Saturday, March 14, 2020

Not Travelling, Not Teaching

Tonight, as I was planning for Tuesday's English 161 lecture on Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walked Away from the Omelas" and Betasamosake Simpson's "Big Water" and the last class of Chariandy's "Brother" Camosun College announced its (effective immediately) transition to online classes for the remainder of the semester. UVic announced their transition yesterday. In the last 24 hours I have lost 57 in-person students. I won't see them again before the semester ends.
I'd just like to say, for the 60,000 plus of us here in YYJ that are either teachers or students in post-secondary institutions (that's one fifth of the population of Greater Victoria), this is a heart-breaking time. And not just because of the virus. My dad's 83, so I get it. Flatten the curve.
But losing the classroom makes me want to weep. To have the opportunity to discuss literature with a group of people, to look at Scarborough in the 1980s and listen to the old school mix that Chariandy's friend made for him, and talk about race relations. To hear the stories of the students. To see their different responses to the novel (and now miss their different reactions to the short stories). To muse with them about how Tara Beagan, in the Belfry's recent performance of her play "The Ministry of Grace," made the audience complicit in colonization.
Or in my Geography classes, where we were just about to begin oral debates, engaging in 23 person discussions about the correlations (or not) between health and wealth. The resolution that child labour should be abolished. How do we have these discussions online? How can we repeat the moment of clarity that comes upon a group when the ceiling opens up with a particularly astute comment, or an honest response, or a tentative idea?
This is going to be a lonely time for many of us. I know that students will hang out and, in the warming weather, go to the lakes or return to their families. But there's an atmosphere that's created in the classroom. Making knowledge beautiful. Holding possibility in our hands. Creating space for that. It's a magic that can't be entirely reproduced with all the online tools that the Society of Environmental Journalists is generously throwing in my direction, or the Facebook group of suddenly-online teachers that's sprung up. That magic is what we've worked to produce through people in a room, sharing thoughts and feelings. It doesn't transition well, and especially at short notice.
That's what we really lose here. And so that's what we need to make sure we reproduce in other ways to keep ourselves sane in these coming weeks (and months?). My students are used to me tapping out the rhythm of a poem with dance steps. They're used to being asked to get out of their chairs and act out a scene. It's an honour to bring them ideas.
So as this windy night transitions to spring, make plans to still see people. To commune with nature but also to reach out (whether by phone or from a metre away) to those you love and those you want to hear. Teachers like myself are rootless outside the classroom. All that energy. Nowhere to put it. No one to listen to them. Our poor partners... You don't know how much you love something until it's taken from you. Let this be our opportunity to both love what we do, and do our best (and our not best) job of getting through this.

Monday, September 4, 2017


You don't have to travel far to get the feeling.

This evening we ate pasta on the back deck and then took the canoe out for the second time, at dusk, driving down the peninsula to the bay above which I used to live, where the liveaboards blanket the harbour and the inlet stretches north in a glassy cloth to the islands. The bigger islands. The small island that is Dead Man's and the slightly larger that is Senanus. The moon was rising and the north still orange. We had wine and chocolate and ginger candies and blankets, my love and his daughter, two peas in a red canoe. We stopped at the boat, the gentle wreck, its sides now spotted with barnacle ghosts from its neglected winter. We snacked and talked about sleeping the night out in the cockpit. Then dropped into the canoe again and paddled up the inlet in the dark, taking the west side to hide the moon. First, the moon jellyfish carpeted the bay. And then as we hit the shadows, the phosphorescence. First, faint meteors with each paddle stroke. Then the hand-dipping. The stars splaying out from fingers. Then we nudged the shore and saw that every movement of the water against the barnacles and rocks and mussels and sea weed was producing their stars. The shore a galaxy. The shallows a conference of congenial light. Our hands nebulas. C's daughter the urbane become spellbound with the light of their bodies. When a boat shone its search light in our direction and kept it trained, we all three gave back the finger, in unison, an automatic, gleeful, serious response to this interruption of joy and respite from work. Twenty minutes from home, the sea warm, sea calm, air warmer, the unbroken wave of the hills above us, the stars in all quadrants. Grounded in water, teaching my childhood to another, sending the blade of the paddle through the dark sea and lighting it. Cradling the jellyfish in a palm. Sharing the wine. In two days I start a semester teaching about place and landscapes of the heart. It's coming. There's no way I can stop it now. This night seems the glorious response, the life that feeds the list.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


I am writing this on a parapet, not of the old wall that used to surround the town of P—, but the walkway that was built to enjoy and have access to the surrounding hills. P— was rebuilt by a pope in the 1400s as the first ideal Renaissance town, using humanist urban planning principles. No wall. Instead, weaving, small streets with 2-3 story buildings facing one another, with strange iron cow figurines set into the buildings’ window grates, a piazza with town hall facing the Church and a b&b for visiting officials. It’s a hill top town, so the views from all edges are extraordinary, but it doesn’t have the same shut in feeling that many hilltop towns have. It wasn’t built as a fortress, but instead as a retreat from Rome, its side streets trailing away to spectacular views over the same territory that the English Patient’s Tuscany Monastery scenes were shot in. Others were shot in this town’s square. The town was copied, over and over, for its Renaissance design, wherever the principles were applied. Now it is festooned in geraniums and other potted flowers, shade from the buildings and wind from the valley.

I took the bus here from my more walled in town, where I’m staying for four nights. I have had a dream of living amongst olive trees and silver gold grasses, swallows, swifts, grape vines and jasmine, a view of blond fields and cypresses, for decades now. The luxury palace I am in has a small room not on the price list, overlooking the valley and across from the kitchen. Romana charges 30 euros a night for it instead of 300. It includes a giant breakfast of jamon, eggs, local peccorino and mango juice. Espresso. Creme-filled croissants. Chats with the cook. A back balcony off the kitchen where I paint. I never thought I would be lucky enough to do this. 

Italy is extraordinary. I think if I weren’t so strongly medicated, I would be in tears over the beauty much of the day. Black cypresses. Pale olive trees. Blond grasses. Poppies. Wildflowers of every kind. All the fruit trees on their way. The apricots ready. Vineyards, siena brick, pink stone, roses. I’ve loved so many places. Right now the bartender where I’ve set up is singing along to The Lumineers and Paco Ibanez. He’s lived in England, Spain, Morocco, Milan. He came back here, found the best location ever, and opened a bar in the caverns of a 15th century building with no cars allowed within blocks. The cicadas start up in the cypresses opposite. People drift by. I tell them with my eyes that this is the best orange, fennel and olive salad I’ve had in my life. 

One of the reasons I’ve never become a travel writer is because I don’t want to let the world know about the best places I’ve been. This blog with its small readership is harmless. But the thought of letting thousands of readers know, not about Tuscany, as it’s been fully discovered, but about some of the smaller places I’ve been, well, it's heart breaking. One of globalization’s particularly winsome traits. And still, despite the parade of tourists walking down the town’s main street, and every street I’ve been to in Florence and Siena, I haven’t met an impatient Italian. People are courteous, relaxed, well-fed. They look like they’re enjoying their lives. Amongst them, the pinch-faced, suspicious Canadians and annoyed Americans stand out like sore thumbs. Like we do almost anywhere except in our home country. What is the secret to being so gently friendly and not looking at every fellow creature as a potential threat or entity to buy? 

Doing the dishes, I think. I help Emma, the cook, in the morning because I’m so grateful for such luxury at such low cost. And not looking at everything as a potential commodity or investment. The Tyee wrote recently that the trouble with Vancouver’s real estate is that properties have been made into a part of the investment market, instead of a basic thing that all people need. When you make a basic need into a commodity, you create a schism between the rich and the poor, and you decimate the middle class. Here, the bartender could still afford to come back to his hometown and open a bar, despite it being in one of the most famous, most loved and most beautiful places on earth. The air itself is perfumed. Name a place on the southwest coast of Canada that gets less than 200 days of rain a year where you could do still that.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

København Left

My last night in København epitomizes everything I have come to love about this city - a hygge, simple dinner in the basement kitchen of the hostel with Cam. Eggs from Ole’s garden, hot peppers, a glass of wine. Talking through the experience, the students, the marks, the next stops on each of our journeys. Then a 10pm daylight bike ride through Oestebro to Mikkeler, the craft beer shop where we get sours and sit amidst climbing roses and smiling people, watching the light climb the buildings and the wind whirl, then to La Fontaine, a jazz club we find by accident while looking for a spot for an Aquavit nightcap. The club is hopping with a local group playing a beautiful jazz version of Dylan’s “Don’t think twice.” We have two. The band plays one extra; the crowd is warm, relaxed, quick to connect. On our ride home, the streets emptying, the wind died down, the light still in the northwest, I watch the black bikes glide by on the cobbles, the Strøget with its metal angled insertions between the stones, so that when viewed from the side, the street seems to glitter with a trail of stars. The design shops — “we want things to be simple, beautiful, functional, warm” — and the swimmable canals lying  between the streets like deep blue crayons. 

Denmark may be what happens when you take religion out of the equation, leaving people free to create a socialist culture of pleasure and happiness with much less guilt, oppression or competition than is normally present in ‘civilization'. We stop in groups of 2 or 10 at streetlights on our bikes. I am inches away from the person next to me. There’s a calm accord. We are waiting for the light together. No one pushes ahead. I fumble on my bike as it turns yellow, then green, and a woman smiles at me. We sweep along the blue painted lanes. We perform “Copenhagen lefts”, where you cross and swing around to wait for the second light to change rather than cutting across traffic. The bikes are mostly upright and the women look like golden queens. The men all look like Christian, in some way or another. The eye colour. The broad face. The chin cleft. I am beside myself. I sit up straight and pile my hair on top of my head like many of the women. I ride over bridges constructed to mimic the Pont Neuf in France, so as to create places to gather on your way to somewhere. Little eddies that kink the straight line from A to B. Bridges that arc over the harbour and between buildings, bridges built just for bicycles. It’s like flying through the air. 

The Danes are the most contented people on earth, according to the World Happiness Index. “A person with one child gets about $3200 a month here, as a guaranteed income,” Kåre tells me, over wine at an informal bar in Nørbro. He laughs when I tell him I moved back in with my parents this winter to afford school. He can’t imagine anyone doing that here. “If you don’t get a job, you think, oh, well I will take a year to think about what I want to do, and then figure it out.” This isn’t laziness. It’s a belief that people are worth something even when they are not productive in a capitalist system. To contribute to one’s culture, one’s community, to a life, it is not necessary to always be earning. Education is free. Social housing is widespread. And the Danes saved over 90% of the Jews in their country before WWII; they put them on boats to Sweden, took them out of harm’s way. Kåre gets a salary from the government; he is a writer, contributing to the cultural capital of his country. He will get this salary for the rest of his life. Sensibility, sensibleness, but without the relentless efficiency I saw in so much of Germany. And a deadpan humour that sends an undercurrent of relaxed camaraderie through most interactions, and makes interacting with people not a means to an end, but a pleasure to be enjoyed in itself. It is a country with a long, wet, miserable winter. Their solution is to turn to one another, rather than turn against, or turn to solitude or self-recrimination. “It’s a little bit slippery, yes,” says a woman interviewed in a video on biking through Copenhagen’s winter, and then smiles and peddles off down the snowy streets.

Food, socialism, movement, drink. The first night was also lovely. I finally arrived, after two days delay caring for a student in a Hamburg Hospital (she’s fine) and Cam took me to Copenhagen Street Food, a warehouse district on Paper Island slated for redevelopment and currently being used as a pop-up food and drink venue and as office space for various creative industries. There were giant barrels with cordwood fires burning in front of the main food building. Lawn chairs stretched along the concrete wharf, with no barrier interrupting the view of the harbour and the modern and classical buildings that stretched along it. You could get duck fries, herring, bimbambip, Polish potatoes or sushi. There was organic cider and local beer. We sat in the lawn chairs until the evening’s storm arrived, and then careened on our bikes through the downpour, laughing, having not yet learned the Danes’ trick of ducking under a tree or into a bar for the ten minutes it took to pass. We saw them as we rode, in warm interiors, their drinks in hand, watching the weather from the doorway together.  

Monday, June 5, 2017


“Allende Vive” says the graffiti stencil under the Allende Platz street sign on a 1920s building in the middle of the neighbourhood of Grindel, the neo-classical building strewn area where Jews used to live in Hamburg. 

Rosenbaum, Hirsch, Nachims, Cohen, Mandelbaum.

I’m back in the fray of last year's horror, briefly. I won’t stay for long this time, if I can pull myself out again. 

Acker is a German word, though the name comes from Poland. It means field or cultivating place. Put it in front of a variety of other words and it means certain kinds of cultivated herbs or plants. A German I met once joked that my name meant I was fertile - “ploughing the field!” he chortled. 

There’s an inside and an outside to the city and its people. Outside, I walk down tree-lined streets, many of the trees dating from before the war. The buildings are human-sized and gorgeous. Stone sidewalks. Graffiti’d ground floors in St. Pauli. Immaculate paint in Grindel or the downtown walking streets, or in Haffen City. When a rich developer bought the Rota Flora theatre in St. Pauli, and tried to turn it into condos, the neighbourhood banded together and protested for four years, until the government was forced to buy the building back at twice the price. Now it is a punk show venue, a squat and a backyard cafe, covered in graffiti so thick you can measure the history on the edge of the building. Rent control keeps some apartments at or below 8 euros a square metre (about 800 for a 1000 square foot apartment), which means that people have to work less, which means they have time to be in place, to create, to protect their neighbourhoods from gentrification, to band together, to fight neoliberalism and fascism in all its forms. There’s a six storey outdoor climbing wall, fastened onto the side of a WWII bunker, from which Germans shot at Allied planes. The walls are six foot thick concrete. They’ve stopped trying to destroy them, after 140,000 euros of dynamite only blew a living room couch sized hole in a giant bunker that was scheduled for demolition. Now they are techno clubs and hideouts and community gathering places. They break the rules. The rules that seem, as a larger culture, to be so stereotypically obeyed, the stereotype of which leads my thoughts to grim places.

And yet gentrification is also rampant. An article in, “Not in Our Name,” rails against the Dutch and other foreign investors that are driving rent prices up, the “glass teeth” buildings that line the river Elbe, the sustainability projects that only push the poor and artists to the edges of the city and create promenades for the wealthy (Hamburg has the most millionaires of any city in Europe). The process of evicting those who are not welcome, I can't help thinking, continues. 

I walk from the hostel across the bridge that separates the lake from the River Elbe. People sailing without motors, paddling back to their slips with one oar. One boy slaps the ass of another with his oar as he reaches for the piling. Last night, Cam and I went to the gay and Turkish district near the water, on our side of the bridge, just west of the train station. The pee smell stops there. There are many outdoor cafes. We spent a good couple of hours making fun of Germans. The efficiency. The rule-following. The abruptness. The way the south of Europe got the looks and the north got the money. The way they don’t get questions that we ask about sustainability, and respond with a version of “Why would you need to worry about that????” when we ask about stormwater management. In Germany, everything has been thought of. It’s all been done and is obvious, so let’s move on please so we shall not be late. We were awful. And it was satisfying and terrible and the root of the stereotypes irked at me, and a very blond woman sat down with her extremely tall partner in front of us, and they did not smile or touch. 

My love is a Canadian German Dane. This is his home city. He is an affectionate, heart-on-his-sleeve beauty. I sit in this river of love and longing and fear. There is an inside and and outside to the city. Inside: ribaldry, silliness, unending warmth, intelligence, deep emotional capability, sorrow, Stolpersteine. I’ve counted 64 people memorialized on my walk over here, wandering on one side of a street then another. Stopping at the groups of three or one or five brass cobbles, noting the names. They’ve left room for more. Tens of thousands. Question marks at the end of those for whom they don’t know the death location. I walk down the streets and no one smiles at me, but they are mostly good with one another. (The only domestic fight I have seen in public in Europe was a German couple this morning in front of the chocolate museum, while their children endured it.) When I stop at the brass cobbles the people move around me, and no one says anything. And they watch me as I pass the outside bars and cafes, and there’s a guardedness and only the young seem modern. Except that’s all wrong, too. Only the thin, tall, long-haired men seem modern. That’s wrong, too. My face betrays me. My nose. I realize these are ridiculous thoughts. I stop at the cobbles and photograph them, and count. And chastise myself for counting. And keep reading the names. And keep stopping. 

How does a culture even begin to take responsibility? How do they move on? How is it that their efficiency will always remind me of that ultimate efficiency in knowing how best to eliminate? One of my students wrote in her field journal, “Good community is always messy. That’s where the beauty happens.” I am a mess. And the waiter at the cafe, Pony Bar, affectionately shoes his dog inside, away from the tables. A medium-sized black dog with shepherd ears, who sits near the bar when he is behaving, and follows the waiter out to the tables when he is not. 

Cam prefers Belgium, the Netherlands, those smaller countries that have not ever been such world powers (and were disasters when they tried to be) and thus have a humility that is hard to ascribe to the Germans (or the French), such masters of engineering, so sure that the new cities they are constructing are sustainable for all. “Yes, we have a very diverse community moving into Hafen City. There are French, Belgians, Dutch, English. Even some Chinese.” The students caught that irony as well. I tend to agree with Cam. I’ve never met a more amenable group of people, as a whole, than the Dutch. Easy to smile, quick to empathize, eager to help. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have had without this class. But here, the resting expression is one of suspicion or impatience. I react badly to it. I come apart at the seams. 

So I walk, and count, and feel like throwing up, and listen to music my love curated especially for this trip, with such love and abiding affection. And the couch in this cafe is at the cusp of full wall of windows open to the street. Children run by. Beautiful music is playing. And the beautiful apartments hover above us. I smile at a woman in her fifties on my way out. Like pretty much everyone else I have tried in some small way to connect with, she looks at me like I’m a mess better avoided.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rotterdam to Amsterdam

There's a saying in Rotterdam. "Amsterdam has it. Rotterdam doesn't need it." Rotterdam has the biggest shipping port in Europe. 30 million tonnes of food, 30 of oil and 30 of non-perishable goods (read: things we mostly don't need) pass through Rotterdam's ports every year. During a boat tour of the tip of the iceberg of the harbour, the dry docks stretched in all directions like the set for the second season of The Wire. The honey bee colours of the shipping containers, the largest man-made docking area for freighters in the world. Ships with freeboard hundreds of feet high, built for the waves of the north sea and everything in between there and China.

And yet, walking the restaurant=packed street of Witte de Withstraate on my birthday, 20 ducklings in tow, and settling at a Tapas bar before heading to dancing, it felt like a cozy city, international in the languages one could hear on the street, not so much the endless stretches of the Rhine as it took its last stretch to the sea amidst towering piles of hand spinners, tea cups, tupperware and rayon.

Rotterdam is all modernity and coziness, cantilevered buildings designed by the group graduates of some inspiring architecture prof who loved the overhang a skyscraper could be pushed to, perhaps. And trams and open markets and condos with giant markets within their horseshoe shaped building, so that the kitchen windows look in to the market itself, and all you could buy for supper. After the Haussmann conformity of Paris and the medieval charm of Bruges, it was lovely to see where Europe might be headed, instead of mainly where it has been. Space. Light. Ingenuity. And the most elegant and caring serving staff I've ever met.

And now, Amsterdam. I am sitting on a corner in de Pijp, drinking wine and full from a Surinamese meal of coconut beef and noodles with Cam. We've just travelled around all day with Cornelia, a freelance planner who gives tours of the city's transportation infrastructure and sustainability planning initiatives by bike. We braved rush hour on bikes, all 21 of us (one is down with tonsillitis), along with thousands of other bikes. We visited entire streets that have been freed of cars and turned into grass-lined tram tracks and wide bike lanes framed by pedestrian walkways. In the middle of the city. "Sustainability for me is not about the environment," said Cornelia. "It is about liveability." And we need to convince people to be sustainable by appealing to what appeals to them. For the Dutch, she argues, it is economics, convenience. For the Germans in Freiburg, it is the environment. For Americans, it is ingenuity. Unless you know what appeals, you will never convince people to do anything. So what do Victorians want? What appeals to them? What would make them trade their cars for bikes? What would make our government put in light rail and take the train across the bridge and put in a tram to UVic and triple the transit system? What drives us?

These are the things I spend my day thinking about. A far cry from last year's trip. We are alive, and we need to do things better. We need to love things better. It feels good to be among the living again.

Friday, May 26, 2017

DRIFT – Imagining Sustainability in Rotterdam

We walk east along the river with the sun still to our right, past industrial sculptures and cabled bridges, into the wind and past open stretches of bike path, with only the occasional passing car. It is 9:30am and 25 degrees and we are on our way to a full day session on sustainability in the city of Rotterdam, old city walkup buildings next to jigsaw post-modern skyscrapers, the city centre uncertain and spread out around us, while the barges and their shipping containers slide by.

We arrive at Blue City, a former water park and disco with crumbling steps and broken seal windows, which has been repurposed for blue economy entrepreneurs. The space has been rented by DRIFT, a think tank founded by Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2004. DRIFT works to support transitions to greater sustainability, helping industry, government and cities through research, advice, practice and education. It's a bridge between scales, science, community, industry.
DRIFT’s researchers support transition toward sustainability in culture (social norms, values, way of thinking, beliefs) and in structure (infrastructure, regulations and behaviours). They look at the different possible pathways of redevelopment: acceleration, stabilization, lock in, backlash, and system breakage. As an example, Giorgia Silvestri, a researcher with the institute, uses the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Or a social transition from high to low crime in a neighbourhood through transformation into a livable and sustainable place.

A transition arena’s phases include exploration of the challenges, envisioning of a sustainable future through imaging and storytelling and elaboration of transition pathways. No two projects are alike, and the process, as can be imagined, takes a long time, and demands involvement and participation by all stakeholders. It’s interesting to imagine this kind of process happening in BC, where voter participation in the last election was around 57 percent. It's also interesting to see what happens when we participate in a transition exercise ourselves.

After explaining the steps for a transition pathway, Giorgia leads us through an exercise with four areas relevant to the CRD – transportation, food, neighbourhoods and energy. We look at the barriers, voice our vision and think about pathways to achieving that vision. What becomes quickly evident is what Donella Meadows (1994) has pointed out: it’s very easy to list the barriers to a sustainable world, but much more difficult to put into words a real vision, to think on a grand scale, to think in terms of ideals, in terms of what we’d really like to happen were there not constraints from government, industry or an apathetic populace. We prefer to rest in the probable, in a reasonable possibility given our current constraints, rather than voice what we really want the world to look like. In fact, this kind of thinking often leads to resistance and even anger: “That’s just not reasonable. We could never do that. Visions are fantasies.” It’s the result of a culture that Meadows says “constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries.” Visioning is a skill we have as children – to imagine our ideal world where there is lots of fun, food and green space – but which many of us learn are childish, pie-in-the-sky ideas and thus discard as unachievable when we grow up.

In the end, the process of achieving sustainability might be psychological as much as practical. People will work more or less successfully with one another. They will hold one another back or encourage one another. They will allow one another to imagine or they will clamp idealism down. And it is us doing this to one another, not just those who hold the economic or political balance of power.

Eel fishing

When I walked by the fisherman gazing into one of Bruges' green canals at midnight last night, there was only one eel in his translucent, woven basket, which floated just below the waterline. "That's fishing," he told me, two of the only words he knew that sounded like English, aside from "Vacances?" and "estudente?" It was a warm night, like it also is tonight. He smiled gently, as I have seen so many Belgians do, and turned back to his floater and his pole.
With our twenty ducklings, and a hitchhiker brood of bedbugs clinging to Cam's belongings, I arrived to Bruges on Monday and will leave tomorrow for the Netherlands. Rotterdam, then Amsterdam. With a quick second stop in Belgium in Antwerp for the day tomorrow.Bruges rises out of the southern part of the North European Plain before it stops at the sea, in a jumble of gingerbread buildings and cobblestone streets, built during the medieval era and scarcely touched since. It is a monument to riches and poverty, as riches built it, when the city became the major port connection to the Mediterranean, and before the canals silted in, bringing over three hundred years of poverty. No one could afford to change a thing. It was such a minor town, even during the world wars of the 20th century, that no one bothered to bomb it. It crept through the 1900s until suddenly, Europe turned and saw it again for the first time, as a perfectly preserved medieval town, its metal boot-scraping contraptions still wedged into the bottoms of 1400 era buildings, left from when the streets were filled with shit and you wanted to be clean before you entered your friend’s house. The brick buildings have iron reinforcement bands on their outsides and terracotta roofs. The bridges stretch in minor arcs over the narrow canals, and swans glide around everywhere, just daring someone to get close. From Belgian, according to our dry-wit guide, we have the term “shit-faced,” for when you were drunk and walking on the streets at night. Upon hearing the warning signal from someone above, before they threw the contents of their chamber pot out the window, you looked up in drunken surprise, instead of deftly leaping aside. From this undercurrent, its not surprising to see Belgians enjoying their first beer at 10 in the morning, after a leisurely ride to work on their huge bicycles with beautiful panniers. Sustainability doesn’t have a particular project here; it is, instead, a beautiful part of the way most here live. Over 60 percent of the city’s population bikes to work. Beer from one brewery is piped under the city streets to its pub, rather than using trucks. Velux windows light the centuries old beams in the attic room I’m living in, and second hand shops line the street that leads to the city’s main square. Belgians are sometimes joked as lazy, drunk or without ambition by the neighbouring Dutch. A kind of southerner in a northern land. As we creep closer to Germany, of which I am mildly terrified, I appreciate these southern northerners the more. Their easy smiles, their relaxed attitudes, the person after person passing on bike this morning, who, seeing Cam sitting out in the early sun with his coffee, called out, “allo!” or “nice!” They like pleasure. They invite it. Things move slowly and gently, though even with a city that takes only 20 minutes to cross, I am managing to walk 20 kilometres a day, the same as in monumental Paris. They're down there below me now, at midnight again, drinking in the hostel's pub with the travellers, and spilling into the streets. I'm going to go see the fishermen again.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Vivre sa vie

When the art nouveau of the corner’s buildings swarm with their wrought iron balconies and scrolling balustrades, when even the lampposts scroll in waves and leaves and lilies more intricate than Canada's parliament buildings, I suppose it would be hard to grow up feeling an unquestioning sense of pride in one’s heritage. The Sun King’s rethinking of the city in the 1600s; the straightening of medieval organicism into the vista-pleasing curves and straight lines of today’s streets; the stone, moderate level apartments that still allow one to call to the top floor from the street. The creation of the first open air, accessible plazas; the first public lighting of a city and public, intra-city delivery of mail. Paris shaped the mold out of which all modern European cities emerged. It allowed for a nightlife without (usually) fear of being robbed. It mixed the bourgeois with the royalty and the commoners in its parks and public plazas. It is still as I remember it from my previous visit in 2007: one of the great manifestations of European beauty, made material in the scrolls of a door handle, the filigree of a portico, the writing on a chalkboard announcing today’s plat de jour. Livable, that is, aside from the prices. Though, in its defence, salaries are higher, so in a sense, most are better off than those in Victoria or Vancouver.

Across the intersection of Villiers and Rue de Lévis, a stone apartment of six floors, with a black tile cupola serif and slate roof, shines in the late afternoon sun of 7pm, while the prét a porter Parisians drift by like flowers. Mostly the quintessential French faces: olive skinned, slender, impeccably dressed, the top of their baguette bitten off in its bag. Occasionally, an African Parisian, Muslims, others. But the majority, with their inimitable style and their European heritage, prevails. They walk as if they own the city. They walk as if there wasn’t a bomb threat in the local train stations every other day.

Still, there is something integral missing. The stories of Paris heard by the rest of the world are of clashes between cultures; the narrow victory of a conservative moderate over a vitriolic racist. The protests and violence in the neighbourhoods outside the arrondissements. Whole communities that exist on the edge of a city which does not reflect them, despite its continued commitment to liberté, egalité, fraternité. I’m thinking a lot about Syrians while I'm here. I’m thinking of the families I see lying on the street, even as I love the calm, easy, elegance of the French. The story of a successful, identifiable culture is always, to some extent, a story of the victors. I’m looking forward to traveling to La Defense later this week, where African and Middle East immigrants have moved into one of the most modernist developments in the city – a Haussman and Le Corbousier lineage.
I am here caring for 20 duckling university students. Together with the prof, Cam, we will lead them around northern Europe, watching prices climb and climb, and listening to many who will tell us of sustainability projects they are championing – water reclamation, roof-top gardens, architectural restructurings of neighbourhoods to incorporate green and socially pleasing design, recycling, even anarchist football teams (in Hamburg). We will visit Bruges, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen. The students are lovely. They are young and hopeful and full of ideas. I mama bear them through the streets while Cam takes the lead.

We are staying in the 17th arrondissement, which has altered in recent years from a residential and plain outlier in the city to a new centre of culture. Pushed out by the tourists, the Parisians have remade this neighbourhood with a plethora of sidewalk cafes and bars, markets, and patisseries. We venture out at 11pm for dinner and find beef bourguignon and wine. It is 20 degrees and hundreds sit sipping beer and wine at outdoor tables.

I didn’t think I would be back here so quickly. And in truth, I miss Eastern Europe, despite the heartbreak of last spring’s trip. Its its sketchy small dangers, the inventiveness of a people who have long looked at the greener grass from the other side, but managed to made a rich life of sorts in the meantime, without having to charge 4 Euros for an espresso. And yet the same monochromatic homogeneity met me there, too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


There are so many kinds of loss.

Loss of time, loss of money. Loss of hair, loss of weight, of teeth, of hearing. Loss of memory. Loss of history. Loss of people. I think of the poet Tomasz Różycki, who writes of calling to his ancestors under their bed coverings of grass. Paraphrasing, he says, come out, you can come out now, while lying in the field of the place where so many were killed.

We lose lovers. We lose hope. We lose confidence and sense of self. We lose dogs and keys and wallets and bikes. We lose parents and children. We lose sight of the goals in front of us. We lose strength. We lose resolve.

We lose the nerve and the feeling. We lose rings, letters, light, energy, glow, spark, and equilibrium. We lose the idea, the train of thought, the story, the punchline. We lose heart.

This has been a summer of loss.

I've lost two months, spent largely unable to work or write. Is it the weight of what I saw and learned? Am I simply tired from the PhD comps and the frantic traveling? Or is it a large issue of silence, and not knowing how the idea of home can mean anything more than nostalgia, after the bone-shaking cautions of the archivist (you are not from where you think you're from; you do not have the name they likely had; you may never know) and the continuing unsettled feeling I have here on stolen land, my home, my birthplace, this island, this golden paradise of diminishing salmon?

I've lost friends. I've lost people dear to me. I will lose more.

And then, two weeks ago, I walked into the water at my favourite canoeing lake. It was to be a restorative trip. I paddled alone with my dog in the bow. I went with friends who love me. But I walked in carrying my phone unthinking in the space between my breasts. A kind of reverse baptism, perhaps. I lost every single video and sound recording I made in Europe. The cemeteries and the musicians, the man who showed me around Łomża, the two girls playing accordian in Vilnius, Poland's killing forests, Berdichiv's gardens and ghost-shaped graves. The Fado singer in Lisbon, the Flamenco in Spain. I lost every photo, every text, every digital note I'd made. Which I hadn't, stupidly, yet downloaded onto my ailing computer (which has, itself, also since failed). Two weeks of trying to rescue the data through re-soldering the motherboard and bathing the hard drive in alcohol has done nothing. The spark is gone, or has misfired. I'm left with perhaps ten photos, which I posted on this blog, all in low quality images. And I'm left with the words here, which is the only place I seem to be able to write these days.

If I am lucky, I will be able to make these entries into a geographical essay on loss. On displacement. But the irony lurks like a lost tooth. I went on a trip and found nothing. And then I lost everything I had brought back that proved I was there. As if something were taking back its stories and its dead. As if I had created loss in my wake. The water stops rippling. The surface is smooth. I can't even tell if sun is lighting the depths.

Where does one go from here, when the voice and the image (and the computer, the phone, the car trunk latch, the canoe seat, the glove, the ring, the book, the trip, the plan, the ambition, the shield) is lost? I think you sit in loss, as my friend S said. You just sit there. And its grey body winds itself around you. And the summer passes. And you sit there. And sit. You don't even wait for something to change. You just try to release your desire for control, and, as when you're lost in the wilderness, you stop. You stay still. You try to care for the body. You sit, while the world whirls around you, and the deadlines pass, and the emails go unanswered. You just sit. Because as another friend said, "You are not crazy. I would think you crazy if, at this point, you weren't feeling totally lost."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


The day after I fly back to Vancouver Island, I go to visit my father and Sandy. I don't tell them I am coming. They have been away and have come home early after he put his back out tying lines at the dock. "We've just been reading your blog," Sandy says, as she greets me at the door with a hug. My father comes in from the living room. He's crying. I haven't seen my father cry, that I can remember, since I was 10 years old and we were spending the last night in an apartment he rented during his divorce from my mother. Suddenly, I realize, stupidly late, that people have been reading these words. That my difficulty has been their difficulty these last weeks. I've brought a guest and we spend the next four hours missing ferries and talking and talking and I feel encompassed and made of air.

The sorting out continues. I am told by people this will be a long process. I traveled back, with a stop in Toronto to hug and spend time with as many of my friends as possible, with a growing sense that what I did over in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and what I saw, was both necessary and totally ludicrous. The care my friends take of me in Toronto is stupendous, exquisite. But the reality of what the Jewish archivist told me begins to sink in. I may have sung to ancestors in two graveyards in two countries, but they may not have been mine. I may have the wrong information. They may be in the next shetl over. They may be lying 100 kilometres away. There is a sense of having cast a voice out into the air, with no way of knowing how far it will carry, or what will be heard. I remember leaving the town of Berdychiv by car, taking a different route back and realizing that I would likely never return, and sobbing briefly, before I had to get it together, knowing there was no one else on this trip to make the travel arrangements for the next day, to get us back safe to Kiev, to buy dinner. I stopped crying.

Then there is the issue of what I say to those I love when I return. My father only said, "good, I'm glad you're going," when I told him I was going to Auschwitz. He said nothing of what he saw. And so what do I say? To those who have not read this, what is the protocol? I decide to follow suit, and use words like "challenging" and "intense" when people ask me how the trip was. I don't elaborate. I take back a gardening contract, turning water systems on and off and working the earth. I walk my dog and swim her in the cold winds and water of a summer that leaves the night after I arrive. I spend the first night back in the back garden and then am driven back inside, missing the heat of Europe, missing Mexico. I miss everywhere I've ever been. I feel like my feet aren't even touching the ground here, as if I've been taken under in Poland's forests or on the banks of the Neris in Vilna.

Finally, there is the idea of home. How does one come to a new land? I've now taken the same journey as my grand and great-grandparents, albeit by different type of vessel. We have both passed through a European theatre; we have both arrived to what is ultimately a foreign destination, however much I feel Saanich, in the end, however much my life centres here. In the end, the feeling I'm left with is perhaps less settled than the one my ancestors felt after 41 years in America: discombobulation, confusion, unease, mixed with total familiarity. I drink. I fiddle with my meds. I fight over issues that don't need to be fought over. I gain and lose equilibrium in the space of five minutes. I check airline ticket prices. I take jobs I don't want. I can't quite cry.

It was Gary Snyder, I think, who said the best thing we can do for the environment is to just stay home. What do you do when your home belongs to the Coast Salish First Nations, and the home of your ancestors is a giant pit of burned human ashes at the edge of a concentration camp, marked with a plaque and topped with a few pebbles that some people have thought to bring (in their suitcases, and what a strange thing, to put a pebble in a suitcase and bring it half way across the world)? My pebbles from my garden are in Berdychiv's cemetery and on the Auschwitz memorial plaques made by some artist who made something that no one understands, apparently (according to my guide) and in the Łomża cemetery. It's not enough. It will never be enough. I smile at the beyond and drink another glass of wine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The last supper

When I finally reached the Kiev archives after 24 hours of travel from Lisboa through Warsaw, it was an hour before closing. I had all my luggage with me. The receptionist showed me down pea-coloured hallways (walls, ceiling, floor) where various side doors were not only padlocked but had a seal of wax hanging from a string, the string melted into the seal and stamped. I was shown into an office, where two secretaries faced one another at desks and gestured me into one of the adjoining inner sanctums. That was where I met the future antagonist for the next Bond movie. Blond spiked hair, perhaps seven feet tall, glittering blue eyes and an air of not just annoyance but open hostility, before I even opened my mouth. "I'm Jewish," I began. "I'm looking for my family." It went downhill from there.

The conversation progressed from a thorough talking-to and various questions about why I was there, to why I hadn't done this or that first (which I had) and what I could possibly hope to find because all of the records except from 1857 and 1897 had been completely destroyed. Finally, the worm turned. Once it did, she relented a little, writing down an address for the regional Kiev archives. Russian women are very, very formidable.

On my way out, I chatted with the security guard who spoke three words of English. I've begun to realize, after so much time on my own in countries where I don't even read the characters of the words of a language, let alone speak it, that this kind of bubble has its advantages. "Do you always hire such loving people?" I asked him. "Does she whip you in the back room when no one else is around? I suppose archives are best if people can't access them?" He smiled. I smiled. We both thought everything was just fine. He walked me to the corner and showed me where to catch a bus, and wrote out the number. To celebrate, I hauled my bulging 48 pound suitcase up the road and let myself be swindled by another taxi driver who snap chatted his friends the whole way to the hotel.

That night, I went out to the most expensive restaurant in Kiev. Thirty dollars later I had drunk a full bottle of wine, tasted Georgian pie and eggplant and baklava and a coffee that came with its own set of cutlery. I walked back and climbed to the 12th floor and watched the city, and thought about lostness, and loneliness, and how long this trip has been, and how short, and started to feel the first strains of panic at my impending departure. I love home, but I never want to go back there.

The next day, I almost blew off the regional archives and just went walking. Thank goodness I didn't. After waiting, and waiting some more, I was shown into a room with rows of interesting looking people bent over blond wooden desks full of yellowed papers. Alex Lipes greeted me in English. "You're also a Jew? I am responsible for Jewish archival history here." He took me into a back room so we could chat. Chances are, he told me, your family's name wasn't Nuchims but Nuchman, and that it wasn't Nuchims but Nuchim, with the "s" added for "son of." And chances are, they weren't from Berdychiv but one of the shetls nearby. Or they passed through on the way to a city that could take them to the new world. Or they were lying. "There are 80 books of census records from 1897," he told me. "We can look at four at a time." He showed me one. It was two inches thick and both sides of each loose page were covered in beautiful cursive, displaying the names, progeny, ages, sex, literacy, language and location of each person, as well as their religion (J). "There's nothing you can do today," he told me, "but I can help you from Canada." Alex grew up in Ukraine. He said that most Jews in Ukraine these days are from areas in Northern Russian where Jews were banished to in the last century, or they're from Israel. Many, he said, don't even realize they are Jews, as the records were lost, or the family deliberately hid the truth. Over 30,000 live here today who are from Israel. He spent eight years there, and returned with his wife to work in the archives. He does work for people all over the world. He walked me outside. "This is the road," he said, pointing at the main street in front of the archives, "that the Jews marched down during the second world war to be executed. The memorial park is just down there, where they were all shot. The land this building is standing on used to be a Jewish cemetery." Of course they were. Of course it was.

I walked through the park, after saying goodbye. Across the road were the familiar faces in enamel on tombstones that I had seen and photographed in the cemetery of Berdychiv. The grass was long, but the stones looked tended. I turned into the memorial park, which covered many city blocks, and ended up wandering through the poplars and groves of wisteria-like trees that smelled incredible for over an hour. It was my first time walking in a forest since Poland, and it was also the site of a mass killing.

Tonight, I found a French restaurant with the freshest bocconcini and tomatoes, caviar and eggplant, foie gras and balsamic, and am writing while the courses come. After, I will go back to the Cuban bar to see if there is any music. It's a tough life. It's my last night in Europe. If I had not been so preoccupied with candidacy exams and all the other madness that the spring entailed, I'd have got my wits about me and arranged to stay here. Stay where? Where does one feel at home? Where the unsmiling faces of a city full of Russians (because they do speak Russian over Ukrainian, and consider themselves Russian in a way that Lithuanians do not) feels intensely familiar? Or where the heart feels lighter, but foreign, in the winding streets of Sevilla? Or in Vilnius, where a passel of Jews are remembering for us, and creating Yiddish societies, and Klezmer music appreciation nights? Or on the shores of a small, shall-remain-unnamed lake on an unnamed island on the West Coast of North America, eating chanterelles by lantern-light and laughing about everything while watching the dog take another swim under the moon? Maybe it's true, maybe it's too late to feel at home anywhere. Or it's too soon.

Two Russian men have lit cigars behind me, telling the server, more or less, to go to hell when she tells them there's no smoking on the patio. I think they may be planning the next Mafia insurgency. She comes and moves my table a little out of their way, out of concern for me. When they leave (without paying) she heaves a sigh of relief, and confirms my suspicions. It's 22 degrees at ten at night. I think of the white trunks of the poplars, giving out their seeds in cottony drifts, and the birches and red pines and the Israeli soldiers and the incredibly fierce and human and strange and antagonistic look in the eyes of so many I've seen in this city passing me in the streets. I've never seen so many blue eyed people. I'm far from unusual. But still they look at me strangely. As if they're seeing a vestige from the past. I remember the Polin museum in Warsaw, the history of Jewish peoples over the last 1000 years in Poland. The best museum I've seen in my life. People lived right outside the Warsaw ghetto, its interpretive text said, and they did nothing, for the most part, to help those inside.

Maybe, as Mark Strand writes, I'm still moving to keep things whole.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lisboa y Sevilla

A love letter for Lisbon and Sevilla.


As I write this in Lisbon, an old man in the tiny restaurant next to the bigger, expensive restaurant, is gesturing with a cane behind my head. He's standing in the doorway, and there is a giant mesh bag of empty snail shells strung up above him. Out on the sidewalk on a wood and metal chair, a man he may or may not be talking to (he seems to be talking to anyone in particular) sleeps. Or tries to. The sidewalk is made of cut two inch square blocks of cream marble. The street itself is darker cut stone. The lines for crosswalks are made using the cream marble, lined up in rows. Women pass. They are beautiful. Then men who the old man calls to. I am drinking my second cup of red wine. It costs one euro each glass. I've just eaten a pescado dorado, a fried fish with a body about the size of my open hand. It was plump and white and crispy on the outside, its eye socket browned and the tail and bones intact. It came with plain potatoes and a tomato and onion salad and bread and a side plate of olives. Oil and vinegar are always on the table. Across from me, a funicular sits at rest, ready for its journey up to the top of the hill where Sheila lives. The hills are so steep here, throughout the city, that you climb them using stairs, also made of marble.

We stay here for three days, eating fish and Sheila working while I roam the old Arab quarter and keep my ration of egg tarts under three per day. On my birthday, we drive to King Ferdinand's expansive forest gardens, where Portuguese broom mixes with Australian tree ferns and rhododendron forests for the opening of an in-situ art installation. In an effort to make more people explore the gardens, twenty international and Portuguese artists have been invited to create works within the grounds. One is a giant cork, the size of a small bus. Another is a cleft in the earth with the same cream marble from the city streets inserted into its depths. At night, we drive back into Lisbon and find dinner with Mario, who owns Taverna, and who feeds us salted lamb and cheese and red wine and chocolate mousse. he gives me a tea light as a birthday candle. He tells us that most of the Portuguese have some quantity of Jewish blood.

Saturday and Sunday:

In a small single bed, with the tall doors of one of five balconies open to the night air, I go to sleep and wake up to bells from the nearby churches. The apartments opposite are five feet across the narrow pedestrian corridor. Swallows and swifts circle the rooftops and the voices of people below, coming back from tapas, echo up the alleys. It's 5am. We are just about to sleep. The apartment belongs to a Canadian/Spanish family with six children who have had it in the family for more than 100 years. The ceilings are 14 feet and the wooden slats of the tall shutters hang in the warm air. For dinner: queso, jamon, berenjena, tomate, pan, vino tinto y espinacas de garbanzas. Sheila and I walk around. There is a giant sculpture in the Plaza de Sevilla, shaped like a group of morel mushrooms that curves overhead and arches into the blue midnight sky. In the Hotel de los Juderias we stop for a glass of wine in a second floor piano bar. The carved stars of David and Islamic geometric designs soar in wood 30 feet above our heads. I am told, that night, that CBC has picked up my blog and read my letter from Warsaw out on North by Northwest. I have no idea if this is true. But it feels good to think of having readers.

The romance and music and brown bars of this region (what I call the traditional tapas and raciones places that string themselves through the old town of Sevilla) are healing me after a very different previous three weeks. I'm very tempted not to head home. I'm very tempted to start my life anew, in Spain, in a city I swore to return to nine years ago. I look up the aeroplan number. I look up apartment prices. And then I go back to eating snails and gaspacho, because immediate pleasure is too big a distraction. The waiter claps his hands. The dogs grin. Everyone in their Sunday best strolls the paseos and stops for another snack. Groups of four or five young men drift by with a couple of guitars, stopping to serenade the outdoor tables with flamenco tunes that they, and everyone else, knows the words to. A man leaning against the restaurant wall as the light falls puts his hand to his chest and his voice comes out gravelly and perfect. Next to him, a woman smiles and begins palmadas to accompany his song. There is a sense of a joy in life that I have not found in such constant and enduring and casual quantity in any other country in the world. Sevillanas, and those visiting from other parts of Spain, are too busy eating and drinking and talking to think of being anywhere else. I feel the same. How, how could I ever leave?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Unicorns, Mermaids and the Saving Grace of Conversation

Friday and part of yesterday I spent the afternoon on a deck leaning over the Uzupis river, which cuts through the eastern edge of Vilnius. Uzupis has made itself its own republic. You can get your passport stamped. The constitution is printed in 26 languages and is available for free in the square where the angel statue sits high above. The poplar trees give off their cotton-like daytime stars, floating through the sunlight. The river takes everything away. I spent two hours talking to a Malaysian traveller, who also goes everywhere on his own, is also unmarried, He was amazed at the idea of a travelling writer. 

I'm trying to figure it out; what I am learning during this trip? That the body carries granite and marble inside itself. That rivers are an unending exhale. That one can dive under the green surface of a forest, and find a whole world of flags and pain and seeds and blueberry bushes. Some of the trees were probably seedlings when the atrocities happened. And maybe my grandparents heard gunshots in their sleep one night, in LA, and thought of what was only fragmentedly and inaccurately being reported. And they woke and lay under sheets, and moved their single beds closer for one night, and no birds sounded outside the window where the fields were being turned to houses, and in their guilt and loneliness made my father. And it was too much to bear so they never did it again.

In Uzupis everyone has the right to heat and light and a tiled roof.

In Uzupis everyone has a right to be unhappy.

The tightrope I've been walking while travelling has grown to a wooden platform. Late at night I fall off it and then reverse gravity brings me back on by morning. There was no one washing their clothes in Uzupis' river. There were many sitting on the deck and speaking normally, and one woman looked at me as if she might understand. The river was a constant small clutter, one foot deep. If you, reader, were there I would have thrown myself off of it and astonished the other patrons, landing like a flying squirrel but on my back, smiling, unhurt. This is how I feel. 

Last year at this time I was spread-eagled on a bed in Ajijic, waiting for night. I miss those days. I miss everything that I have done that has been beautiful. I miss canoeing and being on the street in Buenos Aires while men whisper obscene compliments to me as I pass, and running the Bowron lakes river in the canoe and being in an MA seminar and crying over Zwicky's work, and presenting a paper on Todd Inlet, and feeling sick in the old Banff dining hall before I went to my studio and wrote The Reflecting Pool. I miss my father. I’m in this river that’s pushing me directions I never anticipated. I didn’t see this curve. 

I won't be so naive as to ask what might be so frightening about an educated people, that would lead whole nations to turn against them. There is nothing I could do here to satisfy the past. I can walk and re-walk the streets, waiting to feel my grandfather's presence. I can take pictures of little shreds of hebrew through barred windows. I can talk to people, I can look at the river which is the same river and not the same river. Which, according to the constitution of Uzupis, has the right to flow. 

I sat down at a table yesterday afternoon and began to listen to a conversation between an Israeli man and his distant young relative, who has Jewish blood but has grown up Christian. The boy, 19, was trying to figure out how things are in Lithuania now, and telling his relative, who was older than his voice sounded when I snuck a glance at him, about how and what they learned about the Holocaust, and how the unschooled Lithuanians from the villages were sent east to Russia during the cold war as slaves. When the boy left, the Israeli, Michael, turned to me. “So what is your story? You were listening in to our conversation, yes?” He was smiling sadly. I told him and he told me he was In Lithuania for the same reason, but because he speaks both Hebrew and German, he’s been able to access archival material on both his father and grandfather -- stories that he was told nothing about during his childhood. 

Michael's father survived the Kaunas ghetto, one of only hundreds. Then he survived the executions in a field outside of town, one of only six, by not stepping forward when his name was called. He was always well dressed, Michael said, and traded his coat for a favour with a Lithuanian, who had him requested for another post before the next execution could take place. Then he survived the work camps in Germany during the last years of the war, where Jews were sent back to build a bunker to construct jet planes, which Hitler thought would turn the war back to his favour. When the decision was made to bring Jews back in, Himmler apparently complained, saying, “I just made Germany Jew-free!” “Don’t worry, we are going to work them to death,” Hitler answered. When Michael’s father was liberated at the end of the war he weighed 70 pounds. His first wife died in a concentration camp. He went to Israel, married again and had children, and never spoke of his experiences again. If it had not been for his father's first wife's death, Michael told me, he would not have been born. "I owe my life to the murder of my father's first wife."

Michael, a filmmaker, learned the story through an archivist, a historian who had been working for years on the Kaunas ghetto. He leaned in close to me and his blue eyes were the same shade as my father’s, “The thing is, I wish I could cry, but I have not been able to so far on this trip. But the trauma lives on in me.” When we said goodbye we hugged one another; it was my first hug in nearly three weeks and he wrote me the next morning to confirm how much the meeting had meant to both of us.

He also showed me photos of Stolperstein, bronze monument bricks set into the stone sidewalks and streets in Germany, as well as many other countries, which name not only the Jews that lived in the house they are set in front of, but also the place and way that they died. “Humiliated then executed, June 1941,” states one in Michael’s photos. He told me they are everywhere, all around the city. To him, it is a sign of true repentance and acceptance of responsibility that he does not see yet in Lithuania. I would agree. There are signs for the ghetto, and the holocaust museum makes no bones about the responsibility the Lithuanians had in carrying out liquidation of Jews, but the details are missing. The people are unnamed and the ghetto itself has very little left that can be understood without a guide. The stolperstein was the first thing in my life that has made me interested in going to Germany. 

So I spent, in Vilnius, a lot of time by the little river that flows between Vilnius old city and the Republic of Uzupis. It flows at about 3 km an hour and its incessant inevitability that cannot be stopped both shakes me to my core and calms me. There’s a unicorn sculpture right above it on the Uzupis side, and a mermaid sculpture set into the stone bank on the other. As if I’m in some alternate world where the best, most wondrous qualities in people might be possible. Like the Lithuanian man, who, during the war, when called over by a Jew standing in a line, took the gift of Michael’s relative's watch and rings right before he entered a gassing truck and was killed, and managed to return them to the family after the war, so that they passed to his father, and then to him. Or Kerry Keys, the American poet who, despite his Irish background, has learned more about the Jewish history of this area than almost anyone else I talked to, and met me for a drink, and listened to my stories, and gave me a dozen names and introductions and book titles to help me on my research. 

Yesterday I medicated, to get a break from the insane anxiety and buzzing grief and joy that has been alternating in me like a river. I also drank less, and walked even more, and rode a bike, and listened to all of the music that Music in the Street Saturday brought to life. Every second street closed. Every corner with a theremin player or a fiddle or three women singing traditional minor key songs, or a flamenco guitarist or a modern Vilnius band that sounded like a cross between Sigur Ross, the Pixies and Florence and the Machine. The woman’s voice was iconic; she was shaking, afterward, as she wrote the band's name in my phone: D’Mask. Everyone was out walking the streets. Bars were open on in the squares in Kiosks everywhere. A brief rainstorm sent people scurrying under the nearest awning; no one went home or stopped listening. Families with children were everywhere, the women not looking harried and overworked but happy and free with their kids, the fathers involved. I'll say it again: I don’t understand Europe, but I love it. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016


The earliest memory I have of the inscrutable man who was my grandfather is also one of my very earliest memories. He is shifting his giant plastic hearing aid, which he carried around in the breast pocket of his golf shirt (usually yellow), so that I can lean against his chest while he reads to me from another in the series of Beverly Cleary books (which my parents must have picked out). Ramona and her father, Ramona and Beazus. The children in the stories always so much better behaved than I was. Sometimes I feel like I've spent the calmest moments of my life leaning against the chests of my grandfather, then my father. Always too many things in their chest pockets, always gaps in the story where I fell asleep.

And so I have made it to the starting point for our life in the new world, which for him was golfing and driving his domestic car down the wide streets of the San Fernando Valley in LA. Who knows if he was actually from here. The archives list Łomża as the birthplace of his siblings and parents. Were they in transit? Did the family stop and sell samovars here for a few years before heading down to Riga, on the coast, for the boat to New York? Was this just the place he had his first memories? Or did he want, already, to be known as someone from a city, not a small town in the middle of a sea of fields?

In any case, this is the name that we grew up knowing. He was the only one of that generation not born in America. He spoke Yiddish, and refused to teach it to my father, so that he and my grandmother could have a private language. He owned Acker's Service Station on Ventura Boulevard. He worked in the movies, building sets. He was fired from his factory job building missiles during the cold war six months before his pension. He used to refuse to get up from the table and help clear, after dinner. "That's women's work," he'd scoff, waving his hand. For which my 13 year old self lambasted him. When he moved to Victoria from LA in the 1990s he stopped golfing, driving and doing much of anything. He was dizzy. He watched a lot of TV. Their apartment was boiling, summer and winter. He'd paw his hand at my father, turning away, in his final years.

Vilnius has the familiar story I've not been able to become inured to during this trip. The thriving Jewish community, pre-war. The herding of Jews into a ghetto, larger, then smaller. The killing forest, just outside of town, where huge pits were used as mass burials after people were shot. 30,000 died there. Of 80,000 Jews living in what was then called the Jerusalem of Northern Europe, about 95% perished in the ghetto or the killing forest, Paneriai, or in the concentration camps. Walking with a fellow poet, Kerry, up the main former ghetto street, he told me the story of another writer, who perished in the camps of Siberia in 1943, after being part of the brief ghetto uprising (all of a few hours). It was the first time I had spoken to someone in person for two weeks about anything significant. I started to cry. His daughter was there. She was teaching me how to say hello and the names of the months in Lithuanian. "September," she repeated, and then the Lithuanian word, which I have, of course, since forgotten.

This city is a baroque jewel in the middle of forests that once held wolves and bison. Its old city streets curve like a many layered egg. They are slowly uncovering the Hebrew script on the sides of buildings that was long since covered by layers of paint and plaster. "It took them a year," Kerry told me, "to do that one bit," pointing to an entablature on an 19th century building. The ad was for salt, spices and hardware.

The people are beautiful. I am back in true Eastern Europe, where women are varied and long-haired or punk, and have nearly translucent blue-green eyes, flawless skin and an incredible knack for knowing what looks good on them. And yet you can hear a dozen languages on the street.

The Neris and Vilnetle rivers bend and bend around the city, holding it in, and its banks hold perpetual walking and biking paths. The bike lanes run along the sidewalks and I took them far out of town and then back along the river, passing the strange grey and black ravens that I've only seen here, and women or men with babies, and men in short dresses with leggings (the only leggings you'll see here, thank god). There is even the self-proclaimed autonomous district of Uzupis, where Frank Zappa is the patron saint and a constitution proclaims, amongst other things, that "Everyone has the right to understand nothing; Dogs have the right to be dogs; Everyone has the right to cry; Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty." I'm going there tomorrow.

I feel intensely at home. Today, I tagged along with a Jewish friendship group from Manchester on a walking tour of the ghetto. The guide had hebrew script tattooed on his inner arm. They invited me to the holocaust memorial outside of town, at Paneriai, on their giant bus; I think I will not go. I think I've had enough. Tonight, I am going to see Handel's "Alexander's Feast" in the national opera house. For ten dollars.

I am 40. I'm very accustomed -- after Spain, Mexico, Argentina, the US -- to travelling alone. But I've had so much support from people back home on this trip. I am carrying a lot of love with me. And there is this sense of entering a new period. As if this turning, with the arrival in the northernmost point in my journey, will turn back to something I didn't expect. As if the ghosts have been satisfied. I may be crying but I'm euphoric, making connection to place and person I have not made in a long time. And for my birthday, a new chapter: back to another romance culture. I'll spend a week with an old friend, Sheila, in Lisbon, which, after Warsaw, is where I'll next be.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Red pine, dark cloud, pale beer

In Poland, even when driving to find your ancestors in a cemetery, there's no such thing as a simple walk in the forest.

Twenty kilometres or so from Łomża, my great grandfather's home town (and as far back as we can trace before him), a small forest of red pine and oak clots the rolling hills of farmland outside of the village of Tykocin. I stopped for some forest bathing. But something didn't seem right. I didn't get it when I saw the seven Israeli tour buses in the larger parking lot -- similar to the other seven I'd seen back at the town's synagogue, where 500 Israeli police officers, standing around waiving giant flags and touring the shul and the town with a Hebrew guide, watched me climb from my car and cross the road. “It’s too bad,” one particularly tall and handsome one told me. “You’ve just missed the ceremony. We read from the Torah. It was very moving.”

Nor did I get it when an Israeli security guard got out his car and asked me where I had driven from, where I was going, what I was doing here and if he could look at my luggage. He finally let me go. I walked into the forest, where piles of freshly cut pine logs lay stacked near the entrance. Someone had drawn a star of David on the cut end of one log. Two hundred feet down the trail, seemingly half the current Israeli army came around the corner. Walking at the front were a group of civilians. "Why are you here?" they asked. "Do you know what is here?" and looked at me the way I've looked at none too smart people in the past when they've made some terrible, unselfconscious admission of cluelessness -- with a kind of tender judgement and pity.

I should have done more research -- about historical killing squads in the area, about the curtain a forest provides, not just as a hiding space for those who flee, but a space to hide atrocity. In August 1941, while the blueberry bushes were ripening under the red pines of Tykosin forest, the Nazis took 2400 Jews from the village and other nearby communities and marched them into the forest, where they shot them in waves and buried them in three mass graves. A memorial put up by one woman lists those she lost: her entire family -- brothers, sisters, mother, father, grandparents, cousins. Similar killings were done in surrounding towns, including the one my family is from.

I stayed until the army had left and then until the police officers arrived with more Israeli flags, with which the memorial was already festooned. Another guard approached me, and I had to bite back my laughter when he said, "You can stay but take no images of the people and please don't go closer to them than 25 metres." Most of the faces I passed were frankly curious, they met my eye. Many Sephardic faces, a few Ashkenazi. They looked pitying when I said I didn't speak Hebrew. A healthy, tall, beautiful group. A jumble of competing emotions leapt up. The need to re-territorialize a monument. The right to remember. The right to be at home. The missing culture that would otherwise be here. The violence committed in Palestine. How home is never one thing. My father used to say that everyone should be cleared out of Israel and Palestine and the whole thing turned into a national park. I had tended to agree. But these groups complicated the issue again. Where else would we go? I thought, as I left the forest, sidled between the buses and said goodbye to the first guard, who asked me again, "Are you okay?"

I kept driving. Finally, in the late afternoon I found them. I parked the rental car and took a bag with umbrella, the ancestry listings, my camera and a giant beer. Walked down the outside edge of the wall and jumped it about 30 metres down, behind where some chickens were grazing. Landed in the Łomża Jewish cemetery where about a 50 years of Arkiers are buried -- between the 1890s and the beginning of the war, when anyone who was left here has the addition of the word "holocaust" or "Auschwitz" after their year of death. There are lots of my people here. There are lots of my people in the United States now, because of those who left before the war. And in Paris, and in Canada.

I walked through the rows of Hebrew script, taking a video for those who I'm in part making this trip for. Wild strawberries and vetch, buttercups and little blue flowers I didn't know the name of. A view of the little river and then up into small rolls of hills before the levelling to the plain again on the opposite side, to the south. A view you could not get tired of. I was glad of that. Houses surrounding the north side, and a farm to the east and west and a Catholic church far to the west. I started picking up empty snail shells and placing them on the stones.

What I felt wasn't sadness, finally, though something in my ribs hurt. What I felt, sitting as the first shower came over, taking a video of the storm with my umbrella in one hand and the beer beside me I had used a gravestone to pop the lid off of, was a kind of thick protection. A kind of happiness. A kind of feeling that I might never feel suicidal again, after this. A kind of in-pressing of the skin, as if being compressed while allowed to expand. I started reading out their names. Chaim. Wolf, Issac, Liba, Rytka, Malka, Chana, Mejer, Dawid. Then I started calling them. Then I started singing them. The air turned green and then the rain passed and the world turned gold and green for a few minutes before the next row of storm. There was a man digging in the far corner of the yard. The cuckoos started up again.

I came from the practical ones, I guess. It was freezing out. I didn't stay the night. I didn't sleep with them. No matter what we do there are regrets. I regret everything. Lying in this bed this morning in Bialystok, I just want to take car back there. Again. Again. And keep repeating the process until something snaps free from history and a whole culture springs from the earth as painters and dancers and scientists and poets and plumbers, and adds to the beauty of the world instead of falling into a pit in the forest. There's where the going back again and again leads. And they were practical. The ones I am directly from pulled up their 100 year roots and left their home, by horse and buggy, likely, before the great disasters. They got out of the way of the next storm.

So as I'm failing at this, failing to connect with the man who could have led me around the graves, failing to get the car before the meter expires, failing to check out in time, failing to decide where to go after Vilnius, I also feel amazing. I was so fucking proud of myself. Writing to everyone I knew, huddled on that grave, saying, "I found them! I found them!" Somewhat like the emotions written, I realize, on the Israelis' faces back at the forest of Tykocin.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Marks We Make

I want to start instead with the music I went to last night, at Cheder cafe In the heart of Kazimierz, a long, windowed space with live musicians every week. A guitar player and a singer, he young, she older, who gave us traditional Polish and Jewish folk songs. Sung in the minor key of a half octave litany, they were spellbinding. It was just what I needed. The room was packed, rapt; there was vodka and wine; The woman's voice broke and carried and broke again in the three note rise and fall. It was somehow the perfect match of repeating prayer and erotic call.

Before the show I had been wandering. So much of the Jewish district of Kazimierz, in Krakow has been commercialized; filled with menorah’d neon signs and “real" kosher food. Ducking into an open courtyard entrance, however, I found the Kazimierz that hadn’t yet been renovated. Because it couldn’t be.

Green stickers, which indicate a Jewish family once lived here and no relatives can be found, covered what were left of the windows I walked past on my way in. The city takes these flats in trust, and I’m told they are not allowed to be sold or used. Through the darkness of the entryway into the courtyard, its walls festooned with graffiti. The darkness gave way to a leaf-lit inner sanctum. A giant black-trunked tree (a chestnut?) grew straight and narrow in the centre - one of the biggest trees I’ve seen here. Little saplings surrounded it, long grass, weeds, clematis climbing the ornate balconies and filigree trim.

About every tenth apartment, of the three buildings that came together to make this courtyard, looked as if it had an occupant. The sounds from a television came down from above; a light shone grimly. A window box was full of geraniums. But the rest of the flats lay with their windows open or missing all together, the curtains hanging askew or gone, their dimness at dusk like missing teeth. Each building was three or four floors. Each floor had perhaps six inner-facing apartments. The emptiness was like something iron and ornate and heavy landing on me. I walked through to another adjoining courtyard, and found the same thing. I walked up a set of inner stairs, their wood treads scraped so thin the original plank had halved in thickness, the board separating from its riser. On the second floor, the light of a tv from one apartment, its door ajar. Padlocks on another. Padlocks and a bar with two more locks on a third. An armoire with padlocks on both doors, sat next to a broken window, the swirling mustard and cherry tiles at its feet covered in bird shit and dust.
Seventy years later, and these windows still swinging in the snow.

I found these courtyards the day after I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. I was wandering around Kraków in a daze, careening from one ridiculous emotion to another. My father had told me, “good, I’m glad you’re going.” Which surprised me. He’s not one to live in the past. He believes in working and studying to do good for the present and the future. “I cried all the way through,” he told me. “It’s important.” But it was hard to access what I felt while there because of the speed of the visit itself.
I hesitate to use this metaphor, but they shuttled us through like cattle at the sites. Winding lines of tour groups in all languages, up stairs, down stairs, through corridors of eye glasses, rooms of luggage, rooms of shoes, rooms of face cream and enamel pots. We were encouraged to hurry. Through barracks with fireplaces where no wood was provided, ever; rooms with toilets where no paper was provided, ever; rooms with washing basins where no soap was provided, ever. At first the speed seemed to be about the sheer number of people present. But by the end I thought, perhaps they do this on purpose. There is scarcely time to take any of it in. They leave you with no time to process, but also no time to fall into the crevasse of history, to stand still in front of the carved marks on the inside door of a solitary confinement chamber. Little scrolls and decorative flourishes. No time to break down in front of the cavernous room of women's hair or the gas chambers themselves. One survivor, our guide told us, came back to take the tour because his memory of the camps did not extend past the registration process.

When I hit upon the courtyards in Kazimierz, I was forced to stop. The city noise faded. The green was private and watery and I could make myself slow. I wish I had stayed longer. It’s only now that I write this I realize the few people living there might have been some of the 200 Jews still living in Krakow, of the 60,000 that once made it their home. But what would there have been to say? What could I possibly say in the face of all of this? When a man walking his dog came through the courtyard, I stepped from behind a snowberry bush so as not to frighten him. I smiled a little, from across the watery space. He looked back at me, paused a moment, then whistled his dog and kept on.