Wouldn't you know it. I think we saw this sign at a gas station somewhere in Vermont. It's good to know, though, that air, at times at least, is still free. This put me in mind of "Free Dirt" signs I recall seeing in Mississippi on my way to New Orleans. I suppose if air and dirt are free, there's still hope.
We found these Russian musicians near the entrance to the Rijksmuseum, playing classical music. They were really good, so we bought their CD. Notice the young woman playing the Mother of All Balalaikas. Pretty impressive. I couldn't help wondering what their story was. Why had they left their homeland? Whenever I'm tempted to think of people from a country in a political or stereotypical way, I'm often reminded that people are not their country, are not defined by it. This was one of those times.
Amsterdam View, August 2018
Here's a classic view of an Amsterdam canal. Of course there's the bicycles, which are everywhere. A tip: don't walk on the bike paths (We made the mistake of doing this near our hotel in the leafy suburb of Amstelveen). We learned quickly though, after getting yelled at, and nearly run over, by several Dutch cyclists. Not long ago the Dutch decided there were too many tourists in Amsterdam, so started to discourage the hordes. Be careful what you wish for comes to mind. I wonder if they'll have to start courting visitors, now that Covid-19 has pretty much shut down tourism.
Don’t you know the poems of Han-shan?
They’re better for you than scripture-reading.
Cut them out and paste them on a screen,
Then you can gaze at them from time to time.
Men who see the Master
Of Cold Mountain, say he’s mad.
A nothing face,
Body clothed in rags.
Who dare say what he says?
When he speaks we can’t understand.
Just one word to you who pass –
Take the trail to Cold Mountain!
For some reason this creation reminds me of the amorphous, hard to pin down nature of emotions, and how we try to place names upon things which cannot be named, if we're honest with ourselves.
What looks like chance or chaos oftentimes hides hidden patterns. This reminds me of nested patterns within patterns, perhaps to infinity.
Vicki on tram from Vienna to Baden
Vicki and I spent Christmas 2006 in Baden, Austria, a half hour tram ride from Vienna. This was one of the few chances I've had to use the very (very!) limited German I know, really just some basic phrases. After arriving in Vienna in early evening, I managed to tell someone "Wir gehen nach Baden," and somehow got directions to the tram to our hotel. The ride was pleasant, and as it turned out the tram line ended in Baden. To our amusement, the tram line ended unceremoniously at a bush in front of an Italian restaurant.... Well, I guess you had to be there....
For some reason this beautiful water bird parked itself by a building on our way to the light rail stop near our hotel. On at least four occasions, at different times of the day, we came upon it standing as if waiting for someone or something. Perhaps it saw its reflection in the plate glass window. We'll never know, I suppose. Still, it was a wonderful and unexpected find.
This photo embodies one of the joys of travel, the unexpected meeting which leaves one with a wonderful memory. We met this mother and little girl in the train station at Kaifeng, an ancient city in central Henan Province. Such encounters cut through any presupposition or prejudices one might have, to reveal the beauty and simple joy humans are capable of, at least for a few moments. Both mother and child's reaction to Vicki and me seemed then, and still seems now, so genuine and in the moment, that it has stayed with me since we took this photo in 2008.
Armenian churches such as the one this column is found survived Mongol raids in the thirteenth century. Our guide, at one of these places, pointed to a hill high above us and said, "There, 800 years ago, a Mongol soldier on a horse, could be seen". Some of these churches were abandoned and fell into ruins centuries ago, others are still used. The floors of these churches are covered with worn stone panels where people, in many cases, whose names and identities will never be known, were buried. Yet the haunting beauty of such places cannot be denied, despite signs of decay brought on by the relentless cycle of harsh Armenian winter, spring rains, and scorching summer heat. Oftentimes, such places bring on a bittersweet melancholy, as the passage of time seems most palpable, our lives short and fragile in the light of ages come and gone.
Attribute all to the gods.
They pick a man up,
Stretched on the black loam,
And set him on his two feet,
Firm, and then again
Shake solid men until
They fall backward...
Wild of mind.
-Archilochus, 7th Century B.C., Translated by Guy Davenport
Hotel in Cologne, Germany
This is me, poring over a map. Just outside our window is the spire of Cologne cathedral. I suspect I'm charting the course to Lake Como, Italy, as that's where we headed next.
This is one of many photos my wife and I took when we were teaching at Suzhou University, PRC, in 2007/08. I like the coloring of this photo, with its muted winter tones, grays, various shades of white, with just a few blotches of color on the left from the man in the red vest, to the purple and yellow blotches, people riding by on bicycles (this is hard to see unless you enlarge the view). There’s also the red back of a vehicle visible through the square columns of the pavilion on the left side of the image. Everyone knows the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words,” yet one might rephrase this as “A picture calls to mind a thousand memories,” since simply looking at this photo for a few moments causes me a flood of recollection. Yet still, the image stands on its own, as it evokes a scene of winter calm, timeless when one contemplates the fact that this canal may be more than one thousand years old, and small boats have been plying it for centuries. As I look at this picture I am overtaken by a sense of nostalgia for days of old, before electricity, cell phones, television, even radio, when this small waterway was plied by men and women hawking their wares, calling out in a language moderns would not understand, traders from afar too, dark-bearded Persians, Central Asians from Samarkand and Tashkent.
In the fog we drift hither
And yon over the dark waves.
At last our little boat finds
Shelter under a willow bank.
At midnight I am awake,
Heavy with wine. The smoky
Lamp is still burning. The rain
Is still sighing in the bamboo
Thatch of the cabin of the boat. *
Lu Yu (b. 1125-d. 1209)
*"Rain on the River" (I), in The New Directions Anthology of Chinese Poetry,
trans. Kenneth Rexroth, ed. Eliot Weinberger (New York: New Directions, 2003) 172.
A drop of water
From the opal sea,
Wishes drift upward as
Master Dosun traces
Dancing lines of an
Howard Giskin is the author of
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