Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Is It About An Island?

Florianopolis, Ilha de Santa Catarina, Brazil

     Santa Catarina Island is not in the balmy South Pacific, nor does it figure in popular dreams of escape and isolation. Its city, Florianopolis holds some 400,000, and while the south is wilder and less populated -- there’s a Shipwreck Point - the north is as overdeveloped as some of southern Spain.
     None of it mattered when I reached Floripa, as the whole place is called for short, after weeks inland. I walked the shore feeling elated. It seemed even the air was easier to breathe. On one side of the corniche, apartment buildings rose like a sparkling sea wall, much as they do in Rio. Sitting on shore facing the waves, however, the vista is endless, natural. You might imagine the water mutating in color as it spread south: deep blue here, breaking with white froth that bubbles and disappears; then hundreds of miles out, rolling with the grey of cold steel as the temperature drops; hosting ice blocks even farther south until the surface waters stop moving altogether, having become the frozen blue white of the Antarctic.
     I’m surprised when the breeze comes up and blows warm, because I’ve imagined myself down to the edge of the South Pole. Near me a young man leans back on his elbows, ear buds in place, fingers tapping sand. A woman in white stares out to sea. Three lone boats, wood by the look of them, rock in the swell near a pier.

     My body clock, wound tight for so long, unwinds to the rhythm of the waves, floats on the blue. What is it about an island that can make a person feel like who she is, stripped of roles, unhurried? If you allow islands to be simple, they are, just land, sea. Road signs here have it right: arrows pointing to bridges to the mainland carry only one word, “Continente,” encompassing all the complexity that awaits elsewhere.
     At night, the lights of the island are framed by the blackness of the sea. I think of the writer and pioneer pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who once landed regularly at the Florianopolis field when flying between France and points in Latin America, in the 1920s and 1930s, when guiding lights were fewer. I think of the U.S. Navy pilots and seamen based here during World War II, sometimes patrolling to rescue survivors of German U-boat hits. I wonder what it must have been like with the island in blackout for a thousand nights, after Brazil sided with the allies in 1942 and nervously expected retribution, perhaps aimed at the port, the most important between Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires.
     Lights outline the spans of the suspension bridge to the mainland now, making the structure look more delicate and ethereal than you know it must be. Tomorrow it will lead back to the continent.

 with two whale crania and rib section found on beach (not by me)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Brazil, the Shape of Things

Curitiba, Brazil

Oscar Neimeyer’s Museum of the Eye is the only piece of architecture that has ever made me cry, merely from the sight of it. Maybe it was the sudden rush of beauty coming up against the sadness of a recent personal disappointment. Or maybe the reaction was travel fatigue. Perhaps it was the thought the magnificent eye brought to me, of a dynamic, beloved woman who went blind -- damn macular degeneration -- at just about the age Neimeyer was when he designed the building, ninety-five.

I was already in that altered state that comes with an hour of walking, the last of it bypassing the busy center on a leafy path along the river. Then a few minutes climbing, navigating the pavement outside sober government buildings and there it was, iconic and powerful, absolutely unique in the world, drawing you in and seeing inside you at the same time, not unlike the look of a lover.

“It’s a bunch of concrete and steel,” I said to myself when I felt the tears coming. Too late.

I posted pictures, but they aren't worth a thousand words. Architecture is an art form that has to be experienced in the free air, that works -- or doesn’t -- among surrounding forms, whether a canyon (think Mary Jane Colter) or growing things or other buildings. Maybe that’s why we’re more aware of architecture when we travel, because we’re seeing not only a new building, but a new world surrounding it.

Brazil is a good place for the awareness to grow, because it’s so big, with corners possessing such varied history that the eye stays sharp, surprised and refreshed every few hundred miles.

Here is Salvador, Bahia, where Columbus first landed, where Portuguese and Dutch provided elegance and design rooted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries European continent, and indigenous tropical life provided the color that still reigns.

And this is the building style of southern Brazil, settled by the first German pioneers about the same time our own eastern seaboard colonies were becoming the United States


Here is another corner of Curitiba, which is also a southern city.  Not far from the Eye, the hill was built up at the end of the 19th century when Art Nouveau captured the fancy. Aubrey Beardsley might have felt right at home.


In Sao Paulo, where I began this current journey, I took my coffee every morning on the first floor of the Edificio Copan, another Niemeyer building.

Its image is famous, often representing to the world the globe’s southernmost hypercity, where it can seem all twenty million residents are on the street at once, hurrying each to tasks and appointments. Yet against all evidence to the contrary, the sinuous shape says here in the city there can be beauty and calm. To me that is what a striking building can do, create its own space that talks right back to the beholder.

(The official name of the building described at the beginning of this post is Museu Oscar Niemeyer, which houses permanent and rotating collections of mostly-Brazilian art. Brazilians I have talked to, however, call it for its most impressive feature, O Museu do Ohlo, the Museum of the Eye.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In a Small Place, the Excitement of Old Newsprint, Fading Photos

Joinville, Brazil

     In a Small Place, the Excitement of Crumbling Newsprint, Old Tools, Fading Photos

When I was a child my grandfather and I sat in the kitchen after grandmother went to bed, a certain book between us on the table. My grandfather opened the tooled leather covers from time to time as he told stories of family, old Indiana, the Civil War. A McConahay had purchased the book blank some two hundred years ago, and successive generations filled it in with the barest bones of passing lives: births, deaths, marriages, the buying of land and the price of flour on the Kentucky frontier. A prayer for a daughter. One song.

Years after my grandfather died I had to travel to the Indiana State Historical Society, to which he had bequeathed it, to see the book again. I’ll never forget coming to a sober waiting room, donning white cloth gloves, trading my pen for a pencil, and waiting for the book to be carried in by a gentleman, also wearing white gloves. The pages from the kitchen table had become more than a family record; now it is a piece of history in the care of guardians, shared with anyone who wants or needs to know what is written there, which is ok with me.

Since then I have trekked to such local archives to find substance and atmosphere for stories and documentary films. I love the smell of the places, slightly musty, sometimes feeling lonely, other times with an air of busy research.

One family's donation, from pictures of Hitler, to the razing of Hamburg by Allied bombs.


Original residents made all their tools of production and transportation with their own hands.

The German-language Joinville paper, still printed in Gothic lettering in the 1940s

 From the Joinville Portuguese-language newspaper.  Equal time for each side.

 I regard anyone met in such places as an ally, someone who shares fascination -- and this can be quirky -- with the life written all over newspapers whose pages need to be turned with two hands, lest they tear. In the Joinville (pronounced: Jo-en-vee-lay) archives today, I realized the young man and woman who had been bringing me material were looking over my shoulder at photos that ran in the local newspaper in the run-up to World War II, the Graf zeppelin floating above an avenue of palms, a German pilot with the palm tree and swastika emblem of the African front painted on the body of his plane.

“Beautiful,” said the young man.

He didn’t mean the subject matter. He meant the fact that these concrete artifacts, undeniable building blocks of history, part of Joinville’s past, are in existence, telling their stories. Founded by Germans in the mid-19th century, whose children continued to speak the home language and re-create a rich culture on Brazilian soil, it’s a miracle such history in Joinville remains at all. When the peripatetic war-time dictator Gertulio Vargas, once “neutral” and arguably pro-Nazi, sniffed which way the wind eventually was to blow he ordered soldiers to carry out a “nationalization” campaign, burning anything not written or printed in Portuguese, taking over arts and social societies that had long knitted the community together, breaking down doors and destroying family treasures reflecting the pioneer ancestors’ homeland.

Locals have extra motivation for saving ephemeral material and documenting their common family tree, the same way we might document ours: Who else would care to do it? I spent an early day of this research journey (on South America during WWII) in the archives of one of the planet’s biggest cities, Sao Paolo (pop: 20 million), where the staff was attentive and helpful. Small collections like Joinville’s (pop: 40,000) can be especially rich, however, treasuring tools particular to their ways of life, telling the story of a nation or an epoch from the ground on which it was lived by real people. I always make them my first stop.