Typically, when I sit down to write a blog post, I have no earthly idea what I’m about to write. The process is kind of like the headlight on my mom’s bike when I was a kid, powered by a generator that could be engaged or disengaged from the rear tire rim. At night, it was only after you engaged the generator, hopped on the bike, and began pedaling that the road ahead received illumination – at first, dully, but as you picked up speed, brighter and brighter.

However – and I’m adding these first two paragraphs after having written the rest of this post – despite finishing it, I’m not all that much closer to understanding what I was trying to impart. In conversation over a 8:30 pm till past midnight dinner on the street outside a restaurant in Lisbon with Steven Seinberg, another American artist who happened to notice that I was in Portugal and reached out to see if we might meet up, I made a vain attempt to articulate just what I again tried to say herein, but couldn’t. I still can’t. Not exactly. I suppose all you’ll find, if you read the rest of the post, are some of my initial, surface thoughts, written just five days after returning home, when they’re both freshest yet least understood.

My blog’s focus is more art than travel so I’ll probably only be making “drive by” references to the places we saw in Spain and Portugal during a recent trip, which is pretty much how we traveled through both countries, putting an average of over 300 miles on the rental car per day during the eight or so days we were there. Suffice to say we could have and probably should have honed our geographical focus more than we did. On the other hand, neither my wife and I nor our friend Kathy had ever been to either country, and it was nice to get a fairly comprehensive lay of the land. A Spanish starter. A Portuguese primer. We figure we can always return to spend more time in some of the places we found to be the most beautiful/interesting.

Problem with that is that entirely too much of both countries is gorgeous and/or fascinating, and, even though we can now say we’ve been, in order of their appearance, to Sitges, Barcelona, Pamplona, Bilbao, Guernica, Porto, Nazaré, Praia das Macãs, Sintra, Lisbon, Casal São Simão, Madrid, and Collbató, in truth, we’ve only barely scratched the surface of these places.

Surface is something we Americans know increasingly inherently well. I’ll speak for myself. It’s easy to scan the headlines, and hard to take the time to read the article: surface. Historically, as one marker, anyway, I believe I can name the presidents back to FDR, and then things get a bit fuzzy and out of order. That’s not even a full century of presidents. That’s a sliver of time. Surface. For many years now, I have given up writing the types of long letters that I, and nearly everyone my age or older, used to write and send in the mail. In fact, other than via this medium, I hardly write anything at all – heck, even in text, I often prefer sending humorous memes pertinent to the conversation over writing: surface. And during the ten years I worked as the sculpture shop supervisor for a small liberal arts college, from the fall of 2005 – the spring of 2016, I definitely noticed a gradual change in students’ ability to intuitively comprehend the third dimension. It’s as if the earlier they were introduced to the flat screens of computers and phones, the less they could perceive of things in the round. Surface.

Surface and insubstantiality is also increasingly built into our structures. In 2016, immediately after resigning my college post to be a full time artist, I was volunteering for Warka Water in Italy and conversing with Arturo Vittori, at whose home and studio outside of the ancient town of Bomarzo I was living and working, about the way homes are typically constructed in Italy. He had just completed an expansion of his home, adding a long work room and, behind that, a unit with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen in which volunteers like me could live. In fact, he’d taken two years off of his regular work in order to oversee the construction and make sure it was done to his uncompromisingly high standard of perfection. I noted how the walls of the home were thick, solid concrete. Arturo said that this was typical of Italian construction, and was dismissive of the methods and materials found in most homes in the US these days – wood framing, OSB sheathing and some sort of siding slapped on the exterior, 1/2” drywall on the interior – materials with much shorter lifespans than those found in much of the Old World. Our own home, built in the 1920’s, has plaster walls, which are a bit more durable than Sheetrock, but homes as carefully and substantially constructed in the US as Vittori’s? They’d be outliers.

Each time I have been to Europe, I’ve returned to my home in Colorado with the sense of just how deep, how “solid”, Europe is, both physically and via its long history in contrast to the relatively short history of the United States.

Again, the solidity one can feel in places like Spain and Portugal is in large part due to the physical solidity of its buildings, walls, and, in places, it’s hand hewn cobblestone streets. It’s felt when passing by the enormous Roman aqueducts that still stand in Spain, as well as France and Greece, North Africa and Turkey. It’s felt underfoot when walking in ancient towns where concrete stairs that have stood for well over a century are worn smooth and slightly concave from foot traffic, each seemingly insubstantial footfall down through the centuries like a sheet of 3,000 grit sandpaper wearing down the surface imperceptibly slowly.

Steps in Bomarzo, Italy

Even in Europe’s crumbling ruins can one feel this sense of weight and substantiality, as I could in the still partially standing remains of a Roman castle we explored on foot while driving from Barcelona to Bilbao not two weeks ago. In our country, buildings go up fast and come down faster. The 3,000 sf concrete block building I supervised at the Colorado College went up when I was in my teens and was razed a few years ago in a matter of two or three days. In a few short weeks, no physical evidence it ever existed remained. Only in photos. Insubstantial. Surface.

Església de Santa Maria, Romanic, in Spain

There’s plenty of new construction in Spain and Portugal these days, particularly, it seems to me, in Portugal. Evidence of European Union assistance after the 2008 global financial crisis, where southern Europe was generally a net receiver. Sleek and shiny new buildings next to ones that have stood for centuries. But the transformation isn’t happening as fast as I was led to believe. Thankfully. Because the older areas of the villages, towns, and cities we visited hold the most charm.

This sense of solidity can also be observed in a place’s people. It’s especially noticeable in the Portuguese and Spanish youth. It’s as if the youth know innately – partly learned at home and in school, and partly due to being steeped in a physical way relating to their physical surroundings – that there’s solid ground beneath their feet. Church bells tolling high above them where they have for centuries.


Above: A video of bells of the Basílica da Estrela in Lisbon tolling

This I say despite knowing that Europe has its difficulties, its tensions, its strikes, its schisms, its wars and rumors of wars, both past and present. (In fact, on our way to Spain, our connecting flight in Munich was nearly canceled, as we noted on the departures board that many others were being, due to an early start to a transportation strike slated to begin the following day. We were very nearly forced to toss our loose Iberian Penninsula itinerary in the trash can, wondering how possible it would be to find a rental car anywhere in the city with an airport full of people in similar straits. I was attempting to sign up for an app similar to Turo, the car sharing platform I’ve used multiple times in the States, in case renting a car would be necessary, when I spied pilots in our plane out the window and made an inquiry. Yes, indeed, we had a full crew, but there were other potential personnel issues and they weren’t sure yet if we could take off. We clapped along with the rest of the ticketed passengers when we heard that we would soon be able to board, and once again when we lifted off.)

Down through time, conquerors and kingdoms have washed over Europe’s lands like the swells of the Atlantic wash over the Cana da Nazaré, the underwater canyon that produces some of the world’s largest surfing waves. Despite and perhaps in part because of that – because many of Lisbon’s and Porto’s buildings have withstood world wars despite the country itself being the antithesis of a world power, what translates both visually and intrinsically is this sense of solidity.

In Lisbon, after a scrumptious 2 pm lunch of middle eastern food at Yallah Lisboa – pitas and Turkish coffee – I was wending my way back to our parked rental car in my well worn in but still interminably squeaky running shoes when I cut through a city park called the Jardim da Estrela and spied some children. I immediately felt the moment exemplified what I’m trying to translate herein. Supervised by a few adults, the children were playing under an enormous tree with exposed roots, hopping from one root to the next.

The youth were happily engaged in play on the seemingly permanent though admittedly complicated ground beneath their feet, shaded and sheltered from above.

It’s a carefree, holistic stability that feels increasingly rare in the US, a comparatively vast and much more economically and militarily powerful country, again, most poignantly in the youth.

Perhaps more thoughts about the trip to come, but I’ll end today’s post with some of the photos of (to me) gorgeous surfaces that I took in Spain and Portugal with my iPhone.

Post script, written after I’d already posted this and then mulled its meaning some more:

Perhaps part of what I’m wanting to say herein is that, again, like the illumination from my mom’s generator-powered bike headlamp, sometimes you have to move – to physically get up off the couch and travel to another country – to be able to see your own surroundings with more clarity.