Travelogue LXX: Spain I

JL049409.jpgAugust 7, 2017 We are spending two weeks in Spain with friends from Stanford, in a villa on the sea an hour outside of Barcelona. It’s glorious, and a different Europe than anything I have experienced before. The colors are new to me, and the air, and the entire way of living.

The days start late here, with a long breakfast at 11am, and then a bit of work (we are all grad students and thus always have work, even in August in Spain), and then siesta until perhaps 5pm. During the siesta hours, absolutely nothing stirs here, no dog-walkers, no children playing outside, no traffic noise. Most of the businesses in the city are closed. Jonathan and I went for a walk one afternoon, and it felt like we were the only people alive in this particular corner of the planet.

It’s not about laziness though, however it may appear to, for example, the early-to-bed-early-to-rise Germans. It’s simply another way of doing things. And practically speaking, it’s also about the heat. It is hot in Spain in August–90, 95, 100 degrees every day, dipping down into the 80s or perhaps the 70s at night. The heat is a constant presence, all-encompassing and always to be reckoned with. One spends the days in as little clothing as possible.

At any rate, the early evenings here bring a hint of a cool breeze from the Mediterranean, and the shops open again in the little town of Palamós. We emerge from various napping spots and go down to the beach to swim, or take the car to some seaside medieval village. Still, nothing really happens until perhaps 7pm, when people do their food shopping and then start thinking about dinner. The restaurants won’t open until at least 8pm. We cook at home, however, and the dinner’s on the table by 10pm: on the deck overlooking the ocean, with a full moon and lit candles. Afterwards, wine and conversation until it is finally cool enough to get some sleep–1am, 2am perhaps.

You just don’t spend summers like this in Germany, or anywhere else I have lived.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the little beach near the house, it is possible to walk along the sea from one cove to the next, high on the cliffs above the sea. The water in the Mediterranean here is blue, shifting shades of cerulean, and impossible to capture in photographs. It’s so clear that you can see straight to the sea floor when you look down from the cliffs. It’s also warm, and saltier than the oceans I know, and very easy to swim in. Every cove is full of naked sunbathers, children diving from the rocks. There are fishermen’s dinghies drawn up on shore and larger sailboats anchored farther out. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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I have my favorite adventure buddy back, too!

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A tiny fishermen’s village, only accessible by footpath or water. 

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The Catalonian flag. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo it’s gorgeous here, and so fascinatingly different. After a month in France and now these weeks in Spain, this summer has brought home to me the diversity of Europe, where you travel a few hours by bus over a border and find yourself in another world. Culturally, linguistically, culinarily, architecturally: Spain couldn’t be more different than Germany, and they are both worlds away from France. There are sweeping differences in America, too, but the spaces are larger and the English language tends to serve as a sort of great leveler, I think. I’ll be glad to be back on the West Coast in a few weeks, but for now, this is a gift.

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And there is ice cream. 🙂 

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Locus Amoenus III: Bahnhof-Romantik

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

Berlin

Berlin.

November 27, 2015 Germany has a love-hate relationship with trains. The Deutsche Bahn (German Train) is as much an identity-shaping part of the  culture as good alcohol and soccer, but seems to always have some sort of bad rap–too expensive, chronic delays, the strikes. When I first arrived, I was surprised by the amount of general complaining, since to any [American] outsider it all seems to be a miracle of efficiency and expansiveness. After a year and a half, I’m still in love with it all, although I can now complain with the best of them, too. I swear, if they cancel the S-Bahn one more %$#@ time….ich meine, echt jetzt, Leute.

Before coming to Germany, I had been on exactly one train in twenty-two years. Now, I don’t know how many weeks of my life I have spent in train stations, in trains–the S-Bahn to Frankfurt for the opera, slow scenic trips up the Rhine, exotic voyages across country that span an entire day, flying in a window seat in the high-speed express. For me, all complaining aside, the German train station is quickly becoming another Locus Amoenusa space particularly charged with meaning and, yes, beauty, in a pigeons-and-diesel sort of way. A retreat, comforting through its known-ness.

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Farewells.

The stair of chocolate.

The stair of chocolate.

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Time.

In a sense, all train stations are the same: mythological Orte, artistic spaces, paradox. Places dedicated to not staying in one place, the great stationary enablers of all travel and adventure. They all rely on the same visual symbols, the same aesthetic and sensual building blocks that make up so much of my experience with travel.

Hamburg.

Hamburg.

There are always, for instance, young couples bidding farewell by means of a full make-out session next to the high-speed trains.

There is always a contingent of punks sitting on the ground outside the station, listening to music and smoking and wearing black shirts that say “Refugees Welcome!” or “Fuck Nazis!”.

There are always enormous advertisements for Ritter Sport chocolate that only serve to make me regret my own lack thereof.

There are always book stores where I can stand and sneak-read National Geographic in German, waiting for the connection to Heidelberg or Berlin.

When I stand at the tracks at night, I always fight off the literary fear that I will board the train and the darkness outside the windows will turn into an endless tunnel and I will never, ever get out. Thanks, Dürrrenmatt.

And somewhere, it always, always smells like urine.

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Exhaustion.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt.

For me, somehow, none of those things ever get old, and probably will never get old, no matter how many hundreds of times I have stood in a particular train station and printed my ticket and ran for my connecting train. To someone who spent a childhood in a rural landscape where life moves at a snail’s pace and people stay put, the sheer sense of movement is like a drug.

There’s the thrill of departing: push the dirty “Doors Open” button with the back of your hand and leap into the unknown, haul your suitcase into the train and defend your window seat against all comers.

And the thrill of arriving: perhaps to someplace entirely new, which is its own sort of rush, to buy a city map and drag your suitcase and your exhausted self to some cheap youth hostel or another, and to look at the most ordinary of things with 100% delight and awe just because you have never seen them before. Or perhaps to someplace known: back home in Mainz, for instance, or to a particular small sunlit city on another river, to catch the 54 or look for your lover’s car, to get back to your apartment and make tea and rest.

None of it ever gets old.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

Travelogue LXV: Venice II: I am Venice

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“If one wanted to travel to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? The answer was obvious. What was he doing here? He had gone completely astray. That was where he wanted to travel.”

San Marco.

San Marco.

October 20, 2015 It’s been over a week since I have been back from Venice, and I still don’t know quite how to write about it. The weirdest, loveliest, most contradictory place I have ever been in, yes–but what does that even mean? Venice is the most improbable (unwahrscheinlichste) of all cities, Thomas Mann says.

The trip was the third in my series of Mann pilgrimages (Munich and Lübeck down, Davos still to go!), another working-out of this strange drive to live art that seems to dominate a good deal of my existence. In this case, the work behind it all was Death in Venice, the novella from 1911 that was my introduction to the author. Aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice, falls in love with a beautiful child, and destroys himself: Thomas Mann’s perfect irony played out against a heady backdrop of Nietzsche and Wagner and Plato and, of course, the city itself.

The flag of Venice.

The flag of Venice.

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“Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness, on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin….”

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“‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’ ‘But not with you!’ ‘I row you well.’ True enough, thought Aschenbach, true enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the house of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.”

Sam Marco Doge Venice

Winged lions at the Doge’s palace.

My first impression of Venice was one of beauty, pure and simple. I had the uncanny feeling of walking through a painting, all day, every day, through some stirring landscape of teal-blue water and delicate bridges and white marble facades fading into the morning haze. But it wasn’t unproblematic: in Venice, there is no escape from the aesthetically lovely, and it all therefore becomes incredibly exhausting. In Germany, there is always an escape–you can leave the Old City behind after a few blocks and find yourself surrounded by Aldis and 1950s apartment complexes. You can’t do that in Venice, however, and the constant in-your-face presence of so much gorgeousness is somehow wearing. Human beings aren’t meant for paradise.

And at the same time, too, Venice’s beauty is always backed by the Absurd. The gondolas are packed with baseball-cap-wearing Americans and selfie-stick-wielding Japanese. You can buy knock-off plastic carnival masks and knock-off Gucci bags and knock-off everything else on every street corner for five euros. Loveliness is exploited for money, illegally, and when the police walk by all the hawkers leap up at once from whatever square you are on and run, scattering fake Gucci bags behind them.

Even the aesthetic of the city itself, in the end, is flawed on closer examination: the lagoon stinks, even in October, and the marble facades are streaked with pigeon shit and crumbling into the water. The whole place is sinking.

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“Well, I shall stay, thought Aschenbach. What better place could I find? And with his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes wander in the wide expanse of the sea, let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness.”

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The Grand Canal.

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“Never had he known the joy of language more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in the Word…”

But I fell in love anyway. Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, dass der Knabe vollkommen schön war. With astonishment, Aschenbach saw that the boy was perfectly beautiful: Where else in the world could that astounding sentence, which I am convinced is one of the most important in all of art, have been written? The breaking-in of beauty and Eros in Aschenbach’s life had to happen in Venice; it’s the only city unwahrscheinlich enough to sustain that level of passion.

And at the same time, Venice IS Mann’s definition of artistic creation, of art itself: beauty and transcendence backed by the suspect, by something just slightly nauseating and improper. Being in the city was like seeing Death in Venice, and maybe the entirety of Thomas Mann’s opus, from the inside out.

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“He fled from the crowded commercial thoroughfares, over bridges, into poor quarters. There he was besieged by beggars, and the sickening stench from the canals made it difficult to breath. In a silent square, one of those places in the depths of Venice that seem to have been forgotten and put under a spell, he rested on the edge of a fountain, wiped the sweat from his forehead and realized that he would have to leave.”

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Goldmund and I couldn’t decide if the water was blue or green, or both, or neither.

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“It is well that the world knows only the beautiful work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them…When Aschenbach put away his work and left the beach, he felt worn out, even broken, and his conscience seemed to be reproaching him as if after some kind of debauchery.”

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And so I walked the city for hours at a time, without a map, entirely lost, in some sort of Mann- and Venice-induced half-stupor. The place was full of tourists even at the very end of the season,  but it was shockingly easy to get away from it all: to take two turns off the beaten path and find oneself entirely alone next to some shady canal, with some black gondola gliding by. They really are silent, as Thomas Mann writes.

On the third day we went to the Lido, the island next to Venice where Death in Venice takes place, and lay on the beach in the sun and looked at the waves and were extraordinarily happy. Even there, though, the atmosphere around us was strange, melancholy somehow: long empty stretches of sand, bathing houses already battened down for the winter, only a few stragglers in the water. We were nearly the only guests at the sea-side café, where we split a pizza and put on our coats and scarves after the sun went down.

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Above, live music in the cafes at San Marco. Below, the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, fell in love with with the 11-year-old Polish Baron Adzio Moes, and began writing Death in Venice on hotel stationary.

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“The lulling rhythm of this existence had already cast its spell on him; he had been quickly enchanted by the indulgent softness and splendor of this way of life. What a place this was indeed, combining the charms of a cultivated sea-side resort in the south with the familiar ever-ready proximity of the strange and wonderful city.”

On the last afternoon in Venice, which I spent alone, I ducked into a store off of some tiny side-street and found myself surrounded by lace and paper mache and hanging dark brocade: a carnival shop, a real one this time, no plastic here. A young man around my age sat at a work table painting filigree onto a row of masks. Diamond stud in one ear, dark hair, paint-stained apron. I saw the piece I wanted to buy as soon as I walked in: the half-mask of Commedia dell’artes Columbine with the Phantom’s hand over one eye, two figures in one, the coming-together of male and female and dark and light. “Did you make this one, too?” I asked the young man at the table after I had made my purchase. “No,” he said, “that was my father. Do you want to know the story behind it?” And so he spent the next thirty minutes talking to me about making art and living in Venice, pulling down masks from the wall to show me the different techniques, talking about the Commedia and carnival revelries and showing me his tiny boat parked in the canal outside.

“There is nothing for a young man in Venice–nothing for me here,” he said as I was collecting my things to go. “The entire city is for the tourists. If I want to go out or dance I have to go to the mainland and take a taxi. It is very hard to live here; in the past 25 years three-quarters of the population have left.” “Why don’t you leave, then, too?” I asked. “Because I am Venice,” he said, and then a gondola-load of tourists came into the shop, and I took my purchase and got on the vaporetto back to the apartment and Goldmund, and was very much content.

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“A sacred, deranged world, full of Panic life, enclosed the enchanted watcher, and his heart dreamed tender tales. Sometimes, as the sun was sinking behind Venice, he would sit on a bench in the hotel park to watch Tadzio, dressed in white with a colorful sash, at play on the rolled gravel tennis court; and in his mind’s eye he was watching Hyacinthus, doomed to perish because two gods loved him.”

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“For Beauty, dear Phaedrus, only Beauty is at one and the same time divinely desirable and visible: it is, mark well, the only form of the spiritual that we can receive with our senses and endure with our senses. For what would become of us if other divine things, if Reason and Virtue and Truth were to appear to us sensuously? Should we not perish in a conflagration of love, as once upon a time Semele did before Zeus?”

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“He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire–impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worth of honor even here: ‘I love you!'”

All quotations from Death in Venice, translated by David Luke.

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Travelogue LXIV: Venice I: Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

October 14, 2015 Ever since having been introduced to Richard Wilbur’s superb Love Calls Us to the Things of This World in a Sunday School class over a decade ago, I have been searching for a place like the one described in the poem. Who knew I would have to travel to Giudecca, a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Venice, to find it?

The morning air in Italy is all awash with angels, people.
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Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, 
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn. 
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels. 

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing; 

    Now they are flying in place, conveying 
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there. 
                                             The soul shrinks 

    From all that it is about to remember, 
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, 
And cries, 
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam 
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

 

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  Yet, as the sun acknowledges 
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now 
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; 
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits, 
   keeping their difficult balance.”
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