gdansk water reflections

water reflections (Photo credit: mariusz kluzniak)

This is the third city on the same river, and the last. A port city, which sounds bleak, but has the balm of sea temperatures, the legacy of being a gateway—excitement. This evening, Jogobella in my coat pocket, I was going to be sociable and watch tv.

But I kept walking, and the end of the street opens to the river. The river is black of water at night. Lights reflected on the water are an oil painting already, white, orange, purple. Men have spaced themselves along the river bank to fish, some have bicycled in army-print jackets. A girl and a boy in an archway play Hallelujah on guitar and violin. And the breeze is the moderation and edge of the sea. I remember the first sea breeze after walking from the mountains, the sea was still hours away but I knew then that I’d almost finished.

In W—, where I attempted retail therapy, I went to a museum and was impressed that after five years of occupation, the population shrunk, there was almost tacit agreement among the community to start an uprising and go on their own terms. For the first time in five years they felt free. They flew their own flags, and broadcasted their own messages over loudspeakers, they watched their own propaganda films in a theatre. It lasted two months, and euphoria lasted a few days, but they were desperate to feel free. And in the end, there was virtually nothing left of the city. This is anecdotal and in reconstructed propaganda films. The information online describes the Uprising in strategic terms.

Following this, further hard times, ‘degrading poverty’, under communism. More uprisings, in the form of strikes, more ‘pacifications’. The iconic shelves in the shops that were always empty because what goods there were, were stored under the counter. If you were at a store when there happened to be a delivery of cigarettes or refrigerators, well there was no reason not to buy because no-one in your family smoked. Possessions were hope. Providing for your family was like hunting.

This is a story from a guide in Budapest: a family went outside the Bloc and returned with a treat, 10 kg of bananas, to share with their friends and family, but they were barred from taking them across the border. So rather than let the bananas go to waste, the family sat down and ate them all.

Another from the same guide: you could cross the border to buy a refrigerator or stove, but there had to be five people in the car. So it was common to see carloads of people squeezed in with a fridge.

It gets dark early, around 4pm. The home must be cosy to survive the next four months. Corner banquette.

I copied this down when I was reading After This by Alice McDermott in June: There was, there would always be, the snag of disappointment—it would not be the life she had wanted—but there was, at last, as well, something it would take her until the end of the year to begin to understand… the wisdom of scattering. That day, I saw an old lady sitting with her cows on the side of a hill. The next day, the sea.


Lives of girls and women

little insurgent monument

little insurgent monument (Photo credit: _gee_)

Today is All Souls Day. Nearly everything is closed. The hostel dining loft is painted orange, but I think green would have been a better choice.

This morning, when I wrenched myself away from women’s issue blogs (celebrities, body image, sex exposes), the streets were chill and silent.

My first contention towards these blogs is, Stop talking about other women’s bodies. Just stop. (To borrow the style of the website that I’ve been reading).

The more we, the community, talk, the more it reinforces a weird norm that other women’s bodies are common property that should live out community expectations. Whether this is to alert us to a celebrity’s flat stomached ‘post-baby-bikini-body’, or to denounce this as an unrealistic ideal (which, of course, it probably is). The personal is political. And politically, it’s none of our casual business what a woman does with her body.

Contrast coverage of women’s bodies to coverage of men’s bodies.  Weight is medical, age is inevitable, brains are of-course (unless proven otherwise), and ugly isn’t news.

And my second contention is, if you do write about women’s bodies, especially to critique other coverage, don’t write to fill column inches or to keep people like me with nothing better to do clicking around your website, to make money.

Well, apparently the city was virtually razed during the war, but it’s been rebuilt in period style, so you wouldn’t know. It’s even UNESCO listed, because it has been rebuilt on such a large scale. Initially, there were plans to exit the pile of rubble, leave it as a monument, and move the city somewhere else. But people started returning and living in the rubble, and due to their will, the location wasn’t moved.

In W—, the tour guide told us a slogan. Bearing in mind that the words for freedom and room in Polish are the same, something like: Socialism is freedom, but democracy is two rooms and a kitchen.

The western side of the river Wisła is unregulated, has a sand bank and floods in season. The east bank is levied. On the west side, a sand track runs through willows, used by cyclists and dog walkers. Anglers ply the water from the scrubby banks.

In the evening I went to the cemetery, which was buzzing. Crowd control supervised a relaxed crowd into the gates, past lantern and wreath vendors. Family and others placed candles on their loved ones’ graves, and pots of blooming chrysanthemums. Some graves had single lanterns in plastic or glass lamps, nestling in dead leaves, others were a carpet of multicoloured lamps, especially before graves of poets or writers. A guide explained that the day commemorates the dead, in general. All the trees had lost their leaves, the place had a naked, bare bones look, the candles looked up to the sky.

(Lives of women and girls is a short story cycle by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro).


Crouching tigers

Karađorđe Petrović monument in Belgrade, Serbia

Karađorđe Petrović monument (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How bad one can feel when one refuses the insistent offers of a man at a railway station to change one’s plans and come to his town to watch movies until 4am.

Today sat in a park before taking the trolley bus to the Tito museum, which was closed due to the funeral of Tito’s wife. There was a big crown still dissipating when I left, and they’d obviously set up portaloos for the occasion; some enterprising folks were selling badges of black and white photos of the wife, and Tito with the wife (I presume).

Coming back, I ran into an Australian girl again, who kindly offered grapes. Went to a market which was tables of fruit and vegetables, cleaning products, and secondhand clothes. Walked along in an unknown direction, which is a pleasure found only in an unknown place. Sat at a sidewalk cafe and had a cappuccino, and worked on my lyrical poem about the line on the ocean. Continued to city centre and saw guards changing at the president’s house. Had burek at favourite shop.

Last night I had a plate of grilled mushrooms, heads up, on a thin bed of soft rice wreathed in finely shredded lettuce and tiny triangles of carrot, and a side salad, ‘Serbian’, of tomato, pepper, cucumber. It seemed like the only seasoning on both dishes was salt, and they couldn’t have been more satisfying.

The city yesterday was foggy, or smoggy, the weather balmy. Perhaps it’s humidity.

The tour guide said that during the months when NATO was bombing the city, people congregated on the main bridge over the river, wearing t-shirts printed with targets, and holding dance parties. Big name musicians performed on the bridge while the planes flew overhead. It wasn’t at all safe, but this is how the bridge survived the war. Téa Obreht describes it in The Tiger’s Wife, something like a heady, exuberant dance on gravestones. The best parties, ever. There are still bombed buildings in the city. The insides look gutted, warped to the outsides, holes, but still standing, still destroyed.

On the night train, an excited trio asked me to take their photograph in the corridor. And although I’d just lay down with War and Peace and it was almost midnight, I joined them in the corridor for a while and had some beers. Later, I wanted to ask for an email address so they could send me photos, specifically, though I wouldn’t have said this, a photo taken leaning out the window with the boyfriend and me, winningly dangling my passport out the window,


Flame trees

durmitor national park montenegro

Durmitor National Park (Photo credit: MichaelTyler)

It’s nippy in the mountains, the air in the evening has a perpetual odour of wood smoke, and nearly every house has beside it a little taj-mahalesque woodpile.

I’ll set down some happy memories: the city walls at sunset, the back gardens, and private doors affixed to the walls; the island, finally, rough tracked, overrun with peacocks, the sea off the rocks and a purposeful cruise ship in the neck of water between the mainland; bees crawling over piles of thin-skinned grapes at the market.

A two-hour bus to K— and the afternoon ahead. Scrambled up a hill to a fort, which runs a wall down on each side of the ridge to the old town walls. Sat looking at the barren mountain that towers over the fort, and saw unexpected life. Firstly, hikers taking a zigzagging road, second, animals herding down the road, thirdly, a little house in the valley.

From a hole in the wall, I walked down the valley to an old church, the walls a pale blue. There was a sign saying goat cheese for sale, so the animals were goats. Pomegranates grew wild, the fruit small. A man was collecting brush on his back. There was another way down the mountain, which the family in the house must use, maybe with a horse. It zigzags to the side of the town and is reinforced with stones.

That night we went to sit part way up the mountain with candles and a boombox, and watched the cruise ship reverse and leave.

I stayed then at an apartment, which was someone’s home (I never did quite figure out who), and had a pleasant few hours watching television and reading while my host came and went. They lit the wood stove in the kitchen, which is apparently ubiquitous to kitchens in the country. The boyfriend lit the stove, and the girlfriend prepared coffee, and then they left.

Today I walked to the canyon. The route was difficult to follow confidently. At first the road went past sunny V-shaped cottages, and then for a long time through a pine forest, during which time I encountered few other animal souls, other than one cow and a tractor working a field towards the end, and a man with a chainsaw strapped to the back of his motorbike.

There is a community in the canyon, which opens out to a flat part way down, some fields, and trees turning orange. Coming back, the sun shone between the pine trees in points that swarmed with insects.

Right this instant, I’m listening to Sarah Blasko’s version of Flame Trees, which is coincidently about traveling (home): ‘Oh the flame trees will blind the weary driver  /  And there’s nothing else could set fire to this town’. When I was on the islands, when it was raining and I was in a tight spot, my friend wrote to me about ‘this wonderful world’, and that’s true too.


Needles and so much water


(Photo credit: Mathew Knott)

Down to the coast, and somewhere over a ridge the landscape changed from arboreal, the colours of autumn, to the rocky, brilliant seacoast. The first day took a walking tour. The guide said that the first Roman emperor to retire, retired there, and years later wouldn’t return to the job because he couldn’t bear to leave his cabbages. The guide said the culture is to work hard but also to live well, eat moderately (when not at Roman feast), relax, philosophise.

The night before I’d eaten grilled sea bass and steamed spinach, potato, zucchini. A man talked to me on the waterfront and said having been hurt is beautiful, when he made himself happier he became a better person and friend, and when you let people in you are both happier and sadder, you do get hurt.

Late one afternoon, bone-white day. Air pine-scented. Almost left for the sensible supermarket but turned back and swam in my shorts, from steps off the sea wall into deeper water. A line of buoys keep boats from swimmers. On shallow mudflats mostly men play a ball game where they use their hands as paddles.

Then took ferry to H—, got lost, reconnoitered at the top of a hill by some rosemary.

The next morning walked uphill to the fort, cooked at my hostel, laced my hiking boots to walk along the shore out of town. After a small beachside restaurant at a pebbly cove, the trail became a goat-path over stones, waymarked by spray painted symbols, winding around the coastline. The smell of pines beside the sea.

Passed nudist beach and a remote house, dogs barking and a man emerging from the water. I had passed no other hikers, until a pair jogging, a surly man in a shirt, and a young trio.

Toward the next town, the trail went up through an olive grove/vineyard with fig and pomegranate. The man at the shop said it was the last day of the season for them, and wished me to have a good life and Come back to home safe, which I was touched by.

The swimmer was fishing when I passed back. When I returned, walking at a clip to beat the sunset, the light had almost disappeared. Swam from the little cove in town out to the buoys and back. Walking was very good for me, altogether softer.

There was rain overnight and torrential rain in the morning. I sheltered in a cafe with other young ones for an awkward but interesting two hours. The sky fined up then. A man was bellowing from the water in the middle of the bay, was picked up by a kayaker, then a speed boat.

A night ferry to K—. A night watching old rock and roll videos and drinking homemade wine with my host. Hot lunch. In the morning from my window, smoke coming off the blue harbour where the sun was shining.

Early bus to D—. The moon is almost full.





(Photo credit: Morton1905)

Slept very well until the day started ‘hoisting it’s terrible bells’ (Waking, Emma Jones) and I got up and made a tea and had an apple. Right.

In the spirit of curiosity, I started walking along a walking route to the main square. From searching the weather online, I knew the haziness to be fog.

The centre is modest and neat, and I’m sure a sunken park was set with flower beds. I asked at a tourist office, sat in a cathedral, and then came out and it was raining. In a lunchless daze I walked to the Upper Town, and the foggy skyline of green copper domes, some old blocks of flats off in the distance.

I was at the Museum of Broken Relationships. The exhibition is objects left from the Broken Relationship, relinquished there, with the story on the card.

The stories make the objects less mundane: the cheap chiffon blouse a woman was wearing to a restaurant when her husband announced he was leaving her; the dog light a man’s ex-wife sent him after he left her, which he asks to be displayed lit —’the batteries can be replaced’—it reminds him of a heart beating, she took her own life a year after they parted; soft toys, wedding dresses; money to use ‘next time’, but there was no next time; socks, scarfs, burnt CD’s, an ax, coats; a garter ‘perhaps it wouldn’t have ended if I‘d worn it’. The relationships were months or decades.

People are sometimes frightened animals. Somehow, the stories animated the objects, especially the forlorn, cheap polyester ones. Some people thought they’d wasted their time, some maybe rather the heartbreak than nothing. Life isn’t anything to plan out, and somehow if it happens, in this cast off way, then there’s nothing better. The museum made me feel like the students in Galway Kinnell’s poem ‘The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students’, ‘that urge toward more life’.

After that I met a couple from A—, went to the Gallery of Naive Art. I went to the memorial of the bombing of Zagreb, and walked back. It was raining and I’d had enough.


Flower girl


Rosehips (Photo credit: Janellie)

On the train to C—. It was raining back there. It’s an old train, you can open the windows, and long, all the seats are in compartments. There are three other women in mine. Glad they joined me. Another girl and I just got texts to say Welcome to C—.

Otherwise, we’re in the middle of the forest. Actually at first. The banks are overgrown with creepers and it’s getting dark. In a way, I’m about to go off the map. Just before was a big lake with reeds, pale, hazy.

In Poland, there seems to be a love of flowers and bouquets. Maybe it’s seasonal, to do with autumn, but a particularly ubiquitous bouquet was round, decorated with conifer, autumn leaves (?) and harvest motifs, like miniature pears, peanut shells, autumn berries. Some vendors had only a few bunches to sell on the sidewalk.

It seemed common to sell a few little things on the sidewalk: some people were selling pitifully few things; an old woman with not much more than a handful of black walnuts in a shoe box at her feet, and a spray of rosehips (?) in her fist. Are they poor, or is it a recreation? Surely they must be so poor that they have opted to be there trading.

We’ve come to a station and the border police are walking through the train, one’s on the platform, hands in his pockets, scrutinising the train window ahead of him. Success.

Pema says in When things fall apart: In the middle way, there is no reference point. The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp…Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humour at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment. No resolution.

I’m reading ‘The Stupidest Angel’, which is entertaining. We’re still at the station and people are getting chatty with the waiting, going compartment to compartment and rustling food wrappers. Do I want to go back to my job?

I’m listening to Kate Miller-Heidke on my computer, and the train is reversing. Fast. Either we’re shunting or going back to Budapest.


Cold comfort

English: Waszyngton Av, autumn, Krakow, Poland...

Waszyngton Av, autumn: Aleja Waszyngtona, jesień, Kraków (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I walk through the old town, go to the hostel to get my bag, and go. Autumn has passed through, is passing through the countryside. The landscape is hazy, with smoke or vapour. The haze softens the valleys, the trees turned orange and brown, the apples still caught up on the bare branches of apple trees.

Yesterday was Sunday, the same haziness and stillness. A wan day. I bought ten vintage postcards at a flea market, all written on, 1960s to 80s: vistas of Poland, wildernesses, coast, people running into snow. The man who sold them had shoeboxes full. At one of the galleries in Vienna, an artist, Klimt perhaps, had postcards to his lover on display. Most were just short, scrawled linesI’ve arrived, an impression. Once that was how you told somebody that you were fine.

Later, I walked through a woodland park, drank tea in a cafe, and finally, walked back to the hostel. The paleness and stillness does something to time: time seems either less or more than what it is, like past and present overlapping in the immediacy of the day. Defeated, flooded, silent.

A few weeks ago Gretchen’s Happiness Project emailed a quote about walking: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it (Kierkegaard, letter, 1847). Which isn’t quite how I want it to be in my memory.

In mode of a scrapbook, I finished the novel The Life of Pi a few weeks ago. The final idea haunted me for a while; the story of the boy and the animals in the lifeboat, or, the story of the boy and the mother and the crew and a cannibal in the lifeboat: which one do you prefer. I had an idea, but it’s in my notebook, which is in my locker. I think it was something like, the world is the world whether God exists or not, but it’s enriching to believe that He does (according to the narrator).

Once in a gift shop I read a quote ‘there are no mistakes’. Pema says The path is the goal. And somewhere, Be yourself.

One of the museums was a house set up as a traditional family home, all cluttered with furniture and objects. The card read horror vacui (fear of the void), typical accumulation of works of art, brick-a-brac, and artistic artifacts, which can still be seen in contemporary K— houses (paraphrased).

A common mode for windows is a spacious windowsill, on which sits one or more pot plant, and a lace curtain falls flat and opaque to conceal the room.



The Kiss 1907–1908. Oil on canvas. Österreichi...

The Kiss 1907–1908. Oil on canvas. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now we’re in a pension on the third floor, an old apartment with a little room just for a day bed, and a painting on the wall of a mother with flowers in her hair and a child, the mother with a peaceful but serious expression, fierce; a miniature entranceway with different sized wooden cupboards built into the wall beneath the window, and two doors leading to a long bathroom and a kitchen we don’t have access to. We ate in a traditional restaurant that exuded the ambiance of decades: high wood-paneled walls, high windows, plain rectangular tables in lines.

We had the morning in U—, breakfast, and lunch in V—. The landscape between the towns was white stone river beds, very wide, with small channels of ice-blue water, and trees, some on the turn to autumn. But arid, dry and delicate. Into Austria, it’s greener, but there’s the singularity of conifer forests, and in the valleys, crops, tractors going gamely up the fields with their rotors spinning, and everywhere green, clean and neat, covered by green.

In When things fall apart, Pema calls a perfection a death. She says ‘Abandon Hope’. Hopelessness and confidence go together. She talks about the wound beneath the armour. She also writes about seeing what you see and hearing what you hear, for itself, without meaning.

On Tuesday, we went to the Secession temple and saw Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, which seemed to say that the suffering of the world, chaos and filled space, is redeemed by the poet, the kiss and the choir of angels. His paintings show humans embedded in tessellated patterns of their clothes, the background, smocks of gold. That night we went to the free, late night opening of MAK, and poked around the galleries with art school students. The most interesting thing to me is that each gallery is curated, or arranged, by an artist.

This morning we had the breakfast at the pension, went to the Freud museum and a gallery that had a large collection of Shiele’s art, who lived to 28 and whose paintings of humans are grounded in sexuality, underbrushed, grotesque knuckles.



English: Bridge over the River Aray from Inver...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The morning was extremely charming, sunny and bright. I charity shop hopped, then walked along the river upstream, through trees. Fly fishers were up to their thighs in waders on the other side, casting around like cowboys. Maybe it was the sun and temperature, but the day had a kind of fluid easiness. Sat on a bank and watched a man help a woman on crutches to the water’s edge, where they both skimmed stones.

Fom the corner of my eye, in the middle of the river away from all the fishermen and stones, I caught sight of a solid shape lift out of the water, and a splashing sound. Maybe it was a fish, but I had a feeling it was Nessie.

Ate lunch at an all you can eat Chinese buffet, which was a disappointment. Afterwards I bought wool and needles from a charity shop by the river, and then walked downstream along the river. It had started raining and the bank was covered with at least a metre of clear water, the grasses and dandelions waving in the water. Took advantage of Tesco’s refrigerator sale shelf, bought a punnet each of blackberries and apricots. Sat in the hostel lounge for the whole evening. Knitted some lines, almost addictive, and not pleasant, maddening.

I stayed in a small, quiet town for four nights. One dispiriting day, I took myself to a castle, read every card, looked at every photograph, toured the garden, fingered the dry tassel flower pods, and hauled myself through a deserted pine forest, up a hill to an old fort and a lookout over the loch. At the top, which was grassy and open, a Scotsman in a t-shirt came up out of nowhere, and told me he wants his ashes scattered at that site. Somehow that day made a difference. It’s true that calm comes from somewhere else, sitting tight.

On the highway, in the fractured, middle-of-the-night bus, I remembered a passage in the book my friend’s father had pushed into my hands ‘it is rain that ruins and again it is the rain that lifts the ruined to gain’. Which had a certain ring to it, but at that point on the bus,  I thought I understood what it meant. It is something about water at the bottom of the well.

Now, after talking to a man for four hours or so on a bus, being in a hostel, seeing the city with a girl I met, another bus, a day in Paris, a night train, mountains to the left in the morning. I’m in Venice, veined through with salt water, or I think it’s salt because there’s seaweed growing on the dock steps. And the streets have such a silence without the sounds of land motors, air conditioning machines.

In London we went into a travel bookshop whilst it was raining, and one of the chapter headings was ‘Lose your mind’.