Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mezcal & My Favorite Mexican Photos

 Back in 2008, when Michael Covino and the Niche Hospitality Group opened Mezcal Restaurant on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, Mike commissioned me to  print, mat and frame nearly 40 photos of the Mezcal-making process—photos I took on a trip to Oaxaca.

In the town of Mitla  I photographed many family-owned Mezcal “fabricas”. Mezcal is made from the heart of the Agave cactus–called a piña because of its resemblance to a pineapple. I got great photos, all related to the Mezcal-making process, but I convinced Mike to let me frame as well some non-Mezcal portraits of people I had encountered in Mexico.  He hung six of my portraits of women in the ladies’ room and six hombres in the men’s.  These “bathroom” portraits proved to be so popular that people kept stealing them, which I took as a compliment.

Mezcal Restaurant in Worcester turned out to be a huge success.  It was voted best Mexican Restaurant in the city. Every time I drove by, I saw people waiting to get in.

Last spring Mike asked me to print out a new set of photos for a new Mezcal Restaurant that the Niche group was opening in Leominster, MA.  It’s just now officially open, and my favorite portraits of Mexican men and women are again in the restrooms.  I hope they don’t get stolen!  But if they do, I’ll just re-print them and take it as a compliment.  Here’s the story behind the dozen photos:
1. Guelaguetza Girls. These lovely young women were practicing for the ceremony called Guelaguetza that takes place in Oaxaca during late July.  Originally meant to worship the corn god, it was celebrated by the indigenous people long before the Spanish came.  The trajes (costumes) these women are wearing and their lace headpieces are so stunning! No wonder Frieda Kahlo adopted the fashion for herself.

2. Fiesta tot. This adorable child was photographed some years ago at a Candelaria Festival on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  The Zapotec Indians of the Isthmus have their own language and traditions, and it’s a strong matriarchal society—the women rule.

3. At the Candelaria Festival, most of the dancers were women dancing with each other. (The men mainly watched from the sidelines)  But this young couple was the focus of all eyes, because they were so beautiful and so clearly in love.  I hope by now they’re married and bringing their own fiesta tots to the Candelaria festival.

4. The Tortilla Lady.  She’s cooking (with helpers) in her courtyard in preparation for the Candelaria feast.  She is one of the many local cooks I was introduced to by Susana Trilling in the course of one of Susana’s culinary tours.  Those tours are always full of adventure and  take you far, far off the beaten track, because Susana knows the culinary secrets of Mexico better than anyone.  Info about  her tours is at www.SeasonsOfMyHeart.com.

5. Candelaria Parade.  These beauties were tossing favors, just as people do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Candelaria happens on Feb. 2 (same as Groundhog Day).  Because it’s 40 days after Christmas, it marks the day when the Virgin Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple.  In Mexico, every family buys a new outfit for the Christ Child doll on the family’s home altar and takes him to church to be blessed.

6. You’ve seen this urchin on my blog before--cheerfully carrying her little brother on her back.  When I was walking around San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico in 2009, also on one of Susana’s culinary tours (this one was “Chiapas & Chocolate & Tabasco”), I encountered this girl and lots of her friends, all selling cheap jewelry. The first day I ran into her, she was unencumbered by her sibling, but she was always smiling. Of course I bought some of her bracelets.

7. This blind musician was also someone I encountered on the streets of San Cristobal.  It’s a wrenching portrait.  For some reason, almost all the photos I’ve taken of old men in Mexico bring tears to my eyes.  I think because they make me think of my father, who died about 25 years ago.

8. This old man, holding his bottle of beer and staring thoughtfully into space, was at a Day of the Dead celebration, which is usually a rollicking event in this village outside of Oaxaca, with bands playing and people dancing.  But I suspect he’s pensive because he’s remembering friends who have passed away.

9. This man who entered the church in Tlacalula, immediately knelt down and continued to pray for a long time.  I suspect he’d come a long way on this pilgrimage.

10.  The Red Devil.  He’s one of many devils that delighted in harassing us at Carnival time in the village of San Martine Telcajete.  I was there while taking a class in collage, shadow box & photography with photographer Mari Seder.  Every year the class visits the Carnival celebrations in this small town, which include a hilarious mock wedding featuring trans-dressers and much mischief. (See more about Mari’s  classes at www.artworkshopsinoaxaca.com. )

11. This photograph was taken at the ancient ruins of El Tajin on another one of Susana’s culinary tours—“Veracruz & Vanilla”. At the Spring Equinox, the indigenous people come to the ruined pyramids of El Tajin, everyone dressed in white, to absorb the power of the sun god and to  have  a cuerandero (healer)  perform a cleansing ceremony.  At night there were native dancers and children handing out clay images of the gods and the next day everyone came back to see the Vanilla Queen, the Voladores (flying dancers) with their dangerous rituals, and of course, to be cleansed.

12. The young man above is happy because he’s off to the Candelaria parade which is followed by the fiesta.  As I recall, the price of admission was a case of beer.  The Mexicans of the state of Oaxaca, like the  customers at the old and new Mezcal Restaurants, know how to have a good time.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is Greece Safe for Tourists?

I spent most of July in different parts of Greece. While there, I kept hearing from friends: “Are you scared? Is Greece safe?” 

After I got back, on Aug. 7, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a photo essay, “The Mean Streets of Athens”, which, with photos of heroin addicts, riot police and a burning mosque, made Athens look worse than Manhattan in the seventies.

The NYT photo essay had only one paragraph of text which read in part: “Recent images from Athens have mostly shown violent protests in response to the austerity program Greece has adopted to solve its debt crisis.  Less public is the city’s skyrocketing violent crime rate. According to police statistics, robberies almost doubled from 2008 to 2010, homicides are steadily increasing and illegal immigrants continue to arrive.”

In Athens, we usually stay at the Grande Bretagne on Constitution (Syntagma)  Square, but this year, when we first arrived, we borrowed a friend’s apartment near the Hilton, away from the center, because we had read about the riots in the Square in front of the Parliament building, during which the police used tear gas on the crowds and considerable damage was done to the luxury hotels around it.

The angry dissidents pitched tents and occupied that square, where we always used to sit in the cafés and watch the sun set over the Acropolis while boys on skateboards sailed down the marble steps and evening commuters emerged from the underground subway station(which is as  grand as the entrance to a museum, lined with the antiquities uncovered during its construction, displayed behind glass).

This July, I walked through Constitution Square, snapping photos of the occupying dissidents, who seemed peaceful and busy in the daytime tending to housekeeping chores in their groups’ campsites.  The cafes were deserted now and port-a-potties lined the sides where they used to be.  The McDonalds at the bottom of the square, which had been set on fire during the riots, appeared as good as new.  The Grande Bretagne was repairing some damage to its marble steps. (The GB has iron riot gates, which can drop down to barricade the entrance.) The King George Hotel, however, seemed to be both damaged and closed.

A few days later, we moved into a suite in the Grande Bretagne, overlooking the square.  A taxi strike had begun a few days earlier, and we had to drag our suitcases on and off the subway to get there.

Around 1 p.m. I saw that a demonstration was beginning in front of Parliament, with a fleet of striking taxis at the head. Many people were streaming out of the subway and the tents in the square toward the Parliament building where the  Evzones, in their pleated skirts, stand guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier twenty-four hours a day.  (The two Evzones are relieved by another pair every hour on the hour.  The big, formal changing of the guard, carried out by the entire regiment of Evzones, happens every  Sunday at 11 a.m.)

I wanted to open the door to our balcony to take photos, but learned that it was locked—no doubt to prevent injury to onlookers.  As soon as the demonstration began, a line of riot police positioned themselves between the demonstrators and the Evzones. There was shouting and singing and much honking of horns, but the demonstration petered out without violence and everyone eventually went back to their afternoon activities.

At the end of July, when I left for the airport, the taxi strike was still on, but the ride to the airport was fairly easy on the air-conditioned subway, and it only cost 8 Euros (compared to 35 Euros—the set price to and from the airport in a taxi.)

After I left, the taxi strike continued, some roadways were blocked, and the squatters remained in Constitutions Square until August 6.  According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Employees of the City of Athens, in cooperation with the police, early Saturday cleared dozens of tents from Syntagma Square - the remnants of two months of protests by self-proclaimed indignant protesters.
The process was completed without any major resistance by the campers, though eight people - four Greeks, two French nationals, a German and a Romanian - were briefly detained.”

Which brings us back to the original question: Is it safe for tourists in Greece?

The answer is yes.  The minute you travel outside of Athens, as we did, visiting Crete, Corfu, Ioannina in Northern Greece and the fabulous new ecological resort of Costa Navarino near Messinia, the Greek hospitality was as warm as it ever was.   (The Greek word for hospitality – “philoxenia”—literally means “love of strangers”, and Greeks throughout history have felt it their duty to welcome strangers, even if it means serving them food meant for their own family.)

Visiting Athens is another matter.   It’s not dangerous—I have never felt threatened by demonstrators, nor have I encountered anti-American feeling in Greece in the last two decades.  (Back in the seventies and eighties was another matter.)

The main problem with Athens right now is that it’s inconvenient -- due to the strikes and demonstrations in the wake of the country’s economic problems.  The Greek newspaper Kathimerini, in an editorial, pointed out, during the taxi strike, that tourism is one of the only ways that Greece can hope to improve its economic future, and scaring tourists away is basically cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Throughout Greece this summer I saw very few Americans, except for some Greek- Americans.  In the expensive ecological resort complex of Costa Navarino, and in most luxury resorts, the guests were primarily Russians as well as wealthy Greeks.

Greece has always been the dream destination for tourists, thanks to its beaches, islands, museums, music, food, and the warmth of its people.  All this is still true today, although its economic agonies and the influx of desperate immigrants has changed Athens for the worse.  In the city, walls are now covered with graffiti. Formerly chic shopping areas are filled with empty stores for rent.  But once you get outside of the city, the islands, the hospitality, the food and the  beaches and sunsets are as amazing as ever.

Hopefully by next summer many of Greece’s economic woes will be on the mend, but in the meantime, it’s wise (and increasingly economical) to fly into Athens airport (which is outside the city) and hop on a plane to one of the islands (or rent an car and drive to destinations like Meteora or Metsovo in the north—all now much easier to reach thanks to the new cross-country Egnatia Highway in the north.)

Outside of Athens, Greece still is as alluring and hospitable to the traveler as it was when it enchanted tourists like Lord Byron and, in the last century, visitors like Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, who wrote, “You should see the landscape of Greece. It would break your heart.”  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hottest Street Art Anywhere: Miami’s Wynwood Art District

 Last night (Saturday, Aug. 13),  having just arrived in Miami in anticipation of the birth of our number-one grandchild, we were treated by very pregnant daughter Eleni and her husband Emilio to an Aegean-style dinner at a restaurant called Mandolin in a patio that kept me thinking I was back in Greece.

As clouds obscured the full moon and heat lightning dramatically flickered overhead, they then drove us to what is clearly one of the busiest, craziest and most exciting areas of street art I’ve ever seen. (And you know I like street art!)
Daughter Marina in front of a graphic mural.
The Wynwood district of Miami was originally the fashion district, filled with windowless factories.  Then it became a slum and, in  January of 2009, to coincide with the famous Art Basel show, it was transformed into the Wynwood Walls District.  At least a dozen of the hottest international artists decorated the large walls with their murals. 
Here’s how their web site describes it: “Wynwood Walls, Miami’s epicenter for cutting edge museum-quality contemporary murals, builds on the street art tradition already established in Miami’s Wynwood District. The result of a collaboration between Tony Goldman of Goldman properties and Jeffrey Deitch of Deitch Projects, the open-air art park launched during Art Basel 2009.

Probably the most famous name represented here is Shepard Fairey, the controversial artist who created the famous “Hope” campaign poster for Barack Obama.  He has incorporated in this mural (below) a portrait of  Aung San Suu, whose image he has used in a poster promoting human rights in Burma.

Here’s what Tangerine Living blog magazine has to say about the artists:

The bright light of the neighborhood is the Wynwood Kitchen & Bar that offers a memorable dining experience and delish brasserie cuisine, which also houses the Wynwood Walls with major works from influential street artists from the US, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Their diverse talents are represented with originals by Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, David Benjamin Sherry, Christian Awe, Ryan McGinness, DB Burkeman, Coco 144 & Phase 2, Stelios Faitakis, Invader, Barry McGee, and Ron English to name just a few. It’s one of the coolest and most visually striking resto and art park in the country.

We were very lucky—we just happened to drive into the Wynwood District on the night of  the Second Saturday Art Walk.  On the second Saturday of every month, the district comes alive with  crowds, live music,  open doors to more than 70 art galleries, countless food wagons, valet parking and the hippest-looking crowd of art lovers spilling into the streets and enjoying it all.

We couldn’t stay to see it all.  After all, Eleni is nine months pregnant and can’t really party like a rock star, but  we took a quick look around and I wanted to share some of the photos I took last night with you.

                                           Joan and "Big Eleni". Emilio's mom, Carmen was there too.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Body of the Year is the Crone of the Week

It’s been a long time (over a year) since I nominated a Crone of the Week, but when a 66-year-old woman is named  “Body of the Year”  over supermodels like Elle MacPherson, not to mention Jennifer Lopez and Pippa Middleton, then “A Rolling Crone” has to take notice.

The poll of 2,000 men and women was conducted by the L.A. Fitness club chain.  Helen Mirren won with 17.5 per cent of the vote.  MacPherson, 48, came in second with 10 per cent.
 It’s hard not to hate Helen Mirren for looking so good in a bathing suit.  The instinctive reaction is, “Well, she probably has a personal trainer  who comes in every day”. But the actress who has played three queens, and can look like an elderly frump as well as a hot pin-up girl, says she stays fit by exercising every day by herself with her WII.

“You can hula, jog, yoga, step – all in one session,” she told the Daily Mail of London. “You need never get bored, as every day you can tailor a new workout. It challenges you and you do it at home, so nobody need see you in those old yoga pants and torn T-shirt.”

(For fellow crones who are as technically ignorant as I am, a WII or more properly wii is a home video game console released by Nintendo in 2006.)
 Helen Mirren is a brilliant role model for all of us over-sixties.   She’s intelligent, dignified (usually) and a hugely successful career woman (Golden Globe, Oscar for  “The Queen”, a house full of other prizes).  And she has abs to die for.
I don’t imagine that any amount of exercise could get me abs like that, but Helen Mirren has inspired me to turn my single weekly Pilates session into two and –as soon as I get back from Miami, where I’m going on Friday in anticipation of welcoming my first grandchild into the world—I vow to sign up yet again with Weight Watchers to try to shed that extra ten pounds, which has somehow turned into an extra fifteen pounds. (Thinking of the heat in Miami I pulled out some shorts from years ago, tried to put them on and promptly tossed them into the pile for Goodwill.) 

Another thing I love about Helen Mirren is that she lets her wrinkles show.