Just a Moment
Posted: Nov 18, 2003 10:03:53 AM
One of the dilemmas of writing these reports is exactly how much or how little to tell about the various museums, ruins, historical sites, and other points of interest that I run into on the way. I'm sure an endless list of museums (and I have been going to one a day on average) would be quite dry, and yet I can't always have weird personal experiences to relate, because sometimes nothing of interest happens in that direction.
For example, I could begin with a basic description of the path I have taken over the last week: exploring Zurich and Liechtenstein, then the overnight train to Koln, a day-trip over to Aachen to pay my respects to Charlemagne (well, they wouldn't let you close enough to actually dance on his grave), then on to Amsterdam. From Amsterdam to Brussels, on to Bruges, back to Brussels (by the way, having now tried both Belgian and Swiss chocolate, I can say that Swiss chocolate wins the contest hands-down), across to Luxembourg, from there to Paris, from Paris immediately a day-trip to Bayeux, then back to Paris, where I am now.
If that was boring to read, imagine how I've felt after all these train journeys. 'Don Quixote', which I began reading in Turkey, is almost done. This is not to say that the visits themselves were boring - far from it - but it's never non-stop excitement and wild times.
Probably my favourite points are the Moments. Specifically, those times when everything comes together and you have a point of silent awe, at the fact that you are in Europe, and that everything is so amazing. Today I'm going to write about some of those moments.
Amsterdam had a very profound and moving moment to its name, and that was of course walking through Anne Frank's house, where she and her family and some others hid from the Nazis for two years in a secret annex behind a bookcase. The diaries themselves are in the house; innocent little workbooks, one with a cushioned plaid cover, it was their simplicity more than anything else that touched me. In the midst of the otherwise seedy city (well, my hostel bordered on the red-light district, and a pick-pocket tried to trip me up in the square where the first dam was erected), it was a Moment. I bought a copy of the diaries in the bookshop, and the next day read the entire thing in one sitting.
Bruges is a town in western Belgium that is famous as a relic of medieval architecture. Everywhere was stunningly beautiful, with antiquated brick buildings lining every street, but the Moment didn't come until I wandered through what was in the thirteenth century a commune of female religious mystics. It's called the Begijnhof, and as I entered I saw an aged Benedictine nun, stooped over until she was almost at right angles to herself, hobble across the central square. I've seen plenty of nuns, especially in Italy and (obviously) Rome, but there was something about the perfect serenity on her face that was quite a Moment.
Luxembourg did not impress me at first. The city is perched on top of a number of hills or promontories, with huge arched bridges passing between each peak. All of the 'poor' areas of town are in the valleys (as was the hostel, surprise surprise), millennium-old fortifications between them and the summit, much like the demarcation described in the opening pages of 'Titus Groan' (for those few of you who have read that book). I foolishly kept to the upper city for most of my time in the Grand Duchy, and it wasn't until the last afternoon that I descended into a park in the largest valley. Of course, it was there that I hit another Moment. It was completely deserted, wet from rainfall, covered in fallen leaves, and like the middle of the country. Two hundred metres above, medieval ruins and a metropolitan city. Below, isolation and peace.
Paris, of course, will always inspire Moments. I wandered into the Place de la Concorde yesterday (where they executed lots of people), turned around, and there was the Champs-Elysees (pictured). Turn around again, and there was the Arc de Triomphe. Turn around, and there was the Jardin des Tuileries (the garden in front of the Louvre). Look up, and there, at last, is the Tour Eiffel. I could only stand and gawp for about ten minutes.
Yet another moment later in the day, after I sped to Bayeux. It was the best day for a day-trip, because my rail pass was valid until midnight, and I had only used up the morning getting from Luxembourg to Paris. But it was also a risk, as the only train for Bayeux left at 3pm, and I didn't know whether the museum would still be open when I got there. But go I did, and arrived at the door to the museum at 5:16pm, only to discover that the museum closed at 6, and that last admissions were 45 minutes before closing. You do the math. Fortunately, their clocks must have been off, so I was allowed in, and because it was so late, for several moments I was the only person in the horseshoe-shaped room with the tapestry. Wow. The Moment came when I closely examined the stitching of Halley's Comet (a famous part of the tapestry), and noticed that some of the threads were made of two colours of wool, masterfully twined from one hue to another. Incredible, and something you'd never notice until you're right in front of it.
So now I'm back in Paris, hoping that a few more Moments will come by; now I'm heading off to the Musee des Arts et Metiers, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Umberto Eco's 'Foucault's Pendulum'. Later, I will look into doing something quite absurd and different. No idea if I can get a place at such short notice, but consider the following: Paris on Wheels. Should be quite a moment.
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