Monday, May 31, 2010

Bleibenblurb II

Over the weekend I watched a Dr Who episode where the Doctor and his assistant are living in 2 worlds, both of which feel very real. They have to choose which one is real and which is the dream. If they die in the dream, they wake up in the real world, but if they die in the real world then they just "die, stupid."
Basically, their lives are at stake.

This episode got me thinking about the nature of travelling and the life narrative. Normally, when tourists travel to another country, they stitch their journey-chapter into their narrative; when they return, there will be others who remember the holiday and what was seen and done. Thus the holiday, though in another place, is easily recogniseable as part of the tourist's narrative.

Yet when I travel, to Berlin, to Paris, I do not travel with others from home, who will remember. When I return to London, there are none there who know my life in those other cities, no collective memory of that time, and so it feels as though I am switching lives, walking between worlds. There will be hardly any evidence, save perhaps the inches of dust rolling up in my room, to show that I have been anywhere else at all. I have built up new lives in these other places; made new friends; told new jokes and anecdotes; stocked new kitchen cupboards; formed new favourites; frequented new cafes, bakeries, clubs, cinemas, bookshops.

When Proust wrote of selves proliferating, he was referring to one individual whose various selves were divided by time and age: an older Marcel was able to write down younger Marcel's impressions. Yet for modern travellers, who can reach half way around the world in a number of hours, the multiplicity of selves results from a dislocation, not in time, but in space.
So my sejourn here in Europe is not just a continuation of the narrative; it is a fragment. It is a different life in a different world. I have barely aged between being in Paris and Berlin, yet these are two existences in which I, the "I", is a very different being, in which my worlds are galaxies apart. Even the plane journey felt like a Tardis trip. Viewed through the telescope of time, in hindsight, these two worlds will once again be fragments; anomalies; dreams. They feel so real now but will seem light years away when I go back* - sleepsung, sandy-eyed, awaking from that familiarly elusive Proustian dream - when I return to the milky, familiar cosmos of life in London.

* back in space but forwards in time.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Berlin: a narrative?
In general, Western thought has tended to be either linear or cyclical. Life and history are viewed as cyclical, as people are born, live, die. Individual existences, in contrast, tend to be perceived as linear. When people think of their lives, they remember them as narratives with cause and effect, not as discrete days or random events.

And so, to be suddenly uprooted, teleported from London to Berlin, leaves me longing to stitch up my lives again, into one whole. The Easyjet flight really did feel like a Tardis trip. Ditching my baggage at the checkout, I closed my eyes and woke up with a jolt at Schoenefeld airport, confused and disoriented, baggage reappearing by my side some minutes later. Who am I? Where am I? In another life, in another world...

It is so difficult to assess where I'm at, here in this sparkly Berlin bubble. I'm preoccupied with the floating sensation that this latest journey has lent my life. This Berlin bubble, from which I can only dimly see back out into my London life, is deceptive indeed. Where does it begin and end?

It's hard to take stock of 'my life' from here. For this is hardly a smooth continuation of the narrative. Displaced from home, from family and friends, language and location, I am left with some strange perception of myself as a hologram, flickering from world to world, never quite permanent enough to take shape. Not fully fledged. I can be whoever I want to be, I can reform and reshape, and yet there's something tying the boundaries of my self to my soul, some digging edge of time warning me not to change too much, for soon I'll have to go home, and who knows how I'll do when I'm there?

Building a life in this city takes time, and forging friendly terms with the city very much involves starting from scratch. Perhaps that's why my life here feels like an escape - it's discrete, it doesn't build on my London existence, which I am more than a little reluctant to return to.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Russian Churches in Paris: Rue Daru, and Saint Serge

The Orthodox church in Rue Daru shone. I had stepped into most severe shimmering dreams of thick dark Russian eyebrows furrowed, set in golden clouds of incense and hundreds of people clambering, candles that each man woman and child clutched, that caught strands of curly hair of the person in front, smouldered. It was a miracle that no-one had a flaming wig of straw for hair.

The Saint Serge Russian Orthodox church is different to rich Rue Daru- wooden, cheaper and brighter. What they couldn't afford in gold, they discovered in colours. Bright, classical, Eastern, Byzantine, I don't know. I felt like Raphael stumbling upon the antiquaries shop in La Peau de Chagrin (Balzac). Hidden among the coloured paints and fake gold there was eternal life - if only I could find it among the dusty trinkets.

The Saint Serge church is very much like a mad old Russian woman's living room. Golden crudely painted icons, wooden boxes piled into corners, an altar area that looks like an open wardrobe with a granfather clock - chaotic, fascinating, touching. The smell of stale wood, of perfume, of incense, of age, of signs of life and care too. There was a bookshelf, fresh flowers, a splodgy Easter cake in front of the altar.

The Russian people never forgot where their old loyalties lay during Communism, and when the Soviet bloc fell, the people went straight back to the church services. It's a mindset - even Communism, which was supposed to be based around human community, required the Russian people to pay (lip) service, to pledge loyalty. They have moved from one kind of service to another, and then back again. Will they ever be free from false gods?