Recently, I rediscovered posts on Facebook about my travels seven months after my partner René Valdes died in February 2012. While I have preserved much of the immediacy of the record, I have used them to explore the universality of grief. desire and wonder that we feel daily in the pandemic. Oh, and that includes sugar.
Sept 27 Night 1 Istanbul
I arrived in the afternoon, after the long set of flights from San Francisco. Walking the streets and narrow alleyways of Taksim with kamikaze ice cream guys, chestnuts roasting, traditional musicians on the street and Lady Gaga blaring from the clubs and thousands walking to nowhere. Men walk hand-in-hand or arm -in arm here, but I know they are mostly straight. Senses and stomach full. Happy to be away from home and the daily reminders of René that live in the walls, books and every corner of our house.
Sept 28 Day 2
From the song of the muezeen waking me up before sun rises on this Friday, my day seems to be carried along in its warbled care. While recognizing money can’t buy me love, it could in the 6th and 16th centuries help erect two of the most divine temples to the spirit, the Haiga Sofia and the Suleymaniye Mosque respectively. Each of these pieces of human-created architecture so vast and unbelievable embrace all time and distill it into this moment of being now. Twice I straddle Europe and Asia someplace on the Bosphorus while the ferry carries me back and forth on a whim not really knowing where I am headed but confident I will return if not the same person but to the same place. As the almost full moon rises, René’s voice comes to me as I do my own chant, ”one-bir; two iki(s); three-uk(s); four dort(s); and five-besh(es)” giving me mnemonics to practice counting in Turkish. I hit my bed full and drained at the same time.
Sept 29 Night 3
A day and evening of sensual overload. After four hours at Topkapi, the former imperial palace and Ottoman administrative grounds , I overdose on exquisitely tiled rooms yet when I come to the harem, I am instantly awed by the beauty which surpasses everything I had seen. And why the harem , one of the least public buildings? Sex and desire, also a subplot of this trip, can bring even greater inspiration to the best of us.
Diving next into the old market with a zen mind guides me past hundreds of stalls without being noticed by eager merchants with merchandise overflowing the aisles and thousands pushing their way around. A short while later, I am sitting on the carpeted floors of the Suleyman Mosque late in the day with just a few others, sharing in its beauty and grandeur and gazing into the domed ceiling. Again, how was this place created with such a timelessness that it continues to speak to me today?
Which prepared me for my first hamam, sweating, cleaning, sweating until the attendant determined I was cooked just right by the heat so he could throw water on me, soap me down on a hot slab, cleanse and massage me leaving me to bake a little more before the final dumping of cold water, feeling myself dry off, drinking hot tea and resting in my own little room until I could face the world.
Which turned out to be, going to dinner with my host a former diplomat and gay man. We eat a particular fish that is only around for two months as they make their way up the Bosporus to the Black Sea which is accompanied by some sort of local salty green that grows by the sea, finished off with fresh figs and fruit for dessert. As we walk out, my host tries to explain how gaydar works here where most of the men touching each other on the street are straight. He drops me off at the dance club, where I watch and dance along with hundreds of mainly young gay men in this Islamic country dancing as we sing along to the DJ…until two hours later I depart alone to bed.
Sept 30 Day 4:
Note to myself from night 3, don’t drink Turkish coffee at 11:30 pm and expect to fall asleep any time soon. So I write at 3:00 am.
Today I take a long boat trip up the Bosporus to the Black Sea. I love ferries/boats, so the day could not have been better. Memorizing scenery on both the Asian and European sides, old buildings, mosques, forts with new mansions and yachts galore. Near the end we passed the rocks that Jason (not the gay one but the Greek one of the Argonauts fame), had to navigate through to get to the Black Sea. The last stop was Analdolu Kavagi home to a special anchovy-leek corn bread though even better is the lokma–fried dough with local honeyed-syrup.
Back in the old city, I find Zen in a Sufi performance. The Sufi (aka whirling dervishes) are a mystical branch of Islam, known for their whirling dances. The program compared them to Buddhists achieving nirvana in their connection to the rhythm of the universe but not staying there because they need to come back to this reality to serve all humans. “I vow to save all beings” is part of my daily morning chant and sitting zazen.
I meet up with a handsome, tattooed muscled man with black hair and a trimmed beard. Between acts of intimacy and pleasure, he describes gay closeted life in Turkey and shares his hopes and dreams of a life where he can be freer.
Oct 1 Night 5 Belgrade, Serbia
I start the day in the old bazaar of Istanbul with a tiny bit of shopping and much bargaining. The shopkeeper gets a worked look on his face when I tell him that I once spent an hour haggling over a $3 dollar belt in Africa.
In order to partake of last indulgences (of the culinary kind) before I leave , I stop at several different pastry and eating establishments to stave off starvation and more importantly leave Turkey without ruing that I left some deserts untasted.
Before I left San Francisco, I found 200 Serbian Dinars in René’s desk and looked forward to having them pay my way here. Another dream destroyed when I find out I have $2.30. René had been here for his work on the Serbian version of the spell checker in MS Word about five years previous, so I sense his footsteps. As I walk around in the dark and moist evening, the clouds part and our full moon shines on me for an instant. René and I met on the full moon and celebrated it every month wherever we were. I wish I knew who he worked with here since it would be interesting to hear of his travels from another. I so meet up with a Serbian guy who shows me around the sad, and dark old center of the city, one of the few places not bombed by NATO during the Balkan Wars over a decades previous. He takes me back to his flat, where we try to have sex but with the tv blaring an old episode of Hawaii Five-0 and his nervousness about his landlady finding out, the energy quickly drains out of the room.
Oct 2 Night 6, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Downstairs from my Belgrade hotel room, a club booms with a loud bass line and the sounds of drunken revelers until about 3:00 am. As I had only hit the bed at 1:00, a 6:30 am wake-up was going challenging anyway. But up early I am and walk the few blocks to the train station to go to Sarajevo. In the morning light I see that Belgrade is more dreary, Soviet-looking and run-down than I thought. Good enough reason to just pass through. On the way, I find an open bakery where I stock up on enough provisions enough to feed a small village. There are too many enticing delights including potitca, a poppy seed roll that I had only eaten in the US when Serbian or Croatian friends made it.
The train to Sarajevo consists of two threadbare coaches for the dozen or so passengers. I imagine I am on my own private albeit run down train, the only type of train I could ever afford to buy. For the first hour, Serbia rolls by, down-on-its luck and depressing. The moment we enter Croatia, it appears somewhat richer, less authoritarian than its neighbor. Even the sun comes out, the fields look better tended, the tracks provide a smoother ride as the train picks up steam. I chat with an unemployed psychologist/anthropologist/ philosopher (she had a master degree in all of these) about zen, politics and the difficulties the Balkan countries are having in throwing off the past. She lives in Macedonia and we converse in a mixture of English and Russian on my part and Serbian and English on hers.
The train crosses the Bosnian border and the the conductors and engines are replaced as a downpour starts. Given the recent history in Bosnia I think the rain is a portent, just like the sun was in Croatia. But it is just rain. And even though the passport agent from the vowel deficient Srpska Republic, one half of Bosnia and Herzegovina (or BiH as it is abbreviated) is quite gruff, very quickly the trip is fascinating.
Until BiH, the land is flat. But quickly, we follow rivers through passes, and rolling hills which turn into mountains. About an hour into the ride I see my first minaret of a mosque in a small town. Generally a each small village has either a mosque or an orthodox church showing its religious preferences. One town has both within a block of each other. I start to get a bit of an idea about some of the dynamics of the Balkan wars. The woman I had met earlier said the war has ended in places like Sarajevo which was rebuilt, but the people themselves have not recovered. The politicians are still focused on separation and the unity that existed from the previous several hundred years of coexistence was broken. She was not the first person I talked to that longed for the old Yugoslavia.
I have no idea of what to expect and realize that I never had entered a country before with so little preparation. The politics of the region and the war twenty years earlier are complicated and who was on whose side escapes my memory. I read what little I can in guidebooks and realize that there had been any number of alliances that changed over time, perhaps the reason I cannot remember the situation any better.
In 2012, if you googled BiH, you would have discovered that this was one of two countries that Google maps did not cover (the other being N. Korea.) So I don’t know the route to Sarajevo and have no idea of the major cities. The lack of knowledge doesn’t impair the beauty of the very rural countryside with steeped-roofed mountain homes, minarets, and haystacks shaped like hobbit huts. For most of the way, the railroad consists of a single railroad track which requires us to wait when trains come in the opposite direction.
After a long day, Sarajevo, the site of the 1964 Olympics begins to real itself, as we break through the mountains and enter a valley. On the outskirts of the city, the tiny villages begin to morph into urban villages with the houses filling up every space up an down the hills. As a San Franciscan, it looks familiar. As my friend said the city seems to have recovered physically. I alight at night, find my hotel and go into the center city to eat. The winding streets and reconstructed old buildings of the old downtown from Ottoman times echo with voices and footsteps of people maneuvering its maze the narrow streets where cars are not permitted. I find it hard to imagine the terror that reigned for over three years when this city was under siege and tens of thousands civilians were killed. Ghosts are everywhere in bullet holes and memorials.
Oct 3, 2012 Night 7 Dubrovnik, Croatia
I miss René tonight. It’s hard to read a foreign language without thinking of him. I love languages as much as he did, but never was as adept as him. Ten years previous, we went on our first foreign trip together to Santiago de Compestela, learning Gallego, listening to a local Celtic band and eating seafood in an open square. We would spend hours in new places figuring out the signs and trying to read and speak. We also had a competitive delight in exploring places. Our biggest fights were about directions and most often he was right. On this evening In Dubrovnik, I find it difficult to watch couples in restaurants or strolling the lamp-lit streets. Why do they get to experience growing old together and we did not?
Tonight I eat mussels alone in the open air in the tiny limestone paved streets of Dubrovnik, flirting with the cute waiter who keeps checking in with me with double entendres that compose our not-so-secret, universal gay language (one of the languages I do excel in.)
A quick synopsis of the wars, before I go on. Yugoslavia breaks up in independent countries. Serbia, actually Slobodan Milosovic, we shouldn’t blame the whole country, decides that the greater Serbia needs to be put together which coincidently is most of the former Yugoslavia minus the Muslims, non-Orthodox and anyone else in the way. So first he and the allies he could find went attack Slovenia then Croatia, then Montenegro, then Bosnia and ending with Kosovo. He failed in his quest but managed to ignite the sparks of confusion, destruction and hatred along the way.
Despite the rich history that survived countless other wars over the centuries, the modern war ravaged the region. There is footage of the destruction of the Stari Most (old bridge from the Ottoman empire of the 1500s for which Mostar is named) that one can view at the information center. Helplessly, you watch as the missiles are aimed the bridge. How could some one pull the trigger to do this? How could someone film this for posterity? I suppose it might have been easier than shooting little kids running to buy food in Sarajevo or shooting thousands of bombs into Dubrovnik, a small ancient walled city in which every building and street looks like it was carved out of the same block of limestone.
I am on the train from Sarajevo to Mostar, counting each of the 65 tunnels in two hours some as long as a km or two or three we pass. We zoom down the mountain first above the clouds, then through them, finally below them. The vistas are breathtaking and traveling on this train is an homage of the human ability to do something well and for good.
The bridge in Mostar as well as much of that city and Dubrovnik have been rebuilt. Although some buildings left their bullet holes in the exterior, most are completely reconstructed so that you would never guess their condition only ten to fifteen years ago.
237 stairs form the path I climb to my guesthouse. Living in San Francisco has prepared me for this. I see the old city in white with thick walls surrounding it against the light blue of the Adriatic framed by a large forested island in every direction. I am tempted to say this is one of the most beautiful places ever but given that many of you have read my travelogues in the past, I probably have made that claim before. Let me state it in zen language, this is the most I am experiencing of beauty and filling my senses of a place called Dubrovnik right now.
Oct 4 Evening 8
Bliss…I wake up from a nap this afternoon on the beach and feel as if I had slept for months. Perhaps the first time since René died, I am completely relaxed. Sleeping naked on the beach under the warm sun, with the soft waves burbling amongst the rocky shoreline; sharing local grapes and mandarins shared with a guy I meet here; jumping into the warm sea with its clear blue green water and vista of far off mountains. .
Oct 5 Day 9
Fear is coursing through my body and I can barely stand up. I am on an uneven small rock without a place I can image fitting both feet about 15 feet above the water. Other people have taken the plunge, but I can’t make myself move my left leg and jump. Images of my brain crashing into the rocks, of René (although this was one of the few ways he never considered for killing himself) keep me from moving. I try balancing with a guy holding my hand, coincidentally named René but can’t budge that leg. My brain is still not going there…finally taking all of the energy I have…I climb down the cliff and swim back to the group.
I have spent a lot of time in the past few years confronting my fears. I know that fear begins in my mind and through my mind’s stories, it grows. Most of my practice comes from day-to-day, learning to breathe through the fear when it arises in the middle of nowhere. I learned to locate it in my body and pay attention at the same time noticing the images and stories. This practice helped me not become too overwhelmed with René’s terminal mental illness and his death as I could see my fears were only stories and that the real human that sat in front of me hurting so badly was not a story.
I also learned that once I feel the fright or flight syndrome taking over, my body pumps adrenaline for about a minute. I can’t stop that minute, but I can stop the continuation of the feelings after the minute. None of this occurs to me while semi-perched on that rock. Despite part of my mind doing a scan and saying look at that left leg, it certainly is shaking, and look at what your brain is saying, and wow my heart is sure active, real or imagined fear, feels the same–immobilizing.
The ironic part was that about ten minutes before this I was snorkeling and for the very first time in my life, I overcame my fear of breathing in the water. I floated, breathing and watching the fish and just breathing. Aware that this was so different from previous times when I was gasping for air, I decided to join the others for the plunge off the rock. Knowing I had dealt with one fear so easily why not try a second one?
At the time, I wrote that the next time, I will be ready for that rock and water; that I already had the images in my mind of how to prepare and how wonderful it will feel. Another story in the making. What I know now is not to try to jump off rocks.
Oct 6 Day 10
So what’s with Kotor and and Kotor Bay and why did everyone want it for 16 centuries plus or minus. Oh you never heard of it? Hint one it’s in the country of Crne Gora. Hint two, the name of the country translated from the local language is Black Mountain.
Okay hint three, Jay Gatsby won a medal from this little country and this is why I had to go there. Mr. Christie assigned The Great Gatsby in 12th grade English class and although I was not consciously aware of being gay then , and did not know the word homo-erotic, I found the book incredibly homo-erotic. My friends and I also thought Mr. Christie patterned himself after Gatsby. He was mysterious and we would make up stories about him to fill in the blanks, but again unaware enough to recognize that he was a closeted man at least to his students in 1971. Like Gatsby, he looked like he had a haircut everyday. As the best dressed teacher in the school, I immediately thought of him when Gatsby shows Nick his closet of shirts of every color–I was sure Mr. Christie had the same closet. I wanted that closet and would scan the men’s clothing ads in the NY Times Magazine Section religiously each week, after coming home from church, imaging the feel of such luxurious clothes would transform my teenage body into the men on the page.
I have digressed enough but you get point of why I had to go to Montenegro. I rent a car for the couple hour trip from Dubrovnik, most of which is driving around the Bay of Kotor. Fjord-like, surrounded by mountains, I take the car ferry at point the Bay pinches in its narrowest. Apparently one of their ancient defenses was to put a large chain in the water at night so pirates and other invaders could not sneak in.
Most restaurants are closed since it is the end of the season, so I stop at the first one I find open, and while it did not look promising, the veranda on the water was. The meal will stay in my memory as the perfect way fish should taste and all other meals will be compared to this one. (Note to reader, so much for statements about future memories. In 2020, I didn’t remember this fish dinner at all but I do remember two other fish meals both in the mid 1990’s–fish tandoori in Accra, Ghana and a large fish blow-torched table-side on a split, its cooked pieced dropping on butcher paper on the table for you to tear into with your fingers in Sanaa, Yemen. Back to the story, my sea bream pan roasted in olive oil and some herbs with potatoes and swiss chard is delicious. The waiter fillets it and leaves the head when he takes he bones away. I tell him he could take it as well, but he insists that I ”try the sweet meat there.” Well he is right and fish head and all is delicious.
After that, I really didn’t need to spend much time in Kotor, another really old walled city, with ruins of chapels and fortresses climbing straight up a steep cliff. I did stop to look at some Roman mosaics, depicting Morpheus, the god of dreams (of humans–other gods handled other types of dreams.), in what they assume was the owners bedroom. Morpheus has sent lots of men to my dreams by now. Thanks Mr. Christie/Jay Gatsby for leading me here today.
That evening, I rendezvous with a medical student in downtown Dubrovnik. Handsome and slim, he walks me out of the walls, along the coast to an abandoned concrete hulk of a building that was never finished due to the war. I am getting nervous and he assures me that this is a safe cruising spot. Indeed, I espy others as we walk up to a second floor landing. We kiss and try to keep our voices low as the concrete stairways amplify the tiniest of noises. But with the sounds of the waves, the warm breeze against our skin and the delight that is ignited, we add our own squeals to the night.
Oct 8 Day11 The Adriatic Sea
I take the bus to Split to catch the ferry to Italy. Since I was not expecting anything but a ferry terminal there and I had not done any homework (again), I am surprised that Split is the site of the Diocletian Palace built by the Romans in 400 AD just as the empire was starting to fall apart. Over the next 1500 years, the old town grew up in the remains of the palace. Newer buildings were built incorporating walls, arches, windows until it all morphed into one. New houses have ancient doorways and columns became, design features or held up new roofs. Adaptive reuse at it finest.
The ferry leaves at 9 pm and there is not much to see after we leave the harbor. I share a cabin with a straight young Aussie, who like most travelers from Oz, is on a four- month journey. I am in bed by 10:30pm rocked to a quick sleep.; he slips in from the bar until after 1. When I wake up, Italy is out side my window at 7 am.
Oct 8 Night 12 Bologna
Italian was the second language of my home town in New York. Growing up, I absorbed the gestures, the loudness, the rhythm of the language, the family ties and food even though there isn’t an ounce of Italian in my family. As the ferry closes in on the port of Ancona, the voices in the dining room become louder. It even seems that the boat is rocking more. The Croatian half of the passengers are now overcome by the Italians. After docking we all squeeze through the narrow passages until we rush the deck and make it to land.
I am oddly confident in pretending to speak Italian, even though I am speaking Spanish with an Italian accent and use my hands a lot. People always smile (in a good way) when I try and I find I can get long pretty well. The Ozzie and I make our way to the train station with me asking directions every several blocks. At the station we go our separate ways , he going south to Roma and me north to Bologna.
My decision of the day is to skip the stopover in the micro-country of San Marino, (a mistake I regret to this day in 2020. If I had gone to San Marino, then in January 2020, just before the pandemic, I would have visited my 100th country. So that goal alludes me.) I am tired still and don’t want to take two long bus rides through the mountains. So I continue directly to Bologna.
Bologna is city of arcades, covered walkways attached to buildings. Most are centuries old with ornately decorated ceilings. On the main street where my B&B is located, one can walk for blocks without venturing outside. Apparently there’s place in town where they go for 7 kilometers without a stopping.
The little sightseeing I did prepares me for Venice. I forget how ornate Catholic Churches can be when they were shrines for the richest families There is so much going on in every little chapel, that my senses are in overload. Plus one needs to know so much history, art iconography to understand who is so and what is what. The mosques in Istanbul were much easier appreciate.
With only one night, I miss some of the food highlights (it is the home of tortellini and lasagna), but I do have some good quick pizza (which also reminded me of the Neapolitan pizza of my youth in the Hempstead bus terminal), thick slices with a taste that I remember here today.
In the evening, I meet up with a local architect, following the maze of arcades glowing in the night to his home. Before, I leave, late in the evening, he tops off our time together with a piece of fior da Latta made by the mother. How much more Italian can you get than that?
Oct 9 Day 13 Venice
I drink my first cappuccino ever in Bologna this morning. The B&B sent me off to the neighboring café for breakfast so pastry (I am setting a personal goal to try to taste every type of pastry, I am up to five or is it six already and it is not yet 10) and cappuccino start the day. PS, One only drinks cappuccino in the morning in Italy.
I take the high speed train to Venice. Stepping off the train I am on the Grand Canal. I buy my vaporetto pass to allow me unlimited travel on all of the boat lines in the city and jump on the 51 which takes me to Castello and my hotel. I take pictures of everything even though I don’t know what exactly I am looking at. Several picture taking themes emerge quickly: interesting buildings of which there is no lack; work-a-day boats like the garbage truck boat ; clothes hanging over canals and alleyways; and Italian men ( this one is obvious.)
The Locanda Sant’Anna is located in the Costello area which is where real Venetians live. Very few tourists, quiet streets except for nonnas standing at second floor windows serving a as guardians for their kids, grandchildren and anyone else that needs unasked-for advice at the moment. It is a million miles away from the tourist hell of St. Marco Plaza.
Being unwilling to face that alone and knowing my French friend Gilbert is showing up this evening, I decide to jump on a couple different vaporetti and make my own tour around the city. Vaporetto drivers (captains?) are exactly like San Francisco MUNI drivers but have more fun. They slam into the piers hard, honk their horns at traffic, yell at other boats and generally seem indifferent to the scenery and the hundreds of passengers getting on and off except when they take too much time (although they are always quite tender toward old folks or the disabled.)
Riding around like this, I get to see normal life here – a little girl doing her homework and drawing in a small gondola being oared by her dad and brother; the business man dressed up collecting his wife and son driving the motor boat standing up (no one seems to sit while driving here) on his cell phone the entire time; and the cute young guy steering a large industrial boat with his butt ( I couldn’t figure out how it was being navigated until we passed and I looked back!)
Oct 10 Night 14
Gilbert and I wander the local streets deadending in canals or walls while a very light drizzle falls. Eventually we catch the vaporetto to San Toma and thread our way through narrow streets to the Scuola Grande de San Rocco, suggested to me by my friend Byron before I left. It is an entire building for an old guild/mutual aide/service to the poor/religious society which hired the painter Tintoretto for a lifetime salary of 100 ducats/year to decorate the building. Some 30 years later he pretty much finished up with scores of huge paintings, the largest which must be 5x 12 meters.
He is a painter that extols the human body. He painted the hunkiest Jesuses that you have ever seen with muscles rippling his body even after being tortured and bleeding. Every man and women, angel, god, Satan, cherub and plague victim (he lived during the plagues that killed about a third of Venetians and savaged most of Europe so was this part of virtually everything he painted in some shape or form) are filled with muscular energetic bodies full of life ( even when dying) and showing a hyper naturalistic human like a religious Tom of Finland might do. He worked with light and darkness and since he was not paid by the nobility (the scuola were more middle class), ordinary folk often appeared in the canvases.
It takes a couple of hours just to go through the scuola and paintings. After that we followed the general directions I wrote above. Along the way I begin to cry upon hearing a gondolier sing in a beautiful tenor voice accompanied by an accordion. René was singing along in my mind. Another reminder of that he is gone and I will never hear that wonderful voice again full of joy and enthusiasm for life. I heard it less and less in his last months, tempered by the pain he suffered even when he tried to be so joyous. I will never hear his voice again.
After traveling alone for 12 days, it is is good to have some company to breathe in the magic of Venice, a city where cars do not exist and walking and boats are the transportation systems. Even better in October when the hordes of tourists are gone. I was worried about how to approach this place with so much to see in such a short time. The answer becomes obvious as the day opens to us, pick one fascinating place and absorb as much as possible and then eat, talk, eat some more, walk around a bit, get lost, look at the passersby, stop and eat some pastries, drink multiple expressos, converse some more, roam around some more with a specific point in mind but no clear directions until you get there (or someplace better), take a boat somewhere, eat some more, have a glass of wine, talk and walk back to the hotel recognizing some of the locals along the way, greeting everyone we see with a buena sera; feeling that life is beautiful and never to be wasted no matter what you are doing.
Our evening ends at a local neighborhood bar, where we have a bit of wine with roasted and marinated eggplant with goat cheese on arugula, olives, cod fritters and some bread. A savory end to a sweet (and bittersweet but mainly sweet) day.
Oct 11 Night 15
My favorite Venice souvenir is the priest pin up calendar for 2013, yes, your hottest Roman Catholic priests in clerical garb one for each month.
My second favorite thing is the the computerized woman’s voice that announces the vaporetto stops in English actually says, ”Nexta stoppa is Rialto.”
Oct 12 Day 16
We just got back from, Lido, the site of tons of movies old and new with my friend Lucia, who was a guest at my place in the spring. She shows us around and regales us with stories of growing up on Lido, the movie people who come every year for the film festival and a tells me a horrible secret about the priest calendar that I cannot share.
Given it is my last night, I try to double up on the pastries today. It is difficult to set goals, as you know, so it is important that I work to meet them. We have several each (they can be small you know) in Lido and Gilbert brings one back to the hotel so we won’t starve.
My pseudo Italian is getting passable enough that waiters are confused about in which language to offer the menu. On that ciao, arrivaderci, ciao bello and va bene, because one goodbye is never enough in Italy.
A failure haunts our last night. We had booked tickets to La Fenice, the opera house months before. We practiced how to get there via a vaporetto and walking the confusing streets beforehand. So that evening we confidently leave our hotel, make our way through the twists in turns and show up thirty minutes early to a locked building. Seeing someone inside we banged on the door and he tries to wave us away, so we bang some more until he opens. Exacerbated, he explains the opera began an hour before and was due to end soon. We both are stunned and beg to be let in. He relents since our seats are at the highest level and accessible without crawling over people in the row.
Had we booked Wagner, the first Act might be finishing, but this was a lesser-known Puccini that did not even have an intermission. We try to make the best of it but we both are upset and since I bought the tickets am blaming myself. We don’t talk much on our way back and sulk in our hotel room even thought it is our last night.
Oct 13 Day 17 Lichtenstein
I leave Gilbert in the hotel early, not even waking him up to say goodbye. I watch the fish deliveries being made by canal boat followed by the fruit and vegetable boat. Getting up early is not a vacation thing but it certainly helps to see what the people who live in the neighborhood do since many of these shops are closed by noon. I catch my last vaporetto, as a big cruise ship comes in from Crete guided by two tugs in the narrow passageways to the harbor. From the train station I have my last view of Venice.
Transitions bring excitement about what is next, worry about how it will go, sorrow of leaving and memories that soon will be overridden with the next ones. So it is today watching the flat lands of the coast speed by, stepping out for a minute in Verona where I switch trains thinking about my students who are so into Shakespeare that they would be excited to know that I was in the real place. The train climbs passing villages and fields of grapes. We enter the Tyrolean Alps at Brenneno. The empty train fills with German speaking passengers and all of the signs switch to German and Italian. Up we climb until the mountain pass at the Austrian border, where we begin to descend. A short time later we are in Innsbruck where I have a short layover.
I take a local train that follows broad valleys where they exist or clings to high ridges with small Alpine villages below. We move quickly until we get to a section where there are turns and tunnels and snake along at 20mph. We pass through a valley with shear mountains on one side with waterfalls and streams poring down at least a thousand feet to the river below. The sun breaks through the clouds and multiple layers of rays crossed from one end of the valley to another-completely unphotographable yet completely memorable moment.
I receive a text from Gilbert asking why I did not wake him. I don’t seem to have a real answer except for being lost in my own blame and shame, having little to do with him. It took months for us to eventually talk about our reactions that evening.
The train reaches another valley and we are at Feldkich, Austria where I get off and take the local bus to my final destination-Lichtenstein.
In Mrs. Gambino’s 5th grade class ( I told you I lived in a Italian immigrant town growing up, my first grade teacher was Miss Brugnolotti), we had to make dioramas of a European country. Italy and Poland were the first choices and immediately grabbed up since at least half of my classmates had these ethnic backgrounds. As the Soviet Union was one country and wasn’t considered part of Europe at that time, the rest of the Uniondale Eastern European diaspora like me had to chose different countries. The big names ones like Spain, England, France all went quickly. By the time it was my turn, Liechtenstein seemed the best bet and since my teacher knew nothing about the place, I thought how can I go wrong. Even better, the Encyclopedia Britannica (the Google of the day) only had about two paragraphs on this micro-principality. They were big on stamps and had some cows and mountains. So I arrive by bus and get off at Eschen Post, where, of course, I climb 140 stairs to a small pedestrian street (so far only Venice has provided a break from stair climbing to my hotels on this trip) and arrive at my Gasthaus in the mountains while the sounds of cow bells ring below me. Once again, 5th grade prepared me for reality.
Speaking of 5th grade, The Liechtenstein bus system, small as it is, has excellent signage in the bus on screens so you know each by stop as it comes up. But to be cute, the voice they use to announce the stops is a little kids voice. However, the guest folio in my room is the 2012-13 Liechtenstein Guide which is over 100 pages long. So I apparently I could do a bigger diorama this time around and prominently placed in it would be the ladybug chocolate candy that is artfully arranged on my bed in the midst (I kid you not) of my bedding and pillows folded to represent the mountains and valley. A diorama in my own room…making me feel at home.
Oct 15 Day 18 Berlin
A long train ride day…it has been ten hours already with about two to go. Morning in Liechtenstein is quiet and lovely. Breakfast with muesli and yoghurt just the way I do at home. By light of day I can see the valley that comprises most of the country- the mountains to one side are Switzerland and the other side Austria. The capital Vaduz is just over a ridge. The cows with their clanking bells are just below us, in the neighbor’s yard/field. I wonder if the cows get used to the noise all of the time and whether they recognize each others bells. They certainly can’t sneak up on each other.
I did not have a chance to meet any Liechtensteiner men, since I was not in the capital, a few miles away. I did chat with a man online, who was away but invited me to come back again. Apparently he is from an old noble family with a last name that ended in von with another name followed by another von and name. I picture a diorama with two men cavorting in a run-down castle.
I reverse my travel from yesterday and am dropped off back in Austria at the train station with 6 minutes to get on my first train. I have three trains today and my last train to Berlin will be for 7.5 hours even though we can travel in places at 150mph.
Besides my friend Michael in Berlin with whom I will stay, I expect to see two of René’s oldest friends. East Germany and Berlin was the first foreign country/city that he travelled to when he was living in Cuba. He roamed the city day and night barely sleeping, taking in every sight, every museum and every man he could. He dared to visit the Spanish Embassy to inquire about exile, but was not allowed in. When his plane home stopped in Spain for refueling, his plan was to jump the gate and go into exile. However the Cubans had been watching him when he went to the Embassy, he was not allowed to disembark in Madrid with the others.
He loved Berlin, loved talking German and took me all over the place when we were here together. Singing the tunes from Cabaret, Lilli Marlene, My Yiddisher Mama, classical lieder, drinking songs and love songs would keep him going for hours.
I have been here alone myself before also but this time is already clouded with his memories and stories.
Oct 15 Day 19
Michael and I are in the Neues Museum which had been bombed in WWII and left abandoned by the DDR government (one of the museum guards mentioned that as a kid he lived nearby and played in the ruins.) David Chipperfield, the British architect, devised the perfect plans for an ancient history museum in ruins, leave as much of the original glory of the building as possible while adding modern touches where needed and don’t try to hide the patchwork. The understated renovation works beautifully. While you are looking at Egyptian relics that are pieced together again, the wall behind you is also composed of faded painted stucco, bricks and new concrete.
The highlight of the collection is the the bust of Nefertiti, an object René always talked about. It had been in a different West Berlin museum in the old days and Michael told me that it took three weeks to move this small statute across the city, In her new home, she has the room to herself. René’s mother taught ancient history in a high school in Havana and he grew up dreaming of Egypt, Rome and Greece and so wanted to visit these places but never did. The bust is small and yet stunning; she wears her 3000 years well, the colors are still intact and her gaze is penetrating and distant at the same time. I feel René in me as I behold her.
As we leave, Michael suggests that we walk along the Unter den Linden, the main boulevard of the former East Berlin. When René and I had walked down that street, he was so excited to show me everything. With that memory and the Gaze of Nefertiti still with me, I burst out crying right on the street. As Michael walks ahead, I sob as I had not in a month, so much so that a policewoman across the street starts to come over until I move again. Feeling my loss of companionship and love is heavy in the moment. My heart aches and I ask the unanswered question that always comes up, why? Why me? Why did you die? Why then? Why, why why? My tears well up and the sounds of my cries .
It is now dark and the Festival of Light begins, an annual event of specially designed light shows. The Dom utilizes the building shape to transform it into a ski hill and chalet; , the iconic landmark of the East, the television tower, had flowers growing up the long narrow tower which turned into droplets of water falling down; the Brandenburg Gate became an apartment building where through the windows you could see people dancing, playing ball or just moving about while birds, balloons and paper airplanes flew by; and the hotel nearby would fold in on itself and the windows would twirl around like a Rubik’s cube.
It is getting cold and for the first time my trip I pull out my flannel shirt and my leather jacket and my new Italian scarf . At the end of our adventure, we do what any modern Berliner or world citizen does , we buy some Tom Yum Gai take-out to warm ourselves up when got home exhausted.
Oct 16 Day 20
I didn’t sleep very well last night thinking about René and his history. Michael as well as others have encouraged me to write about him and although I am resisting it, this idea stuck in my head all night. I finally get up a wrote some notes in case I decide at some point to follow through with this.
I meet with his old friends Frank and Hasso for lunch in an inexpensive and faded German pensioner café, where I was the youngest client. Frank, a former actor, first met René in East Berlin in 1979. They quiz me on events of his last year. and share memories. It is good to talk with people who knew him well. I met them in the Canary Islands one year and Frank reminded me of the crazy road trip that we took through the middle of the island driving through the mountains on a road without guardrails.
In the afternoon, I visit Kristin and Christian in Potsdam, which had been in the DDR just outside of West Berlin. They had been guests at my place in SF in February and left early in the morning on the day René died. They might have been the last people who saw him alive. We went to Belvedere which has an old garden with two lookout towers. East Germans were not allowed there because they could easily see West Berlin in the distance. Apparently this glimpse was deemed too alluring and dangerous for ordinary people. Close by was the Potsdam bridge where spies were traded by the Soviets and the West during the cold war. All of this seems to be ancient history as buildings are being restored and new ones built.
It is a sunny but cool day as we walk around, a nice respite from the city. We say goodbye and I jump on the train back, feeling the sadness that continues to accompany me here.
Oct 17 Day 21
A visit to the Reichstag requires an on-line booking and three separate and distinct emails confirming that you confirmed and the facts are correct so you can enter them in a different website which generates the final email declaring on official looking stationary that you have a day and to see the dome–all of which requires me to explain the concept of anal retentiveness to Michael this morning.
Well when the appointed time came, my name was not on the list. I carefully explain all the steps I took this morning, the three emails etc. I am passed to a second, then third person who is bewildered about what happened. because this simply does not happen with their systems. I attempt to open the emails on my cheap phone, but the bandwidth was low. However proof of three emails and an earnest face convinces the fourth person who had now arrived to let me in.
Sweet tourist victory! About 20 minutes later, I look at my phone for something and discover the the android creature had actually opened my email attachment (as an aside, did I mentioned last week the the official Italian agency is still call Telegraph and Post) and the date of my reservation was indeed two days away (but I got the time of day right.) So with the knowledge that at any minute I might be found out, I nonchalantly carry on with my visit to Norman Fischer’s modern dome added to the Reichstag. A clear glass dome in a metal framework with a ramp on the inside which brings you to the top. I did notice that my fear of heights kicking in again although this time no one was encouraging me to plunge anywhere and if I had I would have plunged in the parliamentary hall partially visible though the base of the dome symbolizing the transparency of the German political process.
Not plunging, I continue to the top, which has a panoramic view of he city. The trees in the Tiergarten are starting to change and the city appears quiet and peaceful. Later I walk through the Tiergarten remembering that during WWII, like so many places it was bombed and the remaining trees were cut down for firewood.
This theme of change and renewal is so alive in Berlin as it tries recognize its pasts (there are so many of them) and incorporate them into its futures. Something I am attentive to with René with me every second here.
Oct 18 Night 22 Hannover
I get up at 6:30 am and hop on Michael’s bike and head over to the AkazienZendo Berlin which was started by Bernd Bender who lived at the SF Zen Center for 15 years. The streets are quiet as the sun begins to rise. It is still dark as I manage the bike lanes that swerve on and off sidewalks and streets. The zendo is up five flights and the door is locked but I remember that I was told early on at SFZC that if you are late not to worry just enter. I ring the bell and a few minutes later Bernd answers. I recognize him although I don’t think we had ever talked. It’s a curious thing about silent meditation, that you can be sitting zazen with someone , sometimes for an entire day, but you never talk to them. So, yes, Bernd and I had been in the zendo together many times by did not each other personally until this morning.
Sitting with a group is a different than meditating alone as I have been doing most mornings. The quiet and focus for me is usually deeper and today is no exception, the rhythms of breathing and hearing the bell, sitting then walking meditation to be followed by more sitting are all familiar and the exact place it was happening, San Francisco or Berlin did not matter. As my mind quiets, I find that my thoughts about René are softer and more tender.
Michael and I spend the morning, eating breakfast, attending to his wonderful garden on his roof top terrace. Finally it is time to say goodbye and catch the train for my quick ride to Hannover.
This evening I have dinner in the self-proclaimed beautiful city of Hannover (kind of like personal ads where people describe themselves as hot or handsome, can they really know that?), more importantly have dinner with some of Hannover’s most beautiful men, which they do not self describe themselves as, which allows me to do so. My friend Mathias who also fits this description meets me at the train station before he has to take off on a business trip and then passes me over to Norbert my friend now of 12 years . We later go to a very beautiful restaurant on the lake where I meet some of the other friends of his.
Oct 19 Night 23 Amsterdam
The Netherlands has a reputation of being laid back, but even I am taken by surprise by the reclining cows. Just minutes after the train entered Holland, and the conductor bids us welcome in his guttural Dutch, (my guide book represents this by writing hhhhhouda- for Gouda and fan hhhhhhock- for van Gogh), I see my first field of laying cows, whole herds of them lying in the fields, sometimes on their sides bust mostly on their haunches. I don’t think that the earnest bell-clanging Liechtenstiener cows can do this maneuver. Many are reclining and eating, others appear to be just enjoying the welcome warm weather. Later I even see a few reclining horses and sheep.
Amsterdam is another canal city but could not be more different than Venice. It is a lot quieter, the canals are much less active than Venice, and the buildings are more sturdy and less ornamental. Oh yes, another difference, while I am taking a picture of a house across the canal which had a façade at a very distinct angle from it neighbors indicating a sinking problem, when a scantily attired woman, opens her red window to politely remind me not to take pictures of her. I let her know politely that as a gay man I am more interested in the architecture than the working women. She laughs and I move on.
Continuing another theme of this trip, my hotel is not only four stories up with no elevator but has the steepest series of steps I have experienced in a building. Serious climbing with no nets for protection. I finally understand what cliff jumping episode was about, preparing me to get to my room every day. It’s a quaint old place convenient to the center and is only 51 steps up.
I unpack, find a local restaurant and end the meal with a strong expresso to keep me going as I plunge into the gay night life. I took a disco nap earlier and my hotel provides breakfast until 10:30 am (my comparison point is Liechtenstein, where breakfast was from 6:00-830 am.)
Oct 20 Day 24
I wake up at 10:00 this morning. This is actually part of my body-time zone readjustment process as I get prepared to return to SF in a few days. In the days prior to long-distance travel, I try to start to move my body clock around by a couple of hours. If that means I have to stay up much later and have some fun, I am willing to sacrifice. I discover that the rest of the hotel must be trying to readjust themselves because the breakfast room is packed.
Upon the suggestion of a Dutch friend, I go to the recently opened film museum, called EYE, which juts out across the harbor. At the train station I pass by a bicycle parking ramp, three floors with what must have been a thousand bikes. Hard to comprehend, what SF might be like if that many of us rode bikes. There was a second bike lot with a posted maximum of 438 ( I love the precision) bicycles,
After a short ferry ride, I walk over to EYE, a magnificent building that just opened in the spring. It looks like a giant shark rising our of the water. Up close it is no less impressive. The main atrium is composed of wood and glass with non-perpendicular walls on some sides. And in shades of my friend Lizz Roman who choreographs site specific dances, s a group of eight dancers slidies down banisters, runs up stairs and bounces off slated walls.
The main exhibit is a show of “three multi-cultural ‘expanded cinema’ filmmakers as coined by Youngblood but not in the formalist Greenbergion framework” ( I love reading the catalogue!) The one I like the best is shown on seven screens from left to right with a different view in each one but shot simultaneously although from different angles. You can watch a car go from one screen to another and its appearance may be delayed or come in another direction depending on the camera angle. The film by Yang Funding was atmospheric, moody and the characters never spoke or interacted. There are clearly stories within stories at least in my mind.
One video was cleverly put into a viewing binocular, the type that you use to look across a port or city to see the sights, but instead of seeing the sights, you see a video that says, “People make up stories and then call these stories their life.” A zen statement that I have not forgotten since. No matter how powerful our experiences are, transformed into stories, we start to forget them almost immediately. Already I can’t remember how to count to ten in Turkish.
Full of images, I am hungry and eat in the museum café facing the port. My only disappointment is I did not see homage to the most memorable Dutch film, “Yes, Sister, No, Sister”, sister here meaning nurse–a musical about…well it is complicated but find it in Netflix and order it, you will not be disappointed and you will learn some Dutch along the way. I can guarantee that it is not Greenbergion in any way but it counts for me as expanded something or not cinema.
After this exposition of high and low film culture, I am off for my second evening of readjustment. A late night with a couple who graciously invite me over for the evening. Walking home at 3:00 am was also a theme of René’s time in Berlin. I am learning how that feels.
Oct 21 Day 25
The Wester Kerk morning carillon a few blocks away rings every 30 minutes, the same bells that Anne Frank heard everyday. It plays various tunes including one that resembles the Star Wars theme. I suspect it is something else, although a city that has a huge concrete arch with the Latin words “homo sapiens non urinat in ventum” –people don’t pee into the wind–could have a church were Rembrandt is buried also play Star Wars.
It is occasionally drizzly this morning so I take a little tour by jumping into trams. They are really quite slow compared to the buses and often one can walk faster. But I keep dry mostly-I do have to wait awhile for each and unlike Venice with its on-time to the minute vaporettos, the buses and trams in this country that prides itself on modernity seem to have no relationship to the printed schedule on the stops.
I roam the streets, find the flower bulb market where they also sell marijuana seeds You may have noticed that I have not spoken of the famous coffeeshops, not out of ignoring them, but just finding them a slightly different version of the pot dispensaries in CA-basically no big deal in city life. My favorite ad for the marijuana museum, yes there is one, has a picture of four US presidents and asks which did not smoke pot, Washington, Jefferson, Clinton and Obama-the answer which you will find at the museum apparently is that they all did.
Later I go north of the harbor in a newer part of town, where I visited a deaf friend. I did a quick study Dutch sign language on the web to be able sign a few words (from a German deaf visitor I discovered that most countries have their own sign languages and that deaf folks Iike the rest of us have to learn a different language for each country.) We both speak the same language of gay men’s bodies and spend a rainy afternoon in bed.
On the way back, I stop at St. Nicholas Church for evening song vespers in Latin. Nothing about urinat, just magnificat. After a spiritual high, I eat my first chocolate coated waffle. The locals believe that if you are high from one of the coffeehouses, eating lots of sugar will bring you back down. Not sure about that one and since any high I had was from the earlier sex and vespers, a couple blocks later where a street carnival is going on with throw-up inducing rides, I buy a greasy olliebollen delicious deep fried chucks of dough covered with powered sugar. People, don’t eat powdered sugar in the wind is the sign I will erect.
Night 25 Addendum
Olliebollen like any other greasy cultural entity should never be consumed in the evening, morning or afternoon with any other food object. 3:30 a.m. and my stomach is doing flip-flops.
Oct 22. Day 26 San Francisco
Home again. The olliebollen trauma lasted all night and for a good part of my trip home. I had used the last of my miles on this trip and booked business class, which means I can stretch out in the bed-seat and sleep as much as I can manage as my stomach is still turning over.
As we get closer to SF, I watch the interchanges between the clouds and the golden hills as the sun sets. The colors are straight out of Maxfield Parrish tonight with yellowish-golden clouds over the brown hills and the green water of the Bay. No matter where I go, I find coming home to the Bay Area has its own unique beauty.
A quick taxi ride and I in my house. In the first 45 minutes, I take a shower, unpack my bag, glad to be free of it and delighted by the concept of wearing different clothes again, and look at mail. I walk around the house, exploring it like it is the next place on my travels, instead of the last place; exploring what part of René has gone and what part remains to greet me.
Without any set plans or an outline, seven days later I begin to write what will become The Troubleseeker, a novel based on René’s life. And six years later, my second novel emerges incorporating many of the images and experiences from Istanbul, Dubrovnik and Venice.