Germany, The Netherlands

35 Tuesday

If you lay bloodied on a Saxon battlefield it would be for a Valkyrie that you scanned the sky. From astride powerful horses (or swans in some cases) the Valkyrie decided which dying warriors they would guide to join Odin in the hall of heroes, only these honorable men would fight alongside the gods in a battle at the end of time.  Between 772-804 near modern-day Bremen Germany, the Saxons fought the Franks and lost.  Shortly after Charlemagne, the leader of the Franks at the time, enacted a set of laws he titled Lex Saxonum and rendered the worship of Odin a crime punishable by death.  The Saxons were forced into Christianity and Odin was legally replaced as the central deity in daily religious practice.

Prior to leaving for Italy the year before I spent a month living in Big Sur California at an institute central to the Human Potential Movement.  Working during the days on the small farm which supplied  close to 70% of the food at the institute I was able to enjoy epic sulfur hot spring tubs hanging out over the ocean, hike in the Redwood forests on the property, participate in workshops and attend a wide variety of lectures.  One of the people I met during my time at Esalen was a middle-aged man from Germany that quickly became a good friend.  He was living in North Western Germany and I arranged to meet him in Bremen.  I spent a few days enjoying the German countryside by bicycle and catching up with my old friend.  It was like visiting home and I was able cook and bathe and sleep with a sublime sense of peace and safety that I hadn’t enjoyed since leaving Florence.

He agreed to drive me to Amsterdam where I would be catching a flight back to the United States.  Driving on the Autobahn we headed south for the city, enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the park and said goodbye. Perhaps the relatively small size of the city or the unusual personal freedoms, Amsterdam has such a relaxed atmosphere.  I spent the rest of the afternoon napping in the grass under a shady tree and walking along the canals enjoying the light filtering through the canopy and crashing into the gentle waves cascading behind boat houses as they motored along, floating Gardens of Eden from which to observe the world.  Until visiting Amsterdam I had never seen a houseboat.  The sudden awareness of this fact was like sliding out to a satellite-scaled perspective of  that moment.  Before setting out to explore Europe, I was prepared to have a grand adventure and definitely hoped for things I had never seen before.  I spent nearly a year planning my routes and budgeting my money and strategizing hypothetical scenarios.  I yearned for the mythic transformation that I expected once at the end.

Seeing the houseboat that afternoon was a revelation; my wings had unfolded long ago.  Barely perceptible, they had been stretching, drying and little by little I had been climbing out of the crystalline walls of my chrysalis. Returning to the boat hostel, I checked into a tiny room in their joyfully claustrophobic hull – a flight would be taking me home again in the morning.  Sitting on the roof of the boat, the sun infused the busy industrial traffic with a glory only available when acutely aware of the finiteness of the moment.  Barges dressed in sentimental gold floated by, I listened to music on my headphones and tried to chisel each moment into the pantheon of my memories. I stayed on the roof well past sunset and reluctantly returned to my cabin for my journey’s last night of sleep.  I would be returning to a sweet little house near the mountains to live with my dear friend, Elena.  I would enroll full-time in my hometown university and I would look for a job.  But for that moment I would soak up every little detail, every wave and every sound until I drifted off to the realms of the subconscious to assemble it all.

The next morning I arrived at the airport and luxuriously checked my pack, handing it over to the airline staff with gratitude.  I then bought a magazine with the last of my change and went to find a seat at my gate.  A few pages in there was an announcement over the loudspeaker, the plane would be boarding soon and passengers ambled around politely to make lines.  Apparently we were waiting to pass through a perfect line of  podiums leftover from a high school speech contest.  Approaching the podium, I realized everyone was being pretty seriously interviewed, nearly harassed.  It was the first time I had experienced this kind of interrogation while traveling and it was unsettling, as if there were some kind of invisible danger that only the airline knew about.  Scenes from pseudo-philosophical-post-apocalyptic action films kept surfacing in my mind.  After a 10 minute  face-off with the overworked, mostly-numb airline staff  I was finally allowed to pass on to the second round.

Seemingly in the clear I deposited my carry-on bag in a large plastic tray and sent it through the security screening without a second thought.  Completely oblivious to the fact that it was causing an uproar in the security ranks I stood at the other end waiting for it to resurface when I was approached by a seriously alert security guard.  He informed me that I was going to be escorted away from the gate. Unsure if the bad movie had stopped playing in my mind, I blinked a few times before I was led to a ‘holding area’.  Waves of panic starting to amplify, I anxiously began blasting questions at the straight-faced security personnel. A further 10 minutes of one sided verbal table tennis and serious looking woman returned  my bag and explained that they had discovered a canister of pepper spray. Like a pressure cooker, I released a loud  laugh and explained that I had forgotten that my father had given it to me before leaving the United States.  She did not share in the laugh, continuing, I added that I had traveled all over the place with it and never had any problems.  She turned to me flatly and explained that pepper spray is illegal in The Netherlands.  Somewhat naively I assured her that it was fine to confiscate it and that I was sorry about bringing into the country and that if I had known that it was an illegal substance in The Netherlands I never would have done so…Responding with a metallic frown she told me to please wait there, a police officer had been called and was on their way any minuteIt’s possession alone, she explained, warranted a huge fine and possible jail time.  A faint echo down the corridor, the loudspeaker announced last call for boarding and panic overtook me.  I was going to miss my flight, possibly go to jail and be in debt to the Dutch government for the foreseeable future…couldn’t they just throw the damn thing away and we could all move ahead with the day? Seriously, I didn’t know anything was illegal in Amsterdam.

I spent the next thirty minutes anxiously tapping and struggling to breathe at a regular interval, imagining my upcoming Dutch jail time when the clouds broke and I received what is often called a miracle.   The steely fortitude of the security officer apparently lost the battle it was waging inside her with the glowing benevolence and stood up, motioned for me to follow her, and opened the long-closed gate.  She explained with a heavy accent that pepper spray is a weapon and that I should not carry weapons around any city  and released me into the gaping mouth of the waiting airplane.  I swear I heard the sounds of heavy hooves thundering off  as she turned to leave- I had been chosen to continue on.



Sunday 33.2Upon his return from the Holy Land in 1278, the abbot of a small church 100km outside of Prague walked around his cemetery carefully spreading a precious handful of dirt.  The abbot had been to Golgotha, before leaving he filled his pocket with earth and returned to forever join his dead with the very place Jesus was crucified.   Once this news spread the abbot was overwhelmed with requests to bury loved ones in the newly blessed land, believing that the communion with their God in the afterlife would somehow be facilitated by this act.  Combined with the plague, over time the cemetery and adjoining ossuary were overflowing by the nineteenth century.

In 1870 a wood carver named  Frantisek Rint was hired to sort through the bones.  Instead of storing them, hidden from view which was the more traditional approach, he was overcome with creative inspiration and used them instead to decorate the interior of the humble cathedral.  Working with the bones of more than 40,000 full skeletons he constructed an elaborate main chandelier, coat of arms, four pyramids, and many other decorative elements combining the bones with the previous decor. One of my last afternoons in Prague I left the city and traveled to Kutna Hora to see the Sedlec Ossuary for myself.  Confronting the remains of 40,000 people displayed in such a manner in such a small space produced an unusually clear view of how intensely humans enjoy construction.  How at times our desire to build – to produce form and volume, can outweigh our fear of death.  A ceaseless yearning for permanence, for the way to leave something behind unchanged by personal expiration date.  In the case of Sedlec, the wood carver even left a signature in bones on the wall of the church, for all to see and understand that this was his work, that he had created something beyond himself. The afternoon was lovely and a gentle air shifted around the trees in the cemetery outside as I explored ancient headstones and took photos of stone angels bathed in shadow.  I left Prague shortly after, taking the train north to Berlin.  Arriving late that evening, it was all I could do to drop off my bag and locate the nearest restaurant –  which much to my surprise resulted in an Indian Curry shop.

Walking around the neighborhood the next morning revealed that I had ended up in a culinary United Nations.  Open air patios sprouted brightly colored deck umbrellas and block after block presented me with a different corner of the world from which I could nibble.  After a very stylish Thai lunch I continued my investigation of the area.  Arriving in Berlin was like stepping into a detective novel, I was curious to find the truth about a country and especially about a city, used so many times by Hollywood as a symbol for the evils of a war that took place before my time. The dead of WWII were long gone, erased by biology and tradition, the shattered foundations of their architecture remained and construction was everywhere.  Modern day laborers worked feverishly to  resuscitate the damaged body of their city. Traversing the city it was clear to see that the current plan of the people in Berlin was to hybridise their traumatic history with a hyper international future.  In many ways Berlin appeared to be humming right along with the new age of commercialization and international jet-setting, very different from how the city had been obsessively represented half a world away in California.  To more fully embrace this new insight I perused the sale racks at H&M and bought some olive-scented hand lotion from The Body Shop, not once did I witness any suspicious activity.  In fact everyone I met in Berlin seemed to shed an ever more embarrassing light on the subconscious image of the city I had constructed.

While not entirely interested in destroying my new sense of the past being set firmly behind, I walked across the city to visit an exhibit depicting the rise of the Third Reich and eventually of Adolph Hitler.  The exhibit was situated near what had been identified as the “Fuhrerbunker” a building that had many decades before been demolished and then ignored or covered up so as not to begin a Neo-Nazi pilgrimage to the site.  The exhibit was temporary and they handed visitors headsets upon entry and a calm voice led me down and into a partially excavated area with remnants of walls clearly demarcating rooms that had once been used by the Nazi government during the war.  Mostly black and white photos of people, ceremonies and images of violence were used to explain the progression and politics of the Nazi movement.  Once I had been led through the entire exhibit I returned the headset and quietly left the ruins, lost in a cloud of reflection for the rest of the day.  

The Berlin Wall, which divided West Berlin and East Berlin under Soviet management was physically demolished in 1990.  Short sections remain as a part of Berlin’s historical legacy and on my last day in the city I went to walk along the wall.  I hadn’t realized that over the years the wall had been covered by a collage of paintings, graffiti, posters and direct messages.   For more than half a century the wall loomed, manipulating the daily lives of citizens on both sides, forcing them to redevelop their identity as Eastern Germans or Western Germans.  A monumental structure  crossing the city and restricting movement and as a result affecting the local economies neighborhoods at a time.  As the Cold War surged, the wall came to represent a power struggle between two alien forces and the paintings as a way to reclaim a specific physicality in relation to this foreign struggle.  Painting on the wall transformed it, redrawing the lines of personal and political.  Drawing and redrawing, painting and repainting; until the wall fell metaphorically within the boundaries of the emotional terrain of the Germans themselves.  Once the wall was brought within their psychological territory, the paintings took on an ability to act as permanent testimony, regardless of what the next uncertain day brought to the artist.