to imply that I would go one stop further with her or immediately step into a café together for a coffee. I said, “Hey, let’s message on FB!”

A week later we met up. She was late and tastefully dressed, showcasing her small narrow frame. We assessed what had changed. She was still working part time at a global concern in customer service, she had been expelled from Conservatory. When I first met her a few years ago, dismissal had seemed set in the tarot cards. The singing professor and the vocal coach were worried. They threw in their weight to try to make a monumental change happen for her, the miracle didn’t appear. They whispered suggestions, out of her ear shot, theories of why things weren’t working, they clung on to the factors outside of their responsibility.

“I have two songs recorded.” She announced to me. She speaks very quickly. I noticed that she suppresses her breath.

“What roles have you sung?” I asked.  She had just stated she had turned 26 and had to get her career started.  She slapped the table when she said this, displaying the sense of urgency.

“None.” This sounded familiar. I don’t think I had sung an entire role at 26. Or maybe I had just sung all of Despina. "A girl of fifteen should know about things, things that hang around and have ‘tails’” – you may know that aria sung by the maid from Cosi van Tutte. “But I have the two pieces, one aria and one song recorded, for auditions.” She picked at her sandwich. She eats quickly and sloppily, the slender fingers tapping, pulling, and pushing the bits of filling on her plate. She explained she was leaving in two weeks for a masterclass in England.  It sounded like a push in the right direction, with the right teachers in the right places. She was applying to more Music Schools, solid names. She didn’t know where to practice cheaply in Amsterdam, she didn’t know where to gain the experience of singing a role at a bargain rate, she didn’t know a lot of things she should have known.  She’d been living in Amsterdam more than three years. I reflected on my life experience. I had been a bit like her, but when a conductor said to me, “Get out of Conservatory and into the real world,” I knew he was speaking the gospel. It boils down to this, there are very few top soloists that come out of the constrictions of a Conservatory. Mostly, young starting singers head towards third rate stages, take the hits, navigate the bullets, try to keep in condition and with luck and some funding may make it.

“Technique,” she was clinging onto this word, “It has to be good technique before anything else.” True, and where my friend, do you find this and at what price?  "The dream is a cocktail at Sloppy Joe's," the words of the poem drifted through my brain....Langston Hughes.....