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A Place Called Home: Is It Where You’re From Or Who You Are?

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The Cabinet of Curiosities, Steffen Dam, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

The Sultanette revisited this pesky question last week upon returning to her hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. You’re shocked that such a worldly dame hails from the land of curds and corn fields? Not only that, yours truly cut a swath from Our Lady Queen of Peace Elementary and Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart to the godless University of Wisconsin before loading up the U-Haul and hitting the road. Chicago, New York, Paris. Any place but home.

So I was especially interested to read the Janan Ganesh Lunch with the FT interview with writer Edna O’Brien upon my return [FTWeekend 15 July/16July].

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University of Wisconsin, Madison.

O’Brien fled craggy County Clare in the west of Ireland where she was taught by the Sisters of Mercy and raised by parents who banned the study of literature so she could concentrate on becoming a pharmacist. In response, she married a novelist, moved to London and became a writer. The closest she came to pharmaceuticals was dabbling in LSD.

Ganesh notes that her novel The Country Girls shocked the decorous fifties with its “scandalous insinuation that women quite like sex.” It concerns girls who escape a rural convent school for “a life of swish new clothes and romantic escapades in Dublin.”

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Bucky watches over Bascom Hill, UW Madison.

Not every country girl (or boy) who abandons the urge to stay mired in the expectations of others needs to escape to the big city. But geographical distance can help pave the way to self-discovery. Then again, you can blame home for not becoming who you are – wherever you are.

Referring to O’Brien’s 2012 memoir, Country Girl, Ganesh wonders if “pride in her defiance of those who sought to contain her – parents, church, spouse – vies with regret at her slowness to act.” She might have stood up a bit more in her early life, O’Brien responds, “but all things considered I was pretty brave … I would say, as regards my inner self, I am happier than I ever was … I am full of darkness, but I am also full of light.”

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State Street, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which brings me back to the Madison walkabout. It was the kind of peacock-blue, cloudless-sky summer day that Wisconsin flaunts just to prove it isn’t all about twenty-inch snow drifts. My mission was State Street, that great street of boozing and schmoozing – main artery between the Wisconsin State Capitol where governing actually gets done, and the Library Mall where student protestors in the sixties did their best to undo it.

My excuse for returning was a high school reunion. The real reason was to crawl into the attic of my past and blow dust off the photo albums of my mind – research for a forthcoming book that weaves my life with a French woman writer who kept appearing in it. (If you’re patient and behave, you’ll all get autographed copies.)

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Eau de Rotunda, State Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin.

Since my hotel was closer to The Square I ducked inside the capitol first, my nostrils hit with the pungent aroma of the rotunda. Whatever that fragrance is – a mélange of musty 1917 state ledgers, floor polish, and aging cheese – it has been a sensual sensation since I was knee-high to a Badger. But enough childhood nostalgia. Time to trace the path to losing my virginity – or innocence anyway – when you’re raised Catholic, the hymen is last to go.

The nucleus for the 40,000-plus students at the University of Wisconsin campus is Bascom Hill, credited for giving every Wisconsin co-ed well-developed calf muscles. Since the beer and boys were at the bottom and classes were at the top, scaling it was a dally prereq. It was steeper yet shorter than I remembered, but memories of ascending it with a hangover in minus-twenty degrees worked up a hunger, so my next stop was State Street Brats.

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Condiments galore at State Street Brat, Madison, Wisconsin.

Curd basket anyone? Or the famous SmokeHaus BBQ Red Brat? Predictably, I chose the Ribeye Steak Sandwich “char-grilled to perfection” and delivered open-faced in case you doubted that it was extravagantly marbled with veins of fat guaranteed to slick the fingers with a coating of grease.

With blood coagulating in my veins, I headed back out to join the strollers and street musicians. In the 0.5-mile length of State Street I came upon a girl fiddling at “Madison’s Happiest Corner,” a guy strumming a guitar, a white-bearded unrecovered hippie playing the flute, and a bare-chested kid in shorts and shades playing a ukulele like it was 1999. Does Madison know the world has moved on from hippies and jamming on the street? Or does it choose to retain the endearing quality of living big and staying small?

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Optic Twist Screen #2, Andy Paiko, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

When I moved on to the Chazen Museum of Art, I learned it contains 20,000 works that include “a diversity of world cultures and representative examples of the entire spectrum of art history.” There within its cool, clean galleries with floor-to-celling glass walls I came upon Andy Paiko’s blown glass installation, “Optic Twist Screen.” Its natural backdrop was created by the blue wash of distant Lake Mendota, one of five miniature lakes that make up the city’s character. I had experienced those lakes as a little girl with sand bucket at the local beach, and canoeing off the University pier, high on local pot with college mates.

What was happening to me? This place I couldn’t leave behind fast enough was provoking feelings bordering on sentimentality! Evoking an appreciation of a canny Madison modus operandi that appears to have weathered a world gone cynical and narcissistic. Did I pack some of that in the U-Haul when I fled?

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Madison’s Happiest Corner.

My final stop was the southern tip of State Street at the Library Mall – that campus landmark where the National Guard once fired tear gas on kids protesting war, civil rights, chemical companies, a country that could no longer believe in itself. I climbed onto the cement ledge in front of the Memorial Library (4,000,000 visitors every year) and watched students drift by on their way to summer classes.

A girl approached in T-shirt, cut-offs, flip-flops. The T-shirt read, “If it feels good …”. I waited for her to walk by, eager to see what clever punch line would greet me on the back. What aphorism I could take with me to New York. But there was nothing on the other side. I would have to find the answer myself. I sat on my ledge and soaked in the sun. Full of darkness. But also full of light.

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Trickery! Cheating! Chicanery! It’s Tax Time!

Head over heels at The Met.

Welcome to the perilous days of April, fellow Americans, when we’re reminded that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and that cheating (not the fun, sweaty kind) is a patriotic duty. So what better inspiration than a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play.

Encouraged by Andy Battaglia’s Wall Street Journal review promising “shady characters, dirty deeds and their often grizzly results” I hopped an uptown subway to the Met, still a sacred monument to art in spite of its jazzy new logo.

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Enter under your own risqué.

Threading my way past heroically endowed Greek warriors in the buff and ermine-clad monarchs in gilded frames, it was a relief to face the raw candor of honest criminals and the exhibition’s inviting threat of graphic subject matter. “Rangy social outcasts” is how the opening salvo described the gallery of reprobates – always on the Sultanette’s A-List.

Runway Chic or Runaway?

Runway Chic or Runaway?

The first set of assorted characters, posed for booking shots at the Chicago Police Department, hardly looked menacing. One woman reminded me of my Aunt Annette Krystowiak whose closest brush with crime was cooking blood sausage in Milwaukee. The men might have been posing for a Dolce and Gabbana spread.

Lend me your ears!

Lend me your ears!

On to a more encouraging crew – French anarchists. Sniffing them out in late-19th century Paris was dealt with in such scrupulous detail by French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, suffering the process became known as being “Bertillonaged.” As curator Mia Fineman explained it to Battaglia, “If you really wanted to make sure you had the right person, you would look at the shape of their ear, which was unique.” Credited as the first mug shots, these are selfies on steroids.

Book it, Danno!

Book it, Danno!

If you were looking for naughty nightstand reading in 1860, you’d click on Amazon (What! There was no Amazon!) for Rogues: A Study of Characters. Compiled by Samuel G. Szabo, its medley of bad boys including sneak thief, highway man, lifter, and wife poisoner, are straight out of Dickens. Each entry, labeled in elegant script, purports to uncover criminality through physical characteristics.

The eyes have it!

The eyes have it!

Why have we made such a science of exposing evildoers? Are we that easily fooled by the con man? Or do we prefer to swallow the most convenient truths, even from our lovers, family, and cohorts? … Do my darling’s eyes betray that he’s a lying, cheating bastard? Is jolly cousin Molly plotting to edge us out of the will? Might glad-handing Bob at the office really be back-stabbing Bob?

Mea culprit!

The Reverend. Mea culprit!

Working my way through the show, I became an amateur criminologist, analyzing the faces of these masters of guile. “The Reverend” Lawrence Hight’s unimpassioned stare from behind bars masked a venomous nature coiled to break free.

Freddie the farm boy

Freddie the farm boy.

The benign demeanor of 12-year-old Freddie the farm boy who shot his two sisters in Wausau, Wisconsin, belied a calculating murderer.

Then there was Frank Smith (a likely name). Hauled back to Kansas State Prison on an illegal gun charge after moldering there for twenty-six years on a previous conviction, he’s reported as saying he was “glad to be back.” Compared to the deadly reality of life on the outside maybe incarceration had its perks.

Debutante romp.

Patty Hearst debutante romp.

The exhibit may best demonstrate the allure of crime in the Femme Nikita photo of heiress Patty Hearst turned bank robber. Snatched from her gilded cage by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, she was held hostage for nineteen months of capers before being rescued by the FBI. “Tania” then listed her occupation as “Urban Guerilla” and was sentenced to seven years in prison, commuted after twenty-one months by President Carter. Upon release, she tied the knot with her prison bodyguard and raised two children. Was the marriage a form of self-imposed house arrest to resist the exciting life of crime?

If the shoe fits ...

If the shoe fits …

Or does it inevitably end on a shelf at the morgue like John Dillinger’s sheeted body, his feet tagged as if at a sample sale. I wondered studying the soles of this notoriously dashing gangster, if a hunted-down corpse manifests a different postmortem persona than a body that dies a natural death. If I ever invite a coroner into The Male Harem, we’re in for some grisly pillow talk.

Doormen on duty.

Doormen on duty.

Still, the romance of the outlaw persists. Based on the show’s 1892 portrait of the Wild Bunch, you’d take these hotties over your milquetoast accountant any day after April 18. All dapper and dandy in bowler hats, they look more like investment bankers than bank robbers (though these days they’re one and the same). In comparison, a gaggle of cops from the 40’s, taken by crime photographer laureate, Weegee, look like Upper Eastside doormen with nightsticks.

It would be easy to relegate Crime Stories as an homage to film noir and head for dinner at Demarchelier on 86th(their coq au vin makes for good tax-time comfort food). The Valentine’s Day Massacre has become endearing folklore. Even the infamous electric chair at Sing Sing earned the charming moniker “Old Sparky” and was painted by Warhol.

But that might be denying ourselves another impulse.“Poring through the gore in the collection offered certain forbidden pleasures,“ writes Battaglia of the show’s curation. Whether artistic in intention or vernacular in nature, curator Doug Eklund tells him, the images ‘have a kind of energy and make you look’.

"Old Sparky" at Sing Sing

“Old Sparky” at Sing Sing.

Maybe observing this parade of wrongdoers allows us to become voyeurs of our baser selves. These hard-boiled criminals stir up the dirty little secrets that we conceal with such immaculate pretense – those private transgressions that escape the scrutiny of judges or juries, spouses, friends, children, even the tax man. Yes villainous acts against society should be punished. But in freeing their calamitous spirits, are these daring outcasts more wildly sincere than our shamefully hidden selves?

To quote outlaw laureate, Oscar Wilde, “Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.” These photos, in stark black-and-white attest to it.

Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 31. Suggested admission is tax deductible.




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Redress For Success

Photo: TheSultanetteI didn’t want to like Jacqueline de Ribes. Just another hotel-particulier-born French woman with fabulous clothes. She even knew how to do an honest day’s work, not that you can compare running a fashion house to flipping burgers. But it was time The Sultanette raised your bar with another installment of CULTURE SNATCH, so I headed uptown to take a look at Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The introduction to the exhibition only fueled my animosity. It drooled of her “relaxed confidence and precocious sophistication” at once “noble and mysterious.” Avedon adored her nose. She was on Capote’s A-list of “swans.” Her profile was more photographed than the Taj Mahal.

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The red and the black.

But as each spotlighted mannequin emerged in the darkened gallery, revealing another side of de Ribes, I succumbed. “The fact is there are at least fifteen Jacqueline’s,” Carolina Herrera said of her, “all of them fascinating.” She knew who she was. Every one of her.

Jacqueline de Ribes was born on 14 July, 1929, anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Her parents favored yachts over children. Her grandfather who doted over her died when she was nine. “He was the only one who loved me,” she tells Amy Fine Collins in her Vanity Fair profile, “The Last Queen of Paris.” With the outbreak of World War II, she and her siblings were shuttled with nanny and governess to safe havens outside Paris shared with occupying German troops.

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Backless but not tactless.

When she was eighteen she met Vicomte Edouard de Ribes whose ancestors had financed La Nuit de Varennes, the ill-fated attempt (depending on whose side you are on) at Marie Antoinette’s escape from the guillotine. Two years later she became Vicomtesse de Ribes and set about escaping the strictures of a bourgeois marriage and her reactionary father-in-law. She skied in Saint-Tropez, hosted black-tie dinner parties in the wing of her in-laws 19th-century Parisian residence, and dazzled the beau monde with her singular style.

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Dressed up goose down.

It was a successful arrangement. After sixty-two years of marriage, she tells Fine Collins, “To catch my husband is not easy. He thinks that he can’t catch me either. This is the secret of the couple. We love each other – but we agree we need independence. Sixty-two years with the same man is not so easy! It’s marvelous when you can manage to make it work. There are so many different ways of loving. How can you know someone is the best if you cannot compare? The French attitude of marriage, couples, love is complex.”

One distraction was the “Ball of the Century” – the masked Bal Oriental orchestrated in 1951 by flamboyant and filthy rich Charles de Beistegui. On the way to the event at Beistegui’s Palazzo Labia in Venice, hoards of invading Rolls Royce’s caused bumper-to-bumper traffic on Switzerland’s Passo del Sempione.

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Haute Oriental.

Among the thousand guests photographed by Cecil Beaton were the Aga Khan III, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, the Duchess of Devonshire and the Princess de Polignac. Dior and Dali designed each other’s costumes. Lady Diana Cooper showed up as Cleopatra. For those who appreciate men with hoses, a brigade of Venetian firemen formed a human pyramid in the grande salle.

Anyone care to sign up? But the glitterati wasn’t enough for de Ribes. Nor was Capote’s anointing her one of society’s swans. “The swans of the times of Truman Capote did nothing,” she tells Robert Murphy in a Bazaar interview. “They did not work. They didn’t fight for life.” At the Met show, she is quoted as saying, “I am not a lady who lunches.”

PHOTO of photo: TheSultanetteShe had dipped a toe in the fashion world “apprenticing” for Cassini and Pucci. Diana Vreeland had arranged a photo shoot with Richard Avedon. Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent were confidantes. In 1956 she was voted into the International Best-Dressed List and in 1961 to the Hall of Fame. In 1982 on her fifty-third birthday, she informed the family that she was going into business as a fashion designer.

“Whatever I did in life it was against,” she tells Fine Collins, “Nobody ever approved.” The Sultanette can always get behind a contrarian vicomtesse. But as I took in the show, I grew to admire more than a spunky aristocrat’s metal. This babe knew how to put herself together. I liked … mea culpa! … the way she looked.

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Demure meets décolletage.

Today admiring a professional woman’s appearance is met with a flurry of reprisals: It’s politically incorrect, demeaning, objectifying! A man is never described by the clothes he wears! The fashion and beauty industries are in cahoots with craven media moguls to keep women enslaved to unattainable standards! A woman who wafts around the workplace like a female won’t earn the respect of male peers!

Who says? Maybe that works until a woman steps up, stops listening to chauvinists of both sexes, and reveals all – balls, brains, and bling. If she is subliminally judged by the men’s club, so what? Following the rules like good girls never got us anywhere. I’m not suggesting that a professional woman undermine her dignity. Only that she takes control of the definition.

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Polka dot disruption.

De Ribes’s haute sexuality was born of self-assertion. She exudes the enigmatic, intangible power of a female who follows her own rules. In all their back-slapping, gonad-bonding bravado men still find that confounding, perplexing, and baffling. They have been brought up as rational beings, poor left-brainers, perhaps that’s why they have so much trouble controlling their penises.

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Bows take a bow.

Yes, de Ribes existed in a milieu when a woman’s power was equated with her presence. Yes, women were shut out of male-dominated professions. Indeed, that right of entry has been, and is justifiably fought today. But if there is a war between the sexes does that mean we dismantle our nuclear allure?

I arrived at the final gallery of the exhibition, an homage to the glitterati’s glam orgy at the Bal Oriental. It may have been the romp of the century for some but for de Ribes such affairs were to be taken seriously. “Balls were not for one’s amusement,” the show quotes her as saying, “They were for being ravishing.” If you’re going to shatter the glass ceiling why not dress for it?

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style closed on February 21. Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is hot on her heels at the Met until May 15. Look for The Sultanette’s CULTURE SNATCH to come.


Do You Want Sex Or Düsseldorf?

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

The World Happiness Report is out! In its third survey since 2012, the United Nations reveals the happiest places on earth. Or so they say, reports John Kay in, “Why ‘happy’ is boring.”

I spotted Kay’s piece in the Financial Times Weekend last September, just as I was escaping New York City for three months in England. According to the UN, I had the wrong country. The winner was Switzerland. (We’re getting to Düsseldorf, intrepid globetrotters, restrain yourselves!)

As Kay assesses the findings, “Switzerland is rich, temperate and has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. … You feel completely safe in the streets. And yes, the trains run on time.”

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

Security, consistency, and the goodness of nature. That would be enough to seduce any sentient being, right? Isn’t this why so many retirees flock to golf courses? Or babysit grandchildren? But Kay has another take on the Alpine paradise: “Boring.”

Kay’s recent book, Other People’s Money was named 2015 Book of the Year by the Economist, Bloomberg and the FT. In 2014, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) “for services to economics.” But what does a numbs and figs guy know about happiness? Everybody knows money can’t buy it, even though, like sex, we’d still prefer to have as much of it as possible.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

This brings us to Düsseldorf. It comes up sixth in a study compiled by benefits consultants Mercer, and here Kay shows he can look beyond a spreadsheet. “There may be a surer way to end a promising relationship than to propose a romantic weekend in Düsseldorf,” he offers, “but it is hard to imagine one.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Kay, or may I call you Johnnie? Do we want Düsseldorf or romance? Rational or sensational? Security or ecstasy? Are we after a livable life or a lived one?

Welcome to Peggy's place.

Welcome to Peggy’s place.

Casting aside polls for people, I invite you to Peggy Guggenheim’s eighteenth century Palazzo Venier in Venice, where her louche, eccentric spirit still lurks among one of the world’s most audacious art collections.

Was she a quirky socialite who slummed with creative types? A serious art connoisseur? A bag lady with a trust fund? A flighty romantic who chased from one lover’s bed to the next?

Peggy’s indomitable originality has always intrigued me, so I recently headed for the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

If you are tempted to assign Peggy the role of Venetian vixen who flaunted her family fortune to play patron and pussy cat with the art crowd, prepare for disappointment.

The film, centered around a taped interview unearthed from a basement cache of books, brings the private Peggy out of her public persona with sympathetic detachment. The woman we see and hear suffered the death of her adored father when she fourteen (on the Titanic). Her certifiably narcissistic mother was no consolation. One of the “poor” Guggenheim’s, she endured the condescension of her posh and supercilious relatives, who disdained her taste in art.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

She had an eye and she would follow her instincts. A young Lucien Freud made his first appearance in a children’s exhibition at her London gallery. In 1943, she organized the first show devoted exclusively to women that included Louise Nevelson and Frida Kahlo.

She was instrumental in the careers of Kandinsky and Motherwell. Not only did she take a chance on the work of undiscovered artists, she provided a stipend for the struggling Jackson Pollock so he could pursue his muse unfettered by the natty demands of survival.

During the war, she staged a brilliant scrimmage to prevent the German’s from appropriating her collection. She later helped put the Venice Biennale on the map. All of this while dealing with love, loss, and a botched nose job.

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Fondation Peggy Guggenheim "Torre: a Cor-Ten steel tower, with ogival windows, tracery and turrets in the International Gothic style, on the terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal " http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

But then the film asks the ultimate question: Did it make her happy?

Alas, Peggy never found lasting love. (To the question, how many husbands had she had, she was said to reply, “mine or other people’s?”) It’s been suggested that she was looking for too much love on all the wrong mattresses. That her serial romps were a desperate attempt to fill the vacuum left by childhood abandonment.

When the film’s director was asked in a Vanity Fair interview whether Peggy had pursued art as a safe harbor from the personal tragedy in her life, Vreeland responded, “[Peggy] identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it.”

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

A man’s happiness is seldom offered as a criterion of his accomplishments. His sexuality rarely shows up on the scorecard of a fulfilled life. While some may debate the merits of the Clinton presidency, few feel it necessary to analyze whether the skirt-chasing Bill was a happy guy. It is his long-suffering wife that we tsk at for putting up with his antics. It will probably dog her reputation even if she saves the free world.

“I’m a lone wolf,” Peggy says in the film. No apologies. You could say she was lousy at love and a shameless hussy. But must a lack of romantic closure deem her life unfulfilled? Or her sexual proclivity cast a shadow on her accomplishments?

To the growing minority who believe that art is important for life’s sake, perhaps Peggy Guggenheim’s singular passion for championing genius, supporting the unanointed, and risking a fortune on a new way of looking at things, might be enough to celebrate. That’s not about getting trains to run on time but a world that too easily rationalizes the banal might be unlivable without it.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Which brings us back to the United Nations Happiness Report. “Why do so many young people,” writes Kay, “go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity rather than the livable?” To answer, he takes us to the Floating City.

“Venice is crowded, hard to navigate, inadequately served by public transport, its public administration is hopeless and its commercial activities are corrupt,” he concludes, “but however often you have visited, the magic remains.”

No coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim made this uncooperative, impious, ineluctable city home. Düsseldorf anyone?


A Very Merry UnChristmas Guide To Oxford

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High Street, Oxford

It’s rumored that the sun rose in Oxford at 8:08 this morning and will set this afternoon at 3:56. Did I say sun? It might make an appearance before these scant eight hours of drizzly day surrender to a dark and stormy night but don’t bet your Wellies on it.

But as my faithful followers know, it takes more than fifty shades of grey to dampen The Sultanette’s holiday spirit, especially when there are spirits to be had. So I now offer you a guide to intoxicating Oxford, guaranteed to satisfy body, soul and brain. Just don’t sleep in or you’ll miss tomorrow.

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King’s Arms’ Elixir

To begin with imbibing, the house mulled wine is a December specialty at the Quod Brasserie on High Street, favored by the local professional crowd. And sherry is gratis with mini-mincemeat pies on shopping night at Blackwell’s Bookshop, the best literary hangout on Broad Street.

But the King’s Arms with its Pimm’s Winter Warmer, a brandy-based elixir that tastes like a baked apple, is the most brilliant. In business since 1607, Oxford’s oldest pub is also said to be the brainiest, with the highest IQ of patrons per square foot.

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Sheldonian, Oxford

I stopped at the King’s Arms to sample the anti-freeze last Saturday on my way to Handel’s Messiah at the Sheldonian Theatre. By the third sip I was ready to strip down if I didn’t think it would shock the kindly gentleman who was instructing me in the art of sneaking into Blenheim Palace to avoid the admission fee. (A side entrance near the pub.)

Though you can forget everything you’ve heard about the snooty, undemonstrative, insufferably polite English. Toss any stranger a well-timed quip and they’ll lob it back with cracking impropriety. And if you’re looking to escape from corny carolers and chintzy holiday sentiment, Oxford is your town.

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Sheldonian on high

Just up the road from the Sheldonian where the angelic voices of the Magdalen Boys Choir lifted Handel’s Messiah to the heavens last Saturday, you can fall into the Albion Beatnik Bookstore on Walton Street where they haven’t gotten around to removing the paper hearts and Jack O’ Lanterns from Valentine’s Day and Halloween to make room for partridges in pear trees.

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Making music at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore

I arrived there on a stormy Monday night for an open mic poetry reading, in the good company of Lord of the Flat (the first and only Right Honorable Male Harem Member after granting me full squatting rights in his palatial pied a terre these three months).

The main event was a reading from Dan Sluman’s collection, the terrible (poets don’t have to bother with upper case). But it was Dan Holloway who stole the show with his stingingly droll eulogy, “Dead Poet’s Are Safe.”

Mad, Bad Byron, replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

Mad, Bad Byron, replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

Something happens to words uttered in Oxford, sung or spoken, and to experience Holloway perform adds an essential mellifluous malicious charm to his dissident verse. “O Byron was mad!” he laments, “O Byron was bad! But he won’t come round with nipple clamps and slip poppers to your dad!”

Under the influence of Albion owner Dennis’s homemade brew of yes, mulled wine, it was the perfect sendoff to the forthcoming Sultanette’s Christmas in Wales. Surely, dead Welsh poet Dylan Thomas would have agreed. He died gave up the ghost after a few whiskies on November 9, 1953, while on a poetry-reading tour in New York City, no doubt to avoid another British winter.

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Christmas lights, Oxford

And yes! The last phase of The Sultanette’s retreat will be spent in a fifteenth century Wales’ manor with entitled chickens, unruly grandchildren, dotty in-laws, and the assurance of ample grousing from stuffed goose to plum pudding. I’m promised a shelf to sleep in similar to Harry Potter’s cupboard. And on Boxing Day I’ll celebrate Christianity’s first martyr St. Stephen, who got stoned hundreds of years ago.

But we’re not done with Oxford yet! Before I return to New York City for New Year’s Eve, I leave you with a bonus virtual tour you won’t find in the brochures at the visitor’s center:

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Student rendezvous outside the Turl St Kitchen

There are soulful soups and thick slices of homemade bread at the Turl Street Kitchen and lamb stew served with persistent cheer at the Vaults Café and Garden. The ever-so-gently-used satin sleepwear at the Helen & Douglas House thrift shop is ten minutes away in Summertown, where you can lunch at Joe’s Bar & Grill with vintage photos of rock legends.

If you’re looking for smart sanctity, Oxford’s 700-year-old University Church of St. Mary the Virgin has evening seminars with subjects that ranged this term from a Middle Ages mystic “feminist” to the art of the obituary. And guess what! They serve sherry after Sunday morning service.

Photo: The Sultanette

Want a gig at the Kazbar?

Across the Magdelan Bridge on Cowley Road, the WIFI-friendly Beetroot café welcomes couch potatoes (and the beets are good, too). The tapas at the Kazbar are perfectly paired with the “long-haired freaky people” behind the bar. Co-operative Food is open until midnight for crisps, crumpets, and Fairtrade wine, and the genial Rasta security guard will help you find it.

The best view of Oxford is worth risking life and limb on the muddy root-gnarled paths at South Park. And after a bare two-hour trip from London by bus or train, if you’re not ready to return to Gomorrah, check in at the Old Parsonage where the fire’s been crackling since the seventeenth century.

Photo: The Sultanette

Oxford from the outside in

But how do you leave a place that was a stopover and became a way of life? I came to Oxford to find new inspiration at a university that’s older than the Aztecs. I filled up composition books with notes on philosophy and poetry, Elizabethan England, Byzantium, Jacobin France, and Nazi Germany.

I sat in lecture halls with arched, etched ceilings, wood-carved walls and stained-glass windows. In spare classrooms and college commons with dowdy profs, hard-core academics, and kids who looked like they could be students anywhere except they weren’t. I studied, read, wrote and vegged, made love, brewed tea, swept leaves, and listened to the BBC.

Photo: The Sultanette

Oxford passage

What I learned while I was taking it all in was how to take my hands off the steering wheel. To stop pressing Reply, Retweet, React. To unclench expectations, detonate the agenda, and unplug from urgency long enough to be lead to the next idea. And as each day gets shorter, I get better at feeling my way in the dark to a place I may not recognize when I get there. Even if it’s home.

No doubt, I’ll succumb to the exquisite angst of New York City. I’ll rush to reunite with friends, schedule the trainer, and survive again on six-hours of sleep. But it’s too late to leave the dreaming spires behind as I head back to the clamorous 21st century.

A merry UnChristmas to all. And to all a dark and stormy night.