Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Five days in P.

In crude military terms, the area past the passport control can be described as a consumption ‘killing zone’: an area that is designed to trap the enemy in a location where it will be easiest to engage and destroy it. The route from the security handbag check to your flight is planned so that on your way to the gates, you would have to pass as many duty free shops and fast food joints as possible. This seems to be the main preoccupation. Passing there I wondered how long will it take until wine bottles are used to hijack an airplane, and what effect it will have on airport culture. Two months ago, when I was here, flying to Glasgow, I was amused to hear the following polite announcement: the passenger who left a black balaclava in the coffee shop, please come and collect it from the information desk.

More and more you see in London people from Eastern Europe occupying low paid service jobs. Boarding the airplane we were asked by the Polish flight attendant, who tried very hard to put on an American accent, not to sit in the last and first four rows, as it upsets the plane’s balance during takeoff. Her melodramatic tone did not help to make this request sound reassuring. I asked myself why do I keep taking cheap flights when I hate flying in the first place.

We stayed in proximity to P.’s central train station. This part of the city seems to be popular with immigrants, more than other parts of the old city. They are Indians, African, North-African Arabs, Chinese. Especially noticeable are the Chinese shops. These are marked from the outside with red lamps and signs in Chinese writing; they sell mainly cheap clothing. The same kind of semiotic code (the red lamps, indicating Chineseness), when found in the north part of the city, means that you have reached a Chinese restaurant.
The nicest thing was being close to the fruit and vegetables market. It reminded me of the Shuk in West Jerusalem, probably my favourite place in my home town, the place I find easiest to deal with. The main difference: here – as elsewhere in European markets – I was not allowed to touch the fruits myself, and they have to picked by the vendor, who gets sometimes upset if you attempt to tamper with this rule.

Unlike the markets of London, this was a seasonal market. This means that, according to season, some things are in abundance, while others are hard to find if at all. A simple, almost trivial fact of market life in most of the planet, but not in London: here the rules of globalisation mean that you can find almost anything, all year round; most of the produce is imported, and most of it doesn’t taste half as good. What is missing most: the strong alluring smells of fresh produce.

What we found in the market of P.: artichokes, cauliflower, fennel, courgettes, pumpkins and squashes, lettuce, beautiful aubergines, broad beans. Tomatoes are sold green, not yet in season; cucumbers hard to find. Blood oranges, apples (surely not local, perhaps from the north) and pears are in abundance. And of course, other kinds of food: olives, capers, cheese, fish and seafood, meat, bakeries. Lots of places offering delicious snacks, like sardines filled with breadcrumbs and raisins or deep fried artichokes in batter. We managed to avoid meat, and did not succumb to the temptations of sausages etc. I found that more and more, meat disgusts me.

I stopped eating meat a year ago, during my last visit to Jerusalem. I remember seeing – on a passing bus – an advertisement to a Kebab restaurants chain; quite suddenly, it made me feel sick. I decided without thinking much that at least during my stay in Israel, I would not eat dead animals. I was probably using this rejection of meat as one way to engage with the troubled reality around me. I think I was trying to look for new ways for me to be there, different than the ways I was there before my departure four years ago, to mark a new space for me there. All this probably sounds somewhat vague. In any case, since then I’ve hardly eaten meat, not even skipped salami sandwiches. I eat fish though, occasionally; I skip sushi sometimes and I still love sardines.

We stayed in P. for five days. One of them was quite miserable: we were supposed to climb the mountain overlooking the town, but it was cloudy and drizzling, so we ended up drifting through the streets of the old city; we went to see the city’s catacombs, where thousands of the city’s 19th century dead are displayed. We bought tickets from the monk in the entrance, who was talking on his mobile phone and chewing a chocolate mint, and descended into a system of underground corridors. It felt like walking through a horror movie set: the dead are all embalmed – a couple of different techniques were used. The men are facing the visitors, hanging from the walls in a standing posture, wearing their best evening clothes. The women lie down, in stacks of bunk beds, wearing modest dressing gowns. Judging from the clothes, the deceased were of the wealthier classes, the nobility and the clergy. The most disturbing detail I found to be the hair, which was still there; sometimes even a beard or a stubble can be seen. And a five year old child: minute, thin and shrivelled, she looks at you with a piercing, curious look, which was filled with pain but also with a sense of astonishment and misunderstanding.
We spent a long hour there. When we came out the rain was pouring down. We ended up taking a taxi to the hotel; couldn’t face the wait to the bus. Back in our big, cold room, I thought of the alienating nature of the tourist experience, in its western-modern-middle-class form; not knowing the language, when you can hardly communicate, and all you do is buy things, pay for things, stay in impersonal hotel rooms, visit places and read out of your guidebook, your sense of the place is always mediated, your experience almost bound to stay confined, limited. Why do people do it, I wondered.

But other days were different. I loved the melancholic crumbling old town and enjoyed being back in the Mediterranean, away from London. It was sunny most of the time and this meant that we could stay outside, and walk about. On our second day we found ourselves – by accident – in the botanical gardens, where we were surrounded by an army of cactuses and crazy ficus trees. It was beautiful and fresh, we could feel spring is on its way. We picked some lemons, oranges and grapefruits from the trees. We tried to eat the oranges and grapefruits but they were too sour. “Do want to hear what Goethe wrote about it?” asked S., and read me his journal entry, as we were sitting on a bench.

7th of April. I spent some happy, peaceful hours alone in the Public Gardens close to the harbour. It is the most wonderful spot on earth. Though laid out formally and not very old, it seems enchanted and transports one back into the antique world. Green borders surround exotic plants, espaliers of lemon trees from gracefully arched walks, high hedges of oleander, covered with thousands of red blossoms which resemble carnations, fascinate the eye. Strange trees, probably from warmer climes, for they are still without leaves, spread out their peculiar ramifications. At one end there is a bank with a bench on it from which one can overlook the garden and intricate vegetation; at the other are some large ponds in which goldfish swim about gracefully, now hiding under moss-grown pipes, now swarming together in great numbers, attracted by a piece of bread.
The green of the plants is of a different shade, either more yellow or more blue, than the green we are used to. What gives this scenery its greatest charm, however, is the haze uniformly diffused over everything, which has a peculiar effect. Even when one object is only a few steps further away than another, the difference in depth is clearly distinguished by a different tint of light blue. If one looks at them for long their own colour is lost and they appear, at least to the eyes, to be blue all over.

(My academic instinct tempts me to comment: Goethe’s interest in colour and vision is a precursor to 19th century focus on physiology, on the observing eye. And it is very different from the view that preceded it, that is, that reality is presented to the human eye, in its full truth; that vision is a direct and transparent process of through which things manifest themselves to the human mind. The new perception of vision – which Goethe shows here – will later lead to all manner of innovations, from amusement parks’ optical illusions to photography.)

So much did Goethe enjoy the gardens, that he returned there ten days later, just before he left P. As he recorded in another journal entry, he hoped to find some peace to meditate on his poetic dreams. Instead, he found his daemons:

Seeing such a variety of new and renewed forms, my old fancy came back to mind: Among this multitude might I not discover the Primal Plant? There certainly must be one. Otherwise, how could I recognize that this or that form was a plant if all were not built upon the same basic model?
I tried to discover how all these divergent forms differed from one another , and I always found that they were more alike than unlike. But when I applied my botanical nomenclature, I got along all right to begin with, but then I stuck, which annoyed me without stimulated me. Gone were my fine poetic resolution […] Why are we moderns so distracted, why we let ourselves be challenged by problems which can neither face nor solve!

During our stay in P., S. continued reading Goethe’s journal, and we found ourselves walking in his footsteps in the city and around it. I was reading The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a book which had a great effect on me. I found it deeply disturbing but also touching. It is a very explicit book; it sometimes made me horny, but much more often I found myself furrowing my forehead, feeling physically uneasy, unable to understand why anyone would put oneself in such situations. I am no masochist, she emphasises a number of times, somewhat prudishly; and yet she describes, in a dislocated, disinterested manner, sitting in the back of a van parked in a Paris street for hours, while countless men she doesn’t know and can’t really see come in and out; she sucks them off. It’s her forte.

Friday: I finished the book on the flight back to London. The captain informed us that the weather in London is ‘pleasant’ – an English euphemism that means – what exactly? I’m not sure. When we came out of the airport it was very cold, and snow flakes were floating in the air, though not catching the ground. The sky was as grey as ever. On the tube, seeing dreary, tired faces around, an unlikely announcement in the driver’s quiet voice: wherever you are, and whatever you do, I’d like wish you a wonderful weekend.

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