She was a woman to love.
From her blunt-cut bangs to the toe of her vintage oxfords.
I wanted to give her the world. It would be a paltry token for one as worthy as she.
Instead I gave her a Chanel lipstick, beautifully wrapped, in Passion Red. To add to her collection of “gimme any colour as long as it’s red” (-Bette Davis) beloved Chanel lipsticks.
Rosa was the answer to my prayers although I did not know it at the time. While she went (back “home”) to Mexico City for a while, I borrowed her life, her apartment, her food, her clothes, and her internet, and it was the best use of my precious time that has ever existed.
I said I needed a sunny apartment of my own and she answered the call. She had a sunny cheap place in Neukölln that was available for much of the time I was looking for, and she was communicative and available. ….At the time the only thing I knew about Neukölln was there was a milonga there and I had enjoyed the Turkishness of walking down Karl-Marx-Straße. I remember liking the area and thinking I was quite clever and antiestablishment to do so.
Neukölln was gloriously as I remembered it but even more so. More head scarves. More eyeliner. More smoulder-eyed men with dark curly hair. More pide, more borek, more manti, more lahmacun, and more gilded tea glasses. More bustle and low-class practical-needs living. An actual Woolworth’s. This was my place. These were my people. I felt at home here. I had heard people saying that all of Neukölln was the hot new hipster place jam packed with galleries and trendy cafés but to my mind this was not true. To my mind this place was, coolwise, Alphabet City circa 1999: sure there was the cool hipster end, but there was also still the working-class immigrant fringe end that was quickly getting pushed out but was still so uncool it was…cool. (But unlike Alphabet City, N’kolln was safe and egalitarian.)
Socially it was Queens, and I loved that. Everybody was an immigrant, just like me. I practically danced down the street to my new house and I knew it must be mine and nobody else’s. I knew it was for me. And I knew she was for me too.
She opened the door with a huge smile on her ruby lips. What style she had, and for one so young! She had a Look to her, with her geometric hair and bold lipstick, her high waisted tight jeans and boxy top (a look best reserved for very young women with a lot of huevos, so, perfect for her). I instantly loved her and wanted her to be my Friend.
Like many people I meet from Mexico City, she destroyed the gringo stereotype of what it means to be Mexican. She had pale skin (and adorable round apply cheeks but that’s another story), she spoke German and English as exquisitely and effortlessly as she spoke Spanish, she was highly educated and sublimely well travelled, and she threw Latin American gender stereotypes daintily out the window.
But she fit right in with the many people I meet “from” Berlin. (Ah yes…my Mexican landlady, my Egyptian lover, my Russian crush, my Serbian female friend, my Turkish female friend and her Armenian lover, my Swiss lover, my Turkish lover, my Slovenian, Spanish, Polish, Turkish, and Iranian potential lovers, my Tunisian and Indian pests, the Italians who won’t go away, my Colombian guy buddy, my Argentinian disappointment of a female tango star, my French female friend…I think I have one person in my coterie who is actually German, and that is a representative sampling of the population! Way to hold down the fort, Alexis!). I loved, loved, loved life in this New Jerusalem. I wanted this to be my life and my home for real and I would fight to make this the truth. I wanted a visa and the right to come and go as I pleased and legally earn money. I wanted my son to be able to come visit me. I wanted to make this the place I left for trips from, not the place I arrived to.
Rosa embodied “my” Berlin perfectly and I loved her for it. She was practical, functional, visionary, full of grit and power and the ability to get things done, but she was also creative, exotic, bohemian, a dream-spinner and a poet. She was cutting edge urbane and yet timeless and chic with just enough details from the past to keep them exquisite and fresh. She had an old soul in a hot young body. She could not have more precisely personified the city I loved.
She was an independent publisher of art books. She was her own publishing firm, Back Bone Books, check it out online (www.backbonebooks.net). It turns out what this means is the book itself is art, not monographs but the actual object is the art. She says she is interested in redefining what “a book” means. She goes all over the world to fairs and festivals and gives talks and lectures and classes at colleges in the art of bookbinding and the creation of art books. And I love that for her. She got a solid training in art and has been doing this in Berlin for seven years now and has a clarity and a singularity of focus that I cannot help but envy. Especially in one so young. She has her One Thing and she does it. And racks up a resume right and left and pays all her own bills singlehandedly and got a freelance artist visa and doesn’t have to pay taxes because she’s poor but clearly does well enough to manage this beautiful apartment.
She has a boyfriend “but that’s extra,” she says. He lives nearby but not too nearby. Her work is at the center of her plate, as is true for me too. I love and adore her and marvel at the maturity she must have to have come to this stage in her life so early. She is very sensitive to energy, as befits a native from the land of magicorealism, and respected my Reiki Masterishness.
We got on like a house afire.
And her home, temporarily my home, so perfect, so ideal, could not possibly have been more perfect for her or for me.
A big white sunny space with tall ceilings and wood floors and the most excellent juju. Only what really had to be there. A whole wall of south facing windows looking onto the t of an intersection. A genius real estate choice on her behalf because it meant nobody across the street either blocking the sun or looking in her window, just trees. At the end of the block a glimpse of the S-Bahn headed to the S-&-U-Bahn oh so conveniently on the corner, right next to, oh so conveniently, the world’s most superlatively awesome blue-collar Turkish grocery store ever created, where you could get five Ayran for €1 and sensational lahmacun mit salat for €1.50. Every other practical need, from apotheke to manly eye candy to Vietnamese food to a used English bookstore to other groceries to a park, was all within a couple of blocks.
All I could hope was that maybe some day someone would move out of the apartment above or below hers…for this was my exactly ideal perfect spot in all the world and I never wanted to leave.
She even had a clothes washer. And it was gloriously quiet and still, exactly what I needed to fortify myself to go out into the world night after night and live in the Tangoverse. In order to have one, I had to have the other. Too much solitude and silence would have been depressing, too much shared intense emotional presence in a group moment would have been depleting. But together they were the perfect Oreo.
Out in the hallway some genius Turkish housewife was usually making rich red dinner smells, redolent of garlic. I practically got full off the smell alone. And somewhere else someone’s child was diligently practicing the violin, and they had another several years of practice ahead of them!
These were my people. This was my land, this was my barrio, this was my building, and I had had the glorious fortune to luck into it, for six whole weeks! I couldn’t financially afford the rent, although it was cheap, but I knew that even more than that, I could not emotionally or energetically afford one more night of Couchsurfing, one more night of what an Airbnb host accurately called “emotional blackmail” after I described the Couchsurfing deal to him. I also longed, deep down in my weary travel-scuffed soul, to literally put down my heavy-ass duffel bag. I didn’t mind shuffling around all the time but I minded having to haul my shit everywhere every two days like a masochistic snail, and I minded having to drain my precious time and energy into hunting down people to like and then spending time with them so they would feel loved and not just used for the roof over my head. My dad’s girlfriend had cheerfully said that now I could write a bestselling travel guide about how to Couchsurf and love it, but the truth was, after a year of doing it, I felt that spending money was a thousand times cheaper than spending my energy. I had my friends, I had my lovers, food in Berlin cost about 10 or 20% (depending on the thing) of what it cost in San Francisco, and what I needed now was time and space to work and do my thing and be free and live my life instead of having to be a professional house pet. Sure, I met a lot of awesome people and some of them are still friends. But Couchsurfing should be for short visits, not as a chronic state of affairs. Balance in everything!
I returned from Nürnberg and moved into my new home and promptly rearranged the furniture to make as much open dance studio space as possible, which turned out to be quite a bit. And discovered that while it was good to have practice space, this gorgeous empty white sunny space (with wood floors) was also 100% perfect for…writing! I had never known that I cared about my external conditions, I mean, writing is an internal process, the outsides shouldn’t matter, but there was a new kind of peaceful mental release I found, sitting quietly in the middle of this beautiful kind space, with its soothing and luxurious lack of Stuff.
This was the richest space I had ever been in, because everything in it was the right stuff.
And the kitchen was the same! Of course she sometimes catered things and was a killer cook. (Recipe follows.). She was the kind of woman who had nothing extraneous anywhere, and yet everything necessary for optimum pleasure was right to hand. She was the kind of woman who made less than €17,000 a year but had Camargue sea salt flakes by the stove (next to the olive oil, the pepper grinder, the balsamic, and the raw honey of course) and lamb’s lettuce in the fridge.
Happy healthy plants roosted on top of the fridge, a brightly painted Indian tin elephant presided near the sink, and the few dishes she had were as casually characterful and chic as everything else. Blue spatterware, plain glasses, and one perfect delicate gilded Asian teacup and saucer with enamelled flowers on it.
The next bit is ethically not so cool of me so if you want to skip it so you don’t know the bad thing I did, please skip it. I am no saint.
She just had such awesome style…and even though in real life we are different sizes and shapes and characters, it turns out we wear the same size in both clothes and shoes…and she had such wonderful juju, which I wanted to rub off on me….
So yes, Gentle Reader. What started as, “well I need to make some room in this closet for my own clothes” turned into, “damn, you have great personal style, girl,” which turned into, “gosh it would be so interesting to see where your great personal style could influence my great personal style,” which turned into…me trying on a number of her clothes and shoes, the way you would try on what it was like to be someone else for a little while.
I sampled what it was like to be Rosa bumming around in her apartment in her sweeping trailing grey wrap fuzzy cardigan-coat with the patch pockets.
I looked at my feet in the mirror in her vintage two toned dainty oxblood Oxfords, in her perfectly worn down black Beatle boots, in her “I wish I had thought of those” kicky beige canvas Superdry tennis shoes, and in her Chica-Mexicana platform heel sandals.
I tried on an almost-black navy blue wool dress with a slit collar and a tie belt and felt so chic I wore it to my first attempt at Free Tuesdays at the Philharmonic (didn’t get there in time for a seat, but come on, if you needed any more reasons to move to Germany, there’s your reason).
I tried on something I had always believed was anathema to the way I roll and discovered that I totally loved them. Yeah…I tried on her skinny stretchy high waisted black jeans, every word of that phrase not something I would ever consider wearing, and…loved them and felt like Sandra Dee at the end of Grease and wanted to wear them out dancing with a sassy pink belt.
I tried on a dress that was designed to highlight everything I do not personally ever think to highlight about my body and it turned out I totally loved it and wanted to wear it out dancing too. Yes, she had this fetching little black lace cocktail frock with a crew neck (so not me, and yet, it turned out to be totally me, go figure) of which the bodice and skirt were lined black and only the arms showed the pattern of the lace (again, so not how I would have done it, and yet, it turned out to totally work for me, go figure), and it was shoooooooort. Like, don’t bend over short. And…damn! I felt so cheeky and fabulous in it!
The rest of her clothes were only suited to her but I was drooling thinking about how perfectly they went with her character and her body. The simple navy blue Christian Dior wool sweater from a second hand shop, the Art Deco emerald silk caftan, the vintage black wool shift from Australia, the poppy-red silk vintage blouse that was all flounces and billowing sleeves and a tidy button waist and I knew the minute she put it on she would look like a perfect Mexican pin-up girl from 1942.
For when you don’t have much, everything you have must be exactly perfect for you and for no one else and must bring you joy.
At the tender age of 31, Rosa had mastered the true hedonistic art of luxury. She knew her own truth and lived it, and she knew her own Middle Path and lived that too. She answered to no one but her own inside voice, she created beauty and vision in this world, and she did so with perfect womanly timeless comfortable elegant fun style.
Rosa de la Torre is in Baden-Baden for a few days exhibiting new work before heading back to Mexico City for a visit. For those of you who can’t be bothered to look at her web page, Back Bone Books is also on Facebook. You owe it to humanity to check it out.
Rosa’s Mushrooms for Passing the Torch of Feminine Awesomeness
Melt a wodge of butter in your saucepan.
Wash and slice some Steinpilze and some normal mushrooms. Sauté with fresh rosemary and freshly ground black pepper. Finish with Camargue sea salt flakes.
Like most deceptively simple recipes, this one will probably give you an orgasm.
Even better the next day when reheated by another of the tribe of Pirate Queens. Scramble in pan with an egg, perfect. Have a side salad of lamb’s lettuce with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon, and more Camargue salt. Celebrate the glory and the possibility of what it means to be a fabulous and independent woman artist who may not have much money but who is rich in perfect taste, in beautiful visions of how the world should be, and in the power to mould the world to fit the vision, instead of the other way around.