Saturday, 28 January 2012

A Trip to Some of Europe's Oldest Cities

If my trip to London and Amsterdam taught me anything, it’s that perhaps I’m not as nonchalant as I thought. I think of myself as hardworking when it comes to academia and my career, but rather chill when it comes to everything else. But on my first trans-Atlantic trip by myself, I learned that in fact, I tend to apply the same obsessive care to travel as I once did to my schoolwork.

After studying British history and literature for four years—and feeling exceptionally excited about all the related sightseeing London has to offer—I arrived there with a detailed itinerary as well as a map of Central London, clearly marked with all my favored destinations. My first mistake, however, was assuming that after a 7-hour overnight flight, I would be in any mood for sightseeing. So, my first day, which originally included a walking tour of the West End, a visit to the National Gallery, and an Ani DeFranco concert, became a short walk in Hyde Park (which, was lovely nonetheless) followed by dinner with a college friend studying in London, and much-needed rest shortly thereafter.

The next day, however, I began to tackle the city the way I wanted to. With Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in mind and my trusty map of London in hand, I set off for Bloomsbury, former home to the intellectuals of “The Bloomsbury Group,” and current home to the massive British Museum. Later that day, I took the tube—which is infinitely more user-friendly than the New York Subway—over to Liverpool Street, where I met up with Tyler, the friend who I was staying with, to go to Spitalfield’s Market and to experience East London—the less posh, but more flavorful, side of the city.
Me and Tyler in Spitalfield's Market

The next day brought about my first, but certainly not my last, “Oh my God” moment of the trip. After stepping out of the tube at Westminster station, I found myself face to face with Big Ben and the Parliament building. Whether it was the inevitable excitement of seeing postcard London come to life, or similarly, my studies finally jumping of the page, I couldn’t help but mouth those words upon stepping onto the busy street in front of the building. Five minutes later, I was standing inside Westminster Abbey experiencing several more of these moments as I stood next to the tombs of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, and Mary, and even more interesting to me, Chaucer, Dickens, and Hardy.

Friday morning, we awoke at 4 am to get to our 7 am flight to Amsterdam. From the rocky landing on the 45-minute Easyjet flight (the trip consisted mostly of take-off and landing), to getting on the wrong train from the airport (it wasn’t easy to navigate the Dutch self-service kiosks), it was 2 pm by the time we finally reached the hostel in the city center. (Our blunder did at least give us the opportunity to see the Dutch countryside—with all its windmills and quaint perfection—immortalized in the museums housing the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh). When we arrived in our room, we were immediately taken aback by how the weather had barely changed from outside to inside. We quickly found the culprit in a middle-aged shirtless man sleeping next to a wide-open window in the bottom bunk at the far end of the room. But since our exhaustion outweighed our shivers, we decided to bury ourselves in the blankets provided and take a brief nap before touring. Once again, my perfectly planned itinerary went to shit as the day soon turned to evening. Through sleepy ramblings, my friends assured me that
one day (Saturday) would be more than enough to see Amsterdam.

When we finally emerged to truly see Amsterdam the next day, we found ourselves in the middle of a storybook world—a world where everything is clean and colorful, and all the people are eight-feet tall and blonde. That day brought about several “Oh my God” moments—this time to my friends and not just to myself—as we walked around one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen: the old , narrow houses along the canals, the adorable vintage stores, the upright bicycles everywhere you turn. We visited medieval churches, saw prostitutes behind glass windows (even that, somehow, managed to fit into the city’s quaintness), rode a cruise along the canals, visited Rembrandt’s house, and ate delicious Dutch cheese, bread, and coffee in an outdoor market along the water.

Me and Preanka on the canal cruise.

But the fairytale quickly soured upon my visit to the Anne Frank House Museum. Since it was open until 9 pm on Saturdays, we decided, perhaps unwisely, to make that our final stop of the day. Having grandparents who are Holocaust survivors (and having played Anne Frank in a school play), the house where Anne and her family hid before the Nazis found them, was a crucial part of my desire to visit Amsterdam.

Though I’ve been somewhat numbed to the tragic realities of the Holocaust over the course of my life, this touched me in a newly profound way. It was the combination of being in that house—which preserves an eerie silence—and within that city, which retains the very appearance it had sixty years ago, that left me with a strange sensation. The houses along the canals are almost unbelievably beautiful, but they are also the same homes that housed people who went about their lives while the people in the Annex experienced a daily fear that most of us cannot fathom; the same homes in front of which Germans and Dutchmen alike marched to a flag of the Nazi party.

In America, it’s easier to pretend that the Holocaust was a blip on the radar of modern Western history, and that the past is, well, the past. But being in a place that maintains its old-world charm, but which also retains relics of a life and a people so brutally placed in the past, is undeniably disturbing. There are plaques throughout the city acknowledging the bustling Jewish life that once was, but like all commemorative plaques, are ultimately impotent in their ability to change, or even apologize for what passed.

Back in London by Sunday night, I got right back to my schedule as I went to the changing of the guards ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Monday morning. The changing of the guards, and England more generally, is yet another example of Europe’s bizarre paradoxes. On the one hand, it’s a modern, diverse metropolis, but on the other, it’s home to a complex—and, in fact, still ongoing—history of royalty and class that is on display in so many different ways. Whether it’s memorabilia of the wedding of William and Kate, or the hammering in of the royal families in the museums, it’s a strange aspect of England to make sense of. At the Tower of London, for example, you don’t just see the towers where the Tudors sent their enemies five-hundred years ago, but you also see the current queen’s coronation robes and jewel-encrusted crowns. This dichotomy was also at work in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the political activists “occupying” London were camping out, by no coincidence of course, in front of the 17th -century cathedral that housed the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, as well as the golden jubilee of the queen.
Occupiers in front of St. Paul's Cathedral

Being an outsider in these European centers at least allowed me to be one thing that I never am in New York—an unabashed tourist: to pull out my map when I want to, to ask directions when I need to, and to walk for the sake of walking, and not for the sake of getting somewhere. That’s a lesson I know will be useful on the road trip: to be able to be a tourist even in my own country, and to get to learn the place as only a tourist can.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Jewish Mountains, American Mountains

I am home now, one week returned from Israel, a land varyingly described by the people whom my Birthright group heard from—farmers, Kabbalistic painters, tour guides, political and religious salesmen—as either our modern or our ancestral homeland. Certainly, one of the two.

However immune to salesmanship I like to consider myself, I caught the bug too. Hiking through a canyon in the Galilee, I began to consider that the surprisingly temperate, hilly terrain I was passing through was not the familiar Ramapo mountains of North Jersey, where I was born, nor the scattered volcanic rumps of the Montérégie in southern Quebec, nor the snowy fells of the English Lakes, which I explored two years ago. I was not hiking in England, or Canada, or America. Those mountains I was hiking through were not just ordinary goyische mountains. These, I reminded myself, are Jewish mountains.
 Hiking in Nahal Amud, a canyon in the Upper Galilee, northern Israel.

I hardly need anyone to point out the many problems with that statement, starting with the nearly two thousand years during which those mountains were ruled by Ottoman sultans or Christian crusaders, among others. To those we might add the hundreds of millions of years (just guessing here) before God sent Abraham to Canaan, during which, if asked, the Galilean mountains in question would surely not have claimed membership with the Tribe, nor, for that matter, any monotheistic beliefs at all. The mountains themselves are the result of—what else?—eternal conflict between the African and Arabian continental plates. Their loyalties to the Jewish nation are implicit at best. My characterization of them as Jewish was just a projection, albeit a very comforting, and thus convincing, one.

Just as, in the weeks before we left, I had smugly considered the 12-day Birthright trip the price that had to be paid so I could explore Israel afterward, alone, during my week-long extension, so too had I thought of the entire trip to Israel as one more hurdle standing between me and the truly exciting thing on the horizon—a nearly four-month road trip with Brahna across the U.S. and Canada. With Israel coming first, and, even more pressingly, getting through my last exams at McGill and saying goodbye to Montreal, I couldn’t always conceive of the U.S. adventure as anything beyond a fun idea to think about and pretend to plan for. “Mountains beyond mountains,” I told her on the phone sometime last fall.

Both of my assumptions about the Israel trip proved false. As the tour bus full of the rest of my Birthright group pulled away from our Jerusalem hotel on our last morning together, I donned my sunglasses, heaved up my two backpacks, and walked towards the rising sun, towards the Old City. I felt cool, independent. And I immediately got lost. Throughout Birthright, on all the extra-curricular adventures my friends—some new, some very old— and I had gone on, we simply trusted our own and one another’s instincts, and never once got lost. When those instincts led us to a grapefruit patch, or to a secluded beach at the Sea of Galilee, or through the Muslim Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and back to the Jewish Quarter in time for roll call, it seemed like a sign. Ordinarily a pretty skilled navigator, I saw another sign in my getting lost just a few minutes after the donning of the shades. I felt pretty low that whole first day of my extension.

And, what’s more, Israel itself proved to be anything but a lame opening act you might as well catch before the big show. Though I went in with my skeptical radar turned on high, I found myself, in the privacy of my own thoughts, more or less formulating similar observations and exclamations to those you would find—and I would certainly mock—on any Birthright brochure: “2,000 years of exile!” “It’s, like, my real home! Home, that’s a funny word. HOME!” I felt like Alexander Portnoy, sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv:

Under me the sand is warm: Jewish sand. I buy a Jewish ice cream from a Jewish vendor. “Isn’t this something?” I say to myself. “A Jewish country!”

The trip to Israel disrupted my march to the U.S. trip, but perhaps in a different way than, before leaving, I had thought it would. It led me to quietly question the whole premise of our upcoming road trip. Whose country, exactly, are we setting out to explore? 

Big Bend National Park in south Texas. This photo is my computer background right now.

I don’t have a good answer for this yet. I can say, for sure, that I am not about to make aliyah anytime soon. I felt something for the land in Israel, but there remains something disturbing to me in the thought that you can drive from the top of Israel to the bottom in five hourssomething unfulfilling. But that is a projection, too. We ask the land to reflect our own beliefs, needs, and dreams. America's advantage remains, for me as for so many others past, the unfathomable vastness of its land.