Uncle Otto and Nicola the Greek

At an art opening last weekend, friends and I were studying the bio of one of the artists, Otto Neumann, a 20th century German expressionist, whose father was a famous professor and friend to famous intellectuals. Otto himself studied with noted artists, and married a pianist and weaver named Hilde Rothschild who. according to the bio,  “became a major force in his artistic and personal life.”

Well, yes, marriage does tend to influence one’s personal life, and marriage to a Rothschild would surely have an impact on your art, because you wouldn’t have to sell any of it to pay the bills.

So when Otto finished a painting, he would stick it the attic and move on. And when he was tempted to destroy his early work, Hilde would dissuade him, which is a good thing.  Thirty years after his death, Uncle Otto, as he was known in the family, is just now being discovered, and some of his work, to my untutored eyes, is quite good. In fact, if I’d had a spare twelve or fifteen grand, I’d have taken a couple home with me.

Neumann had studied ancient Greek vases, and his most compelling works were deceptively simple line drawings of the human figure in the Greek style. Some looked like primitive fertility symbols, but the more interesting pieces were more two dimensional and incorporated spare, seemingly random lines that added a curious tension.

Toward the end of his life, he dispensed with the figures altogether and drew gatherings of lines, an artistic shorthand that suggests the abstractions of old age. They must have had deep significance to him, but they struck me as soulless and dull.

But what I admired most about Uncle Otto was the drive, the passion to create when another might have been tempted to sink back and fish loose change from between those well-stuffed Rothschild cushions.

Our next stop, was Nicola’s, a Greek restaurant with the words “Belly Dancing Studio” painted on the plate glass window. I’d never been there, but it was getting late and we were hungry, and there were only a few cars in the parking lot.

It wasn’t much of a place: white formica tables, black steel chairs with brown padded seats, worn brown carpeting, dim lighting and the certainty that Martha Stewart wasn’t spoken here. There were five of us, and collectively we double-clutched while waiting to be seated, the unspoken sentiment being “Oh, well, I can deal with this.”

Did I mention the raucous, skirling Greek music that sounded like cats fighting in the middle of a polka band? It died down as we studied the menu, and the waiter was immediately likable: a man of middle age, gray at the temples, black hair swept back, full of good humor, not in the least deferential and determined to be himself. He joked with the ladies, made recommendations, brought sliced cucumber to go with the hummus, didn’t charge for the falafel and generally acted out the expansive Mediterranean personality.

Then the belly dancers arrived, three of them in gaudy outfits, accompanied by boisterous Greek music pumped through a sound system. We ignored it as long as we could, but eventually had to turn and watch. The dancers were joined by a small, jolly man wearing a plaid shirt, pants gathered at the ankles in the Greek style, and an apron.

This was Nicola. He stuffed dollar bills in the dancers’ girdles, threw money at them, clapped, shouted, laughed and performed some of the dances himself, careening about the room with a speed and agility I wouldn’t have dreamed possible.

Then he pushed tables aside and turned to the guests – only four or five tables were occupied – and beckoned to them to join him. No, he demanded that we join him. And since it would have been bad form to do otherwise, we mustered more of our “I can deal with this” resignation and joined him in a circle in the center of the room.

He clapped. We clapped. He gestured, we gestured. He stuck one foot into the circle and then the other, and we followed. He pulled a belly dancer into the center and danced with her, then pulled one couple after another into the circle, and it didn’t matter if they were husband and wife. This was about having a good time, we were his guests, and Nicola’s mission was to share his passion with us.

It worked. When the music finally ended I tried to give Nicola a high-five, but he grabbed my hand and kissed it.

One of my friends said, “You made us so happy!”

“No,” he said, wiping sweat from his face, brown eyes alight “you made me so happy.”

Later, after we’d hugged Nicola and said good-bye, carrying the baklava he’d given us, I thought about how I’d stood in the circle, clapping  with all the dancing and laughter swirling around me, and how I had quite forgotten myself and my fitful pre-occupations.

And I thought to myself, “I need to deal with this more often.”


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