Banksy, Political Art and Trump – a Conversation with Fnnch, Pt. 2

This is the second part of a great conversation I had with Fnnch, a street artist out of San Francisco. Read Part 1 here.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

GQ: I know your work has been defaced and also removed, given its outdoor nature and where it’s placed. Does it bother you that it’s something temporary?

Fnnch: Well, I think of it like this: if a dog lives 10 years, we think it had a good life. For a human it’s, what, 75 years? For a honey bear, if it lives two weeks on a mailbox, that’s a good life. If it goes away in a day, I’m a bit disappointed.

Now if I get a legal wall and I paint on it and a 12 year old kid decides to tag it, that’s a first amendment issue. That work is completely legal, I’m expressing free speech and someone else is committing a very serious crime against my work. They’re also violating property rights as well as VARA, which protects the rights of artists and keeps their work from being defaced. So, in that case my work shouldn’t be fucked with.

Also most people get into graffiti at the ages of 10-12 and most people get out at 18 when the charge is a felony and it goes on their permanent record. Probably the people tagging my work are around 16-years-old and they don’t like what’s different. In their eyes, I’m the enemy, something to push against. It’s misdirected and immature but every muralist deals with it. I don’t take it personally and I don’t think it represents a wide spread sentiment. The work of every street artist, even the most legit, gets tagged. And the bigger I get, the more my work will be tagged. Shepard Fairey, for instance, all of his pieces in town were messed up.

GQ: Shepard Fairey’s stuff just disappears! I’ve gone looking for pieces that aren’t even a year old and they’re already gone. Peeled off? Painted over? I don’t even know what.

Fnnch: I think part of that, here at least, is because he’s not from San Francisco. So he’s coming here and doing street art in someone else’s territory. Now I think it’s cool because there aren’t many other people out there doing work like his. And he got spots I didn’t even think about getting. I was like “Holy shit! You can see that from the highway! Why didn’t I get that spot?” But in the graffiti culture, you don’t come to someone else’s town and not play by their rules. Fortunately, I don’t have to play by the graffiti rules because I’m not part of their culture.

GQ: You’re in kind of an in between space.

Fnnch: Yes. Street art is it’s own thing wholly independent of graffiti and murals. I think it overlaps more with murals than it does with the graffiti scene.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

GQ: I have a few questions about the artistic effects of the election, which is going to be a bit different for you since there’s not a big community of street artists in your area, but have you noticed any changes in your artistic community? In the type of art of that’s being created or even in the ways that people are treating their artistic careers?

Fnnch: So, the first thing is that if you walk through Clarion Alley, it was already pretty political but now it’s almost every mural. And even I decided to use the pussy hat so I put my toe into the political waters. Also, the naked Trump statue went up here during the election and that was cool. But again, from my perspective this is preaching to the choir. If I wanted to make a political difference, I’d go to Florida and put up art since they’re actually voting for the president, unlike us.

GQ: Except that with social media, art isn’t isolated to area where it’s put up. For instance, you have a zillion followers on Instagram so if you post something, it’s worldwide dissemination instantly.

Art by Aniekan Udofia and Liz Brown – Washington DC

Fnnch: Yes, that’s true. And I’ve gotten flack from friends who tell me that I have a platform and I should use it more. But I’m trying to direct it towards certain goals. I think there’s a rich tradition of artists being active in politics and certainly murals fall under that category.

GQ: Along with that, there’s an idea swirling and bubbling right now, that art can make a difference. During the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, artists were very prominently involved in the change that happened. There were musicians writing protest songs and people whose artwork we can now see made a huge impact. Is the same thing true now? Do we have that same power now?

Art by Shepard Fairey – Cincinnati, OH

Fnnch: Ok, so one of the things I think about, and let me choose my words very carefully, is that Trump is not the Vietnam War. I don’t put those two things on even remotely equal footing. And Trump is not lynching black people in the South. We live an incredibly privileged life that we can focus on this clown.

I think part of the reason for Millennial apathy is that our current problems aren’t on the scale of the problems of the 1960s when people were being drafted and sent into battle to be mowed down. I think if we had something on the scale of the Vietnam War, we’d have a lot more people out in the streets. This is not an endorsement of Trump, this is me trying to rank evil.

But I do think that my peers from school and in San Francisco have become a lot more politically active. And we’re excited about it. It’s like we finally get a chance to sink our teeth into something. We’ve been in a long peacetime and we don’t have the issues they had in 1942. Or in the 1960’s.

One of my favorite art pieces was when John Lennon bought all the billboards in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and covered them with text that said “War is Over! If you want it.” He paid for these out of pocket, as a person with a platform deciding to be active. Shepard Fairey is very politically active, and certainly Banksy probably does the best of anyone. I mean, look at the Walled Off Hotel in Israel and Palestine.

Banksy takes a very global view and what’s going on in America doesn’t even register on his radar as being one of the worst crises of our time.

GQ: No, obviously not. But you could argue that the populist revolution is worldwide and Trump’s election is definitely a part of that.

Fnnch: Yes, I’m disturbed by the amount of nationalism that’s starting to rear it’s ugly head. But ultimately, who are John Lennon and Bob Dylan except people with platforms? Anyone with a platform can make a difference. And art certainly has a more visceral appeal to it than just words.

Art by Banksy – New Orleans, LA

GQ: I find that as I interview street artists, one of the things that everybody says is that they want to create pieces of art that cause a reaction and a discussion. Something that changes the viewer. Banksy’s art is directly political with a definite point of view but he has a really light touch.

Fnnch: Yes, he’s also very funny. Which helps. Stand up comedians can talk about anything. They’re the only people in society who can talk about issues of race and gender in a completely open way. It’s the same for Banksy with politics.

GQ: I think that’s true. Who else would paint the walls of a hotel on the border of Israel and Palestine? That kind of work is not for the faint of heart.

Fnnch: I think his goal is to get 100,000 people to go into Palestine to see his hotel.

GQ: Which would change everything about the economics and visibility of the region. Perhaps even the politics.

Fnnch: Right? I mean how many street vendors there are going to get a lot more money? How many restaurants? How many more hotels? It raises the whole community. If I were in Israel, I’d want to cross the wall to see his hotel. I respect his work immensely.

GQ: As do I. And we’ve come full circle so I only have one more question for you. What’s next? What are you working on?

Fnnch: A lot of things, actually. My most immediate project is that I’m going to repaint the wall where I have the turtle mural.

Art by Fnnch –

It’s gotten tagged on and off and I used to defend it but at some point I got exhausted, mainly because I made a mistake where I tried to put up an anti-graffiti coating but I did it wrong. And so when I would paint roll the wall to buff out graffiti, that part would look different. And I like my pieces to look really nice and crisp and clean. Eventually it just disheartened me to the point where I didn’t see any option but to repaint the whole thing. This time I’ll protect it in a fashion that’s more effective. I’m also going to do it as a collaboration with an artist who was born and raised in the Mission.

It’s only been since 2015 that I’ve done this seriously and tried to make a real go of it. And only in the last 6 months have I thought I could make a living at making art. It’s very project based. I try to pick the project that’s most impactful and execute it. I’ve got a couple exciting things in the works but I try not to talk about things too far out because for every 10 things that seem really exciting, maybe only one happens. People reach out to me, it seems like a done deal but then for whatever reason it falls through. But I’m playing around with different ways to do fine art and different ways to stencil and trying to have fun with it. Just trying to make people’s lives better.

Art by Fnnch –

GQ: And trying to change the law. Seriously, I wish you all the luck with that.

Fnnch: Yeah, if the culture goes first, the law will follow. It’s ridiculous to me that graffiti with damages over $400 should be considered on par with rape or murder. It’s a three strike offense just like those crimes. And that’s just wrong. I honestly don’t think I’ll change the law. But maybe we can reach a point where the courts won’t enforce the law.

I mean I don’t like graffiti and I don’t want it in my city. Bombing in particular. I think people wantonly destroying private property and causing a large financial burden on store owners is wrong.

But the way you address the graffiti problem is not with a big stick, putting people in jail for 30 years. Instead go the opposite way, encourage people to make art and give them a space to do it. Make it more legal, not less legal.

GQ: I agree. And maybe you’ll get private funding. It would help to have a big company in your corner. Zappos helped change downtown Las Vegas and Dr. Ian Wilson and Wall/Therapy changed Rochester. It changes the nature of the conversation to have a big public figure support you.

Fnnch: Agreed.

GQ: Thank you so much for talking to me!

Fnnch: Yes, of course.

All the pictures of Fnnch’s art reproduced in this piece were taken from his website and Instagram account with his permission. Check out Fnnch’s work here and follow him on Instagram.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

Street Art vs. Graffiti – A Conversation with Fnnch, Pt 1

In my continuing desire to find out how artists around the world are handling the street art revolution and if Trump’s election has affected their choices, Fnnch and I had a long chat about San Francisco.

Fnnch and his honey bear –

Gypsy Queen: Tell me about your name. You pronounce it “Finch,” like the bird? How did you come up with that?

Fnnch: Yes, like the bird. Finch was my nickname in middle school so that was part of the motivation. And my mother’s family makes bird-related artwork. My grandfather carved wooden birds, my aunt made bird related dioramas and things like that. It was a theme that was around since I was a kid. I like the nature aspect of it and it just seemed to be a good name.

GQ: Do you use birds in your artwork?

Fnnch: I do actually. My very first piece was a swan and the second piece was a penguin. And the third was a cardinal, I believe. The only one I painted outdoors was the penguin, which I painted about 2 years ago and it’s still up. At some point I’d like to paint the other birds outside. It’s a theme that I like and I’d like to paint more but it just hasn’t come up. There are a lot of things I’d like to paint more of but I don’t necessarily get that option.

Big Penguin – Art by Fnnch,

GQ: How did you get into graffiti? Though I don’t know if that’s what you call it.

Fnnch: I never use the “G-word,” as it relates to the work that I do. I consider what I do to be street art, which I define as “uncommissioned public artwork.”

For me a mural is commissioned public artwork. Graffiti is uncommissioned non-artwork and advertising and things of that nature are commissioned non-artworks. Now of course these lines are blurry because “what is art?” I define art as anything that an artist says is art and I define an artist as anyone who points at themselves and calls themselves an artist.

To me it’s a matter of intention. I’m trying to do something the general populace will like. That is my goal. The graffiti culture is an aesthetic based on word forms and what I do is quite different in style and intention.

GQ: I definitely think of graffiti as something that is word and font based. Though I went to a museum in New Orleans where I saw an exhibit on a graffiti crewe called Top Mob.

It was an interesting analysis of what makes graffiti an art form with a lot of technical information about brush strokes and edge work and that kind of thing, all of which are very artistic qualities. But as a category in my mind, if it’s a word without any sort of graphic elements around it, then it falls into the graffiti category.

Fnnch: So, there’s a subset of graffiti called character graffiti, which was utilized even back in the 80s when people would draw characters next to their letters. Some people have abandoned all the letters. And it’s actually my favorite kind of graffiti. There’s a guy here called Zamar who paints squid and there’s a whole crew called Greater than or Equal To. Sad Cloud paints a cloud and Minx paints a mouse with wings, Cyclops paints Cyclops and Paper Crane paints cranes and they all consider themselves to be part of the graffiti culture. They do some tagging with letters, Zamar in particular, though I’m not sure I’ve seen a Sad Cloud tag besides his character.

GQ: So yes, graffiti has a broader definition than it used to have. I agree with that.

Fnnch: But yes, it’s hard to define because it’s like defining what’s Jewish, which is a race, a culture and a religion. It’s the same with graffiti. It’s a style, a culture and it’s a lifestyle. Plus there’s a specific legal definition, which is a very important line. Graffiti with damages of over $400 is a felony in California. So the courts determine in part what is and is not graffiti. It’s complicated and I’m certainly not an expert but I am interfacing with that community in positive and negative ways.

Anyway I got into street art by moving to San Francisco in 2011 and I just didn’t see any new street art coming up. I’m not sure that at that particular moment there were more than 1-2 people active. And now it’s not much better. Maybe 2-3 people.

GQ: Really?! It seems like San Fran is a funky artistic city that would embrace that sort of work.

Fnnch: I think the city does embrace that sort of work. It’s just that there aren’t artists here anymore. There have been waves of people who have come through this city but of the artists in the first Mission School, none are active outdoors anymore. The times change and artists get displaced. There is a mural scene that is still going somewhat strong and if I had to guess I would say there are 20 artists out there actively painting, maybe 1 or more per year. But there are few people out there that are doing art that is illegal. I think the godfather of San Francisco street art is Jeremy Novy.

GQ: The sidewalk koi fish?

Art by Jeremy Novy – New Orleans, LA

Fnnch: Yes, the koi. But by the time I got here, Novy had moved out of town. And there’s a guy named Todd Hanson but he’s not as active these days. So, for me I was excited about Bansky and other artists on line and I didn’t see that much in San Francisco. So I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world.

GQ: You saw a void and stepped into it.

Fnnch: Exactly. I started small in 2013 and I think I made 10 pieces. Then about 25 pieces in 2014 and by 2015 I think I made 100 or more. I got serious about it and I’ve been serious about it ever since.

GQ: How did you pick the honeybear as your subject?

Fnnch: it’s something that makes me happy. So I painted it. And lo and behold it made a lot of other people happy too. I think it’s a universal symbol of happiness. It’s got nostalgia, it’s got desire because it contained sugar, which is something we deeply wanted as kids, and it’s an all around positive image.

Run DMC Bear – Art by Fnnch,

I painted the first one on a whim, like I paint most things, but then I started to paint more conscientiously on the mailboxes of the Mission in 2015, which were super tagged and getting buffed out every two weeks. I did maybe 100 of them. There’s a lot of fear around graffiti, people think it’s gang related, but nothing in the Mission is gang related, as far as I can tell. But this perception is out there and it’s very wide spread so I wanted to do something so incredibly innocent that it couldn’t possibly be gang related. It’s not like the Sharks and the Jets are out there at night, snapping their fingers and painting honey bears. It doesn’t make any sense.

GQ: So you wanted something non-threatening. And non-political. A moment of brightness.

Fnnch: Yeah exactly. And to show people that we don’t need to give up our mailboxes to an aesthetic that we don’t like. The vast majority of the populace doesn’t like tagging. But we can do so much more than that. There’s a program to put murals on utility boxes in Sacramento and Hayward and San Jose.

But in San Francisco there have been attempts at that program that have failed. So we need to change people’s mind about this. To view these spaces as canvases. I thought the honey bear was a good ambassador for that vision.

Utility box in Sacramento, CA

GQ: Such a good word, “ambassador.” Are these programs something people can vote on, to change the law? Is that what it would require? Or is it a program a private company is trying to institute to turn these boxes into murals?

Fnnch: I’m not exactly sure. I do know that the Castro Community Benefit District made an attempt to get murals on their boxes and the MTA turned them down. The boxes are difficult because they fall under multiple jurisdictions. I’ve been trying to work with the BART to get art in there and I’ve successfully worked with Pacific Gas and Electric to get art on some of their buildings. I’m playing the politics game so I can get public support behind this idea.

Unfortunately, someone at the MTA decided fun isn’t allowed and they haven’t been converted to the idea of street art. But anything that the populace wants enough, they can get it done. We change the hearts and minds first, and then we’ve got the support.

GQ: Yeah, it’s a cultural thing. Definitely. Having been in many cities with a lot of street art, it seems like it’s usually privately funded at the beginning. An organization brings artists in and they base it around a festival or renovation of a neighborhood. Once there are some art pieces, then there can be more. But the initial fight to get the door open so artists can come paint, the murals will stay up and it’s not considered a blight on society, that door is really difficult to open it seems.

Fnnch: So I was up in Wynwood, Miami 1-2 years ago and not only did art galleries and restaurants have art on them, so did the banks and the storage facilities. It was a culture of participation where all the business owners thought it was really cool and wanted to be a part of it. That is not the case in San Francisco. I’ve walked in places and asked to paint on their walls and gotten responses as bad as people who won’t even talk to me. They just shake their head as I talk to them and I eventually leave.

GQ: I find that so short sighted. In my experience, street art draws foot traffic and visitors and centers the neighborhood around something beautiful. Putting a big mural on the side of a building increases the value of the neighborhood, not only to people who live there but to visitors who want to use it as a destination to see something amazing and picture-worthy.

Fnnch: This seems incredibly obvious to me.

Honey Bear Show – Art by Fnnch,

GQ: So just recently there was a graffiti artist named Hotboxmuni  who, when asked about you and your art, said “Graffiti isn’t supposed to be logical and apologetic. Police are killing people and folks are losing their homes. Honey bears are irrelevant [when] there’s a class war out here.” What do you think about that?

Fnnch: I think I am fighting the class war directly. The medium here is the message. By painting something on a mailbox, I am risking felony charges in an attempt to bring art to the masses instead of putting it in an art museum. That is directly addressing class issues.

Art is not for some select elite of hoity toity rich people. That is not what I believe. I believe that art is for everybody. And more than anyone else in San Francisco at this moment, I am attempting to bring art to everyone.

Because of that, I don’t want divisive messages to jeopardize that goal. There are only so many battles I can fight. If I’m trying to fight a very political battle to open up public and private space to art by lobbying institutions directly and by trying to change the general sentiment of the people, I can’t go and paint public penises. It’s going to jeopardize my goals.

Part of the reason I do street art is to fulfill an obligation. I want 50% or more of people to think that my art is additive. If I pick a message that at least 50% people won’t like, I’m already on my back foot. If one more person decides they don’t like it, I’ve already failed at my goal. So I don’t pick the truly divisive issues.

However, there is piece I did recently where I put a pink pussy hat on a honeybear.

Pussy Hat Honey Bear – Art by Fnnch

And I thought about that for a while because that’s a statement that’s getting into mainstream politics. But in San Francisco, this is not a divisive political statement. For instance, this is not the city to bash on Trump. His support here is at about 25%, if I were to guess. This isn’t the conflict zone where that kind of artistic statement will change opinions and there’s already a very masturbatory proclivity of artists to make political statements that everyone agrees with.

But the reason I like the pink pussy hat is because I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m standing in solidarity with San Francisco. I’m saying that if you’re out there and you’re part of Uber and you feel like you’re getting harassed, or if you’re a woman getting paid 85 cents to the dollar the man next to you is making, then I want to shine a light on you. I want to say “Hey, I hear you. I see the problem.” I’m drawing some attention so you don’t feel alone. In the same way that if you see a honey bear on a mailbox, you know that someone is out there risking their own safety and wellbeing to bring you something beautiful.

California Poppies – Art by Fnnch

Part 2 of this conversation will go up later this week.

All pieces of Fnnch’s artwork in this piece are used with his permission.

Find Fnnch online and follow him on Instagram.

Nick Walker and the Problem of Vandalism

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Had you asked me two months ago to pick an American city with a thriving arts community, I never would have picked Indianapolis.

In fact, if you’d asked me for my general impressions of Indiana I would have said “Midwest, corn… something about cars?” Maybe also sports??? The Pacers ring a bell. Art would never have crossed my mind, but that’s why the company CityWay exists —to change our minds about what Indianapolis has to offer.

Much like WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY, CityWay in Indianapolis uses art and charity to bring diverse communities together. Once a year it hosts IndyDoDay, a day where they to encourage the people of Indianapolis to get out and get involved in a project in their neighborhood so they can “get to know their neighbors, take ownership of their neighborhoods, and take care of one another.” They also partner with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, commissioning artists and bringing art to public spaces.

CityWay worked with The Alexander, a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, to curate the hotel’s art collection. They filled the hotel with the kind of edgy-but-tasteful contemporary art pieces that edgy-but-tasteful people adore and put together a gorgeous lobby bar designed by Jorge Pardo.

All of the hotel art was well received but then they invited the British artist Nick Walker to tag the hotel’s parking garage. For some reason, this was a bridge too far.

Now admittedly, it’s unusual to pay an artist lots of money to intentionally create a space that looks graffitied.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, this is what Nick Walker does. He came up in the same British graffiti movement as Banksy, the most (in)famous graffiti artist there ever was. Walker has the same irreverent approach with his stencils, although his work is much less political than Banksy.

Walker’s main character is a formally dressed bowler hat-wearing character called Vandal. And most of Walker’s murals focus around the act of creating art.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Here’s the Vandal with his paint can

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And his paint dusting plane

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN










And this chica with her spray paint missiles

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And I love it. I love the artwork, the themes, the color scheme, and that it’s in a parking garage next to a high end hotel. It’s an unusual place to put commissioned artwork and moreover, it’s a clever way to put the gallery artist crowd and the street art appreciators in proximity and give them exposure to each other’s art.

Except not everyone agrees with me. I found the public response puzzling, to say the least.

In an article I can only describe as snarky, Katherine Brooks, the senior arts & culture editor for the Huffington Post, described Walker as “Banksy-esque,”  which no one would argue considering they were influenced by the same graffiti school. Despite that connection, somehow she makes it sound like Walker is simply an imitator. And then Brooks calls Walker’s work “lowbrow basement art.”

Oh snap!

This article in the Indy alternative newspaper NUVO is generally more positive, but also notes the irony of an highly-paid street artist whose main character is a Vandal “co-opting [the] graffiti culture.”

And that seems more to the point, doesn’t it?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, Walker isn’t coopting the graffiti culture, he is a graffiti artist. Back in the 80’s he painted buildings illegally, just like all the other graffiti artists of that era. Walker’s work still references street art politics and vandalism and he still paints on public buildings but now he’s also a big deal art guy selling prints and paintings for thousands of dollars and he gets invited to tag up shi-shi hotel parking garages. Apparently that’s not ok? Apparently he’s only allowed to be an illegal vandalizing graffiti artist wherein he can paint whatever he wants or he’s allowed to be a big deal gallery artist but then he has to change his style and subject matter to suit the venue.

Walker is clearly aware that his artwork gets people’s knickers in a twist. He says:

“At the end of the day, ‘vandal’ is a taboo word…It’s a word everyone associates with graffiti. Everyone says if you paint graffiti it’s vandalism, or they used to before it became more of an acceptable art form.”

Therein lies the crux of the dilemma, right?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Graffiti used to be considered vandalism. It was cool because it was an art form created by outsiders and rebels and revolutionaries who flouted the law.

Graffiti artists were braver and crazier than the rest of us and their work was even more precious and fleeting because of the government’s power to eradicate it immediately and jail the artist. Anyone who believed in their art form strongly enough to risk imprisonment was inspiring.

But now… it’s different. Today street artists are invited to paint. They’re paid and often paid well, and their work is coveted by private collectors. Formerly repudiated artists now show their work in posh galleries and museums and their work is chiseled off of public walls and sold at auction for a zillion dollars.

So where does that leave us?

Is street art still a form of rebellious expression?

Is graffiti still outsider art if it’s supported by big companies and museums?

And more importantly, if street art no longer is outsider art, does it lose its impact?

I don’t have answers for these questions. Yet.

However, hear this: Nick Walker worked long and hard to get here and he outlasted thousands of other graffiti artists in the process. Moreover, his artwork is badass and if people pay him a zillion dollars for it, then good on him.

We should all be so lucky.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Sanssouci, the Palace of No Worries

Sanssouci Potsdam

In my last act of solo tourist-ish-ness, I took a trip south to see Fredrick the Great’s Palace Sanssouci in Potsdam. I took the S-Bahn to Potsdam and then kind of randomly got on a tram headed for the palace complex and got off, also a bit randomly, at the tip of the gardens in the far upper right hand corner

Park Sanssouci map It worked perfectly though and I got to walk through the gardens, more of a forest really, down toward the palace.

Park Sanssouci potsdam

Even though we’re in Germany, I definitely thought “all roads lead to Rome” when I got to this scenic jumble of ruins

Park Sanssouci

Park Sanssouci

that were built ruined, exactly like this, to mimic Roman ruins and create “apparently natural landscape scenery” for the king to gaze upon from his palace. It’s good to be the king.

Park Sanssouci

This colonnade continues the Roman theme even though the rest of the palace mimics Versailles. Just, you know, an intimate little summer home away from the pomp of the Berlin court.

Palace Sanssouci

These gazebos on either end of the palace are very different looking though

Palace Sanssouci

They create a rococo-esque look to match the Rococo palace, only with metal instead of marble

Palace Sanssouci

All the statuary around the palace grounds pays homage to the Romans, representing many Roman gods and the four elements.

Palace Sanssouci

I think this is a water allegory?

Palace Sanssouci

Because that’s a little merbaby in her net

Palace Sanssouci

Lord only knows what this lady is. A sphinx maybe?

Palace Sanssouci

But that baby doesn’t look happy for a good reason. No one messes with mama.

Palace Sanssouci

The statues in the front of this palace are more Roman gods, blessed with just a tiny bit of sunshine today.

Palace Sanssouci

I didn’t go inside the palace. I think after 5 weeks and 4 countries, I’m getting a bit blasé about giant ornate buildings. Sometimes it’s enough just to see them from the outside and be able to loll about on a bench in palace grounds. That, more than anything, means it’s time to go home! I need to regain my touristy sense of wonder if nothing else.

I do love, however, that 3euros brings me to a palace where I can wander the grounds and sit and read by the fountains amidst statuary that dates back 300+ years. That’s one of the greatest things about living in Europe and I took full advantage of it today. I’ll miss all these gorgeous sites when I’m back in America.

Palace Sanssouci

But I still have one more week and I’m about to be joined by one of my favorite partners in crime, Mr. Matt Jower-Ho! He arrives tomorrow and I can’t wait to show him Berlin and do all the last remaining things we can squeeze in before we both leave on Monday. The perfect end to my Berlin odyssey.

More Berlin tomorrow with MJH.

Il Duomo and David in Florence

Florence Italy

When Sarah first suggested Italy, the answer was yes even though it would be a short trip. Overall I do believe it’s better to go for a short period of time than not go at all but seriously, Florence, Italy in one day!?? Who does that?

Terrible idea, for the record. I mean, glorious, but terrible.

I flew in to Florence from Prague by way of Paris, making it a three language kind of day. Already Italian is easier for me than German since I have a Spanish language background. But even though I think I know what I’m talking about,  I’m continually pronouncing everything wrong . Fortunately Sarah’s Italian is decent, better than her Russian but not as good as her German, French, English or Spanish. I would hate her just a little bit out of sheer jealousy except she’s just so darn adorable.

Sarah in the sun

She’s basking in our 15 minutes of sun today. Sigh. Florence for one day and it poured rain? Why why why!

Anyway, we each managed to find our airbnb flat in Florence last night. I always consider finding someone in a foreign country a bit of a miracle since my phone doesn’t work unless it’s connected to wifi. How did we function before cell phones? I hardly remember.

We went out for a glass of wine and see our neighborhood, the Oltrarno right by the Ponte Vecchio, a beautiful unusual bridge full of shops that dates back to the medieval era.

Ponte Vecchio Florence

The rest of our neighborhood is a hilly little warren of shops and cathedrals and restaurants and the occasional teenager hanging out. This was my favorite picture of the evening.

Oltrarno Florence

Italians and their pizza. Not a myth.

This morning Sarah came out to the living room to tell me – somewhat worriedly – that we had no hot water in the shower. She’s Swiss and frugal so she let it run for two seconds and then took a 2 minute cold shower. I let it run for 5 minutes and voila! hot water!

Other cultural differences showed themselves at breakfast. Please guess which side of this table belongs to the American.

Florence Breakfast

Over breakfast we made a somewhat sketchy plan for the day that included seeing Il Duomo – one of Europe’s biggest cathedrals and Florence’s show piece – and then going to the Galleria to see Michelangelo’s David, having lunch at the mercato centrale, “seeing a few more things” taking a break around 5 and having dinner around 7. Piece of cake. Best of Florence in one day. Gentlemen, start your engines. It hadn’t yet rained at this point so optimism was running high.

Wow. Il Duomo. Just wow.

The Duomo Florence

So big. So pretty with all that pink and white and green. Like a humongous birthday cake.

The Duomo Florence

The Duomo Florence

And almost impossible to photograph, of course. Also full of tourists with lines out the door to get in, so Sarah and I said “Nope” and we went around the corner to Giotto’s Campanile, the bell tower, where it just so happened we could climb up inside and get a better view of the Duomo.

The Campanile Florence

Climb a tower? Don’t mind if we do.

Stairs up the Campanile

Stairs up these towers are no joke and this one was an up/down staircase requiring everyone to flatten to either side of the wall/railing to let the opposing traffic stream get by. Only slightly hazardous and in Europe, just another day.

414 steps. 85 meters high. The views? Spectacular.

The Duomo Florence

How pretty does that Duomo look now? This cathedral took 170 years to build, which means no one who designed it or began the project lived to see it completed. I try to picture an architect now making plans for the grandest building of his life that he’ll never see finished and I can’t do it.

The Duomo Florence

Notice all those tiny people up in the cupola around the Duomo dome? Yes, our tower ticket included the privileged possibility of yet another tower climb that day, should we so desire. But the day was still young so we forgot about it and just attempted the first of many selfies.

Kaitlyn and Sarah

The results of which were mixed and the attempting of which was hilarious.

Kaitlyn and Sarah When it started to rain at 11, Sarah got a bit outraged. “Kaitlyn, you said it was supposed to rain at noon! It’s 11!” The rain eventually drove us off the roof and we headed down only to find a steady stream of visitors trying to get up. We’d timed our visit perfectly since now that it was raining, everyone wanted to be inside a building somewhere and lines for the campanile were now out the door and across the plaza.

We walked through the rain to the Mercato Centrale, a farmers”s market on the bottom floor selling the gorgeous fresh produce for which Italy is justly famous

Mercato Centrale Florence

And a food court on top selling gorgeous antipasti for which Italy is also famous.

Mercato Centrale Florence

That’s a trufffle antipasti with mushrooms, mozzarella, proscuitto and tomatoes covered with shaved slices of truffle. The mushrooms and truffle were particularly delish.

After our fortifying snack, we went onward into the rain. By this point it was pouring and when we finally found the Accademia Gallery, the lines consisted of a thousand umbrellas covering damp tourists lined up along the walls and around the corners. I had that sinking feeling that everyone in Florence would be inside the gallery taking selfies in front of the most famous statue in the world and trying to stay out of the rain.

We talked about not doing it. Standing in line sucks and standing in line in the rain simply for the privilege of swimming through a crowd of damp tourists sucks even more, which brings up the major problem with spending only a day in a major city: the wait times. Technically it’s possible to see all of Florence’s major sites in a day if you have a good pair of shoes, a lot of energy and an endless capacity for history, art and culture. Don’t waste time taking photographs, talking to anyone or absorbing much of Florence’s street culture and you can do it.

Except for the wait times! Everyone in town wants to see all the same stuff you do and it’s simply impossible to figure out when the “off times” are and the lines are shortest. More time is wasted waiting in line than traveling from one thing to another, for sure. So at a certain point you have to commit to what you want to see and get zen with the queue.

Sarah and took a deep breath, prepared ourselves for a wait and got in line. Fortunately the line wasn’t that bad and we were inside the gallery in about 30 minutes. And it wasn’t even that crowded inside the gallery! How’s that for a tourist win? Plus that statue took my breath away.

Michelangelo's David

The thing is, when you see a painting in real life that you’ve only ever seen in pictures, there’s a visceral thrill of realness. The colors are always slightly different, paint textures, size, impact etc. But a statue? No picture can convey the impact of a piece of sculpture, The weight, the sheer size, the details, the way you can walk around it and see every side and every angle. It’s breathtaking.

Michelangelo's David

I’ve seen pictures of David a thousand times but never noticed how giant his hands were sculpted, completely out of proportion to his body. And the veins on his arms and neck are so striking. It’s odd to me that body musculature is so fantastic and realistic and his head and hair are so stylized and yet the whole effect is one of realness and life. I also had no idea he was so gigantic. Here’s a terrible picture for scale.

Michelangelos' David

Thank God that plinth is so high because he towers over everyone and it’s possible to photograph him from any angle without getting other people in the picture.

We spent a long time here just looking at him. Most visitors to this gallery did as well. I saw a lot of people put down their cameras and just take him in with their human eyes, a phenomenon that doesn’t happen often these days. I don’t know why he has such an impact but he really does.

Nothing else in the gallery compares to him, just medieval triptychs aplenty. But he’s worth the wait and the admission ticket.

The rest of the afternoon went quickly. We had to abandon our plans to visit the Uffizi Gallery because there simply wasn’t time. Sorry Botticelli, next time! And instead we went back to the Duomo, hoping the lines were shorter. They weren’t. But they also went quickly. We had good queueing karma today.

The inside of the Duomo, however, was disappointing and boring. It’s the emptiest cathedral I’ve ever seen and all the glory is outside. We did take a peek into the crypt at the remains of the older cathedral. This space dedicated to Santa Reparata dates back to 1-4AD and il Duomo was built on her remains. That floor is 2000 years old. Insane.

Santa Reparata Florence

And then we went across the plaza to the Baptistery, the last remaining building of the Duomo congregation. Unlike the Duomo, the Baptistery is stunning inside. it looks the way I expected the Duomo to look.

The Baptistery Florence

And the ceiling murals are covered in gold leaf.

The Baptistery Florence

The sole purpose of this building is baptisms. It’s just a small octagonal chapel with a baptismal font. For centuries, all the kids in Florence were baptized here yearly on March 25, the day of Mary’s Annunciation, and artistically this baptistery is a much more beautiful space than the Duomo.

So, at this point we were – as you probably also are – exhausted. The afternoon was completely gone, our time frame was but a fleeting memory and the only question was: have a glass of wine now or climb the last tower of the day?

I opted for the tower since I’ve never climbed two towers in Europe in one day and Sarah agreed under a tiny bit of duress. Her breakfast brioche hadn’t carried her as far as my omelette gigante. Ultimately, it was the last event on our ticket so we went for it.

Good Lord, that climb. I’ve never seen stairs like that and at this point I’ve climbed a lot of towers. There were circular stairs and tiny stairs, super low stairs, two way stairs, stairs that went completely vertical like a ladder and stairs that arched over the dome

Climbing the Duomo

If someone fell down those stairs, I don’t know how they’d get them out.

464 stairs later, we made it to the top where a small waist-high railing simply suggested that perhaps we should take caution and we could look down upon the Campanile and say “remember when we thought that was high?”


The sun came out for a few brief minutes at the top of this dome, we reveled in all our climbing and then we somehow got back down those stairs, past all the the opposing stream of traffic coming up the stairs and that was the end of our day in Florence.

I leave you here with yet another piece of breathtaking sculpture, outside the Uffizi gallery where we had our well deserved glass of wine in the Piazza della Signorina

The Uffizi Gallery Florence

Firenze, you’ve been a pleasure and a delight. I’ll come back any time.

And now we’ve rented a car. Get ready Chianti country, we’re coming for you!

See Iowa in the Fall

In Iowa the nights are cooling down, the corn is almost ready for harvest and pumpkins have shown up at the farmer’s market. I love this change of seasons. Des Moines Farmer's MarketDes Moines has an incredible farmer’s market that runs 7am to noon every Saturday and occupies 6 square blocks in the middle of downtown. Go for the live music, the seasonal pumpkins and dahlias, a breakfast bowl from Farm Boys Hearty Food Co. followed by mini apple cider donuts and local coffee.  All of Des Moines turns out on Saturday morning and the market operates rain or shine.

If the weather is clear, take your coffee and donuts and walk around the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Pappajohn sculpture park

This 4.4 acre park in the middle of  Des Moines has 24 sculptures contributed by John and Mary Pappajohn, 2 of Iowa’s leading contemporary art collectors. The park is open until midnight and the curving walkways allow you to take your time exploring. You can download a cell phone tour or you can pick up one of the brochures at the park entrance and give yourself a brief contemporary art eduction as you walk. Make sure to walk around all sides of this Keith Haring sculpture, see the famous Nomade from the inside and wonder what it looked like on the banks of the French Riviera, eat your donuts while sitting on this sculpture and see the Des Moines skyline through the legs of the spider.

Birdland Park is another fantastic outdoor space in Des Moines

Birdland Park

Running trails, a boat marina, tennis courts, picnic tables, a small lake and the Des Moines River all come together in this park. Bring your bike and your tennis racket or just walk alongside the river and enjoy the weather.

For lunch you should eat at one of Des Moines most infamous restaurants, Zombie Burger or Fong’s Pizza.

Zombie Burger

Zombie Burger + Drink Lab has been serving gourmet burgers (not brains…) to downtown Des Moines since 2011. There’s a Zombie burger for every adventurous eater; particularly the Undead Elvis that comes with peanut butter, fried bananas and bacon, Juan of the Dead with a green chili cheese croquette and chipotle mayo and La Horde (above) with bacon, goat cheese and caramelized onions. The burgers are bashed flat on the grill so they’re crispy and cooked through, the mac and cheese shouldn’t be missed (and comes on the burger if you order The Walking Ched) and all their milkshakes are delicious though my favorite is the Zombie Bride Wedding Cake made with yellow cake mix and vanilla ice cream.

Fong's Pizza

Fong’s Pizza is a pizza parlor married to a tiki bar serving mozzarella egg rolls (above) they call Chinese Cheesesticks and mu shoo pork and kung pao chicken pizzas. It’s a little hipster paradise in downtown Des Moines and the thin crust pizzas are as crispy as a cracker. If you’ve ever wondered how Hawaiian pizza might taste if you went one more step and added kung pao sauce, bacon and green pepper, then Fong’s is the place you’ve been dreaming about. Make sure to try the crab rangoon pizza, chosen by Food Network Magazine as the best pizza in Iowa.

After lunch, take a mini road trip for the afternoon so you can see the Iowa countryside. There are a number of interesting destinations that are an hour or so driving distance from Des Moines, one is the little Dutch settlement of Pella.


I took a tour of the Vermeer windmill above and was pleasantly surprised and fascinated by the inner gears and wheels, which are all wooden and completely wind driven. This is the tallest working Dutch style windmill in the US and on gusty days they grind grain into flour using only wind power. They sell the fresh flour in the gift shop in 2lb bags and also supply the local Jaarsma bakery. The entrance fee for the windmill ($10) includes a self guided tour of the surrounding historical settlement with shops for blacksmithing, cobblers, dry goods, a library etc. I visited on a very slow, quiet Tuesday so I got to poke around all by myself; but I know that during the Tulip Festival in May, for instance, the place is packed and you’ll need a reservation.

Pella’s Franklin Square is full of little shops selling quilts, antiques, coffee and Dutch pastries. Stop by Jaarsma Bakery 

Dutch letter

Get a flaky buttery pasty filled with almond paste called a Dutch Letter and then go by Brew Coffee House for a pour over coffee before getting out of town.

My other favorite Iowa day trip is Winterset, an hour or so southwest of Des Moines to visit the famous covered bridges of Madison County

Covered Bridges of Madison CountyThese beauties surround the town of Winterset and were made famous by this book, followed by this movie and then this musical and if you visit in the next couple of weeks, you’ll be right in time for the Covered Bridges Festival in October. The bridges are lovely, especially seen against the fall foliage, but they aren’t always well marked or easy to find. I’d recommend stopping by the Madison County tourist center in downtown Winterset where they’ll give you a map and some route recommendations and you can buy a bottle of Madison County wine. Most of the bridges are only accessed down dirt and gravel roads so plan to take your time. If you get lost, just roll with it.

Winterset is also home to John Wayne’s birthplace

John Wayne's House

This house museum is extremely small, decorated with reproduction furniture and stuffed with pictures and memorabilia from his 169 films. If you aren’t a serious John Wayne fan I’d skip this stop because it’s only accessed via a guided tour. However, there are plans to open a much larger John Wayne museum in Winterset in May 2015. Being able to wander around a larger museum without a tour guide would increase it’s appeal for me. The current house museum costs $7 admission for a guided tour but the gift shop can be visited for free.

Visit Northside Cafe before you leave town

Northside Cafe

and try their homemade cobbler. I had the strawberry rhubarb and of course I added ice cream. Of course. It’s the perfect late afternoon treat.

If you find yourself  back in Des Moines for dinner, try Trostel’s Dish

Trostel's Dish

That’s a deep fried avocado with cilantro aioli and it was pretty darn good. Trostel’s Dish promises small plates from around the world, both exotic and familiar, and they do a good job with both. We ordered half the sharing menu and my favorites were this avocado, the havarti shrimp and the beef tenderloin with Maytag bleu cheese. I was not impressed with the tuna poke tacos so I’d avoid them but if you like poutine, you’ll enjoy their duck confit poutine. They’ll also bring you a dessert sampler with a little bit of everything on it.

If you roll out of Trostel’s Dish and you need a nightcap, head to El Bait Shop for one last drink on their giant patio.

I hope you enjoyed your day in Iowa under that big open Midwest sky! It sure is lovely.

Iowa road