2018 Europe Trip Journal

by Richard Grossinger on July 3, 2018

Europe Trip Journal 2018

 

July 3-4

I am writing at the gate for Icelandair’s daily 20:40 flight 632 from Boston to Reykjavik. Airport terminals feel to me more portentous than secular transportation nodes. They seem like bardo terminals. We don’t build bardo terminals—Tibetan monks or Yaqui shamans do, but those are internalized thoughtforms not large-scale physical constructions, so airport terminals serve as mythological stand-ins. Ghost travel through them in various trance states, unlike but also like the dead.

I am trying get at something, an underlying emotion of sadness, excitement, and wonder. Here are two unrelated thoughts prior to starting my trip journal:

(One) The world is divided between those who believe we are souls on a journey of transformation and those who consider us incidental by-products of molecular activity who will be expunged. Either belief is dwarfed by the vividness of reality, but I board a night plane with the sense I am a soul, plus the fear I am not, plus the intuition that in this “terminal,” these are the same.

(Two) We are flying out of Trump’s America on July 4th eve with mildly mischievous relief, though it is mitigated by the knowledge that crisis “Trump” is civilizational. Some apologists distinguish his difference by the fact he is a businessman rather than a politician, but that is not his main difference. He is an unweaned child without an adult’s attention span or range of empathy. As such, he has brought decadence, vulgarity, and pleasureless gluttony without creative imagination or aesthetics. His recreational cruelty feeds the mad scramble of the privileged to protect their good fortune at the expense of everyone else.

A woman seated next to us the Legal Seafood restaurant at Logan airport wants to tell us where she is going as we both await our bills. She and her husband (off in the men’s room) are headed to Cannes for the thirteenth straight year. Upon hearing some of our itinerary, she remarks with unexpected vehemence. “I couldn’t go to Poland or Hungary because of the Holocaust. I once ended up in Prague and was immediately nauseous. I had to leave. How can you do it as a Jew?”

Some people experience an ongoing cloud of doom in these places. I don’t, so I said, “I can’t tell the difference between what happened then and what’s happening now.”

She surprised me by laughing. “I am going to borrow that line.”

 

There are many wonders looking down from a Boston-to-Reykjavik flight, but none of them were available on this trip, which was conducted solely above cloud banks. For a better view, you can check out my 2006 Europe travel journal. At dawn that year I saw Iceland’s puzzle piece sitting in the ocean like a map of that same ocean; on the return flight (from Reykjavik to SFO instead of Logan) Greenland’s glaciers melting in present time: rivers and floes from 37,000 feet. This time I watched the reflection of a gibbous Moon on the metal of wing and the patterns of clouds. I had the sense of three orbs of vastly different size and shifting zodiacal position, the plane afloat among them like an object of unintended divination.

The turbulence never got too bad, but it was omnipresent, a bumpy passage through choppy air. Either the Boeing computers kept finding a gentler layer or our path had both smooth intervals and jarring crescendos.

I haven’t been able to sleep on planes for years because m dozing always turns into a sensation of falling and I awake with a start. I experienced the entire five hours, a rigorous meditation on being propelled through the atmosphere in a crowded aluminum-alloy cannister at 550 mph. They put on a good camouflaging show, but that’s what it is.

There was reassuring land underneath us for about a third of the flight (per the screen map and occasional glimpses through clouds of habitation lights). I tend to forget how far North America extends its last rocks toward the Old World, how tantalizingly off the chart those must have dangled at the edge of the Middle Ages, familiar only to a few Irish and Basque fishermen and brave cartographers: Newfoundland, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, St. Johns, then several tiny islands before the actual Atlantic crossing. The Labrador Sea marks the end of the New World and beginning of the Old. At its far shore, amother hour or so later, we cross over the bottom flap of Greenland under clouds.

The Homeric softness of the first tender touch of Eos illumines the cloud tops pink and yellow. This far north and high, she separates moonlight from her glow for only a long hour before her rosy fingers spread.

As we approach Iceland, tiny clouds below larger ones seem to float on the ocean, touching it like evanescent fairy pads. The outskirts of Iceland on trajectory to Keflavik Airport look like a different body in the Solar System. They remind me of NASA’s most distant landfall: a rocky slope on Saturn’s hydrocarbon moon Titan. The colors and shapes of Iceland’s rocks, salt marshes, and shore are so brilliant and phosphorescent that azure flowers are indistinguishable from malachite ores. Both are jagged splotches radiating in water-color craters. It is Earth all right—remnants of a three-billion-year Pre-Cambrian geology.

As I stare down and then close my eyes, I experience autonomous visions of strange worlds, brilliantly melting colors, never-before-seen or imagined shapes and dimensions twisting and folding seamlessly into and out of each other. I try John Friedlander’s Sethian system to take it to the astral plane, but the effort adds nothing to what is already happening. It’s either a figment of my tired eyes and vivid morning light or a vision of fairy Iceland, or both, or neither.

 

Compared to 2006’s quaint wooden halls of Viking nobility, Keflavik has expanded quite unnobly. It looks like any other airport now, standardized to metal, plastic, and display screens. It has also grown faster its capacity, throwing us into an international chaos that feels like Mexico City or Grand Central Station. Mobs of polyglot travelers headed to multiple cities on Icelandair planes— the realization of a successful transportation model—crisscross in opposing streams. There are youths with backpacks, families trying to herd children together, people in wheelchairs, others moving with difficulty or on crutches. There is no room or plan to accommodate so many or such variety. Motion stalls and gridlocks.

What I had thought of as a leisurely two hours between flights with which get some Icelandic smoked salmon for breakfast (per 2006) is a chimera. Two hours is no time at all, as the late landing of our plane followed by its pause for traffic on the tarmac runs into required passport entry to the EU. Slow-moving visa-check lines intercept transit between gates; the logjam creeps like TSA terrorist screening tiers at U.S. airports.

Missing our plane turns was not a concern. They are holding flights to accommodate arriving cannisters from Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, etc., constant multi-language announcements and instructions to debarking passengers for flights to Munich, Helsinki, London, Rome, as new discharges add their streams.

Our gate is not evem alongside a plane. We line up at a door and, after a forty-minute tedious stall, are herded in in 44 degrees and drizzle to a standing-room, strap-holding bus. Though I am carrying a flannel shirt and a hoodie, I don’t put them on. The rain feels good after 90 and thunderstorms in Boston; it keeps me awake.

We are driven a surprisingly great distance, weaving around parked planes to a jet sitting alone and far from the terminals. The route is Icelandair City, their jets everywhere and none with other logos.

So many people lined up for Copenhagen at the gate I couldn’t imagine we’d all fit in one plane, a common illusion at an airport. Yet a scale diagram on the Logan wall showed how big these objects are. One 757 can hold seven elephants, six RVs, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Once the bus delivers us, our plane turns out to be only spottily filled.

A three-hour flight after five hours on a prior plane and another hour and a half of processing, forced marches in crowds, long lines, and standing sleeplessly feels like being dragged through an unwilling mud run. Yet the times moves along, and the Icelandair vehicle glides smoothly through complicated layers of fog, mist, and clouds, and then crosses over water, the Norwegian Sea, an interzone of North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. After seventy-five or so minutes, we encounter the broken landforms of outer Norway and then, across the water, Denmark’s Dakota-like farmland. These farmers’ ancestral relatives migrated and stamped their morphology on the American landscape. As we cross father into Denmark, dramatic arrangements of land and water wrap around each other unpredictably.

Flight 1204’s landing is dramatic. The plane sweeps far out over sunny Copenhagen harbor, tilting its wings several times, taking gradual aim back at the land. From above, I see dozens of separate rivers and rivulets running among one another in shades of dark blue and blue-green. The complex patterning is both riverine and whirlpool-like. I have never noticed such a textured oceanic motif with currents so perceptible, like looking at an ultraviolet photograph of the harbor. A magnificent row of modern white windmills leads to shore.

I am now in a second wind and have been listening to my iPod shuffle for the last forty-five minutes. I heard Bach and Cesar Franck and Tindersticks (French cinema music) and reggae and Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt and the Four Seasons “Working my way back to You, babe….” and Fats Domino finding his thrill on Blueberry Hill when I interrupt the concert with Danny Kaye singing Copenhagen, digitalized long ago from Lindy’s scratchy children’s record, and turn the earbuds over to her. It’s her birthday, July 4th and we are above Copenhagen at last The song has little to do with the modern city, which is represented in my mind by the political serial Borgen, but I am recapturing a mysterious childhood magic: “… wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, / salty old queen of the sea….” The entire history of Earth and my own lifetime seems to hang in the balance.  “Let us clink and drink one down.” The quaff is magical and touches a forbidden place like the etheric root of all existence. Yes, surely we are born to celebrate this manifestation, “Let us clink and drink one down.”

 

The Copenhagen airport is more futuristic than any American airport I know. The rest of the world has glided past our contentious, bureaucracy-ridden, politically polarized oligarchy into a gentler modernity. The most striking feature is Sneaker ads in giant pixel-like panels, parts of which morph at different speeds, displays more riveting than their commodity, a hint of Tom Cruise/Samantha Morton landscapes in “Minority Report,” an adaptation of Philip K. Dick.

The movement of people and objects along the corridor suggest Ikea (a neighboring polity but a related aesthetic): long lines of cute buggies being pulled by cabs, thin young women on electrified scooters, witty graffiti-like messages on the walls in Danish and English through construction zones. I am in the euphoria of landing here, being in Copenhagen on July 4th when a major crisis hits.

Something that tends to happen to me, and I forget it that it does though I vow to stay alert the next time: I develop holes in my head during travel, especially after a sleepless night, experience amnesias and hallucinations without knowing it. Forgetting I am in this state is part of the state. I leave and lose stuff. I have parted with prescription glasses, a CD player (before iPods), jackets, bags of carefully packed food, treasured books, and (a year ago) an iPod I miraculously recovered. I have temporarily misplaced suitcases and carry-ons but remembered in time with a start. I seem to go into a sleepwalk mode and lose the link between body memory and mental tracking.

This time after getting our baggage and proceeding out of the station, we headed to the ticketing area for the trains with instructions to get to the inter-city line closest to our host Marianne Bentzen’s station, Hellerup. She kindly offered to pick us up if we phoned once we were aboard. We were to be guests of her and her husband David Reis, gifted their basement apartment for eight days. Marianne is a longtime colleague of Peter Levine, the trauma and Somatic Experiencing innovator we publish with North Atlantic Books. She is his Danish organizer, and we publish a few of her books too. I met her only once briefly and do not know David, so the offer of their apartment to virtual strangers, even if associates, was generous.

We were going on a list of instructions with no sense of surrounding geography or what the name Hellerup meant or its position in relation to ours. In other circumstances I would have mapped out the journey scrupulously in advance. Instead, I was merely following instructions without context or geography. The crowds flowing from the airport into the train terminal and street was aggressive and dizzying, ending up at long lines to buy tickets from machines. I didn’t know what kind of ticket to get or how to purchase it, but a suited official with decent enough English to help presided over too many confused customers. He was a youngish man with a slightly aggravated temperament.

I found him acerbic, as he ordered me online as I approached while he was helping countless others in rapid-fire fashion, but he grew on me as I watched his performance of sustained individuality with a droll sense of humor though carrying out repetitious, stressful tasks in several languages. He came and stood beside me and instructed step by step as I got the correct ticket (I showed him the instructions on my phone). He never punched for me, making me backtrack from my errors. After I had the ticket, he gave me a far too quick rundown on which train to take, what especially to avoid, and how to find the track in the labyrinth ahead. Somewhere in the mix of these events, I was sure that I had put my backpack down with the suitcases, which Lindy was guarding while I maneuvered in tight crowds at the machines. When I returned and couldn’t find it by her, I was frantic, realizing that it must have been grabbed by one of those sleuth pickpocket-like thieves who roam stations drawing on skills developed by decades of working the scene as well as natural selection among their kind. They were wolves and fisher cats. If you fell asleep in their invisible jungle, you became instant prey to their prowl. They didn’t care what they took or its personal value to you—why would they give a shit at this point in history and a global crisis? What does your suffering mean against their marginalization and unjustly imposed pain? After they have stripped your item for its valuables, they discard it so that you could never recover items of worth only to you.

This self-contained image and narrative ran its full cinema through my mind in an instant, a certainty it was now my reality and an ensuing sense of desperation, for the backpack had my visa, my computer, my international driver’s license, and other irreplaceable items. We rushed to the guy helping ticket buyers, Lindy in tears, and he broke character and his task-load and walked us outside the lines as he informed us that we immediately had to call the station garde—the police. He confirmed my belated premonition that, yes, the station was crawling with thieves and you couldn’t take your eyes off anything for a moment. Alas, advice rendered too late. I felt torrents of bitter regret. But regret is cheap in the swiftly-moving streams of modernity. One is usually a step late. That’s the point of the scams and predations of modernity, and they are getting worse.

Then my panic shifted to an inexplicable calm and certainty that this would work out. I was curious and amused. I might not get my backpack, but it would somehow be okay. I don’t know how I knew this, but from the moment I did I proceeded with in unattached horror. The sense was heady, supernatural, as if I had entered a benign state of shock but also clairsentience.

This mood slowed me down but didn’t initially improve our situation. We went looking for the garde post like the proverbial chickens without heads but soon got tangled in the crowds. That was the absolute low point—no backpack, no idea where we were headed or what we were looking for, crowds of debarking passengers pours around chauffeurs and relatives with signs—a fast-moving river against whose stream we were forging. Where was the garde station? What did it look like? We saw only shops. There was nothing that remotely resembled such a thing and we were approaching endgame at the gate from the airport.

Picture us there, the camera panning away, American couple in a hopeless mess. Then cut to the next scene. You can do that.

We encountered a garde in a yellow coat hurrying past and persuaded him to stop for the telling of our sad tale. At first, he was resistant, wanting to get where he was going, but he finally decided to take us on. I have forgotten Lars’ last name, though I would like to have kept it for full thanks in this journal. As he took stock of our situation, he rearranged it in terms I hadn’t considered, for I was not up to date on how stations work these days. For better or worse, we were being watched, everywhere and at every moment. There is no part of the Copenhagen airport or train station that is not under full-time camera surveillance (probably every other major airport and train station too). He said that he would have headquarters run the tape and see what happened. A moment that seemed lost forever was recoverable. We could see the sly thief, watch him make his move. Dismaying how racist the imagination is at such a moment, even for members of those races. But at least our existential situation had turned into neutral data-processing, which had a different Philip K. Dick ring.

Reviewing the tape entailed calling on his noisy walkie-talkie-like apparatus and getting the police to rerun the correct tape, but first we had to return to the spot where it happened and reenact the event for Lars. We walked to the ticket area and set the scene; he noted coordinates and called them in. The process took about twenty minutes; they had to find, rewind, and review the tape. Guess what? My backpack was never with us. I had a false memory.

Attention turned to the baggage carousel. It was the main other conceivable site. There was now hope that the thief of my imagination might not have been involved. The baggage area was inside the airport, past security, and passengers could not return—a sign had made that clear. Lars called back the camera room and had them look at the carousel. Indeed there was a blue and gray backpack matching my description sitting alongside Carousel 3 in present time. His associate was sent there. A long procedure followed during which I had to prove my identity to Lars and he relayed it to his counterpart who by then had secured the backpack and was going through it and asking a battery of questions about the contents. I had all the right answers. He appeared with it in hand, a precious reunion. Catastrophe averted. There was much to think about, and I did through the rest of the journey to Hellerup.

I had set it down beside Lindy, but the act was before we got our suitcases. At that time I had left her and gone to look at a board describing local transportation. When I came back, I helped pull our suitcases off the carousel and left without the backpack. In some sort of non-proprioceptive amnesia, I walked out of the airport into the train station imagining that my backpack was on my back. Then I transposed the memory of the carousel to the ticket machines.

There is an alternate interpretation, but it will strain credulity of some of you. At my moment of clarity, I exceeded my ability and rose to a higher plane like the Causal or Atmic, switched probability tracks in a Sethian mode, and moved into a reality in which I recovered my backpack. I did so because the consequences of losing it were too great. The entire trip would have been put at risk. That’s beyond peer confirmation though, in a certain sense, switching probability tracks is what we’re doing all the time, and sometimes our innate clairvoyance jumps the system. Since I had not to lose it, I became superman and changed reality. In Sethian terms I created a new reality. I may not have been allowed to control its outcome, but I could give it my best shot and enhance the odds in my favor.

A more down-to-earth explanation is that I unconsciously remembered that the backpack was at the carousel. But if I was able to do that, why did I leave it there in the first place? How did amnesia meld with clairvoyance? Or maybe these are not opposites. Perhaps I arranged the whole thing to remind myself that probably tracks can be switched and that this is important news for other reasons.

I would add a related consideration that is true either way. The thief came and took my backpack. He had to; he frequents airports and train terminals and is in the process of stealing them across the globe. I read about him in guidebooks to place we are headed in Eastern Europe. At the moment he didn’t take my backpack he was stealing some other sleepy tourist’s computer and passport or pickpocketing a wallet or grabbing a neglected purse. My psychic feat (or pure luck) displaced him elsewhere.

 

We proceeded to follow our instructions issued at the ticketing machines, to take the train to Central Station and change lines. It was difficult to get any backup reassurance at Track 2 because pretty much everyone was coming off a plane and querying everyone else in English, French, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Finally a young Danish guy arrived and took charge. He not only reinforced that all but two of us were on the right track but stuck with Lindy and me because we had the most difficult route, going to the Hellerup station rather than midtown, and it was his course too. He personally guided us off the train at Central Station to the correct downstairs platform. As our new train flew through the countryside, I recalled Carl Dreyer’s black-and-white lens on an Ordet-like landscape. Even that close to Copenhagen center vast fields, big sky, bike riders filled the view.

Marianne met us with her car and, after restorative sleep and organizing our possessions in our room, we had a late dinner fixed by her and David mostly from their garden with some organic meat. It began at nine p.m. local time and, in the land of the midnight sun, proceeded until 11:30. The hour was meaningless under jet lag.

David is an energy healer. Marianne is a psychotherapist and trainer of psychotherapists internationally. She is also a certified mindfulness teacher in an offbeat Danish branch of the system of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Our discussion ranged among many topics: the integration of energy healing and psychotherapy, developmental trauma, Ken Wilber’s Buddhism (personal versus spiritual maturity), the relationship between Buddhist practice and psychotherapy, the origin and development of Peter Levine’s trauma system, and countless other topics. It was a high-noosphere sail after a down-in-the-trenches trek, and it completed the conversion of two days into one.

 

July 5

Tourism is a challenge despite the term’s softball innuendo. If it’s going to be more than collecting sites and notching guidebook experiences, you have to reinvent it creatively from the ground up. We had a good starting place, for we were not in a tourist hub but a residential neighborhood—no set-up for outsiders. Our experience began with locating ourselves in the maze of streets with long unmemorizable Danish compound names and getting oriented to sources of food and transportation. Each trial run was, of course, an experience, a unit of meaningful tourism. It wasn’t made up of official and or counting-coups fare; it was adaptation to geography, phenomenology, and social interactions as they arose.

I would choose that. It feels like being in a new place, a real place; nothing is customized or packaged. The riddles are there to be solved, moment by moment. That’s tourism. Selected can’t-miss sites get so overseen that it is difficult to see anything at all, to observe what is actually there under the game, for the experience get impenetrably packaged. It is hard even to deconstruct because you first have to deconstruct global tourism and then you have to deconstruct your subliminal American provinciality and entitlement.

Our entry to Copenhagen consisted of a morning foray to neighborhood shops, then an afternoon run to the center of town. The latter meant familiarizing ourselves with the S-Tog local train, a different line from the inter-city train we took from Kastrup Airport.

We set out on the morning foray with Lindy’s hand-drawn copy of our host’s hand-drawn map on a whiteboard. We were aiming for the nearest shopping area, a long avenue called Jaegersborg. Since we didn’t have a full-area map, we had to trust a series of lefts and rights (right, left, left, right, etc.). If you substitute a right for a left (which I did after an initial short block), you end up in a mirror image and eventually have to flip the mirror to restore the directions. We did so eventually, without discovering my early mistake until our second foray later in the afternoon. The mirror got turned around finally by a taxi driver stopping to clean his windows. We hit Jaegersborg twenty minutes later than we might have and from the bottom rather than midway along.

On the day I noted two sane local customs which I haven’t seen applied in the States. Bike lanes run between parked cars and the pedestrian sidewalk. The idle vehicles form a solid barrier protecting cyclists from fast-moving and/or distracted drivers instead of wedging cyclists between their “wall” and traffic.

Later in the day we saw that each car on the S-train has a quiet compartment partially soundproofed from a larger area in which cell use is permitted.

Overally I considered it a successful day of full-blown tourism. Mainly it was pleasurable just to be in Copenhagen and to be in Denmark. Never been here before. Studied parts of its history in high school. Watched Danish films. Read translations of Danish writing. Met Danes in the U.S. Even published Danish authors. Now in Denmark. Denmark. It’s a virtual reality/sensory immersion. Every sight and smell and sound is Denmark. You can almost miss it for its omnipresence and the brain’s tendency to make generic.

Denmark’s the air, the light, the colors and smells of flowers along residential streets, gardenia-like lilacs and giant honeysuckle-like blossoms, loud and intricate bird choruses that seem to encompass whole neighborhoods, cats that come to visit and cats that look and dart off, children playing noisily amid the bird choirs, cyclists of assorted ages zooming past—all of it Denmark, 360 degrees. I can ride it. I don’t want to let a beat of it go by without acknowledgment.

It’s the young server at the Japanese restaurant to which we trooped on Jaegersborg for a late dinner, veterans of both the map and terrain by then (I did a confirming scouting mission on my own). The waiter grew increasingly fond of us as we did of him. He brought us samples and stayed around to jive and practice English at our outdoor table while the restaurant emptied of diners approaching 22:00 closing time (remember, land of the midnight sun, we didn’t set out to eat till 20:30). Our new friend graduated from high school a week ago. When we needed to pay, he unlocked the door and invited us in for more banter around the credit-card machine, things like—Lindy: “Your English is so good.” “I’ve had to study it since seventh grade.” “Will you go to college.” A silly grin, then “May be. [A longish “may”] I’m thinking about it.”

In a briefer encounter earlier in the day, a tall red-haired late-twenties Dane with his girlfriend at the S-Tog station took care helping us get two passengers onto our discount train card (loaned to us by our hosts whom we will repay for our accrued rides at the end). We had just gotten evicted from the C-line train (but spared a fine for a first offense) by a stern though not unsympathetic lady inspector for failing to get two people (in fact, even one) on the current fare correctly (she had a scanner). We had to get off at the next stop, find a way to do it right, and await the next train. The system is complicated. You have to press the plus sign before holding the card before the scanner, the opposite of the English instructions on the machine. To our surprise the same inspector was on the next train, but, with the help, we had gotten it right.

Tourism is solving riddles as they arise. After taking the train initially from Charlottenlund, our station, to an intended destination Central Station (Københavns Hovedbanegård), we were convinced otherwise by an older woman holding a bicycle who spied on our conversation. At her insistence, we exited with her at Nørreport, two stops early, for her touted walk through the older part of the city. She promised it was a short and interesting hike and would get us to Central Station. It wasn’t either. The shopping district she praised was flashy international shops and brands. We eventually got to generic government buildings, churches, parks, street theater, and buskers classical and pop, but we had run out of energy while two kilometers from Central Station (after query of a bank guard). We impulsively hopped on a Hop On/Hop off double-decker (550 crowns, but divide by 6 for approximate dollars), and sat for the next ninety minutes on the open-air upper deck in relaxed viewing of much of the inner city: districts, docks, statues, parks, fountains, museums, etc., without the loud, continuous narration of a regular tour bus. We could look, imagine, and space out, and it was all interesting whatever it was, down to individual birds and children running in parks and incidents on the street and colorful shops: wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. The ticket also included a boat tour, tomorrow’s plan.

Earlier in the day, back on our morning outing, we learned at a Meny branch supermarket that the key word for our preferred items was “økologiske,” recalling the old Oecology Issue of Io, for which we used the Greek diphthong and confused people who kept saying ”oh-ecology” or ”what’s oh-ecology?” It’s oikos, house—the science of the house of Earth. I used it too on my first book, Solar Journal: Oecological Sections.

Once familiarized with the ø symbol, we were able to get a bunch of decent items at an otherwise industrial-food mart. Later in the day by Central Station (where we finally hopped off the Hop on/Hop off and headed blindly to our ticket-machine flunk and eviction), we splurged at a health-food market run by an African dude with a smoothly twanged Harry Bellafonte lilt: cookies, dried fruit, nuts, coconut water, organic cacao bars, hazel nuts, coconut chips, ø ginger sodas, etc. (I had been carrying my empty backpack for just such an encounter).

What have I missed? Maybe sharing an odd lunch in the park after the supermarket and on the way home, four dishes in one plastic container from a tiny salad takeout place on Jaegersborg with a funny young Japanese proprietor: beets, beans, samosas, barley, etc. (the beets leaked and made a mess). While eating, we were visited by  dogs roaming from their walkers, some of them quite beautiful (Alaskan and sheep-herding), some with aggressive lab or pit bull, each matching the mien of its keepers. Before that, we got, what else?, Danishes, and sat on a bench in front of the bakery. Mine was a poppy-seed roll with more poppy-seeds and poppy-seed layers than dough.

Travel journals can triv out and turn into postcards from abroad. I will quit while I have a modicum of dignity. It’s eleven p.m. anyway, twilight.

 

July 6

Copenhagen’s canals and inner harbor are their own world, a stripped-open portal to the life of the city which I think of as København after having seen the name on so many boats. A trip through this realm discloses variants of lives and lifestyles, eras and technologies, periods of Danish and European history.

The boat ride may be unabashed tourism, but the sheer expanse of water dilutes that energy, dissolving it in its spacious vista. Although an announcer with a mike identified sites and objects onshore and afloat, our guide was a laid-back college-age guy who spoke in a fluently sonorous voice in three languages—first Danish, then English, then German—which mellowed out his energy. Danish phonemes served as a lyrical and local preamble, his English was lightly accented with succinct information, the German added a somber World War II timbre and raised us to history and the greater European region. He was accompanied by two much older beefier men who alternated the piloting.

We started out in a canal, worked our way down into the inner harbor, made a wide cross-harbor swoop across the vast bay, and reentered the canal system at a different point from where we progressed down a narrow water avenue, a motley array of boats parked on either side. The whole trip took about seventy-five minutes. A few things stand out:

  • Copenhagen’s more ancient canal bridges are low, narrow, and exquisitely cut in stone. As instructed, one must keep seated, bend a bit, and hold arms on board while passing through their dark echo chambers.
  • Boats are anything that floats, from giant ocean liners housing more people than towns and villages, to indescribable small barges, dories, scows, ketches, and tubs used as homes, restaurants, bars, and recreational floats. They fill Copenhagen’s near water in abundance.
  • Copenhagen uses its waterfront space with fractal brilliance, converting old factories, missile silos, piers, wharves, military barracks, abandoned shopping districts, earlier centuries’ neighborhoods, and leftover structures of divergent origin and function into apartments and office spaces. These cluster along the shoreline, towering in glass and colorful metal, jutting out on densely packed piers like square and round Leggo constructions, often piled atop each other. The ingenuity of design is insect-like and Alpha Centaurian. People spill like seals onto little bits of stone surface and lie in the sun.
  • The wars and cold wars of the twentieth century and the fortifications and military machinations of prior centuries, back to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), are visible (particularly as pointed out by our guide). All have been decommissioned. Even artifacts as recent as missile-bearing destroyers from NATO’s Soviet years and submarines from the last Iraq war look antique and quaint compared to the digital combat and the crisis of displacement that dominate the present global stage. The historical wars and their arsenals are clearly over, and their landscape has been adapted to serene uses—the missile silo is so skillfully redesigned that it looks like brilliant architecture and daring artistry more than expedient makeover. The greater war or crisis hovers like a ghost of something not yet manifest.

Denmark was historically a warring imperial nation and then a NATO stalwart, but it is presently at peace, showing human amelioration and progress. Though America’s wing of Republicans, Conservatives, and Trumpites vilifies Scandinavian socialist paradises, it is where Trump himself wants all his immigrants to come from. Even he blindly admires civilization.

  • Space along the inner canals is precious; there is a ten-year wait for berths. Many of the vessels look like lifetime commitments, cherished hobbies, and never finished weekend projects. They comprise homes, second homes, vacation spots, and hangouts of an elusive nature. Old tugboats have been refurbished into houses with gardens and dining areas. Many boats and barges have plants, sculptures, patios, attached kites (wildly diving birds), flags of no nation. They resemble portable, floating landfill more than agents of the sea, though there are plenty of active yachts, motorboats, and sleek craft that come and go from their berths. Families move along in small motorboats, children dangling toy boats or ducks in the water, food on board. They are floating picnics, their spreads on boards covering most of the boat space not occupied by people.
  • In a vast area of the inner harbor, on one side are luxury apartments of the most modern, fancy, and upper-echelon sort. On the other are floating hippie junks, yawls, barges, conversions,. etc., decorated baroquely, meta-politically, and in full Aquarian splendor such that it would take an entire thesis to dissect the symbology and bricolage of any one object and an entire field of hermeneutics and iconography to unravel the collective message and historical layering of Copenhagen’s Freetown Christianshavn, which has its own schools, laws, policing, and mores, a floating surreal, sci-fi borough having been left to partial self-rule by a tolerant government.
  • Hominids are sunbathing everywhere, making use of any platform, dock, and waterfront structure. The water must be cold because only two are swimming, but taking advantage of sun and water proximity is as ubiquitous as surface area will allow.
  • The overall waterfront reads not only as an intersection of the inner city with the commerce and international trade of the European zeitgeist but as a vivisection of a naked metropolis by marine activity. Various churches, financial districts, and neighborhoods are placed in context from water. The integral geography of Copenhagen is still a labyrinth, but you can discern various urban tangles and historical configurations of districts from water in a way hidden on land.
  • Mediaeval, Renaissance, and twenty-first-century Copenhagen flow together so that you might overlook how anomalous and incompatible the pieces are, like movies playing on adjacent screens or abutting holograms. It works.
  • Though the various waterfronts, on both narrow canals and in the capacious inner harbor, are characterized by a spirit of creativity, tolerance, and social fluidity, the scope of individual wealth also stands out: floating cocktail lounges of the partying gentry and entitled youth, many of them no doubt first-generation haves; castles and docks of the royal family, past and present, used or never used and later converted into luxury apartments, motorcraft full of careless young people defying courtesy, buzzing tour boats, causing angry responses and shaking fists from the grizzled old hands overseeing our vessel.
  • Ecocity København is quite evident. Sprawling shoreline edifices heat themselves from their own lighting and cool in the summer from the water. Wind and solar power preen proudly, politically supported. A giant modern plant burns daily deliveries of trash, garbage, and indigestible metals and debris into a single electricity and heat that flow into homes throughout the city.

Though even the most ecologically minded don’t take the matter seriously on a daily basis (who could?), humankind’s continuation on this orb depends on converting linear accretion and consumption into cyclical activity (“sustainable” the ambient word). I think that this will happen. Our host David Reis agreed, as we stood by the recycling bins outside his house earlier talking about the untagged future. It seemed to either of us that unimaginable things must happen, both terrible and inspirational and, in either case, alchemical, for civilization, or what will remain of it, must re-root. I am not a pessimist, though I do feel like a stranger in a strange land, a visitor to someone else’s fucked-up planet. Clearly I am not. I am a fully indentured native with DNA roots in the Pleistocene. My ancestors and I are the crisis in its unfolding and, hopefully, my descendants will be a part of its resolution and I am providing a quantum of the paradigm. David and I finally decided that it was a longer conversation than the trip he was about to take to the hardware store allowed. He was getting piping for an anthroposophical fountain he was building in the backyard.

After dinner we would watch it in its first hours of successful operation, sending waveforms through a sensitive chaos of astral water. Will higher energies and subtle bodies play a role down the road for Operation Earth? They must, but how they will break into materialism’s trance is a mystery untold.

 

The waterway trip was relaxing, though in touristville we always seem to land beside an inconsolable baby or hyperactive tot (in this case, the former), whether on the bus to the airport (would he ever stop yowling?), to the waiting area at the airport gate (taking his hat on and off compulsively while a girl ran back and forth at her fullest speed in front of us), on the plane (two rows back), or now in front of us on the tour boat. This child was the worst of the lot, and his American mother and grandmother seemed clueless and counterintuitive, his father and sister uninterested, leading to the women agitating the infant more than settling him. He was directly in front of me and, though I am not skilled at seeing auras, I tried to see his, looking at him with a sense of his past lives and soul. Whenever I did, he riveted on me and broke into a smile. I accomplished this feat maybe four times during the ride, though he always returned to howling.

Early afternoon before the boat ride and later afternoon following it were dominated by transportation. Getting to Central Station on the S-Tog was eventful again around the matter of getting the right data onto the card for onboard inspection. We succeeded but, in the process, ended up filling our card with way too much money and I also left my credit card in the confusion of a card-rejecting station machine such that it had to be rescued by Marianne. American credit cards can’t be used in Danish because they don’t have the right sort of pin numbers. We had to fill the card at a 7-11 at Central Station even as our hosts were filling it by computer.

En route back, getting ourselves into the S-Tog part of the Nørreport station (the local rather than the inter-city trains) took many mistakes and wrong platforms and more time than actually getting home. Though I scanned my card in the inter-city part of the station, it showed the correct data for the inspector. I also remembered to clear it, as required, at “oud” both times, though barely.

After getting to town initially, we rode the Hop on/Hop off from Central Station to the boat tour. The supposed half-hour ride was near doubled by customers joining it at a hotel and then a cruise ship. Each stop took ten to fifteen minutes for the driver to run new credit cards. But that left time for additional customers to arrive, so that it seemed like we might never leave. Since we had a day of paid-for rides on the bus, it seemed worth using the purchase to get to the boat dock (only seven stops from Central Station), but in retrospect a cab would have been better. As it was, we arrived just in time for a departing boat.

We rode the bus again after the boat ride, aiming at the Botanical Gardens (stop 20). It required re-seeing some scenery, but it was quite different on review, a pleasant journey in the second deck in bright sun, making my Brooklyn Nets cap worth having put last-minute in my suitcase. Entrance to Gardens was free and, though they were technically open, the greenhouses were all locked, though walking paths and a lily-pad-filled pond made the locale worth a visit—these plus an old crumbling brick building that suggested an eighteenth-century herbarium. We had hoped to see advertised exotic fungi and giant butterflies, so it was a disappointment for such a long ride.

From the Gardens we hiked to the afore-mentioned layers of the Nørreport station where we got lost among trains.

For all the problems, the basic shape of Copenhagen was becoming familiar on only our second full day. For instance, I understood why we took the inter-city train the first time and the S-tog afterward, though both stopped at Hellerup. The S-tog alone stopped at Charlottenlund, walking distance to our house.

 

In the early morning before all this happened, I joined Marianne in her garden, picking currants, a few raspberries, for about an hour. She initiated it, approaching me at my laptop with tea in the dining room and saying that if I would keep her company while she picked, we could have a talk. I was a willing plucker as well, as I enjoy filling containers of blueberries, huckleberries, and black chokeberries in Maine.

Our conversation ranged over many topics, some of them partial repeats: the Soul in the cosmos, intergenerational trauma, the role of epigenetics and the parietal lobe in trauma in families, the Buddhist perspective on individual personality development and the formation of identity, the creation of transpersonal and collective information fields, the way that the archetypal flows into and organizes the personal as opposed to vice versa, her own life and development from Elizabeth Marchand’s bodywork through radical Danish Buddhism to somatic experiencing, and my own present sense of inexplicably emerging space and painful transition.

I knew what a privilege this was. Marianne is an advanced psychotherapist who sees virtually no individual patients anymore. She has been licensed at the fifth level as a senior Buddhist practitioner to give individual transmissions. She trains psychotherapists and lectures to hundreds of them at a time throughout Europe. She is a recognized superstar who brings psychoanalysis and Buddhism (and general spirituality) together in a unique way with her singular perspective and credentials from her trainings and teachers. She has both knowledge and knowledge’s context, a rare and precious combination. Basically I was allowed a rich, wide-ranging private session, including both my own issues and our shared confessions. We conducted light psychospiritual transference, using intellectual as well as emotional energy and synergizing them, while filling a container to the brim with currants.

Boat trips and travels through Copenhagen are well and good, but this was the jewel of my day and is what stays with me and fills me with warmth and hope by night. We can build cities over generations, and they are marvelous to behold—and yes today I’d rather be viewing new cultures and geographies than much of anything else because I am going through a mysterious inner change, but angelic connection helps. Transparent recognition of our soul presence in this Creation and reality and shared stories are the lifeblood of aliveness. They are beacons in a more darkly folded and entangled place than a train station, and I need them to be able to sleep and to want to awake to the next day. Without them, I am lost in anonymous murk.  I am grateful to be in the presence of guides and seers. It has always been the first compass of my journeying.

I understand now: one can simply receive. Beneficent waves from near at hand and unimaginably far arrive simultaneously. Distance matters not at all in a universe like this. So, thanks for those healing waves.

Late in the day, after Lindy’s and my return from downtown, David, Marianne, and we two shared our differently elicited dinners (their Indian takeout, our cooking from the supermarket and healthfood store), making an indoor picnic with discussion of such things as Neanderthal genes in our genome, telepathy, and epigenetics and generational trauma (again) plus the usual range of personal, political, and randomly arising topics, before going to the backyard to view the operations of David’s splendid new fountain.

 

July 7

In the morning Lindy and I took the S-tog to Central Station and went on a 10 a.m. walking tour of central Copenhagen. Our guide was a distinguished woman of roughly our age, Bodil Teide. Right off, she admitted a serious bias toward history and warned us off the tour if we didn’t want to hear that. It cost 100 kroner, about $16.50, each. There were six of us: two young women from L.A. taking in all the Scandinavian countries in whirlwind, and a younger and older Swiss woman travelling together and trying to get two tours per day through different aspects of Copenhagen. We moved at a leisurely pace in bright sun, delectable breezes off the harbor.

For all my talk about the value of a waterview in seeing København with perspective, today proved the equal value of plodding through the interstices of a hive with a knowledgeable bee. We walked Copenhagen’s layered history, street to street, plaza to plaza, from church to shops to school to government building to statue, integrating the relationship between the bright reality surrounding us and collectively kept records of how we got to it, at least the part of it that is still standing as opposed to in the Akashic records (though there is a subtle frequency at which the past merges as ghosts with breezes and sunlight).

These are the hardest types of tourist experiences to write about because everything I learned and saw would be better gleaned from a history book or travel guide or in widely available postcards of Copenhagen’s key sights. It is much more difficult to deconstruct a jumble of information and impressions and say what was special or generated deeper images.

Toward the tour’s beginning, we stood in the oldest market area where Vikings came to shop, to buy and sell after raids. Bodil remarked that the area was still oriented by the same oblique arrangement of buildings, so the Vikings would probably recognize where they were, though they would be higher in relation to sea level, standing atop centuries of matted-down litter. I scanned the square for what would most surprise her seafaring ancestors and decided that, aside from obvious things like a shop called Miami (a little out of their westfaring range), the biggest anomaly might be the Amnesty International offices marked in gold letters. Amnesty would be a concept outside their worldview and situational ethics. But who is to say what meaings coexist at a given time? Who can speak for their view of empathy and mercy?

Idly I tried an astral vibration to see what Viking energy might still be present. I was in over my head psychically, but I did get something striking: “We are not who you think we are, so you do not know how to read our energy. Forget judging us by your view of our compassion.” The energy of that transmission was, in a sense, the site’s Viking energy. At least that’s how it nakedly reached me.

Danish history is set by some milestone events that are commonly overlooked. Each is one version of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects: the Black Death, the little Ice Age, the fortification of small port villages, the Reformation, the English destruction of the Danish fleet in the first decade of the nineteenth century. I couldn’t remember which war that was. Why exactly were the British shelling Copenhagen in 1807 such that we can still see blackened stone today? Bodil explained that the Danes were collateral damage in the English attempt to prevent Napoleon from getting his hands on the second largest military fleet in Europe. The largest prevailed under Lord Horatio Nelson. He used the church steeple as his compass.

I use a definition of hyperobjects I gleaned from Tim’s lectures: “entities that are massively distributed in time and space, at least relative to human scales…. Hyperobjects are viscous, molten, nonlocal, phased, and inter-objective…. They appear in the human world as products of our thinking through the ecological crisis we have entered…. [T]his is the moment at which massive nonhuman, nonsentient entities make decisive contact with humans, ending various human concepts such as world, horizon, nature, and even environment. Art in the time of hyperobjects isn’t simply art about hyperobjects but art that seeks to evoke hyperobjectivity in its very form….”

That is what makes tourist deconstruction so difficult. We are staring at a crisis unfolding while pretending to see something else. I think of hyperobjects as colliding information systems within the human commons, chaos fields emerging from multi-convergences of the unknown actual universe with human activities and symbols. Hyperobjectivity is a useful way to translate a walking tour into larger grids of information even as evoking a Viking astral frequency is a way to attract energies and entities outside of one’s ken.

Absalon, the twelfth-century bishop of Roksilde and organizer of the original fortification of the fishing village that became Copenhagen, stands or sits on various horses and pedestals in both symbolic and lineal recognition of his founding of the modern metropolis. His largest and most militaristic representation rests atop a stone pedestal across which simply cut waves of individual herring swim, indicating that his power, the power of the state, the basis of the Danish polity, rests on fish in general and herring in particular. I am guessing that the builders of the statue meant it one way and I take it another. To them it was a slightly condescending nod, given the majesty of the statue and the slim figurations of the fish. To me it reveals a hyperobject, and the relationship between the two icons is deeper unconsciously and millennially than on the stone.

I surfed other juxtapositions: enlightened kings, astronomical discoveries, wars, and fires, overlapping with one another and present-day shopping activities and musicians at fountains and statues. People lived in these actual orange and red structures. Being in their retained energy fields is different from reading about them in a book. That the man who lost his entire family in a theater fire in the seventeenth century used the money meant for his children’s education to build the college dormitory that stands before us and is till seems anomalous with the atrocities of the era, the surreal madness that swept Scandinavia into Germany’s Thirty Years’ War. One realizes that gentleness and good will have always coexisted with avarice, narcissism, and recreational violence. Likewise, structures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance hold their own in a modern city. Habitation on a sacred, fragile planet is part of the subtext that goes unspoken, though I try Bodil on the relationship of the dorm to that weird seventeenth-century war and she says, “Yes, I thought that too.”

At one point we looked at an old hospital—I think it was one of Copenhagen’s three Mediaeval structures still standing. In Bodil’s account of its era, hospitals were poorhouses while doctors attended most sick folks in their homes. She segued into an account of beggar kings, leaders of bands of poor people whose job was to maintain their flocks and keep other poor people from joining. She laughed a bit sarcastically, adding something like, “Things haven’t changed much, have they?” No, they haven’t. So what has changed in a fundamental way (other than technology), and what have those hidden changes meant for humanity?

A few other things stood out in retrospect. On our spanning of a canal, we saw an underwater sculpture, or its top; it was actually six or seven separate pieces around a merman, representing an underwater tale whose plot I forget. The issue was that most of the figures could be seen only from atop looking down, and as a fraction of their whole in the dark water. Although I don’t think the intention was avant-garde, the effect generated my avant-garde discursions, including a French modern sense of erasure, that what is unseeable is as important as what is visible (or what is missing as important as what is present) as long as the missing or unseeable is/was actually there.

I also thought about how the statue’s story was too Hans-Christian to take into account the undine energy of mermaids and mermen—they are not just underwater, or not even underwater. Embodiment at an astral frequency means “swimming” in an astral medium even when breathing air and with ordinary legs instead of a fishtail. Andersen’s fairy tales, including those of mermaids, arise from a lost kingdom of faery energy that abuts the physical Earth.

The storefront of what we would call Danishes (and the Danish call Vienna cakes) was scrumptious in its varieties, twists, sugar coats, jams, seeds clusters, and degrees of crust and soft dough, and it led Bodil, as she stopped us to look, to a discourse of the little Ice Age and how oats and rye in these sweets mark how far south in Europe they originated, for the inability to grow wheat during cold summers only progressed south as far as a wave line through Austria and other European duchies.

A walking tour of downtown Copenhagen is simple, with tales of little mermaids, rye fields, and kings and Tasmanian princesses as per the most recent Danish royal bride, but it has a subtext: we are alive and archaeological both and, though we are not obscured in time (yet), we stand in dynamic interplay with energy fields and hyperobjects. They are not on our tour list but they are what we see.

 

The afternoon marked a change in direction for our trip. We returned to the house, got our prepared overnight backpacks, and walked back to the S-Tog. We changed at Central Station to the inter-city and left Denmark, going to Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city and not far from Copenhagen, about a half hour by train. To get from the Danish land mass to the Swedish land mass, the inter-city crosses a dramatic bridge over the Öresund. Because of the refugee crisis in Europe, we expected and encountered passport control getting off the train, though we were still in the EU.

This side trip was set in motion six years ago when we made a different European itinerary that included accepting a home exchange in Malmö. I still had the email of our partner and, like a squirrel, I know where the nuts are stored. I found Thomas Lunderquist’s one on my computer. A radio journalist for the Swedish equivalent of BBC or NPR, he invited us to stay for a night at his multi-generational family home down the coast from Malmö in Höllviken.

Thomas was born the same year (1969) as our son Robin.

I wanted to go to Malmö in part because it is a great word, a bit of a cookie and a dog, and just plain cute. It also was a way to see Sweden, a place in which I have greater interest than an overnight: the films of Lukas Moodysson and Ingmar Bergman, the plays of August Strindberg, the European country with the most heart, welcoming of refuges regardless of origin. One day is better than coming close and missing entirely.

Thomas met us at passport control and walked us to the car where his 85-year-old father, Thorsten Lunderquist, a retired judge from Malmö, sat in the driver’s seat. En route, Thomas assured us that his father had never had an accident and simply liked to drive. He took the backseat and talked to Lindy, while I talked to Thorsten, a man of relentless irony and teasing. There was no option but to joust back. His English was decent though a bit vague so that I didn’t always understand the joke, drawing an occasional light jab of the judge’s arm.

It is wonderful how in travelling you just plop down in the most random situations that instantly become nonrandom and heartwarming, in this case the family of Thomas, Thorsten, Thorsten’s wife (and Thomas’ mother) Maud, and Thomas’ sister Sofia and her two visiting friends—a Swedish summer weekend at a beach house on the Baltic (in the family since 1947). Interestingly Maud is Jewish, though raised in Malmö after her father’s escape from Poland, while Thorsten is Lutheran, making Thomas and his sister half-Jewish like our kids.

`           It happened to be the day that Sweden was playing England in the World Cup quarterfinals in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the streets were filled with people in the bright Swedish national color yellow, close to my favorite shade of my favorite color. I do not follow European football, but I joined Thomas for a while before the t.v. and amused him with my few literary references to “soccer”: Roddy Doyle’s Patty Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha; Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric; and my friend (and NAB author) Bruce Lee’s vilification of American football as being ridiculous for its staccato rather than continuous action (Elvis Costello’s base player, Bruce wrote books we published on Bruce Lee, Wing Chun, and Kung fu). England took a 1-0 lead on a header and looked to be the better team (they ultimately won 2-0). Thomas walked his parents and us to the Falsterbo Canal and Baltic Sea beach before hurrying back to watch the second half.

The canal was presented as a stretch of water opened to the Baltic by Swedish engineers during World War II in order to get ships out around German mines. The Germans blocked had Swedish and Danish vessels going between the Öresund and the Baltic around Falsterbo and Skanör. The canal is slightly salty, without fish, and quite cold—a popular swimming site, though only one woman was there because everyone else was watching the football. Torsten and Maud went right down the ladder into the frigid water from decades of acquaintance. Lindy followed soon after. I had had an earlier summer encounter with a cold river as part of a ceremony in New Hampshire, so I took time framing my reentry. Cold is transformational and, after getting in, I swam underwater. It was too cold for longer than a minute.

After a half hour, we left the canal and walked to beach on the Baltic, a hike through heather, reeds, rib grass, and rock roses, with quails and rabbits scurrying through the brush. The sand on the beach was soft as powder and it vibed with healing properties. The aroma of rotting seaweed was sensuously sulphurous. We spent several hours in lazy talk with Maud, feeling the sand, idly burying feet and arms. I took the extra step of applying it medicinally to my body as an experiment. It was so fine and dry and full of negative ions.

Thorsten had gone back ahead of Maud, Lindy, and me to fix the dinner, another prerogative he insisted on. On my earlier request, the chicken was, in his words, “fed only corn but is not eating much now.” At eight (20:00) we had a lively family dinner on the back porch during which Thorsten diagnosed each of the foreigners’ manners, and Lindy couldn’t live down her many ice cubes in red wine—he said she was clearly not European. I was identified as American for eating my small round potato with a fork without using my knife.

The rise of Hitler in Germany was discussed at length—it is still current. Thorsten had many opinions as to how he took power with only 32% of the vote. The conversation moved to Trump, and Lindy and I had ample opportunity to discuss American politics with Swedes, a fertile territory because one has the America-centric illusion that everyone else gets our melodramas and the nuances of our electorate and political parties. They don’t, and there were many openings for our opinions and comments on them. The topic eventually ran its course, and the evening rolled on, as evenings in the north do, toward 22:00 sunset. Three wood pigeons, plumper as well as more individual and aggressive than the more familiar (to me) urban pigeons (they don’t flock and they keep better hygiene), engaged in a ferocious battle or courtship on a tree branch and then the garage roof. Thorsten said that they hired these birds for the summer to entertain their guests. Later he intentionally confused what Lindy was saying into a claim she was about to take a course in Yiddish in Lithuania (closer to what Thomas was doing for a radio show). she delighted him with her outrage.

Folks are in fact still talking, and I am writing, catching up with the days, but the journal ends here, leaving us in the warm evening of Höllviken summer. This is what one travels for, a family dinner at a Swedish beach house providing only its own context.

An interesting aside before closing: as the discussion turns to swallows (for which they seek the English word from the Swedish), I realized that if we weren’t there, they would be having almost the same conversation but in Swedish.

 

July 8

The bright yellow Swedish sun is not the color of the Swedish flag or football team but the subtler yellow of morning, the garden, doves cooing, and a wisdom outside of time, drenching history, drenching knowledge, drenching a multidimensional Earth. It fills this summer house by the seaside, by the sand, by the cat Timon meowing in his feline timeless time. The flow of esoteric information is not but might as well be Swedenborgian for its capacity to erase everything else for a moment and be only itself. It is erotic intelligence, telling me that deeper eros is not what is tagged as erotic but flows from those old apples in the grass and the beach roses and reeds. It is an essence and sorrow beyond thought.

The Swedenborgian catharsis expands dreamlike into its own mineralogical philosophy, filling the morning with bird cries as swallows swoop—what other word is there for what they are doing in the high air, as they own the English “sw” field above this house? The Lunderquists prepared bundles of dough the night before and have put them into the oven. Now they produce hard rolls with rye and oats mixed in with wheat. We share a long family breakfast on the sun porch.

Thorsten and Maud leave early with towels, touting the water and proselytizing and teasing us about what we will be missing. No one but them wants to venture into the sea that early. After breakfast Lindy and I make the trek together in the crowds on Ljungsätersvägen—no football game today, the local papers thanking Sweden’s star for the ride, bright yellow back page of Sydsvenskan reads, “Tack for fest, Granen!”

A flow of families is walking, electrobiking, biking, wagoning, and autoing toward the white sands and Baltic. We go to the pier on the canal. The water is a tad warmer today but still an icy plunge. The body goes, sensations flow through the body, too many of them to account or arrange, so it is a mixture of psychic and emotional fields settling in the swim. I like being a ray-like starfish under the water, immersed and radiating as a different kind of creature. Maybe it is its own atavistic astral visitation. I say all this now, but at the moment it was just the water, its bone-deep icy vibrations, their liberation of a lifetime of feelings, rising to a Sweden of many people in the canal: little blonde girls and their parents and older people, everyone in body and spirit cleansing.

Afterwards Lindy and I walk through the reeds to the Baltic shore and lie in the white powder, soft and deeply grounding, full of mineralogical philosophy and vital energy pulled out of the sun and up from the earth. One can simply lie in its orgone bed and feel excess emotion and energy and grief pulled out.

 

Thorsten again insisted on right of driver, to take us and his son back to Malmö, about thirty kilometers and minutes. The outing concluded with a fast tour of residential Malmö, where we first got to see the house where Thorsten raised his family, including his fruit trees and vines, grapes that produced forty bottles of wine one year and a new apricot from which he insisted Lindy get the one ripe fruit of the day.

After dropping Thorsten off, we went to Thomas’ house to see the new floor he was installing. That led to a garden tour with an emphasis on tasting currants, admiring the apple and plum, and evaluating the shade cast by the neighbor’s giant maple, which Thomas reckoned was out of scale with the neighborhood—these were small yards with gardening space elegantly apportioned—hence the tree should be cut, though he hated killing any tree. I was most taken with the tansy in front. I consider the tansy blossoms of New England almost perfect yellow-orange, but these were even yellower and five times the blossom sphere of any tansy I have seen. The alchemically medicinal smell, a little tangier here, never fails to elicit Mediaeval apothecaries as well as the beating of my own heart.

We were next taken to the center of town: the library, museum, and train station. Malmö has several architectural marvels including a tower with a DNA helical twist and a new branch to the library with ceilings that seem stratospheric with a radiance of soft light through near total glass. We were finally left at the art museum’s restaurant so that we could eat lunch before boarding the train back to Copenhagen. Large numbers of fresh breads and hard dark Scandinavian crackers covered a table for taking by diners. I ended up with a pickled salmon dish I might have avoided in the States for the heavy sour cream, but fish, onions, warm potatoes, radishes, and lettuce mixed perfectly. Lindy had a thick tannish-green cauliflower soup with a gourmet flavor. All with the breads and crackers and ginger juice.

The bookstore had a section for local Swedish avant-garde writers, and my attention fell on a pamphlet called Male Gazes by a female-to-male trans. Alternating Swedish and English pages offered passages that cut through the mediocrity of Western sociopolitical life:

“I used to be a woman. I didn’t realize how much I was objectified until I became a man. Suddenly, my presence became less viable…. Like, somehow I’d become the default, no longer something special or view-worthy. I like that—not being gazed at anymore by men. It feels more powerful. But that’s not why I became a man. It’s just an unforeseen bonus.

“As a woman, I was self-conscious of my appearance. As if all the years of being looked at and assessed caused me to internalize the notion that my presence served a particular purpose—to reaffirm masculinity and the tacit right of all men to tell me who I am. I appeared as I did out of obedience. The reward was affirmation. I sought the satisfied glances of men as confirmation that I had successfully fulfilled my role. I was someone worth desiring, therefore I was someone. Invisibility as a woman was the most horrifying prospect of failure.”

“The male gaze is everywhere. Even as a well educated, thought-driven woman, at least a few times a day my mind returns to thoughts of my body and whether or not it’s good enough.”

“I was thirteen when I lost my virginity to him. From then on, my kindness and warmth consisted and was measured in the amount of times I said “yes.” Now I am soulless and merciless, for every man has heard a “NO.” I love being soulless if that equals self-respect. I love being merciless if that means loving myself.”

“The male gaze is of no importance.”

 

My response is yes! Even to the degree I don’t suffer the male gaze on me, it radiates and splinters through my cultural and personal space. I am male. I don’t deny the gaze, but the mindless mass capitalization of it has hijacked the culture and hijacked the connection between upper and lower chakras that allows the gaze to transform and redeem itself. It is a prison.

 

We arrived in Sweden at 15:00 and left at 15:30 the next day on the train to Copenhagen. The Copenhagen airport station of our debacle seemed months ago. The local geography now made so much sense, explaining the Swedish family sitting next to us on that first ride to Hellerup. We switched to the S-Tog to Charlottenlund, caught a train just at the closing doors. David by chance picked us up walking from the station, and we shared some fruit before heading out on our own to the Asian-fusion Koii on Jaegersbord for dinner. We were pros.

 

July 9

Lindy went horseback riding with Marianne at 10:00 in the morning, her first such outing since her teen years. She got to guide and trot and communicate with Marianne’s Icelandic pony, while Marianne borrowed a friend’s and they went on some trails. Her account is in her own travel journal.

I eventually took the train into town, exiting at the Nørreport station and walking aimlessly for the next four and a half hours. It wasn’t totally aimless, as I had goals, but they never came to much. The event was the walking, the neutrality of being in another country and observing with sustained curiosity, thinking my own thoughts in the shifting scenery that balanced their flow.

I wanted to see Christianshavn, so I walked there initially, falling in with a hippie family (a couple with young teen boys) who invited me to follow them after I asked directions upon nearing the bridge to that section of town. Christianshavn looked like the rest of Copenhagen more or less, a bit more funky local street activity. It also turned out that the last canal our tour boat went down was Christianshavn. Now I got a chance to look up close at floating homes with vegetable plots.

I walked all the back to Nørreport with the goal of going to see the butterflies at the Botanical Gardens but turned the wrong way and wandered into and through a large park with lakes (it turned out to be Örstads Park) before asking two old guys on a bench for the Gardens and getting turned around and sent back the other way. Not that it mattered much where I walked. Plus, all museums, including the butterfly greenhouse, were closed on Monday, disappointing many other arriving visitors.

I hiked from the Botanical Gardens to Central Station, a complicated course as well as a good distance, getting off-course many times while passing sites from the walking tour. They had a different feeling come upon them randomly, as my geography of Copenhagen deepened. Wandering with goallessness is easier in a foreign city where there is so much to observe. I chose not to ask my way to the station for a long time, content to intuit streets and see what appeared, a pleasant lassitude. I almost stopped at a few restaurants but wasn’t hungry enough to break the rhythm of the wander. I passed crowds in squares, listened briefly to jazz bands (jazz week in Copenhagen), walked in churchyards, sat by fountains and tracked sprinkle paths of water, looked in store windows, watched boats and birds—all the things that go with a full meander. I finally had a ginger drink at the health-food store and boarded the S-Tog as Central Station.

 

Night. Totally, totally different. David and Marianne invited Lindy and me to the third floor for a dinner they had prepared, and for two hours we had the sort of lively exchange that one might expect with people who do energy work and reflective-listening therapy during much of the day. Some of the exchange followed from the horses and led to a discussion of animal intelligence and human-animal dialogues. The meal was on their back porch and the topic came to include wood pigeons on the roof and a hornet that kept buzzing the beers before having to be rescued from mine—always back to how to people communicate with animals without imposing prerogative and authority, lots of criticism of horse whisperers by Marianne (especially the generic book), then a side trip through how democracy can sustain itself in light of the impact of fear and conspiracy theories to parts of the brain that are millions of years old and go back at least to fishes as opposed to the types of reflection needed for governance that arise in parts of the brain maybe 200,000 years old. We evaluated the near inextricable entanglement of progressive liberalism with scientism, hence liberals’ own susceptibility not to conspiracy theories as such but the corporate packaging of progressive materialism (as against alternative medicines or the communications of tree through their root systems or other things outside the box that many liberals assign to the same quackery as denial of climate change). On the whole, a mare’s nest of complication.

The greater course of discussion was through systems of therapy and their differences and changes from the eighties to the present in Europe and the States, the gist being that most prior dynamics had been abandoned or transformed into new methods of individual and mutual reflective listening and a systems approach here in Denmark—Marianne doesn’t teach in the U.S. anymore because the different therapy communities in which she worked are not open to the new synergistic methods developing in Denmark, Germany, and Holland. One oversimplification I can produce is that it is impossible to get people to levels beyond where they are, which is what therapists do, so how to reach people where they actually are and enable them to develop from their own resources.

We segued to David’s energy work, querying him on how it is done, ways to reach the dying, either to bring them back or allow them to pass (reading their state), and how that related to the overall auric field in which they had incarnated and drew from. Part of the issue raised is that the energy finds its own directions, and in the work you learn to read it and guide it and, to some degree, restore its direction and vitality. But you don’t interfere with it. Unfortunately I have reduced a twenty-minute map to a few stray gleanings. His presentation had the urgency of his enthusiasm, particularly his realization that all the years of his practice had made it possible for him to feel energy at its core like a psychic x-ray. He shifted my query about whether the energy he tapped was particularly etheric to the more embracing notion that at his level the auric energies flow from all frequencies and sources simultaneously and he dowses the total field beyond names.

The currants from our picking the other morning made their way into Marianne’s dessert as a sauce with other berries and whipped cream.

After Lindy went downstairs, I stayed with David and Marianne for what I expected would be an additional half hour of discussion and it exploded into one of those epitome conversations you have with people who go there: the nature of souls in the universe, the effect of the collective in trauma, etc. Marianne surmised that particularly powerful traumas like the one that led to suicides in my natal family cause individuals to lose personal identity or form imperfect boundaries and then they merge with the collective trauma which is boundaryless and cannot be encompassed … from there to what our roles must in redeeming the collective trauma individually. How do we change its condition in the world and the civilization, though it dwarfs us? We passed from the role of the collective in generating atrocities like concentration camps to the work of humans in the crisis of their own existence, the nature of esoteric process, the relationship of the erotic and the esoteric, the communication of souls, etc.. I can’t begin to replicate the scope our dialogue, but it went for another two hours. It stretched me to my furthest wonderings, convictions, fears, and hopes. At one point, brilliant Marianne pulled together mystical Christianity (Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, etc.), Buddhist nonduality, Seth, Jung, shamanism, and a lot else in one fell swoop (causing David to jokingly insert, “You’ve got it, Marianne”), culminating in an image of the soul attempting to evolve, to touch matter and suffering, and spread its light into the darkness. She was talking about the nature of our journey and why we suffer, as we all batted back and forth notions of the Divine in relation to the Creation. I provoked the trail by trying to square Marianne’s deeply committed nondual Buddhist practice with notions of the individual soul. She smiled and said, “But I’m a Christian mystic and a Jungian too,” and went on to prove it, that she could hold duality and nonduality, the collective and the personal, suffering and redemption, and a bunch of other dichotomies simultaneously, as she did so in a tour de force. Then David and I held our own multiple polarities and we blended them into a revelation past anyone’s capacity to stay awake. I don’t stand a chance of capturing more than a smidgen, but I will end the day in its spirit.

 

July 10

Lindy and I decided to go to opposite attractions across the street from each other near the Nørreport station. First we walked to the Charlottenlund S station, our most familiar journey in Denmark, a ten-minute stroll through swish suburban streets, lots of colorful gardens and a few massive apartment buildings at the end. At the okologiske Bread Garden alongside the station, you can dip samples of the most recent loaf out of the oven in olive oil or get a large cookie or raspberry tart.

We had finally mastered the shining blue dot of the ticket machine. The trick is that the machines differ. There’s no absolute autopilot protocol. You have to reason with the screen. The one at Charlottenlund accepts the + for the second passenger at a different point in the sequence than the one at Nørreport or Central Station. David says the system ran over-budget, we are told; then its technology was dated by the time it was implemented. We boarded a quick-arriving train.

Lindy wanted to see a Danish castle, and the Rosenberg castle was across the street from the butterfly house and Natural History Museum—a perfect contiguity. After leaving her in a queue at the castle, I walked half of a long block to the corner, though my target was directly across the street (traffic travels fast and is pedestrian blind). I came in through the museum courtyard and wandered back into the Botanical Gardens. I got on the short line for the butterfly greenhouse, following a crowd of many ages and nationalities, bought my ticket, and entered. Not reading Danish, I walked an entire greenhouse of cactuses looking for butterflies without a one. I dawdled, at least appreciating the cactuses, bright yellow and red flowers on giants of the deserts displaced to meditate and bloom in the north. Then the exit from the cactus greenhouse became the entrance to a double greenhouse of butterfly madness.

Butterflies bring lightness, color, dance, surprise, but mostly lightness, large fluttering wings bearing a neutrally awake worm. There was so many of them that we visitors experienced brief landings on our clothes, hair, hands. A sense of their world was conferred by touch. They said silently: “We alight, we like your colors, we are not afraid of you. What do you think of us, big ones?” My version of unconscious “butterfly think.”

According to the wall chart, there were about ten or so varieties. My favorite by far was the Blue Morpho, significantly larger than the rest, with iridescent wings: its blue glowed. How often do you see giant blue butterflies on the loose, let alone in numbers? Their wingspan gave them a more stable gait in the air than the others, as they seemed to float around each other, chasing in pairs and trios. The wall chart attributed natural selection of their iridescent blue to the fact that it scared predators, e.g., more blue ones survived. I am a neo-Darwinian by education and birth, so I will buy it, but add a touch of Steinerite Paul Klee blue for the Lemurian vibration seeping in. Blue for poison, but also blue for mystic light.

Four of the varieties were orange, identified as Julia, Postman, Tiger Wing, and East Mexican Banner. With the morphos, they flapped a quiet symphony in orange and blue, though there were some yellows and some flying things with transparent veined rings.

I did not feel bad for the butterflies’ captivity, though I had imagined I might. Their zoo was planted with their favorite flowers and, if that wasn’t sufficient, their hosts had hung thin cross-strips of banana, orange, and watermelon from the ceiling: high-surface-area candy wafers delicacies for clustering. Others were strewn in the dirt around the plants. It was butterfly nirvana.

I walked the short distance from there through the Botanical Gardens to the Natural History Museum.

People in Denmark are assiduously ethical. If I had wanted to go to both the butterfly house and museum, I should have bought my ticket at the museum and gotten a discount. When the young woman at the counter informed me of this after I had paid, I said I had already been to the butterflies. She took my ticket back (despite my saying it was okay), deducted the cost of the greenhouse, and sold me another, juggling the difference in her computer. Since there was no one behind me in line, I asked her for help on the location of the next museum Lindy and I wanted to go to. She went onto her computer to see, then found and marked a map and gave it to me. The whole interaction, six or seven minutes, was so gracious you might miss that its innate generosity came automatically to her.

The Natural History Museum was nicely contained and manageable for only one hour to look. I grew up in NYC going to the local Museum of Natural History, and it required multiple several-hour visits for the barest coverage. The entire Copenhagen MNH could have fit in one of its exhibit halls. Its first floor was divided into (1) astronomy (with emphases on asteroids, meteors, Mars, Vesta, and a film on the Big Bang and formation of the Solar System), (2) geology (galena, dolemite, iron pyrites, and the gang), (3) the formation of the Denmark shelf from pre-Cambrian through Pliocene times, and (4) a room loosely dubbed The Cabinet of Curiosities modelled after the collection of sixteenth-century Danish physician Ole Worm; it included birds, bones, fish, spears, rattles, antlers, small-animal taxidermy, the figure of an Eskimo, a kayak, etc. Some of these were in separate exhibit cases, and a portion of it was in a large reenactment of Worms’ museum. The room reminded me of Portland, Maine’s Museum of Cryptozoology.

The sense of “museum” as a Foucaultian “legenda” (“things told”) pervaded the Copenhagen gather and it didn’t just apply to one room. The whole gestalt was a legenda for its single fragments of Moon and Mars, one-of-a-kind rocks, assortment of sea-heart nuts washed up on Danish shores from tropical rainforests, reconstructions of Pliocene underwater snail, fish, and plant life (including a grouping with charmingly Ikea-like names: snegl, haj, moler, fugle and musling—what child wouldn’t want to swim in their palaeo-wonderland?).

The Copenhagen NMH’s second floor was devoted entirely to dinosaurs skeletons and models of dinosaur eggs and late embryology.

I have a tendency to go peripheral and subjective in halls of all sciences like this. It’s a habit that got me in trouble in anthropology graduate school where you were expected to stick to facts. I’m attuned differentlt. Yes, I managed to learn requisite data about geological eras and fossil evidence and passed my M.A. exams, but I also wrote poems about the geological eras and then the whole of Solar Journal. Later in The Night Sky I mixed chapters of pure orthodox astronomy with zodiacs, astral realms, shamanic heavens, and Pawnee stars maps. I felt the whole CMNH thing as a single wave: early stars building up elements through iron, secondary explosions seeding contemporary space-time with elements, Earth forming in the solar gyre, Cambrian lavas, trilobites and sea worms, an expression of awakening predatory and afraid reptile consciousness in the explosion of giant Triassic and Jurassic forms, the mammals and forests of the Pliocene, Cro Magnon intelligence coming finally to the cabinets of curiosities and civilized cities of Holocen Earth. The wave awakens me from torpor and roots me in a wide space.

I won’t claim a clairsentient vision; it’s more that the entire pattern has an implicit shape and emergent form for me. It is all legenda, hence sticks together as a super-fairy-tale of a strange place (Earth after the unknown astral kingdoms of Lemuria and Atlantis, unknown because they were pre-physical vibrations). It is what Rudolf Steiner and his associates called “physical evolution ascending” to meet “spiritual evolution descending”—two interfusing polar waves. It may be my own imagination, but they resonate as real somewhere deep inside me.

The Museum of Natural History not only taxonomizes and analyzes morphologies; it can’t help but show, in its rush of organized language and strict symbology—those blond- bearded, smiling young Danish astronomers on the video speaking to a docile public like priests—the emergence of a shape that transcends its individual parts and brings seashells and suns together in a singular etiology or archetypal morphology. D’Arcy Thompson got its essence in his 1900 classic On Growth and Form. The CMNH was a Museum of Growth and Form.

Nice tiny stuffed dinosaurs in the gift shop, but no room in my suitcase to cart them back for grandchildren.

I met Lindy outside the Rosenberg castle. She distinguished from the one we saw in Ireland last year as being the home of a big-deal king rather than the large house of a feudal noble keeping up with his neighbors in Mediaeval suburbia. It had guards around its crown jewels.

We started the long trek toward the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, aiming on my map. We set out in the general direction of Christianshavn. The Art Center was farther out on the same spit of land.

We didn’t know yet that it was unrealistic to think we could walk the entire way. It was not unrealistic to walk; that is, to get going on foot to the right part of town, eat lunch somewhere en route. We trekked deep into the inner city—ten minutes, twenty minutes, a half hour, our avenue bending away city center to aim for the bridge over the canal. We passed through more conventional neighborhoods without the usual tourist crowds or scenic sites (cinema museums, t.v. stations, all of it interesting). We settled on a modest basement Japanese wok place: a tall young long-haired Dane guy taking orders and a grizzled old Japanese chef working beside him on a grill—tight quarters, only a few tables. While building our respective noodle dishes from three columns of categories (noodle, vegetable or meat, and sauce), we learned from the young Dane how far our destination was—much too great a distance to walk. His recommendation was to take the 9A bus—its route passed very near. Getting to its correct avenue was too complicated. Once on the street, we found his combination of a right followed by two sort-of lefts (an uncertainly wavy hand confirmed by the nodding chef) impossible to apply. Instead, we took a taxi from a waiting row. We hadn’t splurged on one yet, and this was the moment.

The driver was voluble, telling us, among other things, what ordinary words in Danish were insults in Swedish, then narrating the list of drugs you could and couldn’t buy, none of them legal, in Christianshavn as we passed through it. Somehow I had missed its core on my walk, the converted Army barracks of Christiana, dense wild-looking hive visible through openings. We saw it tantalizingly from the cab: combination Stone Age village, carnival, farmers’ market, and Burning Man. I wished I could have entered for a close look, but we sped on after briefly slowing for a view. I reminded myself: One has to be careful not to get caught up in scoring tourism points.

The Culture Center was in its own converted military facility—Navy in this case—in a remote part of the city still mostly undeveloped but beginning to come to life with new businesses and lofts. The district itself, Refsholevej, was significantly beyond Christianshavn (more than half the entire cab ride). Then the Center, hard for the driver to find among obscurely numbered zones, was at the farthest tip of the district. It would have been at least an hour’s walk after reaching Christiana.

The Center was sparer than spare, three exhibits in a gigantic space that could have housed a whole modern-art museum of hundreds of paintings. Lindy noted its contrast to the Rosenberg castle, a new avant-garde Denmark against an old royal one.

We had missed the display of model Korean-War-era U.S. jets filled with dirt and plants, but photos of them get across the CCC’s radical aesthetic. The current exhibits were less political One room held about fifteen three-person metal swings for swinging together. I held off doing that with Lindy till we were ready to leave because I had gotten a bit motion-sick from the taxi driver’s lurching style.

The second room was a giant silver ball swinging from the ceiling like a pendulum—and I mean gigantic. If it had fallen, you might have heard it in Sweden. It was silver like a mirror, so you could see your reflection and those of others, including the children lying on their backs, squirming and showing it their bellies. Your image changed in size and distortion as the ball swung. You could also walk around the room and change your position and size on the sphere.

The third exhibit, a video installation, took up most of our time at CCC. Song 1 is a thirty-five-minute-long projection on roughly sixteen screens in an enclosing circle, put together by Los Angeles artist Doug Aitkin. Sixteen screens means sixteen coordinated projectors in a dynamic and varied flow. The content was L. A., but the technology, spaciousness, and audience were Danish—I don’t think there were other tourists in our small cluster. The film involved eight or so individual musical artists, many of them well known, singing “I Only Have Eyes For You” in different eras and styles for Aitkin’s lens. They included the Flamingos’ classic doo-wop version and Tilda Swinton’s new Piafy torch performance. All of these renditions arose in a rhythmic flow of video clips that oscillated between the singer and L.A. past and present: performance of the song was mixed into the heartbeat of the metropolis around it.

The screens usually showed the same image on all of them, which was a grand crescendo in itself; they sometimes showed an image flowing from screen to screen, and sometimes they brought all sixteen screens together in a single huge, wide image. Less often they kaleidoscoped the image into complex abstract forms while continually changing the  kaleidoscope’s depth of field and focal point. The sound was either “I Only Have Eyes for You” in one or another version, solo or group, male or female, young or old, the song breaking abruptly in (and then abruptly out) at one part or another of its own lyrics and melody, or a sustained din or sustained silence.

The montage of images was a mix: of course the singers or singer performing the song, then the same performers, in awkward or thoughtful silence being probed by the camera while standing or walking in L.A., then all sorts of street scenes from car lights to garages to folks moving about and hanging out, in studios, cafés, traffic, then just lights, then the inside of a factory with laborers at different work stations (the complex Google-like image of the entire floor of the factory with its individual activities filled the screen). Then two of the workers became singers of “I Only Have Eyes for You” as if the scene foreshadowed La La Land” (the video was 2012), then the factory kaleidoscoped, then what looked like hundreds of L.A.’s superimposed on each other in a galaxy of stars surging together (or maybe the video itself dissolving). Cut with these were frequent images of old-fashioned studio sound-tape winding, the reels kaleidoscoped periodically or otherwise changed in scale and relationship to the frame.

The entire installation could be watched from within the circle (most people were lying inside the concavity) or on a mirror-image convexity from the outside. Inside the circle, the experience was upbeat, revelatory: high-quality sound of one mysterious song in sync and syncopation with rushes of images playing out on multiple possibilities of sixteen screens. Avant-garde art, at its best, integrates structural imagery with obscure feelings without having to name them, bringing them to momentary peak clarity (probably different for each viewer) that dissolves into the next montage.

This kind of projection was its own medium, a different way to tell a story: part painting in motion, part performance piece, part cylindrical installation, part movie, part immersive rock video, part surveillance camera bank, part dance, part Stan Brakhage redux, and so on. It defied genre, yet had a redemptive, irregular beat like atonal experimental music, pulling everything in it up to the level of—well, a Song, as “I Only Have Eyes for You” gave it a broken melody.

The bathrooms almost constituted a fourth exhibit. One entered their zone like the hall of swings, each toilet a private elegant room in a row of such rooms. Where is the line between exterior exhibit and interior function in such a place? Spaciousness, deconstruction and reconstruction of expectation, and attention to subtext were everywhere.

The cab had to the Culture Center had cost the equivalent of $40. It was not necessary to spend that much again (or more: Central Station, our target, was farther than the Japanese wok place). We took the 9A bus back into town, which wasn’t hard to locate on a spit of land, as there was only one eligible street. We just missed one, but buses proved plentiful because the line otherwise ran through the center of Copenhagen and each one had to complete its route here. The journey didn’t take much longer than the cab, and we could our same transit cards on a shining blue dot. At Central Station we caught the train to Charlottenlund.

For two hours in the late afternoon, we sat in David’s office, working on reflective listening. We had paid him for a hands-on demonstration. Like all such systems—I felt yes, okay, and no, get me out of here!—clarity followed by its own obfuscation. Key dyad: “I say…..”  “What do you think I said?” “Here is what you said. Am I right?” “Yes, now it’s my turn.” Or “No, here is what you missed….,” and so on. Passing a pen like a talking stick.

It’s fine to learn new techniques—can’t go wrong with knowledge itself—but don’t forget William Blake: make your own system or be enslaved by another’s.

 

July 11

Last day in Copenhagen, taking stock. Such a flow of images and feelings, from within, from without. I am lost in a traveler’s maze without a roost.

I like it here. I don’t want to leave. I am dying to get out of our cloister and away from the “perfect” couple in whose reflection we are daily cast.

It rained last night, a fine drizzle. We walked to and from Koii in the rain for dinner. It’s been so sunny that the rain was a mood shift, an automatic deepening. It’s sunny again this morning; magpies, wood pigeons, and smaller birds congregate at the feeder by the new fountain, roses in full pink and yellow bloom, squashes and squash flowers in a thick basil patch (we had basil salad with hand-made Cretan olive oil two nights ago with David and Marianne).

Marianne’s concept of “civilizational trauma” stayed with me all morning. I accepted it as premise and went back to my current practices: moving auric energies, dissolving pictures. More arose each time as soon as I did—so dissolve those too, and the next ones, and the next. We come from electrons, we contain electrons, so in the auric field, which is not bound to mass and its friction, we can be as fast as electrons. You don’t ask what the picture is (it goes by too quickly anyway), you don’t have to ask, and you can’t and don’t know. You do as bid from within. Then I went through my t’ai chi set very slowly under the magpies’ instructive gaze: keep light, use wings for balance, stay pouncy and alert.

I sat in the sun by the herbs and roses and apple tree and felt the pictures return, their false and unknowable futures, their stale and stuck pasts. I couldn’t do the work of a lifetime in five minutes, but that was the job anyway. Civilizational trauma. Personal trauma. The privilege of light and sun and embodiment.

The flapping of wood-pigeon wings was as loud as if someone were shaking rugs. Present time. Always only the Now.

 

Marianne had offered to take us to one special Danish site for the afternoon, a rare time free of work for her. We settled on the Viking Museum at Roskilde, a forty-minute drive from Charlottenlund. It was built on a fjord where five partial Viking ships were found on the shoals. Salvage of them began in 1962, and a museum and center were created around their reconstruction, featured the Viking era in general.

I preferred to her other options: Deer Park, downtown wharf, Christiana. During my graduate-school years I read books on the Vikings and parts of the Sagas themeselves, not for any academic reason but because I was taken with pre-Columbian contact between Europe and North America. I was developing my own theme about four badlands: the Prairie, the Ice, the Moon, and the City, which became the basis for a literature course I taught five years later at Goddard. Students read poetry and prose on all four environments and evaluated and compared what made them badlands.

Another inducement: my favorite boat as a child was also a Viking ship. It had no sails or accoutrements, just the wooden shape, but it was the winner of many of my bathtub races.

The journey also afforded us a chance to hang out in the car and continue our endless seminar qua coffeehouse chatter in a post-coffeehouse era. En route, we talked about the difference between spiritual and psychological maturity from the standpoint that intentional communities and charismatic spiritual teachers, especially in the West, suffered from unbalanced development. The thread started after a traffic incident with my mention of how some advanced Buddhist practitioners I know expressed road rage in a form no different from a cut-off truck driver or gangbanger. What did that mean? Highway and car seemed to give a regressive permission, but it was still life and should still be practice.

Marianne talked about the differences between the skills, emotional paths, and neurological and brain development of the two modes (spiritual and psychological). People can learn, for instance, to be good at meditating, but the ability often remains encapsulated and doesnot carry over to interpersonal relationships. She concluded, “If you want to address road rage, then you have to practice working on road rage, or any other personal characteristic. You don’t get rid of road rage on a three-day sitting retreat.”

We wafted over Chogyam Trungpa, Adi Da, and Andrew Cohen individually under the rubric—each of us had stories, guru gossip. We landed on the guru’s claim that his initiation can be transferred sexually, hence building spiritual harems. This is a much discussed topic, especially in light the Me Too movement. Marianne brought a different contemporary view from her own blend of spiritual and psychological practices and her knowledge about emotional development and the brain. I don’t want to inflate her take—there are lots of valid views around the larger topic—but she does bring clarity and conviction from decades of Buddhist practice combined with forty-five years training psychotherapists.

She proposed that many gurus can’t tell the difference between their own process and that of the student’s. When sexual transference doesn’t work, they get frustrated, lose erotic interest, and create the equivalent of spiritual boot camp for their former lovers. The women are harangued and made to meditate under harsh conditions, ostensibly for their own good, as if to bail out the mistake.

“I go with Townes Van Zandt,” I joked. “It’s noooo deal, / you can’t sell that stuff to me.”

Marianne laughed too, so I finished TVZ’s trope, “It’s no deal. / I’m going back to Tennessee.”

Somewhere at the heart of the modern crisis, where rubber hits road, is the failure of egocentrism to get outside itself and empathize with the entire collective that it is suffering and reflecting its suffering through each member. Instead it chooses a particular community or ethnic group or ideology or the abstract planetary environment. It tends to shift only to the next rung of its own narcissism: my practice, my sect, my country, my people, instead of recognizing itself as one’s 7.6 billionth part of collective karma.  This is a bit of a non sequitur, but it is hard to reproduce a conversation discontinuously interspersed with commentary on the Danish landscape.

The museum was both wonderful and tedious, as museums are. It is difficult to generate hours of viewer fascination from a few rotting timbers of thousand-year-old ships, but the curators did a decent job of creating context. Ship-building crafts were presented on site. You could see movies of each of these activities, but they wouldn’t have the smell of fresh wood and sharp penetrating aroma of wood tar or the up-close whooshing rhythms of a bellows melting metal for nails, blowing off excess heat onto our face and in our noses, the intimate touch of carved and sticky wood. You wouldn’t feel the breeze off the fjord as sample ships sailed across it at full mast. Reality is reality and can’t be replaced by virtual forms in fewer dimensions.

Other stations showed the making of ropes from animal and plant fibers (a very strong tar aroma there), the melting of raw metal (children in line to shape and then pound newly formed nails), the looms to weaves flax sails.

I had loved the Viking mold as a child, perhaps because something archetypally reached me from the fond objects. The deep curves and imbedded spirals of the ships reflected basic spiral patterns in the universe, from the transdimensionality of the Qabalistic Tree of Life to microdimensionally fabricated DNA. Great ships even if mean sailors.

Outdoors between the stations and the indoor museum were Viking games for children (and adults), for instance tossing a wooden hammer at statues of giants. Neither Lindy nor I knocked one over, though Lindy hit one squarely. Marianne deferred.

The lecture tour was tedious—canned descriptions and stock history from a young man who kept looking at his cue cards and reciting practice English. Bored children amusing themselves in spontaneous games transcended the spiel. We eventually bailed and walked around to museum exhibits. The actual five restored ships from surviving timbers were the highlight; none of the ships had even forty percent of their wood, but the preserved boards were fit into reconstructions of the whole shapes.

The ships were not accidentally downed in the fjord. They were located atop one another in a stack in the main channel and weighted down with stones. They were likely retired boats with many voyages and much salt in them, sunk there in order to block Roskilde from invaders.

We visited a shop full of Northland souvenirs and read walls of historical maps and displays with quotes from the Sagas and other sources from the Viking period, roughly between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Viking piracy and the ensuing culture made a unique Scandinavian bridge between Mesolithic and the Mediaeval landscapes.

The most existing exhibit was two authentic three-quarter Viking ships (the other quarter was cut away for “passengers” to climb aboard) in a darkened room. We could sit on the boards like rowers while speeded-up projection on the walls took us through twenty-four hours: darkness with constellations and a moon in the sky, the burst of sunrise, a swiftly climbing sun, water all around for a long stretch, then a thunderstorm with darkness, lightning, and tumultuous waves. The scenery was not a movie; it was a digitally stylized and arty scrim—more grainy and calligraphic more than realistic. That somehow enhanced rather than detracted from the sense of voyaging.

On hooks hung Viking costumes, robes and headdresses, for mostly (but not sole) children to put on and be photographed aboard ships. We skipped the dress-up but “sailed” through an entire night and day.

For all its mythological and cosmological import and ship-building acumen, the “Viking” cult valorized a cruel primitive marauding of peaceful village for personal gain and ethnic superiority. Nice ships—very nice ships—but terrible manners. Vikings sacked mostly English and Celtic communities and monasteries (sometimes Russian ones); they conquered lands and took slaves, especially women. The description of their practices with women (as described on the wall) uneasily recalled the discussion of gurus on our drive out. The latter has been mitigated and ameliorated by modernity but is fueled by the same narcissistic draw to the combination of eros, terror, and knowledge— to dance with Shiva. The pillaging, raping, torturing, and killing of captured slave women speaks in a different way to a profound confusion about the relation of spiritual and emotional life. Where that always lands whenever spiritual practice or ritual is involved is an attempt, often desperate in its symbologies, to make a passable bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Painful stuff to read and impossible to hide even in neutralized museum parlance. In Viking funerals, the violated slave women were cremated beside dead lords with their murdered horses and various jewels and other treasures. In high Viking society, the goal was to convert the secular gains of the living into a phase that could be carried with them elsewhere in spirit synopsis. No one wants to lose status or power gained on one plane when being forced to cross to another. But death permits no bargains, even for modern gurus with all their clever bardo language—hence, all the more powerful the ritual displacement and consolation.

All the big guns are in play among the Vikings: sex, murder, consuming fire, transubstantiation. No apologies for the Norsemen, and none given by their descendants. Consider that Lindy’s 12.5% Scandinavian DNA is ostensibly from Viking invasions of the British Isles. She is roughly 37% English-Irish-Celtic-Welsh, thus expresses more chromosomes of victims than intruders. Yet she has both. Like the rest of the habitants of the modern world, she is the descendant of a dialectic. Collective karma has an exquisite way of continually setting itself before us at multiple levels of paradox and challenge.

Café Knarr ostensibly served Viking-oriented food. I suppose my flatbread and currant juice qualified. I would have preferred Vinland cloudberry juice, though I don’t know if I would have liked it as much as I like the name.

On the trip back I took the opportunity to hone in on how Marianne would interpret my childhood family dynamics, how they might tilt into her themes of inter-generational and collective trauma. It was like an ad-libbed psychoanalytic session in an electric car on a Danish highway, Lindy chiming in with questions (she had had her own formal session with Marianne in the morning). I don’t automatically take Marianne’s view as gospel, but it adds to my growing wisdom of a lifetime about the strange situation in which I was raised. The suicides of my mother, brother, and sister speak for themselves, but so does my own survival, especially given that I was considered the single crazy member of the household while my siblings and I were growing up. That could not be a coincidence.

I don’t experience the old terror in the way that it once played such a big role in imagination as well as in each of my family member’s suicides, but I experience an occasional horrific sense of time stopping, of being frozen in space-time. Nothing I do or think fits the world I am in. Marianne recognized it at once not only from her clinical practice but occasional flare-ups of her own trauma, though from an entirely different etiology. She described it as being like a fly caught in amber and interpreted it as the moment or crack in which personal trauma is inundated by collective trauma, which way too much for any person to handle so personality structure breaks down and pereived time stops.

Right or wrong in whatever way any such explanation could be, it’s a good story to put with my others. Marianne went on to say that constant collective pain would be too overwhelming, so we have to tap collective, archetypal joy too, to antidote it.

That was the marquee for my life: joy and sorrow, epiphany and terror. I quoted another song for her, Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love”: “One day I feel so happy, / next day I feel so sad. / Guess I’ll learn to take / the good with the bad.”

            “You got it,” she said.

A bit on, she affirmed my roster of psychic techniques for working with trauma, changing its shape and energy, but we agreed that it wasn’t something that got cured. You add texture, depth, and context, and that allows you to find your way through life

We moved to the question of murderous rage I sometimes intuited in people such that it was difficult for me to tell the difference between rage that was murderous and rage that was only weird mad. I had chronic paranoid fantasies that someone was going to murder me or me and Lindy while we slept. “The collective can’t distinguish,” Marianne said. “In the collective, all rage is murderous rage.” The Holocaust, operating archetypally, gave justification and manifest form to that. Paranoia is revelation at the wrong frequency.

Leaving to go inside, I teased, “You didn’t know you were getting so much psychoanalytic discussion when you invited us.”

“I didn’t,” she agreed, “but I’m such a psychotherapy nerd I love all the information I can get. And it’s not just psychology. I’m pretty nerdy in general.” I suspected as much when she didn’t want to throw the hammer at the wooden giants. But then she is a horse whisperer.

 

July 12

Up at 4 a.m. for a 7:20 flight from Copenhagen to Berlin Schonefeld. It’s hard to get to sleep when you know you have to wake so early. At dawn we pulled our stuff together for the first time in eight days: change of cities, change from public transportation to awaiting rental car, change from being in company to being on our own, change from an upscale Western city to the Eastern bloc.

David and Marianne drove us to the airport, kind of them to get up and participate in the ritual of our departure. I was half-asleep in the car.

Copenhagen’s airport proved vaster than I realized on arrival. Much of it was made up of duty-free shops. Their modernistic screens took the form of tiny lit cubes like E.T. heads on stalks that should have been disaplayed at the CCC. Here they were advertising perfumes, clothing, and electronics. It seemed that the majority of energy had gone into creating a giant shopping mall that dwarfed the actual departure gates and made ours hard to find.

An international crowd in the airport and at the boarding gate: African families, Middle Easterners with head scarves, Chinese groups, Japanese couples, a Babel of language across the Germanic/Slavic axis, some irritatingly on cells in a crowded boarding area.

Norwegian Air has a great reputation for a budget carrier, and everything about the check-in and boarding process confirmed it. It was succinct and professional. We boarded so fast, though having to walk on the tarmac rather than through a covered passageway, that we pulled away from the gate ten minutes early. Why not? The plane was full, and every ticket-holder was accounted for.

We took off over Copenhagen and the bay, the same veiny pattern of rivulets visible across the harbor; then we ascended over a stretch of land, then straight above a second shoreline and the Baltic.

It was a cloudy day, and we bumped through cumulus layers in rising, then penetrated higher altocumulus clouds and sailed above them. We at our cruising altitude only about five minutes before beginning our descent into Schonefeld. The time in the air was forty-five minutes. It was raining and windy in Berlin, and the descent was quite turbulent, though it never seems as worrisome when you are surfing like a rock through a medium with currents.

 

It took almost two hours at the Avis rental agency through which we had gotten our car via Auto Europe. The single baffled attendant was delightful to watch, both during his routine with the party in front of us and us. He seemed like a flummoxed Weimar Republic hotel clerk, as he turned filling out the form into an act of light comedy. It wasn’t exactly a Groucho Marx routine—I don’t watch enough World War II movies to name the precise character—but “Groucho Marx” gets across the spirit of it. He asked himself the same questions over and over in German while also asking his customers, laughing as if it were all part of the routine and they were helping zero in on the advanced algebra contained in the form. I was sleepy enough not to care and stayed amused and happy, while Lindy went back to the terminal to eat. By the time she returned, his supervisor had just appeared, an efficient, helpful woman. That speeded things up—she could answer his questions rather than having him asking himself—but she let him proceed as her trainee. She was in her early fifties, he in his later fifties, but she was the manager and he was clearly a beginner. While he labored away, talking to himself, she took the time to go over our instructions for finding the highway to Poland, over and over until she was sure we got them.

Truth was, the clerk was a very affable guy and eager to please, us as much as her. At her suggestion, he accompanied us to the car to answer questions and help us with the GPS. She had tried out my Auto Europe GPS and said the car had a better one, but it needed to be changed from German to English. The guy walked alongside us in the rain, as he helped Lindy with her suitcase and carried an umbrella. . The car was a Leon, an equivalent to the VW Golf. Its GPS came on in German a while talking to himself in German again, to get it to English, but he was gallant and patient, finally also switching the country to Poland, though failing at our address in Poznań. We settled on entering on destination Poznań. That would get us most of the way.

After the Avis clerk left, the rain turned into such a deluge that one would think twice about driving in it, let alone in a strange car in a strange country with an untried gear shift. People stop under bridges for downpours like this. I used the time to take a spin around the lot and then parked. I decided to get my raincoat but couldn’t open the trunk. We looked at the manual, but it was in German. I hurried back to the Avis office, about a minute away running, and got totally drenched. A customer on line at Avis explained: you have to hold the key next the rear emblem and reach under it, something that would have taken me a long time, if ever, to figure out. I returned and quickly opened the trunk and my suitcase. By then I had decided to change my shirt, socks, and shoes; they felt like wash that hadn’t even gone through a spin cycle. I got in the driver’s seat, started again, and discovered I couldn’t get the car to back up. After a futile minute of my attempts to pull the ball in various directions. Lindy wanted a shot and succeeded after a number of attempts. It worked the opposite of the previous summer’s shift—you had to push the ball down to go into reverse. Her success rewarded her with being the first driver.

The rain had subsided somewhat, and the woman’s directions had been memorized and applied like a charm. We went first toward Berlin and Dresden on 133; after about ten minutes (the computer voice confirming) exited for Frankfurt Oder and Warsaw (there are two Frankfurts in Germany, and they are distinguished by their local river). That put us on A12/A10. We thought that would sufficient to enter and cross Poland, but we needed to switch to A/10 after forty-five minutes or so, which led to a last-minute crossing lanes amid huge industrial trucks with Eastern European plates (mostly Poland—PL—but also Latvia (LT), Lithuania, Hungary, etc.). Cars’ driving style reminded us of Italy. They came up behind you in the left lane at 100 mph or more, forcing you immediately to the right. Most of the speeding vehicles had Russian plates, but a few were from other Eastern European countries.

There was no passport control at the Polish border, but a toll ticket was soon issued by machine and we wondered how we would pay without Polish currency. The change in country was marked at once tall thin pines with high canopies and a more consistently rural landscape. Slavic letter combinations replaced Roman orthography, many more z’s as well letter combinations that don’t in Romance or German tongues (“zl” for instance; later we saw “zb,” “zdz,” “zwl”).

We were hoping for a credit-card option for the toll and were glad to find one as we approached Poznań a couple of hours later. By then we had stopped at a gas station to switch drivers. The GPS, which only took Poznań in Berlin accepted the hotel address, Aleje Karola Marcinkowskiego 22 there. Construction in the city created a complicated labyrinth of cobblestone streets and street-car tracks, more crosswalks than traffic lights.

The main thing that jumped out at me was the wear and poverty, on buildings and the people. It felt a bit like New York’s Spanish Harlem, but it was that only in the broadest millennial migration pattern, east to west across the globe. It was Eastern Europe, part of the World War zone. How quickly we got here from Berlin (three hours) reminds me of the German tanks and what happened not so long ago.

Fair Swedes and fair Poles are both common in the States, and their looks overlap: pale blonde men, women, and children, light colored eyes. But the vibes are slightly different. In Scandinavia I felt the liberated, somewhat carefree north. Here I sensed the interior of Europe, its conflicts, its emergence from crisscrossing Neolithic migrations, ancient farms, early so-called barbarian kingdoms beyond Rome, then Christianization, feudalism, the Reformation, international markets, and the birth of nations. Genes, race, agriculture, commerce, and the dialectics of history have left their marks. I do not want to go back over worn territory, especially in a quick journal, just to say I feel something and see it and feel privileged to be on site at last. That’s what travel is. We can’t go to other planets in the Milky Way or other galaxies, but we can go to other places on our sphere. Poland isn’t Africa, Asia, or the Peruvian rainforest, so I don’t claim an exotic adventure, but it also isn’t Boston or San Francisco.

We finally hailed Hotel Rzymski and parked right in front. Easy check-in, convenient underground city garage a few blocks away, ticket to be redeemed. A trolley ran on tracks with an electric line on the cobblestone right outside our window, a treat to listen to on its rounds— music of steel and stone, a heavy percussion with a rattle and slight clangs or clinks, plus the long flute and panpipes of gradually responding brakes, all together a repeated John Cage adagio. It was also a pure train from an old sound-effects record, a band called “Polish trolley stop.”

Poznań was arbitrary in its selection. I picked it as roughly halfway between Berlin and Warsaw. I figured that what was already a complicated day didn’t need a herculean push to Warsaw. My distant DNA relative in Warsaw, Ewa S. chose it over the farther shot of Łódź.

We went out into the street headed for the Old Square, prepared to be satisfied with anything. It was Poland after all, with all that that entails, historically, culturally, mystically.

I thought to inventory the people on the street for this journal. I asked myself, what distinguished them from elsewhere? It was hard. Faces are not my strong suit, so bear with my amateur (and I hope not ethnically insulting) inveventory. I saw a Mongolian steppe Polish look, a wide pancaked face (more noticeable in women), also punk Poland, redneck Poland, beer-belly Poland, Roger Maris crewcut Poland (reminiscent of Andy, the young Polish dude who presides over organic Thai food at the Berkeley farmers’ market), fashionable Poland in female riffs off the latest international styles, fairy-tale damsel Poland (our waitress when we stopped at an outdoor café), Raquel Welsh pout-face Poland (older teen girls), mysterious magi of hermetic Poland (looking like John Dee with their pointed beards and deep gazes as they hurried to their rounds), Chopin Poland (potential orchestra conductors), plus lots of good old boys and good old girls who could just as well be in Akron. Okay, enough.

The introduction of a new language, Polish, was musical with its own rhythm and melody, whether lilting or booming or in shouts or conversations passed, a twang reminiscent of Slavic tongues in the States. Noam Chomsky, before he became mainly political, proposed that all languages share a deep syntax and move through identical logic strings into varying morphophonemics. I assumed that some deep neurological grid attuned the English melodies in my mind with the Polish melodies in the street.

Poznań’s Old Square was stunning beyond any expectations. You could not have gone to Rome or Florence and seen more magnificent buildings. The town hall was a tour de force: porticos on balconies, vertical gold on lavender-backdrop icons of saints, a long horizontal row of them near the roof, plus a gold decorated clock at the peak suggesting the Prague astrological one. The hall itself looked like an ornate chess piece or a composite tarot card. We ate facing it. The meal was pleasant but overly starchy—I got potato soup and cabbage dumplings, Lindy breaded veal—this is Poznań not Paris. We sat for well over an hour watching the action in the Square: young Polish couples, gangs of duded boys, kids chasing each other and pigeons (of course), baby carriages bouncing babies on cobblestone, jugglers with soccer balls, a gypsy boy and girl (probably brother and sister) begging with an accordion they took turns at, and the always ubiquitous urban pigeons, one of whom pulled in his legs and rested his belly on a cobblestone startlingly near us, relaxing in the late sun. When Lindy rose to look (because a pillar blocked her), she was sure she would scare him off, but he twisted his head and flashed a brief unconcerned glance of his black dinosaur eye.

Across the courtyard (and elsewhere in town), buildings were stuck together in Italian-like Renaissance façades with fancy turrets and crowns. Each was painted: light blue, gray, pink, light green, light orange, dark brown, etc. On some of these were engraved figures: a duck, a cat (or perhaps not a cat but a dancing cow), a flower pot, a devil or demon. At a distance they looked like woodcut stamps. Up close they became colored stone reliefs. The building with the demon, some sort of amorphous homunculus figure, seemed to top a fraternal lodge or what was once a lodge; it was now a shop, but it was hard to tell because the building was closed and dark. The hermetic tradition of Western Europe certainly extended to old Poland.

What added to the delight of the Old Square of Poznań was that it was pretty much local. Not entirely without tourists—we were there, after all—but with tourists well diluted in the townie activity. It felt like a lively Mexican town square.

After dinner, we continued to the end of our side and found ourselves a magnificent church: enormous, orange-tinged, with multiple towers, fronts, crosses on turrets. We could have been in Rome, but then there would have been Roman crowds. This was the centerpiece of the Catholic archdiocese, a max of splendor and artistry: Renaissance Poland counts as much as Renaissance Italy. We walked in.

Having been raised a participatory Episcopalian, Lindy had enough high church in her to bow, walk to a pew, and put her head down. The interior was, to use the word of decade, awesome. If you enclosed a small city block inside a cathedral, raised its ceiling three or four stories, and filled its cubic space in every nook and cranny with elaborate religious icons, statues, gargoyles, icons, saints, altars, and naves sprouting other naves (like the inside curves of a Viking ship projected into sacred space), you might get an idea of what the Old Square church was like. The altar glowed with a gold luminosity. To look at it was to feel the permeation of the Divine down to your cells and bones.

We sat respectfully as music began—an engulfing organ sound, full of timber and spirit. Suddenly priests appeared by the altar in robes and sang in Polish. Then one spoke at length, his words projected on a screen.

Most of the people participated in the language and ceremony, crossing themselves when appropriate. Polish Catholicism is no minor province in the hierarchy of Rome. We were in its sanctum, and we let its sound and faith radiate through us. Not knowing the language kept it numinous. Even in a Slavic tongue I did not miss invocation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—that devotional three-beat acknowledgment of the Trinity. I believe in it what it is invoking—something about divinity, faith, the magic of incarnation, the atonement of sin—and not just because the guy was a rebel rabbi. We may each receive it in different ways, but its persistence shows it to be an authentic vibration in the evolving noosphere of the planet. The Christ message, even if misheard and misused in these shadow lands below Eden, is real.

We stayed for a while, considering rude to get up and go after blundering into a ceremony. We picked a change in voices after a resumption of organ music to bow and leave. A woman’s voice was picking up the ceremony.

Outside, we reversed our traverse of the square, going counterclockwise this time, and came back up the hill to Hotel Rzymski, its name an orthographic rebus in its own right. Before turning toward it, we went to the adjacent Wolnosci Square, which sported a significant fountain, a modern bee-hive-like cuboid structure of plastic or glass lenses, vaguely resembling a collapsing tetrahedron. Wolnosci was a modern hangout, especially by comparison to the Old Sqyare. Water cascaded down the structure’s cubes, their irregular and precariously tilted wings leading to increased turbulence and off-splashing. It was still not enough for boys who filled soda bottles and ran around shaking them and spraying each other so that they were all dripping wet.

One could walk right through the center of the fountain pretty much unscathed because the artifact was divided in two, sort of left-brain, right-brain and you go down the corpus callosum. The music on the other side was decidedly not Polish. A Hindu band of three guys and two young women on a blanket was playing paired drums and a sitar and chanting ecstatically. It was a full authentic sound. One girl with dreadlock-like knotted braids and an urchin’s face carried the mantra deeper and deeper as she swept bowls in front of her with an almost distracted hand bearing a brush. She was my star because she deepened the sound in my brain and when I looked at her eyes I saw she was penetrating deep dangerous space. The dyed-blonde girl next to her was much more spectacular, a flamboyant costume and lots of up-and-down belly-dancing-like motion. She was a much bigger person too and more conventionally charismatic in the usual. She stole the show for most, but every time I looked at the eyes of the chanter, I felt an immortal summons and a sense of eros beyond beauty or gender.

Poznań is a chaotic mix of the ancient and the new, so the transition from the sacred church to the street band worked. Two young girls in dresses and long, formal coats roller-skated around the Hindu band on fancy slim blades, giving the scene the feeling of a rock video in the making.

We returned to the square at nine for dessert (cheesecake and raspberry mousse with pressed apple-pear drinks). We sat and watched the activity and darkening sky, Earth lights like stars, fires of torches heating the customers at the cafés, a light cacophony in the air. Darker yet, more lights, a louder, spunkier din. The one band across the row was not Polish but Latin, outside Café Havana. It put out an adeptly quickened “La Bamba.” In the years since the fifties and Richie Valenzuela’s death, the melody has become more and more occult and salient; it calls for something revolutionary that is not a jihad.

Till late at night and beginning early, the trolley turned the melodic weight of gravity into a huge xylophone, wheels distributing the resistance of ground, the stringency of the rail holding its reality together in a beautiful extended squeal.

 

July 13

Most of the morning in Poznań was given to catching up on our respective trip journals. We hung around the hotel breakfast room which had enough smoked fish, olives, and fruit, etc. to cover for other deficiencies. I could put my fennel tea bag in their hot water.

We walked to the Square to get food for the trip east: lamb and chicken pockets some pastries at a bakery. My food standards had dropped through the floor, forget okologiske. I did manage to get an extra bottle of cold-pressed beet-apple juice during dessert the night before.

Axiomatic that it is difficult to travel in a country where you don’t know the language; that problem dogged us through the day. I guess you could call it “lost in translation” except “translation” was minimal.

I was the one who parked the car in space 126 in the underground garage, so I was the one to go retrieve it after getting my stamp on the ticket from the front desk. I have a bad feeling about parking garages since having gotten stuck in ones twice in the last decade, first in Berkeley, then in Portland, Maine, both times through no punishable mistake of mine. It took over an hour to get out of each. That same parking-garage karma came into play.

I got in the car, ticket on the seat beside, backed out of the tight space, and wound around the snail shell toward daylight. But there was no one at the electronic gate and no way to inform the card-reaching machine that mine had an ink stamp on the back. Cars began backing up behind me, some swerving abruptly to the only other exit lane.

It took twenty long gruesome minutes to resolve the affair during which cars had to recognize the problem, back up, turn their steering wheels sharply, and switch lanes. As the object of everyone’s distress, I sat there dripping sweat from my forehead in the hot and muggy, wishing to disappear. A guy came from the office eventually came in his surprisingly leisurely time, took my ticket, and went back to the office to check it, leaving me at the front of the line for more almost ten minutes. The backup became truly epic when four guys in a sports car blocked the only other exit gate and began yelling at it. No one in the office apparently considered the situation urgent.

I finally left the car and went to the office. A man and a woman were in debate with each other while on the phone with the Rzymski. It turned out that they were waiting for the hotel to verify my identity. Even after they did so by room number and name, it turned out that the stamp only gave me a discount, not free parking, something (according to the garage folks) on the Rzymski routinely misinformed guests. Hard to believe that such a thing could go on for two days, let alone years, but apparently it had. I paid, got a ticket to put in the machine, and left. The youths in the sports car were gone, but there were four cars behind me, waiting, probably not realizing no one was in the car. I barely got the Leon into first in time to beat the closing gate.

I immediately ran into crisis two. Getting to the garage had been an easy two-block shot from the hotel in the direction of traffic. Leaving the garage in the only direction offered put me on a fast-moving one-street plunging away from the hotel. I hadn’t thought to put the Rzymski’s address into the GPS—I could see the hotel from the garage. I didn’t even have it with me or know how to recall it from the system. I was swept into traffic on a series of one-way streets, traveling quite a few kilometers through the busy inner city and away from the Rzymski. My attempts to get going in the right direction put me in a complicated loop that I completed three times before I realized I was going in circles.

Time for crisis three. To break the loop I went down a street with trolley tracks, something I saw cars doing. Only this set of tracks one was not for auto traffic. Cement ended, and I got marooned in soft dirt before the pavement recommenced. The car barely made it over the ridge back onto stone.

Finally some good luck. I saw signs for Al. K. Marcinkowskiego and followed them to the street itself. I was so turned around by then that I was looking to make a U-turn to get on the side of the street of the hotel when I pulled up right alongside it. Lindy was waiting in the lobby, and we got our stuff into the car.

Then I remembered something from my walk to the parking garage—a regret at the time—and ran down the block to remedy it, dropping five of my coins into the cup of the beggar woman sitting on the corner. She was a throwback to people I routinely gave money to in childhood. I lost the knack at some point because I couldn’t tell who the people were anymore, what was real poverty and what was trolling for drugs or a scam. I have a few Berkeley horror stories of trying to help a street person and getting in too deep for where things had progressed to, but not for here. I have no idea how much money I gave the woman, but her smile made any amount worth.

While we were parked in the hotel loading zone, we tried entering Królewska 47 in Warszawa, but neither of the GPS units would accept the address. I settled on entering Grzybowski because the Airbnb apartment was described as overlooking a plaza of that name.

The drive to Warsaw was about three and a half hours, and I did most of all, all except the last twenty miles after we stopped at a gas station for a rest stop. We tried unsuccessfully to address again.

A2’s challenge was the same A10 from Berlin into Poland. The right lane is packed with giant trucks moving merchandise east, going fifty to sixty miles per hour. The left is effectively without a speed limit, so cars hit a hundred miles per hour or whatever the engine will deliver. The faster lane also includes people passing the trucks, a regular necessity, especially when they line up in convoys. This creates a situation where, after a careful look, you bolt into the passing lane and are confronted with a fast-approaching car having to slow down to your mere eighty to eight-five, not happy, often honking, hanging dangerously on your bumper, threatening sometimes to pass on your right which would result in a crash. Sometimes just stubbornly hold your ground because you see a convoy of more trucks ahead. Other times you dive back into the truck lineup. I got into a good rhythm, averaging 120-140 kilometers per hour with the iPod shuffle on, as Lindy slept a good portion of the way.

Somewhere short of midway to Warsaw, we stopped for gas. This was before our final stop to change drivers. We have yet to find a gas gauge on the Leon. After scrupulous searching, I don’t believe there is one, the car must have another way of telling you are running out of fuel, probably in German. We stopped as a precaution—after all, we had come all the way from Berlin on one tank.

Getting gas at the stop provided a “lost in translation” moment. No one spoke English, and there was no credit-card access on the pumps. The lady at the cash register kept talking very fast in Polish despite my language deficit and continued responses in English. Finally I figured it out. It was not self-pump. An attendant walked outside with me, filled the Leon, and walked me back in to pay. Attendants were doing that for everyone, not just lost Americans. Duh! Try looking around the next time instead of assuming.

Gas stations on Polish highways serve as their rest stops, so there were picnic tables, and we ate our pockets and a few bites of the supersweet pastry.

Entering the outskirts of Warsaw, we ran into a clash between the road signs to Warszawa Centrum and the voice on the GPS telling us to exit at seemingly unlikely spots well out of the center. We decided to override the voice, choosing to get deep into the city before leaving the mainly traffic flow. The voice graciously accepted and reprogammed. Eventually the tall buildings at city center showed that we were aimed bull’s eye at Centrum.

In a magical way, a modern city deepens like a dream. I have found this to be the case from Halifax to San Diego. Outer streets and stray warehouses become avenues with buildings. Fast-moving habitation zones sprout dense thoroughfares. Suddenly you are in busy streets full of urban traffic. The GPS ran out of instructions as soon as we hit Grzybowski Street. We had no idea where Królewska was, and none of five people on different streets knew, even two Policja in their official vehicle who each looked carefully our printout and shook his head.

It took three more stops and quizzing people to get ourselves to the apartment stage by stage. We weren’t that far from it where the GPS ran out, but with heavy traffic, lots of road construction, one-way streets, and avenues forbidding a U-turn, it took that many modifications of the instructions to hit Królewska in the vicinity of Grzybowski Plaza. To see the word “Królewska” on a road sign was a relief, almost magical, after so many street signs with long Polish words that were beyond the phonetic capacity of the GPS. It was usually, “Turn right in two hundred meters at —you’ve got to be kidding!— eight garbled syllables followed by Ulrice.

A doorman at the Westin Hotel got us going in the right direction, e.g., the wrong direction: away from our destination but toward the approach to it through the labyrinth. When we had no idea how to proceed further, a stopped cab driver provided us three complicated, valuable turns that we had to hear several times to memorize and place in correct relationship to each other. From there, he said, ask someone.

I did—a delivery-truck guy who proposed an illegal U-turn, then turning down what looked like a dead-end alley. It came out on: Królewska! There was even one parking space right in front of us. These were parallel park, front wheels on the curb—I was driving by then and warned Lindy about a major bump coming up. The curb was precipitously high for such a maneuver, but I had already escaped trolley tracks. I stayed with the car while Lindy went looking for 47. She came back reporting not only that she found it but the door code f worked. As for the parking space, without any Polish, we couldn’t get the ticket machine to issue a ticket from my Visa card, and I stopped trying when I began to worry the consequences of pressing random buttons. It turned out not to matter. We later walked out on the street with Ewa, and the space was free from 18:00 Friday till 8:00 Monday.

I had called Ewa twice while stuck, but she didn’t own a car, so was unable to figure out our spots or give location help. Once we were in the apartment, though, she promised to come by in an hour.

A trivia point about Polish lifts. The ground floor is always 0 (zero), not G or M. I had pictured something spiffier from the Airbnb listing. We are on the fifth floor of mainly student housing. Someone had clearly purchased an apartment in order solely to rent out to tourists. It was a mess, and it took a phone call to get the Internet to work (the owners provided both the wrong server and the wrong password). It was really small. People bigger than us could not have fit in the cubby for the toilet and would have had to angle their legs out. The bed filled the bedroom entirely. The curtain springs were broken and required climbing on a chair to raise and lower.

At least the site was close to the center of town. It looked one way on modern Warsaw, which could have been New York City or any 2018 international urban cluster. It looked the other way on a torn-down strip of apartments, innards of bare exposed stone with plywood inserted where window slots had been, an incomplete renovation (Ewa said) from the Soviet era. Warsaw is perceptibly remaking itself from the inside-out, cancelling World War II as well.

I discovered Ewa S. this way: I submitted my saliva swab to Heritage.com and got a DNA profile: 100% Ashkenazi Jewish. That meant that neither my paternal nor maternal lines bred with offspring out of a European Jewish community or, if they did, the contributions of DNA segments were meager enough to get filtered out.

Since I was thirty-one, more than half my life, I had assumed that my blood father was Bernard (Bingo) Brandt, a man I never met with whom my mother had an affair while married to Paul Grossinger. I have written about this matter in Out of Babylon. When I discovered my Brandt origin, I tried to make touch with my father, then with my half-brothers, buit the Brandts did not want any part of the story or my kinship and friendship. Since those early years, I have made decent relationships with two genetic half-brothers, one of whom I met only three years ago. Neither of them, however, is interested in DNA or tracking down ancestral family in Europe.

My DNA sample did lead to a number of other relatives internationally, though my maternal and paternal lines were not distinguished from each other. I did not share anything like first-cousin level DNA with anyone new. These were more like second cousin three times removed or fourth cousin twice removed—enough segments to show common ancestry but not enough for actual genealogy. One of my distant cousins living in Jerusalem persuaded me download my DNA from Heritage and upload to another site called Gedmatch, which broke it down into segments. That enabled him to analyze my lineage and conclude that he and I shared a relative in Hungary sometime before 1700.

A more surprising result came later. A genealogist in Atlanta, Gary Palgon, who was constructing a family tree for a woman I didn’t know named Dara Grossinger, came upon me as a distant relative sharing DNA with her; yet he read in my Heritage profile that I did not consider myself a genetic Grossinger. He wondered if I would help clarify the situation, since I was related to Grossinger folk. I agreed to his request to send a swab to Family Tree DNA for a Y-DNA analysis, which would yield just my paternal line from males. In order to make a definitive link or nonlink, Gary also had to submit a sample from Dara’s late father Jerome, a relative who could be traced directly to a brother of my legal grandfather Harry Grossinger (he had left behind saliva for the test). These showed that I was definitely not in the Grossinger lineage, somewhat of a relief, since I resemble the Brandts  and don’t look at all like the Grossingers. The Grossingers are mostly very large, the Brandts significantly smaller. Clearly, though, the families share a common ancestor way back in the centuries.

My own Y sample showed a close link to a Sigmund Shvimer living in Boca Raton. I contacted him and got the following (I have shortened his reply for this journal):

Regarding paternal DNA test: I guess, you’ve got J1-M265 paternal linage like me. This is very well studied and called CMH (Cohen Modal Haplotype) it means only one thing: all of your paternal linage takes path from Aaron, brother of Moses…. I knew that I am a Cohen, in Jewish community this knowledge passes from generation to generation and considered to be a big deal. I knew that I am a Cohen, in Jewish community this knowledge passes from generation to generation and considered to be a big deal.

My grandfather Joachim Szwimer (Polish variant of Schwimmer) was a real Cohen, religious and dedicated man, he had 11 children including my dad. I was in Poland last year. Jews came to Bedzin in 1226 from Spain. Three of Joachim’s brothers emigrated from Poland in 1910-14 to Canada and USA.

My father was born in Poland, during WWII escaped from Nazis to Russia, survived the war and had four children. I am the baby in the family, born in 1950. I came to US from Russia in 1990 (Detroit area), five years ago relocated to Florida…. I am an engineer with my own firm, still working.

As for your travelling in Poland, I have two cousins in Warsaw. Zosia S. does not speak English, however her daughter Ewa does. They are very nice and would be glad to meet you in Warsaw.

Basically Sigmund’s father and Ewa’s sister were siblings when he fled East to Russia (rather than try to go West through Mordor itself). Then he raised his family there, including Sigmund. By the time he made contact with his Polish cousins, a generation had passed. As per his suggestion, I contacted Ewa and then spoke to her on Skype. She picked out our apartment from the ones listed on Airbnb, and we made plans to get together in Warsaw.

An hour we made our base at Królewska 47, Ewa arrived. I wasn’t looking for a lost sister and didn’t expect a close resemblance. I was look for something intuitive or energetic. She represented my paternal line about which I knew little. I could provide nothing to help tie Sigmund’s ancestral story to the Brandts.

Ewa (pronounced Eva) fulfilled the energetic aspect. She resonated with something slightly familiar and totally unknown. About five foot four, reddish-haired, with a wide face and bright, intelligent eyes behind her glasses, she engaged both of us with cautious curiosity and sophisticated articulation, given that her English was spotty or rusty. Her enthusiasm for conversation and our bond grew as we walked into the twilight. First, we checked the parked Leon to make sure that it didn’t violate the Polish instructions on the meter and street. Then we walked about six blocks through a spiffy part of town to a restaurant called Der Elefant, a coincidental choice since I was wearing a San Diego Zoo T-shirt with an elephant and elephant baby on it. Der Elefant was three restaurants in one with an overlapping menu. Ewa negotiated our way into the lesser of of them, though all were packed. We were seated at a table beside fish offerings on nearby ice. I ordered stuffed European river bass. What arrived a small browned fish with a lot of prickly rosemary hard for the tongue to distinguish from bones.

Ewa provided no connection to Jews in Poland or the Holocaust. Her father was Catholic, and she was raised Catholic, though she emphasized that her parents were atheists and she had no religion. She said that she was Catholic only in the sense that ninety percent of Poland was nominally Catholic. No family members she knew had died in the Holocaust and, given her birth year (1975), she related more to escaping the shadow of the Soviet occupation. Her mother didn’t even disclose her Jewish heritage very till recently and in the context of first cousin Sigmund contacting them. Since Zosia didn’t speak English and Sigmund didn’t speak Polish, they communicated in Russian. Given the power and extent of the Holocaust in Poland, it was remarkable that it left no mark, but then Ewa didn’t identify as Jewish.

A psychology major at Warsaw University, she worked as Human Relations manager at FedEx, which had bought the Warsaw company at which she had been employed. Her life had been conducted mostly in the Warsaw area; she had travelled only briefly to Krakow, Berlin, and Budapest and had recently been to the U.S. with her mother to go to a reunion of Sigmund’s family in Boca Raton. We would cover more ground in Eastern Europe in two weeks than Eva had in her life—part of incommensurate destinies on the paradoxical levers of modernity. I had earned something in my life but not the mobility I had relative to Ewa. The migrations of our shared Spanish and Eastern European ancestors, parallel for generations, had separated dramatically sometime before my blood father passed his DNA onto me during his brief acquaintance with my mother.

After diner, Ewa walked us back to Królewska and showed us our neighborhood so that we would know where to go for breakfast or groceries. We walked around the fancy redeveloped side of the block, full of eateries that could have been on upper Madison Avenue in New York. The large number bikers and walkers led Ewa to recall her surprise about the car orientation of American, how strange it was not to see lots of people walking.

We had grown up in different worlds, but the fact that we shared some segments of DNA gave a subtle to our reunion—two faces of an ancient wandering Semite witnessing each other in an unknowable future world.

 

July 14

Ewa showed up at eleven a.m. to take us out for the day. We had walked only five or six blocks and we about to cross a park when dark clouds appeared overhead and raindrops began to fall. The temperature dropped palpably. Since the sky in the distance was even darker, we hurried back to the apartment and changed clothes. Ewa had an umbrella. We didn’t, though I had a light poncho-like raincoat.

We entered the park with its towering horse chestnuts. Rain, which was in the forecast for tomorrow (Sunday) but not today, began to fall in earnest, as Lindy crowded under Ewa’s umbrella. I relied on my waterproof jacket and hood. For a while the leaves held most of the moisture, but that could only last so long before we began getting wet. Ewa changed plans and we made a beeline for the nearest museum, a distance of about six blocks counting both the park and streets on the other side. Lindy thought that another umbrella was the first priority, but Ewa insisted that shelter should come first because there was no nearby shop at which she might buy one.

We climbed a temporary ramp to stone steps and became the only patrons standing outside a museum whose doors were locked. A tall, thin young blonde woman arrived just after us and pounded on the door and called with no success. She said in fluent English that she was late for work and assured us that the place would open in a minute or less. She left in exasperation for an employees’ door. A docent finally opened the doors at about ten minutes past the listed noon time.

I had no idea what kind of museum it was, and the name, Zacheta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, gave no clue. I didn’t much care as long as it meant getting out of the rain. I would have looked at Greek statues, Mediaeval tapestries, or Polish abstract expressionists. A white marble Caesar holding a trident of Neptune overlooked the entrance halfway up the stairs suggested baseline “classical” and that’s what I expected, but the statue turned out to be so unlike anything else in the museum that, when we left, the figure seemed to preside in pure irony, a collateral of time travel, unsure where to point his scepter. Zacheta Galeria was a Warsaw version of the Copenhagen Center for Contemporary Culture. More than a dry spot out of the rain, it mesmerized Lindy and me (and maybe Ewa somewhat) for the next ninety minutes.

At spots like this, it is hard to know what to include in a travel journal. You don’t need a museum tour from me, so I will try for an overview and general impression. Some exhibit description is unavoidable.

We began at a section called “Amplifying Nature” or maybe that was the name of the entire show and the exhibit area was called “Tango on Sixteen Square Meters.” Either is possible. Its rationale was practical as well as well as aesthetic, to show how we needed to sprawl less and occupy smaller multi-use spaces as the population increased in what the curator’s text called the Anthropocene. Emphasizing the precariousness of current urban dwelling situations, the exhibit offered architectural responses and remedies, showing ways to intensify space and integrate Polish habitation patterns with emerging global phenomena.

Rooms and buildings were reduced to their essential parts. Bedroom, computer space, and dining area were shrunk to a pittances, as images and figurines lived their lives within their own arm-spans. Ornate older rooms were shown side by side with synopsized equivalents, as eating, working, and sleeping occurred in the same adaptable spaces. For instance, beds vanished into walls, sinks became tables, and wash hung from an extended shower nozzle. The exhibition was subtler than mere shrinkage; at one point it incorporated an edited English translation of Borges’ short story “The Lottery” as a way of understanding civilization’s wagering of possible futures. Not a great account, but it’s the best I can do.

The most striking part of this exhibit was a 1980 film Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyńsk.It wasn’t exactly a movie, more like a series of animated cartoon loops with real people. The same characters repeating their identical actions like bodies in prescribed orbits in a dining-room-like space with a new character added every few loops until the room became as crowded as a mammalian anthill. Since the characters were on loops, they continued their identical activities without interacting or even noticing each other. You can watch the film for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JPZm1vM3gU. My own account is from memory and I am not going to rewatch it to check.

It starts with a boy bouncing a ball through an open window, retrieving it, and going back out. A nursing mother offers her breast to a baby, then puts it in a crib. A man delivers a package and sets it on a shelf. A thief slinks along the wall, makes his move, and steals it, leaving by the window. A woman in a long coat brings soup. A handyman enters and stands on the table to change the light bulb, then falls off and through the floor. A young man begins exercising, flexing a bicep like Popeye and then standing on his head on a chair. A plumber carries a toilet to install. A woman cleans a fish. A unformed officer looks around and departs. A man takes out the trash. A cleaning woman begins sweeping. Each of these people enters and leaves the room, returning to repeat the action, as the space becomes fuller and fuller, the loops flowing together.

Later arrivals are edgier. A drunk staggers through the room while imbibing from his bottle. A blonde woman takes off her dress, stands totally naked, and puts on a new one and fresh panties. A young man and young woman enter kissing and have intercourse on the couch. After they leave, a man brings in a dog, set it on the couch, and reprimands it. Meanwhile the thief keeps stealing the package, the light bulb keeps getting changed, the ball keeps coming through the window, the baby keeps getting nursed, the woman keeps undressing and putting on her new dress. Then the cycle reverses and the room empties out in loops. At the end, the boy throws the ball out the window and does not return, a man is left sleeping on the bed. If you watch it, you can assess my accuracy. It seemed to be in the exhibit to address the sense of crowded urban space.

In surrounding rooms, a series of connected exhibits featured the minimalist art of Japanese-born Polish artist Koji Kamoji (he had been in Poland since 1959). In printed statements, he explained his art as Buddhist-inspired spiritual exercises for the emergence of spirit and as a conversation with himself in which an outward image could reveal a hidden inner one. His work included child-like paintings and drawings, some in color, some in black and white; various sizes of sculptural objects of plywood, rocks, metal rods, paper, and aluminum, suggesting both a child’s primitive simplicity and aesthetic sophistication, and a room of paper lantern-like objects with holes forming a tunnel to look through at each other. Another whole room used aluminum foil to mimic water and allowed visitors, even though in wheelchairs, to traverse the water on ramps. That was our late guard was working, making sure visitors behaved as they walked alongside the aluminum sea, though she was enjoying her cell phone instead.

These exhibits were upstairs and we walked them first. Downstairs was a combined curation of three important Polish architects who were also social activists, animators and, for lack of a better term, morphologists. Their interests matched my own aesthetics, for I have been drawn to dimension-teasing topologies going back to my mathematician friends in college. The trio—Jerzy Soltan, Lech Tomaszewski, and Andrej Jan Wroblewski—explored complex three- and four-dimensional objects and their geometries in developmental drawings and mathematical diagrams, made small moebius-strip-like statues, and created calligraphic splashes, swirls, and asterisks in indefinite space so that human intention interfered with repetitive forms of a seismometer- or electroencephalogram-like pen. Many objects combined sculpture and painting, e.g., colorful Joan Miro-like petroglyphs covering Hans Arp-like sculptures. Along the way, these guys designed stadiums, pieces of furniture, vehicles, and houses.

My description may contain assignments of art to the wrong artists and transpositions of what I saw into what I remembered. If I were an art critic doing a review of the show, I’d go back and check it out. Instead, this is an intersection of the objective show with my subjective takes and the flaws of memory.

I was also working with psychic energy, trying to project energetic forms from my aura into the art and initiate an informational exchange not all that different from what most of the artists proposed they were doing in their descriptions of their works. They were all shooting for magic and perceptual transformation. I directed streams of excess energy in my aura into the forms and let them contain, cleanse, and dissolve them. As Koji Kamoji proposed (my inexact quote), “I call it ‘annunciation’ with caution in a Christian country, but all art is religious art, the emergence of spirit and the will to live.” Amen.

Ewa, Lindy, and I proceeded outdoors many major buildings including the presidential palace, but in the rain I was not paying much attention or inventorying. What stayed with me was sculpture of steps leading upward to nowhere that commemorated a 2010 plane crash that killed ninety-six people, most of them government officials and including the president at the time, Lech Kaczynski, and his wife Maria. The crash, though it took place in thick fog, has since given rise to conspiracy theories regarding political assassination, especially since the crash was in Russia, a paranoia that for Poles (and Americans these) never stops feeding its baby wolves. Demonstrators around the statue were setting flowers for photographers. Ewa said that the crash was still referred in Poland to as “the catastrophe” and had entered into the national psyche on conflicting levels; for instance, the activity around the statue we saw was controversial, as right wing and left wing battled to claim the event. It looked right-wing to me, but I didn’t ask. There is a certain patriotic righteous at which they converge.

There was another demonstration at the presidential palace with photographs of many plausible rallying events among three of a goat. I have no idea how the goat got implicated in politics, but I didn’t pursue my question because the increasing rain was crying out for shelter or an umbrella.

Umbrella came first as we passed a row of vendors who offered a few well hidden among stacks of souvenirs, true treasures. Under umbrellas, we went into Warsaw’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) and visited a square similar to the one in Poznań, though more modest. That reflected an era when Warsaw was a modest settlement and Poznań was the virtual capital of Polish territory. Ewa made a reservation down a small alleyat a restaurant called Karmnik. Her mother Zosia was to join us there in an hour. I asked the meaning of the name. Ewa didn’t know it in English but said it was a feeding place for birds.  We walked from there for a ways up a kill to an iron grillwork filled with lovers’ locks. We looked out over the Vistula, the river that divides Warsaw, at hills and buildings on the other side. Ewa pointed to places where she lived. After that, we walked back to the Square and into a church to get out of the downpour and tourist rush. We rested in a pew for twenty minutes. When we left, the rain was coming down so hard, we ran to the restaurant early and sat waiting for Zosia who came a full hour later than expected, so we did not begin eating till 15:30. By then (almost two hours sitting in a restaurant, waiting), any excitement of Warsaw dwindled into weariness and a wish to be home. Finally Zosia appeared with a vigorous nod of the head and an equally firm handshake.

Since she does not speak English, Ewa had to interpret. A more mature and hardened version of Ewa, the mother was concerned at once to know if I was really a relative or my DNA was “just a coincidence.” I tried to assure her, but she did not believe that Brandts and Shvimers were connected in any way. She got out her copy of the book of the Shvimer recent family reunion at Sigmund’s in Boca Raton. We looked at many family trees and photographs, some pictures from going back three generations in Poland and Russia. Most, however were of those black robed and bearded folks’ descendants gathered safely in Florida. We saw Sigmund as a baby, then a young boy, and at present with a beard. When I suggested that Sigmund’s grandfather was a Cohen and a religious man (as Sigmund proposed), Zosia scoffed and demurred through Ewa, “He was a tailor, not a rabbi.”

I felt that some of the Shvimer clan looked like me, but it was more a Hebrew tribal resemblance than the particular lineage. Zosia continued to ask for clarification—she had left home in the rain—so there at lunch I emailed genealogist Gary Palgon, asking him how, if Y DNA could go only from father to son, Brandts ever diverged from Shvimers, let alone Cohens. In a return email, he put the matter in perspective:

“Surnames typically were only taken in the late 1790s to the early 1800s so the relationship goes back further than that. The Y-DNA goes back to about 25 generations so at 25 yards per generation as an average, that’s 625 years, which would date back to 1393!”

1393! Zosia’s look on hearing this was a nonverbal “I told you so! What good are you?” In one sense, she was right. She, Ewa, Sigmund and I did share a common ancestor, but a lot of water had been under many bridges since, migrations from Western to Eastern Europe, and naming and renaming of clans. Our last common family could have lived in Mediaeval Spain. The DNA that had brought us together in modern times was not a bad thing, though it was unsatisfactory to someone looking for functional family ties. To Zosia, 1393 was ridiculous. But distant tribal connection means something. Ewa accepted our kinship and acted in terms of it, and that was enough.

After we treated them to the late lunch at Karmnik (I had a vegi-burger and they all had goose dumplings), we walked back through the Old Town and various squares. A fistfight broke between two young men right in front of us, and I realized how rarely I saw people violently and audibly sock each other’s faces. It happens in New York and Detroit too, but it seemed closer to the ambient crowd energy here. On either side of the tourist flow were men holding bottles and arguing, but like those loops in Tango that never connect.

We left Zosia at the tram, and Ewa walked us back to the apartment just in time, for a deluge followed. A parade of dark clouds continued over the city for the rest of the day with periodic dumps on everything while temporary night ruled.

After napping, I went for a long exploratory walk under the umbrella and met a lost Frenchman who fell in with me for a few blocks. He initiated conversation at a long traffic light. Relieved to find someone who shared any language with him, “even my poor English,” he said that being confused was what tourism was about “what do you Americans call it?, rolling with punches.” He added he preferred the rain to the current heat wave in Paris. Tourism is also about meeting chance people on the road of life and death.

During my reconnoiter, I never found the organic market listed on the Airbnb map in our room, my main goal, but I come upon an automatic teller with English and a restaurant based on a mixture of Hebrew and French themes where L and I went for dinner under an umbrella.

If it is not clear already, tourist weariness, genealogical disappointment, and heavy rain dominated the day, though it had its moments.

 

July 15

A third bullet dodged: first the backpack in the Copenhagen airport, then the credit card at the Charlottelund train station, then not waking up with the flu or a bad cold today. I got soaked and chilled yesterday and had chills and a difficult night. I felt sick in the morning but nothing like I feared . With heavy rain continuing, it was a time anyway to rest. We didn’t set out till a break in the weather mid-day. Our goal was the Warsaw City History Museum or Museum of Warsaw, recommended by Ewa as the best of all the options.

We decided on a cab because of the weather and also not knowing our way. We drew a bad bull. A cabbie shot in the front of one we hailed and we docilely got inThe driver claimed never to have heard of a Warsaw History Museum or Museum of Warsaw. Lind said that Old Square would sufficient but, in his partial English, he proposed instead to take us to the Jewish museum. Since that was on our list, we agreed.

He was a middle-aged bruiser, a skinhead with a series of bizarre shoulder and head twitches, a scary guy out of a mafia movie. He drove very fast and ran red lights by margins beyond plausible denial, yet he took much too long getting to the museum, about fifteen minutes, for which he charged us $40.

How much of a scam he was didn’t registered until I used the GPS on my cell to find our way back to our place on foot after we emerged two and half hours later in late-afternoon sun. Even going slowly and stopping to look at things, plus a phone error that required backtracking, we made it in twenty-five minutes. The guidebook had warned of that sort of cab ride In Warsaw.

Maybe it was a godsend because the Jewish Museum was a revelation, bringing together many themes on the trip and in my life in general. Whatever his motive, he made the right choice for us. Maybe it took a skinhead to deliver us to the Jewish Museum and overcharge us by three for the privilege.

The Museum was a gigantic modern structure at the end of a long, spare memorial plaza. Entering it was more stringent than going through security at an airport. After putting belongings on a belt and passing through radar, everyone was individually checked by a guard with a hand-held device. He took his time, having us hold out our arms and turn. Even as a ritual, it served as a resounding symbol of changed times and power.

Once inside, I went to check out the cafeteria because we hadn’t had lunch and I had barely had breakfast. While I did, Lindy bought tickets and got us automated hand-held speakers describing the exhibits. We ate first: groats, apple pancakes, hummus, and matzoh-ball soup—it was a Jewish museum.

We entered the exhibit area not knowing the lay of the land, but it soon became clear that discrete ones joined in chronological order, each integrated with the next in theme and development— a slow meandering trail up and down through the bowels of the building. The exhibits themselves were intricately designed in multi-media: models, wall charts, movies, display cases of objects, audio outlets, interactive screens, etc.

Unless I am in error, mainly ordinary Poles predominated, treating the place just like any other attractive museum on a Sunday: whole families and children, though they were selective—no children in the Holocaust section.

You followed the arrows and numbers. Numbers pushed on the voicebox tripped a description and historical background for the exhibit of that number.

We did not realize for a while that there were sixty exhibits, so we dawdled from 1100 AD to the sixteenth century. When we realized we had used up much of our stamina, we skipped ahead to World War I and continued from there. Here are some of my impressions in no particular order:

Being Jewish has always a challenge. I relate to some parts of it and fight against others. I am appalled by any implied association with Zionism and the fascist Jewish state. I am repelled by many of the religious superstitions and overwrought ceremonialism, but I love the mysticism, occultism, and carryover of spirit into pop culture and science, everything from Einstein to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Leonard Cohen.

I look at pictures of historical Jews and feel like running from the exotic, bedraggled appearances. I am not one of them. I look at historical Jews and see the long, strange path by which my historical body and mind were given. I accept.

I am happy to have ended up in the Jewish Museum, but I got there mainly by chance. The genealogical confirmation I sought with Ewa and Zosia was in the museum in a way in would never be in Shvimer family records.

Jews from Spain discovered Poland (Polin) very early, in the eleventh century I think, well before it was a cohesive political entity. It was a magical, mythical place for many of them, and they used a false etymology of Polin to view forested land to as a destined home in exile.

Why Jews wandered from the Middle East to Mediaeval Spain is its own matter, but from Spain they continued to follow trade routes east, making livelihoods as traders, merchants, and incipient bankers. Their friendships and business ties were prized by Polish nobility who like their transport of desired goods, accurate accounting, and investments in their domains. Jews who settled in Polish territory were integrated into Polish life and given full and event exceptional rights, for instance were allowed to mint their owns coins (some of the oldest artifacts in the museum).  Entrepreneurial business is in the culture or blood or both. Jews married into Polish families. Whether the “Esther” of one exhibit was the wife or concubine of a Polish king is unclear from conflicting commentary, but she bore him children in his lineage.

The Museum depicts multiple aspects of Jewish economic, political, and religious life in Poland era by era with sample books, documents, and objects of trade. Communities in Warsaw, Poznań, Krakow, and other cities are covered in depth with urban maps and displays, showing Jewish settlements. One can hold objects, sit in facsimile reconstructions of temples, print pages on old Jewish presses, and participate in interactions and debates of the time.

Historically in Poland, Jews were prominent publishers and bookpeople, but also often the local tavern- and inn-keepers (Poles tended to prefer the Jewish style of hospitality). The former speaks to my own career, the latter to that of the Grossinger family; Grossinger’s Resort was a Polish-Jewish inn writ large.

Jews were already in Poland when the first major political-geographical entity in the region formed: the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. In it, Jews stepped into a major political and economic role. They had already been in the culture a long time.

The Holocaust caught the Jewish community by surprise in Poland because, by then, they had been there for so many centuries and generations and were so interwoven in economic and social life. To themselves they felt inextricable and immune.

Yes, there were periodic spates of racism and jealousies and reprisals from Christian neighbors who felt Jews were getting special treatment or becoming too prosperous and powerful; by comparison—and there was always the church problem of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and the New Testament as a holy book equal to the Old Testament. These turned out to be foreshadowings of the reckonings to come, but they also could have died away. Both aspects were present at some level throughout: acceptance and inclusion; resentment, threats, and isolated incidents of mayhem. Through the centuries, Jews feared being murdered in their sleep; this collective trauma was written on the walls of the Jewish Museum as clearly as Marianne’s excavation of it. But the balance could have tipped either way—that’s the case in any such situation from Rwanda to suburban London and Paris.

The first major upheaval was when Cossacks, Tartars, and Ruthenians from the ast wreaked havoc on the Commonwealth, killing Poles as well as Jews. I believe this was in the seventeenth century. The awakening from epochs of peaceful coexistence led to Jewish messianic movements: shades of cargo cults and ghost dances but with a Zoharic flavor.

Poland only formed as a modern national after World War I.

The German invasion, concentration camps, and Holocaust are covered in depth through ten-plus exhibits, each with its own artifacts, films, sounds, quotes on walls, and narratives, from displacement and ghettoization to overcrowding, disease, and starvation in the ghettos; then removal to concentration camps and the industrialization of mass murder. You can sit in an imaginary Warsaw trolley and watch window screens showing the round-up and slaughter of Jews in the. The Holocaust is always lost in the reductive power of videos, documents (Nazi decrees, forged passports, etc.), and the inevitable miniaturization and dissociation of technology, but the psyche absorbs these images, records, and testimonies, and tries to reconcile and find any rationale or explanation. A lot of bad things have happened since, but the character of the Holocaust remains unique in its systematic dehumanization and the scale of the breakdown of empathy. The removal of indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands and slavery are just as horrific and on a greater scale, but there is something about the cold industrialization and ideological purism of the Nazi affair than stands alone.

Despite all prior representations of the Holocaust—and they have been legion: movies, books, long editorials, etc.—the Warsaw Jewish Museum’s World War II rooms add context, poignancy, recognition, and waves vicarious grief; it is wrenching to watch the plight of people—any people—long integrated into a society being uprooted, isolated, ghettoized, and mechanically slaughtered. The story never loses its power. Walking through the exhibits, I am overwhelmed by layers of sorrow. I can’t tell the collective from the personal, the Holocaust from the suicides in my family, the Jews of Poland from the Armenians of Turkey or Tutsis in the Congo. I walk from exhibit to exhibit, see films of the masses herded, stare at documents and personal belongings, numb and dissociated and, at the same time, drenched by waves of something more occult than simple grief. It is at the level of stars and galaxies and evokes the cosmic portal of Renaissance Jewish bimahs, altars, zodiacs, and holy books in the exhibits.

What ceremony is being played out in the universe at large as it plunges into its own fathomless depth (look at the starry night), seeking some sort of compensatory devastation and sorrow to elucidate the sheer texture and majesty of being rather than nothingness? How much farther have we to go? How can I bear it?

The museum provides a symbolic representations and tellings. One exhibit is divided into black and white sections, black for Jews who escaped or tried to escape the Holocaust by hiding in cities and forests and bunkers, white for those who passed or tried to pass as Catholics in plain sight, using forged papers and/or by changing their names and identities.

Lists of the dead are inscribed on walls. We walk on the names of streets where Jews were collected. The curators try repeatedly to get the scope across, to save the dignity of individuals whose dignity and identity were stolen, to make it real, and then to make it real again. Grzybowski Square, where we briefly reside in privilege and freedom a mere seventy-five years later, was a major assembly point for Jews being gathered for dispatch to concentration camps.

Actual rubble on the museum floor matches the rubble in the photographs.

About ten exhibits represent the post-Holocaust years. The Jewish population was reduced by ninety percent in the Holocaust, but afterwards Jewish culture and social life reignited. The museum tracks Jewish politics and political parties in Polish life from the nineteenth century: pre-Zionist, Zionist, nationalist, pre-Communist, Communist, religious but anti-Zionist, etc. Exhibits cover emigration to America, Sweden, Israel, and other twentieth and twenty-first-century destinations; suppression and persecution under Stalin; identification pof some with Communism, blame of Jew by Poles for Soviet collaboration, finally films of the current revival of Polish Jewish life.

 

We walked back in sun, wending our way with a faith in the GPS despite its periodic contradictory instructions, e.g., turn right and turn left at the same corner. At such points, we showed the screen to a pedestrian, ideally someone on a bike, and got directed.

Warsaw was at peace and friendly.

A Jew, if that’s what I am, could walk its streets in confidence. I was an American and tourist first.

Heavy showers returned in the evening.

We walked to the same Hebrew-French restaurant, Menora, for dinner where they were celebrating Bastille Day and a football victory. Crowded among young diners, Polish and American pop music, maybe Spotify, on a spaker, the sound of Polish conversations locating us continually in Warsaw, I think of how special and specific it is to have done this. Menora is in Grzybowski Square, and space-time is pouring through its portal like a river that cannot be stopped, even then, even now, even yet.

In the morning we will sit at this same restaurant for breakfast and watch fashionably dressed women ride by on bicycles, likely en route to work, six hours later they will do oikewise in New York City and Boston, though more probably on foot. The views, imagined and actual, match. It’s a global economy. A massive old church, a stone’s throw away, is shrunk onto a historic page by massive glass skyscrapers and glass towers in the near distance, several blocks further away.

German planes bomb this same zone to rubble in repeating film clips in the Jewish Museum, over and over. But human life rises like exotic mushrooms or crystal hives from its genome’s DNA. A hundred years from now, what? What here? What of us? What yet of them, twelve million Jews and Poles? Where has the universe, the Akashic field, placed them? What has the Torah and the Zodiac in store for us?

I find comparisons of Adolph Hitler and Donald Trump specious and ideologically indulgent, but there are unmistakeable correlations.

The intentional goading and rabblerousing of anti-intellectual masses, outraged by any king but a jackass king, especially after one with African blood.

Xenophobia in spades, blaming the outsider for the intrinsic problems of a rigged oligarchic, plutocratic economy—a glorified Ponzi scheme— for the woes of samsara too.

That Jews can be woven warp and woof, thread and pixel, into the socioeconomic structure and political hierarchy of a community, into its pop culture—as concubine, as son-in-law, as lawyer, as banker, as spice merchant, as seer and publisher, as shaman—and then unwoven from the fabric, thread by thread and pixel by pixel.

Maybe it will be the Mexicans, Malians, Syrians and Sikhs this time rather than the Jews, but then they are the Jews, and eventually the Jews will be there too because the real blessing of God on Abraham and descendants eludes the Netanyahus and the Israeli Settlers, despite avid, even hysterical claims to the contrary. Jews can wreak holocausts too.

The real blessing is the capacity for empathic suffering—suffering, depth, and common cause with the dispossessed and impoverished of the Earth. That is the legacy I would claim and hope to earn, beyond relativity, gematria, and “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” Beyond, and yet all that too.

At night like on our other two here, the sounds of drunk carousing break the night outside our window, sounds of glass smashed, pro forma for weekend partying. From the fifth floor it is a removed echo of another world.

 

July 16

Warsaw to Krakow was supposed to be a three-to-four hour drive and, by leaving early, we hoped to have some of the afternoon in Krakow. Plans like that are guesses. It took over almost seven hours to get from our parking place on the street in Warsaw to our hotel in Krakow. The main encumbrance was road construction: three different junctures where traffic from each direction had to alternate with traffic from the other direction, meaning long waits for our turn. There were other slowdowns: most of the way was not on superhighways like A2. We passed through towns with their own traffic jams, pedestrian crossings, and cars turning. It also continued to rain, sometimes lightly but occasionally in blinding enough torrents to slow traffic.

It was all engaging to look at: farms, fields of grain, meters of corn, wildflowers, distinctive small towns. If one could be transported to such vistas on an average Monday or Thursday, it would be worth any trouble—and it was.

I needed to correct an error. Ewa writes me that our language barrier led to a misunderstanding. She is more much widely traveled than us: “almost whole Europe, Brasil, Russia, Egipt, Asian countries, not to mention about the whole Poland.” I got the opposite impression from her answers to questions about herself, but if you only overlap on maybe twenty percent of language, wrong connotations slip in. For instance, if I asked her where she had travelled and she had taken me to mean in the last few months, I might have misconstrued her response, then developed a concept that didn’t apply to her.

Getting into Krakow was its own challenge. About five miles from our reservation at Hotel Dom Polonii, Rynek Główny 14, traffic slowed to bumper to bumper, moving in spurts, but stopped for long period. After an hour of this, I suggested that Lindy try her cell to see what it said about the address. The Maps program had an entirely different idea of how to enter town, calling for an immediate U-turn. That was appealing because traffic was moving freely in the other direction on the opposite side of a brief mall. I took the next available left and started the other way. We were soon directed to the right into the city with the two voices squabbling, as Lindy couldn’t get the car system shut off.
As we edged through narrow, crowded to within less than a kilometer of Dom Polonii ((by both assessments), logic broke down; neither program could offer more than “Return to the route.” Rain was heavy just then, and we were in a densely populated area of the old city alongside the campus of an old university. It looked as though either Martin Luther or Paracelsus could have delivered theses from its steps. There was also little maneuvering room for cars going two ways, especially with pedestrians using the street. I saw a parking spot and dove in, ran through the rain into a shop, and asked the woman for directions by holding out my reservation printout for Dom Polonii.  She didn’t speak English but pointed in the opposite direction from where we were going and to the right. Taking her at her word, I was able to make a U-turn at the end of the street by the campus. I came back up the street, made a right, and turned with the street. At that point, the combination of pedestrians in the road and car gridlock prevented progress. Both GPS’s said in slightly different language, “Walk from here to your destination.” Luckily there was a parking spot available. Lindy put her cell on “Walk” and we continued on foot. Even then, the instructions were confused, telling us to turn right, then left at the same corner. We picked the right. We entered the Old Square (Stare Miasto). Almost immediately it said that we had arrived at our destination, though there was no hotel in sight. The Square was a tight landscape of large churches, shops, and tourists—a noisy carnival.

As we walked along, looking, I saw the words “Dom Polonii: It wasn’t exactly a hotel. It was an opera house selling tickets to the evening’s performance of arias. We had to show the reservation to get past the ticket-taker at the door.

Inside, a tall, pleasant-looking, bespectacled young man with attractively messy facial stubble and a smattering of English led us up three long flights to a woman in an office who requested payment before further discussion. We asked about the room and parking. She shook her head ambiguously and got on the phone. Pointing to it, she said, “Boss.” Her boss apparently told her to have the young man help us. She shouted for him, gave him keys, and he led us to our room: another flight up. There was no lift, and it wasn’t four normal floors. Each was a double story with a landing. It was eight floors. There were only three guest rooms in the establishment, all ofthem on the top floor. At the end of our ascent, we got a grand old spacious room, worthy of a manor, and a view overlooking the OId Square, but was it worth the hassles and climb? Dom Polonii was likely a mistake. I had fallen for an online advertisement, touting the value of being right on the Old Square. It didn’t mention eight stories, no lift, and no access by car.

Lindy stayed in the room, as I led the guy back to our parking spot, fingers crossed that I could reverse my path through the labyrinth and find it.

I was relieved to see its EU AZ license mid-block after consecutive lefts. The Dom Polonii employee proposed, in roundabout phrases and sign language, that he meant to take our suitcases back from there to the room (great!) and also for me to re-park the car because I was in a fifteen-minute zone. “Fifteen not fifty,” he clarified when I asked because I had already been there a half hour. “Must move. Ticket.”

He walked me several blocks downhill and around two corners going different ways to an outdoor lot of dirt and broken concrete in a converted courtyard reached by a short narrow alleyway. We walked back to the car. I got out two suitcases and pulled up one handle. He pulled up the other and left, wheeling one in each arm much I had done the same getting from our parking place in Warsaw.

To get to the lot, I had to make a U-turn in the only way it could be done on such a narrow street, by using the opposite sidewalk. With heavy pedestrian traffic on both street and sidewalk, you don’t want to watch this. It happened by sheer intention and gradual meticulous degrees, back and forth, turning the wheels as pedestrians ignored the disturbance. I found the alley, not a sure thing. I followed the instructions of the attendant to park, paid him by credit card, grabbed both our backpacks with computers and retraced my steps to the Dom Polonii. By then, the rain had let up enough to make all this possible without an umbrella.

We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we went down into the Square. As noted, it was packed with tourist crowds walking in more than two directions. There were also horse-drawn carriages, solicitors with handouts, and performing costumed figures trying to entice people into exhibits—for instance, a guy dressed entirely in mirror tiles (face included) and another with movies running across his body.

Krakow’s Old Square is spot-on remarkable, but you have change your view and filter out the noise to see it: giant churches, old statues, restored buildings, both in the Square and on the streets leading to it. With this many tourists, barkers, and the general chaos of mobile modernity, the scenery dissipates and loses its integrity. It becomes more like a fake stage set of itself, much as a Vegas reproduction of the same buildings would be. It isn’t quite that bad—you are in a real place, and some of the grandeur and historic integrity sticks—but the view is moment-to-moment higgledy-piggledy versus the architectural landscape that has supposedly drawn the masses. And then the horses! Two double-horse carriages, each horse decorated with metal-embossed frocks on its body as if from an imperial stable, went back and forth, back and forth, clop clop behind you, forcing pedestrians out of the road into near gridlock on the sidewalks amid cigarette smoke. But you came here to see what it is and be there, so it is not unpleasant or oppressive; it is human and more than possible, calling for compassion and forgiveness, for being bumped into distractedly, for being who they are, for the endless riddle that travel imposes on you.

We hadn’t gotten far past Dom Polonii, maybe forty feet, when a tall pleasant-looking young man accosted us in Polish, then changed at once to English. He assured us that the restaurant he stood in front of had the best food in Krakow (we later realized that most restaurants around the Square employed such a fisher in the crowd-stream). He went on to describe Marmolada’s superlatives: home cooking, Italian and Polish or Russian food whatever you desired, a terrace in back so you could sit in light out of the rain.

We were hungry, had no idea what we were looking for, plus it was easier to comply than resist. It was actually tasty, well-cooked food, especially the mushroom soup and potato dumplings, but it took forty minutes from when we ordered for dishes to appear.

Waiting in a restaurant can be more tiring than walking. I felt enervated in Warsaw when we had to wait over an hour with Ewa for her mother. At moments like that you wonder how you got yourself to these coordinates in the universe.

At one point I used the restaurant rest room. It called for going down two winding flights into a basement, across a dirt-floor wine cellar and behind a door that looked like something on a jail cell in a dungeon. It felt like a mafia scene, but I kept up my gumption and got to pee.

After food, Lindy wanted to rest, so she took the long journey up the stairs and I set out on a hike to the one site in Krakow I wanted to see: the Vortex at the Wawel castle. According to the guy selling opera tickets at the door of Dom Polonii, Wawel was only a seven-minute walk along Grodzka Clowny, the continuation of Rynek Clowny.

I learned about the Vortex in an old guidebook. It is in the Wawel courtyard of Wawel, which could have been anywhere within ten kilometers of Dom Polonii but was just a few blocks off the Square. It is considered by Hindus to be one of the most powerful energy sites on the planet, apparently the conjunction of multiple lei lines. Since there few comparable vortices,  yogis and other pundits come all the way from India to Krakow just to visit. The guidebook treated it tongue in cheek, as a legend, but it was an active legend leading to real pilgrimages. As long as we were in Krakow, I wanted to go test it and see if I could feel it.

Grodzka would gradually out of the old Square. One church stopped me for its spectacular, ornate construction but mostly  an unusual row of full-sized religious statues spaced on a row of pedestals in front, giving the edifice another axis or fourth dimension.

Wawel was an immense, full-fledged castle and castle grounds on a hilltop. You could be born in such a place and not see all its rooms in a lifetime. It more accurately enveloped the hill it sat on. Access to its grounds was not immediately evident from Grodzka, but I followed crowds around the corner, down an adjoining street, and up a very long ramp. I ended up in a courtyard, but where in relation to the energy sink? There were several adjoining courtyards and, to make matters worse, I had neglected to bring pages torn from the old guide.

I did have my cell and looked it up. There was nothing tongue in cheek about the Internet description. This was as real a vortex as Sedona and much more highly regarded for its depth of energy. The site of the vortex’s strongest radiation was at the northwest corner of the central courtyard under the chapel connecting the castle to the cathedral on its grounds. A tunnel-like passage connected the buildings, as proposed, in the second courtyard I entered. I saw no wandering holymen or anyone aimed toward the chapel, but I walked to the spot, suspecting I would feel nothing.

As I entered the tunnel under the chapel, I felt a sharp tug, unmistakeably tangible. It went from my head down my spine and felt the way a magnetic field might. I stood at its strongest grip for a few minutes, experimenting with its shape and degree of tug, shifting my position and then coming back to central current. As I stood there, people walked through the tunnel joining courtyards as if it were nothing but a conduit. No one else was interested or noticed. Where were the Hindus? Where were the hippies? Had no one else read the guidebook or found the vortex online?

I began to doubt my perception. Maybe I was feeling tension and weariness in my neck from the long drive. Three times I went elsewhere among the courtyards and returned. On my departure, the sensation diminished at once, disappearing entirely with distance. It came back as I regained the spot: strongest down my spine.

I looked again at the people strolling obliviously through the tunnel chatting, kids running. I wanted to scream “Vortex, vortex ahoy!” but most of them wouldn’t care, and no one was speaking was speaking English anyway. Among the passers-through were one Indian gent and a cluster of long-haired, piercings-bearing young millennials gabbing in Italian. Did they feel it? Did they know nothing of the force?

After a while, I remembered that I should receive the current and not go out after it. I did, closing my eyes. The inner-eye image was of an axis passing through the Earth, and not just the Earth but beyond, perhaps the galactic center. It was dark and dense, powerful and stable. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I received the energy neutrally and let it give me what it would.

I walked back to the room and, after the walk from Wawel and ascent up the stairs, I collapsed on the bed.

That evening around 7:00 p.m., Lindy and I went on a long saunter, past the churches, past Wawel, over the trolley tracks, into the Jewish quarter. In 2018 it was just a somewhat rundown section of town. An evident large old synagogue and a few buildings with Hebrew letters were the only old indicators of pre-Holocaust Polish Jews. To peek into the synagogue required a fee, so we skipped the look. It wasn’t just the minor cost; it was the aggressive woman at the door. She bordered on the sort of money fixation that makes me not want to be Jewish. I can’t remember a single church in Europe that charged a fee, let alone had a collector at the door. She didn’t even look official. She could have been a scammer, but I didn’t think so, as she grabbed the arm of a man slipping by unaware, held out her box, and said, “Must pay.”

A much subtler level was at work for me, I guess in my aura. Walking in the Jewish quarter at night, on narrow streets, away from the crowds of the Square, in relative silence (an occasional hollow sound or voice) resonated with something old and familiar—and did again even more strongly later when I went out alone, downhill to the car to retrieve a few things. In a subliminal unnotable way that blended with ordinary reality, I felt akin to these streets. I naturally melded into them. Perhaps it was creative imagination or wishful thinking, but I had an intimation of ancestral presence. Even if it was imagination, it gave me a feeling of sanctuary and drama, the drama of a lifetime that is essentially unknown in its passage, like at every moment, from the unknown to the unknown in relation to any particular other lifetime of myself or of any of my ancestors or other selves. The mystery was ambient but palpable. That was the main import of Krakow to me—currently a modern Jew on its streets. The sensation could have missed it for its quiet and subtlety, but I am tracking such stuff now.

On Lindy’s and my way back from the Jewish district to the Square, a guesswork of crisscrossing streets at twilight, we passed a vegan Indian restaurant we had seen en route, a good sign. We stopped there and ordered the light dinner: papadums, lentil mash, rice, and naan. It took half an hour, but least, three women on a makeshift stage sang Sanskrit ragas and prayers; the trio were playful and soulful both. The youngest found immediate deep epiphany but broke into shy laughter like a young girl every time she caused a screech of feedback from her mike.

A final reason not to book a room on a Stare Miasto. The noise never stopped. In fact, it got worse into the a.m hours: singing, shouting, exulting, lit drones and kites and balloons flying by our window. I was tired enough to sleep through most of it and turn the rest into a dream.

 

July 17

I made an abrupt change in plans yesterday. We were supposed to head to Budapest today, but it took so long to get to Krakow that it didn’t feel right to leave right away the next morning. We also wanted to do a daytrip to Auschwitz.

That sounds wrong on two levels. It disrespects those who had to go there, and it turns a deeper summons into a tourist destination. One goes to Auschwitz because it is an obligation, to bring yourself as witness to where it happened, to respect the dead, to acknowledge the horror and inhuman suffering.

We moved our Budapest reservation ahead by a day and planned to stay somewhere in between Krakow and Budapest in Slovakia overnight after visiting Auschwitz. Our four-day landlord in Budapest was graciously willing to reduce it to three, but plenty else stood in the way of Auschwitz that morning.

I was sick. I never got the immobilizing flu or cold I feared, but I know what “sick” feels like. I didn’t want to do anything—I didn’t want to eat, move about, and certainly not deal with being six floors up in a converted old opera house and having to leave it, get all our stuff to the car, and drive elsewhere. That seemed at herculean scale to the state of my body and brain. And it was raining hard, with the forecast’s “heavy rain and wind” still ahead.

Lindy went out for breakfast. I went back to sleep. When I got up, she still wasn’t back, so I found a place on the Square for takeout pancakes. They came covered with sweetened fruits, but options were few. Most places did not do takeout.

I met the manager of the Dom Polonii, a man my age. He was as copious and beneficent as a mafia don and as situational. It was our problem, he deemed, to get our suitcases down eight flights and to the car. I slowly established rapport—eons ago he had lived three years in Chicago and was inspired to talk about it, how you could fit all of Poland into that one city (I figured he meant the population). We chatted about the States, the history of Dom Polonii. I praised it. After a while he said he would find someone of the proper age to help us get our suitcases downstairs. We could handle getting them to the car. I wondered about driving in front because I had seen vehicles there, but he said that the street and adjacent streets closed at ten, half an hour ago, so we would have to wheel them.

We had managed the same in airports and, though the lot was many blocks away, it was no different than going from an airport to a train station. Krakow is pure touristville, so there were people rolling suitcases all about us. With our backpacks on, bags of food and takeout in hand, we covered the distance of about six blocks, over cobblestone and mixed concrete and dirt.

Lindy felt a lot better than I did and she had also had breakfast, so she drove. The passage out of Krakow by GPS was unsettling. We went due north, back toward Warsaw, away from Budapest. It took confidence in the GPS to proceed in the opposite direction to where you were going. Lindy was more actively worried than me, but I reminded her that it was the same leaving Warsaw—you had to go north to go south, you had to enter the greater highway system away from the city. She was inclined to bail, get off, and ask someone, like at a gas station, but that seemed dubious in unknown territory on a busy highway in rain. We had three GPS’s if you counted the cells as a single one, and they all said the same—north—so we stuck to the highway toward Warsaw.

It would have helped matters if we had thought to phonetically translate the town that kept coming up in the system: Oświęcim. That is the Polish name for the place. Auschwitz is merely Germanized phonetic and orthography orthography. The GPS had inicated Auschwitz but Oświęcim, but it was the same place if you pronounced the Polish properly instead of as Oh-wee-essem.

Lindy’s fear of being on the wrong road was soon contagious. The day had hardly begun, and I felt wiped out and daunted. Everything seemed against our getting to Auschwitz. I was tempted to say, “Fuck it. Let’s just put Budapest in the GPS and skip the whole deal.”

Now picture our worsening situation. As the road finally turned west, we encountered the heaviest rain and wind of a pretty much unbroken series of squalls since Berlin. The storm was blinding, as wind battled the car’s acceleration. It balked at going forward and swayed on the road. We had to blast the heater to keep the window defogged. By usual standards, this was dangerous to the point of insane. Our friends and family, if they could have seen us, would have been rightly concerned. It was a terrible day to be out on the road, but we stubbornly persisted.

Auschwitz was supposed to be about seventy-five minutes from Krakow on a course mainly due west. Under the conditions, it took more like a hundred. After we exited at Oświęcim (an hour or so), we followed a series of roads and roundabouts into countryside. That made sense. By putting the camps where they did, the Germans tried to hide Auschwitz-Birkenwald from the world. The many consecutive rural roundabouts baffled the GPS, and on one occasion we were sent in the wrong direction, then onto a side street and down an obscure dead-end lane, as it tried to compensate. There is no script-writer skyhook to get one out of situations like that. Patience, faith—that’s the allotment. You make a U-turn, retrace, get back confidence. The language barrier is constant—road signs and pedestrians can resolve the most basic issues. One craves English like water or air, though I hated such provincialism in myself.

After the phonetics finally snapped in, the name Oświęcim became a more reliable guide than the GPS. Finally, at three kilometers from the site of the concentration camp, signs began indicating the Auschwitz Museum under Oświęcim. The absence of signage to that point was either fabulous understatement or an unconscious continuation of the German wish to downplay the place.

I had surmised that the harsh weather might at least have driven down the crowds. That was an utter fantasy. Like us, others had made their schedules and one day inked in for Auschwitz. The parking area was jammed with tourist buses and cars trying to maneuver around one another. It took a while to pay for parking and then find a spot deep in the lot.

We trooped with crowds toward the buildings. By then the rain had subsided to an ordinary downpour. There were lines for headphones, souvenirs, sausages, drinks, headphones, tour groups. It felt like outside a ballpark; only the game would have been rained out long ago. Among all that, nothing registered as an actual ticket window. We asked a guard. Tickets were the longest of all the lines, queueing in a giant curve on the outskirts of the area by a wire fence. I had looked at that line and dreaded its meaning. We got on the end.

As we stood under the umbrella among other people with umbrellas, still getting wet from windblown droplets, occasionally having to step through puddles because rain had saturated the ground in great swaths, I wondered again if we should bail for Budapest, maybe get halfway there. I made a half-serious suggestion to Lindy that if we hadn’t reached the windows of a far-off building, where presently two boys in yellow raincoats stood, by 1:30, we should give it up and go. That seemed past the halfway point to the ticket windows. Lindy concurred. The line moved slowly, but it moved. We got to the spot of the yellow raincoats by 1:25, forty minutes after I set the deadline.

Four ticket-takers should have had the line zipping along, but completing the purchase was a several-stage process. First, it cost a hundred zlotys each, so a credit card was produced. Then the female ticket seller needed our IDs for recording; then she had to assign us to a group, you couldn’t march in and look around like in other museums. Access to the camps was strictly monitored and controlled. The woman put us in the next English tour, starting at 2:15. She pointed to where it was already queueing in the rain. There was fifteen minutes, so we went inside instead, found the cafeteria right away, and got lunch. I found the options more suitable to my state than the starch-dominated stuff I had been eating since we got Poland: chicken soup and a plate of string beans; I decided to forego a main dish. I’m sure the chicken wasn’t organic, but to worry about such a thing at Auschwitz bordered on sacrilege.

The cafeteria tables carried polyglot to almost symphonic level. Some of the audible tongues sounded like nothing I had ever heard. Perhaps Martians or Pleiadians were among us, checking out the cosmic disaster that happened here. That’s how many of them looked, or maybe they looked like ghosts of the Auschwitz dead, even the young somewhat, a bit feral and primitive, including the scowling young E.T. dude at our table who kept rolling a cigarette (no smoking allowed) he never lit. The ambiance was spooky, but the attendance impressive. Whatever their reasons, people were here to see a death camp. Then suddenly we had to hurry not to miss our tour.

Bathrooms downstairs cost two zlotys, there was an attendant making sure to collect from each non-optional customer. Lucky we still had coins.

We queued for English. Then in the unabating rain, we slogged through mud, people trying to keep their umbrellas from bumping each other’s. The line moved sluggishly because security was serious: emptying of pockets and X-raying. Then it turned out that you needed your credit-card receipt as well as your ticket for entry. Lindy had to quickly dig ours out of her hand bag. The ticket had a different use. It unpeeled, to be pasted on one’s jacket. Ours said “English.”

We passed into a courtyard where groups for different languages clustered, looking for their leaders. A small composite image of an American/British flag designated our tour

We were dispatched at once to get headphones and a little box. That was not for recordings but to listen to our guide. Our aggregation was large, so he spoke into a mike. His voice reached us through the earphones, though I heard him a lot of the time without them

Logistics and timing were strict, almost martial. Groups in English, French, Spanish, German, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Hebrew, and other languages were being led on the same procession in close sequence like planes on a runway. As one group left an area, another group streamed in. The system was well timed. We never had to wait to enter or delay the group behind us.

The guide was impeccable in both tone and content. There aren’t many ways to tell the things he had to say. He was flat, neutral to the point of offhand. At first, he seemed cold, but I grew in admiration, especially as more neurotic and ideologically driven members of our group tried to provoke him into emoting or giving his opinion. He had what I came to think of as the Polish tone regarding Auschwitz: “Some really bad shit went down here, but we didn’t do it. We were victims too. This was solely a Nazi production. The concentration camps were built on Polish territory by occupying forces of the German Third Reich. Remember too, this is a death camp. Move in quiet and respect. Please do not take photographs here. Sir, I said no photographs here. Please don’t talk. This is a place of death.

“Here you may take pictures if you want, but no flashes. Respect those who suffered here.”

Only at the end did he reveal that SS soldiers occupied his family house, as they did of many Polish families in the region, evicting the residents. But occupation was only reason the building survived the war. He expressed remorse for this minor collaboration.

How to describe the carnage and its artifacts, evidence, and ghastly remnants and mementos? We saw all the things you would guess we saw: blown-up photographs of people arriving and being situated (desperate haunted faces that are iconic, but being on site gave them new meaning and power); cramped dwelling quarters with mattresses or straw on stone, animal-like urinals and wash basins, torture cells, gallows, racks, a crematorium, gas chambers, rooms where medical experiments were carried out on mainly women and children, an electric fence and guard station, etc. We walked on crushed bricks and mud through yards and into buildings—no mitigation of a reasonably realistic reconstruction of the camp. Our guide said that this was a difficult day to do such a tour, “so, please watch the hazards.” There was no way to avoid getting soaked, shoes and socks and pants cuffs, but (again) we were the lucky time-travelers.

Auschwitz Camp Number One had perhaps forty buildings or maybe more; after all, it was a former Polish army barracks. We entered maybe five and spent an average of fifteen minutes in each, going through its corridors and rooms in detail.

Two things stood out for me: (one) six or so huge museums cases filled with objects taken from prisoners by the Nazis (our guide said “Nasis” which gave it an uglier flow).

Those dragooned to the internment camp, mostly by train in box cars meant for animals, were told that they were going to live here, so they hauled their belongings in sacks and suitcases. They thought they would eventually go home. The guide remarked dryly that in fact they were there to be executed, so the only way out was through the chimneys.

They were ordered to leave their possessions outside in piles (plenty of photographs of the moment of grim recognition). There the Nazis sorted through them, sending fine things to Berlin and poorer things to factories for salvage and recycling.

Each museum display case of items was deep, tall, and wide behind glass that removed the stench. They were greater scale than ones that show mammal activity on an African veldt with taxidermy and deep landscape simulation. One case was filled with scalpings: women’s hair stacked up, tens of thousands of individuals’. Think of all that dry, faded hair piled to waist height, so much hair that it was beyond calculation or reckoning.

A smaller case demonstrated how this hair was used to make mattresses. The SS similarly removed the gold from teeth and turned it into bars in Berlin.

Another case was suitcases of those who entered Auschwitz, most with names still on them, familiar names and surnames, just different people. They thought that were coming to a settlement camp, so they labelled their belongings. It was a trick not only to make them compliant travelers but to have them cart merchandise for confiscation by the Nazis.

Another case was filled with shaving-soap brushes and hairbrushes. Another was filled with kitchenware. Another was filled with children’s shoes, another with adult shoes. A smaller one had cans of facial and hand cream, discolored and rusted.

And this was just what hadn’t been sent to Berlin at the time of the Russian liberation of the Polish camps. The sheer scale—the compulsive sorting of plunder alongside the industrialization of slaughter by the daily thousands—was overwhelming. Yet we kept moving along through it, the guide’s voice framing the obvious

Imbedded in a glass shrine were ashes and bones gathered from the crematorium grounds: ground litter. The main residual material of bodies was dumped into the Vistula.

Then (two) there were two corridors of faces of the executed, many of them Poles since no record was made of most of the Jews. Mugshots of the condemned had been methodically taken by the SS, eyes at the cameras like deer in headlights. The negatives were secretly saved and smuggled out, I believe by a Polish worker to stand witness to the “disappeared.” The museum printed these in identical size and put them in frames on the wall, men on the right, women on the left, in a second vestibule where Jews joined the photographed Poles, men on both sides.

I stared into the eyes of the condemned, as many as I could assimilate while moved, each an intentionally full snapshot into my brain.

I knew these people. They were my friends and neighbors and fellow citizens. I had seen them in summer camp and classrooms and on subway trains, in crowds on New York and Berkeley streets, in the starting lineups of football and baseball teams. I knew their descendants and tribesmates and genome.

I tried to acknowledge each that I had a moment to focus on, turning ceremonially from right to left, man, then woman, then man, then woman, as we moved in a stately procession.

They were beautiful. They were ugly. They were resolute, defiant. They were defeated and grim. They were laughing. They were resigned and already dead. They refused to die, to disappear. I thought, “I SEE YOU.” I didn’t use those words. It was a pure psychic and heart beam.

That it was seventy-eight years later merely added to the impact of our meeting here together today. “I SEE YOU. I WILL ALWAYS SEE YOU =. YOU WILL BE SEEN EVERY DAY BY SOMEONE. YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN.”

That’s not true; of course, they will be forgotten, as we will be. In a mundane sense, nothing lasts forever. We will forget history, so we will repeat it. We already have. But the sentiment has to be thought and spoken silently because our word makes it true, even beyond universes, because we were given consciousness and words, to use and empower blindly, and that we shared forever with those on the wall.

I did the same meditation with less sustained attention as I stared into the giant photos in earlier rooms: eyes of women and children getting off the train, being evaluated for death by the SS guards, standing in line for the gas chamber: “I am here. I can’t know what you are suffering, but I will take responsibility for my own life from here on out and live in accordance with your courage, your effrontery and faith. I understand what it is not to be you, and I respect that as much as I respect your suffering. I must respect it in order to honor you. I must live the life you would have if you had escaped from here.”

My own cowardice shamed me, and I felt raised to a new standard of candor and innocence.

I am moving toward another big thing, maybe the biggest for me there as well as a secret reason I wanted to come: my lifelong terror. It always contained Auschwitz-like images even when I was too young to know. The initial trigger of my childhood panic was a radio voice sending a figure down the dungeon stairs.

I am not arguing for a simple, linear past life, that I died here and was reincarnated in New York. I was born on the November 1944 day that most scholars set for Anne Frank’s death at Auschwitz-Birkenwald, but I take that symbolically more than literally. I am thinking too of collective trauma. Or maybe it was a past life out of which I flew into the seed of my mother’s fling with Bingo Brandt.

In any case, from whatever belief system, I tried to read Auschwitz psychically. At first, I was too overwhelmed emotionally to read or switch vibration. All I felt was rushes of heart energy, grief, and an ancient numbness in the aftermath of my own unearned survival. Then I remembered to receive.

It has always been striking to me how ordinary are the most profound psychic transmissions. What I received when I simply listened was the last thing I expected to feel: relief, wave upon gentle wave of relief.

The images outside matched the terror within. Something that had been numinous and spectral and traumatic was also irrefutably real.

Prisoners had to bathe in cold water in the winter. They were starved and asphyxiated, hung above the ground in such a manner that their arms broke (then executed because they were useless to work), put in cramped stone enclosures without being able to stand, executed for helping others. I didn’t feel relief from that. I felt fresh shock and horror and dismay at the darkness that permeates Creation despite its source luminosity. There was no redemption in these events. The suffering and pain were beyond recall by anyone who had lived it and died there. They traveled as collective trauma, lodged in amnesia.

On a subtle-body level, though, I witnessed an inkling of what it was or that it was. We left with a great gift—our lives—and a weighty obligation, to live well enough and in enough honesty to atone even a small amount for these deaths, to let their ghosts transubstantiate, to breathe hope for both of us back into the world.

Our entry fee entitled us to a second two-hour tour, at Birkenwald, but it was 3:45 and we needed to get a start toward Budapest, plus we were exhausted physically and emotionally, and very wet. We walked out of Auschwitz Concentration Camp One. We went back to the car.

 

Change of tone and content.

If we had thought that driving through a bit of Poland, all of Slovakia, and a bit of Hungary to Budapest was a fun road trip or duck soup like crossing Nebraska, think again The reality was sobering. Eastern Europe is still relict Soviet era and impenetrable. Between Oświęcim and our apartment at Szervita ter, 5, in Budapest was a series of obstacles, curves,  surprises, hazards, riddles, and “perils of Pauline” escapes, each one a relief from the worry that we would be stranded in the middle of nowhere, nowhere to us. Then came the next curve.

It started out deceptively easy: the GPS turned us around, put us on a decent rural road; we stopped for gas, got assurance from a fellow driver at the next pump that this was indded the right road for Slovakia and Budapest and there were no tolls in Poland. We turned our last zlotys into gas so as not to waste them.

I figured that we could put in about three hours, maybe four, and do half of what was listed on the GPS’s as a six to six-and-a-half-hour trip. Then we could stop for dinner and stay at a hotel. Divided into two days, the drive should have been relaxing and easy.

We were coasting along, following the GPS’s instructions for working our way through and around a Polish village called Kozy on a rural back road when the road just ended: sand. We could see the concrete surface continuing up a hill ahead, but there was a significant drop onto the dirt, no cars anywhere in sight, no indication that the road above was passable, no signage even in Polish. A man beside the road looked as if he might speak English—yes, there is a look, usually in error. He didn’t and couldn’t communicate anything useful in sign language, though he tried. There was a third option, a side road that was neither where we had come from nor the sand. As we tried it, the GPS went crazy, telling us to turn into tiny lanes that led into farmland or down local streets, then to make an immediate U-turn. It took us back to the dirt or we could retrace our steps back toward Auschwitz. We chose the dirt. There was a significant thump, but we got down and then back up again without damage or the tires spinning. We continued on the pavement, but after the road curved, we came to another break in the concrete, this one with a much more significant drop and all sorts of wire mesh extending from the concrete above the sand. It was not the type of thing one ever drove into. It looked like too much of a fall for the car plus too great risk of puncturing a tire on sharp metal.

We turned around and went in the only other direction, but that road led to homes and a cul de sac. We were now trapped between sand and a dead end and feeling desperate. It looked like endgame, a jam with no way graceful or even ungraceful way out. What do you do? Find the police? They might not even speak English. This was actually scary.

A teenager strolling along the street presented an option. Unlike the previous guy, he did not look as if he spoke English. He was large, oafish in gait, and had earbuds on. I pulled over, got out, and hurried up to him. He looked startled as he took out the earbuds. In fact, he spoke perfect English. He tutored it in his high school.

We carry hidden biases, some of which underlie unconscious racism. This youth was a gem, intelligent, articulate, and fulsome. Looks were deceiving.

He first suggested that we change our GPS destination from Budapest to Bratislava because he said that aiming at Budapest would get us in a lot of trouble locally throughout Poland and Slovakia.

He then explained that we had no choice but to go through the second sand hazard. If we did that and then continued on the road and took the second left, it would lead to a major highway. We thanked him copiously.

When we returned to the drop, we saw that other cars managed by getting their wheels onto a narrow rise in the sand and stone, which let them avoid the metal. We picked the same spot and plunged over the edge as slowly as motion would allow. In fact, one car coming from the other direction lost patience with us and went flying up over the edge at high speed. It was still quite a thump.

After we exited sand hazard two, the second left did lead to a highway, not a major one but, after our plight, it felt like 401 through Canada. Euphoria lasted about seven minutes. Then traffic stopped totally. We were in a row of mostly giant trucks, and we could see unmoving trucks on a hill far ahead. It looked like hours of waiting, nowhere to go, nothing to do but live it out. The GPS had warned of deteriorated road conditions and the need for an alternate route, but we hadn’t taken it seriously—we didn’t know alternate routes. And we trusted the Polish highway authority. The delay turned out to be an hour and thirty-five minutes. Then we saw what was holding things up: a missing stretch of concrete, this one on the highway, three lanes from three directions being siphoned into the one remaining lane with ours getting the worst deal because there the feeder lane was to our right. I had wrongly guessed that it was an accident.

Lindy described Slovakian roads as bandaids between open wounds. The first hazard was in Poland, but we thought we were in Slovakia, a detail which amused our high-school helper.

It was getting late, but we were finally moving, so we zoomed along the superhighway. We didn’t know when we entered Slovakia—no signage—but after a while we figured we had gone too far for it to still be Poland. The superhighway eventually downgraded into more ordinary highway, then slow rural roads, but we kept going partly because there were no hotels or restaurants. In fact, there was little of anything but homes and occasional factories and mining pits. It was truly desolate and almost all trucks. We were a lone car. It was also raining hard.

Around 7:30 p.m., traffic stopped again for no evident reason—it was moving well in the other direction. As we crept along, we were tantalized by an unlikely godsend: the first hotel indication in Slovakia, that they actually had then. We saw signs for Hotel Centrum and kept seeing signs for it. Finally at 8:15, having covered only eight kilometers in forty-five minutes, we were rescued again—a sign with an arrow, a right turn onto a road, a small town with a shopping center, up a rise about a kilometer, a left turn for Hotel Centrum.

Hotel Centrum was a squat round tower, incongruously modern-looking for the placement. Two young women stood outside smoking. I asked them, negligent of language, “Is this a real working hotel?” One of them nodded vigorously as she put out her smoke, crushing it on the ground. She pointed to a door to her left, not the obvious main entrance—the main door was locked. I went in and addressed an older woman at the desk. She responded by shaking her head; she had no English. The young woman came rushing in and took over—she was an employee. She had the barest smidgen of English, but it was more than anyone else and it served, and she was one of the great giggle girls of all time with her one piercing of a little gem above the midline of her upper lip.

It was only her second week of work, and she had trouble with just about everything—the registration form, the credit-card machine, the government form for foreigners (she had to register our passport numbers and file at once with the local police, an unhappy Slovakian surprise). When she saw that we were from the United States, she was beside herself with giggles. She kept bending over laughing and then apologizing. She finally got across that she had never met an American before. The mere fact made us movie stars.

She was not only a giggle girl, she was a standing “lost in translation” machine. She described how to get to our room four times, and we went in three wrong directions: upstairs to a banquet area, outside around the corner to warehouses, and to the left into the gym. The correct staircase was actually just to her right, but she was giggling so much, probably at using English for real for the first time for real, that she never tried to back up her words. It was as if they were just practice.

There was no lift, and the room was three flights up. I left my suitcase in the car and carried Lindy’s.

The giggle girl directed us to the one restaurant in town, and we spent forty minutes looking for it without success, first on foot, then by car. We had her sheet of paper with the name, Rustica, to show people, and we produced several attempts at sign-language directions from people who didn’t speak English, the most ambitious by a sprightly complement of three teen girls who also taught us that the local name for pedestrian crosswalks, English in fact: “zebras.”

No luck even after their valiant attempt. Everything locked up and dark. One block revealed just how impoverished this area was beyond the Centrum’s modern tower, satellite dishes, and an Internet signal: apartment buildings made of crumbling, stained cinderblocks that looked like demolitions more than habitations. They were surrounded by men drinking from bottles and children running around. The garbage cans smelled so strong that it was hard to walk on that side of the street.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic dumped what it regarded as backwater Slovakia for more than just ethnic reasons.

Only after we gave up, returned to Centrum, and admitted that we hadn’t found Rustica did our girl shake her head in consternation, leave the desk, run outside, and point outside. It was directly across the street in the tiny mall. I had initially asked her if that bar was it and she said, “No, not there.” In the same conversation she declared Rustica a ten-minute walk. When Lindy thought that it sounded a little long for that late and so dark out, she said, “Maybe five,” complying by instantly moving it closer. That was how uncommitted she was to the meaning of her words. We went across the mall. By then (22:00), the kitchen was closed, but the waitress nicely got them to make us a pizza.

The Centrum was a strange mixture of modern and throwback: full sports-equipment room but no elevator; dark halls with lights that came on very late as you walked past them; a chair in our room that didn’t merely collapse but pulverized when Lindy sat typing on it. This passes for modernity in many areas of the world, rural Slovakia among them.

The town was Čadca. We looked at a map in the morning and realized that we had made little progress on our larger journey. Putting Bratislava in the GPS had sent us mainly west along the mountain ranges. We were still near Poland and at least six hours from Budapest.

 

July 18

The day didn’t have an agenda beyond getting to Budapest, and it took the full day. We left Čadca around ten and arrived in Budapest close to five. We ate some of the minimal Centrum breakfast, then our own snacks, skipping lunch. What did we encounter on our Slovakian transit?

Rain. Lots of rain, often torrential, no surprise by the weather system we were in or forecast. Bandaid roads: stretches of highway that ended in dirt or an unmarked detour. At one such spot way out in the country, we made a bad choice and got told so repeatedly by the GPS that it seemed hysterical, “Make an immediate U-turn, make an immediate U-turn,” so we did. It turned out that you could cross the dirt if you waited. We went back to the spot of decision. There had been no other vehicles when we arrived, so we didn’t understand the options. Now we saw: traffic from opposite directions got alternate turns crossing the desert.

At another problematic detour we were forced off a main road, maybe G6, onto a tiny side road, maybe 2142, just off into vast fields. Both roads are too tiny for me to find again on my map of Slovakia; the numbers are from the GPS map on the car screen. As long it said we were 2142 and the mileage to Budapest (around 240 kilometers at that point) went down, we felt we were okay. Also an occasional bus or truck from the other direction was reassuring: we were not alone in highway exile.

The road felt almost happenstance; it seemed to end at a barn or quit into a resting state at a pasture, but it always found a way to keep going. The scenery was drop-dead beautiful: long flat stone houses as if exhibits from the eighteenth century or even mid-Renaissance, town by town. If you could relax, it was a gift disguised as a troubling detour; the gift was Slovakia.  If you planned sightseeing in rural Slovakia for a day, this was the plan’s gold standard. Under the pressure of a day of driving ahead and a goal, it also felt like slow torture. Both. We did about thirty miles like this in over an hour.

There were the mountains of Slovakia. People spoke of them in awe. Whenever I asked for driving advice—best roads and approximate time frame across Slovakia—in Poland, I got told, Slovakia is counter-intuitive because the mountains scramble everything. Those are mere words until you are crossing one high pass after another and descending into valleys behind huge trucks, with equally huge trucks barreling around sharp curves from the other direction, spraying water over the windshield as the wipers cleared it. It reminded me of a quote that my Amherst classmate put on the back of his surgery memoir we published: “A surgeon can kill you, and you’ll sleep right through it.” We whizzed by trucks whizzing by us in rain for three hours, every one a potential wipeout. At times, it seemed there were only mountains, slow, winding roads for a hundred kilometers to the next range, and often driving rain.

But the landscape was sumptuous, melancholy, and lush—like a rain forest at times, trees hanging from small cliffs and outcroppings right over the road— fairy-tale-like. God do we rush through the interstices of modern life. We lose the metabolic capacity for the “here” as well as the “now.”

We talked of stopping for lunch but never saw anything worth breaking our marathon. We stopped only for gas and rest rooms and to change drivers. No one spoke English at either of two stations. They didn’t respond to the word “English.” At one, it was a chore to figure out the sequence of pumping and paying. The woman seemed perplexed when I tried handing her my card before getting gas. She kept giving it back. Driveaways were not a problem here.

Progress was almost always slow with periodic detours and backups but also some superhighway bandaids when least expected but also ending abruptly. We went through three sleek modern tunnels. One of them was maybe two kilometers with huge venting fans.

The mountains ran almost the length of the country but dwindled in size as we got more south, away from the Baltic and toward the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

Slovakia was not meant to be a major part of our trip, but it was absorbed in depth. I saw a lot of it and have an impression of a land of contrasts: sprawling wilderness and succinct intense habitations. modernity struggling to take root and sticking in fits and starts, tradition and custom holding on vigorously, decay and poverty in between.

We went from Čadca to Zilina to Banska-Bystrica (our 2142 detour somewhere in there) to Zwolan, eastward to Ziar to Sahy at the border. Slovakian Route 66 covered the last hundred or so kilometers: 90 kilometers per hour between towns, 50 within, lots of police cars parked on side roads facing the highway. Thoughts of possible encounters gave rise to Kafkaesque paranoia and plots with the Slovakian language the medium of negotiation out, so I kept to the speed limit religiously.

No marker or checkpoint for Hungary, but letters of words changed from a Slavic look to that Uralic Hungarian-Finnish outlier with its odd apparent resonances to Korean and Italian (where are you, Noam Chomsky and glottochronologiy boys?). The road crossed seamlessly into Hungary, changing numbers (E77/R1, I believe). After some ninety kilometers through Hungary, Budapest came on suddenly, and we were in a huge city resonating New York and Paris. We crossed a bridge over the Danube and looked at magnificent public buildings, the tastefully colored stone of apartments and townhouses covered with elegant sculptural reliefs on the sides and rising to spires, turrets, Crosses, statues, and other elaborate stonework. The sides of many buildings are painted in a way that suggests to me Greek Orthodox stained-glass imagery, though it is pure Hungarian, drawing on many regional melting-pot styles and themes.

The GPS went smoothly, making eight or nine street changes toward our address, but the last eight kilometers took an extra hour, bumper-to-bumper 17:00 traffic, about five green lights for every one made. Then GPS said we were there on a busy street of shops with a different name but—another bailout—a woman pulled out of a parking spot in front of us in an area so busy and filled with construction that cars were double-parked on the sidewalk. From there we phoned the rental manager, a middle-aged woman named Zsuzsa. From my reading aloud from store names, she said we were very, very close. She walked to our spot, identified us, directed us at once to get money from an exchange on the block to pay the parking machine (whose instructions she read aloud); then she helped with our baggage.

Once at Servitza Terrace 5, it took an hour for us to be initiated into entrance and exiting.

The apartment was rented from a friend who owns several rental properties in Budapest. He is, more accurately, the friend of a friend. John was a home-exchange partner in New York City in 2002, a law professor who connected us to a retired law-professor friend who had just moved to Berkeley, who then became a good friend of ours, and he reminded us earlier this year of John and his apartments in Budapest when we talked of going to Eastern Europe.

First you needed a key or code to get in the outer door through an alcove set off from the street. Then you took a rather lift in an unsettling free-standing shaft. You got off at the fifth and top floor and immediately needed a key to open the gate to two fifth-floor apartments accessed from their balconies, meaning a walk past Hitchcock vertigo drop of five stories with only a narrow passage to stand on and none-too-impressive iron grillwork alone keeping you from the edge. Zsuzsa said the first gate had to be locked or the neighbor got furious. Three steps beyond was a private gate to the apartment, then in another five the door to the apartment itself. Each gate had a different sort of lock and its own key. Each had to be locked both entering and exiting, and two of the keys and their locks were very sticky. The apartment itself was nice with a kitchen, and loft, and many residential conveniences, but you had to do the gauntlet each time exiting and reentering.

Zsuzsa indicated that our vehicle had to go in a “parking house”; it wasn’t safe on the street and we didn’t want to have to keep updating the meter. She had helped guests from airplanes and trains but did not know where to go for a car. She spent fifteen minutes looking on her pad and calling around before settling on a parking house that she indicated was somewhat far to drive (fifteen minutes on complicated one-way streets) but a short walk back (five). She gave it to us by coordinate code. I had never entered one before, but the cell accepted it. Problem was, it didn’t actually know how to get us there. In slow-moving rush-hour traffic, it provided contradictory directions, lefts where there were no streets to turn on, instructions that changed as we were carrying them out. It sent us in a circle. Just when we had gotten fifteen minutes till arrive down to three, it bumped it up to nineteen—one-way streets making a minor mistake consequential, as short distances became extended roundabout journeys.

It seemed that there was no way to find the garage and no way to get back to our place without stopping and reentering its address. Then I saw a big P to the right and dove across two lanes and down an entrance to the underground. It wasn’t Zsuzsa’s structure, but who cared? It ate cars. We paid in advance for three nights (63 euros). I backed the Leon into a tight spot by the office where friendly guys calculated the florin-dollar exchange, so that we didn’t think we were paying $70,000 for our overnight space.

The cell couldn’t get us back to the apartment by walking directions any better than it could find the parking house. It didn’t grok Budapest at all. In fact, the little ball kept moving away from the blue line of route while we were standing still. It was saying, “I am trying to find you from satellite.” We switched to Lindy’s phone, ignored the map and followed the voice. It got us close enough that we were able to improvise the rest.

We went out later for our first real meal of the day—big city after the mountains—and settled on a nearby Syrian restaurant with outdoor tables. It turned out to be a good choice. The hummus tasted like fresh-made halvah, and a sesame-yogurt-fava mix was interesting (the menu called its dominant vegetable horse beans).

The best part of the meal was two bright young Swedish guys travelling through Europe together (they had come from Bratislava, were headed to Lisbon). They sat at the next table, and we talked periodically about Sweden, Euro and American sports (hockey, football), movies (Lucas Moodysson), Portugal, Slovakia, traveling, etc. One guy was medium dark and in finance, the other was classic Swedish blond and in digital (as he put it). They spoke sophisticated English and were sophisticated in general. The data guy’s description of a high-school year in Iowa had a wry de Tocqueville wit, as he sorted rednecks from his beloved pop culture and rock music.

Sometimes you encounter other tourists who are enough on your wavelength for real camaraderie, despite differences of age, interests, or country of origin. A long, long day crossing Slovakia ended well.

 

July 19

Budapest, where to begin? You cannot wrap words around something so large and complex. More than Copenhagen and Warsaw, Budapest is a four-dimensional scroll of imbedded history and historic artifacts: monuments, statues, churches, halls, plaques—centuries worth of structures and moods mixed together in a riot of sights, colors, vibrations, voices. The city is especially ornate and elaborate as if being prepared for a ball.

I don’t really want to talk about the history or the monuments. It would be exhausting and needless, given the plentiful lit available.

What can I say instead? For one, it is sunny at last, a boon after days of rain, wind, saturated ground, and deep puddling. I also no longer feel sick, improving gradually over the last three days despite the arduous travels.

On our first full day in Budapest, Lindy and I rode entire route of the Hop on/Hop off bus: 27 stops crossing the Danube twice over different bridges between two once-separate cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht). I know that tour buses are the height of kitsch and banality, but how else are you going to see a huge city without knowledge of its transit system or streets? You need Ariadne’s thread always, metaphorical or drawn by talking bus, to find your way, even in a dream.

The sequence leading to the bus: I went out early to scope out the day in advance. I walked the length of our avenue, several blocks as recommended by Zsuzsa, but couldn’t find the tourist information she promised was right there. I circled the whole area and was about to give up when I realized I was looking for the wrong thing: a fixed station. The cart under the umbrella was not selling sausages or corn but giving tourist information and selling tours.

I engaged in a friendly conversation with one of the young men. His hair was in a topknot, a common youth style here. He was amused by my way of conversation, a little more ironic than the usual, and we hit it off. I didn’t buy a ticket but got a full lowdown. I didn’t buy a ticked because I wanted to use cash, as Lindy had gotten quite a stash of florins by mistake, and we needed to spend them while in Hungary. The amount was not as much as her stash of 10,000 notes suggested. Looking at, you’d think we were carrying a year’s salary; it was $300. Hungary decided to keep its local currency, though inflated, and protect the price structure and fixed-income people, so did not adopt the euro. Everything paradoxically cost four or five figures of currency but was very inexpensive.

As I left the booth, I asked my new buddy’s name: Richard. The two Richards laughed, shook hands, and exchanged cards. Mr. Marofsfi’s card deemed him a “scout” for Vivo 7 Sports; manning the booth was part-time.

Lindy and I came back after lunch and paid 15,000 florins for two days’ use of the bus and a boat ride on the Danube. Sitting in the upper deck of the sightseeing vehicle, I enjoyed the sun and scenery: wash on a line, children running in a playground, a stuffed fox in a window, two guys drinking together and whacking each other gently, the blend of stylish shops in bold English and old, old storefronts with archaic renditions of distinctive Hungarian orthography. These were more compelling to my lazy gaze the gigantic wedding-cake structures and rows of heroic male statues.

In high school I passed exams on chunks of Hungarian history, but I have substantially forgotten it: the original Celtic settlements, the Magyar invasion and takeover, Hungarian kingdoms, Christianization, the Habsburgs and Austria-Hungary Empire, breakup with World War I, formation of modern Hungary. The rest is modern history: invasion by Germany, inclusion in the Soviet bloc, the violent 1956 rebellion, bodies of mutilated Russian soldiers hung like meat in the streets of Budapest.

How quiet and fashionable Budapest is now: heavy-metal cafés, posters for modern-dance events with twisty naked bodies, long high-end shopping thoroughfares like Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysées. Hungary called the eastern Paris, a cutting-edge incubator of science, arts, and culture. Having transcended its outlier language and mestizo history, and bombs that fell not so long ago, it coheres today in a lively fusion that looks and sounds as Arabic and Turkish as it is Finnish and Celtic.

One of the most startling sights around Budapest reminds me of sci-fi comics of my childhood: large numbers of predominantly young people riding on motorized two-wheel vehicles in the format of hand trucks. I looked at one closely enough to read its name; they are called Segway Two-Wheel Stand-up Scooters. In the old comics, people stood on such vehicles, holding the handlebars and looking relaxed as they floated above streets and avenues. Pest’s stand-up scooters are ubiquitous, but they don’t fly and share the streets with old-fashioned foot-propelled scooters, skateboards, and bikes pulling wagons. I see an entire generation growing up more tied to Silicon Valley than the Third Reich and the Soviets, though you spots a few of the oldtimers, wending through the streets like Hungarian dolls or escapees from paintings of another time.

Once again, the convergence of modernity with an old land resonates. In some ways, Budapest is more futuristic than New York. The scooters lend a dramati post-post-modern flavor. At the organic restaurant at which we ate lunch, each table was a computer screen and you had to order by a mouse map under the table, changing pages and clicking on items. Neither Lindy nor I could control the mouse, but it was the only way into the system. The waiter had to sit at our table and order it for us.

We took the boat between 17:00 and 18:30. It went along the Pest side first, the highlight of that slow chug being the decorated Parliament building, a mirage of more baroque limestone frills than limestone structure and running a length of at least a city block. The boat circled elongated Margaret Island in the center of the Danube is a park and recreation area, many joggers, dogs, bikes, and kayaks (around the shore), but it was of great military value for armies going back centuries, from Tartars to Nazis and Soviets. We came back along the Buda side, which was more the source settlement of Budapest, a hill of traditionally wealthy home where far less of the active modern city is now situated. It was dominated by the castle, now a mix of offices with a museum featuring a Frida Kahlo show.

The kitsch on the boat and the bus was irritating and dominating. On the boat, every moment the taped commentary stopped—and it was uninspired jabber, filled with hotel and chainstore endorsements—loud music blared, usually rap, which hardly matched the clientele. What about wistfully watching the water and shoreline. This was the Danube, after all!

On the bus if I used the earphones, I heard light music in between the commentary. I found it oppressive too and mostly left the earbuds off, so I missed what a lot of what I was looking at was, historically and functionally. I enjoyed looking at it anyway.

It is an indirect result of the commoditization of the world that time is concerned dead if it does encase some commodity in its passage. Piped music is, by definition, “free fun.”

One worthwhile fact I did hear: Budapest is slowly turning into a gigantic tourism zone and office space. City-dwellers are migrating out, not as rapidly as they once did, but the overnight population is still dropping.

 

Earlier, during my morning outing, I left Richard the scout and set out to find the parking garage where we left our car in order to get some items we had forgotten. I used a giant ferris wheel in a square with a fountain as my astrolabe. I knew the garage was under it. My method was to align the wheel’s angle from many blocks off with my course toward it and then to navigate away from it in reverse back to the apartment. As the wheel’s circular orientation turned within the landscape, I knew where I was. Otherwise, all the directions were the same, and the many unknown streets looked like one another or at least look equally likely.

We passed the ferris wheel numerous times on the bus tour, and each encounter, from a different direction and set of sights, made new coordinates. In one day, I had gotten a working map, as Budapest graduated from an enigmatic, entangled jungle to a network of cohesive neighborhoods that I had observed from the outside (a boat on the Danube) and the inside (the tour bus in its route). I understood the raw geography of the town.

At night, Lindy and I followed John’s directions to his favorite café, a fancy Hungarian restaurant on a small nearby square. We had not been able to find it the previous night, so I wrote for explicit instructions. John’s response is indicative of how one navigates unknown geographical space, probably back to hominid hunting bands, only groves and stones rather than blocks and buildings.

The Gerloczy is: out the door and walk straight ahead across the little square, past the construction, or rather between the two construction sites, and take a right at the corner with the church on the right. You’ll be walking down a smallish street with the city’s municipal buildings and relatively nondescript city hall on your left.  Walk one long block on your left (I think it’s two on the right; the first street doesn’t continue across), and you get to a small square on your left.  Look across the square and that’s the Gerloczy.

It took a second pass because we neglected the right at the church:

While we ate outdoors, what ensued beside us was an unexplained drama involving a city truck that was able to raise itself off the ground on a four-wheel jack, a police car, a man in a crane, flash lights, a siren, and an incident, either criminal or electrical, in the apartment building next door. Its seeming illogic, like a rebus, was half its entertainment value.

 

The hardest thing to get across is a thing I have been trying to capture on the whole trip: the dimensions of a new place (Budapest presently): the senses—smells and sounds and kinesthesia, what it feels like to be there.

We are only in Budapest two-plus days, an unfortunate outcome of an overly ambitious itinerary, but we have begun to dwell where we are, taken baby steps toward entering the circulatory system beneath canned tours and international franchises and English ricochets. Budapest is the regular breeze off the Danube with its many qualities of touch and cool—what the guidebook calls the “lungs” joining Buda and Pest. It’s the construction across the street from our apartment, men working at different levels of girders, calling out to each other in Hungarian, singing and joking, the medley of colors and sounds on the street beneath them.

I felt like telling that to a tourist who asked me for my favorite thing. I did not want to be insulting or arrogant, so I stayed silent while Lindy extolled the boat ride. But it is an unacknowledged truth. The best thing is suddenly seeing a totally ordinary event specific and endemic to the place and realizing, “Budapest.”

 

July 20

On our last day, we have two goals: the synagogue and a mineral bath, the former in the morning, the latter in the afternoon.

We had passed the Budapest Synagogue twice on the tour bus. It is at the scale of the great churches of Europe and looks a bit like a mosque with its elaborate Moorish domes. A twenty-minute walk from our apartment: up the avenue to the corner where Richard sold me the bus-and-boat tickets, right down a major thoroughfare, so major that at one spot that an underground tunnel like a subway station (and leading to one) functions as a pedestrian roundabout. The passageway, filled with shops, replaces traffic lights and crosswalks. Its unlikely name, Astoria, honors the old hotel on the corner

A Japanese lady from France, also looking for the synagogue, fell in with us. She carried a map, so was ready for a last-minute turn to the right that we had not been expecting. Its location off the main avenue came into play when we tried to return afterwards, because the exit from the synagogue grounds led us onto a different street and, even though we reoriented to a major thoroughfare, we were on a different one and eventually ended up lost and having to take a cab back. The GPS was useless again during this walkabout. We turned out to be only a few blocks away but in an unfamiliar direction. We could have walked it faster than the cab in traffic.

The synagogue for me was a mixture of highs and lows. The lowest low was the sale of souvenirs throughout the building, particularly around its entry and the entry to the sacred binah and altar. The offerings were even unintentionally borderline anti-Semitic, merchandizing Nazi stereotypes of Jews, sort of like the Cleveland Indian mascot in the U.S. The process of churning out junk mementos is so mindless that it doesn’t make distinctions. Jewish stereotypes were turned into dolls, rabbi marionettes, magnets, shirts, and just about every common form of tchotchkes. The writing on one shirt stays with me. For what? Its implied Jew chauvinism and faux hipness or maybe its inadvertent metaphysical clarity, something like, “Moses was the first to download from the Cloud.”

The Dohany Street Synagogue, or Great Synagogue of Budapest and largest in Eurasia, was built in the mid-nineteenth century and restored after World War II, having been re-tasked and violated by the fervent Arrow Cross (basically Hungarian Nazi gangs), then the German army, and finally the Soviet siege of Budapest. A basilica-like construction sprawls over much of a block with two minaret-like octagonal towers topped by onion-shaped domes painted Iranian blue and gold.

The synagogue is included within the synagogue complex which includes a burial ground for victims of the Arrow Cross and Nazi occupation, a series of shrines and artistic tributes, and an unfortunate (to my mind) abstract Tree of Life featuring flowing metallic branches of a tin-like silver metal. It could be regarded as an authentic rendition of the occult if one gave the sculptor hidden genius and lots of latitude—the benefit of the doubt. Then you might assuime he was representing lines of energy flowinfg from the Sefirot. Otherwise, it was a soft secular stand-in for a precise numerological metaphysical construct.

We sat in a pew of the synagogue for sl e twenty minutes. I stared at the concave inside of the blue-and-white esoteric design inside the dome above the altar (not one of the high onion-like domes). It had a tarot-card look and reminded me of the visualizations in Buddhist Philip Moffat’s book on the Nine Bodies yoga of Swami Balyogi Premvani—I had been meditating on these images in May. The ones in Moffat’s book carry energy, especially when the images are internalized and viewed again from memory in inner sight with closed eyes. The dome had energy too.

As I tried to internalize its artistry, I was aided by an environmental effect: architecture dialing meteorology. A rounded stained-glass window at the top of the dome let in varying degrees of light as clouds passed overhead, causing the design to change albedo and color and deepen on its own. The chamber was a self-internalizing meditation.

I got my best results from neutrally watching the play of light and shade on the colors and shapes. Initially I thought of it as representing Atmic world-formation energy, writing the laws of physics from outside the universe. From there I decided to play out the entire seven-planes system, assigning Astral and Etheric energies to parts of the shrine and the massive organ pipes. The application broke down. The synagogue was oriented toward a different energy field. Of course, there is a singular Divine energy, but it splays into the world in myriad motifs. Once I looked about eclectically, I saw portals of stained glass and altars and statues at so many different levels that I lost bearing in any particular system and simply absorbed untranslated esoteric information. The dome changed to an interface between Atmic and Causal planes, its degrees of light representing molecular flux in the tension of the two planes’ dialectic. I conceded the light from above to a Monadic or Adi plane, but it was also like Yahweh illuminating worlds where they arose in his consciousness.

As my mind wandered in this game, I wondered about the missing Buddhic plane. In not assigning it, I had skipped over the collective and clairvoyant domain. Then I realized a possible difference between a church and a synagogue. A church altar palpably radiated Buddhic and Astral energy. A synagogue binah vibrated more at Atmic and Astral frequencies. In other words, get the formation of the universe first; then introduce sacrifice and compassion later. Both temples had Etheric frequencies evoked by the nadis of their organs.

My indulgent reverie was interrupted by a guide. It turned out that by sitting behind a British flag, we had located ourselves in a series of pews waiting for a tour of the synagogue in English. The stock Hungarian Jewish history that followed was marginally interesting, but it was not conducive to meditation.

I didn’t join the tour but instead tried to pick my vibration up after the group left. I understood that I was forcing things by then, so I sat in place for a while and let whatever wanted to come come. None of what arose was esoteric in the usual sense, but it was “visions in a synagogue,” so they were esoteric by default. Things in my life turned into seeds incubating their own magic. Time will tell if they shall grow, blossom, and fruit. But isn’t that the way it is with the planting of any actual Tree of Life?

A small museum of Hungarian Jewish life occupied another part of the grounds. Our ticket entitled us to entry. I had an agenda, so we went, though we were tired. Given that a DNA relative in Jerusalem tracked my Gedmatch upload to a shared ancestor of him and me in Hungary sometime before 1700, I wanted to look for images of this man or woman. The museum provided very few paintings; it was mainly religious artifacts: prayerbooks, menorahs, tfilim, silver goblets, prayer shawls, etc. The only painting I related to was an 112-year-old eighteenth-century rabbi. My eyes met his. We looked at each other for a moment outside of time.

 

In the afternoon, Lindy and I set off for Széchenyl Baths, one of the many thermal mineral spas in Budapest, though (according to the tourist-information guide) the only one on the Pest side of the Danube. Similar to Reykjavik, public baths are an indigenos feature of the city, as Hungary sits on a sea of geothermal energy. An urban bathhouse seemed worth the commitment for both therapeutic and ethnographic reasons.

Getting there was a many-stage journey. We hiked back to the Great Synagogue where we waited for the Hop on/Hop off (stop 5). We stayed on it about forty minutes along many avenues, all the way out to the statue-and-monument complex of Heroes’ Square. I enjoyed warming sun, breezes off the Danube, sights across the irreconcilable variety of an urban complex, a feeling that this could be Istanbul at one moment, London at another, Warsaw, Moscow, Spanish Harlem…. The flow of scenes was engaging, though nothing stood out. What am I to say of a woman dancing before two men on a sidewalk, a group of teens bopping through crowds on their stand-up scooters, a sudden flight of pigeons landing on a balcony beneath a painted wall the museum quality of Caravaggio, smells of cooking and exhaust and spices or perfumes, sculptures imbedded in alcoves cut into walls, a fat taxi driver kicking the car of a man who almost sideswiped him as he stood by his cab? Did I see a thousand or five thousand separate such sights, each thread weaving itself into a Budapest reality.

At stop 11, we got off and walked beyond the statues across a bridge over a lake in which kids rode motorized toy boats shaped like police cars, fire engines, swans, and lions; through a wooded park, past a large castle complex, to a yellow early twentieth-century Neo-Baroque sprawl: the baths. We paid and each of us was given a plastic wrist band. I thought these were for identification by guards, but the silver circle on them was not a decoration; it had a computer chip for entry.

One changed in a tiny chamber along a hall of such chambers. The etiquette was pleasantly informal, as neither men nor women minded appearing briefly naked in the corridor of opening and closing doors.

Next came the lockers. Almost all of them had their handles turned to red, meaning they were in use. In fact, all of them were taken till we came to a few open ones at the very end—and these were being gobbled up fast. I quickly put my hand on one but had no idea how to operate it. A bovine man with a military general’s face observed me sternly. He was an unlikely character to step in to help, but he grew impatient watching my gestures of bafflement, as I looked around to see what others might be doing, but no one was at the initial stage, so I played with the handle. He came up to me and, speaking Hungarian with apparent awareness I couldn’t understand him (perhaps an indication that they did not speak my language here but that of the Empire), roughly grabbed my hand with startling intimacy and held it so that the silver circle on the wrist band faced the edge of the locker handle. A light flashed above the handle. That allowed the knob to turn.

He was forcefully instructive, grabbing my hand several more times to demonstrate the sequence of getting the door open, locked, and open again. Even after we placed our clothes, cells, purse, wallet, etc., within, he had us open it and close it again, to make sure we could.

A minor episode of tough love, but love (or at least care) nonetheless.

The rest of the entry consisted of striding through a shallow enclosed puddle to the indoor bathing area. Two large pools were absolutely packed, mostly with young people. First, one showered at a bank of nozzles, then went into the crowd.

There was a light mineral aroma, but the senses were dominated by the fabric of people: many resting quietly along the side, some engaged in conversation, a few teens in water play, some couples smooching, some guys holding girls aloft so that they could drop back their heads and float supported. One young couple was doing a water-medium version of a fox trot.

The bathing was racially diverse: Asian, Slavic, Hungarian, Turkish, Arabic, Mongolian, Japanese, Chinese, African. Given the stateliness of the environs and our mixed demography, it felt a bit Roman Empire, but also override World War I Austro-Hungary, about to burst. It had a slightly Woodstock flavor—an international city in a moment of racial and ethnic harmony and mammalian bathing.

The pools were of slightly varying temperature. Both were packed and intimate, but the hotter one was more crowded and intimate, as we brushed periodically against one another and could not help impinging arms and legs with strangers as we sat on the ledge around the ledge. The number of people with their differences and different looks and styles and energies, especially engaged in a primal and sensual activity, held my full attention while the hidden salts ostensibly communicated with my cells. How medicinal these waters were thought to be was ratified by a separate “patients entrance.”

We stayed thirty-five minutes. Leaving meant a reversal of the ritual: shower, locker (opened on the first try, trained by a master), dressing room, return of the bracelet, long walk back through the city park, reboarding the bus, sitting in it through traffic from stop 11 to 15, Ferenciek Square. The entire round trip to bathe took almost five hours for a short dip in the pool, but the outing was more than that. We were trying to soak up as much of Budapest as we could in a short time, and there were many types of soaks.

We walked three blocks to our avenue, then down it and, because it was late, we stopped right then at the Syrian restaurant for dinner at an outdoor table.

 

July 21

To set up our departure today the night before, I walked to the underground garage to make sure I could find it without straying. I didn’t want to get stranded or lost while bringing suitcases.  In the morning, I retraced my steps, rolling both of them. It was about fifteen minutes to the garage. I stowed them in the car.

On the way back, I wanted to use up the rest of our florins, about 12,000, by buying food for lunch.  I found the nearby 24/7 grocery store recommended in our apartment notes, but behind a spiffy façade was a gutted insides. I settled on packaged food at a vegan place set up mainly for takeout, Oh Green. I still had about 4200 florins left, so I continued to the Syrian restaurant and got some more food and plastic bottles of water for the car. It didn’t quite use the florins up, but I figured it didn’t matter.

Just before we left for good, I ran back to the Syrian place to get some more water. This time the manager went to the back and fetched me a karge bottle. We exchanged well wishes. Then I saw our waiter from both nights, a large smiling man named Zsost (if I remember his badge correctly). I handed him the remainder of the money.

“What for?” he asked, broken English not affront.

“A tip.”

He shook his head, “Not needed,” then raised his forearm for, I suddenly understood, a bump. Our forearms met like Maoris. Then the manager gave me a thumbs-up and “safe travels.” I left smiling and feeling right with my read.

I hate the motto “no good deed goes unpunished,” but it fits here. At a highway Shell station, we weren’t allowed to use the bathrooms before paying a hundred florins each. We had no Hungarian cash left, and the employees wouldn’t put it in my credit card. A bilingual Hungarian woman interceded vociferously on our behalf, but three staff members all shook their heads, righteously digging in their heels and defending what? Shell? Hungary?. Finally she convinced them to run a credit card for 200 florins. If I’m calculating right, that should show up as seven or eight cents on our bill.

The highway out of Budapest was jammed, bumper-to-bumper for over an hour. It looked like a very long day ahead—240 miles to Ljubljana plus missing a scheduled dinner (Lindy’s and my bookstore talk had been cancelled because too many of the folks who were going to attend were out of town on summer holiday).

Then traffic broke free. We coasted most of the way from there, on the way encountering the staff at the Shell station. The textured Hungarian landscape offered grand, mysterious vistas and large lakes—an unknown planet glimpsed from afar but glimpsed at all.

At the border, signs immediately directed Ljubljana traffic to the right, Zagreb to the left with a warning that E70 had obstructions and delays. Highway construction diverted us into alternate lanes twice, losing a half hour. After that, we moved quickly again. The Slovenian countryside was pastoral, rolling hills and cows, very green. Three long tunnels outside Ljubljana dwarfed the Slovakian ones in length.

Our host in Ljubljana was Rok Zavrtanik, publisher of Sanje (Dream) Press with which we had done business for more than a decade around the English translation of the prominent World War II Slovenian novel Alamut. The author, Vladimir Bartol, tried to use a Mediaeval Persian assassins cult to hide his attack on Mussolini and ended up brilliantly foreshadowing Al-Qaeda. The book sells in big numbers everywhere but the U.S., a reverse of the usual pattern and a burr in the relation between us and Sanje: why should the biggest market have the smallest sale? The book just hasn’t caught on the U.S. the way it has in France or Turkey.

Rok was supposed to direct us to our destination as we got closer, but he didn’t respond to emails after 300 km. At 10 km I finally phoned him, but too late for him to orient us, we were already in the city and having to make rapid-fire choices (we had only put Ljubljana in the GPS). He had been occupied with his arriving guests, a couple from Australia who lived part-time in Slovenia, both writers. He finally was able to text us an address for a bed-and-breakfast called Slamič. We put it into the GPS, worked our way around construction, and parked on a narrow street. Rok pulled up soon after and got of his car: medium height, slighter and softer than I had imagined, glasses and a topknot. We hugged—finally meeting in person after eleven years of skyping and emailing, standing on Kersnikova ulice, next to construction in the rain.

We had been going to stay at his small apartment, but he decided at the last minute that because of the heat wave and high humidity, we would be more comfortable in our own space, suggesting that Sanje and North Atlantic split the cost. Slamič was where Sanje usually put up visiting authors. It was elegant, more like a hotel than a bed and breakfast, and it had an underground lot.

The rain had broken the drought, but it was more steamy than cool out.

After we settled, Rok drove us to his bookstore, House of Dreaming, on Trubarjeva cesta 29. Mainly Slovenian titles with a small English section, it smelled nostalgically like a literary American bookstore of the seventies, a nearly extinct venue in the States these days. From there he drove us a short distance to a Lebanese restaurant where we joined his other couple. Both of them were writers. She was Slovenian, and he was Australian and much older. They weren’t faraway travelers like us; they lived at her family home in the country each year during Southern Hemisphere winters. They had driven into the city for the day.  The two had met and married relatively recently. Each was involved in animal lives and animal rights, a detail that dominated the meal. She was working on a thesis based on the life of a young sheep she had raised. He had recently written a novel in which a dying pig served as the narrator, telling his life story to the young hunter who had shot him. He described himself as “the Borges of Australia.” The shared meal was, of course, vegan.

Here I want to plead cumulative exhaustion and a second wave of perhaps incipient flu;  add to these a long day of driving and the migrainous aftermath an overnight optical aura. The conversation, though savvy and literary, wound through sluices I need a lot of energy to manage. I didn’t have it. I found the exchanges enervating, a barrage of intellectual show-and-tell. It was a long, long meal—a social event around food summoned periodically in Slovenian—before Rok brought us back to our room at 9:00 p.m. My weariness and discomfort made it hard to sleep. The air remained sticky humid. Not feeling well made it an interminable fits-and-starts and broken-dreams night. I never got back to sleep after 4 a.m.

 

July 22

Getting sick while traveling is its own special hell and tribulation, a bit like one of those Slovakian highways that end in sand without reference points or instructions. You have to invent the next step from where you are. I woke with a feeling like a combination of flu and migraine: chills, nausea, perceptual disorientation. But we had big plans. Rok and his girlfriend Andreja were taking us to caves. I decided it would be a decent risk—only an hour away Rok said, and in the country. I thought I could manage, and a day in the room looked dreary

Lindy and I realized later that we both drew a wrong impression of where we were going from Rok’s “lost in translation” description. He described ancient caves with roots in Neolithic Europe. We pictured driving into the country and being the only ones at a remote sacred site, or maybe among a few pilgrims honoring Druid and shamanic origins. In fact, he was proposing a visit of a major tourist site, the Škocjanske Caves (Park Škocjanske jame) in the mountains to the west. That became clear only when we arrived and found ourselves in a parking lot filled with tourist buses and packed with cars being directed to a few remaining slots, then a very long queue for getting in. The place was so mobbed that there was even some doubt as to whether we would get to enter the caves, as there were limits on how many people could go at any one time. Rok said that he had never seen it crowded like that.

The day unfolded against a backdrop of the international music concert and poetry reading planned that evening for the Triple Bridges in central Ljubljana, a fifteen-year-old annual event featuring improvisations of sixteen of the best musicians from Europe. T Rok was one of the event’s coordinators. Unfortunately thunderstorms were forecast, and Rok was on his cell and iPad during the entire outing, exchanging information with his cohorts about whether to move or cancel the event. Expensive instruments and equipment were involved and could not be out in the rain.

Thunderstorms were not just forecast. They broke into a sunny morning with bursts of rain and thunder as we drove. Since I am susceptible to motion sickness and was already sick, being in the car was flirting with disaster. I’m the one who got motion sick last year on an all-day tour bus out of Galway, Ireland, and not only became a spectacle—a person in public agony—but caused us to abandon the tour only a third of the way through and take an expensive cab back to Galway, an excruciatingly long trip in itself.

I was pondering this this as Rok drove in speedy zigzag European fashion through town and onto the highway, alternately making conversation with me and talking on his cell while giving every impression of heading for a major accident from distraction (for instance, taking his eyes off the road to dial or look). I knew this was how he lived, and he was still alive at fifty-six, so I wasn’t too worried on that score. I sat in the front beside him. Lindy admitted later that sahe was distracted by talking with Andreja, a lively, talkative young woman of forty years who was both super-cheerful and quite brilliant, someone equally out of F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and who could write such a novel. She had the elegance of a century ago and laughed like a continual fountain.  As Rok made phone calls, I half-listened to the women’s conversation and talked to Rok when he was available. I felt waves of vertigo. Was I crazy to have done this

Rok’s a sweet, intense guy—a Marxist literary intellectual running a highbrow publishing company in a difficult country from which to publish (not a big audience for the books and expensive to translate either way). During the journey we covered a good range despite my state—personal, philosophical, political—but Rok’s English speech rhythms were often difficult to follow, and my body generated a somewhat hallucinatory state, as I efforted to grasp Rok’s English and participate with any gusto. At moments, I felt as though I was not far from that Galway tour bus, but at the worst pangs of nausea and chills, I managed to find a bottom and hold on there without falling through.

Rok was happy that I was very open and frank, saying he was not used to that with friends even after many years. I said that to play roles with each other was a missed opportunity and waste of time (plus I didn’t have the energy). He agreed heartily and segued into a soliloquy about the demise of the world—the loss of cultures, languages, and species. He lamented, what could be done by a small publisher in Slovenia? Yet he had hopes that he could spark some sort of international literary revival through his various projects and maybe even involve indigenous Africans and Native Americans too. All this was his circling back to saying that it was good to be open and honest with each other as a beginning, but we then fell back into politics, culture, capitalism, etc.

I tried to turn the conversation to the contrast between the political, environmental landscape in which we necessarily lived and the subtler disembodied intelligence of the Earth, which was always readjusting toward meaning and spiritual freedom, but my language didn’t translate. He wanted me to be more specific about who those disembodied intelligences were. I said they weren’t a “who”; they were an Akashic sort of field that included our ancestors, spirits on other planes associated with the Earth like faeries and devas, animals and plants, and the collective voice of the planet, including lost species and experiences of lost languages. That was too New Agey for Rok, though he is a spiritual as well as a literary and political publisher. I produced a minor disaster the night I used the word “divine,” as I briefly emerged from torpor and both of the couple into conniptions. Though they had spoken of a kind of numinous animal intelligence (though they didn’t use the word “numinous”), “divine” evoked organized religion to them—forbidden speech. But they didn’t permit Donna Haraway either—too intellectual and academic, not emotional and empathic enough. They considered one of the least anthropomorphic authors purely anthropomorphic by their standards. Oh well….

Rok drove toward Italy and Trieste, along the highway that Lindy and I had taken to Ljubljana in 2006, our first time here, a trip leading to our becoming a publisher of Slovenian books in English and eventually connecting and collaborating with Rok from back in the States. Because of traffic, it took somewhat longer than planned. We exited in pleasant countryside, which Rok described as Slovenia gradating to its part that has a Mediterranean climate and landscape. Mountains rose in the distance, and the fields were a medley of wildflowers. A left turnoff to the Škocjanske Caves came fairly quickly. That’s when we realized where we were going—no private cave.

It was sunny at that moment, but much like our time in Poland, a clear summer day was a runway for gigantic, visibly forming black nimbi among cumulus herds. Soon after parking and entering the visitors’ center, we had to retreat to the car for umbrellas and jackets.

It took about a half hour in queue to buy tickets and another forty-minute wait to join the next tour—Škocjanske was another site that did not permit visitors to wander—the caves were too dangerous. Rok had debated which of three tours we should take and finally selected a longer one than planned: two-and-a-half kilometers within the caverns. He made this choice for three reasons: (one) it was raining, and this was the most covered hike; (two) he had never been on that trail and had always wanted to see it; and (three) the concert looked ninety-percent sure to be cancelled, so we had the afternoon without having to hurry back. While we waited at the café, he was on his phone and iPad and rolled and smoked cigarettes continually. I didn’t feel like eating.

When you don’t know what you are getting into, there are back-to-back surprises. Our group was mammoth, about two-hundred-fifty people—a surprise—and we had to walk through quite a stretch of countryside in the rain even to get to the mouth of the cave—a surprise. Maybe it wasn’t a whole kilometer, but it wasn’t much less. This march took place in heavy rain and through puddles—a repeat of Auschwitz (though only in its watery environment). It was hard to hold an umbrellas in such a way as not to get somewhat soaked, and of course shoes and socks were sopped. Remarkably some tourists wore sandals and had no rain gear. They got wet, gracefully or miserably, hard to tell.

We were dispatched into the caves in groups of fifty, each with its leader. The first tour was in Slovenian, the remaining ones in English. We got siphononed into the second English tour; Rok and Andreja joined us as honorary English speakers so we could stick together. The trail took about seventy-five minutes to walk, including eight or so stops along the way at which the young woman leading our group gave a talk as we gathered in the semi-darkness. We went deep down into the cavernous spaces and climbed back up several times, all of it on lit paths with strong guard rails. Lights were also directed across vast vistas within so that the caves’ remarkable features were visible—there was, of course, no natural daylight anywhere.

Realize that Škocjanske wasn’t a mere cave; it was a continuity of mammoth caves, some of them stretching three hundred meters across and above us. In that sense, it was one cave with many chambers. A classic drip structure showing complex variegated features of all sorts as if in a natural art gallery conducted by slow drips on a canvas carved by a great river. A sense of grandeur and wonder prevailed for the entire journey. The giant caverns and sinkholes were formed by dissolution and collapses of limestone making up western Slovenia’s distinctive karst landscape. I will try to give some impressions:

We started in Silent Cave, a stone grotto laced with stalactites and stalagmites. The scale was as if you were outdoors looking at the night sky. Of course, it wasn’t that capacious, but it was closer to a planetarium than what you might think of as a cave. The air in Silent Cave was distinguished hollow or still as opposed to Murmuring Cave, which rose to the din of the Reka River, the main architect of the caves, with its own big interior waterfall. Running water and falling water merged in a soft tympany.

My sense was that the caves released another faint sound above the decibels of the river: a fine, silent sizzle. I was considering the alien intelligence of stone. Stone doesn’t have to be animate to be alive, and it doesn’t have to process information cognitively to be conscious. In a universe in which molecules carry an innate capacity for mind, any artifact forged of matter has latent intelligence. The thoughts of stone are so alien to human consciousness that it does count in our annals of “intelligent life in the universe,” but it is an intelligence and it shares a universe with us.

In my sleepless, nauseous low-energy state, I found the vistas a bit hallucinogenic and more dwarfing than I would have in an ordinary phase of consciousness. I couldn’t quite pull myself up to my full marching-forward solidity, so I bowed inwardly to stone as a kind of supernal presence ruling its own primordial temple. I didn’t have the vim or strength to stand up and address it as a peer.

I didn’t want my vertigo to get too strong with a huge precipice right alongside the trail. Looking down, I thought about the two suicides in my families (mother and sister) jumping out of windows. It was hard to avoid thinking when looking straight down.

I felt the caves’ cold, damp energy, an occasional drip on my hair or a hand or pleasantly on my face. I reminded myself how neutral and therapeutic earth energy is. I tried to breathe in the clay and radiate in it through my orifices and down my gut.

The marly sheen of the stone near us, rounded in into knobby clusters like underwater plants, seemed for a surreal moment to Lindy to be encased in plastic to protect visitors from ooze.

Our guide was daffy. I enjoyed her slaphappy pirouettes and little round dances around the features, her joy at being able to lead people through a place she called “heaven.” I didn’t like her continual slapstick and anthropomorphisms: “there’s Romeo and Juliet,” “there’s a shark waiting to bite you,” “there’s a real troglodyte.” It was as though the actual immensity of the situation created unintended nervous laughter.

I think that when you’re in a temple, or at least a holy place, you react modestly and are courteous. You don’t make fun of your hosts or create jokes at their expense. You see such a place better, and let others see it better, if you take it seriously on its own terms, and try to meet them modestly.

Her jokes made people laugh, but they diminished the scale and wisdom of the caverns. If stone is thinking, or at least designing and transferring information, it is doing it very slowly. You have to slow down too and imagine the transmission, like the thoughts of the Sun (or another star) described in Gurdjieffian literature and in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Whipping Star where Sol urgently needs to address its planetary creatures. Making cartoons out of the caves figurations, as if they were silly human statues, takes away from the pure time scale of stone and water.

The guide did, in fact, spew high numbers and deep dates about the slowness of the formation process, how many years it took to make a single stalagmite or column, one drip at a time, how long it took to hollow out and adorn this chamber inside the earth—but these were human facts, not stone’s. They get into the mind which has no capacity to grasp such temporal and spatial enormity anyway. They do not get into the body or psyche the way stone does, and we were there to honor and commune with stone. This was our purpose chance.

In psychic work, one tries to ground in the earth in order to be receptive other vibrations. Although the Škocjanske caves were a spectacular formation and entrance to the deep earth, they were only a convenient gate, like an open wound in an illimitable body. The whole of the underground is like this, whether packed solid or cysting in deeper unknown caverns. We had gone into the womb and Gaia and were in contact with her wholeness. I imagine that Neolithic visitors perceived that in a way that is lost on us. We see the singular attraction and put it on an unnecessary pedestal. To them, it was all magic. Our pedestal—the whole superstructure of the Visitors’ Center and set-up for guides and tours, is human, the stone pagan.

Rok’s Australian guest went on and on the night before about a legend that Dante got his inspiration for The Divine Comedy by visiting Škocjanske caves which are near the Italian border. Andreja, who wasn’t present for that comment, mistakenly attributed the reference to me and asked whether I really believed it. I said somewhat irritatedly (though not with her), “It doesn’t matter because Dante is not about a cave but an actual inferno and paradiso. The cave is at best a prop for that vision.” That is what I had wanted to say at the dinner but held my peace.

“Of course,” she replied, “but the concept is still interesting.”

I thought about the trope again after our exchange. In a way, the cave is literally Dante’s “inferno” in that it proposes that human identity, once released from the human body and physical plane, create their own meaning, landscapes, punishments, hell realms, and terms for self-redemption. If Dante was being led by a deva named Beatrice, he might have glimpsed the lineaments of such a vision here. In that sense, I think of the caves as presenting terms for what it means to be on stone time—outside of human space and time as we know them.

Murmuring Cave features, as noted, the river Reka running so far down below that it looks like at the bottom of a Martian canyon, is a tiny thread filling the air with its melodic hiss (“Reka” means “river” in Slovenian, a beloved tautology of the guide). She says that the ceiling is filled with sleeping bats, which adds another inaudible, invisible presence to the intelligence I intuit.

From way aboe, the waterfall looks like a pulsing cloud, but we eventually work our way up next to it and the river and see how smooth the water is, rolling over the anvil of the stone before breaking into chaos theory.

Each winding down requires an arduous, hearts-pounding, hike back up. Far across the caverns, one can see the other tour groups winding like little trains along the walls. It is a haunting artificial night in a haunting city to which we are unchaste visitors. I feel profane. I don’t think that stone is ultimately bothered by us because it is so large and magnanimous, but we have sure attached our frail artifacts to it and tried to tame it like a horse. It doesn’t tame. I leave feeling that I was a tiny bug that Škocjanske exuded without noticing. Škocjanske is not its name.

Perhaps the most stunning view of the trip was how luminous the green foliage looked at the exit like a gateway to a fairy kingdom. One doesn’t realize how troglodyte perception becomes in a world of limestone, iron, and clay. Chlorophyll waits at the opening of a kingdom it can’t enter, and says, “Welcome back to the world of DNA, fellow being of cells.” I felt as if I were approaching a Renaissance painting and walking into it.

It is powerful to meditate with stone and experience its stability, neutrality, and capacity for time travel, and it is also powerful to walk  through the cusp from Stygian caverns to a sun-fed garden.

Bad news, our guide says. The lift is broken. We must walk six hundred stairs back to the surface. This is exactly what Rok’s friend experienced when he went to Škocjanske years ago. “Ask if the lift is working,” he told us, “before you go down.” He had serious foot injuries and a kind of hand crutch.

“What did you do?” Lindy wondered.

“What do you think? I walked. Slowly.”

That’s what we did too. I actually went ahead of our exiting group because I was worried, in my state, about not having enough energy for the steps. I didn’t want to pass out. Getting away from the crowd and measuring my steps in breaths, I was glad to outrun my own doubts and the migrainous sensations that crowds evoke for one who is already dizzy.

Not everyone exited post haste; many stopped to look at various views, as our tour broke apart. I made it up all the steps with relative ease and deepened breath and felt better for it. Rok said I must be in good shape. I don’t think he realized how much I was fending off.

We didn’t leave the tourist center for almost an hour because Rok wanted to be on his cell and iPad. We set up at an outdoor table off the café. Since Rok is a chainsmoker and I could barely stay awake anyway, I went into the sun next to a fence and lay against it, taking catnaps from which I awoke with discombobulating starts.

Finally we started back around 15:00. The car ride to Ljubljana was difficult for me, lots of rain, and for some reason Rok did not turn on the windshield wipers through much of it, so drove in an impressionistic painting. I was not going to comment on his style. He was continually on the cell, but he picked a few his moments to query me about publishing. I could barely muster the energy, though I put oomph into my answers to manage them at all.

I couldn’t bear to tell him that his tour of Ljubljana afterward was torture in my state. I understood how proud he was of his evolving town, even as a confirmed Marxist critic of the capitalist forces driving it, and I did my best I to respond. I finally said that he had to take us back. Lindy, enjoying Andreja, didn’t notice the detour for a long time but then asked when we were getting home.

I lay on the bed feeling pretty scared. I couldn’t continue the trip in this state. What would that mean in terms of room cancellations and trying to get a return flight? How sick was I really? Would I recover? It felt like another endgame.

As it turned out, being out of the car took away a layer, and then a brief nap took away another. I was finally hungry too.

While we were still in our room, a startling thunderstorm breathed right down on Slamič. Lightning split the sky like Thor’s bright sword, and thunder sent its vibration through the building and our bodies. Ljubljana turned to temporary night. Yet fifteen minutes later, around 18:30, the world was calm, and Lindy and I set out with a map to find a restaurant. It would be my first food all day, and I was appreciative of my appetite.

We walked in a steady drizzle. I rejected some nearby bar-like places that Lindy was willing to try out to get it over with. If were here, I wanted to be in the center of town. The walk was also interesting. Slovenia has more graffiti, and more artistic graffiti (plus assorted graphemic splatter on walls) than Copenhagen, Warsaw, and Budapest combined. Graffito is a local mania. In 2006 we stood before art in tunnels as if in a museum, taking photographs. By now we were more blasé and found the clutter a bit messy and retro in its renegade insistence.

We fell in with crowds and, in ten minutes, were walking on the same avenue we had traveled from Hotel Park on our first outing to town in 2006. We were finally somewhere we had been, and it had a ritual quality and nostalgia to it, as I remembered how wide-eyed and naïve we were on that maiden walk in Eastern Europe, down an avenue of exotic shops toward the Triple Bridges. They didn’t look exotic anymore.

A Statue of Slovenian national poet France Prešeren’s marks the square of his name—the symbolic center of Ljubljana and the place where the concert was supposed to be. Twelve years ago we had eaten dinner with a Slovenian novelist just off this spot. Another evening we had listened to music by these bridges: pure flashback.

Given a wide choice of restaurants, we trusted our old novelist friend’s judgment and picked out the same outdoor café by the Lubljanica River. (For reasons that will become clear I am leaving him unnamed, similar to the couple from the evening before—they deserve anonymity in an account like this.) We sat under heat lamps and a canopy and ordered traditional Slovenian dishes (nonorganic meat is supposedly not as bad as in in the States because stringent EU requirements). Before food came, I saw a distinctive feature I remembered from 2006 repeated. Aggressive sparrows came to the table and tried to attack our bread basket directly, at other tables too as waiters continually shooed them off. Birds dive-bombing your dining table on its edge is pure Ljubljanica. I see the activity wherever I look. Large brown crows perched along the stone-work railing overlooking the river, being fed crumbs by a small girl.

It was good to be back, good to eat, good to think there might be a better tomorrow.

 

July 23

Late morning Lindy stayed in the room to work and I went out for a walk. I varied from the path to the Triple Bridges, though still headed in the direction of Ljubljana center. I entered a countercultural stretch: organic restaurants, funky stores. Then I turned the corner onto a fashionable block like Madison Avenue. One window featured Ivanka Trump in her stepmother’s country.

I am struck again by how modern Eastern Europe feels in spots, as if it has leaped ahead of America; the urban landscape crisper, more comfortably on the fast track of the time. The street feels futuristic: monitors above stores, experimental music, a lamp in a store window made of monkeys holding light bulbs. Nothing dramatic: a mood, a celebration of freedom, a different path to capitalism.

I came back to the room, thinking I would work and Lindy might go for a walk, but she wanted to go back with me and get lunch. Rok and Andreja had already said that they were busy till around two, so we had a couple of hours. We weren’t interested in ordinary tourist fare anyway; we had done that years ago in Ljubjana. Rok was the reason we added Ljubljana to our itinerary, though both big planned events—my reading and the concert—had been cancelled.

As we walked back along my path, I pointed out one of the restaurants I had seen, a place advertising itself as healthy Ayurvedic. Small Restaurant was small with tables mostly on the street. A fixed-price lunch menu offered squash soup, a chick-pea pancake or lentil curry, etc. Lindy got curry, me the pancake. Neither was very good. It felt like stuff oneself might throw together from leftovers. Suddenly Lindy got severe abdominal cramps. She went to the bathroom and came back feeling even worse. I paid, and we hurried back to the Slamič. Her cramps were bad enough that we had to pause along the way several times for her to bend over and rest. As soon as we got back, I called Rok about where to go for a doctor. He said that he and Andreja would hurry over. It was 14:00 by then.

When they arrived, Lindy was feeling a bit better but wanted to sleep. We didn’t want to leave her in that state, so the three of us sat outside and then, at Rok’s suggestion, I made a dramatic course change. I wrote to the hotel in Zagreb, Croatia, explaining our situation and asking to cancel our reservation for the next day (they graciously agreed without charge). Then we booked a room at the Slamič for one more night. There was also only one room left and we had to grab it because places all over town were booked at this height of tourist season.

Rok and Andreja felt there was little to gain by going to Zagreb for only two days—and it would add four hours driving time to our next stop in Vienna (counting back and forth). Plus, Lindy’s situation put the whole trip in doubt.

 

Rok, Andreja, and I talked for the next five hours in a shifting landscape. First we talked on the patio of Slamič, but they hadn’t eaten and were hungry and wanted me to join them at a restaurant. I checked on Lindy several times. She confirmed wanting to sleep and said we should just go—she had the cell if needed. The next time I looked in, she was asleep, so we left.

We walked to a different part of town, a moderately long hike, in order to go to Rok’s favorite childhood pizza place; he said he had a craving for it. We were there for two hours. Then we walked back and sat on the Slamič patio talking for another hour and a half. Lindy was still asleep at seven, so Rok suggested I wake her and see if she wanted to join us for dinner. Also she was getting out of a normal sleep cycle. When I went back, she was awake and said that she felt better and would like to get out.

In our five hours together Rok, Andreja, and I made a world of camaraderie and talk. I can remember doing things like that in younger days with friends—talk, talk, talk; go anywhere and everywhere in words; delve, confess, celebrate, lament, bitch, enthuse, etc. And this was a younger country, still awakening to the modern rush. A walk-talk pizza afternoon was normal, pleasurable, worth the slowdown. This was finally my chance to do what I came for: be in Ljubljana with Rok.

What territory did we cover? The simplest answer is that we marched right through the big themes: life and death, our existential situation, love, soul, art, healing, initiation. A potpourri of politics, personal story-telling, and publishing and writing shoptalk. Our synergy came from our topics but was mostly the weave of them through each other, gathering and reinforcing depth. We became good friends, and then we became better friends, as we told each other our truths that mattered. Before the telling, we thought we knew each other better than we did. Afterwards it was as though we had been friends for decades. A few summaries of something impossible to capture:

Andreja wrote her undergraduate thesis on the intertextual conversation between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, deconstructing the verberations between their poems and their marriage. She was now writing a graduate thesis in Comparative Literature on views of Utopia in three Spanish authors: Cervantes, Borges, and the Argentinan Julio Cortazar, spinner of the anti-novel Hopscotch. She considered that classic “utopian” novels like Brave New World and 1984 were actually dystopian and was exploring the fluidly paradoxical distinction between utopia and dystopia in the human vision.

She surprised me, as such a literary and political intellect, for being fluent and astute in astrology. Her relationship with Rok was a new one, she and was trying to tease out their challenges from birth charts at opposite ends of the zodiac. She was Pisces, he Aries. From the untapped depths of Pisces, she wanted to inspire Rok to fulfill his  Arieas destiny as an innovator and leader.

She clairvoyantly nailed my Scorpio nature. “You can’t ever give up or not follow through on something you know or believe. You are bound to Scorpio truth-seeking, which is unrelenting.”

“For Scorpios,” I added, “It’s survival itself.”

Rok and I had to clarify our relationship. Some of it was wrapped around the Slovenian novelist, a man we both knew who had functioned as a sort of trickster and double-agent. He had communicated very negative things about Rok to me and vice versa. With me he gave an impression he barely knew Rok. According to Rok (now that we were mutually truth-and- reconciling), the two had had a longstanding professional connection that blew up in a series of failed collaborations. The guy, in fact, had been far crueler to Rok in person than in what he said to me, which culminated with< “I can’t go to see Rok because I don’t have a violin.” Since that was a Balkan riddle, I asked what it meant. He said, “I need a violin to play for his sob stories.”

The series of revelations and clarifications took much layering while going back-and-forth. Rok felt he had not taken me seriously as a writer because I was caught in Miha’s disparagements and also I was at the center of the multiple complications of handling the somewhat failing English version of an international novel. He regretted that he didn’t know better who I was because he would have publicized my visit in the Slovenian literary and intellectual community. Now it was a lost opportunity unless I returned.

We had landed upon one of my favorite dichotomies, the one that began this journal: the fundamental division between those who believed that consciousness was incidental and solely molecular and those who believed the universe was a latent soul luminosity creating its own reality out of the physics of its own conscious dimensions, sort of like the qabalistic Tree of Life. Rok felt that this line of discourse should have been in the public arena and he was sorry that it didn’t happen.

On my end I used a combination of our mutual friend’s criticisms of Rok and Andreja’s spurring of him to fulfill his Aries potential to say that he should trust his radical instincts and continue to push forward regardless of results, to trust intention over success. The Rok for whom a sniping false friend claimed to need a violin was also the Rok who lost hope in his Aries mission. I put out those butterfly’s wings in Tokyo (or Ljubljana) that change the weather in New York, the quantum particle that metastasizes into the universe, the Buddhist practices of tonglen whereby one breathes one’s own spirit and compassion into the world. Rok, I felt, could do that as a publisher and writer. Andreja and I created a tag-team inspirational chant form. But it was also a trio-log, for Rok nuanced our comments in terms of his own personal and professional struggles. This was perhaps our headiest dance.

When we were done with the restaurant, everyone went to the rest room. We came back to our table to get our stuff and found the remaining piece of pizza swarming with sparrows pecking and pulling at it, flapping their wings to get angle, leverage, and space. I counted fifteen birds in close quarters on one slice of pizza.

When we were walking back to Slamič, Andreja said—and I paraphrase, “I love being Slovenian. I love Ljubljana. I go away through Europe, even to Paris and Madrid, and I am called back. It’s the Slavic soul calling me. I went to the Belgrade book fair after Frankfurt, and I loved it in a way I couldn’t love Frankfurt. You don’t feel the soul anywhere there. When I’m away from Slovenia, I miss my homeland. When I was fifteen, I spent two months with relatives in Toronto. I was so excited to be in North America, but after a while I couldn’t wait to feel the Slavic soul again. Then here I am a while, and I feel restless. I think, what am I doing, living my life in this little boutique country?”

I double-checked her phrasing. “Boutique country,” she repeated.

Such a perfect phrase for perky charmed-life Slovenia, the one Yugoslavian province that became a country almost without bloodshed, certainly without the carnal madness that consumed the Balkan south. Slovenia didn’t have the centuries-long history of tribal warfare and nursed grudges that gestated during World War II and broke out in the barbaric civil wars of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Herzegovina, Montenegro Kosovo and Albania.

Back at Slamič, Andreja insisted that I should learn more about Rok and what he had suffered for his activism in Slovenia. As a college student, he was almost imprisoned several times, as he protested the introduction of capitalism and its corruption, as Slovenia emerged from the protections of Yugoslavia. For more than a decade he had been a marked man, subject to government investigations and harassment, bricks thrown through Sanje windows, personal threats, financial mischief to his accounts. She felt that I had to know this to understand where his despair and sense of tragedy came from.

Rok’s post-college political action had begun with his opposition to a new tax on books. It quickly expanded to his opposing corruption in the Slovenian government, including a major right-wing politician, Janez Janša, at one the point prime minister, who, according to Rok, was involved in blatant international arms dealing and inflaming conflict within the region, sullying the national honor and reputation. “We are always a small peaceful country,” Andreja said. “We do not make wars or empires. This is not our way. This is nothing less than horrible, greedy corruption.”

It turned out that Rok had organized the largest political protest in Slovenian history, a legacy that caused people to rise at cafés to greet him or wave on the street. This was something I had to know about the publisher of Alamut.

 

With Lindy joining us, we walked all the way to Slovenia’s Old Town where Rok picked out a restaurant he remembered from long ago: Špajza. The maître d said they were expecting a large party, but he managed to seat us at a corner of the rear garden. There Rok was greeted by a smiling young man—tall, intelligent looking, bald, glasses. He introduced himself as Gregor. It turned out that both Slovenians were shepherding American couples. The two joked in their language and then gabbed away.

In an oddly thorough ritual, all seven people shook hands with each other. Lindy lingered at their table and reported, on arrival, that Gregor had invited us to join them during spells of dinner. Rok identified him as a prominent Slovenian intellectual, philosopher, and author.

It took twenty-five minutes for the waiter to come for our order. The menu was as ancient as the Old Town landcape: horse and young horse, bear, rabbit, deer, etc.

I went to Gregor’s table first, after ordering (duck). Lindy stuck to soup.

Gregor and friends were discussing Trump, how someone could blatantly lie and be known to be lying, yet no one cared. I said that he was communicating subtexts to his supporters and also was cannily, though without explicit knowledge, exploiting the dialectics of competing layers of truth. They had pretty much covered that territory on their own as philosophers but welcomed confirmation. They were mainly interested, I think, in the breakdown of the public philosophical dialogue, which is itself a philosophical dialogue, a different sort of anti-dialogue. I liked that, then said that I thought of Trump as generating a cult observance that had more to do with scientology or fans of Manchester United Football than logic. It was observance without analysis, information without points of reference.

Gregor and Jack had been in graduate school together somewhere in Europe I didn’t catch. Gregor had written a book on Spinoza and Hegel, carrying their ideas into contemporary metaphysics. Hearing that, I told him about my piece, Bottoming Out the Universe, on my website, acknowledging that it was a long shot to be a match for where he was.

Jack was finishing a book on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a controversial figure in international politics as well as philosophy, partly for his brash celebrity life. Both of them were involved in the Žižekian renaissance originating in Ljubljana. They were peripheral Žižekians. That was the only option, for Žižek was the only real Žižekian. I will not explore Žižek here, as it is too large and abstruse a topic.

Back at our table, the mention of Žižek instigated debate. Andreja thought him “clever” not brilliant, and Rok felt that his more brilliant statements were contradicted by other things he said as well as the confusion he created by courting celebrity. I mused that Žižek was the Trump of philosophy, not only an insatiable egotist but an outlier who contradicted himself as a matter of principle as well as a gauntlet to his adversaries to catch him or to find a big enough construct to crush the meta-literal reality he was spieling.

Trying to eat soup and a roll did not work for Lindy. Her cramps returned and we had to leave the restaurant quickly and take a cab back to Slamič.

With Rok explaining the necessary, we made a plan to take a Metro cab to Urgenca (the Emergency Room) first thing in the morning.

I lay in bed for hours worrying about what might be wrong with her, considering the options. She had also replaced me as the agent of a potential early trip bail with its nightmare of logistics: reservations, car rental, Airbnb people in our house in Portland.

A more optimistic plan had us going straight to Vienna from here, then continuing to Prague and Berlin. All I could do was wait till morning.

 

July 24

We spent six hours at the Ljubljana Emergency Room today. Well, Lindy spent four and a half hours inside the Emergency Room, and I spent six hours in the waiting room. It was what happens when you go to such a place. It is not intentionally slow, but it has to handle the unexpected exigencies of the day and work them into its bureaucracy. There is no such thing as a short visit, especially if you are an American in a Slovenian hospital.

We were impressed by the tone and thoroughness of the system. It was firm and orderly but humane. It dispensed with a certain amount of ritual—no gowns, and patients in line for treatment lay on rolling beds along the windows of the waiting room. The room was spacious enough to absorb them and the people on chair and still feel like mostly empty space. Plenty of room to wander when I wanted to think about things rather than work on the computer and use free public Internet. It was a perfect time to catch up on this trip journal, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in the space and feel and see what was happening. It was not a time to zone out.

For the most part, people weren’t in that bad shape—no victims of gunshots like in most American urban waiting rooms, seemingly no addicts overdosing either. Yet very elderly woman—she looked 100 or near it—arrived in tremendous pain. She moaned and screamed continuously, a mournful and penetrating sound that dominated the space while she was in our midst, a very long fifteen minutes, probably seeming more than hours to her. I moved away, wanting to give her as much privacy and respect as possible. I tried to project reassurance and comfort. Yet I did see her face and age. I thought, and I know this is a cliché, but it resonated, “We are born in pain and die in pain.” When I looked at her, I saw an image like Alex Grey’s painting of the soul leaving the body. The soul is free, but the body doesn’t recognize it. The individual clings to the body and its pain at the moment of departure. Who wants to leave a home of a hundred years? What sea turtle wants to give up its shell?

It sounded like an undeviating moan and scream. Yet each cry of hers was individual, almost operatic in the precision of its formation. If you listened—and I did, as I wouldn’t have when I was younger—you heard a sacred chant, an ethereal music, the aria of incarnation of souls in bodies. She was telling a truth from deep in her body, and it was a chance to hear and appreciate it. That was what I mean by not zoning out. I went where her tortured song took me, into myself.

The tale of the day for me other was tedium, patience, and meandering consideration—lots of time to think, ponder, and assay. We took a cab there at 8:15, arrived at 8:30, left at 14:45. The majority of that time was empty even for Lindy. Her assigned physician was called to an emergency elsewhere and nothing with her case could proceed until the woman’s return. Another span—over an hour—was just waiting for paperwork to be completed for Lindy’s release. At one point, she pleaded with one of the aides, saying that we had been there for almost five hours. His response, “It’s tough, but that’s how Urgenca works. If you come here, you must be prepared to wait.”

At one point, a very friendly, compassionate aide, a young man, came to me with a prescription. I was directed to a bridge across the road to get it filled. More patience, as I waited my turn on a line for about a half hour. It was waiting one place rather than another, and at least it was fresh scenery—I could look at the Slovenian packaging of aloe vera and echinacea, etc.

For all that, surprisingly little was resolved. I came away still considering food poisoning as a possible culprit. The exam and X-ray ruled out intestinal and stomach blockages, but they needed an ultrasound from another facility to explore gallstones as the cause. That would have to have been at a private facility, and the physician in charge said that they were not even allowed to recommend one. Her assistant privately worked with us on calling two places, but it wasn’t possible to get an appointment that day. The doctor said that our travel plans were our business; she could only speak to medical issues, and she recommended an ultrasound, if not here, then in Vienna.

I was part of that conversation and I probed whether the blood test actually suggested gall stones or she was just being cautionary. She wouldn’t answer that, but she qualified that the elevated liver enzymes could be completely innocent, she had no baseline to compare the results to.

Lindy was firm on wanting to proceed with the trip. She felt she was fine and leaned toward an explanation food poisoning.

As we left, I felt both that they were wonderful (everyone there also spoke fluent English) but that we knew little more than if we hadn’t gone. A few things were ruled out, but another was added to the potential list. We still didn’t have a definitive answer.

We waited twenty minutes for a cab, returned to the Slamič in heavy traffic, changed rooms, and waited another half hour for Rok and Andreja to come by for what became a 16:30 lunch. They wanted to drive to Gostilna Čad, a famous Slovenian restaurant in a park about a mile outside of town. Driving there through construction took a lot longer than a mile should have. Lindy and I actually walked to that same restaurant from our hotel on a recommendation in 2006.

Lindy felt okay before, during, and after the meal—a big relief, making her, for me anyway, the hero of the lunch. On the other hand, she was totally confident, uninvolved in my concern, wanting to order freely and objecting to my suggestions about what she should order, in fact mostly defying them. She seemed remarkably intrepid after a day of abdominal pain and not being able to hold down food plus six hours in an Emergency Room and an uncertain verdict. I felt that the trip, and her health, hung in the balance and she should proceed with caution. She ordered chicken, vegetable skewers, and a spinach pie, and survived without pain. She didn’t think she had gall stones.

Our conversation was predominantly historical and political, triggered curiously by the waiter, a cheerful round Bosnian fellow, clearly making a joke in Slovenian and Rok and Andreja laughing in agreement. That moment translated to the whole meal and enveloped it in successive waves and circlings back to recover lost threads and resolve misunderstanding.

When the waiter walked away, Rok interpreted. “He said, ‘Americans are stupid enough to think that we were miserable during Yugoslavia. That was paradise compared to this. Everyone was happy. Everyone had a job. You could drive from Ljubljana to Belgrade and sleep in the fields along the way and no one bothered you. No more. Not since the Americans took over.’”

I understood that Rok felt that the Yugoslavian consortium in which he grew up was a socialist paradise protected by Tito. I didn’t get how strongly he felt a nostalgia and was committed to its legacy till then, how firmly he believed that international capitalism and contemptible arms dealing turned a rich, peaceful country into a poor one and ethnic groups that had been at peace for generations against one another. To him, that was the dominant explanation for the Balkan wars and current national crisis. “We were bought by the capitalists,” he said, “and now they own us. When you take their money, there is no innocence. You are bound to their bidding thereafter.” That led to a long discourse about the entanglements of capitalism, corruption, currency manipulation such that you couldn’t unravel untangle their web, though Rok was sure he had a number of its threads, stuff on which he had published books. He described the laundering of old Yugoslavian currency through Bosnia and other vulnerable republics, selling them back their own old dinars at twice their purchase price in weapons.

We segued from there to the history of Slovenia as a country. Rok felt that the Carantanian forerunners of the Slovenia played a seminal role throughout ancient and Mediaeval Europe before being confined to a territory that included parts of present-day Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Slovenia, and then Slovenia itself, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and willingly joined a confederation of Croats and Serbs to form Slovenia and escape Hapsburg rule after World War I. Slovenian culture was not just Slovenian; it was close to the root culture of all of Europe.

I asked lots of questions, about Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Italy, etc. Rok was even more strongly pro-Russian than I was prepared for from his earlier comments. He felt that an EU was a sham without Russia, which was a huge part of European culture, spirit, and language. He declared NATO the prime terrorist organization in the world. He sided with Putin, who, he explained, was defending Russia against the West’s repeated attempts to destroy it. “Ukraine is merely the most recent.” He and Andreja vociferously defended Putin against Pussy Riot, whose behavior they criticized as an intentional desecration of shrines to make a provocation. I remarked then how crisscross the political lines become: freedom to do radical art, on the one hand, something they would surely support against government censorship and reprisal, versus the capitalist attempt to undermine and destabilize any noncomplying polity.

Sanje had published a Slovenian translation of the writings of radical Russian journalist, Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, murdered at age 48 on Putin’s birthday and widely assigned in the West to the calculations and mafia-like behind-the-scenes tactics of Putin. Rok blamed her assassination on NATO; he considered it a staged event, a false flag to provoke world opinion against Putin and Russia.

While conversation ran along these lines, Rok also showed us videos of arts festivals in Slovenian and talked about the beautiful countryside and his passion for rock climbing and skiing. Like Andreja, he kept his heart here in the homeland. He said he would never go to America, just on principle. Even to go was to sanction its behavior. He relented slightly to suggest he might come if Bernie Sanders were president.

We said warm goodbyes, as they left us back at the Slamič.

 

I kind of love Ljubljana, its bells every quarter hour. I went out again at twilight to walk to the countercultural street and maybe get some fruit or drinks for the car tomorrow. Every day-time store was closed, but the energy at twilight was buoyant and cheerful. Peace radiated, if a city can radiate peace. Ljubljana is a pleasant place to be, maybe too pleasant for the world as it is. It doesn’t even feel touristy.

I passed Small Restaurant. It was closed, but a man and woman were cleaning up. They responded to my knock I told them what happened, assuring them that I didn’t assume that my wife had gotten food poisoning there. I was just checking They took the matter very seriously. The waitress said that she had been consuming that curry all day and not gotten sick, but they phoned the woman who owned the place, an Ayurvedic physician. She heard out the story in Slovenian, and it was translated back that the symptoms did not sound like food poisoning to her but that she was willing to come in at once and examine my wife at no cost if I wanted—a remarkable offer. I said that it wasn’t necessary. I was merely wanting to remove food poisoning as an option, so it didn’t distract from other possible causes.

They were closed but I wondered if I might buy a ginger beer. The guy produced one and said it was on the house. I thanked him and walked into the welcoming Ljubljana night, the music of Slovenian language in the air: source Europa, modern Europa, eternal Europa.

 

July 25-26

The next lap of our trip involved getting from Ljubljana to Berlin, a phase in doubt at the Emergency Room a day earlier. Lindy felt fine in the morning.

The long drive—about 1000 kilometers— and its two stops were a late add-on. We didn’t initially plan to go to either Vienna or Prague. We were going to fly from Zagreb to Berlin (Copenhagen to Warsaw too). Renting a car was intended for the loop from Warsaw to Krakow to Budapest to Ljubljana, returning it In Zagreb. I had arrived at that because there were no suitable plane or train links, in terms of expense or time. For instance, you could take a train from Budapest to Ljubljana in twelve hours—much too long for the distance—and to fly there meant going by way Berlin or Oslo or some other city.

But to rent a car in Warsaw and return it in Zagreb meant a $1200 drop-off fee. The car needed to be rented and returned to the same city. Copenhagen to Warsaw to Copenhagen meant going around or ferrying across the Baltic twice, so Berlin became the ideal port: start and end there.

Zagreb to Berlin was too long for one or even two days and, since two iconic cities, Vienna and Prague, fell at approximate thirds of the way, an ideal division of road time yielded stops in each. The downside was that we wouldn’t have much time to explore.

After Lindy got sick, our starting city became Ljubljana instead of Zagreb. That a;so saved a couple of hours driving on the first day. Our host in Vienna was Camilia, a Jungian therapist and translator who had read my work and six years earlier invited me to speak at the Jung Institute. That was to be on a trip we never took. She couldn’t repeat the offer—the summer was not a good time for a public talk— she extended an invitation to visit and stay in her apartment. We had planned on two nights, and she was fine with our arriving a day earlier. That gave us one full day in Vienna, a ridiculously meager allotment for such a vast city, but more than a rest stop.

Camilia emailed us to arrive no sooner than 17:00 because she had clients. That meant hanging around Ljubljana for the morning. We used the outdoor patio of Slamič to work on our trip journals and then walked into town center to buy some fruit and drinks for the road (we had saved leftovers from the previous day’s lunch too).

It was a bittersweet farewell to a friendly city that had provided good friends and seen us through crises gently. We entered the familiar pedetrian flow amid heavy traffic and backed-up buses, passed Small Restaurant and hip shops, and went to the organic café for drinks, then the fruit shop. When the proprietor heard that we were buying raspberries and peaches for travel, she washed and repacked them for us in the back. We left Ljubljana at 12:20.

Driving into and out of a city is like unwinding from witin a snail shell, quick turns and interpretations of GPS instructions, street changes and curls every 200 or 600 hundred meters or after 2.5 kilometers. The eye in the sky is essential. It would be impossible to improvise or do from a mapquest list, especially in countries with Slavic (and Uralic) languages. Even so, the voice’s garble of Slavic street names was almost useless, making the visual map and kilometer distances essential.

The drive out of Ljubljana to a highway had a few complications. The GPS was ultimately leading us to A2, a huge highway, but we didn’t know that ahead of time. The algorithm passed up two major highways with road signs indicating Austria, sending us instead onto back roads through suburbs, suggesting it might take us to Vienna through the mountains on the horizon, perhaps on similar winding roads to those we had encountered in Slovakia. We decided to give it two more minutes before looking for help when A2 appeared in the countryside like a giant knife cutting high-speed traffic through farmland.

The second complication was a grasshopper that attached itself to the front window of our car and rode through much of Ljubljana with us. It wasn’t a common American cricket; it was a smaller, lither thing that seemed fragile and stubborn, as it radiated a Pinocchio-like personality. Its mistake had been made in one unlucky jump, and I wanted to give it its best shot at survival, though not at the risk of getting out of the car in traffic during red lights of uncertain duration. I also wanted to find some grass, so it wouldn’t end up on the highway. No ideal spot appeared for eight or nine kilometers, but the creature hung on, distracting the driver (me). Then I drew a timely red by a park. Unfortunately the hitchhiker hopped away as I reached for it. I think it landed in the road but close enough to the curb that I could hold out hope for a longer life.

Even after we got on A2, we weren’t sure we were on the right road. We had forgotten to leave out our map of Slovenia and Austria. That meant relying on a road map of all of Europe as backup. However, the kilometers to Vienna, which began in the high 300s, kept dropping, reassuring me somewhat, and Lindy found the far-most destination on Slovenian road signs, Maribor, on the map, and said our direction was more or less correct. Yet everything was so scrunched together at that scale that she worried we were going too far east without heading north. it I thought about stopping at a gas station, but we plunged into the mountains and through very long tunnels. After forty-five minutes, we found ourselves in another world—alpine valleys with farms and chalets—hurtling away from Ljubljana at 140 KMH toward somewhere, hopefully Wien. The massive trucks and unofficial truck convoys were our company. This prevalent transportation system, different from its equivalent in the States in terms of average vehicle size and sheer number of vehicles, indicates how much EU commerce is conducted on the highway.

After a while Graz began showing up on road signs, a good Austrian destination for someone going to Wien. We crossed into Austria at Maribor and drove another couple of hours. Vienna developed in farmland: warehouses, outskirts, then urban access roads. Camilia’s apartment at Wurzingergasse 4 turned out to be several kilometers northwest of Vienna Centrum and involved several road changes and complicated turns among crisscrossing trolleys in late-afternoon traffic. The people on the streets, none of whom I knew, were all familiar. It’s amazing how equally various and common the draws of our genome are

Traffic kept pushing our GPS arrival time until we pulled into an ample parking place on a tree-lined street of magnificent old apartment buildings just as the car clock went to 17:00. We could not have accomplished that if we had tried. Jack Finney used the finely graded aspect of time in his science-fiction novels to show how hard it was to aim for an exact intercession of both space and time in time travel (e.g., to prevent the Titanic from hitting its iceberg).

We did not initially find Camilia’s name among residents of Wurzingergasse 4. Our error was in not looking for a less weather-beaten roster. You needed to go around the corner for the active one. “Everyone on that list is dead,” she remarked dryly after we rang her ten minutes later.

She was a ball of fire, as unlike a central-casting Jungian therapist as you could get. She was more like a character from a Tennessee Williams play—full of vim, drama, stories, and questions, all performed with zest and upbeat camarderie. Her vibe was a blend of her backgrounds: an Austrian Texan. She talked fast and big and put out lots of information, optimism, mothering, and organization of our time in Vienna, as she told us about the dinner she was preparing, things to do, and mixed in her own life story. To Lindy’s brazen question, she said age was irrelevant, but I would guess her to be somewhere in her fifties.

Camilia’s second-floor apartment was spacious with huge, high ceilings, minimalist modern light fixtures and bookstands, and enough rooms and doors to get lost occasionally in the Viennese maze. The bookshelves were packed with familiar literary, psychological, and esoteric topics in several languages. She graciously deeded us her room and stayed in her study. Because of the heat and keeping the balcony doors wide open for a night breeze, going to the bathroom at night felt like trooping under the stars.

The flat had been Camelia’ grandparents’ apartment. She had lived in for a long time and bought it a few years ago. Though raised into her teens in Houston, she decided at fifteen to stay in Austria, her mother’s territory, and finish her growing up and schooling in Europe. Her father had founded the Department of Religion at Rice University, preceding our friend Jeffrey Kripal by one as chair. Kripal, an important author on the relation between paranormal topics and spiritual and pop-culture traditions, was the source of Camelia discovering my work.

As we ate chilled soup and pasta on the balcony, the heat broke and we watched a small thunderstorm. Long past food, we talked Jung, Freud, Kripal, Robert Kelly, Stan Brakhage, alchemy, cosmology, neuroscience, yoga and, of course, our lives as we knew them. Camilia made one one speech about “Me Too,” expressing sympathy for the intention but explaining how ridiculous it sounded in most European countries, especially Italy. “Different cultures, different boundaries,” she said.

 

In the morning Camilia was putting together breakfast while gathering guidebooks, and making lists for us. That we were spending only one full day didn’t stop her from itemizing a week’s worth of attractions and writing the recommendations down. She also generously bought us one-day public-transit tickets, refusing reimbursement by saying, “You can buy me ones in Maine or San Francisco.”

We did not plan on anything more adventurous than the trolley. The trolley was a challenging enough system as well as an attractive ride. We had seen plenty of them, new and old, in other cities without getting a chance to ride. It was a pleasure to take one of necessity: it was the only expedient way into Vienna Centrum from Wurzingergasse.

The nearest tram stop was two blocks (a left at the end of Camilia’s street and then a right)—you could hear the song of the wheels from the apartment. Being a legitimated passenger was easy compared to the complicated Copenhagen system—just validate the ticket in a stamping machine on the tram, and it was good for twenty-four hours. No sign-out.

Our tram was three cars long. We sat and watched Vienna neighborhoods flow past for about a half hour. In the old-fashioned trolley, modern video screens mounted throughout the cars ran regular news, ads, and a list of stops, changing as we went. This city was diffuse and quiet compared to Budapest. Everything was well-kept-up; we saw no slums. The sense of settled elegance resembled Copenhagen but it was much more spread out with continuous new faces of itself as the trolley rumbled along its track—rows of shops, then rows of houses, then more shops: cities within a city. The diversity of streets and neighborhoods reminded me of New York.

Camilia had told us to get off at Berggasse, the penultimate stop. Our goal was the Freud Museum. We realized only at the last moment that Berggasse was not the name of a stop, for the stops cames to an end at Schottentor, and Berggasse wasn’t in the remaining list. We found an English-speaking passenger who said, “Get off now,” as the wheels screeched to a stop. We hastened onto the street and looked around—where next? I remembered the direction of Camilia’s wave for after the tram—memorably to the left. We crossed the street and found ourselves on Berggasse, a wide mostly residential thoroughfare. The guidebook put out goal at 19, and numbers were ascending from 9, so we were almost there.

The Freud Museum, marked by a banner on the street, was apparently closed—open Tuesday and Wednesday and this was Thursday. I persisted only because a sign in English pointed to a door on the left and indicated that the first floor was available for free viewing—nothing about days of the week. Its giant oaken door was locked, but a buzzer released it. We wandered through a courtyard and followed signs to the Freud Bookstore. That turned out to mean the museum as well.

Despite Thursday, people were wandering around the first floor. Other floors were apparently available too with a ticket, but there seemed no need for us. The holdings upstairs were mainly libraries, books in Austrian or German. There was no explanation of why the place was open on a Thursday or why, for that matter, they were selling tickets if the upper floors were closed for renovation (as a sign in multiple languages informed).

We walked around  the section that was available, most of it letters and books in display cases, thus unreadable for non-German speakers, but a few stray artifacts from Freud’s rooms that could have come from any house of the period: a chair, dish, etc. Camilia had said that the important stuff was in an equivalent facility in London.

The value of the museum to me was indirect and imaginal. I attended two major Freudian analysts in New York as a child during the fifties, both of them long dead. Now I was at Freud’s office and home, where he saw patients, visiting it on behalf of them and that child,  completing a historical and mythological cycle: the origin of psychoanalysis and my own initiation in it.

What I got from the exhibits, insofar as I could slide beneath their subtexts, was that Freud’s paradigmatic web of symbols, radical and shamanic in Western thought, was also of its own time, drawing on a rich and forgotten etiology. I pictured a streetcar headed into the future that still had enough décor to support it, rattling out of an arcane realm that once fused science, philosophy, and health. Now the thread has been cut, and Freud’s psychiatric session, having shed most of its literary and naturopathic antecedents, was a sleek bullet-train plunging through the pharmacological present. Freud himslef had abandoned early harbingers of neurochemical reductionism along with the old cell-sectioning machine in the museum. He forsook biological medicine to synergize a new paradigm of unconscious meanings and psychosomatically derived health.

Not much but at least a snippet of lingering energy for a dogged chid who attempted to read Interpretation of Dreams in sixth grade.

Outside on Berggasse, I recalled Camilia’s second directional wave for there. We wended further down the street and to the right where we encountered, as promised, tracks for the ring trolley that circled the old city, the golden triangle at the heart of downtown Vienna. Boarding with our all-day ticket, we rumbled past magnificent palaces, churches, parliament, museums, opera house, etc.—this, after all, was Habsburg Vienna. We got off at the central station—Oper Karlsplatz—and stepped into the midst of crowds and tour buses. Now what to do?

We discussed a walking tour with two different ticket-hustlers, , one male, one female, in yellow and orange frocks. Each rattled off options so fast it was gather much except that no plan cost less than 39 euros, which meant spending close to $100 for a two-day package of bus and boat rides and free museum entries, almost none of which we would use. They did offer a walking tour from the Opera House for 15 euros; the next one in English left at 14:30, two-and-a half hours away. We made a plan to shoot for that and try to get lunch and go to one museum in the interim.

The main throughfare by the Opera House was a Burger King/KFC zone. On side streets proclaimed as fashion alleys were fancy cafés. We spent time wandering and debating where toeat in the humidity, finally settling on a generic Chinese restaurant with outdoor tables as a safe choice. Maybe it was, but I didn’t feel too good for the rest of the day. It might have been MSG or a reverse placebo effect. The place had a sloppy vibe to it—and imagination counts.

We returned to the ring trolley and took it one stop back to the museum complex—huge institutional buildings in a row. To the left and across the street was a gigantic courtyard of separate museums around a large statue. It was hard to interpret the theme of each, but we gathered from the placards above one entry (kometen, etc.) that it was a museum of natural history and planetarium. Across the courtyard, a distance of more than a city block, was another museum that we guessed was history or history of art. The building was monumental and daunting for one hour.

Drawn by poster for a Gustav Klimt exhibit, we angled to the top of the courtyard, opposite our entry point, and entered a more modest structure called Museumsquartier. It had an indoors, but it was mostly shops and a thoroughfare which led into a smaller plaza dominated by big recreational chairs made of a rubbery plastic and in the shape of sans-serif boats—one knew because they were called “boats.” They were strewn around a fountain. I mention this because we each lay in one for about five minutes in exhaustion after going the museum. Alhough this was the opposite of getting out of the heat—the chairs were almost too hot to lie on—it was relaxing in a sauna sort of way.

We entered the Leopold museum beyond the fountains and spent our there viewing two artists, forty-five minutes on Klimt.

Gustav Klimt is one of those artists whose images have stayed with me long after I first viewed them years ago. Certain painters cast such spell. Offhand, my deep imagers include Yves Tanguy, Edward Hopper, the illustrators of Lascaux and Chauvet caves, Alex Grey, Hieronymus Bosch, and my long-time favorite, Joan Miro. Klimt fills me with a world of transitional forms and meanings. His art mixed a forerunner of Dali surrealism with something more classical, Greek statues or Degas nudes, and a bit of Pacific Northwest totem poles in the way he folds faces into archetypal panels. Klimt has always suggested something elusive, erotic, and occult in the tense of a tomb or shroud but not nearly so morbid—more like the space where birth and death meet and where unknown parameters arise in the gusto of life as it enfolds into its esoteric origins. That’s a messy approximation, but it captures the impression I went in with. Four or five rooms of the Leopold filled with Klimt works gave me a chance to interrogate him and internalize him more. I came away moved and changed internally, which is all you can ask of great art and you don’t always get, even from the masters.

The exhibit started out with a room of line drawings and concise anatomies; then a room to highlight Klimt’s three controversial paintings for the faculties of the University of Vienna commissioned by the Ministry of Education (I assume these were replicas of the ceiling panels: huge many-featured landscapes requring long section-by-section scans to take in the intricate detail).

The panels were painted for the faculties of philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence (law), respectively. They showed blue, violet, green fields of abstract space in which faces and apparitions flowed in panoramas. The mask-like visages could have been Egyptian or figures from Germanic myths and fairy tales. They appeared in bubbles or amorphously shaped, constrained fields like distortions or negative space. Scroll-like sections wrapped around their bodies suggested vines or continuations of negative fields. The figures were barely tinted black-and-white, which made unripe, placental in their fish-tanks—asleep, dormant or entranced. In the medicine panel, singularly bright-colored Hygeia, daughter of Aesculapius, brought the accouterments of her arts and healing energy (and colors) to suffering humans floating upward through the underwater or interstellar morass.

The next room was filled with Klimt’s subtly tinted, unconventionally scaled landscapes: the undulating surface of a turquoise lake so foreshortened that the canvass almost became op-art watery waves with a glow of blue meeting jagged brown rocks in the far distance.

An adjoining room featured Klimt’s major painting (“Death and Life”) on the phases of birth, life, and death. Down the hall was a companion work was unfinished when the died (the same sorts of masks were interpolated in a different way). In the major canvass, Death in the form of skeleton with just its skull showing and wrapped in a light blue shroud of black crosses and religious pictographs stares across the canvass at seven figures folded around and into one another, representing the phases of life becoming phases of death. A woman and a woman with a newborn child are followed by people in the prime of life, then an old    man with head bowed. None of the figures are anatomically complete; they are composed also of the background mosaic pattern and hide each other’s forms: a classic Klimt totem pole.

In the unfinished painting across the room, the totem pole disintegrated into heads floating amid sections of naked bodies in a rich, disorganized field of hieroglyphic and decorative motifs. One woman turns into a purple shawl; another shows her bare back and butt; another breaks into designs of glyph-like doodles or patterns on indigenous pottery.

My passage through the exhibit concluded with Klimt’s relationships with women, which involved female bodies and erotic anatomy. The captions discussed his mistress, models, and illegitimate children, as art and life dovetailed. In the collection of sketches, the bodies are fully female but like blossoms or flowers—genitalized but unsexualized. They run a gamut of body and personality types and fin-de-siécle classes (working girls and ladies of society) and ethnic groups (Jewish, Muslim, Christian). The celebratory anatomy is through the lens of Klimt’s mild deconstruction.

Vienna was a perfect site for a retrospective. Gustav Klimt was a hometown boy who painted local landscapes in the latter part of the nineteenth century and through World War I. He was in conflict with governments authorities and his peers. The panels for the University building were wild, and Klimt reacted to criticism of them that included calls for their removal: “Enough of censorship. I will take matters into my own hands. I want to break away. I want to shake off all this unpleasant ridiculousness impeding my work and regain my freedom. I renounce everything.” He added that the Ministry of Education attacked real art and artists and protected “only what is weak and false.”

When I said I got energy from Klimt’s work, I meant his will to delve beneath the surface, his engagement with the hidden and complex, his defiance of custom and stricture, his  merging of mythical and collective forms with the actual world phenomena. He performed a healing function and left me with a sense of my own passage through the life mystery. The people in the crowds on the streets of Vienna and on the tram seemed twisted about each other in Klimt chimeras afterward.

We had only about fifteen minutes left to view one other artist, and we selected the heralded Slovenian painter, Zoran Mušič. His work was mostly landscapes that he referred to as “dream landscapes” or “roots,” adding that he always returned to the same horses, the same elusive internal vistas, even as he painted actual scenes in different regions of Europe. The most striking prat of his displayed oeuvre to my view was a room of simple line drawings of bodies found at Dachau concentration camp. Mušič left out lines in the bodies, a sparseness representing lesion and trauma.

 

We dawdled long enough at the museum and then the boat chairs that we had to hurry across two big courtyards to get a ring trolley and make it one stop back in time to join the walking tour. Our guide was a short, middle-aged, rotund woman with black wide-legged trousers, a few facial piercings, and a stylish navy-blue felt hat worn at a tilt: an actress strolling out of a Brecht opera in full song. She was arrantly fluent, brash, and played to being fashionably lewd, patting the fanny of one statue while remarking that the worn brass showed she wasn’t the first and twitting the sexual behavior of the Habsburgs in many asides.

The tour, though, was tedious, especially in such heat. We looked at statues and more statues, churches, a palace, the royal stable, and we heard histories and back stories. The most lengthy was about two competing chocolate shops run by a father and his son, each claiming the exclusive rights to a chocolate-cake recipe. A judge resolved the dispute by imposing variations on the layers of marmalade allowed in each shop’s version of the dessert.

A few details stuck: (1) The cutting of dead nobles into three parts to be transported back from the Crusades for home burial. 2. The number of rooms in the Habsburg castle; 2600 sticks in my mind, which is at least in the ballpark—Vienna was the center of the Austro-Hungary Empire that we had been circling through Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia. 3. The grim, contorted face of a stone figure in a statue, a man who had died from the plague, pitched toward us out of the base of the pedestal below a series of episodes in marble (?) and gilded leaf reifying triumph over the plague by the forces of God. The Trinity at the top was shiny gold. Below its divine illumination, the Habsburg king (Leopold I believe) kneeled in obeisance, his crown removed in humility and gratitude before the greater forces that saved him. He had promised to construct a statue if spared death from the plague, an enemy who did not discriminate the nobles from serfs.

The most exciting part of the walking tour was my race into a souvenir shop for a plastic bottle of ice water at 2 euros for us to share: an oasis.

Getting back on the tram meant reversing directions and filling in the gap created by the walk to the Freud Museum. At the suggestion of one of the tour pitch women, we grabbed the next tram at the stop from which we had gone to the Leopold Museum, but I made a mistake. Because we had taken the Number 2, I assumed that it would get us along the same avenjue to the correct stop, Schottentor, to catch the 41 back to Camilia’s. After the museums, though, the trolley turned. I didn’t catch it at at once because trolley tracks are trolley tracks and a ring trolley goes in a ring.

Luckily I stood up soon after to look at the map; there was no Schottentor stop. We were on the wrong tram. A woman who got off at the next stop with us proposed plunging down subway stairs at which she pointed and going two stops, but that looked like being shot into the space-time continuum of Vienna, and neither of us had nerve for traveling blind underground based on barely understood directions in broken English. “Let’s see if you can get us out of this one,” Lindy remarked, referring to my track record in central Slovakia at discontinued roads and in Budapest where the GPS lost its bearings. I looked around, stared down the subway stairs, thought about it, and proposed that we walk back to where the trolley last curved to see if there was one that went straight at that point.

It took only two blocks and turned out to be the right guess. Where the 2 tram curved, a 1 tram went straight. We walked another two blocks to a stop, caught a waiting 1. I asked passengers about Schottentor; it was the next stop. One of the men who confirmed this led us through a pedestrian tunnel to a station where many trolley lines began or converged. A 41, as promised on the board, arrived in four minutes.

We sat facing a young man and his six-year-old son wearing a Sri Lanka T-shirt with a lion. There was no video screen in our car, and the Austrian street names sounded alike, so I asked the guy how far to Scheibenbergstrasse, our stop. The boy replied for him in rapid German; he had plenty to say about the various ways of the avenue, pronouncing the name like a pro. None were relevant to our situation, but thjat inspired conversation. The father, a Brit married to an American, went to graduate school in botany in Vienna a few years ago, then move to New Zealand, then returned, was now working in digital. “The job of your era,” I said. He nodded, adding that Vienna was the perfect city to raise a child.

 

Camilia had planned a small gathering for the evening, and she wanted me to give a half-hour talk and then answer questions. Her guests were a female craniosacral therapist and a male professor of religion at the University and his Indian wife (the guy was Camilia’s yoga teacher). I was feeling the after-effects of the lunch as well as our treks through the hot day and did not have much energy for something I had been looking forward to in the morning.

Camilia had planned for the event to take place at an outdoor vineyard restaurant, but amassing thunderheads led her to decide to change and make quick light dishes—lentils, salad, fruit cakes. We convened on the balcony. From there we watched the storm at close quarters. It was heavier than the one the evening before and, when people started feeling droplets, the giant windows were swung shut. Conversation proceeded around the table.

My presentation never had a lecture phase, it was a discussion from the get-go—a complicated dance, as the other guests felt out my position on various topics while I tried to navigate theirs so as not to say anything too provocative or polarizing. The fluctuating drift was difficult to read. Though everyone held metaphysical beliefs, everyone was skeptical too. The professor’s wife, a mindfulness teacher, exhibited the deepest faith. She didn’t reveal herself often, but when she did, she was precise and unwavering.

Camilia had posed Jane Roberts’ channelings of the aggregate entity Seth as a topic that would interest people and about which they knew very little. I read some Seth quotes off my computer and tried to put him in context. The professor specialized in what he called “unorganized religions” like Course in Miracles and Oahspe. He taught Buddhism too, but the othersnwere his specialty. His scholarship meant that he already knew Seth and had strong convictions and opinions about him and other what-he-called “New Age religions”. Since he was gracious, he revealed his biases by degrees, accepting Seth’s relative validity compared to other channelings before finally coming to a skeptical academic position. UFOs (Oofoos, as he called them) he dissmised entirely, “I believe people see them and think they are abducted, but I do not think that the Oofoos exist. The people who think they are abducted by space beings are projecting mental pathology.” This was his position: these systems were interesting as social phenomena.

The craniosacral therapist was openly enthusiastic, as I mentioned planes of consciousness, group souls, and the like. Then out of the blue she proposed that all this credulity was more a result of the breakdown of the culture and lack of real contact between people. Involvement in spirits, she added, was a substitute for human relationships. Her quirky point had validity, but it was a curious and revealing non sequitur. Her enthusiasm was greater than her faith.

That’s the way such conversations go. After a while, I was too tired and sick to carry on, so I collapsed on the bed thinking to take a brief rest. Instead, I fell asleep for the night without explaining my absence or saying goodbye. That was a surprise to everyone, including me, but my presentation had never gotten off the ground. In the morning Camilia said graciously that they probably went on too long anyway, “Can you believe, we consumed four bottles of wine.”

 

July 27-30

We hung around Wurzingergasse till noon, partly to rest and recuperate and partly for me to check out the nearby health-food store and restock our supplies. With Camilia’s coaching, I did a solo run on the tram. There were the usual unexpected curves. First, I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket despite with euros in hand. When I went to the shop Camilia named, the proprietess simply gave me change for my ten-euro note. When I asked for the ticket in English, she responded in German, pointing in the direction of the tracks. Camilia had said it was only three stops and she had been stopped by an inspector only once in a year. Even if I was, she added, I could play dumb and show yesterday’s ticket. She thought I should chance it. After the shop I agreed.

On a piece of paper Camilia had written down my destination as well as the stop, but the trouble was, she put the German “health-food store” rather than the store’s name, a detail of which I was unware. When I got off the tram, I stood looking about in vain on the busy crossroads of avenues. I finally tried pedestrians who sent me to two other stores several blocks in opposite directions. The second time, I was standing right outside the store I wanted. It was called Prokopp but had no signage and the window was painted in white. Once it was finally identified by an astute guy who pointed back across the street, , I found a cornucopia and left with 58 euros worth: a bag of fruit, nuts, organic snacks, cereals, and a loaf of fresh bread and pastries.

 

We started driving with the help of the GPS and got to a highway sooner than in other cities and immediately picked up signs for Praha. We coasted through Austria to the Czech border.

The entrance to a country of which Václav Havel was once so proud was now strip shows, casinos, and pornography with as graphic full-color images of women as you’ll see, the operative phrase being “inflagranti,” probably regional code for a high number of X’s—more must be permitted in the Czech Republic than Austria. Alongside the sex shops was a giant amusement park with childlike cartoon figures among rides and a giant Earth-like sphere, which gave the whole thing an Orlando qua Vegas quality. This was the Czech Republic 2018? The pornography continued for a good twenty kilometers inside the border.

Without restraint or exception, international capitalism balances out all commodity differential between polities, usually at the lowest common denominator.

After a while, we began seeing distinctive Czech rural towns of the sort I remembered from our 1993 visit. Back then they were from the train and it was just after the fall of the Soviet Unions. These ones we drove through the middle of, stopping and starting. They not only hadn’t changed much from 1993 but were near identical to ones we had seen in the other half of the former Czechoslovakia. The division of the former nation was not as evident in the countryside.

I also recalled something from high-school history I had forgotten while in Slovakia. When Neville Chamberlain signed his widely ridiculed peace treaty with Hitler—a misjudgment on his part that led to compensations for the next seventy years, misjudgments in the other direction—it was said that by giving away Czechoslovakia without a fight, the British prime minister had put teeth in Hitler’s army. The teeth were the mountains we had driven through the week prior. I hadn’t thought of that then as we struggled through. I don’t even know how the metaphor works or if I am remembering it correctly, but it took being in the Czech Republic to grok that we were in Czechoslovakia too. When we entered from southern Poland, Slovakia was like a strange attractor emerging from a black hole.

About 100 kilometers from Prague, construction stopped traffic. We progressed two kilometers in an hour and a half.The delay was utterly discouraging, especially since we thought that we were finally on major roads—of course, major roads need to be resurfaced and enlarged. But at this stage of exhaustion and physical weariness, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for driving in new territory. Operating the clutch to inch along pained my leg and back. I was relieved when, at one point, some people got out of their cars and waved. We didn’t try to communicate—they likely didn’t speak English— but shared grins and shrugs of “what can you do?” renewed my energy and revived my mood. Face it. Even in cars, primates are social animals.

When we finally got to an ecstatic breakout, the hazard turned out to be nothing but an arrow set in the middle of the road forcing two lanes into one. No one was monitoring it and there wasn’t a red-green signal as at other such spots, so traffic converged and competed in near gridlock. In the euphoria of the open road, I joined the parade, whizzing heedlessly at 140-160 KMH like driver a bumper car at an amusement park.

Everything factored in, it took us a bit more than five hours to go from Vienna to Prague.
I have written each time about how cities materialize from outskirts to envelopment. The image of stars with their solar systems separated by interstellar space occured to me this time, though it is a mixed metaphor because solar systems are held by gravitational fields and cities are not. Each city is also unique. Prague sat in the distance on its plains, hieroglyphic enough from far away that if you looked at it without scale it could have been Easter Island statues as easily as tall buildings. Its density slowly gathered, to maintain the astrophysical metaphor, like a thickening meteor field. The GPS sprung to new life and wound us through a tight snail shell of narrow streets to Krkonošská. We were staying there in a room in an Airbnb apartment recommended by a friend, so contracted directly instead of through Airbnb. The woman renting the room, Taťjána Matoušková, had advised me when I called that there was no parking on her street except for unloading. I expected a rushed emptying of the car, but there were many fifteen-minute spaces on her block (distinguished by a blue line as opposed to a white line allowing long-term parking by meter). We ended up leaving our car in the space for a couple of hours because her looks out the window and intuition told her that the police were done with the block. I finally moved the car two blocks away to a white area. The parking machine was already shut off by then for the weekend, so it stayed peacably in its spot while we were in Prague.

A room in a private apartment is a bit like being in a boarding house, as our host explained her rules of conduct: shoes (she provided slippers), keys, use of the kitchen and bathrooms, hot water, the refrigerator, etc. Meanwhile she provided watermelon slices and talked at length about what we might like to see. Without her knowing our particular interests, the flood of information was unretainable. It was more interesting for her enthusiasm and earnest use of English, as her discussion formed a map and gave me a sense of what was near and how far we were from the central square of the old town: the Stare Miasto.

After a while she walked us to a nearby park and pointed out a dinner place she favored: a beer garden in a section of the park quartered off into such eateries. A pleasantly raucous, jovial scene, it was a convenient way to eat without a long search.

Dogs are apparently permitted in Czech restaurants because a couple with two goofy ones provided continual amusement across the aisle, as the cowed animals tried to interpret their situation and what was required of them, breaking rules repeatedly and getting up on the table. They probably wondered when they were going to get fed. Dog dishes were eventually provided on at ground level, and the meal was shared.

Afterwards we walked to the end of the park and viewed the old town below from about two kilometers. Stare Miasto was the main part of Prague we hung out in in 1993, and its distance from 2018’s hilltop park seemed one of time as well as space, like staring into a scale model of memory.

The hillside was packing with people on blankets watching the sunset (or maybe waiting for a concert but probably watching the sunset). More of them were smoking than not—a feature of Europe that one has to abide. Yet it seemed retro that the dominant feature of the landscape was the absence of breathable air to go with a lucent view. I value individual freedom over behavior police—and as Rok pointed out (rolling another piece of paper around his tobacco), the ambient radiation from nuclear-weapons testing and cell towers is more dangerous—still it made joining the crowd unappealing.

Instead we sat on a bench and watched twilight activity: a guy practicing roller-blading turns and lifts while his young daughter and her friends watched, a younger girl throwing a larger-than-volleyball-sized ball in the air and catching it on the fly or first or second bounce and occasionally spinning in place while it was in the air to create a surprise, the faces of the passing—old , young, in between; merry, pensive, beaten down, lost in thought, private moods and mysteries—universal cues imbedded in unknown cultural experiences.

 

In the morning, Lindy worked while I set out on a walk or walkabout—I let circumstances determine how long and far I went. I took it a piece at a time. First, I retraced our path to the park; then I turned to the opposite axis toward the city. I walked down a series of nondescript residential streets, keeping the tall, needle-like television tower with its triangular pod supports as my compass point. I reached a small cluster of houses with an empty lot filled with junk and graffiti on the side. I thought it might be a cul de sac, but it opened out into a path along a concrete wall overlooking vast train yards and tracks: the Praha rail station. Roughly a city block of tracks and stored train cars formed an insurmountable barrier to the Old Town.

I decided to follow the the wall to its end and see if there was a pedestrian bridge. After three or so city blocks on my left, I reached a busy street with a crosswalk. An underground tunnel appeared immediately around the corner. I walked through it past its many vendors. I stood on the other side of the tracks by the National Museum, a palace-scale  building under renovation. As I walked, streams of tourist traffic became the classic flowing, posing, polyglot mob. I walked past shops, tour barkers, restaurants. It was exhilarating—sights, sounds, smells, even the heat and cigarette smoke.

I stood by a building site that provided peepholes for folks of different heights to view construction workers on the job. Around the peepholes was an photograph history of Prague through the wars of the twentieth century to its revival as a modern thriving city. The dead people lying on this block, where fashionable cafés now stood, spoke to how thopse three Greek fates turne history on a dime and weave new patterns into their cloth. Nazi and Soviet tanks rolled where I stood not so long ago.

I walked to the edge of Old Town, took a few cell photos from a crowded narrow street and sent them as postcards to friends. I figured I had gone far enough for a scouting expedition and wanted to be sure I could find my way back. I had memorized a series of landmarks, so I turned around and began looking for the first checkpoint. I stopped at the last street stand for a large bottle of water to bring back to our room (to carry it the least distance), then went past the museum, under the tunnel, “up Spook Hill,” as a children’s book of our kids described the reverse of a night outing when Spook Hill proved too scary with an owl. It was a sauna-like climb in the heat, and I arrived back at the apartment with sweat dripping like water.

 

An hour later, Lindy and I followed my trail back through the park, along the wall, under the railroad tracks, into the tourist stream and, after forty minutes, to an organic vegetarian restaurant I had noticed just before two narrow alleys entered the Old Square, as new and old buildings parsed fractal space in the Praha grid. It was closed on Saturdays. I didn’t want to repeat my experience at the Vienna Chinese place or Lindy’s at Small Restaurant. We began scanning the street The closest outdoor café, about fifty feet away, was quickly rejected—hamburger pictures and the word barbecue with smoke coming out of it. Then I realized the sign also said, “free range, no antibiotics, local farmers.” We grabbed an outdoor table.

We split a chicken soup and range-fed cheeseburger as we were entertained by the tourist parade: families, gaggles of teens, fashionably dressed women, tour groups, ugly Americans in abundance (not all of them American anymore—Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East now provide their share from the new oligarchies).

High-testosterone male energy was in abundance, as groups of men dressed in team costumes or matching garb passed, singing, running, and cheering together for no apparent reason except thank-goodness-it’s-Saturday and a desire to stir up exuberance. Their transits lent a Bacchanalia flavor. Several men carried inflated female dolls from an erotica shop.

After lunch we continued into the Stare Miasto, Prague’s old-town Square. We had stood in is center twenty-five years earlier. Sadly the great astrological clock that timed Prague’s microcosmic and macrocosmic transits from the top of a towering town hall was away on renovation, a large resemblance of its occult horary draped along the building’s side. The gigantic Gothic church with its “Spook Hill” towers overlooked a row of buildings opposite it.

The elegant pastel-colored houses that seemed so unusual fronting the Square in an architectural ring in 1993 had been replicated for us in Lucca, Sienna, and other Italian cities and Ljubljana in 2006, and on this trip in Poznań, Warsaw, and Vienna. It was an architectural style. Each of these squares had once been the nucleus of a walled city, an enclave under military protection. A city, like crab, can grow beyond its shell only when the barrier is dissolved.

Entering Prague’s Old Square in 2018 had elements of walking along New York’s 42nd Street with its tourist eddies around mercantile weirdness: people dressed as large stuffed animals (a gigantic panda the most humongous), others posing as superheroes or cartoon characters, and silver-, brass-, and gold-painted figures, some of them seemingly suspended in air (more on those later). The activity was to get money for being photographed, usually with tourists posing alongside. The circus belied the historicity and dignity of the buildings. God knows what Gothic spires and the astrological clock (when it was working) made of Kali Yuga.

We had only the one day here, and our commitment to wander through Prague. We were tired of walking tours, Hop On/Hop Offs, and boat trips, so we had to substitute our own trajectory. We had till an 18:30 dinner reservation, about five hours.

Wandering for five hours, even in a place as visual and entertaining as Old Prague, is an art. Cultivating a right eye takes patience and a continually improvised aesthetic. You don’t want to end up looking at looking (at one extreme) and you don’t want to take the mix of mundane and unusual vistas for granted and walk as if in New York or Boston.

A quickly-forming thundercloud sent people scampering to protected tunnels, but it didn’t drop much water, and the sprinkle was refreshing on an 87-degree afternoon.

As we passed out of the Square, we decided to head toward the Vitava River which bisects Praha and is spanned by many bridges which deserve the overused adjective “quaint.”. Just then, a group of scooters, some with individuals,some with couples, all honking noisily as if at a wedding, motored through. It seemed at first a minor procession of noisy vehicles, perhaps a tour, but it went on for almost fifteen minutes and hundreds of scooters so that one could only stare and wonder how many more there could be.

Once the vehicles passed, we continued in the same direction, expecting to intersect the Vitava at some point. It curled around the Old Square district and couldn’t be missed.

Hyper-male energy continued—a bunch of men in a café dressed in orange and blowing horns, a klatch of black dudes in uniform running in formation and carrying a European football, guys in groups shouting as loud as they could every few steps. The weirdest phenomenon of that sort included women too. Beer aficianados sat along raised rows in little carts, drinking from mugs at a counter as they pedaled furiously, causing the carts to make their way along the street while a bartender steered. The people in these rolling saloons wanted appreciation, so they shouted to pedestrians and tried to elicit solidarity and applause. This was a working-class partying and drinking town too.

We alternately walked and rested on benches or along fountains. We passed a surrealist Kafka statue, his figure emerging out of a body where a head should be. Nearby restaurants and a hotel honored him.

As we got more beyond Stare Miasto, the landscape began to break from the fractal density of Old Town into a generic European new/old diffusiveness that could have been Dublin, Copenhagen, or Budapest. We reached the Vitava at a bridge dominated by boat tours: smaller boats (like ones we had ridden on the Danube) and wjole floating restaurants. By then we were tired and sat on the edge by the water watching the maritime activity but particularly the swans which floated up to us in groups and singly. They were used to being fed by mammals, and we should have saved something from lunch but didn’t foresee the moment. Swans are evocative, evoking royal ponds, the “Ugly Duckling,” and a grace that transcends their aggressive nature. Our daughter, when about five, extended a hand to a swan at a San Francisco pond and got a painful bite: they are animals not fairies and not that far from the Jurassic pugnacity of Tinbergen’s herring-gull world.

After a while we got up and walked along the river. More serious and darker thunderclouds were amassing, and rain began to fall in earnest. We took shelter in an art-museum café, ordering water. Lindy got a raspberry pudding to legitimize our stay. A general note I forgot to mention in previous installments: water is not free anywhere—and tap water is not provided at restaurants. If you want it, you must order bottled water, sparkling or still, at a modest fee.

The rain was not so heavy that we couldn’t sit outside under a canopy. When a wind visted briefly, we and other customers astened inside. After the storm passed, we reversed our direction and headed back, reentering the Old Square from the other side. We had spent two hours since leaving, but it was still only 16:00; We had two and a half hours to go.

The aesthetic eye was failing, so we were considering returning to the room, then taking a taxi to dinner, though it was an hour’s hike back uphill. We finally decided to relax in the Square and let time flow. Experiences evolved in the natural theater of the world.

The first was a burst of symphonic music. The crowd shifted in a wave aroud the spot. An entire orchestra of Chinese children around age ten were playing together: violins, violas, bassoon, trumpet, tuba, clarinet, horns, oboes, tenor saxophones, cello, flutes, piccolos, and percussion. I know the instruments because they handed out programs in English. With that many children playing with skill, it was like attending an open-air concert close-up.

The pamphlet said that the performers were from the Ying Wa Primary School of Hong Kong, on their 2018 Symphony Orchestra Europe Tour, which was sponsored by the Hong Kong chapter of the Church of Christ in China. As they performed Peter and the Wolf, parents flocked among them shooting still and videos, making an entertaining scene to watch. There were really two layers to the performance. Peter and the Wolf was the extent of their concert; they quickly diluted with parents into the crowd.

Other events were proceeding routinely throughout the square. A young bare-chested man juggled balls and pins in succession. A float of a jinni shot out of an Aladdin’s Lamp for photographs, but the guy didn’t might not have had a permit—the police seemed to be issuing him a summons. The giant panda was gathering children for photo ops without harassment.

The metallic men were very mysterious—one was suspended off the top of a shovel he held, the other flew off the back of a motorcycle. There seemed no way that they could be floating, and certainly no human had strength to suspend themselves like that. I considered at first that they were animated statues, but they waved and winked, as people dropped money into boxes beside them. I decided they were real and that maybe they were supported on hidden wires inside their clothes, though neither the shovel nor the motorcycle seemed in position to hold their weight; the shovel wasn’t even on the ground. (I looked online later and read that the “floating man” illusion is created by strategically placed steel rods and plates.)

A group of guys running together and cheering erupted in celebration over a young woman’s pink sneakers. It was good-humored, and the woman was street-smart enough to enjoy the attention without getting embarrassed. She teased right back, though It took a while for them to negotiate language exchange, as people stopped to watch. Initially it was a matter of interpreting facial expressions and body movements. She was Lithuanian; they were Polish. They had apparently tried inter-intelligibility of Slavic and failed, and defaulted quickly toEnglish. She said, “My sneakers aren’t that special, and you guys are just looking for an excuse to get a lady’s attention.”

They laughed and denied it and avowed that those sneakers were indeed very special, playing off each other lines like stand-up comics. Then they lifted her in the air to examine the shoes more closely and gave her a short spin and ride in the Square. A guy wrote on one of the shoes’ bottoms while she laughed. They observed her leg and midriff tattoos and complimented her on them. The scene had formed a gathering eddy by then. They set her back on her feet, and laughed as she did. Improv over, they continued in opposite directions.

These events were a preamble to a Chinese man in his mid-twenties, loose black shirt and white pants—he threw down a large metal hoop and circled it dramatically. He walked to his computer and put on light spiritual music, then proceeded to do acrobatic movements in the hoop (the circumference of which he fit like a Robert Fludd drawing). He also made the hoop a reference point on the ground and moved around it in modern-dance moves: twists, bends, high leg kicks, sharp breaks in tempo, leaps, and tumbles. While inside the hoop he used virtually every possibility it afforded, spinning around in it on the ground, then changing his weight so that it turned toward the ground and he was aimed face-down and making circles with different parts of the circumference touching the ground in a moiré-like pattern. He could shift his weight so that the hoop changed position without him losing his position inside it or its motion. The performance was a tour de force, and we were among those who rushed up to put money in his box—five-euro notes in our case. We hung around and talked to him after other conversations dissipated.

He was a trained modern dancer, a t’ai chi adept too, twenty-five years old from Taiwan. He was travelling around the world, doing street performances and auditioning with dance companies. He had been in Europe, South America, Australia, and briefly, he said, the States at Duke University. This was his Prague stop. He cited Merce Cunningham, José Limon, Alvin Ailey, and Pina Bausch, the late German female choreographer whom I consider the top of the art—check her out on youtube if you don’t know her work. I took down his name, Shaoyang, and gave him my card. I offered to show my video of him to people in the States and try to set up something in New York or the Bay Area. He promised to email me and hasn’t, but that’s his call. I feel privileged to have seen him. This wasn’t Cirque du Soleil. It was avant-garde choreography in Prague’s Stare Miaso, and special.

Before we left the Square, Shaoyang did a second performance, this one shirtless, as a little boy, possibly Roma, stood close and met his gaze. I was ready this time and videoed it at length on my iPhone: three minutes, sixteen seconds. I don’t have the skills to send by email or I’d attach (it’s too large a file). I will try posting to Facebook.

The hours melted away amid these events; it was 17:50. We set out for our reservation at the restaurant, a vegetarian place called Lehka Hlava (Clear Head). It was recommended by the same friend who gave us the Airbnb. The address at Boršov 2 seemed straightforward enough, and the iPhone GPS showed it to be twelve minutes walk from where we stood. The street names on the screen matched the street signs along the route, and both distance and time till arrival grdaually went down. Then suddenly, as in Budapest, the program lost its bearings and we were much farther away from our destination than when we started. I noticed that the GPS had also changed the destination address to Republiky 50. It did so every time I went back and refused to take Boršov 2. It was now 18:15, and I headed to a row of cabs.

A streets sign posted throughout Prague warns you of the “Prague cab ride.” English text shows the cities of the world in descending order of price to the airport—I don’t remember the amounts. At the top is Prague, followed by places like New York, London, Hong Kong, etc. But that is only the “Prague cab ride.” At the bottom of the list is what a cab to the Prague airport should cost.

We had already taken a “Prague cab ride” in Warsaw, so I was wary as I approached the taxi cluster, discussing the conflicting addresses with a young cabbie who stepped out of the row of chatting colleagues. He looked affable and honest and promised he could get us to the restaurant in ten minutes. Wait a second!  How do you even know which is the correct address? He didn’t speak enough English for resolving the ambiguity. He said, “Boršov 2,” and all but insisted we enter his cab. I told we didn’t have crowns; he said he would accept a credit card or euros.

What followed was a “Prague cab ride,” and it was wild. He went in and out of streets, screeching over curbs, bouncing on cobblestones. He zoomed along the Vitava, past the bridges where we had walked, reentered the old city streets and continued to weave a maze in and out of narrow lanes, routinely going over curves. When traffic caused him to stop,  I asked how much longer, and he said the same thing as when we started, “Ten minutes.” There was nothing to do but stay calm and hope that this was no worse than a “Prague cab ride.”

After another ten minutes he stopped on at a corner and asked us to get out, pointing down a narrow cobblestone lane. I understood that his cab wouldn’t fit and this was the end of the ride. When Lindy objected to being left at a place other than our destination, he got angry, slamming his hand against the steering wheel and pulling back onto the street with a jerk, apparently intending to drive on the sidewalk or go around the block to prove his point. I said sharply that we would get out here and I took out my wallet and asked how much.

“Fifteen euros.”

Lindy had been scared throughout the ride and was vocal that we were being scammed. She talked in his hearing range. From his angry words, I got that this insult was the last straw; he was furious at her for doubting his honesty and said so, indicating something about running down pedestrians to satisfy her. Bad scene. I asked what we owed and he said, “Fifteen euros.”

I don’t know if it was a fair price, given the meandering route, road construction, and with the inner square inaccessible by car. Maybe he planned a “Prague cab ride” from the get-go; maybe he was aggravated and getting revenge. I gave him a twenty-euro note, got back five, and we walked down the lane. Luckily Lehka Hlava was a great restaurant and very pretty inside, a Mexican lizard painted on the curve of the ceiling. Its menu would hold its own in Berkeley or SoHo, and we had seitan and tofu dishes replicating Czech specialties without the meat.

After the meal, one of the women at the front called us a cab and explained how to avoid getting scammed in the future. She gave us a number like 14014 for a dispatched cab that had to record its pickup and delivery sites and the fee charged.

We walked to the top of the lane and got a ride back to Krkonošská—a longer distance than the earlier cab ride—for ten euros. The driver didn’t take credit cards, but I was able to put the amount together in euros from what I had left: the five and coins, adding as a tip my remaining coins for his cheerfulness and honesty.

 

We left at eight the next morning for Berlin, another three-to-four-hour drive. It proved an easy coast. Sunday helped because a long single lane forced by road construction in the northern Czech Republic slowed but did not stop traffic. The border with Germany was marked by a sign and then a tunnel. Soon after, we got a quick intimate tour of Dresden, rebuilt after World War II. Passing through the center to another road was the only time in the route that we were off a major highway.

Our apartment was part of a nonsimultaneous home exchange with a young artist couple, Corrinna and Marko, who had stayed in Maine last summer. They were on vacation in Italy, and had left the key for us at a small market on their block, Heim Getränke. The GPS brought us quickly to Kienitzer Straße, just off a major thoroughfare, Karl-Marx Straße. AA few minutes after noon, we parked at the top of the street and found the shop at number 6. After being handed an envelope with keys, we walked up the block.

This was heat that we hadn’t experienced yet on the trip. It reminded me of sweltering Augusts in New York City. In addition, Corrinna and Marko’s flat was all five flights and five landings up with no lift. It was a chore for me to get the suitcases up in phases. The apartment itself was worth it, spacious and decorated creatively and with the subtle aesthetic and political allusions of two Berlin artists.

Our neighborhood was called Neukölin—transitional, edgy, Turkish and Arabic, young, loud. After we got our stuff in, I walked Karl-Marx Straße for forty-five minutes, back and forth, finally finding an ATM. There were lots of black headscarves, burkas, Syrian restaurants, Middle Eastern teens hanging out, hookah bars and street cafés (probably cannabis rather than opium) with mostly young men socializing while vaping. The scene was youthful as well as Middle Eastern: loud with music and shouting, hiply graffiti-ed and postered walls and, sadly, public statues.

This was Berlin, I reminded myself, and Berlin had always been at the edge: the rich Weimar countercultre, cauldron of Nazi legions, site of the Allied airlift, JFK’s Cold War rallying cry, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The Berlin wall dividing the city between the Communist East and Capitalist West was built by the GDR in 1961 and came down three years before our first in 1993.

We needed to return the car to the Avis facility at Schonefeld airport. I was up for the adventure on my own, and Lindy was happy to rest. It was 90 degrees and the air mimicked steam. I got instructions on how to get back from Schonefeld from a woman second floor, Katarina, Corrinna and Marko’s best friend in the building.

Putting Schonefeld in the GPS, I inadvertently entered the town of Schonefeld Süd. It was a twenty-minute drive, which meant I had to abort suddenly. I shut off the GPS and followed German signs for the airport. The airplane pictograph was my compass.

I arrived at the parking lot where we had been given the Leon seventeen days earlier in chilly rain. The sight completed our rental-car circle—almost 3000 kilometers, and reassured me I was in the right place. But the car didn’t go back in its corral. German signs told all car rentals to enter the parking structure, which I did mainly because I couldn’t think of a quick alternative. I took an entry ticket, which raised the gate. I was happy tosee an immediate second gate for rental cars. Inserting the ticket opened it and took me out of the garage sector. I left the keys and the car. Someone else could have it. It would be glad never to cross Slovakia again.               I walked back to the airport and tried to work a ticket machine for the bus. There was no English, so I had to guess, never a great idea when a credit card has been inserted. I produced a lot of activity and the extrusion of a small cardboard slip. I suspected that it wasn’t a ticket and it wasn’t. An impatient taxi dispatcher confirmed. I hoped I hadn’t been charged and wondered how to get a ticket. He shrugged and walked away.                My bus, X-7, pulled up. I got in line and tried to pay the driver with euros. He shook his head. I tentatively held up the cardboard slip, but he didn’t want to see it. He said “Nein“ to the question: “English?“ then talked at great length in German. I was starting to turn and leave the bus when the man boarding behind me said, “He is telling you to get on and pay at the U-Bahn.“ I took a seat in the back.                The X-7 had only had one stop in its repertoire. It passed through various suburbs and ended up ten minutes later at the Rubow station, the last stop on our Karl-Marx Straße U-Bahn 6 line. My translator on the bus pointed out the entrance to the U-bahn diagonally across the street. Stairs led straight down to a platform and tracks and I still had no ticket. The only option in sight was the newstand, but it was the right one. To the question of “English?“ the vendor gave the same English answer I heard in every country (other than a shake of the head), “A bit.“ As advised, I bought a transit four-pack for nine euros.

I boarded a train and was relieved when the first stop matched my map. It was nine more stops to Karl-Marx Straße. I rode as if back in New York with a German New Wave vibe—Lou Reed singing, “In Berlin, by the wall / you were five foot ten inches tall…”

In fact, I loved being here, the people on the train: spiffy kids, scruffy men, women with head scarves, lilts and pitches of German phonemes from the non-Latin side of my Anglo lexicon.

I emerged like a prarie dog from its tunnel into the Karl-Marx Straße melee beside a Syrian restuarant.

When Lindy and I went out to find a place for dinner, I’d like to say that we stopped at a Syrian place, but carcases hanging from hooks with flies and being sliced by bearded men with long knives was a bit too real for actual dining. We picked a courtyard patio and had a sedate German meal.

The night was barely cooling after the scorcher, people hanging in the street for its moving air, men in undershirts. One guy on our block was beating a metal pole against his metal railing and screaming in German. The cries were both plaintive and bellicose, ambient through the lesser din. The Nazi overlay to German will never quite vanish for a Jewish war baby, but I go toward them, not away.

The flavor of a place is not negotiable, and I’d rather be in the mix than at a downtown hotel.

 

I have been flagging a bit on this journal. A trip journal is driven by a narrative of a trip, so various abstruse things get included (see William Least Heat Moon as the poster boy for that), stuff that one wouldn’t write about otherwise, making some of it tedious and forced—a writing exercise with rules.

The trip began for me with a rush of energy and newness, but the road works its own transformation and deepens experience outside of a trip journal’s range. Less reportage, more internalization. The outsider loses his edge.

Social events that don’t fit the genre add to the mismatch, as situations waver between the reportable and the private. I have debated whether to report on conversations when participants did not realize I was going to put them online. It’s potentially a violation of ethics. Occasionally I have been asked remove names or exchanges from trip journals—and I have.

In addition, the sheer heat of Berlin drains energy from writing. Trooping up five double flights each is also exhausting.

It is wonderful to be here, and I will write a separate entry after we leave, pulling together the final five days. The account eveloping in my head already feels more like a poem than a story: riding with the crowds on the U-bahn, the system’s frequently-spaced yellow cars, pushing a button or moving a lever to open the doors at our stop (the husky German men who rushed to extricate a young woman in a chador with a large baby carriage and two toddlers from the doors’ surprisingly unforgiving force), crossing the platform many times from the U7 to the U6 (and vice versa) at Mehringdamme, querying pedestrians on the street and in the stations for directions and having them walk and talk English with us, viewing a contemporary-art museum for an afternoon (lasers, installations, photographs, and an hundred-fifty-year history of Berlin art), attending a sound installation at a Wedding District gallery (an alpha-wave reverberation to accompany the setting of the Sun), walking through the dense Turkish Market along the Lendwehrkanal with an American Facebook friend (she lives in Berlin) and its intense aromas of red, yellow, and orange spices, fish on ice, mint and other leaves, vendors singing in Turkish, the bright colors of patterns on fabrics and carpets.

A Turkish vendor in the U-bahn asked where we were from

Me: “The States”

Him: “What about Trump?”

[Lindy: thumb down] Him: “I think he’s funny. He makes me laugh.”

Yet another vote for entertainment value. Guy’s not in the electorate, but his fellow goofballs are.

I did a bad job matching the U-bahn map to the location of the art museum and got us two kilometers away when there were closer stops. We finally sprung for a cab. The guy was en route to a radio call, but Old Jacobstrasse 142 was on his way, so he summoned us in. I sat in the front, and he gave a lesson about new and old version of the street having to do with the transition from divided to whole Berlin. The fee was five euros and change. I gave him a note and held out my hand of coins for his interpretation. He fussed with them for about ten seconds before saying, “No so.”

I loved the phrase and said it back with a laugh, as I pulled out a different bill. “Not so.”

“Not so,” he repeated and joined me laughing. Then we said it together, as I waved goodbye.

 

Our apartment windows are wide open all the time for any cross-breeze, and the street provides music like something composed by John Cage: continual German and Turkish voices, lots of children (cries at different pitches, sonorous and shrill, word-formation babble like clucking chicks from the kindergarten down the block, yelps of delight and confrontation from the general scene), piercing tone-shifting sirens (police and ambulances but not the SS), crows calling, dogs barking (some gruff, some whiney; now a dog fight, owners adjudicating in a clinch of German), a lone horn playing familiar pop tunes for well over an hour, the chimes of the nearby church, glass smashing near the liquor stare, fossil-fuel acceleration and percussion of tires waxing and waning, metallic clangs of nearby construction (a intermittent hollow pounding that suggests the beginning of a bongo rhythm), car horns, the plangent rhythmic cooing of doves, a more distant and mournful trumpet probing its own timber, screeches of car radios (rap that sounds initially like machinery from the constuction site), a thrashing sound like a mechanical sneeze, deafening motorcycle crescendo, a drill, a car door, the rumble of a truck, a young boy’s sweet voice calling, “Omar, eiya Omar,” diffuse metallic hammering, the thunder of a street sweeper, an occasional clink or light stick sound, too many sounds at once short-circuiting in drones, Omar voice now calling, “Hallo, hallo.”

This is the urban concerto. Except for the German and Neukölin subtext, it could be New York.

We used July 30th to rest—found the nearby supermarket for some food (it had an organic section). We cooked in the apartment malgré an electric stove that turned on only sometimes and oils and vinegars in lovely but unlabelled bottles (go by color and smell). No matter—the lesson is how little you need when it comes down to it. Much less than this. Most of the planet lives on less.

To have Berlin a great multicultural city again covers all deficiencies.

 

July 31-August 5

The first day in downtown Berlin we conceded to tourist status. Big city, blank map—Hop on/Hop Off bus easiest, least expensive intro, especially in the brutal heat. We didn’t want to walk around or go on a walking tour. We gan with the U-bahn, our local stop Karl-Marx Straße on the 7 line. I guessed that we could change at Mehringdamme to the 6 and go into the heart of the city. That worked as it was drawn up. It was only four or five stops to Mehringdamme, a walk across the platform, and then another five or six stops to Friedrichstraße, my choice for not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Buses probably circled there.

The Berlin trains are remarkably prompt timed—five or so minutes. Crowded but full of interesting-looking people. These ones led us to believe they were all air-conditioned, but that turned out to be fifty-fifty. You notice when the temperature is that high.

You never know where you are going to emerge your first time at any new stop of a subway. Add a foreign city to the mystery. Friedrichstraße looked about eighty percent like New York’s Madison Avenue and the rest like an outdoor shopping mall—very upscale, mostly national stores. Interpreting the gradient of activity and general cues, I picked a direction to walk, left out of the station. A woman stood on the next block, singing opera and hitting very high notes. From the station I thought it was a recording. I don’t think I ever saw an opera busker before. We continued a few blocks, but it was not walking weather—one dripped sweat freely. I saw lots of city buses but no tourist ones.

At that uncertain moment a young woman in her thirties catching up beside us began conversing in German, realized quickly and switched to fluent English. “Horrible, isn’t it? This is the climate change we’ve been dreading. Berlin has been hot since April, and this week is the total pits. Where are you from?”

Sghe had spent a recent year living in Ukiah, California, and told us we were walking in a good direction for tourist bus, “though who would know? I never take one.” We continued walking together chatting. After about five minutes, we reached a large avenue; she looked left and then right and said, “Go right. There Brandenburg gate is that way. You’d think I’d know by now. I only grew up here.”

In one block to the right we found a stop for the Hop On/Hop Off, bought a two-day pass (26 euros), and waited for the next doubledecker.

Sitting up high in the sun was pleasant for a while in the motion-created breeze. The bus’s circuit comprised nineteen stops in about two hours as we wove back and forth between the former East and West Berlin, a canned tape telling us about museums, large statues from various centuries, fountains, government buildings, company headquarters,  former SS headquarters, the train station, prime minister’s office, the original fishing village (in the Eastern sector), honorary sections of the wall (deteriorating “under tourist woodpeckers,” the voice said), the tall rotating radio tower and viewing port (pride of the GDR), Checkpoint Charlie (jazzed up in dramatic reenactment of the days of the wall so that it was like looking down at. Movie set), sections of the wall itself, the Canal full of kayaks and swans, across the Spree River grand bridges. Berlin was booming, towering cranes everywhere, no just on our own block. I will lay off the guidebook stuff now.

It was hard to know where to hop off for our late lunch. We waited too long in hopes of hitting the Turkish Market and missed rows of compatible restaurants in Charlottenburg. Our goal of Alexanderplatz was a misjudgment: a non-consumer commercial district. That meant staying on the bus four additional stops and another half hour long until we got to a thoroughfare of indifferent cafés. It was now 4:30, and most of them were closed. We tried one that had an open bar. They weren’t serving, but a kind maitre d’ assessing two heat-wilted Americans got the requested sandwiches from the menu out of the kitchen: avocado and salted Norwegian salmon.

We mainly wanted to get back to the apartment and await evening cool. The Branderburg Gate U-bahn was the closest, but thjat meant going one stop to meet the 6 line. We arrived at Friedrichstraße to find a different landscape from the one at which we exited and no U-bahn 6—lots of other U-bahns and S-bahns but an exhaustive search of station lists and overhead signs did not produce mention of a 6. Yet there had to be one. We had taken it to Friedrichstraße.

I suggested leaving the station and looking on the street, especially as our ticket was good for reentering. An older transit worker smoking on the stairs—I hardly cared as we puzzled over my map together—did not speak English but was determined to help. Sign language worked. We had to walk a block away to a different station to get the 6.

6 to Mehringdamme, change to the 7. Emerge into meat smoke and hookah bars of Karl-Marx Straße.

 

With this kind of heat, one excursion a day was the pace. The rest of the time we could hang around our place, walk the neighborhood—no need to be tourists. We had earned a rest in Poland, Slovakia, etc.

Our goal the second day was the Berlinsche Galerie Museum für Moderne Kunst at 142 Jakobstraße. I should have called the museum for the correct stop but relied on my mental overlay of a subway map on a street map. We switched from U-bahn 6 to U-bahn  7 and then took U-bahn 1 to get to what I thought was the general area. But we were actually within walking distance on the 7 line. The 1 took us two kilometers away. After a long diagnosis by a generous bike messenger on his cell led to the conclusion that it was too far to walk and we would have to retrace out steps, we grabbed a passing cab. See the “not so” dialogue earlier. He deposited us in front of a modern building with an interesting sidewalk of alphabetical letters in block-like mosaics.

The ground floor was devoted to contemporary work and current exhibits. The upper floor was a restrospective of Berlin art from 1870. We spent most of our time in the contemporary works.

The exhibit in the opening vestibule could pass as art rather than science insofar as it was a metaphorical demonstration of quantum entanglement by two lasers triggering each other as they share a single intense undulating red and yellow beam. A warning sign confirmed that it would not be good to get in its way.

The tour de force of the ground floor was an exhibit of work by a photographer I had not heard of. Born in Sibu, Romania, in 1972, Loredana Nemes fled the Communist regime at fourteen, getting asylum in Aachen, Germany, learning the language and studying mathematics before switching careers to photography. During that period she spent time in Iran. All three countries influenced her eye. She moved to Berlin in 2001 with a goal of establishing herself there. The show, Gier Angst Liebe (“Grief Fear Love”) was the culmination of a long back-and-forth courtship between her and the Museum and a big deal for both.

Nemes’ work is technically and thematically varied. Before I read her bio, I spent a long time looking at slow-motion images of birds (mainly their open wings) descending in clusters into water. Nemes created the impression of layered strokes with her lens so that I wondered if I was looking at paintings. The grain and texture in the white of the birds and the black of the medium into which they were splashing hung between oil and ink. One photographic was especially painting-like: a chaotic white spill on black. Another was all black medium, yet with strokes and dramatically setting off its neighbors with their white eddies.

The photos were remarkably similar to gull videos I took with my cell phone a few years ago of gulls in Camden, Maine. I threw bread crumbs in the water of the harbor and filmed the gulls in slow motion, allowing one to see the spiral shapes imbedded and released in the swinging arcs of their wings. Mine was random and in motion; Nemes, by contrast, picked precise moments when particular shapes formed and explored them in depth.

I walked this series of about fifteen photographs several times in each direction and saw the images differently, both singly and in their flipbook-like sequence, each time pass.

The opposite wall of that large room and a whole smaller adjoining room exhibited varied black-and-white portraits of people, usually pairs of people and with two slightly different images set next to each other with a small gap, so the twinning was doubled and each work had a slightly stereoptic effect, also resembling the way that images move slightly in current iPhone renditions.

Nemes’ subjects ran the gamut of modernity, pop and formal both; her subjects included  young, old; cultured, working-class, adults; teens in their teen milieus (sports regalia, piercings) and teens in compliance with their parents pictured alongside. None of her subjects was beautiful in a “model” sense, but Nemes’ probing and loving treatment brought out the distinctive character in each person that made him or her more beautiful (and individual) than synthetically molded and made-up models. Some were marginally ugly or grotesque but never at Diane Arbus level.

I walked this exhibit several times and felt as though I got to know myself and what I looked like better by getting to know the lovely gathering of Nemes subjects. The exhibit was so different from the birds that my first time through, before I read the caption, I assumed it was a different photographer.

By the time I looked at Nemes’ third exhibit (also in its own room), I was “onto” her and made an educated guess before I hit the English captions. It was a different genre from the other two. Hidden in a burka, Nemes captured the culture of Turkish men in the clubs and cafés of Neukölin. It was the female gaze on men looking at a woman they couldn’t see, and it gave a different twist to the male gaze that I wrote of earlier in this journal (Malmo, Sweden). Many of the photographs were fuzzy, indicating either the method of imaging or the sense of a spy-cam.

Even after theses, I looked at photographs in a fourth room and sure that they were not Nemes until I read the text on the wall. These were images of partial anatomies—lips, chests, arms—in search of bodies. Nemes wrote a handout for the series entitled “Ocna. Closer Scrutiny.” A couple of pages long, it opened (in translation), “There are bodies which can think themselves straight, and days so crooked that one might step out of them with a hunch. And then a cherry pit comes along and saves the day into temporary eternity by spitting itself before the feet of a dream. The latter jerks, rubs an eye and weeps.”

Later in the piece she wrote, “Today I threw myself into the river again and everything felt free. My wooden arms floated on the waving water and leaves grew out of the smooth fingers. Also, the stammer drifted out of the mouth, swam a few laps and went on shore.”

The relationship between words and images is even more seminal for that indirectness.  Loredana Nemes is a great, little-known artist. Though the internet is more bereft of her work than it should be, you can learn something from a search. She reminds me a bit of my friend, the late photographer Lynne Cohen. Nemes varied her topics more than Lynne, who stuck mostly to domestic and industrial landscapes, but the tone is similar

I spent time at several other exhibits on the first floor but won’t write of all of them. I walked in one room prepared by funk installation artists Edward and Nancy Reddin Keinholz: an LA art opening. All of the guests were giant installations: manikans, dolls. Their faces were masks, most of them resembling gas masks qua elephant men. Their chests bore square machines that looked like seismographs that were registering their thoughts, speech, and opinions. On the walls, the paintings they were viewing were grotesque montages or fragments, suggesting disasters, diseases, accidents, atavisms. They weren’t paintings so much as pastiches and parodies of art. At the entryway was a dried-out punch-bowl beside dried-out cocktail glasses, all of which once held libation and lemons. A tape played a light background noise of conversations recorded at actual LA openings.

The power of the exhibit was created by oneself walking among dolls of human height and look as if they were real people. It gave that slightly surreal sense. You experienced yourself in such a perfectly replicated scaled fake environment that your own looking, breathing reality began to feel strange and anomalous. It was a fairy tale gone wrong, a moment frozen in time and eroding (Stephen King captured this horror in The Langoliers). I liked taking a step back while in the room, regaining my identity and autonomy, and looking at real people standing among installation people, staring at the whole as if I were at a real art opening and it didn’t entirely matter who was alive and who was a doll. It was the Keinholzs’ critique of the critics, that the event was artificial and innately cynical at root.

The other place on the ground floor where I put in substantial time was the movie room, mainly after Lindy and I took a break for juice and German desserts on the patio. A yellow jacket, too fond of her raspberry yogurt cake, caught itselfs between her fingers. She got stung and went to the bathroom to hold it under cold water. She came back with a swollen finger.

It didn’t occur to me until I had made numerous trips to the movie room that I was looking at different South American documentaries, not one film at different parts. In my mind I had them all linked in a single meta-movie. They had English subtitles. The topics included people who lived off collecting from garbage heaps (their culture and politics), mercury miners and their culture and leaders, and criminals interviewed in jail about their crimes. The latter was the most powerful and moving. The set-up was striking. THe questioner was invisible. The imprisoned man wore not just a disguise but an elaborate mask as if at a Mardi Gras parade, adding to the existential drama and changing the deeper meaning of the questions. One street robber and murder wore what looked like a faceless ostrich head, adding an odd absurdity to the serious crimes he committed. The same questions, asked at different points in the sequence, elicited slightly different answers each time: “Why did you commit your crime?” “Are you sorry?” “What did it feel like?” Reponses to the latter included: “Nothing.” “A game.” “It was my job. I liked having no boss.”

“Did you care for your victim?”

“No, it was the way we got money. I beat or choked them until they passed out. Then I took what I wanted.”

“Are you sorry?”

“No.”

“What have you learned in prison?”

The mining film began with an unmoving camera Andy Warhol-like focused on machines moving dirt at a mine. This single shot lasted for maybe five minutes as only the large steam-shovels and dump trucks moved. Then sound was added, primarly the noise of the engines. After a cut, the camera had moved up close.

If this was part of the mercury-mining film—I didn’t watch that part long enough to find out—it progressed to long lines of miners winding up underground tunnels in the dark, each with a head lamp, as one of them talked about the degrees of mercury poisoning.

The hundred-fifty-year restrospective upstairs included political and pop cartoons, abstract expressionist canvasses, tiny amulet-faces made by a painter in a hospital, realistic portraits of prominent people, a commissioned series of five paintings for a private pre-Warm Jewish home showing different dances of the soul in a body, photographs of Berlin after World War II (bombed buildings and streets stripped as naked as animals after a butcher), many genres of graphic art, small statues, etc. It required more than part of a day. One distinctive thing: the museum had an interesting presentation of small relief sculptures of some paintings, replicating their elements as if on a colored bar graph.

After we had viewed all we were capable of, we disocvered that we were not far from a U-bahn station—we could walk to in twenty minutes. That was when I realized my mapping mistake. The path to the station took us along a meanandering residential street, on lanes between buildings, and finally to busy Kochstraße. We continue past the station and looked at the Checkpoint Charlie theater where American soldiers, or more likely actors playing American soldiers, stood at the old hut and got photographed by people as they pretended to look at documents.

An exhibit where the wall used to be had tributes and accounts of mostly failed attempts to escape East Berlin to the West. Each of these was heart-breaking in its near miss and startling in the brutality of the GDR troops who shot like target practice, then let bodies lie in no man’s land.

We used the second day on our bus ticket to view the transition from East to West again. When we were in Germany in 1993, East Berlin looked like a slum, a no man’s land against the West. Now it was hard to tell difference. In some ways, the East was more modern, but it was also more conservative and anti-refugee. We got off at Friedrichstraße and took the 6-7 combination back to Karl-Marx Straße.

 

We purposely lay low for much of the next 90-degree day, planning to go to a sound installation qua experimental-music concert at night. We took the U6 much farther towards Tegel than we had, exiting at Leopoldplatz in a nondescript urban neighborhood, spacious streets, mainly big stores, graffiti on everything from stoops and benches to the usual walls. It took a while to find Gallery Wedding because the opposite sides of the street had different numbering systems and we were walking on the side starting at 1 and going up very slowly when the gallery was at 146-7, right across the street. Even-odd on the same side was a tipoff that something was off, so I suggested crossing the street. A laser-like light was shining inside the gallery, but no one was being allowed in until 19:57, exactly one hour before sunset. The performance was to last an hour, ending with the sun setting.

Mostly young people crowded in and sat mostly on the radiators and floor. A fortyish “dj”, apparently Ricardo Carioba, the announced headliner, sat a synthesizer and began playing. The room was dark; the windows were tinted; one was open to the sun. The music was you might imagine the solar wind sounds like. Carioba worked the dials furious, but the outcome was relatively unvaried, rising and sinking and whistling. It also sounded like crickets but not crickets by themselves: crickets in a choir with synthetic electricity. I liked it. It resonated with my skeleton and brain and helped me sink into a contemplative state.

About seventy people sat along the walls and on the floor of Gallery Wedding at the start, but when the sun finally set, maybe thirty lasted.

It seemed a little strange when Carioba got a huge applause, walked to the center of the room, bowed, and give both thumbs up. It wasn’t that he hadn’t done anything; he had worked his butt off at the synthesizer. It was more than I had no yardstick to tell the difference between his composition and actual crickets or the solar wind or, for that matter, dijeridoos. I don’t even know if the work was composed or improvised. It didn’t matter because it’s not often that the sun sets in an art installation.

 

Friday we planned to meet my Facebook friend Maya at the Turkish Market. The U-bahn station was really close to our house: two U7 stops to Hermanplatz, a change to U8 and one stop to Schonleinstrasse. Exit the station at Maybachufer by the canal and market. Maya would be meeting us at the top of the stairs.

I didn’t know her age (45, it turned out), job (teaching English online), or nationality (American, born in Montana, raised in New Guinea by hippies turned born-again missionary parents, college at USC), or how she became a Facebook post (she thought it was some post of mine that had gotten shared and she liked). Once she read on Facebook that we were coming to Berlin, she offered to hang out, but online clients kept getting in the way. She finally set aside Friday from 11 a.m. till the evening.

 

Maya had emailed that the market was a fine place to meet but forewarned that it was not as special as “Turkish Market” sounded. She was right. It was a particularly large farmers’ market resembling a Mexican mercado in its range of goods and colorfulness and scents. I wished that I could have taken more time, sampled spices, picked out some of the fruits and vegetables I had never heard of, had a slice of watermelon, bought some zigzig-colored Turkish socks. But we were fly-overs, talking and gaining histories.

Maya’s lifestyle was driven by a contemporary politics. She had wanted out of the States early, feeling from watching the LA riots that things were only going to get worse. Berlin attracted her the most, but she had lived in Budapest for three years and commuted from there to teaching jobs in Austria. A wanderer and seeker, she was settled now, having just married a German musician.

She mentioned that she was not aware initially that we were the parents of Miranda July, but she knew it by the time we walked. Born one year before Miranda, she identified with her as a peer and a related sensibility. She had started out wanting to be a literary writer or artist herslef but had been captivated by journeying and a slightly apocalyptic sense of the world that had her more ducking under waves than trying to dazzle or ride them. For instance, she had spent some time as part of an official couch-surfing group, going with others from one funky habitat after another, making ends meet by teaching English.

We were looking for a place to eat, and nothing was working out. The market was lacking its usual coterie of lunch vendors, and many of the restaurants along the canal were closed. It may have been tourist season in Europe, but restauranteurs were tourists elsewhere. We got so thirsty that we stopped and boughjt fresh-squeezed drinks from a Turkish vendor. I was tempted by orange and apple but chose mulberry juice, a cold dark red pour from a pitcher into a plastic bottle handed to me. I began sipping the rich infusion.  Then a small incident happened that speaks for itself.

We were walking across the bridge over the canal, and I didn’t see a speeding municipal truck coming around the corner to my left. I continued into the street—there was no light, just a crosswalk) Maya and Lindy grabbed me and pulled me back just in time. Lindy said, “You almost just got killed. We saved your life.”

I am a careful street-crosser and have never had a close call like that. The heat made everything a bit light-headed, plus there were pedestrians entering the crosswalk from the other side and I had taken my cue from them and not have looked to the left as I would have in less of a heat daze.. Crosswalks here are effectively optional from the drivers’ side. The truck had no stopping margin at its speed. Maya said simply, “That was crazy!”

In an alternate reality, my body was lying on the street and I was hovering over it, wondering what happened. This reality continued

We finally settled on one of the few open restaurants, Vietnamese, and ordered papaya and rice-noodle lime-juice salads. Afterwards we walked the market a second time,  as Maya proposed we find a way out of the heat for the afternoon. Her three choices were the Pergamon Museum, an island in the park, or a boat ride. We debated the attractiveness of each and finally went with Lindy’s desire to get into a Spree River breeze.

The journey to the water was more elaborate than long, though given the heat, it was long. We walked to a different U-bahn, took it some distance, then changed trains, sat out a fifteen-minute delay on an el-section, crossed a high bridge with a great, slightly scary view, given the ricketiness of our situation, and walked through construction to get to a buried U-bahn station. I didn’t have to know where we were any longer. I just followed Maya.

Soon after we exited, we saw a discount boat-ticket stand, bought three rides, and hurried to the dock. For the next hour we sat on the river as a soft-spoken man, narrating alternately in English and German, identified buildings and gave history. The breeze wasn’t much, and the sun beat down. I had my Brooklyn Nets cap, so I sat in the emptier part of the boat in the sun, while Maya and Lindy took most of the ride in the shade.

I looked again for the old division between East and West. The guide pointed out remaining GDR institutional apartments and a new building wave covering East Berlin. Where the wall had been, memorial markings on the waterside remembered victims of attempted escapes. As the river ran through both East and West, the wall crossed it, and there was extra underwater gating, the guide said, to prevent scuba escapes.

Maya got off the U-bahn at the Turkish Market to reclaim her bike. We hugged her as the train came to a stop, a friend of a day.

 

Heat transformative. Laying low on August 4, the last day traveling in the Old World. We ventured out for lunch, thinking to go to an organic café we had passed on one of our evening walks. It turned out to be f a grocery store, so we chanced one of the hanging-meat establishments, this one Turkish. We ordered safely: lentil soup and Turkish pizza. The pizza looked like more of a meal in the menu picture; it was just a big slice of flavored dough that came with a cup of liquid yogurt puffing over the side like whipped cream.

We set out early evening on an outing to a dance concert at an avant-garde space in a remote part of Berlin: U-bahn 7 to Mehringdamme, U-bahn 6 to Oranienburger Tor. The tram from there to Kastanienallee was the hard part. Many trams crisscrossed where we got off the train, and it took two wrong platforms to find the right one.

Maya had said we could walk to Kastanienallee 79 from the U-bahn stop, but as the tram wound around corners and performed a labyrinth for twenty minutes, that looked improbable. These were much more upscale neighborhoods than we were staying. They looked like the nicest sections of renovated Brooklyn.

Dock 11 was reached through a small alley and a courtyard. We were probably the only people there over thirty. Everyone seemed bounding around like hares. Lindy’s necklace broke while we waited on line to enter, and numerous young people scrambled around, accomplishing the impossible: recovering just about every tiny bead from the pavement. Before entering the space, everyone got to cool off by removing shoes (and socks) standing in a large pail of ice water. It was deliciously freezing and the level of bluish liquid (herbs?) reached my knees. As we left the dip, we were offered a clinch of rosemary sprigs to smell. A young woman at the entrance to the space dried each person’s feet with a towel. What I had thought first was a foot-cleansing to protect the floor was a cooling ritual. Most people, not I, put their shoes back on afterwards.

The performance was young and amateur but interesting: about ten dancers. There wasn’t a distinction between what was dance and what were everyday movements, so people loitered on the stage, stumbled, tripped, dodged falling parts of the set, made short speeches in English, appeared to fix things or get in the way. Yet it was apparently all choreographed, and some of it brilliant, a high-energy series of interactions recalling Contact Improvisation, although it was hard to tell what was actually choreographed and if any was adlibbed, or even if it was all adlibbed.

Dancers carried each other or tumbled over each other. At one point, two young women jitterbugged frenetically, mirroring each other’s moves in a compelling fashion. One dancer’s head was covered a skiing face mask. After a while, still wearing the mask, he went and played a synthesizer that sounded a bit like the sunset concert of the earlier night—the avant-garde Berlin aria.

At intermission, all the dancers came into the audience, waved fans, and sprayed everyone directly with mint water. Berlin’s heat wave directly influenced the event and got included in the dance.

We had a worrisome 40-minute wait for the Number 12 tram as the sky darkened—we needed time to get ready for the morning. Then a passenger on the tram suggested using the earlier Natural History Museum stop for U-bahn 6. We held our breath until we reached the tracks and saw 6, Rudow.

 

August 5, it took 24 hours to get home. The journey started at 6:30 a.m. with closing the windows, locking the door, and putting the flat keys in the mailbox. The day was bookended by two cab rides totalling an hour. Eleven hours were spent waiting in four airports (Berlin, Copenhagen, Reykjavik, and Boston, the latter for the bus to Portland). Ten hours were spent on three planes: Norwegian Air from Berlin to Copenhagen (1 hour), Icelandair from Copenhagen to Reykjavik (3.5 hours), a huge Icelandair jet from Reykjavik to Boston (5.5 hours). The best part of the day was a dinner at Keflavik Airport, Icelandic smoked salmon and carrot-ginger juice. Looking at Iceland’s psychic geological landscape from the sky, I wished we had actually spent some time in Iceland as we did in 2006.

Two hours were spent on the bus from Boston to Portland. Our last cab driver was a pro-Trump Sudanese man, a bit heavy for a day without sleep. He wanted to make America great again, like when he came fifteen years ago.

A couple of hours out of Reykjavik, Flight 1633 to Boston passed over the bottom tip of Greenland. The clouds had briefly cleared, and I saw that stunning vista of mountains, glaciers, and melting ice. I don’t mean this in a climate-change sense—I mean it in the sense of the Oracle at Delphi which speaks not in facts (or fake facts) but riddles. The glaciers speak to Trump’s America and a world on fire, “Bide well, fellow beings. We have a journey together yet untaken. It will be most elucidating for both of us.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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