Ritratti italiani, Tre

La Spezia from the Portovenere Bus

In the morning, I only have a little time for the train to Florence leaves, so I take the local bus to a place called Portovenere in La Spezia. This was suggested to me by the kind hostess at the Grand Manin Hostel which is where I stayed at in La Spezia. I have to say. I had severely underestimated La Spezia after being wowed by Cinque Terre. I did not think that so soon after  such an experience like the sun setting in Manarola would I be so inspired again, but I am quickly discovering that Italy has a way of doing just that time and again.

The Portovenere Bus leaves from about a block from the hostel on Via Domenico Chiodo. It takes about half an hour to get to Portovenere. Since it’s just a bus ride, I am not expecting much. Taking a moment to look away from my phone, I look out of the window as we are driving down the coastal road. By Fezzano, I can see from the bus a wider, grander view of La Spezia. La Spezia itself is a beautiful town that is reminiscent of both Rome and Cinque Terre. There are tall buildings and pastel colors. But what hits me the hardest is seeing La Spezia cradled in the Apennine Mountains. If I could paint a portrait of any one place, any one sight, it would be La Spezia from the Portovenere Bus.

The land surrounding the bay appears as two arms open, hugging the Mediterranean waters. The military port houses warships with guns and tall yellow cranes. The fishing port houses sailboats with their many masts stabbing at the sky like so many lances ready for battle. The trees of Giardini Pubblici separate the concrete and pastel buildings from the water’s edge in the center. From here, the building and landscape steadily increases in height the further my sight moves inland, forming a sort of bowl of homes and shops. The outlying Appennines stand guard over this town. I can see clouds, likes waves, crashing into the snow-capped peaks.

I do not stay long in Portovenere for want of riding the bus again back to La Spezia just to see this vision again.


Ritratti italiani, Due

Sunset in Manarola

This, right now, is one of those moments I think all dreamers have dreamt of. I know I certainly have. To my right, I can see grassy fields, and further on, mountains. To my left, I can see the Mediterranean. I am at my seat, laptop open, typing away. I get chills every time I pause to look out the window. Is this real? Am I truly here? I am on a train in Italy, surrounded by coastal landscapes, heading toward Cinque Terre. The only thing I can want in this moment is a more exact pen (figurative, of course, as I am typing), so that I can share my experience.

In the fields, there are small houses every so often. One has walls of pastel beige and pale orange terracotta tiles for a roof. Some are more faded than others. The door is red and the window just next to it is small. An unpainted wood picket fence surrounds a nearby vegetable garden. A few trees dot the surrounding scene. These trees stand tall on skinny trunks. They are each bare for about twenty-to-thirty feet or so before the branches of vibrant leaves reach out in a ten-foot crown. Miles beyond this little house and its similar neighbors lie the Apennine Mountains.

The Mediterranean is just outside to the left of the train now. We must be riding right on the coast. I cannot reasonably explain how much the sea means to me or why. All I know is that I am drawn to the coast. Whether it be the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic Ocean along Georgia’s southeastern border, I am drawn to the sand and the sea. The blue sky extends into the horizon, meshing with the water’s far edge. The line that separates the two bodies seems almost invisible. Leading to, “Where does the world end?” … “Where does it begin?”

The train begins to steer inland, away from the coast. I feel like a part of me is pulling away. But soon I am in La Spezia for the night. Next, morning comes and I am on the train to Monterosso al Mare. Here it is, the sea. This is the northernmost town of the five known as Cinque Terre. And this one has a beach. The wind is blowing, the water is freezing, and I can see a storm brewing in the distance, but I cannot help myself. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants legs and let the tide waters meet me at the shore. I stand for as long as I can bear the cold, but this is such a joyful moment I am barely bothered by it.

Here, there are some pastel shops and other buildings. I think Monterosso al Mare is known for its beach. The other towns do not have beaches of their own as they are built into the cliffside. Vernazza is like this but close by the water. Here, small fishing boats line the street, covered, waiting for a calm morning before they set out with their fishermen aboard. The waves crash around the rocks and dock splashing the tourists too near the edge.

Corniglia is the middle town, and the highest in altitude. This village was built into a high cliffside. Again with the steps I go. And again, I am not disappointed. Here, the sea seems far off , but the waves are still heard. Sunlights streams down the slim alleyways and brightens the soft blues, pinks, oranges, and beiges of the houses. Here, the sun begins its descent.

Turquoise. Pure, gemstone-esque turquoise waves dip and crest under a pink setting sun. The colors seem unreal, impossible, but here they are. The sound is sombering from my perch in Manarola, the crash of Mediterranean Sea against rocks. I think I have found a place called Heaven, and it is here. Pastel houses are built into the cliffside, one house on top of another, making room for others all around so that they can share this evening scene. The hypnosis of the turquoise waves, rhythmically greeting the rocks below, reflecting the pink sun’s light, is entrancing, captivating. Eternal and too short.

The dark night sky lays to rest the sun too quickly in my opinion. I am released from the spell and make my way to Riomaggiore for dinner.

I will not soon forget the magic of those five places. Indeed, I hope to return very soon. The setting sun of Cinque Terre over and into the Mediterranean is a high I cannot soon let go.

Ritratti italiani, Uno

The Walk

Gold veins etch into the dark earth below. The sprawl of city lights and street lamps glimmer and glow in yellow. Straight, curved, and jagged lines spider out from and into clusters of neighboring cities. I try to guess which ones I am flying over all the way from Brussels to Rome. I am going to Rome. I am going to Rome!

Our Ryan Air flight, the one I only paid 17€ for to fly from Brussels to Rome, lands at Ciampino Airport. The evening air is cool, but still warmer than anywhere else I have been so far on this excursion. It smells faintly of campfire, which is one of the best smells there is in my opinion. From the airport, we catch a bus to Stazione Termini, then it is a short walk to the Yellow Hostel. From the window of the bus, I catch glimpses of monuments here and there, but it is dark and I do not see anything I yet recognize. It will have to wait until the morning.

Morning has arrived, and the sun shines bright on Via Palestro. Our group of seven starts out from the Yellow Hostel excited for the day ahead. I had prepared a sort of walking route to see some of the big Roman sights and some of the not-so-famous places.

St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church, or the American Church in Rome, was the first Protestant church built in Rome (1880), and it is easily recognized by its large, horizontal stripes. The Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore follows shortly thereafter. This is a big and beautiful church, but, unfortunately, is has been fenced off for some reason. This did dampen our moods a little, but not too much, we knew there were many more opportunities to see incredible things. About two hours into our walk we stumble on this open park with the remains of a mammoth, ancient bathhouse. This is the Parco del Colle Oppio.

Strolling through the park, wondering at the sheer size of such a structure that must have once existed in this place, we are caught off guard by the other looming structure nearby, just down the hill a bit and across the street. There it stands, after all these years, the Roman Colosseum. It actually looks a bit smaller than we had anticipated all the way up on the hill as we are, but as soon as we managed to make our way right up to the sides of this towering arena, we realize it is truly an architectural testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Romans.

Here our group splits off and I leave to wander the park of antiquity on my own. I find a side entrance into Palatine Hill, pay my way in and begin to walk the path of the ancients. I am surrounded by other tourists, all of us with our smartphones and cameras taking photos, listening to recorded tours, tour guides, pointing, smiling, oohing and aahing. I remember the stories of Augustus Caesar and the Roman Empire at the Roman Forum, as it lies in rubble. I imagine the culture and stories of the men and women wandering the palace grounds on Palatine Hill in their togas. I see the cells of the enslaved beneath the destroyed floor of the Colosseum. There is the Triumphal Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Titus, the House of the Vestals, the Temple of Venus, and so much more. I think I may have spent at least two hours here in the park alone. From the exit of Palatine Hill, I make my way around the exterior of the park to the Circus Maximus. This is the ancient chariot racing arena. I am walking where once these races actually happened.

Leaving the Circus Maximus, I make my way to the Tiber River. Like in Strasbourg, the street is a good bit above the river, but, again like in Strasbourg, there are steps down to the water’s edge. No one else is down here, and I feel like I have the place all to myself. The River Tiber and Isola Tiberina. I wish I could have stayed in this one place all day and watched the river water flow, but there was still so many places to go.

Teatro Marcello in next on the list. What is most fascinating about this ancient place is that is has been both preserved and built upon. The arched arcade structure of the performance area is intact and maintained, but just above it, brick and mortar home or shops are kept. As much as I love theatre, this place was especially important for me to see despite it not being one of the more popular sights in Rome.

It is nearly two in the afternoon. I find a small cafe and eat lunch. From here, I can still see the theatre. I imagine what it must have been like more than a thousand years ago to see the theatre, and indeed all of Rome, in all its glory.

Next on the list is a visit to the Altar of the Fatherland. This behemoth of a monument is easily seen from all over Rome. It is easily the largest monument of its sort that I have ever seen. Naturally, I am in awe. I make my way from the cafe to the steps leading up to the altar. But of course, as is natural when one wanders without specific knowledge of a place, i managed to walk up the wrong steps. But how lucky was I to end up in a place like the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli on accident. It is difficult to describe such a golden place as this in any words that might do it justice. Perhaps I can leave this one place a mystery for others to discover for themselves.

Back down the steps I go, so find the proper steps to ascend for the Altar of the Fatherland. I find them, and ascend. I must admit, I do not do well with heights most of the time, however, I could not pass up the spectacular view that was the Altar itself and the view that can be seen from the top of the altar. I stand here, so high up in the Roman sky, flanked by massive, winged charioteers each commanding two horses. The view of Rome before me is enough for me to momentarily forget how high up I am. I can see the Vatican, the Colosseum, and other sites of antiquity. I can see so much history is one place.

I spend more time than I had anticipated atop the Altar, and the sun begins to set. I wish I could have stayed to see it set completely, but I had a mission to complete. On from the Altar I go. I stroll through the Piazza di Sant’Ignazio, I sit for a while in the Roman Pantheon, have gelato from Venchi, Rome, and make a wish at the Trevi Fountain. The night has come and I end my journey of the day by regrouping with the others on the Spanish Steps.

I wish I could go into more detail about each of these awe-inspiring places, but, honestly, Rome is one of those places that needs to be experienced. I, myself, wish I had more time here, but such is life, no? Rome in a day can be such a shame, but it is Rome all the same.

Where the moss grows

19 FEB 2017

So many lives lost… one million at the Battle of Verdun. I stand in the dark tunnel where German soldiers had infiltrated Fort Vaux. The French managed to hold them off for two weeks. Two weeks they spent killing each other in this tunnel, until finally Major Raynal surrendered the fort so that the survivors could have some water. What dignity or heroism can be had in this cold, damp, dark place, hungry and thirsty, among fallen comrades and excrement.

The long hall of the underground fortress splits off into barracks, escape tunnels, and the communications room. Small windows for cannons and machine guns let the sunlight peek in. The walls, two meters of concrete, protect the soldiers from German shells, and later French shells after the fort is taken. They explode and shake the earth. The flat fields and smooth hills are pockmarked from the fury of war. So much destruction, everywhere.

Looking out from the top of Fort Vaux where the French flag flies, Verdun is not far off. The countryside is beautiful, the sun is bright, and trees now blanket once barren fields. A mossy ground cover manages to make the shell blasts look peaceful. One hundred years ago, an explosion tore through the thick metal of a turret dome. A remnant of the concave casing now lies prostrate, home to a bird bath and new moss growth. Nature nurtures the artifacts of this war.

The French and German unidentified dead of the Battle of Verdun rest as bones in the Douaumont Ossuary to the west of Fort Vaux. This white sword hilt of a building appears to have its massive blade buried into the earth, signifying the end of fighting. One hundred thirty thousand soldiers’ bones can be seen through small windows. I think they had hoped this monument to the fallen, who now share a final resting place, would be enough to remind the two nations of the horror that was World War I and keep them from committing to the same mistake again. It was only twenty-one years later, from 1918 to 1939, that WWII broke out.

A little south of the ossuary lies the town of Fleury-avant-Douaumont. Our guide recounts the tale of how the residents were told to flee their homes because fighting in the area was imminent. The townspeople left behind the homes of their parents and theirs before them. They left behind their farmlands and their shops. When the fighting was finally over, the townspeople were led back to Fleury, but when they were told this was their home, they could not believe it. The houses, the shops, the flat farmland was no more. It had all been shelled and destroyed. The landscape had become infested with the miniature hills of shell-blasts. Stones and blocks of their homes littered the walkways. The wood had burned. The terrain was unrecognizable. The earth was contaminated by poison gas, explosives, and the bodies of soldiers.

I stand where once there was a house. I am surrounded by blast holes and concrete blocks. The poison gas has dissipated, the explosives discovered and disarmed, the bodies removed and reburied with proper rights. Now, the moss ground cover lives here, too. A forest has taken root. A memorial chapel was constructed to commemorate the collective loss.

So many memorials. So many graves. And not so very long ago.


Rohan, the first visit

13 FEB 2017

Exiting the tram at Place Broglie at quarter to ten, I can see the morning sun’s rays spill over the rooftops of Rue du Dôme. Its abundance is present in the wave of yellow that forces the shadows and the cold to retreat into the small corners of the street. The cathédrale just beyond the light appears as in an overexposed photograph, brightly faded. Everything here in the morning seems surreal. The passerby walking with purpose, heading to work or the bakery for their morning baguette, the bicyclists speeding and weaving through the few pedestrians here, the pigeons trailing and expecting bread, and here I am making my way to Rohan Palace.

The passage from the tram stop to Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is mostly shops. Turn the corner at the church, and there are a couple cafes and more shops. Wrap around to the front side where the rose window watches over all, and there are more shops and restaurants. One more turn, and I am at the southeast side of the church facing Rohan Palace. The square here is open and wide. There are places to sit and rest, there are places to lock up one’s bike, and plenty of room for the large markets that sometimes visit this place. This morning, though, there are few people present.

The sun rises just above the palace from my perspective. It gives the whole square that overexposed photograph appearance, making it all seem surreal. One of the fifteen-foot-tall doors is open. There is a sign advertising the three museums housed within. Passing over the threshold of the courtyard entrance transports me to another time altogether. This (relatively) small palace was once home to the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan, King Louis XV and Marie Antoinette, and Emperor Napoleon himself.

I have been to Fontainebleau and Versailles, and I must say the Palais Rohan does not disappoint. Granted, Fontainebleau and Versailles are much, much larger, I have to say that Rohan is just as grand, extravagant, opulent. After getting my ticket to see all three museums (the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Archeology Museum) for free thanks to my Carte Culture, I head toward the Musée des Arts Décoratifs on the ground floor. I turn the small handle, walk through, and shut the door behind me. I was not prepared for how seemingly so quickly I could be yet again transported to another world altogether. The very first room is a flood of white: white marble floor, white ceiling, and the walls are the same pale-blue-gray-ivory white like in the Grand Salon at Château de Pourtalès. But the gold! The gold filigree trimming was everywhere. Around paintings, sculptures, busts, windows, and doorways. It traveled all the way from the flooring to the ceiling twenty feet up.

The largeness of it all makes me feel small. The history of it all makes me feel distant. But it is all so close and present at the same time. I am here and yet it does not quite feel real. I touch a cold marble column to make sure it is real. The sunlight spilling through the curtains feels warm. I must be somewhere, and yet I am unsure, displaced. There are hardly any words to label my dilemma, but “ungrounded” might be a close fit. I leave the marble room and begin my tour of the smaller rooms. Here, the floors are interlaced wood tiles, again like back at the château. At the end of the hall I find the library.

All of the walls are lined with shelves and old leather bound books shielded from visitors’ prying hands by what appears to be some sort of chicken wire. Sunlight exposes the dust floating in the air, moving so slowly it seems to be still in my vision. Busts of men from history line a long shelf. A rectangular table, surrounded by mahogany, red-cushioned chairs, anchors the center of the space. No detail is left unaccounted for, down to the chair cushions which are stitched with vines and leaves and a large bloom on the seat back. This was a magic place. The weight of what has transpired here, and by what was destroyed in the war, weighs heavy on the creaky wooden floors. Its near-perfection of fantastical, historical setting is made real by the cracks in the walls and ceiling here and there. Even in so grand a place, time is quick to follow.

I explore the other rooms in a half-daze. Each new space leads to me continually ask, “there’s more?” rhetorically. I am stunned by the abundance of opulence. The furnished rooms, the china porcelain plates, the clocks, the statues and figurines, the marble busts, paintings, tapestries of mythological wars all make up the Museum of Decorative Arts. And this is all just the ground floor. Back out of the same small door through which I first entered, I ascend the stone staircase to the first floor. Here resides the Museum of Fine Arts. Paintings, mostly of a religious nature, line the walls and date from the early 1600s to the mid-1850s. I may be mistaken there, and the dates reach further forward and back in time. I think what will always surprise me is how vibrant these centuries-old colors are still. From portraits to landscapes, the paint feels fresh, as if done just yesterday.

The Archeology Museum is in the basement. That seems appropriate in a way since most of what is stored in the museum are all things that have had to be excavated from underground. It is a veritable treasure trove, indeed, of history’s unwritten stories. Literally digging through the past to discover our ancestors, archaeologists share with us what they find and learn. I believe archeology may be humankind’s most tedious and rewarding puzzle. I see bones and tools. There are weapons and carts. Dig sites are mapped out and thoroughly, carefully, inspected.

Passing back over the courtyard threshold, I am leaving Rohan Palace and the three museums. There are more people in the square now. The sun is past noon in the sky and now the light is pierced by the cathédrale spire. I am trying to soak it all in, all I had just seen. I am trying to solidify it in my mind and memory. One of the benches nearby offers a warm seat in the sun. I sit there and pass the time, letting the memories settle.

I will return, soon.

Schweitzer soirée

5 FEB 2017

The three performers enter into the Grand Salon where our audience of about sixty people sits. I am one among those applauding. The two actors, a lady and an older man, and a cellist are dressed all in black. The type of chic black reserved for those of the theatre if one can imagine such a thing. Tonight is a special night for the château. Tonight, Albert Schweitzer’s love letters to who would become his wife are read, performed. We finish our introductory applause and let the performers take their seats.

The cellist makes a final adjustment to her strings, and then begins to play. She plays a short tune and then stops. Right away the man stands and begins to read the lines of the first letter. Albert Schweitzer and his love were both near or from Alsace, so the letters are written and read in a mix of German and French. Which is great for the audience which presumably speaks both languages. I am one of the only ones here who has come simply to enjoy a performance even though, once again, I have no idea what they’re actually saying.

I take this opportunity to really get a good look at the Grand Salon. The large room is lit by five chandeliers and two candelabras on the hearth. The floor is made up of interlacing wooden tiles. During the day, sunlight gives the walls a pastel blue-gray appearance, but at night, as it is now, the walls are a soft white. All along the walls are swirls of golden leaves and gold trim. The candles make the golden accents glow. The wooden panels and mirrors are outlined in gold, the footing and the ceiling trim are as well lined in these spirals of golden laurels. At the north end of the room there is a half-cupola-domed bay window, under which resides a black concert piano. In the half-dome are carved flowers, like daisies, larger toward the outside and they get smaller toward the center, painted in the same pastel blue-gray-soft-white with a bit of gold for the central florets.

This room seems plucked from Fontainebleau or even Versailles. Six paintings call this place home. There are two on the west wall. One seems quite old, the other was painted in 2008. The old one is a landscape, a bay with mountains and cliffs, trees and partly cloudy blue sky. The newer one is a painting of an art museum hall. If I had to guess, I would say the Louvre. On the east wall, the other four paintings reside. These are a single collection, each about three feet wide and six feet tall. Each one bears a woman standing on a cloud against a vibrantly blue sky. Each woman represents a season. From left to right, I would venture winter, autumn, summer, and spring. While I cannot find a date, they seem new like the museum painting.

The women of the seasons set the backdrop for the performers’ stage (not really a stage, but all the same, “stage” is a better word than “area”). Between autumn and summer is the gray marble fireplace, carved with leaves and flower buds its own. In it, a grate holds a cast iron pot. On the face of the hearth is carved a bearded man in profile wearing a laurel wreath. It reminds me of an ancient philosopher. On the hearth sits a glass enshrined golden clock. “Ornate” is not sufficient, I think, for how to describe the detail of this particular piece of craftsmanship. Four legs support the main platform which itself is draped in leaves and berries. A smaller platform rest just above the first. On it, to the left, appears to be a set of bagpipes covered in a variety of cut flowers and a tambourine. On the right, there is a large tankard. In the center, there is a large wooden cask set on its side, its top houses the clock face, and on top sit a merry man playing the viola. His fashion seems 1700s splendor. All, all of it in bright, crisp, shiny yellow gold. At the top of the hour, it strikes its tiny bell.

The performance takes a turn from the usual routine when both letter readers put down their letter portfolios, stand, come together, and dance a simple waltz. I imagine this is not very different to how lords and ladies or old were entertained: in grand rooms with committed artists, surrounded by friends and strangers, expectant of the wine sure to follow. After about thirty more minutes of a well-done performance, we clapped, and the performers took their bows and left out into the entry hall. The Leibrechts thanked the audience and told us about the wine, which was sure to follow.

We flow like a steady stream through the entry hall into Salon Rouge to meet again with the artists, this time in a less formal setting. A long table with white table cloth with set against the west wall bearing empty glasses meant for guests. I had agreed earlier to help with this evening’s festivities in exchange for a free ticket to the performance, so now my task is at hand. Alongside a few of the students from Humber College, who are also staying that the château, and the wine producer, I help serve glasses of crémant, gewurztraminer, riesling, and pinot gris. The wines and the crémant all come from a local Alsatian winery. The crémant, I am told, is an exceptionally good one, perhaps the very best of the Alsace region. For the wines, the gewurztraminer is the night’s biggest hit. Guests stay until nearly all of the wine and all of the pretzels are gone.

After about another hour and a half, the guests are all leaving. The performers are some of the last to depart. I wish I could have spoken more with them and some of the other guests, but alas, I am not yet proficient in French. My loss indeed, but I am still happy for having been a part of it all. We put away the chairs, sweep the floors, wipe the tables, and throw away the trash. Our little crew is awarded a delivery pizza dinner. It may not sound like much, but let me say here and now, that was some of the best pizza I have ever had. It is the little things after all that make these kinds of nights all the more memorable.

Misadventure from morning to midnight

4 FEB 2017

The deep, velvet-silk green of Norway spruce, Scots pine, and Douglas fir trees blend and blur as the train car speeds past them. Paired with snow-covered ground and overcast sky, I can see why this place might be called the Black Forest; the density and darkness of the trees and brush appear black against the white of winter. It is nearly hypnotic, this mix of textured green, snow white, and train ride. When I am not surrounded by the woods, I can spy the hills and mountains that I am traveling through on my way to Lake Titisee from Freiburg im Breisgau.

It only just occurs to me, though, that with it snowing so strongly and being so cold, that the lake may not be the best place to go. Of course, I had Googled images of Lake Titisee, and all of the photos looked great, nice, no-snow green and blue. Of course, those were probably not taken in winter. Oh well, I am enjoying the train ride all the same. After a quick search on Google Maps, it appears as if the train will continue on past the lake and then turn north. When the train turns south and passes around the lake, I look out over a snow-covered field to try to see the lake… only to determine/discover that the “snow-covered field” is indeed the lake, frozen.

Back to Google Maps I go to figure out where this train is heading. I realize I have no idea, and I decide to get off at the next stop, Feldberg-Bärental. It is right next to the Rotmeer Nature Preserve, but that, too, is snow-covered. The next train back to Freiburg arrives in an hour. Standing at the outdoor train station is not an option. It is snowing, freezing. I cannot help but laugh out loud a little at my misjudgement of the weather and at the unexpectedness of it all. There are a lot of other people there, much better prepared for the snow and cold as they seem to be here for skiing.

A short walk up a little hill in the mountains, and I arrive at Café Erich Bizenberger. The cafe is warm and bright. Table tops look like freshly cut wood, treated with some sort of clear overcoat to make them shiny. I can see rings of trees’ age in imperfect circles. The interior of the cafe gives the appearance of a log cabin, though it looked nothing of the sort outside. On shelves, there is a variety of tea pots with matching tea cups and saucers. On the wall, there are a few of the famed Black Forest cuckoo clocks. Behind the glass counter, there are sweets and pastries. I do not understand how everyone out here is not terribly overweight. Perhaps it is all the walking. I order a cappuccino and beignet. The coffee is nice and hot, and just the thing I needed.

An hour passes. The return train arrives. I board. Back toward Freiburg, it begins to get dark. The twilight here seems short. It feels as if I went into a short mountain tunnel during the daylight and emerged into the night. At Freiburg’s Hauptbahnhof, dinner is needed. Walking down cobblestone streets, past centuries old buildings, much like those in Strasbourg, I make my way toward the city center. Though I am looking for somewhere to eat, I cannot help be steer toward the tower I see peeking over the other buildings’ roofs. There is a skinny alleyway, about, I would say, only four or five feet wide. I go down it, and when I exit out the other side, there looms large the Freiburger Münster.

This behemoth gothic cathedral built and finished in the Middle Ages, and which survives the bombing raids of 1944, is not lit at night as Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. So here it is. In the night’s dark, the bulking forward tower reaches toward the moon and stars. The tower looks more like it should be attached to some massive castle, defending the surrounding town. The bells begin to ring, and these sound as if they both beckon and warn. They have beckoned and warned for the past 687 years. The cold from the stormfront seems to be sweeping in, snatching me back from history.

Rounding a corner, then another, I see a busy restaurant, Schlappen. Inside, it is warm and smoky. Smoking cigarettes is permitted, so the smell of good food is polluted by the reek of burning tobacco. But it isn’t so bad that I want to leave. No, I am more hungry than displeased with the stuffy atmosphere. At a table in the back, I manage to order sausage and bread. The sausage is served with a knife and fork, but for what reason, I do not know, because the sausage is impossible to cut. Turns out, it is a type of dried jerky and not what I had expected. It is easier to break apart than to cut. However it is, it is good all the same. It is quite possibly the best jerky I have ever had.

What started out as a late day, and a fun train ride through the Black Forest seems to end fittingly at a bar in Freiburg. Now all that is left is to make my way back to the château in Strasbourg. A simple, regional train ride to Offenburg, then a quick transfer to Strasbourg’s Gare Centrale should do it. When I get to Freiburg’s hauptbahnhof, I look at the train schedule. There is a train coming in just a few minutes that will take me to Offenburg. Great.

Except when this train, that I have now boarded, decides to quit running. The small, rural station at which Clarissia, Rebecca, and I are dropped off (it feels more like we were dumped here rather than “dropped off”) at is in Emmendingen. This is the type of small town that sleeps at night. So naturally, the station is not open, the lights are all off, there are hardly any streetlamps, and us three, in the late evening, standing on the platform, not able to speak any German, cold, and confused. Thankfully, Rebecca does know some German, and she is able to communicate with who seems to be the only other soul on the platform. He tells us about the bus.

We find the bus, we board, and we ride for about fifteen to twenty minutes to the next station. We exit the bus, walk up to the platform, and wait for the train. Conferring with the posted schedule again, the train should arrive in about ten minutes. When it does not come, we are once more, anxious and confused. And again, Rebecca is able to find out from the only other person there that the regional train has stopped running completely all the way to Lahr, Germany.

The bus only comes once every hour, so for nearly an hour we wait. This bus ride to Lahr, thank goodness it actually goes all the way there, lasts for about an hour on its own. It is almost 10 P.M. by the time we get to Lahr. Here, there are a few more people than just us, so, good sign… right? Turns out, none of them really knew what was going on either. Anxiety setting in, twenty more minutes passing, and finally, finally, the lights of a train come into view. This must be it. The train gets closer. It seems to be going pretty fast. I can hear it. I can feel it.

Standing at the near-edge of a platform when a bullet train barrels past me at about 160 mph is a sensation I do not wish to repeat. The air the train was pushing to the sides out of its way becomes a wind that forces me to step back a bit. Indeed, this train was never going to stop. It had no intention of stopping. This is a regional stop and the ICE bullet trains are not regional trains. Could this night go on any longer. Apparently, so. About five minutes after the ICE train, we see more train lights. Like some saving grace, we all stare right at these, almost willing the train to stop. It does, because it, finally, is a regional train.

The train from Lahr to Offenburg is only about a thirty-minute ride, but we are beginning to cut it close with what time these trains stop running for the night altogether. At Offenburg around 11 P.M., I see there is another train to Strasbourg. It comes in forty minutes. Forty minutes in the cold of a large train station is not so bad with the company I had. Thanks, Clarissia and Rebecca. We all talked like kids in the night on the tail end of a grand misadventure, hanging out in the hauptbahnhof.

“[German, German, more German, and some more German] Strasbourg hauptbahnhof [more German]” came on over the loudspeakers. Music to my ears even though I did not understand a word. This train looks less like a typical train and more like a bulky tram. Whatever it looks like, it is our ride home and we get on board. Twenty minutes later, and at midnight, the three of us are back in Strasbourg. We manage to catch the second-to-last C tram to the second-to-last E tram which takes us to the Robertsau stop.

Forty more minutes, and we are walking up the château driveway. The walkway lanterns herald our approach by brightening (the streetlamps are motion-detecting dim lights that actually get brighter as something/someone moves into their immediate area). Door-code entered, entryway cleared, stairs ascended, hallways traversed, and I am at last, after a very long, but exciting day, sitting at the table in the student kitchen, drinking my hibiscus tea. Not long after, and I will be in bed, passed out.

Easy to do, difficult to see

3 FEB 2017


My ticket is scanned. My ticket, the one I only had to pay 6€ for because of the Carte Culture discount. I walk through the doors into the antechamber that half-encircles the orchestra seating area of the opera house. The carpet is a lush red, the walls and ceiling match. The trim is an ivory white.  Along the walls are more than a hundred golden coat racks. It looks like some sort of art installation all on its own, so many golden handles. After finding the one reserved for my seat and hanging my coat and scarf, I walk through one pair of many double-doors into the Opéra National du Rhin’s orchestra seating area. My seat, 14-3, is toward the back and right, stage left, but I can still see all the stage and the supertitles screen that hangs high above the stage.

I am right away immersed in the sounds of the pre-show: The people who have not taken their seat and are trying to find them, the people who are getting situated, the people who have found their seats and are now talking jovially, the shuffling of movements, the echos of occasional laughter, a single stifled cough, and the orchestra providing what I call “elevator music.” It is where the orchestra produces a cacophony of sounds by having each musician each play random bits of random songs making sure their instruments are tuned properly, passing the time, and making sure it isn’t awkward for anyone uncomfortable out in the audience. It seems as if there is no rhyme or reason to the sounds coming from the orchestra pit, but in its own way, it is a fun song that I enjoy.

The three colors of the opera house are the same as the coatrack room. Floors and walls are primarily a velvety red. The larger bits of trim are ivory white. The smaller, more detailed trims are in gold. Along the banisters of the balconies are incarnations of cherubs playing instruments and the classical theatre masks of comedy and tragedy. The ceiling is a circular scene of gods and goddesses wearing their white robes and laurels wreaths, eating grapes and enjoying the hours of the day. Though it is we who are here to see the opera, it seems as if all the while, the ceiling figures are watching us, amused. If I were a god from on high, I think I, too, would be quite amused at the array before me filling the the room. We certainly are a mix of characters.

The cacophony slowly begins to quiet, signalling that the performance is about the begin. The audience responds in kind. A man walks out on stage with a microphone to introduce to us La Juive. This is a grand opera, recognized as such by its large cast, done in five acts. The music was prepared by Fromental Halévy and the libretto (operatic lyrics) by Eugène Scribe. The world premiere was in Paris, 1835. The story is set in the year 1414, but we are told this performance takes a much more modern approach.

The black curtain rises, revealing the set. An incredible, large stained-glass window is illuminated from behind by bright halogens, changing colors every so often to reflect the mood. The performance area in front of this 1414-throwback piece is set with six-or-so metal scaffolding structures that house more halogens that decrease and increase with intensity depending upon what is happening in the story. The bulk of the cast, most of whom represent the chorus, are on stage dressed in all black, not the typically elaborate opera costumes, but very simple black slacks and black long-sleeve shirts. Their hands, though, are painted blue. Enter Rachel and her father, Eléazar, with their simple black outfits. Their hands are painted yellow. Right away, the mass of blue-hands mocks and ridicules and persecutes the yellow-hands. This is to represent the central tenet of the 182-year-old opera, the conflict between Christians and Jews.

In operatic fashion, a man in disguise woos and falls in love with Rachel. But he is not Jewish. He is Prince Léopold, a Christian. Their love is forbidden, and they are found out. The punishment for the Christian is excommunication. The punishment for Rachel, and subsequently her father, is death. The modern take, I believe, points toward how such persecution can happen in any time, in any culture where there is division. The performers are not adorning the costume of 1414, nor are they wearing contemporary fashions. The only thing that separates them visually is the color of their hands.

Where the direction team could have retold an old story using an old play using fancy costumes, they have risked a modern interpretation turning the tale of persecution into a timeless act, art with a message, art with a warning. They succeeded. Roy Cornelius Smith as Eléazar and Rachel Harnisch as Rachel stunned with their individual performances. The Chœurs de l’Opéra National du Rhin and the Orchestre symphonique de Mulhouse and the supporting character performers were great. I must give my highest praise to, once again, the direction. Reflecting on it now, my favorite part was when the chorus left the stage to walk among the audience members. And not just to sing and perform along the sides of our seats, but to the point where they moved through the audience making people stand so that they could pass. This, of course, was all a part of the performance. It was fun, we were laughing, and standing to try to keep seeing what was happening on stage. It was a blast. They were all waving around blue flags, and Rhett from out group was even given one by the performer closest to him. We all laughed a lot.

But. But now, I think I see, more clearly than when I was there, what was actually happening. The chorus represented the persecutors who were laughing and mocking Eléazar and his daughter Rachel. Then they entered into our space. In effect, we became a part of the chorus. Laughing, pointing, having a great time… while the yellow-hands were being mocked. Our collective views in the orchestra seating area were obscured by the invasive chorus, so we were laughing, and agreeing, with something we could not necessarily see. I think this was a key moment in the performance. The audience had participated in the mocking of, the persecution of, the yellow-hands, and we did not even know it. Because it was easy to laugh, but difficult to see.

It is easy to do what everyone else is doing, because it is difficult to see what is really happening.

Essay on journaling when it is difficult to journal

26-30 JAN 2017

As my trip as evolved, so too must this journal. Where once I thought I may have been able to maintain a habit of daily entries, I now see that that endeavor is a little too ambitious. Instead, I will write not every day, but at least twice a week. Most of my classes are now moving ahead, full speed, and require more of my attention. I cannot fully set aside this journal, though. I am beginning to see, comprehend, the value of journal-writing. Summer of 2016, I spent five weeks in Paris. I did a great many things, met many very interesting people, learned a lot, and explored museums thoroughly, but I did not keep a journal at the time, so I cannot give too many details of those experiences. I remember a good bit, but perhaps not as much as I would like too.

Now that I am journaling, not only can I look back and relive some experiences and remember details more clearly, I have begun to pay greater attention to things that I think I would have previously missed. I mean to say that I pay greater attention to the small details so as to have something to write about later. Life, in a way, has become much more interesting. Everything is now a story that can be told, molded, and retold. Even the mundane, the monotony, the seemingly insignificant has a way of weaving into the world of these stories. Indeed, though, sometimes I find myself grabbing the proverbial soapbox and making an essayic stand. As I am now.

It is my journal after all, so I think I am allowed this luxury. As much as I would like to tell an interesting tale from daily experiences, I must admit, quite frankly, that not everyday is interesting. I have read travel writing, and a lot of it these days is lists. Lists of what to do, where to go, how to save money, how to spend it all, etc., etc. I would prefer not to list out my personal experiences. It seems to me that the “Top Ten Blah Blah Blah” removes the magic and allure of storytelling. I say this to say that I could create a very simple list of the past five days, but I will not. But, at the same time, I am hard-pressed to spin a yarn as interesting as visiting Frankfurt on my first day back in Europe.

Perhaps a few quick vignettes, then? While not fond of lists, I cannot deny that they are undoubtedly efficient.

26 JAN

My class, Understanding Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa: National Constructions, Democratization, and Development, is off to a good start. We discuss what the class will consist of and the professor’s goals for us. After class, I walk around town a bit, a simple, mind-clearing stroll, then meet with some friends at this place (that I believe I have mentioned before) called What the Fox.

27 JAN

I spend the majority of the day trying to research and find things for our group to do in Colmar tomorrow. I have tacos for dinner. They are good.

28 JAN

Today, eight of our group spends the day in Colmar.

I will pause this little vignette-ing here. Obviously, there are a great number of details I have omitted. Why? Because, well for one, I simply was not feeling well, but many of my friends online and here have helped with that by showing and offering their support. Two, the details seemed quite mundane or old. I find this thought of mine strange, because here I am, in a country not my own, and I am finding things uninteresting and “mundane.” What is this sensation, or rather lack thereof?

I know I might sound like I am rambling on, but for any who would read to this point and past, I think I may have stumbled onto something quite difficult to describe or express. For example, our group spent the day in Colmar.

[Unpause] We visit a town that is quite beautiful and full of color and good food and kind people.

But I find it hard to write about. I suspect this will not last, this inability to recount the details, but all the same, I am flummoxed. Why was Saturday simply not as inspiring as any of the others? Why was I not whittling away with pen and paper to carve out a much more colorful vignette?

I cannot say why because I do not know why. Perhaps it is because I am homesick. Perhaps there may be some other reason.

29 JAN

Today is better. Today, I walk around the Parc Pourtalès with Clarissia. We talk a bit about current events both local and international. Later, I buy my plane ticket to Rome, Italy. Now that is something certainly to be excited about for sure (more on this below).

30 JAN

I have breakfast, watch Michael Collins for homework, and then go to my class on the Northern Irish conflict. Now I sit here, in the library, which is quickly becoming my favorite place, my favorite, private retreat, writing this now lengthy exercise in writing-to-find-reason/writing-as-diagnosis.

/vignettes over

Reflecting on “something certainly to be excited about,” I did just buy my ticket to Rome. I am very excited internally, but at the same time, I do not feel excited. This particular oddity inspired me, sort of, to write the following:

It an effort to be especially candid and honest, at risk of exposure (the sort of exposure which leaves one vulnerable), I admit to manicuring my online presence. I decided a few years ago that I would remove the negativity, as much as possible, from my life, and I knew I could do this with a fine-tooth comb while online. What I post to Facebook and Instagram are much more often than not the good moments, the fun times. What is absent are the defeats and the down times. I figure no one needs to be bothered by my woes, so why share them. Oddly, or perhaps a better word might be “naturally,” I have begun to see less negativity in my life offline. By refocusing on the good and the fun, I have focused less on the defeats and the downs; not just online, but offline as well. This is not to say that there aren’t as many defeats, but they each hit for less damage now. Now I am more prepared for them.

The past few days, it seems, there have been a lot of defeats, small ones, but many. It can feel overwhelming at times, a rush and a bombardment of negativity. How does one overcome such a wailing? I have fought and struggled to push through it all, and with the support of friends and family, I am reminded that despite it all, even in the worst of times, there is something positive. This, of course, coming from a place of privilege. There are some in the world whose “worst of times” may indeed not have a bit of positivity, and for that, I mean no offense when I say that there is. What I do mean to say, is that in my own personal experience of focusing on the good times, the fun times, the details, and the positive people in my life that I have become overall a much happier person.

Even now and recently when I catch myself in what I call “a funk,” I can expect to come out of it all right. That has taken some time for me to realize. Years ago, I fought my demons with other demons. Now I fight them with my own resolve.

Wow. Well that was quite the ramble. I make a promise to myself and any audience these posts may have to make sure the next entry is another one similar to those in the past filled with details and colors and adventure. I think writing all this may have been the final push I needed to work out the knots in my week. #TherapeuticWriting  

La Cour!

23-25 JAN 2017




My first class at IEP (Sciences Po) was pretty disappointing, I admit freely, so I have exchanged it for a different class. My second class at the university was a bit more satisfying, but still not quite what I had expected. Monday morning, I had breakfast, rode the bus to the university to get my Carte Culture, which gives me access to museums and events at significantly discounted prices, and made it to Room 210 by 4:00 PM, or 16H as it is here.

Madame Lehni is teaching us this semester about the “politics of culture in divided societies” by using the case example of the conflict in and mural art of Northern Ireland’s Unionists and Nationalists. I hope I am able to take what I learn from this class and am able to apply it to other conflicts and/or divided societies as well. One of our first assignments is to watch the movies Michael Collins and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. One of my very first assignments is finding those movies.




Tuesday morning, I had breakfast again, of course, and then made my way to the Franz Liszt classroom at the château just upstairs. Madame Wassenberg is preparing us for a symposium in March that will discuss the possible consequences of returning borders (a variety of which, not just typical border controls, e.g., economic, social, cultural, etc., etc.) to the European Union, and Europe in general. I am in a small group of three, and our goal is to focus on the implications and ramifications of Brexit. I also have a separate, 10-15-page research paper to write for that class. And since I enjoy complex, smart-sounding titles so much, my two areas of interest are “A New Focus on Regional Administration in a Post-Westphalian European Union” and “Alsatian Identity in Flux: What is French, German, or local, and which is strongest?”

Quite the mouthful. I will most likely resort to something much simpler in a few weeks when I write the paper in a single fevered, coffee-to-the-max over-nighter. Perhaps one day I will write a whole paper on procrastination, perhaps, eventually.

Other than class, life here at the château has been pretty fun. Tuesday night, we held a surprise birthday party for two of our number. I could yarn (a verb I got from Cloud Atlas, one of my favorite movies, and I am going to keep and use this verb even though is sounds a little ridiculous. I like it, so there.) 1000 words on the party alone, but I won’t do that here. I will mention, though, that we near melted the candles by how many times we lit them thinking Laurel and Torin were just about to walk through the door. By the time they did arrive, the candles were half as tall. Fun times.


  • “LA COUR!”


After two rings of what sounds like an old rotary telephone silences the talkative room, a man in a black suit, white shirt, and simple tie appears from behind the translator rooms, he walks a bit toward the head of the room, and turns to us. He stands there for all of half a second carrying the weight of ceremony, with a dash of monotonous regularity, before announcing, proclaiming, to us, “La Cour!”

Quickly, he turns and takes his seat just behind the judges’ chairs. A line of 21 men and women parade from the same entrance and take their respective places at the 47-seat half-elliptical table (47 seats representing each of the 47 member states). Each person wears the black robes of a judge, and each has their own especial accoutrements representing their particular nation or station. Court President Guido Raimondi, from Italy, speaks, “you may take your seats.” Seventeen among them are the judges of the Grand Chamber. Three are substitute judges, and the last among them is the registrar.

We are now all seated, awaiting the hearing to proceed. This morning’s case is a relatively simple one it would seem involving a mother who wished to move from one place in her Netherlands neighborhood to another place very nearby, but was prevented from doing so by a Dutch law citing social restrictions on overburdening particular districts. She has brought the issue before the European Court of Human Rights, stating her human right “to freely choose her place of residence” was violated. What I could gather was at stake for her was her ability to choose a home for her family in an area that she wished to live. What I could gather was at stake for the Netherlands government was the validity of their “City Problems (Special Measures) Act” and whether is unfairly discriminates against particular individuals.

Mr. Wijling, counsel for the applicant (read: plaintiff), stands to speak and make his case before the court. I can see from behind the near-mirror-like window of the translator’s booth a red light turn on. This signals to the audience which translator is speaking at the time. As it is in the court, one may speak their mother tongue and a translator will be provided. As Mr. Wijling is from the Netherlands, he makes his case in Dutch.

Hurriedly, quietly, everyone moves to reach for their provided-headphones, switch to one of the English or French channels, and settle back into their seats to listen. There is an Albanian delegation in attendance, so an Albanian translator was also provided for their convenience. I listen in to the English translation for a bit. I will not pretend that it is terribly interesting, though, so next I remove the headphones to see what it is like to hear Mr. Wijling and his associate Ms. Azghay speak in Dutch. It is an interesting language that appears to be a clear mix between German and English. I catch familiar words every so often. I notice some of the judges are not wearing their headphones and suppose that they can understand Dutch, or rather they too are a bit bored.

The agent for the Netherlands, Mr. Böcker, stands to make his case as soon as the counsel of the applicant is finished. Mr. Böcker, though also Dutch, speaks English in what I recognize (assume) as a British accent. The two official languages of the 47-member state Council of Europe are French and English, so naturally, the two official languages of the European Court of Human Rights are French and English. It makes sense that this legal official, whose task it is to represent a nation, would speak the language of the court.

Now both parties have been heard. The time for questions from the judges has come. Judge Motoc from Romania asks the first question, in French. Then follows Judge O’Leary from Ireland, Judge Pinto de Albuquerque from Portugal, and lastly, Judge Sajó from Hungary. They all pose their questions in English. Judge Raimondi adjourns the court for thirty minutes.

Soon, we are back to taking our seats and donning our headphones. But even sooner, the counsel and agent have answered their questions and we are once again adjourned. Now, however, the court is done for today, and we make our leave. The deliberations and decision of the Grand Chamber will be heard at a later date. [I have made note to see how the court decides the case. It may have been a little boring, but in its own way, it was interesting to see the process.]

Outside of the courtroom, I can see how the exterior architecture plays into the interior. Outside, the European Court of Human Rights is made up of three buildings: An entry building with security, information pamphlets, and offices; one tower to the right houses more offices and, on the top floor, the circular courtroom with the 47-seat half-elliptical judges’ table; and the other tower to the left, which is slightly shorter than the courtroom tower, houses more offices and a smaller hearing chamber. Both of the towers are circular and bear slanted roofs, as if a giant cylinder had been sliced diagonally and each unequal half had been set side-by-side. There is a fourth attachment to these three structures that is a long, six-story-or-so line of offices that resembles a cruise liner.

Walking into the room on the top floor of the shorter tower, I am immediately entranced by the view. Where the courtroom bore no windows, the most important things being held within, this much smaller hearing chamber has glass for an exterior wall. And just beyond the windows flows the Ill River populated with gulls flying here and there, and on the opposite coast, the European Union Parliament building. I have already visited this building and written about it, but still, I cannot help but stare. The glass wave of the east-facing structure which houses the wooden hemicycle is more art than business, more emotion than politics. From this angle, I cannot tell if the Parliament building is reaching out for or looking toward the Human Rights building or if it seems to be moving altogether through it. The poetry and metaphor of the architecture is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, so I will leave out any personal interpretations [for now]. 

Our little tour concluded with a quote from the European Convention on Human Rights, the same with which I will also conclude this journal entry:

From the preamble of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Rome, 1950.

“[Fundamental freedoms] are the foundation of justice and peace in the world and are best maintained on the one hand by an effective political democracy and on the other by a common understanding and observance of the Human Rights upon which they depend.”