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Philly

The plane to Philadelphia this morning was full of happy Flyers fans in team jerseys, on their way to the Stanley Cup game tonight. One guy, I overheard, had paid thousands of dollars for the flights and tickets to two games. We walked out of the airport into a wall of hot air – it was over 90 degrees here today. Hard to believe there’s a Stanley Cup playoff going on in sweltering heat.

My hosts at Drexel University, where I’m giving a talk tomorrow, are putting me up in a very nice hotel room with king size bed, huge TV, Wifi and – best of all – windows that open. Because when I walked in, the air conditioning was set at 65 degrees, and the room was freezing. Why do Americans insist on frigid Arctic air? I re-set the thermostat to 78 degrees, and now, at nearly 9 p.m., I’ve got the window open. It’s not cool, but it’s real air.

I set off right away to find the Barnes Foundation, the famous art collection somewhere in the suburbs. Kathleen, the very organized woman at Drexel, had sent me directions for the train, so though the concierge downstairs recommended a cab, no, your trusty adventurer had to find the train station, take the train, and then walk for 20 minutes in the boiling sun through an extremely wealthy neighbourhood, littered with mansions and acres of grass and trees, taking several wrong turns before finally arriving, very hot and crabby, at the Barnes. No one told me it’s completely hidden – no signs, no indicators, just tucked away on a side street. You have to have booked in advance and your name must be on their list or they won’t even let you in the gate. It’s like trying to enter a secret club. But then, they have reason to be cautious – apparently the art inside is worth 25 billion dollars. That’s 25 billion dollars.
There’s a controversy here – Albert Barnes, who got very rich inventing a drug with the inauspicious name Argyrol and amassed this incredible collection, specified in his will that it was not to be moved – he set the place up as a teaching museum, arranged paintings in groups, and wanted it left that way. The trustees not long ago had to petition the court for permission to move the collection to a more accessible place. There has been a long battle and much bitterness, with the Friends of the Barnes fighting the move. But I have to tell you, after my train ride and long hike, during which of course I got lost several times, I am in favour of the move. The current hideyhole is okay for people with cars. Not so good for us plebs.
And also – when I finally got in I enquired about a café, having decided to have lunch there – but no, there’s nothing that vulgar. Luckily I had a chocolate bar and some nuts in my purse to keep me going. But for a bit there, tired, hungry and hot, I hated the place.
Then I started to look at the art. It’s phenomenal. The collection includes 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, work by Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, El Greco and many, many more, stunning African art, medieval paintings, sculpture, metalwork, and a collection of old wooden travelling chests from the 1700’s, hand carved and painted with the names of the travellers printed or carved on the front. So many stunning things – my favourite was a simple pewter rooster made in 14th century France. I loved a Matisse still life, a Van Gogh still life, the one little Klee up high on one wall.
What I did not love are all the Renoirs, 181 works by Barnes’s favourite painter. I just don’t get Renoir – there’s no question of his dedication and skill but all those apple cheeks, fleshy blondes and winsome children, all that rose and gold – his work is like Hallmark cards painted by a genius. Sorry, Pierre-Auguste.
Enraptured with the art but hungry, I got a cab back to the hotel and went immediately in search of dinner. I’d noticed a nice street nearby, so wandered there and found the White Dog Café, which to my great delight was having Happy Hour – half-price local draft. So instead of my usual glass or two of red, I sat outside at a table in the shade and drank two artisanal Pennsylvanian beers with my superb dinner. The menu assured me that all the meat on the menu was from animals raised humanely, so I allowed myself to eat pork – grilled pork tenderloin and a sweet potato puree. If anyone had been nearby, I might not have scraped my plate so assiduously. But luckily, there was no one to see.
On the way back, went into the Institute for Contemporary Art to see an exhibit of the art of Maira Kalman, a highly eccentric artist who has just illustrated Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” She verges on the goofy sometimes, quirky to the point of self-indulgence, yet funny, warm, original. The exhibit also had old suitcases, buckets, odd collections. She’s fun. I do not think Albert Barnes would have been collecting her, though, were he still in the biz. Also popped into a nearby store called American Outfitters – I think, or American something – a clothing store with not one single thing that could be worn by a female over 16 years old or over Size 2 except a crocheted hat, which I tried on and did not buy. And almost bought the book “Things White People Love,” because I loved everything on the list.
I just tried to find the hockey game on TV, not that I care, but it’s not on. Happened to flip by Fox News and lingered just a moment, long enough to hear a relentless bit of Obama bashing, before moving on speedily. How nauseating that right wing invective just plays in a continuous loop, one show after another, a giant vat of poison on Channel 28, or wherever it was.
Time to prepare my talk for tomorrow. With a warm breeze on my face and a very full belly.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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