Archive for October, 2012
London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Meteora, Katerini
March 29 – April 18th
This series spans opposite sides of the summer: when it began, I was in London, getting ready to return to America for my masters’ fieldwork, describing a central European trip I took with a friend from Iowa. As I finish that story, I’m back in a London, dissertation complete, planning what to do next. The time immediately after completing a degree (or any major project) can seem too much like a vacation: after long hours of hard work, structure suddenly disappears, leaving a more abstract sense of pressure with the next challenges. But just as in a job search, the harder parts of a vacation involve knowing where to look – and what to look for – in an environment that is by its nature unfamiliar.
Being in a distant city creates something of a paradox, and the city is (by nature) a creature of density and familiarity. In Flesh and Stone (1994), Richard Sennet describes bodies moving “passively, desensitized in space” (p.18) across the contemporary urban landscape, conquering ever-greater stretches of land experiencing it less vividly. “Space has thus become a means to the end of pure motion…the driver wants to go through the space, not to be aroused by it” (p.17-18). Despite his doom and gloom on the desensitization wrought by travel, Sennet’s larger point about the Western city is that its ideals were once marked by bodily contact and mutual awareness, whereas today it is a place where people can be together, separate. “Once a mass of bodies packed tightly together in the centers of cities, the crowd today has dispersed” (21), geographically, globally, idealistically. One of the ironies of travel is that even if the journey is ignored, destinations come with the obligation to observe. You can travel a distance by train or car through one countryside, without looking out the window, to take a tour bus through another.
Sennet opens with a quotation from Aristotle’s Poetics: “A city is composed of different kinds of men: similar people cannot bring a city into existence.” As a leisure traveler, one becomes ‘different people’ in perhaps the most literal sense – the one who has come because the place is different and renowned, without necessarily ingraining oneself in the community life of the area.
My family got lucky on the days we picked to visit my sister in Minnesota; we heard that the leaves hit their peak that weekend, which we got to see along the open fields that turn to tree-lined corridors on the drive from Iowa northward. There are valleys, trees, bends and lakes everywhere around Duluth, the city’s hillsides sloping toward Lake Superior. My sister drives past them every day on her way to work, lingering just a little less (all things considered) than the tourists in booked-up hotels who flock there on the weekends this time of year.
Duluth’s downtown is distinctly solid stone and brick, built in an industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still quite wealthy. The view over Lake Superior from its hillsides are expansive waters, a bridge to Wisconsin, industrial plateaus and residential peninsulas. Vistas like this are amazing but no less plentiful throughout the world: a lookout from on high recalls – haven’t we been here before? Water is water, right? It all flows together eventually. Such is another pardox of travel: you go to a place because its different, and find yourself only able to compare it to things that have come before. It should also go without saying that if one wants to preserve these views, they are easy to photograph casually but hard to capture in their immensity.
Here, somewhat haphazardly, the story connects back with Europe, and a bend in the Danube at the ruins of Devin Castle, on the outskirts of Bratislava, easily accessible by the local bus lines. The remaining walls of the castle look solid, even if the absence of other walls clearly states the challenges of age, while along the road that runs along the Danube below the castle one immediately runs into an abandoned hotel. The valley and the river beyond are remarkable in how undisturbed they look, all things considered. Water, then trees on a plateau to the horizon.
When Duluth was rising, Bratislava was called Pressburg and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The fallout from WorldWar I created Czechslovakia (which encompassed Prague) and sent the majority Germans and Hungarians (split at just over 40% of the population each by the 1910 census) on a permanent vacation. Czechoslovakia peacefully split in 1992, leaving Bratislava – by then mostly Slovak – the capital of Slovakia and Prague the capital of the Czech Republic. While Bratislava is noticeably more subdued than Prague – owing, no doubt to the rain and its less tourism-centric economy – the squares of both cities were marked by Easter Markets in the season (see also, Part Two).
The Sedlac ossuary (which we visited a few days before Bratislava) can be viewed as a parody of Sennet’s ideals about the ancient city. Located at Kutna Hora (close to Prague, and like Duluth, also, a city whose wealth was tied to its mineral deposits), the church is most vividly marked by the 1870 flourishes of local craftsman František Rint: the conspicuous arrangement of the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people, from the 13th century to the 19th , into a chandelier, stacks, coats-of-arms, and other displays. In its immediacy, contemporary thoughts can place it terms of devotion, perversion, or simple practicality; one could find parallels, for example, in the hearts-made-of-skulls in the Paris catacombs, Ed Gein’s furniture, or (really) any number of global funerary practices. Especially around Easter it is a direct, macabre vision of the promise of the Christian resurrection. If one believes literally, this is the valley of dry bones, compacted into a single room for easy perusal. Or, as a counterpoint from one of the atheists I’ve spent time with during my fieldwork, a former undertaker – “once you’ve seen a three-day bloat, you realize no one’s coming back from that.”
Owing to the Orthodox Church having its Easter a week later than most other denominations’ and my travel schedule, my Easter season lasted a week longer than usual; I celebrated the holiday a second time on Corfu, a sizable Greek island off the country’s west coast. I stayed with a friend at her sister’s flat; their mom had sent a mass of food across the country (from their home in Katerini, on the east coast, and whom I would meet later in the week) with other family friends, who also shared the apartment space for the holidays.
Corfu is a holiday destination for Easter, appropriate to the mix of family, friends, and tourists that we, collectively, represented. What struck me most about the holiday was the extent to which the ritual is unified across several levels: expansively, via Christianity; nationally, via mass media; culturally, via the shared ritual; and locally, via the swelling of the city with the other friends and strangers who meet there.
The weekend is awash with the performance of traditions, including the midnight feast on Saturday following the dietary restrictions of Lent. As I mentioned, in the case of our meals, the food had been brought, literally, from the other side of the country. After this – and throughout the weekend, at houses and in the streets – people play games of cracking hard-boiled eggs (dyed red for Jesus’ blood) together to see whose can last the longest. The same night – with candles lit from a flame flown from Jerusalem – hundreds gathered near at the beach. We sang carols; the priest chanted beneath a gazebo, and fireworks went off, all while we tried our best to shield our flames from the salty sea breeze . These traditions – which in their immediacy, create an immense emotional, liminal effect – are reinforced as a part of things larger through the casual background noise of mass media, the televised images of celebrities, everyday people and priests throughout the country performing the same actions.
At the same time, the experience of the holidays Corfu is intensely local. The city’s bands march through the narrow, Venetian-influenced streets, performing sadder music Friday that builds to triumph on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday morning, vases of all sizes – with messages written by local organizations – are thrown out the window of a downtown building. There are two stories I heard of the origin of the custom. One to scare off Satan in time for Jesus’ arrival; two that it was a Venetian spring cleaning custom. Whatever we’re supposed to feel about the event or the economy, the rituals throughout the weekend spill onto the sidewalks as people eat or drink, some and others not observing the prohibitions of Lent.
There are so many things no one has bothered to write about in any systematic fashion. In anthropology, few people had written about play. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) stood as one of the most extensive treatments, parts of which I’ve been thoroughly engaged with throughout the summer. Huizinga is, rightfully taken to task on the issue of boundaries, his portrayal of play as an activity existing in a ‘magic circle’, unbounded from ordinary existence; it is (of course) categorically not, as most famously demonstrated by Clifford Geertz’ piece on the Balinese cockfight, which described the linkages between the game and life outside, the prestige gained from one’s bird winning and the fact that people bet on their own kin group (for examples). Critiquing that same notion in modern ideas – that anything can be categorized to the point of separation – has been a recurrent theme of post-modernity; so much of modernity is the systematic putting of things into categories (“psychology” over here and “physics” over there), while post-modernity has served as an extended mediation on difficult this is in practice (see: deconstruction, Bruno Latour’s We Never Been Modern, etc etc).
If we view Huizinga as a myth-extrapolater rather than an analyst, we can allow him some indulgences, as at least the myth of play as separate from ordinary life has remained much the same across the last century: play is often considered part of leisure, video games are considered unproductive even by those who find them fun, etc ad nausem. The points Huizinga steers his larger circle toward, further, also bear consideration: a) that play exists before other forms of communication and b) the ritual process (to him, a serious matter) shares many similarities with play: the willful assumption of other roles; suspension of ordinary norms; the entrance to a different (if not entirely separate) world; in a way, a sense of ‘pretend.’
Throughout the streets of Corfu, ritual and tourism and friends and prayer all converge and overlap. In Prague and Bratislava, tension – without a local guide to connect us to the festivities – held as my travel partner and I drifted through Easter, with the markets and their ornate, hollow delicate eggs for sale sale alongside the sex dice. Reaching Bratislava for Good Friday, we drifted through the small chapels, stopping to observe and sometimes to pray. Are we tourists, worshippers, or something in between – or are all these things not playful in Huizinga’s ? No one speaks in the chapels. If you feel a lack of belonging there, they can become an echo chamber for a (very modern Western) self-doubt in one’s own authenticity, as if anyone else’s internal thoughts could be known but to God.
Sennet rather pessimistically (or at least modestly) concludes: “In a diverse world, each person cannot explain what he or she is feeling, who he or she is, to the other….[the body’s] pain comes from God’s demand to live together as exiles” (376). Yet I would argue that in enacting the tourism pilgrimage is to play at these things, too, to experience them as inexact visions in alternate, temporary lives.
Back on Corfu, my friend’s sister asked, “So you study people, right?”
We were waiting for a bus to take me to the outskirts of the city, to Pontikonisi, “Mouse Island,” a popular tourist destination and the only building on which is a small monastery.
I am not sure who goes to the island anymore; battered by high winds and tall waves, it seems most meant to be observed from the land.
“Aren’t people…complicated?” she asked, as the bus rolled in and the thought had to end.
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