36….ThirtySIX

Mexico

Sunday-36“The place where gods come and go”  or the ‘ iikaah (ee-EE-kah) for the Navajo people is a meticulously constructed design drawn out on the ground by releasing handfuls of colored sand.  Usually lasting no longer than 12 hours, it is considered to be a gateway for spirits.  From this place they affect change in the physical world, healing illness and absorbing toxic energy and once this has taken place the sand is scattered. A similar tradition also exists in Tibetan Buddhism   where monks can sometimes spend weeks depicting hundreds of deity and religious symbols in brightly colored sand, once finished it is also scattered.  Some Hindi women across India also take part in the spiritual patterning of the earth with Kolam. Early each morning blessing their homes with elaborate powdered lines before the traffic of the day eventually deconstructs their design completely.  The spiritual importance of embracing cycles of construction and deconstruction has long been a foundational belief throughout the human world.

Upon returning from my travels in Europe, I was engulfed in one of my father’s heavy cycles of deconstruction which in turn generated one of my own.  The gods visited, initiating the painful process of extracting toxins, some of which had been feeding with profoundly deep roots.  To see my father in his best light is to see a freckled blonde surfer projected onto a middle-aged John Wayne standing at the dark wooden counter of a micro brewery.  He has built a boat, a motorcycle, a bed… shops for clothing at Costco and does not believe in using band-aides.  He has married and divorced three times, has six children and cooks Mexican with a vat of lard he stores on a top shelf in the kitchen.  His view of the world is innately artistic and overtly romantic.  Without his even noticing the scrutiny of his paternal eye could both inspire and traumatize.  And that past year had swung me like a pendulum between the two until I felt ready to snap as a result of the extreme cycles of tension.

Seismic effort helped me “sweep” the sacred space of my psyche and regain the longing to draw colored lines on the earthen floor of my life again – I needed a way out. To this end I consulted my options with the international studies department finally committing to a program in Mexico, and then called my father. For the previous 30 years of his life, my father worked with a man from Tlaquepaque, a small town now enveloped by the Guadalajara metropolis.  Antonio had met my father at the beginning of  his quest to locate independently sourced Mexican artwork for his restaurant designs.  They spent the next three Quixotesque decades traveling Mexico and commissioning an incredible amount of local artwork from an uncountable number of artisans.  Tony was accustomed to my father calling up with urgent requests and seemingly impossible proposals, so when he called asking to send me to them for four months, he probably laughed …claro que si – of course.  I arrived a little over a month later.  

In order to save up enough money to extend my travels once completing the semester in Guadalajara, I had been working as a mural painter to compliment my other part-time job while I was in school full-time… even so money would be very tight.  My plan was to travel some in Mexico during the four months I lived with Antonio and his family, but then to head south – as far as my money would take me. I had never been to Guadalajara, met Antonio or his daughter Rocio, but it was rather simple for them to spot me at the airport – light-blonde, blue-eyed and shouldering my travelers pack scanning the crowds.

Anotnio had for many years run a papeleria or stationary shop, on the main plaza of Tlaquepaque and lived with his wife and two of his children in a three bedroom apartment on the second level a few doors down. After refusing resolutely an offer of their personal bedroom, I settled into the living room couch and the following day a mattress borrowed from family friends. It wasn’t long and we were all falling into a rhythm together, they had after all known my father before I had. Although both Rocio and Abraham were around my age, both in their early twenties, I connected right away with Rocio.  She was studying psychology in the nearby University and working at a children’s facility during her time off.  The family computer was in her room and she did most of the driving for everybody, outside of working hours.

Anotonio had recently stopped driving as he suffered from worsening seizures and because of this one of his employees had taken over the regular visits to the wholesale warehouse for the papeleria.  Until I grew accustomed to the long public bus ride home from school the boxy white van would make a detour to pick me up and I would accompany them, trailing behind them as they made selections for the shop. Then we returned to the house for the enormous mid-day meal shared at the table in their upstairs apartment, the window open and a breeze shifting the crowns of palms planted along the plaza.  Usually I spent the rest of the afternoon reading or napping on the mattress in the living room. In the evenings I joined Rocio to lift weights and ride stationary bikes in the local gym.  Sometimes we passed by the taco stand where I ordered the regular with beans instead of meat or pick up a corn tamale and we would snack together at the night table.  Once cleaned up, I studied and then went to bed.  The metallic echo of church bells passing through the colored glass panels at the front of the house, woke me every morning.  I did yoga, took a shower and walked to the bus, rode to downtown Guadalajara and then walked to class.

My days went on like this, smooth and steady one after the other, just like sand falling through careful fingers.

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35….ThirtyFIVE

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.

34….ThirtyFOUR

Sweden

Wednesday 34

William Tell, a legendary Swiss patriot,  is also accredited with being one of the first inspirations for the Impalement Arts.  Performers around the world, fill the audience with adrenaline as they throw daggers or shoot arrows at restrained assistants.  “The William Tell” is a set of tricks derived from the folk tales told about the man.  One such performance, if successful, involves an arrow dividing an apple balanced on the head of an assistant using only one shot.  Excellent marksmanship in the countryside is commonplace, but the setting for this “trick” is what makes it such a favorite.  The suspense builds, the assistant quivers slightly and everyone, anticipating the worst, hold their breath as if the tiny disturbance it would create would just enough to seal the deadly fate of the beautiful woman in front of them.  While clearly not magic, the set is undoubtedly imbued with a miraculous and somewhat addictive ether, the same ether which has compelled us for centuries to construct such spaces as attract it again and again.

The wheel chair rebelled as he struggled to build enough momentum to crest the upcoming hill, letting out a loud groan followed by a series of  squeaks and then coming to a defiant stop.  Although paved, the street was quite steep and even with trees overhead effectively providing shade, his brow dripped and the moist stains on the blue cotton of his shirt were quickly spreading from the exertion.  It seemed obvious to me that he may appreciate a little push so I walked over and asked if this was so.  He smiled and I took hold of the two rubber grips at the back of his chair.  Finally catching his breath, the terrain had leveled out and the older gentleman asked me what I was doing fr the rest of the day.  I hesitated, not sure if he was flirting or if he wanted me to continue helping with momentum issue he clearly faced.

Sensing my apprehension, and somewhat reading my thoughts, he assured me that he was doing neither.  Continuing on he explained that in addition to attending the local events regularly, he never misses a year of the Stockholm Jazz Festival.  Because of this the event staff give him a pair of free tickets which he usually shares with a friend, but this friend could not attend this year and so he was alone for the day.  Probably seeing my eyes light up, he asked if I liked Jazz and then invited me along… on one condition. For this he held up his hands and I saw for the first time just what a challenge that hill had been, they were both badly misshapen and  not one of his fingers made a straight line.  He wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind helping him to eat his ritual ice cream at the beginning of the festival, and the ticket was mine.  Aware that this may be some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, I agreed to the arrangement and we made our way to the ticket booth. Once we approached the entrance it was clear that at least part of the story was true, everyone we saw seemed to greet him and ask for the news.  He was something of a local celebrity it appeared.  We sat in the sunshine at the top of the outdoor amphitheater listening to a few of the local musicians as I helped him eat a cone of ice cream.  For the next hour or so I enjoyed the music and meeting the dozens of people who came over to visit.

The bands changed and I told him I wanted to go and dance, barely pausing a conversation he was having with a young man he thanked me and wished me well.  The tickets were not within range my travelers budget, the majority of the music I had been listening to was what I had on my MiniDisc player.  The sound system was incredible and the weather was perfect.  Smiling and euphoric  I  walked down towards the stage as a delicate warm breeze blew in off the water. As the day burned off,  the sun set and spilled its colors into thick clouds…the music started to amp-up.  There were several groups of experimental Jazz banging around the stage and a couple of electronic ensembles a few local favorites and then the headliner, Common, began his set.  He seemed freshly infused with an authority and vibrancy that was not with him the day before.  It made me think about delineated space and the power it takes on once animated by a performer.  I couldn’t help but muse a little to myself as the fog machines pumped out a steady stream of “ether” onto the stage and I released my breath.

Less than a week remained before I was to meet a friend in Germany and less than ten days until I would be flying home.  I took a bus out of Stockholm to see some of the surrounding forest.  For a short while that afternoon I was alone in the woods, enjoying the silence and the rich air… even resting under a shady tree and napping, leafy canopies of green swaying above.   After my rest I discovered the forest ended where the sea began and seeking out a comfortable rock, I passed several hours deeply taking in the view.    So enjoyable was my afternoon in the woods that I decided to spend the next few days further north in the Swedish forest surrounding Sundsval.

The passing landscape as I left Stockholm revealed itself as the origin, if not author, of countless woodlands illustrating the pages of my childhood fairy tales.  Somewhat in astonishment,  I watched as the dense layers of narrow leafy trees passed by, the sunlight like focused beams highlighting secret patches of wildflowers and emerald mosses.  I arrived in Sundsval late that evening and stubbornly kept to the plan, even when I discovered that I would need to take an expensive taxi up the mountain.  Tired from the journey, I checked into the hilltop hostel and was asleep within the hour.  The next morning I was able to appreciate the location more completely.  The hostel was a series of timber buildings, nearly log cabins, set onto a perch above the city.  A long wooden stairway led back and forth down the incline and into the city and walking along it could occupy the entire day.  There were areas built for resting and appreciating the view across the cityscape and some strategically placed railings for leaning and forest-gazing.   I bought groceries at the local market and spent the next several days cooking in the remodeled  kitchen, walking in the forest and napping in the shade.  My trip was coming to an end and I had chosen the perfect seat from which to reflect upon the magic it had created.

33…ThirtyTHREE

Sweden

Tuesday 33

Little Red Riding hood was a cannibal in some of the earlier versions of the tale, unknowingly eating the flesh and blood of her own grandmother prepared for her by the wolf disguised.  Many of these earlier versions put heavy metaphors to work addressing the dangerous of sex, nature, youth and a myriad of other threats to ‘civilized’ life.  Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, believed to be the earliest known printed version, was included in an anthology compiled by Charles Perrault in 1697. At the end of Perrault’s tragic tale Red remains in the belly of the wolf, never rescued.  Over the centuries the macabre elements and as an extension the metaphorical ‘bite’ of the messages they accompany have been softened, tamed.   The edges have been rounded, the grandmother is swallowed whole or in some cases only locked in the closet completely unharmed.  The symbolic language of the tale has quieted and Red is saved by a benevolent, and apparently very lucky, lumberjack.  If the years have favored Red and her matriarch, they have stead fast to the brutal judgement with which the wolf is relentlessly punished – cutting his body open and filling it with stones, victoriously causing his slow and likely painful death.

Continuing into our own time, the story has inspired much academic debate and scholarly interpretation. What interests me is the comparison between the earlier more graphic versions compare with the one I was read during my childhood.  Why soften the message?  Why round the sharp corners? Would it not be better to explain why they are sharp to begin with?   While I am not an advocate for exposing children to unnecessary horror, I do not subscribe to a folklore that aims to pretend a world filled only by rainbows and happy endings.  Certainly nothing about the world has become more benign, in many cases it would be safe to consider the substantial increase in real dangers our young people must navigate.   Would it not be more appropriate to prepare them, in fact is that not our duty as elders?   Is it not our very responsibility to provide them a safe place from which to witness via the metaphor the consequences of  certain paths?

Leaving Berlin I traveled by train, no longer covered by my Eurorail pass, the expensive trail to Sweden.  As a child my grandmother entertained us during long hours in the car with strange-sounding words. The image of her proud face  after reviewing the carefully folded papers with a word or two in Swedish I now understand to be her way of connecting us to a past even she didn’t really know.  Her Swedish father had boarded an ocean liner with his older brother, both barely teenagers, to begin – like so many others – a new, more prosperous life in the United States of America.  My grandmother wove words about Sweden surrounded by the powder blue velvet of the back seat of an Oldsmobile as it cruised along the highways lined by cornfields, Målmo the city where it all began.

Following a suggestion from the guide-book I had been carrying around, I booked a bed in a hostel that I quickly realized to be somewhat inconvenient if I were planning on spending a lot of time in Målmo, but I wasn’t.  Through the magic of a flexible plan and the bliss of ignorance I decided to stay, at least it had a great kitchen.  After scouting for supplies in the neighborhood I returned rather successfully to make an unusually tasty pasta and  tomato sauce from scratch.  Adding to my good fortune there was a book exchange set up in the hostel.  I had two books with me at the time and I decided to trade in my Essential Pema Chodron for a copy of Animal Farm, which I then read in its entirety while eating my dinner.  I sat for a few hours reading at the long wooden table overlooking a highway in a deeply thoughtful mood and very grateful for the privacy.  The next day I spent in the cemetery and adjoining park enjoying the shade and fresh air before jumping back on a train and heading north to Stockholm.

While the landscape of Ireland stirred my ancestral chemistry in a primordial kind of knowing, Stockholm was more comical while claiming my blood.  I had never seen so many blonde, blue-eyed people in one place before.  I was regularly approached by locals asking casual questions or confused tourists looking for information.  It was beyond the need to mention my biological connection to the place.  I came to see my unfamiliarity with both the language and customs as  a testament to my great-grandfather’s success, he had provided for more than himself.  He found work, survived and then thrived having a healthy family and home in a country completely unknown.  There I was, all of those years later standing on the soil of his homeland he had left forever.

I stayed in Stockholm for several days, surprised to know it was an archipelago I tried to map the layout by foot crossing bridges and navigating down waterways trying to convince the city show me all ofits secrets.  One afternoon I was walking with my giant headphones blasting some epic music and enjoying the soundtrack I had created for the days adventure when I ran directly into a large man.  Short as I am no damage was done and I stepped back mesmerized by what seemed an enormous piece of amber swinging after impact from the strangers neck.  Embarrassed I looked up to see the freckled face of a light-skinned, strangely familiar black man. “Hey.” barely slipping my headphones off my head I responded “Hey”.  My feathers ruffled and walking in the opposite direction I noticed a poster plastered up on a street post.  It advertised the Stockholm Jazz Festival and featured at its center was the same face I had just recognized.  Common, the American Hip-Hop artist I had listened to for years was the guest of honor and the festival would be starting the next day…

32…..ThirtyTWO

Germany

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.

31…. ThirtyONE

Prague

31 PragueIt wasn’t until the 19th century that the word Bohemian was used as a socio-cultural identifier.  Before the 1800’s the anti-establishment, somewhat unpredictable, artistic astronauts of the norm were sometimes called “gypsies”.  Perhaps a result of the potent impression on the aristocratic imagination left by the Romani people, which originally immigrated into Eastern and Central Europe from the Indian Sub-continent some 1,500 years ago.  Their freedom-loving nomadic lifestyle may have been what correlated the term ” bohémienne” with the Spanish gypsy in Gorges Bizet opera “Carmen”, often interpreted as a character  developed to express the composer’s own desire for freedom. An example of how for many the term gypsy and bohemian were interchangeable, this remains true even in modern times.

An alternate, if not concurrent, line of  reasoning for the linguistic co-habitation is the existence of the Kingdom of Bohemia – and by extension Bohemians- in Eastern Europe, an area through which many Romani people immigrated.  The Kingdom of Bohemia covered much of what is now The Czech Republic but first it was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, then the House of Hapsburg and Lorraine, next becoming part of the Austrian Empire, and then a “crown land” within the Austro-Hungarian Empire remaining that way until the end of World War I.  Needless to say, the area has endured centuries of rebellion and violence throughout the duration of it’s struggle for cultural independence.   Throughout these struggles Prague remained an epicenter of economic power, maintaining this status even today.

It was extremely difficult to walk around Prague without stopping at every intersection, doorway or lamp post to document the heavy art nouveau embellishments.  Incredibly, of the several hundred photographs I shot in Prague the majority are architectural details, corners of buildings or bridges.  I had never been to such a well dressed city.  To further lure me into outstaying my self imposed  “7day maximum”  rule for each city, the hostel I ended up in was fantastic.  The bunk I took over was one of two in a sunny, clean room I shared with two hilarious British lesbians.  We quickly became friends and spent several evenings on the rooftop enjoying the view of the city, drinking cheap Czech beer and playing playing billards.  There was a popular club next door and a few of our roof top evenings wandered into late night dancing. During the days I traveled around the city solo, napping in the grass of one of the many parks in between museum visits photography marathons.  There was one museum I was particularly interested in seeing.

During the course of his lifetime Alphonse Mucha had developed a beautiful balance between design theory and organic forms.  He designed costumes, jewelry, furniture, building facades, and commercial interiors, but what he is best know for are his posters.  In 1894 his last minute design for the play Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt  pioneered a new approach to the traditional theater announcement.  Apart from his graphic work he also composed many paintings covering a variety of themes and subject matter.  The paintings were what I had in mind when I sought out the museum that afternoon. The magnum opus or masterpiece of Mucha’s work is entitles “The Slav Epic”; 20 enormous pieces depicting the history of the slavic people. While this covers an extensive grouping of political territory, Mucha had his people of the old Bohemia in mind – presenting the entire cycle to the city of Prague. The Slav Epic is an incredible series of paintings, one of my absolute favorites.  What always interested me about his oil paintings was his surprising use of light and color areas to focus the viewer on specific segments of the piece and to highlight or explain a kind of time-line in the work.  I have since learned that he was heavily influenced by the Austrian academic, historian and painter Hans Makart (also a major influence on Mucha contemporary Gustav Klimt).  Exhibiting the typical Neoclassical themes of history, allegory and literature Makart also painted using light in a very particular manner.

The Nile Hunt of Cleopatra is a perfect example of the use of light to direct the viewer.  In the foreground the act of hunting is being played out as several of the Egyptians haul a beast from the waters, the boat nearly tipping into the river itself demonstrating the enormity of the catch while in the background a luxurious boat embraces a clear blue sky filled with birds.  Several women lounge about draped in glowing white and two individuals casually shoot at the passing fowl as if enjoying the action of handling the bow, with little care of whether the arrow would in fact make it’s mark.  The interesting part of the painting, for me,  is the use of dark and light.  The foreground; full of action and momentum is painted in the shadows while the lucid background is almost unreasonably illuminated.   The viewer could understand this to signify the divergent social classes portrayed in the scene, or to indicate the boat as a later point in time where the bounty of the hunt provided by the physicality of the hunters is enjoyed as a carnal pleasure in the feast.

This complexity and symbology is also apparent in the large scale work Mucha completed and viewing even a few of the smaller pieces in the museum was enough to have me deep in philosophical thought for several days. During my stay in Prague I also visited St.Vitus cathedral to see the stained glass Mucha had contributed.  The vividness of the late afternoon sunlight diffusing through his careful placement of color was a perfect collaboration with the natural world and his organized sense of form. Set in such an environment; saturated by the song and prayer, politics and power of his people – the experience held me in an ethereal trance.  I stood before it for a number of hours, the vermillion light filtering through the figures in the glass and onto the skin of my arms almost like blood or a thick velvet robe.

30….Thirty

Belgium, The Netherlands

30 Amsterdam and BrusselsThe collapse of the Dutch tulip market in February 1637 has become a metaphor used extensively by economists ever since to describe financial bubbles, when asset prices diverge from intrinsic value to such an extent that the entire system disintegrates.  At the speculative apex of “Tulip Mania” a single  Augustus Semper tulip bulb was traded  at ten times the annual salary of a master craftsman. The social impetus for the mania and the resulting consequences to the Dutch psyche  have been well documented, although not widely discussed is the incredible creature responsible for the distinctive petal coloration of the previously prized flower.

Between 1920 and 1960 scientists carrying out experiments on tulip bulbs finally confirmed that the unusual coloration was due to a virus which entered the pant via the tiny jaws of aphids.  An insect familiar to agriculture the world over, the Aphid is an evolutionary expert.  Amazingly most Aphid communities are composed of almost entirely female  individuals.  In the spring the hatching aphids emerge and reproduce parthenogenetically (without a sexual partner) and then give live birth to other females which are clones of their mother.  The cycle continues throughout the summer until sensing the changing conditions the females give live birth to both males and females.  The males are born without wings or even mouths, reproduce sexually with the females who then lay eggs which are able to endure winter conditions to begin the cycle again in the spring.

But the most amazing insight into the Aphid world is their ability to produce telescopic generations; a female can develop live clones inside of her that are in turn also developing live clones inside of their own bodies.  The result is a kind of insect speculative-grade bond, one hungry ladybug comes along and all three generations are wiped out, but if successful the evolutionary efficiency of the original aphid is rewarded with twice the typical genetic material reproduced.

When my plane landed in Brussels I had two things in mind. First, I wanted to sample some Belgian chocolate and second, I wanted to spend the afternoon at the musical instruments museum.  After the evening of sleep-free contemplation in the Dublin airport, my first step was to locate a hostel, bathe and nap.  Probably due to the lack of rest, it took me longer than usual to navigate my way to the hostel I had chosen on the plane and my pack seemed to manifest a magnetic pull against every step. Ultimately I successfully used the shower, slept an hour, changed and found my way back to the incredible window display of a chocolate shop I had passed earlier.  Sacrificing my budget for lunch that day, I chose a select few pieces and left the shop with my treasure.  I love chocolate, so with something akin to a spiritual reverence I ate the tiny gems. Slightly levitating on a cloud of endorphins, I entered the graceful arch of Art Nouveau embellished doorway to the museum. For many years to follow it would be one of my favorite museum experiences.  The headphones each visitor is given as they enter react to sensors in the exhibits in such a way that I could hear the sound of the instrument being played as I examined the display.  Handcrafted instruments from every continent filled several floors of the open, light-filled building.  I left the museum reeling with inspiration and an overwhelming sense of the limitless-ness of human imagination.

After Brussels I took the train to Amsterdam.  Upon exiting the trains station a wave of hostel cowboys wrangled the crowd of started travelers.  Each offering a better price than the last and pushing flyers and coupons in front of me and trying to grab a hold of my arm or pack or elbow, what ever they could clutch and pull.  Shaking them off I was approached calmly by a pair offering a room on a houseboat.  I hadn’t thought of staying on a boat, but I was assured by the calmness with which the hostel was described and that it was very nearby.  I followed them to a side street leading behind the station and climbed onto the oscillating wraparound deck.   I was led down a hallway so narrow both sides of my pack drug along the walls.  The room I was given was equally claustrophobic but had a private lock to the door and place to store my things, I took it and immediately leaving to begin my explorations.

Amsterdam was very close to a perfect city, a balance of seedy rebellion and healthy intellectual living.  People with baskets full of produce glided around the tree-lined canals and bridges led into what seemed to be an endless array of markets – used books, clothing, tulips, furniture and food. The morning spent browsing and walking, I decided to try out an infamous cafe experience.  Choosing one that had an appealing layout opening onto the canal outside I approached the counter.  As if I were ordering a late or fruit smoothie, the attendant asked what I had in mind and began flipping through pages in the extensive menu.  Not sure exactly what it was I should request, I explained that I was headed to the Van Gogh museum and then to a Jimmy Cliff concert later that night.  After consulting the inventory, she returned with a small bag filled with intricately crystallized buds and a pack of rolling papers.  Next, she led me to one of their sun-drenched eggplant colored velvet chairs.

About an hour later I was walking again, this time through what seemed like a medieval stone tunnel leading to the museum. I was appreciating the cool darkness of the passageway when I heard it.  Somewhere between a string instrument and human tone, the sound echoed blending and mixing together to produce the most amazing harmony.  After a few mysterious minutes I came upon a trio of Mongolian throat singers.  I had never heard Mongolian throat singing and in fact at the time did not know that was what they were performing.  Mesmerized, I enjoyed their performance for nearly half an hour, bought their CD and continued on my way.

Van Gogh was an art obsession of mine growing up; as a teenager I was enthralled by his madness, his psychotic amorous obsession with a prostitute and of course the tragic removal of one of his ear lobes.   During my early teen years I interpreted his madness as passion, the kind that drives you to do great things and I admired it in a strange way.  Over the years I read more about Van Gogh and while I still delight at his dreamlike brush work and the intensity his work emits, I have come to understand the madness as madness.  Perhaps he was not so different from the Dutch speculators; feverish and obsessive 200 years before.  Much the same way the Dutch incinerated the resources of generations in the pursuit of one broken tulip, Van Gogh’s scrambling after light and landscape consumed everything in his life – including huge sums of his brother’s money.  Was a flower worth investing a lifetime of work? Was a painting worth investing the sanity of the painter’s mind?  Passing a beautifully arranged plot of tulips outside the museum, I stopped to look at them.   The tall flowers shifted in the breeze and I realized  both the tulips and the paintings were more like aphids than I had originally understood.

29 … TwentyNINE

Ireland

Belfast-Recovered

“Nearly two per cent of the population of Northern Ireland have been killed or injured though political violence […] If the equivalent ratio of victims to population had been produced in Great Britain in the same period some 100 000 people would have died, and if a similar level of political violence had taken place, the number of fatalities in the USA would have been over 500 000“…

Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry from the “The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland”

They began building walls in the early 1990’s.   Snaking their way through Belfast splitting neighborhoods with their bodies of recycled bricks and twisted wire fangs -the British government called them “Peace Lines”.   The “Lines” were intended as an emergency response to the intensifying violence which had begun to incinerate entire street blocks.  Officially the riots are explained as a clash beginning in 1969 between the Catholic Nationalists demanding Northern Ireland unite with the rest of Ireland and the Protestant Unionists fiercely protecting their connection with the United Kingdom.

18 “Lines” were originally constructed but due to their relative success maintaining control over volatile areas, an additional 40 walls were built – 25 ft high and traversing over 21 miles of the city the walls typically have a gate patrolled by police  in the middle where citizens can move between sides during the day.  After reading testimony of individuals living near the “Peace Lines” it becomes clear that the walls have abstracted , transforming into a potent identifiers.

I had planned to continue my journey north from Glencolumbkile to Belfast in Northern Ireland by public transportation, but this quickly proved impossible because of the date I had planned to travel.  It was the beginning of the second week in July and Belfast was a tense place to be heading.  In 1921 there was what has been called a three-way struggle between the IRA, the Unionists and the British Crown.  The conflict was so violent that it has since been called “Belfast’s Bloody Sunday”.  I stopped in Letterkenny to reevaluate my plan, the time I had planned to stay in Northern Ireland had already been reduced to a single day in Belfast and I was feeling anxious.  My flight was leaving in two days so I needed to make a decision and skip Northern Ireland or to somehow get there more creatively.  

Letterkenny was not a place I wanted to stay regardless, so I asked around until the hotel groundskeeper agreed to drive me to the edge if the highway.  I was biting my nails again, this would be my first time hitch-hiking alone, much less attempting to pull one of the Big Rigs headed for Belfast off the road and then convince them to take me aboard.  The complete transparency of my anxiety prompted the groundskeeper into taking the lead.  Within five minutes he had a driver pulling his fluorescent monster of a truck off the highway in front of us, assaulting us with cloud of dirt and gravel as it did so.  Sauntering up to the truck he launched my pack up and into the gaping mouth of a cabin.  I stood half gaping at the enormity of the machine in front of me.  Once separated from my all of my belongings I snapped back to the situation at hand.  Reaching on tip-toe I grabbed ahold of the handle  and pulled myself precariously into the unknown truck driver’s world.

For the next several hours I rode, swaying in the passenger seat as if I were adrift at sea.  The driver, lacking any sustained conversation for what seemed to be a very long time, talked almost continuously.  He had a drug problem, loved driving trucks, just started again after being jailed for killing several people on the road…and then finally that he could not take me all the way into the city but that I should be able to get there walking through the industrial area where we had stopped, opened the door and signaled that it was time to disembark.  The absurdity of my expectations became shamefully obvious when I tried to imagine the 18 wheeler driving through the downtown streets of Belfast to find me a hotel for the night. So I started walking.  Not sure exactly where I was or if I was in any danger I tried to keep my eyes open and maintain a strong sense of composure.  A few laps around the same factory block and a quick glance at the tiny city map in my Europe travel guide and I could see the buildings start to change and the streets begin to populate.

Coming upon a “black taxi” stand I hired the driver and was happy to sit down.  Belfast taxi drivers have started giving tours of the “Peace Lines” from the safety of their back seats.   In addition to the tour of walls I was shown many of the murals which have become emotional touchstones for entire communities.  My driver was Catholic but he also admired the word of Protestant artists and we had a lively conversation about each mural we passed.  Where it was safe he stopped the taxi so I could get closer to the paintings, standing in front of them respectfully. Finally I asked my driver to drop me off at the train station so that I could return to Dublin that evening.  Unsure about the transportation in the morning I decided to sleep in the airport to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight.

In theory I would find a waiting lounge and try to get some rest draped across the plastic seats and on top of my pack.  Arriving at the actual airport I found that it did not correspond with the imagined version I had decided would be tolerable.  The only lounge like area I had access to was full of like-minded travelers and I was turned away to face the wasteland of cold linoleum and push carts….  wait and push carts.  Commandeering a pair of flat-bottomed push carts I oriented them next to each other and facing into a corner of the airport lobby.  For a few blissful hours I slept spooning my pack against the wall alone.  At around 6 in the morning a young airport steward woke me angrily reclaimed the push carts and returned me to the linoleum. The airport was quiet and my mind wandered to the imagery I had seen during the day, of walls  and the thought of murderous neighbors.  

28…. TwentyEIGHT

Ireland

Sunday-28

It is estimated that by the year 2100 50-90% of the world’s current languages will be considered “extinct”- no longer being spoken by a single human being. Currently there are between 6000-7000 languages in use across the planet today. This number seems immense until considering that many of these languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people. The top twenty most prevalent languages are utilized by nearly half of the world and as more and more children learn the ‘dominant’ language as their first, the scale continues to tip, gaining momentum every year.

These statistics neatly describe, in an ideal world, results of increasing exposure and access to one another, although more likely they are results of cultural repression, homogenization and the annihilation of entire human legacies. Following logic down its unfortunate path, accompanying the loss of a language is also the loss of all that it uniquely described and documented.   Lost is the irreplaceable firsthand information about the natural world, about the history and traditions of a people, lost is their addition to the expansive human landscape.

Definitive empirical proof about when and why humans first began using language has floated just out of reach at the surface of linguistic sciences for centuries rarely moving beyond speculation and theory.  Noam Chomsky, visionary modern linguist, claims (basically) that humans learned speech via an evolutionary jump directly following our ability to comprehend numbers.

“The picture then, by loose analogy, is that the formation of the language faculty in humans is akin to the formation of a crystal; discrete infinity was the seed crystal in a super-saturated primate brain, on the verge of blossoming into the human mind, by physical law, once a single small, but crucial, key stone was added by evolution”.

(quoted from Wikipedia)

 Perfectly complementing its original purpose of describing information about the external materialistic world, language has long ago become a way for us to share abstract inner experiences as well. Dr. Amit Goswami Ph.D a theoretical physicist, focuses on detailing this harmony between the inner and outer versions of reality. Growing up with an Indian guru father, a houseful of disciples studying and praying resulted in an adult life filled with the examination of the material, outer world and the universal language of mathematics. Many years into a successful career Dr. Goswami realized that the world he was describing in lectures and texts was incomplete. That’s when he began focusing on the complimentary aspects of inner and outer, drawing from his intimate knowledge of Indian religious experience. Being able to share a complex perspective, thickened by both the tangible and ethereal understanding of a unique human history is perhaps the most valuable skill our species has developed thus far.

It was raining when I arrived in Galway.  The hallway should have tipped me off that this was not going to be an enjoyable experience. Its mountains of discarded belongings left only narrow footholds on some stairs and their visible disintegration attested to the age the present condition (I will not mention the smell in an effort to further engage your attention). Regardless, I continued on almost defending the pile of objects that had also slowly multiplied and now hung from every possible strap of my heavy pack. Stepping around the mountainous refuse acting nearly as trail markers I located my bed on the third floor down a dark passage in the corner of a tiny room among many packed full of wooden bunks. I relieved myself of my pack and looked around as I stretched my arms skyward. The beds were more alike to personal shrines than they were to places for sleeping a few nights. My suspicion confirmed as an occupant of a neighboring bunk, quickly into our brief conversation proudly explained she had been living in her particular bed for the past 6 months. With 75,000 inhabitants Galway attracts a constant influx of live musicians looking to perform in one of its many pubs and along with them the required bohemian audience. I saw a traditional group perform that night in a nearby pub and after surviving the sparking electrical wires in the shower, the next morning I headed for the northern coastline.

Glencolumbkille is a tiny coastal town near some of the most bracing seascapes in the country- the union of rock and sea exploding with each wave and sending the resulting white foam high above the cliff’s edge. It is also one of the last areas in Ireland that maintains daily use of Irish Gaelic, the native language of the island. After centuries of clashing and mixing with the British and with official policy instated by the monarchy during its occupation, the overwhelming majority of Irish now speak English. But it wasn’t always so and there still exist populations scattered around the country that work to continue to teach their children and grandchildren the original mother tongue. In welcome contrast to Galway, the accommodation I sought out in Glencolumbkille was perched on a lonely cliff embraced by fog and with the forceful ocean air splattering mists against its windows as they faced defiantly out to sea.

The hotel offered simple private rooms nestled into hallways crawling with all kinds of plants. As one of the only guests I was afforded an exceptionally long hot shower and slept deeply, dreaming of swimming in whirlpools of Prussian blue and cerulean arcs leaping from the silent depths. I consulted local maps over a steaming breakfast which I ate slowly in between long daydreams gazing out toward the horizon. The edge of the world must have felt like this to early explorers I concluded and with this spirit began my day hiking around the neighboring cliffs and hillside. I followed unmarked gravel paths, passing small country homes, a school where I could hear students learning Irish Gaelic and the ruins of generations of builders. The wind was strong, it was the kind that quieted everything else – my thoughts only noise that I quickly dispensed with. In this way the landscape demanded wholeness – outer awareness of balance and direction coupled with a deep inner resonance of energy and presence. I spent several days of ecstatic solitude, enjoying the unusual feeling of completeness. In places and at times amid the lush and lonely hillsides giving way to the rocky cliffs at their edge and with the sunlight spiraling earthward through the dense layers of clouds, the importance of an indigenous set of adjectives was inescapable.

27 ….. TwentySEVEN

Ireland

27 Saturday

The Burren in Western Ireland is covered by an expansive, eroding limestone carpet.  The limestone, formed by compressed sediment 350 million years old, was once the bottom of a tropical sea.   A fact that is very difficult to easily comprehend when one looks out across the empty horizon filled only by wind.  Incredibly scientists have found fossilized samples of corals, sea urchin and ammonite- an extinct spiral shelled organism.  Ammonoidea, as they are scientifically titled, get their name from a man in Pompeii around 79 A.D who proclaimed them the “Horn of Ammon” for the Egyptian god typically painted wearing rams horns.  Fossils of all kinds, and especially this last type incited the medieval European imagination which saw petrified snakes and their sale quickly developed into an industry.  The beloved Hindu text the Mahabharata decrees they are the materialized appearance of the god Vishnu  and believers fortunate enough to collect specimens from the Gandaki river in Nepal, worship them experiencing what they describe as a reciprocal sense of love.  Fossils are the talisman of another world existing on a concurrent plane, a world with a very different sense of time.  They belong to the world of Bristlecone Pine and Giant Sequoia; twisting and bending over thousands of years, to the millennial battles of rain and stone slowly blending into each other,  to a world for which we must ourselves be only a blink of their eye.

On my fifth or sixth morning in Doolin I sat sipping black tea with the Englishman who lived in a small trailer behind the farm-house.  Thinking about the night before,  I asked if there was a trail connecting the town with the Cliffs of Moher.  He knew the area very well as he had been living in that trailer behind the farm-house for several years and mostly spent his time exploring the Burren and building fiddles.   After confirming that there was indeed a path he next asked how I had heard about it an I explained.  Long after the music had ended, a group of us had remained sipping on pints at the old picnic table late into the night.   Rumors of a Local’s Path were passed around and two members of a German heavy metal band traveling strictly in their Lederhosen swore that they had seen where the trail began.

I was born in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and grew up hiking and camping –  traveling across the rough but relatively flat Burren did not seem like much of a challenge.  Late the following morning I began down a trail the Englishman had identified as the Local’s Path with a light pack and my camera.  The burren is an extremely beautiful place to walk through.  Graphite colored stone covers the ground in panels split by violent tectonic forces and  soaked for thousands of years by a deeply melancholic fog.  It is at once lonely and commanding.  After a time the green began to take over with moss and grasses and a universe of miniature wild flowers.  The grasses grew thicker and the planst less miniature when the trail began in earnest.  Just wide enough for a single traveler, the path began creeping towards the ocean and the steadily rising cliffs and I followed.  So close to the edge of the cliff was the path that at times it gave way completely, releasing solid chunks of earth to crash 700 feet into the sea below.  Several times I was faced with a gap and after taking a moment to appreciate the total calm of a cow or horse safely on the other side of the fence before leaping across, my heart racing.  The Cliffs of Moher is a favorite nesting site for many bird species and I stopped a number of times to crawl onto my belly enabling me a secure view over the edge where I could watch the busy traffic below.  When I finally reached the Hags Head and jumped over a small fence to join the other tourists shuttled to the tower by the bus load, I had already seen everything I wanted to see along the way, so I turned around and walked back to Doolin.

Leaving Doolin was somewhat difficult, I had settled in, grown attached to the nightly music and days filled by nature.  I understood how one could simply buy a trailer and move in.  Ensuring I would maintain momentum before setting out and still in Italy, I had sworn myself and oath – never to stay more than one week in any one location.  It was approaching fast on my week in Doolin and so I pressed on, reluctantly.  Just up the coastline are the Aran islands.  Interested in viewing the remains of an ancient fortress I boarded a ferry which motored me out to Inishmore. Built on a cliff over 100 meters high and named after a Celtic King, Aengus  has been worn down to the remains of four concentric semicircular walls.   At the entrance to the sloping hills of the fortress sat a grinning old man.  He sang and rocked to the music he played on his accordion all the while perched atop a stool in the grass.  His song diffused through the wind and seemed to carry me right to the edge of the ruin.  Along the way I had serendipitously fallen into step with a middle-aged woman crowned with a blaze of vermillion hair.  She and I started talking as we walked through the ruins and she explained the importance of the area for her.  She was a photographer but more importantly she emphasized, she burned with Celtic soul.  She identified herself as a pagan and she believed that the fortress was once used for ceremony and ritual.   Side by side we stretched out on the ancient ground to face down the cliff face and watch in silence as the swelling waves shattered against the rocks growing out of the deep below.  Across the ocean from where I now sit, they are still doing so and will do so long after I die.  I cannot help but feel a hue of envy as I imagine that other world, the one that blinks.