June 13, 2003
Avi at the keyboard
Last stop. We’re here in Winnipeg spending a few days with my family and fighting off the effects of jet lag. This weekend it’s back to Vancouver for the first time since mid-February, and a chance to wear some other clothing for a change.
It’s strange to think of our travel odyssey as over. We’ve grown used to seeking out museums of everything from Renaissance art to olive oil production, of studying architectural styles from Portuguese Manueline to Catalan Gaudian, of finding Roman temple ruins at the bases of Moorish minarets transformed into Catholic church towers, of drinking expensive bottled water and cheap local wine, of walking strange streets with an eye open for signs of an ancient mezuzah or of signs of @n internet café.
Here’s Ruth’s past few weeks:
Unlike Avi who was exploring new (to him) territory, I spent most of the last few weeks in Germany re-connecting with friends. This, of course, also meant that I lived in real homes rather than in pensions, ate considerably fewer meals in restaurants and could sit up and read in living rooms rather than to try to configure a comfortable position on our bed in our one room. It also meant that I could engage in conversations with people with whom I had a history and did not have to engage in the same level of traveler’s small talk.
Originally I had planned to meet my cousin for a maternal roots trip in Germany, but when this was cancelled, I had to rethink the Germany itinerary. So, I did add a brief jaunt into new territory: Mainz, Speyer, and Heidelberg. Even in these “new to me” places, I was able to live with friends of friends or, as in the case of Heidelberg, a couple we met en route. Of the time spent in Germany, I spent the last 11 days in Berlin, and about one week in Wittlich. I had the pleasure of having my Berlin and Wittlich worlds overlap for a few days in Berlin. My Wittlich friends, Marianne and Werner, had previously organized to stay at my almost lifelong friend Jane’s home in Berlin for the Kirchentagen (Ecumenical Church Days), a country wide gathering of Christians (both Catholics and Protestants) to study, celebrate and pray together over a few days. Berlin was inundated with an extra 200,000 people, easily identifiable with yellow scarves, printed programmes and Berlin maps. The programme included a vast assortment of workshops including many on Jewish themes and a few on Islam. Though I was not registered, I did attend a few workshops, including a fascinating two-part workshop on Shekinah, Midrash and Michelangelo. The first part was a lecture given by a woman named Armut Bruckstein in which she explored the story of Jacob and the angel by looking at the biblical text, Jewish interpretations of the story (midrash) and then looking at a painting by Rembrandt in which the struggle becomes an erotic embrace. In Rembrandt’s painting, unlike in most interpretations, the angel is female, thus equating her to the feminine aspect of divinity, the Shekinah. The next day we were invited to attend an art exhibition “Shekinah and Maria Magdalena” in which the artist explores such themes further. I also attended a workshop on the Alevitin- a Muslim sect that has a sizeable community in Germany.
All my life I have spoken what I refer to as “House German circa 1935”. With my parents, I always spoke German but I have never formally studied German, and my grammar is atrocious. So I took a few German grammar lessons and I am now very aware of what I don’t know. German grammar is very difficult and I must agree with Mark Twain, makes very little sense. So, I am planning to pick up a few grammar books, some tapes, and see if I might find someone to work with me in order to improve. Though I have much to learn, I was able to view a movie in German (“Goodbye Lenin”), attend a reading, as well as some lectures, and maintain many conversations (albeit with some “Denglish” and grammatical errors.) It’s been good but now I am ready to stop traveling.
Avi again. The last two weeks saw me in France, struggling with yet another language. Dredging up memories of old Manitoba High School French classes, augmented by years of backs of cereal boxes, I struggled to be a coherent representative of a country that non-Canadians foolishly believe to be bilingual. I wasn’t doing too badly, except that I kept slipping into Spanish verbs and prepositions without realizing it. Understanding others when they spoke was a challenge as well, though it certainly is true that Parisian French is a lot easier to follow than good old Quebecois Joale. The strangest days would be those times, as in Bayonne and again in Tours, when I attended the local synagogue (Sefardi) and then got into discussions with the congregants afterwards and found myself bouncing among French, Spanish, English or Hebrew depending upon the languages they did or didn’t speak.
There’s no point in recounting my activities or impressions. The wine-tasting tour around Bordeaux, cycling the chateaux of the Loire, watching the evening lights in the waters of the Seine - all these are as magical as you imagine them to be, and have been described a hundred times by better writers than me. And what is French cuisine? True, I had wonderful canard a l’orange in St Etienne, great crepes in Bayonne, delicious couscous in Bordeaux, fiery curries in Tours, crispy falafel and oozing fondue in Paris. Almost makes one think they were in Vancouver!
The truth is, despite the miles of great art in the Louvre, the lively cafes of Gay Paree (our hotel was in Paris’s Gay & Jewish quarter), the fine Belgian beers that Elie introduced me to, the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison - I was growing tired. It’s been four months on the road, and I was ready to go home. When the Cathedral of Notre Dame becomes to you just another collection of Gothic arches and stained glass, you’ve had enough! And when your greatest preoccupation in Paris is the strikes and paralysis of the transportation network and how the hell will I be able to get out of here, then the sooner you go the better.
So I’d like to thank those of you who have accompanied Ruth and me through the past several months. If you’ve actually read the over-long travelogues we’ve sent, I hope you enjoyed them and I thank you for giving me the excuse to reflect upon my experiences and perhaps tease you into imagining yourself here. It’s a big wide world out there, full of wonder and brutality, of natural beauty and historical artifice, of struggling cultures, insensitive power structures, warm hearts, cold beer, oils-on-canvas and graffiti-on-trains, dying coral reefs and reviving urban cores. Sometimes it takes a plane ticket and a foreign language dictionary to be aware of it all. Sometime it just takes a walk through your neighbourhood. This weekend I get to see my back yard again and walk around Vancouver. I hope I remember life’s lessons. I wish you the same.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time..