1992 Europe Trip Journal: Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Paris
Lindy and I made our first trip out of North America in June, 1993, when we were both 49. Many things had gone into delaying this adventure. Other things always came first: marriage at 21, graduate school, kids, earning enough money for a family, owning a house, moving constantly and reinventing our lives, sending kids to private schools, etc. Only when both our son and daughter left home did our priorities change. We realized how much we missed traveling anywhere really different. Canada didn’t really count.
The itinerary of this first trip was set by our local travel agent and reflected perhaps more her agendas than ours. She sent us to five large cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, and Paris, to the exclusion of any countryside. Only Prague and Paris were on the original list we came to her with, but she devised a trip around them and the other cities without our realizing, until it was happening, that we were locked into a solely urban tour.
We were able to avoid hotels except in Paris. We arranged to stay in Amsterdam with a Dutch publisher (Robert Hartzema of Karnak) with whom we had done business, in Berlin with the friend of a British bodyworker author of ours, in Prague with a family that earned part of their living from taking in tourists, and in Munich (fortuitously at the last minute) with a young Chinese t’ai chi teacher who had visited our office in search of an American publisher just weeks before we set out on our trip.
Over the prior years I had had many dreams of being in Europe, only to awake each time and find myself in my bedroom at home. These imaginal journeys complexified out of their own material such that later ones had intrinsic knowledge of earlier ones and they were able to enact deeper and deeper illusions, in one way or another, that I was now really in Europe, as opposed to all those earlier times when I was only dreaming. That is, the sense of really being in Europe became more and more convincing as the dream sequence evolved, and I was absolutely certain on a number of occasions that this time it is definitely not a dream; this is the real thing. Only to awake in America never having left. It is amazing how cleverly dreams inveigle other dreams within their collective memory to make the illusional point that they are not dreams. Of course, for any number of cosmic reasons, my dreams of Europe could also have been memory traces from beyond time. What is described below, however, is the real trip—at least so I think.
The transcription from my handwritten journals was done a little over ten years after the actual trip. Thus, I could not fill in much of what was missing from recent memory—and lots is clearly missing. Also, some sections were illegible, and I have tried to salvage them. In some instances, I have given up, abandoning the scribbles.
In later travel journals I wrote a lot more, but this was really my first try at a daily journal of any sort and, as such, it is a bit truncated, in many cases reduced to snippet postcards of—this is what we did today. No doubt there are inaccuracies in both the original writing and the transcription—of spelling, of fact, and of memory—but the journal is meant to be a map of an inner experience rather than a precise record of events and scenery.
June 3 – 4, 1993
Over Nantucket, then out over the ocean. Sense of the Atlantic suddenly real. Rapid sunset. The vastness of Oceanus’ body below. The original passage. Half-sleep only.
What shall we remember? A star at twilight. A bubble in a stream. A flash of lightning in a summer cloud. A lamp. A dream within a dream.
It seems forever in a tunnel of darkness before dawn breaks over the steely gray ocean that covers most of this planet. Whitecaps. Chop in water. Chop in air. Eventually, beyond the dawn, I sight soft curvy land ahead of us, etched below, like old maps of the New World. It looks innocent, seemingly untouched. A channel with boats. Then dikes and fields. Windmills. Ancient buildings. Peaked gables. I am looking at the real thing, the actual Europe, after so many false dream ones. Is this real? Will I awake again in my bed in America?
How many times have I awakened from what I was sure was my first visit to Eurasia, only to find it was a dream? How many times have I dreamed that it wasn’t a dream only to wake up from it too? Now I am looking at Europa itself from the sky, descending into a different sort of waking dream.
My first ikon is a black fly painted onto the bright white urinal as a decorative insignia. I would never see such a thing in the U.S.
I exit the men’s room to into the path of a Thai plane crew dragging their luggage swiftly on wheels, light and stylish. Shipol Airport is pretty with high ceilings, cafés, gardens.
The immigration man says: “Me, passport. Them [pointing to customs], him bags.”
We are suddenly thrown into a confusion of how to get Dutch currency, how to use the phones to call our host in Amsterdam, things that we had not thought about in advance.
I feel the rudeness of false politeness at customs.
Our wallets full of beautifully colored guilder notes with ducks and other animals, we get on the old Amsterdam subway. Kids with American sports jackets sit across from us. This is not a dream.
We arrive at Central Station. The reality is growing now, the vastness of a world stirring to another day here. I remember suddenly that I dreamed on the plane of parrots being born and fed in a pet shop.
The cab driver has large sad features. He cuts through town, taking an alley along a canal. We get to the Hartzemas’ house and collapse in our clothes in an out-of-the-way room into lost sleep. But we are in Europe. We will wake up there.
After our dazed naps, we go out. Crowds are gathered in the squares. The streets seem uneven by comparison with America. So many circles too. Such a festive air. La Plein. Mimes performing. Outblast of calliope. Painted faces. Dreadlocks. It seems like an end-of-the-world carnival. Posses of bikes. Old homeopathic pharmacy. Crowds in cafés pouring outdoors onto the streets. It seems very civilized to have these gathering spots stuck on the corners of buildings. Tightly packed Renaissance buildings have new signs, yet are adorned by carvings from original times . Alleys enter the main street at all angles—thin, dark slits. People are shaking rugs out of windows. Drunks are singing. Boats sound their horns from canals. German-sounding Dutch language is soon a familiar background.
At an Indonesian restaurant they assure us that the food is good. “We make fresh.” And then they deliver lots of coconut lamb and curry.
After lunch we continue to walk. We pass a prostitute with lacy frills, carrying an inflated doll. We see fire jugglers, street artists, violinists. A guy hugging a base mouths, “Stand By Me” in English.
At a falafel stand I have my first-ever glass of carrot juice. In honor of being in Holland, the most basic food rules change. It is surprisingly sweet and orange and uninvasively pleasing. Travel is opportunity.
That night I dream of a parlor in which all the people have their own pigeons to adorn, train, and make intelligent by Skinnerian commands. Anything can be accomplished by these commands, but it will be a long time before the pigeons make any sense. I hope they don’t torture the birds; they are so fat and feathered and non-understanding, yet fleshy and turning in circles in place. Then the same scientists are trying to get a dolphin back into the canal and have it stand upright in the water and talk. They failed with the last one because they didn’t call a doctor in time. This one is shiny and straight, but without language at all. It can’t communicate in this frame.
When I wake, I think that Dutch sounds somewhat familiar, like a language trying to become English or, more to the point, a language that once was English. It has a more lyrical, erotic quality than German. The Dutch did not try to conquer the world—or maybe just didn’t try as hard.
June 5 (Leiden)
The town of gabled roofs and windmills and canals is visible from the top of a giant windmill seven stories up. The blades sweep by, wood and cloth, like planetary moons. It took centuries, from Neolithic times, to invent such grand machinery and get these giant millstones moving, to grind the grain. This was the meaning of Renaissance culture to itself, the confidence of the middle class that Rembrandt painted.
In the museum. the Day of Judgment from the Book of Revelations is like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala. Creatures are torn from this world by bestial beings—part animal, but clearly human. Certain body parts stand out: a penis, a foot ending in a playing-card spade, blue skin, craving mouths. “This what they believed,” the sign (more or less) says. Who “they”?
This is all we see anywhere in the modern world. Do they not understand how they have mislabeled. This is the current terror. We no longer recognize our own projections.
The rooms of the miller, the beer-maker are marked by tiles from just a few centuries ago; they reflect a prior reality from which all this exploded into the modern world. Empty beer bottles now lie in the cistern of a Roman fort on perhaps the only hill in all of Holland, and an artificial one at that, built as a lookout for the Latin conquerors, peaked roofs crowded along streets visible from parapets.
And what protects the cities of the modern world, planes overhead, the ancient world still underfoot, memories of Philip II and Hitler, the Neolithic project of reclaiming land from seawater, still going on, a post-modern venture of wind and marsh flowers, now tourist boats and Euro youth culture joined by East Indians, Sumatrans, Surinamese.
Freddie Heineken’s villa reminds us that it is the barony, the same feudal overlay of wealth, the same ingratiating maitre d’ (sitting on the window still beside us, offering three kinds of meat, two kinds of fish, that will turn out to be burnt), worldwide in fact, offering faux hospitality and staged generosity, authentic versions of which have been all but lost in the actual.
Yet this is what they believe now in Holland—liberal laws, peace and justice, global culture, farms in low tides held back by wind-reversing channels and dikes.
The museum’s paintings reflect the present, like the reflection in the train window of us with Dutch teenagers dressed for Saturday night, headed back to Amsterdam past 11:00, faint blue sky iridescent with silhouettes, lit tombstones of buildings. The image is distorted, like the fact even that we should be here tonight, they with their bracelets and Diesel t-shirts, smoking and shouting.
The lovers off Rembrandt Square wrestle and peck amid the crowds.
June 6 (Amsterdam)
The streets rise and fall, their buildings irregular. Gabled roofs of different styles form an elegant roofline. Steep and thin, these structures require flying hooks to load the furniture through windows.
Canals dominate cobblestone thoroughfares, so many bikes and motorbikes it is difficult to know where to walk.
Anne Frank’s house is a political museum, a sanctum of fascism and nationalism. The space itself is ordinary. What is moving is the event that emerged from this everyday realm and how it touched every other part of the world as, in another time, another element of it rolled over Europe in tanks and bombers. From Bosnia, children write of reading Anne Frank’s story and wonder at what their own fate will be. Such is the extraordinary reach of the diary imagined in these rooms, like a single flower growing from a crack in cement on the side of a canal, that speaks to a universe of hope that, despite everything, that because of everything, will not die. Just another Jewish girl.
We wander in Jordaan and end up in a Greek restaurant, the only joint open. In a quiet dark courtyard it has an orange cat. This is as faraway from the outside pellmell as one could get, while remaining just on the other side of it, a dark side street, four men fixing food, one waiter serving.
Afterwards we wander through this part of town to the park where we encounter waves upon waves of humanity. The feeling is of misty green and ponds, even with the crowds, the Surinamese couples picnicking and a Chinese gentleman reading the I Ching. There are more people in this one park than I imagined in the entire world. Trash containers overflow with cans, bottles, bags, stray food, every one surrounded by as much garbage as is in it. A happy young guitarist pounds away in Dutch while a group stands listening, laughing, filling in words he has forgotten.
This is a separate universe of our post-colonial era, utterly removed from Golden Gate Park, its antipode. Outside the Rijt Museum, hordes of young people in costumes are enacting a Mediaeval or maybe science-fiction masque.
June 7 (Der Haag)
Flex-pass tram ticket. Our route: Central district. Stamp. Fold here. Central Station, Amsterdam. Fold here. Stamp. Fold here. To Anna Pauwolonostraat. Stamp. Fold here. Central Station Haag. Fold here. Rembrandt Square. Market. Central Station Amsterdam.
The train is swift, as it passes through fields and towns alongside the highway. Then our stop.
Der Haag is hard to walk into. Where does it begin? After one attempted circle leads back to the train station, we take a cab to our publishing meeting at Oost-Indie.
It is like visiting an old occult order, for we are at the offices of the publisher of Alice Bailey and the heart of the Sofie Centrum (Sufi Order). 78 Anna Pauwolonostraat. Right next to the vast architecture of humanity’s peace palace, the World Court. In the Haag, the magical order of the cosmos is well intact, like the old volume of Arabian art our host pulls out, about a mile long. This is where the UFO should land.
June 8 (Amsterdam)
We set out to deal with the situation of our book distribution in Holland, visiting publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores. We can find our way around pretty well now. We return to our favorite stand for a falafel and carrot juice.
After lunch we take a boat ride, sea birds following, an egret or heron overhead. They land on the arms of women feeing them in the square. Ducks glide through tunnels alongside us, as speech rattles on in four languages.
What is wonderful about canals is light dancing on room ceilings late afternoon, the hollow sound of boat horns and occasional splashes, sun reflected, endless exchange of water and shapes. From the tour boat, the city actually seems to be floating in water, its rows of houses becoming postcards. The Mediaeval Renaissance city with its towers and churches is woven into later variants of cities with their electrical districts and brewers’ canals.
At night, sounds move along water at a different speed, a train in the background. Little guard-rails keep one car a week from driving into the drink.
Stamp. Fold. Albrecht Market. Everything in the open air is very Dutch: the ice-cream bars, the names for spices—carrots, beans, onion, cabbage, two green peppers. The smell of cheese is so deep and rich and rotten it represents a whole unlived life. The inside is complex and packed, various cookies sweet with nuts or caked with various hats and fruits under glaze. My raisin bun has crisscross icing.
A sole guitarist in a semi-deserted thoroughfare is singing “Penny Lane” in English. Lesbian and gay male couples are necking side by side. Black people are speaking Dutch. Also a strange uptightness: “Yah! Nay!” Gracht: canal. Heren: gentleman. Winkel: store, shop.
Riding bikes in the park, we experience panoramas sweeping by in a richness without roots or time. We lie in the grass and watch ducks build a nest. There is a tapestry of flowers, cows, and goats, a skyline of rows and houses beyond. Buildings cross over the streets, as every direction and meter and fractal of space are used. Bells sound from various church towers around the city echo in the hollow of creation.
The bike lane is unerring, signs giving full instructions from corner to corner. Small cars whiz by. Out on the square, pigeons cluster, people in cafés outside, watching some incidental bicycle race that passes us by.
A dream: Amherst men are rushing up to a snowy mountain to touch a rock and sing. This is called Zen Run. But what is Zen Run? My zigzag, zany run cuts off their male charge. There is no question we will all reach snow and that it is bright and cold, and we roll in it in the hot sun. They are exuberant in their ritual.
In a subsequent dream I am followed by a police detective I am helping, but unfortunately I spill my drink on his boat rug. There turns out to be no case. Two whole classes are missing behind me (1967 and ’68?); the school is closed for repair, empty tables. Lindy and a friend are carrying all their stuff out to join a protest march for something about sexual or women’s freedom. Embarrassed, I stand by the side. I say: “Twenty-one years, ’61-82,” but that is wrong. It is twenty-eight years that we have more or less been together, ’65-’93. We are riding in the back of a truck. No control, 70 MPH, suddenly swinging toward a bridge out over the ocean. Since we don’t plan to die, the dream makes it that we fall toward euphorbia-like plants in mid-air and will probably hang onto them, but I wake up first. The most dominant residual image is reaching the snow on a high mountain after racing up a grassy slope, through an ancient forest, then singing some alma mater in another language.
Everything is coming to seem ordinary. The constant rush of traffic is even becoming oppressive. The canals are a bit tedious. In the flea market Turks and Surinamese have put out an incredible assortment of junk: broken watches, old sockets, game boxes with nothing in them, parts of dolls, postcards in picture frames. I can find nothing for my daughter Miranda, though I go through stacks of old clothes that are being sold for a guilder each. Too much American stuff, glitter and rock groups and slogans. Souvenirs of Amsterdam amid this junk are grotesque cartoons of wasted survivors of orgies or somewhat scenic landscapes, both genres highlighting the red-light district we have wondered about but not seen.
I look at one charming amateur painting of the city, a canal scene, its price 20 fl. Then it turns out to be the red light district too, so I lose interest. I wander out of the market in a new direction. Then, as I see sad, ugly topless women hanging out of windows, I realize with a shock I am in it; I veer instantly back toward the city. What we could never find by direction was stumbled upon by indirection on my solo walk.
The sudden imposition of sexuality turns the city inside-out right there, but its reality is not erotic; it is hard and shabby, large women propped like statues in doorways exhibiting their breasts, a mere patch of cloth over their crotches. These are clichés of clichés, even for the black women. There are not even so many customers as lines of tourists gawking and giggling. A freak show. There is no one soliciting even as erotic as one young waiflike girl in the carnival flow with a revealing dress, curtsying to each male passer-by, me too.
At night we sit in Rembrandtsplein, Lindy with wine and me with a dark German beer. As I sip, it becomes lighter, softer—the whole thing—being a tourist here, life itself, any lingering cares. We observe the activities of two pigeons, one with an accidental feather on his head who follows the other.
We walk along the street. Ice cream bars with white chocolate.
Falafels, Indonesian vegetables in spices, round fried potatoes.
An Oriental-looking mime tries to kiss Lindy and she jumps back in surprise and outrage. Then it turns out that a whole crowd is gathered not for the tram (as we imagined) but to watch this clown startle strangers with his bits. The tricks are harmless—a flower stuck on the head of a bald man (who ignores him), a dance of trying to halt bicycles like a policemen, following close behind people and mimicking their gaits and gestures, and occasionally kissing a woman. He is collecting money for each stunt, so it is also a kind of bullying. He builds charisma and power on the street, and then uses it over and over to stare down passers-by into paying him for his entertainment, which is hazing. People fork over coins and bills out of relief that it is improvised theater, not flagrant street-person attacks, not yet anyway. I don’t like him, but we watch for fifteen minutes anyway.
For leaving Amsterdam, we take the tram to the station, but we got wrong instructions. We know enough to realize we are not headed for the station, as our vehicle is veering sharply the wrong way, a mile down a boulevard before we can get off and, lugging our heavy suitcases, work our way back on another tram in the night. There is not much margin. This is when travel itself seems foolhardy and desperate.
They also gave us the wrong date on the couchet reservation. We are going to have to bluff our way to get to sleep in a berth on the train. We race down the platform and just make the train, then stumble into a couchet. The conductor speaks no English, just German, and points, and smiles, quite gentle actually.
We are rolling across Germany in the night. I open the window to a warm breeze. Lit towns go by.
I feel the rhythm of turns and bumps, as I slide in and out of my own trances. I fall back asleep and wake, each time to strange lights flowing in the distance, then rain on the window. Then morning: fields, woods, single houses, bits of towns, flower boxes mounted high, old constructions, total mysteriousness. This is not a dream of Europe. This is Europe.
June 11 (Berlin)
We rush out of our train impulsively at the Zoo. Station, faintly recalling an instruction we lost in subliminal space. Then it comes back as we see the word “Zoo.” suddenly staring at us. At a café, no one speaks English, can’t get directions; the scene is quite down and out. We stand in the rain at Charlottenburg Station where we buy a pass for future transportation.
It’s all strange here; it also feels like a century ago; there’s no map to fall back on. Fnally we take a cab to the apartment where we are staying on Herderstrasse. Old, old building, musty smells, big courtyard, giant heavy doors with ornate locks. Our host Sylvie explains that in her childhood she had to travel 200 miles on special roads, often past buildings on fire, to reach the rest of West Germany.
We walk through Savigny Plaza, get lunch at a Turkish restaurant—hummus-yogurt-garlic flavors, sweet clusters of vegetables. Then we hop aboard the tour bus and sit back while it traverses the city in elevated, window-tinted, voice-over style. We are allowed to get off wherever we like and reboard the next bus on our ticket. Thus, we alternately ride and alight all afternoon. Sometimes a tour bus is a great shortcut.
Like New York or Montreal, this place is an overwhelming array of smaller cities connected together; all of Central European history crosses here amid the complex stonework, monumental architecture, and crumbling walls, recalling Kaisers, acts of reckless bravery, blockades, destructions, restorations, Hitler, a flowing archaeology sprawled across the landscape at all its levels. We purchase a tiny plaster-like chunk of the Berlin wall from a street vendor. It could be that or just a scrap from a construction site; all I know is that it is not a Moon rock.
Berlin flows by the window. Vast parks formerly hunting grounds. The Brandenburg Gate. As we cross into the East, the urban phenomenology of landscape changes to an institutional Soviet gestalt. We see Hitler’s bunker, monuments to victory over the Swedes and French, gold figures wrapped around oblivious traffic. Humboldt University. We walk down Kurfastenstrasse. Someone is playing a street game with shells and peas of “und, dwein, zwein”; there is gambling involved as he flashes and exchanges 100-mark notes. A mime is disrupting passers-by for money, similar to the one in Amsterdam. So much beer, so much smoke pouring out onto the streets from cigarettes in cafés, huge carafs of wine. A grand conciliatory monument is surrounded by crosses and stars of David.
At night I realize that I have left my credit card in a pay phone by Zoo. Station. Sylvie makes it clear that the dishonest cab driver took us for a very long ride (miles when it was only a few blocks). She believes that I can walk the distance easily; I don’t need another cab.
Running through the night alone, rehearsing and repeating her instructions urgently in my mind, I pass night strips with people lying drunk, a massive unknown partying culture all around me. I ask instructions from a lady at a street café. As I am walking from that relative safety in the dark, two fascist youth run down the street; one kicks a bottle into a street sign, smashing it; they are carrying, Waving a gigantic Nazi flag, they are dressed in Nazi shirts.
I find it simultaneously terrifying and ludicrous. This is 1993, so it is ludicrous, but I fear what archetypally lurks under the surface here, what once happened on these streets, to Jews like my ancestors, something so weird and horrible it was like an invasion from outer space or the invocation of a demon force from under the Earth. This was no ordinary genocide; this was an act of ritual black magic. Some American Jews won’t set foot in Germany, ever.
I find the phone by the station. The card is gone, but I have had a transforming adventure, so I feel elated as I race back.
Market in rain, chaos and piles of vegetables, umbrellas, all the booths around a Renaissance church. Mostly old farmers. Some health food. Lindy and I lose each other as we wander in circles.
We take a bus through the city, wiping mist off the window in order to see the landscape, into the Tiergarden. We get off at the cultural hall, walk an AIDS exhibit, ride back on bus 100, switch to the 149. Kantstrasse to Savigny Plaza. Dark streets. Church bells. After a pleasant dinner, we are looking for and finally settle for a mango lassi at a Buddha Restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
I dream of antique shops, lots of buses everywhere, old empires falling across high-school history books.
Rain. Cold. We stand outside the Kant Café waiting for a bus. The Zoo. Station is crowded, smoky. We get a map, take the 100. The windows are cloudy again, German reflections everywhere. We get off at the Reich Museum, walk through meticulous history exhibits. An old sequence of once-memorized histories and exams comes flooding back—Napoleon, the revolution of 1830, of 1848, World War I, Bismarck, Hitler, Adenauer.
We go to the vast Berlin cathedral, its stained glass in the dome, and sit in the loge. There is fine sculpture all the way around, a combination of vastness and detail. Pergamon’s statues show battles of gods old and new, Athena and Zeus rising among Titans, tearing giants away from Gaia and the prior order of the heavens. The precision of expression and muscular features make the figures human and transcendent both.
A Babylonian temple has been reconstructed here, brick by brick. We follow its lions to a view of the entrance. Then we wander past Islamic rugs, pots, parchments, until we are suffused in an exhausted museum blur of rich purples and Iranian yellow-golds. Into the bus, borscht downtown by Zoo. Schulte to Goethe.
I dream that I am reconstructing Charles Olson the poet from albumin. Olson is also sitting at a table, wanting to meet some man. It is unclear how I am doing it, but I try again and lose him. There is less and less of him, and what there is has stuck together in clumps. Yet it always finds a shape and tries to make itself over even when part of its substance is lost. He seems cheery but potentially outraged that I can’t get him right. I am awakened in Berlin by the phone.
The Berlin zoo (not the train station) features a variety of pigeons with feathered toes, pacing rhinos, swaying hippos with occasionally huge yawns, winged bats crawling in the earth, little mice running wildly about their nocturnal food, small, red burrowing pandas like medleys of cat-panda-dog creatures, kids on swings, kids with orange popsicles waiting on line. They are all generic zoo. Other children are shouting up at the faces of giraffes, giggling at hippos, totally into their orange ice.
In the hour-long queue at the station, we are between an American woman from Tampa and a black lady from Kenya, a gregarious Canadian male in front of her. We are to take line 1 to line 4 to Victoria-Louise Platz. It takes one local traveler and four U-bahn cops to get it figured out and find our way there.
Ilse Middendorf’s breathwork institute is an elegant coven of wood-enclosed rooms with a hatchway into the old castle also situated there, fine craftsmanship everywhere, a fountain in the center flanked by two girls with their sleeping bags. The ceilings are full paintings. Everything is old-world—poofy, giddy, pompos, also plush and empresslike. Ilse is a woman who, with her husband and all her colleagues fleeing the nation, had to survive the whole Nazi era and get reborn.
In setting up this meeting, Lindy suggested tea, and Ilse is taking her literally, so the tour of the house ends upstairs in her apartment with pre-prepared tea and cookies.
Later, during her class, she has us create our internal jellyfish of breathing. For each of us, this awakens an intrinsic self, beyond the courtyard of flowers and trees. Entering our ancient bodies is also in a courtyard. A jellyfish in a courtyard. A jellyfish mind breathing a jellyfish imago.
After the class Ilse takes us to lunch at the Kopenhagen. We are served thick, juicy white asparagus like meat. Vanilla sauce covers apple pie. In keeping with her grand-dame presentation, she summons the matre d’ for champagne. Post-war Berlin.
Smoke indoors in Europe is totally out of control. Talk about a paradigm shift yet to happen.
On the way back, 149 down Kantstrasse, 100 from Zoo., or we could take U-bahn 1 to U-bahn 4. Large crows keep company with a strange black and white bird. The phrase “of course” is casually mixed into otherwise totally German conversations.
On the train out of Berlin, giant buildings and monumental architecture give way to ruins and patches of countryside, as we move fully into the Eastern Bloc. The aging by centuries is far more evident here—decay of stone and an abiding sense of abandonment. The outsides of different buildings are, respectively, worn down to different random layers such that every variation of coloring, texture, and erosion is evident as if we were among desert mesa. Some buildings are broken off like crags. Others look as though they were once monumental, now little more than dead volcanoes. Single churches stand out like rare anomalies, embellishments.
From afar Dresden looks like something beyond nineteenth-century New York, a dream in some subterranean kingdom of ghosts. Forests and countryside follow. A river. Farms. Little clumps of small, occupied sheds wound in among gardens, as though we have entered Hobbitland. Eventually it becomes wilder, and the train goes up and down hills. Then more towns, a kind of industrial decay stretching in all directions that would have been unimaginable without seeing its scope firsthand. Enormous structures and even whole streets seem in disuse. Inhabited apartment buildings subtend uninhabited complexes. An occasional decorated turret.
We pass through three consecutive tunnels—one very long, one shorter, and one very short—to enter the Czech Republic. Decin. It becomes clear that it is Czech at first only from switch in orthography and personnel. We hear a flatter Slavic voice, like a church intonation by comparison with heraldic German. The ride becomes bumpier. On the way out of Berlin we felt as though we were gliding through air in a sleek bubble. Now we are rattling through a history of railroads. People out the window look different, dressed more in working gear, as though from a prior century. This is also how I once imagined Russia when I was a teenager during the Cold War, but it is fully elaborated now, people working in fields like paintings of peasants in their distinctive clothes amidst their tied bundles of grasses. After the vacated housing, the industrial ruins are even more dramatic.
In Aussig flocks of birds fly from rows of buildings to other rows, scavengers of abandonment. It looks as though no one lives here, as though these are the relics of Earth itself. Later it becomes more rural again, and the track follows a river, suddenly more and more well-kept small gardens surrounding towns. The fields become more open. Dams along the river. Highways filled with vehicles, tracks for other trains. Boats that say “Praha” on them. Bridges. It is not unlike California in stretches.
Prague appears suddenly, low and open, and we are in it. Then we are rolling through the city into the station. Our host meets us in a car, speaks studied English in a way that makes it clear he is at capacity, drives us to a quiet neighborhood by a large rolling park, appending well-rehearsed stories of disgraced party officials who lived or still live here or shot themselves with their Russian guns.
The sense of Eastern European difference comes out as we walking. It is so incredible just to be here, to have gotten ourselves to Prague, that nothing else matters, nothing can mar it, nothing can make a moment anything other than fascinating. It doesn’t matter what we see; it is Czech. This is not an event, a pattern of events, or a landscape but a feeling that imbues us from all three-hundred-sixty degrees of an imaginary multidimensional circle going back into the Middle Ages. It is total “beginner’s mind.” We are here, inside a history book, inside any imagination or projection of the same thing or any part of it.
We pass stately stone houses followed immediately by abandoned and crumbling ones. There are so many trees that individual homes seem like castles or manors. We wind down to a rather sterile, nondescript mercantile street, looking for lunch. The situation soon resembles an American Midwestern mall. We pick a tiny Chinese restaurant. A series of confusions ensues after the meal regarding our new Czech dollars and the exchange rate, but we emerge unscathed with the cashier laughing.
We walk up the giant staircase back to the house in fascinated silence. This is Czech; everything is Czech. A small but fat mole crosses our path a little up ahead with no gait, as though on wheels. An equally fat, furry, dark moth lands on the curtains in the living room of our domicile.
The proprietor has provided a refrigerator of soft drinks and alcoholic beverages with prices indicated on each one. A dog next door—it must be gigantic—won’t ever stop barking. A British and Czech rock station is blasting in the teenage boy’s room—pan-European youth culture.
In a dream I am taking a younger version of our son Robin and his friend to a stadium, perhaps baseball, but the game as well as the edifice is disintegrating before my eyes. I cannot distinguish between Robin’s own vanishing childhood and mine beyond it. I know in the dream, as in life, that the raising of these kids is over. We must move into a new life. Miranda has painted lips like a doll. She shows us a secret passage down under our house. It was always there, barely visible, made of holes in things and their reflections. There is a complete neighborhood down here. She says that this is the way she almost escaped once and that she always visits it when we don’t know. Now that she is grown up, she is finally showing it to me. It is a house filled with dwellers, but they are scattered everywhere within like pedestrians on streets. In fact, it is many houses, many times and places I have lived, not together as a merger but simultaneously coexisting in different planes.
The only way to eat here where the dream has taken me is to order a meal by phone. I have the sense that everything is out of place, but I am waiting on line at a cafeteria anyway. I am served some marginal dish, like a big warm inedible ball, but I have somehow already eaten it. Time is now totally disjunctive, and Miranda either hasn’t been born or is hidden in some other complication. I feel I must let her go and seek no further intimacy with this child. We have vanished down the rabbit-hole, and everyone wants to order food from a different restaurant, all of which are inside the disintegrating stadium that Robin and I were approaching. Someone makes a joke that is not really a joke about how if there’s no tip, we can only order a particular brand of whiskey named Harry something. Lindy’s friend Joshua phones her to say that the heart surgeon taught him to change himself. It was all false bravery anyway. Somewhere out of this labyrinth pours my first Czech morning.
June 16 (Prague)
The tram into the downtown passes statues of Kepler and Brahe, reminding me that this is an old Rosicrucian city, a city of alchemists, the city of Kafka, long before Russians with their tanks and Kafkaesque bureaucracies took the roost. Once we get into city center, the streets are as crowded as New York, though it still all has a mediaeval-fair quality interspersed with the modern workday. Boats coursing along the river, the bridges seem less quaint and more industrial as we approach them.
Our first meeting is with a woman at a cinema book office. In order to get to her office, we pass through a restaurant, like visiting a press club in New York in the ‘50s. She lectures us about the difficulty, post-revolution, of doing any sort of a publishing business, especially internationally.
Once the meeting is done, we walk, just walk, which is amazing in a strange city in a strange country. Each street corner is a hieroglyphic table or biblical incantation of numbers, covering the faces of whole buildings—names of streets indistinct from names of districts, sometimes one lacking, sometimes the other. In the square off Narodni, a Bolivian Indian band has ornamented the air with the sounds of flutes, drums, pipes, and guitars. As if to drown them out and to declare Slavic superiority, a group of mostly males in Czech folk costumes are running a competing sound system, blasting their own native music down the street, so that it sounds like an old beer hall. Through this confluence of sounds, crowds pass with urgency. The reborn Czech Republic is a new world culture, meshed in a welter of labyrinths of history, debris, vehicles crawling and then zipping, Renaissance streets entering one another at rakish angles, excavating ancient circles and squares. Things are in noisy disarray, and the frequency of Starbucks suggest American capitalism, having hit the frontier in Montana and Washington State, and inside Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas, has found another venue, a whole new frontier in Eastern Europe.
Our next appointment is with an American reporter for the Prague Post, Doug Lytle. To get to his office we enter an old industrial building housing, on its ground floor, the “Communist Party of Moravia and Bohemia.” Outside the office a man holding the hand of a young child is delivering a speech to five or six people. The smell of the indoors evokes industrial Eastern Europe, not pungent per se, but rich and musty; not invasively dirty, but so old as to be beyond soot. Towering hallways lead nowhere, if not to dungeonlike basements. A hollow emptiness declares: “Beyond the revolution, what? Think again!”
This office building suits Bohemia with its mysterious crypts, offices within other offices within still other offices, like broken-off strips of old movies run for a moment, then the plug pulled. In another sense, all of Europe seems like a burgeoning youth culture in the gaze of aged figures staring down near invisibly out of World War II and probably even the Thirty Years War. Soldiers in the street are bare reminders of recent Soviet presence, but they serve Havel, not Stalin.
Another level seems to be the pure unimpeted commerce of bakeries, groceries, miscellaneous shops, and street merchants. With everything hiding something else, tucked around a corner, the city seems is up of facades and doors, keys and their chambers. Prague is more hermetic and less dramatic and ponderous than Berlin. The background here is moving so slowly that it seems as though everything may yet take forever to happen.
At a restaurant with Doug, there is little choice—meat, an old unconscious steak slab. He talks about the book he might write. He even has a title: Pink Tanks and Velvet Revolutions. It seems promising. He leaves us with a rough draft of three chapters.
I do my t’ai-chi and hsing-i sets in the park across the street from our quarters. Practicing them makes my being here real and more normal. I am as unlikely as any Bolivian Indian or Starbucks executive, on the heels of a millennial winter from which the snow has melted only in the most visible and superficial way. I am a pretentious American spiritual wannabe too.
We take the tram back downtown at night. It is clanky and wet. Sparks fly up from its transit along the cobble. Deep, hard metal wheels dig into Old World tracks. It is a real Bohemian iron horse, a golem machine climbing out of the city of lights, past the Castle, along the boulevard. A light rain continues to fall, but people in the streets seem happy.
The world is dark beyond the buildings, and we have no reference points for where we are, but the adventure is satisfying, especially the interesting ding-dong of the tram—very melodic, as though it ran over an old doll each time and got the same dying sound. It makes everything both special and cared for.
At dawn the rain pelts like sleet on the roof. By the time we come downstairs for breakfast, the sky is a pale phosphor of blue. Czech birds sing in all directions, as they have always done, even during the decades of the Eastern Bloc.
We take the tram downtown and eat upstairs in a café. The prices are ridiculously low. Asparagus in sauce followed by apple cake.
We get another lecture on the difficulty of post-revolutionary publishing. Publishing official Juri explains the after-effects of nationalization—the nonmarket-based price-fixing of paper and labor. The State support is gone. He has no money to buy any titles from us.
Using our map as guide, we cut through numerous streets toward the Old Town Square which emerges as a wheel along its separate spokes. We pass yellowed buildings, every one of them ornate, carvings covering them as if by law, the artistry designed over itself twice and three times, porticos switchbacking across the roofs. This is fine work conducted monument by monument by an anonymous artisan with a knife and spackle. Small alleys that seem to go nowhere slither between buildings, gaping holes in their sides through which boilers, pipes, and dirt floors can be seen. Dusty musty smells blend with more exotic, sweeter fumes.
This city was built brick by brick, a fractal industry which we can still see. Small castles, plazas, plazas within plazas, buildings within buildings are all wound around some esoteric Praha topology. Alleys go right through buildings like tunnels, continually winding in all directions. Paint and gold leaf adorn even the outdoors, as though buildings require them. Caryatids are set into buildings like little theaters, mermaids on their corners. Statues of figures hide in angles and crevices; many have hollows in which other statues rest. Stone faces stare out from these mélanges across history, some of the images faint and worn to fossils, others renwed in bright red, gold. Windows are highlighted in boxes of color. Decorations curl around their corners following stones. It is baroque and art nouveau at the same time. Massive church doors lead into intricately carved porticos, giant chandeliers. A sense of vastness opens out into cosmic space, everything at enormous scale.
On the walls of the Jewish Museum and Synagogue are inscribed the names of families. Outside in the cemetery, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tombstones are planted in all directions, irregularly cut and eroded, set in the ground among overgrown trees at every angle. For their roughness and irregularity, these monuments suggest a kind of Neolithic shrine. Yet they are here in a courtyard on an ordinary city street, and they mark a very recent history, though one which the elements have elided. In most cases the Hebrew letters are worn partially or wholly away. On a few, moss has traced the disappearing characters. Those that have eroded entirely have become depersonalized graves, mute cairns, markers of humanity itself.
The erosion that makes up all reality is utterly visible here—both a disarray and an absolute truth, as sacred letters loam into soil and then weeds and flowers, feeding the roots of trees. Everywhere we walk, stones jut and crowd in a variety of directions, a dragon’s mis-sown teeth, poignant reminders of a Hebrew community here once, remainders too of the anonymity of the ages and epochs to one another, the sheer transitory archaeology and architecture of life on Earth.
Nothing is more private and intimate than our burial of the dead, from which the earliest hominids left their main surviving calling cards.
As a whole, the cemetery is a field in a process of becoming an urban meadow or tiny forest. In fact, its towering branches in the wind beneath the clouds are the only trees in this part of Prague; they form a leafy canopy far overhead. Most dramatically, the crows scream and rush in commotions from branch to branch of the highest trees, giant black teratologies, flapping their wings effortlessly, almost as an afterthought as they glide through Old Earth’s old sky, their jangle of voices representing the vestigial dialects of dwarfs and other human shadows and familiars here in Kafkaland. They are the appropriate alter ego to this funereal shambles in stone.
We work our way along the street past old bookshops (buying a collection of Czech fairytales with exotic illustrations for the equivalent of a dollar), past cafés and stores, redecorated buildings, the University district populated by universal students in their familiar cloisters. We reach the Old Town Square.
While a Christian group sings in choir, people and birds climb over the statue of Hus rising from its own black morass. Everywhere you look are more painted and carved balconies and great clocks. Buildings are draped in delicate pastel colors like stagesets. Pedestrians and flea-market merchants crowd the Square. Statues stand atop buildings like figures from decks of cards. Gold leaf shines from towers as the sun picks up their glints.
The clock of all clocks on the Earth—the Prague astrological clock—has been constructed high on a church tower, its astrology of overlapping circles and seasons, signs and quadrants and saints, impresses the Square with an image of the inner, esoteric transit of this planet and its peoples through the Solar System—and reminds us that time is absolute, so the gears of the past operate now too, while the continuously running wheels of the original zodiac still track the daily activity of the world, even if the present be oblivious to it. The millennial science running this system seems quite real to me here and as though it is really happening and not just a postcard (of which there are plenty available from all angles and in different vintages and seasons) as I lay back and watch clouds swirl by the four-sided turrets, a swift cumulus briggage after the storm. I close my eyes and reopen them to an upside-down Hus against the radiant sky, Slavic voices echoing to the horizon, a cacophony against the harmony of the still-singing choir.
We work our way through needle-narrow streets and celestial architectures to the bridge over the Charles River. Statues line the trestle; these figures also house figures inside them. The intersection of the Bridge with the river makes for a carnival atmosphere: Austrian dancers, guitarists, painters of scenery, portrait artists, salesmen of Chinese puzzles, accordion players, puppeteers, jugglers, hustlers of tickets. The landscape is almost a painting, with swans and the Castle in the distance, a waterwheel on the side. But the statues really stand out, like mummies, like golems, like two-dimensional historical illustrations taking on a third dimension, as time continues to throw back the present against eternity.
The religious wars that were fought here over three hundred years ago are now shadows fainter than those cast by trees on water.
We continue into the Mala Strame District, marked by torn-up streets and the discoloring of stone into every imaginable shade and stain of brown and tan, also yellow and gray. In the beer hall where we settle, accordion, sax, and trumpet join to produce a lively sound. People are standing in motley rows, holding gigantic glasses of dark brew. The ceiling has the suggestion of a cave. A clatter of East German men come in, rowdily assembling a parley of their own chairs, talking their historically suspicious language and drawing local stares. We order dumplings and carp.
On the tram back, a monk sits directly across from us. Our eyes meet.
From the top of the clock tower one can see how massive the architecture below is, embroidered with shops, crossed by spans, how carefully cut into winding streets and squares, the alleys’ bare slits gently dissecting buildings. In some places the urban architecture has referenced itself so narrowly that to get up a series of steps through stone, one is wound tighter and tighter into a spiral.
The whole great circle extends like a mandala in all directions. Because of the angles of streets and the buildings set at so many angles, districts radiate out to make pie wedges; courtyards form with towers, churches, turrets, and their statues and windows rising up out of them, crosses in gold recalling the Mediaeval city. Birds flutter among different heights of irregular roofs, bound to their own primordial geography despite the geometries. The scale is what is enormous, not the individual structures—the massiveness, whether of buildings or facades, delicately inlaid to produce a collective effect. The spots of gold shine. The windows form ornate strips, suggesting a city seen after a long journey across outer space to another planet, umbrellas marking intelligence in their bright cellular, repetitive patterns.
When we arrive in the Old Town this time, we find Pragma (a clue to inner Prague entrusted to us by an associate in Berkeley). In keeping with the hermetic theme, we are invited by the proprietor of the occult establishment to a meeting of a Bohemian dissident order Sunday night. Then we visit with Robert, a local esoteric publisher, at the corner of Vezenta in a café. He routinely stops pedestrian traffic to chat with friends, e.g. two women from Bratislava. At one time he was a cook for military inspectors in Siberia. Now he is the host for holotropic breathing seminars and an impresario of New Age music festivals throughout Eastern Europe. As we order a meal, he proclaims grandly, “On me. I’m sure well do business together, but it will take time.”
Over the next half hour he performs a number of speeches from which I scribbled these notes: “New Age publishing is expensive. The audience for even popular American titles is small. Then no matter what you sell—if you sell suspenders—the distributors vanish with the money. Everyone takes advantage. You’re better off these days importing Frisbees. I say ‘suspenders’ because I sold them once in Berkeley. I lived in Rockridge. Who knows what’ll make money? Remember Rajneesh. He talked about his limousines. Then they jumped on that and deported him. I used to sell shirts that said, “American Embassy; Moscow, Russia.” Those went to the tourists. We need tourism, but I’d like to keep them out of the other side of the Old Square. Have to have something Czech. It can’t all be Copymat and Starbucks. The Americans won’t leave any businesses for the Czechs. They’ve been doing it too long. We’re just learning. The next thing you know, someone’s beaten you to it.”
Back at our place I read USA Today and am astonished and shocked to see that Drazen Petrovic, shooting guard on my team, the New Jersey Nets, was killed a week ago on the same rainy day we arrived in Berlin, in the same rain, his girlfriend driving, skidding across lanes on the Autobahn. I don’t know how to grieve or even what to feel. Of course, I didn’t know him. I’m not sure I even like him. He was going to leave the team anyway, and he died a Net despite himself. Yet he was a real person; this was a real heavy-duty car crash and not a game. In my mind as well as my heart a shout of silence keeps growing in silence until it engulfs me and I am drowned in everything I can’t feel…can never feel.
We go back downtown on the tram after lunch. The goal is to attend some sort of theater here, so we locate the opera house. The ticket window is closed, but an old peasant woman, scraggly, a beggar in appearance, dragoons us and will not let us pass. She keeps repeating the few English words she knows: “Bartered Bride, wonderful; wonderful performance, Czech opera, sold out.” She wants 200 crowns, and we gamble on it. I hand her the coins; she doles out a single ticket, or maybe they are stuck together.
“Do these come together or separately?” I call out.
“Yes,” she says, and then repeats it: “Yes. Havel, good president.”
We go down the slope to the water where we feed our leftover stale Dutch rice cakes to the swans and ducks. A group of children watches us intently. The fare is most exciting to the swans who so tussle over it that pieces of the cakes come flying back out of the pond and have to be returned to the water. As crumbs land in the bower of feathers trailing one elegant bird, others fight over them, arousing the carrier, and they all begin attacking and fighting back, squawking, while Lindy shouts at them to treat each other better. But this is nature. Fat chance.
Thrashy rock ‘n’ roll forms a background to everything.
After dinner we hike back to the Narodni Divaldo Theater. The seats are about as bad as imaginable, clear at the back, close to the ceiling, with many empty rows in front of us. The woman could not have tried to get us worse seats—but at least they were real tickets. Great chandeliers dot the landscape, painting on the walls. The Slavic sound of the chorus is interesting for a while, but the event on the whole is tedious and out of context or century for us. At night we ride the tram back, sleepy and safe in its melodic rusty gongs.
Sour cherry-carrot jelly for breakfast. The subway is a sci-fi hive, the station’s depths accessed by a very long escalator. Its Soviet-era décor is different colors of bubbles making up the walls. The trains have their sonic melody.
The Castle, its giant spire surrounded by a moat, holds brightly repainted murals covering ceiling and floors, flying figures marking the defeat of the Turks, everything on the epic scale of the opera house. The blue is particularly intense, the Turks miserable in chains. TU ES PETRUS ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM.
GRATIA DEI SUM ID QUOD SUM ET GRATIA EJUS IN ME VACUA FUIT. The Latin of my childhood.
The cherry tree outside is open to picking and climbing, and children do both.
Our diet is definitely deterioriating here—sausage, steak, beer, dumplings. I am so thirsty that I consume two bottles of mineral water.
We hurry to the theater for the Havel play. Earphones are handed out, but the English is not in synch, and the play is almost too belabored to watch. Better to listen to the sounds and laughter in straight Czech. The issue at stake has something to do with a play on the world “liquidate,” as in “to liquidate the Department of Liquidation.”
Being here is what matters. Being in the world, at an event, on a particular day. Things don’t have to be meaningful in any other terms, or even in English. It is all one sort of story or another that a girl or someone else is telling. Even at Yankee Stadium in my youth.
Whipped cream on pancakes and fruit for breakfast. Dumplings with sugared plums inside them, covered with more whipped cream in a sea of butter for lunch. This is oversweet fairy food. But fairies can live on such fare without getting sick.
The old fort’s triangular gun booths tower over the tennis court. Scale is key again—huge vistas, indoors and out. Pigeons drifting above rooftops, a giant cathedral sits in a cloak of rain.
The John Lennon Wall is covered with a brilliance of paint and slogans from all times and places: global languages, curse words, slogans for peace, lyrics of songs all atop one another, even in English. Jim Morrison and the Doors make a highly intrusive guest appearance.
Searching for the meeting of the Czech dissident society, we take a sequence of trams back in to Regularis Prajensis. Up Hladlow Street. The address leads us to a building with an old library where men are gathering. They begin talking, some of it in English for not only our benefit but that of a bunch of American entrepreneurs who have set themselves somewhat arrogantly in this mix; they live here now and are too know-it-all for the amount of real pain involved in getting to the Czech’s land and the deep textures of many refugees’ pasts, now recounting how many times they came and went from this country, left it for twenty years or more, hoping against hope that they would get it back someday from the Soviets, and then returned to this, and their new callow and capitalist American friends. Now that regime is gone, and they have a totally fresh start— but they have aged; the primes of their lives are gone. And now they have to deal with these Yankee assholes with their born-yesterday pitches.
One young stringbean American is pleased as punch at his achievements in bringing mucho business to the Czech Republic. His speech is a rattle of Microsoft, telecommunications, mixed with a faux political radicalism which is almost a reversal of left and right so that it is impossible to know who stands for what anymore or who is still looking for an Idiot King (see Utz). The world has been broken off here to start over; Utz is smuggling in china, engaged with the rest of the outcasts and dadaists in fighting the regime by making it meaningless. Now at the bar where the honorable Charter 77 once met, beers are served, the group grows, the number of young eager young Americans too. Later some Czech women arrive with large dogs, and it becomes quite a melee. General fellowship expands, regular clinkings of glasses, the language reverting almost entirely to Czech so that we hardly know what we are toasting now, the waitress almost too gregarious, the clouds of smoke rising.
These Czech magi are not involved in alchemy. These Czech radicals are not involved in politics. One of their members is actually now president of the country; imagine that! Alchemy has become more a disguise, enveloping item within item, even as Utz did, parts of lives concealed in parts of other incomplete lives, destinies long ago fragmented beyond simple recover by Communism and its aliases.
They are expatriates, all literally, except maybe the ones who stayed through the whole regime. They have no great belief in Havel either now. Everything in the universe is up grabs, and everything is still the same, as they let the Americans in without a murmur, from some bottomless grace or generosity we can’t know. The discussion is one of nuclear plants versus coal, the soot so thick in winter (someone says) that one can’t see across the street, the countryside drawing in the depopulated villages of old Bohemia.
No one leaves when the restaurant closes, freedom now so succulent it is reveled in till dawn, although I, as outsider, am only guessing what anyone feels, the guitar players strumming away in the kitchen after the diners have left except for our party.
Different frames of reference are voiced, sometimes in English—on mad wives, pollution and more pollution, money and more money, smoking, life and death. The men smoke quite deeply and with great enjoyment, fully cultivated, stylized breaths of herb. It is hard to object to them on present grounds.
A young American traveler sitting next to me, Richard Harris, has just returned from deeper into Eastern Europe, the new frontier, the present rad tourist gauntlet. He reports the words of a money-changer in Romania who told him, “You know we are now post-revolutionary, and I am sure you have heard of the black market.”
All of Eastern Europe is post-revolutionary, and an odd, semi-legal restitution of land and goods has reversed confiscation, so that slowly public, communalized property is being privatized all over again, legally, illegally, and metaphorically. Musicians become landowners and rent out to corporations. The universe to which Communism only pretended to be able to hold a paradigm or compass is turning upside-down. The line between who is friend and who is foe is totally unclear, post-Munich, post-Yalta. But the fetid despair beneath breeds a whole other emptiness that does not need and cannot use an idiot king.
A man offers to drive us from this distant point outside town to our place of boarding, so we traverse the highways beyond Prague and magically arrive at our coven. A surge of relief.
That night I dream of all my half-brothers, step-brothers, and half-sister coming to me coming to ask me for help. They have different parents than me; yet I must somehow take on this responsibility.
The secret of travel is that it also opens all sorts of lives within one’s life. The sense of possibility throws the entire internal dialogue into a different perspective that is in fact a cover for a deeper thing that keeps emerging and emerging from the experience of being en route. “I looked!” was Victor’s answer to Richard Harris’ question of what he did in Indonesia. “I looked.”
That’s what we do here, look—the patterns of bricks inlaid into Prague’s streets, the different-colored stones, gray and white, set into dirt to create the illusion of sidewalk. As one walks along, that fills the mind too.
For those who live here, there is no Castle.
The downtown is in total disorder, Czech music blasting cacophonously over the Bolivian band. The tourist presence has increased exponentially, hordes having just arrived with the solstice now cluttering the streets, American college kids in their fraternities and sororities. A 68-year-old Japanese professor of literature with whom we have a conversation is headed for Brno. He is very cultured and precise; unsolicited, he warns us out of any context that $222 a night for a room doesn’t mean “good.”
My journal notes here are inaccessible: “Mix-up over credit card. Cesta Hospoda—Robert. Milan morose, impossible, like secret agent. Jirpova? Utz = carp = to crap on—secret kept from the regime by the author.”
In the restaurant a fat, pompous Englishman at the next table, sitting with two American boys, lectures with authority about the killing of the bulls at the fights in Spain (“a knife on the spinal cord if the matador fails”). The food takes an hour and fifteen minutes to arrive, the familiar medley of asparagus, duck, and potato pancakes. Those two dangerous-seeming guys almost assaulting us at the door could be Greek, Sardinian, or Maltese; they are transnational thugs. In the tram, lovers quarrel. The boy gets off at Mala Stranka, then chases the vehicle and reboards at the next stop. A Czech uncle points out the sights to his exuberant American nephew. The melodic cry of the driver has become a tramsong: “Malonka, Beloeder….”
After some confusion at the station we finally get to Staro Mestha and then Mala Stranka. It is raining, and we have no umbrella as we work our way through crowds on the street.
In my dream I wear a bear suit to appear a bear, but it is a more serious undertaking that that, and there may also be a real bear somewhere lurking. There is a commotion in the trees, a concourse of squirrels, pigeons, sparrows, and smaller rodents. It appears that one of them will be caught, and life on Earth will begin. If the bear recognizes me as a bear, I must find a way to live.
On the tram this morning the Czech language joins the bells in a song. Because when you don’t listen to a thing’s meaning, you can listen to its sound.
Drinopol Sturikaska Murianka
Marianka Shastipaka Malovanka
Piseminctvi (Spires in Mist)
Bushnitza Shistiapaska Brusiyak
Krishniup (Bells ringing)
Shistiapaska Prazsky Hrad
Shistiapaska Mala Stranska (long curve)
Malostranska (sun at crisscross angles)
Shistikaspa (wall) (tunnel)
Beriokava Shistiapaska Munoz
Muyest Shisyyekvoska Muvriov
Narodni Divaldo gardens (hill) (bridge) (statue)
Shistiapaska Narodni Trida (inlet) (island)
Narodni trida (metrocity) (small dam) (boat)(s)
At the subway a Hungarian man is asking directions in his non-Slavic, non-Germanic, non-Latin tongue of the old north. He keeps patting people on the back, me included, hoping to elicit literacy in this old Eastern Bloc dialect. But no one speaks Hungarian. “Malostranka?” he asks.
“Ya, ya,” someone tells him.
A near collision between a police car and our tram.
Amazing gargoyles fly out from the corner of the cathedral, a 1344 Gothic masterpiece. Thousands of small churches are hidden within the larger one, underneath its scale. Inside its space the fine work of miniaturist gargoylists gives a spider’s web appearance. The icon of Jesus on the Cross has a Tibetan quality. As in Holland, monsters imbue a vision of holy war. In sheer luminescence of stained glass, a whole occult iconography pours forth like a movie fixed in time. Blues, yellows, and oranges create this spectrum. Subtle variations of the light, moment to moment, are its motion through time.
We feed our leftover bread to a single pigeon pecking at blacktop.
It was all real once. The rifles and bayonets are certainly real.
We have been in Prague so long that getting back to the West has an unreal feeling to it. As we head to the station to escape this city, it seems as though crossing the former Iron Curtain with our passports and German tickets will be a challenge. The startling overcharge by our host, a former Communist official, leaves the sense of having had to pay off the Party to cross into the West.
The train station is packed with merchants and booths, like a street fair. People are coming and going from every nationality, it seems. We help an Indian family with their phone card, and then they give it to us. It turns out to have only about fifteen seconds left, but hearing our daughter’s voice for that length is magical.
Pigeons are the most ubiquitous denizens, even indoors.
Our railroad car is almost empty as the city sweeps by beyond. A girl from Rotterdam joins us to chat through the early evening. Industrial landscape turns to forest; momentum increases. Single cities wink past, ponds reflecting in the barely luminous tourmaline of sunset.
Plzen. Across the pure Eastern Bloc night. Lights in the ungaugable distance, as remote historically as stars. We sleep on a bumpy carpet of steel. A rap at our door, border check for our passport at Chil. Innocent enough, it still feels like a World War II memoir.
Dawn reveals fields, soft as refraction in glass, light pastels like those of childhood. Farmland stretches to all horizons. Then a train going the other way covers it with pink blur. Exotic Picassolike graffiti float by. One could live many different lives in this one body-mind.
June 23 (Munich)
Arriving not long after dawn, we tote our bags down the long platform and then wait in the station. The hours go by, as we wait for the day here to begin, our hosts to pick us up. A drunk hovers and snarls German at us. Lindy stamps at him, “Go away!” He stamps back even bigger, a mixture of outrage and triumph.
I peak outside the station to see if maybe Paul and Carolyn are on the street, also to observe what the world outside the station looks like. Almost immediately a policeman asks for my passport. I thought I looked pretty normal, an American, but now I remember I am a Jew, a potential Palestinian, in old Munich.
The life is the life and rooted in something deeper than what is on the surface. One could go on doing thing after thing like this, and it would hold together the way ordinary dailiness does, and as long as nothing stopped you, it wouldn’t matter where you went, as long as you could get there and eat a meal every so often; it wouldn’t matter what was left behind.
Paul and Carolyn show up at the announced time, wonderfully cheerful, anticipating our tour of Munich. He is a young man from Shanghai, the most recent in a lineage of Taoist masters (his father still runs a t’ai chi school back home). He has come to Munich like a missionary to teach t’ai qi and qi gun, and, astonishingly, ballroom dancing at the University of Munich, a form he has learned only since being in the West. More recently he has expanded his repertoire into wheelchair dancing and, from his mastery of chi, become a champion—winning first prize recently with his partner in Holland at the International Wheelchair Dancing competition.
Although I met Paul only a few weeks ago in Berkeley, he offered us a place to stay in Munich regardless of our unlikelihood of publishing him in North America. Now, it turns out, his generosity is even greater, for he and Carolyn are putting us in their own tiny apartment while they move a few blocks to his studio. We protest that we can sleep on the couch, but they will have none of it.
The sound of the German language is not alienating, in fact is integrating because it makes people into people, removes gibberish from what we hear. Still I cannot get over a sense that German itself is dangerous, unfriendly.
At Rosenheimerplatz we have a breakfast with pastries.
After taking turns using the bathtub, we fall asleep almost immediately in their bedroom. I dream of getting out of a tub and trying to navigate a road, entangled in some central difficulty that is inside me, blinded by the light as well. Still I continue to drive toward it, even though I can’t see, even though I realize I have taken someone else’s car, even though this is a strange country, even though I seem to be before rather than during or after life. The physical difficulty of the drive into the light seems to want to merge with the central difficulty that is inside me.
After our naps we go back out. Passing a tourist office, we succeed in trading off our remaining Czech crowns for German marks: tourists going the other direction. They are not negotiable otherwise. As we navigate the street, louts along the side seem to gawk. I am unsure what signs we are giving off.
There seem only biergartens as options, smoke-pits of restaurants. Lindy would like to stop at one of them, but I prefer to continue to a more promising sector of town. Finally we carry our argument into a cafeteria. The food is horrible, and we barely touch what comes.
We make it to the vicinity of the museum and stop to eat again first. We find a Bavarian restaurant and have roasted meats, sausages grilled like hamburgers, strudel and whipped cream, this time combined (yuk) with a chocolate-sauce pancake.
The exhibition begins with the nineteenth-century German impressionists and goes from there through the early expressionists and pre-photo-reality realists, their paintings spilling over onto the frames. Rooms upon rooms are occupied by Kandinsky and his associates—the master’s colors, March’s animals, bright anthroposophical lights, complex objects and studies, followed by almost iconic meditations on objects, then mild, soft colors, as peculiar as their brighter forerunners.
What makes a painter special is not a particular skill at reproduction but that he or she makes a break with what perception came before and then just keeps pushing it and pushing it to see where it goes, what vistas it opens. Getting to see a whole chronology of one school reveals this archaeology of process. Quite different from the sense of iconography in Prague—we have reentered modernism.
Eyes and back hurt after too much staring in a museum. I try Feldenkrais exercises, moving my head, shoulders, and vision in different combinations of opposing orbits. These practices work much better in a room of colors and minute detail. It is healing, especially letting the eyes go blank afterward and having a fuzziness engulf my whole being and realign my neck.
A sign above the entrance ask you to “Imagine that everything is the opposite of what it is.”
My scribbled notes say: “Jawlensky. Franz Marc. August Mache. Gabriella Munter. Leibl. Louis Corinth/self with skeleton. Franz von Stuck/Salome.”
As we go for a walk, Paul gets to speak all three of his languages, Chinese to a couple who are lost, German to the transit official, and English to us.
Lindy and I wander through Munich’s early evening, feeling the mellowness of having returned to the West. However, our patience wears thin as again we cannot find a restaurant we agree on, so hike exhaustedly, doubling back over our path, avenue to street, square to square in the dark.
Finally we come upon Olympia Greek Restaurant, an establishment we instantly agree on. It is better even than that, for once we enter and the proprietor discovers that we speak neither Greek nor German, he summons us to the kitchen itself, a deed we hesitate to commit before we are sure that’s what he means. His wife is standing there amidst more than a dozen of pots on a burner, huge roasted meats in open ovens. He asks us to point out what we want. Lambs and porks, grilled to brown sizzle, give off sensuous aromas, even to semi-vegetarians. There are whole huge steel pots of combinations of white beans, cabbages, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, carrots, artichokes, some of them bubbling, some cooling. As we point, he writes down our selections, and moments later it comes out heaped onto plates. This turns out to be the best meal of the trip.
Sparrows dart from roofs to trees, every branch of every antenna, in waves, constantly stirring and moving one another like neurons, dense and wild, over Rosenheimerplatz.
The morning begins with Carolyn already back in her work space. She greets men on a scaffold hanging outside the apartment window.
We head out quickly to our meetings with the publishers Hugendubil and Heyne. A train gets us close; then we walk along upscale Goethestr. The tranquility is broken by a woman squealing outrage at a car that almost hits her, then running after it with a solid punch.
At Hugendubil, they convince us that they need none of our books. Only after, in exasperation we show an interest in their titles, do they gradually and surprisingly warm up to ours. Foreign rights are a tough game!
We rush back to the train, run through a plaza past an obelisk, and then sit in an office with our catalogue at Heyne, a giant of German publishing. This company is probably too big and corporate to take notice of our list, but we throw out a few ideas. Probably nothing will come of this either.
We visit Anglophile bookstores and pass out our catalogue. Lindy asks directions at the University of Munich and, charmed somehow by us, one woman walks us all the way to a café. Afterwards we end up on U-6 and Marienplatz. The busy square is flanked by church towers, while a strange machine operating cymbals makes an improbable racket. We walk through Im Tal, then over the river Isa, muddy and full. We pass bakeries, knife shops, knickknacks. Towers mark the edge of a mediaeval city.
In the afternoon Paul takes us on a walk to a nearby English garden. There we get to view the ducks, swans and geese involved in stratagems of advance and retreat in relation to those feeding them and the aroused dogs that owners cannot restrain. Little ducklings nustle in their mother who attends to the reeds. A woman throws bags full of food, causing a contention of wings. The sun goes in and out of clouds, making it alternately too cold and just warm enough to loll. Paul seems to enjoy repeating the word “fuzzy.”
We go back to the apartment and pick up Carolyn. They take us out driving, to show off Munich’s new suburbs. We are halted almost immediately by an incident involving Kurds and hostages. No matter how many ways Paul tries to enter this sector of town, we are redirected back out of its streets. It is all a jumble of buildings and lawns.
We are to meet Michael Goerden for dinner. He is the editor who purchased my books Planet Medicine and The Night Sky and got them translated and published in Germany, though both are now out of print and he is out of that particular job. He told me on the phone to stand in Rosenheimerplatz and look for a bearded man entering at ten on an imaginary clock. This leads to our considering every bearded man for twenty minutes until he arrived a bit late. By the time we head for his favorite Italian restaurant off Einstenstr., we have already placed him in a number of different sizes and age categories and quite varying demeanors and shapes. As it turns out, he is a little older than us and quite voluble, upbeat while talking about downbeat things. We hear about Mongolian shamans wiped out by the KGB and Communist Party. Then we hear about the confusion among German intellectuals about what to do after the fall of the GDR. Oer mussel-and-fish soup, we hear about the miserable state of German publishing. As pasta is served, we concur that this is a moment of change in the world during which the meanings of systems themselves are shifting.
Back at the apartment, the word “change,” as spoken by Michael in his elegant English, enters my dream. The “change” follows instructions at the museum and speaks of becoming its opposite at the same moment that it tells me it is so profound that it comes before language itself. Baseball images illuminate and repeat sterilely before evaporating altogether. Coming up out of the dream is tantamount to losing everything because language in my own mind dissipates through the point it was making. The meaning is the change itself, the thickness of being in its space and contacting it, the sense that its “opposite” is right there—and this is somehow more real than anything yet has been.
We hike to the medical bookstore at Bitton Habben 20 that has been a North Atlantic customer for years. A long-familiar address becomes a shop on a street in a city. Authentically happy to see us, they are interested in purchasing more books but also in getting better terms. Here, contact does make a difference.
Lindy and I had talked of seeing Dachau and wondering how to get there on the train. However, when we return to the apartment, Paul and Carolyn announce that they have always wanted to go there too and, guess what?, they will drive us. No need to find our way. So we head off on a drive into the surprisingly pastoral countryside. I am not sure why this should be surprising. Where would you put a death camp except in the suburbs?
As we walk through Dachau, the surprising feeling is how primitive this camp seems; it even has a medicinal ambiance, as though a Third World hospital. After all, no one can escape the naked body, the conditions it imposes, the diseases it incubates, the megalomania it projects, its final demise. The expanse is spacious and yet protracted. The sense of cramping is amplified by the sheer historic weight of the space, of German geography, on which buildings sit as huts. The terrain is marked by barbed wire, low ceilings, tiny ovens. How much more violent and even cybernetic death and genocide have become in this century! Killing is now a post-industrial, antiseptic, mercenary business.
This spot subtends the universe, naked in the sun, water running in a channel, poppies growing in the trench, grasshoppers flying up, as they did when the camp was operating, ancestral ones—a prisoner might well have envied their freedom and innocence, their bare insect minds and effortless flight. The setting is so flat and absolute. Horror has left perfect squares and clean corners, foundations of buildings in rectangular vestige of “build this here, nothing special, just the basic.” The bunk-beds sit as mere boards.
It reminds me most of summer camp and the lesser horror I felt being taken there—a sacrilege even to admit. Is it the unadulterated horror of childhood permeating all prison landscapes? Or is it that past lives leak through and summer camp reminded my soul of other lifetimes, other death camps, not just Dachau, not just in the twentieth century, not just even of human history? Or is it that my fascist Jewish counselors in summer camp, in years not so long after the Holocaust, unknowingly (but not unintentionally) adopted the swagger and mien of recent Nazi thugs in our own clan, getting back at the Holocaust by becoming just as badass, even as now in Palestine? Or is it that we can put no convincing face or name on horror, that the ultimate horror is within?
One walks almost impassively through the gas chamber itself. I try to imagine, but I can’t. One hopes that the end was quick, that karma took them on fleet wings, that the universe (the deeper you get) is gentle. I tell myself, partly for them, that submission is the only possibility, the only path, the only survival.
Photographs in the adjoining museum show smiling, proud SS officers and scientists. They have no idea what this actually means (or will mean), the stuff they are doing. Their letters home describe workdays followed by ordinary domestic life, a kiss for the children. They probably thought they were doing patriotic service. Yes, the banality of evil, the thin and blurred lines that people cross in oblivion. Slabs of wood honor each country represented here, simple mute testimony.
Other photos preserve almost unbearably strong images of victims—a mother carrying her boys to the gas chamber, other children following, piles of human bodies, experimental subjects waiting in line, not mice or cows, which is bad enough. It is beyond shock or outrage. It is something else entirel; yes, a visitation to Earth of a demonic entity, the swastika its emblem.
The true event is frozen not juist in this linear skein of photographs but deep in the soul. Plus what happened here is not over. It has merely passed elsewhere. Monuments are useful, but no amount of reconstruction or penance can undo what neighbors did to neighbors, even as it is repeated again and again.
In bright, contemporary daylight Romanies are encamped in tents around Dachau to protest their treatment throughout Europe. Their children now race bikes through the Church of Redemption. Yes, how the gypsies are treated is outrageous, but it is not the same as a death camp. They should not be in occupancy here. They are stealing something that is not theirs. But then it is all theft: all politics, all appropriation, all subordination.
On the train out of Munich, the conductor gets all flapped at us twice, the first time for being in the wrong seats. Suburbs and rural sceneries roll by into night, cities appearing as lights revealing streets, distant and mysterious. The second time it is for trying to sleep in the wrong couchet. He virtually tosses us out, bed coverings and all, as he rouses us with violent shaking and harsh words from deep sleep. He set us in with an elderly French couple.
I wake at 4 A. M. to hear a loudspeaker in French. The town is Metz. As I stand and pee, out the window I watch the European city go by, its manorlike apartments, then vague shadows of hills, lights, streets, clumps of unrevealed forms in the distance. This world of shadows in which we dwell.
June 26 (Paris)
The train moves swiftly into urban Paris. We debark into a large, clean station with heavy police presence, change our marks to francs, and take a cab to the hotel Carlton at Raspails. It is an old-fashioned, mostly charming establishment, like something on a New York sidestreet. We are there too early to check in, so they take our luggage and direct us to the breakfast room where rolls, jam, and orange juice have been set out. After partaking, we go out for a walk, picking the direction suggested by the clerk.
There are so many caricature pairs of dogs and owners, such a variety of leashes, most of them fancy. So much nuance for a simple bond. Also, an abundance of bakeries with fresh loaves set outside, the sweet smell of morning suffusing as bread. We pass the gardens of Marco Polo, then Luxembourg. We circle the block to go among the flowers where people are strolling and exercising their pouches. The sparrows on the chairs at Le Jardin are as fascinating as the palace; in fact it is their activity to which our minds are riveted. Sitting so close that they touch each other, they chirp and oscillate in tandem.
We continue walking. We pass so many small, distinctive grocery markets that it is a wonder one neighborhood could support them all. After a while the landscape changes to University buildings. The ancient Renaissance guild of learning is learning is represented here by the Sorbonne with the words “Astronomie” and “Geologie” carved in the stone, in an earlier “modern world” when other men (and women) lived at the precipice of time. The vast catacombs of human learning supporting this civilization are still at the core of this city. Even the bakeries betray their roots in the Middle Ages—and why not? That is where the guild of baking began.
There are bookstores galore, livres pouring out into the streets, many of them large, old hardcovers: a respect for intellect completely alien to the United States except for maybe a small stretch of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Fountain of Liberation at the Seine recycles its waters in complex machineries along long flat stairs, making its statement alongside ample graffiti behind a statue named Conant.
We find our way down to the Seine and walk in a stench of urine along the lower pavement to Notre Dame, a church flanked by vestiges of kings. There we encounter a melee of tourists as bells begin to toll. Back along Rue Jacques we find a new sector of markets, cafés, and bookstores, as wee have come to lunchtime, twelve tintinnabulations. Fish and shellfish are piled outside establishments in cones of ice. They are rare gems of mid-day cornucopia, dear and abundant. With menus on display and the exchange rate unfavorable, we realize it will be difficult not to spend $40 each per meal—so we finally settle for a pizza at an Italian café. Despite our request for vegetarian, it comes with piles of meat atop. We eat it as it is.
Even in our little walk, Paris is revealing itself as a mediaeval city come of age, large, dense, and interstitial.
Back at the Carlton, we are given the keys to a small but thoughtfully compact room three flights up and tucked into a corner of the building where murmurs of pigeons cooing are amplified by the acoustic shape of the courtyard. The late afternoon sun oozes down ancient stone across our window. The sense of traveling itself has worn into our tissues so sensuously it is now hard not to internalize every landscape. There is no room left for more externality; everything is at the beck of imagination and dream.
In the afternoon I go out alone and chart a course in the other direction. I see a neighborhood park, a row of less expensive restaurants, a train station, a pharmacy advertising homeopathic remedies and ginseng. I buy some eyedrops. I continue to walk, passing cluster after cluster of activity, humans on this planet as numerous in their way as birds. On the route back I pass the offices of a publishing company. Before the trip I had made two lists of local publishers for every European city we were to visit, one of prime prospects, another of secondary possibilities. Paris had so many publishers that I made a third list which included any publisher that had the remotest connection to our themes, but then I followed up on none of them. Now I am startled to recognize a name from the third list, not an item on a page but an office with a window of publications facing the street—Albin Michel. When I return to the hotel, I am excited to tell Lindy about this because they are so close. Maybe we can make an appointment and have at least one business meeting here. Who cares if they are on the third tier? The lists are total guesswork anyway.
Plants turn balconies into small gardens. Cars are parked everywhere they fit, even in the middle of streets, even on sidewalks among pedestrians as though they belonged there.
I lead Lindy on the same path at dinnertime, down a series of streets to Maine. We try two restaurants but abandon them because of the unreal levels of smoke and noise and finally settle for a family-run Vietnamese-French restaurant in which the only thing going on is a chess game between an old Vietnamese man and boy at a table where their bowls of noodles, ignored, have ceased to steam.
The young waiter is precise and polite in fresh but adept English. The food feels home-cooked and substantial. Afterwards we walk for blocks, looking for dessert or ice cream but find no likely establishment. Self-important, overdressed people push their way through the crowds. Drivers becoming irritated with each other stop to gesture and shout, slowing traffic even more. This is like an unrealized New York without the busted-out holes to let the air in. Paris is a bit too intense for what it is.
I fall through rings of dreams into the word “dolomite” at which I experience an unwinding so intricate and so tangled that I am not sure where or even who I will be when I allow myself to awake.
The sound of pigeons dominates the morning, their flapping of wings and cooing like solar-driven resonators.
We take a bus to Champ de Mars and sit in the grass, Eiffel Tower in the background. For some reason I ponder how birds take flight and what they do to achieve something humans cannot, how it happens inside them kinesthetically. I see that they flap furiously at first to ascend to a height where they glide. Then they stretch out their wings and float in the air. They work their wings again to land. Pigeons and sparrows do the same thing, just at the different scales of their bodies.
As we negotiate the Eiffel Tower, I feel the part of this culture that is historically rigid and mechanistic, an idée fixe.
The Tower is out of scale for the epoch in which it was built. That it still maintains the charisma of height gives some sense of its original mythological meaning. It stands in reference to the city as a kind of nucleic central axis. We follow other tourists and locals up its heavy stairs, an equally long train of hominids behind us. The intricate grillwork gives a sensation of walking inside an ancient piece of metal craftsmanship.
We stop at two landings. By the first, the ground-level chaotic designs of outlying districts have become patterns—gardens, river, churches, cemeteries, all in unintended feng shui, in certain uncertain balance. One level higher, the park and its soccer game have become an enclosed entity, almost like a TV view. In some areas, constructions clash in a mismatched jumble; in others, stately colonnades of buildings form mandalas.
The subtlety of the relationships of architectures become more clear with ascent—extended balconies and ample windows, elevated attics like piggyback knickknack atop large buildings. The patches of town leading to our hub are perfect sequential squares on either side of a traffic oval. The avenues displaying rows of lookalike edifices making a grid are not a grid but a circle of streets in and out of one another.
People seem delighted with the aerial view and uniformly happy, the energy of negotiating hundreds of stairs having seeped into their bodies and expressions. As the Seine is in motion and relief, I notice consecutive, quite different bridges, some with superstructures, across the River; graceful arches of stone buildings; a gold dome glittering with hieroglyphics; and “je t’aime” written in weed-killer on the grass (obviously meant to be viewed from this altitude).
Hiking down the megalith, we walk to Trocadero Station. The subways are old but open, quite wide and spacious underground. We switch to the 10 line and, where we get off, we go one block to a giant park. Since we are now quite hungry and there are not that many stores here, we ask about a restaurant. Lindy’s affable “bonjour” draws deliberate nonrecognition, even that we exist, from one woman; tolerant contempt from a man who directs us the other way from which we are walking, back toward the street.
Inside a café, the man who is scraping and polishing the gold metal edges of chairs, turns out to be the owner and speaks tolerable English. He cannot translate the catch of the day, but he graciously informs Lindy that the vegetable plate would not be enough lunch for him, maybe for her. With most entrees 200 ff., we gobble plenty of bread. The fish is served in an interesting butter-garlic sauce and the soup is dished from a large tureen brought ceremoniously to the table by the waiter. When they try to charge 81 ff. for my dribs of three small vegetables, probably canned but marked only 20 ff. on the menus, we complain and, after empassioned French explanation fails, they summon the owner who lowers the bill, though not nearly to the level of the printed price.
We try to recross the street to the park is a major undertaking—such ill humor and outrage from determined drivers at the pedestrians, even when we have a green light. It seems as though, when we penetrate the passenger island, the cars actually speed up. It is unavoidable, getting worn down by the constant rudeness and imperiousness of drivers, radios, and cigarette smoke. The French and Germans are equally arrogant, though in different ways; no wonder they fought war after war against each other.
A raucous group is holding a picnic on the path into the park, but we find a pleasant meadow with a group playing Frisbee, an old couple with a baby, and a topless woman sunbathing. There we lie under a tree and doze for half an hour.
After our rest we walk to Lake Superior. There all manner of radio-controlled boats are being operated by mostly males of a wide range of ages. There are little homemade tugboats and xebecs, different nationalities of battleships, speedboats, seaplanes, a giant destroyer, plus an artificial lighthouse, and buoys. As I set floating the three flowers I have been carrying, we sit and watch the naval parade. At times, it is like a speedway. The water smells like gasoline. All around are crowds of people, buses and cars racing along the highway through the park. There is a sense of old Europe lost in a century made in America despite all their futile and inflatedly haughty attempts at autonomy. All that remains of the indigenous culture are women collecting herbs on the edge of the park.
We exit, walk to La Micette station, and take the train back. Its el rolls through many neighborhoods, gradually changing one into another, streets much narrower than New York.
As we head out for dinner, we pass a gentleman talking French (what else?) to a cat on the sidewalk. We take a train across the river to Rue de La Roquette. The sidewalk is constricted and crowded. A young Frenchman at the next table translates “shrimp” for us and then strikes up a conversation. He has a strong sense of patriotism about his city—he was incensed when Lindy thought he was American.
The partying crowds are thick, street after street, so we feel totally safe in the dark as we work our way to the station. The subway is crowded with people and French chatter. From the outside I recognize that all languages are traps to their speakers, but this one seems more so than most, mostly to the Africans gabbing away in florid fluencies. That old Franco labyrinth of lost worlds and meta-meanings.
“U.S. Bombs Iraq”: headline in the International Herald Tribune. We stop at a bakery for a bun and then take the metro. The train is full of Gauls en route to work. We mill in crowds along the Seine, then find a vegetarian restaurant in the more countercultural district. After lunch we go inside Notre Dame.
It takes a while, but something grows in me inside the space. The light and resonance gradually absorb everything I am. It takes a while to lose the crowd ceaselessly moving and murmuring, the sightseers and flashbulbs, but eventually scale and sacred geometry prevail. The divided contour of the ceiling suggests transcendence; yet it throws its trajectories downward into the massive structure that supports it. Pillars with crevices demarcate archways, also duplicating the multitriangular vault of the ceilings.
With the technology of its time, it took stone-cutters, masons, hoists, pulleys, bellows, and a generational commitment to represent the infinite, what the infinite elicited for them, to build beyond the scale of the human to such a degree that it is still beyond the scale of tourist crowds nine centuries later.
Candles drip and flicker before saints, Saint Jude, Saint Therese, as this event goes on alcove after alcove. The sound of the organ and disembodied female singing echo not only so many times in the depths but in the shape of the depths, in the secret esoteric geometry, so that something eternal is touched and pulled outward. The sacred sound is the aesthetic here more than Notre Dame the icon.
In fact, the beauty of this city is that it is more than just landmarks and monuments. It is the collective remnant of the civilization in which it was built, of the world as it was then. The great stained-glass Notre Dame portal is a circle, a circle of nested circles, concentrically moving inward to a cross of gibbous replicas at the center. The outer ring projects inward almost as if dividing by meiosis, its entirety differentiating like a two-cornered snowflake toward its innermost circle. Faint shadows of birds flit past this luminous opening to the sacred universe, like motes of life against the cosmos, like births of animals and children in the zodiac mandala. Massive chandeliers cast a lightness of being at the hinge of gravity as against the eternity of stone that flesh is.
You cannot move through this hermetic zone quickly; you must be attuned to its mysterious spaces, restrained by them, by the phenomenology of absence, of darkness, of sculptures and paintings that can’t quite be seen. There are holes of sheer darkness where unconscious materials are stored, as in the basement of a giant arena.
Even now the cessation of the organ and voice, their silence, carries the memory of their presence, above the rustle of random numbers and sounds that do not capture the higher octaves of this palace of God.
The stained-glass windows are all different. Over time their motionless differences are more active and futuristically sublime, in their weightless, greater-than-light-speed delivery of a timeless message, than any cinemascope or programmed neon in the city. Separate portals along the aisles, set in at different depths, reflect a gradient of colors, increments of light and dark, ranging from where the sun barely reaches, the bottomless indigo of the human soul, to bright yellow-orange glare out of which are illuminated, in rainbow spectra, the events of life itself. All of these mandals are set back in chambers at the lower level, flush at the heights with their boundary, the sun moving literally portal by portal, hue by hue, across its dial.
This whole place transmits a feeling beyond time. Its kaleidoscope-mandala says, “even in dreams/she is there”—it is the Palaeolithic face behind the face, the face that has no eyes, no nose, no mouth; the face of a lovely monster whose expression is the avenue of time.
Being here is like opening a closet and seeing the night sky inside.
At Christ’s feet is a bird or snake. There candles are lit by visitors. I light one. I light mine in front of the Virgin Mary and set it in a holder. I try to imagine what my whole life has been to this point and offer it back gratefully to its provider. A woman—very young and Spanish, decked in bracelets—comes after me, takes from my light to make hers. That completes the circle and reminds me that transmission is real.
The modern world cannot use anything this large, though it has built things superficially so much larger.
Sitting on the stone embankment of the Seine behind Notre Dame, I watch a mother duck and her eight ducklings sun and test the water. They have pluck but are so sloshed by waves that they keep fleeing back to her side.
The complicated spires and cupola of the church sits in many dimensions, like a rocket beyond its silo. Barges pass, carrying sand, cars, undesignated containers. The ducklings ride up and down their slope. Sun. More sun. All is bathed again and again in the arrival of new light. It sparkles luxuriantly on the movement of water. Notre Dame has taught me this by taking me so far inside its antipode. I have left the tunnel with the windows of perception cleared to look upon a new world.
An oblivious man in tan shorts and topsiders doesn’t even notice that his passage drives the ducklings back into the water. They tumble and somersault comically as they attempt to get back up the slope. The mother watches, I imagine, concern. Then a huge dog bounds down the bank from its leash and heaves itself into the water. The ducks go further out, fighting the current. A man with a dyed blond ponytail and leather bells on his ankles suns his bare chest, as he listens through earphones. Beside him a harlequin doll is draped over the wall.
The pavement is cobblestone. Across the river, beyond the opposite bank, are trees, a path, and the V of apartment buildings. Down river and up river, tucked around bends, are colonnades of many bridges. The utter wideness and starkness of the vista are what stands out. From this vantage, I could inventory individual items and events forever, and I would not even scratch the surface, as it flows toward the end of time. If I try to see beyond it, all I detect are walls, ledges, buildings, angles, and ungaugable levels of depth.
We go to Les Halles, a large, open, modern space with cubicles built in shells and fountains. Drunks are singing French ballads; my notebook says “Marais.”
We ride the train late at night back from dinner with friends in Neiully, a district where my mother legendarily spent a good part of her childhood. Aboard our car African kids are playing music; old habitants snooze with wary, slightly-open eyes. The Metro emerges from underground and we see lights in black water and the Eiffel Tower lit, a phosphor monolith, emblem of the city, against which (as I peer down avenues), individual apartments with esoteric domestic scenes fly past. The colors are yellow and red. Brighter lights spark below the tracks. This is mysterious, unknowable, thrilling. It is travel at its best, the small moments that open like cosmic kernels and have so much luminous stuff inside. It is not the big sightseeing; it is the ordinary transit that reveals the strangeness and difference, that fills me with wonder about the Earth.
My dream is out of Mission: Impossible. The intrigue is that we are in a Slavic country, Robin, Miranda, and I cast in secret roles. It is also summer camp, and we must slip certain items in and out, right under the counselors’ eyes.
We take the Metro to the Louvre. We find it closed on a Tuesday, surrounded by construction. There is a glass pyramid and a fountain with water blowing across, kids running through it. We go on to Les Jardins des Tulieres. Its site is also dominated by sand and construction. I see a creature jump in the fountain. We imagine it might be a single fish or duck and then suddenly realize there are many fish, maybe hundreds of carp or catfish, leaping out the water, gathering to be fed popcorn by two young girls who alternately serve them and perspicacious sparrows divvying up single lumps of exploded corn. Fish mouths open in succession, wide and sucking. They swallow pellets and tussle about one another, acquiring as much air time as they can. It is like us reaching into outer space with helmets enclosing our heads in oxygen. The fish would need virtual shiploads of water to seriously visit here. I buy popcorn and, following custom, drop four or five kernels at a timem attracting my own crowd. I can reach out and feel their substantial slippery bodies, “pet” them, though too much such contact causes wriggling away. They are dark and colorful. Their mouths are so active as to form a separate collective creature.
Because the pigeons are slow, the sparrows keep moving the falling popcorn away from them, even stealing it directly out of their mouths.
Toward the obelisk men of varying ages, colors, and shapes are playing a game with metal balls. I stay long enough to begin to figure it out. First a horse chestnut is tossed into the sand. Then a man draws a circle around it with his foot. Each man has three balls of metal like the Chinese chi balls. I cannot tell what determines the order or how many they get to throw at a time. In any case they take turns casting the balls, mostly two at a turn. Success is determined by their hitting a spot close to the chestnut or moving another ball.
Each caster has his own style and arc. Most of them use spins and backspins to slow the ball. The one black man comes real close to the horse chestnut. His ball is then bopped by the fat man’s throw. A slick guy with a real behind-the-back delivery with a soft, ferocious spin steals the position closest to the nut, but a real old guy with a lot of loft and no spin at all drops one even closer. The black guy shoots again. He is also close, close enough that the men bend down and compare with a tape measure. Then they pick the balls and chestnut up and start over, tossing in a different direction where the landscape is bumpier and slopes downward. I later learn the game is bocce.
We are entering the Concorde Station when a woman steps right in front of me and raises a newspaper to my face. I reach out to make space when another woman grabs my arm. Lindy pushes her away hard. They both shout at us as though deranged. I try to pull away as the first woman twists my arm while the other one grabs at my pocket. I shove her away more harshly, her dank smell and ragged shape, and we keep moving, fast into the station. The event is so sudden and shocking and brief that for a moment it is unclear what happened, what precipitated it, what it had to do with us. And then the realization floods over us—these were Romany women; this was a brazen attempt at theft by two gypsies.
I might have imagined something like that unfolding in a movie, but I also thought that we would have been far more canny and prepared, less surprised. As it was, we successfully defended ourselves and escaped unscathed, walletwise anyway, but without realizing what was happening. I oddly thought of it as an accident or a case of mistaken identity, but then the whole episode was less than five seconds. I barely had time to think.
Afterwards I realize that we pulled off a successful martial-arts maneuver. It was unreasonable to think that we would realize we were under gypsy attack in less than five seconds and call it out consciously. If the defense were that simple and unschooled, the street ploy would never work. Their technique has to be immaculate, has to be confusing, disarming, and seem like something else to its victims until it is too late. That we were street smart and alert enough was proven by the fact that we weren’t robbed.
But my attitude afterwards was, fuck them! Run their asses out of Dachau! Run them out of Europe! It doesn’t take much to turn a liberal into a right-wing bigot. A personal attack will do it.
In Montmatre the Moulin Rouge and nearby theaters sit as in postcards. The smells of the bakery are too strong to resist, abundant in nuances of odor amid the toxic exhaust. We buy the same two-franc half loaf that everyone else gets, plus Lindy orders a sandwich. I have a mocha coffee cupcake that is pure frosting, liquer, and sugar. We get salad at a Chinese restaurant and sit on a bench by the cemetery eating our lunch.
In all directions the tombs form a hobbitlike village in the midst of a dense city of the living. Headstones and monuments cover acres of ground; yet the highway is so encroaching that the tops of tombs with their crosses reach into the metalwork. Some graves are obviously under regular care; others are totally unattended, crumbling with crushed detritus around them, worn decorations of flowers and broken chunks of stone and chains. There is one bright new marble tomb, someone who lived from 1957 to 1992. Many small marble statues rest on top of gravesites, contributed by relatives and friends.
We meet Beatrice Jehlo, a fan of my book The Night Sky, and go to a café with her. It has a thick stale smell like rotten cheese, as we sit in the back and discuss the state of French New Age publishing and the possible status of our books and my writing here. She has no ideas for us herself but gives us the name of an agent friend to call, Frederique Porretta.
The trains at Abesses are buried so deep underground that the winding staircase we traverse is a mural without end—each time we turn a corner, more images, more stairs. There are so many steps that, even moving quickly, we take almost ten minutes to climb out (we learn later that there used to be an elevator). The themes of the mural range from current landscapes to Renaissance and Mediaeval scenes, super bright colors from floor to ceiling, perhaps to entertain the long climb.
Thoughts on the Paris subway: The doors of the Metro must be literally thrown open by passengers. The stations are very close together; the trains come often—so it is like a continuous stream of boats. Ornamentation of stations is a requisite custom. For the Louvre station it is an actual museum. For an international or government stop, there is an appropriately jurisdictional painting.
The night is so much more alive and friendly than in an American city. We go to dinner at the house of the daughter of a friend of Lindy, a young girl named Portia who found work in Paris and stayed. She has prepared a salad and Chinese dinner for us. Coming back from her place along Abesses near midnight, I am exhilarated by the sheer motion, the complicated intimacy of humanity as opposed to the stolid isolation and lurking peril in most of North America. It hardly seems to be late, though it is. There is so much interaction in the street, even children out there playing. People are shouting. Beggars and drunks are participating with fervor and acceptance. This is a different culture, better in so many ways that one should hesitate before criticizing it—Paris’ utopian face.
At night I dream of two black men dying of a rare blood disease in a barn, one having already fallen and dried out like a pod. They are actually the exotic insects in waking life at Portia’s apartment, a terrarium belonging to her boyfriend containing one alive and motionless, one dried out and attached to a branch, a two-inch preying-mantis thing. In the dream I report to the authorities and they urge compassion. Lindy hears only my end of the phone call and is rushing out to do something. She doesn’t realize how ancient they are. The doctor comes and is wanting us to allow a group visit; he is pressuring me into something that makes no sense, but then does any of this?
We walk down Vavin past markets in the rain to Frederique’s office. It is a densely trafficked Paris morning, the local habitants totally about their business. Frederique is so optimistic about our books that she assumes she will represent our whole list for French rights, plus she is thinking of expanding her agency to Spain and Portugal. This lifts our spirits, not just vis a vis Paris, but publishing business on the whole trip. We return to the Carlton to borrow an umbrella from the front desk.
On the Metro platform is a jazz band, a young blonde woman with a fiddle, a male guitarist, and a horn player. Two black guys with whom they are joshing before the train comes turn out to be musicians too as the train pulls out of Chatelet. They begin their own performance, which is loud enough to override the roar of our transit. The singer looks a little bit like a young Ishmael Reed. They launch right into “Midnight Hour,” breaking the stanzas first with English: “one, two, three”; then French: “un, deux, trios”; then “und, dwei, zwei,” German. At its close, they tap a few beats on the guitar without music while their lips mouth silent lyrics; then break into “Under the Boardwalk,” which fades away in the background as we walk to the Louvre exit.
The line for the Louvre snakes around under the building and back to the glass pyramid. While Lindy waits for tickets, I go back to distribute our extra food to the birds, saving the coconut chips for the fish. I crumble what remains of a stale loaf of French bread, then walk away to allow pigeons and sparrows to congregate over it in the rain. I make a second pile of Czech granola and sesame seeds. Birds come from all directions, as if summoned by sonar, and begin pecking away as they arrivea rougher, scrawnier breed of pigeon than I am familiar with.
Once inside the glass pyramid we still must wait an hour in line. Our queue is the worst of six, as it stops for a full half hour while its ticket-taker dawdles on the phone. Perhaps his machine is broken, and he is summoning repair. A kind interpretation. It could also be his mother or girlfriend.
The shards of Western civilization bask in grand display. One looks at Roman heads and mosaic walls; Egyptian mummies, hieroglyphs, and boats; Etruscan faces and statues. It is a precise, discontinuous inventory of the myth upon which the present world rests. So much of it is Biblical or classical allegory—David with the head of Goliath, Virgin and Child, Departure of Hector, Death of Darius’ Woman, Rape of the Sabine Women, the Deluge, the Judgment. There were only so many stories worth representing back then. The difference, the definition in fact of modernism, is that there are so many stories. Everyone has a story. Abstract expressionism tells us that every atom has a story. Every hour there are more stories being represented than in all of prehistory, ancient civilization, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Not really but in the annals of iconography. We no longer distinguish between the archetype and the instance.
The flotsam of modern civilization drifts by in fleeting images, many of them finely cut in massive stone or painted on a canvas as big as a wall. Everything is some slice of reality, picture-real or energetic or dissected across one or another incalculable plane. Most art and technology now are not worth preserving in the Louvre for the hordes who might follow us. It comes out of machines and is washed away into rivers and bays as pollution, its imprints fading almost immediately.
Approaching the headless statue of Winged Victory, those wings so perfectly chiseled onto its back, is a teen wearing a Megadeath t-shirt. The juxtaposition of these two works of art is the history of civilization on this planet.
Nowhere is that tension more poignant than among the hordes surrounding Miss Mona Lisa, creating a major traffic jam around this one icon set in glass. There are five kids wearing Michael Jordan shirts in the fixed-eye crowd—but what is everyone staring at? What are they seeing except the cliché of the Mona Lisa. The image itself stands powerfully against the Other eternally staring back at it. Yes, the face is perfect, but its other, false perfection is amplified to the max, to an excruciating degree by the familiarity of its conceit—not the painting itself but the use we have made of it, the subtexts that have been attached to it by a civilization grinding out advertising logos and product recognitions en masse. Da Vinci has concocted a fame that is inviolable and absolute, that cannot be altered by tabloid gossip or currency devaluation—so staring at his masterpiece is like being face to face with the single coin, the one itself, right there where it is. The thing that the treasury and printing press can only duplicate to its termless vitiation.
In that same hall we see Campis’ “Mystery of the Crucifiction,” which reveals a dark, Gothically detailed view of Christ. The criminals, the weeping throngs, the others being prepared for the Cross dominate the entire foreground, but in the upper righthand corner is a gold, luminous zodiac with a path of ascension through the spheres. This single transcendent archetype breaks through the Christian plane of the Crucifixion imposed on the West. It marks the other Resurrection, the one that precedes Christ’s myth. No, they did not forget.
Lions are a popular theme, attacking horses, carrying off babies, in one bizarre instance engaged in victorious combat with an iguana lizard.
In another painting, a boy pulls a miniature exotic dog on a leash while a black man leads an indescribable lizard on a leash too, approaching the dog.
In the park outside, gypsies are begging. They strike so many dramatic poses for the crowd that they hardly seem real. It is like a theater of pathos, a mime that represents poverty and oppression in a totally different way. It is like another work from the Louvre.
I realize now that their presence at Dachau was a performance too. So was the attack at the station. All real in a sense, but all art.
On the ride back, the lights of the cars behind us twist palpably in the tunnel like a dance of ghosts.
We head out to our meeting at Albin Michel on Huyghens, past the Paul Bart Lycee with its colored bricks above the doorway.
The secretary of the publishing house misunderstood our mission; it was lost somewhere in transmission between our English and poor French and their hearing of it. We want to sell rights, but we have been lined up with Jacqueline Favero, their representative who herself sells their rights. Once the error is discovered, she goes out into the hall to see if she can get us the appropriate person, but the foreign-rights buyer has another appointment and can only step in a moment to shake hands and take a catalogue. Under the circumstances, we meet with Jacqueline and look at her catalogue. To my surprise Albin Michel has published several books by the Dalai Lama in French. When queried exhaustively about these, Jacqueline insists that she is quite at liberty to sell us the English rights, though they began as Tibetan texts before being translated into French. We leave with the sense that we are coming home with a great prize, rights in English to original early works of the most famous lama on the planet.
The high security at the airport is testimony to the unpopularity here of the U.S.’s attack on Iraq. It hardly seems that we will make it back to America in one piece.
On the giant jet I read that the take-off speed is only about 130 miles an hour. That is not reassuring. It does, however, say something about the power of the wings, the buoyuancy of air. 130 does it.
We do not have a window seat, so I sit in the middle and spend as much of the eleven hours as I can bear reading a John Le Carre mystery purchased for this purpose the day before in an English bookstore.
It takes almost a lifetime before Robin is driving us home through the streets of San Francisco. And it is not even mid-afternoon on the same day on which we left Paris.