Friday, August 27, 2010
Sunday, June 13, 2010
I am sitting in the "Finnegan's Wake" reading group at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich. It is winter and snow lightly dusts the window sills and the interstices between the cobblestones outside. Inside, a quiet battle is going on. Fritz Senn, James Joyce scholar and critic, founder of the foundation and a Gold medal recipient this year from the Canton of Zurich (something akin to being knighted) sits before the open window, white hair framing keen blue eyes, a half-smile upon his face. He is the best of English professors, allowing ideas to pop and bubble, inserting new sparks here and there. He is engaged in a subtle battle with the young man in a wool hat and scarf next to him, who quietly gets up each time Fritz opens the window, quietly closes it and tiptoes back to his seat.
The funny thing about this whole scene is, I don't even like James Joyce. I find his writing difficult and pretentious-- a written form of modern art that you must study and consult experts to make any sense of. But I have been curious, too, why his books are widely considered the best of any written in the English language, but have never failed to grip me. So I am here, listening and learning, caught up in the good-natured banter of the group as they ply their way through the prose.
I last came here in the fall, before the snow and cold began. I was lost, again, in the twisting narrow streets of the old town. The seven o'clock church bells were ringing and I was pedalling my bike madly, bumping up and down over the cobblestones with my hair flying in every direction, dodging tourists, trying to get to the building before the bells finished their announcement of time. I came around the corner, and there was the James Joyce Foundation! I jumped off my bike while it was still moving, crammed it into the vines along the side of the building and ran to the door and pushed. There was no give, and I knew that I had gotten there too late. Suddenly, the door swung open, and there was Fritz Senn, smiling and ushering me in.
Tonight, winter is here, drifting in to the book-filled room from the open window (score: Fritz 3, young man 2), and I realize I am serenely happy. I glance down at my book and the bookmark which says, "You were here." I was here, reading James Joyce with a motley group of intellectuals: a neurologist, a widow, several English professors, a professional musician, a traveller, a teacher, on the top floor of an old building in Zurich, Switzerland, with the chimes of the church bells ringing softly through the open window, and a paperback "Finnegan's Wake" held lightly in my hands. How strange and fine this life is.
She is in the bathroom humming. Her dad used to hum when he was happy-- a gay tuneless melody.
But she hums Beethoven. Why does she have to be so wonderful today? It would be so much easier if
she were spitting vitriol and telling you that you're wrong about something. You take her to
the airport and watch her go through the security gates.
You are weeping so you hide behind a pole so that she doesn't see you. You come out of the train
station and decide to walk the rest of the way back. The day is spectacularly beautiful.
Low clouds hover over the mountains, the sky is a cloudless bright blue, and a cool gentle
breeze blows through the streets. You get home, take off your clothes and get in bed. Sleep for
at least 3 hours. Wake up, read the saddest of books, something about children, Jews and World War II.
You know that only Neruda and your mother can possibly understand how you feel.
Weep a little more for what you did to her (leaving, as your child is now leaving you).
Make soup. The soup should involve lots of chopping. And lots of stirring. Minestrone is a good choice.
Cook it for a while and turn off the stove. Climb back in bed. Get up and eat the soup. If it tastes
good, eat some more. Go back to bed. Wake up at 4:30 a.m. and call to see that she
made it back to Colorado okay. Put away the soup you left on the counter. Go to bed and finally rest.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Eastern European princesses (like us) arrive at the Budapest airport an hour after leaving Zurich. The airport is clean and efficient, and in a matter of minutes, they have their bags, are through customs and have round-trip shuttle van tickets into the city. They arrive at the 5-star hotel they've booked online. The lobby is arched ceilings and marble and chandeliers and porters dressed in crisp suits, all for $100 a night, booked online. They go to their room. The bathroon is filled with marble, brightly polished, and there are white robes hanging on the door, which can be used for the spa later or to go down for a dip in the Roman-style pool. Wait, what's that smell, it smells sort of like stinky man smell, and it pervades the curtains, the carpet, the beds and the chairs. Eastern European princesses open the windows and go out for a walk. They stroll through the city in their finest capri pants and American sandals (why does everyone in Europe stare at my sandals?). They stroll through narrow streets painted with graffiti and riddled with bullet holes. There are shop windows with goods, but the most prominent signs are for Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, all of which seem to be doing a good business. Eastern European princesses sneer and return to the room for room service. The smell still lingers, but when the food arrives, they forget about everything except the feast before them. They've ordered tall, cold beers, an avocado appetizer, a risotto dish and crème brûlée, all of which are excellent. Their bellies full, Eastern European princesses put extra blankets on top of their sagging beds and fall asleep. In the morning they buy subway tickets and journey down into the metro stations with lovely names like "Vörösmarty tér ," which bely the trash blowing around in the streets above them. The princesses travel toward the river, buy hats and a nice vegetable crepe in a small cafe where the waiter chides them for drinking small beers and smiles as he delivers a check "for the lovely ladies." Eastern European princesses visit the marzipan museum and stand next to a life-sized marzipan model of Queen Elizabeth. Then they travel back to their 5-star hotel, where one of the princesses enjoys a swim in the pool. On their final day in the city, Eastern European princesses go to a restaurant advertised to serve traditional Hungarian food, vegetarian dishes, and fine Hungarian wines. They arrive at 6:00 and the waiters and owner are smoking outside. They gaze at the princesses, who ask if they are too early for dinner. The waiters and owner shrug in unison, and the owner guides them down into the empty restaurant. "This...is a very special place," states the waiter, a middle-aged man, dressed impeccably, with neatly trimmed hair and spectacles. The owner passes by and sneers at the princesses. Can he possibly know that they are wearing clothes that they have worn for two days, bought at H&M for $10? (Or is it my shoes? Why does everyone hate my shoes???) Despite the sneers, it is indeed a special place. The princesses are served an appetizer of various types of pickles and fresh bread. They are given a glass of Hungarian white and red wines, which are indeed quite fine. The main dish of aubergine is nicely done with a light cream sauce. The gypsy musicians arrive at 7:00 and begin to play for their special audience. The younger gypsy pulls sweet and heart-rending notes from his violin, while the elder musician plays an open piano by banging directly on the strings with hammers. The Eastern European princesses swoon a little, their eyes tearing up a bit, climb the stairs out of the cellar, into the night air, and walk back to their still-stinky room.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Ah, after two weeks of struggling against Swiss German, to be able to converse at least briefly, to understand even a few words, was bliss. The conductor and I shared a French moment, then Emily and I ran toward the back of the train.
We arrived in Chamonix, and treated ourselves to French-Alpine pizza (actually very good, thin crust with just the right amount of cheese and sauce), wine and fondue. The waiters sneered at our mediocre French, much better just to speak English here. We took the tram to Mount Brevent and the train to “La Mer de Glace” (a giant glacier sliding down the mountain, with a gondola that takes you to the cave carved in ice). And everywhere, French. But not the French I dreamed of in my earlier, romantic visions. But loud French. Constant French. French children climbing half out the windows of trains and French parents talking to their children, even when the words were meaningless (“lalala, lalala”). And the frightening crosswalks, where French drivers dared us to try to cross.
On the train ride back over the mountains, I surprised myself when I realized I was longing for Switzerland. Ah, the quiet tram rides to work. The drivers that screech to a halt when you enter the crosswalk. Maybe I am getting old. Maybe I no longer crave the passion, the non-stop days of conversation and activity. A bit of Swiss gentility, rules and quiet sound...just so nice.