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From Afar: Reflections

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”


“With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.

In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

- Ernest Hemingway, A MOVEABLE FEAST

After my travels through the footsteps of history, in the good company of adventurers and scholars, and funny, wise old souls, I found myself filled with what Hemingway described when he said, “By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.” What filled this space of goodness now ended expressed itself as a wealth of deep thinking; tapestries of symbolism, sensual impressions spilling over into my dreams. The richness of languages Dutch, German, French, and Swiss murmuring in my ears. The funny thing is, to calm my mind before sleep I was re-reading Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" - the re-edited, restored version, to which Hemingway's sons, Patrick and Sean, contributed extensive introductory notes on the orignal and drafting chapters left by their father as he worked on the never incompleted memoirs of his early years in Paris.

There is something about the way Hemingway describes the reality of daily life as an ex-pat, his own writer's awareness of how things were and needed to be "made, not described" as he put it, that mirrored the impressions of my own journey from Holland by way of the Rhine into the Alps of Switzerland. Hemingway's receptivity to the frank, the unusual, the distinct and simple - "oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away"- even the deep lingering melancholy of a late spring, anchors us in what is bold or unfamiliar. As I read his essays on his artistic strugges to write a first novel, his appreciation of raw nature and less innocent darkly undertoned friendships, even the details of the uncertain but stable domestic routines season to season with Hadley and "Mr. Bumby," his young son, I fell to thinking about what it is about ourselves that makes both the strangeness of new experience and the familiar world so deeply penetrate our consciousness. Why do we travel and why do we always then make "home away from home"?

“Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love,” Hemingway noted after a convoluted, unsettling journey to Lyon in the company of fellow writer and friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. A sense of trust and comraderie is essential to the good traveling companion. Ease and sharing provide both space and permission to relax, to be oneself, to focus on the adventure, not a recalictrant "other." Travel instantly highlights those couples who are compatible in their natures, and those for whom the burdens of a journey create additional friction or underscore rough-edged dissimilarities domestic routines hide. I found myself appreciating my fellow travelers even as Hemingway found his own solace within Sylvia Beach's "lending library" on the Left Bank, the welcome aperitifs in the salon of Gertrude Stein. We find friends in the places our minds and souls take comfort.

Hemingway writes his way into deeper understandings of life by opening himself to the journey, to what simply is - good and bad, successful or a struggle. His words have a clean, direct way of marking the truth of the moment like the swift, loose charocal outline a painter understands a picture might be. I like to think directness, the unadorned experience, is the way to begin to learn, to think, to define. Reflecting on the loves and friendships of his Paris years, Hemingway concluded, "You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
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Pirates, Cathedrals, Ghosts in the Peaks and Great Wine

Shield of Charlemagne
After days on the Rhine, we left the Netherlands and traveled through Germany into Cologne. In the foundations of this ancient Germanic city lie the Roman ruins and excavations one is more used to seeing throughout Rome. A Jewish ghetto has been uncovered in the construction of a subway that also contains the neighborhood of the Roman goldsmiths. We looked at the ongoing excavations, below current street level, of the oldest Jewish Mikwei (baths) and the shops of the Roman goldsmiths. I quite enjoyed the levels of built and rebuilt city: The relics of Claudius and his wife, Agrippina, (She poisoned him with arsenic in a successful plot to take the Empire and was later herself killed by her oh-so-infamous son, Nero. O, Shakespeare, have known thy ancient history!) Even the simple box brick re-constructions of the heavily bombarded town in the post-war fifties represent the survival of the city to the older generation.

We sampled the 300 year old Farina family floral and herbal recipe for "Eau de Cologne" originally combined by monks for medicinal purposes and spread throughout by the second world war by soldiers as gifts to their girlfriends and mothers. The Cathedral of Cologne is of course a four plus century Gothic and neoGothic edifice of astounding ambition, uncertain architectural parentage, and overwhelming dark and foreboding Gothic detail. It's not beautiful in the sense one thinks of St. Peters Basilica, but it is impressive. And the towering flying buttresses that send it soaring thousands of feet upward and uphold the tall improbable stained glass windows are simply imposing. One panel features the Old Testament ideas used in work by Michelangelo - The Pieta, the Four Apostles, The Last Supper and the Spirit of God, given in his touch of man's hand. As the Cathedral is constructed of sandstone it is never not being gently cleaned or repaired, as when gargoyles plummet to the square in the occasional earthquake.

The art galleries in the area feature private collections of Picasso, early medieval, and impressionists. But the reliquary of St Usula is the most disturbing. A religious sanctuary composed of the bones of the 1100 Virgins who died in her name from the beseiged convent, the bones of their limbs forming the words "St Ursula, Pray for Us." The shrine is upheld by pillars of gold wrapped human skulls and the mosaics on the walls are all made of the remaining bones. Macabre and deeply full of tragic historical grief.

Woke up at five one morning to see the beginning of the section of the Rhine leading into the Lorelei passage that is full of many centuries old castles and fortresses. Dr. Adam Tooze, the Cambridge educated Yale faculty member on our ship, himself a "child of the Rhine," gave us clues as to what to look for. On the bow of the ship at dawn it was cold, yet fresh and quiet as we journeyed slowly down the imposing narrow valley with hillsaides of terraced grape and looked up at the ancient and sometimes restored castles on their prominent positions overlooking the river. Only a handful of us were up for this quiet, golden dawn ancient history - but it was unforgettable. As we journeyed through the treacherus Lorelei passage (by angling the long narrow river cruise boat from one shore to the opposite) we found ourselves in a section of fortressed ruins once the dominions of the pirates of the Rhine. Spectacular. Green, steep and full of villages of old Germanic architecture.

Mainz lead to explorations of old Roman ruins and later, Heidleberg and Mannheim included a tour to the Schweigen Castle and gardens, the so-called German "Palace of Versailles." The company has been delightful, the German beer excellent, the food delicious, and sleeping to the slow churn of the ships's engines relaxing as the shoreline and it's many attactions slip by our opened balcony windows. We have made fast friends with our touring buddies and the interesting faculty, including experts in The Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation.  Most "interesting" passenger award goes to a senior economic advisor on US markets to the Eurozone's central banks which has made informal discussions on the current European financial situation quite engaging: the scholars inter-twine the historial and cultural roots of European unrest with the Euro banking challenges. Our stash of single malt scotch from the duty free store has been a hit in these late night discussions in the ship's lounge.

Then followed beautiful Strausborg, and we left the boat in Switzerland and began our journey into the Alps. Berne, Interlaken, and the mysteries of the Eiger, snow-capped JungFrau, and "The Monk" - the clueless, as the Swiss say, neighbor of the Virgin. (They view their monks as a more lusty, hardy group, apparently.) Today an adventure on Mt. Piolatus by gondola and cog train (48% grade!) to the summit (cloaked, alas, in clouds), where it is said the spirit of Pontius Pilate haunts the peaks and spends his eternal rest in the high remote lake, attempting futilely to wash his hands free of Christ's blood. Then by Glacier Express, the historic train railways of the mountains, to Zermatt, and the Matterhorn.

Have I mentioned chocolate, wild swans, the heavenly joys of sleeping on eiderdown, and good Swiss wine? You knew about the wine, right?

A Bientot!
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Amadeus, The Holy Roman Empire and Van Gogh

I'm on board the Austrian registered Amadeus Princess, a river cruise vessel on route from Amsterdam down the Little Rhine to Germany and the journey down the main Rhine to where we disembark in Switzerland. This journey has been one of exploration of time through art museums, organizations such as The Hague, and tomorrow the Cathedral at Cologne, and the foods and peoples of the Netherlands as we head into the fractured history of what was once The Holy Roman Empire, and in various incarnations, a fractured alliance of city states, countries at war, and cultures in religious and economic competition. The lectures on board have been fascinating, and ground this journey in history - our local Netherlands guides are interesting art historians who make the works of Flemish painters and famous collections at museums like the Kruller-Mueller, which we visit in our explorations off the boat, a dialogue with the symbolism and meanings of centuries of art and storytelling. In a few moments, we will cross into Germany and make our way tonight down toward Cologne.

My comrades on board are interesting in themselves. Experienced travelers with interesting occupations and an original and engaging take on the world, this journey is already memorable. I'll try and post again before Switzerland, but know that today's most memorable image for me was a Vincent Van Gogh painting, "Road With Cypress and Stars"....a view of the dark shadows of night and a moon and star in haunting harmony with a still field, blanketed in shadows. Look up the picture at the gallery of images online for Van Gogh. Walk with me and see the world through his eyes. Read More 
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The River Calls

The Water Nymph, by Collier
Folk melody, words by Heinrich Heine

I cannot divine what it meaneth,
This haunting nameless pain:
A tale of the bygone ages
Keeps brooding through my brain:

The faint air cools in the gloaming,
And peaceful flows the Rhine,
The thirsty summits are drinking
The sunset's flooding wine;

The loveliest maiden is sitting
High-throned in yon blue air,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She combs her golden hair,

She combs with a comb that is golden,
And sings a weird refrain
That steeps in a deadly enchantment
The lsit'ner's ravished brain:

The doomed in his drifting shallop,
is tranced with the sad sweet tone,
He sees not the yawning breakers,
He sees but the maid alone:

The pitiless billows engulf him! -
So perish sailor and bark;
And this, with her baleful singing,
Is the Lorelei's grewsome work.

Translation by L.W. Garnbam

I do not known what it signifies.
That I am so sorrowful?
A fable of old Times so terrifies,
Leaves my heart so thoughtful.

The air is cool and it darkens,
And calmly flows the Rhine;
The summit of the mountain hearkens
In evening sunshine line.

The most beautiful Maiden entrances
Above wonderfully there,
Her beautiful golden attire glances,
She combs her golden hair.

With golden comb so lustrous,
And thereby a song sings
It has a tone so wondrous,
That powerful melody rings.

The shipper in the little ship
It effects with woes sad might;
He does not see the rocky clip,
He only regards dreaded height.

I believe the turbulent waves
Swallow at last shipper and boat;
She with her singing craves
All to visit her magic moat.

My thanks to the American satirist Mark Twain for including these two translations of "The Lorelei" in his travel journal, A Tramp Abroad. Twain vividly described his travels down the Rhine and the haunting legend of Lore, a favorite among German folk legends. He included these two most popular versions of the song, of which I by far prefer the Olde English. There is something about its harsh lyricism that fully conveys the imagined seduction and disastrous dangers. The Lore, according to myth, was a water nymph who used to sit on a high rock called Ley, or Lei, in the Rhine and lure boatmen to destruction in a furious rapid, so bewitching them with her plaintive song and wondrous beauty that they forgot everything else to gaze up at her.

I cannot imagine, as Twain must also have agreed, a better tale with which to compress and symbolize the lure and intrigue of travel in mysterious foreign lands. The lure of travel is, in fact, its very beauty, surprise, and uncertain adventure: dangers lurk in the vast unknown. And while I do not suppose to encounter the nymph on my upcoming two week journey down the modern Rhine, I certainly do hope to encounter the mysterious and magical as I sail its length and poke around through centuries of tales, crumbling ruins of warfare, collected and looted art, conflicting cuisines, blended languages - all that defines the peoples of Europe the length of Holland, where I begin, to Switzerland, where I finish. I and my companions go by boat, by train, by foot. I will complete a personal "bucket list" dream hiking the lowest slopes of the Matterhorn. And I expect to collect and consume a fair amount of wine, chocolate; even perhaps, toting home a miniature work of art on a postcard or charming quite garish stein.

Life's an adventure! So forgive me if the posts are infrequent the next two weeks until my return the end of June. I'll bring home stories along with those Swiss chocolates and crazy steins. Until then, imagine me...a tramp abroad.
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Too Important to Forget

painting by Kimberly Brooks

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

- Naomi Shihab Nye

This poem came to me via the wonderful little chapbook by Roger Housden, "Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime." He has this to say about Nye's poem - I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem.

That will make you pause, won't it? Prioritize. Live by your deepest needs rather than the social calendar, the work schedule, the in-box. Housden calls a poem like this a "message from a trusted friend." The friend that is "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats which I find the single greatest guide to poems that matter to me - "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance."

Indeed. Do you remember what you knew your life was for - that singular moment you crested from childhood into young adulthood, setting your sights on the world's horizon? Do you remember the truth felt on that hot August afternoon lying in the grass under the green willow branches, staring up and through an endless blue sky? Do you remember a sudden shiver holding a newborn? The still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held a tea cup and waited by the window? Nye's poem is a call back home - live your life, know life, life is finite.

I too carry this poem in my wallet. I like its honest fierceness. Nye doesn't mince words. I need that. Her words remind me it's not about social or family obligation, it isn't a denial of love, it is about what ever that "it" is that beats at the heart of this stanza -

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.

So, I listen.
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Summer Thunderstorm

That crooning they swooned for, all the moons in June
and sweet talk of broken hearts forever: the man
in his apartment hears buses hiss and roar
below his window, a television set next door,
but listens to Dorsey and Sinatra on the phonograph,
feels a quiet settle over his flesh, the laugh
of muted trumpets coming down soft as rain.

He could look for hours into the room's
empty spaces - the blind stares, his father calls them.
And he knows it is melancholy, a nameless
yearning not for his own youth, but for that famous
eon of is father's, a blind time
before one war or another, and all those fine
fine tunes that lull his now to dream

without sleep. He believes a song
is a dream, memory nothing but a long
lyric he'll never completely know.
He thinks of his parents, years ago,
huddled on the old Ford's hood, wrapped
in a woolen blanket and watching the lake water lap
the shore under star shine. On the radio a song

from Dorsey and Sinatra rang the perfect omen.
Tonight is what they could not know, when
he would ache with his nothing, grow still
below the weight of what is empty, all that any song will
do. Like the star beaming outward past its death,
the buses and the rain he loses track of,
the music comes and goes, and he remembers again.

- Robert Wrigley

My radio, which plays the public radio jazz station softly in my office as I write, just interrupted a lovely Paul Desmond piano riff with the blare of an emergency alert - a thunderstorm warning has been issued for the surrounding county. Surprised I get up from my chair and push back the billowy drape, peering up over the rooftops. A heavy, swollen, soot-gray cloud mass towers above the leafy trees. Where you might expect a breeze there is the ominous absence of one - as if the sky had sucked in its breath, holding, holding. Humidity, silting the air, grows palpable in the colorless heat. A thunderstorm is indeed imminent.

The poem I have just been reading by Robert Wrigley, on rain and soft nights, the heat of things anchored on nothingness, seems to have conjured the poem's own weather. Or perhaps the storms clouds writ their passing on the page in my hand. But somehow now I am thinking of melancholy...this poem is weighted at the bones with a strange, haunting, enveloping sense of the false present, the portent hollowness that is melancholy. The approaching storm seems to wrap its shoulders in the poem, dark with nameless yearning, the muted trumpets and the music on the radio, the beauty of empty star shine. Empty spaces - the blind stares, the poet writes. And the summer heat at last crushes in on itself and now falls in a soft rain on the leaves.

And I remember again, why I love summer.
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