T for Tom

This Proximity to the Water’s Edge

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

She had boarded the ship that would take her back across the water to her home, a ferry, but really a large cruiser that was used to transport people throughout the Scandinavian and Baltics via sea. I had made that sea-bound trip myself before from Estonia but this time flew into Helsinki and waited there for her arrival. Three days later she was leaving now and I had six hours or so until my return flight. I wanted nothing better than to walk around in the sun, or what little bit of it could slice through the Easter clouds of the typically grey Finnish morning.

My second time in Helsinki, this, and mostly all of both spent near the harbor, what is the heart of the city. That famous cathedral you know in the photos just a 100-meters or so off the central harbor not far from where she boarded, the steps to the chapel hall numbering some 50 or 60, enough that from its doors it overlooks the buildings at its feet and off into the water in the distance and further into eternity.

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I was so vibrant then.

Helsinki feels that way, the buildings rising to uniform height, all the even lines vertically and horizontally, so tight that merely meandering the human paths before you can feel as if stumbling through the Coliseum of the heavens.

But I didn’t go back to the chapel this morning, not for a third time just a couple days prior, but huddled close to the water line. It was early April and the sun comes up around 4am, had been up about five hours now as I walked the sidewalks along the water. The grass to my right separated me from the red brick apartment homes that overlooked it all. And from this proximity to the water’s edge, you can see, even in springtime, the frozen layer of ice that covers the sea for as far as the eye can stretch.

It’s been broken up now but not thawed. It moves slowly with the push of the ships coming to and from. It never laps recklessly like surf but merely slushes back and forth, hardly a line opening up to show the dark blue infinite. Just ice of various depths, the earth in cycle.

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…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …

I sat there for the entirety of my hours and wondered how something could be seen as less than cosmic. Equally of magic and beyond our machinations but yet so rote and earthen. Here long before us, here long after.

Like the frozen sea so too like the fiddles here, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over, slowly, again, ceaseless unending, evangelical and worthy of praise.

 

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A Few Weeks In and a Future So Bright

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 23, 2017

There’s a moment I remember in concert with this song, but the swell of emotions more accurately encompass the totality of a larger, greater period of years. M83 is a French artist, and I’d listened to his music in various depths throughout college. But there was always something about the lead single from his 2011 album HurryUpWe’reDreaming., “Midnight City,” that just told me the coming set of songs would be special. It came out five days after I landed in Germany and was nothing short of a soundtrack to those years in my life. It felt like birth, and the song “Intro” remains as much to me a sensation of new beginning, tied permanently with any great moment of vision I’ve ever had and create still today.

The moment I remember clearly, though, centered around a conversation I had with John and Corey in Ansbach, only a month after we landed in country for the first time. Corey and I were stationed in our home village of Illesheim, about 20 miles west, and had been to Ansbach once before, with a weekend in Nuremberg sandwiched in between. Because I had a flare for the cinematic, I had set about a plan to only travel out into Europe in steps, one distance at a time, each distance greater than the last. It began by walking to the nearest village the first weekend I had arrived, even if I were under orders not to leave base. Two weeks later and no longer on restriction, I took my first train ride to Ansbach, only those 20 miles, but a little bit further. Corey and I then spend four days in Nuremberg, about 50 miles away, and made the greatest friends we could have imagined there in the city. Our suspicions were proven true, and we knew Europe would be the blessing it truly was. A week after that Nuremberg trip we had reconvened to drink again and walk around Ansbach. With little direction at all, and with more joy to ever gained in the town center than can be done in one visit, we went back to the old town, which like any good European city was the center of the town and built around a centuries-old church.

From John’s apartment up the hill, it was a direct walk down the towering land overhead that made way to the river bed where the church sat in the middle of the town, a 30-minute’s walk to paradise. Once through a little urban apartments that scattered outside the old town ring, and under the breezeway supported by a bell tower and clock, the walkways no longer accepted cars, narrowed into tight, cobblestone lined paths, and was lit up by the shops on all sides, the shopkeepers living overhead in the second floor and third floors. The road makes an S-curve quickly and just past the coffee shop there heading north sat a döner stand, on the east side of the street. It was the quick bite, but it was also the most rewarding. We started each night in Ansbach this way, and rather than getting cooped up in a restaurant, we took the döners outside with a beer and sat on the steps to watch the passersby, the light peering in from in between the tall urban shops and homes turning from pale blue to orange and finally to a rich hue of navy, night setting in overhead and the soft white of the cobblestone illuminating from the lamps on every wall and on all sides. Europe really has a special way of lighting up at night.

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John standing in that European night.

I remember sitting there buying beer after beer, talking about our hopes and dreams for the immediate future. We didn’t have conversations about the state of politics (not directly, anyway), and we didn’t set out our plans for financial security. We were men under control of other men, and the best we could hope for was the freedom to travel the world on the other side, one weekend at a time. We made jokes about the few places we’d been, the things we’d learned, and how we’d do it better next time. We talked about Corey spending an entire afternoon in Ansbach sitting at the outdoor coffee shop not 30 feet from our current location, sipping radlers until we were drunk, making his plan for approaching the beautiful girl who worked in the jewelry store directly in our vision. The sun hung sweetly overhead all that afternoon, a blue sky blue, as we burned through a pack of cigarettes and dreamed of getting to know her name. He eventually went in, tried on a watch, and came out alone.

Later on after the döners, we made our way to a nearby bar that became our patronage. I liked being in these new places with these wonderful people, like Aldi, the bartender and owner at Brasserie who always laughed with us and poured us shots of absinthe (pronounced “ab-sin-tay!,” emphasis on the exclamation), the only people in his bar after dinner hours. I liked being in a strange, small, low-ceiling building that I learned was commonplace and expected. I liked eating strange and different foods, drinking whatever was passed my way. But mostly I liked walking from each of these places to the next and not even really knowing where the next one was or in what shape it would take. We needed another bar and so we put on our coats to warm us from the chill of the European winter and started walking in any direction, usually the direction opposite of the way we came. Endless adventure, always onward. I remember walking by a chapel on the way back to John’s apartment, the kind of chapel that is innocuous in and of itself, but from the alley where we emerged just slightly downhill from the chapel, it appeared to rise like a mammoth and stand lit, a stone-cut yellow giant against the faint last breathes of a blue sky day fading into night. And I remember it being magical.

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That church rising like a monolith.

But mostly I remember sitting outside that döner stand and talking about the future and how it had no end. In a short week’s time I’d be able to pick up my car from the port of call where military vehicles were shipped. I’d finally be able to start driving around Europe. I loved the train, but I loved even more being able to go anywhere at any time. I remember how I didn’t even have an idea yet of where I would go, only that I would be driving through Germany and Europe like it was my home, because it had become that, though I didn’t feel it just yet. I remember telling John, “I’m going to get in that car and speed down the autobahn, M83 at full blast.” I remember saying it was “European music in a European car on a European highway” and I just wanted to feel the breeze from the open windows at ninety miles an hour.

And then I did, and the future never felt so bright.

I Didn’t Miss It At All

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 17, 2017

It was going to be my first time out of the country, or at least the country that was my new home. You see, in America, where I spent the first 24 years of my life, I had never crossed into a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada. The distances were too far, the limits too great, the benefit too low. That last sentiment is surely wrong on all accounts, but it was the feeling I was given by my country – Mexico has nothing to offer, Canada is the same but colder. We never go, we never went.

But in Germany now for the first time, living and working with no end in sight, I had a grasp on the nearness of the countries, and by a large, unfilled whole in my working knowledge, I knew that each boundary meant separately unique, different, and succinct cultures and nations. I knew that each line was a defensive boundary built over hundreds and thousands of years and these simple lines meant new languages, new colors, new foods, new music, new politics, and new people. I had only been in Germany for six weeks but my appetite had grown immensely in the short time I had there. Each year in Belgium, the town of Bastogne celebrates its independence from Nazi Germany by staging a recreation of the march of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that held during the siege of the Ardennes forest over the longest winter on earth, and pushed the Nazis back. There would be foot marches with citizens from around the continent, battle reenactments, regalia displays, parades, and booze of all kinds. I knew I had to go.

It was only a few months before while still in training in Virginia that I had purchased my first Norah Jones album, a CD of The Fall. That CD became a soundtrack to a room that I shared with the only person to understand me in the Army, and we played a long game of chess by moving a single piece at a time between our bunks. But when I got to Germany (as did my friend, although to another unit in another village nearby), I finally had access again to the internet. I decided I needed the rest of Norah Jones’s albums and went about getting them. In order, I listened to each of them in full.

So there, that month after arriving in Germany, I sat in the back of a Mercedes TMP, the kind the military purchases in lots throughout Europe to facilitate quick ease of transport for these types of events. It was a recreational event, but as one that promoted camaraderie with the local nationals, could be given a leave of absence and promoted throughout our unit. We were able to check out the TMPs and drive ourselves on the unit’s dollar. Everyone that was attending the event had been given pass to leave during the day on Friday, but there were a few of us stuck behind for the change of command ceremony to welcome the new battalion commander. As my reputation as a reporter always preceded me, I was selected to give the commencement and was among that small group leaving afterward. I didn’t know the sergeants I was leaving with well and took the entire back seat to myself, the floors stripped of any carpeting, the heater not working. And I sat there listening to all of Norah Jones while the roads passed by.

In Germany, there are no billboards or stores or gas stations on the side of the highway. There are farms and villages occasionally, but the highways were built to be out of the way of the people in the towns, and their rules regarding pollution keep it free of clutter and light and noise. The sky that day was a typical German sky, the kind I miss most; a deep grey throughout from the clouds that only just might drop rain, with small breaks of white, though the sun never shone through. The hills of Bavarian green grazed our sides for hours as first we passed Frankfurt, then Cologne, and continued west. Slowly, the hills became larger and the vastness of the forests grew in height. All the while the sky stayed green, and only occasionally a small mist might develop on the windows, but never a hard rain. The forest of oaks turned to large, upward columns of pine, and it’s the closest I ever got to a Vermont winter, all the way on the other side of the planet.

The first words were always the most important to me, from the moment I heard them: “As I sit and watch the snow fall…” It’s a feeling I always wanted since I was a child. To wake up and see the drifts of white descending to the ground, a new world unfolding over the one we walk through every day. I had never had that. But vast pieces of art, works of literature, and entire operas have been devoted to the snow. I had known it my whole life, but never seen these things other people talk about, the things that are dressed up in language to describe home, belonging, warmth. Snow always meant a sense of place to me – the idea that you could have a place to yourself under warmth of a fire while the snow fell outside. It wasn’t snowing on this day, but I knew it would soon, maybe days and weeks later, but I knew the snow was coming. I knew I would finally have the feelings I was never given during Christmas, during winter, during the times we should be alone and at peace. I sat there in the back of the van alone, listened to Norah, and stared at the pine and knew I would have my winter moment for the first time, soon.

I wasn’t talking, no one talking to me. There were no sounds of cars on the empty highway. There were no sights of people on a road miles from the nearest village. There was only the pine going by the thousands, and the sound of a piano in my ear.

I didn’t think of anything specific. I only thought of the general years and lifetime before these first few weeks abroad. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Mojave 3 – Bluebird of Happiness

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on August 16, 2017

I have a playlist of 200 songs that remind me of the best, wildest, strangest years of my life, the sound track to my third life. This will be the first in a series chronicling just what a few of those songs means.

Rain pattered on the window as I stayed awake on the floor, eyes on the white, cantilevered ceiling. We were together on the floor unintentionally-intentionally because she was moving in two weeks and the furniture was already gone. This weekend was reserved for us to be together alone for the first time away from our friends, a chance to get closer. I drove us down to Munich that night in the dark, late on a Friday after I left work and picked her up from her home. The drive down was like the other times I’d driven to Munich on the autobahn, but a little darker and with a little more rain and with a girl I’d only just fingered the week before. It was her idea to go to Munich and I didn’t question the details, even now as I lay in a sleeping bag in an empty apartment.

The ceiling is the thing I remember most. How these types of homes in Germany and across Europe are so small, but so ample for a person. The spaces on the top floor are even worse, where we navigate the rooms that are built into the slopes of the exterior ceiling, one room drooping away from the center in this direction, the other room drooping in the opposite. It was like something out of all the black and white films I had ever seen, but I was living this one, a few minutes at time.

She was much younger than I, and I was only beginning to find out. She wanted to please me, do everything I asked, do anything I could think of and more, except for the few things she wasn’t ready to. Once we were through the door, and even while driving the two hours from Nuremberg, it was a constant series of questions about what I wanted, where I wanted to be, the things I wanted to do. I just wanted to fuck there in the apartment at some point over the weekend. After we parked my car that first night we went straight up to the apartment, dropped off our things, and out for dinner.

That night I learned that she wasn’t going to have sex with me. There on the carpet in a sleeping bag with two bottles of wine in us, I didn’t think much of it. But it was the morning I remember.

It was still raining but the clouds have a way of thinning out in Germany that provides enough high-grey light while raining and still keeping the sun from shining directly. I could see it was one of those days from the floor where I stared up at the ceiling. We were using her laptop computer for music, for the same reasons we were on the floor. It was silent as I woke up before her, dismissed myself to the bathroom and relieved myself of the night’s drinks. She had an eye open when I came back and so I turned on the computer thinking that I might get laid here.

I needed something quiet, peaceful, not overwhelming, and instantly I thought of the soundtrack to the O.C. Clicked onto youtube and started the first playlist I saw. We sat there on the floor necking and kissing and staring at each other before I moved my hands into her pants and really thought this time that she was too young and inexperienced, and I knew then why she wasn’t ready. Just never had before. She went down on me, and I knew from the way it ended that she’d never done that either.

I told her it was okay and stared back at the ceiling as she cradled into my shoulder, the rain still falling, the ceiling overhead illuminating with the rising sun and the soft words echoing over and over from the speakers: “Gotta find a way to get back home, gotta find a way back home.”

There are other things I remember. The locals in all the pubs celebrating the home team’s big victory, and the emptiness of being with a girl I knew I’d be leaving. I remember walking everywhere in the rain and sharing an umbrella that only sheltered one. I remember the weekend being like nothing I wanted, but leaving a lasting mark in my memory. And I remember, as much time as we spent in the apartment cooking food and drinking wine and laughing and not fucking, I turned the Mojave 3 on over and over again, time and time again, even though I’d just heard it for the first time during that rain-spilled Saturday morning. I remember lying there thinking of this girl and her wonderful innocence, and thinking that even as juvenile as the days had become, they were nothing less than sweet, and I remember thinking that even sweet has a place in my memory, like this day now holds. But mostly I remember lying on my back and staring up at that white ceiling, dotted with the shadows of the raindrops on the window, and I remember being hopeful.

I remember thinking that this was home. Not the girl, explicitly, nor Munich and Europe, necessarily, but the movements in my life. Movements forward had become my home and the only place I could truly be comfortable. Home for me will always be on the road.

Everywhere I go now, I take home, as a piece of mind, with me. Got to find a way back home.

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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.

END

** 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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It Is About Living and Dying – Running From More Than Bulls

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on July 12, 2013

They say Hemingway was obsessed with death.  For a man so nobly concerned with the modern toils of heroes to have killed himself after spending a lifetime conceiving the greatest of colossuses only to whither them to bones, it comes as an easy observation to make.  To have given us Frederic Henry and Robert Jordan, two of his greatest heroes manifested of his own image, and to have provided them with only loss, suffering, and ultimately death, is an indictment on the statement of the creator’s soul.  Think also of Santiago for whom we met at the end of days, nearly ridden to the ground for his failures and who for as long as we know him quarrels at the lines of a marlin only to see his fate left in the bones on the sand.  Or to have written a novel for his truest passion and to include in its title “Death.”  For this it could be construed easily for Hemingway as a life spent dying. But for those who find it, and I assure you Ernest Hemingway did, it is about living. It is about living and dying. A parallel birth of two extremes in constant dissolution yet infinitely romanced, at once warring and at peace – their cosmic values for it are then irresolutely entwined. The greatest of lives and the most rich with living often succumb to the most electric and brutal of ends.  But for sake of the former we must suffer the latter, a goal I perceive as worthy of honor.

I know this in my own way now. Not nearly as well as Mr. Hemingway but in ways recently similar. The perceived keystone change in his life came at the events that inspired his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.  I speak, of course, of the Fiestas de San Fermines.  I know now, of course, because like him I set out on foot ahead of the bulls to see their passing and get a chance to place my hands on the fury of beasts.  And where Hemingway ran with no modern records of safety during los encierros, I had the benefits of los medicos y los policias to guide the herd through a time-tested route where few among millions have ever been seriously injured, even fewer have died, and the chances of falling under those storming hooves seemed nearest to none.  I was wrong.

When it turned to look at me I knew it would be quick.  The new steps would occur in less than a half of a second and all that remains are a few mental snapshots obscured in my memory.  The animal pausing long enough for me to approach from behind, my arm extending to touch it, the eyes that met mine as it whipped around, the head lowering, and the man to my side that got dragged to the ground in the horns because he jumped in front of me instead of away.  I leaped over the head of the beast that was slamming its victim downward and didn’t look backward until I reached safety and that’s when I knew that to be alive was to be nearly dead.  It wasn’t until later that day that I learned I was dealing merely with an ox.  I hadn’t yet even seen a bull.

We woke up at 530am and in an hour started on foot.  We arrived an hour early to run.  We knew there were people everywhere but we didn’t know the control measures.  After trying two gates and being unable to even reach the fence line from the crowd we watched at a third to see the gate open only for those people leaving.  I spent the next minutes on my toes trying to see in.  At that moment I saw the most beautiful girl in the festival – amongst a sea of millions, in a crowd of typical Spaniards with their dark skin and deep brown eyes, she smiled at me with her glowing blue eyes lost behind the soft blonde hair that fell like waves tossed in the wind over her shoulders. We joined everyone that turned toward the street when the fireworks went off.  Screaming swelled. From behind the people on the fence all I could see were the faces of those on the balconies watching something pass through the street down below that I couldn’t see or hear from the mass of the audience in my way.  It was gone, I had missed it, and the girl walked away.  Without any idea, lost in confusion and mostly regret, we walked toward the ring to find a crowd outside a series of closed doors, as expected.  Only those with tickets were allowed passage, though we saw a few jump and run, and when we began to walk away, another swell of noise.  Our reaction was GO GO GO as the doors all opened.

Racing into the crowd and up the stairs was like all those scenes in the movies, the sun flooding so brightly down as we peered over the shoulders in front to reveal to us a gladiatorial landscape, the entire audience wearing white and ensconced in cheering on the tons of runners who taunted a horned animal below. It took me a few minutes to learn where to move because processing the scene required the extent of my will to focus.  The frantic swell and swarm of hundreds of runners moving around and away from the ox with the fluidity of a school of fish chased undersea, the number of rows that separated me from the ring below (seis), the possibility of the police stopping people from jumping in and the fact that I saw none doing it, the spaces in the crowd that might give chance to climb below, the black man in the ring, long dreadlocks flowing behind a hulking body of his own, staring down three times the beast with horns and holding still to grab its horns upon charging, throw his legs over and flip with the force of the oxen tossing him over its head to land, stagger to his feet with fists clinched in an outpouring of excited terror that he had survived, the rain of whistles and cheers that anointed him el rey de los toros, the red and green flags of Navarre county that alternated their way across the partitions of the ring, and the white, sweet white light that poured in like the sun must seem in the open air of outer space so deeply contrasting what can be seen and what cannot be seen that to focus on both sides of the light in the stadium simultaneously seemed impossible.  But there in the shade near to where I had raced into the front row was a boy jumping down into the ring at the objection of no one.  GO.  And I went down.

The sun so bright.

The sun so bright.

Amongst the runners I couldn’t see the animal, only the rush of people that would split to one side and then another. This happened a few times before I looked at mis hombres Micah y Artur and said with all eloquence, “fuck it, I’m going in.” I was in a half sprint immediately because I didn’t want to think about the alternatives of giving in, of having fear. The speed was meant for me to find the animal but quickly I learned that it would find me. As soon as the crowd would indicate to move in my direction the people in front of me would split and the charging beast would indicate otherwise. I couldn’t get in too close before the animal ran to the other side where it was corralled and the runners were left alone in the ring.  Panic, confusion, did I miss it again? Would this prove to be my only opportunity to run or to even be amongst the taunting runners at the end who braved to slap the beast and I miss both? Catching my breath, merely seconds after the animal ran past me, thinking of the electricity in my veins, the reserves not yet spent and gaining a feeling of remorse when the pen was opened and above the shoulders of the massed runners I could see bodies enter the air, thrown up by whatever had just come out of the gate. More cheers flooded down as the runners scattered at this new, more wild thing that was parting the masses like the Red Sea.  Whatever this thing was, it was angry.  In merely a blink I saw it now, black, taller than the last and with hideous eyes that spoke of its own terror, and I saw him again, and then again, because he ran only at full speed and in all directions.  Watching the first and getting into the ring with another I was learning and guessing that the animals would stop and in whatever direction they were facing would put their head down for a charge to that side.  It made for a sort of figure eight around the ring as the size of the crowd controlled the movements of the beast as much as the movements of the beast controlled the crowd, a delicate tango between two compelling, different bodies of fear.  And when the beasts would stop for that split second, that’s the chance to touch it. This new thing with its larger, more upright horns never gave anyone that chance and when he did finally appear to stop he would as quickly spin around, dead in place but facing the other direction before anyone could move, bucking its head in all directions so fast that to be near it seemed idiotic or fatal.  No one could get near it and it never rested.  If I were lost in the back of the crowd in the ring I would lose sight of it and be caught in its way before I could react.  To avert this I did the only I thought possible – get to a position where I could always see it.  This meant to get close to the animal and run with it, a decision I made with more intent for survival than for daring.  A chance! It finally stopped to catch its breath a few feet from my position, facing the other direction.  I and the few others around me didn’t hesitate to recognize this as our opportunity and lunged forward with arms outstretched to swat at its hind quarters.  But rather than landing squarely like a palm on a cheek I could feel the grace of the hairs with only my fingertips because the beast had swung around to face me, to see its aggressors, to exchange blows.  And while my forward momentum from reaching out had me just over its path and leaning into its glare, it glared back.

When the animals are about to strike their heads tilt downward and to the side.  The force generated at the bulk of a scared animal that weighs over 1000 pounds is more frightening when its intent to harm is aimed at you.  I got to this position in a matter of milliseconds, passing through the entire range of human excitement and terror as quickly our heart can beat once.  Reactions are impulse and mean nothing, the decisions our bodies made not concluded through reason or thought – there is no thought, just… electricity.  When I jumped to the right at that moment it may have been because my left foot was already planted or it may have been because the beast had spun counterclockwise, forcing me away to my right.  It could have been that by spinning around that direction the thing had pinned us to the wall and jumping right for me was a step forward now. Whatever the reason was that sent me that direction, it was the same for the man to my left who now passed in the bull’s path toward me.  That decision put him in between the horns, had him dragged to the ground, and left me with enough room to place a hand on the wall and leap over the combination of man and beast that tussled now on the ground at my feet.  Never looked back while running, not making a noise save for the heaves of the lungs.  Stopped to feel the sun come down and kiss my sweat-covered skin, dust-covered skin, to look up and squint through the rays and distinguish the bluest of skies above me, the ring all around, the frenzy, the noise of the lust of the crowd and the floor of the ring that had no air, all sucked out by the whimsical lot of fools that wanted to touch a pair of horns, maybe something greater.  It all slowed down and I stood there feeling alive.  I was electric and I was at peace.  And I was still in the ring with a horned animal.

After being nearly gored in the ring.

After being nearly gored in the ring.

To say that it was an ox or something other than a bull, or to mention that only 15 people have died in the past 89 years since records were taken of the bull runs, or hear that most all injuries occur from the feet of the crowd and not the bulls, these things make you think it won’t be absolutely horrifying.  There is no exaggeration meant when I say that I didn’t know I was putting my life on the line.  It all happens so quickly that there is no time to realize it could be the end of your life.  But as easily as the terror enters your path it leaves again.  In the end, the animals are as afraid as we are.

It’s a mortal dance at the heart of it all.  It’s the cosmos swaying with the pull of a cord.  That this chance at glancing certain fatality comes only with an animal partner is the assured crescendo in an already fortissimo fugue.  Falling from the sky or swimming deep in the oceans or scaling the icy cliffs can all be equally ruinous, but their waters are navigated solely on the hands of the man at sea.  He who imparts on these acts of bravery is testing his limits purposefully but stands as the only thing responsible for a doomed fate, should it arrive.  But to run from the bulls is to have the marrow of your bones tested by an outward lethal force, the marriage of chance and skill, art and circumstance.  You can run, but it can chase you.  You can jump, but it can jump for you.  You can try, but it may not be enough. So do not think that this tradition is carried out for its sole attraction or bemusement.  It is carried out because merges life and death.  It is enacted year after year as a celebration of the brutal elements of living of earth, and for those that have seen it, for those that organize it, for those that participate, there is no other answer to the charge that it is cruel or unjust – it must continue.  Everyone in play, from boys and girls to oxen and bulls, they all stand a chance at surviving the game of chess, the players all pawns moving in an en passant to escape the enemy but still claiming a victim, for the collision of such forces always has a victim.  We have not lived on this planet so long to still deny the dynamisms of conflict that are as present as the sun always shining on some half of the earth at all times.

Isn’t that just it? That sheer chance, a roll of the cosmic dice, produced for us a place so pure and bountiful that its harmony is seized only at the persistence of collision? Our fate is certain – we will all greet the grave.  The equal forces of existence and nonexistence are constantly battling over control of the universe, and in the middle men and women struggle to avoid certain fate.  A fool’s struggle.  If we exist only to come to an end, what is the point? “Life has to be given a meaning for the obvious fact that it has no meaning,” muses Henry Miller.  “Something has to be created, as a healing and goading intervention, between life and death, because the conclusion that life points to is death and to that conclusive fact man instinctively and persistently shuts his eyes… Death then has to be defeated – or disguised, or transmogrified.  But in the attempt to defeat death, man has inevitably obliged to defeat life, for the two are inextricably linked.  Life moves onto death, and to deny one is to deny the other.”  How sad then, how utterly tragic that the whole of the human race save for a few martyrs have lived then in sincere quietude to avoid a fate that is quite literally unavoidable?  It is the most powerful scripts of the tragedians to quilt together the path of the doomed hero, the Greek titan that suffered at the hands of the gods for something as simple as seeing his home just one more time.  We weep for the notion that our souls have something in common with Odysseus or Santiago, or even Raskolnikov, Thomas Sutpen and Jay Gatsby, or that possibly like the Oblonskys we too have everything in confusion.  To be like these heroes makes our insufferability and pious crawl toward death a bit more heroic.  But such a thought, that this silly, stupid, inane, useless life we lead, the kind that involves the office and the cubicle and the computer and the 24-karat diamond engagement ring and 8-cylinder, 240 horsepower fuel-injected block and the three seasons, 24 episode marathons in front of the television and the late night tacos after the bar and the stored up vacation days to hit the beach only to go back to work again, that life, that utterly vain and callous life spent doing nothing, could even be close to something heroic is confusion of the highest order. And if we are confused it is only that we serve notoriety to those that live long and those that robustly serve up caution to be as saviors and saints, these men we call sainst informed of the risks and still choose the safer path, one that is beset by the herds of men seeking to avoid the awful fate of death at the cost of an awfully robust life.  But is not more awful, not more wretched to see an entire life wane by untouched, unlit by fire, unmoved by any gravity to either side of the balances of life and death? To wilt away in the neutrality of fear? To deny life by denying death is to fall into the patterns of the wicked notions given before us.  It’s taking at face value the morals of the unbrave who gave us birth into this despicable world survived only with gallantry.  There are none yet for the recent generations who have come close to anything brave and we continue to berate those that try as outliers of a system that rewards only those who fall in with the tactics of cowardice.  It is a true spirituality to embrace only the learned life, the kind that can only be reckoned from a charge towards the gates of life by charging at the gates of death; an acquittal from denying that we will crumble to dust elicits the truest understanding of God, renders the powers of the phantasmic and supernatural real and human, and there in our hands are the reins to Hell’s chariot.  The only rigid grasp of the infinite lies in the gripping of mortality, but even that can be confusing when so many misunderstand being mortal.  Erich Gutkind offers a definition of mortality by way of explaining the Hebrew etymology of eternity*, which is that of victory rather than duration: “to die means to be cut off, it does not mean to cease.  One who is bound to others is free from the fear of death, for fear has its roots in separation. Where there is fear it is quickly followed by the flight to possessions.” But to hold onto things rather than seek the nectar of life, to be avoiding death by accumulation of mere things, that he concludes is a fate worse than any: “Far deadlier than any bodily decay is the death within our souls.”  Thus is the true spirit of the bourgeois, of which we all belong.

Throughout Pamplona existed the opportunity to reach forward at that new spirituality, to grab immortality by losing all possessions and running quite literally toward the horns of the beast, but all around me I saw orchards of reluctance springing up.  Even for those brave enough to test their mettle during the runs often did so at the patterns of culling those possessions that Gutkind says relieve our sense of being cut off.  By saying “we’ve done the impossible” we can slip back into the comfortable confines of the resting bed of the weary to erode with the sands of time knowing that we lived once.  I’m telling you once is not enough.  Doing it once is not a lifetime spent in bravery.  And in this day and age true bravery is revolution.

Txupinazo, opening ceremony with 15,000 of my best friends.

Txupinazo, opening ceremony with 15,000 of my best friends.

There in a city of a few hundred thousand existed for a day nearly millions.  The sight was incredible in the dictionary’s sense of being beyond belief.  Within every footstep and every corner of the streets that maze through the city were thousands of revelers of the festivities, there in their white shirts and white pants, the red bandanas wrung around the necks and often the red sunglasses whose lenses were plucked from the frames to be worn only as a further assortment of red on a field of white white white white, everyone wearing white.  It was beautiful, serene, majestic, almost holy.  Every person had their individual manner of making the ensemble their own.  I wore my blue flowered scarf rolled up and tied around my head, as usual, and often walked around without a shirt on.  Even on the last day when I opted also for suspenders, hung down from my waist when I removed the white shirt following the run.  For this reason I got a lot of color in my skin and learned just how curious Iberians could be about tattoos.  For the women however their first and most utilized way for individualization was the size and cut of a pair of old jeans to reveal the ass cheeks.  And I can say assuredly that there is no level of shame amongst them, many turning their jeans into shorts that rode up like damn near like a thong.  It was titillating, but then again it also was no different than the rest.

There has to be a real search for the juice of the fruit to see the smoke from the fire.  It would be easy to get lost in the rivers of sangria to miss the murky truths of the celestial battle underneath.  The festival begins with the Txupinazo, a celebration of the festival itself without any bulls.  Simply, the mayor de la ciudad pops off a firework to signal the beginning of the festivities which mostly means “let the drunk begin.”  This happens in the town hall, Plaza Consistorial, which is about 75 meters by 20 meters.  But damn near every one of the revelers wants to be present, and that means about 15,000 people jammed into the space.  The math on that breaks down to about 7 people per square meter, or, so tight you can’t breathe fresh air because the bodies are packed so heavily that the heat and stench of shit piss and sangria wells up in a cloud above the crowd.  Everyone gets by on the 1-liter bottles of sangria, all the same bottles, and drinks to excess antes de mediodia.  The girls begin to jump on the shoulders of the men and it quickly devolves into low-grade sexual assault, the game of “you can’t get up on the shoulders if you’re not taking your shirt off” becomes “we’re ripping your shirt off.”  And it doesn’t stop them, they keep jumping up there and laughing while clutching their chest to tease the masses that maybe their breasts won’t come out, an inevitable falsity.  The least that can be done in any situation is to throw sangria in all directions until the shirts fade to a soaked shade of pink, the skin dripping with the sticky sweet wine more than sweat from the collusion of bodies.  This goes on for hours before the mayor comes out, the focus of the crowd switching from one atrocity to another.  It’s more colorful still in the depths of drunkenness when, say, a woman steps out on an overlooking balcony from an apartment in the buildings but does not unveil her bosom, and soon the sangria bottles take flight.  It looks like an open bag of popcorn popping over a fire, nearly hundreds of plastic bottles flying up and down in one direction until the crowd gets what it wants.  Cheers of songs, singing, goddamned singing of that groove line “Seven Nation Army” that has so swept the European nations, and devolution of the worst kind as if lurking amongst the rats of a sewer.  The crowd is so tight that any movement creates a push so intense that it seems like being pushed into a wall by a thousand people.  The feet are so tight together that people lean over and on top of each other because there is nowhere to step.  Worse yet, my shoelaces had come undone in the scrum and every time someone else stepped on them I was at the mercy of the crowd to stay above ground level.  There were others who couldn’t.  Eventually the mayor came out to the chanting of Viva la San Fermin! Viva la San Fermin! as everyone raises their red bandanas to put them on for the first time.

That's me holding up my bandana.

That’s me holding up my bandana.

And in a flash the crowd begins to spread out to celebrate amongst the streets, to find the bars, to quench the anger of a feisty drunk in the cafes prepared to meet a mob, and the pressure of the outgoing crowd pushed me in a direction other than my choosing.  It turned out to be fortuitous as those watching on the balconies took to tossing water on the already soaked masses below who welcomed the bath like a freedom from oppression.  I was pushed into the next block where a group of onlookers on the balcony had arranged a running hose and a few buckets of water, and there we took to dancing in the shower that rained down below.  And like all previous situations, the attractive woman amongst the crowd above who wouldn’t emerge was taunted with chants of “Punta! Eh perra! Viene extiorora!” until she danced her way into the vision of the crowds, eliciting their cheers.  She too began to dump water on us with a smile and the ritual was complete.

Just before the fireworks, I'm behind the Bosque flag.

Just before the fireworks, I’m behind the Bosque flag.

In these rich waters of the murky greens floats the relics of la verdad.  There are not many chances in a lifetime to be so submerged in the presence of the people.  To be so utterly thrust into their whimsy, their phantasmagoric, principled mastication of the realms of the dire, wearied exhaustion and consumption of the soul.  The way without provocation that a mass of so many can simultaneously engage in the act of release, to the see the physical and spiritual exile from the chains of reality if only for a day.  To know that all day and everywhere there are people celebrating for celebrating’s sake, that the cause of the gathering centers around the act of one man taunting death with horns.  Others are living from the relishing that others that might die.  And for many the opportunity to do the same comes from the ability to be put in the way of the bulls also during the runs.  Or even, to create an environment where any such examination of bravado is not out of question.

Our first night in the city was spent familiarizing our way around so that we might better be prepared for the frenzy ahead and in the wanderings through the street we encountered an enthusiastic bloke from Ireland here for his second run in as many years.  The lad was our age, blonde dreads pulled up in a bun and without a shirt, speaking through a thick accent and drunk that were both appropriately Irish.  He made quickly apparent that his experience in the runs before made him somewhat of a savant, an idea that I was not quick to absorb but neither hasty to dismiss.  To learn something from a soul who had at least run once might reveal to me something necessary that cannot be learned from observation or research.  “Rule number one,” he shouted out the side of his mouth, “if ya go dow’un, stay the fuck dow’un.”  I thought he meant from the bulls but his repetition of the phrase implied that for any reason not to get up.  “Rule number two, if it’s your first run, dow’unt run the curve,” he said more somberly.  “Dow’unt run the fucking curve.  You’re not a fucking hero, dow’unt run the curve.”  As we plodded through the inquisitions and information we reached a more subtle moment in his haranguing of the festival, one of proud dissonance if someone can be so delighted to know something that seems wrong.  There is apparently something called the fountain jump amongst those who’ve heard of its existence.  It is exactly as it sounds, people jumping from a fountain.  Although it’s more of a monument than a statue.  “Something that all the locals hate is the fountain jump,” he shouted while pointing down the block.  “The Aussie’s came up with this fucking great idea of falling off this fountain into the arms of their drunk brothers, I mean a literal fucking fall off of a fountain into four guys holding their hands together,” he said.  The pantomime included slamming his hand into the ground with a loud slap.  “Literally more people get hurt on the fountain jump every year than the bull runs.  I mean you’re falling arms wide on the pavement at full speed, it’s fucking stupid.”  And so I knew where to find myself after the Txupinazo dissolved, and so coincidentally was pushed directly there in the proceeding minutes.  And what a fucking idiot to get on top of this concrete ball and do a trust fall from 20 feet up.  In the condition everyone was in it was a nigh miracle that no one died on that day.  I saw a man get lifted up, give himself a half-hearted esprit tu santé before tossing his cigarette, placing his hands across his chest and falling into the arms below.  God they caught him but he hit them with a force like a car crash. It may have been the most daring thing I saw all weekend and one fountain jump was enough.  For the day, for my day, it was nearly all the rest of organized gatherings for me on that day.  The rest was spent in a merry wandering about the town with the muse of San Fermin.  God, what a muse.

The streets were made of large, slick brick stones that made for a marble-top similar to skating on ice for the first time.  The tide of booze and excrement from the horde covered the street entire and left no space in the city the sanctity of going untouched.  It reeked of the stench of a waste treatment facility on a hot day and yet the people seemed not in the least bit phased.  The merriment continued at full speed, a raging, pulsating gush of vivacity that spread from the town hall in all directions like a wild plague picking up more victims as it sprawled outward.  There was so much white and red, not a single person daring to wear anything other.  And for everyone there was rejoicing.  It was impossible to not be elated at the massive undertaking.

It was a massive undertaking all at once, after all.  That so many could so impulsively join in a swarthy jamboree was a marvel worthy of highest praise of historical reflection.  But that too for itself is astonishing and depressing – the behavior is so coordinated, so predictive, so ostensive that it can make for anyone present enough distraction to disguise the beauty below.  We were there to put life on the precipice of judgment.  But for too many it was just another check in the list of bourgeois accomplishments that reflect on a life well lived.  If only they knew that a quiet death indicated a quiet life!

Everywhere short white shorts that carried the beautiful, tanned legs of the whores that wandered around, eyes peering out at the gathered multitudes who served back the obvious mark, the competition of each other to out do and be outdone by the best, to drink and dance and drink and drink and drink drink drink and throw the glass on the ground it was too far away to the trash can and too easy to buy a drink from the outdoor bar or the waiter walking by or the storefront next door or from the beggars and residents who pulled wheeled suitcases that dolled out una cervaza por uno euro and moved onto the next one who would be in need of the intoxicating distractions of this given modern life, unable to create for themselves the distractions that could so easily be found if we just looked.  If we just looked at the absolutely intoxicating rhythms of the local Spaniards who at the end of the night in Plaza del Castillo danced in unison to the traditional flutes and snares piping out the songs of the land, the coordinated fashion that in circles around the hundreds-old gazebo in the center of the square where the players played, the sounds sounded and the rays shone outward like a beacon to indicate to the dancers when to raise up, when to drop down, and when to circle one another like bees on the petal.  How so many could at once be drawn to the music like flies to the light was a remarkable sight to see, and how so many knew so well the movements without instruction was also a stupendous thing to behold.  To join in for a few minutes when the dance became a race, the partakers raising their bandanas as if to create a tunnel of bridges for others to pass through while the snare drum hissed like a snake, the sun downing now at half-past 10pm so late that the blue still seems deeply plush as it descends more and more over the plaza square now beaming with orange-tinted lights in a myriad of white bouncing over the golden tinted streets.  Majestic, surely.  Noble even, and in some ways of nobility.  This is the nectar of the hedonist gods.

Separating the men from the gods at San Fermin were the bull fights.  An honest to god bull fight, matador vs. toro.  On this day I was repeating ad nauseum “I will not live my life in regret for having missed the bull run,” and satiated a little bit of the remorse by attending the opening bull fight.  Even that didn’t seem real, and after having nearly been killed by what I thought was a bull in the ring, it peaked my interest what matrimony would unfold in the right on this night.  We found a scalper during the day and set about preparing our minds and bodies until the doors of the arena would open (read: drinking).  I purchased 2 1-liter bottles of local San Miguel birra and walked to the gates.

…Something here needs to be said of the casual nature of the Spanish.  I am still unsure if it is owed to the nature of the festival or to the spirit of the Spanish people entire, but I as I mentioned before I spent the festival shirtless.  It was just more comfortable and often easier to clean since, as I’ve mentioned, wine was being tossed onto everyone all day and night.  I had a cigarette burning in my mouth, large glass bottles of beer in each hand, and walked right up to the gate to hand over my ticket.  I purchased a seat cushion and made my way up the stairs to the upper level looking like a mixture of unkempt homelessness, beach hair, covered in wine and tattoos, smoking and carrying open alcohol containers, dirt head to toe, and no one said anything or gave more than a glance my direction.  It was as easy as “caul es la dirección” and “el asiento está arriba” and there I sat in waiting.  I understood this visual statement of mine to be unusual, even just slightly, but to seem as if it was completely acceptable at all times or even just during the bull fight, was quite bewildering…

We found our seats among the upper rows but were pleased to have good sight lines to the ring below and bit of shade.  Reading earlier I had learned that throughout the festival there existed cliques known as peñas in the Festival which could be described as something of a fraternity that gathers once a year to organize music and parties for its members.  The peñas battled each other throughout the day for notoriety, a battle that was always fought on the field of drunkenness.  We knew they were entering the building when the marching bands started ringing throughout the halls of the arena, soon followed by the color-coordinated groups that wore distinctive hats and carried large signs for their publicity.  Each member of a peña wore the ceremonial white, but instead of a red bandana might wear, say, blue for one whole group or green for another.  I say all this because at the bull fights, their challenge of bravado is waged in the sun.  Down on the first rows of the stadium situated on the eastern side where the sun bore down, it was there that they consumed heavy amounts of alcohol and danced to the traditional rhythms of the horn sections of their peña.  In total there were about six peñas and three bands amongst them, all playing over each other.  The beauty of it climaxed as the groups inflated balloons of their distinctive color and began to throw them into the air, creating a color wheel across the stadium sections left to right, a whole section of yellow balloons and a whole section of green balloons and a whole section of blue balloons, all dancing in the air.

But the real beauty had not yet begun.  After the groundskeepers had finished raking the sand and painting circles in the sand, the mayor took his seat at the grand stand as processional leader and in came los matadores y los banderilleros y picadores.  The suits were as fantastic as any you may have seen in film or in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and every bit as bright in the evening sun.  In turn they walked toward the mayor to take a bow, walking to one side and then another back toward their places where the matadors grabbed their capes and began to practice their veronicas.  It took only a minute and the groundskeepers again came out to rake up quickly the footprints in the sand, leaving the ring empty.  And without a sound or so much as a horn, the first bull came charging out into the ring.

The greatest art in the greatest cathedral.

The greatest art in the greatest cathedral.

He was huge.  The bull stood to the shoulders of the matador and would charge from 15 meters out, chasing after the capes that were shook from side to side.  In the early stages, the “first third” of the fight, the matadors would simply goad the bull toward their direction and against the wall, a team of three matadors working to get the bull to run from one side to the next.  Occasionally one might get within a few feet but there were no passes, no veronicas.  But as soon as we began to wonder what would happen or when the fight would start, out came the picadors.

Picadors ride on a horse.  The horse is covered in what looks like yellow leather sheets, strapped and tied from the top of the horse down its sides and wrapped under its stomach on all sides front and back.  Its eyes are blindfolded and the picador carries a long spear.  The spear is used to slice the bull’s neck when it charges, because without failure the bull would immediately charge the horse.  Worse yet, the bull would size the horse up and slowly turn its head to the side, plunging horn first into the ribcage of the horse with such a force that the horse and rider would be lifted into the air.  As the bull’s horn got stuck in the side of the horse, the picador would reach down and stab the tuft of muscle atop the bull’s neck until it would release.  This must be done a minimum five times before the picador can exit the ring or the bull will be returned to the pen to be saved and the fight is over.  But after this bull had been stabbed the requisite number of the times and finally released the horse, the picador slowly trotted the horse away that for as long as I could tell had no indication of what had happened to it, not making a noise.  I learned later that it was only in 1935 after hundreds of years of fights, that it became law to protect the horses with the shielding.  Before then the horses were blindfolded and forced to take an almost certain fatal goring from the bull, and the picadors job to survive the ensuing scrum and wound the bull the appropriate times.  But that no longer being the case the horse just walked away.  Remarkable.

Into the “middle third” as the bull was a bit slower now and the banderillos grabbed those sticks.  I don’t know what they’re called but you have an idea of what I mean.  The sticks that are about one-foot long and are stripped with color, of which I learned indicate where the banderillero is from.  Two matadors would guide the bull into the center of the ring where the banderillo stood with the hooked sticks.

It was like coordinated ballet seeing their moves.  Coordinated ballet with a bull, but a pairing of which seemed nearer to art than slaughter.  After the bull was guided into the center of the ring the banderillo would call for its attention by shouting and raising his arms at 45° angles, the hooks facing inward.  In that position the banderillero resembled a striking snake, and in that position he would stand as the bull charged him full speed.  Just as the bull approached he would begin to take just a single step or two to one side without turning, and just as the bull lowered his head to plunge forward the banderillo would jump and lean far enough over to stab the hooks deep into the open wound at the top of the bull’s neck, dancing away unharmed to the roar of the crowd.  This would happen at least three times until a total of six hooks hung from the wound atop its shoulders, its speed rapidly decreasing, its charges numbering fewer and fewer, provocation needed more and more to get the bull to charge.  At its slowest speed now the matador would emerge.

The "death third."

The “death third.”

The matador’s entrance to the ring for the “death third” was like that of a painter approaching the canvas.  His steps were smooth, the shoulders square and the object, the bull, square in his sights.  And from only a few feet away from the bull the matador would reach out the cape to his side and lower it to the ground.  When the cape just grazed the sand he would shake it violently, the bull charging head first at the moving object, the matador moving in a veronica to the side by merely rotating his hips, not taking a step in any direction.

It was as they say an art of the highest form.  Like the tides rise and the currents move underneath, the music of this nature was iridescent in the shade of the arena, a transfixing waltz between matador and bull, man and animal, life and death.  The blood flowed now along all sides of the bull, weakened to a point that even its rage seemed not enough to keep the will to survive in volatility.  ¡Olé! and to the side again, ¡olé! and again turning, the bull charging, its movements in a circle around the matador that did not budge from his spot.  The knees locked, his legs straight as trunks planted in the ground, only his shoulders whirring around and his sight changing from forward to backward as the beast circled his moves following the cape from front to back to front again until the matador would place the cape behind his legs and walk away from the bull, chest filled with air and chin pointed upward to goad from the crowd the swell of cheers that filled the space up to the sky, the bull left to pant and breathe heavily to even just remain on its feet.  Then the matador would return and this time walk right up to the horns. ¡olé! and rotate and ¡olé! and spin and then stop with the cape behind his legs, the bull directly in feet, to begin to shake his legs back and forth asking the bull “would you care to dance?”

Such life at the hands of death.  If the bull in this state just once thought to expend its energy both would be lost there in the sand, in the center for thousands to see.  But the music went on, up and down there in the ring with no noise but loud enough for all to hear and see, this was the waltz that packed the house, this was the meal that served the multitudes, this is the art that will live on to be appreciated for generations to come because only a man tilted on equal parts genius and madness could manifest such magnificence and audacity, such equilibrium of living and dying.  The barks of the matador could occasionally be heard, his calls the sirens of the living who were afraid not to die.  ¡olé! and a turn, ¡olé! and the matador was away again to taunt the bull without so much as looking back because his gallantry had no limits, his acumen no threshold, his flare for the spectacular evinced in the daring dance of the dead performed by the living.  I have never seen a man so alive before, and he was by all rights on the verge of death.  There was one who got on his knees there before the bull.  The matador got down maybe inches from the bull’s horns and placed his eyes at the bull’s level, on his knees with arms outstretched, walking on his knees back and forth.  He looked as if in a vigil with the devil, and I couldn’t tell if he was praying to survive or to be gored.  It wouldn’t have mattered either way.

The matador would eventually walk to the edge and exchange the blade by which he held the cape for a sharper sword, walking back to the bull.  This time there would be no veronica, there would be no ¡olé! as he stood right before the bull with shoulders squared at each other.  The matador raised the sword to his nose, pointing it outward at the bull, holding the cape just below and in front of his legs.  With a single shake of the cape the bull would lower his head for the charge and there the matador would take one step to the side, lowering the sword into the wound and gouging downward with all his force until all of the meter-long blade was sunk into the bull’s girth, only the handle remaining to be seen.  Standing there now, spitting out chunks of its lungs and heart, it took seconds for the bull to lose its footing and drop to the ground, dead.  The bull had been killed and the dance was over.  A team of three horses came out and dragged the bloody carcass away leaving a trail of blood in the sand that would be raked haphazardly by the groundskeepers.  And just as quickly as it ended out charged another bull and the ballet began again, this time from the top.

It went on this way for six fights, the matadors doing their part to raise the stakes each time, one banderillo making a fatal move and finding his skull under the bull’s hooves, carried away to a fate no one could be sure of.  There was never any sign or indication, no noise from the arena to indicate any kind of start or stop, any kind of grade the mayor may have made on the performance below, only the roars from the crowd for the matadors who danced with death on that day.  Each performance would last about 30 minutes in total, and each one passed the same way from stage to stage as the bulls charged full of life into the first third, and by the death third had given its body up to sacrifice.  The ritual is not unlike the Mayans who played games to determine who would live and who would die, the Egyptians sacrificing cow and lamb for rain, the Jews sacrificing lamb for eternity, the Romans sacrificing gladiators for spectacle, or any those of ancients who sacrificed their own to the gods.  The gods in this spectacle were nameless, but the wages were the same as had been for thousands of years.  Man needed death to be alive.

…We woke up at 5am the next day having retired early after the fight.  Missing the bull run was not an option, I repeat, missing the bull run was not an option.  But even without el encierro en la mañana my sentiment would have remained the same.  The sobriety of the festival, seen now through the bull fights, was beginning to sink in.  And as much as I wanted to dance my own way through the golden streets at night to be amongst the people, it was hard to feel at place with the celebrations going on, now knuckle-deep in the mire with fights each day.

Even as we walked within a few blocks of the arena by 615am we entered a running pace to get inside those fence walls.  Being on the outside of the fence was unacceptable.  I had come across the earth, flown across Europe, and driven across half of Spain to run from those damn bulls and I was going to run from those bulls dammit.  I would not live a life in regret to have come so close and done nothing, to have gone so far and changed nothing in myself.  I needed this more each minute.

When we saw the arena we saw also the fence and as Artur began looking for the gate I shouted, “just climb the fence, there, there!” and we jumped through the beams.  Standing there in between the sides of the fence brought about a sense of relief.  It was if I had arrived and in the hour-and-a-half between then and the start of the run I would let nobody remove me from the bull’s way.  We started walking down the route toward the beginning to get as much in the way as possible.

With everything we had learned and heard of the run’s, we knew we needed to be somewhere on either side of curva del muerte, Dead Man’s Curve.  Dead Man’s Curve took up the 50-meter space between two 90° turns, one left and one right, that formed an S-shape in the route starting at the town hall.  It was Dead Man’s Curve because a running formation of fighting bulls at full speed weren’t the best at taking turns, instead smashing into walls and crushing whatever got in their way.  Wisely we didn’t want to be this, but the timing of avoiding it would take a bit of play.

The bulls were released in two groups of six.  A firework would be fired to signal that the first bull of the first group was out of the pen, and a second firework would be fired to signal that the group had left the pen entirely.  The same series of fireworks would be fired for the second group, usually about 20 to 30 seconds later.  This meant that if I ran with the first group of bulls at town hall, before Dead Man’s Curve, I would have to chase those bulls and get through the group of about 1,500 runners all the way through Dead Man’s Curve and down the remaining 600 meters of road into the ring, all before the other group of bull’s could catch me.  I didn’t see that as a likelihood and we decided to start after Dead Man’s Curve.  Avoid the whole thing entirely.  I kept hearing the Irish lad saying “dow’unt run the curve” and took his advice in whole.  We would not be running the curve.

Just before El Encierro.

Just before El Encierro.

Other groups of Americans picked up on our voices, or maybe it was my suspenders and headband, or maybe it was nothing at all, but there formed a smattering of some 10 Americans all discussing the best ways to survive.  None of us then the weight of the words we chose inadvertently, words like “not dying” and “surviving” and “running away” and “jumping for safety” we callously tossed along as if we knew that those words should be taken as precisely as they are written – not to die on this day.  But the groups all reached the same conclusions, even with a few who had run before.  Monday’s running group would be the largest and to avoid all issues, we’d start ahead of the curve.

Starting ahead of the curve did a few other things for us.  It allowed us to get a chance at seeing the forces that were coming our way and allowed us to get into the ring before the second group of bulls could run us over.  Of course all of this is theoretical, but we hoped its practice would executed the same way.  But as the minutes waned we heard that the police would sweep the runners out of the road if they didn’t start before Dead Man’s Curve, to give the cleaners a chance to clear the road of any debris.  So we watched in the middle of Dead Man’s Curve as the police piled into the road and begin to take their spots along the fence.  We felt we were safe enough until the most blessed man I’ve ever met approached me, and in broken English with a Spanish accent said, “if you want to run, you must start before the curve,” and he pointed behind us.  “The police will move you out, you must start there.”  He smiled and picked his camera up again to start taking pictures and all we could do was thank him before running into the large group of thousands that had found a way to smash into the alley between Plaza Consistorial and Dead Man’s Curve.  We jammed our way maybe a few feet into the group when the police on the other side where we had just run from began to sweep the crowds out of the road.  What a blessing.

It was here that we waited to run, wondering if we would get the chance to spread out along the road once the sweeping was done, or if we would have to run the curve.  It was also here that the most hilarious thing of the whole festival took place.

It’s common throughout the festival to rent balconies for any number of the events that take place, so that tourists might get a better view of what’s going on below during the runs, the parades, the street music, any time of day.  Of course the runs are the most popular attraction, so as we stood there crammed into the mass of would-be runners, we had above us for each of about four levels up a household’s worth of onlookers.  On this morning directly above us stood a very attractive brunette woman of maybe 30-years old, turned slightly to the side as she spoke with whom I could presume was her mother.  As the crowds began to cheer and whistle at her, she only laughed and looked up to the floor above thinking that we were not taunting her for wearing a skirt and for standing above us.  Even as one man in the crowd with us began to point directly at her, blowing her kisses, as the crowd noise erupted in cheers and applause and shouts of “eh punta” she again kept looking up and laughing thinking that she was not the object of our affection.  (If you’re wondering, the panties were white, normal cut, no thong, but god she had beautiful legs).  After five minutes or so, the man to her right turned to her and whispered in her ear while laughing.  She entered the building and never came back.

With about ten minutes to go the runners were allowed to disperse along the route.  We started our walk past Dead Man’s Curve with not regrets for anyone that may call us pussies.  I may go back and run Dead Man’s Curve, but not on my first run.  And just as we began to get past I saw the police gripping people by the neck and tossing them out.  These were people holding up cameras.  Strictly forbidden it was being enforced with physically tossing people through the fence.  As Artur came up to me with his camera and say “I’m glad I’m putting this away,” he didn’t put it away fast enough and got an arm around his throat until he was shoved through the fence.  I stood there trying to goad him back, as I thought the police were not looking behind the fence to catch him if he jumped back, but did not.  That left Micah and I to wander up the road for the hands of fate.

As we got about 50 meters past Dead Man’s Curve we slowed to a stop.  The impulse to keep going had filled us as hundreds of runners went walking past us closer to the arena, some slowly, some at a trot, some running.  We were approaching three minutes to the fireworks to signal the start when people started running at full pace.  I couldn’t believe that so many people would be taking off ahead, but then, maybe I didn’t know the depths of fear.  Maybe this was only possible because I hadn’t yet tapped the true bottoms of terror to know what I was doing.  And as we moved to the side of the road that was maybe five meters wide, we watched the runners going by.  I told Micah to stay nearer the middle of the road to avoid being pinned against the wall by other runners as the bull’s passed, but a man overheard us and told us quickly, “no, get over here and let the chicken runners be the one’s in the middle of the road when they come by” and I knew he was right.  The people that were running now and the people that would freak out at the sight would be the ones to get run over, not me.  And so I stood about a meter from the wall and waited.

I began to jump up and down and laugh, slapping my legs with the rolled up newspaper I was holding.  I began to laugh and laugh and laugh more and more as the seconds ticked down and more people began to run by me.  I couldn’t help it, knowing that death in the form of horns would be running at me full speed.  I had no idea what it would look like or how fast it would be but there I was anyway.  And just then Micah remembered to watch the cameras.  We couldn’t see over the crowd of runners to know when the bulls would hit the corner, but we could see the television camera two floors up.  When it turned, the bulls were turning.

That’s when the firework went off.  There were screams and people began sprinting up the road.  The screaming went on as people shuffled by but through the noise Micah and I shouted “watch the camera! Watch the camera!”  People were running at a faster rate now, the noise swelling almost to a deafening roar.  The road was dark because the sun hadn’t risen over, and staring at the camera in the sun at the end gave me tunnel vision.  It was pointed out to the left but just then it dipped down to look just below and began to rise up in my direction.  Here they come.

In that moment there is no fear.  The time for fear has passed and I was left an alarming sensation of wonder, the kind of hyper-tensified alertness that strikes an animal in the wild.  It became thoughts of “have I done enough?” and “what will the look like?” and “where do I go?”  The thunder of noise rushed toward me and all I could see were the people, the white shirts and spots of red among it that formed a wall in the road racing my direction.  I had no idea if the people were ahead of the bulls or not. Soon enough I had all my answers.

As the mass approached within five meters or so the people split rapidly toward the walls and without great focus I could see a huge brown and white boulder barreling toward me.  The horns stuck out wide and straight from the skull of the bulls that were running down the street two wide and three rows deep.  Within less than a second they were on me and I did as I was told, as I had read, as I had heard: I hit the fucking wall.  The people along the street did the same thing, but we all reached this conclusion more out of survival than any amount of preparation could allude.  Having stood nearer to the middle of the road I was on the outside of the rows of people scratching for bricks to climb, myself nearest the bulls.  I stood with my back to the people as if a man standing on the precipice of a cliff would keep his back to the rocks.  I remember being shocked at that moment to learn that the bulls were outfitted with giant cowbells, and as they galloped by the noise became a mixture of giant hooves slamming against the ground like a thousand bass drums coupled with the booming CLONG CLONG CLONG CLONG CLONG of the cowbells, and as quickly as they had appeared the horns were racing by within maybe a half of a foot of my exposed torso, and then they passed me.

Survival kicked in again as I turned into the road to take off after formation of the animals.  Though I had planned to follow them anyway, it felt in that moment, in that split second of time, that a decision had made – I could wait here for the chaos to subside, but this chaos would proceed to the second formation of bulls.  I wasn’t waiting around for that.

Neither were the other hundred or so people in my immediate area, all reaching the same conclusion at the same time, to run fucking run.  As closely as we could to the tail of the bulls we poured out into the street to give chase, and it became apparent then what the greatest danger was – other runners.  By luck and chance my position nearest to the bulls against the wall gave me the advantage of the taking the first and clearest step into the street, finding a line in the middle to book it for all hell or find out how close the second bulls were.  I hadn’t taken a single step, the tails of the bulls almost within my reach when I saw the first of the runners to be pushed into the way of the storm, a man hitting the side of the bulls and going down to the ground, rolling into the fetal position as the 1200lb animals stomped and jumped over his body.  In my peripherals I could people struggling to get released from the crowd along the wall as they too tried to join the chase and we were left to jump over the mass of bodies that began to form along the road, some tossed to the ground by the feet of the bulls and many others thrown down by the people nearest them.  Worse yet, the road was still slick from the alcohol that had rained down on the streets for two days and as we reached out with our legs to take each step it became a game of skill to stay on our feet, bystanders in our way notwithstanding.  At about twenty paces as the street turned uphill I was forced to run on my toes to avoid going down, to keep from ending up on the ground under the feet of the runners and soon after the hooves of the second animals.  It was in this moment that I knew now what the Irish man meant by “if you go dow’un, stay the fuck dow’un.”  There is no getting up in this heat.  The few brave souls that tried to get up were immediately trammeled again, and I thanked the ones who stayed down by jumping over their bodies further on toward the ring.

The route's entrance to the arena.

The route’s entrance to the arena.

At about 250 meters the route entered the intersection just before the arena, and though the fences we ran in didn’t widen, the buildings outside the fence gave way open space.  People here were able to sit along the fences that we ran inside, and it felt like celebrating a victory as the voices cheered.  The need to laugh overcame me and for whatever reason I turned around to run backwards and see for once the mess I was in.  It was beautiful.  I could only take a few steps before other people were running into me, forcing me to turn around.  But in those seconds I felt like I was in the presence of the Lord, the entire spirit of the human race unfolded before me, the universe collapsed here and started again with the fever pitch of death.  We had run.  Or were running, as we came upon the entrance to the ring.  Down the slope and I was into the arena full of spectators, the noise and ambience of which made me feel like an Olympic champion taking the platform.  Dashing off to the right I turned around and not five seconds behind me the crowd split, with a group just at the entrance to the ring all hitting the ground – the second group of bulls were jumping over these people into the ring and with as much speed as the ones I had passed were across the 100 meters of the ring within a second to be corralled in their pen at the end.  It became a sea of joy in that building.

The ritual had only just begun and soon enough the oxen were released one by one as they had been the day before, in fact it was the same oxen as before.  The brown with the lopsided pair of horns coming out first.  Attempting to give him chase I learned immediately that the number of people in the ring on this second day easily tripled the amount of the first.  On the day before when I was nearly pummeled by an ox there were spaces along the wall to jump, the crowd not so thick you couldn’t get a look at it before it speared your way.  But on this day there were no spaces.  The people were lining the walls so heavily that to get out demanded great inconsequence, and seemed nearly impossible.  And as the first ox left the ring after a few minutes, I learned that his replacement was the bastard that nearly killed me.  That big, black, hulking mass of anger was back out in the ring.  I made one attempt to get at him and very nearly got thrown to the ground by the people around me.  So many in fact that it was impossible to make a move toward the beast.  Instead people were just standing around waiting for him to approach, their only guesses of his movement the people spreading to one side and then the next and often that indication was inaccurate.  I feared then more greatly in that crowd than I had at any moment.  Panic overwhelmed me that I couldn’t see the thing that wanted me dead, nor could I escape.  I started running along the walls until I came to the matador’s exit, pushing my way through against the weight of the revelers there watching.  I found a small patch of wall to look out and made peace that I had survived.  It would be enough to watch the rest from safety.

For the next hour a few more oxen were released one by one.  The runners in the ring were a mixture of people who knew what was going on, and people who didn’t.  From the size of the crowd it were probably more of the latter.  The English speaking tourists who would stop inside the ring to take pictures with each other while the ox kept fucking raging around.  It was sport to which runners would not realize that it was coming in their direction, and the reactions they made.  Most immediately jumped for the wall, but given on this day the amount of people keeping escape closed, the runners would instead just jump in our arms.  It went on like this until el encierro had finished and the people began pouring out into the streets.

They took with them a bit of life.  At least that’s what they gave me.  The tingling that superwhelmed my body last time showed up again this morning, but it brought along with it relief.  The sun seemed a bit brighter, but only as exit music for a trio of non-heroes.  We weren’t anything spectacular.  We had merely run.

It didn’t feel real in some ways.  To swim the ether from the goddamned bottom wells of fear, fear so deep that a calm cleanses the senses, up to the very mountains of oblivion and life so rich that the feeling of immortality must be swatted from the face like flies.   I was nearly frozen in the Spanish heat.  The steps guided me home but the heart raced along as if the run had never ended.  The spirit soared to gain witness over the city entire with its millions running mad, mad they ran into the third day like the first had never ended, God had instead said that the first day will be extended first to 48 hours then to 72 hours then infinity as the streets entered the rain cycle from dry to soaked, a heavy precipitation of booze and filth poured down at interval hours when the drunks weren’t eating.  I’m sure that no one slept on these days.

To sleep would be asking too much.  The things we’d miss in sleep would deprive the barren spirit inside the bones.  How could I be expected to see around me so much life and say to it that I would not imbibe?  We were here to drink rich in the waters of life welling from the springs of death, that was the play.  The play that death could deal for us so much life.  That for the bulls, that for the runs, that for the fights, that for the brazen intoxication that could last for days, that for these things we would be rewarded with a cosmic breath lasting unto forever.  Untold wealth filled the pockets of the poorest of men in these days.  It’s a shame then that it must end, but I believe it ends because we let it.  This could go on forever if so many wanted to be so rich, if so many would give up on running from death and just jump out in front to see if it would race by or gore them with horns.  The life that does so is not without a purpose.  It is balanced.  It is about both living and dying.  To deny death is to deny life.  And so we run.

Which way do you run?

*which of course I read about in a Henry Miller essay.

The beauty of Spain.

The beauty of Spain.

Non-sequitur Thoughts

The sun continued to beat down on us as we walked to the apartment and eventually shower and pack to leave.  These are always the worst moments for me, the end of freedom’s succulent nourishment.  To return to some modicum of life that we call “normal,” and most refer to as a job.  It would be too much to ask everyone to just live and let live.  But then that would also mean to die and let die, and that’s the great paralyzing fear after all.  We have to meddle too much in the deaths of others, as if necessary to perpetuate some great sense of morality that to this day cannot be confidently defined or explained.

Heading back east from the Navarre mountains we passed into the scorched middle north of Spain that resembles a western film, complete with ghost towns and half-erected adobe buildings lining the road.  It made a five hour drive peaceful, calm, and beautiful.  It was honestly the first time I had received so much sun (apart from the absolute burnt deserts of the Middle East), and it felt like home.

For that reason and all the reasons in the 13-thousand some words before, I do want it to be home one day.  Pamplona has surpassed St. Petersburg in my list of future homes.  Though St. Petersburg is still the golden city, Pamplona had the serene combination of size, spirit, and sentiment that just felt like a comfortable place.  Though these days during San Fermin were bordering on the lunatic fringe, the rest of the city seemed congenial and welcoming.  Enough history to be rich with life, but not too much to be overrun with discontent.

It helped also that my broken Spanish actually fucking worked in this country, or at least here.  I couldn’t give a full dissertation on quantum physics, but I knew enough to easily solve my problems.  If I needed gas I could ask for directions, if I needed food I could easily order and be polite about it, if someone asked me where I was from I could answer, give my name, my friend’s names, and talk about what we do.  That also felt like home in a way that I haven’t been able to find yet in Europe.  I had been avoiding Spain for the same reasons that I’m done with Germany – it just feels like America, full of contemporary problems and stubbornness.  But I was wrong – Spain is nothing like America and for all the better.  To then be able to dive deep into its world with the foot in the door of language, the decision is all too easily.  Pamplona, you will be my home.

Spain also has the best damn food traditions I’ve run across yet.  I love you Baltic people, but your food fucking blows.  Spain is where it’s at.  It’s quite simple – take something you like, either fry it or bake it and serve it with a beer in the morning on small platters meant to be eaten like appetizers and call it tapas.  Tapas are not one particular thing, but many.  My favorite were the tortillas stuffed with cheese and tomato, rolled, and fried.  But there were also olive tapas served with cheese, churrito tapas served with sugars, and many other assortments that no two alike resembled.  The idea is to foster conversation amongst people at the bar and it was fucking awesome.  By night it would devolve into an outdoor bar where instead it was beer and pinxas (pinchas), which was simply a standard tapa served cold on bread.  And so outside everyone would just sit and eat and drink and smoke cigars and let the sun go down slowly.  It was the most wonderful way to eat I’ve ever seen.  Not behind closed doors like everyone else, but honestly meant to bring people together.  I loved it.  If you could get around how rigid the hours are, you know by living there and making it a habit, it would be the most fantastic lifestyle.  So I’m going to do it.

And because of the rich amount of sun it was common to see people anywhere, literally on any patch of grass that could be found sleeping.  Hey! There’s grass, let’s go to sleep.  Everywhere.  And then of course the girls would wear whatever they wanted, which was close to nothing, so that’s a plus.

Oh, and if you don’t like tapas, I had some of the best pizza, almost as good as Italy but not quite, so there are options.

And there’s mountains in the background and just an hour away there’s surfing in San Sebastian.

And everyone smokes.  Spain loves to smoke.  I’m trying to quit yet but there’s something comforting about a country so set its ways.  Every time I hear someone bellow “QUIT SMOKING” I just want to punch them and yell “I DON’T TELL YOU TO STOP WATCHING TELEVISION SO SHUT THE FUCK UP” because let’s face it television will kill you quicker.

But I can’t stop talking about the sun.  Goddamn it was so bright, the sky so clear and blue.  If gravity had unhinged I would have thought the sky as water and tried to jump in.

And it just felt inviting.  It looked like it was built to be beautiful.  That’s a sincere difference from the rest of Europe that was built to be either grand and powerful or safe and efficient.  Beauty is somewhere in between and Spain found it.

There It Is

Posted in Europe, poem by johnsontoms on May 30, 2013

There it is

There

It

Is

Crashing with the sound of thunderclaps to say

Here I am

Here

I

Am

Some small, some large

But all grand.

The waves topped with white on the brown, sanded cliffs

Worn down from years of clapping

It’s like shaking hands to announce to each other they’ve arrived.

The cliffs to be introduced

To the water not new

To the world

That should consider itself lucky.

Here we are, here we are.

Winding stairs for the man who sees

Not what goes on below

But what goes on in front when so much is

Underneath.

There it goes, there it goes

Back into the sea, back into the blue tides

The rising highs of water miles that keep us

Like a divider apart from our Mother Earth.

We should see her.

There she is, there she is.

She speaks most when no one is listening.

There I was.

I Never Do What I Say

Posted in Europe, poem by johnsontoms on February 19, 2013

I never do what I say.

I come up with these wonderful ideas.

Things that sound wonderful –

Hiking the Slovenian mountains,

Writing in the bars of Prague, just like Kafka,

Walking the Villa Seurat and seeing the homes of Miller,

Hemingway,

Orwell,

Picasso.

Instead I get drunk.

I get drunk and I chase women, not always to success.

And when I do, I don’t know what it means.

Does it mean anything?

I never did what I wanted.

Or did I, and I just don’t know what I want?

Sometimes I Get Tired

Posted in Europe, poem by johnsontoms on February 19, 2013

Sometimes I get tired of walking around alone.

It’s okay at first

In a new place to see new things.

Walk into restaurants, stop at shops,

Buy things.

Figure out what’s next.

I always want to get a drink, find a girl

Give it a whirl.

But damn that gets old.

So fucking old.

I don’t mind being alone.

I think.

I think while I’m alone.

Sometimes too much.

I always think I need someone, not really sure why.

No one’s ever done anything for me.

Always me to them – time, money, love.

Give it all away and the only thing left is me,

Walking around alone.

Circles, it seems.

New places, same stories.

Am I different?

Yes.

But, I hope, not so much that I’ll always keep walking alone.

From the top of a mountain it’s nice.  Peaceful even.

Sitting on top of the world, legs swinging free,

The people below carrying on their merry way.

Doing this, doing that.  Eventually dying.

It’s sad really that no one will join me.

I’m in a pizzeria in Ljubljana, Slovenia

With a hangover and a beer.

Laško, it’s not that bad.

I just want to share it with someone.

“It says lager, but it’s a pilsner.”  That’s something I’d say.

Something…

Fuck, anything.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Why does it always seem that way?

Everyone dies alone.

…But It Doesn’t Get In The Way

Posted in Europe by johnsontoms on January 29, 2013

Travel – (v; int) 1. To go on or as if on a trip or tour : journey.

 

Go your own way.  Go far into the night, go until the day lights and the streets fill and the signs read languages that you cannot read back.  It doesn’t get in the way.

Travel.  Travel to places on the map you vaguely recall.  Travel to corners of countries where information is hard to find, convenience doesn’t exist, and getting around takes time.  The time it takes will give you something to learn, something to see, and each challenge can be broken up by a good meal, a hard drink, and night of sleep.  It doesn’t get in the way.

I got lost once knowing where I was.  Recently.  Walking through St. Petersburg it took me two days to learn that “туалет” was pronounced the same as “toilet.”  For all the places I’ve been so far and all the things I’ve done I’ve gotten by with a strength of English and a dirge of Spanish, Deutsche, and the occasional “hellos” in many languages.  But there, in Russia, nothing would save me.  But it didn’t get in the way.   No amount of planning could’ve prepared me for how foreign it truly would be, in the streets, in the shops, in the restaurants, in the tramcars and taxis and museums and tobacco stops and cocktail bars.  But it doesn’t get in the way.

Throughout Europe its common to speak English, the language having been taught in a majority of the schools for a generation or so now.  It’s not still uncommon to run into people who do not know English, but the running bet is safest that anyone my age can carry my conversation with ease.  It’s a bit damning, to be honest.  To have crossed the Atlantic and learned nothing of the language of these people, to eat their food, know their women, drink their beer, watch their sports, and still… only English.  But it doesn’t get in the way.  It’s never stopped me from trying, and at times I’ve sat down to learn a little bit of Deutsche and Estonian and brush up on my Spanish.  It helps when the hard looks of “you don’t know any other language?” cross their faces.  But even after six months living in Germany I get relaxed – of all the nations here in the European Union, Germany is by far the most educated in the English language.  On their street signs, on their trains, in their bars, in the voices of the people – it’s the language of their business.  Probably for American occupation until twenty years ago do we have this to thank, but idea is still: “you haven’t learned Deutsche yet?”  It never got in the way.

So I went to Russia.  I went there and was taken back like catching a bullet.  “How the fuck am I going to get anywhere?” I asked myself.  Luckily I was making friends and got to know a few good people who were willing to help me out and make the time go by in the presence of something familiar.  Because at first it was… frightening.  I had to for the first time ask myself, “what the fuck am I going to do?”  I wondered if I would find food easily, find drinks, be able to take a taxi, understand the metro system, do anything.  Here in Germany, if one had a brief grasp of the basic words and street signs, it would be easy to at least guess the way around.  But with words like “вход в музей,“ “10,00 с человека” and “Кожаное пальто” there is no guessing.  There is no fucking way to get even close to the meaning of the words.  I had to window shop for any inclination of what was inside.  But it didn’t get in my way.

Once I got used to the idea of knowing nothing, it was like starting over.  What does the letter “___” sound like?  How is this letter pronounced?  Learning the alphabet at age 26.  One by one and sound by sound until at least I could pronounce some words on the sign, regardless of whether I knew the meaning.  As the letters came together, so too did some of the words.  It became comical by the third day when I realized that certain English words were simply homonyms in Cyrillic, and that “ресторан [restaurants]” were actually everywhere.  And once I knew where the food was I could go in.  Sure, I was reduced to a madman’s folly, pointing and uttering the few words of numbers that I knew.  “один [ah-DEEN], два [dvah], три [tree], четыре [che-TYH-ree]” [one, two, three, four, respectively] and answering yes and no with “Да [da]” and “Нет [nyet].”  It was humiliating and I loved it.

Because there’s something about Russia.  It’s huge and it’s freezing, but it doesn’t get in the way.  The sidewalks and streets are so large that very easily throughout the five days I spent in St. Petersburg a team of sweepers and trucks kept everything brushed and dry.  And it was necessary because the snow never stopped.  It is true that it was January 7 through January 11 but it is also true that it snowed everyday, and sometimes never stopped.  I was expecting to see lots of snow, lots of ice, to feel chilled to the bone, but I didn’t know what it would look like and feel like until I was there.  The moment came during my visit to the Hermitage Museum, the beautiful Winter Palace of the royal family that was erected in the 18th century and sits in the middle of town just across from the fortress along the Neva River.  Inside the Hermitage I was enjoying refuge from the cold while touring the illustrious halls of royal artifacts, imperial dressings, and historical data amongst the unending flow of paintings of everything from Peter the Great to the death of Christ to a fishing market on a Saturday afternoon depicted by Peter Paul Rubens.  The halls were winding, the things inside were blinding, but in the end it was the sight unseen that had me exit.  Toward the north corner midway through the Hermitage I passed a window that looked outside.  I saw nothing but white and was startled at first, not knowing what I was looking at.  I realized in short order that the Neva, which I had not seen this far up yet, was indeed frozen thick over with blocks of ice for a stretch wider and longer than a quarter mile.  From my side of Vasileyevsky Island the water was still flowing, nearer to the delta where the water broke into the sea.  But here where the islands all met, the waters were still, callous and rocky like the surface of the moon, cold and white like the tundra.  This was tundra.  And to get out to it, to be near it, to see what such a thing looked like for the first time in my life meant to get out there into the cold once more and walk over the Trinity Bridge, the famous drawbridge in the middle town, to stand there with the wind whipping my hair and freezing my fingers, to slip in the ice on the bridge trying to lean over the ledge and see how thick the mighty water could get in temperatures below -10° C – it got real thick.  Jagged pieces of ice taller than myself were sticking up from the ice shelf, a collage of chunks that had over the previous weeks frozen up and broken free and smashed together again to form a floor that no man could easily walk.  And as I studied the ice, mesmerized by its rough palette, its exotic formations, its foreign sights, the snow began to fall.  And fall and fall and pick up and fall and fall and get stuck in my hair and stick to my neck and blow nearly sideways as the blizzard picked up.  Planning to walk to the fortress next, a half-mile away, I was undeterred by the cold because it didn’t get in the way.

With the proper coat and pair of gloves I wasn’t stopped from sloshing in the growing floor of snow in sidewalks which only caused problems on staircases that hadn’t yet been fully swept, making instead a slope better suited for sledding than walking.  First passing the Rostral Columns, then the Stock Exchange, and then again over a bridge before crossing into the tip of the Peter & Paul Fortress to see for the first time where the city started.  St. Petersburg after all had been founded to be the imperial city of Russia, the source of its beauty and wealth, the center of its attraction, the heart of Mother Russia.  And so planning, it was decreed that the city would be seen from the tops of the fortress fanning out along all sides of the Neva, tall, glorious, fantastic.  By the time I had made it to the fortress walls I had been outside in this blizzard, some -15° C with increasing snowfall, for nearly two hours.  But it didn’t get in the way.  I never even wore my hat, choosing instead to feel the wind blow through my hair and kick the ice off my head where it got stuck.  And coming now to the walls along the river I paid my 35 rubles and walked onto the roof to see the famous panoramic.  Breathtaking.  Inspiring, really.  The stretch of river here was a quarter-mile wide, but it didn’t bend either for nearly a half-mile stretch of which the fortress was situated in the middle, looking book left and right where the city faded away into the snow over the bridges that dotted the river and connected the islands.  The buildings that were five-stories high, each of them, all of them, all along the river forming a singular stretch that spanned for miles of grand palaces and picaresque storefronts, painted in various swaths of yellow and green and red according to their centuries-old tax code, but just barely a sight to be seen now through the winter, as if Manhattan were seen from across a Hudson River that had been stretched to three times its normal width.

Here for the first time I did not only see the expanse of this city, but I felt it.  It began to sink in just how large the city, the country, the people could be and was.  The largest country in the world would need an even larger city to be its beacon for the people, to be its center of attention.  And just under 300 years old, there now were some 7-million people living within its limits, scattered across the islands and throughout the channels, around the parks and into the forests that line the cities limits on the northern and western stretches, the pine woods that grow up in a place as cold and far north as St. Petersburg.  But it didn’t get in the way.  For 7-million people I never fought for space.  For 7-million people I never got locked out for space.  For 7-million people I was never overcrowded, never confined, never locked in and crunched up, anywhere, doing anything.  The metro handled the thousands of people that crossed its doors ever ten minutes, the buses were large enough and numerous enough to handle the hundreds of people waiting on the sides of the street, the lanes of the roads wide enough to handle the hundreds of cars that now dotted the landscape, the surprising majority of those cars made up of American vehicles, large trucks and cargo carrying vehicles.  The restaurants were everywhere and could handle the eating public, the sidewalks wide enough to hold the people that walked hand-in-hand up and down Nevsky Prospekt to do their shopping, casual dining, and carry on in the merry lives.  Just as easily I could stroll through the Alexander Park on the north of town and hop on the Metro at Gorkovskaya to arrive five kilometers south in the middle of Dostoevskaya just ten minutes later.  The ease with which I could get around the city of 7-million people would blow your mind, to come from such a place where trains and cabs are the only choice and even they take half an hour.  Here, the city was built to hold its occupants and serve them well.

But that’s probably the closest it comes to serving them in some way.  The largest relic of the Soviet era I experienced came in the form of the attitude of the people.  It’s hard to explain, but it is in a way a sense of defeat.  The ideas of change and combative choice seem not only irrelevant and impossible but unreal and nonexistent, a myth not to be explored.  The friends I made were great, do not be confused.  They were happy, and willing to help.  There was a spirit of comfort and cohesion that existed within them, in a way that I couldn’t see in other places.  They were readily available to help anyone out, anyone but their own selves.  This I think is the reason for their helpfulness – they know that everyone is struggling.  If I asked them what their plans were and if they were happy, the response was overwhelmingly “what am I to do?”  You couldn’t change jobs or move around?  “How am I going to do that?”  Do you feel like you’ve been thrown into a system you can’t beat?  Again, “what am I to do?”  The sense of oppression and control that existed (and may still exist) from the Soviet era pervaded their entire sense of being.  It was as if they had been through the bottom pits of hell and emerged to be thankful for the opportunity even in the smallest way to live in some way with a bit of comfort, even if it was slightly predetermined.  As if they were told at a young age what their direction would be, and having been shown an alternative much worse, they are happy to carry on in the line of their fathers before them and their fathers before them.  “What are they to do?”  I’m not sure.  But in a lot of ways, it doesn’t get in the way.  Still, it has come far enough that they are afforded to live with their own pleasures in the forms of their lives.  Bookstores are not censored, radios air freely, the newspapers present most of the news.  They have the opportunity to at least live and eat as the first world does, with comfort, not in fear of death.  Only maybe for fear of the government do they act timidly.  But now with the opportunity to at least have some discretion over the things they do, it creates a compromise.  Let the government do as it does, and leave me to do as I do.  Only when the two worlds collide, “what are they to do?”

There is a strange bit of pride that exists within it.  The have come out on the other side of the communist era, still intact, still together as a Russian people, and now living well, there is something to hold as victory within an identity.  This pride manifested itself to me in the funniest and the most obvious of places.  In each restaurant and at each Metro station and in any part of the city where I was struggling to communicate in Russian what my intentions and desires were, there was a Russian behind me that said, every time and without failure, “Welcome to Russia!”  It was both heartwarming and unwelcoming at the same time, happily warm yet sarcastic, and it happened literally every time.  I’m not sure how long that has been going for in Russia, but the presence of the phrase “Welcome to Russia” implies more and anything but “welcome.”  Or, even if I am welcome, “welcome to a country like no other,” or “welcome to the only place that matters.”  But, it doesn’t get in the way.  I never felt threatened, I never felt at danger, and I was never so severely mocked that I had to change plans or sit somewhere else.  No, it was simple that – I was in Russia.  I was somewhere I had never been.

I love going places I’ve never been. There’s no more thrilling, satisfying, fulfilling experience in the world than to travel.  To have put together a piece of life that has worked hard enough, fought hard enough, waited long enough to travel to some place of desire, some location of fancy, some town of whimsy, or even just to another part of the state.  To obtain the freedom to travel by whatever means is truly serene when in the moments of our possessed transference to another reality, which is often the feeling when in such foreign locales.  All the things that could go wrong, all the money spent, the time wasted, the flights planned, the taxis ridden, the hotels slept, the immense hours of go here and go there, all these things are nothing to the times I have when walking calmly, strolling pleasantly, finally and at once amongst a citizenry and populace that to me is new, different, exotic, enigmatic.  The experience is dogmatic, in more ways than any god ever showed me.  For all its problems, it’s the only way I could’ve learned the things I know, grown the way I have, educated myself further without the confines of lecture.

It’s the north that does it for me.  I’ve been there now in the spring and in the winter, and at both times it is equally beautiful.  By north of course I mean far north into the Baltic States.  I was going back to Estonia.  I have a good reason to go back and a good reason to stay there.  Every time I leave my heart stays back also.  Such a wonderful country with such wonderful people, and every day I spend there is a gift on earth.  Being so close to St. Petersburg there I had no choice but to exercise the chance at Russia.  Being so close to St. Petersburg also explains a large part of the Estonian experience.

The funny thing about every country, at least here in Europe, is that a great source of their pride is manufactured by reflecting it upon their neighbors.  The Estonians are, for once and hopefully finally, free of Russia.  Or free from Russia.  For the greater part of the last 150 years until the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia was in occupation by either Russian or German forces.  It’s really not fair either, being such a small country of just 1.4-million people.  There are more people than that in the city limits of Dallas, Texas, and Dallas is hardly a noteworthy city.  But take those people and spread them out over a country as large as North Carolina.  There’s a sense of victory, a sense of belonging on their own, a sense of being independent, and they strive to attain their stability through their own narrative.  It does also make you wonder if they ever thank anyone for their freedom, given that 1.4-million people would hardly be able to overthrow the Russian government on their own.  But it doesn’t matter if they did, and it doesn’t get in the way.  Similar to the helpfulness of the Russian people who see that everyone needs help, the Estonians are proud to be helpful for the sake that are free to be helpful, finally.  In spite of their own opinions of their selves, they are nice people.  Beautiful people also.  Each and every one of them glows.  It may be that irrepressible European spirit, the embodiment of living that gets Europeans outside and together, unlike the American spirit that separates and individualizes us.  And I think that’s the point I’m trying to making.

Because that’s the only thing that gets in the way.  Somehow and in spite of our freedoms we’ve chosen to separate ourselves from the rest of the world, physically, emotionally, spiritually, ideologically, and live in a shell away from all the “bad things that happen out there.”  America is not candyland.  But for some reason we think there is no better place and that each other country is filled with something subhuman, some facsimile of the modern man.  But we are wrong.

There are beautiful people out there with bodies just like ours (bodies that are often less fat than ours; Europeans don’t really know what fat people look like, though over 50% of Americans are considered “out of shape”).  There are intelligent people studying the same courses as us.  There are hardworking people plowing farms and erecting buildings just like us.  A lot of them still go to church (though not as many claim to be religious like Americans), and they still get drunk on the weekends and fuck.  They drive cars, pay taxes, and do all the things that we all do and all hate together, and it doesn’t get in the way.

Everyone drinks Coca-Cola.

But until you get out there, you won’t know it.  You won’t know if you could find love until you go looking for it, even just by leaving your own backyard.  America is a large country after all, a huge expanse of land.  From one side to the next is a different mode of living, in the same way that moving from Latvia to France would be entirely different.  But until you go, you’ll never know.  You’ll only know what you’re taught and that’s things that are entirely wrong, entirely unproven, largely mythical and typical and horribly untrue.  It gets in the way.

It gets in the way of traveling, makes you feel like it’s unnecessary to move.  It gets in the way, makes you care less for the water over the earth that feeds the soil that feeds the birds that fly in the sky that drops the rain that nourishes the grasses that feed the deer that feed the lions that sleep in the trees that shade the human beings that only until a few thousand years ago lived equally with the plants and animals within the system, this system of earth living.

You’ll just never understand anything of the world until you see it.

You’ll just never understand anything of the world until you see it.

You just have to see it.

You just have to see it.