The other night, some corporate types showed up and took our team out to a high end eatery (Hardware Grill). Think around $150 a person. My entrée was described in the typical fashion of such an establishment as a “porcini encrusted halibut with lobster-truffled potato crepes, white corn-arugula & gulf prawns, with warm Portobello vinaigrette”. (I find that though many of these places have rather involved and elitist sounding descriptions they do still tend to be warm and informal at the table.) Had a remarkable scallop starter and a kicking espresso ice cream with fudge sauce desert but this entrée had me wishing for my $9 thai takeout succinctly called “chicken with cashews”. (And why is it that even the best restaurants seem to have bad coffee?) Though my dish was beautiful to behold it was a little too subtle in taste and if there was an underlying motif it belonged in the mustard family. Now, what I had run up against here was a constellation of flavours that I was not fond of but I could tell it was well done. I appreciated the artistry and construction of the dish even if I didn’t like the taste of it. That, for me, was a little unusual. Normally I like food or I don’t but here I was appreciating something that didn’t taste all that good to me.
So what is it about appreciation anyway? Years ago I took an introductory art history course and learned to appreciate abstract expressionism. Though I had always been interested in visual arts, this particular movement left me cold; I just had no use for it. What happened throughout the course was that I came to appreciate, that is, see the sense of, this sort of art. I had needed knowledge of the motivation behind the work more than just the work itself. And yes, even though I still didn’t like it, I got it and I could experience a different kind of pleasure when I was looking at it.
It still won’t hang on my wall but I can walk into another place and think its kind of cool. And that is so important. More of the world has become interesting. It strikes me too that the more time you spend thinking about or living in a particular place the more likely you are to appreciate in this way.
In a very amusing book called The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten writes about getting a job as the food editor of Vogue and feeling that if he was to do a really good job he should learn to eat (appreciate) everything. He makes a list of all the foods he hates and then eats a little of each every day to acclimatize. He knew he was successful when he looked at a menu in a Parisian restaurant and found he was absolutely stuck because there was nothing he could dismiss. That is the downside but the upside is that he, like Anthony Bourdain, can now walk into the most unusual place and find interesting what previously may have been inedible.
But is that always a good thing? Restricting yourself to only things you like is a big timesaver. Some of the most successful people are those who have no other interests than what they do and feel no need to change. They are liberated from the profusion of the world and can delve deeper and deeper into their chosen study. The rest of us are too easily distracted to go for that Nobel Prize.
That’s food and art but I think it generalizes to everything including people. You can avoid people you don’t like but one thing I have noticed is that the longer I am around and the more people I meet, the more can enjoy interacting with people I don’t particularly like. And at some point it all kind of blurs and you do like them on some level.
My ex-mother in law (still very dear to my heart) had a phrase of “that’s different” and what she really meant was anything or anyone that was odd to her experience right to bordering on dislike but she was just too polite to say so. She was kind of dallying with appreciation I think.
That day had started auspiciously. The night before our first meal in Spain was just bloody awful. Even the wine was poor. But this morning was a rainy but warmish day and the place we ducked into was alive with the clatter of early bird workers chattering over coffees, pastries and cigarettes. In contrast to other times of the day, the turnover was fast. You ordered, a minute later there it was, and a minute after that the bill sat in front of you. We each had cafe con leches (brilliant stuff; half sweet espresso and half steamed milk (figured out to make these as soon as we got home)) and glazed croissants filled with ham and cheese. Though the latter doesn’t sound like much, trust me, they were. And like the others, we ate them with fork and knife. It made sense since the glazing made the confection sticky. We noticed that in Spain everything was eaten with utensils.
From there it was a few kilometers through the city, iron grill work everywhere, and sculptural tops to many of the buildings. This was a real Spanish city full of Spaniards. Though there must have been quite a few tourists we really only saw them at the galleries. And the people were little different than people anywhere except that they were absurdly LOUD. I don’t think you would ever need a hearing aid in this country. And it wasn’t that the restaurants and bars were all that loud but on the street. I tell you, Spaniards and cellphones, a really bad idea.
So back at the Prado. It was insanely busy. One large groups of Japanese tourists who seemed to be following us, and many school groups with teachers. This seemed to occur at all the galleries we went to in Madrid. They did more that just build world class collections; they taught the children about the art and this heritage of theirs. We flip through large books or slides on a wall or sad little reproductions on our screens and they can stand two feet away and see the brush strokes and the frames. They can see the range of an artist rather than the one or two representative works.
One thing that you could learn here as nowhere else was how artists started out together and gradually moved towards their own style. Its one of those things you know but don’t really think about much. You see all those early works where Dali paints like Braque and Picasso like Goya. At the beginning they are all like green garden shoots, all the same, and then, some earlier than others, they take on distinctive shapes and like plants, we can only think of their distinctiveness and not of those earlier manifestations.
Oneof the drawbacks of the Prado other than the sheer size of it, is that there is so little modern work. It would have been nice to break up the old with just a bit of the new. There are of course the seeds of modernism everywhere, the hallucinatory light in the El Greco’s, Goya storming the ideological barricades, Bosch’s utter lack of discretion. But the rule is big, and bigger, religious pictures. Its all a bit much, an upscale version of St Agnes where art took second seat to the correctness of the time. Symbolism over reality. And even the Goyas I found ultimately wearisome. Rooms and rooms of them, and you had the sense that were it not for his political power, he would not have quite the stature he does. Don’t get me wrong. The Prado is full of remarkable and awe inspiring paintings; this is the hall of the great ones; this was not to be missed but it is like being trapped at a really great traditional restaurant for a week with a decent range, every meal a big one, a plate buster, but boy could you go for some Thai.
Breakfast was a not atypical hotel assortment of eggs (a little oranger than ours), buns and bread (much much better than what passes here), cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, coldcuts and a large rack of wieners. Orange juice in very small glasses and coffee in half size cups to fill from a Nescafe machine with settings for espresso or regular. This was very much a portent of life for the next week as regards coffee; bad and always machined Nescafe (with a couple of exceptions only) and bread worth writing home about.
Here in Canada, I fear to buy bread even in bakeries at times for the poor quality about but there I had not one slice or bun that didn’t rank high. Didn’t like the butter but it did not matter at all. And cookies or pastries….a very dangerous place for the weight conscious. And in general, the vegetables and fruit tasted better than here; even the potatoes tasted home made. Food in Poland was good (even the hotel convention food) with only the coffee substandard.
We ended up sitting at a table with K, an Australian whose wife was at the conference but he was trying to keep himself amused. He knew a bit of the history and had already done one day in town and offered to be personal tour guide for C. They spent the rest of the day in the Old Town visiting the palace, some of the gardens, various military sites and also the Warsaw Ghetto. C said that she saw a Rembrandt which struck her as somewhat postmodern in that the figure’s hand extends over the picture frame within the painting.
She was also quite moved by seeing the holes in the bases of the palace walls which had once held German explosives and only by chance had not been detonated during the retreat. So much of Warsaw had been bombed and in fact one of the interesting displays at the Old Square was photographs of the destroyed buildings and the reconstruction which took place using Canaletto paintings of the same. (We were to see many more Canalettos later in the Prado.) I could not find the painting displayed but this other one of his will give you an idea of the sort of detail he was capable of (and when 85% or so of your city is destroyed and you would rather recreate the old glory than start fresh, this just the sort of thing you need).
When C and I reunited later in the day she remarked as well on how many beautiful 17 years old girls were in evidence as well as strapping young security guards. But before that I spent part of the day warming seats and listening to others jaw and another part having others listen to me flap my gums. My colleague and I presented in the same session and ended up after in the Gromada bar with our other presenter (from Nigeria) and some amusing individuals from a couple of tobacco companies. Three beer each later and we ended up (with C) in a very fine restaurant (U Fukier) off the old town square. That’s the square below (not our picture) we have some to come during the wet days that followed. But this is kind of what it looked like that night.
After fine dining (Russian crab in crepes, tomato and onion salad, fine red wine, dessert and a good latte) we spilled out into a hot night onto the cobblestoned square which had people under canopies drinking beer (almost all Poles as opposed to the tourist haunts for most of the rest of the trip). As we walked across the square I recalled a German concept I had recently read about called “Platzangst” which is the fear that can overcome you as you are attempting to traverse a square that you will never actually reach the end of it.
We tottered into the bar at the Bristol (an art deco bar dating from around 1905 where Marlene Dietrich reputedly used to hang). Most of us had beer and C at my suggestion tried the bison grass vodka we had read about. Interesting but not repeatable. (I could not find a picture of the bar itself and did not take one regrettably but see one of the hotel below; we did not know it at the time but we would end up spending a couple of nights there). (C almost ended up taking a side trip with one of the others to Krakow and the camps (Dachau and Birkenau) but the price was a little out of range. Krakow would have been great since it had most of the old architecture still intact.)