Berlin and Paris
Part 3 of a 3 Part Travelog by Jesse Mathison
Mischa and I spend a few days together in Berlin, where the snow and extreme cold finally dissipate. For the first few nights I stay near Warschauer Straße, one of the focal points for art in the city, and visit a few studios and galleries; I am able to get a feel for the arts scene in Berlin, which also boasts some of the best installation and street art in the world. Collectively, this city doesn’t even get going until 11 pm, and we quickly adapt and find ourselves sleeping until noon, and on a few occasions not even getting to bed until well into the next afternoon. Mischa departs for somewhere or other and I stay on in Berlin for a few days more, shifting towards the city center.
The pace slows a bit and I take the time to visit Museum Island, which is at least as fascinating as it sounds: the highlight for me is the Pergamonmuseum, which boasts an extensive collection from Hellenistic Greece as well as the Middle East, containing statues, reconstructed temples, etc. etc. I did find myself standing under a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, staring up and feeling something akin to awe. Truly, this is the stuff of history, and sometimes you have to just nerd out and gawk at ancient ruins. It’s okay; go for it. After much wandering along the Spree I begin to feel the temptation of Paris, of Hugo, Camus and Sartre, the Bastille and Van Gogh. I was always going to visit Paris, certainly. So I find a cheap train ticket, make hurried plans, and head for France.
Throughout this journey my preferred activity has been to liberally stroll through a city, sometimes listening to music, sometimes not. I was standing at Gare du Nord, trying to get my bearings and locate the general direction of the Seine when, without a thought as to where I am going, I put in earphones and do my best to be inconspicuous: I don’t like being a tourist; of course it is sometimes obvious that you aren’t from wherever you happen to be, but there is quite a difference between a tourist and a traveler. As I begin walking I have the feeling, for the first time since Istanbul, that I am somewhere with dimension, a tenebrous city teeming with joy and sadness. I listen to Beirut and Townes Van Zandt as I make my way towards the Louvre, cross the Pont Alexandre III and walk along the banks of the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. Of course I have to visit with Van Gogh, so I spend time at the Musee d’Orsay as well.
Afterwards I spend my time wandering through the 18th and 19th arrondissement, mostly around Montmartre. Once I leave Sacre Coeur, which provides a great view of Paris, I become lost for several hours in these meandering streets, and I mean that quite literally; I pass the same poissonnerie on at least four separate occasions. Eventually I get my bearings and spend the evening at a few different bars on Rue de la Fayette, in the center of Montmartre. But I am poor and Paris is expensive, so I catch a night train to Lens and grab a farewell croissant.
Noyelles-sous-Lens, a small town in the northeast of France, provides me with absolutely my most memorable experience of the journey. I stay with my friend Julien (who I met in Istanbul) and his family in their simple home, where they treat me with a profound hospitality and warmth; I am assailed with homemade quiche and tiramisu, hot showers and such a great sense of kindness. My French is better than my Turkish, fortunately, so I can actually hold a decent conversation, as slow and disjointed as they can sometimes be, and I learn much from my time here, mostly concerning selflessness. I am not allowed to pay for anything, and these wonderful people welcome me into their home as a member of the family, so easily. We trade stories and a sense of culture, and I appreciate their way of life, which is much simpler, focused on quality over quantity, rationality rather than foolish and desperate attempts for some elusive and homogenous panacea. I spend a few days meeting friends and friends of friends, listening, attempting to communicate complex ideas with a limited vocabulary.
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Photos by Jesse Mathison
People here are patient with me, and allow me the time to search for the words that will not come so easily. Sometimes I find them. During these days, as I sit in cafes and walk through this town, I often think about language and how it so often separates us. When you can communicate only with a more or less basic vocabulary, foolish differences never have the opportunity to divide us. I see only the best in people and while of course there is more to a person than this simple side, I am forced to relate on such a common level which illuminates our mutual humanity. Trivialities become uninteresting, unnecessary. As I catch the train to Brussels, Julien and I part with a warm embrace, and we both commit to learning one another’s respective language so that we may better understand each other in the future.
My time in Brussels is brief and mostly I wait around for my flight the next day. I once again spend hours in reflection, reliving my adventurous pastiche, all of it rather mercurial. We hear stories and see images of our world so often that it can all seem familiar and commonplace; we take for granted so much, and assume we understand what we simply cannot. But a picture or a story is limited, only a subjective fragment of a moment, and these things will never exist in the same way again. We all imagine far-off places, have seen them portrayed in banal movies countless times, but these are archetypes more than anything else. Pictures and movies do not reflect reality, but only project their own; stories, while ultimately worthwhile (I am a writer, after all), only offer an impression of an experience. Occasionally I recognized a landmark — that is all. I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Hagia Sophia, but the experience is everything around these objects, the sensory details, snippets of foreign conversation, a gust of wind off the Bosphorus, an overcast sky. And of course the people, which give any story its power.
Part 1: A Trip To Istanbul
Part 2: On To Belgrade