Forum Holitorium

Month: September, 2016

And We Observers, Always, Everywhere

I fell in love yesterday, love at first sight, with a pine tree. It was a lopsided tree with branches reaching in all directions except towards the path. Es bleibt uns vielleicht irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich wiedersähen/There remains for us perhaps a tree on a slope that we see every day, Duino Elegy 1. My hand on its rough bark, I was struck by the clarity and honesty of this feeling, all the while accepting that we could not stay together unless I were to remain perched on a rock high above the sea, warmed by the sun and drunk on the resiny smell of my beloved. Tempting as it is, my destiny is leading me in another direction.

I finally did it. After thirteen years of wanting to visit Duino, Italy, and walk along the cliffs south of Duino Castle, the place where 104 years ago Rainer Maria Rilke heard the first line of what became the Duino Elegies, I found myself on the Rilke Trail, rereading the first lines of the poem about angels and the terrible power of beauty. It was a dazzlingly beautiful day yet with no dread in sight, just sailboats on the blue Adriatic and green brush and trees growing on the white chalk cliffs. The castle was built on the ruins of an ancient Roman military fort. As I walked along the trail, I became slightly unstuck in time and imagined what it must have been like to walk along these cliffs two thousand years ago in a linen or wool tunic, delighting in the warmth of the sun on my bare forearms, breathing deeply. Looking, watching. Ich bleibe dennoch. Es giebt immer Zuschaun./Nevertheless I remain. There is always watching. Elegy 4.

Hiersein ist herrlich./Being here is marvellous. Elegy 7.

This summer, a friend and I vowed to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies in the original German. And we did it. When you tackle a difficult work, especially one in a foreign language, the task of the first reading is simply to orient yourself in the text. Upon finishing it, I decided I needed to reread it and focus on a few main themes in order to make sense of the work and come up with a coherent interpretation of my own. So now I am in the middle of this rereading of the elegies. I love how Rilke comes back again and again to the importance of observing, of watching, of learning how to see the world (this is also a topic in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which I intend to revisit this winter).

Being in Italy is always a treat for my senses, especially taste and smell – the best coffee around, sweets laced with lemon and pine nuts that are not cloying. But I am trying to focus more on cultivating my sense of vision, actively looking on more and observing what is going on around me. Paying attention creates a connection between me and the world. When I am lucky, I feel as if I can share in the joys and sorrows of those around me and have tapped into the stream of life. In Palmanova from Caffeteria Torinese: the excited children running around in anticipation of the fun to be had over the weekend as amusement park rides were being set up on the main piazza. In Aquileia in the basilica: the creatures of the deep captured for millennia by the careful creators of mosaics. In Grado: the local Gradesi working hard to cater to the swarms of tourists still arriving to enjoy the summery weather while dealing with the milestones in life (the basilica was the site of at least one funeral and two weddings on Saturday).

May the act of observing connect you to the stream of life!

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Septentomology

Tuesday as I was eating lunch on the terrace, I felt something on my arm. It looked like a cross between a yellow pipe cleaner and a multicolored toothbrush. But it was as alive as me: a male caterpillar that one day will transform into a rusty tussock moth (Orgyia antiqua).  My new friend received a free ride from the table to the mint, where I presume he felt a bit more at home than on the polyester tablecloth.

A few days later I was visited by another small creature, this time one that landed on my thigh. He seemed to be quite comfortable and unbothered by the movements of my arms as I worked on my knitting, so I let him stay until he left of his own accord. Can any readers identify what type of bug it was?

Yesterday I received a third visitor. The last name of one of my great-great-grandmothers was Mosca, the Italian word for fly. I recall this when pestered by the nervous comings and goings of a fly, trying to muster up compassion and understanding for its erratic nature and establishing a link between my life and that of my nearly least favorite insect (in unpopularity only surpassed by the mosquito). Rosa Ausländer wrote a poem entitled “The Fly” that has started to rehabilitate this insect’s status in my eyes. The poem ends with the following lines:

ihre unermüdliche Sucht    /     its untiring obsession

nach Flug und Flucht         /      to fly and escape

Wiederkehr und Verweilen    /    Return and stay

ihre Liebe zur Wiese deiner Haut – / its love for the meadow of your skin –

rührt es dich nicht            / doesn’t this move you

The dry season of little knitting is over; every week a new project leaves the needles as I try to use up my stash of yarn. The shawl above matches the stowaway eggplant that somehow managed to hitch a ride home from the market amid the heads of lettuce. The cowl below turned out to be much larger than I expected and is in search of a good home – but what a nice pattern.

Friday I would have had a perfect front row seat to view the penumbral lunar eclipse, but for the first time all week there were clouds in the sky that obscured the view of the harvest moon, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (for a song about the full moon, listen to this one by Robyn Hitchcock, who incidentally is known to sing of insects). Two nights before, I had captured the following image of the nearly full moon.

Wishing you pleasant encounters with insects of all kinds and clear skies to see the moon!

My Viennese Songline

Café Nil, Siebensterngasse, seventh district. This is where any visit to Vienna starts. Turkish coffee with cardamon, maybe hummus with bread or lentil soup if I need more nourishment, a slice of basbousa for a bit of sweetness. A group of community radio people introduced me to Nil shortly after I moved to Austria 13 years ago. Then I rediscovered it a few years back when I spent one weekend a month doing Luna Yoga  just around the corner. Now whenever I come to town, I throw out my anchor at Nil, have a coffee, and wait until my breath settles into the rhythm of the city.

On most visits, yoga and friendship keep me occupied in the seventh and eighth districts. Yet there is usually time for a stroll through the first district, the place where the lines of Austrian power intersect and tourists flock. I come from the direction of the MuseumsQuartier, walking by the statue of Maria Theresia. Having crossed the Ringstraße, I approach the Hofburg Palace, the center of Austrian imperial power until 1918. Today the huge complex hosts a number of museums and is also the residence of the president of Austria. (Since this position is currently vacant, you might be able to stay there if you come to Vienna in September – maybe it is listed at Airbnb?) The only part of the Hofburg I have actually visited is the wing where the Austrian National Library is located. A collection of historic musical instruments awaits visitors with a hankering for lutes, harpsichords, crumhorns, and ranketts (also known as sausage bassoons).

Vienna is a paradise for statue and doorway enthusiasts – and admiring them is free. Just brush up on your Latin first for the full experience. I continue my walk and brave the passage full of tourist trinkets for sale, traverse the main courtyard, go past the Spanish Riding School and its lucrative Lipizzaner horses, and finally come out of the dark into the light of Michaelerplatz.

The Romans were here, of course. For around 350 years, Vindobona was a military post on the Danube where the Limes, the line delineating the edge of Roman influence, crossed the Amber Road, the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. At its peak, it had 30,000 inhabitants. The center of Vindobona is just a short walk northeast of Michaelerplatz. Excavations from 1989-1991 revealed the foundations of Roman houses that were part of Canabae, small civilian settlements that developed next to military posts and provided them with goods such as food and clothing. Since Roman legionaries were not allowed to marry, their partners and children lived here. What would it have been like to stand here two thousand years ago, long before men from the lands of the former monarchy dressed up like Mozart and peddled tickets to classical music concerts?

Though I am not a fan of monumental statues, I have always felt drawn to this fountain by Rudolf Weyr entitled Macht zur See (Power at Sea), which also watches over the lively action on Michaelerplatz. The woman looks very confident, relaxed, in charge as she strikes a pose while dancing on the bow of the ship – souverän, you could say in German. Now it’s time to leave this square behind and continue along the periphery of the Hofburg, past the Lipizzaner stables, past the doorway flanked by two huge stone women seen in the film The Third Man. Eventually I arrive at the steps leading up to the Albertina, one of Vienna’s many excellent art museums. And here they are, the statues representing the rivers of the monarchy. I give my regards to the statue of the Mur before returning to the MuseumsQuartier and the seventh district.

Have a nice stroll along your personal songline!