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Monthly Archives: November 2012

My grandfather and grandmother with her sister Masie and sister in-law Eleanor .

When I was growing up I had a really wonderful grandfather.  I spent a lot of my time at my grandparents house and most of my memories from childhood are of him. He made a lot of time for me. I remember playing, learning, and  hearing stories about growing up in Jersey City. Technically Albanian his family lived in Italy for generations before migrating to the states. He always said he was Italian and we never thought to disagree.

He passed away when I was seven, so all I remember is how fantastic he was. Its like my brain squeezed out all other unnecessary memories so I could save those.

Poppi, Mimi, My mom (the little one) and her sister.

As I went through childhood, we followed Italian traditions like La Vigilia or Festa dei sette pesci  The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas eve. I remember my mother telling me the story of her big trip with poppi back to Italy. I can picture her as a young adult guilting her 6ft 4 father to get into a gondola he was scared of. I remember knowing that I needed to go and see this place, maybe it would help me feel more connected to him.

During my sophomore year of high school I got an opportunity to join a exchange program at my school following a student failing and getting kicked off the trip. I consider this fate taking action. I got to live with a family in Lucca for a week and take day trips with my school. I went to Florence, Rome, and Venice. I saw art and culture mix in a natural way that seemed like it was part of the peoples identity. I think it made me feel very comfortable in my own awkward teenage head. I could identify and appreciate it. I loved paintings and so did they. Soon after that trip I felt a pull to go back, I knew it was a place I needed more time with.

My college offered a study abroad program my third year, and I knew where I wanted to go before I knew there were any options to go there. My Parsons teachers didn’t really approve of these programs, because of the party like reputations they had. I was not interested in hearing negativity and set up plans full steam ahead.

After landing in Florence I got into a taxi by myself and set off to find the office that had a key to my new home. I didn’t know anyone, I was alone and scared shitless. It sounds odd , especially after living in NYC, but you never feel totally alone in the US. Everyone knows your language and its relatively easy to talk to people. When I went to Italy I had never been on a plane alone, and didn’t know any Italian.

After I got my key and arrived at my new studio apartment; I looked out my window, down at the leather market below, and breathed a sigh of relief. I decided to go for a walk, because I was scared to.

I think this was an ‘a ha’ moment. Being able to get over something by getting through it has helped me accomplish a lot. When I got out side I made a left, walked about half a block, and stepped into a bakery. I saw a young girl behind the counter and asked if she spoke english. After asking how to order the correct way in the language, I got huge smile and an enthusiastic short Italian lesson. This was a wonderful introduction to the hospitality that is Italy and how the rest of my time there would be.

Through out the seven month period I traveled all over Europe. I learned how to bargain confidently, see a major city in 2 days, sleep in a hostel with 10 strangers,  I learned how to get lost and not freak out, I learned how to enjoy a quiet walk, and among many other things I learned how to oil paint for myself not for a project critique. I spent a lot of my free time in the  many Florentine galleries sketching, and started feeling a big connection with the way renaissance and pre-renaissance painters used colors and movement. I was studying illustration at Parsons before I left, and when I came back to the states just wanted to paint. I think a few of my teachers thought I went a bit batty.

Following  my study abroad experience I went back a couple times with friends and still couldn’t shake the connection. Each time coming home with feeling that I couldn’t get back soon enough. A few years later, after I decided teaching would be a great way for me to give back to the world, I found out about teaching abroad.

I thought it would be a great route for me to possibly live in Europe and have the opportunity to go to my favorite place more frequently. But after going to the job fairs I soon learned that this was everyone elses idea too and Europe would not be so easy to get to. I took the job in Cameroon on great faith that I needed to experience living abroad. Maybe that was what I was really craving, a new culture.  After being here a year I think that might be the case in a lot of the ways because I’m very happy and having a great time. During my time in Yaounde I’ve gotten to think about who and what I find important, and have made big choices, felt the consequences, failed and succeeded. I’ve learned more about myself and what I am able to deal with. But I still feel that original pull towards Europe, how annoying.

In the last two months I’ve been back to Italy twice. The first time a vacation to Florence the second Turin, both ended up having a purpose. I got to visit two international schools and meet the people who run them. The concept of actually reaching my goal is a bit overwhelming and maybe to good to be true. Apparently it is very difficult to get an American an Italian visa so they will be looking more to see IF they can find an equivalent or better candidate from the EU. I won’t know for a few months from now if this is a real possibility, but I am content with any outcome. I feel like what ever happens I am closing a huge chapter and opening a new one. I have tried my best and taken risks. I have never been this close to realizing this ‘dream’. Its all very wishy washy in my mind and I think of my grandpa. Its like he’s taking me on this adventure indirectly. He implanted this seed in my brain as a kid that has helped me find opportunities now.

Ah Bella Italia..

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It’s Thanksgiving time once again, and this year I will be on a job interview at the same time the turkey will becoming out of the oven. How bizarre. I need to take every opportunity that I get, but when it comes down to it I miss being an active part of my family.

Living in another country has provided me with new way of seeing life. There is unconventional beauty everywhere because things are interesting. Life here is exciting because it is out the ‘norm’. Sandy has helped me reflect, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘norm’ is necessary and I hope for that again.

I am from the Jersey shore. Life there is nothing like that horrible MTV program ‘The Jersey Shore’. I find assumptions that it is, ignorant and insulting. I did not tan in a box everyday nor do I fully understand what a GTL is, I am a local. They aren’t. I grew up riding my bike to the beach, and walking around my town barefoot to visit my neighbors on their porches.

I am the definition of a beach kid, born and bred and so was every friend I had up until I graduated high school. I learned how to swim in the ocean when I was one, ride waves on a boogie board when I was three, and swim against rip tides and body surf soon after. I am a scuba diver, my friends are divers, my parents are divers. I grew up watching guys leave school with their surf boards sticking out of their trunks to ‘hit the waves’ in mid January.

I spent my youth at the beach club where I spent all day with my friends swimming and having epic barbeques with my family till midnight. It has a dream like quality in my mind, I know its real but it was a bit too perfect.

Serious sandcastle contests, and swim meets with other beach club teams were the height of importance. Toe stubbing on the pool deck made Carebear Band-Aids fashionable, I don’t actually remember wearing shoes in the heat. Searching for shells and for hours keeping track of who found the most sea glass, building forts out of lounge chair cushions, water fights in the cabana while doing the dishes. I grew up there. We kept the same friends, discussed colleges on the beach talked about boys under the empty lifeguard stand after the beach closed. Made failed efforts to sneak into the nightclub next door, the bouncer was my school gym teacher… he grew up in the cabana next to us. Winter months are a vague memory, everything was a rush till the weather warmed up and we could jump back into the pool.

The beach club was demolished when I was 17 to build large unattractive luxury homes for the tourists from the North to stay in during the summer. Things can’t always stay the same.

Going down to the Point Pleasant boardwalk to play ski ball while my grandma played electronic poker, made me a pro at the game. By time I was 8 years old I had my own style of throwing the ball to win epic points. I’d win tickets worth enough to buy that cool neon eraser in the shape of a teddy bear for the tip my pencil.

I have a clear memory of being seven years old; walking back to our car, I see my fingers sticking together with sugary pink residue from cotton candy Grandma let me have. I remember sitting with gram and mom on the beach on metal and fabric chairs watching the town orchestra put on its weekly summer concerts. I loved sitting on my grandmas lap and falling asleep. The orchestra left just last year, no more concerts, only memories.

Now I take my younger cousins to the same boardwalk to eat waffles and ice cream and salt water taffy. We play the same games, and ride the same rides I did as a kid.

When I got older and moved to New York, I still got my summers in Jersey and would visit the beach some weekends in the winter to see the grey color of the ocean. Still taking my bike out in the cold wind to feel the sinus cleansing salty air, I would watch seagulls make tracks in the light snow. The people who work at the deli around the corner know my family and ask how everyone is doing when I stop in to grab a sub. Some things don’t change, but they probably will eventually.

We grew up with Hurricanes. My mom used to say they would open the back and front doors of Tradewinds to let the water run through. We used to make a game of racing the waves that flew over the seawall on our way home where we would tape X’s on our windows and prepare to clear out water that would inevitably flood our basement.

Last month the east was hit with Sandy, an ironic dainty name for a massive coastal super storm. Beach clubs were ripped from their pilings; boardwalks flew up like a bed sheets, local dives gutted by massive flooding and wind. My childhood hometown was ok with some damage and power down for over a week, but compared to everyone else, we were extremely lucky. People have died because evacuation was never something taken very seriously before. ‘Riding the storm out’ was a normal phrase people will use less now. Homes have been lifted and dragged out to sea. A friend of our family is currently borrowing my car because the three they owned floated away. Boats were sprinkled like confetti around and through split open homes. Towns were shut down because they were deemed unsafe due to open gas lines. Fires started, a roller coaster fell off a pier into the ocean, and many displaced now live in shelters. The stories I’ve been hearing are nightmarish, the pictures even more heart wrenching. We’ve never had one as extreme as Sandy and I’m expecting things to look different when I visit next month.

It is disturbing to watching events play out from so far away, and not being able to do anything is even more troubling. I am now a paying subscriber to the NY Times online site to heal this disconnection slightly. I get to see how the rest of the world is seeing my community; emotional, strong, hardworking, and loving. New Jerseyians take care of each other and we are proud of what we have. I call home as often as possible to see how friends are doing, getting their homes fixed and lives back together. All I’ve heard is how nice people are being, and I feel really proud of everyone.

I wish I were home to help out. I will be home in exactly a month, I promise to do my part and give as much energy as I can muster to ‘Restore the Shore’. Restore the possibility of making new memories similar to what I am privileged to have.

So to friends, family, and neighbors- in the spirit of Thanksgiving I am thankful for you, the memories that I share with you, and for the faith in knowing more will be made because we are a determined crowd. I’ll see you in December with bells on and possibly work gloves.

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Chaga Woman
26 x 28
oil on canvas

Last spring I went on Safari. It was utterly breath taking and I recommend Tanzania to everyone that asks.  I realize I have not written anything about my amazing trip, I think the only explanation is that its was so wonderful and so much happened that it has been difficult to sit down and consolidate my thoughts. I saw every animal I can think of. Highlights being Black rhino, tree climbing leopards, Cheetah talking to each other about 5 feet from our vehicle, elephants, giraffes and elephants running and grazing with their heards, every type of bird and antelope, we even saw a lion pride kill a buffalo, and not to mention being in the middle of the wildebeest  migration.

But I could not introduce this painting with out a full recollection of the people I met.  I visited different tribes to get an idea of what the country was really like past all the safari tourist groups. After my safari I stayed in Karatu and first visited the Imbulu tribe which had a basic skit set up for visitors.

“This how we plant, and  this is how we make that weird drink we’re known for….”, “Come sit by me I will tell you your life..” I had my stones read, and she told me that I worked with many people.. I guess when you think about Americans, you are always working with many people. Anyway, after that I took time to  walk through the village market with a swahili translator.
I bought tire shoes, met the translator’s suppliers of meat and vegitables (he was a chef during his regular job) people said “jamaba”, and told me how pretty my hair was, and I got to see the play ground installed by some American program. It was great.

Most tourists choose to see Maasai in a popular Boma at the entrance to the Ngorogoro, I was determined to see  the warriors without 20 other tourists behind me, so I chose to pay to get back into reserve. I had a different swahili translator with me this time. He could say OK, Yes and No in english. That was it. After 4 hours of driving we achieved some sort of ridiculous sign language that only he and I could understand. My entrance into the Boma was interesting. They first did a welcome dance for me, this consisted of the men jumping as high as they could and then the woman. They sang and moved their head up with their chests making those cool necklaces bob around. Then it was my turn and I did not want to do this. One of the Maasai had my camera and was SUPER excited to photograph me jumping. I would made a very bad 1st impression if I didn’t, so i jumped and looked silly. But it was fun and the woman thought I was great and the men laughed. We were on the crater rim and I was alone with my new Maasai escorts. I was completely alone but felt well taken care of, my sign language buddy pushed me along and waved goodbye for the hour.  My new tour guide, an 18 year old Maasai warrior who spoke excellent English, showed me where he lived with his mother and where all of his brothers and sisters lived with their mothers. The are a ‘plural’ marriage community. After the man turns 18 they look for their 1st wife and build their 1st home. They start to have kids, look for another wife, build another home and the Boma grows. The homes are made of bark and dung and constructed in a nautilus shape. He led me in to his small round 8ft by 8ft home, through the narrow winding entrance. The room was completely pitch black with an exception of one small head size ‘hole’  or ‘window’. After my eyes adjusted enough to the light and could see his silhouetted figure I asked questions about this lifestyle. He explained his home was built this way to confuse lions and keep them out of their homes. Woah. Apparently Maasai are called warriors because they can ward off and kill lions. The red cloth they wear is supposed to fend off lions because its mimics the color of fire, every wool cloth pattern has meaning.

After visiting the school where children filed in to greet me with their ABC’s in swahili and english I asked if I could wander around the village by myself. I was givien permission with slight trepidation on the part of my warrior guide.  I watched woman with their children, taking the afternoon to make those round beautiful beaded necklaces, chatting etc. My short stroll around the Boma ended in the center where all of the gorgeous beaded jewelry hung around the packed cow ‘paddock’. The cows are essential to Maasai life, they spend all day allowing them to graze and while the warriors protect them from the predatory lions. The people live off the milk, meat and blood. Traditionally the blood is known to give strength. I really respect the Maasai value of tradition and their contentment in what they have. I asked my 18 year old guide if he would ever  leave this type of life and move to a different type of community. He said that some do, they have one wife and life in the modern community and that os ok for them, they are always allowed to come back and visit. But he loves his traditions and is planning to keep them, he wants to find his 1st wife and start his Boma in the next year or two.

The Chaga tribe was the last group I made an effort to meet. First of all, I had no idea what I was going to see. There was no brochure and nothing online really. My safari, Fay Safaris, organized everything for me, and told me it was worth it. So I went. They live on Mount Kilimanjaro and are they don’t get many visitors. Although they aren’t as visually exciting as the Maasai, the Chaga were my favorite. I had to bring a Swahili and Chaga translator, we did not climb (I didn’t have enough time) so we drove and then walked up a separate route to introduce me to the mountain. We walked up a gravel path that turned into dirt, walked over a bridge with missing planks that took us to the bottom of a hill that we walked up to reach the tribe. It was beautiful, green everywhere except for huge white flowers on the edge of the path.

The Chaga woman in the painting.

After arriving in the village I met a woman who had to be in her mid 80’s, she was worn down but had a big smile on her face. Later I learned she was in her mid 50’s. You could tell they didn’t get many ‘muzungus’ in their home, and they were happy to see me. I was given a seat while the translators helped them tell me about their land and what they do during a regular day. While they were talking with me her daughter who is in the painting, was doing regular chores with her  little boy who wore purple rain boots. The litte boy was picking up weeds and putting them in a pile for their cow to eat, but he would only carry one at a time. The daughter thought this was entertaining and had a HUGE smile on her face.

(On a side note. People in Cameroon smile, but this particular relaxed expression stood out to me)

Next the woman I thought was 80 took me into the original home her father built. It was made of straw mud and dung and in the form of a round hill. Like the boma it was pitch black inside I was asked to sit on one of  two benches that used to be a beds, she explained to me how her father slept on one and mother on the other but now they use the room for cooking. All of a sudden I felt something push against me followed but a crunching sound. I jumped and screamed (like a freak) and after everyone started laughing at me, saw the culprit, a goat in the corner . After she lit a small gas lamp I also found that a giant cow was behind him chomping on some of that greenery the boy in the purple boots had collected. After I calmed down the translators helped me ask the woman questions about her life and children. She said her father taught her everything about planting and raising animals. She showed me the cooking tools he showed her how to carve. Now she is teaching her grandchildren the trades because ‘its too late for my daughter’. She was married when she was 19  and has two grandchildren that she helps her daughter raise. All the families live next to one another in houses on a flat patch of dirt surrounded by their farm of fruit trees. She wanted to know why I was traveling alone and asked me if I was married, when I said ‘no’ she responded “good for you” with a big smile. She wanted to know what I did for money. She thought it was wonderful that I could take care of myself and told me she liked a lot of the foreigners she met. Some from Australia and England. She told me she wished she could have done some traveling but is happy with her life. After our talk she took a picture with me, and asked me to come back and visit someday when I had a family. As a parting gift she offered me a fruit that looked like an orange tomato. She waited for me to eat it in front of her and then offered me another before we headed back down the hill to explore the rest of the mountain.

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