"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 20-26: Week Three at PSP

Monday morning our workshop gained three new poets and a new instructor, Stanley Plumly. There are so many ways to read poetry, to figure out what’s going on in a wise reader’s mind. I have exciting ideas for revision but I don’t really know where to begin my rewriting yet.

Monday night I went with Jennifer, Chad, Stephanie and James to the Jazz club U Glena and watched Stan the Man perform the blues on his guitar with a drummer, base, and keyboards accompaniment. This club is downstairs in a small dimly lit cavern. Stan’s lips embraced the microphone as he crooned and shouted BB King and rock tunes to the rapt crowd. Our tiny round tables were overlapping and soon we found out our neighbors were Czech ski instructors who had skied all over the US and Europe of course, including Alpine Meadows in Tahoe. Along with the drum and keyboard solos, Stan’s singing set a spell over the room.

Tuesday night after the readings, I sipped fresh ginger tea at Café Savoy. The Savoy is a large friendly Austrian styled café with just incredible food. It has become a regular place for me to write in their comfortable booths. Thursday night held another reading.

Saturday morning our bus left the dorms for Cesky Krumlov. We wandered the old town dominated by a palace set on the spine of a hill above the river. That night we watched the Rusalka opera by Antonin Dvorak performed outdoors in the night time rain in the palace gardens. Our seats turned to follow the actors who ran the large circle around us. The lighting in the forest set off the trees and the rain that continued to drop from the branches. It was a sport performance – those actors must have run a few miles at least even as they sang and our seats spun to face us to whichever portion of the donut-shaped stage the action occurred. It was an unbelievable, magical night. After an hour or so the stars began appearing in the sky and the temperature dropped well below normal. The crowd, covered in clear plastic rain ponchos, rustled and dripped. The actors didn't show any notice of the cold and wet as they threw themselves into the grass or onto the wooden pier. In the end, will o wisp lights floated over the marsh and everyone died. It was beautiful. Long past midnight, we walked back through the castle, down the hill into town.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 18-19 Terezin and Kutna Hora

Saturday we headed to the concentration camp called Terezin. It poured rain all day. In the memorial cemetery, now a national monument, a giant metal star of David with black river stones piled at its base stands above the field of gravestones, red roses planted at each grave, ten thousand of them. Many of the stones are just numbered, bodies of prisoners recovered from a mass grave directly after WW2 ended. In the middle of the field, a taller cross, spare and wooden, stands above the star.

We toured the Little Fortress. This was a prison run by the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and finally the Czecks in differing political circumstances. This prison held political prisoners of whatever regime was in power, as well as Jewish prisoners under the Nazis. About a third of the prisoners would die of living conditions, crowded and suffocated in hot rooms with doors and windows closed, lose half their body weight on rations, tortured and left in isolation cells without windows. This is the prison the assassin of the Arch Duke Ferdinand was held for two years and tortured until he died of pneumonia. We stood within his cell, #1. We walked part of the 28 kilometers of tunnel system through the fortress walls, emerging into daylight again by the guillotine and execution wall, brick riddled by bullets from long ago.

In the town of Terezin nearby were held nearly 200,000 Jewish families, separated and worked 14 hours a day in a ghetto as they awaited train transport to extermination camps in other countries. In the transports, 63 over two years, about 1000 people per trainload, only 0 to 11 would survive the trip to their destination. A secret synagogue was discovered in the town only a few years after the war ended. It seems even the Germans never discovered this secretive hidden worship. Only a few people must have known within the camp itself about the existence. The museum documented many cultural events, plays, musical performances, children’s choirs and art, during the years of imprisonment. Now this haunted town is deserted, a few children riding bikes through the martial square. I ate pistachios in the rain leaning under a thin overhang outside the museum. Over lunch no one knew what to talk about, surrounded by the history of human suffering and injustice. I realized that my ignorance is not acceptable. Our responsibility is to be informed.

That night back in Prague a group of us went out to see the new Harry Potter movie. The Czechs have an intermission so people can go to the bar or have a smoke break in the middle of the movie.

On Sunday, I took the train to the beautiful medieval town of Kutna Hora to see the Ossuary church and the cathedral. In the early 1800’s, the small church in that town took the bones of nearly 40,000 people that had piled up around the walls of the church and decorated the inside in bone patterns and pyramids, a bone challis and bone chandelier. The legend is that the church yard and cemetery around the church has holy dirt from Jesus Christ’s burial place, brought back a few centuries earlier. For this reason, people had been transporting dead bodies to this location for a long time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 11-17 Second Week at PSP

This weekend I discovered Café Slavia, one of the oldest large marble-hewn cafes in Prague overlooking the river. I went with Brendon, Nancy, Sean, and myself to write. We ate and then wrote on our computers or notebooks. Outside, river boats and swans and people-powered paddle boats wandered the wide river. The bridge passes over an island right outside the café. Trams rattle past. People with their dogs walk by the big windows. It is rumored that Franz Kafka wrote here, and that he even conversed with Ginsberg at the Slavia.

When I left the café, lugging my computer on my back, I walked back up Petrin Hill, through the public orchard, a great workout. The hill is steep and lush through a thick forest. A funitel tram runs up the hill but I hiked the winding paths. Suddenly I was at a café overlooking the entire city, gold rooftops shining. European hares hopped back into the underbrush. In the orchard, people picked sour cherries and sat in the shade and took photos. Near the top of the hill the path becomes narrow and muddy and passes sandstone caves in the hillside where homeless people had laid out cardboard beds for later when the sun set. A reclusive place for return. And then a round wooden fountain, just some water running across a bamboo spout and the rocks covered with moss.

On Sunday I wandered around IP Pavlova, found a restaurant and the teahouse in the photo above where I wrote for a long while. I walked the long evening light back along the river and crossed Charles Bridge as it got dark. The bridge was still crowded with tourists, swans in the water, beautiful light on the buildings.

I wrote a lot of new material this week for Pamela Ushuk’s writing assignments. She gave us detailed assignments for each class, generating new poems every other day. In the photo we are in workshop outside in the gardens of the Monastery, part of the Castle grounds. The Castle is still used by diplomats and other decision makers in the Czech Republic. Remembering the picnickers from before, I spent an afternoon in the orchard by the Prague Castle, napping and writing. This time I watched many people with bushel bags over their shoulders picking cherries, peaches, persimmon, apricots. The pears are still small and hard.

We attended two readings this week, Tuesday and Thursday nights. Students in the program read their work on Friday night. One afternoon I wandered the city in the rain and found a covered garden where I could sit and eat salad and write in my journal and read my book. I've been reading Milan Jundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The evening when the day cools down is delicious in the orchard so I went back at least twice this week.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

July 5 - 10: First Week of PSP

Sunday - We crowded in the lobby to meet Milos, our tour guide of intrepid energy and unexhaustable knowledge. For the next three hours most of us followed him throughout Prague from the Old Town Square to the Jewish Synagogue and museum, to the Cubist Museum, and elsewhere. I say most of us, because frequently a few of us would get lost from the group, parting ways as some narrow turn while trying to purchase water or coffee or find a bathroom. If we were lucky, we'd somehow navigate the corridors of streets to discover Milos far in the distance standing on a statue divulging his passion for Prague. In the photo he poses on the legs of a baby at the Cubist Museum. The graffiti is a picture of John Lennon's wall, the first unformal memorial for John Lennon in the world after he was shot. Artists continually add layers to the images and words on the wall. It is nearly a block long.
Monday - Workshops met for the first time. The school building is just off Jan Palacha Square, with a broad panorama view of the Palackeho Most (bridge) and the treed Vltava river walk. Jan was a student who set himself on fire in Jan. 16, 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was the first of many students who had signed a suicide pact. However, as he burned, he told them not to follow the pact due to the intense pain he felt. A month later a second student set himself on fire, and two months after that a third student did the same. The photo shows the view from my classroom across Prague.
Tuesday - We attended two lectures today on mythology and current day archetypes in the Czech culture. I wandered the city to find the Memorial to the victims of Communism, a surreal iron sculpture of a man disintegrating in repeated images of himself. This evening, Alison Deming and Michael Waters read very inspiring poetry and essay full of heart, nature and science. Returning to the dorm after the reading, I worked on a new poem until 2 am.
Wednesday - Workshops meet. This afternoon I jumped on a bus and visited the hometown of Pilsner Urquell Beer, named Pilsn. We toured the Pilsn brewery and drank unpasteurized beer directly from a barrel stored deeply underground in 29 kilometers of tunnels that maintain a temperature of 2-4 degrees C.
Thursday - Intense yoga in the morning. We viewed the classic recent cult film Otik this afternoon about a childless couple who carve a tree stump into a baby. As they care for it like a child, it comes alive. However, it has a voracious and unsatisfiable appetite. They feed it, but it grows and begins to eat their neighbors. Finally it eats even its parents, who are unable to kill their child (with a chainsaw) when it attacts . An old woman hoeing cabbage finally must murder the monster as the fairy tale depicts. This evening we listen to faculty readings.
Friday - Workshops meet. I wander the city for hours as I've done everyday, gradually learning how to connect the cobblestone squares and streets. Friday night was student readings, an opportunity to cheer for each other. Afterwards, I drank the best mojito of my life. This weekend I hope to get alot of writing done in cafes around the city and visit a few museums.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 4 - Sarajevo to Prague

Woke up early and hiked up the hills from downtown Sarajevo to the edge of town. An old fort was built to protect the city from Austrian attacks in the 17th century with a wall enclosing up to 900 houses. From this hilltop I had a 360 degree view of the city of Sarajevo and the hills and river and valleys surrounding it. Everywhere I've gone people have made me feel welcome, even this morning as I climbed up the cobblestone steps in a neighborhood that doesn't see many tourists. Many older people here, and cemetaries, and bullet holes in the buildings. An old man pulled himself up the steps carrying bags of fruit and groceries. Gardens are tucked between buildings or anywhere a few squash plants and corn rows can fit. Cats everywhere in the lush wild flowers, where garbage and litter are tossed regularly. I sat on the top of the world where the trees edged into town and watched the mists and river. This afternoon I fly to Prague and get down to the business of poetry.

July 3 - Train to Sarajevo

Lonely Planet lists the two and a half hour train ride through the mountains from Mostar to Sarajevo as one of the top five most scenic trips ever. Our train wound its way into the mountain canyon, following the green Neretva River gorge and hydroelectric dams and little farms. Through tunnels and switchbacks we crossed the Bjelasnica Mountains and descended into hazy Sarajevo.

In the afternoon Patricia and I wandered the old city, winding cobblestone streets and vendors chasing us down with perfume knock-offs. One of my best meals yet was at a tiny restaurant where we pointed out to the woman behind the counter what we wanted and then she created a bowl combining what we'd pointed at. The place was filled mostly with men, something I've noticed in this Moslem country. Nothing was written down yet everyone's bowl was made just right. I had dumplings with cream/cheese sauce, a specialty of this area, and meat-stuffed peppers and tomatoes. Incredibly savory.

Last night we tasted the beer at the large Austro-Hungarian Sarajevo brewery. I asked for a menu and the surly waiter told me they had three beers; light, dark, and unfiltered. He didn't give us a chance to order a second beer. The rain poured down as we left, crossing the Latin Bridge where Franz Ferdinand was shot, triggering the beginning of world war. We made our way darting from awning to awning until we found City Pub. Here a dj played house music and American classics like Micheal Jackson.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 2 - Mostar

Patricia and I were joined by Rachel from Australia this morning as we left the hostel for coffee. I'm experimenting with my coffee order - most coffee is served in a thimble-sized cup and although very strong and flavorful, it encourages slow sipping. I've tried ordering coffee with milk, coffee long with milk, cappuccino, nescafe with cream, Bosnian coffee, etc. And still your morning coffee is a short-lived experience unless you drink slowly.

After coffee, the man who showed us to the hostel the night before rode past on us his bike, giving us a big greeting and pointing us in the right direction to the turkish house tour. A rich Bosnian family in the turn of the century lived in still- existing traditional Turkish home. Saudi, the tour guide, told us to take our shoes off, and pointed us into the garden and the rooms for the men and women. A wife would indicate she was ready to entertain her husband by draping a white cloth over her door. The men's room was beautifully suspended over the river by columns outside the house. The ceilings were ornate beechwood mosaic. Saudi hinted that we could dress up in the traditional clothes kept in a trunk upstairs. She then told us to go tour the oldest and most important mosque in Mostar and to tell the man at the entrance that she said we didn't have to pay the entrance fee. You should have seen face when we said this, but he let us in for free.

July 1 - Korcula to Dubrovnik to Mostar

The early morning bus hopped the ferry to the mainland and arrived in Durbrovnik with plenty of time for me to wander back to my favorite internet cafe until the afternoon bus for Mostar, Bosnia. I was excited to go to a new country. Croatia had been generous and friendly but I was done with the island vibe. I was getting the travel bug - my curiosity and the hints of the past war with Bosnia, seen in the mortar holes in the tile of my rented bedroom and in the conversations with Croatians, made me ready to move on. My time traveling alone was short-lived - on the bus I met Patricia the Canadian, in the beginning of a two month travel from Italy to Turkey.

We arrived in Mostar around 7 pm, found our hostel, checked in, and wandered down to the old bridge that gives the old town of Mostar its reason for initial existence. The influence in this country is Muslim and Turkish, with a smattering of Autro-Hungarian in later centuries. In the 15th century, the bridge across the river Natadve was built to connect the East and West traders. This geographical spot seems to be where Europe and the East intermingled. And the town of Mostar, between buildings blown up by mortar fire between the years of 1992-95 by Croats and Yugoslavian forces during the fall of Yugoslavia, still has a strong Muslim presence. For the first time, I heard the 5 times daily humming of the call to prayer from loudspeakers on the minerets of mosques. It was beautiful, like evening crickets in summer.

June 30 - Mljet to Korcula

Sara joined our little impromptu group last night for dinner and singing, hailing from England. She had left her 'wandering eyes' traveling companion for greener pastures and found us. This morning, tempted by the rumors of Ullysses' Cave hidden on the island, we rented a scooter (unfortunately not the bunny one in the photo!) and putted up the mountain roads into the interior of the island. Between the rocky mountains lie sloping valleys of vineyards and lush family farms. After asking directions in a small town post office where a man laughed at me the entire time I inquired, we found the path between old orchard trees of olive, lemon, and fig.

It was hot, hot, hot. Sweat drenched my clothes. The rocky trail wound down to the coast, about half an hour hiking, and suddenly below us gaped a cave opening like a dark mouth. The only entrance seemed to be jumping into the ocean and swimming into the cave, which we left for another trip. Deep in the cave, a few abandoned row boats dotted the entrance sand, and some wooden steps dropped into the water. On the edge of the cliff over the ocean some old stone cottages looked out towards Italy. After shooting some photos, we climbed back through the cliffs and orchards, along deep paths below stone walls, to the scooter. The cool air was a welcome relief on the ride back. Thanks to Sara's expert driving, we handled the hairpin curves and the speeding cars that regularly cut the corners with finesse.

Then Miguel the Sombrero Waiter drove us as fast as he could, cutting the corners to test our courage, to the ferry boat to Korcula, a nearby island. Korcula has a old walled city similar to Dubrovnik's in smaller scale, and was very influenced by Venice in the 16th century. If we were looking for a party, we had found it. The celebration of the half new year was tonight, a chance to dress in costume and get very very drunk and play loud music in the town square until the early hours. However, I was looking for quiet places to write, so I welcomed the resurgence of partying music blasted from loud speakers at 5 am as an alarm clock to make it to the bus station in time for the first morning bus out of there.

June 29 - Polace, Mljet

I woke up to the sounds of boats leaving for their morning fishing sessions. After less than 24 hours here in the tiny fishing and tourist village of Polace, I needed to hide at a different cafe down the street from the friendly people I've met so far in order to find some uninterrupted writing time. I drank a coffee on the patio and ate a cheese omelet as I wrote in my journal looking out over the harbor. This afternoon I rented a bike and rode into the park again along the edge of the lake. Within the sweet smelling shade of pine trees I dropped my bag and jumped into the warm ocean water. About 100 feet up the shoreline, two older European women sunbathed. They skinnydipped, laughing and chatting. I sat by the lake for a couple hours as the dark thunder clouds rolled across the still water.

Finally, I left the peaceful place and rode the bike up and down a small mountain to a nearby port and then back to Polace. Little did I know the restaurant, Konoba Ankora, would complete its adoption of me and my friends tonight. I met up with Yolanda and Gorge for a beer there just as three Croatian families, each in their own sailboat, docked across the street. They ate dinner at Ankora and as the night progressed, the waiter donned a sombrero, another Croatian man appeared with a guitar, Paulo the owner sat down to sing, two women stood up to dance, and blueberry brandy poured.