June is a good time to take stock of a year that is slowly slipping by. Time is dragging like it was in my adolescence, but now it is because of an over familiarity with its patterns; we live between upstate New York and the City, I know we will spend a long weekend in the Hamptons and possibly a short trip to Martha’s Vineyard. For many, and also perhaps one day for an older me, it seems idyllic yet I still long for an escape from these comfortable routines, I dream of travelling further. Is it the repetitiveness we dread or the inevitability of complacency, a blind or misplaced step into the quicksand of old age? It may also be the feeling of being held hostage to New York’s climate or even a sense of entitlement in these Post Covid days (if that is in fact where we are) which is visible everywhere, in the packed sidewalks and bars full of young people to the behavior of the older guard, some still anxiously wearing masks, those famously neurotic New Yorkers signaling their virtue to each other, a city full of unfathomable codes now more than ever.
But now the summer heat is up even this early and we fool ourselves into thinking that we are protecting ourselves by pulling down the shades permitting only a little of its young morning light to penetrate. It is that interior gloom, still air plus the slightly metallic smell of oatmeal that Mary has on the stove which brings back ghosts of my childhood, something I largely managed to escape from yet today they crept back into my thoughts it was also the sight of a notepaper on the breakfast table, embossed with a hotels name, which was a portal to our visit to Cornwall in South West England weeks ago where some time was spent with my sister and her husband.
It was in April, we had checked on the weather a week before on my i-phone, a fool’s errand when it comes to England but this routine was done and waterproofs were duly packed and never used as the sky remained consistently blue and the sun was naked in its ferocity at times. We travel these days like grownups. The cross Atlantic day flight, a car service to pick us up at the airport, the hotel receptionist alert to the fact that we would be checking in late and a cocktail in the bar before sleep. We stay in a sleepy village outside of London where the Thames sidles past, ducks and water fowl shriek into the over perfect, manicured landscapes which have matured over the years into perfection not because of nature’s design but because of money as every inch of this part of this world is spoken for. I don’t mind; I like the Michelin starred restaurants, I don’t object to the loud laugher and the indifferent tastes of the English middle classes and don’t use the phrase “it’s like Connecticut” as an insult. It’s beautiful to walk along the Thames, to peer voyeuristically into the houseboats, admire the freedom of their owners and to swoon enviously at the neat houses nearby and acknowledge shrewd investments.
Days later we drove five hours to Cornwall in a small car all the time looking at the glossy, rather tacky signs pointing to ancient places; Glastonbury Tor, the Cheddar Gorge, Tintagel. All evocative names from my childhood, dense with a fake romanticism, each exerting a sirens pull which was resisted in favor of a roadside service station where we could use the rest room and buy a Marks and Spencer sandwich. But even there, in the car park the sky possessed the drama of a sudden storm and several hawks circled ominously overhead as it is lambing season. We admired these fragile newborns throughout the drive as this is also sheep country, taking turns to point out their delicate leaps and the fragility of their posture, the sweetness of their vulnerability. The roads eventually narrowed as we approached the coast, almost comically so, and by the time we reached our hotel they were single-laned and the sight of an oncoming vehicle led to a mannerly reversal into a slightly wider patch on one of our parts, a wave of gratitude by the other as we squeezed by each other, holding our breath, hoping not to scratch precious paintwork.
The hotel itself sits on a sliver of rock overlooking a deep bay. From the hotel restaurant one can look down to the crescent shaped, stony beach surrounded on three sides by steep, unforgiving rocks. Over breakfast the next morning I saw a women searching the ground and occasionally putting something into a small plastic bag. Her concentration and attention was admirable, even from a distance I could see she had considerable expertise in something down there on her hands and knees, it must have been rough on that course surface with the soft salt air blowing in from the surf just a few meters away, dwarfed by her surroundings, by this slightly claustrophobic village where houses are packed together like barnacles. By chance I bumped into her later as I was leaving the hotel and she showed me the translucent findings, fragments of glass, broken bottles literally smashed and sandblasted by years on the Ocean floor only to be gathered with the goal of making handmade jewelry. And yet, some instinct or perhaps just the relentless voice of my current malaise, told me that all these efforts would lead to nothing of value.
We walked along the cliffs, passing occasional walkers with their dogs and children, to our left there were significant steep drops into the sea. It was tiring work, navigating the stiles, the steep and sometime precarious drops and rises that the path took, but we had a destination; a hut in the neighboring town that made food and was a popular meeting place for hikers. When we arrived and found a bench overlooking the sea its local fame was easy to understand, serving largely Middle Eastern food in a picture perfect setting, emblematic in a way of what England has become, if you have the privilege of time and money to seek it out.
Days later, we are back in London staying at the Chelsea Arts Club. It is beautiful and comfortable, just artfully shabby enough, I say to myself stepping over the sleeping house cat on the way to a shared bathroom. We took a cab to North London to meet our friends who had invited us to Passover dinner. I have mixed feelings about it, being an atheist and so wary of religious rituals and pomp. However these misgivings were soon overcome and I let myself be drawn into it ceremony and felt grateful to be included, to be even closer to our hosts, Kim and Sam and their son Noah. I admire the power and intelligence of these Jewish rituals, I like that they are inclusive and non-Jews like myself are made to feel more than welcome, that we are witnesses to their beliefs and connections that are old and profound. I recited the passages enthusiastically to make my appreciation known, but when Mary’s turn came, her voice broke and a tear appeared and it was all a bit too much, we all had Ukraine on our minds, this repetition of evil power in Europe so soon after the last one. It was also emotional to be seeing our friends again after the long Covid absence and the meal itself is overwhelmingly rich in its symbols and tastes.
A few weeks earlier I had passed through the same Los Angeles airport as Kim but didn’t have the chance to meet, she was leaving after visiting her mother and I was arriving to teach for a few days in my companies LA office. I had the weekend alone before Mary arrived and as I had just come in on an early morning flight from a packed Chicago airport I just relaxed and walked around the suburban town on the Pacific coast where I was staying. It was warm and the first real sun I had enjoyed for three months, the winters in New York being bleak and unrelenting, and this was the first time I had faced it welcoming its rays to warm me since being in Mexico over the Christmas and New Year holidays. I was so happy when Mary’s taxi arrived at the hotel on Monday evening after I had finished the training and free to enjoy Los Angeles for a few days’ vacation. It is a place that inspires clichés, I’ve called it a playground before, as it has those childish dynamics; showoff’s and bullies, the passive, timid observers and exhibitionists. It is rough and dangerous on its fringes yet at its core there is unimagined wealth amongst these freeways and big box brands. When I first visited the city it had opportunities, apartments were a fraction of the price of the east coast and it had a very defined art scene where everyone knew everyone else, a heady place with genuine intellectuals and long before its celebrification, mimicking its film production neighbors and its pursuit of fame, the sad world of “a” list and “b’ lists. We moved to a hotel in what was once known as “the hood”, West Adams, but which predictably is in the process of gentrification and has now several art galleries and restaurants, the standard pattern. Our hotel was clinically modern situated in the midst of poor low rise bungalows and from our balcony guests could look down both literally and figuratively onto the mainly Latino residents who were happily barbecuing and drinking sweet soda while their large dogs slept in the shade.
The following evening we went straight to the heart of Californian anti-intellectualism, an art opening in Beverly Hills hosted by the son of a famous east coast artist, I later found out to my dismay the exhibition was a recreation of his childhood bedroom perhaps the most perfect illustration of this current art world’s narcissism. We were to meet the daughter of old friends and her French husband who had moved to LA and I was relieved when she arrived, an authentically eccentric beauty who stood out in a good way around this expensively dressed and pruned audience. I was proud to stand by this young couple, probably the most obviously creative in the room while the collectors and gallery artists looked on. As it was the week of the Oscars an actor who was a contender this year drew a small crowd but I was happy to escape into the night where the four of us walked in the evening warmth along a busy road, acting like the tourists we are, until we arrived at our expensive roof top destination. From the restaurant we looked at the neatly clustered homes of Beverly Hills as the light faded and eventually all we could see was the famous Hollywood sign lit up, the twinkling of street lamps and the restless movement of headlights on the freeway.