Friday, November 3, 2017

Yehuda Amichai and horse chestnuts

The way a photographer, when he sets up     
a shot of sea or desert out to the edge of the horizon,     
has to get something large and close-up into the picture—     
a branch, a chair, a boulder, the corner of a house,     
to get a sense of the infinite, and he forgets about the sea     
and the desert—that’s how I love you, your hand,     
your face, your hair, your nearby voice,     
and I forget the everlasting distance and the endless endings.     
And when we die, again there will be only sea and desert     
and the God we so loved to look at from the window.     
Peace, peace to the far and the near, to the true Gods, peace.

From Yehuda Amichai, “The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds,” (Stanza 7)

I've been really enjoying getting packages in my pigeonhole this term - mostly they are things I've bought myself: a pair of trousers, some rosehip oil, a corduroy dungaree dress that I haven't stopped wearing since I've got it, 'I, Coriander' because it's a good book, and 'The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai'. When I first got Amichai's book, I flipped open to a page titled The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds and read and resonated.

It's funny, that in some ways love is like poetry and in other ways love is so very far away from poetry. On a walk with Jacob, we stopped underneath a horse chestnut tree and, knowing that I collect a conker to represent each year in Cambridge we peered through the grass to find the perfect one for this year. He did find the perfect one and put it carefully in my hand - poetic. But later on when he found another conker and split it open we talked about how its inside looked like a brain, and then talked about dissection experiments in school - unpoetic. Still love.

Or tonight - dinner and talking about where we'd be in ten years and eating chocolate. Poetic. And then him dropping his fork and me nicking myself with his knife. Unpoetic. And then him getting Savlon and a plaster. Unpoetic? And me fumbling with the plaster and him sticking it carefully on. Poetic? Lines blur -- I sound like one of those confused literary critics but poetry perhaps isn't so easily defined.

'The Week Spent in Portugal...' Faro

The first thing I can remember about getting from Lisbon to Faro is that we gave some money to a man on the train - he said he was visiting family and hadn't enough money for a ticket, and although usually I am suspicious of that sort of thing, for some reason (Alex would probably attribute it to the heady haze of holiday bliss) I felt he was telling the truth and had real need.

Getting off at Faro was confusing - everything seemed to be asleep, deserted, like when Alex and I had cycled to the Orchard Tea Room for the first time, and its shutters were closed and a wind whipped around the deck chairs and all we could do was imagine the ghosts of the Bloomsbury group and their past moments there.

(Because this time was so long ago that it feels like a 'past memory' itself I may concertina in lots of other memories not necessarily pre-dating this one which Faro has somehow managed to get stuck too, like burrs on a sweater)

We found our hostel - creaky - with three storey bunk beds - and toilet cubicles that were so tiny your knees touched the doors when they were closed, then left it on a mission to have our hair cut. Auntie Sarah had told me before about Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (although having not read it I can't verify if this is true, and I have a feeling she wasn't too sure either -- but for the sake of illustrative memory--) in which his travels are driven by a series of small-things-that-lead-on-to-the-next, for example (an example almost surely not in the text) getting his shoe mended would lead to meeting someone who would take him out for a drink, in which he would lose his watch and search for a watchmaker, and in the process discover an eccentric cafe. That kind of vacillating, meandering adventure not intentionless but with flexible intention. That was sort of what our haircut pursuit turned into, for we stopped in a few small places, trying to communicate through signs with the owners that we'd like a haircut and trying to get a price estimate. Most of the people in Faro we met didn't speak English, unless they were involved in a clear tourist job, and so some of our attempts at asking for a haircut were so futile that we had to quickly make an embarrassed exit.

Finally we returned to  the very first shop we'd been into - a place owned by a tiny old woman with big hair and big personality. She commanded me into a chair, washed and scrubbed my hair and trimmed it, all the while speaking in Portuguese. She spent more time with the hair dryer trying to blow my slippery-straight hair into something resembling her almost-afro, and at one point picked up a can of hairspray which I quite vigorously declined.

Alex took this photo and later titled it something like ‘Girl looks to future with sense of dread’, apt in many ways. Have I ever mentioned that the process of having my hair cut fills me with more fear than going to the dentist?

I am going to have to abandon chronology as in my Dubai post - then it was for a sort of poetic effect, now it is because of a failure of memory. And unlike Dubai, where I quite faithfully kept a diary of days, I did keep a diary while in Lisbon but not in Faro. I wonder why that is? I partially suspect I spent my time in Faro writing about Lisbon, as I am prone to (my diary keeping is a constant process of looking further back than a normal diary does, if there is any such thing as a normal diary)

So instead I shall remember what stuck in my head. One day was the visit to the 'Desert Island', a prospect I had sort of romanticised after watching a short video diary by Wild We Roam. Less romantic was our hostel receptionists quizzical response when we asked her about it: 'It's just an island... there is nothing on it.'

But I still wanted to go to that nothing space (which now I see as akin to the nothing spaces in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and so Alex and I waited on the dock, playing card games, for a boat to take us there. On the boat I dropped my disposable camera into the sea (rather it rolled off my lap and into the foam froth issuing from the back of the boat) and felt very little for it - having just lost Grandma that previous term, losing a disposable camera with just one photograph on it seemed trivial.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Maybe that was why the Deserted Island was such a draw to me as well - it seemed the perfect place for lost things. The home of the Peter Pan's Lost Boys is an island, and the sandy beaches of Norfolk are the locus for the 'Lost Corner' in Never Let Me Go.

“I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I'd ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field and gradually get larger[...]” 

What Alex and I did find on the Deserted Island was time, and a surreal space to call our own. Behind us the Algarve Coast seemed trapped in a maelstrom of a storm; dark brooding clouds and the blurred air that from a distance means rain. But a glance to our left showed blue skies with wispy white clouds and the calm ebb and flow of waves on sand. Further on we came across a flock of seagulls so numerous that we felt very much we were intruding on their territory. When we headed toward what looked like an area clear of the birds another flock of hundreds rose before our eyes, all the gulls in the world... 

I remember Alex asked something about Grandma on the boat back home - I can't remember what, but I do remember getting slightly teary, and simultaneously thinking how wonderful it was to have a friend I could be truthfully sad in front of. Alex sometimes reminds me that my own sadness is legitimate. In one of our first tea-at-night times this term, when she played her funky music from the turn table she'd brought down, we talked about last year. When I said that Lent term had been a turning point of sorts in my Cambridge experience, she said it must have been, because of Grandma's death. The fact that she remembered and realised that it did change things, and that she said again that that it would of course still feel sore was so honest, and bold and compassionate at the same time - immensely thankful.

Back on shore we circled the orange trees near the church, determined to fell and orange and taste it - one of the reasons we'd chosen Portugal at all was because of the vague impression of Virginia Woolf picking oranges in Spain - Portugal was geographically close enough, and oranges would make it closer still.

A few futile attempts later, we succeeded by hitting one off a tree with a stick. As we prepared to have it, a man approached us looking concerned - we anticipated a scolding but instead he conveyed that the oranges were not good-too sour. We tried it anyway - he was right. That word 'scolding' reminds me of how I used it in conversation with Alex once and she found it very strange, an 'old' word she didn't tend to hear, especially not in the context I used it (I think I'd said the choir teachers would scold the choir committee). And the sour oranges remind me of how on a walk Jacob and I came across a blackberry bush, and tried some, but they were either tasteless or quite unpleasantly sharp, so when I did come across the perfect sweet wild blackberries on a run on a later day I sent him an overly excited snapchat, another 'you come too' moment.

One morning we walked (intentionally although belatedly because it was difficult to find) into a chapel that was plastered with gold and inhabited with statues, which is known for the 'chapel of bones' that resides behind the main chapel. It is quite literally made of human bones, skulls with gaping eye holds and chipped noses, some empty spaces where presumably the skulls have fallen out, It was odd how quickly the humanity and death we were surrounded with faded to architectural features. There was always a slight sense of unease purely because it was so macabre, but at the same time it was far less odd than I had envisaged, probably because there was so much order and symmetry to the bones that I don't usually attribute to the after-death skeleton which just crumbles or is cast into the ground. The purposeful use and arrangement of the bones somehow made them less human. In fact, I found the dripping, sweating, over dose of gold within the chapel and the naturalistic statues of Jesus and Mary far more terrifying - one statue of Mary had a strip of lace draped over her hands, which were taut and slightly outstretched as if petrified and resisting - the lace was like some sort of handcuff, and her face too had a tortured expression which did not impart in me the affective piety and vision of the weeping Madonna by Jesus' cross, but looked instead like Mary was silently suffering some sort of agonising torture as she stood there, frozen. 

We didn't actually spend all our time in Faro - one day we went to Silves, a good thing because it started to pour in Faro just as we boarded the train to Silves. Silves was another 'Travels with Charley' sort of day - Alex was in search of a stamp, I was in search of a plate for Mum and both of us were determined to pick a lemon from a tree. While waiting for Alex while she used the bathroom, I was taking a picture of dappled sunlight on a yellow wall when I turned around to see an old man in the distance beckoning to me. I walked towards him, and he pointed at my camera, and then at himself. 'Do you want me to take a picture of you?' He nodded, and posed, click. I showed him the picture, and we tried to converse but words failed us, although I did understand that he wasn't from Silves but another place nearby. I wonder why he wanted me to take that picture - does he, like Leo Gursky in The History of Love, want to leave as much of himself on earth as possible, to be remembered, to not go gentle into that good night?

I try to make a point of being seen. Often when I’m out I’ll buy a juice, even if I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded, I’ll sometimes go so far as to drop my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. [...] All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.

Interesting that although I feel that Portugal taught me to let go, to be alright with losing things, to not need answers on a desert island I was constantly seeking something there. I did find a pottery shop where I thought I might find a plate, but instead I left with a tiny mug, painted with pale green and three yellow flowers. The man who owned the shop moved in in 1992, and told me the building has a long history, having once been a primary school on its second floor. The first owner of the gallery had arrived there, on a bicycle, in 1979. There is plenty of pottery sold in the shops in Silves, but this one vehemently promised that it did not condone 'slavish copying'. 

Alex also found her stamp -and an envelope- in the same place that we found the lemon (we did not pluck it from the trees we saw in Silves, not wanting to be charged with breaking and entering since those trees were all in private gardens. There were public orange trees but we'd learnt our lesson there) It was a small shop that sold food, and when we asked the owner if she sold stamps she said not, but as we were walking away we heard her shout to us - her sister had just arrived and what we needed.