T for Tom

Before Me Lied A New Dawn

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on December 28, 2013

Before me lied a new dawn.  It came in the form of green, rolling hills shaded orange as a clementine from the rising sun, dotted with dark tones from the line of trees just on the horizon, a bit of brush lining the creeks at the lowest point.  I had just filled my bag with a collection of the local lagers and Trappistes, enough to make merry myself and the few soldiers that marched along.  We hadn’t made it fifty meters down the trail before I stopped in a moment of clarity seen before only in the tales of Christ and Crusoe: this would be a new way forward.

Bastogne, as the scene unfolded.

Bastogne, as the scene unfolded.

Clarity there existed in the folding iron fence taken over by the grips of time.  Only a single cemented post remained upright, a half-rolled distance of chicken-wire pulling out from one side before stopping not at its destination but upon an indeterminate length of grass, the total of which enclosed nothing.  The cemented post was adorned with the artisanal etching of a rooster, as sure as the chicken that now clucked its way down the slow hill toward the faint amount of water nestled in the crest of the valley.  The valley of which rolled back up and over again and down and around on all sides like the bubbling sheets of water that move over a creek bed of rocks, themselves smoothed over with the washing of time.   This was Bastogne, Belgium.  The scene was lifted straight from a film or a history book, and the image was modern, timeless, and iconic all at once.  It looked like the last relics of the great war.

This was my first major trip since arriving in Germany and I wasn’t prepared.  Only the night before we had arrived at the township where we would stay, LaRoche en Ardennes, a 25-kilometer jaunt through the rising hills-turned-mountains that we couldn’t see because of our nighttime drive.  What I could see when we entered the city in darkness was the white river below the only street of the town, lit from the bulbs that illuminated its presence there in the village, a way for the residents to announce and honor the heart of their little town.  It seemed necessary to light it as a warning because of the sharp cliff walls that rose on either side as we drove toward the hotel pushing travelers to the waterline, and when we parked and exited the vehicles I could hear from all sides, all angles around me the hiiisssssss of the water as it passed quickly over the rocks.  The sound echoed off the rock walls and seemed to be coming from all corners, though I learned in reality a few short minutes later that it came from a river not even 20 centimeters deep, the water clear as day and moving fast the wind.  There was not a single shrub or sandbar to stand in its way, only the multitude of rocks and stones that made for the water its tambourine to play.  I hadn’t even seen the mountains or hills yet and already I knew things were changing.

As the sun came over the hills that next morning when I stumbled onto the scene of the fence, as the world opened itself to me, I learned then that certain things were imminently more important than my own triviality.  We were there to celebrate and commemorate the liberation of the Ardennes by the Allied Forces at a place and during a time remembered in America as the Battle of the Bulge for the bulging appearance of the offensive front line drawn on a map, or by Germans as Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, “Operation Watch on the Rhein,” or more simply as the French call it Bataille des Ardennes, “Battle of the Ardennes.”  We were told to go in uniform, to march in uniform, and (for my own purposes) to drink in uniform, that all and sundry would be doing the same.  “Everyone’s going to be in some kind of uniform and marching along,” I’d heard.  I didn’t know that it would be an entire city and valley full of persons in costume, a veritable army-sized element of patrons in the full regalia of the German SS and another half decked out in the uniforms of the Allied American forces, complete with 101st Airborne Division patches, the Screamin’ Eagles.  The tanks sat on the edge of town, the forest-green motorcycles whirred by with troops riding in sidecars, Jeeps filled the streets and all around were the sounds of joy and cheer erupting from the residents, the revelers, and the soldiers, one and each united in a reverie equal to the transmogrification of souls.  We were nearer to heaven.

Total and complete strangers were best friends meeting in the streets, the alleys, the muddied foot-trodden paths from farm to farm outside the town where the march went along.  Stories of battles, fables of relatives who fought, invitations to trade pictures and gear and patches and souvenirs and drinks, the many drinks.  And where language wasn’t enough, we’d shuffle and dance the language of our ancestors until the meaning was understood.  The language was probably better then, after all.  People came together.  I had reason to feel a part of something, rather than as a spectator.

For all the things I’ve done to this point in my life, it was as if I were watching a show unfold before me.  And taking then the memories of those events past, the end result is what? The accumulation of experiences as memories, as events I’ve witnessed to be logged, categorized, and set upon like a trophy to dignify a life deemed lived.  “Indeed, the true adventurer must come to realize, long before he has come to the end of his wanderings, that there is something stupid about the mere accumulation of wonderful experiences,” as Miller says.  This had been the way of life, the modern American living.  Justly it means predilection, predictability, soothsaying for the masses.  We are set about in a world that has been meticulously charted, categorized, and defined in such and so many delicate patters, void of embarrassment, danger, and consistent of sterility and sanitation that to row about its waters is merely to navigate the Antietam during a drought.  What then?  Is it so difficult then to obtain employment in a nation filled with employers and employees? No.  The details may change, but derivation from the mean is nil.  Think then of all the events encompassing the greater moments of your life and realize, how abstract and void of bravado we have been – graduating high school, then college, playing sports and attending concerts, getting married and having children.  All of these earmarks to our outstanding existence come hedged with no bets.

A few weeks after returning from Bastogne I was in Rome.  Roma, Italia, of Lazio.  Wine soaked.  Wine flooded.  For five days I operated in the hazy confines of swimming pool above ground, seeing things with one eye closed.  It was New Year’s and Italian wine was served 5€ to the bottle, a price for something so exquisite I got the bargain by drinking the city’s proper share.  If you had locked me up into Amontillado’s cask I’d have said good riddance.  And this was for all its good because I was not alone.  There in a city of a couple million came down a few more million, something I that surprised me but one I should’ve expected.  And in all, there were but a few recourses for the days and nights – to see and imbibe all at once and without end the beauty of the Eternal City.  Without sleep and without rest and without ceasing there as the sun rose and made way to moonlit empty villas was a city drunk on spirits, of both the fermented and mystical kind.  Where in Bastogne I had been enveloped in an era, tucked away into a time of being as if a vacuum had pulled me directly into 1945, Rome had placed me within a bubble.  For the first time I could focus on the knowledge that history as I know it is mine and mine alone.  Nothing about what the Romans built and accomplished some two- and three-thousand years before had bearing on my behavior in that moment, and it was beautiful.

The ghost town of Rome at night.

The ghost town of Rome at night.

I didn’t go there expecting any one thing.  I wasn’t trying to raise Caesar’s ghost or channel Marcus Aurelius and didn’t think to impress Constantinople.  Their histories created the city as it was in their own time, like the millions of cities around the world that have each their founders, but these cities do not persist because of these ancient heroes.  The cities persist because of the people, and for five days I was a citizen of Rome.  I did my best to be a modern Roman – morning for pasta and wine, a birra walking the stone way surrounding the Coliseum, grilled eggplant and wine for lunch, a foot tour of the Panteon and a bottle of wine by the Fontana di Trevi, and the night into the Campo de Fiori, drinks in hand, football kicked through the square, music playing in all corners, fireworks thrown up into the air, and later, late when each boy and girl have tucked away in bed or asleep on the ground and the streets are empty, there I embarked to see the city at night.  It was like seeing a ghost.  Nothing could successfully describe the effect of removing at night the millions of people present by day.  Like standing in the empty stadium lit only by moonlight – where thousands just earlier gathered now sat not even electricity.

But it was all so fluid and tangible, so very real.  I didn’t meet anyone on that voyage into the heart of Rome but I never felt disconnected.  I was for the first time a part of something, as I was in Bastogne.  I wasn’t just a fish in a sea full of sharks, but a member of a school.  Each of us independent but linked, moving in succession.  I saw the greater works of the things before me, of me, after me, the depths of the human spirit equaled by its imagination.  And for all the things we’ve done and continue to do that keep us from moving forward, the simple moments of splendor often remain as the most serene.  Getting drunk seems so naïve, but drinking with a few million of your new best friends can be metamorphic.  I’ll always remember being in a crowd so thick that I was lifted up by the weight of the people around me, thousands in the middle of the Forum Romana, a backdrop of a glowing Coliseum, a white-lit Arc di Constantinople, ahead the golden Capitale.

Each day like that was built upon the predilection that anything truly was possible.  The rest of the year for me, before being trapped in the desert for nine months of a deployment, was an experiment in time and possibility.  The experiment was where and how, the possibility as always – women.

Could never be sure when or where but in the back of my mind always is a woman.  Not one, though sometimes, but always all in general.  The savagery of such notion is absurd.  Desire for romance is just too strong to be anything less than the primal urge.

So put me then into a world unknown and leave inside me the pursuit of women, of romance, of raw sex.  I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary crossing the icy poles.  I knew what would be out there, but not how to get it, to hold it, in what its forms would be.  This made the evenings sparkle with possibilities.  Over those few months I spent three consecutive days in the sewers of the Carnival abyss, drenched in the beer and liquor and wine that seemingly fell from the sky during German Fasching, a Mardi Gras to end them all.  I discovered the beauty of the Czech laissez faire, the sheer fuck-all way of life that gripped a nation formerly torn of war and made for it the simplicity of a group of friends in a bar to be the highest nobility.  I learned that Easter Sunday was not too sacred for sex in a club bathroom stall.  I learned to dance, rather, to become absorbed by music in a club, to swing and sway and let roll my head there on the floor and become only the body moving in the crowd, high on as much ecstasy in its divine form as in its narcotic form, in only the ways a seedy underground Czech club can make it so.  I learned to care so little about the atmosphere that, placed in the middle of the woods and with no one around, I could achieve the same effect given the right music and the right woman.  And I learned that sometimes never seeing someone again isn’t always never.

Watching the women traverse Makartsteg.

Watching the women traverse Makartsteg.

I learned also that I could do all this alone and for myself.  I needed to do all this alone and for myself.  No one could tell me the right ways to fly across the planet to see about a girl, because there is no right way and I couldn’t have been wrong at all because I tried.  No one could make it easier to walk the streets of Helsinki cold and alone looking for a hotel and having, in a world and a language as foreign as fire to the Neanderthal, to speak up and ask for help.  No one opens my mouth in those moments and says for me the words that come out.  No one made for me the friends I have all over the world, no one created for me the scenarios in which I operated and drank and fucked and danced and swam and sang and drew out the sweet nectar of life by seeing just seeing that all those pictures aren’t pictures, they aren’t the real thing, the real thing is there wherever it is waiting to be seen or held like the mighty Neva river rolling through the middle of St. Petersburg because it can’t be told or written or seen in a picture how cold the wind feels off the sheet of ice covering its dark waters during the Russian Christmas.  I know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel and I know what it feels like to stumble down the muddy hill to Gunpowder Pub and I know it feels like to wake up in the snow and I know what it looks like to see the first Christmas tree in Riga and I know what it means to die as the bulls go running by in Pamplona, but I can’t tell you these things.  These things are infinitely possible but they live in me, as I experienced them.

The history of these stories and these ideas cannot change inside me and likely have no power elsewhere.  So go the best laid plans of the lunatic.

This new way forward unfolded before me as a result of my tabula rosa – I simply didn’t know what to expect.  I greeted everything with the rosy fondness of a puppy.  The nights around were each and all unique in their ways, down even to the women and their languages and the clothes they wore.  It was beautiful to guess the way nationalities would look, the predominant hair colors, the hoppiness of the beer, the strength of the coffee, the chances that she would speak English.  It was all too much too often and every day then became a chance at something new.  When it wasn’t new anymore it broke my heart.

Coming back from nine months in the desert I tried to do it all over again.  Every day was a sensational grab at the feelings I had created.  Where I had before sat on the banks of the Gulf of Finland at 10pm and had yet to see the sun reach the horizon, watching the ice float across the water in mid-April and see the way the light bounced off the water and onto the clean white walls of Helsinki’s buildings, there I had been birthed.  Born again for a new way of seeing.  Such a magnificent moment that now in its absence sat a life unfulfilled.  As if every moment of my being had led to those moments, those moments walking the pasture hills of the south German farmland, the moments walking along the Salzach, drinking a Stiegl, dreaming of Mozart, and staring at the women walking over the Makartsteg, the moments taking shots from the beer cart in the middle of a street filled with Scooby-Doos, pilots, firefighters, pirates, Snow Whites, and fairies all at once drinking and dancing as the parade goes by, the moments getting jerked off on the outside patios of an upstairs club, the moments trying just to hold someone’s hand walking through Töömemagi, or the moments spent idly, doing nothing, just sitting and watching the sun go down over the high-rise of old buildings, half-liter of Weißen in hand.  A fool’s errand to chase these again.

A quote that has always stuck with me came from Norman Mailer – “the only faithfulness people have is toward emotion’s they’re trying to recreate.”  The world of the sights and sounds I had been before living in Kuwait became more like gold the further removed in time it sank, and like any fool I wanted to do it all over again.  What I didn’t realize, and still struggle with, is that it isn’t possible.

There have been no beginnings, new possibilities, no mistake.  But these new possibilities must be constructed in new ways.

I couldn’t go out there alone anymore.  I came back from that desert and went into a new world, but I wasn’t alone.  I went to Riga and watched the world’s oldest Christmas tree celebration, but I wasn’t alone.  I spent five days in a basement apartment drinking wine and building fires, but I wasn’t alone.  I walked along the Pilsêtas Kanal and fed the ducks who slid down the ice for a piece of bread, but I wasn’t alone.  And those moments not alone were magical.  In their own way it was possible again to get that new, infinite feeling, because I wasn’t doing it the same way as before.  The feelings of joy and serendipity were linked to newness and to difference and change.

Some weeks after being there in Latvia and finding reinvigoration I was in Slovenia.  The cold, forested, mountainous nation of Slovenia would be a winter trip for winter’s sake.  Friends of mine organized the journey to find the slopes, but I went to find the snow.  Snow, and by that I mean to walk and be there in the mountains, to hike and be alone, to think and ponder and figure out where the year would be ahead.  Slovenia became the first trip I would go on to signify how the year would go, as all the events just before had been a celebration of leaving the desert.  This now, Slovenia, would be just life as I was living.

It was beautiful, make no mistake.  Mountains as high and as steep as these I had never seen before.  Coming through the slopes in Austria I woke on the bus to a scene truly picaresque – the cliffs of the mountains nearly straight up on all sides and in all directions, a sheer rock face of grey and black too steep to hold snow at any height, high up further than the eye would allow before being blocked by clouds, for miles and miles and miles and then, finally, just finally, the clouds break and from behind pours out the bluest sky with the brightest sun, there just behind at all times and waiting to be seen.  It seemed as though the sun were always hiding this high up, or else it would not be so ready to make light with just a single break in the cloud line.  Otherwise I suppose there would be more grey, but we were as high as the airplanes that break the cloud line on takeoff.

The snow was everywhere.  It was so thick that I couldn’t venture off trail to see anything other than the city where we camped.  Our hotel was on the other side of the main lake the in town of Bled, and it became very apparent that the city existed on tourism and bypassers, a place to see with not much to offer when the timing wasn’t right.  Everywhere there pointed wooden arrows with distances indicating the paths to take to certain peaks, but with snow so deep that I’d be up to my knees it wasn’t in the cards for me to disappear, should I not want to disappear terminally.  So instead I walked the city streets and spent the days and evenings with my legs draped there over the walls of the castle that sat atop the mountain overlooking the lake and town below, the only hike made possible by the carved stone walkways on both sides.  Evenings were spent in the same bar, writing some, reading some, passing time and staring out wondering what could have been, what I could’ve done, what should’ve happened, and thinking of god knows what.  If I had put my mind together I’d have seen it for what it was, the year ahead.

Slovenia down below.

Slovenia down below.

A few weeks later it was Dresden, and a few weeks after that it was Nurnberg again.  In no time it was Wurzburg every weekend, and I couldn’t figure out where the possibilities had gone.  The more disappointment I found the harder I tried to recreate the circumstances by which I found it.  If this bar didn’t work then another might, or if this city didn’t have it then surely another would.

What I never realized was that the possibilities were in me.  They emanated from me outward and created the way forward.  The things I was looking for created by the wormholes sprung from my chest cavity and where I deviated from the path I created for myself unhappiness, depression, no possibilities.  I lost that tabula rosa – I let the things I learned about Europe, about the people, the food, the wine, the drinking and dancing and way of living dictate my behavior and at each one a dead end.  The truth was still out there, but maybe it wasn’t truth anymore that I needed.

The story of the year is that I’ve struggled to accomplish much of anything so long as it had nothing to do with finishing the book I’m writing.  In so far as that is left undone, it seems that no other thing will bring any amount of satisfaction.  And so I wandered through Europe as if it were a desert, lost and unseeking of anything.  Just theeeerrrrrrrrreeeee… just there.  Drifting.

I found it again.  A couple of times it was there.  Just as the sun had risen on that Belgian morning to tell me I was living, that feeling that shook my bones, it came back to me.

It was there on top the mountains of Sardegna, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  There in just a few moments the winter broke to spring broke to summer and from a peak of maybe 300-meters up we looked down from the centuries-old tower to see below the beaches of Porto Ferro, lapped up again and again by the icy, dark waters coming in from the west, the sun falling below the horizon, that line so straight and wide and unending that our vision could follow it to the ends of the earth of Copernicus weren’t so right.  All the colors blended perfectly from the highest deep sea blue point in the starry night sky to the bright orange dot still sitting there in the middle of sight, laid out over the now black waters with rippling white lines flowing out and past us, the low, buzzing sound of the waves moving by with the wind and nothing but a straight drop down all the way to the rocks below.

Porto Ferro and the mountain we climbed.

Porto Ferro and the mountain we climbed.

It was there again that first night in Pamplona.  We hadn’t even run from the bulls yet, had only been in the city for an hour or so, had barely put our bags in the room before the excitement became overwhelmed us and we sat out on foot for no direction particular.  In short we came across the town hall, the center of the festival, the signal of the event, picture of the city, the place that from its position outward came all the stories and images of the revelers in white running to and from and with the bulls so large and horned and carrying death and with it carrying life.  The Town Hall is a building so magnificent that it was instantly recognizable as we came across at first by accident.  There in a square foyer no larger than 70 meters by 25 meters rose the four-story building, possibly 20 meters wide, but straight out of the ground like a grand sequoia, and nearly as austere.  Each level ordained with a magnificent amount of artisanship, the middle floor lined with all the flags of the Basque Country and Spain itself, orange from the ages of dust and sand and dirt and time that have passed at its feet, black all around from the dark, still Spanish night.

Pamplona's town hall.

Pamplona’s town hall.

One week later I began a 160-kilometer foot march in the Netherlands, and there I found the feeling.  The world’s oldest and longest organized foot march, the Vierdaagse, or Four Days March.  There were over 40,000 people participating in the grueling march, 40 kilometers (25 miles) a day, and over 100,000 people each day lining the streets to cheer us on, and every one of them with a beautiful story and a more beautiful smile.  I have never in my life seen the kindness of humanity come forth so much as on the routes of that march, as thousands joined together to encourage one another to finish line.  One those days it felt good to be a human being.

After a day of the Vierdaagse.

After a day of the Vierdaagse.

These things brought the feeling back to me because of the gravity of their existence.  Either too beautiful, too important, or too alive to be neglected.  It made me feel alive.  It made me unimportant in the best way.  It made me see the earth, it made me see the planet, it made me see the other things out there than my own problems.  It made me feel like the last man, like the only one with the secret.  It made me glad to be alive and to be a human being.  It made me feel like the infinite was still possible.  It made me see the ending and the beginning.  It made me feel love, it made me feel hate.  It made me see the darkness and the light and it made me happy for both.  It made me regret nothing behind and be hopeful for everything ahead.  These moments made me feel as the traveler charting new lands, standing on the pillars of the mountains overlooking the valleys below where no man has gone before, trodden with the antelope and deer and the bear and the moose and the lizards and the owls and the ox and the parrots and the spiders and the ants and all the things that for no good reason sprang up from the muck of the fire of the rock of this universe and for no good reason persist in spite of all forces against.  Belgium in the sun, Rome at night, Helsinki by the water, Pamplona with its bulls, Sardegna over the sea, the plains of the Netherlands, these places, these places, these places at once and infinitely possessing of all the beauty and the possibilities in the world that for just a few minutes at a time I could live forever.

But there have been places that for these same reasons are empty.  There in Paris I nearly got the feeling – Paris is a city of outstanding amazement, a true achievement in human creativity.  But the people made the city in all its splendor, and they’ve since forsaken it.  It left me as it is, empty.

And that was the end of it.  I landed in Atlanta a few weeks after that.


** This is just disposed garbage I didn’t include at the end of that article.**

In between I went to the Christmas markets and la di da and it was all the same.  All around the world really it wasn’t that much different, everyone pays taxes, everyone gets drunk, and in the middle are the possibilities we create for ourselves.  I wanted this to be about the beauty of it all, the wonder, the merriment, but I couldn’t avoid the duality.  I would be lying if I told you that all was well there.  But at least things were different.

Atlanta, I mean fuck.  I was instantly depressed when the wheels touched down and I looked up to the supposedly largest international American airport and saw only the backside of your local Wal-Mart, or so the terminals seemed.

I’m not sure if the rest of the world has the answers, but I know this land of freedom does not.  Maybe it did, but we lost it.  It probably didn’t have high enough profit margins.  Things like quantifiable beauty and happiness don’t gain fiduciary overhead like parking lots with gross amounts of halogen lights, a neon billboard every 50-meters, crumbling concrete highways left to rot in the forests and plains, trash dumpsters left unsecure and spilling over the yard, highways larger than capacity requires, everything lit like a fucking Christmas tree for no reason in particular, cheap and fabricated homes that look less like places suitable for living than for models of despair and homes for the criminally insane, trucks everywhere trucks everywhere trucks trucks trucks everywhere because gasoline that’s why, a McDonald’s on every corner, “I don’t think this town has a library?”, be careful because we can’t trust anyone, and just being normal, yes, just being normal is good financial sense.

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