Summer holiday vignettes

Invitation to a Dance

The sky was slowly clearing after a violent thunderstorm. The evening sun illuminated wispy trails of clouds while the waves still spat up high against the walls of the little harbour. People started to  come out again, walking cautiously on the wet pier. 

Fragments of a wistful music came drifting from the other side of the harbour, from a little castle with flickering lights in the windows – the quivering lights & music both evoking a ballroom of a bygone era. 

Drawn by the music we walked up there, hesitantly entering the building, at first dazzled by the radiant lustre of a scintillating chandelier.   On the ground floor there was a posh restaurant with a  magnificent view over the lake. But the bewitching music (an Italian operatic voice with a creaky orchestral accompaniment, all reminiscent of very old gramophone music) came from higher up.

We mounted the stairs in the impressive hallway – with dark ancient paintings on the walls barely illuminated by shimmering wall lights.  Upon closer inspection all were in various states of decrepitude – a layer of dust on the paintings’ frames, little black spiders guarding intricate webs around the light fixtures.

On the first floor we were met with a jumble of black umbrellas and various pairs of shoes and sporting bags.  Some people were sitting on a bench in the corridor, others standing in the door-opening of the room whence the music came.  

 A man was carefully tying the laces of a pair of beautiful white & brown leather dancing shoes, a woman was moving her head to the music  – all in an atmosphere of keen expectation and longing.    
We at last managed a peek into the room – couples were waltzing on a gleaming parquet, enveloped by the pathos of that ancient Italian voice, intensely immersed in each other and in their dance.     

Reflections in a Painted Pond

I’ve come a long way – from a purely indoors kind of person shunning all wind & sun to someone enjoying walking & cycling through vales & woods.   The enchanting fleetingness of absent minded movement & exercise.  The thoughtless abandon to the manifold manifestations of nature.

But nothing compares to the sense of homecoming, when I can leave the hustle & bustle of the real world behind, and can enter a museum, however small and musty, so benevolently dark and still in the summer heat.  

My mind & heart always perk up, intently gazing at old pictures, re-imagining what someone long ago strove to represent, with such elaborate skill and understanding.

And so I can marvel, after for instance a sweaty cycling tour on the shores of lake Constanz, at a small Flemish School painting of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt where Joseph  lets his donkey drink from a little river meandering though hazy greyish-green woods.

And so I can marvel, after for instance a walk through the Antwerp countryside, at a painting of an oblivious Orpheus enchanting exotic animals with his music.

 And so I can gaze at the meticulously painted water plants of a pond – my own reflection feeling quite at home in this imagined aqeuous habitat.

looking for companions (a phrase, an angel, three camels & a deer)

A companion-phrase  

There’s  this sentence  that keeps popping up in my head – in fact almost every time I check the news:

  "the extraordinary frailty of human affairs"

Arendt coined the phrase in the context of unpredictable human action and political affairs .

In my head it has turned  into an incantation whenever despairing of human fragility, of the failings of our human condition.

A companion-angel

It’s such a wonderful landscape painting (1) – a winding path, magnificent trees, a river, animals, loitering little figures, a hazy horizon with bluish mountains – a complete worldscape.

And in this worldscape Tobias and a companion-angel walk & talk animatedly,  with a dog running joyously ahead.   It’s a very helpful angel, too - a bit later, handily in the same picture space, he points out to the man how to catch a fish.

What more could one wish for, a friendly,  solicitous angel accompanying us on our wanderings in the world.

Accompanied by three camels and one deer

Another painting shows the journey home of young Tobias through a wooded mountain scape. 

He’s still accompanied by his angel and his dog.   
But in his wake now also follows a magnificent party on camel back (carrying Tobias’  new found wife & servants & gifts).

The landscape reminds me of the Belgian Ardennes – and sure enough, a familiar deer can be spotted in the shadowy woods. 

So that makes for three camels and one deer, quite improbably but joyously inhabiting the very same  woods - (however , maybe not that improbable: some sources indicate that  "both roe and fallow deer roamed widely through the Middle East during Biblical times"). 

References and a reality check

  1.   Landscape with young Tobias and angel / Landschap met jonge Tobias en engel ,  Denis van Alsloot (Mechelen 1560/15802 – 1626/1628) en Hendrik de Clerck (ca 1560 – Brussel 1630) (KMSKA)    (& how lovely to read that the painter found inspiration in the forêt de soignes/ Zoniënwoud, Groenendaal, Ter Kameren)
  2.  Wooded mountain scape with the return journey of Tobias / Bebost berglandschap met de terugtocht van Tobias, David Vinckboons (Mechelen 1576 – Amsterdam <1633 dresden="" i="">both paintings are on show in the Rockox House in Antwerp :"The landscape in the Netherlands")

  • Checking out the Old Testament story on the web, I learn that Tobias’ father was “Tobit, a pious man living in exile in Nineveh (modern Mosul, Iraq)”.   Mosul  : unexpectedly behind the scenes of an age-old story of angelic succour (lovingly painted in the Low  Countries ), these days a city trapped in the miseries of war. 

  • Intermezzo

    When I’m not worrying about the extinction of the sun in 7 billion years’ time, or about the rise of global sea levels by 74cm by the end of the century or about globalisation, migration, robotisation, work and next week’s elections, I tend to be a fairly happy person. 

    Content with an hour of reading a day, enchanted by pictures from all ages, grateful for the music – happiest when I ‘m on my feet, ready to be charmed by whatever fragments the streets have on offer.

    And isn’t it wonderful that there’s even a formal musical tempo for the moderate walking pace : 

    “mässig, in gehender Bewegung”