Tuesday, June 26, 2007

London Fog

Back in London, where it's cool and gray and all the news is of the torrential rains and flooding they had in northern England yesterday, a major contrast with the almost tropical heat of Budapest. It was a very full four days there: one of the best things I did was rent a bicycle with which to pedal all around the city (well, the flat, Pest side of it anyhow), enabling me to get around quickly and see much more than I would have on foot or even using public transportation. And biking along the Danube is an experience everyone who visits the city should try. It also provided me with my only opportunity to get to know a Hungarian a little bit: Tomas at the bike shop courteously offered me some soda water when I returned the bike the next day and I ended up hanging out in the shop chatting with him for most of the afternoon. A solo traveler ought to be extroverted to have the fullest experience of places, and I'm not always, so I welcome these opportunities when they arise. I also continue to think fondly of my Triestine hosts Mario and Michaela, who showed me so much of their haunted, beautiful city and also got me to eat cuttlefish, octopus, and whole fried sardines for the first time. If I'd been lucky enough to meet a Viennese person or two I might have a warmer impression of that city as well.

Biking around Budapest, visiting the parks, going to the movies (I saw Stranger Than Fiction in English with Hungarian subtitles; it was much better than I'd been led to expect, and Dustin Hoffman's slyly poststructuralist literature professor is my new role model), hearing concerts (free shows on Saturday night by a group of Hungarian folksingers, one of whom played the French horn, and a ska band called the Brooklyn Funk Experience; I also found myself in a studio of Magyar Radio yesterday evening for a live recital of songs by Kodaly, Ravel, and Brahams), and eating food tantalizingly similar to yet ineffably different from that prepared by my mother when I was a child, I found myself wondering what my life would look like if I'd succeeded in going there for a Fulbright year as I attempted to do in 2000. Would I still have made it to Cornell and met Emily? Would I have attained something resembling proficiency in Hungarian? The most difficult language I've ever tried to study, even casually--in Italian I could get by, I don't speak German at all but I can at least follow the logic of the language and recognize many words--in Hungary I knew how to say "Good day," "Thank you," "The bill please," and "I don't speak Hungarian," not much else. There are very few cognates and the syntax is almost completely detached from word order, so you need to learn not just new words but a new logic to reach even the beginner's level with the language. The Hungarians at least don't really expect foreigners to know their language, and occasionally seemed touched or at least amused by my mumbled "Koszonom" and "Jo napot." My rather sketchy Fulbright plan involved studying and translating Hungarian poetry--I don't know about present-day Hungary but historically it's been a country where poets have been tremendously esteemed and influential figures--the legislators of choice in a country whose "legitimate" rulers were so often occupiers and oppressors. One of the most famous Hungarian poets, Sandor Petofi (apologies for not attempting the diacritical marks), almost singlehandedly launched a (failed) revolution in 1848 by reading a nationalist poem on the steps of the National Museum. On the plane from Budapest this morning I devoured the astonishing memoir of another Hungarian poet, Gyorgy Faludy, whose English title is My Happy Days in Hell; his poetry and translations of Villon made him a celebrity in his twenties, something unimaginable in a Western country. (His life story is remarkable: fleeing the Nazis, moving to American and joining the U.S. Army, then going back to Hungary after the war against all advice and being imprisoned in a forced labor camp under the most inhuman conditions imaginable, surviving only because of the affection and resourcefulness of his fellow prisoners, saved by the death of Stalin--the memoir ends there, I wish it had gone on. He was a fascinating man--an egotist, but the most charming sort, deeply ethical but unconventional, and apparently bisexual to boot. He only passed away last year, so he lived to see a free Hungary.) And there are innumerable streets in Budapest named for poets, as well as statues--there's one of Attila Jozsef, perhaps the most depressing writer who ever lived, just a stone's throw from the Hungarian Parliament. It's impossible to imagine Americans honoring poets to the same degree, much less a poet of despair like Attila.

Looking for my mother, that's what this comes down to: wandering the streets of the Jewish quarter, wondering exactly where the photo I have of her as a little girl in the ghetto (wearing the yellow star) was taken; wondering if the Hungarian tradition of poetry somehow influenced her own writing or at least her desire to write; trying to breath in something of the air she first breathed. Her Budapest is really unimaginable to me, unrecognizable in spite of the architecture, food, language: imagine being born into a world of terror as she was, your parents taken away from you, your first memories being those of compression in the ghetto with thousands of other Jews terrified for their lives. And then to live with that memory, and the memories of your parents that they never speak about, in a country that prides itself on forgetfulness and the new--growing up in Queens. And none of this is the real story, it's just a mythology I've constructed retrospectively that bears me up in some mysterious way. In some ways that myth has become more precious to me than the truth--otherwise I'd try harder to make contact with my remaining Hungarian relatives. Maybe I'm readier to do that now, having walked those streets.

London, a delicious and very expensive afterthought to this trip, this petit-grand tour. I spent most of it in bed finishing Faludy's memoir. Perhaps tomorrow Emily and I will stroll along the Thames, and tell each other the stories of our nine days' adventures apart.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Vienna was unspeakably hot for the first two days: then a titanic windstorm blew through early Thursday evening during which I fortunately happened to be taking a nap at the hotel; they seemed like hurricane-force winds to me. It cooled things off considerably and when I arrived in Budapest the next evening things weren't nearly as sweaty as they'd been. I've now visited three cities bearing the stamp of the Habsburgs: monumental architecture arranged more or less symmetrically with the predominant landscape (Trieste--the curve of the sea; Vienna--the low hills; Budapest--the Danube and the hills of Buda to the west, the plain of Pest to the east). All three cities have tortured political histories; all three were more or less bastions of the middle-European culture to which Jews contributed so much that they--we--made the mistake of believing assimilation was possible, had even taken place. All three bear the mark, for me, of a terrible absence. In Budapest that absence is personal: my mother was born here in 1942, and just two years later was forced to move to the Budapest ghetto with her grandparents, while her own parents went to the camps (which they both, miraculously, survived). So it's a strange place to be a tourist, to snap pictures of and stare at--certainly one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen, maybe even more beautiful than San Francisco, which along with Paris has always stood at the top of my list. I haven't actually visited the Great Synagogue or ghetto yet--that's on my list for tomorrow.

Vienna I haven't much to say about just now. It's beautiful, too, in its way, but somehow colder (in spite of the heat). I was moved by my visit to the Freud museum, and I love the art of the circle of Schiele and Klmit--the latter's Beethoven friezes in the Secession Building are stunning. I've seen some incredible art on this trip, and I hope it all filters down somehow--all this sheer weight of data I've accumulated--to some level where I can actually think about it, take it in, make it part of me somehow. Central Europe, I recognize you, somehow, and I feel lonely too.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Triste Trieste

Venice was the first Italian city I saw to truly enchant me, the way Paris did the first time (so far the only time) I ventured there. The architecture is fantastic, and the ubiquity of water is both mesmerizing and ominous (you can almost see the city sinking in real time), but what I think is actually the most substantive component of its magic is the total absence of cars. Suddenly to remember that streets were once for human beings first and last--albeit in this case human beings with digital cameras, wearing tasteless T-shirts and talking in loud American accents that make you suddenly wish to be Croatian, a New Zealander, anything but a countryman to such crudeness. Ultimately what I think I'll rememember and love best about my brief time there (aside from getting lost, as Split Foster suggested) is the Biennale: after total immersion in Roman and Renaissance art, it's a relief to be confronted with the shock of the contemporary. We saw too many remarkable things to itemize here, but we were both impressed by the high quality of such an enormous volume of sculpture, paintings, videos, and installations from all over the world. One especially nice thing about the Bienniale is that not everything is concentrated in the tail of the fish that is Venice (at the Giardini and the Arsenale)--just wandering around the city you can't help bumping into a few exhibitions. For example, yesterday before leaving (and at this point I was quite weary of the crowds, heat, and humidity) I found myself in the Mexican pavilion, in which the most hi-tech possible artwork by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer had been tucked into a crumbling palazzo; I also stumbled upon new work by Brit bad boy Damien Hirst (a rather underwhelming and obvious allegory, I thought, of pharmaceuticals as the "new religion" of our day--seems like a tone-deaf choice given how powerfully we are all in the grip of the old religion right now.

Emily and I parted ways yesterday: she's off to Crete to study artmaking and I'm wandering through the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yesterdays wanderings wound up on the tiny island that composed the original ghetto--the only island in Venice in which there are no doorways opening out onto the canals. It's shockingly small for the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews who once lived there. There are a few living Jews visible, clearly religious types, and a stark Holocaust memorial put up by the city. After that I was quite tired of Venice, but it took some doing to get away from it all--two hot and crowded boat rides before I could gather up my things and make it to the station. Caugh the 4:10 train to Trieste, on which I had the great good fortune to be seated next to Mario e Michaela, a young Italian couple who live there, with whom I conversed in broken English and Italian for the entire two-plus hour ride. She's a PhD candidate at the universtiy here, studying chemistry and pharmaceuticals; he's a civil engineer. They were incredibly sweet and generous with me--after we got off the train they helped me find a hotel (their intentions there at least were good--more on that in a minute) and I have a date to meet them for dinner at 8 tonight. It's nice to have that to look forward to and not to feel as alone as one sometimes can when traveling.

Trieste is a beautiful and melancholy city, gracefully arched against the Adriatic Sea on a narrow margin of land between Italy and Slovenia, which is visible from anyplace you can see the sea. It's strange to be in Mediterranean weather and surrounded by Italian speakers where the buidlings are all quite Austrian in style--Mario says when I get to Vienna I'll find the architectural style familiar. My little pensione is just off Trieste's own Canale Grand, which is not a Venetian canal but just a ribbon of water that runs through a rectangular plaza in which some small boats are moored, with a gigantic church at the end that looks surprisingly like a nineteenth-century version of the Pantheon. Had pizza for dinner and tried to retire early, but I quickly discovered the evils of the last available 45 euro room, namely a single window through which a lot of noise (dishes crashing and clattering from the restaurant below) and mosquitoes, but no air, traveled. No fan, either. So I was up all night practically, getting bitten all over and trying to relieve the stuffiness by applying wet towels to my body. It got so bad at one point that I got up and found the manager, who nodded understandingly, clapped me on the back, and said, "Yes, that's the only room without a fan," then sent me groaning back to bed. This morning I was prepared to move on, but they say they're going to put me in a room with two windows and a fan tonight for just ten euros more. Let's hope for a better night's sleep tonight because I'm getting up early to catch the train to Vienna.

But, Trieste. Today I wandered hither and yon in perfect, though hot weather for most of the day. Said hello to the charming little statue of James Joyce that they've placed on a bridge over the Canale--a life-sized bronze with a book under his arm and a pensive expression on his face, looks as though he'd bid you buon giorno as you pass. Took what I think is the last tram or streetcar--Joyce loved those--in Trieste up into the hills for some spectacular views of the city and harbor and then down again. Then caught a bus over to Miramare, the palace built in 1860 by the unfortunate Archduke Maximillian, brother to the emperor, who made the fatal mistake of agreeing to be named "Emperor of Mexico" in a failed scheme to turn Mexico into an Austrian colony, an adventure which ended up with him being executed by firing squad before he ever got properly to enjoy the place. The palace is a beautiful carved cube of the local white stone, karst, perched on a promontory over the sea with a splendid view of the city in the distance. There's also a nice park that Maximilian had put in which I wandered through, footsore at this point. Finally caught the bus back into town and walked along the sea road (another Via Cavour) before ending up at the fabulous Piazza of Italian Unity where there's this crazy fountain and many cafes of considerable vintage, in one of which I am typing this now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Wrong Foot

After frenetic days in Florence it's a relief to have landed in Vernazza in the Cinque Terre region of Italy, where we landed a room with a terrace that looks out on the Mediterranean. Of course I myself may have landed a little too hard: this is a village of steep stairways and two days ago I took a bad step and sprained my right foot pretty good. Spent the entire day yesterday recuperating and it's still tender to walk on today. But it's not preventing us from appreciating the beauty and intimate feel of this little town--when we arrived Sunday it was crammed with tourists, but for the past several days it's been quite low-key and Emily seems to have made friends with half of the residents. We had an exquisite evening last night after dinner at Trattoria di Piva, a little seafood place run by the eponymous Piva, who likes to play his guitar and sing for the customers after nine o' clock. This was special enough, but then a group of Austrian and Italian tourists that Emily had met earlier in the day dropped by, and one of them pulled out his own guitar, which he played with virtuosic skill. So a little party (with lots of grappa and limoncello) was improvised right there on the narrow street and lasted until after midnight. You can't buy or manufacture experiences like that.

Today, due to my limited mobility, we will probably just ride the boat back and forth between the five towns and then settle for dinner in one of them. Having little to do but read yesterday, I read all of the short stories in Miranda July's new collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. I enjoyed her film, but the faux-naif stance she takes toward human relationships and sexuality begins to feel a lot like shtick after reading a couple of the stories. It's all a little twee for my taste; at the same time, she deploys a couple of tricks that it would probably be useful to introduce creative writing students to. And of course it's never easy to write well about sexuality and the strangeness of desire, so I give her points for exploring that territory.

The rest of the day I alternated between squinting at the sea and getting lost in Hopscotch, which is beginning to justify the hyperbolic cover blurb by one C.D.B. Bryan (who?), "The most magnificent novel I have ever read." Among other things, it's a kind of instruction manual for its own production, thanks to the frequent interventions of a fiction Italian novelist named Morelli, whose musings and prescriptions make up many of the "expendable chapters" of the book. What with this and the Perec and Pynchon waiting in the wings, I find I've devoted this trip to immersion in the great twentieth-century postmodernists--though Cortazar, writing in the mid-1960s, I think feels himself to be more of a belated modernist, or someone sifting through the collaged ruins of modernism trying to get at the creative destruction of literature that Derrida, Barthes, et al were writing about almost as beautifully at the same time. It's a fine lesson on integrating one's intellectual and existential concerns into/with/through/against narrative--the tragic love story that composes the main plot being so often the pretext for philosophical overreaching, and vice-versa.

This is getting expensive. Next stop will be Venice, where I hope to glimpse a little bit of the Bienniale, already fortutiously in progress.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Florence is hot. Michelangelo's David is as stupendous as you've been told. The Botticellis in the Uffizi dazzle the inner and outer eyes. It's impossible for me to get away from mere tourism with all this--just being whirled and dashed from one astounding piece of art or architecture to another. We're both exhausted and amazed all of the time. Wishing now for a hammock somewhere cool and grassy (green space seems remarkably hard to find in Italian cities). May have to settle for a hotel room nap.

Reading Cortazar's Hopscotch in fits and starts--it's a romantic Joycean ride, a modernist corker, the kind of thing they don't write any more, or do they? More on this and other subjects later.

What's happening in the world?

Monday, June 04, 2007

In Siena, where I'm shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Sarah Hannah, one of the editors of Barrow Street, who only a few months ago was generous enough to take an interest in Severance Songs, and with whom I enjoyed a brief correspondence. She has a new book coming out this fall and it's strange and terrible to realize once again how the things we create may live on and even speak on after us, without actually being us.

After two days in the wondrous citadel of Calcata (the one-hundred-percent accurate article about the place that inspired us to go there can be found here), we drove north and passed through a bit of Umbria and stopped for the night at a magical country inn, La Locanda del Gallo, south of the town of Gubbio. It's spendy, but I would recommend it to anyone traveling in Italy, and further recommend that you stay more than one night if you can. The setting is remote and hauntingly beautiful, less worked over than the Tuscan landscape we're seeing now (though that too is very beautiful of course). They served us a marvelous dinner of fettucine with truffles, salmon, and delicate pork cutlets. The next afternoon we drove through astonishing mountains and villages (my favorite, where we didn't take time to stop, was Cortona) to Siena and a little agriturismo on the northern edge of town. We'll be here for four days, so it's our first extended stay anywhere since Rome, and we're grateful. Writing this from an internet point just a hundred meters from the Piazza del Campo, maybe the most beautiful public square in Italy. It's all hallucinatory and yet real, with hundreds of fellow turisti to remind us that we're only passing through this medieval dreamscape.

Almost out of time--I hope to post something a little less in the ordinary vein of travelogue sometime in the next few days.

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