Monday, August 31, 2015

Cruising the Mediterranean. Part 5 - Pompeii


Pompeii or Life and Death Among the Ruins

Sitting at my favorite coffee shop, investigating one of my earliest memories of ruins, I learn through google that the Tinkstätte in Heidelberg, that is the name I had written on the back of the photo in 1951, is not a leftover from ancient times, but a Nazi era celebration site. Why had my teacher, Frau Sommer, taken us there on one of our school outings?
Did she tell us the truth about the amphitheatre? How is it possible that my love of ruins began at a place that Goebbels opened as propaganda venue? A place of Nazi blood and soil mysticism! A place I should despise, but instead honor as precious memory.

For many years I have traveled to, touched, and photographed ruins, old stone structures, walls, castles, fortresses, theatres, graves. When I hiked Hadrian's Wall Path in England I spent ten days, walking during the day, and thinking about what I had seen in the evenings. I connected, piece by piece, the stone wall parts and castles and garrisons while I discussed their history with other hikers brought together in common sleeping quarters in farm houses along the way. Hadrian's Wall was once the frontier against barbarians. It took fourteen years to build the wall and it is the largest structure built by the Romans. Not a whole lot of it is left, but walking next to the pieces felt electrifying.

On the other hand, I only spent an hour visiting the Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing, though its relics are spread across many provinces. It was a huffing and puffing steep ascent to the top, a quick look around, and a busy retreat back down for a group photo. I probably should not have any feelings for the Great Wall of China, but - as it happens sometimes with a short affair - its image lingers.

A totally different approach was my one month rental of a small house in the walled town of Dilsberg, Germany. I wanted to and did, explore the same ruin at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. Fully immersed into the history of the town but also totally aware of its present, I took daily walks to the castle, followed by a leisurely climb of its circular staircase, and a long panoramic look from the very top at the landscape, far and near. Through discussions, nods, and smiles I bonded with the overseer, who was also the ticket seller and chocolate bar dispenser. It was an unforgettable month.

There were, of course, many other ruins. I roamed WW II bunkers and other defense structures for a week in St Peterport on the island of Guernsey taking hundreds of photos. Over the years I revisited the castle in Heidelberg a few times. I had used to play hide and seek with friends in its woods while I was still a student, but never paid much attention to its history. In Marrakech I chatted with beak-clapping storks that built nests on top of the ruins of El Badi Palace. In Cairo I nodded to the sphinx while admiring the pyramids. I have come to think that modern Greeks whitewash their island ruins; it is difficult to find a structure that does not look bright and cheerful in the sunlight on Santorini and Mykonos. Corfu is an exception; between strong coffee and gelatto I found plenty of rusty pipes and old window shutters to delight me.

This time, on the last day of cruising the Mediterranean, I took a daylong group bus tour along the Amalfi coast. We left the Salerno harbor at eight in the morning, visited a farm where we learned about pressing olive oil, making mozzarella and limoncello. At lunch time I ate pizza in Sorrento before getting back on the bus for the last part of the journey - Pompeii. The afternoon was dedicated to Pompeii.

Pompeii hit me as a different kind of ruin. A somber one. Until now the ruins of castles and churches and fortresses and theatres I visited were the remains of official structures, the homes of kings, military institutions, religious or public gathering places. Many of them are the product of gradual deterioration. Hundreds of years of decay. When I entered them I often heard the echo of laughter, voices that cheered on athletes or saluted an emperor or prayed to gods.

Though I entered Pompeii with a large group of people and all the exhibits and rooms and individual sites were filled with and surrounded by tourists, I felt as if I was visiting a graveyard.

I didn't hear Pompeii laugh.

Pompeii, all of Pompeii, died in 79AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered it with tons of ash. What I saw was human agony and fear and panic, preserved by lack of air and moisture, for fifteen hundred years before its initial discovery. Eventually dug up and exposed to the merciless heat and bright light of the Mediterranean sun and a daily stream of curious visitors. Archeologists filled the cavities left by bodies with plaster, immortalizing the shape and position of the dying human or animal. Pottery, frescoes, graffiti, design and architecture give insight into the daily life of first century AD Roman families.

Looking back on that afternoon in Pompeii and comparing it with other ruins I am pulled back and forth between death and life. Thinking of an equally hot and crowded afternoon at Ephesus, Turkey, I smile. I had taken my teddy bear Tyana out of my backpack and photographed her sitting on a public toilet, under the statue of Nike, and in front of the library. I had followed the tourist guide's flag, had listened to his jokes and historical expertise, had walked for hours across uneven terrain, never tiring of all that I saw. Ephesus was a center of life. I imagined learned citizens standing between the shelves of the library, pondering philosophical questions, while artisans and craftsmen tended to their shops and women scooped small children into their arms.

My coffee has gotten cold; a breeze swirls through the palm fronds across the street; I am the only customer still sitting outdoors at the coffee shop, and my thoughts wander across marble, and limestone, across granite and sandstone and bricks.

Young people are celebrating the night of the witches at the Tinkstätte; a man's head is bent over a parchment at the Celsus library of Ephesus; a baby cries while ashes cover Pompeii; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe awaits his friend Kniep in the Taormina amphitheater. I am a small child in the Black Forest, waving good bye to the storks before they leave for Marrakech. And then, suddenly, I am 76, holding on to my cane, leaning against an olive tree in Pompeii, pondering death from heat stroke in the ruins.

I observe how images of life and death mingle, not tethered to opposing ends of linear time.
History records events in chronological order, but reality creates, destroys, rebuilds, adjusts, mixes, imagines on a much grander scale. Simultaneously.

With a bit of smugness I note that I did not die in the ruins of Pompeii. And I wonder if there are other ruins still waiting for me.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tyana J LittleString

Tyana has posed in front of the statue of Hans Sachs in Nürnberg, Germany and next to Hans Christian Andersen in Solvang, California. She has fallen off the castle wall in Dilsberg, Germany and has sledded in Truckee, USA. She has climbed the ruins of Ephesus, Greece and has entertained little girls in Jamaica. She has posed on top of the welcome sign in front of Emily Carr’s house in Victoria B.C. and has waved from the rocks of Abiquiu, New Mexico in search of Georgia O’Keeffe.

I have dragged my bear, Tyana J LittleString, over mountains and I have dragged her across restaurant tables.
A picture in front of the twisted tree. Click!
One more with the yummy plum cake. Click!
Sorry, a bit of snow in your face for effect. Click!
Wait! Let me stick the knitting needles into your back to make you stand up straight. Click!
Oops, glad she didn't fall into the river. So much wind here. Did I get her fall? Did I click?

But, it seems that Tyana has come to the end of her traveling days. I have to admit that I have become a bit short-tempered. Probably because I don't bend as easily as I used to at the beginning of my travels with Tyana. It takes patience to pose a bear. It takes space in the suitcase to bring along her outfits for each day. And, it takes energy that I now have to invest into placing the cane in the right position to allow me to maneuver on uneven ground. This last trip has shown me where my priorities have to be during travel. On stairs. On railings. On minimal luggage. I have to concentrate on making the right move.

I feel a little sad and every time I look at her I feel guilty. She has comforted me in the lonely, windswept hills along Hadrian's Wall. I remember the day it rained and I clutched her under my torn plastic raincoat. I remember putting on her nightgown and setting her on the bed that evening after we reached the end of the 83 mile hike. I think of some of the islands we have visited: Guernsey, Victoria BC, Corfu, Santorini, and now Mykonos, Malta, Sicily. The hop on hop off bus rides we have taken, the ships we have cruised on together. Busy cities we have walked. Prague. Berlin. Munich. Marseilles. The hundreds of photographs I have taken of her. On tables, benches, trees, rocks, bushes and snow piles. In high grasses, by lakes, under bridges, on castle stairs, and in front of museum entrances. Important events in my life have included Tyana. The last time I had chemo therapy. The day I placed a rose in front of Herr Goethe's house in Weimar. The night I thought I might have a heart attack in St. Peter Port, Guernsey.

How can I dismiss her?

And just what is the right move?

And here are a few pictures, in no particular order, or about any particular time. Just pictures.

What amazes me most is that I can google Tyana J LittleString and will find hundreds of pictures of her travels.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cruising the Mediterranean. Part 4 - Sicily

Bear 391 Taormina

In Taormina
July 24, 2015

One of the pleasures of every trip is coming home and looking at a map to see where I have been. Yes, sometimes this can also be a disappointment, when I find out about spots I haven't visited because time was short, and realize that a few extra steps might have taken me to this hidden gem or that famous statue, or to a location I had not considered or known about when I planned the trip.
Looking at a map of Taormina now, I am sure I saw what I had set out to see. I walked Corso Umberto from Porta Catania to the point where Via Teatro Greco took me to the Greek Theatre, my main interest. I had taken a "do it on your own tour," a one and a half hour bus ride from the harbor in Catania to the bus depot in Taormina, at which point we transferred to an elevator that spilled us right near one of the town gates, where our guide, Number 27, explained we would meet again three hours later. I was, after that, on my own in a sea of people that moved slowly along the narrow shopping wonderland that is the Corso Umberto.

Teatro Greco is one of the ruins that has long occupied my mind. Not only because Herr Goethe visited in 1787, or because Richard Strauss was there, or Thomas Mann, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, not only because the amphitheater is a Unesco cultural heritage site; Taormina resonates from deep within, from a childhood story or a romantic book I read as teenager, I can't remember the source, but I keenly feel the beauty of the town, the historical relevance, and the natural fortress-like setting between mountain as if I had been there before. This is the reason why I spent almost two of my three hours there.

Goethe was sitting on one of these steps in May of 1787. He had come with the painter Kniep, by mule, and he climbed to the highest seats, later to sing the theatre's praise in the "Italian Journey," claiming that it was an enormous masterpiece of nature and art and that one would have to admit that no group of people could find the same anywhere else.

And D.H. Lawrence once said: "One feels as though he has lived here for a thousand years ... not that Taormina is waiting just for me, it waits for all men."

I had that feeling, a humbling and yet happy feeling. Yes, Taormina had waited for me, too. Since my balance problem did not let me navigate to the highest spot, I sat on one of the stone seats about one third up and reflected on what I had read, what I imagined, what was in front of me. When a mother daughter pair took photos close to me I asked the young girl to take a picture of me and though she included a heap of trash bags behind me I am glad she stamped me into the unforgettable scenery. Looking at loudspeakers and other miscellaneous equipment surrounding the podium I wished I could be here for one of the nighttime performances of Carmen or La Bohème in September. Or listen to Il Volo sing "O sole mio" under the stars.

On my way back to the meeting point I stopped at Piazza IX Aprile, the town square, to gaze into the beautiful blue sea below and just before I reached Porta Catania I stopped for a quick ice cream, observing that the sun melted it faster than I could eat it.

The crowd had not thinned; it moved just as slowly as it had earlier, and I, who could spare no time to linger, found it hard to push through, almost stabbing people into their heels with my cane. I arrived with three minutes to spare and the elevator took me back down to our bus. The number 27 flag was waving back and forth announcing that it was time to leave.

"Oh dear Herr Goethe" I thought, almost saying it out loud, "what would you say to the changes Taormina has undergone."

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cruising the Mediterranean. Part 3 - Malta

Bear 390 Valletta

July 22, 2015

Arriving in the Grand Harbor of Valletta is a delight. I watch from my balcony as the Equinox positions itself along the sun-drenched water front. Once we receive notice over the loud-speaker that we are cleared for disembarking I am one of the first to leave the ship.

But it hits me immediately, the first layer of fumes from tour buses. They leave their motors running; tourists like air-conditioning.
The second layer of fumes begins right after the tourist information stand - taxis
The third layer is a more natural selection - horses with their buggies - I suppose you could call them "basic horse power smells."
The fourth layer is a continuous one, constantly revving up, speeding away, replaced by the next one - it is the hop on hop off fleet.

I am on a hop on hop off bus which has as its main goal Mdina and Mosta and I am sitting on the top deck, wind-blown and sun-beaten, and still, I think I made the best decision right after I left the Equinox; realizing that heat and exhaust might knock me out before I reach the city of Valletta by foot, aided by my cane. I have nodded to the first ticket vendor who approached me. The price is great - ten Euros for a two hour drive and one hour free time in Mdina. I have read about Mdina, an ancient walled city and once the capital of Malta, a gem of medieval and baroque architecture, a place not to miss.

The walls around Mdina probably save it from automobile exhaust, but when we arrive at its main gate only two passengers hop off; I don't move from my seat; briefly I unwind the towel, wet it from the water bottle, then drape it around my neck again. I know I will later regret my decision not to walk in history's footsteps, but I am too afraid of the heat to hop off for an hour. And so I admire the limestone beauty from the fume zone, wave at passengers from other buses, and hope I will make it back to the Equinox without passing out.

On the return trip to Valletta I shift the wet towel from neck to head and back, with an occasional rub down of the arms. I drink the whole big bottle of water I have brought along. We pass vineyards and arts and crafts shacks, an abandoned airfield, farmland and olive trees. I watch the two teens to my right frown at each other, bored with the canned information that reaches us via headphones. The bald man in front of me covers himself with a green and white striped bath towel and pours bottled water over himself. A young woman is about to cry, but is calmed by her companion with an apple. Which reminds me to pull a pear from my backpack to energize my throat. Very few tourists seem enthusiastic about the history of the island or even the prospect of shopping; only two get off in downtown Valletta. Most of us are eager to speed back to our air-conditioned ships, or at least, to the stores and restaurants at harbor level.

Malta is supposed to make the best bread in the world. I hear the tour operator (I keep the mike plugged in the whole time to hear about the things I would miss) mention a drizzle of olive oil and roasted tomatoes on this bread. It almost makes me stop at an outdoor restaurant at the end of the tour, in what has been called the most beautiful harbor in the world, but the cold water and ice towel tent, fifty feet before the Equinox, has a very strong pull. I forfeit the taste of Malta in favor of the taste of cold water. The few buses still picking up tourists are far enough away, with their exhaust pipes pointing in the other direction.

On a cool October afternoon I most definitely would have wandered around Mdina, and I would walk along the main street of Valletta, admiring the massive buildings that remind me of Prague in their elegance and faded beauty. I would visit churches and monuments and sit in a cafe tasting local pastry. But, feeling as if a heat stroke waits for me just around the corner, I retreat into the safety of the ship. Never mind that Valletta has been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture for 2018. Never mind that I barely took any pictures. Never mind that I will probably not have the opportunity to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site again.

I spend the rest of the afternoon admiring Valletta from my balcony, sipping an afternoon cappuccino, reading about those who populated Malta until its independence in 1964. It is a long line of rulers, defenders, occupiers, much defeat and many conquerers - Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Christians, Normans, Spanish, French and British.
Soon disappointment with myself sets in. I send apologies across the blue waters below. But when I look at the photos I have taken, I smile again; here is a nice shot of Mdina. The vineyards. The harbor.

In the cool interior of the cabin my energy returns; I take a shower and get ready for dinner.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Cruising the Mediterranean. Part 2 - Mykonos

Bear 389 Mykonos

Mykonos, Greece, July 20, 2015

We docked around one pm and a bunch of us set off into town around two. We got on a Blue Line bus without knowing if it was the right one. We figured we'd all be together, so it would be an adventure. The wind howled when we got off (in the right place) and blew my brand new camera right out of my hands. For a moment I felt defeated. The second camera in three days broken? And this one not even paid for yet?

By the time I recuperated from the nauseating feeling of failure, tested the camera, found out it still worked, and made my way toward town, everybody I knew had disappeared. As I walked along the water front, the little beach for the "commoners" some small shops and a few eateries I realized that this wasn't the area that attracted celebrities. It definitely wasn't the area the Kardashians had frequented in 2013. I had seen somewhere online that the Mayor of Mykonos had tried to pay them to stay away, but they came anyway. Well, they must have been in the "upper part."

Over the next couple of hours I covered the first layer of town, not really wanting to do a lot of climbing. What I wanted was right there, white houses, blue fences, a little church, some colorful flowering hedges. A cat. And lots and lots of people being pushed to the sides of narrow streets by impatient mini cars.

In following the cat I entered some of the less crowded side streets/alleys where old, worn and rustic no longer competed with modern and tourist compatible. It was, actually, at least to me, the real Mykonos, the one that fought an icy wind in the winter; where neighbors shouted from stoop to stoop, late in the afternoon, communicating their irritation with the European Union. It must be the place where old people, frustrated with modernity bemoaned the closing of banks and lack of groceries. Shifting my attention from old water faucet to tiny parking spaces, steep stair cases, and narrow balconies, I aimed my camera into every direction, before I reentered the shopping paradise and its eager patrons.

I enjoyed a brief sit down in front of one of the little churches and even considered buying a t-shirt, but dropped the idea when yet another small pick-up truck forced me to squeeze against a wall.

O.k. a few more pictures of vendors, anglers, and sun bathers along the sandy beach. Some distant landscapes, winding along the mountainous terrain. Then back to the ship. And this time I made sure the windshield of the bus displayed the typed message "Equinox shuttle."