In 2002 I left my job at the Library of Congress, moved in with Mom and Dad for a few months, and then spent the summer backpacking in Europe. It was a life-changing trip, though I couldn’t point to anything specific. It’s more that the impact it made was too strong for me to doubt that it influenced the small and big decisions since.
For a month I was in Italy, hitching a ride on an Evergreen State College study abroad as an alumna. I lived in an apartment in Florence for three weeks, walked everywhere, saw everything, had an incredible art history teacher/tour guide, filled my journal-sketchbook, learned enough Italian to shop at the market, order at restaurants and cafes, and ask for directions when I got lost. I people-watched in piazzas, ate incredible cheese, pastries, and pasta, took twilight strolls with a scoop of gelato, took photos of Italians at their windows, sketched Michelangelo’s Pieta. Beauty, beauty, beauty.
After Italy, it was Barcelona, the Pyrenees, Chamonix, Freiburg, Paris, and London. On my weekend in Freiburg, I decided to go to church, and I met a couple who invited me to lunch and then to join them for a swim in the Rhine. We stopped at their home, and I remarked on the beautiful paintings on their walls. I learned that my hostess was an artist in her spare time. She showed me several pieces, and my favorite was a small expressionistic painting of poppies. I couldn’t describe it now–I don’t remember it well, but I remember the impression it made: I loved it, and it made me love poppies. Since that painting in the home of generous strangers, poppies have had a special place in my heart.
Once, when I was in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, I went on an excursion with a group of students that took us through fields of poppies.
The photos don’t do justice to the feeling of dumb luck when standing in a green field flecked with deep-bright red. Poppies are such a bold red that I’m always surprised by how delicate their petals are, and how modest–poppies aren’t a fancy flower, just a four-petaled, open-hearted, wide-eyed creature.
Across from our apartment building in Arlington is a community garden. Walking by it the other day, I was arrested by a song-burst of poppies. I had to take some photos. And even though in high school we aspiring artists considered it cheating to work from photos instead of from life, I used one of the photos to make a little painting. One watercolor paper greeting card and a cheap set of water soluble paints–8 circles and 1 brush–yielded much pleasure and brought me back to a time and a painting that taught me to see poppies.