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).

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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.

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Flower girl

Rosehips

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.

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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.

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Art

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.

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Rain

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’.

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Groundlessness, islands

Blackberries.

Blackberries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week I took a ferry to the island, a pitching, horrible journey, in which the horizon waved wildly, and I almost vomited over a rail. The island is serene, wind-swept so everything is low, the houses are exposed, the stone walls, castle, unsoftened by trees, except fuchsias and stunted willows. The islanders weave island willow, allowed to grow back from rootstock on abandoned plots, into baskets and craft. They sell seaweed. The boat bottoms are tarred. Little parcels of land are divided up all over by the dry-stone walls. A lady said that to avoid seasickness, you should find a spot on the horizon and keep staring at it, it tricks your brain, or reassures your brain, and indeed, you don’t get sick.

Went to sit in a bar and listen to music. The musicians sat around a table, had a drink, had a chat, played, one of them could have been eating nuts. A man bought me half pints of Guinness.

The next day I walked along the main road, and then in a loop through farmland, along narrow sealed roads, beside blackberries practically  black on their creepers. I grew up learning that you shouldn’t eat wild blackberries because they might have been sprayed, but I ate them anyway. I think they remove them manually, anyway.

An article I’ve been reading describes ‘the finer things in life’ as ‘intimacy, trusting others, and being relied upon’.

Strolled to charity shop to make a donation, spent afternoon scouring bookshops for the perfect book, settled finally on the happily titled When things fall apart. Sat in the shade of the Remembrance Park, a pond in the sunken cross. A man called out to me at the traffic lights Excuse me! Excuse me! And came over to me: Excuse me, are you a Hare Krishna? No. Jesus! You look like a Hare Krishna, he said accusatorially, and hurried off. I surveyed my knee-length mustard skirt (slit up the back!), grey shawl wrapped around my shoulders over baggy grey top, yellow ashram shoulder bag, black stockings, tan open-toed sandals, disheveled hair. It seemed plausible.

This has no relevance. When I was doing an induction session to volunteer with a charity, the leader said that you cannot help everyone all the time. She described a woman in the floods whose house was above the water line. From her porch she noticed a man in the flood water clinging to a structure across the way. She must have waved, and he must have waved back, but was well out of reach. When it got dark, she lit a candle on her porch, and stayed up sitting there, and from time to time he would ignite a cigarette lighter and she would know he was still there. But at some point, she stopped seeing his light, and when the sun came up she could see that he’d gone. Maybe he’d let go and floated to safety. She didn’t and couldn’t know. So she went into her kitchen and made herself breakfast and sat down to eat. This is how to help people.

I’m aware now that I have only a few months left of travel, probably,

Now I’m in S—, on the prettiest train route in the world, except it’s twilight. Green is folded into green that’s almost black with sundown. The further hills are a pastely grey. The sky is grey, the clouds are wads of grey. The train has just detached, cleaved two carriages to one place, and two to another.

In When things fall apart, Pema writes: This is where tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realise that we are on the verge of something. We might realise that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality….Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing… When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what‘s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know… Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad, we call it good. But really we just don’t know.

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All the clouds

Lagos

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

13.

Rain on the way to B. The field was open. I caught up with the C and he said last time taught him to stop constantly wondering how others see him. Along the highway two Spanish men were whooping at the trucks to get them to honk. The Spanish guys gave me some of their wine.

14.

I couldn’t walk properly. The day was cloudy, dry, patches of morning sun illuminating certain hillsides. Yesterday A said he expected me to join with the other Australians. Already there were more trees and we climbed through a wood the leaves hadn’t come back to yet, then pine forest. I walked until I could only feel my hip joints swinging my feet, pieces of meat. Talked to G. Tortilla and cheese in old bread. Read.

15.

Started walking, a little cloudy. Had a sweet pastry. The way went up a rocky hill, beside a military base, snares of barbed wire. I caught up and walked with A. He was wondering why people binge drink. We had a sandwich in the doorway of an abandoned shed, picnic style, his ‘best lunch’ yet. We walked into town. I showered and read, went for a walk. Ate potato chips and a pear on a bench before the cathedral and thought, I am free. A teacher came and sat beside me, I had fun practicing my Spanish, but some of the young people came by and I couldn’t leave him. We had a sandwich and he showed me the supermarket. I can see openness just at my fingertips like the opening of the sea, a flower of foam, petals.

Bus to Madrid. Sunny and warm when I arrived. Spent several hours in McDonalds, made for bus station, bought ticket. I felt like nothing would ever come to any good. We’d never agree, no good, flesh of stone.

*

Something about stories. A story is like a railroad, one set of rails from beginning to end-the written words, one after another, page after page. A story has strand upon strand if it is a rope.

Breakfast with my tray at my table, a walk along the crumbling cliffs. An hour on the sofa reading while my washing cycled through. Some more reading by the canal deciding it wouldn’t rain much more, a walk through the marina, abandoned-looking, the sun and shade beach, and eating dinner. I met some Portuguese in the kitchen who said their country had been in crisis for as long as they remember, and they’d read somewhere that Australians were the happiest people in the world. I said they should be. Had dinner while reading The Tiger’s Wife. Talked to my roommate about travel, her experiences of communism.

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I will go back

English: Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point o...

The westernmost point of mainland Europe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was on the bus around winding Portuguese hill roads, beside a rail with a cart taking cut branches, beside terracotta roofs, and in a kind of desperation finding myself very tedious company. I wondered, if I knew I would return home just the same as I left, would it still be worth it. Yes, I realised. Each day would have no value but the place, the time. I could just be on a bus in Portugal on the other side of the world, and that could be enough.

As the road wound around itself, I realised I’m still the same person as I was when I went traveling at 21, and used to find light simply by realising the fact that I was on the other side of the world. There are lines in the Jack Johnson song Same Girl, I know you’re still my same girl / Who builds her own frames / For the pictures that she paints / The lights of Monterey / Come in across the bay / Right back to my same girl. I talked to my parents on Skype and something I take for granted is not something my parents ever demonstrate, and maybe not something I once believed. But everything I was and am is here.

I read a quote, A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it, George Moore. It’s not just home that I get sick for, it’s the sense that home contains everything, after all. The train passed apartment blocks with lines of household laundry strung below the windows.

The wind was around the cliffs, hazy. I’m organising a trip to a wedding of a friend I knew from university, from a time I often think of as most dynamic, and the prospect of a reunion is like a door.

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Grain and stones

Wind turbines

Wind turbines (Photo credit: madmack66)

3.

We passed the village, farms, a cow yard, streams. Sat down at a cross ways for bread and cheese. Kept walking, the scenery less dense than yesterday, less under-story, more low and stony. Stopped or paused, still standing, my feet sore and swollen. Sat down near a food van, saw D— and we talked about blisters with some other walkers. She said the way symbolises at different points different things, like death and rebirth. She said My dogs are barking, which means My feet hurt. I said my dogs are barking too. I ate sardines and cheese with bread and an apple in the hostel kitchen. But when I was tending my blisters on a bench the Australian lady came and talked to me, and said she knows how I feel. I lay on my bunk and thought about things and decided I shouldn’t have done it, but anyway I did.

4.

I didn’t want to but at 6 am I got up and got ready, and started walking. I walked with B— from B—, who has self-published a book. I walked pretty quickly with him, through farmland and denser woodland. I took a lower route and was drained and wan by P—. The last part was through lush, green verges, wild roses and decrepit, mouldering farm buildings, in the rain. My feet felt bound, swollen. I hobbled into town with two C— ladies, who are gung-ho and give me guidance. Washed my clothes and sat on my bunk. Hobbled out in my thongs to buy poles, stamps, baked beans, bread and fruit. A man who gave me directions gave me a tour in Spanish of the architecture. Had dinner alongside the C— ladies. Stretched for a few minutes before the radiator.

5.

At the first hill I needed the bathroom so went to a local bar that smelt of cigarette smoke and bought a coffee. Ahead were wind turbines along a ridge. The path went through canola and grain fields, the grasses rippled with wind. I had lunch in the grass and walked down the hill, which was very stony. I walked with a C— guy who said you can double knot your shoe laces and do them up to the top. There was another two towns, sleepy. I sat on a bench that looked over a valley to a church on a ridgeline and thought I don’t have to know what happens next. Two Spanish speaking men came along. One said Tired?! to me. I said Yes. He said We are too. In town two mares had foals by their side. I asked a K— guy where he was staying and a guy told us about a 5 euro hostel.

6.

The scenery was grape vines and olive trees. A quietly spoken, considered Australian came and walked with me. Stopped at a church, the brochure describes the building as plain but beautiful. The lady attending the stamp kindly and shakily lettered the dates on both stamps I have had today, though she’d only made the one. I followed a Dutch lady to a hermitage, through an olive grove. Inside was bare aside from a stone altar and ledges piled with letters and stones. A funeral program for a boy child had written at the top something like Wish you could be here, Nana and Pop. The lady said There seem to be a lot of goodbyes. I got the second last bed at the parish hostel, staffed by two volunteer C—s. Went to the library for hours to plan my trip. The C— ladies were extremely sweet and polite with one another and guests. As I prepared my snack one of them interestedly exclaimed Oh, I never thought of putting sardines in my bocadillo before!

Right now I’m on hiatus in P— where I have all the day before me. Yesterday I walked down to the harbour, light and dry and warm.

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