Letters from Venice – Part VIII


Nov. 16, 1982

Three days or four into our training. We are running every morning much to the amusement of the Venetian commuters, and it is a welcome quickening of the physical system.

Yesterday, I met Jane Rylands and her 16-month-old son Augustus. I was charmbed by both but remained convinced that naming your baby Augustus is tantamount to cruelty. I will enjoy working for her, though. It is great to get out with a purpose and goal. Tomorrow morning Louisa and I are going to volunteer our services at the Venice Committee – stuffing envelopes. But I just get so bored without work. You know you’re in trouble when your day’s high point is shopping for celery root!

Went to hear a concert of Stravinsky and Bartok at the Fenice Grand Theatre the other night. I am impressed by the novel presentations of music I’ve seen in Venice. One piece by Stravinsky called “Feu d’Artifice’ was presented with a futuristic light show amidst a fabulous set. But the Bartok ‘opera’ was called “Castello di Barbablu” (Castle of Bluebeard) and was really very interesting. Set in a simple symmetric set, the rogue Bluebeard and his too-curious consort moved in a carefully choreographed dance which was repeated four times in the course of the piece, once in blue light, once in yellow, and once in red as she discovered the coffer (coffin) filled with dolls and another luckless wife. The music was incredibly dramatic, as Bartok is, and the sets, lights and choreography contributed to a very powerful performance by the five performers. Three of the four women in the piece began as almost a running crew, all dressed in rustling floor-length black dresses, with their red hair piled in buns atop their heads. They glided across the floors in the castle, helping the “new” wife to undress, preparing the bed, down left, etc. But in the end, in a great horror sequence, they appeared as previous wives and glided up to a mirror behind the center upstage door and wisped away as apparitions. It was quite beautiful.


Dec. 3, 1982

Long time no write. Shitty/great day today. I am waiting for a transfer of money from the states, courtesy of George Setton, and a causa del scciopero (strike), the bank is closed and knew nothing of it. And I am very frustrated at not being able to express myself very well. But what the hell – it’s challenging. I met a wonderful guy who lives in the Corte – actually, he has a studio there – named Sylvano. He invited me to go to a poetry reading tonight, which should be fun.

I am immersed in this translation I’m doing for Serge, Louisa’s friend. 60 pages of bad English to worse Italian. Keeps my mind going and supposedly pays well.

With Christmas just around the bend I am so excited that Mom is coming. It doesn’t feel like Xmas so much, only because I lack the ubiquitous American reminders of its imminence, no Christmas music on the radio, and the meekest of Xmas decorations in shop windows. I do prefer the restraint, but at the same time, I always enjoy “getting in the spirit” which seems far off yet.  I can buy a little Xmas tree at the Rialto, and decorate it with little ornaments Juli bought little earrings to decorate hers with.

Letters from Susan and Bill still make me incredibly homesick, as did Aunt Nancy’s death – obviously tangential to the other emotions as well. It is crucial for me to get out to these lectures and concerts to keep busy – as I am a busy person and living a a quasi-solitary life doesn’t agree with me at all.

Last night we watched “Gli Uccelli” (The Birds) by Alfred Hitchcock

and today they were netting piccione (pigeons) in the Corte right outside my door! I came up the calle from doing my shopping and encountered a very unlikely pigeon-feeder, a stoop-shouldered sunburned man, bent at the waist, cooing at the birds, while dropping seed, and backing up down the calle toward the Corte del Palludo. (the courtyard outside Louisa’s rented house – means Court of the Swamp) I asked him what he was doing, and he told me that they were capturing the pigeons, taking the sick ones to the hospital, and the healthy ones to Milano! My own theory is that all the little buggers were on their way to the bouillon factory. Little ironies that are just too much to ignore sometimes! Really it was quite funny. So my days are laced with connections with people and funny events and are colored with success and failure, just as Mark predicted they would be. I’ve always been a sort of dilettante, I fear, and being here for this length of time makes such a position impossible to hold. Because the beauty of dilettante-ship is to be able to move on to the next thing when the first becomes too difficult, or when you perceive you might fail. But I’ve done it this time! I’ve gotten myself in a country where I don’t speak the language very well, know about three people, and can make myself completely miserable if I so choose. But hell, that’s no way to go.



December 5, 1982

Made a new friend in an artist who lives in the Corte del Palludo. Very cool guy. We went to a poetry reading the other night, which was difficult to understand, but I can tell a great deal from gestures and presence as actors, as well as intuit something of their involvement with their poetry. Last night Sylvano and I talked about his painting and how it relates to philosophy – the pre-Aristotelian denials of the reality of things and thingness. We talked about music as a drug, and how music doesn’t exist except as a drogue. My involvement in these conversations is still fairly limited verbally, but I understand a great deal when I listen.

Today, Sunday. I am going to Torcello with Sandy (an American expatriate in her mid to late 50’s whom I had met and liked immediately), and it’s a beautiful day. At four is a concert of Stravinsky’s “Sagra della Primavera” (Rites of Spring) which I have always wanted to hear – I will imagine Isadora Duncan dancing in burlap as I listen. I am looking forward to a ballet in a week or so, based on Cocteau’s piece “Boeuf sur La Toit” and another to the music of Eric Satie.

Louisa’s birthday is coming up, so I hope to treat her to this ballet for her present.

Julie and I had a falling out over Sylvano, my artist friend, and from her expression and reticence to talk about him, I imagine that she has had more than limited dealings with him in the early days of Venice. I am sort of in a quandary because there is this wall between Julie and me, and unlike with my friends at home, she is unwilling to acknowledge its existence, surely she expects that I will drift away from such a reception – is that what I will do? It reminds me a little of the dynamics with a friend at Princeton. Speaking of which, I must write to her. Got a fantastic, loving, news-filled, action packed letter from Bob, who has applied to Yale Graphic Arts program. I hope he goes- he is so talented it makes me puke! (Not really) As I said, he will be my one internationally acclaimed friend!
The translation goes, but slowly, tortuously. Sergio asked me to come to “teach” English to his son – very surreptitiously in the guise of a chess player/backgammon pal.

Should be interesting. I have never laid eyes on an English book to see how the language is taught. Blindly I go. Which will be funny considering my mancanza dei paroli italiani. Vediamo. (lack of Italian words. We’ll see)


Letters from Venice – Part VII

Oct. 24, 1982 IMG_0772-tm

I arrived in Venice three day ago. It is fantastic here – truly bellissima. The apartment is great, too, very big. I moved into my room today – Louisa and Charlie, a friend from Princeton who is here visiting have gone away for a week of travels in Italy, to Florence, etc. We three had a great time last night and went to El Souk, the Discoteca of Venezia and danced and drank up a store – it was really fun. Interesting, too – all the men watched themselves in the mirrors – very consistently.

Today I went to visit San Marco for the first time – God, it was so impressive. I could see from the water at the front of the Basilica that “acqua alta” is not joke. It really does get deep and puddles are a given. piazza1

Took it easy the rest of the day, and moved, etc. Tonight I took a walk around Venice with my map, but without looking at it once. In a way, it was also a test for myself. I find myself becoming increasingly reticent to make contact with people on the street – there is an expectation that I will be approached by someone only interested in coming on to me. I’m concerned about this rather egotistical paranoia, but the truth is, they do come on…a lot. Boring to write about and read, Els. (Especially thirty years later)

I found a really soothing spot tonight – on the Fondamento Nouve, right on the back end of the Hospitale Civile, there is bridge under which boats can pass to make deliveries at the hospital – thus, there was an interior, hollow lapping sound that was almost chilling, combined with the all encompassing exterior sound of the water off the island. And the lights of the boats drilled across the murky night – oh, so great! A mist that cooled me off. It will take time to make Venice my home, but the physical plant is so beautiful. I’ve never been in a more beautiful city.

Oct. 27, 1982

Yesterday I found the Palazzo Fortuny Palazzo_Fortuny

and the Cecil Beaton retrospective ’22-71. He really had an extraordinary sense of appropriate images and his choice of subject and paper, etc. It was fascinating to see his concern with opulence and fabric in the thirties when such consciousness would almost have been sacrilege. His Modella Russa was absolutely exquisite – very much like Fred Sommer’s collages. His dramatic control of light, and his appraisal of contrasts of light and dark fabrics/grounds are truly amazing. One photo of Audrey Hepburn where the actress, dressed in black, was in front of a brown wall and held up her pallid white hand in a gesture of halting the viewer from coming closer – a guarded gesture – really beautiful contrast of the hand against the wall.

Julie, the American across the court came over for coffee today, and we went to see a Groucho Marx movie and then I had dinner at her house with her husband, Paolo – wild arrangement – she speaks English, he Italian – and never the twain shall meet. It’s ok, they both seem to understand – neither is at a disadvantage. More tomorrow.

Oct. 28, 1982

The hardest thing about adapting to life here in Venice is this sense of busyness I have culled all my life, and the fear of lethargy which is pervasive these days. It would be easy for me to spend all my afternoons with Julie, but in doing so, that would allow her to speak when we meet people, and while I’m hearing Italian spoken, I would not be speaking. I also need a project. Learn Italian – why is it when I have this opportunity I am so afraid of speaking, of knowing how to speak.

Nov. 2, 1982

Susan Smith called last night and it was a true lifter of a call – to know Bob and Bill and MWM are thinking about me. She said she thinks MWM is making plans to come over!!

Anyway, I was inspired, and today I spoke only Italian, at the market and in the shops; even bought a Gazzetino, and read it!

Tomorrow I meet with Philip Rylands at the Guggenheim, and I don’t even have my letter of introduction from Peter Bunnell. Oh hell. I wonder what there would even be for me to do at the collection.

Sunday, Julie & I went to the Lido and rented bicycles and tooled around. It was beautiful, the fog was lounging over the Laguna, and it was impossible to see from the Lido to Venice. view

(Had we been able to see this is what we might have seen)

I bought notebooks today to begin my “project” – recording poetic observations viz. art in Venice. The opening is a poem about one of the Cecil Beaton photographs from the retrospective 1922-1971 at the Palazzo Fortuny. I think it’s weak at best, but it will provide a framework for my writing. I need an “advisor” to keep on my tail about it. Hmmm. “Phil?” Anyway, I’m babbling.

Nov. 8, 1982   (Written in red ink on a white folding stationery) Return address:
c/o L. Gallavresi

Cannaregio 6253

30121 Venezia

To:      Bob Stern

55 Park Place

Princeton, NJ 08540

Dear Bob,

These are my red Ruskin letters. (This means I just wrote one to MWM, in which I also quoted Ruskin.) For you, I found a great passage on the virtues of architecture:

“…we take pleasure or should take pleasure in architectural construction altogether as the manifestation of an admirable human intelligence; it is not the strength not the size, not the finish of the work which we are to venerate: rocks are always stronger, mountains always larger, all natural objects more finished; but it is the intelligence and resolution of man in overcoming physical difficulty which are to be the source of our pleasure and subject of our praise. And again, in decoration or beauty, it is less the actual loveliness of the thing produced, than the choice and invention concerned in the production, which are to delight us, the love and the thoughts of the workman than his work. His work must always be imperfect, but his thoughts and affections may be true and deep.”

Stones of Venice, App. 7.

Found that and I thought of you, because it not only applies to you as architect, but Bob the doer and builder of beautiful things, whether they be prints, sets, or relationships. I love you very dearly, Bob.

Susan called two nights ago and raised my spirits to their peaks! She also sent me a letter that I got yesterday. She sounds as though McCarter agrees with her and her home in Hopewell sounds lovely, too. Have you seen it? She told me about her new “friend” Gary. I am so glad she met someone nice and close to Princeton! Long distance with John didn’t seem to work too well.

I met Philip Rylands, had of the Guggenheim collection here in Venice, and he told me there might be things for me to do for visiting American scholars, the end of November. Also, he might use me as a babysitter for his 16-month-old son. “My wife is going absolutely mad,” he said. Very stuffy young Brit.

I cleaned the whole fucking apartment today, down to the tiles, which are the floors for the whole place – white tiles, which show all. Tonight I am making Gnocchi Verdi, and after trying to explain to the hardware store man what I wanted was ‘cheesecloth” –“la stoffa che e poroso per prosciugare l’acqua del formaggio, etc. etc.,” he told me they don’t use it here in Venezia. Well my next stop was the cheese store, and sure ‘nuf, the ricotta was so solid it didn’t need to be drained. Lesson 3 in living day to day in a foreign country where you don’t know the idiotic colloquial expressions…yet. I am really improving. My cheese man told me “parla bene l’italiano.” Flattery, flattery…

Tell Bill I say hello and give him a loud succulent smack for me. Talking to Susan made me feel so much closer to y’all there!

Louisa is away lots, but we have a great time when she is here. The neighborhood kids are little hoods, and I am sitting in the kitchen listening to Brahms and the sound of their little toys being hurled all over the Goddamned courtyard. Ah the bliss of urbanity. Now the little fuckers are pounding on my window. Excuse me while I get my shotgun.

Love to MWM. But you two take care….xoxo Els

Letters from Venice – Part VI

Dear reader, as I explained earlier in this series on Venice, these writings are literally from my early 20s journal and from letters sent back to me by one of the original recipients, my dear friend Bob. I got to the end of Part V and started to read Part VI and became mortified by the content of next section, complete with gushy badly written french poetry. But if you have opted to stay with me on this so far, then I guess you will forgive this, too.

Sept. 22, 1982   ON The TRAIN TO AMSTERDAM (A MWM)

(Poem written in bad French)

Je veux que tu sache maintenant, mon cher,

Que je suis bien contente.

Avec toutes les choses nouvelles a voir.

Comment c’est elegante.

Mais sous les vues, immenses et varies,

Je me percevois de ce realite:

Que je t’attends avec toute mon ame.

Ce n’est pas a dire qu’a cause de cette attente,

J’omis n’importe quoi.

Mais seulement que, en tout cas,

Je fais ce que je dois.

Et enfin, je dois t’attendre, parce quie tu es tellement cher.

Et toutes les choses dehors and dedans

Rendent ta valeur plus claire.

Translated roughly:

I want you to know now, my dear,

That I am very content.

With all the new things to see

Oh, how it is elegant.

But through all these vues, great and varied,

I am aware of this reality.

That I wait for you with all my soul,

That’s not to say that because of this waiting

I omit anything

But only that, in any case,

I am doing what I want.

And finally, I want to wait for you,

Because you are so incredibly dear,

And all things outside and within

Render your value more clear.

Letter from: MWM (Name and address redacted to protect the blameless)

(MWM was an actor who had played in a production of Threepenny Opera, which we had done the summer after I graduated from Princeton. My friends Bob Stern, Veronica Brady, Dale Coye and I ran a summer theatre at the Theatre Intime, a building on the campus of Princeton. We hired professional actors to perform in the shows, and I stage managed the shows, Bob designed the scenery, Bob, Dale and I, along with some young interns, built the scenery, and Veronica was the artistic Director, and ran the box office. Susan Smith was also involved as the Managing Director. It was a phenomenal summer. In the basement of the building adjacent to the theatre, there was a small café, where we all retired to after the performances were over and that’s where we had met. MWM was a very sweet guy, and he rode a motorcycle, as he lived outside of Princeton. We had a lovely summer tryst, and then when I went to Europe, corresponded for several months until I met another man in Venice with whom I became enamored. Ah, fickle youth! MWM visited me later in the year and we took a trip to Southern Italy with some of my Venetian friends. It was disastrous for our relationship, but more on that later.

Sept. 23, 1982


c/o Hotel Arthur Frommer

Noorderstraadt 46


Dearest Els,

Well, where to begin. First, thanks so much for all your letters, cards, news, etc. It really is a lift after the end of a hard day and lately there have been many hard days.

I can’t believe that you sent that package but it was great to get it. Thanks so much, it’s beautiful. I put it on Friday and I do believe it calmed my ragged nerves. Many people commented how nice it was, original, etc… I loved it. Thanks, Els, for being an incredible woman. The play has not gone well. Biff I think is strong and the character is well delineated however the play is so technical that if these basic technicalities are not working, the whole play suffers. Reed is absolutely the worst director I have ever worked with and I do not think I shall be working with him again! He is what they call an “anti-director” practicing what he calls the ‘Socratic Method’ of direction which consists mainly of asking us “how does it feel” concerning anything and everything from line interpretation, blocking, movement basic script analysis – everything. His blocking is ‘organic’ which means basically that there is none except that which the character has chosen to do. It is absolutely crazy!

The cast kept hoping that he would give us some kind of concrete blocking and even a semblance of direction. We waited until three days before opening. At that point the owner of the theatre, Tom Ryan, lost control. And so, for 15 minutes they stood their [sic], Alan Reed and Ryan, yelling at each other, calling each other names, and other such absurdities in front of the whole cast and crew. It was just wonderful theatre. In any case, Friday went as well as can be expected.

“Philadelphia Inquirer” came out with a review today. It was not as bad as I expected. They almost liked me. I will mail copies next letter. What really killed the cast is that the critic wrote how well and carefully directed this piece was by Alan Reed and yet he had nothing really good to say about anybody else. “Life is not a bed of roses,” comes to mind occasionally.

Plans are progressing for an apartment in Montclair or there abouts.

Jeremy, my friend from Europe, was able to raise $25,000 here, so if things work out in Santa Fe in Oct., I might be able to have a job there in the future if I want it. That was really good news. Overall things are going on or about even keel.

Your letters continue to bring me joy, visions, beautiful memories and some good dreams. Thank you..—

Greet Bob warmly for me as well as your Dad and Stepmother.

Els, take care of yourself. Know that I am at your side in ways as yet unexplained.                                                                                    I love you


Sept. 24, 1982

Well, we have begun our trip in France! I met Dad and Joan in Amsterdam, which is a beautiful city. I got a fantastic letter from MWM yesterday, and in spite of the disappointment of not being able to afford to call him, I feel very in touch with him. We are in Arras, France on our way to Rouen tomorrow, Saturday, where there is a market, which is supposed to be the thing to see in Rouen.

Rented a car in Amsterdam. The European drivers all drive 120 k /hr at least. It feels like breakneck speed! And they don’t let you loiter in the passing lane! We are in elegant quarters in Arras, an apartment for about $25.00. Two rooms, very spiffola. I am exhausted!

Sept. 27, 1982

Four days out of Amsterdam, and ten pounds later, we have seen the Cathedral at Amiens, Rouen, Rouen Cathedral, the Bayeux tapestry, and today the Chateau at Angers. Chateau D'AngersSplendid sights and more than obscene cuisine. I called MWM from Bayeux, which was great.

I’m reading the Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, a really important book for anyone getting his or her bearings in a modern world.  About dignity and not compromising your integrity, or compromising which are both your choices. You need never be the victim of circumstance.

I met another “life student” at the Bayeux tapestry – 64 years old, had taught herself Italian, English, Greek and Hebrew. Fascinating woman.

So much to see, it is nice to be spoiled for a while – one only wishes there were some way to save some of the grandeur for later on!

We are in La Rochelle for the night, a beautiful port town- very “quaint” in the travelogue sense.

October 3, 1982

Yesterday, we drove west in the Dordogne Valley, from Sarlat Sarlat to

BergeracBergerac, city of Cyrano. Along the winding river, which flirts with the myriad of roads at its side.

Last night we had dinner at the Cro-Magnon hotelCro-Magnon Hotel

and combined with natural lunacy (it was a full moon) we were in hysterics over this British couple of 65 or older who was next to us. “Really, dahling, these potatoes are so underdone, I don’t know if I can eat them!” Dad and Joan thought them to be newlyweds, but I don’t know. Whatever they were, they were incredible.

As have been my dreams the past two days. I dreamt yesterday that I became the Queen of England and last night that Bob and I did “Camilla” (another of the plays we had taken to Edinburgh) in front of an audience at a Dude ranch, on horseback with our backpacks. We came on stage riding (our entrance was interrupted by a stampeding herd of bulls escaped from the corral outside), took off our backpacks, and did the reading of the play from these music stands which we tried artistically and stylistically to swat into parallel planes separating us. I didn’t know the lines and I was less than helpful to Bob in figuring them out. When half the audience had left, we gave up and left the stage.

The Dude ranch consisted of fifty to seventy-five horses of the most variable sizes ever witnessed. Weird things happened on this ranch – I rode out on one horse, and came back in on another. I had a little theatre where I and cohorts were doing this very macabre play which involved an upbeat final scene of laughing people, at which point, the audience exited through the stage and out the back of the theatre, which was a warehouse. Only if they turned around and looked at the theatre as they left would they see the total carnage above the garage doors – bodies with the feet cut off at the ankles, heads mounted like hunting trophies, with grinning bloody faces, etc. all visible through the transoms above the garage doors. Ok, Els, lie down and start talking….

The last important thing about this dream and that of the night before was that Kaja McGowan appeared in both dreams. Last night she was in a store: MWM and I pulled up and she told me that she was getting a divorce. She was smoking like a chimney and was very high-strung and hard – totally un-Kaja-like. I will write her a letter today to tell her I’ve been dreaming!

Then there was the Dude Church for which all the youngsters were the Deacons. I couldn’t find the collection basket till at the last moment someone handed me a plate and we collected. But I ran into Betty Henry, who stopped me and wouldn’t let me finish. Then, as we finished, instead of taking the money to the front, we sat down in the congregation. An obese man next to my collecting partner asked how much we had made.

“$1.65,” we said.

He took the money out of the dish and put it in his pocket, meanwhile, pulling out the contents of his pockets which included a huge amount of foreign change and a “Grosse horologe,” made of gold but with crayon Louis XXIV design on the face.

Oct. 7, 1982

Just pulled into St. Jean du Luz, tonight, on the coast of the Atlantic, and on the edge of the Pyrenees. St.JeanduLuz

It is great to be near the ocean. I am going to get up and take a walk, I think, along the shore. Stayed in Pare last night, after seeing Lourdes, an incredibly sobering sight. I felt like I was on the filming site of Night of the Living Dead, with all these invalids wheeling by, carrying candles to place in a grotto under a ceramic statue of Mary, and receptacles of all sizes ranging from necklace sized to gallon jugs to collect samples of the healing waters. Dear God. I would have laughed, except for the clear intensive hope of these people. Dad is of the opinion that it is a mere moneymaking scheme of the church. I think that probably more than half of those pilgrims were really holders of a faith- one that I am not privy to, but that makes it no less real for them. I saw one nun lean out and grab a woman’s hand who was wheeling by– it was that human caring that brought those people there, I think. The desire to be of one with others around them, and that happened to be the solution. Who are we of good health to begrudge those people? Don’t we seek those human embraces from the attendants at the gas stations who change our pneu creve ou gonfle? **

(**While on the road earlier that week, in our rental car, we’d had two mishaps. The first was a flat tire at the side of the road, where our extensive pursuit of the game, Milles-Bournes as children had provided me with the French vocabulary necessary to explain our predicament to the gas station attendant, who repaired our tire. The other incident happened while we were visiting the Remy cognac plant, and in the pouring rain, backed our rental car out of the parking space and into a soon-to-be hysterical French woman’s car. A trip to the insurance office later we left Remy.)

Oct. 10, 1982

We are in Poitiers, France, having visited in Bordeaux last night and St. Emilion today. In Bordeaux we stayed at this relative flea bag, but the high point of the visit was when we walked over the the “Foire Aux Plaisirs,” The visiting county fair, and rode the Ferris wheel, which was very high, and very much fun.

Foire Aux Plaisirs

Again, an interesting perspective on our American status. There was a house called the American Show, highly gaudily decorated and sporting every tacky object you can imagine, from an all black Dixieland Jazz band to a Roy Lichtenstein comic book portrayal of two women in virtually nothing but sleezy “Uncle Sam” tutus. And the course that you walked on (We saw no other Americans doing this thing) took you out on a balcony in front of the crowd gathered below, and you walked over vent that blew air up (a la Marilyn Monroe, to give the men a thrill when an unsuspecting woman in skirt passed over.) This one guy had his hand up in a Tricky Dicky Nixon sign, and the crowd below laughed.

St. Emilion was great – miles and miles of vineyards stretched out. But one thing I realized is that the Chateau reconstruction project sounds very appealing to me after seeing the small-townness of St. Emilion. I will look in Paris to see if anything has turned up, but I think the former sounds more instructive for my French and more psychologically healthy for me.

Oct. 15-16, 1982


I’ve now been back in Paris for two days – tonight’s my second night – quite a bit has happened in that short time! But tonight I went to see View From The Bridge, by Arthur Miller, at Gallerie 55, and directed by Fiona Scanlon, who has great reviews for her English-Speaking Theatre. I was very happily and frankly surprisingly impressed with the quality of the production. It is really a difficult play, and the actors had by the end of the first scene, established the motivations of the main character for the whole show, and not in a bludgeoningly obvious way – the director was very subtle, but firm. I met the director and gave her my address in Venice – she said she’d need people after Christmas and would drop me a line. I liked her, though she seemed a little drunk.

Last night, I met Ben, a very friendly Frenchman from les banlieus, whom I am not leaping at the chance to see again. Suffice it to say, I am learning about being on my own and making choices about whom I will associate with.

Went to the American Church today – there was really nothing – especially not for as short a time as I’m here for. I really think I should go back to Gallerie 55 tomorrow night after the show and talk with some of the actors about options, opportunities.

God, I’m tired!!!


Letters from Venice – Part V

Sept. 18, 1982

“Dear Diary” if this isn’t a flight to freedom via occupation – i.e., writing, I don’t know what is. There are these people next to me who are trying to get their baby to coo while Daddy is poised overhead with a camera like a doctor with a microscope over a specimen jar. Mommy is cooing in…yes, baby talk in French – an international bad habit. I wonder, will I coo at my babies? – God, I hope not. Well, here I am in Como, Lake Como, and northern Italy. I was just out on this jetty in the middle of the lake, and burst out laughing at my educational process – this week of solo traveling between Bob and Florence and Dad and Joan in Amsterdam. It all began in Milano, when I waved goodbye to Bob and Lee. Crying (as always these days), I climbed into the train and miraculously, a space opened up in a compartment full of very friendly Italians – (Ed. Note: All this is hence colored by today’s incidents.) While en route to Milan, we spent two of the three hours in discorso, using the Italian dictionario, the map, and all sorts of handy visual aids. They were very nice, counseled me against “bad men,” and with the exception of one of them, kept their hands off me. The one was relatively harmless; he kept offering me a ride to Como on his “macchina” at the station. In spite of his assurances that his wife was coming along, I intuited that it was not terribly safe. One of the men, named Franco, was very polite and sensitive to my discomfort when it occurred. At Milan, he helped me to call Louisa in Venice, and took me to see Il Duomo in Milano Centrale. Beautiful, with 100 carved figures on the outside alone. And hundreds of spires, also. It was great. Afterwards, he put me on the train and I left for Como.

Which was, and is beautiful. Lake ComoI arrived at 6:35 or so and proceeded to the Hostel, which was, yes, chiuso, (closed) since June. There, I met a German fellow with a car, and we ate dinner, and then searched for a place to stay. Ma tutto era completo (All hotels were full). And even in the towns on the north side of the lake, there was nothing. So we parked the car, and with Walter’s blanket, I slept on a beautiful bluff over looking the lake, and Walter (God, that name cracks me up) slept in the car.

LakeComoatNightI was reminded of our alpine location, about 12:30 when it began to become very cold. But god, it was glorious when the sun started to come up, and the roosters at various points around the lake began to crow. I awoke at 6:30AM for the last time, to find three hawks circling over my head – I sat bolt upright and gave them the visual clue that I was alive, even if at that point I did smell like dead meat! Came down to Como proper, saw Walter off to Austria, and sought out a bagno publico (public bath), which I found and used in luxury. On my way out, past the market, a vender gave me two apples, not prime by any means, but surely edible, all was looking up when I went to the Grande Piazza and sat down to soak in the sun. Then comes this “nice little old man,” who sits down next to me and starts talking. So we had a nice conversation – the guy was old enough to be my grandfather. Then he asked me if I was hungry, after we’d discussed how “Couragio” (courageous) I was etc. for the night before. And so I go to lunch and he guy wants wine – first tip. “No, I don’t drink,” says Els, catching on quickly. Well, lunch was fine, though I lost my appetite sometime after he asked me to have dinner ad before he told me it was better if I stayed overnight in his house –It wasn’t safe “solo.” Well, granted, it apparently isn’t safe solo, nor did I want to go near this guy’s house, even for caffe, or cognac or cinema, or anything. I just felt stupid to be part of this aging man’s heart attacks or wet dream –god I sound hard. I really guess it boils down to the fact that I felt stupid and selfish and naïve and guilty and entirely justified in leaving him after lunch. Quite a tasty little psychological soup, that!

So, I’m passing the day solo and trying to remain as inconspicuously so as possible I pity the man who comes near. Old Iron Fists Collins here. Tonight at 11:30PM I’m taking the train to Thionville – will sleep on the train. “Sleep”, a euphemism for remaining on guard. I’m sitting on the edge of the lake, which is no punishment or exile – God, It’s glorious.

Sept. 22, 1982

The evening after my imbroglio, I spent with a beautiful young Italian boy- I say boy, because he was about 18-19, and was refreshing in his playfulness. He approached me by offering me a smoke – of hashish, no less, which I politely refused – images of imprisonment lingered in my brain the entire time we were together, even after he buried his “drogues” in a hole nearby. It was really a lovely evening, spent talking about inanities, really, listening to his ghetto blaster and watching the night settle in. There are certain safeties of being with someone and also a comfort of human companionship, of course.

ThionvilleAt Thionville, after a long night on the train with no sleep (I slept on the floor in the passageway, kicked every five minutes or so) I found L’Auberge, and the propriertaire let me sleep all day long in spite of the fact that the hostel was closed. It was great. There, that night, I met Mikie and Tom, a Finnish woman and Canadian man traveling together and we went out for a beer (coke). It was especially refreshing to speak English in more than the most crude way.

The next day, I spent reading, walking around Thionville, Thionville2 and buying books (when it rained). First French books, and a dictionaire. The next day, the 21st, on to Bruxelles, Bruxellesand finding the hostel gutted and ferme (yes, you guessed, closed), I proceeded to Chab, where I met Jessie James, an American vet who was stranded in Brussels, waiting for his veteran’s pension. Pretty interesting guy – “Jessie James” isn’t far off the mark – has quite a few tricks up his twenty-seven-year-old sleeve. Told me about “doing an American Express” to “double your money.” I had to like him, though he was incredibly smooth to the point of being “glissant.” My roommates at the hostel were fascinating –Oorna, a young Israeli woman – I would have liked to travel with her. She reminded me a little of Jessica, tough, but with a true mirth that comes of having seen some things. She had served in the army two years and was proud of her country, but had problems with the evacuation from Beirut of the Palestinians. It is getting very rough in Europe now, with assassinations of Jews occurring in Paris, Amsterdam. It is not a good time to be Jewish and traveling here.

On to Amsterdam today to get my mail!

Letters from Venice – Part IV

Sept. 7, 1982

I am on a train from Edinburgh to London, the beginning of our sojourn to Florence! I really got the travel itch this morning at the train station. Finished off Edinburgh with a bang. After spending all of Sunday in  bed, watching Casablanca, reading Thomas Mann, and eating McVitties digestive biscuits, Monday, my last full day in Edinburgh, I spent at the British Watercolor Exhibition, which was exquisite, and last night went to see La Piccola Scala from Milan perform “La Pietra Del Paragone.” Terrible opera production, but I am perhaps spoiled by the Met’s spectacular shows!
We left the Turkey at the Rat Café, on the door handle – no note. I would love to see their faces when they find it! Great people at the Rat.

(The turkey was a paper mache prop turkey that Bob and I had painstakingly created on the kitchen table back at Princeton, in Edwards Hall, to solve Sam Shepard’s problem of serving a turkey on stage each performance. We filled the cavity of the turkey with sliced turkey breast, on the upstage side and came to love the turkey.)

The countryside is overwhelmingly beautiful. images-5 Such sharp contrasts of wheat and cabbage, evergreens and sheep, old farmhouses and old walls and the insidious new industries, which necessarily bilge blackness into the already overcast sky.


Why is it that writing kills the impulse to write? Observe and learn.

Sept. 9, 1982

Paris! After a very long night au bord du bateau, Channelcrossingwe have finally reached Paris! London was fine – we saw all the sights, Big Ben,images-Big Benjpg

Westminster Abbey,images-Westmin

which was totally impressive, but I feel all a-tingle just being here. We reached St. Lazareimages-Gare St. Lazareimages-GareSt.Lazareextthis morning at 7:00AM, called Hubert, Bob’s French Ami, and are at his apartment now. I am about to take a most welcome shower. Things are going our way also, the exchange rate is at a record high 7.04 F/$. So we are wealthy. Good news. Excuse me. To the shower!


There is something more of a challenge being here that stimulates my sporting impulse much more than English speaking Scotland did. An air of the exotic, even the pharmacists devient plus exotiques!  I can understand most of what Hubert says but am a little reticent to speak. That I am losing fast, however. Off to see the city.

Sept. 11, 1982

Three of the best days since leaving Princeton. Hubert has been a prince, giving us the run of his apartment, and of Paris. The first night we went out to a very nice gay restaurant with Ludovic, one of Hubert’s friends. It was very pleasant. Last night we had dinner at home – Hubert is quite a chef in his own right. Bob and I spent the day going to the Tour Eiffel, the American Church, CiDJ, to find information about jobs and housing for when I/we come back after traveling with Dad and Joan.images-undereiffel

Sitting on the banks of the Seine,images-Seine it is easy to think why Paris has seen so many fantastic artists in her history. At the Beauborg images-Beauborgthis morning (right next to Hubert’s apartment) – saw an exhibition of both Braque’s and Yves Tanguey’s works. They were both very different. Tanguey most closely resembles Dali, with his very heady symbols. I find him not to be terribly accessible, in spite of what he and his comrades chose to call automatic drawings. They seem after a time to have become automatically like their counterparts.

Also saw David Hockney’s photos in an exhibit. He does really cool things with composite images.

Sept. 13, 1982  FIRENZEimages-DuomoFirenze

We arrived yesterday at 1:00PM and ran like beheaded chickens trying to find Lee, Bob’s brother. Losing that battle, we went to the Piazza by the Palazzo Uffizi and Loggia, where we met this great old Florentine gentleman who assured us that Florence was bella, and antica. It was his favorite phrase, and every city that came up in conversation could not rival Florence and Rome. Arriving in Italy actually transpired on the train, where our compartment was peopled by two old people from Napoli and a younger man (40’s) who spoke a little English. Not enough. Because he told us we were 2-3 hours from Pisa. This meant we had time to go to the bar car, which was entirely at the end of thee train. Settling down there to eat our biscotti e bibeti, we pulled into a station which we were horrified to learn was Pisa. We jumped off the train, ran outside alongside and back on to get our packs, while our “guide” said “Pisa, Pisa!”  Thanks, buddy.

The other amusing incident on the train occurred when the Napolites started to breakfast after they awoke. From their huge bag emerged two meatball sandwiches and hot coffee from a thermos. (Bob and I, transfixed, continued to pop pruneaux and almonds into our mouths) and two very going sounding pastries, which they managed to make into the loudest breakfast, I have ever heard. It was all I could do to keep from laughing which would not have been the thing to do.

Last night we decided to splurge and go to a nice Italian restaurant. Lee very kindly sprang with his Visa card, and we found a table-clothed ristorante, and had an incredible spread, beginning with an antipasto of crab, mussels, calamari, etc. and prima pasta of Taglierani con panne e salmone, which was exquisite.

Next boiled salmon and an insalata verde. With wine and acqua minerale. It was great. At the table next to us, while we were wallowing in our shared dishes (probably about normal for two people), a table of five, very tanned and colorfully dressed Italians proceeded to put away the most amazing amount of food I’ve ever seen.

Contrary to this journal entry, there are other things to do in Florence than to eat and watch others do so.

This afternoon, we went to the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace, which were every bit as grand as I had hoped –long avenues of trees lined up to guide you or your eyes to an oasis of a pond, with clay potted orange trees and incredible statuary all over the place. The pergolas make beautiful naturally leaded ceilings over the pathways and it would have been a lovely place to write in.

Later, Bob and I went to Il Duomo, and climbed to the top, sandwiched between the two domes, and the German tourists. It is 460 steps to the top, worth every one on seeing the incredible view from the top. I took two pictures from the top – quite a splurge for my very discerning shutter finger*.images-fromtopofduomo

*Bob and I have designed a first class “camera-first” tour of Europe. Pose in front of every monument you see and take a close-up shot to include only 1 sq. meter of the monument’s wall behind. Ex: Perched atop of Il Duomo, don’t take the obvious photo with the city of Florence at your back, turn around and pin your subject to the Duomo itself. This way you can avoid those difficult landscape shots and record instead only the moment of bliss or horror registered on your subject’s face. And why trudge from monument to moment – you can take all those photos in your pensione room – just choose the most rustic wall, ie. the one having lost the most plaster, and shoot away.

–Your resident tourist and cynic in Florence.

We are staying in a great pensione off the Piazza della Indepencia. It is a huge room and the floors out in the hall are Mosaic tiles. Everything is really beautifully done.

Sept. 17, 1982

It was very hard to leave Bob and Lee in the station in Florence, but also is very exciting to go on alone. It is an extremely different experience to be sure – people are more likely to speak with you when you are alone and that makes traveling very much more pleasant.

It will be very relaxing to get into the mountains for a few days. I can tell already as we had into the mountains that they will be fantastic.

On our last day in Florence, we went to S. Gimignano, a Fourteenth century city atop the hills north of Florence. Though about as full of fellow tourists as Florence, it was still very different. When we arrived, the piazza was full of the market, but by the middle of the afternoon, it had cleared out sufficiently to be able to see the extant town.

We bought our lunch “stuffs” and climbed up into the Parco Publico by La Rocca to eat in the olive orchards overlooking the countryside. All was fine until poor Lee became plagued by his traveling friend, Montezuma (wrong country, right idea), so Bob and I spent the afternoon somewhat languorously amidst the dappled shade and sun of another secluded orchard while Lee visited with his friend. We were secluded all but for the young German hikers who were reading rather loudly from their tour book in Italian.

Letters from Venice – Part III

imagesAug. 22, 1982

The night before last after rehearsal we all trouped over to the Rat Café, which was an experience! At the piano in the back of this tiny little café, were a piano player and a very “Weilian” singer dressed in black with a green scarf looped around her throat. They were singing bluesy songs, accompanied by a poor sax player and some very enthusiastic percussionists whose ranks we joined with tambourines and spoons from the sugar bowls on the tables.  We sort of threw a coup, and the displaced Brits (Scots) joined us in singing songs from bad (& good) Broadway musicals. Except for the lead pianist who sipped his wine and pouted in a corner, confiding in whispered tones to a granny doll made out of apple face and rag clothes, which sat wisely atop the piano.

The sax player would punctuate every song’s finish with a blood-curdling battle cry of “MORE!!!!!” And the fun began again. We lasted with this until 2:00AM, when “The Americans” left, and the place went back to normal?

August 23, 1982 (Monday)

But this was the day to remember. Sunday. Oh, the props hunts we have been on cannot rival the garden spot we discovered. Bill Conley and I found storefront on Cowgate (very near the Rat Café) that was crammed full of junk. Every cranny. And objects like a bear’s head, to a close-and-play. There was everything. We walked in, to discover the two proprietors of this astonishing collection in the back room, amidst the continuation of this stuff, cooking breakfast on a wood burning stove, and watching Star Trek on a color TV. What a trip!

August 25, 1982

Saw the worst show on the Fringe today, “Momentum, A Play in 6 Crimes,”

“Worth getting up for” (1/2 truth) James Madison University.

(I remember being trapped in the first row for this god-awful show, at 9:00AM, and not being able to escape and having to watch the whole thing.)

Also saw Scagnarelle at the Royal Lyceum Theatre tonight- Wonderful! Collection of four Moliere shorts, directed by Andre Sorbonne, incredibly innovative and colorful.RoyalLyceum

Tomorrow AM, I am on the street to peddle our shows at the Fringe Office – also will be a chance to get tickets for some shows. I’m getting greedy to see things now – the bug is setting in! It’s fascinating, because after each show, you ask yourself- was that good? And if you liked something well enough to recommend it to others in the company, why did you like it? All these thousands of tourists and theatre people looking for the one show that Carol put it “Makes me go WOW!” Have yet to find it, and I’m not sure what it would be if I did.

Talked to Mark today on the phone, which was a great booster, yet, also a reminder of the length of separation. He said his show is sold out for opening night on September 10th – I’m incredibly excited for him. I only wish I could be there to see him perform.

Found a great bar that also serves cheap food tonight called “The Circuit.” Had dinner there with Lee and Bob. We talked more about travel plans. At this point I could either stay in Edinburgh for the last week of the Festival, then buy an Inter Rail Pass and travel down to Florence with Bob to meet Lee, or just buy an Inter Rail Pass and travel all over from Sept. 5-23rd. Who knows? Decision by Sunday when Lee leaves. Good night.

August 27, 1982

Went to see “Ethel & Julie” this morning; a show about the Rosenberg’s case. It was very well done, simple with the two Rosenbergs and a commentator figure and two multi-purpose minor characters. That seems to be very common in the contemporary stuff I’ve seen – a lot of doubling of characters. In Scagnarelle, each of the four leads was played by a different one. It really reveals the elasticity of British actors. I think we could take a lesson from these Brits!

Am going to see two more shows tonight – “Brecht’s Women” and a review called “Maidenhead Revisited.”

Sept. 1, 1982

“Brecht’s Women” was fantastic. Highly professional show, with great care obvious in all aspects. I am really glad to have seen it. Since then, I have seen “Lulu”, and “Prelude to Death in Venice” both directed by Lee Breuer of the American Rep Theatre. They were similar in flavor – very New York and slick and both very much vehicles of a highly egomaniac director. The Mabou Mines (Prelude) piece was just bonkers – no plot, but the neurotic rantings of a man through his wooden puppet which he cradled between two American pay phones. Very bizarre. “Lulu”, on the other hand, while being very remote from Wedekind’s German Expressionism, was a production devoted to the sensual exploration of his script – very much in keeping with the spirit of Lulu’s search for pleasure and happiness. Very High Tech, with video and miked to death. Carbone, the “Impressionist Painter” of the original script, became, in Breuer’s production, an anemic fey photographer whose focusing of his telephoto lens was not integral to his shooting but which was only suggestive of “extra-pictorial” effects. [what does that mean, Els?] Every instrument, whether it be actor or microphone was exploited beyond it’s normal uses – totally in keeping with the content of the script. It’s not a kind of theatre I aspire to create or even be a part of. But I would not have missed it for the world.

Today I went to St. Giles Cathedral,

my first really “old” church of a string of them, I’m sure. I was struck by the age of the church the minute I set foot inside. I know that is an incredibly trite thing to say, but it was absolutely my first sensation. Then the glorious color of the windows, muted and far subtler than the screaming modern palette of Twentieth century windows. The content of the windows, some of them, anyway, was Scottish history, something I just haven’t seen before in the states.

Today I really got a sense of the importance of certain images to the integrity of a play. Example. I thought the other day, that when the Xmas lights wouldn’t blink for “Action” (the Sam Shepard play which was one of the Princeton University offerings at the Fringe Festival, and which I was stage managing), that it didn’t really matter – we’d fix them for the next day. But now that I am operating them manually from backstage and I appreciate the regularity they afford to the otherwise entirely volatile and unpredictable world Shepard has created. For all these explosions take place, and there I was, backstage, constantly flicking the fucking tree: On-2-3-4, Off-2-3-4. And the voltage drops, which never seemed too important before, now became the only thing that broke the regularity of my flickering. I don’t know why I record this – it just struck me as interesting.

I’m embarking on reading “Death in Venice” a glimpse of what “Prelude to Death,” meant may be imminent!

“Bozzy,” a one-man show about James Boswell…not worth writing home about. You really have to have both a great script and an incredibly innovative actor to pull off a 1-¾ hour show. David McKail had me for ½ hour tops….

Sept. 3, 1983

Saw the New London Actor’s Company perform “Treatment” a play about London youth last night. The acting was incredible – very strident, but controlled, so that I had the feeling the actors had honestly been directed as weapons – never pointed directly at the audience, but I was always with the knowledge that there was a loaded gun in the room.

The one actor, Roger Monk, had such facility with his face to make himself incredibly ugly, that I was amazed. These actors truly know how to use and exploit their bodies to that effect. The group “always centres its work on the sheer mental and physical powers of the actor himself. The aim is to present a highly disciplined and entertaining theatre.” (From the program)

Stopped in yesterday to see four young London artists’ early works in a studio set up for the Edinburgh Festival. The installation was a combination of wooden sculptures which I would call languorous and paneled paintings composed of 6 x8 panels of slate spaced evenly apart in a grid shape, painted in Gauguin/Matisse-like shapes and bright yellows, reds and greens. I liked the work – the subjects, when not totally abstract, seemed to have been Biblical, from Paradise.

There is a great deal of that subject around. The Cambridge Experimental Theatre did “Tartarus,” a show with three actors and a kitchen table, exploring the “Universe”. Again, highly skilled work, the utmost care and concentration exhibited.

Sept. 4, 1982

We are finished! I have a great feeling of accomplishment, and relief at the end of this project. Seeing people off is a bit scary, as the total break from friends for such a long period is bound to be.

Mark called today – OH GOD! It was great to talk with him. Much less strained than last time, and a better phone connection. He’s talking about a European job possibility and about showing up by January. It would be so great.

The show is apparently not going so well. It opens in five days. I hope Mark is satisfied with his work on it anyway. That’s what counts. Though I know how much more frustrating it can be not to be able to control the quality of others’ work, as well.

Letters from Venice – Part II

NB: What follows here are actual diary entries from 1982. Please forgive my youthful perspective!


            We left for the airport on Tuesday, August 17, 1982, driven by Lee Benson, whose new Oldsmobile Cutlass introduced itself to us as a series of rattles, squeals and clatters. After a somewhat contortionist drive, we arrived at JFK, bought a ticket for Bob, and boarded the 7:00PM flight for London. In elegant form, while waiting in line for the ticket, I crouched down to find a more comfortable position with my 35 pound pack, and tumbled backwards with my jump suited, be-purpled legs flailing helplessly in the air. I knew it was going to be a long trip.

On the plane, we were delayed for an hour and a half, but once aloft, flew quite quickly to London. Our seatmate was a lovely English man named Adam, who insisted on treating us both to bottles of champagne in order to celebrate our trip to Edinburgh.

300px-KingsCrossWithMini.JPGUpon reaching London, we discovered at King’s Cross Station that the train trip to Edinburgh was L32; far beyond our means. Sought out a bus, then settled for the Night Rider, a L12 train leaving London at 10:00PM, arriving in Edinburgh at 5:45AM. Yikes!
Not having slept all night really, we went to nap in a waiting room where there proved to be three extremely loud and drunk assholes who were conducting some kind of “deal” which the entrance of an African disrupted. This interruption created a huge racial contest, refereed by another backpacker who yelled at them to shut up. She was chastised by the instructions – “Shut up, cunt!” Oh, the joys of human interactions.

The taxis are wonderful in London- glossy black sedans sometimes purple or brown, always whizzing by at breakneck speeds.image_mini

There is so much to learn. How to use the frigging telephones. How does one distinguish between a “rapid pip” and an “engaged” signal? Oh, for sleep aboard the Night Rider.telephone

August 18, 1982 King’s Cross

Sign in the Loo:

“Don’t blame the Loo lady for the Price

We work our hardest to keep them nice

Washing pans and mopping floors

Hearing all the banging doors

Clean toilets are our special task

A pleasant smile is all we ask!

Later, saw Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby St. – struck me like a mall version of Soho.

Dinner at Sagamantha, an Indian restaurant, which had a beacon above the front door, which was a rotating red police light, and where Bob and I, passing through Phase 3 of our exhaustion, lost it and started spewing water out in a fit of giggles!

If one thing will drive me nuts, though, it is the number of motorcycles. Every time I see one I think of Mark – and they all ride with leather jackets, which may cause considerable discomfort throughout the trip. I miss him…

Aug. 19, 1982

Edinburgh is delightful. We spent all night on the Night Rider, arriving at 5:30AM to the light of the new rising sun on the age-encrusted city of Edinburgh [ouch].

By our return to the downtown in the afternoon, the place was unrecognizable for the excited buzz of traffic and pedestrians scurrying around.

The tech staff/management at the YMCA, our venue for the first week, is incredibly accommodating and we spent three hours this evening in the space. All props and drops must be fireproofed so tomorrow we will do that.

Had my first spud with cheese (and Bob) at 9:50pm before a 10:00pm rehearsal – I hope to taste more leisurely taters laters…..

Letters from Venice -Part 1

June 2006 -This writing began while listening to “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt. The book evoked so many memories of my 13 months living in Venice right after graduating from Princeton in 1982. It never ceases to amaze me how instantaneously an author can tap into your own experiences and start awakening memories of people and places long dormant and unexamined. His book, set in Venice, around the tragic fire at the Fenice Opera House in 1996, covered a time almost thirteen years after I had left Venice, and yet, his descriptions of the city and the politics and the society there unzippered my brain and unleashed my memories. Berendt discussed the curator of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Philip Rylands, and his wife, Jane Rylands extensively, whom I had met and worked with in Venice. Finishing the book, I was prompted to exhume the letters that my dear friend, Bob Stern had so kindly sent to me recently, saved and sent back almost 20 years later, and having digested those, I dug out my old Journal, “European Ventures!” begun Aug. 17th, 1982 as we left Princeton to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with 5 student-acted plays. We went with our drama teacher, Carol Elliot, and about 15-20 students. Bob Stern, my best friend, and I left for Edinburgh together. I have since gone to the ever-informative web to cut and paste images available to illustrate my adventures of acquiring my post-graduate degree in living. I’ve always been somewhat of an impulsive, pigheaded and fortunate girl – and, now at the age of fifty-three, I am reminded by world events which unfurl around us that indeed, life is only what you make of it, and how your perceive your success at making your life. It is, all too often and too predictably, being in the right place, opening the doors when opportunity knocks, all those clichés which have been drilled into our heads as children.  That time, now thirty years ago, was as magical and unexpected as any moment in my daily life now. Looking back through the miasma of time, if I strain hard enough, I can see in that reckless, twenty-one year old the seeds of who I am now, somewhat manic, terribly critical of myself, willing to take risks – and above all, a people pleaser.

I grew up in the Midwest, in a small rural town outside of Pittsburgh. Well enough outside of Pittsburgh, that the daily commute to the city vexed my father to the point of complete disinterest in making the trip any more, so that he relocated himself closer to work. This happened when I was about thirteen, and was painful at the time, but the seismic shift in our family structure also provided me with the first of many opportunities to come.

Shortly after my parents separated, my best friend, Liz, went off to boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. Now neither this specific fact, nor the concurrent divorce that my parents were working us all through would normally be considered particularly lucky, but the stressful confluence of events led to my being allowed to follow her the following year, to St. Paul’s School. This was one of the luckiest and happiest doors to open to me in my life, but you will see that it was only the first, and not nearly the last such lucky portal.

St. Paul’s is one of the best-endowed, most beautiful boarding schools in the United States, and this girl from Greensburg, PA took it by storm. I loved the classes, the dorms, the extra-curricular theater events that I became part of. Never a big sports person, I nevertheless rowed intramural crew, and kept generally fit, and overall loved the school.

The most influential teacher I had at St. Paul’s was without a doubt, Robert V. Edgar, English teacher, head of the drama program.  I began my stage management career working with Edgar on “Loot,” where my duties involved acquiring the manikin which appears as a prop in the play. I took this job very seriously, and went into Concord, went to a local haberdashery and somehow cajoled them into loaning the manikin to us, then carted it back to campus in a cab. Mr. Edgar believed in my skill as an actor, too. He supported my performance in Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett, my last year, as an Independent Study Project, buried up to my waist, then neck in a paper-Mache mound of dirt, spouting 60 some pages of monologue, with undoubtedly very little variety of tonal expression.

One morning, in my fifth form year, during breakfast in the large barn-like dining room at Upper Hall, I convinced my friend,Will Schwalbe, on a dare, to sneak upstairs with me into Middle Upper, the dorm where Edgar was a house master, and an all boy’s dorm, to knock on his door to wake him up. I’ll never forget coming in through the door way, and seeing the look of surprise on Artie Z’s face as he struggled wearing only his towel, to get back into his room from the shower. Without even reacting to the illegality of my being in a boy’s dorm, Edgar swung his door open, invited us in for coffee and the “Tutorial” began, a weekly opportunity to meet to discuss world events, or just SPS events, while we listened to classical music on Public Radio, or Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood on the turntable, if we were feeling silly, which we frequently were. The ranks of the Tutorial grew by only a few other students, since we considered the gathering to be elite. We were incorrigable intellectual snobs.  After Tutorial, at 7:55AM, we donned our coats, and all walked to chapel together, either through 5 foot snowdrifts lining the path, or through the verdent spring foliage lining the walkway from Upper.

Bob Edgar made us feel like adults, by valuing what we had to say, by laughing at our inane jokes, and by generally offering a droll, witty, smart role model for who we could be when we were finished with our educations. I really cherish those days, and credit them in no small way to my development into a life-long learner.

Cut to December of my 6th Form year at SPS. I had visited only three colleges in preparation for the application process- Stanford, Princeton, and Santa Cruz. When I sat down to it, I applied to Princeton early admission, with UC Santa Cruz as my back up school. In my typically irrational, impulsive manner, I eschewed Stanford because it was hot the day we visited there, and I didn’t like the architecture of the campus. Ridiculous youth.

My mother’s father had gone to Princeton, and had graduated with a degree in architecture in 1933. I had been successfully indoctrinated to the Princeton family over years of attending the Princeton vs. Yale football game with my Granddad, first taking lunch at Cottage Inn, on the “tailgate” of Grandad’s car, then sitting on the Princeton side of the stadium, cheering our team onto victory. Also, having been at St. Paul’s School’s similarly ivied halls for four years, I felt more comfortable on the campus of Princeton then just about anywhere else. It didn’t hurt that about 30 of my friends from St. Paul’s would be calling Princeton home for the next four years.

I plowed through the next four years pretty uneventfully, starting in the Woodrow Wilson School as a poli-sci major, and after one year, maybe even one semester, switching to the Art History department where I discovered a Friday morning slideshow/lecture on the History of Gardens was a successful antidote for a rowdy Thursday night at the pub. I liked the small scale of the Art History department, loved thinking about aesthetics and brush strokes, and enjoyed reading about the early contemporary artists and the choices they made forging new styles of painting. When senior year rolled around, I had become enamored with early twentieth century painters in the New York circle of Alfred Steiglitz, and was inspired to write my thesis on Georgia O’Keefe and John Marin and Arthur Dove, and their particularly American qualities. What intrigued me most then, and still does to this day, was the idea of a single person’s ability to be a catalyst for creativity, by providing a safe haven for creative thoughts and actions. Patrons of the arts fascinated me.

I also worked actively in the theatre at Princeton, not with the Triangle club, who produced musicals and musical revues, but in the small octagonally shaped bunker theatre in the center of the campus, right next door to the Art and Archeology department, Theatre Intime. There I worked on a number of shows, and the last two years, spent both summers on campus as a co-producer for the summer seasons we produced. It was a natural extension of Edgar’s Tutorial – producing and mounting our own fully realized shows for the paying public. The confidence we had in ourselves was staggering.

To support my academics and extra-curricular events, I had a financial aid package including moneys from my parents and grandparents, a scholarship (arranged through the generosity of my grandfather, from his classmates), student loans acquired through the bank in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where my Princeton grandfather lived, and a work-study job at the University. I had chosen to work in the food services division of the University, and spent my share of time peeling and chopping eggs in the Student Center, and making omelets and sandwiches for students over the course of my four years. However, I discovered that I could cashier, make more money, deal directly with people and occasionally have time to read a book during quiet stretches at the Student Center. So I spent most of my senior year in that capacity.

It was on one spring afternoon just prior to my graduation when I had finished my lunch shift as cashier, and, on the way out of the Student Center, stopped at the vending machine to buy a TAB. I was plunking quarters into the machine when someone tapped me on the right shoulder, and I turned to see Louisa J, a graduate student from the Art and Archeology Department standing behind me.

“Hi, Louisa,” I said as I retrieved my can of soda from the machine.

“Els, hi. I have a question for you.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I was wondering, do you know of anyone who would be interested in going to Venice, Italy for six months to au pair for my daughter, Anna, while I write my dissertation?”

Without missing a beat, I opened that door upon which opportunity had knocked.

“That would be me,” I said. We made arrangements for me to spend a Saturday afternoon getting to know Anna, at the graduate student housing, near the campus, and Louisa walked away. I stood there, stunned, opened my can of TAB, took a swallow, and considered my new trajectory.

Later that week, I met the infamous Anna on the “swim-date” Louisa had arranged for the two of us to get to know each other. We sat on our beach towels on the hot concrete pavement surrounding the small pool at the graduate student housing, I in my one-piece, and Anna, age 6, in her two-piece suit. She sat eyeing me warily, sizing me up, and after some consideration, voiced her question; “Why do you have a moustache?” I didn’t really have an answer. It probably was no coincidence that while in Venice, I began what was to become a life-long waxing regime. Occasionally as the technician wands the scalding wax onto my upper lip, I will see Anna’s innocent and curious face looking up at me, and as the wax zips off my lip, I can see the sparkle in her eye.