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)
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.
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