At Salzburg

We met friends in every country we visited in Europe, but one particular companion stayed with us throughout our journey – the rain. As I look back at our two-week vacation, I’m not sure why we were surprised when the sun disappeared and the skies burst open on our train ride from Munich to Salzburg, blotting out the gentle Bavarian landscape. We couldn’t let that affect our spirits, though. When you’re travelling to places you may never see again, you don’t complain or rue what could have been. So we picked up a map at the station and decided to walk around Salzburg in the rain, for what fun is it to get on a bus when the streets have pavements that you can walk on without fear of being hit by two-wheelers?

Our first stop was at the Mirabellgarten, where we ran into a wall of tourists presumably on a Sound of Music tour. A group of baby-boomers sang Do-Re-Mi as they picked their way down the wet paths, while others crouched under umbrellas to have their pictures taken. We wandered into the Mirabell Palace and stumbled upon the Marble Hall, where Mozart once played to gorgeously-gowned ladies and staid gentlemen who swept up the wide staircases past classical statues that are now shrouded in netting. Unfortunately, the hall was cordoned off and we had to content ourselves with a peep at the decorations from the doorway. We returned to the parterre (I never thought I’d have a chance to use this Jane Austen-ish word!), admiring the neatly laid out flowers, and passed the obstacle course of tourists to get to the river.

Salzburg, cut by the Salzach and ringed by low hills, was almost exactly as I had pictured it. My extremely limited knowledge of the town came from one of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, where she described it with admirable accuracy and created an image that now revealed itself to me in all its living glory. My first glimpse of the river was magnificent: grey-green, it flowed towards distant hills veiled by light rain clouds, reminding me of the landscape of my childhood home in Vizag. On the other side from where we stood was the Old City (Aldstadt) with its domes and spires, and above it sat the Hohensalzburg Castle on the Festungsberg. We walked across the bridge, prepared to lose ourselves in a fairytale.

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The Salzach

We had about an hour and a half before we met our guide, P., and took the time to wander through the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. We passed Mozart’s birthplace, a yellow structure in a row of tightly-packed buildings, and went on to the Baroque-style Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), dedicated to St. Rupert, patron saint of Salzburg. The hymns of an English choir echoed through the church, undisturbed by the shuffling of a steady stream of visitors seeking shelter from the rain. After the riveting drama of the Gothic churches in Münster, the interiors and the churchyards of Salzburg appeared more gently melancholy, their pale-coloured vaults and vivid flowers far removed from the acrimony of the religious wars.

As we wandered into the richly decorated St. Peter’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just a short walk away, we were transported to a different world altogether. With the few tourists who had been sitting in the pews drifting out, we had the lavishly appointed hall all to ourselves. The marble altar, the frescoes and paintings, the Rococo work, and the dark pews and floor were immediately evocative of the grandeur that must once have been the way of life of European royalty. It was very different from my vision of a monastery, where monks wore simple robes and lived a life of penury. However, having been a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Salzburg probably had access to the coffers of the Catholic church, and used them to keep the faith alive in the face of increasing resistance elsewhere in Europe.

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St. Peter’s Abbey (Photo by G.)

We met P. at the Café Tomaselli. Hungry and in search of a vegetarian lunch, we found some delicious, buttery Spinatknödel at a cosy restaurant, P. serving as guide and translator. The rains putting paid to the picnic on the Alm that P. had in mind, we headed off for the catacombs in the cemetery of St. Peter’s after the meal. The walls of the Mönchsberg into which the catacombs are cut provided some splendid views of the churchyard and the skyline. The grey sky with its floating clouds set off the dark green of the hills and the domes to perfection, etching a picture of Salzburg permanently in my memory. Within, the catacombs house the remains of some of the city’s prominent people and bring the past to life, juxtaposing a not-too-distant epoch of music and literature against sober monastic pursuits. We tried to decipher the inscriptions and the faded murals to understand this world better, but with little success.

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An inscription in the catacombs

To end the afternoon, we returned to the Café Tomaselli, where we indulged in the traditional Austrian pastime of coffee and conversation. The waitress brought us a tray with a variety of cakes to choose from, and I cannot begin to describe my bewilderment at the variety here. This was something I had read of in Brent-Dyer (I know I should be reading better things), and if you’re a kindred spirit, you know what it is to read about distant lands and the ways of their people, and to see them come to life in flesh and blood. As we feasted, we spoke of a number of things, including the American Presidential elections. This was in October and there was still some hope that we would escape a rampant display of misogyny and xenophobia.

As the clock struck six, P. had to return home, while G. and I walked back through the rain to the train station. G. and I were delighted to have had an opportunity to do as the Austrians did – what a blessing it is to be accompanied by a local on your travels, even if said local would rather be hiking in the mountains than ambling on cobbled streets. Salzburg isn’t one of your regular cities, though. It is a tantalising mix of the medieval and the modern: two different worlds on either side of a river. It has done enough to stoke my curiosity, and I hope to take my travels forward to Vienna some day, to linger in Viennese coffee houses and worship at Zweig’s altar. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn German and read Mann in his language. Salzburg, if you can manage to do all of this, you can share credit with Munich for a modern miracle.

 

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At Dachau

 

The sky is heavy with rain-clouds as we step off the train at Dachau, just outside of Munich, one Sunday afternoon. At first glance, Dachau is a quiet little town with neat houses and manicured lawns, much like a typical European suburb. However, as the bus drops us off right in front of the former concentration camp of Dachau, we become aware of a sense of foreboding in the air, the result of years of intense suffering and the decimation of those who dared to go against the skewed ideals of the Nazi regime.

Autumn has just begun, but in this oppressive atmosphere, we are not thinking of tawny leaves or leisurely walks. Grey sky meets colourless buildings and flat earth on the horizon. The paths are slick with rain as a stream of visitors straggles to the entrance of the concentration camp, pushing open a gate that bears the cold words that struck fear in the hearts of millions over decades and still have the power to petrify: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Work sets you free, the Nazis said. (Unfortunately, this sign is a replica of the original that was stolen in 2014 and hasn’t been recovered yet.)

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Entering the camp (picture taken by G.)

We walk into a large courtyard lined by buildings that once housed prisons and barracks. As we stand in the drizzle, warm in our coats, we remember that this courtyard once teemed with prisoners and SS guards; we think of the hostility and the hatred that led to the execution of so many men where we stand. Memorials here commemorate the mindless genocide that defined the last century. “Never again,” says a sign in five different languages, the first being Hebrew.

At school in India, we studied the Holocaust like we did other chapters in History. We were horrified and curious, but lessons on Indian independence always took precedence over the World Wars; we didn’t even care much about the Indian troops who fought in Europe. My first proper introduction to the Holocaust came through The Diary of a Young Girl when I was around thirteen and borrowed a copy which a friend had received as a present. It was duly circulated among all of us and we discussed Anne’s life for days afterwards. I was inspired enough to begin a diary of my own, calling it Anne, seeing her smiling face framed by her short, dark hair every time I started a new entry. I wanted to tell Anne everything and I did, talking to my diary about my adolescent dreams and problems, subconsciously making a friend who was as much a girl as any of us through her trials.

Earlier this year, when I was fending off the long nights of the North American winter with graphic novels, I picked up Maus at the Arlington library. It wasn’t the most responsible choice to make when trying to fight the blues, but there are books that ask to be read at a particular time in your life, and this was one. I didn’t know then that six months later, I’d find myself visiting the site of the first Nazi concentration camp. I didn’t know it when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum at DC in July, and was reduced to tears by some of the exhibits: letters requesting money to pay for a family’s passage to America, a yellowing armband with the Star of David on it, a little girl’s frock, scraps of Anne Frank’s writing. I like bright meadows and rippling brooks and possess Siddhartha’s horror of sorrow – and this almost kept me from visiting the Holocaust Museum and Dachau, but I am glad that I changed my mind.

We have only an hour for our visit and begin our exploration of the Dachau camp with the long, low building that houses the tiny prison cells. (Bear in mind that this was the first Nazi concentration camp and started off as a place in which to hold political prisoners, eventually serving as a model for camps like Auschwitz which played a key role in the implementation of the Final Solution – the extermination of European Jews.) Dank and musty, the cells in the bunker were veritable torture chambers where prisoners were incarcerated and  subjected to inhuman treatment. Across the courtyard are reconstructed barracks displaying replicas of the narrow, uncomfortable beds where prisoners must have lain on interminable nights, awakening at first light to crowd around the washstands. It is clean and presentable now, but pictures on the walls give us an indication of the crowded conditions in which several prisoners once spent endless days, emerging perhaps only to toil at hard jobs they were forced to do. From the barracks, we trudge down the path that had once been used by people walking to their daily roll call, empty fields spreading out on both sides where long lines of barracks stood. At the other end of the path are memorials dedicated to different faiths and built over the last few decades in memory of Jews and prisoners-of-war of different Christian denominations.

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The reconstructed barracks flanking the path leading to the religious memorials

Umbrellas mushroom as the rain falls faster; with about a quarter of an hour for the camp to close, we hurry past the Russian Orthodox chapel, across a little bridge spanning a narrow creek, to the crematorium. A chill runs down my spine even now as I think of the ovens that charred the corpses of so many hapless prisoners, at one point insufficient for the number of bodies that were pouring in. Two other rooms precede the ovens – a kind of “waiting room”, where prisoners stripped in preparation for what they were told was a round of disinfection, followed by the gas chambers where the actual activity took place.  A notice states that these gas chambers  were never used to poison inmates, but were equipped with vents through which Zyklon-B could be dispensed if required. (A little probing on why the gas chambers were never used brings up links that mention that the chambers were in fact used to delouse clothes and not to poison people, as at Auschwitz; this conclusion comes from a study of the design of the chambers and the amounts of Zyklon-B they dispensed, photographs, and various documents. However, as I haven’t been able to find a reliable source, I will not share any links here and request you to let me know in the Comments section if you have any recommendations for further reading.)

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Ovens at the crematorium

As we exit the crematorium, I stop briefly at the door of the Russian Orthodox chapel for a moment of calm. My mind has been in a whirl throughout this visit. I have seen the stark black and white cat-and-mouse chase from Maus leap into life in these forlorn surroundings. The Jews gave away all that was precious to them in exchange for a chance to escape the Nazis’ tyranny; they killed themselves and their children so that they wouldn’t end up on loaded trains to concentration camps. They hid in tiny alcoves and waited on street corners to trade their possessions for food. They suffered through bitter winters and fell to illness stemming from cramped surroundings and malnutrition. They encountered neighbours who gave them shelter and others who turned them out of their own homes. The Holocaust survivors’ resilience in the face of such humiliation and their return to normal life are miracles that I struggle to understand. Mental strength always astounds me more than physical ability, and there are few better examples than the recovery of the Jews.

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One of the watch towers on the perimeter

Over the years, I have spoken to German friends about Nazism, and they have all acknowledged the unfortunate history of their country without hesitation and stressed on how important it is to learn from it. In Munich, symbols of German identity are conspicuous from their absence: very few black-red-gold flags are visible, in stark contrast to the effusive patriotism that is hard to avoid in the US or the unctuous loyalty demanded in India of even those with the most tenuous links to the country. The reasons for Germany’s penitence are obvious, but it is rather rare for countries to acknowledge their past sincerely and work towards correcting it. This should be the purpose of studying History as a subject: to learn from the past and to know enough not to repeat the mistakes that ruined millions of lives. At present, this sounds a good deal like wishful thinking.

Paris: In Search of the Writers

I wrote earlier this year about my fascination with Paris of the 1920s, and if you’re still sticking with me despite my obsession, I hope you’re just a little bit smitten as well and that we’ll some day have long discussions on the paradox that was Ezra Pound. However, I first have much to learn about him and his friends who fled to Paris to find inspiration away from Prohibition Era America, Ireland, or elsewhere, in the process creating works and movements that profoundly influence our lives to this day. Paris seems to have provided them with the freedom they craved. On the other hand, more than ninety years on, we are still fighting some of the battles that existed back then, such as those for the acceptance of women, religious equality, and homosexuality.

Shakespeare and Company

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George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company by the Seine

While I had heard of Paris’s propensity for grey, cold days, I never took the warning to heart, what with London having shown itself as one of the most perverse places in the world in terms of weather. I was rewarded for my blind faith in Paris’s good nature by a shower on my first morning in the city. G., K., and I hastily rearranged our rather flexible plans: we feasted on pastries at Blé Sucré by Square Trousseau while we waited for the rain to turn into a drizzle, did a quick spot of fruit shopping at the market nearby, and hauled ourselves off to Shakespeare and Company. With the Notre Dame and the Seine within shouting distance, the bookshop is in one of the dreamiest areas of Paris. This wasn’t the site of Sylvia Beach’s original shop and actually started out as Le Mistral, but its proprietor George Whitman eventually received her blessings and named it after her store that failed to reopen after the Second World War.

To me, Shakespeare and Company was as much a pilgrimage site as a bookshop. I wanted to be close to the place that had published Ulysses at a time when it was considered risqué. I hoped to eavesdrop on HD’s love-whispers to Pound and Stein’s  harangues against the Lost Generation. These Jazz Age artistes celebrated life and plunged themselves into despair all at once. They drank themselves to bliss and penury. How did these contradictions exist simultaneously? What made Hemingway, who was seemingly devoted to Hadley, abandon her for her friend? Why were the Fitzgeralds unhappy? Why was Pound, known for his kindness to young, aspiring writers, an ardent supporter of Fascism?

I don’t have answers to these questions – one visit to Shakespeare and Company, which has come a long way from its roots, cannot provide them. Perhaps a lifetime of research will. I wanted a physical reminder of the stacked bookshelves, Sylvia’s library with its musty old curiosities, and visitors’ fond notes – for we live in a time when material possessions serve better than fleeting memories that are constantly being trampled by the weight of new information. I purchased a used book from the shelf outside and had it stamped.

From here we walked to the rue de l’Odéon to see the place where Sylvia’s store flourished after she moved from rue Dupuytren, choosing to settle across the road from her lover Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop. The road that once must have swarmed with men and women conversing about Imagism or the Charleston lay drugged in a Sunday stupor. The sun had just managed to win its battle with the clouds, so we took advantage of the improving weather and moved on to the Luxembourg Gardens to rest our legs.

***

Cemeteries

Around four, we walked to the Montparnasse Cemetery, a sea of grey criss-crossed by tree-lined avenues. The tombs, some simple, others elaborate, jostle against one another on tightly packed plots. The first graves we saw were those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I read Sartre’s Nausea years ago and didn’t understand much of it. Thus, the purpose of these literary visits in Paris, especially to the graves of people I’ve never read, was to imbibe some of their ethereal energy in the hope that it would nestle in a corner of my being and aid my understanding of their work when I got around to it. It was with this aspiration that I visited Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac at Père Lachaise, and Samuel Beckett at Montparnasse. I also tried to find Guy de Maupassant at the latter – for who among us hasn’t been left heartbroken by The Necklace – and in a twist of fate, failed to do so. (If you haven’t read the story, here it is.)

Père Lachaise wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when we returned to Paris after our travels to take the plane home, we decided to make a quick stop there to pay our respects to Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most haunting books I’ve read, and even though I could look at the elaborately designed tomb only through a glass wall, I was stirred by the inscription on the headstone. It is an excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote after his release from the prison where he served time for homosexuality.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.

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Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Picture taken by G.)

I’m glad Wilde was buried in Paris because it gave me a chance to spend a few moments by his side. However, as my Irish friend Patrick says, “Paris may have his grave but the Irish have his soul!”

***

Hemingway

We picked up dinner at L’As du Falafel in the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, ate it by a public park, and crossed the Seine back into the Latin Quarter. The sun set rapidly as we walked on to our next destination, 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, once home to Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. (Lonely Planet informs me that the dancing club that existed below it inspired the one in The Sun Also Rises where Jake meets Brett, and this has me doubly delighted.)

I clutched at G. in delight as we spotted the plaque on the building in the dimly lit street. I’ll take a brief moment here to acknowledge how big a blessing it is to have travelling companions who placate every unreasonable wish of yours (not that wanting to visit a house that Hemingway and Hadley spent more than a year in is unreasonable, of course). I blinked in disbelief, for it was only in March that I read A Moveable Feast, falling utterly in love with the idea of this literary city. Six months on, there I was, standing by the house where its writer had lived, breathed, and loved – and falling for the city itself. And now I am back home in India, still reeling under its spell.

Below it, rather unimaginatively, was a travel agency named Under Hemingway’s: such are the ways of this prosaic world. Further ahead, at Place de la Contrescarpe, bistros were filling up with happy diners making the most of their ending weekend. Music wafted over the laughing voices and the clinking glasses, creating an atmosphere of vitality I tend to associate with Europe, setting the stage for our next stop – the steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Digressing slightly before moving on to the pop culture significance of these steps, I must tell you that we peeped in through the open doors from the street and were quite enamoured with the gorgeous sweeping interiors of this church that celebrates the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève. It also houses the tomb of Blaise Pascal whose genius I respect, but who gave me no little grief in Physics.

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Waiting by the church steps (Picture taken by G.)

The steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont are famous for being the place where Owen Wilson moped over his future in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, before a car arrived to drive him away from his mundane life. I’d like to commend Allen and company on their choice of location, a sheltered road bathed in mellow light, lurking in the shadows of the Panthéon which houses the tombs of some of France’s greatest (Braille, Hugo, Voltaire, and Zola among others). An aura of mystery shrouded the cobbled street even as early as eight o’clock. The church bells rang and we lounged on the steps, half-wishing for some kind of miracle or a dream carriage. Only a few cars passed by and very evidently none of them was even twenty years old. K. told us later that we had unwittingly picked one of Paris’s car-free Sundays for our “adventure” – though I don’t know if Hemingway would have cared about playing by the rules.

And that rounded off our literary trail in Paris. I know that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a splendid way to begin what turned out to be a very memorable trip. I’ve managed to lengthen my to-read list as a result; this surely is a sign of immense success?

Paris Was Mine

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I’ve been fighting against the Paris-sized void in my life by reading about the city. It might sound like a silly thing to do, but I assure you it’s entirely involuntary. I began reading Paris was Ours on the plane from Chennai to prepare myself for the wonders of this grand city. As we moved further through Europe, I shelved it to allow the magic of the other countries to seep in; but then we returned to Paris for the flight back home, and its romanticism hit me hard again. I continued reading the book till I finished it a few hours ago, then went to my bookshelf to pick up another to temper the hangover. My fingers hovered over Gogol, Godden, and James, before being pulled against their volition towards that familiar green paperback that I’ve been saving up for a treat – The Sun Also Rises. You see, Paris won’t let go.

My first encounter with Europe took place – through books – when I was around eight. I read Heidi and was immediately smitten by the idea of the mighty Alps. For a long time, I actually nurtured the ambition of being a milkmaid in the Swiss mountains. In my head, it meant wearing billowing skirts and lying in the sunshine on a flower-strewn meadow.  I obviously didn’t account for harsh winters or physical exertion, because what is the imagination for if not to gloss over bitter realities? Years later, when I started watching Formula One and worshipping Michael Schumacher, Germany was the country I wanted to visit. As an added bonus, I would have loved to be employed by an F1 team (Ferrari, to be precise). That I didn’t get an opportunity to set foot on the European mainland until two weeks ago put paid to all my lofty goals. Considering that by mid-2016, I was already deep in the exploits of writers who spent time in Paris in the 1920s, reading Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, and Morley Callaghan, it was only fitting that our trip should start in its mystical boulevards.

And so it was that I arrived in Paris, starry-eyed and determined to channel the spirits of the Lost Generation. Gertrude Stein was undoubtedly harsh towards them, and despite Hemingway and Pound’s dubious reputations with regard to their private lives, I was determined to learn from the streets and the river that had shaped their literature. I wanted to have a conversation with the Seine and drink in the fragrances of the rain-washed nights that added depth and colour to so many dreams. I wanted to see what drew those giants away, in those distant years, from the shores that we so prize today. Failed attempts and wild-goose chases didn’t matter. What was important was that Paris had been a central character in their stories in the years between the two World Wars, keeping the flame of art and literature alive in those troubled times, and continues to be a source of creative inspiration today.

Three heady days in Paris marked the start of our trip to Europe. I espied the twinkling lights of the outskirts from the airport, and took in a deep draught of the air of the Continent. I was soon to learn why so many writers gushed about Paris, why so many film-makers decided that this was the home of undying love and beauty. In the music of the piano being played somewhere near the entrance to the Métro, in the polite “Merci, Madame”, in the utter absence of English, I saw a world I was unaccustomed to, and whose acquaintance I looked forward to making.

With our friend K. for our guide, we did not have to stop to think where we could find the best baguettes or croissants or falafel. She led us expertly down winding streets – even though she had a propensity for getting lost in the streets of her hometown of DC – to her favourite patisseries and restaurants. We ate clumsily on pavements, shrinking under the aristocratic gaze of Parisian passersby who mostly seemed to eschew eating in public spaces (to be fair, one of them did call out “Bon Appetit!” with a kindly, amused glance). We ate at a small pizza place near Moulin Rouge and at a vegetarian restaurant where we feasted on delicious tomatoes stuffed with rice (A., the chef, will disagree with the word “stuffed”, which he said was an inaccurate translation, but I forget the French word). We had the most succulent orange-flavoured tiramisu here, and K. and I drew a picture of it for A., who was also kind enough to bring us samples of some quiche-like pie he had just prepared. We ate quantities of bread, mango jam, cheese, and pain au chocolat. We ate pastries for breakfast: Poire Jasmin (smooth, jasmine-flavoured), Le Carla (succulent dark chocolate), Le Vollon (more dark chocolate with crumbly, crisp caramelly bits). We picnicked at the Luxembourg Gardens and on our last evening in Paris by the Seine, with a glorious sunset painting the sky every conceivable shade of pink and orange. As the colours spread fast, as if an invisible hand were wielding a broad-bristled brush furiously, we packed up the remnants of our picnic and ran to the Pont Alexandre III, joining other onlookers who had flocked to the bridge at the sight of the spectacular show the sky was offering us, accentuated by the electric lights of the Eiffel Tower.

And that sums up about half of what we did in Paris. Most of it was about food, as described, but we also did a few other significant things.  Over the next few weeks, I hope to tell you about our pursuit of literary ghosts and of our travels through three other countries. As we go along, I also mean to continue reading about these places, because resistance is obviously futile. When you read about a city you’ve just been in and identify street names, you feel aware and knowledgeable. You know that the creative impulses it has aroused among countless others have, just for a few hours, touched you as well. For those hours, the city was yours.

I will leave you now with this poem by CK Williams that I’ve been championing aggressively. I hope you like it and feel about it as I do (or otherwise, because what is a world where everyone agrees with everyone else).