Find Rembrandt and leave

Madrid, Spain. February 2014. Hungry but not lost, for once.

Madrid, Spain. February 2014. Hungry but not lost, for once.

It was like suddenly spotting a long-lost friend from my childhood or seeing someone in person whom I’d only seen in pictures. Vividly, happily blue and speckled with flecks of pastel, she seemed ready to dance right out of the frame. In fact, I was surprised at how much was cut out of the canvass, though I am told that this is one of Degas’ special tricks to make paintings seem alive and in motion. She has always been in motion to me.

Edgar Degas’ Ballerina in Green from 1880 first came into my life in the form of a glossy bookmark at an age when I could not begin to appreciate art, Degas or bookmarks. But I appreciated ballet.

Seeing the painting hanging on a peach colored wall in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid brought me, just for a moment, back into the body of a nine year old girl who’s idea of life was baby dolls and staged weddings presided over by large stuffed animals, and who’s dreams of travel extended no further than the few remaining uncharted paths at the Zoo.

It’s funny, I thought to myself as I ate alone in a Tapas bar that night, how we never turn into the people the childhood versions of ourselves would have expected.

It’s also funny how much you think to yourself when you’re traveling alone, but I consider that a good thing. Thanks to facebook, I rarely have enough time to talk to myself anymore.

There was a time when I was quite certain I would grow into the perfect woman.

Ah. The perfect woman. What an undefinable, unattainable goal.

As a little girl I imagined myself being a pianist, ballerina and fastidiously well-dressed nurse (occupation wavered from nurse to teacher to archeologist several times. Actress and hobo didn’t come onto the radar until high school). I knew I would be a ‘real lady’ and I would have the perfect poise in every situation.

The black light under the Tapas bar counter reminded me that I hadn’t done laundry in a while and my internal monologue crossed “fastidiously well-dressed” and “perfect poise” off the list of things I could hope to accomplish in my adult life. This was shortly before walking into a light post on my way back to the hostel.

If people are instruments, I wanted to be a piano – classic, timeless, beautiful, always appreciated. What I turned into was an accordion – loud, eccentric, adventurous and friendly but not necessarily the makings of a palace invitation. Same basic principle when it comes to playing, completely different sound. And honestly? It’s a much more complicated instrument. I can’t help but wonder if nine year old Mary would be disappointed in me, if not at least a little weirded out.

I travel with duct-taped luggage and hand-drawn maps. I certainly don’t solve murders, find romance or do undercover missions for the CIA while I’m traveling (at least…not that I can tell you about). I can see nine year old Mary looking up from her plastic tea set and asking, “No handsome stranger? No fancy dress? What’s the point of going at all?”

On a related note, Van Gogh is disappointing in person. His art, that is.

I was never a huge fan, but I imaged having my breath slowly expunged from my lungs if ever I saw one of his paintings with my own eyes. Instead, I just wondered how long it took for his pieces to dry because he really globs on the paint and when I do that with my nails it takes me at least an episode and a half of Downton Abbey before I can use my hands again.

After the Thyssen-Bornemisza, I wandered down the busy Spanish main street beneath bare trees and blue skies. I found myself in front of the Museo Nacional del Prado and another two hours of endless hallways and 17th century realism. My feet were hurting.

Actually, I was pretty sore all over and extremely hungry. It’s hard to appreciate art when there’s nothing on your stomach. But the tourist pamphlet said Rembrandt was somewhere inside and nine year old Mary was basically in tears begging me to just suck it up and be classy this once. How hard it is to waft elegantly from one gallery to the next, exuding an air of intrigue and feminine mystery?

Dear nine year old Mary, don’t ask.

I wafted for as long as possible and then I limped for another hallway or two. Finally I admitted defeat, curled onto a bench in a deserted gallery and pulled out the info packet for the museum. Forget being glamorous and classy. I was going to find Rembrandt and leave.

No one should need a reminder by now that I’m bad with directions. It took me half an hour to find that stupid painting. And when I did I was a little let down. Not because it wasn’t beautiful (as much as a portrait of a sad-looking portly rich woman can look), but because I had passed it like eight times before I realized that it was his. There were no fireworks, no parades. No ghosts of dead artists whispering in my ear, “That guy really knew how to hold a brush.”

It was just a painting. A really good one, but not my favorite in the gallery by a long shot.

After nearly four hours and two art museums filled with famous painters like Degas, Van Gogh, Homer Wilson, Velazquez and Monet, I walked away (towards dinner, thank goodness) with several new favorite artists. None of them I had ever heard of before. Not that that’s saying a lot. I’m not the most cultured Fabergé egg in Russia.

My point is that life surprises us. We go in with expectations and walk away with informed opinions, hopefully independent of our preconceived imaginings.

I gave a nod to Rembrandt (which I consider generous seeing as I was hungry enough to have eaten the tour guide) and I did genuinely adore seeing Degas’ ballerinas. But I found myself most at home among the 16th century Dutch artists and their maritime themed artwork. Deep. Brooding. Colorful, but not annoyingly so.

I wish I could tell nine year old Mary not to worry so much about finding the perfect steamer trunk to one day carry around the world (a big one like George Bailey’s, with room for all my travel stickers). I wish I could tell her that life is like being an amateur in an art gallery – it’s okay to learn from the greats, but never to copy. Let your brush find its own path and don’t fret if it turns out a little blurry and unconventional. Honestly, that’s how most people describe the entire post impressionism movement anyway.

Who cares if you’re playing the accordion or the piano? Wandering around Paris or the backstreets somewhere south of Madrid? Looking at Rembrandt or someone you’ve never heard of? The point is that you’re doing it. The point is that you’re dancing. You’re dancing right out of your frame. The point is that you’re in motion.

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