Slice of Half-Life

Posted: Nov 26, 2003 1:09:29 AM

Up until now I have mainly dwelled on two aspects of this trip: the monuments and sites I have explored, and the amusing incidents that have happened to me on the way to and from them. These sites have a huge collection of story and legend and myth orbiting around them, but once you see them 'live', you realise that beyond the huge weight of words and history on them, they are after all just buildings. So instead, tonight (because I'm in a strange mood - the sort where you can't sleep for the thoughts running around your head, and have to exorcise them somewhere - I will try something different. I thought I'd provide a slice of life on the road, and a small slice of what I'm thinking about while I'm on the road. Most of this entry was written at about 1:30am last night, so you read at your own risk.

This particular day would seem to be a funny choice for that slice, because nine hours of my day have been spent riding on a train from Lyon to Milan, and then another train from Milan to Florence. Nevertheless.

The day before yesterday, in anticipation of the long train journey, I purchased an English-language book in Lyon, a novel called 'House of Leaves', written by Mark Z. Danielewski. It's a horror story of the haunted house variety, but written with a startling array of (fictional) footnotes, literary flourishes, e e cummings style typographic wordplay, and diverse surprising connections. Difficult to describe really, but what struck me as I was reading it was that it was thematically identical to my Master's thesis.

[ For those of you that have not read my thesis (I know of one person outside of the markers, my supervisor, and myself who actually has), it dealt with the unification (or at least alliance) of several manifestations of interior space in the English Gothic novel. Some of them (this list is not exhaustive):
Weight (of atmosphere, of history)
Silence and the unspoken (unspeakable?)
Burial (live burial?)
Submersion and drownings
Unknowable history (or startling ahistoricism)
Endless repetitions
Dreams and nightmares
Ghosts and hauntings
Doppelgangers and spectral doubles; echoes
The inside with no outside
The structures of buildings, of books, and of meanings.
etc. etc. ]

And all of these appeared, and were somehow unified, in 'House of Leaves'. This is both satisfying (at least I wasn't totally off-base in the thesis) and frustrating (someone else thought my thoughts!). But one theme did not appear: the double, or doppelganger, a recurrent (hah) figure that features significantly in a number of Gothic works (Frankenstein and his monster, Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray's reflection, Hogg's justified sinner, etc. etc.). I shouldn't dwell too much on that, however; they are, after all, just buildings.


Arriving in a strange town, your thoughts immediately go back to the basics. Number one: safety. You're always hypersensitive to pickpockets, muggers, and the like when you know you won't be able to chase them for the 30kg pack on your back, particularly as they tend to lurk around train stations. Number two: shelter. Found a hostel easily enough, but it was full. The guy behind the desk kindly suggested the place next door, run by the same company. This is often a scam, involving a nearby establishment with an inflated price, but upon investigating it I decided that the quiter atmosphere, free Internet, and clean dorm rooms were worth the extra three Euros. Number three: food. I was in no mood to go restauranteering, so I just located a supermarket (not always easy) and purchased some bread, processed cheese, Milanese salami, and a chocolate-covered banana. Number four: connections.

This fourth one is curious, but it is essential to remain in contact, both with people at home and people here. For the people at home - you - the Internet suffices. But a significant part of staying in any hostel is meeting the other (in)mates. Unfortunately, when you meet so many new people every day, you forget (or never learn) names, so the following will just have to remain anonymous.

There was the lawyer from Australia who had just split from the friend she had been travelling with (some un-named tension, very common in people who travel extensively with another). She was very happy to learn that I am soon to head for Nice, and that I spoke a little French, because she has never travelled alone and is clearly (although this was never spoken) nervous about the prospect. I may be able to help her out if my schedule allows, but there's a good chance I won't see her again after our brief talk as well. Another common feature in people you meet on the road.

There were the two guys from Japan, a cheerful bunch with only a smattering of English. They were sitting down to a supermarket dinner at the same time I was, although theirs was much more spartan (think hard Italian bread and Nutella), and we swapped itineraries, as you do. I couldn't finish my last sandwich, and so casually flipped it into a plastic bag that was going to act as my rubbish bin. They both jumped, and I finally noticed that what I had taken for cheerful enthusiasm was in fact desperate hunger. They actually recovered said sandwich remnant as it was about to go in the bin, and split it between them with a pocket knife. I felt so bad for them I surrendered my leftover ingredients, for which they were very thankful (I always feel embarrassed when people bow at me repeatedly).

The other guest sharing our dorm room was an Australian, and an interesting one. I was in a talkative mood (as usual) and he was in a listening mood, so I rattled on for half an hour before finally getting around to discovering more about him. As it turns out, his path is very similar to mine: he has been to all the same countries (except where I went to Scandinavia he went to Eastern Europe). Yes, even Liechtenstein. As it also turns out, he is very similar to me in occupation: he tutored in English literature at university. We even look similar. Still immersed in the murk of 'House of Leaves', I began to wonder whether I had found the spectral double that was missing from those pages. Not that he's an evil twin. He was simply like, and yet unalike; me, and yet different; something outside, the perfect Gothic double.

At close to midnight, as I finished reading the novel (yes, I read the whole thing in one day) I had another thought on that subject. Perhaps the book itself was the double of my thesis, or more likely my thesis was the House's doppelganger, a shady synchronic echo. Is that what was missing?

Finally, sitting in bed at 1am, I had still another thought. A friend recently mentioned that I seem like a different person to the Damon that left New Zealand three months ago - still me, but ... different, somehow. Am I now my own double? Or was I before the doppelganger of who I am now? Or (more likely) should no-one write down the thoughts that they have at 1 in the morning?

They are, after all, just buildings.


Sahi   Nov 26, 2003 2:20:39 PM

Cool report! I like this experiment of yours. ;)

Charlotte   Nov 26, 2003 3:10:07 PM

I hope that your thesis isn't as (physically) annoying to read as House of Leaves was. I read it while convalescing from surgery and although it's entirely possible that my attention span was running low, all that twisting and turning while reading was irritating, even if it did reflect what was happening in the book at the time. And I had some random thought about HoL and doppelgangers just a moment ago, but that thought has now slipped away into some dark recess of my mind, reluctant to be recovered. Since I read the book some months ago while not feeling 100%, it probably wasn't relevant any way. Waffle, waffle, waffle! Breakfast is the only appropriate place for waffles!

Damon   Nov 26, 2003 4:49:50 PM

No, my thesis was strictly linear, but surprisingly similar in themes (as I said). I was caught between thinking the curious layout of HoL a gimmick or a fascinating innovation, but the only passage I had a hard time reading was the encoded letter in the second appendix - made my eyes swim most unpleasantly. And then I tried to read the other encoded message within the encoded letter, and had to give up before I gave out. But I was sufficiently tuned into the nuances of the book to pick up immediately when one of the major characters loses a hand, an eye, and the top of one ear that he had become Tyr, Odin, and Van Gogh all in one shot. And perhaps a Skywalker as well...

Morgan   Nov 26, 2003 11:31:22 PM

Glad to hear you're still sane Damon. Keep up the good work.

mother of pearl   Nov 26, 2003 11:44:05 PM

@Morgan: LOL

Actually, this was my fave report so far. I find the stuff that is hardest to tell the most interesting -- the glue in between the 'sights' and 'sites' and 'people' stuff that is so (comparatively) easy to recount.

I have yet to meet my oppelganger...hmm...(although today, once again, I was told I resemble Heike Makatsch. (Not-so-pretty german actor.) To which I can ony say, 'It's the broad mouth, is all'. Bah.)

...26th...? Meeting Ssiobandit in Florence?

Charlotte   Nov 27, 2003 10:24:24 AM

Hey Damon

Just being nosy and checking when you leave for Japan. Saw this notice on your House of Travel itinerary:

Flight Time Notice: Virtually There has noted a discrepancy in your flight times. Please verify your flight times with your travel arranger or airline.

It's for the flight from Rome to Frankfurt on 13 December. Have you seen it yet? I hope it's not a big problem preventing you from arriving in Japan on time!

Shads   Nov 27, 2003 12:40:43 PM

*bumps HoL higher up on her list*

Siobhan   Nov 27, 2003 7:38:27 PM

Hee, sneaking in here. We had possibly the worst first meeting ever, wdue to my being jetlagged, having about 2 hours of sleep in two days, and vomiting precariously (although not on Damon, so dont worry). But today I had fun, so nya.

mother of pearl   Nov 27, 2003 11:19:17 PM

*looking worried* But today you're alright, yes?

*sighs* Too little sleep is about the most effectve torture.

Binky   Nov 28, 2003 12:20:49 AM

Trattoria Za-Za, in the San Lorenzo markets (behind the old Medici church) does stunning food. Take your steak-eating appetite there.

Aan`allein   Nov 28, 2003 5:18:32 AM

*waves to Damon from Kiwiland*
*grins* sounds like you've been having fun (just caught up with most of the recent entries here). I'd better start collecting myself some tales from my travels here so I have something to swap with you when we finally meet. (So far haven't left the vicinity of Auckland, though I'll be setting out one way or another early next week; if only I could decide between kiwi experience and travelpass and any of the dozens of other options.)

Anyhoo, this reply is mostly for the following (as smarch is still down and I /need/ to promote ^_^ - - I've finally started putting online a tripreport (currently backlogged 7 weeks) with accompanying pics. [/shameless plug]

Tiny   Nov 28, 2003 6:18:45 AM

This is my favourite report so far, even though I barely understand it.

Oh yes, I've been lurking here all along. I'm good at that :)

Fraz   Nov 28, 2003 10:00:04 AM

yo damon, was just looking at the site & i thourght that your dragon at the top of the page next to your name, it looks liek the classie beast on top of the embssy,

Captain Roberto T. Fruitbat   Nov 28, 2003 11:23:11 PM

Hehe, House of Leaves - way cool! What´s going to be next, the Cryptonomicon? I´m about 30 pages into Gormenghast now. Only another 920 pages with very small print to go. :)

Guess what´s playing at the Arsenal next Monday? The Grand Cafe program of the Lumiere brothers.

Charlotte   Nov 29, 2003 12:40:05 AM

*fidgets* *tips webpage upside down and shakes it to see if any new stories fall out* Nope, nothing. *sighs* We wanna hear some Tales from Florence!

Siobhan   Nov 29, 2003 1:35:36 AM

I should tell you guys the tale of how I wore the wrong shoes and proceeded to whine all day. Or the tale of how Damon got drunk and proposed to the David. In front of everyone too; David must have been so embarassed.

Charlotte   Nov 29, 2003 2:07:09 AM

*chuckle* Now one of those tales is more improbable than the other! I simply cannot believe that any woman would choose the wrong pair of shoes to wear: it's determined by genetics that no woman can start the day without careful consideration given to deciding which pair of shoes will look the nicest,er, I mean, the most suitable for the occassion.

Charlotte   Nov 29, 2003 2:29:25 AM

Actually, where is Damon anyways? You've posted here twice in the past three days; Damon, nothing. Have you done him in, or just left him passed out in the gutter to sleep off his drunken stupor and get over the rejection from David?

Fraz   Nov 29, 2003 7:58:01 AM

Ladie killer

Damon   Nov 29, 2003 8:58:53 AM

I am devastated by David's rejection. He just turned in his scaffolding and looked away mournfully.

Peter   Nov 29, 2003 8:21:03 PM

So those statements about not drinking were just to avoid encounters with anything brewed/distilled/whatever in Austria? Go figure ;)

So I guess you both survived the meet. Are we going to get any more info on this?

Damon   Nov 30, 2003 12:39:53 AM

Hee, I still don't drink. So there. New report should be coming in a couple of days.

Morgan   Dec 1, 2003 12:17:48 PM

Heya Damon,

Quick note before I go to bed. The LotR symphony was fantastic. Even though the NZSO struggled to keep up sometimes the brass was brilliant.

A little disappointed by the world premiere because it was very difficult to find a spot.

Catch ya

Peter   Dec 1, 2003 3:41:48 PM

Hmm, been kind of slow here the last few days...
For Smarchers that are still lost in space:

The Shadowmarch server toasted itself and the board will be down for a while. We're currently hanging out on . Thanks guthwulf, for putting up with this smarchy bunch (spamming your boards...).

Damon   Dec 2, 2003 7:04:58 AM

New report in just a moment. Aan, I will read every word once I have a few free hours of Internet time available. Er, when I get back that is. Hope you are enjoying New Zild a whole heap.

Peter   Dec 2, 2003 8:19:59 PM

You'd better hope that Aan doesn't ruin all of NZ while you aren't looking...

Claudia   Dec 3, 2003 3:43:32 AM

Shadowmarch seems to be half there, with a password required to get in the forums. So looks like they've nearly fixed it.

Peter   Dec 3, 2003 4:12:27 PM

AFAIK there's no forum behind that password yet...
The new server is obviously up and running, but I don't think they've finalized the decisions regarding the new forum.

fangler   Dec 3, 2003 8:28:32 PM

just found my way here. Been missing you on smarch (when there was a smarch) and glad i could catch up with what you are doing. Loved! this particular report. My favorite aspect of travelling is all the different people i met along the way, and you captured that feeling nicely. Thanks.

Damon   Dec 4, 2003 6:37:09 PM

Hiya F! Thanks, I try. And if you sit in a hostel common room this always happens. Didn't meet that girl here in Nice, but then she's probably staying in a proper hostel, unlike me.

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