Forum Holitorium

Category: Literature

Reentering Roman Territory

Dear readers, I have emerged out of hibernation, my Winterschlaf (literally winter sleep). I think you will be happy to hear that I am carving out a space for writing once again. My refuge of snow and ice has melted and I find myself back in Felix Austria, tracing a triangle between Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. Today I found myself heading to the small town of Tulln an der Donau for what I thought would be a peaceful stroll along the banks of the Danube in the late winter sunshine. By the time I got there, the sun had gone into hiding behind the clouds. Despite the chilly, damp weather, the journey was well worth it, for I received a gentle nudge to return to the Forum Holitorium from this famous man on horseback.

On the river walk in Tulln, Marcus Aurelius sits on horseback, contemplating the sleepy Danube in front of him. The area of Tulln was already settled before the Romans arrived to build the camp of Comagena along the Limes, the frontier that marked the edge of the Roman Empire and followed the curve of the Danube River. Little did I expect to find traces of the Romans on the menu today. The Roman Museum was still closed for winter, but I was able to admire the Römerturm (Roman Tower), one of the oldest buildings in Austria that dates back to the 4th century. It is also one of the few antique structures north of the Alps preserved in its entirety and has been used as a repository for weapons as well as a storehouse for salt.

Besides the Romans, Tulln’s other historic claim to fame dwells in the realm of myth. An event memorialized in the German epic the Nibelungenlied is said to have taken place in Tulln: King Etzel (otherwise known as Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, widow of Siegfried, in Tulln. They marry and live not quite happily ever after down river in the land of the Huns. There is a statue with a fountain on the river walk commemorating this momentous occasion. My previous exposure to this Germanic saga was limited to a theater production of Friedrich Hebbel’s Die Niebelungen, and I must admit it extinguished any interest I had previously had in reading the German sagas. The Nibelungenlied is a medieval crime story about the murder of Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild’s avenging of his death. I find revenge one of the silliest and most immature actions on earth. My eyes start to glaze over at the mere thought of trying to keep all the plot twists straight. Instead, I prefer to shift my focus to more peaceable creatures like this cute little rat that looks upon the scene of Etzel’s proposal to Kriemhild and laughs.

May only peaceable creatures cross your path!

Advertisements

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!

The Unbearable Heaviness of Books

Fragment from a recent dream: I discover two Vintage International paperbacks lying on a table, one of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and one of his Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I comment on how I enjoyed reading both in my 12th grade English literature course (which is true) then wake up.

I have been obsessed with books lately, yet not in the normal bibliophile way. An avid reader since the age of 4, I have always been drawn to the printed word, and the feel of a book in my hand is second nature. My first dollars were earned shelving books at the public library; my next job involved bibliography searching and cataloguing new books in a college campus library before I moved into retail and worked at a used bookstore while finishing my studies and deciding What Next.


This recent obsession with books, however, is different. Though I do not actively collect books, I am a book magnet – and the attraction is mutual. They appear in my wake, congregate on the coffee table, wait for me to pick them up, turn their pages, absorb the wisdom they have to offer.  When I visit a person’s home for the first time, I am inevitably drawn to the bookshelves, my eyes narrowing and shrewdly assessing the book situation. I read an interview with Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho in which he said that he keeps his books in closed cabinets so visitors do not know what he reads. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but the paper company we keep is indeed revealing.

For the past year or so, I have been trying to free myself of material and mental ballast. We need so much less than we think we do. I practice yoga because it helps me experience a feeling of lightness and spaciousness within my body, a sensation I associate with health and well-being. I have been trying to create a similarly unencumbered space in my home by removing excess things. Since books are the category of objects I have the most of, I have been working on radically reducing their number.

At one point in the past year, I decided to employ a different tactic than choosing what books to get rid of. Instead, I told myself I could keep one book for every year of my life. Out of the several hundred books on my shelves at that time, I only found 25 that I deemed important enough to carry close to me the rest of my life – with a comfortable margin for this core collection to grow! This exercise made me see how I view many of my books as temporary companions and has helped me loosen my grip on and let go of dozens of others.

I have come to realize that the books we place on our shelves represent projections of who we wish to be. It is a good practice to periodically reexamine what dreams are staring down at us from the shelves and potentially weighing us down with unrealistic expectations – and then take appropriate action. The shelf above, for example, constantly scolds me for doing nothing to make good on my wish of learning Polish and Russian well enough to read literature. Yet this wish was formulated in a past that no longer has much of a connection to my present. Isn’t it enough that I can already read books in three foreign languages, I plead with the Polish textbooks, who respond with stony silence and disappointment at my audacity to reject More and be satisfied with Enough.

May the books on your shelves be supportive and not reproachful!

The Summer of Unexpected Events

This summer has been marked by a number of unexpected events. A particularly momentous one was this week’s delivery of three monster zucchini that may have crossed with other squash in the vicinity: 7.25 kg / nearly 16 lbs. I sense that August’s menu will be green.

The Paul Robeson tomato plant I bought on a whim in April has produced exactly the same variety of tasty heirloom tomato that I normally buy at the market. I am not adept at matching name with appearance because most full grown tomatoes are not identified by variety at the market where I do my shopping. This surprise is a pleasant and tasty one.

There has been a severe drought in knitting this summer. The only project I have finished is a linen purse that matches everything and brings me joy whenever I look at its simple form. I wish I were skilled enough to put in a lining to help it keep its shape better. Maybe it’s not so bad after all – I am putting fewer things inside so as not to stretch it out, which is ultimately better for my shoulders!

If you had told me in May or June that this would be the summer that I finally started seriously reading poetry, I don’t think I would have believed you. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to devote more time to the lyric literary genre – this wish goes back to my teenage years. I just never seem to be able to break out of the mindset of prose and make time for poems.

There is a receipt in my copy of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke dated May 30, 2009. It reminds me of what I had forgotten: I bought it at Libreria Minerva in Trieste, less than an hour away from Duino Castle where Rilke was inspired to write the ten elegies. How fitting. While walking along the cliffs above the Adriatic Sea, he heard a voice say what became the first line of the poem: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Who, if I cried out, would hear me from the orders of angels? Ten years, one world war, and several bouts of depression later, Rilke finished the work in 1922.

There have been moments when I wanted to cry out in frustration at the challenge of moving back and forth between the literal meaning of the words and the images Rilke uses in the hope of coming up with an interpretation of the verse. Poetry is truly another mode of using language to describe the world that is radically different from everyday speech and prose. As I learn to read poetry, I am practicing another way of deciphering the world.

Rose Ausländer, another poet I am reading intensively this summer, wrote the poem below that features the following insect spotted in my flowering savory. I had thought this would be the summer of feasting on all the herbs growing on my patio, but I have rarely taken the time to pick anything but a few leaves of mint here and there to put on top of bowls of strawberries. At least the bees are happy.

May the unexpected events you encounter be pleasant ones!

Dienen II

Ich habe Flügel und

viele Gestalten

 

bin Biene und Mensch

suche Blumen und Worte

 

Ich diene meiner Königin

der zärtlichen raubstarken

im fleißigen Spiel

 

Ich kann liebkosen

und stechen

taufrisch-himmlisches

Erdengeschöpf

 

Service II

I have wings and

many guises

 

am bee and human

seek flowers and words

 

I serve my queen

tender strong as a robber

in a busy game

 

I can caress

and sting

dew fresh heavenly

creature of earth

Giving Words Away

My American history teacher in high school was one of my favorites. He was a small-framed Greek-American man who rode his bike to work every day (very odd in my hometown) and wore short sleeve button-down shirts and a bow tie. He taught us as if we were college students already and refused to set the bar lower. The history of our country was important and you were expected to learn it. I can still remember my two term paper topics. The first was the Chicago race riot of 1919. At the time, I was incredibly disappointed that I had been assigned that topic, but in retrospect I am happy because it taught me something about an important event that had happened close to home. The second topic I chose myself: the Peace Corps. I interviewed my high school principal, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, and my mother, who had served in Thailand. I remember my history teacher telling my class how important poetry is and that he always read poetry before he went to sleep at night. I have always been more of a prose person, but a part of me has always thought it would be good for me to devote more times to the lyric literary form.

Another of my favorite teachers in high school was my English composition teacher. One of his favorite quotes was by Kafka: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (…ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.) This weekend I heard an axe of a poem by Rose Ausländer. Instead of violently chopping through the ice, it rapidly warmed up and melted something frozen within me. Here is the poem, first the original German and then my English translation.

 

Noch bist du da

 

Wirf deine Angst

in die Luft

 

Bald

ist deine Zeit um

bald

wächst der Himmel

unter dem Gras

fallen deine Träume

ins Nirgends

 

Noch

duftet die Nelke

singt die Drossel

noch darfst du lieben

Worte verschenken

Noch bist du da

 

Sei was du bist

Gib was du hast

 

You are still here

 

Throw your fear

into the air

 

Soon your time will be up

Soon

the heavens will grow

under the grass

your dreams will fall

into nowhere

 

Still

the carnation gives off its scent

the thrush is singing

You may still love

give words away

You are still here

 

Be who you are

Give what you have

 

The next step is to make more time for poetry, a type of writing I have always found challenging because it isn’t as linear and logical as prose. You can’t go directly from point A to point B; like an onion, you have to keep peeling away the layers to get at the meaning. You can’t gulp down poetry, you really have to savor it as it melts on your tongue like a piece of bitter dark chocolate. Since the pace is more relaxed, summer seems like a good time to get into the habit of reading poetry. This summer a friend and I are attempting to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies at a rate of one elegy per week. We are up to the third of ten elegies and I am confident we will finish by fall – unless I get too distracted by the two volumes of poetry by Rose Ausländer that I found at the public library.

Hope you find a good poem or give away some words of your own!

Keeper of the Waters

In her beautiful, inspiring book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that in the Potawatomi tradition, men are responsible for caring for fire while women are keepers of the waters. Though I am not contributing anything to the health of Lake Michigan at present, I spent the past month reestablishing my connection to many of the bodies of water to which I feel an affinity. While sitting with the view above of “my” harbor, I turned the pages of her book and of Loreen Nieuwenhuis’s A 1,000 Mile Walk on the Beach. Both authors see as imperative the establishment of a healthier relationship between humans and the environment. Whereas Kimmerer is a botanist by trade who aims to bridge the gap between science and the traditional Potawatomi worldview in order to heal the earth, Niewenhuis decided to walk the whole way around Lake Michigan to take time out to discover more about who she was and explore her relationship to this majestic body of water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While it was not her main purpose in writing the book, Niewenhuis exposes the many ways in which Lake Michigan and all the living beings in and around it have been exploited in the name of profit and progress. I was shocked to discover that coho are not native to the Great Lakes but were introduced when native salmon could no longer spawn in the rivers that flow into the lake as a result of deforestation. Equally appalling is the amount of ammonia and toxic sludge continuing to be emitted by the BP refinery on the south shore of the lake and the amount of toxic spills and dumping that have occurred in the past one hundred years. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While punctuated with moments of doubt and concern for whether it’s possible to heal the numerous wounds already inflicted, Kimmerer’s book mostly serves as an antidote to any growing despair that may arise when an inventory of damage is taken. Two main themes are cultivating gratitude and learning how to take only what you need. I liked how she often poses questions that have no easy black or white answer:

How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?

Can Americans…learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?

What do you love too much to lose? Who and what will you carry to safety?

Finding intelligent answers to these questions will take time. I took many notes while reading the book and am still thinking about how to integrate the lessons of the book into my own life. The ripples made by the stone of this book landing in the waters of my mind will keep spreading throughout the upcoming year. I am regrettably too far away to play much of a role in restoring Lake Michigan to health, but perhaps there will come a time in the future where I will be able to make a more active contribution to its welfare.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It wasn’t all about reading, this trip home. Since I stayed longer, there was time for a road trip to visit family farther away. TC, two lucky blog readers, and I lit out for the territory west of the Missouri River. Shortly after this picture was taken, I saw my first wild turkeys hanging out in a field on the side of the road. I am ashamed to say I didn’t know turkeys still lived in the wild. Great news, actually. It was also a pleasure to visit the Argyle Fiber Mill and pick up yarn made in Wisconsin. The animals who gave their fleece all live within fifty miles of the mill.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After stocking up on fibers, we didn’t stop until we had crossed the Mississippi.  Unfortunately, it was shrouded in fog, so TC’s first glimpse of Old Man River wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been. Dubuque, Iowa, our destination that night, has a delightful main street complete with a yarn store, bookstore, coffee shop, and restaurant – all locally owned and located within one block of each other.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A week later, I spent a tranquil night on the shores of my dear old friend Lake Mendota, warming up and knitting in front of the roaring fire at a cozy arts and crafts bed and breakfast, the taste of rice noodles and bok choy dumplings still in my mouth. Funny how a walk on a grey December morning and the sight of old radiators and bathroom fixtures can make me nostalgic about my time as a student.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The weather was unseasonably warm until the last week, when winter decided to bare her teeth once again. The wool sweaters and socks I had made for others came in handy as the wind blew harder and snow started to accumulate. Even Honest Abe needed to cover up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wish you a happy, peaceful 2015 full of gratitude and plenty!

High Time to Get to Sea

Distant islands
The diagnosis of a mineral deficiency is not usually met with joy, but when my doctor said it was only a few hours to the sea and that he recommended I go as soon as possible, I dusted off my wish to walk the entire 12 km Lungomare, or seaside promenade, in Opatija, Croatia, and started looking for a hotel within walking distance of the Adriatic. I found the Hotel Opatija, where we slept well last weekend. It was clean and quiet, possessing all the decrepit charm of a former K. und K. hotel worn down by the Tito years. If you’re looking for the ex-Yugoslavian cousin of the Grand Budapest Hotel with an uninspired breakfast buffet set to Muzak, it’s your place, but I think next time we’ll opt to dish out the extra euros for a cushy wellness hotel even closer to the sea. The point was not, however, the hotel. Most of our time was spent strolling.

Lungomare

Opatija developed into a resort town in the late 19th century when it was still known as Abbazia, before being caught in the tug-of-war between national borders and ethnic groups pervading the 20th century. You could hop on the train in Vienna (or Graz, for that matter) and ride the Südbahn to the Adriatic without having to leave the Austro-Hungarian empire. In keeping with the history of this seaside resort, the majority of tourists today still appear to be German-speaking. Dating back to the 1880s, the Lungomare is sandwiched between the sea on one side and city parks and stately villas built by prestigious Viennese architects on the other. Many of the latter are now hotels; some are private residences. TC and I decided that we’d buy this one and fix it up if we had the money.

Our next villa

It wasn’t just the Austrians who previously flocked to the sea here. Russian literati including Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Nabokov spent time in Abbazia, the hometown of Leo Henryk Sternbach, the inventor of Valium. Traces of their presence can be found by the careful tourist. This bust of Chekhov can be found near the Kvarner Hotel, while a commemorative plaque to Sternbach graces his birthplace along one of the main thoroughfares.

Chekov

The weather was just beautiful and I was able to wear sandals for the first time this year. Spring is so slow in arriving in Austria and I’m still bundled up in Icelandic wool as I type these lines. What a relief to escape to a milder climate and get enough Vitamin D from the sun for a change. In a conversation last week, the topic came up of how great it is that if you just go three hours in any direction from Graz, you end up in an entirely different cultural and geographical landscape. Three and a half hours away to the south, the figs are already ripening on the trees.

Smokve

As you might expect, seafood is everywhere on the menu in Opatija. Specialities include cuttlefish risotto that leaves your lips and tongue black and fried scampi. For the vegetarian in your party, there’s a special traditional pasta called fuzi served with Istrian truffles and vegetable risotto, though if you are suffering from a recently discovered acute milk allergy, as I am at present, you have to be careful and avoid delicacies like sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag. The local white Malvazija wine is excellent, as is the red Teran. My big discovery, however, was blitva, or Istrian-style Swiss chard.

Istrian-style Swiss chard

500 g Swiss chard

500 g potatoes

3 garlic cloves, minced

Olive oil

Salt

Nutmeg

Peel and dice the potatoes. Cook for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, wash the Swiss chard. Remove the stems and blanch the leaves in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. In a frying pan, sauté the garlic in olive oil. Add the chopped Swiss chard stems and sauté about 10 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and blanched Swiss chard leaves to the garlic and stems. Season with grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I’m guessing that the hoops in these skirts are not made of whalebone. All this contact with the sea and my current preoccupation with iodine has inspired me to reread Moby Dick, one of my favorite American novels. In Chapter 1, the narrator, Ishmael, explains his many reasons for deciding to join the crew of a whaling expedition, arguing that all humans have an innate fascination with the sea. I heartily agree.

Starting to read a book is like embarking on a voyage. I hope you have a good one at hand – or will have the opportunity to set off on a real trip soon. Good luck getting your ship ready to sail!

The sailor

The Leaves Have Left

Days turn to weeks. I have thought of this blog many times, tested recipes, half written entries in my head. Yet: silence.

As the wheel of the seasons steadily turns from fall to winter, it is time to bunker down, pull on a bulky wool sweater, prepare a pot of herbal tea, wrap yourself up in a blanket, and listen to yourself.

What was the harvest like? What has made me happy? What can I be thankful for? What is still unresolved? Where would I like to go? What do I need?

I relish this emptying out, this coming to a close. It is a period of rest to enjoy before everything revs up in spring and starts anew, a time to gather your strength and come to a still point.

A friend sent me a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that complements the view out my window of naked walnut trees. Unsatisfied with several English translations I read, I translated it myself. Here is my version:

Autumn

The leaves are falling, falling as from afar, as if distant gardens in the heavens were wilting; they fall with a shake of their head.

And during the night, the heavy earth falls from all the stars into solitude.

We are all falling, This hand is falling. And look at others. It is in everything.

And yet there is One whose hands hold this falling with infinite gentleness.

Sometimes the grey becomes too much and color is necessary to revive sinking spirits: the red-orange of a butternut squash, the purple-red of cabbage accompanied by raisins and cinnamon, the deep green of lamb’s lettuce bathed in pumpkin seed oil, the dark blueberry-colored wool becoming the aforementioned bulky sweater. Here is one last image of the golden autumn, preserved in my new sweater. So warm, so fine, so cheer-inducing.