Of Caves and Graves

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Our first day in Prague, we’re able to leave our BnB on the sixth floor safely, though this might be the world’s oldest elevator. The building we’re staying in is swank, but somehow disjointed, with a giant stair case entrance, and huge stairwells with stained glass windows. We wander along the river. Building after building displays intricate beautiful stone work, reflecting the fashion of the early twentieth century. The Art Nouveau facades are peach, sage-green, ivory, and occasionally, Pepto-Bismol pink. Curlicues writhe around windows, tall doors are ornamented with knockers. The shops have signs in Czech; not until we reach the tourist part is there information in English. Unlike cities like Munich, there are no bikes or mopeds, but traffic doesn’t seem especially heavy. The Charles Bridge is predictably crowded; we save walking it for another day and continue on to the Old Town, Staré Město, where the city hall, currently undergoing renovation, glowers behind the scaffolding. Its tower is rusty-colored and has a Game of Thrones feel. Nearby, the ornate doors show lion’s heads. Looking carefully, I notice one of the lions has something in its mouth.

Lion's mouth

Right. Don’t get on the bad side of the ruling class.

Our culinary adventure starts when we pass a place called Terroir. I love the concept of terroir. Soil and weather conditions combine to give grapes from each locale a unique flavor. Later that concept by was broadened by locovores to apply to vegetables and fruits. Terroir repudiates the idea of industrialized factory farming. We have to take a look inside this place.

dinner in the cave

We choose to sit in the wine cellar, surrounded by many bottles of fine French vintage. This early in the evening, we’re the only ones there. It’s magical and private; the thick walls of this twelfth century walls enveloping us in silence and shadows. The atmosphere lets us concentrate on my tasty sea bass and exquisite wine. I get a Chardonnay from Burgundy that’s so creamy on my tongue, it seems to spread. The carrots are thin slivers of taste explosion, and pureed parsnips add a nutty sweetness. Even better, the editor spouse and I can hear each other without having to lean over and raise our voices. We spend a relaxed couple of hours chatting intermittently with the sommelier about French elections.

Europe’s largest ghetto was in Prague, and before World War 2, 55,000 Jews lived there. Exploring the ghetto is a fascinating experience. Instead of the twisty small streets and miserable dwellings, we see broad streets lines with shops, the houses the usual gorgeous Art Nouveau style. We visit four of the synagogues on the tour, all four of them very different. What unites them is that none seem to be used regularly for worship. I reread my Rick Steves travel guide, and now a few facts jump out at me. The ghetto was razed in 1897, and the original 220 buildings replaced by 83 buildings. This was a good time for Jews, who had thrived economically with the more tolerant conditions. In the Spanish Synagogue, there are vitrines displaying the industrialist tycoons, glassmakers, writers, and artists of the Belle Époque. The very first man whose photograph I study died in Terezin, the concentration camp. It makes me unbearably sad. He probably enjoyed his prosperous respectability, never dreaming what was in store.

Of those 55,000 Jews in Prague, 10,000 survived the Holocaust. Pinkas Synagogue is a reminder of that. The names engraved on the wall by hand, of each person who perished, is poignant. The tracery of letters, black and reddish, form a startlingly beautiful weave over the plain beige sturdy walls. A sacred atmosphere is created out of this web of memory, the monumental loss of life somehow elevated, not trivialized, in this list. There are only 1700 registered Jews in Prague now, according to Rick Steves. Do they live in the gorgeous buildings surrounding the synagogues? Perhaps not, because the houses of worship are no longer a place where the living congregate. They have turned into memorials.

Pinkus syn

The graveyard itself is massive, but more in bulk that in actual area. For more than 300 years, Jews were only allowed to bury their dead in this area, so bodies were buried on top of other bodies. Gravestones are crowded, or lean to the side, or have the only their tips poke out of the ground that’s covered them with successive interments. The stones, blackened with moss and lichen, reflect back the patterns on the mottled bark of the tall trees growing here and there. The stones seem to replicate the haphazard nature of personality; forced into community, there are some that lean together, huddled, supported by each other, while others seem to draw back into whatever space they can find in the crowded monuments of the dead. The area is bleached of life, except for the green of the leaves, and yet the emptiness and absence feels full. The passage of time, the idea of many lives, these abstruse concepts seem to vibrate in the air and make it heavy.

Graves

The Belle Époque was a period of gaiety, the Can Can in Paris, the beautiful women and flowers in Mucha’s paintings evoking the idea that style can obscure the dread that underlies so much of life. The grand gold and saffron colored houses still line the streets, offering high-end fashion, coffee, apartments for the well-off. Life goes on.

But we will not forget the graves.

 

Freedom and Blue Skies

Last week I hiked up to the Segnés Pass, 2627 meters. It wasn’t a pretty sight, me scrabbling up those last few meters, grappling with my sticks in one hand, scrabbling for a handhold with the other. At the pass itself, there’s an old military barracks that’s been repurposed as a simple guesthouse. From it, a young man watched me with concern, and offered help. “I’m alright,” I said, faintly embarrassed.

And I was. Because I saw this:

IMG_0554

Altogether, my hike was more than six hours, an elevation of 1200 meters on foot, and the same down again. Why do I do this?

To answer the question, I need to tell you a bit about how I grew up. Like most households, mine was run by my mother. As a venerable old person, she lives a tightly circumscribed, almost cloistered existence. Shifts in temperature distress her; she makes minute adjustments in her curtains and windows to control her environment. Last time she was to travel, she cancelled because the heat was turned off in her apartment, and she didn’t want to return to a cold home.

In other words, she’s like a beautiful hot house flower. Precious orchids thrive in glass houses, which could be a prison of sorts. It was for me. As a child, I had insomnia, and my dreams were marked with images of flight. I like nothing better than to see endless sky and distant vistas spread out before me.

Freedom. Freedom to go where I want, when I want. The freedom that comes from knowing I can take some discomfort. Maybe I’ll be sweaty, maybe it will be windy, I might even have a blister. I can handle it.

IMG_0542
Village of Elm. Taken from my hotel room

 

My hike begins in the village of Elm.  In October of 1799, villagers bore witness to the hunger and desperation of General Suvorov’s Russian army, fleeing the French under the command of General Molitor. Starving and barefoot, the 17,000 Russians, Tartars, Kalmucks, and Cossacks resorted to boiling goatskins taken from the villagers, and bolting them down, with the hair still on. Despite Suvorov’s efforts to maintain discipline and order, some soldiers killed livestock and ate it raw. The villagers, forced to accompany them as guides for the mountain crossing, fled under the cover of dark, leaving the soldiers to make their own way. Over 2000 of the emaciated, weakened men perished in the same range I’m about to hike.

I intend to climb well-fed, and I know where the pass is.

I’m staying at the Hotel Segnés so I can get an early start the next day. Dinner is whatever’s on offer, which happens to be a tasty lasagna, with a big fresh salad, and dessert. For a Swiss meal it’s a bargain, which is a good thing, as Elm doesn’t offer a variety of restaurants.

I’m up by six and fed before eight. Since I don’t want to hike more than 7 hours, I’m taking the cable car part of the way up, through the Tschingel ravine, named after the Tschingelhörner, the hornlike peaks where I’ll be crossing over into the canton of Grisons. (Graubünden). The majesty of the dark and gloomy ravine is marred by an ongoing silly recording broadcast loudly in the cable-car.

            I escape the cable car and head up. The “horned gods” are Tschingelhörnerawaiting. I draw closer and closer to the Martin’s hole, a circular break in the peaks. The church in Elm is lit by sun pouring down through the opening twice a year. Legend has it that Martin was watching his sheep, when a giant climbed over from the neighboring canton, with an eye for some mutton. The brave shepherd fought for his flock, and flung his shepherd’s crook at the intruder. Instead of hitting the giant, the crook flew into the stone wall Martin's Holeand shattered it, creating a hole. Much thunder ensued. Presumably the sheep were saved, hopefully not for General Suvorov’s starving army.

            As mentioned before, the old army barracks is right at the top. There, I spend close to an hour chatting with Patrick, the young Austrian who serves me soup and warm tea. The simple stone hut isn’t much of a tourist draw, and not busy. Patrick has arrived for his three month stay fortified with books. He’s just finished a book by the Dalia Lama. I suspect he likes the freedom up here, and the quiet.

Segnes Pass Lodge

Then I’m off to the other side, Canton Grisons. After a tricky descent, which is secured with some wobbly chains, but is still very steep, I arrive at a flat high plateau. Streams spread out like a web over the short grass and isolated clusters of brilliant blue gentians. As I descend off the plateau towards the Swiss Alpine Club hut Segnés, the flowers become numerous. There are thousands of yellow buttercups interspersed with white yarrow and more gentians. Some wild pinks and the orange of hawkweed dot the grass. I follow the famous Flims waterway down to Foppa, where I catch a ski-lift down to Flims itself.

In the mountains above Flims
In the mountains above Flims

How I lost my way (in the #Swiss #Alps)

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

If David Sedaris can do confessional, so can I. This all starts with a visit to my doctor, a stand-up kinda guy. I haul out the six different remedies for my sluggish digestion for show and tell, and he sets me straight. Exercise induces peristalsis. That, and fibre. Additionally, he suggests artichoke -based drops for my gallbladder.

I already eat a fairly healthy diet, thanks to the editor-spouse, who works from home and relaxes by making huge dinners. However, I do indulge in fatty foods, and I’ve slacked off on the exercise since I came back from Annapurna Base Camp last year. So the artichoke drops don’t have to work even harder, I resolve to eat less fatty food. I plan a five-hour hike across the Rossberg’s three different peaks in Canton Schwyz. (see last week’s post for more on Schwyz).

The night before, I arrive a little before ten at night in my hotel, in the pretty little town of Rapperswil, on Lake Zurich. I’m tempted by the sumptous array of cheeses I see, and order a small plate. Turns out I’m supposed to choose my own. After intensive descriptions of five, my head is spinning. “Just chose one of each type. One kind of blue cheese, one soft cheese, and one hard cheese,” I say.

cheese plate representation
cheese plate representation

I’m sitting down, reading Tana French and sipping a nice Yvorne, a Swiss white wine from the Valais, when a shadow falls across the table. The cheese plate.

I’ve borrowed a photo from Pixabay, because I didn’t have the presence of mind to take one. Multiply what’s on the photo times six. Yes, the thirty or so morsels are only thumb size, but that’s a hell of a lot of cheese. I point that out. “You said you wanted one of each,” the implacable young man says. “

“No, I wanted one of each type,” I wail. He doesn’t answer. His gaze is on me, intent, still fairly friendly. A lot of the cheese is soft and runny. I imagine the effort it must have taken to cut it; to arrange it on the wooden board.

I’m going to need another glass of wine to get that down. But tomorrow, I’ll hike five hours.

The next day the market is in full swing outside the hotel. There’s lots of greenery, but I can’t very well travel with a backpack full of salad. I chose a nut croissant,

Rapperwil market
Rapperwil market

I’ll be hiking five hours after all.

Except that I don’t follow routes that well. I make it to the top of the first ridge, enjoy the view, eat only half my croissant (oh I’m so good) and proceed to the next peak. Or maybe not. Somehow, I’m going back down. By the time I realize this, I don’t see another path up, and I hate retracing my steps.

IMG_4427
View from Rossberg

Then I come to the metaphorical crossroad, so to speak. I see a path going back up. Way back up. I also see a sign informing me that the farmhouse five-minutes away has homemade ice cream.

I’ll give you three guesses on what wins out.

At least I’m supporting local farmers. Mrs. Gehren invites me into IMG_4429her kitchen, as it’s getting cooler. As I eat my ice cream, made with milk from the neighbor’s cows, an elderly biker comes in. He orders a coffee and asks Mrs. Gehren for a nut croissant (Nussgipfel). Since she doesn’t have one, I give him mine. That saves me the guilt from throwing away the uneaten portion, since I’m now consuming ice cream. Typical Swiss fairness—he offers to pay me for it, which I decline. In meantime, she comes back with a big portion of strawberry cake, which she discovered. He eats that too. He’s all skin and muscle. When I ask him about his Swiss Alpine Club pin, he says he used to do a lot of hiking, but now his knees are not up to it, so he took up biking. He’s seventy-nine. Yeah, when you’re like that, you can eat two desserts, and he probably doesn’t need artichoke drops either.

When the world ends, the hardy Swiss will still be puttering away in their all-weather gear, taking refuge in the alps, and building gadgets from scratch. In the apocalypse, my money is on them.

IMG_4439In meantime, I head back to the railway station, grazing on cherries from the orchards. I make a quick stop to buy some honey from a roadside box. But I’m saving that caloric expenditure for another day.

Honest.

 

Of Origins and Onerous Ascents

IMG_0490Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Oh, it really wasn’t that onerous. But it was hot, and the 500-meter ascent (a third of a mile) of the mountain of Mythen took place in little over an hour.

It’s summer, and time to explore Switzerland, the home of my fictional heroine, chemistry prodigy Peppa Mueller. Though Peppa is apolitical, she’s proud of her homeland, especially after further misadventures land her in the political chaos of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of the 1950s IRA campaign.

Switzerland officially began with a written agreement, a pact, between representatives of rural communities in 1291. Their names are recorded: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, and Arnold Von Melchtal. The country of Switzerland is called Schweiz in the native Swiss-German dialect, and the state that Werner Stauffacher came from was called Schwyz, so plainly, the country is named after that first kernel. Schwyz and the states from which the other men came were collectively known as “forest communities.” Each of the leaders brought ten men. We’re not talking a huge, well-equipped army here. I imagine a mostly illiterate group of clannish men, with pitchforks and scythes as weapons. Then, as now, the Swiss just wanted to be left alone to tend to their cows and fortunes.

Schwyz and the other two states, Uri, and Nidwalden, are tiny, even for Switzerland, which is itself the size of New Hampshire. They’re known as the inner part of Switzerland. Though the landscape is mountainous, the mountains pale in comparison to the western and southern parts of the country. “Big” Mythen, which I climbed, is 1811 meters, (almost 6000 feet), but in the western state of Graubünden many peaks are over 3000 meters. Mythen is composed of a big peak and a smaller one; the big one rises starkly out of the still wooded landscape, a tower of reddish rock. The ascent, built by a local man in 1864 for the sum of 3000 francs, consists of steps hewn into the rock. Since a few accidents took place, the ascent has been additionally secured with chain railings. It’s steep, but safe, though I wouldn’t recommend it in rain. The Swiss Alpine Club designates it as T3.

IMG_0498

Once at the top, there is, as always, food and libation to be had. The hospitality is not as warm as in a family-run establishment, but it’s cozy enough, and has the usual wine, local cheeses, and homemade fruit pie (Kuchen). The lowlands lie spread beneath, dotted over with the crystalline sapphire blue of various lakes.

View from Mythen

A brief rain squall drives us all inside, where I notice the heraldic emblems on each chair. Apparently, all the donors of the association that manages the restaurant have their own family crests. The surly little man running the place tells me that everyone has a family crest. His own family has been in the area since the sixteenth century.

Heraldic emblem on chairback
Heraldic emblem on chairback

I get ready to descend, noting that the bathrooms cost exactly one franc. Since I don’t have a coin of that denomination, I’m looking forward to reaching the thick old forest that surrounds the peak. After a lovely wander through pines and thickly mossed rocks, I head down to the town of Schwyz (in the state of Schwyz). A few examples of lovely architecture grace the old town.

Door, town of Schwyz
Door, town of Schwyz

Who Shall Carry the Burden?

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.



Pr Figure 10

Who shall carry the burden of the buildings? Cool nymphets, graceful thin androgynous men, buxom belles with their curly tresses curving around their breasts, groaning older men with broad chests and fierce beards.

Pr Figure 3

They are stone, but their faces speak: seduction, indifference, a poised pride. They are everywhere, buttresses, doors, windows. Perhaps once they were the only ones who could dare express emotions. After suffering through Word War 2, and losing an estimated 77,000 Jews, the Czechs were liberated by the Russians.

Pr Figure 1

I’m a tourist passing through, so I’m making inferences here. The men and women in their fifties sometimes have a muted air about them. They avert their eyes, make no attempt to communicate. There’s not even the indication that I’d have to try a different language, a shrug, a smile of bewilderment. Just nothing. As if it’s dangerous to be a witness to anything, to make any kind of acknowledgement.

What was life was like under the Communist state? We seek out the dusty Museum of Communism, inexplicably marooned inside the belly of a building dedicated to one of the mainstays of capitalism, gambling. The sign outside tells us we’re entering a Casino, giving the impression that the museum itself is somehow a Casino exhibit. The apathetic cashier, just doing her job, transports one back to the that era, even before one sees the posters.

Casino

It’s already occurred to me that the reason most people over thirty don’t speak English, is because English was the language of subversion. In retrospect, it’s amazing it took me so long to arrive at that conclusion. The Czech Republic didn’t achieve its freedom from the USSR until 1989, when it became the country of Czechoslovakia, which split again into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The hidden museum, with the printed signs that predate the advent of laser printer, and its hodgepodge of items, has a wealth of information about life in Communist times. Posters were a means of disseminating propaganda. The first one here creates a link between Nazi collaborators, implying they are the current critics of the Communist regime. Athletes and labourers were feted; they were the anonymous heroes of the workers’ revolution.

Athlete poster

 

“A socialist man should be satisfied with a modest income while conscientiously fulfilling his work tasks, improving his knowledge of communist doctrines, co-operating with state bodies, and being observant as to whether someone in his environment does not disturb the state order.”

Ah, yes, the interrogation room. If one heard too much, said too much, one might end up there. The Nationals Safety Corporation, formed in 1947, included the non-uniformed State Security, the secret police. Lest the population question the need for constant vigilance, civil defense drills were held. These drills were an opportunity for instructors to declaim the mercilessness of the West, which was willing to use any weapon, including poison gas, against the Communists.

Gas Mask

Posters showed that America oppressed its own population, especially the blacks.(ok, that last part was true). Uncle Sam should be flicked off the globe. Villagers could work with the secret police to uncover evidence of any traitors, spies, and collaborators.

New York poster

The stone of the buildings had become the state, the men and women like mute statues, straining beneath the weight of its portals, of its authority, of its power.

 

Pr Figure 4The figures in stone are still in place in the Art Nouveau buildings; the former Socialist workers of Czechoslovakia live in a democratic society today, but some walk with petrified faces, mummified souls. The wages of living in a police state are high. Perhaps some will never fee free again.

The Valley of Light

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

My first clue that I’ve returned to the Canton of Graubünden  (Grisons) is the friendliness. People are open and chatty. I’m visiting the Eastern part of the canton, the Surselva, literally “above the woods” in Rhomansch.

Valley view

Rhomansch? That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, left over from the Roman Empire. To further confuse you, the inhabitants of Surselva speak their own variation of the dialect. Luckily for me, they also speak Swiss-German, which I speak as well.

A generous friend is allowing me to use his vacation apartment, so I’m exploring the Val Lumnezia. This week in late May, the valley is living up to its name. The sky shimmers with sunshine. Unlike some other valleys, this long broad valley is relatively dry, and the mountains aren’t as high. It’s accessed through a bus that starts in the town of Ilanz, which is located by a green turbulent river that bolts its way through a canyon. Rafting is popular, but I’m not in Ilanz for rafting. I’m here to get supplies for me and my hiking buddy, as the next day is a holiday. Unfortunately, I’ve underestimated the Swiss holiday fervor. All the stores closed at five instead of six-thirty, which means I have nothing for tomorrow’s meals except walnut pesto and a bundle of pasta. Okaay.

Ilanz old house

On the way to the old part of Ilanz

I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. Find a nice restaurant, relax, order off the menu, and then beg for whatever is transportable. I head towards the old section of town and find the restaurant Obertor, which turns out to be as nice as I hoped. As I enjoy a glass of the local Pinot Noir, which comes from Maienfeld, I discuss my victual challenge with the apple-cheeked waitress. Would I like them to heat up half a kilogram of frozen bread to take with me? Sure. How about some cheeses? Ditto that. A sausage? Now I’m in heaven. They’ve saved my bacon.

It’s still a tight community in the Val Lumnezia. My bus driver introduces himself by his first name, and gives me hiking tips. (If this doesn’t seem abnormal, you don’t know the Swiss-Germans). A woman picks me and my friend up during a steep up-hill climb with luggage. The passenger on one of my bus rides carries seedlings in a big woven basket. On another bus ride, the driver pulls up by a restaurant to everyone’s puzzlement. A minute later, newspaper handoff accomplished, he drives away again, leaving behind a satisfied co-worker who now has something to read with his coffee.

At the end of the Val Lumnezia, where the high mountain plateau Greina begins, I visit the village of Vrin. An old man is cleaning his scythe in the communal fountain. Laundry decorate the wooden buildings, which look like they’re blackened from centuries of smoke. I head towards the one place to eat in the village, a bakery, where I’m greeted by a voluble woman who praises the nut cake her husband makes. After she serves me on the terrace, her husband comes up himself to make sure it was all to my taste. Their cheerfulness aside, it’s hard to make a living in these little villages. The income from the months when the tourists come must make up for the long winter months of darkness and few customers.

Bakery Vrin

Stoked on sugar, protein from the nuts, and caffeine, I head off to look at the Hotel Péz Terri. I want climb through Greina over the pass over into the adjoining canton in 2018, and am looking for a departure point. I like what I see in Vrin. The Péz Terri probably hasn’t changed in fifty years. No corporate slick brochures and spa amenities. The young man who seems to be running the entire hotel talks with me about the best times to do the two to three-day mountain pass hike. He probably inherited the place from relatives; he’s cheerful and helpful, and I bet he’s a good cook too.

Entrance to Vrin's pensionejpg

Everyone needs a nice place to stay—even bugs.

Insect refuge

Insect refuge seen on hike

About five minutes out of Vrin I see the hiking path to Lumbrein on my right. I gladly leave the road, though there aren’t many cars. The two-hour hike from Vrin to Lumbrein is a pleasant walk through woods and glades; not too strenuous. The meadows are filled with dandelions, buttercups, clary-sage, and some yarrow. I rest above Lumbrein before continuing, crossing a brook with a newly constructed wooden bridge. As the end of the valley recedes into the distance, trees grow sparser, giving way to huge areas for grazing. With nothing to block my view, I can see the deep rift of the river valleys opposite me, branching off the Lumnezia. The sky isn’t mottled by a single cloud; the sun beats down; one of the first true days of summer.

Next year I’ll be back to Vrin, and I’ll continue to the high mountain pass.

On my way back to my hometown, I decide to stop off in Graubünden’s capital, Chur, perhaps best known internationally as the home of H.R. Giger, who designed the monster and the spooky sets for Sigourney Weaver’s break-out movie in 1979, Alien. However, I’m looking for a more heart-warming experience, one that celebrates community and local character. Luckily, I happen to have arrived on a Saturday, when Chur’s local market is in full swing.

Chur Marketplace

Ochsenplatz and Market

As tempted as I am by all the bread, cheeses, fruits, and other delicacies around, I have more than an hour’s trip back to St. Gallen, and my own kitchen table. I start scouting for a restaurant, and with luck, stumble upon Emma’s, a communal enterprise located near the Ochsenplatz, which translates ox place. The Ochsenplatz, part of the market that winds through several pedestrian streets, abuts the old city wall and a guard tower. According to my doe-eyed waiter, the old city wall still persists inside the surrounding apartments as well, visible in some of the kitchen walls. Emma’s itself looks like an old cellar on the inside, repainted in soothing pastels. Outside there are tables nudging up against the cheese-seller, who has her market stall right next to me. One of the owners, a young woman in a retro skirt, sits on the steps of the restaurant and chats with a table full of friends while her mother brings out drinks. Every day Emma offers one salty snack, and one sweet. I enjoy homemade smoked salmon rolls enhanced with crunchy beets, along with a glass of a local white wine, a Lauber Riesling Sylvaner. While Emma’s has great wines, don’t expect any bottled water. Since privatization of water creates an increasing threat to the well-being of the world, Emma’s serves fresh clean water from the Ochsenplatz. The 4 francs paid for the local water is donated to a project to improve water quality in Asia. (They didn’t actually charge me for the water, but I paid anyway). Clearly, the people who run Emma have their hearts in the right place.

Snack at Emma's

Emma’s snack of the day

And I got a great cup of Fair Trade coffee.

My last discovery of a rare treasure in Chur:

washing machines

The laundromat

Because while the scene below, in the village of Vrin, is picturesque, it’s not convenient for backpackers or hikers.

IMG_4364

The outdoor laundromat, for those with extra time

 

 

Writers Groups

pingtung-1167311_1920Writing a novel is hard, tedious, lonely, and occasionally inspiring work. Day after day the sentences accrue, the pages grow longer. But who truly writes for themselves, now that Emily Dickinson has been dead those many years.

When will the pay-off come for those weeks of desolate doldrums, those hours spent shut up with a host of imaginary friends to the detriment of real people waiting for attention?

That is when having the support of a writer’s group makes a difference. Just having the chance to air a small slice of the novel reanimates it; the viewing through different eyes, the chance to connect with an audience, however small and skeptical, keeps the hope alive that one day your book will reach many, move some, anger some, make some see things a new way.

It’s like running a marathon and having someone with a bottle of fresh water along the way, having your neighbor down the street wave at you, having a child proffer you a bevy of balloon.

It doesn’t help you win the race, but it makes the going easier.

 

Adaptation

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you #travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.

Dedicated to Hilarie B.

img_3411

Stranger Things and #Eleven

I like the show Stranger Things. It’s a mash-up of eighties movies like E.T. and Poltergeist, but that’s not why I watch it. Eleven, a girl with psychokinetic powers, is a delight to watch.

My Peppa Mueller trilogy is already written, so Eleven is not an inspiration, but rather an affirmation: viewers and readers want vulnerable, yet strong, female heroes.

Eleven is ravenous, but polite.  The cool exterior, the laconic and precise voice, bely a terrifying power. There is something so controlled about her exterior, until all control is abandoned, and she unleashes her power. We enjoy watching someone so young and so fragile suddenly take control of a situation.

Like my character, Peppa Mueller, she has a father who can only relate to her as someone to aid his experiments, though in Eleven’s case, the man she calls Papa is no blood relation. Like Peppa, Eleven isn’t sure how to act like a girl. El traipses around in a borrowed pink dress, looking faintly ridiculous. Only her lack of self-consciousness saves her from humiliation.

That, and her superpowers.

 Peppa’s falcon totem superpowers are not nearly so cinematically impressive, but then I’m aiming more for Lisbeth Salander than Stephen King’s Carrie. With limited superpowers, Peppa has to rely on deductive reasoning and some cunning, as well as some good friends.

Even with those differences, in the universe of female superheroes, there are less than six degrees of separation between Peppa and El.

stranger-things-eleven-2

Playlist for Altering Your Consciousness

As a novelist, you need to open your mind and alter your consciousness. That’s especially true if you write fantasy with a shimmer of spiritual reverence.  Putting on my music acts as a cue to my psyche that we’re going to journey into that internal dream-like space where ideas and impressions assemble themselves into stories.

I’ve come across some artists whose evocative and trippy music is very special to me. They’ve given me permission to share their songs with you. Like most artists, they do it for the love, not the money, but if you like a song, you might consider buying an album.

Artist                Album                  Song

01. Govinda      Sound Sutras      There’s no one there

02. Digitonal    Save Your Light for Darker Days

Nothing Left to Say

03. Ikarus             Touch the Sun      Touch the Sun

04. Robert Carty    Garunda Valley   Serotonin Ashram

05. Magic Sound Fabric  Freedom Star    Perfect Light