Unexpected gifts when you try something new


By Andrew Flint

Special to The Eagle

Nine days into 2014 and it feels like a new era. In the past month I fell in love with a radiant artist from Chelsea and moved into my very first solo pad in Stockbridge. The fresh sense of this newborn year is made possible by some enduring experiences I had while investigate the Berkshires After Dark in 2013

In last Thursday’s column, Jenn Smith bid farewell to some local institutions that won’t be joining us on 2014 and welcomed some promising newcomers, including restaurants, bars, cafes, and music and arts venues. Her piece is a useful guide to ongoing changes in the local scene. I’m going to focus instead on just a few moments from 2013 that defined the personality of the year for me, and why this informs my excitement over the year we’ve just begun.

MASS MoCA seriously impressed me with two live performances, quite different from one another, that each tied past eras of my life into the present.

In February, musician Jeff Mangum performed a solo concert in MoCA’s Hunter Center. Mangum’s name may be unfarmiliar, but to a narrow group of us it means a whole lot. He fronted the psychedelic folk rock group Neutral Milk Hotel from 1989 to 1999, releasing two extraordinary albums in the late 1990s that spread among the young and angsty by word of mouth. Mangum’s delicate mental health prevented the group from touring much, and fans know well about his notorious habit of weeping mid-song during their rare shows and then leaving the stage, or leaving the tour, or leaving the band. Imagine if Nirvana never appeared in public and had no serious distribution, and if Kurt Cobain vanished into hermitage in 1994.

And then, imagine if Cobain played a solo gig at MoCA a decade later, and the show was everything you hoped it would be. I went with my sister and two dear old friends, and the sold out crowd was made of us -- late 20-somethings looking to party and reflect at the same time. We stood along in unison, howled at Mangum’s uncharacteristic jokes, danced with strangers and swooned several months later when Mangum announced -- after this small but invigorating comeback tour -- he’d decided Neutral Milk Hotel was ready to reform and hit the road. I don’t have to imagine because it happened in North Adams in 2013.

Six months later my friend Josh Penn called from New Orleans saying, "You live near MASS MoCA, right? They’re screening ‘Beasts’ outside and Benh and Dan and I are going to play drums and banjo along with a string section to perform the score live. You gotta come."

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" had a killer year, winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes, countless film festival grand prizes and earning four Oscar nominations. This underfunded film was built piece by rusty piece by my college pals, living in shacks on the swamps of Louisiana and in way over their heads, where I’d left them in 2007 after we finished making director Benh Zeitlin’s previous film, "Glory at Sea." I hadn’t seen the guys in six years!

I brought the cute artist from New York for our third date drove back to North Adams, overwhelmed once more by the event’s presentation. MoCA erected a factory building-sized outdoor screen and projected a crisp print of the film on it, accompanied by all of the film’s sounds save for the musical score. This was contributed by a conducted orchestra of more than 20 musicians playing with incisive precision yet powerfully emotive human delicacy, in a dance with the film’s tense and subtle dialogue.

Amy, some of my closest Berkshire friends, the strangers seated around us and I all wept at the film’s conflicted emotional climax. I’d never wept at a film before. Afterward, my two worlds merged at the Mohawk bar just down the block for cheap pints at long family-style tables. It was the first time my local friends saw the work of my Louisiana friends. It was the first time I realized Amy and I weren’t merely on a "date." It was the first time three Oscar nominees gave me bear hugs within five minutes. It was the peak of summer 2013.

The third year-defining moment came just weeks ago, a few days after Thanksgiving, when my mother, sister and I hobbled in from the brutal cold to see if the Peruvian cuisine prepared at Alpamayo Restaurant in Lee could stoke the embers of our dampened holiday spirits. We had the warm, calm dining room to ourselves for the second half of the meal, ordering Lomo Saltado ("Top Sirloin Steak sautéed with onions, tomatoes and spices mixed with French fries. Served with rice," $15.99) and Arroz con Mariscos ("Peruvian style seafood paella," $16.99).

This solitude after a week overflowing with company allowed an old family secret to emerge from underneath a steaming platefull of Alpamayo’s delicious yellow rice. As we passed dishes around and cooed over the complex spices and textures of each meal, my sister Sydney commented "this is like Grandpa Charlie’s rice."

It was. It was exactly like Grandpa Charlie’s rice. And once the penny had dropped there was no picking it back up; the shrimp were grandpa’s shrimp, the onions and tomatoes and beef were all his, too. These distinctly flavorful meals that my mother had eaten for many decades and Syd and I knew well from birth until a decade ago sat before us in a Peruvian restaurant in Lee. But Charlie Deluca was an Italian Jew from New York City. How could this be?

"Wait!" The words leapt from my mouth. "Mom, didn’t you tell me he worked on ships off the coast of Peru during the war?" Her eyes lit up. He had worked on those ships, and he’d continued to return to Peru for many years after the war to service vessels and train local engineers. The alleged Italian/Jewish food of our childhood -- a combined childhood that spanned half a century -- was clearly authentic Peruvian cooking the man had learned while spending part of his life in the Pacific working and perhaps living with Peruvian sailors and engineers. It required the three of us, in downtown Lee, on a Sunday night, in a quiet restaurant serving South American cuisine to recognize the culinary heritage of my grandfather.

We cannot know what 2014 will greet us with but, as the Berkshires After Dark column has shown me again and again, there will be unexpected gifts and familial delights and new friends and sentimental reunions waiting for anyone who takes the time to venture out after the sun has set and venture forth to someplace new right here in our back yard.


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