Thursday, September 19, 1996

Journal fragments, Amsterdam, Brugge, Laon

Journal fragment: 19 Sept., 1996 (midnight insomnia)

Home, I am—and after a week of sunshine, I need dark glasses—unused as I am to so much concentrated light. The weather’s turning cold. Fingernail moon (and a total eclipse on the 26th—the last one of the millennium.)

Still suffering from acute jetlag & tunnel vision, disorientation by late afternoon is typical (6 PM is really 3 AM—and I wonder why I have no appetite for dinner!).

Driving is excruciating (asleep at the wheel is a reality). My cousin Dave’s having the same symptoms. We may have jumped into this culture/time zone but the bio-rhythms aren’t yet shifting. He said “I have to keep moving around, flapping my arms, just to keep awake at work.” I laughed at the idea of Dave flapping his wings in an airplane hangar with all those dismantled 747 planes.

At a lively Brazilian party in San Francisco, I made the mistake of sitting alone on the couch for a few minutes. My eyes may have been open, but that’s all. I couldn’t even speak, let alone understand the Brazilians’ Spanish (who speak with a Portuguese accent).

I drove Herman Berlandt & Verona home to Novato in Marin County, north of San Francisco, literally cross-eyed, thinking “I’ll never make it home” (an hour and a half’s drive) so I slept on their couch.

They say it takes a minimum of 1 day of suffering for each time zone. I remember how it took me weeks to recover from Russia. How long will I suffer this time? Someone said that in a Concorde jet, you travel so fast, you hypothetically arrive before you leave—earlier, that is, in New York than when one leaves Paris! Where’s Einstein when you need him?

In August, my cousin Dave Dinsmore came over to Amsterdam to visit me—he works for United Airlines—Dave, Charles McGeehan and his girlfriend Bertaijn and I went to France for a few days—

We took the coast route from Rotterdam to Zeeland islands—dunes marsh and grey sea—and the ferry at Vlissingen to Belgium. I saw the windmill and had that curious sensation of collapsed time, remembering our mad walk to the train station, wanting to visit Wim Hofman but we had so little time, having stopped overlong in Middleburg.

Dave was so amazed, we wound up staying overlong, and had to hurry to Brugge—which was even more amazing—we were so exhausted, we spent the night (in an inn) beneath the tower on the main square.

We got caught in horrible traffic in Lille—no road signs on the freeways, so we circled and circled the countryside for hours trying to avoid the toll roads and navigate our way east by following topographic clues and a certain slant of sunlight until dusk overtook us;

Lille, a real hellhole. Dunkirk ever to the west. The Battle of the Bulge was fought somewhere near here. You can still feel the ghostly reminder the blood-soaked fields at sunset when the light is right and the fog rises up like apparitions.

We wound up several times in a village where Reblais was born, Proust too. Closet hysteric Charles McGeehan forgot his passport (and his epilepsy pills) so we didn’t want to get caught up in a immigration control lines.

Dave and I, having no French money, didn’t want to take the toll roads. Asking a Frenchman directions in a village square was a farce worthy of a Monty Python comedy sketch. Only Bertaijn spoke French.

A 6-hour trip from Amsterdam to Laon took us nearly three days. Kafavy said the journey, not the destination, matters. On the way back, we stopped off in Antwerp; sat in the afternoon sun in front of that glorious Gothic cathedral quaffing strong Belgian beer. We earned the sight of spires piercing the blueness of sky.

Odd, Laon’s hill fortress Gothic cathedral has no spires, just stumps.

I was able to spend some time at a friend’s dilapidated country house in France, in a tiny hamlet of Rogny on the Abbey Road (founded by Irish monks in the Dark Ages) between Marle & Laon, in Picardy, Ainse.

Charles (Bert Schierbeek’s translator) McGeehan’s exwife/girlfriend, Bertaijn’s farmhouse needs so much work, I’d love to stay there next summer in exchange for working on it—it reminds me of my grandmother’s house where I grew up in Forest Knolls.

A certain angle of light, red roses splayed against a wall, farm machinery from another era strewn in every nook and cranny. Triggerpoints of memory.

Charles is an interesting character, a GI stationed in Germany in the late ’60s, on furlough, who never left Holland; he’d met a Dutch girl on a train: Bertaijn. Now he’s 60 years old, an expatriate, neither wholly Dutch nor American.

Bertaijn was Bert Schierbeek’s sister-in-law; we met at Bert’s funeral my first day in Holland in June. We were 500 strong, the coffin, a barge dressed in flowers and sheaves of poetry—including our own Mother Earth Journal. Bert used to spend time at Bertaijn’s farmhouse. My cousin Dave & I felt his presence there. . .

1 Dec. Sun. I’ve been reading up on my ancestors, the Celts—I discovered that Laon (where I was in France) was an Irish monastery until ca. 1500 to 1700 AD.

My favorite mystery scholar whom I know little about, a founder of many of the continental universities, was Johannes Scottus Eriugena (or John, the Irishman b. 810).

He taught 25 years at Laon and at the Paris Court School for Charles the Bald (when he wasn’t being accused of heresy—which was often—for his radical doctrine preached the concept of free will. Note: this was long before Luther was a gleam in his great-grandparents’ eyes).

Here’s a little story about Eriugena: An emperor (Charles the Bald?) made a playful pun on two similar sounding words in Latin: sottum and scottum, and asked John what’s the difference between a fool and a Scot (Irishman) to which John replied, “Only the table.” (In Latin, of course: Quid distat inter sottum et scottum?). The king must’ve been seated across from the Irishman. I bet he was flabbergasted by the answer—talk about turned tables!

But then it is said in our myths, satire was the first art form invented in Ireland. I found this gem in my friend Vinz’s flat: Adversus stultitiam pugnare nil est laboriusius nulla enim auctonate vinci fatetur nulla ratione suddetor. Which goes something like: nothing is more laborious than to fight against stupidity for it won’t bend to any authority and it won’t be convinced by any reason. He must have had some very challenging students at Laon University!

I’m in the process of applying for an Irish passport (my grandparents left before Ireland became a republic, so I’m the last generation allowed to apply for a passport.) My uncle John was in Dublin this summer and got his inside of two weeks.

The passport allows us to work in the European Community, an important consideration. I guess I’m tired of having to always struggle to find work each year, with no future, retirement, or security—nothing at all, for this is the life of an “independent contractor,” outside the system, so to speak.

This is life in America for the struggling artist. Brains and talent account for little in the land where the greenback dollar is God. I think I’d like to work at one of the American schools in Europe—Poetry, English & Art. I want a life where I can spend time in Europe, as I am always unhappy to return to the states, where I need to earn money.

My 2nd night home, I was invited to a Sebastopol Arts Council meeting for the promotion of poetry in west Sonoma County, and I felt so jaded. “Been there, done that. Got the shirt. . .” Guess I should be glad poetry is so “in” but it just makes me bad-tempered and ornery—especially when they dream big, and haven’t a clue as to what goes on in putting on reading series and workshops, wanting more volunteer labor to make it happen. . .and I’ve got that shirt too—in several sizes. (And it’s got bloody holes in it by now!).

It feels a bit like a mausoleum here, in this poetry mecca of the world (and in my cabin too). I know I’ll grow used to it soon enough. I saw a bizarre English movie, The Draughtsman’s Contract, by Peter Greenaway, the director of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. At the end there were all these Dutch references—someone speaking Dutch which I could almost understand. It had the peculiar effect of making me homesick for the wrong country.

They say you always leave a part of yourself behind when you travel. Does that mean there’s less of me returning home each time I go away? (Hemingway said: Travel broadens the mind. Writing broadens the ass. I write standing up.)

Before I left Amsterdam, I got into a bicycle accident. As I was returning home to Oetgenstraat from Westerpark, some idiot took a curved wrought-iron flower trellis (the arch that goes over a gate) out of the back of his double-parked car on Prinsengracht (near Utrechtstraat), and swung it in front of me, cutting my right hand.

I tried to protect my face but smashed into a parked car, bruising my left wrist when I hit the back windshield. It was either smash into a parked car or fly into the canal—which to choose? The bike’s brakes were no good on wet cobblestone & brick.

I’ve been ignoring my wrist for the past 2 months—until it hurt so badly (I was smashing a clove of garlic with the flat of a knife; the little bones in my wrist made a crunching sound like potato crisps!).

I went to the doctor who put it into a splint to rest it—a bad sprain with injury to the ulnar nerve. I’m a slow typist wearing a wrist brace which looks (& is beginning to smell) like an old gym shoe, and as winter’s chill creeps in, my bones ache; injuries don’t heal quite as fast as they used to.

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