Once again, Jack Bauer has managed to jeopardize the efficiency of this blog. I would have posted something about the last five weeks earlier if I hadn’t spent the last two days watching 18 straight episodes from season two of 24. Here’s something I have learned and would like to impart to my readers as a precautionary note: A computer chip is a completely fallible device for storing information. Think about it. A computer chip is small and you need a computer to access the information written on it. If you ever needed to transport that chip from a location without a computer to a location with a computer, while a bunch of ruthless, expertly-trained government rogues working outside not only protocol but the bounds of human morality is on your trail, the tiny thing is too weak and powerless to make the journey. Unless that chip has wings or can grow a pair, what we need is to find a way to memorize extensive sets of data, because a brain, being inside a skull, is safer than a chip in a cheap plastic case. Of course, that’s only true if you’re Jack Bauer, whose skull could withstand any blow that would knock me right dead.
Which reminds me of my recent trip of a lifetime because of (insert tenuous connection). I started by traveling with a group tour arranged by my European Culture & History program at DIS. Surrounded by friends, I traveled first to Berlin and then to Prague for week one. We were kept relatively sheltered by the tour itinerary, but were treated like royalty with special access to amazing sites and three-course lunches. We ate at the top of the Reichstag in a glass restaurant and I made my perpetual mistake of filling up on the complimentary bread. The bathroom speakers played sounds from the rainforest. The owl was not very subtle.
My group left me in Prague where I stayed with Kathleen for six more days. Spring weather emerged for those days and when I wasn’t watching Sex & the City in pajamas with my gracious host, I did a lot of walking around on my own. My favorite day was spent across the river at the Kampa museum where I walked around slowly and wrote down the titles of every piece in the museum for no real reason at all. As I was moving up the stairs to the roof I passed by a man on his way down. Our eyes met accidentally. I kept ascending the staircase but he stood where he was, looking up. The steps curved and as I doubled back above him, catching him again through the gaps in the steps below me, I wondered if he was looking up my skirt. I pressed my knees together and put my pen and pad in my purse to free my hands.
On the side of a big hill overlooking Prague I fell asleep one day. I had plans in my mind to order a fabled pastry for myself, a cream-filled swan. A swarm of Brown kids had descended on Prague for an early spring break and we had spent the day looking at the Lesser Quarter through the narrow apertures of our cameras. I was tired, so I traded the swan for a few moments of listening to organ music and falling asleep in that holy precinct.
Another day I sat in the indoor balcony of the Globe bookstore and café, drinking peppermint tea and eating honey from a spoon, delaying writing postcards. On the back of one of them there was a piece of famous correspondence announcing an important artist and an important work: "I bought it at an auction for only 500 francs, but this painter is your compatriot and some day he will be very famous." I liked the way the 500 looked next to francs. There was an extra space between the two, a typing error. I also liked the word compatriot. That night I went to see a film with Jeff that was part of the Prague film festival. It was Italian, called “Cover Boy…Last Revolution”, about some mess of friendship, male bonding, exile, alienation and perfect faces.
Kathleen took me to a bookstore where I bought a copy of The Waves with a blank cover. It’s called the “Books by the greats, covers by you” series and I think it’s stupid. Penguin says that we can design our own covers and submit them to their website. I’ll think of something to put on the front of the book after I read it. Something equal parts beautiful and futile.
In Paris I stayed with Becca in Steven’s apartment overlooking the Luxembourg garden. From experience we learned that our tolerance for museum air caps off at one and a half hours, at which point we begin gasping for air and running for coat check. This same limit does not exist for stuffy bookstores like Shakespeare & Co. where I bought two Don Paterson books of poetry, an Italian phrasebook and Say it in…Danish. On the day when Becca and I ate sandwiches on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, I saw a couple napping side by side with their arms draped over their faces to block the sun. They were perfectly still except for the arrhythmic twitching of their loose articles of clothing in the wind. When you sleep outdoors, there are parts of you that are awake, like a napping coral reef.
At the top of the Eiffel Tower there is an enclosed observation room. Along the circumference of the room are the names of world cities with big numbers for the distance between you and that city. They’re spaced out so that when you stand in front of the name you are facing that city and that number comes to mean something, even if it’s in kilometers.
On my last day, Steven and I met Colin in the garden. Colin brought along a special pastry that looked like a sun. The top was a sort of crème caramel and the middle was filled with pears in syrup. After we grew tired of looking at the blue pigeons, we walked back to Colin’s apartment, stopping at a market to buy strawberries, which we dipped in sugar. When we couldn’t find milk at any of the stands, a woman told us in French that the cows had gone on strike. With jazz playing through the speakers in Colin’s sunny room, I cut his hair and rinsed off the scissors in the bathroom where he spilled potpourri earlier that morning.
When I was in Notre Dame I stopped for a few minutes to hear the liturgy of a weekend mass. I couldn’t understand anything, so I joined a stream of tourists headed to the back of the cathedral. They were all whispering about things to one another. You think no one can hear you, but in a room that big, you contribute to a murmur.
After a night of bubble bathing in the Teddington Suite of a hotel outside London-Heathrow, compliments of British Airways, I met Becca and Elizabeth, late, in the train station in Milan. We hopped on the next train to Florence. I was too sugarated to sleep so I watched the black power lines dance up and down out of the window. We stayed in a cozy hostel run by a pleasant old man. The streets of Florence were narrow and, given the sheer number of leather goods stands, begged the name “Aggressive Leather.” We climbed the campanile and had a picnic in the Boboli gardens. We drank 79-cent champagne with Alexandra and her friends who have an apartment across the city. I learned a new joke involving my whole hand and audience participation.
Venice was creepy. My impression of the city was informed both by Chasing Liberty and Death in Venice, whose setting was that of an infected city during an epidemic and the spiritual yearnings of an obsessed protagonist. I came expecting gondola rides and free stays at quaint inns. Mandy Moore didn’t have to pay 100 euros to ride a black gondola down the canal and there was no Tadzio to be found. Instead, we bought waterbus passes and commuted with the masses. Our bed and breakfast was conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, at a fake stop near the end of the #5 bus called Tessera. We were told to alert the bus driver to let us off across from a Fiat dealership. At no point during our stay did I see anyone drive out of that dealership a) with a new car, and b) alive. It was approaching nightfall when we got off. We turned down the corresponding road to our instructions and walked along the rock path beside it, staring at barbed wire fences for most of the way.
When we got to Villa del Sole, everything was pitch black except for the bright red and yellow of the hand-painted sign. We fiddled for a bit with the gate when all of a sudden floodlights came on and a figure appeared backlit in the distance, holding a barking dog. He approached and asked if we had reservations. When I told him my name, he simply said, “We were expecting you at 1.” I apologized and he let us in, saying that he had to turn away another group that had come by that day looking for a room. I wondered who would have the cunning to figure out where this place was. He showed us our rooms and helped us register, which turned into a 40-minute ordeal of miscommunication and awkward joking. He wrote down Elizabeth’s birthday and turned to her, smiling, “Cancer?” She said, “Excuse me?” “Cancer.” He read her birthday aloud. “Oh! Yes. I’m a Cancer. You too?” He said yes. “Do you have a soft, sensitive core and a hard outer shell?” she asked. He blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” His name was Francesco.
He gave us our keys and we went on our way, taking the same bus to the actual city of Venice. We searched for someplace to eat and settled for some pasta place with a completely illogical theme: Lord Brummel and the Dandy. I don’t think any of the waiters in the place had any clue of the connection between their establishment and the original Dandy, other than what the placemats say, but that wasn’t the only time we ate in some mixture of an “authentic Italian restaurant” and were assaulted with misplaced efforts at attracting tourists. On our last night in Venice we were roped in for a meal in a reasonable-looking restaurant, but the first bad sign was that the menu was available in any of five languages. The English one was a jumbled list of standard Italian fare, with some entries repeated and mysteriously highlighted in codeless colors. There was no map key to decipher the menu’s stipulations, signaled, we thought, by the many ^^^’s and ##’s that dotted the whole thing. After a while, we realized why the menu was so familiar. Given it’s tremendous length, it was instantly comparable to any American diner that has every kind of food on call for its customers. Our waiter in Venice kept responding to our questions with a more exasperated version of “Just order whatever you want and I will bring it!” Then spaghetti started to fall from the ceiling.
We spent a day island hopping around Murano and Lido. There was a lot of beautiful hand-blown glass and I got to see the setting for Death in Venice. We also went to Peggy Guggenheim’s small museum at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni where every piece mattered. I fell in love with her taste, from her starburst sunglasses to her shih tzus. There was a lovely sculpture garden outside the main exhibit building. Next to an ivy-draped wall was a long marble bench with a bad poem carved into it. I started reading it from end to beginning, but when I got to the left end, a woman was sitting on the first stanza. I stood in front of her and she looked at me before her face exploded in a grotesque yawn. At all times in Italy we were surrounded by throngs of people herding through the narrow streets like alien cattle. In contrast, within the walls of the museum several Giacomettis were on display, tall, deceptively lithe and boneless. In contrast, the David on display in the Academmia was the most beautiful man I have ever seen, marble or no. On the flight home I sat next to a man with a two-colored mustache.
That was everything and nothing. Becca joined me back in Copenhagen for a truly Danish weekend. We spent Saturday in Tivoli, paying money for machines to throw us around. That Sunday we went to a football game, rooting for FCK against Odense. We sat near the top of the stadium in a narrow row of seats. I’ve been feeling pretty bold lately. There were three attractive men sitting in the row in front and below us. I joked about how to get their attention, speculating what would happen if I dropped my flip-flop over the empty seat in front of me so that they would have to pick it up and return it me or I would have to climb down and retrieve it, either way striking up a conversation. I dangled my left foot over the seat, inching the green sandal off my foot by scrunching my toes. Eventually it fell off. Right at that moment, something dramatic happened on the field so that their heads turned in the opposite direction. The mission was completely unsuccessful, so I climbed over, picked the shoe up myself, and returned to my seat totally unnoticed. As a gesture it was doomed from the start, but as a departure it took a lot to do and by my measure, I went pretty far.