Saturday, May 3, 2008

Salzburg, 19.7.03: Wiedersehen and Travel Jitters

Sitting in Salzburg airport. Just realized the days preparing for a trip are interstitial. You’re neither here nor there. Taking melatonin to try to change the body’s clock makes things even more surreal, because you’re trying to get your body to function on time that’s halfway around the world.

My body—I—am less and less flexible. It wants to do things its old accustomed way. It’s not designed to hurtle through air, wake up in Salzburg and go to bed in Little Rock (God willing).

I pity the folks in the long lines headed where? Italy? Our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt is much less in demand. Austrians don’t go to Germany for vacations, it seems. Like the Germans, their fancies turn southward.

Now on plane as it takes off from Frankfurt. Disparate thoughts as the trip ends, ones hard to draw together into any thematic unity—a process made more difficult from fatigue after two relatively sleepless nights in which I tossed and turned with digestive upset.

One of the books I read while traveling—perhaps Tielsch—speaks about the apparent contingency of so much of our experience. I’m struck by how we never know what chance encounter will lead to what outcome.

Last night, at the dinner at Leopoldskron (to which fellows were permitted to invite guests), I sat next to a man from Vienna, someone with the Austrian Ministry of Education. We talked a while about our background, and then he mentioned that his wife, an Iranian, had lived in Little Rock. When I shared my card with him, he said, “Ah, yes! I know this college. My wife was offered a position in its music department.”

What are the chances? The book I’m now reading, Nicholas Crane’s Clear Water Rising, mentions vis-à-vis such encounters that we need the feeling we’re not alone. We want “chance” to be meaning-full.

The Viennese man—C. Deman, as well as I could understand the last name—said as we parted, “I do not believe such things happen by chance.” Yet, if meaningful and meant, how? And where’s the meaning. It’s not apparent.

Thinking this morning as we left Salzburg, where the hotel proprietors, Herr and Frau Illmer said goodbye, of the habit of saying Wiedersehen, when we know perfectly well it’s not true. Or my family’s habit of never saying goodbye, but that we’ll see someone again soon….

The only way this makes sense is in light of the ancient belief in the communion of saints: all our lives count somehow, somewhere. It’s in that “space” that we connect, that chance has no real meaning, that we’ll see each other again.

Do I believe that? Not sure. It’s easy to say, isn’t it?

And do I connect or want to connect with the very rude young man originally seated beside me? Steve and I were seated across the aisle from each other. When the man approached, he signaled that it was his seat by tossing two books, one after another, across me onto the seat, with nary a word.

Steve got up and asked if he’d like an aisle seat, since we’re traveling together. Without batting an eyelash, he said, “Absolutely not! I had an aisle seat on the way over and am tired of being bumped.” A simple thanks but no thanks would have amply sufficed.

Something in me wants to tell him life or God will teach him to be less aggressively unkind. Something else tells me he’s a dime a dozen; forget about him.

But if I believe what I wrote previously, even this man’s life connects to mine, and an encounter charged with what I thought was negative meaning may have some other significance, in the ultimate realm of things.

Crane and his book: why on earth read about a man’s trek across the mountainous chain crossing Europe from Finnisterre to Istanbul, while traveling myself? I’m not sure I loke the book, its protest-too-much machismo, its derivative glances over the shoulder at Patrick Leigh Fermor.

He talks about how he both had to take this trek and also had o cope with great pain at each leave taking from his wife, who met him periodically on the trip. But if the parting was so painful, why take the trip, when they’d been married only a year?

It’s rather easy—and perhaps cheap—to say that there’s a big element of Freudian need to vanquish the father, to prove himself as phallically endowed as his father. He mentions that his father took such treks, daring lightning to strike, led by cool logic. He self-consciously dogs the footsteps of Hemingway—and who more driven by the need to prove phallic power in the face of unacknowledged homoerotic desire than Hemingway?

But to be fair to Crane, he does also say that his grandmother, 94 when he left on his trip, was a famous traveler and trekker, so perhaps it’s merely in his blood.

And in the end, every journey, no matter how long, how short, is a journey of the human heart.

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