For over twenty years now, my husband had been saying, “Sometime we need to go out to California.” As a near-penniless grad student, he had given a talk at a conference in Monterey. He had flown to San Francisco, where he managed to find an affordable motel (read seedy, verging on squalid) for the two days before his university per diem kicked in. He became smitten with the city and the dramatic rocky west coast. He’s been wanting to return ever since. Yet the time was never quite right, and I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. Despite glowing reviews from him and several native and transplanted California friends, my stubborn, wrong-headed vision of the state persisted: thousands of miles of disaster-prone L.A. sprawl and superficiality. My bias was no doubt influenced by my mother’s attitude. In her opinion, California (unlike Europe, somehow), was simply too far away to merit serious consideration. While I was growing up, she harbored a vague dread that one day, school, a job, or a boy would lure me to the opposite end of the country. Now that my daughter is in high school, I can even more fully appreciate this concern.
One thing led to another, though, and we reached a family decision to head to the bay area this past winter break. And I have to admit, I should have paid attention earlier to all those fans of northern California. I understand now. It’s every bit as good as they say. Maybe even a little bit better, because the weather was so gorgeous. We had prepared for fog, drizzle, gray skies and a damp chill in the air. Instead, we found sunshine, bright blue skies and afternoon temperatures in the mid-60s. With its palm trees, live oaks, cypresses, huge eucalyptus trees and lush flowers, the city has a tropical feel that, for me, at least, was completely unexpected. It was a welcome break from the icy Virginia December we had left behind.
The 19th-century Italianate tower of the Ferry Building sits sentinel on the beautifully reconfigured Embarcadero, (former site of the 1960s-era Embarcadero Freeway that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.)
A row of Victorian homes, delicately decorated and painted.
Portico of the James C. Flood mansion in Nob Hill. Built in 1886,
it’s one of few buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.
A peaceful view along the waterfront, somewhere between
Fisherman’s Wharf & Ghirardelli Square.
The Marina, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Nearby is Crissy Field, a must-see spot for my husband. It’s where windsurfers gather when weather permits.
On my list of sights was the monumental Palace of Fine Arts,
designed by Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915. It was rebuilt of permanent materials in the 1960s.
A close-up view of the Palace of Fine Arts.
A towering Victorian mansion on Alamo Square.
Perhaps the most familiar row of Victorians in San Francisco, the
six “Painted Ladies” on Steiner Street across from Alamo Square.
The less familiar, but just as beautifully painted sisters in the lower block of Steiner Street.
Hibiscus adorns the entry of an Alamo Square home. I loved the city’s tropical plantings.
With Muni passes, we sampled the city’s many forms of public transportation. Vintage streetcars, like this one on Market Street, are better enjoyed from the outside, as they spend most of their time stopped. Best to catch a bus if you’re in a hurry.
Cable cars offer a lively ride. We learned to avoid the long tourist lines and hop on in the middle of the intersection. Our daughter was thrilled when she was assigned an outside perch as we sailed down one of the city’s steep, signature hills.
We arrived at our London destination around midnight. For the next few nights we would be bunking in a dormitory of King’s College Hall. Instead of five or six of us in a communal chamber, as before in France, each of us had our own tiny cell. The barren, ascetic rooms offered limited distraction, and you’d think this would have been our chance to get some rest. But no. Katie, Jackie and I stayed up that first night until around 3 AM, indulging in giddy doses of adolescent humor.
The next morning we were in a fog of drowsiness on a bus rolling through London. Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben, still black with the coal dust of a century and a half, were blurry, dream-like images dancing improbably before my eyes. Once we began our walking tour, I was sufficiently awake to be irked at not having more time to spend in the Abbey, and at seeing the Tower of London only from the outside.
That afternoon we went shopping at Selfridge’s and Marks & Spencer. According to my journal entry, I wasn’t especially impressed; I described them simply as large department stores similar to Atlanta’s now long-defunct Rich’s. I’ve never been an enthusiastic shopper. Postcards and guidebooks were my primary European purchases, but in Marks & Spencer, Rebecca and I bought identical fuzzy white wool sweaters. London meals and evenings are among the vaguest of my memories. I’m certain, though, that we prolonged our nightly festivities at the dorm until well into the morning hours.
On our second day in England, we were back on the bus, heading to Stratford-on-Avon. During the drive, we were all elated when snow began to fall. Snow! In April! This offered further, indisputable proof that we were very far from home. Has a snowflake ever fallen in Atlanta in April? Possibly, but if so, it was terribly lonely, and it melted immediately. The English countryside was as beautiful as that of France. Scenes worthy of Christmas cards were plentiful: medieval-style barns, peacefully grazing horses and sheep, neat, increasingly white fields criss-crossed with ancient rock walls. We stopped briefly in Oxford, where we got off the bus for a glance at Christ Church College. The visit was long enough for me to fall in love with this town of unbelievably gorgeous student housing, and to determine to get back there one day, when I could linger, and wander.
In Stratford, we hit the usual tourist attractions, including Shakespeare’s birthplace and the cottage of his wife, Anne Hathaway. That evening, many of us at last managed some sleep. Unfortunately it was during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V. We were not at all prepared for the play; we had no idea of the plot, the actors’ Elizabethan English was indecipherably foreign, and we weren’t anywhere near the action.
After our extended nap in Shakespeare’s theatre, we headed back to London. The last thing I remember about the trip was our group assembling the next morning on the sidewalk in front of King’s College, awaiting the bus that would take us to Gatwick Airport.
The long trip home has completely dropped from my memory, and in a way, I’m glad. In the years since, I’ve learned that going home requires far more time than getting wherever it is we’re going. It also demands vaster sums of patience and fortitude. But in my mind, I can skip right over all those tiresome hours of waiting and traveling. Suddenly, I’m my fourteen year old self, hugging my young parents in Atlanta’s as yet unremodeled Hartsfield Airport. Soon we’d be turning into our driveway, and I’d see that the azaleas were in full bloom. Daddy would be unlocking the door to the back hall, and my dog Popi would be waiting at the top of the stairs. I’d look into his eyes and know that he missed me. I’d drop my bag in my room and look around at the familiar surroundings of home. I would be completely happy. Happy to be home. And happy to know that one day, somehow or other, I’d get back to those far-away places that now seemed a little closer.
Most of us were not ready for this photo, taken outside King’s College, but we were ready to go home. Our remarkable teacher, Mrs. Correll, smiling at back left, is her usual cheerful self.
On the bus to Normandy, once again my friends and I battled the urge to close our eyes in sleep. Mrs. Correll resumed her patrol duty, walking the aisle, tapping shoulders, urgently entreating us: Wake up! Dont’ miss the beautiful French countryside! As soon as I noticed the loveliness of the landscape we were passing through, I had no more trouble fighting drowsiness. This was the idyllic countryside of fairy tales: rolling hills, pastures and fields neatly enclosed by fences and hedgerows, small cottages, many with thatched roofs and ivy-covered stone walls, the occasional grand manor house. The chic Parisians had disappeared, replaced by timeless country folk engaged in timeless pastoral activities, like the farmer above, carrying a hay bale on his back. We saw French sheep, horses, cows and dogs. They looked somehow more charming and worldly-wise than their Georgia or Kentucky counterparts. It was cold outside, but the sun was bright and the land was poised for the greening of spring.
The drive took nearly four hours. We shared the bus with a larger group of high school students from the north Georgia town of Chickamauga. The French countryside evidently held little charm for them. Restless and bored, they whiled away the time by pining for the far-away, all-American life. They bemoaned the typically much-missed delights: juicy hamburgers, thick steaks, “real” toilet paper, cold Cokes, water with ice. Mrs. Correll had made it clear to us well before the trip that if we uttered such clichés we would risk her wrath. She would not hear us talking like ugly Americans. We were a sophisticated group, she stressed. We knew we weren’t especially sophisticated, but we didn’t want to disappoint the teacher we revered. Seeing the Chickamaugans behaving boorishly inspired us to try to act cultured and urbane. We considered them to be country bumpkins. I’m sure they thought of us as annoying little city twits.
My first glimpse of Mont St. Michel was magical. I was not alone; the vision was sufficient to switch the Chickamaugans’ attention away from the pleasures of home. I’ve returned to Normandy twice over the years, and each time, the initial sighting of that towering castle-church on the rock, rising out of an immensity of flat sand, retains its unique power.
According to medieval texts that recount the beginnings of Mont Saint-Michel, in the eighth century, the archangel Saint Michael appeared in a dream to Aubert, Bishop of nearby Avranches. He commanded Aubert to build him a church upon the rock. When difficulties arose, as one might expect with such a tricky architectural undertaking, the archangel was said to have worked miracles that allowed building to continue. Aubert’s church was consecrated in 708, and word spread of the majestically situated church divinely ordained by an angel.
By the twelfth century, Mont Saint-Michel had become one of Europe’s premiere pilgrimage destinations. In an age that valued visible, tangible relics of a saint’s earthly life, an angel might seem an unlikely candidate to become a popular pilgrimage saint. Saint Michael, a heavenly creature who never dwelt on earth, could offer no bones, blood, hair or instrument of torture to be venerated. But Aubert and those who succeeded him in tending the shrine were creative and enterprising; if the people wanted relics, they would have relics.
Some pilgrims may have come for the relics. Probably more came to soak up the romance of the place itself. Its exceptional location and the drama inherent in the site offers its own enchantment. Thrill-seekers made the pilgrimage because it entailed risk and adventure. Getting to the church on the rock meant navigating the bay’s capriciously shifting sands and the rushing tides that transformed the mount into an island twice daily. There was also the danger of losing one’s way when the thick fog settled in.
A series of fires required sucessive rebuildings. With each disaster, reputed miracles were interpreted as proof of Saint Michael’s continuing support. He had not abandoned the site. On the contrary, he required a bigger, taller church. The Benedictine Abbey that stands today was begun in 1023. While portions of this Romanesque building remain, most of the church dates from the Gothic period. The archangel was traditionally worshipped in high and lonely spots, and the church that evolved over the centuries might be seen as a sort of architectural portrait of Saint Michael. The building’s massive heaviness and its apparent unity with the rock reflect the military saint’s enduring strength, while its soaring height stretches toward his heavenly domain. On stormy nights, as lightning struck, wind howled and thunder rumbled, the medieval faithful claimed to witness the archangel’s battle with Satan at the top of the mount.
That chilly April day in 1975, our group hadn’t had to brave the elements to reach Mont Saint-Michel. We weren’t exhausted from months of walking in all weathers and through difficult terrains. But we were tired of sitting, and delighted to get off the bus. As we hurried along the causeway, a few of us may have been nearly as excited as some pilgrims before us. The view of the mount retained its drama even at close range. Winding our way up the narrow, cobblestoned street, the adventure continued. The story-book town, with its tightly packed medieval buildings, the upper levels jutting out above those below, was quaint yet scruffily authentic, not a plastic Disneyesque quaint. Inside the church, the shadowy crypts, cut into the depths of the rock, were austere and fortress-like, making the soaring nave, with its pointed Norman arches and tall clerestory windows, appear all the more gloriously luminous.
Dusk was approaching as we climbed to the top of the ramparts to look out over the vast expanse of sand and sea below. The wind was picking up. There was no lightning, but the atmosphere felt charged. That night, we did not see Saint Michael engaged in a furious war with the devil, but the possibility didn’t seem at all far-fetched. What a spectacular sequel to our Super-8 movie Dark Secrets we could have shot at Mont Saint-Michel!
Yesterday, our daughter went to New York City on a whirlwind, 24-hour trip with her drama class. The group left from the school by bus at 5 AM, and returned at 5 AM this morning. They saw two Broadway shows–Newsies and the eagerly awaited Matilda, still in previews. A Newsies cast member led the kids in a dance workshop. They had some free time, so I’m expecting a a full report on wandering Times Square characters. Are the Naked Cowboys in season yet? Were there plentiful sightings of Elmo, Shrek, Hello Kitty, Grandma Liberty and the Tin Man? How was the singing waitstaff at Ellen’s Stardust Diner? D is still asleep, so I haven’t heard the details of the trip yet. I’m very grateful to the drama teacher and to the parent chaperones accompanying the group. I’m especially thankful that I was not among them. While I enjoy New York in small, metered doses, I’m relieved that crowded, pre-dawn bus rides are predominantly in my past.
As D was preparing for the excursion that launched her spring break, I was recalling the days when I looked forward to my own eighth-grade adventure. I mentioned in an earlier post that I had the unlikely good fortune to participate in a school trip to France and England. (See A Small Reunion of the Rutherford Hall Gang, Nov. 2011.) As I said then, it was a rare event for a group from the Atlanta Public City Schools to venture anywhere for spring break in the 70s, much less to Europe. It was just about unheard of then for middle-schoolers in our area to take part in such study trips. But we were blessed with a dynamic and unusually dedicated French teacher, Martha Elizabeth Correll. She decided we must see France, and we must see it with her. We loved and admired the young, fun and charismatic Mrs. Correll. She seemed to be fond of us, too. She found a bargain-priced trip through the now extinct Foreign Study League. Nine of us, including several of my best friends, managed to persuade our parents that this was an opportunity not to be missed.
Mrs. Correll encouraged us to keep a journal during our trip, and naturally I saved mine. In my first entry, dated a few days before our departure, I mentioned my vague fear of flying. I had never been on a plane before: It couldn’t be especially frightening, could it? Katie, who wouldn’t ride the roller coasters at Six Flags, had flown before, and she wasn’t scared.
Above, most of our group at the Atlanta Airport, ready to board the plane to New York. Several of us hold our blue and white Foreign Study League carry-ons. Our teacher, Mrs. Correll, is at the far right, in her signature, whimsically decorated bell-bottom jeans.
My journal from the actual trip continues on the subject of airplane travel. The flights were unexpectedly smooth, I reported. Apparently I was expecting a roller coaster experience, despite Katie’s evidence to the contrary. But every aspect of flying was novel and amazing, if not particularly enjoyable. I wrote at length about the unbelievably cramped quarters on the overseas flight, the tiny bathrooms, and the unidentifiable food (my friend Jackie maintained that we had been served baked rat).
After a sleepless night on the plane, we arrived in Paris in the gray dawn and boarded our bus for an introductory tour of the city. I recall powerfully the miserable war I waged against my leaden eyelids during my first, much anticipated hour in a foreign country. We were surrounded by legendary sights, yet the yearning for sleep was overwhelming. After the discomfort of the airplane seats, the tour bus provided an ideal environment for snoozing. Most eyes were closing, most heads were bobbing. Mrs. Correll, ever vivacious, walked the aisle, rousing us. She hadn’t taken us with her to France so we could sleep on a bus. Once in the heart of Paris, I shook off some of the muddled fog of half-sleep. After stops at the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame, nearly everyone was awake enough to feel rejuvenated by our surroundings. Avoiding sleep became even easier once we noticed that our Parisian guide, Salvador, was charming and exotically handsome (so French!).
Because my expectations had been low, our hotel was a pleasant surprise. It had one of those old-fashioned elevators I had seen in movies, with a folding iron grille in place of a door. Our room was almost grand, if slightly faded. I liked its high ceilings, ornate wallpaper and elegant fireplace. Its large size was fortunate, considering there were five of us in it. Katie and Rebecca shared one double bed, Jackie and her mother shared the other, and I got the single. I remember being cold at night and sleeping huddled under my coat. We had been told not to expect a private bathroom, so we were surprised to find a spacious one with lavatory, bathtub and bidet. The toilettes, as we learned to say, were down the hall, in claustrophobic compartments. One of our friends went in one and couldn’t get out. He was finally extricated by a team of chamber maids speaking in baffling, rapid-fire French. After that, we were all careful about locking the door just so.
Our three-day visit to Paris was like a fast-paced tasting menu of the city’s highlights, most of which Mrs. Correll had discussed with us previously in vivid detail. She wanted us to understand and appreciate the history and culture of France, as well as its language. Paris came alive for us during that short time because our teacher had prepared us well. We heard some of the Easter mass in Notre-Dame. We saw the forbidding Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette spent her sad last days. We beheld the lovely Sainte-Chapelle, the Gothic jewelbox that Saint Louis built to house the Crown of Thorns. We wandered the Latin Quarter, alive with bohemian student activity. We explored the courtyards of the Sorbonne, where Mrs. Correll had studied.
We watched old soldiers playing boules outside Les Invalides, fishermen casting their nets from the Pont Neuf, and children sailing paper boats in the Luxembourg Gardens. Everywhere there were Frenchmen carrying baguettes and wearing actual berets. We spent some time (not nearly enough for me) in the Louvre. Of course we walked the Champs-Elysees. We cruised the Seine at night in a Bateau Mouche. I got to witness first-hand the view I had most anticipated–the tip of the Île de la Cité with the lacy spires and flying buttresses of Notre-Dame just behind.
I loved the wealth of intricately decorated Easter candies and pastries that beckoned from the windows of small shops on narrow streets. Never before had fruit and vegetables looked so beguiling as they did in the city’s outdoor markets. Even displays in butcher shop windows were strangely beautiful, recalling old-master still lifes. We ate in cafés and brasseries, and learned that a croque-monsier, an omelette, or anything with frîtes was a good choice. We learned that French ice cream is served in minuscule metal dishes. And we found that paying for our meals and managing francs and centîmes was as difficult as we had feared.
We were busy during our three days in Paris. But we weren’t so busy that we missed getting a sense of the city’s unique, ebullient, quirky atmosphere. Sooner than we would have liked, it was time to head to Normandy, to Mont-St-Michel, and on across the Channel to England.
If you ever find yourself in western New York, perhaps after fulfilling a quest for authentic maple syrup at Cartwright’s Maple Tree Inn, I would recommend another stop in the nearby historic village of Angelica. (While Cartwright’s has an Angelica address, it is several miles outside the tiny town.)
Postcard-pretty Angelica was named for Angelica Shuyler Church (1756- 1814), scion of two eminent New York families, the Schuylers and the Rensselaers. Angelica’s father was a general in the Continental Army, later a member of the Continental Congress and a U.S. senator. Her brother-in-law was Alexander Hamilton. After eloping with the English-born merchant John Barker Church, Angelica lived most of her life in Europe. Intelligent, well-educated, charming and beautiful, she mixed in elite circles. During her years in Paris, her confidants included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (with whom she kept up a lifelong correspondence), and the Marquis de Lafayette. Her London acquaintances were equally renowned. Angelica and her family returned to America for a visit to attend the inauguration of George Washington.
When her family purchased a 100,000-acre tract of land in the wilds of western New York, Angelica’s son Philip scouted the area for a suitable location to build a town. He chose a site along the Genesee River. In 1802, he named the new settlement after his mother. Thanks to Philip and his surveyor, the town has a pleasing geometric plan, its main street radiating out from a central circular park.
Considering the name of the town and that of its founding family, it’s appropriate that Angelica is notable for the many lovely old churches that ring the green and dot Main Street. Nearly all the town’s buildings date from the 19th century and have been little changed. Modernism sidestepped Angelica. Large, still beautiful homes, plus a library, academy, court house and post office, are interspersed among the churches and shops. We typically visit in February, when the view from the snow-covered central park recalls a tabletop Christmas display of quaint ceramic buildings.
In 1797, Angelica and her husband returned to live permanently in the U.S. Their grand home, known as Villa Belvidere, is located on the outskirts of town. Begun in 1806, its design is attributed to Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. capitol. The house remains in private hands.
My friend and former boss Gudmund Vigtel died last month at the age of 87. For nearly thirty years, Vig, as he was generally known, was the face and guiding force of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. He became the museum’s director in 1963, when it was a fledgling institution in a provincial backwater, housed in a nondescript building adjacent to its first home, the Peachtree Street mansion of the High family.
Vig led the High through two pivotal periods of extraordinary growth. In June of 1962, 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent arts patrons, returning from a museum-sponsored trip to Europe, were killed when their plane crashed on take-off at Orly Airport in Paris. Since Atlanta’s founding in 1836 as Terminus, the end point of a railway hub, its citizens have tended to value business over culture. But they are a resilient lot, determined not to be bested. The Orly tragedy, like General Sherman’s burning of the city during the Civil War, inspired a deeply felt resolve to regroup and rebuild, bigger and better. Gudmund Vigtel, then assistant director at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., was hired to head up the new, expanded arts facility to be known as the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center.
Vig must have stood out as a cosmopolitan, dashing European figure in the Atlanta of the early 60s. Born in Jerusalem to Lutheran missionaries from Norway, he had lived in Vienna and Oslo before his family fled (on skis, as I’ve always heard) from Nazi-occupied Norway into Sweden. But Vig had Georgia ties as well. Having studied art in Sweden, he received a Rotary Scholarship that first took him to a small college in north Georgia. It was not a good fit. He recounted how he spent lonely afternoons sitting on a big rock, asking himself, Why am I here? Before long, he managed to transfer to the Atlanta College of Art, where the more urban environment suited him better.
I met Vig during the second pivotal period of his tenure at the High. During the 1970s he became increasingly convinced that his museum was still too small. When, in 1977, the blockbuster King Tut show bypassed Atlanta for New Orleans because the High lacked sufficient exhibition space, it was clear that Vig was right. He launched an impassioned campaign for a considerably larger and more striking building. Despite the board’s initial preference for a local architect, he managed to persuade them to choose the as yet unproven Richard Meier of New York. Meier would go on to to design the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture.
I had the good fortune to work for Vig as Secretary to the Director during the High’s first two years in the new Meier facility. (There are, of course no secretaries at the museum now, or perhaps anywhere; they have been promoted to other titles, if not in salary.) Thanks to my dentist, a family friend, avid art collector and museum patron, I learned about the job opening. It was the summer of 1983, and I had just graduated from UGA with a degree in Art History. I was coming to terms with the realization that this was, as I had suspected, hardly a golden key to a lucrative or, perhaps, any career. Luckily, I could type. I applied at the High. I wasn’t hired; there was a better, faster typist. About three weeks later, I got a call from the museum. The other applicant hadn’t worked out, for various reasons. When Vig had referred, for example, to the artist Botticelli in his dictated letters, this secretary had repeatedly transcribed Buddy Chelly. Was I still interested?
The postmodern Meier building, its undulating facade clad in white enamel tile, was due to open that October when I began work in July. The offices had just moved into the new quarters, but the galleries and atrium remained unfinished. Heavy plastic sheeting kept some of the dust out but did nothing to diminish the loudness of the construction noise. The pace of construction was quick and constant, and it only added to the excitement of working at the museum. I loved my front-row seat in the living theatre that was staging the airy new building’s completion. And I soon became fond of my boss and the rest of the museum staff.
Many of us spend our lives knowing and regretting that we have not yet hit upon the perfect career fit. Vig found his, it would certainly seem. He had a broad knowledge and true devotion to art of various genres and styles. But he lacked any trace of pretense or conceit; he bore no resemblance to the stereotypical artsy intellectual. Not a single aspect of the life of the museum was beneath him, and he was apparently tireless. What’s more, Vig had a real gift for the human connection; he was thoughtful, warm, empathetic, funny and charming. He inspired the best in every staff member, and we held him in high regard.
As Vig’s dramatic vision for the new building was nearing completion, it was a heady time to be part of the HMA team. The museum opened on schedule in October, with a dizzying flurry of celebratory events held in the soaring central atrium. Vig treated his staff with the same respect and courtesy as the most generous or sought-after patrons. HMA parties were equal-opportunity events. Security guards danced with curators; art handlers and secretaries rubbed elbows with Atlanta’s civic leaders and the occasional celebrity. Vig was always there at the heart of the party, like a joyful father of the bride, surrounded, in his elegant home, by those he loved best.
Vig’s oddly spelled Norwegian name confounded most homegrown Southerners. Yet its pronounciation was straightforward: Good mund Vig tel, with the accent on each first syllable. I was amazed by the vast volume of unsolicited letters (many of them very strange, to say the least) that the museum received. The majority of these erred comically in the spelling of Vig’s name. They variously addressed him as Gudmund Viglet, Gudmund Vigtoe, Goodmood Vigel, Goodood Wigtel and even, somehow, Tubmund Eigtel. Vig never took himself too seriously, and he found these permutations as amusing as I did. He also laughed and reassured me when I realized, too late, that one of the letters I typed had gone out to Ms. Roberta Goizueta instead of Mr. Roberto Goizueta, then the Chairman of Coca-Cola.
Vig’s impact on the arts of Atlanta was profound. Like so many others whose lives he touched, I will think of him often, and with affection. In my mind I see him now, and it’s 1985. He’s coming back from checking a new painting in the galleries, crossing the wide atrium. He’s walking his characteristically jaunty walk, grey curls bouncing a bit, suit slightly rumpled. As he approaches, I hear him speak my name in the Norwegian accent he never lost, and I see the customary twinkle in his eye. Gudmund Vigtel will be greatly missed, but lovingly and gladly remembered.
On this T-shirt, made c. 1985 by the HMA staff to celebrate Vig’s birthday, he is surrounded by some of the more egregiously erroneous misspellings of his name, collected from letters. Vig’s uncharacteristically gruff expression was intended for comic purposes. I wish I hadn’t worn the shirt for painting; the splotch on Vig’s jacket is a later, accidental addition.
Commercial Street begins in Provincetown’s quiet East End, just across the line from quiet Truro. The street name appears misleading at first, in this almost exclusively residential stretch, a mix of cottages, grand homes, and historic guesthouses. The crowds of tourists are absent for the first mile or so. My daughter and I especially enjoy exploring this serene section of the street, where lush gardens flourish and the waters of the bay provide a bright, sparkling backdrop.
A favorite subject of local artists, this white Dutch colonial, with its pristine lawn overlooking the bay, is the first home on Commercial Street’s East End.
Pigeons keep watch over Commercial Street from the dormer of the sturdy brick house where Norman Mailer lived and wrote for 25 years. After the author’s death, the home became the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.
An eighteenth-century Cape Cod cottage, glimpsed through the garden gate.
The gardens of Provincetown, though typcially small, are vigorously hardy, dramatic and colorful.
This spacious expanse of lawn, with its rugged old schoolyard swing set, is an odd, unexpected luxury in Provincetown, where bay-side land is at a great premium.
An artfully styled P-town compound, with a patriotic tableau of American flag and exuberant red and blue flowers in white window boxes.
At the Sea Urchin cottage, a profusion of wild roses and a sandy path to the water.
Tranquil spaces may be found even in the busiest section of Commercial Street, as here on the shady porch of Shor, a home furnishings showroom. Next door is the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, built in 1847. The church’s front lawn, when not hosting an open-air market, offers an inviting escape from the crowds, as does its gracious interior, notable for the trompe l’oeil sculptural paintings in the sanctuary.
The beautifully detailed tower of the Meeting House.
This charming book store, located in a little house behind and surrounded by art galleries in the midst of Commercial Street, is reached by a tree-shaded pathway. D and I stop in at Tim’s to browse the shelves for interesting bargains and to enjoy the quiet.
Artists began to discover the small fishing village of Provincetown in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It quickly became established as an artist’s colony after Charles Hawthorne opened his Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. Now, over 40 galleries display a wide range of styles. In the hands of local artists, the regional tradition of atmospheric, Impressionistic landscapes, still lifes and figurative work remains vital and fresh. The gallery above specializes in bold contemporary Asian art. Many of the galleries are staffed by the artists themselves, who tend to be friendly and unpretentious.
The 200-year old Red Inn, which hosts one of the town’s most acclaimed restaurants, is in Commercial Street’s far West End, past the reach of the heaviest crowds. The deck, with its view of the harbor, is a spectacular spot for a sunset drink. Here, in the repose of early morning, neat white chairs welcome the promise of another beautiful day.
Even though I’m glad to feel the September chill in the air, I find myself looking back fondly on August, to our time at the Cape. Perhaps because the school year has begun, bringing its steady stream of routine duties and a deluge of paperwork, the echoes of those last lazy days of summer are especially sweet right now.
The appeal of our quiet little cottage complex in Truro is heightened by its location next door to bustling Provincetown, shoehorned into the narrow tip of the outer Cape. It’s a tiny town with an expansive, generous spirit, urban flair, and an edgy sense of humor. Eccentrics of all stripes, as well as tourists from the heartland, find a warm welcome in P-Town, where ecumenical diversity flourishes.
The central section of Commercial Street, the narrow main artery, is one long party during beach season, when it’s crowded with pedestrians and vehicles. In Provincetown, the architecture is historic and charming, the street musicians are inventive and mostly talented, the food is excellent, offerings of art, musical theatre and comedy are vast and easily accessible, the drag queens are witty, the world’s most expressive T-shirts are available, and bay breezes blow. It truly has something for everyone.
Above, the busy heart of Commercial Street, catching the ever-present Cape Cab in transit. Its sister vehicles include two wildly painted mini-limos known as the Funk Buses, which offer on-the-road karaoke. Provincetown is no place for a sensible Lincoln Town Car.
Another view of Commercial Street, above. The umbrella-shaded outdoor dining area at Patio is an ideal spot for people and dog watching. Provincetown is an enthusiastically pet-friendly town, despite the notable absence of any dogs in this photo. I counted thirty dogs in one hour last year during dinner at Patio. Most were on leashes, others were pushed in strollers or carried in handbags. There was even one puppy in some sort of dog-Snugli. Because our place in Truro doesn’t allow pets, we can’t bring Kiko, but we almost always see at least one Shiba Inu. My hope is that someday, somehow, he’ll be able to accompany us. I like to think he has an artistic sensibility and would feel completely at home here.
Provincetown, fiercely protective of its unique quirkiness, is resistant to national chains. You won’t find a McDonald’s, a Rite Aid, or a CVS. No Starbucks, no T.G.I. Friday’s, no Applebee’s. No Burger King, although, there is, appropriately, a Burger Queen. The Little Red, above, is a friendly, well-stocked convenience store, housed in what appears to be a brightly painted Victorian playhouse.
Like many buildings in densely populated Provincetown, this gray turreted house, which could easily feature in an Addams Family film, has commercial space below and living space above. The towers of the Pilgrim Monument and the Unitarian Church peek out from behind.
A living statue often occupies a prime spot in front of the Town Hall. Above, during the summer of 2010, Cady Vishniac posed regularly as a bronze figure of a Depression-era hobo. Richard Mason, inspired by Provincetown’s World War I Memorial statue nearby, occupied the corner in 2011, in the guise of a WWI soldier.
Above, the sun sets on the Lobster Pot and the Governor Bradford bar and restaurant across the street. I’ve tasted nothing better, ever, I believe, than the pan-roasted lobster at the Lobster Pot. If you think lobster is lobster, and cannot be improved upon, this will change your mind. The Pot is always packed, but it’s worth the wait. Get your lobster buzzer and wander through the nearby shops.
The yellow banner for Mary Poppers prompts me to note that this year, at last, we had a John Waters sighting. The director and author makes his summer residence in P-Town. I’ve never seen him riding his bike down Commercial Street, as many have, but we spotted him, unmistakable in his pencil-thin moustache, walking with friends on Bradford Street. They were heading toward the Provincetown Theatre to see the popular Mary Poppins parody.
The haunting neon glow of The Lobster Pot, a beacon for hungry tourists and locals.
Look for another P-Town post to follow soon: Serenity on Commercial Street.
St. Louis Place, a typical street in Virginia-Higland
Virginia-Highland took a bit longer than Morningside to get back on its feet after our neighborhoods succeeded in stopping the superhighway. A substantial section of Virginia Avenue had been decimated to make way for a highway interchange. The destruction had taken its toll on the surrounding homes that survived, many just barely.
In my early teen years, Virginia-Highland was old-school, no-frills and decidedly untrendy. When we filmed a Super-8 movie for a school project, the neighborhood stood in for a sleepy fictitious Kansas town, quaint but down on its luck. There were vintage barbershops and gas stations, untouched since the 40s, family-owned grocery, drug and hardware stores, and the city’s oldest operational fire station, built in 1925 in the bungalow style like many of the homes around it. Some of the proprietors wore overalls and spoke with accents now associated only with deepest South Georgia. The two burger and beer taverns, Moe’s and Joe’s and George’s, which opened respectively in 1947 and 1961, were not yet hip. (My father appreciated both places when he first arrived in town and rented a room on Ponce de Leon. Mama and I spent that summer with my grandparents in Kentucky while Daddy looked for more permanent digs). I didn’t enter either bar until I was in college, but the predominantly elderly good old boys inside could be seen in the neon gleam of the Pabst Blue Ribbon signs.
The revitalization of Virginia-Highland (according to my, perhaps flawed recollection), began with the opening of Taco Mac at the intersection of Virginia and Highland in 1979. It started as a cheap spot for beer and Buffalo wings. In its first incarnation, its décor recalled a fraternity house rec room, all plywood and bad lighting. But for the first time in years, a younger crowd began pouring into the area. College kids from Emory and Georgia Tech found Taco Mac and then discovered the dingy ironic charm of Moe’s & Joe’s and George’s. On weekend nights the crowds in Virginia-Highland rivaled those along Peachtree in Buckhead.
These days, the area is healthier and busier than ever, at all hours. The cost of gentrification, of course, was the loss of many of the old mom-and pop stores that had served the area during the decades when it limped along. Still, the neighborhood remains a mix of the affordable and the aspirational. Highland Hardware, which began as a hardware store with a great woodworking section, evolved into Highland Woodworking, a specialized mecca for expert woodworkers. Jimmy Carter has been a regular patron of both. Now, if you’re not an expert of any kind, and you simply need a hammer, the nearby Intown Ace Hardware will happily sell you one.
In the clothing, accessory and home goods stores, my daughter and I enjoy browsing the interesting array of items, and occasionally she finds a great little something she can afford with her own money. But we are not really big shoppers, and when we do shop, we like bargains. Virginia-Highland isn’t the place for bargains. It’s not the actual merchandise that draws us. What we particularly appreciate in these boutiques is their fanciful atmosphere and their imaginative decoration of unique old architectural spaces. Owners tend to be fun, funky and welcoming, to humans and their dogs. There’s usually a furry friend snoozing peacefully beneath a sales table or behind the counter. It’s good to know Kiko would be welcome, should we ever get him to Atlanta.
D and I were sad to see that Mooncake had closed when we returned this year. An especially charming shop, it was mentioned in one of D’s favorite books, Peace, Love and Baby Ducks, by the Atlanta author Lauren Myracle. Mama bought me a pair of my favorite earrings here, silver disks resembling manhole covers, stamped NYC Sewer.
Virginia-Highland is known for its wide variety of restaurant choices. Atkins Park (which dates from 1922 and is Atlanta’s oldest operating tavern) caters to a diverse crowd by managing to be simultaneously up-and downscale. A boisterous crowd enjoys the front bar area, while elegant comfort food is served in a quieter, classic restaurant setting in the back. Highland Tap, a fixture since the 80s, follows suit. Depending upon the mood of the patrons and the hour of the evening, the subterranean space may feel like a loud college bar or an urbane steak eatery. At Blind Willie’s, it’s possible to get basic food and listen to world-class blues and folk music. And for traditionalists and hipsters alike, Moe’s & Joe’s and George’s remain vital. These two spots have changed very little in appearance, other than the addition of flat-screen TVs (and a much younger wait-staff). My parents join my daughter and me for lunch at George’s each year after our boutique walk. I find it reassuring that there are some things in my fast-moving hometown that don’t change, at least for a few decades.
Back on the bus, we saw many more Pest landmarks, such as the immense Hungarian Parliament building, its tall central dome surrounded by a flurry of lacy Neo-Gothic turrets. In a drastic juxtaposition of scale, not far from the Parliament, is Budapest’s intimate and moving Holocaust Memorial. Sixty pairs of 1940s-style cast iron shoes are anchored to the promenade along the Danube. They memorialize the Jews who were shot near the spot during World War II by Fascist militia. Before the execution, the group was ordered to remove their shoes. Their bodies fell into the river and drifted away.
We crossed the Chain Bridge toward the hills of Buda, where our next stop was the Citadel. One of the city’s highest points, it affords sweeping bird’s-eye views. From the Fisherman’s Bastion, a Neo-Romanesque collection of gleaming white towers and ramparts, we began another walking tour. Immediately adjacent to the Bastion is the Matthias Church, known for its single, ornate tower. The first church on the spot dated from the eleventh century, while the current building was begun in the high-Gothic style of the 14th-century and completed (and heavily restored) in the 19th. The nearby bronze equestrian statue of St. Stephen, patron saint and first king of Hungary, looks as though it may have escaped from Heroes’ Square. Street entertainers tend to cluster around the statue’s monumental base. A falconer with his falcon was commanding some attention during our visit.
View of Budapest and the Danube from the ramparts of Fisherman’s Bastion.
The Matthias Church, named for Hungary’s King Matthias.
Statue of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king and patron saint.
As we headed away from the Matthias church, our guide stopped us by a small white car parked in what appeared to be the center of the cobblestone street. A Trabant, an East German relic from the Communist period, it made the Datsun 1200 my mother drove in the 70s look as luxurious as a Jaguar. Our guide spoke passionately and eloquently about the difficulties of day-to-day life during Communism. For decades, the Trabant was the only car the average Hungarian could hope to afford. It was notorious for its tiny engine, heavy black exhaust, and hard plastic body made of recycled materials. Months and sometimes years passed between the time of order and delivery. But it could carry four people and some luggage. Our guide clearly considered the sad-looking little car a symbol of the daily indignities the Hungarian people suffered during the totalitarian regime.
The East-German-made Trabant, a relic of the Communist period.
After parting with the Trabant, we had free time to walk on our own. Just steps away from the busy area of the Bastion, the narrow streets were quiet and serene on this beautiful Palm Sunday morning. My parents accompanied D and me for a while, but before long they headed back to the bus, leaving us for more adventurous exploring. We like to go “off road” when we have the chance. I’ve learned that beauty often hides in unexpected spots. Winding around behind the rather sleepy Budapest Hilton, we found a secluded brick and stone stairway of medieval appearance that led down to the wild and overgrown banks of the Danube. Through window-sized openings in the massive stair wall, the distant towers of Parliament could have been Sleeping Beauty’s spellbound castle. Much like during our meanderings through the Four Seasons the night before, we seemed to have Budapest to ourselves. We had stumbled upon another marvelous secret in this ancient, enchanting city. My daughter and I will always remember Budapest as a gracious place that seemed eager to greet us, to reveal something truly special when we took the time to really look.
The towers of Parliament glimpsed through the stair wall.
D enjoys a lookout post in the wall.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.