Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Views from the verandah at Rainbow Tree villa, Treasure Beach, Jamaica (all photos by Peggy Harrison,

I am just back from my fourth annual trip to Treasure Beach (see last year's posts in the archive for more background information and photos) and this year Peggy Harrison, official Collected Traveler photographer, joined us with her husband, Rich. Peggy referred to the trip as "most relaxing vacation ever" and that is exactly why we keep going back. Not much has changed in Treasure Beach (also why we keep going back) but I thought it was great that a French family was staying at Rainbow Point (the smaller house that sleeps six at the other end of Billy's Bay) and another French family was staying at the house next to Rainbow Tree. Clearly, word of this special place is definitely spreading!

I read for the second time The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson (Random House, 2009) -- my companion reading always has to relate to the places I'm traveling to -- and I quickly remembered how beautifully written this book is. Though you can't tell from the title, the book is about Jamaica (and Cezair-Thompson is Jamaica-born), but it is a novel that features historical events and dates and weaves together members of many generations of Jean Landing's family, as well as friends and lovers (there is also, helpfully, a glossary of Jamaican dialect at the back of the book). Cezair-Thompson is also the author of The Pirate's Daughter (2008, also Random House, also about Jamaica) which I haven't read yet but I'm going to seek it out very soon; but True History has been deservedly acclaimed: "...marvelously evocative...[conveys] a vivid sense of many worlds folded into one" (The Washington Post Book World); "Cezair-Thompson writes with such talent, grace, and confidence" (The New York Times Book Review) and "...the colorful and dramatic history of Jamaica is stunningly encapsulated" (Kirkus Reviews). I love so many passages in this book, but one in particular, a few pages from the very end, really sticks with me:

"She is the descendant, not of runaway Africans, but of African slaves. And not only of Africans but of English, Irish, Spanish, Jewish, Germans, and Chinese. Does this motley ancestry make her spirit a less able traveler? Does confusion of the blood cause the spirits to flounder and lose their sense of direction?" The character of Jean continues on by noting that her Cuban friend, Senor Rodriguez, of African descent, told her about something called egun iponri, meaning ancestors coming and going, living in and around a person. "He showed her an altar in his house dedicated to Yoruba gods and Catholic saints -- Shango, Ogun, St. Christopher. "No conflict," he told Jean. "It's all the same, all one spirit world." But they're not all the same, Jean thought, that's the glory. She realized then that she had always believed in egun iponri. The vastly differing voices are not a floundering but a steadying influence."

And now that I read that again I see that while it is a passage unique to Jamaica, it is also one for all travelers to keep in mind, as probably nowhere on earth do issues of race, religion, and culture fit easily into a neat and tidy box.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Detail from ‘The Resurrection of Lazarus,’ 1896, by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, photo by Hervé Lewandoswki

'View of the Seine, Looking Toward Notre Dame' 1896 by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York,

Last weekend was filled with some wonderful treats: one of them was the very well done exhibit, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts -- the two images above are from paintings featured in the show. Tanner is not as well known as he deserves to be, but in brief, he was the son of a third generation freed man from Pittsburgh and a former slave who escaped to freedom on the underground railroad. Tanner decided at a young age to pursue his dream of being an artist, and he attended the Academy of Fine Arts and was fortunate to work under the best American artists of the time, including Thomas Eakins, who was to become a mentor to Tanner. In 1891, Tanner traveled to Europe, and he noted that in Paris, "no one regards me curiously...I am simply 'M. Tanner, an American artist.' Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forbears. I live and work there on terms of absolute social equality." 'The Resurrection of Lazarus' was accepted in the Salon of 1896, and as the accompanying exhibit brochure states, "Tanner's career became international news...He won a medal and became one of only a handful of American artists collected by the French government." Among other works in the show I particularly liked are 'The Arch,' (1919), 'Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures' (1909; his wife Jessie and their son were the models for this painting, which is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art), and 'Interior of a Mosque, Cairo' (1897).

In the first edition of my Paris book, I included an entry on 'African-Americans in Paris' in the 'Renseignements Pratiques' section (renamed 'A Paris Miscellany' in my more recent edition). I wrote that "especially in the 1950s and sixties, but also for many years before that, there was an important community of African-American artists and writers in Paris. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Henry Tanner, Langston Hughes, to name just a few, were all in Paris, a city where as Richard Wright has written, "your color is the least important thing about you."" I also noted that I'd seen a great exhibit in 1996 at the Studio Museum in Harlem entited "Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965" and the accompanying catalog includes essays and excerpts about the Paris art word in the twenties and thirties. A related work that's also a good read is From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 (Michel Fabre, University of Illinois Press, 1991), and a wonderful article to read is "Chez Tournon: A Homage" by Paule Marshall, The Sophisticated Traveler edition of The New York Times Magazine, 18 October, 1982.

My husband, daughter, and I took a different route from New York to Philadelphia, and we drove through the charming town of Frenchtown, New Jersey. The route happened to be prettier, more interesting, and a little shorter, but the reason we chose it is because my daughter has been pestering us to go a cafe called the Lovin' Oven, which she'd learned about from a show on the Food Network called 'The Best Thing I Ever Ate.' The "best thing" was a chocolate salted caramel pie ($6 a slice, $50 for the whole pie), and I can officially claim it was without doubt one of the very best desserts I have ever eaten on the planet. Though we only stopped to get slices of the pie to go, I took a sample menu with me and we definitely plan on having a meal there -- the menu is packed with local, seasonal dishes and looks fantastic. As writer Tammy La Gorce noted in The New York Times in 2010, the husband-and-wife owners Julie Klein and Mike Quinn "already had a loyal following" before they moved the cafe from Milford to Frenchtown. "The couple's commitment to cooking with local ingredients and to baking on the premises, including the beloved sweet potato biscuits, has earned it the devotion of locavores as well as those who never end a meal without dessert."

And, Lovin' Oven is right next to (a part of the same building, actually) Two Buttons, the cool mostly Asian-inspired home furnishings store owned by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) and her husband, Jose Nunes, who lease the space to Lovin' Oven (open Wednesday to Saturday 8 to 9; Sunday from 8 to 3; closed on Monday and Tuesday). If you're interested, Lovin' Oven is offering a great Valentine's Day menu with lots of choices for $60 per person. Note no credit cards or reservations are accepted, and it's B.Y.O.B. If you have to wait a while you can get lost in the cavernous Two Buttons.