Sunday 27 September 2015
I feel less than certain about everything.
I feel like I am in a miasma in the middle of my mid-life gap year. I’m worrying that the year will be a series of experiences and nothing more, that I’ll return to Sydney and pick up my life where I left it – in a confused and ill-directed place and edging ever closer to 50. I want, and expect, this journey to change me and to clarify for me what should come next, but I also think these things must come organically, that I can’t force them. But what if in waiting for them to happen organically they simply don’t happen?
But, for now, I have another day in Zurich.
I’ve shaken off my funk with one last film at the Zurich Film Festival, the documentary Brecia about two Polish brothers who were exiled to Siberia as children and finally move back home in their 90s. It reminds me that my miasma is a privilege and that, with luck, I really am in the middle of my life.
While walking along Lake Zurich, I realise that I’m still six weeks shy of midway through my journey, that is if I get back to Sydney on 25 April. In both this journey and my life I think I’ve been feeling closer to the end than to the middle.
I pass a busker playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – well, part of Winter – on an accordion. He is showing mad skills. I am, generally, not a fan of the accordion, so much so that there is something of a running joke about my feelings about it with a certain friend. But this was crazy good.
Back at the flat I dine on snacks having failed to get to the supermarket yesterday and they are all closed on Sunday, of course. Esther’s boyfriend Oliver comes around before she gets home from her weekend mountain biking trip. We have a bit of a chat – which is nice – about my trip and plans after, the nature of these things and my expectations.
For the first time I say, to a stranger, ‘and I want to write a book’ without flinching or apology, to which he simply nods.
I’m thinking again of what Christoph Waltz said at the festival conference, which someone Tweeted yesterday, that he’d given up his fantasies of Hollywood before being cast in Inglorious Basterds. Perhaps part of giving up my fantasies is to stop thinking of my aspirations as fantasies. Tell people I am a writer. Write. See what happens.
Once Esther arrives I retreat to my room to prepare for an early departure, but I have trouble sleeping, drifting in and out. My mind remains sort of agitated, I guess you could say. I’m in a transition zone of the trip and somehow Zurich, my time here, feels like maybe a small crucible along the road. That’s probably too strong of a word, but my time here has been something, something important to the journey.
In my wakeful moments I try to pull it all apart and put it back together in a meaningful way. Do I dedicate myself to Learning German with Christoph Waltz as some sort of core thing in The Project of My Life? I mean, really, the Learning German part – will that prove a worthwhile use of my time and money? What will I do with German language skills beyond the project of Learning German with Christoph Waltz? How important is meeting Christoph, telling him my story? Is that an unnecessary fantasy and, if it is, which it might be – does the project of Learning German with Christoph Waltz remain valid? Worthwhile? Maybe it even improves it, if he is more a symbol than a goal?
Here’s what I fear – and it’s not the challenge of finding a publisher or facing rejections, per se, it’s facing the question of whether I am one of those people who will plug on anyway, regardless of the challenges. Or if I’ll give up. I guess that’s my fear, that I’ll give up.
Such are the thoughts that keep me awake on my last night in Zurich.
Monday 28 September 2015
My post-riding travels begin with me dragging my bicycle through the German train system. Today I am, in part, retracing some of my riding route. I am heading to Mainz and the train parallels the Rhine – it is out of sight, but I can see the mountains on the French side of the river, the same ones I saw as I rode to Zurich last week.
Martin meets me at the Mainz train station – he is the brother of my friend Peter and has graciously offered to host me for the night. He is, it turns out, also planning a long ride for himself. He’s got the bicycle but hasn’t settled on a departure date yet.
We make a pit stop at his place, so I can drop off my bicycle and gear. He has a lovely flat on a leafy street just uphill from the city centre. And then we head out for a walk.
As we walk he tells me a little Mainz history – founded by the Romans, and later a seat of the Holy Roman Empire for 1000 years, long a walled fort – but ill defended so it fell often to the French and even the Swedes, apparently, in the 1600s. It was home of Germany’s first republic – in the late 1700s. Then, most recently, it was bombed to smithereens at the end of World War II.
As we cross the central plaza of town, we spot kiosks selling Federweißer – a regional, seasonal, speciality – a very sweet, new wine, still fermenting – if you have two, Martin said, you’ll end up pretty buzzed as it keeps fermenting in your stomach. It’s served with an onion cake – and the two do go well together. The other food on offer is schmatlz mit brot (which is lard on bread). I explained how schmaltz is used as a Yiddish word – both in the same way for animal fat but also, in the Jewish-American vernacular to describe something as cheesy or corny – something excessively sentimental.
We speak, some, of Jews and Nazis and Germany – in a good and frank, but not too probing, way. After all, we have just met. But these are the sort of conversations I hope to have, I’d like to have, especially with Germans.
With new wine still fermenting in our bellies we continue our tour of the reconstructed Mainz – Martin tells me there is a word for these sorts of fake, reconstructed old-towns. It incorporates the word for cardboard, but I don’t quite catch it.
It’s pretty though – the old town, all cobbled streets and colourful Germanic facades.
On one such street I spot a bloke in an Australian Rugby shirt. ‘Carn the Wallabies!’ I offer. He seems surprised to the point of disorientation. I think, despite him looking very Aussie, that perhaps he isn’t and hasn’t understood, so I point to where the national crest would be on my chest and say, ‘Wallabies’.
It turns out that Barry and Olivia are school teachers from Adelaide. He had just been surprised to find a Wallabies supporter on the back streets of Mainz. They are accompanying a group of kids who, this afternoon, they’ve left at a village school while they pop into town for a look around. We have a lovely chat about all manner of things Australian for nearly a half an hour. Martin is most patient.
We walk on, Martin and I, discussing my plans for learning German and what the motivation is. I am giving my usual long-winded explanation about my desire to learn a second language and my interest in World War II – when I cut to the chase to say, “and to watch early Christoph Waltz work and understand what he’s saying.” Which he thinks is an excellent reason and that I needn’t offer further elaboration. It’s a thing worth remembering. It was the same with the Englishmen at that campground in France. People who know who he is get it immediately.
We have a beer in the square then walk to his parents’ home. They have invited us for dinner.
His Mutter und Vater are lovely, hospitable – there is the slight weirdness of dining with the parents of a friend, more a colleague really, in his childhood home, in his absence. Travel opens these unusual opportunities – in Sydney I probably would never meet Peter’s parents even if they came visiting. But when Peter learned my travels would include Germany he very graciously offered to introduce me to his brothers – so here I am.
We walk back to Martin’s place through leafy, quiet, residential streets tinged with the feeling of autumn.
Tuesday 29 September 2015
I’m on the first of my three-legged train journey to Berlin and it is a perfect autumn day out there. I wish I was riding my bicycle rather than riding this train. There is a cycleway next to the tracks! I want to be out there!
I don’t really know where I am or where I’m going just that I need to transfer in Leipzig and Falkenberg/Elster to make my way to Berlin on trains which accommodate bicycles. Martin made clear that the route seemed round-about.
Between Falkenberg and Berlin I fall into conversation with two boys, young men, maybe 20. Both have recently returned from the US. One from a visit to his father – or his father’s family – in Pennsylvania. The other had been an exchange student, back in ‘2000-something’ and he revisits his host family outside St Louis regularly. We discuss America and they are amused by, and enjoy, my usual remarks on the madness of the place – safe to say neither have heard such things said in an American accent before.
The sun shines a golden autumnal light on the flat and rural countryside we roll through. I find it hard to say much of spending a day on a train. I’m tired. And tired of sitting. I can’t wait to get to Berlin already.
I ride from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof to the building where another of Peter’s brothers is hosting me in a corporate apartment his company keeps. It’s nice riding in Berlin. It’s nice riding after sitting on the train all day, but I’m also aware that this really is the last ride.
After I’ve settled into the apartment I go walking. The evening is crisp and I have no real destination. I wander until I’m so hungry I can’t deal with making sounder decisions and end up eating at Burger King (it happens).
With a belly full of corporate globalised food-stuff I walk to the Brandenburg Gate. It feels so very strange to be here. Berlin was always a destination for this journey – for lots of reasons: I failed to get here on my 1988 trip to Europe and have long regretted that, my interest in David Bowie, my interest in World War II and Nazism and Hitler, my interest in Christoph. And also, the simple practicality that I had booked my flight from Berlin to Chicago before I’d even started the trip so, I knew I’d be coming here. And, yet, there’s something odd about being here.
An enormous moon rises over Berlin, hangs next to the Fernsehturm (the famous Berlin television tower) and illuminates my walk back to the apartment on Johannisstraße.