Going Back or The City of our Dreams or, Simply, Vienna

I was offline while visiting the city of my childhood, Vienna, and introducing my own children to the delights of Wiener Schnitzel (received with enthusiasm), Sachertorte (even more enthusiasm) and Apfelstrudel (less so). There were fewer old classmates at the school anniversary than I expected, but it was nevertheless exciting to be back. Missed flight on the way out, additional expenses, lack of internet access, endless construction sites and tired feet (which led to complaining children) did not dampen my ardour. I’ve written about my love for Vienna before, which even extends to its crime fiction.

Palais Kinsky in Vienna

And yet… I was reminded how difficult it is to recreate the city that once meant so much to you. That city is lost forever, no matter how hard you try to fit the sparkling fragments together. Here is something I wrote a while back about it. 

I started musing how my whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them.   I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine.  When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind.  With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave.  Does anybody else feel like that?

My son taking a picture of the balcony from which Hitler spoke to the cheering masses, 15th March 1938.

It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent.  I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time.  But the experience is unrepeatable.  Even if I go back with the best of good intentions to that country, it will never feel the same again.  If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely.  Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more.  It will certainly never again feel like home.

Hazy view of Vienna from the hills.

I was very lucky a few years ago to return for a couple of months to Vienna in almost exactly the same conditions I had lived there before during my childhood.  I stayed with a friend who had known me since I was three, she lived just a few streets down from where I had grown up.  Vienna itself is a city that changes subtly rather than rapidly, so I found myself remembering even the tram routes and little shops.  I met up with old friends and slipped easily into dialect.  And yet… I am not that same person, I am not the same age, I do not have that same attitude and innocence.  Vienna was lovely, welcoming, filled with nostalgia for me…   All the externals were right, but it was no longer home.

My corner of paradise, the Vienna Woods and the 3 hills: Cobenzl, Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg.

People do ask me:  ‘Don’t you feel bad about having no place to call home?’ and I often laugh it off, saying: ‘But I feel at home anywhere!’  And I certainly do believe that and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to call so many beautiful places home.  (Also, any place that is home becomes beautiful, even if it didn’t look so promising to start off with.)

To quote the old drinking song: ‘O Du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin…’ (Oh, poor Augustin, everything’s gone!)

But sometimes I do wonder if, by leaving little chunks of my heart in so many different places, I will end up in smithereens.  And why I couldn’t  spend more time in those places where I have been happiest.

What place do you call home?  Do you feel you can repeat your experience of living in a certain place, or is it best to just wallow in unfulfilled nostalgia?

If This Be Nostalgia, I Am Guilty

I want to be once more on the land
when April brings a frosty surprise,
where even August can powder with snow.
September smiles indolent and clement, umbrellas are pointless.
Lime trees put on a show as they fall in our hair,
as we hide in their tunnels, as we skip class at school.
I want indigestion with memories both false and true.
I want clothes for all seasons,
and not just babies with fuzz-ripened skin.
Sharp-clawed darkness, the wolves howling from forests
that linger primordial near clean-ploughed fields.
I want you and I to be younger,
not necessarily a happy end.

I am linking this to Open Link Night at the dVerse Poets Pub, where the living is easy, the drinks are plentiful and the poetry is magnificent!

The Search

I looked around for beauty but I got distracted

by the grey rain streaks echoed on my kitten’s fur

as she sits all pensive on the window sill.

All I notice are water-stained window panes.

 

My brain fries synapses and skips seven beats.

She darts forth on sure-footed pads through the snow

like a lynx in the mountains I no longer have before me

to make up for the fault in my wiring.

 

I missed the deadline on dVerse Poets for the poetic prompt on anthropomorphism of beloved pets, but I am not sure that this poem would have been quite suitable for it anyway. So I am linking it instead to Open Link Night. Join me there for some poetic fun during this month of poetry celebration!

 

The Nostalgia of La La Land

It seems that everyone and their dog has been to see La La Land this past weekend and I was no exception. Oh, yes, I succumb to herd instinct just as well as anyone, although the Golden Globe wins very nearly put me off (I perversely don’t like films that make a clean sweep of things). But I wanted to make up my own mind and I rather like musicals: West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are among my favourite films ever.

So here’s my verdict (spoilers ahead, so don’t read now if you are planning on seeing it): sweet and very nostalgic, a piece of escapism for hard times, but a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste.  And by that, I don’t mean the endless film references, which I quite enjoyed.

Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.
Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.

First of all, the good bits. The music was very enjoyable, even though I would describe the singing of the male and female leads as brave rather than impressive. Even the white mansplaining of jazz did not disturb me as much as it did other viewers, because I am all about promoting the love of jazz in whatever form. Admittedly, I would agree with the character played by John Legend, who says the best way to keep jazz alive is not to enshrine it in a museum, but to keep on experimenting with it and updating it. The love story had both a floaty-happy feel to it, but was not overly sentimental, there was a hint of realism (and of the screwball comedies of the 1930s).

However, what irritated me was the supposed highlight of the film, when Mia auditions for the role of her life, to be filmed in Paris. She talks/sings about following your dream, being creative and different, trying your best – and this is Hollywood at its most cloying self-delusional state. This is Hollywood as it would like to believe it is: pushing the boundaries, open to new things. They think they want the eccentrics and misfits and true originals, when in fact most of the time they are focused on the box office results and keep remaking old successes (Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters) or sequel after sequel of tried and tested favourites, like X-Men 234 or Fast and Furious 32 or whatever number they’ve reached.

Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately...
Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately…

Also, if the message of the film was that you can’t have it all: the outstanding career, fame, success and the soulmate of your dreams, it nevertheless reiterated the idea of ‘follow your passion’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘you can excel at some thing’. But what about those of us who have only average talents, who end up with middling lives, a so-so relationship, a family they sometimes love to pieces but occasionally resent, a career that doesn’t live up to expectations but pays most of the bills, perhaps express some of their talent as hobbies at weekends? About 85% of people (rough estimate) end up like that (and that’s the best case scenario, for others will struggle to make ends meet or develop any talents at all). Well, I suppose life would become unbearable if we didn’t believe ourselves capable of moving outside that 85%? And if we are already resigned to it, then we probably head off to see La La Land and other cosy nostalgic fare with occasional flashes of inspiration. A mug of tea which reminds us of the ballerina or astronaut or Nobel Prize Winner we knew we were going to become.

Nostalgia, of course, does well in times of uncertainty and anxiety about world events. Comfort reading and comfort viewing will thrive in the era of melancholy that ‘nothing is as good as it used to be’, combined with the ‘Weltschmerz’ of directionless panic, the sensation of trying to build on quicksand and having doors slammed in your face. So I don’t blame La La Land for playing the nostalgia card.

But perhaps it’s worth remembering that nostalgia was a term coined in the late 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, to refer to the seeming depression displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from home. It was more than homesickness, and returning home did not always cure them – sometimes it even killed them. As any expat returning ‘home’ knows: home has moved on. Nostalgia is not the longing for a specific place, but for a different time, an idealised time which most likely never existed, when things were simpler, choices more clear-cut.

Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com
Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com

The alternative dream of Sebastian and Mia in La La Land remains beautiful and precious because it was never given a chance. In reality, it may well have descended into incompatible aspirations, rancour and petty arguments. I had my own Sebastian in high school, the only person who ever held me to account over my writing ambitions and who believed I had the talent. I used to wonder how much we might have achieved together, but the truth is…

Life and the relentless day-to-day of it makes mincemeat of us all. Uncertainty and mess is all that we’ve got. The desire for rest and order and beauty is our only weapon against it. Call it nostalgia, if you will.

 

Nostalgia: The One That Got Away

Sacha Black has a ‘Writespiration‘ this week themed around a nostalgia that hurts in less than 200 words. I’ll give you first the flash fiction, then the back story.

When you are thirteen, your cousin’s best friend is the knight from fairy tales: tall, dark, handsome, blue-eyed. How could he walk, talk, breathe amongst us mere mortals? And yet he looked at you, kissed you,  so you wrote to each other for two years. You lived for your brief meetings. No cross word ever passed between you.

You parted as good friends, moved on to other lives, other people, marriage, children, divorce, remarriage. You studied and worked in different countries, met again on LinkedIn. Grey hair, little paunch, wrinkles – and that’s just the flattering pictures. Older yet not much wiser, you knew he had been The One, but you were both too young to understand or to need each other all those years ago. No going back, no proof of discontent with your present life, but you wanted to let him know how you felt about him back then.

You let him in through a gap in your armour. You held out the shivering pulp of raw heart. You try to be fair, not see disgust or hasty retreat where none was intended. But the silence was thunderous.

flowerfade

He was my cousin’s neighbour and best friend. He was like something out of fairy-tales: tall, dark and handsome, with the most amazing blue eyes. I couldn’t believe someone as beautiful as that could walk and talk and do all the normal (i.e. silly) things that my cousin and I were doing.

Whenever I passed through the town where my aunt and uncle lived, we would go out in a large group of friends for walks, go rowing on the lake, get lost in the forest, linger through cemeteries. The usual teenager stuff. We laughed, we talked, and I dared not hope that he would ever think of me as more than Bobby’s little cousin.

And then one day our fingers brushed against each other. A silence fell between the two of us, as our hands found each other. The others continued to walk and joke, but we felt set apart. Our eyes were drinking each other in.

We never lived in the same town, so for a couple of years after that we lived on letters and phone calls. There was one public phone at the post office in the village where he went to boarding school and he was only allowed to use it once a week. I would try to plan my weekends around that call, never quite knowing at what time it would come.

But life went on and others entered our lives. We parted as good friends. We both married young, divorced, formed new relationships, had children. We found each other again online, with careers taking us all over the world, with a few extra kilos and greying hair.

The moment has passed. Our courage and idealism have withered, even if a small seed beneath remains unchanged. There is no use asking: ‘What if…?’ We were too young then to know that we had already found the perfect partner all those years ago.

So we beat on, boats against the current….

This was one of the very first stories I wrote for Cowbird on the 14th of February, 2012 for the Valentine’s Day collection. The theme was ‘First Love’. I felt the story would be incomplete if the above-mentioned first love did not get a chance to read it. We had recently got in touch again after decades of not hearing much about each other (he had found me on Linked In). We had parted on good terms, we had moved on, had rich and fulfilling lives, so there was nothing desperate or stalkerish about my email to him with the link to the story.

I just wanted him to know how much he had meant to me at the time. Because I was too young and foolish back then to express it.

It’s been four years since I sent that email. I have not heard from him at all since. Not on Linked In or email or anything else.

I know emails can get stuck in spam folders or deleted. People can get busy or forgetful. The heartbreak is minor, negligible, easy to laugh at wryly, easy to explain away. It was, after all, so long ago. Spring has come and new life is budding forth. I am full of energy and plans, I do not look back.

But beyond all the excuses and shrugs… there is a younger, more tremulous heart within this hardened crust which does now have scars. And the memory of that first love is no longer quite so serene.

 

Nostalgic Moment: Happy Easter!

Easter is the biggest annual celebration in the Greek Orthodox church, so at this time of year I tend to get rather homesick. I failed to find the right kind of dye (traditionally, it should be red) for my Easter eggs this year, so I’ll have to make do with these beautiful images from home. Happy Easter to all of you who are celebrating this weekend!

welcome2romania.wordpress.com
welcome2romania.wordpress.com
360romania.com
360romania.com
info-pitesti.ro
info-pitesti.ro

 

Flash of Memory

You hunch over all gangly, tongue-twisting blush,

 

thick glasses peering at your computer, the visual rush,

 

while I bask in the warmth of drawn curtains, crumpets for tea.

 

Distant buzz of communal payphones. You never quite ignore me.

 

‘Mmmm, speeeed…’ you mutter

 

and the honey-drenched murmur seeps through my body like butter.

Buttered crumpet
Buttered crumpet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is my offering for the Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub. Do join us there for some fun and huge diversity of voices!

The Barbican Centre, 20 Years On

English: Barbican Arts Centre
English: Barbican Arts Centre (Photo credit: Wikipedia) 

I went to London recently and walked through the Barbican Centre on a balmy evening. All of a sudden, I remembered the first time I had come here, when I was still new to England and to Western ways of being.

Was it November or February?

We were down from Cambridge for the day.

Nights fell early, that I do know.

A few lost flakes of snow found us embracing on terraces

as we meandered through endless walkways.

Twenty years and we still haven’t found the play or entrance to the theatre.

How we giggled as yet another dead end loomed,

never thinking that soon

we would face our own

blocked corridors, no-exit wounds.

London, Barbican Centre at night
London, Barbican Centre at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We practiced our dancing by the lakeside, exulting

in winter dearth of its fountains

no parallels no metaphors

to make our ballroom steps falter.

Twenty years and yet

your hand feels warm

wrapped around mine, safety illusory.

Today the fountains are trumpeting water and sound

to fill hearts with peace, minds with Zen chanting.

There are still summer cadences to this September lull.

My life? Oh, turned out fair to middling,

not as deeply blissful as I once glimpsed

through our entwined limbs on narrow college bed.

So why do I stop to ripple out, retreat,

why allow my heart to drum out aching beats?

Barbican Centre fountains
Barbican Centre fountains

You see, I was hoping

that you too might never have felt such joy since,

such lust-laden satiety.

But now I think it likely

you have, and more than once,

it’s just me

who lingers on borders of might have beens

slurping in nostalgia along with daily bread

destined to mourn not be mourned over

remember rather than be memorable.

When they open me after death

and find the wizened heart of walnut size,

they will see your name folded in tightly

source of all the dry rot

killing belief in mumbo-jumbo of twin souls.

Once, when I was twenty, I was not brave enough

to defy conventions

and go out to meet my turquoise-fired lover.

And I’ve been paying ever since.

[This is very much work in progress, only a rough initial draft of the poem. But the impression of the setting was so immediate, so vivid that it made me cry and I felt compelled to share, especially since we were asked to revisit something painful at dVerse Poets today. I’m off to read what others have written about, why don’t you join me?]