In just a little while there will be a scent of the sea mingled with the scent of meadowsweet, ducks gossiping with each other while chewing seaweed, and night time picnics under the yellow overweight August moon. Because the ice is gone and I saw eleven swans today.(Helsinki, Finland; March 2016)
London, it’s been three weeks and how I missed you! I missed circling around the city in the morning light, almost looking in through the Queen’s bedroom window, and almost hitting the Shard with an airplane wing. I missed having sushi for lunch down Oxford street, and I missed the crazy traffic and even crazier cabbies. I missed the morning rush in the tube where nobody elbows and everybody is Sorry and I never have to carry my suitcase up or down the stairs by myself if don’t wish to. This St Patrick’s Day is pink, not green. Magnolias galore, even off Piccadilly. While most people were mainly occupied with where to find green beer, I occupied myself with Les Misérables, along with a theater full of teenagers and university students. Even the miserable lives of Victor Hugo’s characters were glamorous – although nobody wore much pink.
As I walked back to the hotel, pushing through the St Pat’s celebration throngs in Theatreland and Soho, I thought of the infinitesimal likelihood that I would be born into a world where I can admire magnolias, see musicals, and have dinner in a European city any time I wish. Had somebody thrown the dice again I would most likely have been born into a life not very far from the Les Misérables scenes. Or perhaps I have been, on multiple occasions, during other lifetimes? Perhaps this lifetime is the exception, unless I work very very hard towards becoming a better being?
As I crossed Piccadilly on my way out towards Green Park, I resolved to try harder to be grateful, even when I mostly would feel like being miserable. Because even my most miserable day is probably a dream-come-true to another person.
Ingratitude is the dark side of adaptability: we humans constantly recreate our zero-point of reference by weighing it against our surroundings. We adapt, because otherwise we would not stay alive. And when we adapt, we forget that our gratitude should be weighed against an absolute scale, not one that moves along with our ever-changing aspirations and subjective setbacks.
I walked underneath the pink magnolias again and in the dark they were as gray as the rest of London. I sincerely hoped that, as evolution pushes the human species further towards greater challenges that require adaptability, gratitude would not become an extinct trait. (London, United Kingdom; March 2016)
It is the first time this year when one can hear the sea. Not whispering, or roaring, but rustle and swish. Ice against ice, slush lapping the shore. Rustle and swish. Like thousands of thin golden chains and bracelets swirling around in a bowl, there is no more sleeping even underwater.
Spring is soon here, even for the fish.
(Helsinki, Finland; February 2016)
Who knew that Latvia had the most Art Nouveau buildings in all of Europe? I surely didn’t. How lovely would it be to live in a wedding-cake house: pastel-colored building decorated with soft shapes, vine leaves, theatrical masks, or lions and angels? Until one steps inside to discover that while the narrow, tall windows are beautiful, they do not let in much light at all. The outside matters more than the inside. And while the inside may be dark, it is certainly decorated.I wonder who lived in all of these houses? Were there enough wealthy Latvians in Riga in the turn of the century, or were most inhabitants of foreign ethnic origin? And what does it feel like to live in a blue-white building watched over by two huge bored long faces? Who ever saw them during a post-opium-laced-tea dream and decided, “I know, I will put them on the roof of my next house – what a grand idea!”?To the contemporary mind, Art Nouveau seems less like new art and more like old art. Perhaps the shapes and the wholeness of the style, from architecture to art, was fresh. But covering a house in white cream the shape of seashells, lions, statues, and vine leaves sounds more rococo than new. Perhaps it was art nouveau that Ayn Rand’s hero architect could not stand in the Fountainhead? I cannot blame him – but I can state that today’s buildings are a bore compared to the whimsy of art nouveau, new art a century old.(Riga, Latvia; February 2016)
There were heaps of sauerkraut and pickled vegetables of all kinds. There were pastries from Latvia and from Uzbekistan, apparently very popular. Piles of pumpkins and other winter vegetables, and towers of spice packages. But the fish market was spectacular. We dug in our memories from elementary school biology class: this is a sturgeon while that is a catfish. This is a pikeperch and that is a bream. Common bream, vimba bream, silver bream, and common roach. Carp, eel, lamprey, char, and salmon. Some dead, but most alive – unfortunately. As we walked through the zeppelin hangars that now are the food market of Riga, I could not help but wonder why, in the midst of all this loveliness, did I have a bowlful of boiled, salted black peas for dinner the night before? It was a “traditional dish” I was told. Very meager, but filling. How immense is the contrast between 800 years of serfdom in poverty and today’s free Latvia?
I could not help but feel for the 800 years of generations of poor laborers who owned nothing and barely ate anything, compared to what the land can really muster to produce, for everybody’s dinner table joy.
(Riga, Latvia; February 2016)
It rained cats and dogs and huge wet raindrops when we left Helsinki. Down South in Riga the water had frozen into wet heavy snow. And it never ended. Our brain break turned into a brain freeze.While it is definitely wrong towards the Latvians, this weekend Riga reminds me of a Russian city snowed under. Something out of a James Bond movie. Wet, heavy snow falling from the gray sky. People with heads covered, hunkered down against the blizzard, hobbling and dragging heavy boots forward on the slushy streets. Old men warming their hands in jacket pockets. And so many old women, going about their grocery shopping in heavy down coats, beret on head and basket on arm. I see no joy in Riga today. No energy, no celebration of life.
And yet one day there will be joy. There will be sunlight, energy, and celebration of life. In our last hour in Riga we caught a glimpse of sunkissed streets, pastel-colored art nouveau houses, the scent of old wood, and the particular echo of cars passing on hot summer streets.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air… .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
(John Gillespie Magee, Jr)
There was wind. There was rain. Wet gusts pushing our airplane sideways. “Landing in 10 minutes”, the captain said over the intercom. “Really?” I said to myself. The ground plunged up through the dark and I saw the lights of the airport. And then full throttle forward and upward, back into the sky. Apparently we had blown off the runway. “Misapproach, landing in 6 minutes”, the captain again spoke, cool as ice. I saw dozens of blinking lights: airplanes circling the airport, trying to land.
We managed to hit the runway in a controlled fashion. Some flights were diverted to other airports. And all were late. Grüezi Zürich, thank goodness you offered me a big chunk of Tannenkäse and a glass of port to cool my nerves.(Zurich, Switzerland; February 2016)