Thursday, May 28, 2009

Warsaw (from memory)

Warsaw is a city where you feel constantly exposed. Perhaps this sensation is a hangover from viewing old aerial photographs of the city after the war, the ruined buildings poking out of the rubble with their entrails exposed, miles and miles of them, layers of history obliterated in a few months. People say that it is one of the few cities in history to undergo such systematic destruction that it consequently lost its soul. Or perhaps it comes from the width of the streets, made for the passage of tanks and marching armies. The boulevards of Warsaw could host an unforgettable car chase if not for the inhibiting factor of traffic gridlock at most hours of the day. Perhaps it is the bulk of the Palac Kultury i Nauki looming over the city, the building which Stalin gave to the Poles in the fifties. It has been endlessly maligned but I reserve an affection for it as the site of many cinematic escapades and tete-a-tetes (tetes-a tete?), a place to view and review Warsaw on every visit. (Click here if you want to read more about 'the Palace's unique ability to encode and compel the changing constructions of individual and collective narratives of Polish identity.' )

It is this sense of exposure which makes the boltholes that much more attractive where they can be found. One of these is a bar known to me only as 'the kurwidołek' (vulg., 'place where there are prostitutes'), within a block or two of Marcin's old apartment building on Ulica Hoza. It is a dim-lit place, presided over by a pockmarked, long-haired barman who looks as though he has been taking lifestyle advice from Keith Richards. The walls are draped (in memory if not in fact) in purple velvet. It is a place without windows, entirely divorced from external reality, which closes when everybody goes home. It has the ambience of someone's loungeroom, with couches strewn about and such limited visibility that you can only see the person you came with, and others recede to shapes in the gloom. In this womblike space love affairs grow (including mine), watered by vodka, and sometimes die for lack of sun.

These are my twin impressions of Warsaw: the secret city, with its renewed soul, its lovers and drunks and whores, and the wide-open city made for constant surveillance. It's easier to pronounce like this from a distance, where the detail doesn't interfere.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Luisa Helen Frey

Today I read of the death of Luisa Frey, whose blog I have followed for the past couple of years, admiring her discipline, enjoying her love for S. and passion for words, appreciating her honesty. Her life has touched mine, gently, obliquely, from the other side of the world. Now her death touches me too. I am thinking of S., who must be living a nightmare that defies imagination.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Reading Czeslaw Milosz, looking for the keys to the Slavic soul, I find instead something more complicated. I find myself understanding for the first time that religion matters, and that the ferocious battles of the Enlightenment (science vs religion, God vs nature, empiricism vs metaphysics) have left their mark on my own mind. I have never bothered to consider religion in any way- I have always thought that the discussion is over and that it's entirely beside the point. The things which Christianity provided- a sense of the centrality of human beings in the universal scheme, a sense of wonder- seem to me to be perfectly possible without God.

It turns out that my atheism is not a straightforward inheritance from my parents, bolstered by my own adult tendency to empiricism. In fact I am heir to these ancient struggles, and my currents of thought have roots in a time long before my conception.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Zealand again

Some months later, and the details have faded before I have managed to record them here. What's left is a distillation of selected highlights. (What this means is that although I think I can remember every meal we ate, place we slept and person we spoke to, I'm not going to inflict it on my readers).

Coming down to The Gates of Haast from the pass through a drenched vertical landscape thunderous with the descent of water, steep walls rising on either side. It is gloomy and excessively green, vegetation crawling on every surface. We stop to let our brakes cool and take some photos but the strange chlorophyll light won't allow itself to be captured: the pictures are saturated with brightness in some parts, sodden with darkness in others. The air is so wet that I can feel its damp touch on my skin. When we're finally disgorged into the grassy, innocuous flatlands, it's a relief.

Waking up to see the white flanks of a mountain that had been cowled in cloud all afternoon finally revealing itself, and riding all morning beside blue-green rivers. Around every corner another peak slides into view. A car passes us with a trailer full of dead deer: there is dew caught in their fur and the inert bodies jig slightly as the trailer sways on a bend.

Riding all day in the rain, with nowhere to stop for 60 km except the Copland Bus Shelter. We set our sights on it for 40 km but when we arrive find it infested with sandflies. We eat a muesli bar, standing, and converse with some malodorous hikers who have just traversed the Alps from Mount Cook.

The first sight of the tongue of Fox Glacier, protruding down through the rainforest from its mist-veiled neve. We walk up from the carpark with our heavy boots and woollen socks dragging at the end of our legs. When we step out onto the ice, everything is suddenly different. The temperature drops 10 degrees and the light shifts from green to blue-white. The crampons even necessitate another way of walking, feet flat to the ground, biting into the ice and requiring a slight wrench to free them. There are layers of ash in the glacier that have blown across the Tasman from our own domestic bushfires. I stand on the surface, eroded like limestone into crevasses and strange peaks, listening to the water run in its invisible channels and feeling fragile and organic .

For a while after returning, I see things in my world I have never seen before. I read the placards scattered along Canada Bay describing estuarine ecology and the mechanics of mangroves I pay attention to a (very large) sandstone house near Tarban Creek that I have been riding past every day for years and have never noticed. This new vision lasts for a couple of weeks before it is eroded by familiarity and I am back in my old mental landscape, blinded by routine to everything around me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Queenstown-Lake Hawea: 3 Jan

We started to ride early, up the valley to Arrowtown, sun shining, birds singing, traffic mercifully light. After an hour or so of riding my ankle was still intact (to my great relief) so I took 2 ibuprofen and we proceeded to the Crown Range Road. Followed around 20 km of climbing , watching the snowy peaks slowly emerge all around us as we got higher and higher, trying to ride in a straight line and keep our wheels on the ground during the final near-vertical kilometre. On the top there was a tortured tree and a little plaque naming the pass as the highest (paved) road in NZ, and a road sign warning traffic that the next 40 km would be downhill (!!!!!!).

And so it was. Initially a steep drop through a lot of switchbacks, crossing the Cardrona River 12 times in its infant stages. Then down down down, all the way to the lakeside at Wanaka. Another spectacular blue wind-whipped lake, surrounded by more steep young mountains. We weren't tired yet so continued on to Lake Hawea where we spent the night listening to the (head) wind blowing through the trees around the tent and hoping for a meteorological miracle to bring us a southerly in the morning.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Queenstown 1-2 Jan

Again woke up feeling like hit by a truck, a sensation similar to jetlag but in the body rather than the head. Before too long we had an argument and decided to avoid each other for the afternoon. Having the advantage of not being hungover, I went walking beside the lake, and took a thousand photos of the scenic peaks, blue choppy water and the steamboat beating across to Walter Peak farm on the other side of Lake Wakatipu (it later transpired that Marcin had gone one better, descending into a glass-walled tank below the water to observe the incredible diving ducks).

I had a pain in my Achilles which got worse and worse as the day progressed- by evening I felt like a zombie with a sports injury. I hobbled around town feeling more and more paranoid that I wouldn't be able to ride. It rained all day. When we got up the next day it was raining again and we decided not to go anywhere. We went up the mountain during the day (rain) and I limped around complaining and generally ruining our fun. In the evening we ate dinner with a Dutch couple who were also cycling - one was a doctor and we talked about his doctoring days in Zambia and I got some free medical advice about my ankle. Early to bed, me with my foot on the pannier as a belated attempt at elevation of the afflicted limb.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Otago Rail Trail-29-31 Dec

Wake up in Middlemarch and do some tyre-switching, and set off around 11. It is burning hot with a huge sky- the countryside is barren and shadeless and looks like a steppe or a prairie. We ride and eat, eat and ride. In the middle of the afternoon we nap by a stream in a shaded gorge. There is an insistent piping sound and I wonder, half-asleep, if there is an exotic flightless bird in the vicinity. After a while it becomes clear that it's a lost lamb looking for its mother. These (and rabbits) are still the only animals we've seen.]

There are plaques every couple of kilometres beside the trail and we stop conscientiously to read them all. Thus we learn about the Taieri Pet, a cloud formation created when the north-westerly blows up over the Rock and Pillar Range, piling the cloud in towering layers. We also learn that the steam trains were liable to set the countryside on fire with sparks from their engine-boxes, and that barrels of water were kept near wooden bridges so that any passersby could douse them if they caught alight.

In the evening we start to ride again. About ten or fifteen kilometres from Ranfurly we stop at a pub to fill our water. There are unfriendly signs on the door threatening cyclists who try to have a surreptitious piss and get unauthorised liquids. It turns out to be the last preserve of the local bogan species and we have a beer and watch them come and go in their trucks, red swollen men and little dessicated women, all with fags hanging from their hands.
We sleep in the campground at Ranfurly. Because the sun goes down so late, it's hard to stay awake until dark. We are fed, watered and reading The New Yorker (told you it had a lot of words) by sunset.

I wake up in the morning feeling like I've been hit by a truck. Probably the heat the previous day. We pack everything anyway, choke down some unadorned porridge then go to the supermarket for real breakfast. When we start riding I feel OK. It's cooler than the previous day but the wind is picking up again. We cross the pass and also the 45th parallel, halfway between the south pole and the equator. From there we are suddenly riding downhill all the way to Omakau and our second night's camp.

In the campground we meet a scientist working on discovering the causes of diurnal changes in diameter of pine trees. He is utterly incapable of small talk so we discuss stem diameters and dendrographs for a while. There are also 2 kids riding the trail with their parents- their mother tells us that there's a no-whingeing policy, but when the going gets tough they get a piece of chocolate every 3 kilometres. Nobody seems to have informed them about stranger danger so they pop up every few minutes asking questions- what do you eat for energy? Where do you come from? Why do you have accents? When are you catching the boat to Wellington. Camped beside us are another family from a different demographic (the kids have mullets and have to carry all their own gear) who keep to themselves and strenuously ignore us when we try to talk to them.

In the morning the scientist is up first- he sleeps in a coffin-like bivvy bag and has no incentive to linger in bed. We are also up early and eat a huge plate of leftover pasta before setting off. We cover the 30 km to Clyde a bit sadly, stopping every 10 seconds to take photos. There are fields of purple flowers everywhere and we pass the smallest post office in NZ. We try to buy a postcard to send Ange and Renee but nobody's around. It's still more or less downhill, beside a river now so that the enormous sky is held at bay. At the very end of the trail we see a family who's just started riding and have a puncture already. That's the only puncture we've seen on the whole trail.

At the end of the trail we stop and eat all the food we have left- cheese sandwiches, nutella, some tomatoes that have seen better days. We sit on the damp grass, eating and looking at the road we're going to take- it's uphill and the traffic is heavy, and we both get depressed.
The hill is brief but the traffic is real. After 3 days on a carless track we're used to being kings of the road and aren't keen on sharing. Also, there is a raging headwind that sweeps occasional showers towards us. We labour up the valley towards Cromwell beside a milky-blue dam, half considering stopping there for the night. The next town after that is Queenstown, another 50 km away.

We eat in Cromwell and I buy a tube to replace the one that exploded. It's still early so we decide to keep going, thinking that we can spend NY Eve in Queenstown living it up. The wind is still raging and we stop to buy cherries just outside town-we can't carry them so we just sit there next to the road in the eddies of dust and eat half a kilo of them. Then off we go.

The road is narrow and rather busy. We're riding in a gorge with a speedy river the same colour as the dam roiling along beside us. It starts raining but there's nowhere to stop and put on our rain gear so we just keep going. There's about 20 cm of chewed-up shoulder we can claim as our own, and it takes all our concentration to stay on the white line and keep off the road, while also avoiding falling over the railing into the gorge. The shoulder is populated with the damp, decomposing bodies of stoats which we ride over every few kilometres.

It keeps on raining. Apart from the lack of space, the cycling isn't bad-the elevation drawing made it look like an endless uphill but it's not the case. Coming out of the gorge there is a break in the traffic and we ride along for a few peaceful minutes through the misty hills with the hawks circling above us. We stop for 3 minutes to eat our emergency cake but have to start agan because we start to freeze.

On and on through the rain. We arrive, finally, in Queenstown in the evening, and find there's nowhere to stay except the rugby field. We desperately don't want to sleep there and eventually find a place in the campground, though not without considerable risk to our marriage. We find a bungalow which is not being used, and pitch our tent on the verandah. It's dry there, secluded, and we have a view down over the lake and the peaks of the Remarkables (they are).
After dinner we sit on our verandah with a bottle of wine, not saying much. Marcin suggests we go into the tent and talk in there. Within 10 seconds we're both unconscious, and the midnight fireworks barely make an impression.