PETER: it’s a snippet only, didn’t try to dignify it with rhyme…
Notre Dame de Chartres or the Living Lady
You can go there, but you can never go back
Unless there’s a miracle of mental space
And Raewyn was sick in the night
So we didn’t take the train that morning
And we didn’t go there
But we were together
Chartres, like all sacred places, is not always available. Only if the pilgrim is ready, or needs it. And sometimes it shapeshifts, and appears in different guise, like an angel disguised as a beggar at the door – or a woman throwing up in a hotel room. 🙂
I hope to do some paintings soon of things I glimpse in hindsight after the nausea and the nittygritties of the trip have washed away…
Today I will jump ahead to the present to report on our train trip to Oxford to visit our uncle Don in hospital and of course to look around… It was special for me from the minute we got out of the station and saw the stones of the ancient place – many of which were being dug up in an historic upgrading of facilities – an ironic sign to me that all is flux, even in Oxford… Though much remains much is taken, even as more is being added. There is always room in the Unfolding for even us the untenured to add our bit even to places like Oxford, to the dynamic sum total of magic, (seeming) mayhem, and new orderings there and elsewhere in this strange ‘Theatre of Reactions’ to use C. S. Peirce’s term for the Activerse, the actual universe (as opposed to the universes of the Continuum of Possibility and of Necessity). And although our actions are finite, they come from the infinite Continuum of Possibilities and allow new inroads into new areas of that continuum… i.e., the Unfolding is guided into new wonders…
Then we spotted an unusual cafe across the roadworks and entered the world of the Yellow Submarine, where those with learning disabilities learn to serve customers and help in the kitchen – first contacts in brainy Oxford… ironic sign no. 2.
As you see on the till, my ‘magic’ number of 555 came up when Raewyn bought our coffee. This number, 5:55, was the time our plane departed from Auckland to begin this trip… It relates to the five-pointed fractal Isle of Aeden in our Epic (Apples of Aeden). So the next spit stop was even more synchronous for us and the epic – the Eagle and Child (nicknamed the Bird and Baby), where CS Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien often drank together… But this must wait – we’re expected in the lobby for dinner outing with John and Jan… 🙂
Ok, so after a nice pub meal of bangers and mash for John and me (Rae had fish and chips with a huge fish that looked like a ‘battered’ whale; Jan had quiche) I’m back at the hotel blogging on the bed while Raewyn tries to buy train tickets online for Oxford again tomorrow – we have a cousin meeting us for a picnic at nearby Iffley – flying in from China where he’s doing language work in a remote area – and we’re hopefully going to cycle in from Oxford just as our Narrator Christopher Hill did in volume one, chapter 3, of our fantasy The Apples of Aeden. We will then (God willing) visit the church there as the Narrator did, and see the ancient yew tree in the graveyard.
So, back to the Bird and Baby. We sat down at the table next to the one where Tolkien and Lewis used to sit, and over chips, coffee, beer and cider we talked and took pictures.
The little boy and his parents who were sitting in the actual spot sounded Antipodean in accent, and we got chatting. We asked the boy where he went to school and he said Mangawhau – the very one our Robert and Xanthe went to when we were in Mt Eden. Then the father said he had applied for work at Greenstone, and John remembered him. We talked Tolkien and Lewis and I told them about our own fantasy epic, and gave them a card of hobbithaven.nz and invited them to google ‘ebooks by wizard of eutopia’ and get the free volume one of the epic. Then they left and we took over the special table (and their left-over chips), and then a young man with an angelic face, named Luke, from the NEXT table who had been listening to us talking excitedly introduced himself and chatted with me about Tolkien Lewis and our epic, so I of course gave him a card too. He was English and apologised for listening in, and I said I always talk to be overheard. It’s called offline virality…
I may have been just a little hypercaffeinated by this time, what with the railway coffee (poorish), the Yellow Submarine coffee (not bad), and the Bird and Baby one (not too foul, and nice cup), but it was great, being in Oxford, feeling the extreme mental vibrations in the air (or, giving myself permission to generate them in my own mind), and of course meeting fellow enthusiasts. I had some other ideas and it will no doubt have all sorts of future growth sprouting up like mushrooms from what Tolkien called ‘the leaf-mould of the mind’… So, sign no. 3 would have to be the little pair of silver mushrooms I picked up from the gutter on the main street of Oxford:
I rest my case: it was a special day.
Also good was the fact that we were able to visit uncle Don, who though in the intensive men’s ward was able to welcome us into his room and have a nice chat and look at the photos John brought. He looked hard at the photo of our dad as a young airman in uniform, and chuckled a bit at how young he looked. It isn’t an easy time for the remaining uncles, once so strong and healthy and academic – and sporty! I remember the last time I saw uncle Don, at a Harris reunion picnic in Dingle Dell, Auckland. After the picnic as I recall he wanted to go swimming so we went to Mission Bay or nearby and I remember Don just diving straight in and swimming like a seal with (some of or all?) the other uncles. Much is given, much is taken, every generation… Therefore, Seize the Day!
Here’s uncle Don with us today, and some other photos of Oxford and the train trip, including of course Paddington bear at the Paddington station!
Still in London, having adventures with squirrels in Hyde park, hired bikes, and waxworks, but I’ve just got time to catch up with Paris photos. Raewyn and I made a trip to see the Tower that IS Paris, an inspiration to me!
Well… le overseas tourisme is full-on, one doesn’t seem to remember lots of routines like blogging, meditating, brushing teeth, exercising, brushing shoes, or checking bank balances. Other things take the place of all that – finding a decent coffee (virtually impossible in Paris as in Cannes! grrr – sacre bleu – HOW can this BE??) doing the main tourist attractions (always too many to possibly do as you realise the day before you leave a place), erratic shopping for loved ones back home, remembering strange streets, squares, and phrases, avoiding traffic coming from the wrong direction, worrying about digestion, fighting off foreign bugs, timezones, foreign ettiquette, wondering if the dogs are still alive, etc.
So, I’m sitting on a big bed in London, it’s apparently Saturday morning here, and I think I’ve recovered (mostly) from Paris. The weather was good – blues skies and hot mostly. Nice food mostly, big wide park near the hotel, which we walked through to get to the Louvre – a huge place, full of artworks and antique items from Egypt, from tiny trinkets to massive granite sphinxes. Impossible to catalogue even vaguely accurately so… impressionisme again I’m afraid… and some photos. Raewyn got a nasty bug and threw up all one night, then I got a form of it which left me with a sullen nausea and sore skin and a fever all the way on the train to London, where I slept in the room with the window open and workmen using every petrolpower tool known to man to remodel a brick warehouse or something. It was hot. But it was good to hear blackbirds – English blackbirds, and to have decent broadband in our room – seemingly not possible in France or Italy. So I listened to Say a Prayer for me and Hey Paul – two Kiwi classics from my youth – and got all emotional, which helped with the fever, and after two disprins and a cup of tea I was ok to go for a walk with Raewyn down the busy streets to Kensington Gardens which we found by chance and looking for greenery. They weren’t too crowded and we sat on a bench to eat our rolls from Pret a Manger (a clean green place but STILL horrible coffee!) by the wide pedestrian and cyclists path opposite two young guys who were either from a close family or madly in love. So many races and languages, as well as (so nice to hear!) real live Englishmen and ladies. A Spanish lady with a tiny twinkletoes doglet that paused to notice us, lots of cyclists, families feeding the big white swans and geese and funny birds we had no idea what they were… All in the warm afternoon sun, and the Round Pond was nice and big, and somewhere beyond it was the Peter Pan statue. But Raewyn was getting tired so we turned back, buying some postcards and having an argument about how many to get with teddybears riding in a doubledecker bus . I wanted four, not unreasonably, at 30 p a bargain, and got my way. But for reasons unfathomable she only bought one stamp for them. Sigh…logic versus womankind… logic 0, woman 1.
So, now the impressions of London must stop, it’s 10, we’re due to see john and go to the Portobello markets. So here are a few pictures from Paris. We were at the Winged Victory – yay! Maybe the Ark needs one… 🙂 The Thinker in Rodin sculpture gardens was good too. more later…
PETER: For the love of Petros!… so much of it, so heavy, such massive, pillared, polished hulks of granite and travertine and porphyry and jasper and white marble, from the rubbly Forum ruins to the gleaming Basilica of St Peter…
we’re leaving tomorrow, and all I can write is a stoned patchwork of impressions. A stream of consciousness… like the milky Tiber.
First we saw the Vatican. That morning I was really coldy, my eyes sore and nose running. But this was the day, and fortified with lots of Vitamin C and a Voltaren I stumbled after brother John and sister Jan with Raewyn at my elbow, to the modernistic Mouth in the great sloping Vatican wall where the tourists poured in and were scanned and frisked en masse. Then vaguely shepherded through the sacred stone labyrinth, neither the damned nor the blessed, wandering blandly, free of both intensities – just tourists.
Or explorers of a great man-made cave system, stumbling through dim vaulted halls, through narrow passages up or down, sometimes milling around famous rooms where Raphael and others
laboured like cavemen to cover every inch with fresco, tapestry, oil paintings the size of houses, and sculptures and reliefs high and low. Finally a kind of purgatory of modern religious art (I won’t impose any of it on you) and then ah! blessed relief in the form of gleaming porcelain – the pre-Sistine toilets. Then more narrow steps in rising anticipation, a final squeeze, then into a very high vaulted space, dim and echoing with a swirling mass of fellow tourists, suddenly expected to be more than observers but to do reverence before the highest art of all… ‘Hats off! silenzio! this is a holy place! keep away from the edges! no cameras! stand to the middle…’ It was, of course, the Sistine chapel, to which all the rest was just a prelude. But what…? Michaelangelo’s part seemed to me only a smallish proportion of the decorations, a delicate film of beauty hanging overhead. And there I saw the suffering artist the Church had used up to the last drop – hanging skinned from the hand of St Bartholemew. What a self-portrait!
Soon we drifted out of the artistic holy of holies with the human current and began to wonder about a coffee and food. More marbles and relics and a huge desk with a black priest inviting seekers to learn more about the Church. He had a lovely smile.
I reflected that it’s not just a show or cover for a collective kleptomania or Papal megalomania – they really do believe that high art helps mediate between the ordinary non-theologican man and his God. And even has the power to convert. Of course, the final miracle of salvation is in the hands of Christ and eased by the gentle love of Mary, but the Church does all it can to go out into the highways and byways of the human condition and ‘compel’ them to come in, with all the means at its disposal – in these secular times minus the very effective means of physical force.
It’s quite logical, really, I thought – once you start down that road of using all means at all levels, art being one of the most powerful persuaders, it makes sense to gather and patronise and monopolise all the art and artists on offer. Then, when you have an artist like the ‘divine’ Michelangelo, you showcase him and let the powerful ‘magic’ of his art keep drawing the people in – and hopefully converting them, or at least their imaginations, to the One True Church and its infallible doctrines…
But it doesn’t pull me in. Give me independent thinking and philosophy and science and meditation and the variety of dynamic free culture any day. I don’t envy Michelangelo, but Chagall – he was so much more free. And I feel freer than him, so I don’t envy Chagall – except that he went to paint in Paris in his youth. I, though, being sixty and of sound mind (well…) and body (hm…) get to go there tomorrow thanks to brother John, and then return a free man to free, green NZ, in the knowledge and belief that nothing that has been done here in Europe can replace what I will do in Godzone, Aotearoa, if I am spared.
Some random thoughts:
Some things were actually smaller than I thought, like the Tiber; some huger, like the polished pillars walls alcoves and pavers of St Peter’s and the Pantheon.
The art and sculpture and inscriptions viewed up close in ‘3D’ were all clearly made by humans – a little wobbly in places, a little assymetrical, a little pitted or bearing drill holes from the laying out, etc. Just like my stuff… And some of the best of Michelangelo’s was really unfinished and in some ways more powerful that way, like the captives struggling to emerge from the material they were made from.
The reality of the people and stuff and places of Europe is fascinating to finally see in 3D, present tense. Nearly all of it is (of course!) just what it is, not acting, not ideal, but real and obeying the same laws as our own bodies and clothes and streets and buildings. The traffic of Rome is still human-driven, not super-fast. There are differences of course, but all make sense as alternatives that we might have adopted – the traffic gets more up close and personal, for example, using evasion and horns and sometimes armwaving and shouting, and the parking is all over the place, even on pedestrian crossings.
I am hoping Raewyn will post more from now on, as I am processing… Expect more photos of people, and much more on food and stuff… 🙂 She has been very patient with all the rock and religion, if incredulous at the obsession and excess and petromania of the ancient civilisations that we come from. I won’t say much about the Colosseum – it was hot, there was way more ancient brickwork in it than I expected, and it was oval not round, and beautiful. But it was secular, and all that skill and vast labour was put to base use, to please the people and their decadent rulers. Good riddance to them! Long live liberty…
I did see a lizard there, which was nice… and another at the Forum. Were our ancestor’s leaders really alien reptilians, as many believe today’s leaders are??
Sad to leave Florence, just when we found the closest cafe, Firenze, was the best and cheapest.
Raewyn and I ducked in there before a quick tour of the Form of the Book exhibition, before the 240 KPH train to Rome.
The book form took about 300 years to go from scroll to codex (bound pages)… progress was slow back then! Fragments of papyruses on display with things like a farmer complaining that his ploughing had been delayed; a bit of Sappho’s poetry (above) which indirectly told historians what the cult of Aphrodite was like; and a directive (about 790 AD I think) to throw escaped forced labourers from the ship-caulking yards of Babylon into irons or execute them. Conditions were harsh apparently in the caulking business… Man’s inhumanity – it goes all the way back, or down – to little mundane corners we have never heard of, all more or less dominated by stupidity, greed, folly, inertia and moral blindness, never mind outright cruelty.
Then at the bookshop I dipped into the Michaelangelo biography by Miles Unger (cover photo above). More folly and conflict and suffering. He had months in Florence when he could hardly work – discouraged and frightened after the return of the Medici as puppet despots or something, and one of them with some kind of hateful grudge against him. He had catarrah, headaches and dizziness, and was afraid for his life even though pardoned by Clement the then Pope. The tomb scuptures and other unfinished works hung over him, and Florence had become grey and miserable for him. That is the context of the Medici tomb we saw yesterday and I commented on its incompleteness and faults – good to see Unger agreeing with my gut feeling, though sad. I went away thinking that the main struggle was moral and Michelangelo was like one little leaky boat in that storm. Then soon after this the moral firebrand Luther came charging into the fray and attacked the follies and injustices of Rome, but a lot of good things also went up in smoke… What a mess! But in the midst of it all, good people were good, brave thinkers kept thinking (and talking and writing), and gradually things got better. Very gradually, with major setbacks – here I am in front of the list of deportees from the Florence area in the Nazi era:
We said goodbye to the nice family team who ran the hotel Casci (that’s the big magnolia outside our window by the way – the one I tried to draw)
and set off for the train:
Arriving in Rome safely, I was sneezing but the back was ok at last. Then the heavens opened and the rain came down so hard it felt like Northand as we scuttled off to find a cafe then (led by Jan who has been here before) to find the fountain/s and things before the adventure of the Vatican tomorrow. The young man in the cafe told us the sandwihes with green in were Cavala – horse, he explained – but Raewyn said he must mean cavalero nero, black kale. But when I got the sandwich there was a thin slice of dark meat in it – actual horse, we concluded. But I gave thanks and ate it anyway. Omnivoro Harrisio. Excuse my horse-latin…
The thunder and lightning outside reached a crescendo and I speculated that we could have arrived in Rome in time for the Last Judgement. But things went on as they did before the flood, and partly during it no doubt, and we joined the throngs on the streets of Rome, including the same umbrella-hawkers as in Forence, only if possible more of them per block. The rain brought them out in droves. A downpipe suddenly gushed yellowish-brown water onto the footpath and nearly got Raewyn, and our shoes got wetter and wetter as we looked for the fountains etc. Photo selection below. The others did the orienteering and puzzling over the wettening maps, while I soaked it all in and sneezed and blew my nose with a saturated cafe napkin. I also found some gold bits stuck in the tar of the pavements and narrow cobbled streets glittering.
I was tempted to whip my Swiss army knife out and retrieve them, but there is a certain vigilance here in Rome (larger automatic weapons outside the hotel by the American embassy, armed guards outside banks and even on some intersections) so I restrained my mining urges.
Some of the sights…. The Spanish stairs, in the rain; the famous fountain as featured in ‘A Roman holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn, in the rain and also empty of water but full of scaffolding; a carved pillar or two, a massive building or three, all in the rain, and a wax museum with Einstein and a revolving 3d window display of Da Vinci painting the mona lisa.
Oh and another beggar or two. I put a coin in this one’s paper cup since I had taken her picture…. Then finally back to the hotel before a huge dinner where musicians played accordian and guitar and a woman sang opera style, almost cracking our wine glasses. Somehow we got talking about Cantor and the Aleph series of infinities, Godel, logic, mathematics and the arguments for Platonism and against materialism. That was good too. Sistine chapel etc tomorrow… I hope I can lose this cold or I’ll be sneezing in all the holy places. Eek the time! Good night!
Today we were (physically) overwhelmed by the massive mausoleum of the Medici with its acres of flat polished stone of many colours fitted into patterns that boomed of wealth and power but little else.
Then a few steps away in a (comparatively) little and unadorned chamber, though still massive enough, being built for the glory of deceased lords of the Medici dynasty, were the four marble figures of Dusk and Dawn and Day and Night by their servant Michelangelo. One man and a few little marbles now outweigh all the Medici that ever were.
Yet those marbles aren’t ‘perfect’. The head of the Day figure is quite rough and unfinished – actually it works well, but it does sort of clash too. And one of his females looks more like a shemale, quite odd. Also the figures are all reclining at angles that make them look (to me) uncomfortably close to sliding downhill. I was quite happy though for myself, thinking I can take this guy on, I can make stone (or ferrocement) sing too. Even more than reverence for skill and genius, to do serious art you need this kind of manic irreverence. Humility can come later (in my case maybe when I see the Sistine ceiling! That must have been a massive ordeal of sustained creation and laborious execution. I keep remembering scenes from The Agony and the Ecstasy).
And although some of these Renaissance artists and musicians were fabulous and great, none of them upstage or can replace, for example, Pink Floyd’s Wish you were here, which we heard playing in the cafe where we ate afterwards. There is always room for one more crazy diamond to shine on among the stars… The old Sunday-school song says it too:
Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little diamond shining in the night…
The pagan themes of one of the halls in the Medici palace were refreshing though – there are only so many annunciations and martyrdoms you can look at before they become boring, no matter how well executed (excuse the excruciating pun). Look at the whole ceiling and the few bits I photographed a bit closer up:
Afterwards there was a downpour, and the street hawkers with the umbrellas appeared out of nowhere and sold everyone umbrellas:
Tonight was our last in Florence, and we all went to our favourite restaurant, close to the hotel. The good lady manager kissed us all on the cheek and blessed us in Italian. Tomorrow morning the train, and Roma… and now my back is better, I seem to have a cold. Sigh…
PETER: aghh I brought my body with me… Sore back (from the chair leg in a drain). But arriving in the quiet still light we looked up at the great decorated Duomo, and it was a Moment.
We avoided eye contact with multiple vendors of selfie sticks and reproduction canvases spread on the pavements and the square – just about anywhere the police were not – and I looked closely at the worn smooth stones of the porch to the ticket office. We trundled our suitcases over the cobblestones to the Casca (here’s the right-hand front door!),
where we went up flights of smooth grey stone to a big reception desk with a very lively staff who happily spoke quite good English and made us feel at home.
Well it’s breakfast time, and John and Jan will be there already, and we are visiting the Medici Palace I think, while Raewyn goes to the leather market… More later…
PETER: My day started badly. Another hangover from sparkling water/cheese/something in the mozzarella, then just as I was recovering the others decided my beard ought to be trimmed since a nearby barbers offered barb taille (beard trimming Raewyn guessed) for five euros. This was a bridge too far. All because they thought I looked dapper in the new beret and shirt so the beard had to follow suit. I protested, but promised (for brother John’s sake) to allow Raewyn to lead me as a lamb to the slaughter later in the day, emphatically AFTER my first coffee. The day meandered on, and it was four thirty when we staggered back up the hill to the back street barber, which advertised that it opened from 9 am to 12 and then 2 to 5 pm. Raewyn stood hesitating. I said, ‘I promised John, we’re not backing out now.’ It was then that we had our defining experience of the French attitude to ze (foreign?) customer: i.e., that he is an inconvenience. We entered the empty shop, I said ‘hello I am a tourist and would like a beard trim’. The barber said ‘Allo, no. There is no time.’ No apologies or excuses. And so we went out again. My paranoia about French shopkeepers has reached new heights. Or to be more balanced about it, they are friendly and at the same time, insouciant. (I checked the dictionary online, as it is a word I have held back on using for a few decades, but it did seem right for this occasion:
We Kiwis have our little faults too, of course, but we’re used to them. Better the devil you know, let’s head home (or at least to McDonald’s) I guess is what a lot of tourists end up saying with an attempt at an insouciant shrug. But no one does a shrug as nonchalantly as a Frenchman, I think. Especially to le touriste… (Earlier this morning we walked into a little side street art gallery, and were told by a girl with a duster but no smile, We are closed. Come back tomorrow.’) On a positive note, I got the best photo yet of a street dog. This time it was a bona fide busker, a guitarist… More photos – must go to bed as we rise early tomorrow to catch the train to …FLORENCE!
PETER: I woke at three AM with an Englishman ringing my cellphone, not from London as I at first surmised but Kaiwaka, NZ, inquiring whether we had a winter rate for rooms in the Ark (he thought it was a backpackers’ I suppose). Then again at dawn with my body no longer feeling that run-over-by-a-bus feeling, but with a nasty big French bus attempting to park in my head. I responded with a couple of disprin Maxi and the bus gradually faded into the haze of the collective unconscious looking for another neurotic. Perhaps it found Woody Allen, who is in Cannes for his Irrational Man. RAEWYN: I needed a rest after a large breakfast, and then off to the local hairdresser, Estelle. She didnt seem too keen on a non french speaking customer, and made remarks re touristes to the other customer. But she washed my hair, cut, dried and brushed it for €29 ($44) and was quite polite at the end, pleased that I was happy, perhaps. Raewyn ducked out this morning and had a haircut. Above: afterwards at our favourite corner cafe. We went into a Catholic opshop so flash we nearly walked out again. I saw a jacket I liked – it was made of a deliciously velvety material with a brown herringbone pattern that had a flickery effect on the eyes close up. It was an Armani – down from 960 euro or so to 95… way beyond our budget but I put it on for a photo with the beret that was only 7 euro and shirt 6.
Later I showed great fortitude and solidarite with Raewyn. We left the bright sun, cafes and beautiful people of Cannes and sat for two going on eleven hours on a hard chair watching about a hundred short films ‘Sur le theme du Handicap‘. My neck began to seize up as I attempted to follow the rapide-fire French dialogue which was (not very helpfully) subtitled in French. We were given a voting sheet and I voted for the one English-speaking film, NOT because it was in English but because it had something the others did not: a beautiful leading lady (who being deaf mute was stood up by her date when he realized her condition. She then stood on a clifftop to commit suicide, but he had changed his mind and texted her that he was still smitten by her great beauty. However, before she could read it, the cellphone slipped from her grasp. As it tumbled down the cliff face in slow motion its final message was visible. Then the credits rolled, so it was a cliffhanger. I actually shed a tear, I did! Oh yes, and we finally went to the Hotel de Ville (the Council) about the dangerous ‘grille-and-stiletto’ cafe. We were brushed off with a few well-chosen Frenchisms – ‘this is France, not Nouvelle Zelande’; ‘there is nothing we can do’ (shrug), ‘you will have to go to another department’ (wave) ‘or to the Patron’ (to be insulted a little more)… And we finally got drawn into the orbit of one of the many wandering Senegalese with piles of hats in one hand and selfie sticks in the other. Ten minutes later we had succumbed to his patter (he had two wives and nine children to support back in Senegal; we must be rich because we come from NZ, etc) and walked away with a wooden elephant from his car (old and dented, as he pointed out). It IS nice real wood with a patina, and our little Bruno does love elephants…. Meanwhile, back in the catwalk jungle, John and Jan were mingling with distributors and other exotic film-world creatures… And tonight it was out to the restaurants again – over to you Raewyn…
RAEWYN: i am using tripadvisor to find good places to eat, having been so disappointed on our first night. And it has worked very well. L’Enoteca tonight with chef Pierre, a jolly french chef who reminded us of cousin Chris Harris. Three of us chose the lapin provencale aux olives vertes. So good with a local red recommended by Pierre, a wine man. Incredible. And all in a little cellar room.