Dear Whoever You Are: Fifteen Brushstrokes of South Africa


Fifteen Brushstrokes of South Africa

LEGS DANGLING OVER the dock in Hout Bay devouring thick filets of freshly grilled snoek, a snake mackerel inhabiting only the most far-flung waters of the Southern Hemisphere, its tender meat glides off long curved bones absently flicked into the white surf boiling around algae bearded pilings. Gigantic sun-blackened stalks of deep-sea kelp wriggle like sperm tails across the beach’s wet sand, their rubbery flowering heads mostly decapitated and dumped elsewhere. Little black boys scamper around their serpentine corpses shrieking joyfully when freezing waves break over them. The peeling hulls of once-colorful fishing boats moored along the wharf wearily groan over the hardship of the sea.

~

THE LIGHTHOUSE CROWNS a storm-tormented sandstone pyramid, the last stubborn knuckle of Cape Peninsula’s tapering lobster claw before plunging into the ceaselessly churning sea. To the east is shark-infested False Bay, appropriately bite shaped and named for duping navigationally disadvantaged mariners into thinking they were in Cape Town’s Table Bay. A stone’s throw to the west is Cape of Good Hope, most southwestern point of the African continent, sadistically named for duping navigationally disadvantaged mariners into thinking they had rounded the southernmost point of the African continent and were merrily India-bound.

Hard-currency dreams of men floundered with their ships and swiftly sank here.

~

IN THE BLOTCHY patterns of sulfuric acid burns, the black heads of cow and calf are encrusted with callosities bleached white by feasting whale lice. Winking playfully through heavily calcified eyelids, simultaneous plumes of rainbow spray geyser from blowholes in rubbery reverberations. Saluting their admirers in Hermanus with Y-shaped tails,

they dive…

unwittingly into a loitering pod of Clockwork Orange orcas who instantly give chase into deeper, darker waters. Pitilessly harried, mother watches in anguished helplessness as her baby, wide-eyed and thrashing, has its tongue efficiently removed and consumed, the rest of its carcass discarded to sea scavengers in a diasporic cloud of red.

~

“… THE INDIANS?”

“THE Gupta family,” spits the middle-aged driver. “State capture. Zuma bled us for ten years for them. Now, only poverty.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You know what else? Less than twenty percent of us even pay taxes here. And when the Africans seize a prosperous dairy farm, legally, you know what they go and do with it?

“Not much?”

“They slaughter the cattle out of hunger and abandon it.”

“Sounds like Zimbabwe. Will Ramaphosa stop this madness?”

The driver tugs off his sunglasses and, staring into the rearview, his pale face is as terrible and devastating as the African sun on thinning hair.

~

THE SHEER SMASHED-IN rockface of Table Mountain, Mandela’s muse, rushes beneath the feet of pale passengers crammed into a pill-shaped, glass-wrapped cable car bobbing up a zip line at the stomach-dropping rate of 10 meters per seconds. Woozily summitting, the blasted granite formations of the Twelve Apostles meander in ancient brokenness along the wind-flayed azure coast. The labyrinthine path abruptly ends where a mighty cleaver from the sky has hewn a yawning canyon into the tabletop. A roiling cloud-fall, shoved along by an irritable wind, thunders like a gathering avalanche as it tumbles over

the lip

and races downwards towards Cape Town sprawling under the sun.

~

WITH NO STREETLIGHTS and the windows black in unoccupied houses, the narrow road weaving through Gansbaai is shrouded in darkness. An uncannily windless night, the soft rustling of surf is the only sporadic sound drifting through ghostly still trees. A faint incandescence tinges their vague outlines and, glancing upwards, a frozen wonder provokes a long descending whistle, like a falling bomb. The sky is alive with blazing outsized stars. It’s as if its dome of enamel black has shrunk closer around the earth and been riddled with thousands of ragged bullet holes through which gush the white flames of a cosmic inferno ignited by God.

~

THE RISING SUN percolates through the dust powdered shrubs and intensifies stray tawny patches daubing the shaggy black mane. Reclining on the waterhole’s grassy bank, his flaming eyes stare out intelligently across the dreamily rolling veldt and pinpoint some source of primal knowledge in the distant shadowlands.

Oblivious to the grazing kudu meandering closer in reciprocal oblivion, he placidly blinks until–

Crack

Leaping into a tight crouch, dark tufted tail swatting, hard muscles ripple down his lean torso. Lifting its corkscrew-antlered head the kudu freezes, mohawk fur fanning upwards along its spine, the narrow white stripes on its trembling flanks reminiscent of tearing from claws.

~

NATIONAL BRAAI DAY

Dusk

Wind kicked broken umbrella tumbles down the cold empty beach

The braai terrasse nudges gently into moody Mossel Bay

And pulses orange warmth

A glowing firepit heart

Mounted on a crumbling burnt brick tor

Patiently stoked by a black hand

Flame-licked meat sizzles and pops

Greasy smoke laces shivering palm fronds

And smears a gray sky grayer

Steaming volcanos of barbecued beef as hot as beer castles are cold

On robins-egg blue picnic tables

Contented firelit faces in deep falling night

Soft Afrikaans notes and tinkling white laughter

Healing communion

floats

A distant Zulu drumbeat                unheard across restive water.

~

“GREAT WHITE STARBOARD!” bellows the grizzled skipper of Apex Predator, the aptly named shark cage diving boat. Necks craning in one fluid synchronized motion, a primordial finned shadow the color of a livid bruise approaches at torpedo depth under effortless propulsion and circles through the chum of fish parts, bone, and blood. A large pregnant female, its cramped womb a gory arena in which dominant pups practice intrauterine cannibalism upon weaker siblings, with eyes as black as war. Copper sharks flee the glide path in terror and scatter out across Walker’s Bay while rubbery nipples under clammy wetsuits further contract to the size and hardness of apple pips.

~

STROLLING ALONG THE Promenade, the brilliant midday sun catches in the mist churned up by mammoth world-weary waves loudly braining themselves in explosive spumes against the winding seawall. Paragliders leap giddily from the flat peak of Lion’s Rump hill, their sails decorating a cloudless Cape Town sky in banana-shaped slices of vivid primary color. Sitting under bustling Oranjezicht Market’s gently flapping canvas chewing on thickly-sliced chips of fresh biltong, the music is funky, and a palpable weekend happiness emanates from the chattering crowds. Their homes, barricaded like prisons by demoralizing concrete walls topped with strings of brutal razorblade wire, seem so very far away.

~

VICTIMS OF THE “Cape Doctor”, a south-easterly wind that persistently rakes the Western Cape’s coastline, the trees are broken at the hips; upper halves smashed so far backwards, their capillarial branches appear frozen into a contorted shock of electrified hair parallel to the ground. Further victimized by wildfire, their bark is seared black and peels around avocado-green clusters of desperate, tremulous leaves. The conflagration has scourged the beauty from the land all the way to Knysna Heads where, in the dire township, an arsonist peers out from behind his shanty’s rusty corrugated door. In his smoldering eyes there is not one flicker of regret.

~

THE TAUT CONCRETE bow supporting the deck of Bloukrans Bridge (Africa’s highest at 216 meters) seems to spring organically from invisible abutment points buried deep within the scrubby stone flanks of the dizzying river gorge. From a darkened recess below its midpoint a figure emerges and falls, awkward and flailing, emitting a low stifled wail only mortal terror can generate. Now in a resigned headfirst dive, arms spread wide like an upside-down Christ the Redeemer, the elastic cord reaches its maximum extension and yanks the suddenly muted sack of adrenalin back skywards in the first of a number of long…

graceful…

oscillations…

jubilant…

~

THE LAST SLICKS of deep blue leach from Langebaan Bay and the cold night sky erases the surrounding hills with its blackness. A fire crackles from within the gaping mouth of the old farmstead’s hearth casting warmth and flickering shadows over walls crowded with the disintegrating maps and oxidized paraphernalia of hunters, sailors, and lumberjacks from a bygone age. The glazy bar swims in a welcoming pool of candlelight and the dining hotel guests clink glasses and murmur appreciatively between steaming aromatic forkfuls. If that wind snapping the rigging of invisible boats beyond the dark windows bodes a storm, there exists no cozier shelter on earth.

~

THE CRUNCH OF bike tires biting into gravel is amplified in the tamped forest air. A pallid spherical specter flits above the coniferous green canopy and the tang of pine rising from the endless brown carpet of fallen needles and cones catches in the nose. Crescent horned cows watch from between the trees with the same dark brooding eyes as apartheid survivors.

The trail ends abruptly at a clifftop lookout where an emancipated sun unleashes the explosive blueness of sea and sky clashing at the feet of imperious mountains. Storms River Mouth seethes far below and the serrated coastline,

towering,

staggering,

can conceive no end.

~

THE TINTED WRAPAROUND glass at the tip of O.R. Tambo’s kite-shaped bar is designed to mimic that of a cockpit. Outside, the huge long-haul jets lumber wearily, like sad men, in and out of ambivalent wheel chock placeholders.

It’s a physical sensation, goodbye: the gluey ribcage contracting around a twitching heart, the repetitive swallowing over rising hardness in the throat, the wincing over acidic eyeballs.

I know I’ll never see this place again.

Wheels lift off the tarmac reluctantly and the 777 crawls into the sky. The sculpted contours of the terrain steadily blur and fade from view just like all those freshly painted memories inevitably will.

~

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: Fifteen Brushstrokes of South Africa), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Dear Whoever You Are: Bike Berlin


Bike Berlin

Earlier this month I spent a few days visiting friends in Berlin, Europe’s apex city on the coolness barometer. Its edgy, its gritty, and its bodies are almost as liberally graffitied as the walls around the U-Bahn (“Subway”) stations where Cold War era trains still clatter to and fro just as they did when the Iron Curtain was at its most dreary and impenetrable.

If you’ve never been, you must. After you’ve seen the regular sights, instagramming filtered pics of the Brandenburg Gate, East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., and woken up at noon the next day in a cold sweat on the banks of the Spree after an MDMA fueled all-nighter at an over-hyped techno club, here’s just the thing to (a) recover and (b) have a righteously unique Berlin experience.

Pull up your pants and finish that half-eaten congealing döner you still have a death grip on. Be sure to keep it all down, even if it means re-swallowing bits of shaved beef and onion you regurgitate into your mouth. This is breakfast and you’re going to need it to get through the first two and a half legs of the epic 7-hour (but relaxed!) Berlin bike tour I’m about to lead you through.

First Leg: Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain

 

After you rent your bike (you can get them everywhere), make a bee line to the first stop: my friend’s awesome bar Macke Prinz within a stone’s throw of famously rundown Mauerpark (“Wall Park”), former site of the Berlin Wall and its notorious death strip, now host to a ‘Bearpit Karaoke Show’, impromptu concerts, and a sprawling Sunday flea market peddling all variety of rummagables. Macke will be cicada-buzzing quiet in the early afternoon (it opens at 1:00) but, to take the last of the swelling off your bruised brain, gun a double espresso shot with a large sparkling water chaser on the sidewalk terrasse. The chirping of birds and tinkling of bells drifting over from the Zionskirchplatz Park across the street will immerse you in an amniotic sac of serenity that will leaden your feet and make you loath to leave. But it’s time to go and, not to worry, this will also be the end point of the tour where you can spend the rest of the night chatting with hip and quirky people of various ages, nationalities, and backgrounds over some quality beers.

Travel first via Kastanienallee, Kollwitzstraße, Marienburger Straße, and Hufelandstraße. These streets jackknife through Berlin’s kicking Prenzlauer Berg district. Unlike most of the rest of Berlin, which Allied bombing and Soviet artillery had reduced to a smoldering ashpit by the end of the war, some 80% of Prenzlauer Berg’s distinctive “Wilhelmine” buildings were tottering but miraculously still standing. Suffering the misfortune of falling into the clutches of the Soviet sector, they were shoddily maintained when not entirely neglected by the wretched GDR (East Germany). Rotting from the inside out for the duration of the Cold War, by the time of German Reunification in 1990, their blighted façades were more blackened and downcast than the faces of battered women.

Not anymore. Today, as you ride along confident tree-lined streets, some still quaintly cobble-stoned, they have been fully rehabilitated beyond even their original glory and boast the colors of a fruit basket:

The irony is inescapable that, standing next to the majesty of present-day Prenzlauer Berg, some of the once-coveted areas of former West Berlin (e.g. parts of the Wedding locality in Mitte) now seem little more than Brutalist prefab odes to Orwell where strawberry-haired metrosexuals, clutching neurotically at their scrawny girlfriends, would rather die horribly than be caught breathing in.

Moving along, Hufelandstraße’s sudden terminus is a leafy urban oasis, Volkspark Friedrichshain, the oldest public park in Berlin. Constructed in the 1840s to commemorate the centennial of Frederick the Great’s ascension to the Prussian throne, check out Großer Bunkerberg (“tall bunker mountain”) and Kleiner Bunkerberg (“small bunker mountain”). What’s up with making mountains out of molehills? These peaceful wooded hillocks are actually Trümmerberge (“rubble mountains”),* ‘built’ on top of wartime antiaircraft bunkers by the GDR from two million cubic meters of charred debris and unidentifiable body parts which was pretty much all that remained of district Friedrichshain in 1945. Cycle softly because you cycle on mounds of violently snuffed-out dreams.

Rumor has it a ghostly underground bunker world still partly exists beneath these “mountains” and there are secret entrances you can hunt around for if so predisposed.

Continue through Friedrichshain via Ebertystraße and Proskauer Str. Once you have crossed over Frankfurter Allee, it may be worth stopping and walking the bike down elegantly gentrified Niederbarnimstraße/Simon-Dach-Straße, heavily notched with trendy shops, restos, clubs, pubs, and cafés. An extremely popular hive of activity in the city, it’s so diverse I was struck by an interracial (and surprisingly attractive) lesbian couple strolling along, hands in each other’s back pockets and sharing a jumbo-sized bottle of beer, within literal spitting distance of a sulky young skinhead shuffling along harmlessly behind them and an elderly couple gazing down impassively from behind the flowerboxes of their balcony. In case you’re wondering, the practice of walking the streets with a beer in your paw is not only legal in Berlin, it’s so widespread you’d think the authorities encourage it.

This first leg of the tour ends at Boxhagener Platz (or “Boxi” as Berliners have dubbed it), the epicenter of Friedrichshain’s coolness. Bustling any day of the week, this box of green is especially worth a visit on Saturdays for the Wochenmarkt (“weekly market”). Chaotically crammed with food and drink stalls that will make you slobber worse than a Saint Bernard, it’s been up and running for over 110 years now.

On this corner, I was amused to see an aging communist on a soapbox being utterly ignored by the eagerly shopping crowds he was passionately exhorting to abandon capitalism. Regularly pushing a curtain of dirty hippy hair from his face as he became more animated, he was altogether unfazed by the fact that he had an audience of one: me. A foreigner pointing and laughing at him.

If you happen to miss the Wochenmarkt, e.g. because you’ve woken up in a compromising position on the banks of the Spree again, you can still go to the Flohmarkt (“flea market”) on Sunday where budding artists, furniture makers, fashion designers, etc., re-cram Boxi with stalls to flog fragments of their oeuvres, some of which are actually worth the few euros they are going for.

Second Leg: Kreuzberg

 

Exit Boxi, head down Warschauer Straße, and traverse the Spree at the Oberbaumbrücke span which links Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg (or “X-Berg” as Kreuz = “cross”). During the Cold War, Kreuzberg was the most impoverished district of West Berlin where, beginning in the 1960s, tsunamis of Turkish “guest workers” washed up “temporarily” in the so-called SO 36 part of it and, after successfully addicting the locals to their cuisine, never left. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kreuzberg’s star began to rise until it became one of the funkiest areas to live in even though it remains a hotbed of extreme-left radicalism where cars are ritualistically overturned and burned, shops looted, and cops injured during the annually scheduled May Day riots. Don’t ever tell me the far-left possesses more moral persuasiveness than the far-right… 

Speaking of left, go left on Schlesische Str. and, crossing the bridge over the Flutgraben, you’ll see that the canal is lined with cool houseboaty-looking bars and clubs.

Make a mental note to return here, especially to the place on the right, “Club der Visionäre”, arguably the best open-air bar in Berlin where, during the day, the atmosphere on the willow-draped wooden sun terrasse is so relaxed its vacation-like. After dark, the volume of the electronic music goes right up as quality DJs materialize, ignite the party, and make the night over the shimmering canal water thump like the stage’s speaker woofers. 

Continuing up Am Flutgraben back to the Spree, take a quick (or long) leer at the throngs of sun worshippers congregated in and around the elongated turquoise rectangle of the Badeschiff (“bathing ship”), all of whom will inevitably be in an advanced state of nudity.

You’ll be as pleased as me to hear that Germans are historically the most comfortably naked people in all of Europe.

If you manage to unglue your eyes from the Badeschiff for a moment and turn right you’ll see “Molecule Man”, a towering 30-meter high aluminum sculpture which is actually three giant men wrestling each other in a standing position on the surface of the water.

Backtracking via Heckmannufer, enter Görlitzer Park, graveyard of the original Görlitzer Bahnhof (“train station”) which was mortally damaged during the Battle of Berlin and ultimately demolished in 1962, the last of its fractured iron bones and petrified wooden ties leading nowhere but still defiantly visible canal side. The groups of laconic Africans loitering around the entrances to the park are drug dealers hawking product in broad daylight as unabashedly (albeit in coded language) as cheese sellers at the Wochenmarkt back in Boxi. Make no mistake, Berlin, more permissive than an eye-batting daughter’s doting father, is four-corner saturated by more illicit narcotics than Ozzy Osbourne in the 1970s. Although drug-related violence has been somewhat on the uptick recently, raising the eyebrows of those not too knee-walking to read the headlines, it’s been quite a peacefully bombed city to date.

From the park, head along the beautiful green banks of the Landwehrkanal where the body of shot-in-the-head Rosa Luxemburg was unceremoniously dumped in 1919. Unmarred by violence today, Berliners young and old laze around here dreaming their dreams.

Go all the way to Kottbusser Brücke (“bridge”) and cross to the other side. Stop for a moment here and look down Kottbusser Damm which separates Kreuzberg on the right from the district of Neukölln (which has an even larger Turkish population) on the left. After Reunification, Neukölln was such a downtrodden and wholly reviled neighborhood, an apartment on its side of the street either lay fallow or was rented out for a fraction of the price of the exact same apartment a couple of car lengths away on the Kreuzberg side. Not anymore. Even though it’s infested by organized criminal Arab clans, as prices in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg have become increasingly stratospheric, the bohemians, artists, and students have migrated to Neukölln in droves and elevated its status, phoenix-like, to the number one hot spot to live in Berlin. 

Head back along Landwehrkanal until Hobrechtstraße.

Third Leg: Neukölln, Tempelhof

 

Close to the Neukölln Rathaus (“City Hall”) is the rather despairing Neukölln Arcaden where, if you’re patient enough to pick your way up the parking lot ramps atop the mall without getting run over, you will find yourself in Klunkerkranich, a rooftop bar where the views of ever-under-construction Berlin will get you buzzed quicker than whatever alcoholic beverage you order.

That Soviet-styled needle pricking the sky in the distance is Berlin’s iconic GDR-built Fernsehturm (“TV Tower”) which sprouts from the pandemonium around Alexanderplatz (or just “Alex” as Berliners call it) in the district of Mitte. Only from the giant steel and glass disco ball bulging between the shaft and the antenna will you get a more panoramic view of the city.

If your stomach is starting to grumble, forget about that garbage you choked down for breakfast and soak up the Klunkerkranich booze with an authentic döner on Flughafenstraße. Any place along here will do but, perched unsteadily on a rickety wooden sidewalk table junkie-watching, I devoured a delectable one close to the Boddinstraße U-Bahn.

Not for vegetarians (although there are plenty of vegetables swept under that carpet of meat) but if you’re a vegetarian, I’m not sure how you found yourself in Germany in the first place. Good luck finding a soy Bratwurst (“fried sausage”)…

Thirsty again? It’s worth going via Schillerpromenade to Herrfurthstraße and grabbing a beer on the cheerful sidewalk terrasse of Café Engels. Engels? Like Kreuzberg, Neukölln is historically rife with communist claptrap even though it too was part of West Berlin during the Cold War.

Carry on down Herrfurthstraße until you find yourself gazing out across a vast lightbulb-shaped expanse of flat, sautéed-brown grass. Here is the former site of Berlin Tempelhof Airport, site of the herculean Berlin Airlift of 1948-9**. The massive crescent moon terminal building hugging the upper right side of the bulb, with its smudged façades of shell limestone the color of old newspapers and preserved air traffic control tower at the western tip, was built between 1936 and 1941 as part of the Nazi era’s colossal Welthauptstadt Germania (“World Capital Germania”) reconstruction program.*** Although the war permanently interrupted its completion, it was once rivaled only by the likes of the Pentagon as the largest building in the world and dubbed “the mother of all airports”.

Formally closed in 2008, the aircraft in the skies overhead were replaced by the circling vultures of rapacious developers, euro symbols burning bright in their eyes. Its fate hung in the balance until Berliners decided by plebiscite to leave the defunct grounds and terminal building entirely unmolested. Renamed Tempelhofer Feld (“field”), it’s the largest inner-city open space in the world.

It’s also probably the most surreal as you interminably peddle down the fat centerline markings, arrowed and faded, of the 2-kilometer long 09L/27R runway where a steady stream of wide-body aircraft once thundered and hurtled ahead of their own turbulent slurries of jetwash violent enough to blast you and your pathetic Dutch bike all the way back to Café Engels like dried leaves in the wind. The sheer bigness of the space beneath the stretched-out Montana-esque sky has the effect of reducing the scattered figures on the ground; you and the other cyclists, rollerbladers, kite surfers, allotment enthusiasts, joggers, jugglers, baton twirlers, dancers, etc., to flailing Lilliputian dimensions. It’s worth stopping and snapping some pics here. You’ll find them so infused with existential emptiness that, even unenhanced with Photoshop, you can imagine them on album covers.

This is the highlight of the tour so, if you insist on doing an abbreviated version, don’t leave this section on the cutting room floor.

Exit the airfield at Paradestraße U-Bahn station, turn right and head back northwards via Tempelhofer Damm and Dudenstraße. When you hit Monumentenstraße, you have departed the locality of Tempelhof (named after the Knights Templar and also part of former West Berlin) and come to the end of this leg.

Fourth Leg: Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, Tiergarten

 

From Monumentenstraße, reenter Kreuzberg (this time at the western end of it) via the narrow inverted pyramid of Flaschenhalspark which expands upwards into the popular Park am Gleisdreieck (PaG). The maze of railway lines around the traffic junction of the Anhalter and Potsdamer freight yards literally became a wasteland at the end of the war which, over the years, unexpectedly transformed into a refuge for a rich diversity of flora and fauna fleeing the torrid redevelopment surrounding it. So much so that, just like Tempelhofer Feld, Berliners lobbied hard to protect this unlikely ecosanctuary. And they won: PaG was completed in 2013 and is today one of the most beloved parks in the city, vestigial signaling and railway facilities emerging here and there through the greenery endowing it with a Görlitzer flair. 

Follow the route up until Potsdamer Platz; the busiest traffic hub in all of Europe during the interwar period, pulverized to dust by 1945 (and, appropriately, site of Hitler’s bunker), left an unloved and barren no man’s land during the Cold War when cleaved in two by the Berlin Wall, site of Roger Waters’ 1990 performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, locus of the largest construction project in all of Europe after Reunification, and today an impressive triangulated array of gleaming office complexes serving as an altar to free market capitalists who ritualistically sacrifice pesky May Day communists kidnapped from Kreuzberg and Neukölln as a matter of compensation for their torched Mercs.

From here you enter the Tiergarten (“Animal Garden”), the city’s second largest park after Tempelhofer Feld. It is commonly assumed that it is named Tiergarten because the southwest section is home to the Berlin Zoo. While this is true, it has carried the designation since the 16thcentury when it was so thickly wooded it served as a verdant hunting ground, chock-full of deer and other wild animals, to the rulers of Brandenburg. By the winter of 1945, however, it more resembled a lunar landscape after virtually every single tree had been culled for firewood by freezing Berliners shivering not just from the cold but also in anticipation of the imminent arrival of marauding Soviet forces. Since then, the park has been reforested to the enchantment level of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale and today you can scarcely comprehend its relatively recent devastation. With romantic canals lazily winding through it, I find it the most pleasing and relaxing central park of any city I’ve been to.

Follow the water along the south side until you get to Café am Neuen See (“Café by the New Lake”), a charmed Biergarten under high trees with swooping branches. It’s imperative to stop here for further refreshment and watch in amusement as love-struck young men, gripped in a swell of impulsive gallantry, precariously navigate rowboats rented from next door by batting uncertainly at the water with heavy oars, their attempts to woo their nervously smiling girlfriends sitting in the back enjoying limited success.

If you feel like getting even toastier, head over to the western edge of the park and discover the Schleusenkrug (“Locks Mug”), so named because it’s another merry beer garden nestled by a canal lock which serves beer in mugs bigger than your face. It also has a reputation for its top-drawer Flammkuchen, an Alsatian “pizza” I can’t recommend more strongly.

Continue on to the Großer Stern (“Great Star”), a street-radiating roundabout including Straße des 17. Juni which bisects the Tiergarten from the Brandenburg Gate at the east end to its less famous counterpart, the Charlottenburg Gate, at the west end. The street’s name commemorates the date in 1953 when the Red Army partnered with the Volkspolizei (“People’s Police”) for a successful outing of target practice conducted upon masses of disgruntled East Berliner workers. In recent years, it has played host to a number of mega-events, notably the electro blowout Love Parade in the 1990s, Live8 in 2005, the start of the Berlin Marathon, and the city’s insane New Year’s Eve bash which converges down on the Brandenburg Gate and, dwarfing the one in New York’s Times Square, is estimated to be the largest annual party in the world.

From the middle of the Großer Stern rises the landmark Siegessäule (“Victory Column”) atop of which a bronze sculpture of Victoria, the winged goddess of victory (Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess Nike), stands with an upraised laurel wreath in one hand and, firmly gripped in the other, a military spear- its standard an Iron Cross quartering another wreath between shaft and blade. With her helmet peaked prominently with a spread-winged eagle, she is also the embodiment of 19th century Prussian military might.

Quite apt seeing as, by the time the monument was finished in 1873, the Kingdom of Prussia had decisively put its adversaries to the sword in the Second Schleswig War against Denmark (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), the last of which culminated in the successful unification of Germany as an imperial power under the Prussian crown. Was it any accident that when dear Victoria was relocated from in front of the Reichstag to the Großer Stern in 1938 (another part of the Welthauptstadt Germania misadventure) her steady gaze was fixed more or less directly towards Paris…?

In any event, modern-day Berliners, who have an understandably jaundiced view of militaristic posturing, enjoy making Otto von Bismarck rotor whirl in his grave by irreverently referring to the column as Goldelse (“Golden Lizzy”). If you’re not too drunk or döner-bloated, you can attempt an ascent of the grueling 285-step staircase that tightly spirals up through Golden Lizzy’s innards and take in yet another dazzling view of the city from her observation platform.

Exit Großer Stern via Spreeweg and on to John-Foster-Dulles-Allee.

Fifth Leg: Mitte

 

The sun will be slowly bleaching out of the sky now, casting Kafka shadows down the gray banks of the Spree under a teething breeze. Follow the river past Kanzleramtssteg, up over the its arcing bell through Spreebogenpark, where talented buskers tragically play to an audience of no one (except you), and down to Marschallbrücke. This bridge is a less conventional vantage point to capture a pic of the Reichstag building; house of the Imperial Diet from 1894 until 1933 when it was almost destroyed by fire; neglected ruin throughout the Cold War; wrapped in aluminum-colored fabric by alleged artist Christo in 1995; and fully restored Bundestag (parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany) since 1999.

That teatless glass dome on the roof is a nod to the original 1894 cupola, which was widely condemned at the time for desecrating the neo-baroque lines of the rest of the building with its garish modernity, and serves as yet another impressive observation platform from which to view the city, especially at night. While the black-red-gold stripes of large German flags undulate conspicuously from its corner towers, equally large EU flags adorn its various other parts in a deliberate display of how engrained the principles of unity, solidarity, and harmony among all the peoples of Europe have become in the present-day German psyche.

Continue on down the other side of the Spree via Schiffbauerdamm and, assuming you’ve already wandered around Museum Island and stood gaping at the foot of the Berliner Dom, turn left on Friedrichstraße and follow the route all the way back to Macke (i.e. via Ziegelstraße, Tucholskystraße, Auguststraße, Koppenplatz, Ackerstraße, and Veteranenstraße). Although there are no particular sites to point out on this last sprint, delight in cycling through the heart of Mitte (“Middle”), the city’s most central district. If it has struck you that Berlin has no readily identifiable downtown it’s because, just like the country as a whole prior to unification in 1871, for centuries it was little more than a concentration of independent fiefdoms which only started getting knitted together (either voluntarily or by annexation) gradually after 1701, when the area was designated capital of Prussia, until it ultimately emerged as something resembling the incongruous quilt we have today.

Night having fallen, Macke will be hopping now. However, if your stomach is grumbling again, before settling in have a wander up Kastanienallee. For something on the fly, find the unassuming mustard-colored retro shack under the bridge by Eberswalder Straße U-bahn called Konnopke’s Imbiß. Founded in 1930, it has survived the Nazi era, the GDR era, all the post-Reunification demolitions and reconstructions, and still stands (albeit not the original shack) serving its renowned Currywurst. Sitting in the open air on a hard wooden bench, trains shaking the bridge overhead and armed with a miniature plastic fork, you’ll fish out the slices of sausage swimming in a lake of curry sauce while praying you can get it all down before the sodden carboard box teetering on your knee disintegrates. No, it’s not disgusting. It’s beautiful. And you won’t regret it.

If you’re falling down famished, stop in at the Pratergarten on Kastanienallee just before Eberswalder Straße. Founded in 1837, the Prater is the oldest and most historic beer garden in Berlin. Although it no longer plays host to bloody public boxing matches, open air theater, and incendiary political gatherings, you can still sit on the long wooden furniture under soft fairy lights strung through the trees and tuck into some traditional German food. I recommend the Sauerbraten, a seriously committed fuckoff hunk of pork served with a veritable Trümmerberg of mashed potatoes and red cabbage, all encircled by a moat of thick brown gravy. I repeat: it’s not disgusting. It’s beautiful. And you won’t regret it.

Back in Macke, bending the elbow with ein großes (“a large”) Veltins beer, you’ll get a much-needed break from drum and bass as the music in the bar is as diverse as its patrons. The last night I was there, I chatted with a 40-something German filmmaker with dark watery eyes deeply set in the sunken craters of his bulbous head. One of them interrupted the course of a thick long scar, bulging at intervals like a squashed worm, which originated on one side of his forehead, traveled all the way down the center of his cheek to the jawline, and split into an arterial delta that drained into the shadows under his spade of a chin.

I found him so amiable and frank that, after a gut-warming shot of Jägermeister, I finally collected the balls to ask, with a vague eye-nod, “so what happened there?”

“Ah this,” he said, touching the scar gingerly with one hand while taking a prolonged heater-crackling haul off his cigarette with the other, metal wrist bangles clinking together. “Little mishap on my motorbike in Mongolia. Also shattered my leg and lost my spleen,” he explained as missiles of smoke launched from his mouth and nostrils with each word. “What’s that expression in English? ‘Only a face a mother could love’ is it?”

“Yes, that’s it,” I laughed. But the scar actually suited him and his personality somehow and it occurred to me that this guy was kind of the embodiment of Berlin’s eerie dissonance: grievously broken and scarred while all the more unique and reconstructed for it, dark and simmering while cool and gregarious, edgy while relaxed, opinionated while tolerant, and most of all: limitlessly fascinating…

~

* Trümmerberge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schuttberg

** Berlin Blockade and Airlift: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Blockade

*** Welthauptstadt Germania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germania_(city)

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: Bike Berlin), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Dear Whoever You Are: The Sea (Part II)


The Sea (Part II)

More than a quarter century later I found myself in Brittany’s historic St. Malo again sitting on a rock away from the tourists, sipping beer (no cigarettes these days), and staring out over the sea where the crocodile jaw of the English Channel opens widest and devours the Atlantic. The sun was high in a near cloudless sky. It was cool and windy, a welcome respite from the crushing heat in Paris, and the air tasted like salt and fish. The tide was out, way out, exposing broad stretches of seaweed clad ocean floor, slippery jagged avenues mined with tidal pools that led to old stone forts harking back to the days of French corsairs and peg-legged pirates. Soon the tide would be coming in at the speed of a person walking quickly and, in a couple of hours, they would become craggy island clusters and I would be under several meters of thrashing water.

How apropos seeing as I was daydreaming about pirates and the horror of drowning at sea. Specifically, my imagination, warped at the best of times and depraved at the worst, had activated an image of pirates forcing a wretched captive to walk the plank over the Mariana Trench (You don’t? It’s a hook-shaped slice of the western Pacific between Papua New Guinea and Japan which is so deep, if you dropped Mount Everest in there its peak would still be two kilometers under water). Hands bound to prevent swimming and a light cannonball tethered to the ankle to ensure delivery all the way to the very bottom, what blinding terror goes through the mind of such a condemned man bobbing at the end of the plank as large impassive waves roll by far beneath his feet?

In those last few seconds before being nudged off the end by a leering gang of rum-logged sadists, could you even contemplate the steep fall through the air, sharply filling your lungs with your last breath as the water races towards your feet, the biting cold of the terrible splash, the instant tug downwards from the cannonball, the violent futile struggle craning your neck upwards as the liquid sky overhead fades and the water gets darker and darker, the pressure that crushes that last breath from your exploding lungs, resignedly breathing water as indifferent fish flit by effortlessly, and then the limp 10-kilometer descent to rest alone forever in an impenetrable blackness occupied only by a handful of undiscovered microorganisms. Not even this ghastly prehistoric deep-sea motherfucker can make it far enough down to visit your lonely bones:

Still, I thought to myself, it would at least be a pretty quick death and once you’re dead you don’t care if your final resting place is in literally the most remote, dark, and empty place on the planet, right? Right?!* I think I would prefer it to being trapped beneath the deck of a slowly sinking ship. After a couple of agonizing hours of gradual listing, the bow sinks awkwardly lower. You and your doomed companions instinctively pick your way as far aft as possible where a bulkhead blocks any further retreat. Bone-white panicked faces pressed against the portholes now mostly underwater, you listen to the rivets in the hull groaning louder under the increasing strain. The bow finally slips under the waves shorting out the lights and the slow, steady descent begins. Anguished wailing fills the compartment as the rivets pop out like champagne corks and geysers of seawater, stronger than firehoses, flood the compartment. The ship is almost vertical and, as you furiously tread water, there are only a few centimeters of air left between your gasping mouth and the bulkhead. Pounding your fists against the pitiless reinforced steel, you’ve almost exhausted the adrenalin coursing through your egg-beating legs and you cough up your first briny mouthful. You –

“What’s going on up there?” asked my let’s-sneak-up-from-behind-and-startle-the-shit-out-of-him wife, tapping my temple with her forefinger.

“Gaaaaaa!” I shouted almost falling off my rock. “Who are you? Where did you come from? And why are you impersonating my aunt?”

“I’m done shopping and came to find you! It’s almost time to get on the ferry.”

“The fe-fe-fe-ferry. Right. The ferry. Looks pretty rough out there. Let’s wait until tomorrow.”

“What are talking about? It’s perfect weather!”

“As soon as we get on board, I’m dropping my pants, bending over, and getting a shot in the ass. With any luck, I’ll never wake up.”

“You’re making less and less sense every day!” she cried, throwing her arms skyward. “Come on, let’s go!”

“Oh alright,” I grumbled, hopping down gingerly with my busted knee. Picking my way across the moraine-like seabed I stumbled across a sodden old running shoe, so battered only a faded outline remained of its Nike Swoosh. This instantly reminded me of the single running shoes, with feet still inside them, that have been mysteriously washing ashore in British Colombia and Washington State since 2007. Conspiracy theories abound but the most likely explanation is that the feet belong to suicides who ended it by hurling themselves into the complex waterways of the Salish Sea. As it happens, human bodies that don’t succumb to predation (i.e. get eaten by some giant honking sea beast) first will naturally “disarticulate”, or come apart at the joints, hands and feet first. Because a running shoe encases the foot in a flotation device, it’s little wonder they occasionally wash up on the shore (while the feet of suicides in stilettoes, for example, are never heard from again).

“What are you doing now?!” called my wife who had marched on ahead.

“Checking for feet!” I called back as I flipped over the shoe with a stick and sighed in disappointment to see it was empty. Tossing away the stick, I trudged after my wife who was walking away fast and, for some reason, holding the front of her head in her hands as if something was imminently going to burst forth from both temples.

Having finally been wrestled onto the ferry, we were underway and bound for Jersey, a Channel Island 65 kilometers straight north off the coast of Normandy, to commiserate with a friend also sentenced to turn 50 this year. The boozy Brits were in a carnival mood, swilling cheap lager and biting into heavily battered wedges of slippery battleship-gray matter with devastated pre-orthodontics era British teeth. When Whitney Houston drifted through the pipes, my ears started bleeding and I fled to the upper aft deck. Thanks to a taut wind and dark incensed clouds, I was mostly alone and (guess what?) my mind drifted out over the waves.

And waves are what I started thinking about. Rogue waves. Unlike tsunamis which have an identifiable cause (earthquake, volcanic eruption, glacier calving, meteorite impact, etc.,) and can be tracked, rogue waves do not have a single distinct cause, are unexpected, appear out of nowhere and, with heights towering up to 30 meters (100 feet), are the suspected culprits in the sudden and mysterious sinking of countless vessels, some as large as ocean liners. In 1995, the cruise liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 encountered and survived a 28-meter rogue wave in the stormy dark heart of the North Atlantic. Sometime later, from the psychiatrist’s couch, her Master recounted that it abruptly “came out of the darkness” and “looked like the White Cliffs of Dover”. To stave off capsizing, the ship had to literally “surf” the near-vertical monster wave…

Alone now on the ferry’s deck (probably because I had been unconsciously talking aloud to myself about killer rogue waves) in the dwindling light, I squinted out towards the distant gloom on the horizon and could have sworn I saw a Dover-cliff-sized wave frothily materializing there. I slowly clawed at my face in dread until I realized it was just the coast of France. That terrified me even more so I fled back below decks, ordered a double from an aging bar wench whose bony structure protruding from loose clothing and splintered teeth reminded me of a praying mantis, and hid in a broom closet until we slipped past stony Elizabeth Castle’s runway of a breakwater and mercifully docked in St. Helier.

After a merry couple of days romping around Jersey, with its windswept near-empty swathes of sandy beach still wistfully guarded over by old German bunkers, we returned to St. Malo where my rock was now invisible beneath a strong hightide breaking its back against the city’s fortress walls. We rented a car and spent the next few days zipping around upper Brittany and lower Normandy.** I delighted in getting lost in the narrow country lanes (i.e. after Google Maps lost its signal, which it frequently did) lined by dense cornfields with stalks as high as those that doomed characters get chased through in the movies. We were never truly lost though because, inevitably, the rolling patchwork of chlorophyll green, bark brown, and lemon yellow would disintegrate into a yawning blue vista where the boundless sea met the boundless sky and invited us down to yet another dazzling beach.

Although the sandy sections of these beaches were littered with bloated tourists half-drowned in suntan lotion and melted ice cream, it was easy to find seclusion along the rockier bits where the ocean had excavated shady hollows at the base of monolithic striated cliffs. One clear sunny afternoon, I discarded my sandals and abandoned my wife in one of these spots to wade in the gentle surf. After much splashing around like a toddler stomping in puddles, I came upon a small spiral shell, intricately painted in deep mauves and oranges. Examining the twisting pattern, which was somehow like a murmuration of starlings, I was once again struck by nature’s artistry, the magnificence of which, in my opinion, has never been matched by any human hand.

I was also reminded of the Fibonacci sequence. You don’t? This 13th Century Italian mathematician stumbled upon it by accident when tinkering around with rabbit populations of all things:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…

Each number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers. Almost childlike in its simplicity, right? But there’s something else. If you divide any number by the previous number, you will get approximately 1.618 every single time all the way down the sequence to infinity. This banal enough looking number is actually much sexier than its famous relative, pi, and has been dubbed phi, or “The Golden Ratio”. Why? Because it is ubiquitous throughout nature from the microscopic to the cosmic. It describes, amongst countless other examples, the:

  • Ratio of anionic to cationic radii of all atoms;
  • 3-dimensional geometric helix shape that exactly mirrors the known ratios of our DNA molecules;
  • Ratio of females to males in any honeybee colony in the world;
  • Configuration of branches and leaves on trees and petals on flowers;
  • Proportions of human beings including height, eyes, ears, and even the relative dimensions of a woman’s uterus;
  • Relationship between the eye, fins, and tail of marine mammals;
  • Dimensions of the earth and moon and distances between the planets;
  • Structure of Saturn’s rings; and
  • Quantum mechanics of black holes.

As I stood transfixed by the shell, I remembered that the Golden Ratio of its spiral is synced with those of our fingerprints, hurricanes, and our very own Milky Way. Not to mention when a rare and unpredictable rogue wave rises up from the sea, ultimate symbol of the random dangerousness of nature, crests and breaks over a mighty container ship containing all variety of human endeavor and snaps it in half like a matchstick consigning everyone and everything on board to the lonesome deep (except for those containers with some buoyancy, perhaps stuffed with Nike shoes, that scatter and drift half-submerged along the temperamental currents of the open seas as spectral hazards to other vessels), it does so in compliance with the Golden Ratio.

There is an underlying pattern to everything.

The cliffs behind me suddenly caught on fire as the sun slung further into the west. I saw that the shade my wife was sheltering in was retreating so I plodded back to her.

“Don’t!” she snapped, straight-arming me the palm of her hand, her eyes unreadable behind bug sunglasses.

“What?”

“I don’t want to hear anything about walking the plank, drowning on sinking ships, rogue waves, or washed up feet in running shoes, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!”

“Here,” I said, pressing the shell into her hand and folding her fingers around it.

“A shell?” she asked, perching her sunglasses on top of her forehead.

“A gift from God,” I said.

~

* Near death out-of-body experiences hint at something else but that is a subject for another blog.

** Advertising pitch! When you go, you must go for dinner at L’Abri des Grèves (http://www.labridesgreves.fr/) in coastal village Cherrueix in Brittany (https://bit.ly/2PIE2jg). There you can sit on the terrasse beside the sea, spectacular Le Mont-Saint-Michel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont-Saint-Michel) looming prominently in the background, and have a huge plate of the freshest, tastiest mussels you have ever eaten washed down with a pint of the local cider for about 17.00€. Go for it!

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: The Sea (Part II)), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Dear Whoever You Are: The Sea (Part I)


The Sea (Part I)

When I immigrated to Canada, it was done the old-fashioned way: by sea. To preempt the typical sarky comments from my alleged friends, no this is not a nostalgia piece harking back to the Golden Age of Sail and yes, commercial aviation had made some advances beyond dirigible balloons. Furthermore, I was only a toddler so I actually have no recollection of the weeklong voyage. By all accounts though, it redefined the concept of a “rough crossing”.

Only at sea about half an hour after weighing anchor in England, the ship was shaken bow-to-stern by a grinding crash. It hadn’t run aground but, convinced a collision with something had occurred, the crew about-faced the ship and beelined back to port. Hours later, an inspection concluded that no collision had occurred and the ship was perfectly seaworthy. Off we went again, passengers and crew alike suppressing nagging doubts: something had traumatized this ship… we heard it… we felt it…

Three days later, the black waves of the mid-Atlantic, large and angry by nature, were lashed into erratic towering walls of spume-streaked water under a howling gale. Lacerated by lightning, the even blacker sky vomited rain on our ship, now an insignificant white fleck bobbing in the boundless churning darkness. Almost unbroken thunder boomed through the chaotic violence like a commander’s voice through the fog of war.

It was only in this aquatic hellscape the crew finally ascertained the cause of the mysterious crash three days prior: the ship’s stabilizers had broken. This meant that the ship not only lurched up and down the mountainous crests and troughs of the waves, it also simultaneously rolled back-and-forth sideways. The combination of stomach-draining seasickness and abject terror led to 90% of the passengers and crew gratefully dropping their pants, bending over, and getting a needle in the ass that knocked them out cold for the next 48 hours.

I wasn’t one of them though. Apparently, I spent the entire duration of the storm obnoxiously scampering around and shrieking with delight every time the bow pitched so insanely downwards and to the side, it seemed certain to everyone (except me) it would finally descend into the deep and Davy Jones’s Locker* for good.

Despite the fact that today I get motion sickness just from walking down the street, I wonder if this is where my enduring love for the sea was born. As a young boy, I devoured every Adventure of Tintin I could get my hands on. Not because I cared less about that sanctimonious asexual boy-scout Tintin himself, with his insufferable cowlick and kickable white mutt, but because I adored crusty old sea dog Captain Haddock, irredeemably drunken and foul-mouthed and only remotely happy when at sea. I also read C.S. Forester’s 12-book Horatio Hornblower** series about twelve times, each volume a bible codifying the rum, sodomy, and the lash traditions of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I dug up everything I could read about the Titanic disaster and repeatedly watched the brilliant and terrifying film Das Boot. All things nautical all the time!

MY MOTHER: What are you reading about now?

ME: Cannibalism on the high seas.

MY MOTHER: What?

ME: Great stuff. Sailors lost at sea and starving to death. Had to draw straws to decide which one would get killed and eaten.

MY MOTHER: How nice. You know, most boys your age are reading the Hardy Boys.

ME: They ate everything. Skin, organs… genitals

MY MOTHER [slapping her sides]: I’m going shopping now. I may never come back.

ME: They cracked open the bones and sucked out the marrow… Raw bone marrow!

MY MOTHER [halfway out the door]: Bye!

ME [talking to myself]: And when they finally got rescued, they got charged with murder. Not fair really. What choice did they have…?

My boyhood years were also punctuated by summer trips to England which, not surprising given it is impossible to be more than 70 miles from the coast, cemented my obsession. Clambering along the jagged lichen-encrusted shoreline of East Anglia**, the steady crashing of surf over dangerous rocks and nostalgic wail of gulls under clouds pregnant with rain was like siren song to me, as mesmerizing as the ghostly merchant vessels off in the distance silently tilling the cold gray waves of the North Sea.

“What’s going on up there?” asked my aunt tapping my temple with her forefinger. “You look bewitched.”

“I was wondering how deep it is. How many shipwrecks are on the bottom? How much treasure? How many skeletons? How many people get sucked out in riptides each year? Do they get eaten? I wonder if there are killer whales out there. Or great white sharks? Or giant octopus? I wonder how many unexploded mines there still are. Do they ever sink any of those ships out there? I– ”

“Thank you for that,” said my aunt curtly and, impersonating my mother, turned on her heel and marched off through the wind-battered scrub grass.

“What?” I called after her through cupped hands, mystified. After all, back in those days there was no Google or Wiki in your pocket (in fact the Internet was an embryonic mystery known only to the U.S. Department of Defense and God) so I was forever asking myself questions only trips to brick-and-mortar libraries might answer.

“Now… never… swim… sea… no… again!” she called back over her shoulder, half her words scattered by a stiffening breeze.

Some years later, not far into my twenties, I was fecklessly bumming around Europe after graduating from university. One day, in the early evening, I found myself in a tiny Portuguese fishing village sitting on a rock sipping beer, smoking a cigarette, and staring out over the Atlantic. Although a powerful storm earlier in the day had left the shoreline looking like something ransacked, the water was now calm, it’s gently rippled surface glittering fuzzily under a yolky sun which was flattening out steadily behind a thin bank of white cloud deep in the west.

Studying the turbulent little eddies lapping around the foot of my rock, I was distracted by a small group of women of varying dimensions and ages emerging from the lengthening shadows in the village. Gypsy-like in their colorful bandanas and floor-length skirts, they trundled towards the creaking wooden dock chattering quietly. As I watched them, one broke off and approached me with a wave.

“American?” she asked gesturing at my New York Yankees cap.

“Sure,” I said with a shrug, once again too apathetic to explain to strangers my England/Canada dissociative identity disorder.

“Cigarette?” she asked making her index and middle fingers a V in front of her brightly lipsticked mouth. She was probably still in her thirties, but the sun and wind had so prematurely seamed her face it reminded me of an old baseball glove.

“Sure,” I said handing her one with a sigh. I fumbled for my Zippo but stopped when I saw her quickly squirrel away the cigarette into one of the many folds of her skirt.

“Is okay… is for the… the man,” she said haltingly.

“What man?”

“The man man. The… how you say… husband man.”

“Ah yes, your husband. Of course. Where is he?”

“Out there,” she said turning her head, worried eyes blinking into the sun, now a defiant orange fireball drowning fast on the empty horizon. “He a…. a fishes man.”

“Right. A fisherman. Got it.”

“He come… now… he come soon… home…”

“Very nice. Lots of fish, huh? Suppertime?” I asked making eating gestures and rubbing my stomach.

“No… no fishes… no good today… not so much fishes.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it.

The sun perished and the lantern room of a crumbling stone lighthouse perched at the end of a nearby spit of land flickered to life. Under the winking yellow eye of its revolving lamp the silhouettes of three rickety dinghies, their outboard motors coughing and sputtering, were approaching the harbor. “Oh! Oh!” squeaked the woman lightly bobbing on the balls of her feet. “He come! He come!”

Without another word she scurried off, clutching at her skirt as she danced around the beach debris, to join the others huddled at the end of the dock. Buzzing in anticipation, they swung bat-length torches through the gathering darkness. In a hail of shouted greetings, the dinghies cut their engines and their rusted hulls scraped noisily against the barnacle blistered stilts of the dock. Beneath their woolen beanies, the faces of the men were downcast, strained with fatigue and resignation as a few small silvery shapes flipped around in the mostly empty nets tangled around their feet. They clambered out into the extended arms of the women who, eyes pinched closed in gratitude, bearhugged them and pecked at their bearded faces with kisses.

The reunited pack trudged back up the dock arm-in-arm, my woman’s “man man” sucking thirstily on my cigarette. By the time it occurred to me to go down and offer the group the spare packet I had in my backpack, they had disappeared into the obscurity of the village’s narrow alleys, residual voices and laughter quickly dissipating until the only sound left was the hushed lullaby of the surf, it’s soft notes my only company.

I cursed myself for wholly selfish reasons: perhaps in return for the cigarettes they would have offered me to join them in their unvarnished camaraderie which in that moment, despite their obvious poverty, I felt a tugging urge to be a part of. I had been traveling alone for some time and when I turned back and looked out over the ocean, I felt lonelier than the isolated lighthouse, it’s metronomic beam vainly sweeping an empty dial of restive blackness, vast watery cemetery interring centuries of shipwrecked hopes and dreams.

A gull cried plaintively as it wheeled overhead against the bright smear of the Milky Way. I closed my eyes and, like a marooned Odysseus yearning for Ithaca, I yearned for Montreal thousands of miles away across the deep dark sea…

To be continued…

~

* Davy Jones’s Locker: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Jones%27_Locker

** East Anglia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Anglia

Rough sea

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: The Sea (Part I)), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Dear Whoever You Are: Groundhog Day in Paris


Groundhog Day in Paris

Day 1 (early afternoon):

I snapped my laptop closed with a self-satisfied smirk and wandered out into the kitchen humming tunelessly. Peeling a banana, I continued to hum through the noisy mouthfuls.

“What’s going on, here?” snapped my wife, suspicious eyebrow raised.

“What do you mean?” I garbled through half-masticated banana.

“I mean, you’re smiling. You never do that. Even on the rare occasion you’re happy. So stop it, it’s freaking me out.”

“I just ordered my brand-new Kindle Whitepaper on Amazon,” I declared, holding my arms aloft like a conductor before an orchestra ensemble, my banana my baton. “Got 20% off too for doing a 30-day free Prime trial. Just after I ordered it, I got an email with a tracking link and it’ll be here tomorrow before eight in the evening. It’s already left the warehouse! Already on its way! A miracle of efficiency!” I cried, slashing away at the air merrily. “Say what you want about giant multinational Death Stars! At least the customer always comes first no matter what! A concept treading softly on an alien planet here in France! I mean– ”

“Have you already forgotten about IKEA last year?” interrupted my wife dryly, gleeful malevolence smoldering in her eyes. “Isn’t that a big multinational, hm?

My arms collapsed to my sides and the banana slipped through my suddenly trembling fingers and fell to the floor with a fleshy thwack. Immediately in the throes of the vivid flashback to angrily sleeping on the floor for days before the useless IKEA bastards finally came and only assembled a couple of pieces of our furniture before giving up and leaving at 1:00 pm on the grounds of being too tired to carry on, I threw back my head bawling a long string of ugly profanities and shaking my fist at the high ceiling upon which I was actively hallucinating the faces of my legions of enemies staring down upon me smugly, their long necks with their reedy snappable windpipes hopelessly beyond my strangling grasp.

“That’s much better,” said my wife with her hands planted in firm satisfaction on her hips. “I recognize you again!”

Day 2 (early afternoon):

Although en route since early in the morning, my Kindle had not yet arrived. Still, I was itching for my life-affirming afternoon jaunt to the Jardin du Luxembourg. Restless, I got online and double-checked the assurances that in my absence, the delivery would be made to a secure location on the premises (i.e. mailbox, a neighbor, etc.) Before I continue, here is a picture of my mailbox:

To be clear, there is a good 3-centimeter space for a Kindle-sized package to be dropped in. Not to mention there is also this mailbox for larger packages:

I therefore set off for the gardens with guarded confidence that my package would be delivered if it arrived while I was out. When I got home a while later, both mailboxes were empty. I got online to check the status and almost spat on my monitor when I read that a first delivery had been attempted and another would be made the next day.

“You’ll just have to stay here tomorrow until it arrives,” said my wife brightly later that evening as I moodily stabbed at my dinner with my fork and fantasized the food on the plate was the remains of the genitals of the pillock who had failed to deliver my Kindle.

Day 3 (early afternoon):

Although en route since early in the morning, my Kindle had not yet arrived and I was gnawing on the heel of my thumb desperately wanting to get outside.* Toying with the idea of playing drinking games with myself to pass the time, my phone dinged in my pocket. A message from Amazon: because you were not home yesterday, delivery of your package has been delegated to a third party who will today, if you are once again absent, ensure delivery to a secure location on the premises (i.e. a mailbox, a neighbor, etc.)

“Hooray!” I shouted, clapping my hands together and promptly setting out to the gardens. When I got home a while later, both mailboxes were empty. Ascending the creaking spiral staircase in my building, from below I could see that on the landing something had been deposited on my doormat. Although wracked with irritation that, with the exception of the sidewalk outside, my Kindle had been left out in pretty much the most insecure place possible, I was still more relieved than anything else.

“What the fuck is this?” I muttered after tearing open the package breathlessly on the landing. The 13.00€ Kindle CASE I had ordered with the Kindle was what the fuck that was. “No, no, and no again,” I moaned softly as I banged my head against my front door until there was a squishy soft spot in the middle of my forehead not unlike a bruise on an apple.

After letting myself in, I threw myself into my desk chair with a sigh and wearily checked the online status of my Kindle: a second delivery had been attempted and a third and last would be made the next day. Another failed delivery would result in the package being returned to Amazon for refund.

“Don’t leave tomorrow even if the building is on fire,” said my wife brightly later that evening as I stared at her darkly and fantasized about hanging the delivery man tomorrow from his own intestines and leaving him out on the landing for her to come home to after work.

Day 4 (early afternoon):

Although en route since early in the morning, my Kindle had not yet arrived and, in order to stave off the insidiously encroaching claustrophobia, I was entertaining the notion of seeing how many times in a row I could masturbate at the age of 50 (the highwater mark on that score being 5,687.5, set when I was around 14 years-old). Prior to commencing, I halfheartedly got online to check the status of my package and felt something from deep within my temporal lobe, about the size and hardness of a walnut, start to aggressively pulsate: a third attempt had been made and “due to technical difficulties, you must contact Amazon immediately to reschedule delivery.”

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: You are obviously very upset, sir, but our delivery man swears he did not have the door code to your building.

ME: Open up my address on Amazon right now!

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: Yes, okay. The… ere. Okay, I see it.

ME: Read out to me what it says in the field “Ajouter instructions de livraison”.

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT [voice quavering]: It says “Code d’entrée: B6821”.

ME: You’re goddamn right that’s what it says! But you’re telling me I didn’t provide the door code, right? Even though the day before and the day before that, the delivery man had the door code but was just too braindead to put the package in my mailbox!!! So, it’s my fault, right? Right?!

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: No, no, sir! It’s not your fault! Of course, it’s not your fault! I’m going to tell them myself your door code so NO PROBLEM tomorrow.

ME: You remember what else you’re going to do, don’t you?

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: I think you said to hang myself by my own intestines, was is?

ME [roaring]: No! Before that, you imbecile!

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: I’m going to tell them to put it in your mailbox because you won’t be home waiting for it.

ME: Correct! Then what are you going to do?

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: Hang mys–

ME: No! Before that!!!

TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: Yes, yes, I remember now. I’m going to send you an email confirming all of this.

ME: YES!

“Don’t leave tomorrow even if YOU are on fire,” said my wife brightly later that evening as I paced back-and-forth in a corner, my dinner untouched, stroking a medieval battle axe I had purchased at the Clignancourt flea market earlier in the day.

Day 5 (early afternoon):

Although en route since early in the morning, my Kindle had not yet arrived. I was too tired and defeated to dream up some diversion from my anxiety. I expended an inordinate amount of energy just to go online and check the status of my package, my fingers leaden as I typed. My bloodshot eyes stared incredulously at the monitor: a fourth attempt had been made and “due to technical difficulties, you must contact Amazon immediately to reschedule delivery.” I felt my mind slipping away as I was tugged inexorably into Dante’s fifth circle of hell, a slimy length of drool escaping the corner of my mouth and slithering down the front of my shirt.

I opened Gmail and lethargically banged out a brief reply to the Terrified Amazon Agent’s confirmation email from the day before:

Despite your verbal promises to me on the phone and this written confirmation, I have just been notified of a fourth delivery failure due to “technical difficulties”. I require an immediate and detailed explanation for what today’s particular problem is.

Two seconds later, my phone dinged:

Veuillez noter que je suis présentement en vacances avec la famille. Je reviendrais le 30 Août. Pendant cette période, je n’aurai pas accès à mes courriels.

SECOND TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: You are obviously very upset, sir, but our delivery man swears that your street in Paris doesn’t exist.

ME [through gritted teeth]: I’m emailing you a photograph right now. Here it is:

ME [cont.,]: You have it? Good. See that big fat main street that goes straight through the middle of the picture all the way to Saint Germain?!

SECOND TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: Yes, sir.

ME: Do you believe that is a real street in Paris?

SECOND TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: Of course, sir.

ME: And you don’t believe I photoshopped that street in just to fuck with you?

SECOND TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: No, sir. Of course not, sir. I know that street well.

ME: THAT IS MY STREET THAT YOUR DELIVERY MAN SAYS DOESN’T EXIST!!!

SECOND TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: I understand your frustration, sir. I promise there will be no more mistakes tomorrow. They have the address, they have the door code, and they have clear instructions to put it in your mailbox.

ME: You know that’s exactly what I was promised yesterday. You remember what happens if this promise is broken again?

SECOND TERRIFIED AMAZON AGENT: If it takes you the rest of your life, you will hunt me down and hang me by my intestines in front of my family.

ME: YES!

“But don’t you have a lunch appointment tomorrow?” my wife asked brightly later that evening as she knelt in front of the closet where I was huddled, gnawing on my toenails.

Day 6 (early afternoon):

Although en route since early in the morning, my Kindle had not yet arrived. Barely caring anymore, I set off for my lunch appointment. Halfway through an enchantingly good burger in quality company, my phone rang. Unknown French number. I know who this must be, I thought, as icy dread began coursing through my veins.

“He… hello?”

“Hello, sir! I have an Amazon delivery for you, but I have absolutely no idea what your door code is.”

Five minutes later I woke up lying naked on my back in the kitchen of the restaurant surrounded by alarmed staff. My friend was kneeling beside me waving his hand in front of my face, his own a mask of worry.

“What… what happened?” I murmured.

“Man, you just went totally batshit screaming ‘B6821’ over and over again. What does that mean?”

When I got home a while later, both mailboxes were empty. Ascending the creaking spiral staircase in my building, from below I could see that on the landing something had been deposited on my doormat for anyone to swipe. Taking the stairs two at a time despite my broken knee, there indeed lay my long-awaited package. A sticky note fluttered on its surface:

Sir, here is your package delivered to your doormat as requested by you. For future reference, please consider requesting a more secure location for drop-off.

Beneath the message, the delivery man had drawn a smiley face.

A couple of hours later I woke up lying in the fetal position on the landing clutching my package as if it were a baby freshly plucked from a warzone. My wife was kneeling beside me waving her hand in front of my face.

“It finally came!” she said brightly. **

~

* I have significant claustrophobia issues, a topic for a future blog.

** I interrupted my blog on the sea (motivated by my recent trip to Jersey, Brittany, and Normandy) to cathartically write this. Stay tuned…

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: Groundhog Day in Paris), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Dear Whoever You Are: The Nature of Things


The Nature of Things

Not long before the kickoff of the World Cup Final, I wandered up in the steaming heat to my favorite local pub in Paris with subterranean expectations of finding my usual spot on its narrow side terrasseunoccupied. With a resigned sigh I saw that all the tables had predictably been relocated to the main terrassestretching out into the street in front of a couple of jumbo TV screens. About to turn on my heel and sulkily go home, I caught a fleeting glimpse through the swarming crowds of my little table sitting alone, almost forlorn, it’s one battered wicker chair empty.

“Hooray!” I shouted. “Out of my way!” I shouted again as I aggressively shoved and elbowed my way through the thickets of fans. The chair groaned and almost tipped over as I threw myself into it. White-knuckling the sides of the table defensively, I bared my teeth and snarled like a wolf protecting its pups.

“Are you sure you want to sit here?” asked the remarkably affable waiter. I stared at him incredulous and speechless because it was the very first time since living in France I had received immediate, friendly service anywhere. Normally you wait, and you wait, and you wait until you’re gradually infected with a nagging suspicion that you’re at imminent risk of dying of old age.

“Um… yes… absolutely,” I stammered finally. “Thank you!”

“But you can’t see the game from here!”

“I know. I don’t care,” I said with a wave and ordered my beer. I didn’t either, especially as I was inwardly siding with Croatia after the French had uniformly foamed at the mouth cheering on Croatia in its semi-final tilt with England. No, I was more interested in watching the crowd, bedecked in French flags and faces garishly painted in bars of blue-white-red, watch the game. That was the novelty I was expecting (even though I was also distracted by following a riveting Wimbledon match on my phone), i.e. studying masses of French people in a state of intoxicated joy and national pride. Who knew?

Towards the end of the match, when French victory (you rarely see those two words in such close proximity, do you?) was all but assured, I heard a radio blasting For the Love of Money.* The source was a 250,000€ hunk of elegantly chiseled red Ferrari snaking slowly through the increasingly turbulent crowd, now interminably chanting “Allez les Bleus!”, its jewel-encrusted driver insistently leaning on the horn and high-fiving people through the sunroof. Observing this intently I noticed a young man, innocuous enough at first blush, discreetly dragging a key fist along the side of the car. This act of vandalism was in vain however. The keys didn’t make so much as a scuff mark and I can only imagine that’s because Ferraris are painted with some other-worldly liquid steel emulsion which renders them immune to the slightest abrasion, even from nuclear blasts.

For some reason, as I picked my way home through the ever-accumulating party detritus and half-blinded by smoke bombs, I kept thinking about the attempted keying. What was the motivation? It wasn’t racial as both driver and keyer were white. I concluded it was simply an expression of anger and disgust directed by the keyer against an arrogant rich bastard flaunting a toy worth more than he was likely to earn in 10 years. “If I can only ever dream of driving around in a car like that then I’m going to attack the dream you have the nerve to live,” I guess the thinking goes when consumed by envy for that which is forever out of your reach.

I have more faults and weaknesses than a supercomputer could enumerate but I’m extremely fortunate to have never in my life been seized by this insatiable appetite to ravenously gobble up material things, all the while coveting those I don’t have the means to acquire. Apparently having been vaccinated against this soul-destroying disease at birth, I even resented the modest car I bought out of sheer necessity to get to and from work back in the 90s. Sure, after driving it home all shiny and new, I spent about 5 minutes admiring it parked out front rubbing my hands together maniacally muttering “It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.” But once I sat down and calculated that more than a quarter of my monthly take-home salary was going to be pillaged by the bank, the real owner of the car, insurance, gas, and maintenance, I found myself unconsciously making a key fist as I again stared out the window at my new possession, this time with untethered loathing.

Three years later, in ’97, I was driving a rented motorcycle across a Greek island buzzing like a junkie as I watched the dusty late-afternoon sunlight splinter through soft clouds and litter the turquoise ripples of the Aegean with shimmering globules of gold. I had quit my job, sold my millstone of a car, and run off with the proceeds for a 2-month long rampage, er I mean tour, through Europe. Now THAT was a worthwhile way to blow money. Breathtaking, unforgettable experiences. I vowed there and then to never own a car again: total hassle to maintain; shit for the environment; shit investment, halving in value the moment you drive it out of the lot; stupidly expensive; and totally unnecessary if you are willing to use the two legs God gave you and live anywhere with half-decent public transport.

Ten years later, in ’07, still steadfastly car-less but becoming increasingly sick of flushing my money down the toilet every month on rent, I became a homeowner for the first time when I purchased a condo in Montreal’s Plateau district. Unlike the car, this time my Gollum-like pride and possessiveness lasted the duration. I certainly didn’t like the taxes, the condo fees, the maintenance, and my ghoulish neighbors who would call the police if I so much as farted an octave too high after their snotty-nosed little instrument-torturing brats had been banished to bed at sundown. Nevertheless, it was my home, not some wasteful contraption to deliver me from A to B, and I adored it.

Another ten years later, in ’17, it was time to move to Paris and I sold the condo. Although that was a very tough horse pill to swallow, the profit-taking sugar-coated it plenty sweet enough to go down. I pooled the proceeds from the condo sale with those already invested in the market and realized that, over time, the returns from my portfolio would match or beat most conventional real estate investment. Not to mention I was now liberated from all the attendant hassles of homeownership. My wife and I resolved not to buy real estate again until such time arrives, if ever, that we’re done moving around and traveling and find that idyll, if it exists, to permanently put up our feet and peacefully grow old (or older in my case).

In any case, by far the most liberating process I undertook in preparation for the move to Paris was purging virtually all of my moveable material possessions. I’m not just talking about tossing the mountains of junk that inevitably pile up year after year living in the same place (yes, it is JUNK, you pack rats – you know who you are!) Realizing I had never once gone through them, I also tossed boxes full of pictures taken in the medieval era of analog photography which I had enlisted pack oxen to cart around my whole life. This included tossing all the pictures, reams of cards, letters, etc., of and from exes, the gunpowder residue of broken relationships that for some reason people, including me until then, preserve as if happy pictures and words from long ago at the bottom of a box in storage might one day sooth the painful memories that have mostly faded away anyway. It also included giving away almost all of my books because it suddenly occurred to me that, for most of us, it’s neither intellectual nor cool to build an expansive personal library. Unless you plan on reading them again, what is the use of hoarding books that do nothing but collect dust on multiplying shelves and bookcases when other people could be reading them?

As I sat on the floor of my empty condo on the eve of moving to Paris, here was the sum total of my belongings in ascending order of monetary value:

  • Small box containing my old dog’s ashes
  • About fifty old photographs
  • About ten favorite books
  • Clothes (most of which a hobo wouldn’t be caught wearing)
  • Watch
  • Phone
  • Wedding ring
  • Computer

They say that when people lose their homes and all their possessions in a devastating fire, they undergo a short-lived phase of acute grief which is quickly followed by a euphoria-inducing sense of total emancipation from not just their material things but the past itself. This is precisely how I felt but minus the grief phase as I had deliberately set my own bonfire alight and gleefully watched it burn. During those last heady days in Montreal, I felt so unencumbered my feet barely seemed to touch the ground as I Gene Kellyed my way through the streets. So much so, I resolved to maintain the high and stick to that bare minimalism for the rest of my life.

So far, I have been successful. Apart from furnishing our apartment in Paris with basic IKEA fare that will be sold or given away when we move on to the next destination, I have added nothing to the list above. I did replace my aging PC with a very expensive MacBook Pro to complement my very expensive iPhone. The computer and phone I’m willing to spare no expense on because (1) they (or rather the clouds they access) literally contain my entire life (contacts, calendar, notes, documents, photos, music… EVERYTHING) and (2) I spend most of my waking life on them when not traveling. And that is the third thing I’m willing to spare no expense on: traveling. I have no issue bleeding money to expand my repertoire of experiences, but I will not do so on things. Those bothersome, wasteful thingy-things!**

And don’t get me wrong. I love money. I’m not ashamed to say it and I’m currently enjoying my progress becoming a day trader in the stock market. I have never believed all the bullshit that money ultimately makes people unhappy.*** On the other hand, there is no doubt poverty always makes people unhappy, often violently unhappy. There’s no imperative to get rich, of course, but in the unlikely event I ever do find myself rich one day, I will never want to own a big house. Why? Because I’ll never need one, I don’t want to have to fill it full of junk (I repeat: it is JUNK, you pack-rats!), and I don’t want to have to maintain it. And I’ll certainly never buy myself a Ferrari or anything like it. Not only because I’ll never need one, it’s gangsta showing off and when you’re gangsta showing it off at the next World Cup final, someone less fortunate than you will inevitably be approaching it/you with a key fist… or worse.

~

* Old classic by the O’Jays: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcrppevM46Q

** I confess I intend to add an e-reader to the list but only so I can electronically borrow books and not have to bother with physical ones any longer.

*** Not sure why I’m suddenly reminded of this classic quote from English footballing legend, George Best: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: The Nature of Things), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Dear Whoever You Are: Too Darn Hot


Too Darn Hot

Starting last weekend, the Dog Days of summer arrived in Paris with a full-throated howl. It’s the kind of heat where sitting perfectly still is a sweaty workout and you spend half your time with your head shoved in the refrigerator. If you venture outside, the streets shimmering and warping before your eyes through heat mirages, you beeline for the nearest supermarket and loiter in the freezer section until you’re kicked out. You wake up in the middle of the night not knowing where you are until it dawns on you that, in your sleep, you have migrated to the relative coolness of the hardwood floor where you lie spread-eagled and panting on your back. Despite your discomfort, you decide to stay there the rest of the night and in your fitful sleep you wistfully dream about being a polar explorer trapped in arctic pack ice.

When the alarm went off last Tuesday, I managed to drag myself up off the floor to my knees and crawl over to the corner where my phone was charging. When the weather app informed me the heat wave was to continue on for several more days I collapsed again and, rapidly blinking at the ceiling, mulled the merits of drowning myself in the Seine.

Suffice it to say, I abhor the heat and helio-thermophiles are more mysterious to me than aliens. For example, despite the sizzling heat, my wife and I went for a walk along the Coulée verte René-Dumont* and, staring in horror down below at the hordes of sunbathers, slathered slick with lotion and sprawled out like corpses strewn across a battlefield, I could almost smell their flesh roasting; I could almost hear their melanomas metastasizing. What pleasure does anyone possibly get from that? And just how is scorched brown, prematurely wrinkled skin attractive?

Given that I have lived most of my adult life in Montreal, where to say “winter is coming” takes on an even more portentous foreboding than in Game of Thrones, people are sometimes taken aback by my almost xenophobic helio-thermophobia. If the winters, which rival Moscow’s for plunging mercury and bury the population up to their hardened nipples in snow, last the better part of 6 months then wouldn’t the heat of summer, when it finally arrives, be a sweet and blessed relief? In fact, here is a meme doing the rounds in Montreal where there was record-breaking heat last week:

This “friendly reminder”, however, fails to acknowledge that in Montreal the steamy summer heat (taking into account the damnable humidex), which has claimed 54 lives so far this year, handily beats the extremes of winter (taking into account the damnable windchill factor) at the other end of the thermometer. For years now, I have passionately argued that we have every right to bitterly bitch during summer heat waves on the grounds that no matter how cold it gets in winter, even when the mucus in your nostrils starts to freeze and your eyelashes become prettily beaded with ice pellets, there is no reason for you to die or even be uncomfortable if you have proper tip-to-toe winter clothing. And once you stagger in from the cold, there is nothing more pleasing than (in no particular order): lazily steaming the cold out of your bone marrow in the tub, tucking into a plate of hot comforting food, watching TV under thick blankets with a hot water bottle stuffed down your sweater for good measure, sitting around a roaring fire, tossing back a hot toddy, climbing into a big soft bed and slipping into a deep dreamless sleep after outrageous sex with your better half. Thank you, I’ll take that any day of the week over sleeping alone in a pool of sweat on a hardwood floor.

Still not convinced? What if you were given the unpalatable choice of either being cast out into the desert to die in the heat or cast out into some arctic waste to die in the cold? Here are the two scenarios:

Desert: First, you will undergo the process of dehydration. Beyond becoming so thirsty you would murder a child for a glass of water, you will feel agonizing pain as your kidneys send less water to your bladder and your blood becomes thick and sluggish. Your heart will start to race like a helicopter to maintain oxygen levels and your already wrinkly skin from too much dangerous sunbathing will begin shriveling up like an apple core left out on the counter. On top of that you will experience heat stroke. This will cause excruciating headaches no amount of codeine could relieve, confusion, and even dementia. Once your body temperature cracks 40° C under your beloved sun, the proteins in your body will literally start frying, particularly those in your brain (assuming you even have one considering you opted for this scenario). After your damaged kidneys stop functioning properly you will be officially dying, your vital organs commencing the slow process of shutting down. Although you will temporarily faint from time to time throughout the ordeal, you will remain conscious right up until the horrific end when you suffer a massive fatal heart attack much to the delight of the cawing buzzards that have been merrily swirling overhead for the past few hours. Not exactly a party trick. You chose poorly.

Arctic waste: It is undeniable that, initially, you will experience significant pain from being so cold. Soon though, as hypothermia sets in, your sensory organs will become numb and unresponsive. And not only that, your body will likely even undergo a “warming” phenomenon as it experiences “temperature confusion” (it is not uncommon for frozen corpses to be discovered buck naked and surrounded by discarded clothing). Although you will experience some unpleasant hunger and nausea, these will give way to apathy and sluggishness. Then you will be overcome with drowsiness and torpidly plop to the ground wherever you find yourself. Although your vital organs will also commence the slow process of shutting down, you will not be in pain and you will enjoy some trippy hallucinations that will remind you of your youth when you experimented with acid. In the end, although you will also die of a massive heart attack, you will have slipped peacefully into oblivion (i.e. a coma) well before it strikes. Not too bad, no? And no irritating buzzards either. You chose wisely.

Don’t get me wrong. When I lived in Montreal, by the end of February, a month in which weather is blamed for annual surges in suicide rates across Southwestern Quebec, I too suffered acute SAD-ness** and fled to Cuba to roast myself half to death under the iron-hard blue Caribbean sky. But it’s fundamentally different coping with oppressive heat when you’re on a short, all-inclusive vacation at a resort right on a charmed white sand beach. You spend the entire day, every day, lying under the shade of a palm frond beach umbrella. The only time you ever expend any energy is when you tilt your head down to suck greedily on the straw violating the large, hollowed-out coconut full of rum your fingers are stretched around. When it gets too hot to even manage that, you simply wade out into the bracingly cool turquoise sea and flap around in the playful waves under lovely, goosepimple-inducing breezes. Utterly refreshed, you clamber out and collapse back under your umbrella calling for another coconut.

Indulging in this kind of sun-drenched decadence in the depths of winter, especially satisfying when you sadistically imagine your colleagues still slaving away at their desks after barely staving off hypothermia getting to the office in the morning darkness, always reminded me of the heroically indolent lifestyle of male lions:

MALE LION [waking up at noon with an almighty yawn]: God it’s hot on the savanna today…

FEMALE LION [scowling]: Finally awake, are we? I’ve been up for hours chasing around after your rotten, good-for-nothing kids. Most of them aren’t even mine, you know. Little bastards.

MALE LION [rolling over on his back and stretching his massive paws up into the sky]: Good. Very good. Oh my, it’s too hot today. I think I’ll take a little nap.

FEMALE LION: You just woke up!

MALE LION [hauling himself to his feet and giving his regal mane a good shake]: Ugh, very well. Perhaps I’ll take a nice dip instead. Don’t you find it too hot today?

FEMALE LION [sarcastically]: As opposed to yesterday? Or the day before that? Or the day before that? We live in Africa!!!

MALE LION [lazily swishing his tail at the flies harassing his big swollen balls]: Yes, indeed. I suppose we do. When’s breakfast, woman? I’m starving.

FEMALE LION [shrilly]: Breakfast?!

MALE LION [cocking his ear to his grumbling tummy]: Mmmm, I fancy a bit of gazelle today for a change. Starting to go a bit off zebra all the time.

FEMALE LION [red-faced, with her paws on her hips]: Did it ever cross your mind that you could do the hunting just for once? Especially if my food is getting soooooo boring for you. You’re supposed to be an apex predator! You’re supposed to be the fucking king of the jungle?!

MALE LION [flumping back down again and examining his long, lethal claws]: Never mind. It’s just too hot today. I suppose Zebra will be fine again. Don’t forget to save a bit for yourself.

FEMALE LION [fat vein pulsing metronomically down the middle of her forehead]: Anything else, your majesty?!

MALE LION [hesitantly]: Do you think you could maybe find me one of those big hollowed-out coconuts full of rum I’ve been reading about? I’m so thirsty under this cursed sun but I can’t be bothered to go over to the pond.

FEMALE LION [turning and marching away, tail swishing furiously]: Gaaaaaa!

MALE LION [sighing wearily]: It’s tough to be the king…

So, you see how the infernal heat can even be responsible for marital strife at the upper echelons of the animal kingdom. Moreover, despite the Tweeter-in-Chief’s brainless bluster about global warming being a hoax invented by the Chinese, our planet is undeniably getting apocalyptically hotter each year.*** Not too fussed by all that? Well, then listen to this peppy Cole Porter cover from 1990, a testament to how heat even destroys sexual desire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMt8MgbXPGc

~

* Paris’s version of the High Line park in New York City and well worth checking out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coul%C3%A9e_verte_Ren%C3%A9-Dumont

** Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder

*** Here is the evidence from NASA: https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

© Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Dear Whoever You Are: Too Darn Hot), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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