jacktellslies: (jeanne mammen)
Transatlantic flights are more affordable right now than I've ever seen them. For flights leaving in late February and early March, one can get to Brussels or Frankfurt for under $400. Flying to Dublin, including fees, costs $350. I'm not talking about one-way flights. These are round-trip. Go to one of those delightful ticket-finding websites and experiment with various cities and dates. The results will, I assure you, be beautiful. I've managed to scrape a bit of money together for the first time since I've been home, and I'm honestly considering running off somewhere for a week. I'm not sure it will ever be so affordable again, so it seems foolish to stay home.
jacktellslies: (geroges barbier mermaid)
When living in the Netherlands, I was regularly unable to tell whether my Dutch friends were behaving in a way that was typical to the country, or instead merely a cultural attribute of people who do a lot of yoga and eat organic foods. All of my Dutch friends moved in that same social circle, so I had no way to judge the difference.

There are, admittedly, a lot of that type living in and around Amsterdam. And I'm aware that Holland is culturally rather different from the rest of the Netherlands. Still.

Once Flora told me a story about my roommate Dagmar, the beautiful German dancer. Dagmar had said something about tea made from fresh sprigs of whole mint being the Dutch national drink, and Flora laughed and laughed, explaining that, no, it's Moroccan. I blushed and laughed with her: I'd thought it was a Dutch custom as well! We were both right, after a fashion. It's available in every restaurant and every house in Amsterdam. It's more Dutch than the clogs and other cheap symbols still in use only to sell souvenirs to tourists.

Another food that will always, perhaps inaccurately, stand for the Netherlands in my mind is the large tub of plain yogurt. Most humans add some extra texture or flavour to their yogurt, but the Dutch treat it as a vehicle for experimentation. For either breakfast or desert we'd all join at a table on which we'd collect the available options. Anything we could find in the house that might possibly taste good with yogurt would be gathered: bananas, apples, raisins and currants, all available forms of granola, nuts, flavoured maple syrup, honey, and brown sugar were all options, but there were others as well. Bowls and spoons would be distributed, and we'd set to work, concocting something interesting and tasty. The yogurt was meant to evolve as it was consumed. Midway through, one might decide that it also required dried cranberries and walnuts. It was always a fun experience as well as a good snack.

I've been making my breakfast in this manner recently, and it makes me smile every time. I suspect that there is more of the organic market than the Dutch in it, but it still makes me feel as if I'll wander out my front door to the sound of bicycle bells, that I'll soon find a canal to stroll.
jacktellslies: (Default)
Apologies to those of you who have already seen it on BoingBoing, but this video about an American travelling and playing the accordion in Afghanistan is glorious:





If I don't learn to play the accordion soon, I will surely die.

Utrecht.

Dec. 13th, 2008 10:36 pm
jacktellslies: (circusfolk)
IMG_4069


Flora goes to school an hour or so away by train, in Utrecht. There was only one day out of the several I spent with her on which she had to attend classes, and I asked if she wouldn't mind if I followed her, exploring the city while she studied English and Italian Renaissance literature. She was delighted by the idea. We took an early train, and she drew me a map.

Utrecht is a medieval town, also built around canals. The city is so old, however, that new street was built upon old street, new house built atop ruin, so often that the canals now lay at the bottom of long sets of stairs descending along stone walls, a full floor of a house at least below street level. Sometimes the basements of the homes and businesses have windows or doors or courtyards opening up onto the water.

There is a great Christian Viking stone in Utrecht, and the church was once blown in two by a great wind. A storm arose long ago, and one wing of the cathedral was destroyed by it completely and never rebuilt. As a result, the church proper and the tower, called the Dom Tower, short for Christendom, are separated by a courtyard. The flagstones under which people were buried in the church are still there, part of the pavement out of doors.

It is a university town, and all of the school buildings are public spaces. Flora encouraged me to explore them, and I found some lovely things, including a stained glass ceiling. There is also an Art Deco post office and more than one apothecary's garden.

While in Utrecht I wandered into a fetish shop. The shop was a good deal better, or at least more to my taste, than most of the ones I'd yet found in Europe, and I was both completely and not at all surprised to find that this was likely due to its being owned and run by an American woman. I asked her where she was from, and then exclaimed, laughing, "Of course you are. I thought you looked familiar." She had done a bit of work with my favourite shop of its kind in Philadelphia, and I went dancing at the goth club in town with her from time to time my first and her last year at the same university. This second detail is the more improbable of the two, given the mammoth size of the school we both attended. This is not only an amusing coincidence, but also a deeply happy story. She'd gone to the Netherlands on holiday a year or three before. She met the love of her life there, and never really looked back. She'd opened the shop exactly three days before I found it. I couldn't help but make a contribution to her fantastic new life in the form of a purchase.

Bruges.

Nov. 25th, 2008 08:25 pm
jacktellslies: (circusfolk)
IMG_3173


In the middle of my trip to Brussels, I ran off to Bruges. It's a delightful little town, touristy to an astounding degree, but perhaps rightly so. It is a medieval place, the old buildings snug between the canals, faces made of stone grinning or grimacing in every alley.

One of the first things I did was climb the clock tower in the main square. The place was the old seat of government, and the doors to the town records were guarded by nine locks, and the nine town magistrates each guarded their own of the nine keys. Thus decisions could only be made, certain documents and riches could only be viewed, with the consent of all of them. After a great deal of climbing, I found massive bells, a nice view, and best of all by far, active clockwork. At set times a given gear set to spinning, seemingly far too quickly, in a sort of freefall. I stood there admiring the device for long enough that I got to watch several groups of tourists jump at the sudden noise, believing that they'd somehow broken something. After a time the spinning set off the chimes, like the mechanisms of a gigantic music box. And always there was the soft grind of gears, a gentle ticking away of time.

It was in Bruges that I found and left my favourite bar in all the world. It was an old place, built in the 1600s. The walls were dark wood, and the ceilings were white and crossed with ceiling-beams, black and thick. They played nothing but Mozart there. I was not the only patron alone and reading, although I was consistently the youngest. As in the rest of Belgium, beer was always served with something small to eat, some interesting crackers or a small plate of cheese, so you could drink what you liked without getting drunk. This was good, as the beer list was so long that, in order to be effectively navigated, it had to be organised by alphabetical order; there were many hundreds of choices. Faced with so many options, and a place that I liked so much, it seemed perfectly normal that on most days I began drinking around one o'clock in the afternoon, if not ever so slightly earlier. I'd spend my pleasantly lazy days in Bruges wandering about the town, finding the faces of the doors, watching the ducks in the canals, and returning to the bar from time to time to sit, and drink, and watch people, and read. It was exceptionally pleasant.
jacktellslies: (Default)
IMG_3706


And, of course, in Brussels one can find some excellent examples of art nouveau. The home of the architect Victor Horta has been transformed into a museum, and is simply breathtaking. The photographs I have of the place were taken quickly and covertly, as photography was not actually permitted inside. What little I can show you is admittedly poorly executed, and some of the best rooms were, alas, the most closely watched by the guard. But I loved the place, really and truly. Every detail curved, so seductive it seemed to drip. It was done in fleshy pinks with lines of gold, or lurid greens, as if a reminder of the natural results of excess were provided to force hesitation, making your submission to temptation all the more grave, and thus more delicious still. I couldn't help but think it: if you lived here. If a woman were to watch you, waiting, from the stairs. It would be too much. Your heart would break. While in the upstairs bedroom I was overpowered by a scent, thick and musky, floral perhaps, but too rich to be natural. I thought it to be incense until I came upon a hidden hothouse, the heat and the close quarters forcing the garden to produce a perfume almost against nature.

The museum also provided a map to twelve of the other homes in the city built in that style, and I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering between them. They were decorated with owls, seasons, hours, the wrestling of dogs with white horses, improbable lines and glorious windows, and I never grew accustomed to it. Every one surprised me with just how much I loved it.
jacktellslies: (bear girl)
One of my hosts in Brussels was a family consisting of a Spanish mother, a German father, and a five year old boy and a seven year old girl. The children spoke both languages, and French, and boasted a modest vocabulary of a few essential phrases in Flemish and English. Upon my arrival they asked their mother about me. "What languages does he speak?" "English," she explained. "Only English? But. Why?" Too true, children. Too true. Later, after they'd put on a delightful puppet show about witches and the devil and a wolf and a princess, the young boy sat down next to me and spoke. His mother laughed. She explained: he said, "You should learn French."
jacktellslies: (geroges barbier mermaid)
IMG_2740


Brussels is also famous for waffles, chocolate, and beer. I can't believe a human exists that wouldn't like a city famous for waffles, chocolate, and beer. In the name of cultural enrichment, I sampled all three every day that I was in Belgium. Should you go there, you might want to know ahead of time that the excellent chocolate, unfortunately, is usually primarily a result of the country's continued relationship with its former colony, the war-torn Congo. The varieties of beer available, however, are so numerous and so diverse that not enjoying beer is not a reasonable excuse. While I had the opportunity I thought it best to experiment primarily with exciting and previously unheard of varieties of Lambic. Kriek, which is available at every bar in Belgium, is made from cherries, although that isn't immediately apparent in the flavour. I also quite liked the apple and Gueuze.

The city was home to the best flea markets I've yet found. Fascinating things spilled out onto the flagstones: keys, mannequins, chairs, suitcases full of matchbooks, and masks. I bought a mask there. She smiled shyly and slyly when I found her, but now she grins like a prophetess.

While in town I visited the gardens of an Art Deco home. There I found a hedge maze and a tree that I climbed. I explored the museum of musical instruments, too.

There was an art nouveau bar that I liked a great deal. I spent my afternoons there reading and sipping sweet beer. It was located on a pretty square lined with chocolate shops and antique stores. There was a formal garden and a church at its head.
jacktellslies: (jeanne mammen)
IMG_5354


The rumours are true, goslings. I'll be home on the twenty-sixth of October.

I think it worth noting that I considered my birthday, which occurred just before I left, to be something of a deathday party. It seems fitting, then, that I should return just in time for Halloween. I was conceived on Halloween, you know. My parents were in New York for the holiday. They accidentally stumbled upon a gay parade, and were both so impressed by a gentleman wearing naught but a thong, a bow tie, and white French cuffs at his wrists that neither was ever able to forget him. I think it's obvious that I wasn't conceived as much as I was invoked.
jacktellslies: (rasputin)
I've been told by several people that most visitors are disappointed by Brussels. I suppose I might be able to see why. The city is, for one, filthy. On my first day in Dublin, I noticed something distressing: the pigeons were clean. They were so clean that I was actually embarrassed for Philadelphia's pigeons. I know that my town has a reputation for being, among other things, a bit slovenly, but having spent most of my life there I'm afraid that I'm less blind to it than I am actually perversely proud of our efforts. Encountering pigeons that looked as if they had better taste in cufflinks than I do, however, provided a new standard by which to judge. Pigeons across Europe are cleaner than Philadelphian pigeons. The only exception I've yet found to this rule is Brussels. The entire city is covered in a thick layer of grime. Following a blizzard, my city becomes coated in a slushy dust, black and thick, that has always reminded me of what one might have found coughed into the sleeve of an eight year old chimney sweep in London in 1842. Brussels was crusted with the stuff in the warm part of September. Due to my intense pride in my own dirty city, however, rather than judging Brussels for its scuffs and stains, I found that I was all the more endeared to it.

The other reason to dislike Brussels is that the city's mascot is a tiny statue of a urinating child. This is meant to express something about the city's rebellious spirit, but actually demonstrates what most of us already know: that most tourists are willing to stand in a crowd to take bad photographs of an ugly fountain.

My feelings about the place, however, can be explained thusly. As soon as I crawled out of the Central Train Station and onto the Metro, before I even had time to worry about whether or not I'd be able to find my host's house with my extremely limited vocabulary in either of the city's two official languages, I found this:

Might I present Orchestre International du Vetex.



Not only did I get surprise Balkan music, but the accordion player was wearing a hat that made him look like a bear. I dare you to name something that could please me more than accordions and bear hats. Furthermore, the adorably self-conscious shuffling dances were often made even better when during one member's solo the other musicians would surround him or her, fall to one knee, and reach to them with one hand while placing their other hand longingly on their hearts. I bought their CD immediately, and you should too.

Apparently this sort of thing is quite typical of Brussels: the city is famous for fantastic public events that were only ever halfway planned, were never advertised, and cannot really be sought out, but are delightful things to stumble upon.

Volendam.

Oct. 3rd, 2008 08:25 pm
jacktellslies: (papa's in heaven)
I went to Volendam, a small fishing town. The name means "filled in dam". It's reputedly a horrifically touristy place, although when I was there the weather was bad enough that I didn't see much evidence of it. I'll take a bit of cold and rain to the wrong sort of Americans most days, so I was pleased enough. There were canals there, small and lined with grass and trees. There was a memorable bridge hugged by the roots and branches of a massive willow. The houses were shaped like those in the city, although in miniature. Amsterdam seemed so grand when I returned to it that evening! How quickly I grow used to things. I didn't stay long; only long enough to wander the charming and crooked streets, to watch the boats move in and out of the harbour, to watch the rain fall, and to see the birds fly in and out of the restaurant where I ate. There was a poster by Tadema on the wall there, and the place was all browns and golds and seemed to glow with its warmth. There were calla lilies, my favourite flower, on each table, deep red ones with golden spadices, like flames. I got a plate of excellent mussels served with onions in a brown broth. When I ordered a beer and my server asked what size I'd like, I requested a large as a a sort of sociological experiment. It was large enough that I'm not at all ashamed to report that I was nearly tipsy when I began my journey back to the city.
jacktellslies: (papa's in heaven)
My mother has demanded that I get back to the travel writing. She is both wise and kind, and I wouldn't dream of disobeying. So I'll continue where I left off, in London:

We felt as if we ought to go to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert, but Gareth insisted that we go to Brick Lane. "Where are we going," the German boys kept asking, "and why?"

"We think they're shops?" Corinne half explained from our seat at the top and front of the bus. "We aren't sure. Gareth just said it was the one thing he recommended we do."

We found our way there through that combination of the kindness of strangers and blind luck on which travellers manage to get anywhere. First we found a collection of restaurants all bearing declarations of the receipt of multiple awards. One boasted of having the best curry on the street in 2003 and the best chef in 2007. But the commendations didn't seem particularly exciting, as all of the shops on that block made such claims, shuffling the awards between one another with each passing year. I enjoyed the conceit greatly. Men stood in the doors, waiting for us to slow down slightly, pouncing on us and offering a cheaper meal than we could find at one of their competitors if we did. All of the restaurants offered much the same lunch, and the same discounted price.

Once inside the market, however, we found that we'd arrived on the correct day. First there was food. The first half of the large hall was packed, every bit of space filled with exotic chefs and their wares, usually not only foreign but actually thoroughly unfamiliar. All of it was colourful and cheap. We explored every stall before making our selections and then gathered outside to sit on the curb with the rest of the mob while we ate. I'm still not sure what kind of food it was that I enjoyed so much, only that it was excellent, that there was a lot of it, and that it barely cost anything, a rarity for that city.

The back half of the hall and the roads and alleyways that snaked away from it were filled with more stalls, and the stalls with art, vintage clothing, and other interesting little objects. And the people there were gorgeous. I've never seen so many cravats in one room in my life. I've certainly never seen them worn well by anyone, let alone a few dozen attractive creatures, in their twenties. Friends in Philadelphia, I believe I mentioned that the world does not dress up as we do. Brick Lane was a clear exception to this rule. I considered attempting to create diplomatic alliances between them and us. These were people who understood the importance of the waistcoat. Corinne laughed as I found what was apparently my homeland: strangers asked to take my picture, including one with an appropriately important looking camera who claimed to be taking it for a Japanese street fashion magazine. The owner of a stall selling clothing he'd designed asked me if I'd model his work. That I was aware that the attention was more than a little absurd didn't stop me from enjoying it immensely.

I believe that was the night that Corinne and I decided to make a vegetable pie from scratch, severely underestimating exactly how much time this might take. We laughed a lot, pounding flour and butter together and chopping vegetables. We thought the process great fun, even if everyone else eventually gave up and found something else to eat. She's an academic. I enjoyed having one around to talk to again immensely, especially one who cares about much of the same theory I do, tangles of gender and class and race. We discussed the lovers whom we've left on various shores, and ate a fantastic pie just before one in the morning.
jacktellslies: (Default)
The house was covered in little prayers and kitsch Jesus paraphernalia. Corinne somehow hadn't noticed and felt a bit bad about the conversation we'd had earlier about her secular Jewishness and her recent travels in Israel. We'd spoken, not dismissively, but critically of faith while half a dozen of us attempted to make breakfast at once.

Gareth's mother is Greek and seems to return often. She was there while we were visiting, in fact, so we never met her. His older sister stopped by for a moment to flounder, confused and mostly ineffective, in an attempt to gather some vegetables and fresh herbs from their mother's impressive garden and then figure out how to cook them for a Sunday dinner. Although she was a perfect clone of the pictures we'd seen in the house of their mother, she shared Gareth's London accent, thick and a touch rough. Although I'm afraid I make her sound a bit dim, I liked her. Her enthusiasm was earnest, and she gave the impression that she was truly listening when you spoke. She was impressed with us for travelling. She'd lived in both the UK and Greece, but they were both places she knew well, and she was terrified at the prospect of being far from home in a place she didn't understand. I mentioned Corinne's experiences in Israel, and the nature of the conversation was transformed. "Well that's where Jesus was!" Her eyes grew wide and seemed to glow. "He was really there, wasn't he!" It was as if we'd seen some celebrity at a pub. She wasn't having a religious experience as much as she was star struck. Corinne and I dutifully omitted mention of our heathen ways while she carefully worded her answers about various places that she and Jesus both occupied at different times. "Jesus. Really. Aw, I wish I could go there one day." And she left, her dark eyes still shining.
jacktellslies: (rasputin)
The next day we intended to go out, but never quite managed it. I insisted that as it was raining and we were drinking truly astounding quantities of tea, we weren't being lazy so much as we were immersing ourselves in British culture. We spent that evening with our host and some of the young German boys staying there with us, including Julian, who was brilliant, ethical, and spoke perfect English. I liked him immensely. We left the house only long enough to collect sufficient chocolate and beer to last us the night, and returned to play a complicated version of dominoes and a series of card games to which only one of us at a time ever knew the rules. I longed for a Set deck. The list of impractical things I wish I could have brought with me grows by the hour. Still a bit exhausted from the wanderings of the night before, I retired to a bed (and an internet connection!) in a room that I had all to myself.
jacktellslies: (ladies)
We'd been cheering for people as they only barely made their way onto buses, the tube, and trains all day. Agreeing that watching people run only to fail was awful, we offered sincere, unseen support for every sprinter to bravely fight through the cruelly closing doors of departing vehicles we saw. Some of them were truly magnificent displays of athleticism, too. Londoners are capable of impressive manoeuvres when threatened with the possibility of having to navigate the night buses, or even just waiting an extra seven minutes for the next prospect to arrive.

So perhaps she and I shouldn't have been too surprised that we barely made the last train leaving that night despite its best attempts to throw us off. Having claimed for over an hour to be arriving on the platform on which we'd deposited ourselves, the information screen changed its mind only once the train had already stopped on the opposite side of the station four tracks over, or up a fight of stairs, down a hallway, down a flight of stairs, and a ways across the appropriate platform. Corinne screamed, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

I shouted behind me, already halfway up the stairs, "Don't read the screen, run!" Unfortunately I'm a well-kept and bookish young thing, and she overtook me almost instantly.

We fell onto the train, barely missing the pool of vomit awaiting us inside the door, and laughing hysterically. Our dash had to have looked absurd. Those other desperate creatures moved like tigers on Vaseline. We were stunned porcupines slipping on something lumpy and far less pleasant.

While waiting on the platform, still ignorant of our fate, Corinne had asked nervously, "Do you think the tube is still running?"

"I'm sure it is. It keeps running, doesn't it?" Dear readers, at some point in the course of my eight or so years as a blogger, you may have noticed a faint, wafting underscore of hubris. Alright, listen. I'd not been in London for years. I'd really only been to London twice before this. Stop laughing at me.

Thus began a series of misadventures involving several more or less randomly chosen night buses, my insisting a great many times that the tube map really doesn't bear much resemblance to the actual shape of the city, and a great deal of wandering. We got to know one another very well.

One of the best things about our improbable meeting was that we could admit to one another the completely embarrassing things that we would never say to anyone save another American with whom we were travelling. The coins still remind us of Harry Potter money. I've spent months riding the buses that are significantly taller than the sort to which I am accustomed, taking at least two every day when I lived in Dublin. I confessed while sharing the top front seat with her for the half-dozenth time that riding on the top is no less exciting now than it was the first time; I could barely be more thrilled with a palanquin carried by lithe Moroccan eighteen year old boyslaves. She taught me that French toast is called eggy toast in the UK, which I hadn't known, and is completely adorable.

We saw a drunk tourist get hit by a taxi, and tried to help lift her out of the street while cars piled up behind her and their drivers shouted. I was appalled. Who yells at an injured and crying girl for blocking traffic? I busied myself with assisting in useful ways rather than offering poetic and devastating admonishments, and I only regret my inability to have done both at once a little. We met two unpleasant and drunk Polish men, and a very nice stripper with an outrageously thick London accent who claimed to have only arrived in the city a month earlier. Together, using our superpowers of rage, feminism, and the stripper's impressive footwear, we chased the drunks away. By that time morning bus service had resumed, and we got back to Gareth's house just after five in the morning.
jacktellslies: (crow)
Darlings, may I break continuity once again to tell you how very good you are?

I believe, although I am not certain, that progress has been made on my struggle to return to the UK. (I've not yet even spoken to any representatives of the British government, but I believe I've now assembled all of the evidence I need to make my case.) But this doesn't exactly concern that.

When I showed up on my wonderful former host Paul's doorstep weeping on the night that I was sent away from Cardiff, he very kindly allowed me to stay the night even though far too many boys were already staying there and he really had no room to spare. The next day he recommended I call his friend Dogmar. She is Austrian and beautiful. She is studying modern theatre dance here in Amsterdam, but she is not meant for cities. She is very sweet, and she loves organic food. Her roommate Lara is Dutch and beautiful and loves the Smiths enough to listen to them nearly constantly. I also love the Smiths far more than is reasonable, and encourage and enjoy her incessant Smiths-listening. For this reason she decided that I should stay as long as I like.

Dogmar is allergic to something in the house, and for this reason was searching for a new place to live. Several of the people with whom I've been couch surfing have been telling me about how completely impossible it is to find a flat in Amsterdam. It really can't be done. I feel terrible for those people I've met who are searching. Dogmar was becoming exceedingly upset when I decided that someone who'd done me a great kindness shouldn't be so sad.

The next day she was offered a place as a house sitter. For one month she has time to continue her search, free rent, two cats named after comic books to love, and a big house in a perfect location.

I'd not considered this as a logical consequence of that arrangement at all, but her room is now free. It's a beautiful place with hardwood floors, windows facing the street, and interesting detailing in the woodwork. And Lara needs a new roommate and someone to help cover the cheap rent.

So that person is me, but only for exactly as long as I'd like it to be. I have a home. Although I'm not at all ready to return to the States just yet, I was really getting tired of moving every few days, of hauling my things, of never being able to buy more food than I could eat in a day or more warm clothes than I could carry. I'd desperately wanted to stay still. I wanted simultaneously to be paying my own way so as not to be beholden to anyone, and to be comfortable. I wanted a home, not a hostel. I wanted something that was mine. But I had no real hope for it. Knowing the impossibility of finding a place to live here I'd not considered searching. Not only do I have a room, and a bed, but I'm free to leave whenever I like. I pay rent by the week.

The world is strange and beautiful, and you dears are very, very good.
jacktellslies: (circusfolk)
The next day we went to the Horniman, which is one of those creatures that began as one gentleman's collection of things that interested him, and shortly after his death decided on its own that it was so extensive and fascinating that it couldn't help but become a museum. Although we'd been warned, Corrine and I hadn't entirely realised before going the extent to which it was a children's museum. They were everywhere. Miniature humans climbed on the benches, on the exhibits, on and in the fish tanks in the aquarium, on their mothers, and on my trousers. Even the crowds of babies not yet born, in their uncontrollable excitement at finding themselves in this place, kicked their poor mothers wildly from within their swollen abdomens. We found fish, masks, and musical instruments. I was thrilled to find the natural history section, which shared much of the delightful strangeness of the Wagner, even if it couldn't quite compete with the Wagner's dusty, dated charm. We learned about ritual and magical artefacts from Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. I liked the African sculptures, little men made out of wood and filled with rusty nails. We learned about the European and North American used clothing that is recycled and becomes fabric that is sold as new in India, and about the Indian used clothing that is recycled and becomes fabric that is sold as new in Europe and North America. From the balcony that connected two galleries we watched a bit of children's theatre in the auditorium down below: a young boy was dressed as the emperor of China. One woman was dancing like a dragon, and the other as some sort of sneaky spirit. We agreed that they had the best job in the world.

While investigating Indian musical instruments, Corinne began to pine rather intensely for India, which is where she'd lived last summer. I suggested that we declare it India Day, that from the many Indian sections of the museum we march on to find Indian food, and then one of London's several (several!) all-Bollywood cinemas. This we did: we found our way to the Indian neighbourhood in which the theatre was located easily, although in more time than we expected it to take. We ate in a cheap South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant that offered food better than that which she'd experienced in that part of the the subcontinent itself. Staying for dessert and tea and conversation with the servers, we missed the film we'd meant to see. We went for a walk while we waited for the late show, stopping in the shops and flipping through the imported records while she related gossip about Indian pop stars.

The film was called Singh is Kinng, and was a Bollywood musical comedy about love and Sheikh gangsters living in Australia and Egypt. I recommend it highly. During one of the dance numbers I noted the similarities between Bollywood and a certain brand of nineties rap video: Biggie Smalls would feel at home here. So during the credits, when Snoop Dogg was suddenly on screen rapping about the film we'd just seen, Corrine and I screamed and high-fived. It wasn't his best work, I'll admit, but his making an appearance made me feel practically clairvoyant. I've never been so happy to see Snoop in my life, and I assure you, I've been pretty happy to see him before.
jacktellslies: (bear girl)
I arrived in London and made my way to the house where I'd be staying; it only required one hired coach, two tube lines, and a bus, which isn't bad at all, given the nature of the place. I imagine this would change after a decade or so of monotonous commuting, but as an occasional visitor at least, finding one's way through the city is one of my favourite parts.

The door was opened by a seven year old French boy. He was too young for any English, and as this trip has been reminding me with embarrassing frequency, I'm far too American for any useful French. I worried that I was in the wrong place, but I uttered the correct passwords: "couch surfing" and "Gareth," which was my host's name. Actually, I hesitate to publish anyone's full name on the internet even if they've already done so, but his middle name is Alexis, and his last name begins with Brink and ends with worth. Never in my life have I heard a name more perfect. His absurdly wonderful (read: British) name is, in fact, most of my reason for requesting to stay with him.

Theo, the young French boy, led me to the kitchen where I found a pretty Asian girl who, it seemed, could speak nearly any language in which one cared to greet her; the boy's mother; and another American. Gareth, I learned, was not home, nor were the other members of his family who lived there, but several of the nine other couch surfers besides myself staying in the house were. I considered leaving. But the French boy was funny, and gave me a tour of the house despite the fact that we were both left deeply confused by our attempts to communicate with one another. And the Asian girl, who is studying in Paris, was leaving for Dublin the next morning. She gave me her map, and I gave her advice on travelling in Ireland.

And I learned that the American, whose name is Corinne, is practically from my neighbourhood back home. She's from Doylestown, which is where all of my former roommates on Catharine Street were raised. In fact, she worked with Bill, and they were good friends for years. She was at my house once for a barbecue; I remember meeting her. She used to work at the other Whole Foods in town, so we also know some of the same people through that. More importantly, when asked where we are from, both of us respond, "Philadelphia," and a moment later, when we remember or when we are forced, we'll add, "in The States." Once we'd both said it and laughed and squealed a bit over the coincidence, it was obvious to both of us that it was true, that we are Philadelphians before we are many other things. I'm surprised we didn't recognise it immediately, her in her thrifted sweaters, me in my rent boy clothes. (An aside to my beloved fashionable Philadelphians: exceptionally few people in the world do it like we do, and those who don't cannot begin to understand us. The poor fools. I make them nervous, and they make me nervous, and it's just impossible. I've been missing your tastes, your ties, and your encouragement terribly. I'm also missing the rest of my closet.) There were other similarities, too. She's queer, and she's dated trannies at the early stages of their awkward metamorphoses. She dates straight boys too, and knows intimately how awkward that can be, how much you can like them even while knowing that there are parts of you they do not see. She and I were friends immediately.

Newgrange.

Aug. 27th, 2008 08:06 pm
jacktellslies: (crow)
Newgrange is brilliant. It's a single mound, similar to those at Knowth, only much larger. It had been lost to history, thought only a natural hill and used as farmlands. Occasionally a lump of quartz would turn up there, and when the Scottish landlord who owned the place decided to begin mining for the stuff, Newgrange itself must have cried out and revealed itself. The first men to touch shovel to earth there dug directly to that famous entrance stone, to those carvings, and stopped immediately. They knew that what they had found was very old, and very important.

The place has since been restored to what a pile of important academics assure us is very near its original state. It's ringed in skull sized lumps of quartz, shining and white, interspersed occasionally with slightly smaller dark stones in a set pattern. Like at Dowth, the base is haloed with boulders, some of them marked.

The door is guarded by that stone, by spirals and hatches. It's huge and perfect. It could be a map of the Boyne Valley, the fertile river-ringed island contained within Ireland, the spirals marking out Newgrange and Knowth and Dowth, the other shapes representing the surrounding farmland. It could be a map for the souls of the dead entombed there to follow. I'd been to Newgrange once before with my mother and my grandmother. I'm glad to have been allowed to touch it twice. There is a door for humans there, wide like a cave's mouth, and there is a door for the sun, smaller and located above your head. If you don't kneel a bit when entering you'll whack your head on the bottom of its stone frame. I did, in fact, after expressly being warned not to do so. My hat suffered the worst of the blow, but I took the hint and assumed the correct ritual posture.

The ceiling as you enter the long corridor is low, and the walls press close, more narrow near your head. Busy stooping, forced to keep bowing to the place, you do not notice the strong slant in the floor, that in fact you are climbing up. By the time the interior opens into what seems after your crawl an expansive cavern, your feet are precisely level with the sun's door. Both are also level with the horizon as viewed in the distance from the entrance. You're standing underground; you're standing where the earth meets the sky.

Newgrange is five-thousand years old, older by five-hundred years than the Egyptian pyramids. The ceiling of the central chambers is shaped a bit like a beehive rising high above your head, and corbelled, which is to say pieced together with flat stones piled atop one another and fitted together. No mortar was used. The construction was precise: in all that time, cradled by a river and sleeping under weeping Irish skies, it's not leaked once. Lost to us for who knows how long, the interior did not require reconstruction.

Newgrange is cruciform in shape: the stone hall leads to chambers, one before you, one to your left, and one to your right. The carvings inside those spaces are varied. The rooms to your left and right as you enter are covered in them; the one directly before you bares only that triple spiral, beloved but almost a secret placed where it is, to the right of the entrance and facing inward.

Newgrange was there well before the people who first sang the mythologies of Ireland arrived, and ages before the monks eventually stumbled in to record them. So the mythology cannot tell us what Newgrange meant to the builders, but it can tell us something of what it meant to their successors.

Boann had a husband, Nechtan. But she was beautiful, and the Dagda wanted her. So the Dagda gathered his trickery, and sent Nechtan on a journey. And he called up his magic, and he hid himself and Boann in space, within Newgrange, and in time: he built a year in which they could lie together, and he hid it within a single day. They had time enough for one another then, and time enough even to birth a child. The Dagda left at the end of the year, and Nechtan came back at the end of the day, and he was none the wiser.

The son was named Aengus. Through some accident, he was left with no inheritance, so he asked his father for use of Newgrange for a day and a night. Through certain grammatical coincidences in the Irish language, however, "a day and a night" and "day and night" are both described by the same phrase. Therefore, in asking for a short lease, he was also making the place his for all of eternity.

It's about light and dark. It's about sex. It's a time machine that runs on trickery and clever words.

On the winter solstice, at sunrise, a beam of light penetrates the door built for it. It makes its way slowly up the corridor, finally illuminating all three chambers in a way that doesn't quite make sense.

I have two tattoos: a labyrinth on my left shoulder, and a church window on my right arm, shoulder to elbow. My body was built to imitate these structures: spirals carved in the earth; light shining through stone; the sacred reaching into something we mortals made. It's a man's ritual built in the shape of a woman.

Both sites were far too heavily beset with tourists for me to either lose or find myself much there. And the tours were invasive. They preached at us about the science of the place in a way that might have been interesting if I hadn't already known much of it, and allowed us an hour only at each site, including their speeches.

I shook away from the crowd and whispered my name to the place. I breathed and I did not. I followed the stones that held the edge of it. When they too subsided leaving only grass and hill I collapsed on the mound as if I were exhausted and resting my head on a lover's thigh when they were through with me. I bid a hasty adieu and returned to the bus. It wasn't enough. I want to break into these places with you in the dark. I want to find them when they are free.

Knowth.

Aug. 27th, 2008 07:32 pm
jacktellslies: (opium den)
My last day in Ireland I'd saved for Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. To get there one must sign up for a tour. Misery. Pestilence. Woe. Most often, I believe, the hired coaches only go to Newgrange, the most widely known of the three, but I befriended the driver, told him how much I'd like to see everything I could, and he did a fantastic job of convincing his other customers that they all wanted this as well.

Previous scholarship held that these were the oldest megalithic sites in Ireland, built by foreigners new from mainland Europe. It was believed that as their creators bred and died and left the work to their less worthy descendants, the technologies and skills devolved. As the sites moved north and west and more time passed they became sloppier and simpler, the monuments at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel little more than a few inadequate stones clumsily piled atop the dead. I cannot recall who the originators of these theories are, but I detect at least a hint of anti-Irish sentiment. Fortunately, some lovely Swedish academics arrived and, with the deadly precision of their thesis, told their predecessors to eat it. Their more recent work suggests the opposite: that the first ancient Irish megalithic sites were those in the Northwest, that they grew in complexity and scale until creating a wonder, not just by the standards of a small place like Ireland, but standing out among the entire ancient world.

Dowth, the smallest of the three sites, is closed, so I've still not seen it. But Knowth is lovely: imagine a series of earthen mounds, perfectly round things clustered together, suggesting perhaps mushrooms, or hobbit houses. The domes are all covered over in grass, and some are ringed at the base with large stones. Many of the stones are marked with carvings, mysterious and intricate. There are spiral shapes, little suns and what might be stars, lines, curves, sharp and jagged things. It could be a language. It might be a system of magical notation, either set sigils the entire culture would have recognised, or a map to a more personal shamanism. They could be the boring hallucinatory scribblings any modern creature who has dabbled in such things would recognise, or stations at which worshipers could meditate. They could be nothing more than art, and nothing less. Of all of the ancient art of this type yet discovered in Europe, more than one third sleeps at Knowth, speaking in strange and subtle tongues, misunderstood differently by all who see it.

Inside of these artificial hills are caves. The same boulders that embrace the hillocks without reach into them, forming long corridors and their ceilings, being the walls and roofs of chambers, often roughly cruciform in shape. I walked into a few of them. I knelt in them, pressed my face to the cold stone.

One of the mounds, which is really more of a ring fort, is a Christian creation, which is strange. The messengers of the new faith did not bring violence against Ireland's people, but they were usually savage in destroying the objects and sites held sacred to the old religion. Knowth should have been smashed, but instead they not only allowed it to stand, but built a little cave of their own.

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