Caveat: Back in the land of la

Dateline:  Los Angeles

Back home.  Took a while to "recover" – the proverbial "vacation after the vacation" situation.  I'm better now … partly, I think I'd been holding back that persistent Polish virus by sheer willpower.  Once home, I succumbed, and have spent the last several days resting. 

I still want to finish writing up the Moroccan experience… that will come.  I may post other things from my handwritten journal over time, too. 

Meanwhile, I'm not sure how I feel about being back.  Really much less certain as to what's next in my life than I was before I left… the perspective of travel, rather than helping, seems to have caused the possible options to proliferate to the point that I'm a bit overwhelmed.  So I'll get back to this over time.

Caveat: Six Cats In Trieste

Six cats in Trieste

in the blue wind off the cold Adriatic,
off the snow-covered Alps
weirdly visible on the northern horizon,
I climbed the Scala dei Giganti,
up the hill to the castle,
around the back of the cathedral San Giusto,
past the monument to the dead of world war two,
down the stairs behind the ruins
of the foundations of the roman theater;
I saw six cats:

one in the sun in a window;

one on some grass,
looking up at the first one;

one on an abandoned,
ratty-looking suitcase in a vacant lot, behind the stairs;

one colored brown,
hunting the blades of grass,
staring at ghosts;

one mewing in the dark shadow of a crumbling stone step;

one sitting high up on the top of a wall
that was covered with spikes to keep the pigeons away,
but the spikes where broken off
and the cat was comfortable.

[I wrote this in 2005. I cleaned up the formatting and gave this poem its own "post" on 2011-07-31]

Caveat: The rest of the story

I had bought a "package" tour, for the simple reason that it seemed like a much better value, given the limited scope of my intended visit. 

Included in the package was:  round trip by ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta; bus (or, as it turned out, minivan) passage from Ceuta to Tetouan to Tanger to Ceuta (a little triangle on the map, about 50 km to a side); three meals – lunch, dinner, breakfast; hotel in Tanger.

Morocco, day 1. 

I showed up at the offices of Eurotras (eurotrash?), the tour company, at the ferry terminal in Algeciras, at around 8 am.  They gave us (those of us on the tour) tickets for Ceuta (not the return tickets, which we were to receive in Ceuta on return), and an envelope that contained the documentation for the remainder of the trip, to present to the guide at Ceuta.

My companions were a young portuguese couple, she spoke spanish fairly well, but her husband was brazilian (from Minas Gerais) and was adamantly monolingual.  I can understand portuguese fairly well if I work at it, but Rodrigo was pretty darn opaque.  Victoria, however, was interesting to talk to.  She works in a temporary agency (one of those people who interview the temps and place them in jobs) in Lisboa.  She had a lot of penetrating observations on the neo-liberal economic model and the precariousness of the world's job markets.

When we arrived at Ceuta, we were met by two guides – a gentleman named Mohamed and another whose name I never quite figured out.  Mohamed spoke excellent spanish and atrocious english, but insisted on trying to say everything in both languages, which was occasionally quite painful to listen to. 

We were also joined at this point by a retired british couple, who were staying with relatives in Gibraltar and had decided to make a day trip to Morocco.  The Portuguese couple were also on a day trip… I was the only one who was planning to stay overnight.

We got into a minivan that had phenomenally uncomfortable seats.  Perhaps I'm overly used to the reasonably comfortable seats on trains, these days.

At the border with Morocco, there was a substantial delay.  Based on reading I'd done online the night before, this is standard – it's got to do with the fact that Ceuta is to Morocco what Gibraltar is to Spain – an "illegitimately occupied enclave."  The British man (Doug?  A retired lawyer) observed the interesting parallel, and I said it seemed like a classic "pecking order" – britain takes gibraltar from the spanish, so spain takes ceuta from the moroccans, so the moroccans take all of former spanish sahara from the sahareños, who live in refugee camps in the desert and have the highest infant mortality rate in the world.  All's fair in love, war, and geopolitics.

So from the Moroccan perspective, we were entering their country from an administrative limbo.  Fortunately, our guides mediated this complex process – one commentary online I read said that this was just one of many places where having a guide is not just a good idea, but really the only option. 

Really, in this very different world, every transaction must be mediated.  So, we drove down the mediterranean coast, for about an hour, as low, cobalt clouds scudded over the rubble-strewn countryside.  Reminded me of the landscape in the northern part of Baja California, where, in the winter, the hills are equally green and the towns are equally squalid.  It was chilly, and a hard wind blew from the north, making the whitecaps on the mediterranean tilt sideways.

We arrived in Tetouan and got off the van, and plunged into the ancient (14th-16th century) medina.  Tetouan was founded in the 14th century, but received it's primary population in the thousands of mozarabs (muslim spaniards) and jews who were expelled from spain by the catholic hierarchy at the end of the 15th c. 

There was a steady drizzle, which mixed with the rotting vegetables, spit, concrete "crumbs," and dogshit to make a light coating of sludge in the narrow passageways of the medina.  Everywhere behind our little tour-group, children and gap-toothed men would follow, demanding "solo un e-uro please merci" in exchange for some trinket or another.  And men selling belts, oranges, gum.  And women on their knees in heavy kaftans and berber hats. 

The guides showed us the jewish quarter, and the discourse was a weird case of cognitive dissonance.  On the one hand, he expressed pride that Morocco treated jews as equal citizens, had "opened its arms" to the jews expelled from spain in the 15th c., and later to those escaping from Nazism.  He emphasized the current, relatively peaceful, coexistence of muslims, catholics, and jews in the kingdom. 

On the other hand, Mohamed also was keen to observe that, "como los judios tenien todo el dinero" (since the jews have all the money), they've moved from the medina to nicer neighborhoods.  I suppose that, in stereotype terms, many Jews are probably well-off – all stereotypes come from somewhere.  But the bitterness with which the words were pronounced was profoundly anti-Jewish.

One has to be careful with the word anti-semite – this word is never quite accurate as currently used (ie. to refer to anti-Jewish sentiment), but is especially inaccurate when applied to arabs, who also represent a great semitic language and civilization.  One could say that current european anti-semitism is finally coming "home" to its etymological roots, since modern europeans seem to hate equally both arabs and jews.  But an arab anti-semite is etymologically nonsensical.  More on racism, later.

Then came the first of the "hard" sells.  We were taken to a carpet shop.  Apparently, foreign visitors to morocco are expected to buy rugs.  Despite repeated reassurances that "no tienes que comprar nada" – you don't have to buy anything – the pressure was intense, and the prices – as I persisted with "no gracias" "non merci" "laa shukran" – shrunk tenfold.  A carpet quoted at 770 euros dropped to 80 euros an hour later.  I suppose there are visitors who buy sooner than later, and pay the first price? 

What would that same rug be priced at, at wal-mart?  39.99?  What's the person's labor worth – probably a berber woman – who made the rug?  At Wal-Mart's price, it's pennies an hour… less.  At the tourist special (770 euros), she may actually be close to american minimum wage.  But what american or european would be happy paying that price?  She wouldn't see that money anyway … she's already been paid, perhaps 20 or 30 dollars, for her work.  The rest goes to the middlemen – whether a merchant in the medina in tetouan or to the corporate coffers at wal-mart.

The mint tea they served at the carpet shop was quite tasty.  I think that the merchants were especially annoyed with me, as opposed to the brits or the portuguese, because the mistook my willingness to chat for an interest in their product.  It was really a linguistic accident – I was the only one sufficiently fluent in a language they were comfortable with to be able to chat (Spanish – many Moroccans are quite fluent in Spanish, especially in the north, which was – until after WWII – a Spanish colony).

I found that, on the street, a refusal to say anything but "laa, shukran" was the best strategy to discourage sellers of things – my theory is that I thus could convert myself into a linguistic enigma – it was clear I knew no Arabic except for those words, but my refusal to lapse into anything else (English, French, Spanish) prevented them from getting their grip on any kind of "discursive handle."  Left without a linguistic point of contact, they could only stare at me and gesture to their product. 

Crap, do I sound condescending?  I don't mean to be.  Maybe I should try to comment on that, further on, but, let me try to explain something.  Tourism is an act of violence.  It's violent in the same sense that pouring a volatile chemical (say, an acid or a base) into a thriving colony of insects living in a terrarium is an act of violence.  The chemical consists of molecules that either have a surplus or a shortage of electrons, and these "radicals" naturally destabilize those around them, molecules otherwise perfectly content to get on with their "lives" as parts of bugs or plants. 

Ripping away those electrons destabilizes the equilibrium, and next thing you know, all biosystems and ecosystems are damaged or completely broken.  Likewise, the tourist arrives with a surplus of money and is alien to the local chemical balance, and a storm ensues as the elements in the system seek a new equilibruim. 

I like the metaphor, though I expect it needs to be developed.  Meanwhile, let's ponder the accident that in casual american english, at least, terrorism and tourism are near-homonyms – I think my mother pointed this out to me in an email recently.  Let's play with that.

My thinking is that the best way to avoid being guilty of this kind of violence is to "go native."  You work to remove the flags that tell those around you that you're a "radical" and mark you as a source of surplus.  This is possible for me, as an american, in europe, and, to a more limited extent, also in latin america.  But there are issues of race and comportment that make such chameleonism impossible outside of the "occidental" world. 

This is what I wanted to comment on earlier, vis-a-vis race:  racism is just that process whereby distinguishing features beyond the control of the individual possessing them become cultural "flags" indicative of traits feared or devalued by others. 

The human brain is a sophisticated but non-standard statistical engine of a sort… it makes observations of saliency and calculations of probability and draws correlations of its own accord, and in ways not necessarily "rational."  If a man in a purple hat comes into a room and starts shooting people, and then the next day a man with a purple hat comes into the same room with some of the same people, you can bet those people are going to get nervous.  Why?  Because they made a correlation on a salient trait.  It's not statistically valid by standard statistics, but the process is driven by saliency, not just probability. 

One definition of data analysis (my current "profession"?) is the search for true saliency amid the sea of false salients – ie. statistically legitimate correlations.  But when people criticize racial profiling on the grounds of "accuracy" or "fairness," they're missing the statistical boat.  The only grounds for criticizing racial profiling are moral-ethical – by which I mean you simply have to take, a priori, that such profiling is wrong because it "dehumanizes" (also a problematic term, e?). 

So then we had some lunch.  A delicious curry-like soup, couscous, with chicken, carrots, leeks or cabbage(?), beef on skewers, some sweet bread for desert.   The restaurant itself was beautiful, with tiled arabesques, arches, rugs on the floor.

Caveat: La capitale d’un projet pour définir

Dateline: Luxembourg

I went to Brussel with the intention of wandering around, and exploring the commuter trains to make maximal use of my waning eurail pass.  Impressions:  Bruxelles is mostly "extract of Paris" with about 10% "extract of amsterdam" (the quaint part, not the seedy part – historically Catholic Belgium seems less interested in seedy parts than historically Protestant Nederland), with the standard overlay of euromodernity.   Perhaps a subset of Paris – altho in geopolitical terms, more like a superset, these days. Uh; right.

I can't remember the eighties group that did the disco-euro-club standard "what is love… baby don't hurt me" – but anyone who watched "Saturday Night Live" during the 90s knows it's Europe's national (err, super-national) anthem:  who can forget those two cherman guys, Dieter and ? (I forgot his name), making banal pseudo-cult-crit comments, saying ja ja ja and tilting their heads robotically in time to that disco rhythm?  Why do I bring this up?  Because that song was playing loudly over the PA systems in two different train stations I was in today – it really must be the EU anthem.

I walked around for a while, admired some of the not-too-bad postwar architecture; then on a whim took the train to luxembourg.  Not terribly intriguing… if nederland is europe's new jersey, and france is europe's texas, then luxembourg is europe's delaware.  Easier to travel thru than to. 

What compelled me to visit luxembourg?  The first research paper I ever wrote, for a 7th grade geography class, was on luxembourg.  I think I picked it off the map thinking such a small country would mean I could write a nice, short paper.  But, so… it's always represented disappointing complexity and geopolitical absurdity.

And the city reminds me of… somewhere in kentucky, maybe.  But linguistically schizoid.  Nice place.  Tomorrow I return to amsterdam, and fly to LA thursday.  What's next in life – any ideas?

Caveat: 204

Dateline: Leuven

It was still dark and drizzling when I left my hotel in Lisbon this morning.  I took a taxi to the airport and flew to Belgium… given I only have 3 days left on this huge trip, I didn't want to try racing across spain and france on the train, and the "teleport" only cost 130 € on Virgin-Express.

I decided to come to Leuven because one of the European business schools that's most attractive to me is located here (Vlerick).  Although my enthusiasm for b-school is currently at a low-ebb – feeling like my heart may not be in it?   I don't actually have an interview set up – my online applications processes were stalled by lack of momentum and some important information that I stupidly didn't bring along – but I figured I could take a look around.

Leuven is nice to see in that it's not a tourist town… it's just a medium sized university city in Flemish Belgium.  If I did come here, I'd be compelled to learn flemish (dutch) as I couldn't stand the idea of living somewhere and not knowing the local language.  The Belgian dialect is more "german-sounding" than what I heard in the Netherlands, tho I think the written forms are the same. 

My room number in this hotel is 204.  That was also my room number in Lisbon and also in Tanger, tho not in Seville or Algeciras.  Weird coincidence, or secret message from the gods? 

It's clear and definitely spring-like here.  A huge plaza filled with outdoor tables, students chatting and drinking beer, and a near-infite swarm of parked bicycles.  The stadhuis is a neo-gothic, ultra-ornate box with weird turrets and towers that remind me of Gaudí.  Date on the building is 1904.

Still haven't found a wireless link-up for my laptop, but when I get one, I'll post a series of retro-active in-depth observations on Morocco.

Caveat: Edge of the world

Dateline: Lisboa

Lisbon is a beautiful city. 

I arrived "trasnochado" on the bus yesterday morning – I don't think I slept but one or two hours. At one point, about 3 in the morning, the bus stopped at a rest area and the driver made everyone get off and locked the bus for 45 minutes.  I've travelled by bus in 10 or 15 countries, and have never seen something quite like that… seems unusual cruelty.  Ah well…

Yesterday morning, after finding a hotel (no mean feat, given the "semana santa" situation mentioned before), I left my luggage and went exploring, riding the subway, walking around Rossio and Baixa neighborhoods. 

Portuguese is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful languages – despite my struggles to make sense of it.   That's strictly impressionistic, of course – what makes one language seem more beautiful than another to someone?  Certainly, there are no objective criteria.  But I like the rich, almost slavic-sounding phonology, combined with the syntactic "grace" of the romance languages, the way it takes Iberian trends, such as post-fixation of pronouns to verbs, only partially expressed in e.g. Spanish, and generalizes them. 

Um.  I went to the Museu Gulbenkian – modern art.  I love modern art… once again I found myself daydreaming about taking up painting.  Certainly that would give me the creative outlet that I keep craving… and my doubts about my level of talent are ultimately moot – if one wants to pursue art, it should be driven from within, not based on outside reinforcements.  Right?

I was just thinking, in Sevilla, that I had finally thoroughly shaken the flu I acquired in Poland, but this morning I woke up congested and feeling feverish.  Probably the consequence of the lack of sleep night before last, who knows.  But being sick is frustrating.

Caveat: Aimless pilgrimage

Dateline:  Sevilla

Can you believe… I think I´m a little bit tired of travelling.  I found myself yearning for my own bed and my "own" haunt at the burbank starbucks last night, for the first time on this trip, a touch of homesickness, perhaps?

I think the moroccan experience (which will receive full coverage via blog when I can find a wireless connection for my laptop, as I have been writing it up there) was a bit draining. 

Anyway… vis-a-vis "organicism" I might suggest the following: 
1) a life guided above all by an "aesthetic" philosophy (as opposed to, say, a fundamentally ethical, eschatological, or etc., philosophy)
2) per Verbosobob´s comment regarding his liking best the inexplicable divergences from the "organic" in the "organicist" music of composers such as Bach, this aesthetic elevates the digressive over the linear – a la cerventes – an episodic, aimless pilgrimage true to one´s own soul.

Hmm… just thoughthacking, at the moment.  I saw some fabulous work by illustrator Gustave Doré this morning in the Bellas Artes museum in Seville.  Ghostly images of romantic landscapes, beggars in London, originals for engravings for illustrations of Fontaine, Rabelais, Cervantes. 

I´m taking the bus to Lisbon tonight – the trains are full and I couldn´t get a reservation, because next week is semana santa (holy week, when all of Iberia goes on vacation).   Means I won´t really get full use of my Eurailpass, as I´ll have some days leftover… uh, whatever.

Caveat: Organicism (email to Bob)

Bob;

I liked the doonesbury bit… I was, in fact, sometimes called the "professor" when I was in the army.

I'm having difficulty making sense of your reference to organicism – I associate it with cultural or philosophical discourse reference to how society organizes itself and how we perceive it – ie as a collective organism or otherwise.  I believe this connects with some writing by Adorno… or, farther back, Ortega y Gasset.  I imagine it's got a distinct, separate meaning in the context of music history?

whatever.  I'm killing time in an internet cafe in tanger, not comfortable wandering off and, typically, getting "a little bit lost", since I dont want to miss my bus back to ceuta to catch my boat back to algeciras.  Eerie third call-to-prayer echoes outside, I tie my fingers in knots on this just-not-quite-right keyboard, cigarette smoke, mint tea…

Talk to you later.

Caveat: The Other Side

Dateline:  Tanger

So Im in morocco – this wacky french-arabic keyboard is going to mean a short entry, as typing is a bit chellenging. 

Wow – welcome to the 3rd world.  Many delays, people selling who knows what AT you constantly, enigmatic, vaguely polyglot "guides" always present, always on call.  Not just guatemaleque… more than that.  A worthwhile experience, even if only overnite.

I remember maybe 10 words of arabic from my studies but I only really have managed to use 2:  laa = NO & shukran = thanks

I succeeded in NOT buying a carpet… possibly the hardest bit of willpower Ive ever accomplished – up there with army basic training and grad school exams:  you haven't seen a HARD sell until you've seen an arab medina.

It was rainy and foggy and chilly this morning.  Did a little guided tour of Tetouan and into Tanger, after crossing to Ceuta on the ferry.  Cleared, sunny this afternoon… southern californish weather.  The hills are verdant green, dotted with mosques, sheep, old spanish forts. 

Caveat: Pillars of Hercules

Dateline:  Algeciras

Tomorrow morning I´m going over to Ceuta and visiting Morocco.  The temperature yesterday in Cordoba, and today here, is 25 degrees.  There are orange trees everywhere.  Climatologically speaking, I´m back in Southern California. 

So it won´t be much of a visit, but I expect I´ll get a nice superficial impression of Maghreb.  The ferry ride is about 40 minutes.

I have a nice view of Gibraltar from my hotel window.  It doesn´t look very british from here. 

Caveat: Life is a dream

Dateline: Cordoba

Short entry…

The previous entry, for those who are wondering, was a graffito I saw in Barcelona.

Saturday, I went to the Barcelona Sants train station with the intention of going to Bilbao, but ended up on a train for Cordoba.  True to my utterly random manner of travel, I guess – no maps, no guides, no plan…. 

I still had in mind the idea of visiting Morocco. I may go, I may not, but I've got a deadline to be in Amsterdam for my return flight by the 24th – which isn't really that much time.

Cordoba, despite it's several-thousand-years of history, isn't that different from that other Cordoba – the one in Argentina, I visited in 94.  Of course, it's cool about the roman temples, medieval mosques, baroque churches.  Cordoba was the seat of the caliphate in the 10th-11th centuries….

More graffiti seen:

"Life is a dream."

"Yes… but what kind of dream?"

"Why, the American dream, of course."

Caveat: auxiliares administrativos de la realidad

Dateline:  Barcelona

"reality´s administrative support staff" – nice line from an editorial in El País this morning, regarding the Spanish parliament´s review of the events of March 11, 2004. 

I got into Barcelona night before yesterday – late weds. night I guess that would be.  A large, cosmopolitan city, where one could spend years exploring, I´m sure.  Once again, I must reiterate my own inadequacy as a conventional tourist – so far I´ve spent most of my time just strolling around random neighborhoods, taking the subway to interestingly named but otherwise unremarkable stops, for example I visited an area called "Pep Ventura" yesterday – a delightful name for a rather uninteresting community. 

I did make a visit to the Sagrada Família – Gaudí´s unfinished masterwork and, truly, an inspiring, incredible, unparalleled bit of architecture.  With the sun turning the curves and twists of the stone pink and orange, I made two full orbits of the temple from the outside, but ended up avoiding entering the interior, having been overwhelmed by the vast herds of japanese tourists and catalonian youth groups queued ahead of me. 

Impressionistically, Barcelona, as might be expected, so far makes me think rather often of Buenos Aires or México, DF.    Despite the predominance of the catalán language over the spanish, at least in signage, the city is clearly Iberian to the core, and thus has more in common with those ibero-american metropoli than with, say, the italian cities it shares more with in historical terms.   Being so cosmopolitan, one hears any number of languages on the street, in any neighborhood – but castillian and catalán predominate.  Catalán is a fascinating language, although occasionally I get the unfair feeling that it´s all a sham, something to confuse the castillans with, kind of like a children´s secret language.  Imagine what french would sound like, if spoken by a spaniard who was under the mistaken impression that all those silent letters had to be pronounced. 

That´s catalán for you.  Not to put it down – I love the way that all these romance languages form a continuum, and I confess that in my more philological, tolkienesque moments I have even toyed with "inventing" my own romance language, picking and choosing etymons and phonological patterns from among all the players: castillian, portuguese, gallego, provenzal, french, italian, corsican, sicilian, romanch, rumanian, etc.  Tolkien did something very similar with the celtic languages – that´s what his "elvish" is, after all – just a giant hodgepodge of celtic roots and phonological transformations, drawing from gaelic, welsh, breton, brythionic, cornish, etc. 

Now that´s what you call a reality administrator.   The argentine author, Borges, in his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertia, presents the idea of a secret society dedicated to inventing a new, imaginary world, and making it reality.  Sans the secret society part (ahem, as far as we know), both Gene Roddenberry´s Star Trek and Tolkien´s middle earth have come tantalizingly close to making such a plot-line come true.  Witness the story about the supposed offer of Multnomah County, Oregon, to offer translation services to the Klingon-speaking immigrant community (this may be an urban myth, but google "Klingon" if you don´t think the language is real).   OK… whatever – many of you have heard me discurse ad infinitum on this sort of subject before.

I´m somewhat frustrated that I am most definitely running out of time on this little adventure of mine, and feeling that I really haven´t done that much.  Definitely the flu I contracted in Poland made for lost time …. but overall, it´s mostly that I´m travelling in a manner I haven´t, hitherto, had much success at – I´m not so good at the "touring" sort of tourism, and much better at the "pick someplace and stay there a few weeks / months / years" sort of tourism – though I suppose this latter isn´t, in the end, tourism anymore.   But at least I´ll be able to say "I´ve been there" for what that´s worth. 

As I´ve mentioned before, I feel very much at a loss what it is I want to do next with my life.  I talk alot about starting a business, going to business school, whatever, but ultimately, these things still feel like default activities – things I can do to fill time until something cool comes along.   Singlemindedness seems like an enviable asset to me, most of the time – I simply don´t have it, though I´m capable of emulating it for sustained periods, as my recent career experiences have demonstrated.  But even in the depths of the singleminded pursuit of something, I´m never, genuinely, singleminded.  I´m just sort of pretending to be singleminded, in hopes of fooling the world and myself.   The world is often fooled – but myself, never.

Caveat: La Glacerie des Papes

Dateline: Avignon

I couldn't resist spending a day in Avignon – another delay on my way to Spain.  Perhaps I'm trying to emulate Persiles' "dilatada perigrinación"? 

Avignon hosted the papacy of the catholic church for most of the 14th century.  The only place besides rome, historically, to have done so for an extended period.  Hence the great landmark in the center of Avignon is the Palais des Papes.  And thus, an ice cream shop up the street couldn't resist claiming to be "la glacerie des papes." 

At the end of the 14th century, as the black death had swept through europe, there occurred the great schism – when there were popes in both rome and in avignon, competing for the allegiance of bishops throughout catholic europe.  A prefigurement of the reformation?  Perhaps.  A replay of the catharist heresies of the 13th century?  Perhaps that, too, although historians would probably be uncomfortable with that one.  But it can hardly be accidental that the city of Avignon, seat of popes and anti-popes in the 1300's, had been near the center of one of the most widespread popular "heretical" movements in all of medieval europe only a hundred years earlier.  Catharism was a resurgence of arianist (anti-trinitarian) and even gnostic ideas of christianity, that occured throughout languedoc in the 1200's, and has also been linked to such church-sanctioned thinkers such as Master Eckhart, that dominican apogee of medieval mysticism. 

I figured out today why I like visiting french churches.  They're almost always empty!  A polish, an italian, a mexican church, be it spectacular or provincial, is also a working religious instition.  Allegedly, so are the french.  But the French don't seem to make much use of their churches… at least not on week-day mornings.  I vividly remember my visits to Montmartre or even ND de Paris, twenty years ago during my studies there, when I was only one of three or four tourists in the entire church on a cold january morning.  One could sit and contemplate in utter, desolate solitude.  No such solitude to be found in churches in Mexico, DF or Krakow or Firenze.  Does the devotion of others really make me that uncomfortable?  It's definitely easy to feel like an impostor as a tourist in some historic church that people are actually trying to use.  But in France, I guess they're all impostors?  Hmm…

It's nice being able to go into restaurants and order something in the local language successfully.  I haven't had that experience up to this point on this trip.

Somewhat tired of restauranting, however.  So I went into a supermarket (called "shopi" – how cute) and bought some salami, cheese, yoghurt, bread, dried fruit, etc., to have a picnic in my hotel room.  A change of pace, haven't done that since Warszawa.  Watching French reality television is so compelling, after all…

Caveat: Université du Temps Libre

Dateline: Avignon

So much for rushing off to Spain. Italy was difficult to leave. Meaning, I got off at the wrong station in Génova, missed a connection to Nice. Went to Torino, thinking I could make a connection there, but Torino turned out to be one of those more-than-one-train-station towns where one has to walk or bus or taxi between stations… no easy connection there, either. So I stayed another night in Italy, in a nice hotel in Torino called Montevecchio, a block south of Corso Stati Uniti.

Next day (yesterday), I took the train back to Génova, got off at the right train station this time, connected to Ventimiglia (on the border with France), connected again to Nice, and finally connected again to Avignon.  A study in contrasts… the first leg was a standard italian "intercity" (regional).  The next was a commuter train, stopped everywhere, took forever at stations, along the gorgeous Italian riviera (Savona, Sanremo…) but with rare bits of snow on the hilltops overlooking the cold, blue sea of middle earth (think about it:  medi-terranea). 

The French train to from Vintimille to Nice was also a commuter train, but bearing the same relation to the italian commuter train as a New York commuter train resembles a Mexican commuter train.  The French train was clean, fast, subway-like.  The Monaco stop was even underground … the whole stretch from the italian border to Nice was as through a prosperous metropolis. 

The connection in Nice put me on another regional train which in theory would have been a similar experience, but an accident of fate made me a member of the surplus of a very crowded train. 

With no place for all the extra passengers, a conductor opened up a large baggage compartment, and I surveyed the sunset on the Cote d'Azur through the filthy window of a cigarette-smoke-filled baggage car, where I sat on my luggage on the floor.  It reminded me of bus-travel in guatemala.

As the yacht-harbors fled past and disappeared in the mediterranean darkness, the train finally began to empty out and I found a seat in compartment to share with some gregarious, chain-smoking, cell-phone-chatting algerian youths.  By the time we reached Marseilles, I was alone, and I plowed into my steady re-reading of Persiles once again.

Somewhere on this leg of the journey, I finally crossed paths with Persiles and his party of pilgrims.  Which is to say, While I rode from Torino to Génova to Nice to Avignon, Persiles travelled from Barcelona to Montpellier to Aix-en-Provence to Milano.  Persiles, still under the name of Periandro, with his alleged sister Auristela, the bárbaro Antonio (hijo) and his sister Constanza (recién condesa), and various others, are all on their way to Roma, to commit to to la santa fé católica, etc., etc.

We had nearly crossed paths earlier, in Poland, although it's never clear in the novel what part of greater Poland Persiles and company are in, or even if they are, in fact, in Poland or in some other part of "las regiones setentriontales" which Cervantes has in his imagination granted to the king of Poland (recall that in the 16th cent., Poland/Lithuania were a great power in the north, with domains stretching from Sweden to Estonia to Odessa on the black sea, and for many in Spain and the Mediterranean world of the epoch, "polonia" was synonymous with all of the far north of europe).

The first two books of the novel Persiles…, set in the far north of Europe, are much vaguer on geography and more detached from the social realities of the period, and, since Cervantes was working from his imagination and not actual experience, lack verisimilitude.  Indeed, I, for one, suspect that the "northern" seas and islands in the novel are standing in for the "other" that – in Cervantes' golden age spain – was in fact the new world of the Americas.  This is a sort of displacement that allows the author some space for invention on the one hand, but allows him to address the theme of "otherness" (a very voguish term, lit-crit-wise, I realize) with some degree of plausibility.

The fact that the pilgrims land at Lisbon, of all places, at the beginning of book three, could be used to support further the fact that although they're coming from the north per the terms of the narrative, in cultural terms they are arriving from the new world.  And once on terra firma, Periandro et al., are in a world Cervantes is much more competent to describe and critique, on the one hand, and where the author knew he'd be held to a much higher standard of verisimilitude, on the other.  Hence the radical change in tone of the third and fourth books.  Critiques like to point out that the first two books were written years before the last two, but there are logical reasons within the text itself, if contextualized to its audience and cultural setting, to justify these changes in tone.

Ok… enough of that.  My train got into Avignon two hours late – almost midnight.  So I walked down the block to the Hotel Ibis (a french anologue for Motel 6 … hmm, actually, the same corporation – thus the logic of global capitalism, e?).  Not exactly picturesque, but… hey, check it out, they've got a WiFi connection.

France is the country in europe that most resembles the united states.  I feel more comfortable making that statement now, though I'd confidently have made this categorical statement even before this visit, too.  Current trans-atlantic sqabbles aside, France and the US are fundamentally the same sort of civilization… more so than, say, Britain and the US, in my opinion. I think the british fail the "cultural naivete" test, that weird combination of idealism and arrogance that define both american and french societies.  Perhaps under Victoria, at the height of empire, things were different for britain… but the british seem to accept, now, at an almost visceral level, that they've been "surpassed" by their offspring, i.e. the US. The fact that it's their offspring allows them to retain a sense of place and pride despite the eclipse of their empire.  The french, however, refuse to accept any such "end of empire" – they've merely transmogrified themselves into a post-modern, neo-colonial power, a la USA:  voici la francophonie.   

Interesting to note, for example, that France is the first country in the EU that I've visited that doesn't consistently fly the EU flag, alongside their own, on public buildings.  This despite the fact that they are enthusiastic and founding members of the union.  A bit like texas, then – parellelly, texas is the only place I've been in the US where you will frequently see state flags unaccompanied by the US flag.  Yet texans are those most american of americans – voici GW Bush qua texan. 

In Avignon this morning, I walked past a bar with the name "Université du Temps Libre" – what a perfect name for a bar, e?  Or for an entry in this journal d'ambivalence?

Caveat: I walked down along the river Arno…

I walked down along the river Arno, the sun was shining.  The water was the color of desert fatigues, opaque like a green olive.  There were some ducks swimming, and there was no wind, for a change.  I saw what appeared to be two otters swimming in the current.  One headed toward the near shore, where someone had thrown some bread for the ducks.  Three meters straight down in the water, an otter sat up in the bright morning light and held in its paws a piece of bread and ate.  Somehow this is more inspiring than the museums and the tourist-clogged streets to me, at the moment.  I'm going to move on to spain, leaving tomorrow for, probably, somewhere in southern france for overnight, and thence to barcelona or somewhere like that. 

After the river, I walked up the hill on the south side, hoping for view, but the sky got cloudy and beautiful, but chilly.  I climbed a hill on a street called san giorgio, I think, and ended up on a back road along what appears to be a remnant of the city wall, with olive trees behind another, shorter wall on the south side.  Very painterly and tuscan, I thought.  After recrossing the river I bought my weekly dose of world news, the economist, at a news stand, and stopped for capuccino and a schiacciate (toasted sandwichy thing, probably spelled wrong there) and read in the coming-and-going sunshine.

Everytime I go into a museum, I grow bored.  Something different from what I expected….  Not bored exactly… just restless.  Not wanting to just look, wanting to create, maybe.  But create what?  My writing (aside from these entries) isn't going well, although I've made some decent progress with Persiles, of late, it's just notes – nothing monumental.  I'm carrying around another book, an anthology of poetry by Vicente Aleixandre, in hopes of drawing some inspiration.  But mostly I find myself disappointed at my jottings.  I throw them away.

Caveat: doubting

Dateline:  Firenze

After leaving Trieste on Tuesday, I went to Bologna.  I liked it there, but found neither a hotspot nor an internet cafe, hence the long drought on communication.  I figured in Firenze, with all the tourists, I would find an internet spot, and sure enough….

Firenze is crawling with tourists, even in winter, with lingering bits of snow on the ground from the snow I saw here yesterday, passing through.  I liked Bologna better – a more lived-in, workaday city but with plenty of medieval charm. 

I'm not going to make a long entry here… suffice to say that I like Italy a huge amount, but have been feeling my solitude more accutely, too.   This huge internal pressure to "get on with my life" but without a clue what it is I most want to do.  Vagabonding around europe is fun, and fulfills certain long-held ambitions, but it's not, al fin y al cabo, much more than a way of killing time while I decide what to do next with my life.