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.
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.
Howard Giskin is the author of
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