Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 5


 
It’s been a long long time since I traveled alone in a foreign country, but that’s where the plan took me today. As you recall, this little vacation was triggered by Ally’s business trip to Cologne, which commenced today, Tuesday. She left St. Goar at around 6.30 am, which would allow plenty of time to be at her 9 am meeting (the main foreseeable problem would be to make the mental shift). I went to the station with her, saw her off, then went for an hour-long walk, to Das Boot, which I described before (and which looked even more eccentrically desolate at this time of day), and back. I went to breakfast by myself. “Are you alone?” asked the guy with apparent astonishment, as he lit my lonely candle.

I was scheduled to leave St. Goar at 9.21 – astonishingly, the train was late! As I had only five minutes to make a connection at Oberwesel, I then needed to decide whether to get off there regardless of having presumably missed that connection, or whether to stay on the train I was on and work it out later. I got off, and it turned out the connecting train was late as well – all immaculately coordinated I’m sure. The whole check-in/security process took no more than half an hour. The highlight of that was seeing an Ozu-like dog, apparently about to be placed in a crate to embark on a flight, and looking too happy to be aware of what was coming (I don’t anticipate we’d ever put Ozu on a plane – it would only be out of utterly unavoidable necessity).
 

 
Then I had three hours or so to wait around at the airport. I don’t mind such waiting around too much, as long as I can use it to read or do things I would have done anyway at other times (i.e. so that the time needn’t in any sense be considered “wasted”) and I had more than enough of a to-do list to meet that criterion for today’s waiting time, for the flight home, and for a big security margin on top of that. I made pretty good progress on this list, largely because of sleeping only minimally. I had an aisle seat, but when I arrived at it I was asked by a couple who’d been separated whether I’d switch and take her middle seat in another row. She was much larger than I was so I made a snap decision that I would contribute to the common good by agreeing to this (usually of course, my own well-being would have been greater by staying on the aisle, but even that might not have held here, sitting next to a possibly disgruntled husband for eight hours). Anyway, no doubt I did the right thing.

The flight was on time, and Canadian immigration took no time at all, but then the bag took an hour to show up (as they always seem to at Toronto Pearson unfortunately) and of course traffic into the city was slow. But I picked up Ozu exactly at 7 as planned. We ran home, and celebrated in our usual buoyant manner, and for me that’s always the official end of the vacation. Meanwhile, Ally did a full day’s work, and when I called her from the airport, she’d had dinner long ago, and had been in her Cologne hotel room for a couple of hours, just winding down the day. We don’t have too many days when our trajectories deviate so dramatically…
 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 4



Last night was the Euro soccer final, although I suppose it would have had a more galvanizing impact on St. Goar if Germany had made it to the end. As it was, the Bistro Café Goar was showing the France vs. Portugal game on a TV screen inside. After we’d finished eating and were having drinks, we moved to the terrace, a perfect spot for monitoring both this and the river (the parade of grand industrial barges continuing after dark, like stately elongated whales). When normal time ended without a goal, some of the clientele left, apparently with some mocking from the others for their lack of fortitude. We left around that time too (to no mocking), counting eight or so mostly elderly remainees. And that was the Sunday action in St. Goar.

On Monday we again had breakfast in the hotel (the guy at the next table was surreptitiously assembling sandwiches from the breakfast buffet materials and putting them in his briefcase) before heading off for another seven hour-plus exploration. We climbed up behind town to the top of the gorge and followed a trail for several hours, eventually coming back down at the town of Oberwesel. As I mentioned, this is only really an achievement in climbing if you’ve artificially placed yourself down at the bottom – following the trail, we frequently walked past housing developments or resorts or whatnot, reminding us that’s where the real world is, up there! The highlight of the walk though came during one of its more deeply forested sections, where we came across an old man and woman dragging a (very reluctant) sheep along the path. We should have blocked the way, chanting: Free the Sheep!

Actually, the real highlights were naturally the constant views down into the gorge – every new look-out point gives you a new reason to stop and breathe it in. Oberwesel also looked great from up above, but is rather dull and disappointing close-up, even allowing that Monday seems to be a day off for a lot of small businesses. The biggest comparative limitation may be that St. Goar has hotels and restaurants with almost direct access to the river (excepting the road, which isn’t too busy), but in Oberwesel the railway runs closer to the water, holding back the rest of the town (there’s an old city wall in the way too). I expect it made sense at the time to lay things down that way, but now it makes the place feel constricted. We had trouble even finding a suitable place to eat, but eventually sat down and had a couple of sandwiches, and five separate beverage orders between the two of us. We watched a woman arriving at a nearby hair salon for what was presumably a 2 pm appointment, waiting outside for the hairdresser to return from her break, getting increasingly impatient, trying unsuccessfully to place a phone call, eventually giving up at around 2.20 pm and leaving under a dark cloud. The hairdresser turned up ten minutes after that, with her dog and her shopping bag, beaming happily and without an apparent care in the world. That’s probably how it goes down here in the small towns.

By the way, if you climb all the way up from Oberwesel, someone (apparently an anonymous artist) is carrying out a project of constructing large metal “troll” sculptures – based on the dates, it appears a new one gets added every year. There’s one at the roadside; the others are lurking in the woods. Here is Ally with a representative example.
 

 
We then decided that if we walked on a further 6 km or so to the town of Bacharach, we’d arrive in time to catch the hourly train back to St. Goar. This was an easy 6 km by comparison with what we'd already done, all along the river, no climbing. We achieved this with time to spare, enough to wander round Bacharach (which was also mostly closed) to find an ice cream. The scenic highlight of the walk was the town of Kaub on the other side, with its eye-catching white castle on a tiny island in the middle of the river (it is called Pfalzgrafenstein Castle and was built as a station to extract tolls from passing vessels – mundane functions were discharged with so much style in the old days!).



There didn’t seem to be as many cruise ships in the water today – maybe business surges at the weekend; certainly the volume of motor bikes had plummeted. I would have placed a bet that Bacharach would have held at least one prominent tribute to its famous namesake Burt, perhaps a modest statue on the theme of What’s New Pussycat?, but if so we missed it. It’s another very picturesque town though, again with old walls and cobbled streets intact, so that you could shoot a historical film on the back streets with minimal cover-up of contemporary details.
 

 
That added up to a lot of walking today, a punishing achievement even if the weather was slightly cooler than yesterday. We picked up another beverage (whenever we’re in Europe we drink bottle after bottle of Fanta – we never buy it at home, and if we do it doesn’t taste the same anyway) and then returned to the hotel. Once again, we did not succeed in seeing Ozu at the pool. Some of the restaurants were closed tonight, again because it’s Monday I suppose – we ate in a quiet place in the middle of town, which also closed as soon as we left, and then ended up drinking beer over the water. It becomes ever more clear that there are fewer functioning businesses here than meets the eye. For instance, there’s a hotel near us that looks open – there are flowers in all the windowboxes – but we’ve never seen any signs of life there, and based on an online search it's not taking reservations. It’s quite sad, the sense that the world is losing its taste for this kind of quiet location. St. Goar does appear to be a regular stopping point for a Contiki tour bus – this is a company catering to 18 to 35 year olds, known for the partying nature of the experience – and this may explain some of the young women we saw wandering around on previous nights. Mostly though, it appears the Contiki groups stay in a hotel on the other side of town, where they create their own self-contained world of fun. Can their world ever overlap with the rest of St. Goar, to spark a new mutually beneficial way forward...?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 3



The Rheinfels hotel feels largely empty, and almost haunted too, by virtue of the motion-detecting light switches that illuminate the nighttime corridors as you wander down them. But based on the breakfast room this morning, the place might actually be full. It was a very nice buffet, with almost everything you could think of, excepting chanterelles, and overseen very efficiently by a single aging waiter in a bow tie. The tables had white tablecloths and, even at this time of day, burning candles.

The feeling of emptiness and under-utilization is pervasive to the town though. On both this and the other side of the river, we see numerous closed hotels and restaurants, suggesting more prosperous times in the past. Much of the activity now consists of people arriving in tour buses, catching a ferry for a cruise on the Rhine, and then disappearing, to be picked up elsewhere. Today we walked past an old-fashioned caravan park, people reading and drinking beer outside their camper vans, in their little square of river-facing space. There’s absolutely nothing in the vicinity that feels in any way new. Of course, this is the charm of the place, if you’re into it, but it feels like much of the world may be moving on…
 

 
Well, at least they have the two of us for now. The ferry to the other side is an impressive operation, carrying over maybe as many as twenty cars on each run, along with sundry bikers, cyclists, walkers and dogs. It goes every twenty minutes, back and forth, until late into the night, loading and unloading with what looks like unceasing efficiency. From where we're staying, you get the impression that the town on the other side, minimally distinguished from St. Goar by calling itself St. Goarshausen, might have more action, but when we crossed over this morning we found out it’s not true. We picked up a drink and some snacks (from the one place that seemed to be open) and set off. In addition to being able to walk along the river in any direction on either side, one can also climb out of the gorge (I keep wanting to refer to them as hills or mountains, but it’s not that they’re so high, it’s that we’re so low) and hike above, again on either side in either direction. We did that today, selecting a trail that should have taken us several hours, winding past several castles. We managed to complete the most difficult stretch, the initial climb, but then found out the rest of the trail was closed, due to a rockslide or something. We wandered around up there as much as we could, but ended up coming back down to where we started. Then we set off in the other direction, taking on another tough initial climb, this time with greater subsequent success. We followed the trail for a couple of hours, much of it along farmers’ fields and vineyards, often clinging to the side of the gorge in a way that looks precarious. Of course, the valley views from there are magnificent, endless compositions of water and sky, and largely tasteful insertions by mankind.

We descended near the castle Maus and into the little village of Wellmich, which doesn’t have too much going on. From there we walked back along the river to St. Goarshausen. This was about five hours since we left the hotel, and it was hot and often exposed throughout, so that was as much applied activity as you could really expect in one day. We sat around in the shade for about an hour, having a toasted sandwich, some ice cream, and lots of beverages. A lot of the activity on the road seemed to belong to motor cyclists; all the bikes highly polished and shining in the sun, all the gear immaculate. Apparently this is regarded as a prime road for motor biking, so maybe we're watching (say) junior accountants from Frankfurt living their dreams for an afternoon. Other aspects of the local culture could appear aligned with the biker culture too, given that we’ve seen ads not only for Deep Purple but also for a Monster Truck show, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and (sic) Thin Lissy, Of course, I’m engaging in wild stereotyping there, as there’s no inherent reason why the bikers couldn’t be down here for (say) a Goethe symposium.
 


We caught the ferry back to the other side. I mentioned that St. Goar would have seemed to belong to the old rather than the new Germany, but as we arrived back the street was filled, rather mesmerizingly, by an Islamic pilgrimage (or, more likely, a tour group heading for the bus). But eventually they were gone and things went back to normal. While we were in the hotel for our afternoon break, Canadian Milos Raonic lost in the Wimbledon final. For the last few trips, Ozu has been staying in a new location, called “Park 9.” Once a day, the dogs get to use an indoor pool, and Ozu loves it beyond description – he dips his paws into the water, loses his head with excitement, and goes running around the perimeter like a maniac, then repeats the process endlessly. Based on past experience, and given the time difference, I thought we would taking our afternoon break at the optimum time to watch this display on the webcam, but we’ve seen little evidence the pool is ever used at all. Well, I suppose every trip has to contain at least one disappointment.
 

 
We were aware that things might close down earlier on a Sunday, and so they did – we sat down outside the Bistro Café Goar just as the kitchen was closing, it seems. It really wasn’t very memorable food though, even allowing for our scaled-down expectations, so there may be little qualitative difference between the kitchen being open and it being closed. An hour or so later, a group of young women walked by, looking dressed up for a visit to a nightclub or suchlike. Based on what we’ve observed of the town, they were definitely misinformed; but on the other hand, they wandered off somewhere and we never saw them again, so maybe it has its secret gathering places…
 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 2



We both slept very solidly, and woke up ready for a whole day of Germany! We spent the morning seeing more of Frankfurt, and by the end of it we’d covered the heart of things quite well, despite the time we lost on the first afternoon (and by the way, we realized today how unlucky we were – if we’d been even a single block further east when we joined the street that caused all our problems, we would have had clear access to the river, would have immediately realized we were turned around, and then the rest would never have happened, although on the other hand then we wouldn’t have our memories of Griesheim). We stopped for breakfast at a bakery (of course every European city has a bakery basically on every block, the inventory never changing too much from one to the next), retraced some of our steps from last evening up to the Euro sign and the main finance district, and then continued on into the main retail streets. It was a busy Saturday morning – the streets were packed. We went into the Galeria Kaufhof department store, now owned by Ally’s employer HBC and linked to the purpose of her visit here (so I suppose you could call it research). It’s very reminiscent actually of HBC stores in Canada – the food hall in the basement is particularly impressive (I’ve never seen such a large and nicely arranged display of water bottles). The store was busy too, although it’s always possible people are merely browsing before heading home to place their orders online.
 


We walked through an open air market, notable compared to those elsewhere for the volume of beer and wine consumption (based on what we've seen so far, the cliché still holds - Germans love drinking, and don't have too many restrictions on when and where it happens). We walked down to the river, wandering up one side and then down the other. Frankfurt has some more than pleasant views along there: some striking modern buildings contrasting with the older ones (or more accurately in many cases, the reconstructions of the long-destroyed older ones), but needless to say, if it does indeed replace London as the European centre of finance, as has been speculated post-Brexit, it has some catch-up to do in terms of overall scope and dynamism.
 
We returned to the hotel to pick up our bags and then headed to the station. The journey to St. Goar took about an hour and a half, with a simple change about a third of the way through. We splurged on first class, which meant a nice separate carriage on the first train (although not with working wi-fi, contrary to the legend) and then a barely differentiated space behind a glass partition on the second. The journey became quite lovely in its final stretch, overlooking the Rhine, traveling through a series of small towns, regularly overseen by high castles. We'd read that one can walk along the river for a long way - with regular ferries to the other side and easy access to the railways, it should be hard to get lost or stranded. This is the premise of the next few days anyway.
 

 
We instantly found our hotel, the Rheinfels, where the guy at the desk seemed highly amused that I have the same surname as a member of Deep Purple (coincidentally, or not, Deep Purple are actually playing here soon, on the other side of the river, although there’s nothing in sight resembling a performance venue, or even say a large playing field) (actually Ally just looked that up – they're playing in an amphitheatre somewhere among the rocks – might not be such a bad gig!). It’s an older but well-maintained hotel; our room is quite large and has a balcony overlooking the river, directly across from the nearest ferry stop.



One thing we hadn’t considered is that walking along the Rhine isn’t necessarily peaceful in the same way as many of the classic walks we’ve taken – there’s a road that runs right above it, and there's the railway just above that. There’s a cycling track and a walkway, and occasionally the trail dips down closer to the water, but you could never succumb to the illusion of being away from everything. That said, it’s very beautiful here, a completely satisfying spot to spend a few days. St. Goar is really little more than a strip along the road (at its most built up point, there’s a second strip behind that), but the possibilities lead away from you in all directions. This includes the upward direction, where we climbed the hill to an old castle – there’s a hotel up there too. We walked along the river to the west, a steady stream of ferries and afternoon cruise ships and industrial barges passing by (funny though that we didn’t see a single small craft – maybe they’re restricted). We could have kept going indefinitely, but we stopped around the time we reached “Das Boot,” apparently someone’s past brainwave of building a hotel in the shape of the top half of a boat (I’m sure it was fun in its heyday, but now it’s abandoned).

The town has six or seven reasonable-looking places to eat at night, although the menus don’t seem to vary much from one to the next. We chose Hotel am Markt, in the square in front of the town’s largest church (it has two). Most of the clientele seemed pretty elderly, and in some cases that’s putting it mildly. The waiter was initially attentive, but then seemed to lose interest entirely, reappearing only on the two occasions when we gave up waiting and I walked over to the building to look for him. Just as in Frankfurt, the main menu was supplemented by the special seasonal chanterelle menu. It’s amazing though how prices change when you get out of the big cities – our meal and what we drank were much the same as last night, but the bill was over 40% lower (under 60 Euros). The same thing goes for the hotel too. Anyway, I suppose the waiter had a point – there’s no purpose in hurrying; once it gets dark, there’s nowhere else happening around here…
 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 1



So it came up that Ally would be going to Cologne for work again, for the fourth time in less than ten months. We’d vaguely discussed I might tag along on one of these trips, and this seemed as good a time as any, so we quickly cobbled together a long weekend plan. In brief: we fly out of Toronto on Thursday evening, arrive in Frankfurt Friday morning, spend a day there before going to St. Goar in the Rhine Valley around lunchtime on Saturday, spend two and a half days there. On Tuesday I return home, and Ally goes on to Cologne to do her work, returning on Friday. It might be seen as a lot of cost and effort for such a short trip, but on the other hand, her flights are already paid for. Anyway, for various logistical reasons we couldn’t add on any more days; it was this or nothing, so we decided to go with this.
 

 
It’s been a long time since we had any real problems at airports, and that held again here; both our arrival and departure took place at near-record speed (it helps that we were flying premium economy, which gets you into the business class check-in counter and moves your luggage up in priority, among other things). We took a train to the main station, which of course was as easy as everything train-related in Europe. We’d picked a hotel near there to reduce logistical challenges, and located it easily enough after a few initial wrong turns. As so often, the streets around the station might not be regarded as the best invitation to the city, although it’s just life with all of its waiting and staring and yelling and scurrying. Certainly the streets belong to the new heterogeneous Europe, not to the old guard.

We stayed at the Hotel Bliss, oddly described in the room as an “exhibition and design hotel for the discerning little closer.” The design is of a familiar kind – lots of clean white lines: there are photos of old Hollywood stars throughout, although it’s hard to see how that relates to anything, thematically speaking (we were in the Audrey Hepburn room, at the end of the James Stewart corridor). Our plan for the afternoon was simple enough – walk to the downtown old city, which seemed like it should take half an hour or so, then maybe walk along the Rhine, and return to the hotel for a break having lapped up the main Frankfurt attractions, albeit not in much depth. So we went out, and after stopping at a nearby bakery for a snack, launched into just that.

This ended up as one of the more inexplicable escapades of our many travels together. We’ve often started walking without looking at the map in too much detail – usually it works out fine; when it doesn’t, it’s an experience in itself. Today we wanted to stay more or less on track because of our limited time here, so after initially wandering off track a bit, we consulted the map, adjusted our route and kept going. We were walking directly towards the old city, but we kept walking and it refused to appear. Eventually we came to some older residential streets and thought, this must be the start of it, but then that ended and we were merely walking along a highway. We couldn’t make any sense of it from the map. Then eventually we realized we’d been walking away from the city, the greatest blunder possible. We’ve done this before, but always as a result of being caught up in irregular street layouts where even a subtle shift in your sense of direction extrapolates into overshooting the moon by about half a light-year. On this occasion the streets had seemed largely straight, and straightforward, so it’s especially perplexing. At least we blundered together – it’s not as if one of us had overridden the instincts of the other, thus giving the latter something to bring up for the rest of our days (if we were like that).
 


Anyway, the residential streets that we'd taken for the old city of Frankfurt actually belonged to the nearby town of Griesheim. We caught a bus to the Griesheim station, and then a train back to Frankfurt (for all of our prolonged efforts, the as-the-crow-flies train journey took an embarrassing four minutes). It was a pretty hot afternoon, so we were tired even if we hadn’t accomplished much. And anyway, it wasn’t a complete failure. Other than having the story itself, we'd had plenty to look at – we were surprised for instance at the volume of industrial activity so close to the heart of a major city (perhaps as a sign of Germany’s status as the engine of Europe), although even that observation tells you maybe we should have realized earlier on that something wasn’t right…
 

 
We went back to the hotel for a while, where we napped a bit and tried not to feel too disappointed in ourselves. When we came back out after 7, we diligently followed the map (there's an idea!). The first part of the walk didn’t yield too much of interest – a lot of deserted restaurants winding up for the day. Eventually we reached the business district and the big Euro sign sculpture outside the European Central Bank, and from there the river. It was a warm but not stifling night and the banks were filled with couples and groups hanging out, cyclists, summer activity. We crossed to the other side, walked along for a while, crossed back on another bridge and then into the old town. It’s quite compact, less than a square kilometer, and of course teeming with our kind of people – tourists! (in truth though it is a much more sterile-feeling environment than the area around the hotel, which one might consider a good or a bad thing). Like all European towns, the main square is filled with open-air restaurants, and we ended up at one of those – the Zum Schwarzen Stern. It was emphasizing meals based on chanterelles, as they’re in season, so we both went with that, and the time happily passed. It eventually got dark (maybe half an hour later than at home) and we took a taxi back to the hotel. Then we noticed for the first time a stylish-looking bar across the street, so we went there for a final drink. And so in the end we basically achieved our plans for Frankfurt after all!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A song


The sky today was a smudged, sickly orange, a disturbing contrast with the previous day’s soft yellow, even though the warm fronts always came in that way. She could remember a time when they warned you not to go out unnecessarily on orange days, but now they only issued those warnings on red mornings, and not always then. Anyway, most people by now treated the warnings as a ritual, as a wake-up chant in a meaningless language. Some were still frightened, but it was increasingly hard to tolerate such an absence of adaptive skills, even though of course everyone was supposed to tolerate everyone else’s sincerely-held beliefs and fears.

Martin sent her a voice-stroke as she was walking to the park  – Melt out 2nite? She replied right away – B at Ur place 10. She’d decide later whether she meant it or not. She thought she’d already arranged to be somewhere, but she didn’t check her time map. The last time they had a melt-up, he was the one who’d forgotten, and when she got there he was in the middle of an all-maler. He’d tried to pretend he hadn’t forgotten (which was nice and old-fashioned of him) and invited her to join them, but she didn’t like that combination, and she’d already promised herself never to get into it again. A few years ago, she was sexually like everyone else, a believer in never saying no, but recently she was getting into the Self-Zoom movement, and asking herself every day what she really wanted. She wasn’t very good yet at finding answers to that, but they always emphasized how much time you had to invest in the questions before moving forward.

The park was just about as busy as ever, despite the greater violence. The western half of it belonged to the tents now – sometime in the past few years, the forces had given up chasing them out. She felt bad avoiding the tents; most of the people in them were just like anybody else, but some of the men were driven by obnoxious new doctrines that made them dangerous. The eastern half belonged mainly to the dogs. It was the only good place in the neighborhood to bring them, and it felt like there were more of them around than ever, although she’d heard on an info-stroke that the dog numbers were declining, because people preferred pets who fit with their insiding. It was probably one of the many things where living in the country’s most affluent city distorted your perspective, because people had more reasons to go outside. Apparently most middle-sized towns now didn’t have a single coffee shop. That’s what she’d heard anyway. She wasn’t sure if that was because of the price of coffee or because of insiding. Maybe both. She still had three coffee shops within a ten minute walk, and often thought she’d visit them more often, to provide support, but she couldn’t see the point of drinking anything hot.

About half the people had their faces uncovered today, the usual number. She never covered up unless she was looking up at raging crimson.  She sat and listened to info-strokes, watching the dogs wandering in the dirty shade. A few of them ran in spurts, but they mostly stayed by their owners. Dogs had once been symbols of loyalty and companionship but now they seemed mostly like embodiments of everyone’s eternal waiting. Maybe if dog numbers were declining, it was because people suspected they sensed too much. One of them came briefly over to her and she stroked its neck. It went away without looking at her, as transactional as everyone else.

She was receiving constant info-strokes about disasters in Poland, even though they didn’t match her settings. She didn’t even know where Poland was, let alone care about it. But she let them continue, finding for now anyway that the shards of misery made her other info-strokes seem almost refreshing by comparison. She wondered whether this was in any way a profound discovery.

A man was walking toward her. He was a little older than her, with more facial hair than you usually saw now, and with exposed arms wrapped earlier-generation-style in painterly tattoos. On most people the combined effect would have been comic, but on him it looked deliberate and purposeful. He sat on the same slab as her, even though there were others available; some people would have called the forces for not much more, especially from someone who looked like that. For the next few minutes though, she wondered whether he’d even seen her there, he seemed to be traveling so deeply through his own forest. She knew he had seen her of course, but she admired the concentration. She spoke first: “Are you from the neighborhood?”

He turned toward her, in a way that made her think he’d been waiting for her to go first. He smiled in a comfortable, unshady kind of way. “I’m trying to decide on that actually. I mean, I’m not from the neighborhood. But maybe I could be. I’m walking around, trying to feel out whether this would be a good place for me.”

“How long have you been walking around?”

“Several days. Not consecutively. A few hours yesterday, a few hours today.”

“I didn’t know anyone took that kind of care about finding a place. Most people just check if there’s a clinic or a termination station, or a school if they need that. Or somewhere to get delinked, but you can always find that. Do you need a school?”

“I don’t need any of the things you mentioned. Just an atmosphere I feel comfortable in.”

“And you don’t just mean a cooling system that never ever breaks down.”

“Well, I do mean that too. I believe in having a cooling system. I know how they’re ultimately making our problems worse and I admire people who take the ethical stand on that. But it’s very tough on a person, subjecting yourself to that kind of constant discomfort.”

“Worse than that. They often die in their rooms. I don’t know if it’s always an ethical stand. Sometimes it’s just checking out. I mean, I’m going to take the pill, when I get to that point, but some people actually think the pill is too fast. They want to feel the end, even if it’s unbearable.”

“I haven’t made that decision for myself. I’m focused on staying alive and maxing it.”

“I’m not arguing with that. It’s just that focusing on maxing it doesn’t take you as far as it used to.” She sighed and looked at him like someone looking to the bottom of oceans. “Anyway, that’s a heavy conversation to have with someone who just randomly sits next to you.”

“No, it’s the so-called light conversations that are heavy. Weighed down and probably sunk by everything they try to ignore. Serious conversations float at their appropriate level.” He laughed at himself. “I just pulled myself out of an iceberg metaphor there.”

“That wouldn’t have been culturally correct for sure.”

“Maybe it’s safer to talk about the dogs,” he said. But the dogs were doing even less now, except that one of them was rolling in the dirt, as though coaxing the earth into accepting him to its clutch. A little time went by. She didn’t want to say anything and didn’t mind waiting for him.

Eventually he commented: “You’re not listening to info-strokes or music or anything.”

“You mean right now? I was giving you a chance to speak again.”

“It’s unusual for anyone to tolerate that long a silence.”

“I’m not that big a history lesson. It was on before you came. Wasn’t yours?”

“I haven’t had it on for days. Look.” He moved a little closer and angled his head one way and then another so she could see there was nothing sitting in his ears. “It’s great.”

“But don’t you get into trouble? What if someone needed you now.”

“That’s the great thing I found out. No one ever does. It will always wait.”

“Obviously I noticed the tattoos and the…” She couldn’t remember the word; he had to supply it. “Yes,” she said, “the beard. It’s a disruption. I like them, but I don’t even know why. I think it’s a look we were all meant to stop liking years ago.”

“Yeah. But, you know, I’m not such a big history lesson either. And I’m not an outlaw. I just believe we feel stronger and cleaner when we’re even a little bit different. Except I don’t have the imagination to be different in a new way, so I reached back into the past.”

“I’ve been getting into the Self-Zoom movement.”

“That can be good. It works for some people.”

“You don’t sound very impressed.”

“I am. It’s only that, for some people, it’s like looking away from everything. It depends on how you do it.”

“If I was looking away from everything I wouldn’t be sitting out here.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You’re right. You could probably use the Self-Zoom movement to justify killing people. That’s not how I meant it.”

“Do you do the organized Zooms?”

“No, I treat it as a personal thing.”

“That’s the better approach I think.” He took his shades off briefly and rubbed one of his eyelids. Maybe he genuinely had an itch, or maybe he wanted her to see his eyes, as some kind of message of sincerity. They were smaller and darker than she’d expected, but then all his features were small for his face, even his ears. If you were with him, you’d spend a lot of time wondering how you ended up seeing so much of such an odd face. Maybe you’d be happy to spend hours and years wondering about it.

She thought of taking off her own shades, but this wasn’t the place for that kind of intimacy. He replaced his. “I wanted to do something,” he said. “A sort of test of my comfort. It’s a little unusual.”

“All right,” she said, laughing uncertainly. “Does it involve prodding me with anything?”

“It may be embarrassing to you. You may prefer to move away.” She nodded and indicated for him to go ahead. He sat quietly for a moment. He took his shades off again and put them in his pocket. He got up and stood on the slab. He was still, perhaps giving her time to move, but she didn’t think it was necessary.

He took a deep breath, then exhaled into a loud musical note, high and strong and clear, which he held for several seconds. She felt herself leap back a little; she suppressed another laugh, before realizing immediately she didn’t feel like laughing at all. People and dogs looked over. He followed it with a second, higher note, then another, and a melody started to form. She stood and moved away, not out of embarrassment, but to watch and listen. He formed every note perfectly; each hovered in its own pocket of air before softly expiring into the next. His song didn’t have words, but for her it evoked – with strange and almost chilling clarity - a long-forgotten form of pleasure, or a dream of it, perhaps an afternoon in a park like this when the scene would have been founded in inexhaustible green, and the people would have been dressed in white, and they’d have been laughing and running and eating and drinking. A crowd gathered around him, and she felt they were seeing the same things she was, that his song was a window that had suddenly opened to them.

As he continued, his body relaxed deeply; when his arms moved with the music, they seemed controlled by an invisible operator. His eyes were closed; his head nodded and swayed as if engaged in the most profound internal conversation. She heard some people murmur something, but for the most part they were impossibly quiet, their info-strokes obviously turned off. Of course, you couldn’t tell who was recording it to play back later, but she doubted many of them were doing that either. This was to be an experience and a memory. The regret of it being gone, and incapable of being recovered, would be at the heart of its beauty. The majesty of the moment was inextricable from the fear of losing it.

He reached his highest note yet and held it for as long as a story, then his mouth snapped shut and he drew himself up like a soldier. The air was ringing. The city’s usual jagged hum was still there, but in temporary retreat. It was like holding back the ocean with a whisper; perhaps a miracle, even if it couldn’t last. A few people applauded, but others didn’t, perhaps finding it wrong to follow a sublime sound with a dull and formulaic one. Some came up to him; he stepped down from the slab to talk to them, shaking and clasping their hands and looking deep into their shades like a priest or a politician. One old woman even took her own shades off in return, that’s how far he’d taken her.

He didn’t look at her at all, but she knew he hadn’t forgotten her, that he was still controlling his performance, and that when it was over, she and he would continue. She was entirely content to wait, feeling no desire at all to move, not even into the deeper shade that was just a few steps away. She let others take their time with him, and as she watched him with them, it was easy to imagine that the air around him had become a rich, sheltering blue, and that he was glistening against it like life-giving rain.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 13


 
I didn’t completely grasp the significance of the soccer game I mentioned yesterday – Iceland beat the Netherlands (in Holland) and are now one point away from qualifying for the European Championship. So of course people were being noisy. They were watching the game on an outdoor big screen near the hotel, but once it was over they dispersed quickly (if nothing else, it was cold) and by the time we went out it was pretty quiet. We wandered round looking for the ideal last-night restaurant – for me it would have been easy (they all serve great fish) but if you strip away the burger and pizza places, Ally usually has a choice of maybe two things, one of which is always beef. Eventually we settled on a place called Torfan, where I had blue ling and, after all of that, Ally had beef. But it was a charming spot, with a feeling of being away from the fray. Actually, the main fray was over at the next table, where a couple of (we assume) academics and (it seemed) one of the academics’ somewhat younger girlfriend were discussing the whole span of twentieth century politics and culture in the kind of way that Woody Allen used to regularly parody. On this occasion, they got to close the place down. As we walked back afterwards, late night Reykjavik - the real Reykjavik, some might say - was plainly settling into place.


We were up good and early the next morning (I think the water in the hotel smelled like sulphur, but in the circumstances that was a nostalgic reminder of our experiences), and then for a while we flirted with disaster. Given Iceland’s horrendous cab fares, we'd made an online booking for the airport bus; we understood it would pick us up at the hotel at 7.45 am and get us to the airport at 8.30 am, which seemed OK for a 10.30 am flight. Actually though, the hotel pick-up only got us to the bus terminal at 8.30 am (if it had been on time, which it wasn’t), with the airport an hour or so beyond that. This only slowly dawned on us along the way, raising horrible fears of a brutally self-inflicted own goal – obviously 9.30 is logistically early enough for a flight leaving an hour later, but who knows how strict an individual airline might be regarding its stated policies? We tried to check in online from the bus, and Ally managed it, but getting there a couple of minutes behind her, I received a message that check-in was closed for our flight, thus raising a possible scenario where Ally might be allowed on the plane and I wouldn’t be. Anyway, in the end there was no line at the check-in counter, the woman seemed entirely unperturbed at our lateness (does being in the mighty Saga class increase their tolerance for such shenanigans? – it couldn’t hurt I suppose), there was no line at the security gates either, we did some duty-free shopping and still had twenty minutes in the lounge to calm down before walking to the gate. So I don’t know if we ultimately learned anything from that. But for anyone thinking that this vacation diary should contain at least a little bit of unbearable tension, we did get a dose of it at the end.


Beyond that, it was an uneventful flight home. The lunch selections were blue ling and beef…seemed strangely familiar. I finished rewatching the old Japanese movie (by the original Ozu) Tokyo Twilight, which I’d been getting through in brief chunks on various flights. I finished this week’s downloaded edition of The New Yorker and started on this month’s downloaded edition (which conveniently went online this morning) of the British movie magazine Sight and Sound (which, astonishing to reflect, I’ve been reading cover to cover since 1980 I think). Ally continued with the John Irving book and watched Ben Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty (some of which may well have been shot on the same road we drove along, given the prominent presence in one sequence of the pipe from the geothermal plant). IcelandAir is a somewhat self-effacing airline – even their safety announcement is in English with Icelandic subtitles. We didn’t watch much TV in Iceland, but most of it also seemed to be in English, without local subtitles. I mean, having almost all your programming dumped on you from somewhere else…where are we, Canada?!


Well, I suppose it’s been clear enough how much we enjoyed the trip. Leaving aside the complexities of the airport bus website, everything fell gracefully into place. We now have reasonable maps in our heads of the downtown of two more notable world cities. We spent time in some beautiful locations so unrelated to our normal frame of reference that it’s hard to process we were actually there. We went on long walks without seeing anyone else. We had great food and the usual string of quirky incidents along the way. And this was all with the knowledge of being lucky enough, and happy enough in our normal lives, that we didn’t want or need anything more from the trip than it gave us – at the end, we just wanted to go home. As I mentioned before, it would be wonderful to take that extra benevolent, easeful vitality you have on vacation and keep it closer to the surface of your normal life, but perhaps that would merely make normal life dysfunctional, and so is a necessary failure.
Given we have enough vacation ideas for several lifetimes, I don’t suppose the chances of us returning to either country are particularly high. Iceland is a relatively easy direct flight from Toronto, so maybe that will be a deciding factor in some future calculation. On the other hand, it would be extremely beguiling to pick a couple of more or less random Finnish destinations, as we did with Inari, and build a trip around them. Well, we’ll see… As for today, we arrived on time and got through Pearson in record time. We unpacked and settled in, and a while later I went to fetch Ozu. As always, he was deliriously happy to come home, and we all celebrated by running around like idiots. Once again then, I conclude the vacation diary with the key piece of evidence that all is back as it should be.