travel

Budapest Greetings!

The past few days, I took a short trip to Budapest. It was rainy and dark skies the entire time, but still a fantastic city, where I hope to return soon for a longer spot of adventure. We were drenched at Heroes’ Square, we were soaked at the Széchenyi baths (well, I suppose one is always a bit damp there), and adequately moist hiking up Gellért Hill to The Citadella. So, I leave you with this photo taken from the top overlooking Pest. More bookish things to come, I swear! I’m now suitably tired in my apartment in Berlin where the sky is also a foggy grey, which doesn’t help how entirely shattered I feel. But, for now, here is my little postcard from Budapest, which you can click to enlarge.

budapest 3

 

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Thomas Bernhard on Literature & the Viennese Coffee Haus Disease

As I type this, I sit in my friend’s Wohnung in Vienna. I arrived last night, later than expected as all flights in Berlin were delayed due to a supposed bomb threat according to our pilot, and when I arrived in Austria, it was dark and drizzling. I have been to Vienna once before for just over a week. Perhaps, the great gods of Viennese arts and thought will strike me down as I take my sip of coffee, but I found the city–albeit, beautiful–a bit dull. The buildings are grand and opulent; sometimes I think of structures carved from marzipan by master bakers. I am here for three weeks and a pit grows in my stomach as I try to consider how this city will be more appealing for this longer stay.

Thomas Bernhard, 1957

Like all semi-tech savvy 21st century citizens, when recommendations failed from my friends, I went straight to the internet. There are certainly a few sites and top 10 lists, but they often suggest the same handful of Schlösser, other palatial estates, and museums. I’ve found some sites that are well-kept by engaging locals, which I am more than grateful for, but the trend is to point people of the non-castle trekking variety* to coffeehouses (Kaffeehäuser). Coffeehouses are completely part of Vienna. You have a coffee and a cake (actually, with all of my complaining, this is one of my favorite things to indulge in while in German-speaking countries; I can wax on endlessly about my favorite: pflaumenkuchen.)

I should be more grateful, as I am in the city for a literary grant, but in my curmudgeonry, I thought to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a 20th century Austrian writer who often poked satirical fun at what he thought were the tired and stupid ways of Austrians. His works caused scandals. A favorite of mine is Woodcutters (original title: Holzfällen), where the narrator cleverly mocks a group of dinner guests all the while sitting in a wing chair.

As I sidetracked from my original mission to find something interesting in Vienna, I did a quick internet search of Thomas Bernhard and if he had specific thoughts on the city. I immediately found an excerpt from an autobiographical work called Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The short bit is a humorous reflection that Bernhard has about his relationship to Viennese coffeehouses and what he calls the Viennese coffeehouse disease. It’s a quick read, for sure, but here are a few favorites:

On other literary-inclined coffee house patrons,

These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house — not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant[.]

On German and Austrian newspapers (compared to English and French),

From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets — to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper?

On Viennese coffee houses and himself,

The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind.

So there you have it. My Viennese dilemma. If you haven’t read Thomas Bernhard, you certainly should start right away. I think many of his books have been reissued in recent years in English translation. Has anyone else visited this beautiful yet dull city? Perhaps you are like my friend who has lived here for many years and compares it and its people to a mausoleum.

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* I love castles, but I think I have seen so many on my previous trip to Vienna, there is no reason for me to go out of my way to see one. If I happen to stumble upon one, I shall look at it, thinks it’s beautiful, and continue walking on (probably to a coffeehouse to have a cake).

Friday Picture Book

I planned a book review and everything for today, but it’s just not happening. So, in honor of yesterday’s post about images and visual art, I’m putting up a few of my own photos for enjoyment, criticism, and ignoring. If you are in the mood for other blog photo cruising, may I suggest: Doublewhirler, Helen McClory @Schietree, photo of the day @National Geographic, and Stuck in Customs. If you have any tips on other blogs of the photog variety, please leave them in the comments section.

Shooting on the Sonnenallee

With only a couple of days left in Berlin, a friend and I turned the corner from the Sonnenallee in the Turkish populated neighborhood of Neukölln in search of late-night grub. It was here, while we were chatting away, that a man walked out from behind a car, stood next to us, and shot another man behind us several times in the chest (along with parked cars and building walls). My friend did not see the shooter clearly, but I did because I was turned to her and I watched as the handgun lined up with the height of her head.

I bring all of this up, because as I made a hot lemon yesterday to sooth my dry throat, I thought back to that night over a year ago. It’s a night that I’ve wanted to adapt into a short story for ages. But when I sit down to my computer, nothing beyond the words on the Sonnenallee are typed on the screen. I do not know what the form will take or if I’m not thinking about it from a removed enough place. For weeks following, I thought about how the man twisted around the car and found himself next to us. I did that thing you’re not supposed to do where you ruminate: what if I hadn’t left my gloves at home and we didn’t stop at the corner store so I could buy a pair of cheap ones, what if we went the other direction to get soup instead of making that turn to get pizza, what if that man had fired his shots earlier for the split second the muzzle was directed at us.

But back to hot lemon…it was what I drank immediately following the shooting. The polizei came quite quickly and my friend and I were told to wait in the bar at the corner. We weren’t allowed to order any alcohol. Besides water, all that was left was hot lemon and no one should drink water after something like this. Hot lemon is as close as we were allowed to get to comfort. We both drank them with plenty of honey and that was when I revealed my embarrassment. I had a bicycle with me that I pushed while we walked together. When we saw the shots and ran, I still pushed it until finally I hurled it aside as we looked for a corner to duck into. Also, being used to living in New York City where many films and TV shows are made, more than once I’ve seen warnings of ‘the sound of gunshots heard between 11pm-1am are for the filming of a television scene.’ Before we started running, I kept thinking: “where are the film cameras? where are the signs?”

a photo I took of a favorite part of the East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall.

We spoke to the police at headquarters for hours. I had to lockup the borrowed bicycle on the same side street where the man was shot because it wouldn’t fit in the police car. My friend and I were there for hours; we were given two Mars bars and interviewed separately. I looked at mugshots. Nothing of them matched.

Any time I make a hot lemon, I think back onto this horrorshow. For months, I felt embarrassment and stress any time I squeezed the lemons in to a mug, scooping out stray seeds before adding the hot water. My anxiety shot up into my throat as the memory played on loop.

When it comes to literature and other arts, I am always fascinated by the way characters remember or misremember things. Of course, that man’s face is etched in my memory but it has faded. I’m not quite sure of the color of his clothes anymore but I remember the matte black of his handgun. When interviewed by the police, they told me my friend had said she first became aware that something was wrong was when I yelled oh, shit! I don’t remember this. I’m curious to know if I remembered it at the moment. This oh, shit! hangs alone as if it’s something that is not part of me or as someone else’s memory trying to make room in my own.

More recent literature like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending explore traumatizing and complicated events from the perspective of older narrators. Their perceptions and agendas have changed in their present view. Things are more obvious and details have been conflated or understood.

I know I’ve rambled on for far too long, but bear with me. I’m sipping the remaining drops of my hot lemon now as I type and think more about this story that still hasn’t been written. I’ve written short stories about other past travel experiences (both fun and horrible–traversing the Swiss Alps on a Moto Guzzi vs. days after leaving Berlin for London, my only remaining pair of pants caught on fire). This one, however, is far more complicated. When I do try to write something, it comes out cold and police blotter-esque (just the facts, ma’am). Instead of writing, I find myself sitting and remembering the images and feelings on a loop.

I can’t help but think about Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove,” which is divided by testimonies and confessions of the various witnesses and participants of a samurai’s killing. I feel most akin with Akutagawa’s tale and perhaps, I should take a lesson from the structure of his story. There were many people on the Sonnenallee that night. I didn’t see anything that happened behind me, but there were surely people who did and conversely, they did not see the detailed and up-close description of the shooter like I had or where he walked out from behind a car (or was it a van?). Together, we could weave a complex, multi-point of view tale or on our own, each present a compelling, yet unreliable story. As a writer, I can usurp their points of view and craft them into something of my own making, choosing when to punch holes in the plot and when to present a view–whether skewed or reliable–of the focused action.

I do hope to write this story one day and perhaps, next time I try, I won’t stare blankly at my computer screen. From witnessing this bizarre and horrid event, I plan to piece together a story of remembering and misremembering. When I make my next hot lemon–or heiße Zitrone–I will for once think clearly or not…whichever leads me to where I need to go to write the story I want to get down on the page. I wonder if it will be something realist or if it will swim in a surreal space. I’m clamoring to find out.

post script

I never found out what happened to the man who was shot. The newspapers in Berlin were alarmingly quiet save for one short article  (my theory is that they don’t often report on immigrants’ concerns in Germany). In English, Sonnenallee translates as the Sun Alley, which seems bright in comparison to the dark night I was there. Also, in 1999 a German film was made called Sonnenallee, which from what I’ve read about it, falls prey to Ostalgie for the former DDR.

The Traveler’s Paperback

There was a fantastic article by Dominique Browning in the New York Times this week titled, Learning to Love Airport Lit. With personal anecdotes, Browning tells of her love for the airport paperbacks when travelling. She long gave up on literary giants like Ulysses or War and Peace. Instead, trading them in for novels by P.D. James or George R.R. Martin.

All I want now, from a good airplane book, is transport. A sense of propulsion. I want to feel the rush of plot against my cheek. I want to know where I am going, and why. I’m willing to trade transport for transportation.

This immediately peaked my interest.

1) I live in Manhattan, meaning, I do not own a car, thus, resulting in my utilization of public transportation (re: subway, bus). New Yorkers are hardcore public transit book readers. I mean, how else can we avoid eye contact with the crazy homeless person yelling at us about sandwiches.

2) But more on point with Ms. Browning’s article, I have some upcoming travelling to do. I HATE flying. I don’t even think hate is strong enough a word. If I’m not able to totally pass out into dreamland, I must be in a constant state of distraction and engrossment. I’m sorry Gravity’s Rainbow, you won’t be making the cut.

The article dissuades the reader from memoirs, self-help books, etc. and offers the advice: Don’t make the mistake of straying off the plot path. You need books with hefty runways and fast takeoffs. So, it looks like I will be stocking up on suspenseful crime dramas for my long-haul flight.

The article is accompanied by these useful suggestions.

[click on the image to enlarge]