Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Travel Logs: Amsterdam

Amsterdam. We've been in Germany for a year and hadn't visited, so it was high time (no pun). We gathered opinions on what the most important sights were, and headed off for a super quick one-night stay. The kids were left with friends, since I was adamant we visit the famous Red LIght District.

I highly recommend seeing this city in fall, it was just too perfect, even the weather seemed suited to sitting outside at a cafe or coffeeshop. When we entered the Netherlands, the scenery changed, flattening out and revealing green pastures as far as the eye could see. The natural watery state of things leads to absolutely lush greenery and foliage. Upon entering Amsterdam, we found the city had its own unique palette. If you've studied the Dutch Rennaissance you are already familiar with this color scheme: a stark black background filled with shocks of color and light. The city is populated with brownstones, some of which have been painted black or grey, so they sit as dour as the old Dutch burghers who once ruled the country in their suits of black. The only ornamentation is the occasional pop of red or gold color in the shutters and signs. Even the residents of this city seem to have imbibed this palette and wear loads of black with bits of red or other color accessories.

Our first stop was the Rijksmuseum, housing several of Rembrandt's masterpieces, such as the Night Watch and The Jewish Bride. The latter piece stopped me dead in my tracks, fortunately there is a bench in front of it, where I planted myself and just stared agape at this stunning work for awhile. The colors, again: red and gold, are palpable, the paint loaded on with an incredibly generous spatula. Van Gogh said of this painting, "What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting. Believe me, and I mean this sincerely, I would give ten years of my life to be allowed to sit before this painting for fourteen days with just a crust of bread to eat." Dutch paintings have gained their world renown for a reason: they are innovative and unique in their color and detail. I stood before a tiny Adrien Coorte still-life, a white moth flying about fruits and spargel, set off by an inky black field, enamored almost to the point of tears. To see these works in person, after growing up learning about them in textbooks, was a truly full-circle experience for me. They are must-see works which no reprint in a text can reproduce accurately or at least not with fidelity.

We followed our art museum time with a visit to the Anne Frank House. The original building where Anne and her family hid during the Holocaust has been preserved and turned to a museum. The experience of touring this slender brownstone, walking the rickety stairs to Anne's shared bedroom, feeling the claustrophobia firsthand, is not the territory of writers, it can only be felt in person. The emotions I experienced in that place are ones I think everyone should have, they are sobering beyond description. At the end of the tour, there is a life-size photograph of Anne's father, standing in the house after the Holocaust, alone, the sole Frank family survivor of the death camps. He is standing where the sunlight is falling on him with a look so haggard and bereft, and I felt looking at him how little the sun meant to him, a man whose one ambition was to save his family.

Amsterdam has something for everyone. If art and history are not your thing, they've got debauchary too. I'm not looking down my nose at you, I promise! I looked forward to seeing the Red Light District above all else and it did not disappoint. We arrived at dusk on a Friday night, so the scene was really cranking up: the red neon lights glowed on scantily-clad prostitutes of all ages, shapes and colors. There is even an "Informational Museum" where the more intellectual of sinners can listen to a lecture on the facts about prostitution. The word on Amsterdam's Red Light is that stringent measures have cleaned up the scene, cracking down on illegal practices by organized crime groups and human trafficking rings. This is a bit comforting, though the thought that some women could be there against their own will is very upsetting to me. If women want to dance in windows, I'm fine with it, but no human should ever be enslaved and forced to sell their own body.

After the lurid glows of the Red LIght, the Coffeeshop district is a nice change of pace. The air is redolent of grass, and everyone is very chill, no packs of boys guffawing as there had been in the RL. The bars and restaurants in this area are a great place to sit outdoors and drink and observe the scene. If smoking weed isn't your thing, don't worry, it's still a pleasant place to hang out. The legality takes away all the scuzziness usually associated with marijuana. Amsterdam is truly fascinating for its ability to integrate practices considered illegal in the U.S. into mainstream society. You will even see families carrying their children down the streets of the Red Light with no sign of disturbance. Throughout Europe I've noticed the lack of shock factor associated with the naked body; it's everywhere and nobody even notices, even kids. It just goes to show stigmas breed a climate of shame and evil that may not even be legitimate.

Amsterdam is a place to visit with your mind open. It's a one-of-a-kind city, startlingly beautiful with its canals and gardens, culturally and intellectually stimulating, and irresistibly provocative. Don't just read about it. Go there.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Hole

Loneliness is a hole in your backyard
You dug with your brother and knew
No one could ever reach China,
But you kept digging until you hit water,
And now your dad wants you to fill it
But you can’t no matter how hard you try.
Do you even want to? The water,
Being the invasive bastard it is, seeps
From every crack in the soil,
Threatening brothers with a pond
The bereft mother earth cries, unabating.
Your biology teacher says water
Is the greatest solvent, Washing away
Even the worst crimes?
, you wonder.
Its particles so unstable it is constantly
Bonding together and then parting ways.
These fragile bonds lasting a trillionth of a second
More of an attraction than a true bond.
All this loss is a cycle you are caught in now
And the hole has no woman-shaped cork.
If you could take her hand and lead her back
To the cliff of that hole in the earth
And show her the map two boys drew
Of a yard as big as a continent and a hole
The size of Texas! (your daddy said),
Would she know what you were trying to tell her?
Or would she be content to be the lost element
Bouncing, floating, seeping, away?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Favor of My German Life

I've been in the states for over three weeks now, and frequently get asked, "Do you like living in Germany?" to which I always reply, "I LOVE living in Germany, I never want to move back to the U.S." I realize people are just trying to be polite and show interest, but their bewilderment at my response has surprised me. Invariably they will look at me with shock and say, "Really, WHY?" This scenario has been repeated ad nauseam since I've been here in Mississippi visiting my parents. Which leads me to the conclusion that Americans really are what Europeans think we are: the most arrogant citizens of planet Earth. I'm afraid Americans really believe they live in the only decent country, and are shocked to hear that people actually flourish and lead fulfilling lives on other continents. Americans really must believe that we hold the copyright on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Newsflash: Germans are happier than you. I don't mean they are as gregarious and raucous as you, but they are certainly happier in a quieter way. Their lives are simpler, greener, more active, more social, and more creative than yours. If asked to show any scientific proof for this claim, I probably couldn't actually find any, but it is my theory and is based on my own observations over the last year.

One indication that life is better in Germany: Americans don't want to leave once they move there. Every time I've watched an Army family pack up and go back to the U.S., it's been with heavy hearts, knowing they would not find the things they valued about life in Germany back in the states. I also know quite a few ex-pats living on the economy working civilian jobs. They are mostly young and single, and they all think they've hit the jackpot; I don't know a single one who wants to quit their job and go back to America.

When I tell Americans how much I love my German life, they protest, "Oh, but you have the American commissary to shop at, and American friends in you American post housing. You have the best of both worlds!" Though I concede I do have it much easier, I don't think my ex-pat friends are suffering. They enjoy much more healthy and natural food at the local groceries, they have friends that come from all over the globe, and though the rent can be steep, they have some pretty cool digs. So I'm not buying that military benefits are the reason why I love Germany.

The lifestyle Europeans embrace is so much more communal. I think of life in America as a series of movements from one air-conditioned space to another; in a word: synthetic. I used to live in my air-conditioned 4 bedroom home and then get into my massive air-conditioned SUV to go to the next air-conditioned space. All that artificial air never did anything for me. I wasn't happy. I had extra rooms in my house filled with extra stuff, but it didn't contribute to my happiness in any way. I lived in a nice home in the suburbs, but I only knew one neighbor, and felt completely isolated and miserable out in that neighborhood built on a prairie. Guess what? I'm happier living in a 2-bedroom apartment where my kids have to share a room. Sure, we get cabin fever, and sure, it gets hot with no air-conditioning, but that forces us to get out and so we are more social than we have ever been in our lives. I've realized I'm a rather extraverted introvert, and I really flourish when I get out and spend time on the lawn with my neighbors or at the pub with our friends. Germans eat outdoors at cafes and biergartens during all the warm months, because it's too hot to be indoors. The resulting atmosphere is pure magic, and something that is sadly lacking in America.

I don't always use my car to travel and that makes me feel good. I walk to work, my husband bikes there. We can hop on the streetcar and go downtown with a crowd full of people, or we can simply walk there in 20 minutes. There's a bakery and a florist two blocks away, or Italian restaurants two blocks the other direction. My daughter will attend kindergarten at a German katholische kirche in the fall, only a block away. I love the simplicity and safety of our life. I have never felt unsafe when alone, and never heard of any crime committed in our city at all. In Mississippi, my parents have moved out even further than the suburbs, outside city limits, in order to live in a peaceful crime-free neighborhood, so it takes 30 minutes in the car to get anywhere you want to go. I hate it. I hate the waste of gas. I hate being trapped in a car for so long, driving so slowly. In Germany, I hop on the autobahn, speed up to 95 miles per hour (152 km/h), feel a thrill as I watch my digital speedometer hit 152, and arrive at IKEA in minutes. When Germans do drive, they do it right!

Germans live more simply and more earth-consciously. They recycle absolutely everything, if it can't be recycled, you won't see it in their grocery. They share homes, turning them into multi-family flats, only the rich live in their own single-family home. We live in a stairwell with six apartments, and share 3 washers and 3 dryers in the basement with everyone else. Oddly enough, I enjoy it, and now find the big homes on big lots in America a gross waste of resources. People laugh at me for driving a MINI Cooper with two kids, but I love the thrill of zipping around in a small car in the midst of a sea of tiny cars, using less gas, being more energy-conscious. I don't miss my Yukon at all.

Germans are the most aware people I've ever met. They are in tune with the world around them, gardening prolifically, going wandern (hiking) every weekend, biking everywhere imaginable. They know about other cultures, speak multiple languages (English perfectly), and have traveled broadly. Life in Heidelberg is filled with cultural and artistic opportunities, and they never let bad weather keep them in or limit their activity. When the World Cup arrived, die fussball was king. Germans breathed soccer, it was on everyone's lips. I never even knew the World Cup was going on when I lived in the U.S. I have never seen such fervor and passionate support of any sporting event in the U.S., not for the Super Bowl, not even for the Olympics. It felt like the whole city turned out for public viewings in Heidelberg, watching on huge screens at biergartens. The excitement was so contagious, everyone in my family caught the bug. My son will be playing soccer in the fall as a result.

National pride is real in Germany, and in other European nations I've visited. They know who they are; Americans don't seem to have much of an identity beyond being materialistic. All I see in the states is a land of people obsessed with getting bigger and better stuff before they die and leave it to their heirs to sort through and dispose of the crap. I don't think U.S. citizens will ever return to that strong sense of nationalism they once had, mostly because too many pointless conflicts have left them bereft of any sense of patriotism.

If I had my way, I'd be a permanent ex-pat, exploring a world of new and better landscapes. For now, I try to satiate my wanderlust in expectation of eventually being sent back to the land of my birth. For the record: America's a bit vanilla for my taste, and I'm enjoying every scrumptious bite of my German chocolate cake.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Travel Logs: Italy, July 2010

Ahhh, Italia, sun-soaked land of wine and fabulous cuisine, also, the poster child for why Socialism doesn't work, and the land the toilet seat manufacturers forgot.

In 2008, I visited for the first time and fell in love with this zany laid-back heel of Europe. Two years later, coming from Germany, I wondered what I saw in it the first time. Compared with Deutschland Italy looks like third-world chaos. Laziness and corruption are an accepted part of life in Italy, with Rome being the centerpiece of all that is wrong with Italy.

We spent a day in Rome to see the Vatican, which we'd missed out on the previous trip. Big mistake. This happened to be the day after Italy lost their match with Slovakia, putting them out of World Cup contention. Apparently the rail workers and metro employees decided to hole up in their beds and make love to a bottle of grappa rather than cope with daily life...trains and metro lines were shut down due to strikes, and we were gouged by taxi drivers as a result (what is with us and taxi drivers? my kids will have no college fund once they are finished with us!) We finally saw the Sistine Chapel, a lifelong goal of mine, and I have to give Michelangelo credit, his ceiling frescoes are far superior to the wall painting by his contemporaries in the chapel, and painting was only his secondary medium! The guy was a genius, and I'm grateful for the chance to appreciate the tender beauty of his depictions.

Next, we spent two days on the beach in Tirrenia, and this was probably the highlight of the trip for me. Sitting on the sand next to a gorgeous Mediterranean, doing absolutely nothing. My kind of vacation. We enjoyed sea kayaking and Breck fell in love with boarding. The view was quite interesting, with gorgeous Italians prancing up and down the beach, doing their ocean version of the piazza passeggiata (stroll). They love to see and be seen, it seems. I don't think my kids even noticed any of the breasts on display, since there were so many Italian men sporting speedos, flowing locks, and huge pectorals, gender was a thin line.

We revisited the Cinque Terre and Tuscany for old times sake, and to introduce Joel's parents to our favorite places in Italy. Cinque Terre remains one of the best spots in Italy, unspoiled riviera towns with gorgeous views of houses clinging to the cliffs above the Med. I did notice a lot of tourists this time, and I'm afraid too many Americans have discovered this area, but I'd still go back for the chance to do some diving off those huge boulders in the ocean.

San Gimagnano and Volterra remain favorite hill towns in Tuscany for us. This region has everything you want from Italy: the best local cuisine, the most perfect red wine from the Sangiovese grape (Brunello), and beautiful poppy and cypress tree littered vistas. This is the land of vineyards and friendly wineries, the land that has inspired so many artists and authors.

Italy really is lovely, in spite of its inefficiency, terrible traffic, and alas! disdain for toilet seats (have I mentioned how much this bothers me?). On our drive down, we stopped over at Lake Lugano on the border of Switzerland and Italy for some picture-postcard views out of our windows at the charming Hotel Caroline (Brusimpiano, IT). The entire drive down through Switzerland was like a postcard photo, and I finally understood Richard Wilbur's rapture when he wrote, "the slightest shade of you valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes." All these lovely vistas, they really are worth all the minor travel headaches it took to see them. As the ebullient Italians say, "Ciao bella! Grazie! Ciao!Ciao! Grazie! Ciao!"
Once is never enough :)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Few Lessons Learned at 30

In honor of turning the big 3-0, I've decided to make a few suggestions to my readers. This isn't advice, of course, because nobody likes advice, but it's a few lessons that have started to hit home for me. So here goes...

Never give advice about relationships.
Solicited or unsolicited, it will not matter. Case in point: my college roommate was in a relationship that made her unhappy, I suggested to her she should break up with the guy. All this did was create tension in our friendship, she was totally offended at my suggestion. Years later, very happily married to another guy, she pointed out that my advice to her back then had been absolutely on the mark. But she just couldn't handle hearing it at that time. It's always this way; friends of both genders still come to me for advice about their relationships, but they don't really want to hear anything wise or actually change their behaviors based on the advice I dispense. See, here's the truth about giving advice: NOBODY WANTS IT. They want affirmation, to be told that what they have done is right or at least, forgivable and forgettable. Confront anyone with the cold hard truth about their interpersonal actions and they will instantly shut down (myself included!).

Never play matchmaker.
This may work for some people, but it has NEVER worked for me. When I set people up, be they on opposite sides of the globe, or in the same town, they find they have nothing in common. I don't know what this says about my interpersonal intuition. I tend to be like Jane Austen's Emma, I set up totally wrong combinations, or I discover the guy has more interest in me than he does in the girl I send him on a date with (in spite of the fact that I'm not even available). The guys I set up inevitably end up engaged to the perfect girl a year later, someone they met in their daily life with no one's help. The girls I set up inevitably discover that being single is actually the most blessed state.

Never be ashamed of intelligence.
As Muriel Spark put it: "Never apologize. Never explain." Own your inner nerd. If you are smart, flaunt it. If small talk and celebrity gossip bore you, get up and walk away. Find people you can talk to about something intelligent. Because the truth is, intelligent people go further in life, are happier in the long run, and have more fulfilling experiences. Girls who feel the need to tamp down their intelligence in order to not intimidate males are only cheating themselves and setting up to marry a stupid guy who will never make them happy.

Never take the easy road.
The most difficult things I've done have given me the most joy: having babies, moving constantly (further and further from "home"), and changing my career path. The times I've wussed out are hugely regretful to me now. For instance, dropping out of graduate school because I was giving birth to my first child and my husband was deploying. I just didn't know that I really could go to school and raise a baby alone at the same time; but single moms are doing it all over the world. I regret every day not finishing that degree. Don't give up on your dreams just because the road to fulfilling them seems insurmountable.

Never underestimate the Universe.
A wise friend once told me that you can't escape the lessons you are destined to learn. He explained that whether or not you believe in God or organized religion, there seems to be some inescapable power at work, forcing us to learn and grow. He said that if you refuse to learn the lesson you are supposed to learn in your current difficulty, that exact lesson will come back to you later on, repackaged in a different situation with different people, and you will once again be forced to make choices, hopefully with different results. I nearly dismissed his theory as eastern hoodoo, since he had studied in India under some guru. However, life continually teaches me that I am its bitch, and the universe is in fact a boomerang. That feeling of "Oh no, not again!" is a legit one; you will be forced to grow up and respect others, or life will just be an endless purgatory of relational chaos.

Suck the F***ing Marrow Out of Life
This one's essential. Always give way to your lust for adventure, so long as it will not harm anyone else. There really is a whole different world on the other side of the ocean, and the only people who will have regrets are the ones who never stepped on the boat. This I know for certain.

Monday, May 17, 2010

My German Life: May

I always remember the weather in May. It's my birth month, so I have lots of memories of warm weather parties that revolved around picnics, swimming pools or my grandparents' pond. I've been looking forward to May, it represents a milestone in my life. I turn 30 this month which I have been dreading for the last two years, I think, but I decided to make it better by having a great party as a consolation. The other reason I've been looking forward to May is a change in weather. I thought surely it would warm up and feel somewhat summery. Wrong.

On April 30, the Germans in our state of Baden-Würtemburg celebrate Walpurgisnächt, which is a farewell to the evil winter spirits and a way of welcoming in the summer days. May Day has become a socialist rallying holiday, and we found this is still the tradition, when we wandered into a rally downtown, replete with heavily pierced fringe groups and an odd banner showing people chasing Nazis out with bloody knives. Don't ask. I don't know. Back to Walpurgisnächt...we decided to do the traditional drunken hike up the Philosopher's walk to the top of the hill at Neuenheim. This is a crazy event that is actually detailed on wikipedia: Check out the link to see a photo of the actual Heidelberg event. Basically, after passing around a wine bottle while making the long vertical hike up to an ex-Nazi amphitheatre, we sat around with tons of people camped around fires, watching fire jugglers and fireworks. Being the orderly people that they are, the Germans had a fleet of polizei and krankenwagens (ambulances) poised right below the amphitheatre, in case anyone caught fire, I suppose. The feeling in the stone theatre that night was a bit eerie, it's a strange place even by daylight, standing in a large semi-circle of stone bleachers imagining them filled with Nazis screaming "Heil, Hitler!" is a bit disturbing to my over-active imagination. Being there on this night, the mood was obviously more chill and I felt like the Germans are doing a good job chasing away the evils of the past. Walpurgisnächt is a leftover festival from early druidic and pagan celebrations, and the feeling is certainly mystical as you hike up the Neuenheim hill in the light of a full moon to find people gathered around a bonfire.

Another fun local event we attended this month was Spargelfest in Schwetzingen, a town south of Heidelberg. Spargel is the Deutsch word for asparagus, but in this case it specifically refers to the plump white variety so highly prized in this region. I first saw these veggies in the paintings of the Dutch artist, Adrien Coorte, years ago. I remember feeling deeply revolted by the thick pale stalks in his still lifes. Go ahead, let the phallophobia jokes ensue...I probably was phobic back then. It's all good, I'm over it now, I enjoy my spargelsuppe with gusto now. The Spargelfest is filled with tents selling spargel recipes and typical Deutsch cuisine, plus wine-tastings and loads of Welde bier, from their local brewing company. Spargelfest even has a Spargel Queen, since they claim to be the asparagus capital of the world. I must add that Schwetzingen's schlossgarten is the most beautiful I've ever been to, and could possibly rival famous gardens like Schönbrun in Vienna and maybe even Versailles. After a gorgeous afternoon wandering these idyllic gardens we headed back to Heidelberg, stopping on our way out at a farm selling spargel. We bought our own bunch and carried it home to enjoy with grilled salmon and local Riesling. Bliss.

After too many cold and rainy days to count, summer seems to have finally found us in Heidelberg. This weekend was sunny and temperate, we are on our third straight day of sunshine today, and that's enough to cause widespread euphoria here. We've enjoyed biergartens and cafes this weekend, reveling in the outdoor life of both countryside and city, something Europe does well. I think the art of sitting at a cafe for hours and doing nothing is the epitome of what it means to be European, and it makes me never want to go back to America!

At Night

At night, I make things right.
I sneak away while I'm not looking
And travel a faraway landscape
Like a ghost I fly over the ocean.

I'm a time traveler, and I go back
To 1987, '96, 2000 and nine.
I take back the terrible things I've said
The hateful missive, the hidden knife.

At night, you can make things right.
There, you don't miss your appointment
Don't break anyone's heart, there
You can take back all the disappointment.

I'm not waiting for any miracles,
In my sleep I'm weaving them.
Keeping the howls of reality at bay,
I sing softer songs, melodies that make sense

At night, I take all the accumulated wisdom,
Bestow it on the ones I've loved.
The thing not said, I say it there.
The good deed not done, I do it there.

I am a Healer-Sorceress-Mystic
I subvert all realities, gather them in my hands
Reform them, blow hard, spit them back into atmosphere.
It's no longer so sticky, so thick, out there.


When you stumble upon beauty
And make it your own
They will try to minimize it or
supersize it; they won't let it be.

When you own your Self
Get honest without affectation
Share affection without borders
They will criticize it; let it be.

When you love yourself
But your Self doesn't love you back
That contra diction becomes too great
And there isn't coke enough in the world for resolution.

When you are larger than Life,
It stops trying to contain you
You stop trying to explain you
And you must slip quietly away.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Christophine in 2010

Blame it on the devil. Easier that way.
Blame it on bad choices and she the apostasy.
Send her to therapy, blame it on abuse.
Send her to doctor, blame it on genetics,
But what the use? Nobody got it easy
And nobody got it right. She a woman,
Is she? Ah well, there the problem, See?
Woman, she got no right to this world,
She made for one use. Put her in with oven
And cover her in grease. She break her body
Having child, she carry babies till her back a hump.
You say it the Twenty-first century? No matter,
She still got no choice. Only woman have baby,
And baby want Mama. Only mama nurse baby,
Only Mama know the pain. Women they go to work,
And they come home to more. Men say I lie?
Go now. Ask the Devil, he give 'em what for.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Requiem Shark

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique

He slices waters, on the search
For something still, he is an old
Master of bloodlust and the kill.
Detritus and the dead no longer
Kill the pain, and his need grows,
Searching for the living, the pulsing.

She gathers waters like a crop,
Her smooth belly curved to cup
The currents and slap the weeds.
The hunters call her "Virgin of the Sea"
She's only legend, a mystery.

Deep leads to deeper,
To places the hunter and virgin don't go,
They are made for the shallows
The places where the sun still reaches.
And so, circling each other, contact is made.

It's not fate; it's coincidence.
Fate is too beautiful a word for
Wrong place, wrong time.
She lies, beautiful belly up,
In the sun as she once longed to be,
A sad sea cow. He sings no dirge for her.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Road Home (Morocco, Spain, France)

The Travel Logs: Morocco, Part 2

Humans have this amazing thing called endorphins. Those crazy little chemicals have a way of wiping out traumatic experiences from the brain. This is why I can remember almost nothing about delivering my daughter without an epidural. I do remember immediately afterward when I jumped up from the bed, insanely happy and energetic, and a nurse entered the room and stared at the empty bed and then at me and said, "Are you the patient? Why are you up?" I felt great, because my body had done the wonderful natural thing it was supposed to, and now my brain was telling me that nothing terrible had happened, I had survived the trauma.

When we left for Morocco, it was for a 6 day trip. 11 days later, we returned by airplane, train, taxi, and van. It wasn't supposed to happen that way, of course, but all the misery of trying desperately to get home has been wiped out of my brain. I can't really relate many details about it, because I'd rather just forget it, and my brain is working hard to wipe the memory out.

Here's the bare outline of what happened, for those who still want to know:

Thursday evening: Our plane does not depart Morocco. We are told to come back in the morning for a flight to Dusseldorf, Germany, which is nowhere near home, but it's in Germany, so we say "sure." Ryan Air is taking no responsibility for us, as this is an "act of God" and out of their hands. We call our riad and they send Ali back to pick us up, so we can stay another night in Fes.

Friday: We show up at the airport only to see Dusseldorf is cancelled. Ryan Air offers us a flight to Madrid that afternoon as the only option for getting to Europe. Everything north of Spain is shut down due to the volcanic ash cloud (from Iceland...let's not forget how bizarre this whole thing is). We say yes to the Madrid flight because my stomach cannot take another tagine or cup of mint tea. Breck is still vomitting. All I want is to get back to western civilization, where everything is not covered in dust and minarets do not drone. We sit in an olive grove outside the airport all afternoon (see photo), picnicking and napping, like the locals do, until our Madrid flight, which does take off. We reach Madrid and realize the situation is not any better here. There are no trains to France or Germany for days. All rental cars are gone, and all buses are full. We spend the night at a nice hotel (The Confortel, Pio XII) for a good price.

Saturday: We spend the majority of the day at the rail station, standing in lines, talking in Spanglish to the ticket agents and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. We accomplish nothing. We decide to spend another night and see if flights start going out again. We see the sol of Madrid, watch a mariachi band and dancer perform, shop, eat dinner.

Sunday: We go to the rail station, accomplish nothing. The rain in Spain falls mainly on Madrid. Both children are puking on a regular basis. There is no news in English on the television, so we watch in Spanish and try to guess what they are saying from our limited memories of Spanish vocab. Life sucks.

Monday: I threaten Joel within an inch of his life: Go to the damn station and buy us a ticket to Barcelona or somewhere, I don't care where as long as we get out of rainy Madrid and move northeast toward Germany! He returns with tickets to Barcelona. We ride a lovely ICE train to Barcelona, which turns out to be an incredibly beautiful city. But the situation on the ground is no better there...rail station agents informs us there are "no regional trains that are going over the border to France" because, as usual, the French are striking. I volunteer loudly to prostitute myself to get home. Joel looks at me and says, "I hope you're not serious," but looks doubtful, he's learned not to underestimate my penchant for insanity. We check out the nearby bus station, where there is a mob scene with people of all classes fighting to get on a bus going to France. A cabbie sees our distress and volunteers to take advantage of it with a 400 euro cab ride to Montpellier, France. "DEAL!" I scream, practically jumping over Joel to shake the cab driver's hand. We have already booked a hotel for the night, so we tell him to pick us up in the morning at 7 am. We go out to the wharves where all the gorgeous yachts are docked on the Mediterranean inlet, eat at an outdoor cafe, spend silly money on wine and fish to calm our misery. Think life is not so bad and maybe we will come back to Barcelona some day under better circumstances.

Tuesday: Three and a half hours and (430 euros less) later, we arrive at the Montpellier rail station, and see that a train is leaving for Lyon in 30 minutes (the Spanish ticket agents are lazy ass liars...trains are running fine in France). An agent assures us we don't have to wait in line for a ticket, we can just jump on and pay the conductor after we depart. There is a mad scramble to get on and we do not get seats, we have to settle for sitting atop our bags on the floor of the dining car. I feel we have reached an all-time low, but the conductor has pity and never asks us to pay, so we ride for free and I am satisfied. We get off at Lyon and see a train to Strasbourg leaving in 30 minutes, but think our kids can't handle riding for 4 hours on the floor again. We settle for tickets to leave that evening and call our friends back at home to see who will drive the hour from Heidelberg over to the French border town of Strasbourg to pick us up. Anne and Matt say they will be there at 10:30 pm when we arrive. They seem like saviors when we meet them at the station, we are bedraggled and stinky from wearing our clothes over and over (I've hand washed in the bathtub of hotels until I have blisters on my hands) and the kids from puking on theirs. They have brought Joel and I each a big bottle of German beer...they have read our minds. Our kids stay awake until they see the German border and cheer, then fall asleep...Germany is home to us.

Postscript: We spent more money trying to get home than we did on our actual vacation to Morocco. Goodbye tax return.

Post post script: Iceland, I would have visited you, but I spent the money for that trip on your stupid volcano. Forget you.

Post post post script: I do not believe in "acts of God"...I believe in acts of Satan.

Post post post post script: On the upside, I now consider myself a "seasoned" traveler.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Monkey attacks Breck

The Travel Logs: Morocco

or: "It's All Fun and Games Until the Monkey Gets You"

For our spring break we decided to go to Fes, Morocco, mostly because it sounded exotic and accessible. We could check the continent of Africa off our list, and Ryan Air flies there from Frankfurt-Hahn for super cheap. We went sort of "fly by the seat of our pants," if you will, with few expectations and even less information. I ordered a Lonely Planet Morocco guide from Amazon.UK, but Deutsche Post screwed it all up and didn't get it to me in time, so we left with no maps or guides to plan our time. This gave my DH anxiety, as he never does anything without extensive planning and packing for every imaginable scenario. I had booked us at a typical bed and breakfast called a "riad" in Fes Medina, and set up a loose itinerary for our 5 days with the owner, who happens to be British. So we landed at the airport in the outskirts of Fes, hoping a taxi had been sent to pick us up as planned; I was thrilled to see the taxi driver, Ali, standing there holding a sign with "Borkert" in all caps. Everything seemed so foreign from the instant we landed. We had been deposited in another universe, as far as I was concerned; as we drove to the heart of the city, we passed olive groves and more people walking on foot than I had ever seen. Clad in kaftans and head coverings, they trudged the sides of the road, the lucky ones leading a donkey laden with belongings. Poverty assaulted my eyes; I kept thinking Isn't Morocco the sophisticated tourist-friendly part of Africa? I found out quickly, it was friendly, but not refined in any sense of the Western word.

Our riad was an oasis of calm, open-roofed with an inner courtyard replete with fountain and blue and white tiling. The rooftop terrace was the perfect place to sit and listen to the sounds of boisterous medina life while drinking delicious hot mint tea. I had some lovely moments sitting up there in the sun looking out over hundreds of rooftops and listening to the muezzins droning the call to prayer from their minarets. Our first full day in Fes, we set off into the medina, which is an incredible labyrinth of pedestrian-only alleys, housing over 260,000 people in a relatively small area. A trip to Fes is not for Sanitizer Moms (you know, those women who walk into Chili's in the U.S. and proceed to wipe down the high chair with antibacterial wipes before they let precious baby sit) or anyone opposed to getting shit on their shoes. The medina is the largest carless city in the world, so beasts of burden are used to haul in merchant supplies, which means donkeys crapping all over the place. Despite the crap, litter, and random street cats everywhere, Fes holds a medieval charm so primitive one cannot help being entranced. The buildings all look the same from the outside, but step inside, and you are treated to exquisite mosaics and wood work you will never see in the western world. The gardens are like a secret you happen upon, riotous with hibiscus, bouganvillia, and antique roses, and bowered by lemon-scented orange trees. We discovered the medina with the help of a guide, who shepherded us around with a mercenary cunning. Aziz spoke excellent English and seemed to know every place and everyone, he took us to all his favorite shopping spots so he could get a cut of the profits when we bought something. This is common practice in Morocco, everyone has a hand in the pot, everyone gets a piece of the tourist's pie. I confess it felt a little odd at first, as we realized he kept excusing himself to go the the "bathroom" but we knew he was in fact going to collect his percentage from the merchant. Fes is famous for its artisans, and they are happy to show you their creative processes before they take you to their showroom. We visited potters, weavers, woodworkers, and leather-tanners, and they always showed us their workers and even encouraged us to participate. I sat at a loom with four Moroccan women as they showed me how to weave a rug, I was terrible and clumsy of course, and they were deft and furiously fast. We visited the tannery pits, a quintessential Fes experience, as the terrible smell wafts throughout the town, leaving its imprint on your mind. We watched men waist deep in the tanning and dyeing pits, which hold odd combinations like lime and pigeon shit, and my DH remarked that these people must have missed the industrial revolution and that their life expectancy couldn't extend past 40 working in those conditions (see photo of pits). At the ceramics factory, one of the men painting tiles and vases stopped to paint a fake-henna tattoo on little Helen's hand. Everywhere we went, people were so friendly, not only because we represented the American tourist dollar, but also because we had brought small children to visit. Moroccans LOVE children, especially blonde blue-eyed ones, and everywhere we went, men of all ages stopped Helen to give her a kiss. My favorite was a little barefoot boy on the street who wasn't even a head taller than Helen; he grabbed her by both shoulders and planted a big kiss on her cheek, then ran back to his older brother who scolded him for his boldness. Everywhere we went, people complimented us on having children so young, this is highly esteemed in muslim culture.

After two days of seeing the sights in Fes, we took the next two days to see nearby towns with our "tourist taxi" driver, Ali. The first day we traveled to Sefrou, Ifrane, and Azrou. Ali took us first to Sefrou, to visit a wrinkled old woman named Ayesha, who lives in a cave (see photos); after the obligatory mint tea, she showed me how to wear a head covering like a proper muslim, and tried to teach me how to balance a full bucket of water on my head as she does every day. I could barely stand the weight of the bucket, and there is no way I could carry it for any distance. She nimbly walked around her cave, demonstrating how she transports water with no hands and she showed no sign of discomfort. This woman was easily in her seventies, and could be a pro weight-lifter. Amazing. Ifrane was less remarkable to me; it is a former French resort town that has been built up to look like a Swiss village, completely out of place in Morocco. Everything was so new it was jarring after being in Sefrou, and we left as soon we'd lunched. On to Azrou, or more specifically, the cedar forests outlying the town, where Barbary apes live in the wild. These macaques (tailless primates) are the only monkeys left in northern Africa. I should explain at this point that our entire vacation in Morocco centered around seeing these monkeys; they were the only thing my kids really cared about. We even used this as our favorite form of bribery for months beforehand, threatening "Stop right now or I will leave you at home while we go see the monkeys in Morocco!!!" It worked every time. So there was a lot riding on this outing. We stopped at a cliffside overlook to view the middle Atlas mountains, and saw a pet Barbary ape tied to a trinket stand. The owner encouraged our kids to feed his monkey, hoping to sell us something in the process. The ensuing monkey attack was captured on video and I've posted it here on the blog for your viewing pleasure. After it happened, I began to wonder a bit about rabies and random monkey diseases (didn't HIV come from monkeys????), but tried to put it out of my head and hope for the best, after all, our kids were thrilled and Breck wasn't put off by having his hair pulled by a macaque. So on we went to the opening of the forest where guides with horses waited to sell us their monkey-scouting services. My DH refused this service, being the self-reliant person that he is, and we wandered the woods like idiot tourists for a little while, spotting zero monkeys. A guide slyly followed us until we gave up and mounted his horse and were led straight to a pair of macaques sitting high up in a cedar tree. A male was soon lured down by our bananas and pistachio nuts, and we had a blast feeding him, I feeling quite triumphant when he came up and took banana out of my hand.

Things look so different in hindsight. I felt rather proud of our adventurous spirit that day. I mean, how many American parents take their kids to see wild monkeys and let them get close enough to be attacked? Only very stupid ones. I would mark the monkey attack as the point where the trip took a downward turn. That night, instead of enjoying beer and apple-flavored sheeshah (hookah) with my husband on the rooftop terrace, I had to make an unexpected visit to the toilet to vomit. Whether I got food poisoning in Ifrane, or some monkey affliction in Azrou, I don't know, but I spent all night sick as a dog.
The next morning it was off to the Roman ruins at Volubilis and Moulay Idriss, in spite of me feeling like a weak and nauseated waif.

I can't say much about Volubilis; it was really lovely and picturesque, the countryside resembling mediterranean Europe, and the ruins looking like any other Roman ruins, except the Moroccans let your crawl all over them, unlike the Italians at the Forum. The ancient columns have huge nests atop them, inhabited by large storks, kind of a bizarre sight. After Volubilis, I refused to visit Moulay Idriss because I was so car sick and wanted to go back to the riad. This town is the site of the founding of Islam in Morocco, and is closed to non-muslims after dark, there are no hotels there.

The last day in Morocco (or what was supposed to be the last day) Breck started vomitting fiercely and frequently. Our hosts were kind and tried to help him recover, but there was nothing that could stop the illness. I went on one last foray into Fes medina with Aziz to find the perfect fabric for my best friend. After all manner of shady exchanges, Aziz took me to a part of town he said was "rough, you know, like Queens in New York." There were no tourists here, and I didn't have enough money for my fabric, so Aziz threw his forms of identification at the owner, grabbed the fabric and me and dragged me quickly out of the shop. He assured the owner he would come back with the money as we ran down the alley. He circumvented two women trying to enter a taxi and put me and himself in instead to go to the ATM. Apparently my tourist dollar was more valuable than their dhiram. I felt really badly about this episode, because the repression of women is such an absolute part of life there. You will only see men sitting in the outdoor cafes, sipping their tea and smoking, women are not allowed this luxury. Women are only seen going to market and then returning home, they are not meant for public life. They cook, clean, raise children, and in their spare time may weave to make some income. Divorced single women have it worst, for they must support their children, and so they work hard weaving rugs for the Fes cooperative which (hopefully) gives them a better price for their product.

That afternoon we bid our hosts goodbye and drove to the airport with Ali, who I'm sure was exhausted of our children, though he tolerated them smilingly and graciously. Breck vomitted on the floor in the customs line, and they gave us a wheelchair and put us at the front of the queue for boarding. We were waiting to board when suddenly, with no explanation, the Ryan Air employees walked away from their desk. A murmur of confusion went up in the crowd. The employees returned with photocopies of their policy regarding flights cancelled due to weather (in French). We couldn't read them, but as chaos erupted in Arabic and French and the world "Annulle" was passed down, we began to gather we weren't flying out. Thanks to a volcano in Iceland.

To Be Continued.....

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


When she comes, she is so fragile and pale,
Egg-shell thin, and the whites of her eyes so
Viscous you can see through her. Should you trust her?
Is she an angel or some tricky old ghost?

She kisses your face with the sweetest breath,
And so you dissolve into her and trust in dewdrops,
Tulips, and the crocuses that sit crouched between tracks
Like little bandits ready to jump your train and plunder your heart.

When the rain does come, the long cold days you feared so much,
You feel a wilting, a flagging of your hope. So it wasn't real.
Yes, she's a tricky ghost after all. But don't give her up.
It wasn't the last Spring your heart will ever feel. She'll be back again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kate Brown Dies, Aged 45

At approximately 7:40 p.m. tomorrow evening
A strong feeling will come over Kate Brown
And choke her to death. It will be one of those
That sneak up on you even though its been
Lumping in your chest for over a month.

The sob will escape the thorax and hit her brain,
A heartbreak the shape of an aneurism.
It's not as if she didn't feel it coming,
While watering roses or setting the kettle to boil,
But she was drowning in a sea of domesticity
And not a single bystander saw the signs

After they set her afloat in a wooden box
In a sea of lilies to meet what dreams
May come, Michael will button up his blazer,
And return to the office and the solace of his assistant.
The children will set off to conquer the world,
And I will write this poem, to which my professor will reply:
"But where is the situational irony to give it context?"

Monday, March 8, 2010

The "Mycaa" Funding Mess

(WARNING: This is a rant. )

In January I registered for a class through UMUC on post here in Heidelberg. I had been lured by a flyer that said the federal government was granting $6,000.00 to any military spouse who applied for it. Undergraduate or graduate work in any field was fair game. My upstairs neighbor had already applied and been promised the money to complete a grad degree. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to finish up my Bachelor's in English which I have worked on sporadically for years now. The recruiter on post assured me I would be awarded the money, though the website where one enrolls was currently bogged down from so much traffic. This should have been my first clue. Lots of spouses wanted this money. And who wouldn't? Why does the federal government not realize how many people want educational grants? Anyway, about a month into my class, when it came time to pay the bill, and several attempts to enroll in the program had failed, I found out the ugly truth: there was no more money. The mycaa fund had virtually collapsed, and those who were already enrolled in the program were having trouble getting their share of the pie. I had enrolled in my class on false premises and now would have to eat the cost myself.

I'm pissed, people. Google this on the internet and you will find a lot of very angry military wives. I've read threads where wives vent thoughts I've had on many occasions...they go a little like this: Why the hell did I give up my life and my goals for the military? One woman advised other women not to marry into the military until they had accomplished their educational and career goals, because once in, there would be no more opportunities for those things. Another woman responded to her saying this was not fair, she also was disappointed at not being able to pursue her goals, but thankful for the opportunity to stay home and raise her kids while they were young. I see the merits of both these rants. The U.S. military has set up a system of PCS'ing every 2-3 years that allows very little flexibility for service members' families. So far, we have never been stationed in a location that had a university offering a Master's in English. This has been a major source of frustration for me, but I've worked around it by pursuing a Bachelor's as a stepping stone. The mycaa grant felt like a vindication, a pat on the back from the government, an "atta-girl, go for that degree." The disappearance of the grant felt like a slap in the face, like once again I am only a portable part of my military husband's household, and will have to fight an uphill battle to pursue my goals. This is, of course, an emotional response, and anger is one of the most impotent emotions we experience.

I was describing the situation to a wise friend and she said, "When we have a good plan, we expect the world to rally around us in support, but often it doesn't. So now what are you going to do about it?" Let's stop the mully-grubbing, Ladies (or "spouses" of whatever gender). Let's do something about it. Write your congressmen. Fill out the mycaa survey on Facebook. Petition for the grant to be renewed in the new fiscal year (beginning October 2010). Continue to pursue your goals, because nobody else gives a damn, but you do.

As for me, I haven't yet decided if I will take any more undergraduate courses. I've grown a bit tired of intellectual bullying, which is what I tend to do in my little pond. Maybe it's time to be the little fish in the Graduate school pond :) Maybe that won't happen for a couple more years, but at least my mind won't sit fallow. I will continue reading, writing, working and volunteering. Most of all, I won't "say Victim."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Whale "Tilikum," age 30

You jump through their hoops
and follow their cues,
You do whatever is asked of you.
Whatever else is a whale to do?

You take a different route through the pool
today, vary the tedium, vary the view.
Nobody asks if it's all the same to you.
Whatever else is a whale to do?

When the hunger struck you deep
to do a different thing, it was a scream
coming from the deepest part of your belly,
It thrashed inside you and you had to feed.

Now they will shake their heads
And wonder why, and if they should exterminate
so massive a beast, or if he should be led
to deep ocean waters and set free.

But you are not that whale,
the one who swims free. You are older now,
and the product of captivity. It has changed you,
You know it well. And yet,

The taste of her blood on your teeth
made you wonder,
Whatever else is a whale to do?

Copyright March 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My German Life: Karneval in Köln

It's the fifth season in Germany: the time for revelry, the time when we shake off our winter's sleep and comfort each other with a kiss, a promise, that Spring will come again and this snow on our hearts won't last forever.

Americans have very little familiarity with carneval, unless they've read about it in The Count of Monte Cristo or visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I grew up very near New Orleans but we always avoided visiting during Mardi Gras due to its reputation for wildness. When we planned to go to Cologne (Köln is the German spelling) for Carneval, or "Fasching" as it is called here in Baden-Württemburg, we worried this would not be a kid-friendly celebration. We weren't too keen on the idea of our children being exposed to breast-flashing or all-out mob debauchery. I am happy to say we were pleasantly surprised; Cologne's pre-Lenten celebration is exactly what it should be: a colorful light-hearted salute to culture and tradition. Carneval is similar here to the festivals in Italy, where revelers wear costumes and party hard before the fasting season of Lent arrives. Not being Catholic, I enjoyed the partying without having to worry about the fasting! Cologne was filled with fresh brew on tap, the local specialty being Kölsch, which is one of the best beers I've tasted in Europe. Street vendors sold us hot kartoffel salat (potato salad) and bratwurst and pommes frites, typical German food that hits the spot. Everyone, and I do mean, EVERYONE, was in costume. If you weren't, you looked like a tourist who accidentally got off the train at the wrong place. We bought some random wigs, hats, face-paint and accoutrements from street vendors and joined in the fun. Fasching begins a week before Ash Wednesday, so by the time we arrived on Sunday, festivities were in full swing. The main event in Cologne is the parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), though we stumbled upon a smaller parade replete with candy and flower-throwing on Sunday when we arrived by train. Sunday night the pubs were wonderfully jolly, filled with revelers singing German songs and dancing when the mood struck. We loved the happy atmosphere which was surprisingly free of any sort of violence or indecency; these were merely very happy drunken Germans. We never feared for our kids at the amazingly LONG parade on Monday, the locals allowed our kids to push to the front of the line and enjoy an unimpeded view of the floats and bands. They would help our kids catch candy and then stuff it into the hoods, pockets and fronts of our kids coats! (Mental note: always bring a bag to hold all the candy, toys and flowers thrown to the crowd) After a while, the kids tired of the craziness and biting cold and we were forced to retreat to a cafe for cappucinos and gelato. Large amounts of alcohol are a necessity to sustain persons when standing outside in zero degree (Celsius) weather; our kids were definitely feeling the cold of the inches of snow piled up everywhere. The revelers wore a lot of clothing or very little, it mattered not, they were happy, they were scaring away the Schaiachperchten, or evil winter spirits, and saying goodbye to the Rauhnächte (rough winter nights).

We highly recommend carneval to all, unless you are offended by public drunkenness or anxious in large crowds! We were glad we went, though going sans children would be ideal. Thankfully, our friend, "Uncle" Larry was along for the ride and he helped us navigate the craziness and not lose any kiddos or bags!

Traveling back to Heidelberg by train, I stared out at sleepy snow covered fields and marveled at the beauty. Travel by train is such a romantic experience. Maybe I feel this way because I grew up watching films like Murder on the Orient Express and Night Train to Kathmandu, or as an adult, seeing Trans-Siberian. Scary things happen on trains, but magical things happen too, and I encourage everyone to travel by train some, for it gives you a perspective of the countryside that is hard to get any other way. Our train snaked along the Rhine for many miles, giving us stunning views of snow capped castles perched above the famous river. I felt transported; literally and figuratively :) The Rauhnächte was becoming lovely to me, finding its way into my heart, and I didn't wish to be anywhere else, Spring could come when it pleased.

To Virginia

You want to be more than the sum of your parts,
For your pain to be art and your thoughts, revelations,
O but Virginia, you are not! You are not!
You want to rise above the dunes and the common colors
And see what others do not see, translate it to poetry
Yet every word is the product of you: queer, depressive,
Bitter and guarded. It's not that you didn't fly away
From your pain for some hours, some few.
Dedalus-like you gave your vision shape, but like him
The migration was seasonal, doomed for a fall,
For a river and rocks, for a slow bubbling dress
And the note for Leonard. God save him! He was good to you.
It wasn't enough, no one can say why.
As your body disentangled itself from your will,
swam for the surface and your thoughts were suddenly
still, I wonder: was there a God waiting to receive you?
Would that relieve you?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness

Friend, you are asking me if what you've done is all right:
To hold her and love her flesh as if it is life's last air
But to have her heart wrapped around you only for one night?
And I'm stumbling to an answer in my own heart
I'm hem-hawing between the see-saw of wrong and right.

Meanwhile, I've got a kitchen to clean and boys to feed,
And my son's blankie to launder before the dark night.
When I hand him the warm rag he clasps it tight and thanks me.
He doesn't know it's my heart wrapped in that clean lovey.

Some day, when he's a man, I hope we can talk. Honestly.
I hope when he holds a woman that he'll know he can ask me
About the things he can't distinguish in her eyes.
I hope he will understand when I tell him the truth about one night.

She might taste like the last drop, she might take you out of yourself
And fly you out of your desert place for clean air, for forever.
She might be your one and only taste of heaven.

O Friend, you are asking me, but I don't think you want the answer.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Travel Logs: Prague

People keep asking me, "Are you writing about your travels?" The answer is no. I haven't been writing it all down, sealing it into the vault of memory and leaving a record for posterity. The truth is, I suck at disciplined writing. When asked what my inspiration is for poetry, what style I am imitating, or what diction I am seeking to reproduce, I have no answer. The answer is only, "I write whatever comes out." This is not a good answer for anyone who has writerly aspirations, for the professional author knows that good writing takes discipline and practice.

I suppose that is mostly what this blog is about for me: a discipline, a pattern of creative recording that will hopefully yield some fruit. So I am enacting "The Travel Logs," a category of essays on trips I take to other places besides Germany. This past week I had the privilege, nay, LUXURY, of traveling to Prague, Czech Republic with three other women. No children involved (for which I gratefully raise a glass to my brother-in-law, Thomas, long-suffering and selfless: PROST!). One of the girls was my middle sister, which gave us the chance to catch up and just be girls together once more, a talent largely forgotten in the chaos of marriage and child-rearing. One of the girls was a Czech national, which made travel a breeze, as she shepherded us around and fielded all the Czech questions from the locals. We really did not have to think at all, it was fantastic being led around and translated for; I probably said "Betka, where do we go now?" too many times (sorry Beti!).

As to Prague: It's fabulous, People. I just can't find words to describe it; Pristine, Intact, Old-world, Ornate, are a few that come to mind. It is truly one of the most, if not THE MOST beautiful cities in Europe, filled with spires, amazing architecture and opulent relics of the past. It's so untouched because it was not bombed during the World Wars. The city is also quite hilly, creating layer upon layer of buildings, which lit at night create something I can only describe as "magic" for the tourist. The Charles Bridge is the perfect vantage point on top of the river at night. Make sure to visit Prague Castle and St. Vitus' Cathedral which are also fabulous. See the Jewish quarter and marvel at the pathetic heap of tombstones, a reminder of the injustice of anti-Semitism. Eat lunch at the Slavia Cafe and enjoy the best view of the old town in the city (sitting under photos of the famous who've enjoyed it too...we were under a picture of Hillary Clinton during her visit). Enjoy Bohemian Dumplings, they are scrumptious, as are the uber cheap micro-brews available in the city. Seriously, I paid about 1.25 euro for a half liter of beer...that's cheap as dirt over here, you can't even buy still water for that price.

I think the thing that impressed me most, and I mean by "impressed" that it affected me most, was the post-Soviet harshness that still rears its head. There is the sense that people have had it tougher; there is no Western European luxury to be seen. Though Prague is far more beautiful than many cities in the West, even more than Paris, there is this patina of crumminess that keeps it from being modern or flashy. I have to say, I like it all the better for this. It is real. You feel it. There is nothing sanitized or suburban about this place; you feel closer to the way humanity has lived for centuries. This quality of genuineness is beautiful.

When we were on a bus, traveling from Vienna to Prague (we took the train back, and I have to say I really preferred the train), a blind couple boarded and sat in front of my sister and I. We cringed; they smelled badly and were unkempt. They were not the first obviously physically deformed people I would see that day, there were more examples of this type of suffering (more than I am accustomed to seeing). They talked loudly and had their seeing-eye dog stuffed under their seats. When we exited the bus at our destination, I watched them make their way down the stairs, arm in arm. They reached the ground and got their bearings, mostly by putting hands on each other and making sure of each other. The man's unfocused eyeballs glared oddly at the sky and he grinned the widest grin. His girl was caressing his face. I promise you, there isn't a man on this planet more happy or more loved than this man without a clean hair on is head or an intact tooth in his mouth. In this world of darkness, these two had reached out a hand and found each other. It was enough.

O, the exquisite crumminess!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Travel Logs: Prague-The Swell Season

Every once in awhile, Art follows Life follows Art. For the poetic soul, I'm afraid there's such a fine line between the two that they become rather confused. I saw this played out on a live stage this week at The Swell Season concert in Prague. If you haven't yet seen the film "Once" then stop reading now, go rent the movie and watch it, and come back and finish this post. It won't make any sense to you without that context. The two main characters/actors are Markéta and Glen, who are also the heart of the group The Swell Season. I call them character/actors because they were not professionals when they made the movie and the love story that happens on-screen was also happening in real life. At the time, Glen was age 37 and Markéta 19, making their love story improbable, yet somehow an irresistible product of their musical collaboration. Glen said of that time, "There was definitely the feeling we were documenting something precious and private" (Entertainment Weekly, June 2007).

If the movie "Once" and the accompanying soundtrack were documentation of the couple's love story, their follow-up album "Strict Joy" is the painful documentation of their falling out of love. Going to see them in concert is like watching a broken heart get swept all over a stage and stomped on a few more times for theatrical purposes. Glen is, as ever, passionate and heart-rending in his delivery, and Markéta is, as in the film, restrained and ruminative. He parades his bruised heart for the crowd's entertainment, and she quietly gives pathos a melody on the piano. They are really stunning live performers, not just for their incredible musical gifting, but because they give voice to both delight and pain. Glen does an amazing job adapting his own songs so that they lead into covers familiar to the crowd; a couple of gorgeous examples were "Falling Slowly" devolving into U2's "With or Without You," and his whimsical "Star Star" leading into a violin solo of "Pure Imagination." These are the moments in the live concert experience that one is transported by. One of the incredibly gorgeous moments in this performance was the violin solo by former Frames now Swell Season member, Colm Mac Con Iomaire. He took me back to the cliffs of Ireland in my mind's eye.

Back to the train-wreck aspect of this concert: some moments made me wince with the freshness of the ache. Glen would give his trademark yelling/singing performance to the crowd, emphasizing lyrics such as "Your heart's not in it!" or "Her last words were 'I was only thinking of you, Babe.'" Markéta remained remarkably calm during these moments, though her expression seemed pained when he turned to her and belted out over and over, "I can't live, with or without you." It's amazing to me that the collaboration continues, and yet they are riding high on the success borne out of this pain.

Because somehow this heartbreak is beautiful. My friend, Sara, turned to me at the end of the concert, and sighed, "Music is so cathartic!" I agreed, because she is correct, giving voice to the painful things transforms them into Art, and then they have a life of their own. Glen says it this way in the song "Go with Happiness": "Because a love has grown, I had to leave it alone / And if you're gonna go / Go with happiness." Maybe Glen and Marketa have learned the fine art of releasing the pain. Or maybe they've gotten really good at acting.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cremation: Day Seven

If I burn my own heart to ash,
No one will attend the ceremony.

No one helped me cut the twigs,
Form the tepee, cradle the flame,
Blow 'till it caused the organ
To leak blood and expand to explosion.
No one heard the sound it made.

I scoop up the ash obediently
And revel in the feel of so fine a dust.
Even divided, it pulses the same sound.

I stand alone, swaying cliff-side
and blow those ashes to ocean winds.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Happy. Said the Girl

What are you chasing? Asked the Girl.
A Bird. Said the Boy. I will catch her
And then tie a string around her neck
and carry her home.

Why? Asked the Girl. Couldn't you let her live?
No. Said the Boy. This is how my Father taught me to hunt.

What are you chasing? Asked the Boy.
Happiness. Said the Girl.
It looks more like a butterfly. Remarked the Boy.
You'd think that wouldn't you? But She is Happiness. Said the Girl.
How do you know? Asked the Boy.
Because I catch her, let her wings kiss my cheek,
And then I release her to the wind again.
Said the Girl.

Oh. Said the Boy. Like chasing birds.
Yes. Said the Girl. Only not really.
No, not really. Agreed the Boy.
But it's something like my father's smile.
Yes. Said the Girl with her grin. Something like.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Blood Red Clay

The heat soaked into his bones and then seeped out his skin in fat droplets as he hauled the feed in, bag by bag the loathesome load. He paused to remove his hat and wipe his forehead with his kerchief, and he saw a rider on the horizon. The horse seemed driven, his purpose fuled by an anxious master. He stopped and dropped his hand to his wagon's gate, waiting for the trouble he saw riding with the horseman. The stranger pulled up, sharp on his reins and met McDonald with coldness in his eyes. Dan met the stranger's gaze, "Can I help you?," he asked in his courteous storekeep's tone, the one that let brusque customers know he was unfazed.
"You Dan McDonald?"
"Yeah, that's me. I keep this store and this is my farm back behind. What do you want with me?"
"They told me you was a fool," the rider sneered, "but I didn't know you was so fool to speak to me so careless."
"And who might you be?"
"I'm a Campbell, and that's all you need know. Yours and mine been fightin' all the way back to the homeland. You best show me some respect, boy."
"I'm no boy. This is my place your standin' on, so I think you ought show me respect." Dan's voice tightened as he felt the old swells of anger rising in him. "I don't take kindly to strangers comin' on my place and pickin' a fight with me!" He knew he was yelling and couldn't stop it. He felt the brawls of his youth rising up in him and urging him on.
"I ain't pickin'!" In one swift lift of his leg, Campbell had dismounted and stepped up to Dan. He thought to step back, but too late, and he felt lightening stinging through his chest, like when it strikes you in a wet field. He stared into Campbell's cold grey eyes, so close and locked into his for a moment. Dan felt the blade as it was jerked from his stomach, felt the tearing of skin and muscle as blood roared in his ears. He staggered and felt the land tip sideways. He was on the ground when he woke again, red clay was in his nostrils and he saw across the flatness of the ground, hooves far off, hitting the ground in a rapid cadence, beating out a retreat. Then the screams assaulted his ears.
"Murder! MURDERER! O my God, O Jesus help us, Dan's been killed! That man is a murderer!" Mary Blanche's shrieks reached a dangerously high pitch. He looked up to see his Blanche, her blue sleeves flapping from the second-story window as she proclaimed to anyone who would listen that he was dying.
Death felt slow. There were many people about, he felt arms grabbing him and hauling him onto something wooden. Customers and neighbors were putting him on a door they'd scrounged, taken off its hinges to bear his body. He passed out again.
Blanche wept as the men awkwardly scooped up Dan's intestines and laid them on his body. They loaded the door into the back of his wagon and made the harsh trip from North Carrolton to the hospital in Greenwood. It was all jumbled in Dan's mind, the passage to a clean-sheeted hospital bed; there had been dreams more vivid than any he could remember. He saw Blanche floating above him in white, holding a baby and crying, the baby she'd lost to tuberculosis in her first marriage. He dreamed with a terrible sense of loss of the babies he would not give her, the family he would not raise, the land he would not cultivate.
The surgeon and his nurses cut Dan's clothes from his body and placed them in a box. They gently raised his intestines and bathed them clean, tucking them back in the gaping hole that was his abdomen. The doctor stitched up Dan's wounds as he slept, giving him back his dreams. Blanche took the box of bloody clothes and placed it in their attic; they were the best evidence she had against the man who had surely murdered her husband. She had fitful dreams at night about revenge, but the box lay dormant, and three months later Dan came home. The authorities never found Campbell.
As he stocked his store and harvested his crops, as he bedded his wife and raised his children, he would think of Campbell's reasoning, "Yours and mine have always been fightin'." He would shrug his shoulders and think with a sad Irish sigh that it was as good a reason as any other.

Eve of the New Year

I don't know much for sure
The only constant is change

Outside, the wind whips birch trees
And the clouds remain for another day.
Ask me about winter,
And I will tell you about war.

That year was the longest winter of my life
Filled with days that never counted
Months erased by their monotony and solitude.

Outside, the snow comes for another day
We are trapped inside by our fears and doubts
Ask me about loss,
And I will tell you about a year

When I chased the moth that grew in my brain
It was a shadowy thing not meant to be pinned
Beauty is such a live thing, not dead or framed.

That year was the second longest winter of my life.

I don't know anything.
I'm only grateful
for the constancy of change.

3:55 AM

I am not A, B, and C,
Can't follow steps 1, 2 and 3.
I wish I was so simple and I could
Squash people into holes, make them good.
We are slippery things, we humans are,
And if I could categorize,
I love lists, I would.
But we are all demonfire and angel eyes
Born from eager coupling or unlawful knowing
And especially from the rote spousal meeting.

A new year is dawning
And if I could reach my goals by following rules,
I'm tired now, I would.
But I'm getting older and finally see
Through the stack of self-help on my shelf.
Some days I wake up and I'm kind, love my kids,
Say the thing I should. And some nights I wake,
Find I'm vampire, murderer and whore.
Does that make you shudder? What for?
You are not so simple either
And I'm glad of it; I'd be bored.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Favorite Books in 2009

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
2. Dream Work by Mary Oliver (poetry)
3. The Essential Neruda ed. by Mark Eisner (poetry)
4. Me and My Baby View the Eclipse by Lee Smith
5. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
6. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
7. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
8. North by Seamus Heaney (poetry)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My German Life: Tidbits

I can't seem to organize my brain enough to write about any one thing, so instead of essay, you are getting random tidbits in the form of bulletin points.
1. It's really dark here in the winter. We are at the same latitude as Newfoundland, if that helps all my American friends gain some perspective. The sun has set by 4:30 pm, and in the morning it rises at....well, it doesn't rise most days, or doesn't appear to. We have very few sunny days here, and they are always a cause for great rejoicing; we emerge from the cocoon of our apartments and stomp around in our boots triumphantly when they occur. I was more excited about Winter Solstice arriving than Christmas. I'm from Mississippi and my favorite vacations involve loads of sunshine and a beach; I think you can guess how I feel about the darkness.
All this darkness can be the impetus for a very deep depression. Everyone here claims to have S.A.D. and we all self-medicate to some degree or another. This usually involves some combination of caffeine, vitamins and happy pills. I've said "yes, please" to all three. I even started taking a vitamin B complex sublingually, which means I drop the yucky-fake-cherry-tasting liquid in my mouth under my tongue and hold it there for 30 seconds and then swallow. Very gross, very weird, but if somebody told me that sucking on a cow's udder twice a day would give me energy and peace of mind, I'd probably do that too.

2. It has snowed fairly frequently, beginning in December, and I love this. It never snowed in the southern U.S. states I've always lived in. Okay, fine, it snowed in Mississippi and Oklahoma before it snowed here this winter, dammit. I don't what the hell is going on, but it finally started here and nothing makes me happier than walking to the high school in the morning darkness to substitute teach and feeling the snowflakes drop lightly on my face. The flakes seem to have more delicacy and frilly tendrils than the ones I saw on rare occasions in the U.S. Maybe I'm over-romanticizing things again, but I've seen some amazingly beautiful snowflakes here. Or maybe I'm just now old enough to take the time to stop and examine them.

3. My sister, brother-in-law and two nephews flew from Vienna to spend a week with us for Christmas. We had a great time and showing them around Heidelberg reminded me how much I LOVE this city. I found out from Facebook that "love" is the second-most used word in my status updates, which made me realize I use that word way too freely. But I can say quite honestly, I love Heidelberg. It is the perfect size, not too big, but big enough to feel urban. Even in winter, it is stunningly picturesque. Joel and I went out to eat to celebrate our 8th wedding anniversary, and as we walked to our destination, we paused on one of the brückes that span the Neckar river (which flows through Hberg) and took time to enjoy the view. The beautiful schloss is lit up at night and is perched up on a hill where it gracefully watches the town's inhabitants. The river flows off out of view, obscured by Heidelberg's lantern-dotted hills, and that spot where it disappears beckons to me. Some day I will find out where the Neckar goes from here, because life is just too short to miss out on the lovely mysteries of the unknown. Some day...

My Top 10 Movies from 2009

Again: I watched it this year; it may not have come out in 2009.
1. There Will Be Blood
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Two Lovers
4. Adaptation
5. Let the Right One In
6. Synecdoche, New York
7. The Visitor
8. American History X (I finally watched it)
9. The Brothers Bloom
10. Inglorious Basterds

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Top 10 Songs of 2009

(This doesn't necessarily mean it came out this year; It is just a favorite of mine from this year)
1. "Eet" by Regina Spektor
2. "A Falling Through" by Ray LaMontagne
3. "Sexy Bitch" by David Guerra
4. "I'm Not Your Toy" by LaRoux
5. "He Lays in the Reins" by Iron & Wine (& "Burn That Broken Bed" & "Dead Man's Will")
6. "Looking Up" by Paramore
7. "I Don't Need a Soul" by Relient K
8. "Day and Night" by Kid Cudi
9. "The Verb" by The Swell Season
10. "All I Need" by Radiohead

One more: "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010 Resolutions

1. Beat my sister in our "Biggest Loser" contest. Winning is the only motivating force in my life.
2. Train for the Vienna Frauenlauf 10k
3. "Be kind, Be kind, Be kind."
4. Submit, submit, submit (not in the biblical sense)
5. If you don't have anything intelligent to say, don't say anything at all.
6. Stay true to my vow: I will never read the Twilight series.
7. Visit 10 new countries
8. Let go of the guilty bitch inside..."Sciencedamn you!"
9. Be 100x hotter at 30 then I ever dreamed of being at 20. Growing up is pretty sexy, after all.
10. Hang out with my best friend on the French Riviera (no bitching out, Girl, it's a resolution!)