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 www.sightandsound.com, “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.