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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Rimbaud Among the Coffee, and Other News

March 4, 2015 | by

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Rimbaud in Harar, Ethiopia, ca. 1883.

  • Fiction has seen a preponderance of nameless narrators lately—in stories of the apocalypse, stories of exile, and/or stories of just about anything else. “The first few months of 2015 alone have brought us the following books with nameless protagonists: Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country, Greg Baxter’s Munich Airport, Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard, Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents. Surely others have escaped my notice. It’s an epidemic of namelessness.”
  • In 1880, Rimbaud arrived in Ethiopia—it was called Abyssinia then—“sick and completely helpless.” He was twenty-six and had taken on a job “consisting in receiving shipments of bales of coffee”; he lived in a house of clay walls with a thatched roof. But really he was seeking something more metaphysical: “I sought voyages, to disperse enchantments that had colonized my mind … My life would always be too ungovernable to be devoted to strength and beauty.” He had a great time until his leg had to be amputated.
  • Yasmina Reza on the title of her new book, Happy Are the Happy, which comes from Borges and came to her on an airplane: “The condition of being happy, in other words, can only be obtained by those who are happy. This is so paradoxical, so enigmatic, so Borges. You can turn that idea over and over in your mind.” (Read her interview with the Daily here.)
  • On copyediting and class: a copy editor’s job can be “a soul-crushing enterprise … Magazines are rigidly hierarchical places … the work of the copy editor is largely disdained. And because their work is so undervalued, copy editors (and fact checkers) routinely work significantly longer hours for much less money (sixteen-hour days without overtime pay aren’t uncommon) … they’re often dismissed as fussy or obsessive … In the Calvinistic world of magazines, maladjusted grammar weirdos simply fall to their natural station.”
  • “Here is a good example of how inconsistently the term transgressive is applied to some and not to others—that V.C. Andrews in Flowers in the Attic wrote about brother-sister incest (and a semiforced initial coupling at that) and that book sold over forty million copies. More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors. I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for.” An interview with Matthew Stokoe.

Advice for Travelers: Beware Cannibals!

February 10, 2015 | by

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A map by John Cary of “Independent Tartary,” 1811.

A letter from Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning from February 1803. Lamb, an English essayist, was born on this day in 1775; his correspondence is known for veering into what he called “nonsense.” Here he responds to news that Manning, one of Europe’s earliest Chinese Studies scholars, will embark soon for China and Tibet—he went on to become the first Englishman to secure an interview with the Dalai Lama. “Independent Tartary” is an outmoded term for Central Asia.

My Dear Manning,—The general scope of your letter afforded no indications of insanity, but some particular points raised a scruple. For God’s sake, don’t think any more of “Independent Tartary.” What are you to do among such Ethiopians? … I tremble for your Christianity. They will certainly circumcise you. Read Sir John Mandeville’s travels to cure you, or come over to England. There is a Tartar man now exhibiting at Exeter Change. Come and talk with him, and hear what he says first. Indeed, he is no very favorable specimen of his countrymen! But perhaps the best thing you can do is to try to get the idea out of your head. For this purpose repeat to yourself every night, after you have said your prayers, the words “Independent Tartary, Independent Tartary,” two or three times, and associate with them the idea of oblivion (‘t is Hartley’s method with obstinate memories); or say “Independent, Independent, have I not already got an independence?” That was a clever way of the old Puritans—pun-divinity. My dear friend, think what a sad pity it would be to bury such parts in heathen countries, among nasty, unconversable, horse-belching, Tartar people! Some say they are cannibals; and then conceive a Tartar fellow eating my friend, and adding the cool malignity of mustard and vinegar! … The Tartars really are a cold, insipid, smouchy set. You’ll be sadly moped (if you are not eaten) among them. Pray try and cure yourself … Shave yourself oftener. Eat no saffron, for saffron-eaters contract a terrible Tartar-like yellow. Pray to avoid the fiend. Eat nothing that gives the heartburn. Shave the upper lip. Go about like an European. Read no book of voyages (they are nothing but lies); only now and then a romance, to keep the fancy under. Above all, don’t go to any sights of wild beasts. That has been your ruin. Accustom yourself to write familiar letters on common subjects to your friends in England, such as are of a moderate understanding. And think about common things more … You’ll never come back. Have a care, my dear friend, of Anthropophagi! their stomachs are always craving. ‘Tis terrible to be weighed out at fivepence a pound. To sit at table (the reverse of fishes in Holland), not as a guest, but as a meat!

God bless you! do come to England. Air and exercise may do great things.

Talk with some minister. Why not your father?

God dispose all for the best! I have discharged my duty.

Your sincere friend,

C. LAMB.

Think Big

January 14, 2015 | by

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

We are told it is a liability to be thin-skinned, and it’s true that these are bad times for it. When an Internet slight makes you question your path in life, an encounter with a surly stranger results in canceled plans, and the day’s news derails your day, you are at the whims of fortune. And a life without perspective, like a painting, is disorienting.

But the porousness goes both ways, doesn’t it? And if everything looms large, the world’s kindnesses are equally outsized, like in that store Think Big, which only carried enormous versions of things. Maybe you didn’t want a giant jar of mustard. But the fact that it existed meant that you could also have a six-foot Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2, so. Read More »

The Cousin

January 5, 2015 | by

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Alfred Sisley, La Terrasse à Saint-Germain, Printemps, 1875.

One summer, a woman I know worked at a farm in the French countryside. I know this because I rented her Brooklyn apartment while she was gone, a massive space owned by a family of mysterious busybodies in a building filled with unsavory characters. My friend was enrolled in a program that places volunteers on farms around the world in exchange for room and board; the estate where she ended up had vineyards and produced a small amount of wine. 

The estate was large and beautiful and decrepit, and owned by a titled Englishwoman who claimed to be descended from royalty on the wrong side of the blanket, plus a number of minor literary figures. This woman was tall and imposing and draped in robes, and followed at all times by a pair of wolfhounds.

The volunteers did work in the vineyard by day. At night, their hostess demanded entertainment. Each evening brought with it an amateur theatrical, a series of tableaux vivants, a concert. It became clear that no one was there by accident; their hostess had reviewed all the volunteer applications and selected only those guests who had some sort of theatrical or artistic background. My friend, who had attended art school, was made wardrobe mistress. She also had to perform in a production of The Swan. After the end of a long day in the fields, this was the last thing anyone felt like doing, but the hostess would brook no opposition. Read More »

Going Aboard

December 16, 2014 | by

Retracing Moby-Dick on a nineteenth-century whaler.

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Photo: Ben Shattuck

­­­When Herman Melville was twenty-one, he embarked on the whaleship Acushnet, out of New Bedford. We all know what that led to. This past summer, Mystic Seaport finished their five-year, 7.5-million-dollar restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, the sister ship to the Acushnet. The Morgan is in many ways identical to Melville’s fictional Pequod, save that sperm whale jawbone tiller and a few other sinister touches. Mystic Seaport celebrated the completion by sailing the Morgan around New England for a couple months. I went aboard for a night and a day, intent on following in Ishmael’s footsteps, hoping to breathe a little life into my idea of the distant, literary ship. Below are passages from Moby-Dick that involve the Pequod, followed by my own accounts.
Read More »

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The Windows on the World Finalists

November 25, 2014 | by

Earlier this month, we announced our Windows on the World contest, giving readers the chance to have the views from their windows sketched by Matteo Pericoli. We’re happy to share the views from our five finalists—their photographs and essays are below. We’ll announce the winner on Friday.

Zara Khadeeja Majoka, Lahore, Pakistan

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Zara Khadeeja Majoka

My window looks out at the ugly, unpainted, pipe-decorated gray concrete side of the neighbors’ house. Parsimony has preached to many in Lahore that having only the front of your house painted is enough; if your neighbor’s soul shrinks at the sight of the frowning, naked gray concrete, well then they must deal with it. And so, of course, that is what I must do. Joohi is a flowering vine that produces small, fragrant pink and white flowers as lovely and delicate as its name. I had some of the tiled floor beneath my window removed to reveal the soil and planted joohi; within three months, laden with flowers, it had made its way up to my second-floor window. Some days the liveliness of joohi would seem absurdly lovely in contrast with the concrete peeking in from behind its spread. On other days, the unavoidable sight of the concrete still menaced. I am aggressively ugly, it said, and I will outlast your fragile, pretty vine. I needed a tree, I decided, and opted for a peepul, a tenacious tree that clings to whatever scarce particles of soil it finds and is often found sprouting out uncannily from walls and roofs and pipes. I had some more of the floor cleared and planted a sapling. My parents warned that in sixty or so years its unfurling roots could destroy the foundations of both our house and the neighbors’. I pointed out that we were all likely to under-live this problem, so they agreed. I think it will be a year before my peepul reaches my window with its beautiful heart-shaped leaves, the tips of which extend like sweet, elongated musical notes. A peepul tree grows and grows and lives for hundreds of years. Four-thousand-year-old clay seals from the Indus Valley Civilization depict deities standing inside the sacred peepul, Vishnu is said to have been born under a peepul and Gautama Buddha is said to have attained nirvana while meditating beneath one. I only wish to watch mine grow, and know that it will outlast the concrete.

Roderick Moody-Corbett, Calgary, Alberta

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Roderick Moody-Corbett

A pair of broken clocks, stilled at odd hours (impossible to say who gave first), rest on the window’s scabbed wooden sill. A garage, the key to which I seem to have lost, if I ever owned (I am house-sitting for friends on sabbatical in Germany), overwhelms my attention, invariably. In the summer, neighborhood cats laze on its mossy slopes. Today, the snow-capped roof is empty. My own cat, nose pressed to the window (she remains one paw too pudgy for the sill), regards this vacancy with an amount of nostalgia, amusement and regret.

Shadows twitch on the clapboards; magpies tinsel the eaves. Funny, I often forget about the short blue stool sitting below the windows whose shades are unevenly drawn.

Fixed to the garage is a slant metal trellis with small lantern feeders sprigged to its rails. The feeders appear empty. If I knew where they kept the birdseed (probably in the garage), I might fill them.

Heidi Lang, Innsbruck, Austria

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Heidi Lang

From my window, I see a building with scant, round windows, like portholes on a cruise ship. Hulking over the ship are the Alps. After having spent so many years on the Great Plains, in a sprawling river city with few dominant shapes, seeing the mountains every morning still surprises me.

My corner apartment is cramped, but from my wraparound balcony I can see in every direction. I can see the school across the street, which keeps its fluorescent lights on even after the neighborhood Lokal has stopped serving Zipfer. I can see hiking trails, but not their avalanche warning signs. I can see a moped shop, but more often I hear it. Hemmed in by the mountains, the city is small enough and the streets congested enough that the fastest way to get around is by bicycle. I walk.

My balcony keeps quiet company with the balconies of neighbors. There’s the elderly gardener, who lives with his wife in the stern of the retired ship. One afternoon he snipped grapes, bunch by bunch, from the single row of vines in his garden, collecting the harvest in a five-gallon bucket. There’s the woman who grew up in the guesthouse that once stood where my apartment does now. She lives with her middle-aged daughter, who shouts cheerfully to me from her balcony.

On a rare sweltering day, the neighbors and I spent the afternoon on our balconies in various stages of unapologetic undress, dutifully not noticing each other. The hot wind billowed in the bed sheets I’d hung up to dry. I sat in a deck chair. The woman who grew up where I live now sat on her terrace, her eyes closed and her short hair gathered up in what looked like a swimming cap.

Simon Rowe, Himeji City, Japan

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Simon Rowe

Time has gathered Japan’s villages into towns and cities, even turned some into metropolises, but the cho, or neighborhood, remains the heart and soul of the nation.

Mine resembles an overcrowded circuit board with its dense clusters of houses spanning a century in design and its winding pathways, which deliver children to school, businessmen to bus stops, and elderly to their kitchen gardens. This is Kamiono-cho, in Himeji city—where the westward sprawl that begins in Osaka finally runs out of steam.

Bamboo grows as thick as a man’s leg in the forests beyond the neighborhood, lofty and mesmerizing when the valley winds blow. In Autumn, the smell of burning rice chaff reaches through the window, signaling the end of the harvest season and the start of the festivals that celebrate its bounty. Taiko-drum volleys rattle my window, just as the earthquakes do.

Snow dusts the rooftops in winter. Through the opened window, knife-edged winds carry a whiff of Siberia—chilling, yet invigorating. Spring sees cherry blossoms garnish the neighborhood and family picnics mushroom beneath them. Then the blossoms fall, like the brief and beautiful life of a samurai, with the first spring rains. Summer arrives and the window is shut to the whining insects and the suffocating humidity, which descend on the city. The pane rattles once more with the typhoons of late summer; TV antennas waggle on tiled roofs, momentarily lost to the rain.

The old neighborhood, once famous for strawberry growers, is vanishing. Where fruit grew, model homes now stand. Outside them, housewives gather on dusk to chew over the day’s proceedings and await their children’s return from school. Long after dark, the buses will disgorge their tired husbands, who will drift heavy-hearted back to their homes and sleeping families.

Jessica Thummel, Denver, Colorado

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Jessica Thummel

The man who previously lived in my apartment had lived here since the early eighties. He was a hoarder and apparently died alone in my bedroom and wasn't found for weeks. I often think about him and how this view must have changed over the course of those thirty years. All around, buildings and houses and businesses have come and gone, and yet the distant horizon has stayed the same. It’s comforting to think of the writing life in this way. To see those mountains, far off in the distance, and know that they will always be there, ready to be climbed, no matter how many new obstacles or roads intersect in the foreground.

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