Thursday, 31 December 2009

Old photos and travel memories

Going through old photographs the other day looking for something in particular (which I didn't actually find) I came across two from the time when I lived in Freiburg, the only two photos of that time that I possess. They're taken in the Alte Shlacthof building, converted into flats, and that was where I lived. This building no longer exists – not long after I lived there, in 1974, that street, Faulerstrasse, was pulled down, so that the motorway could be extended right into the city centre. Even when I was there, there were demonstrations against this proposed extension but of course, it went ahead anyway. The buildings were not listed, they were not particularly old or beautiful, red-brick and serviceable, but neither were they ugly, and they provided cheap accommodation, mainly for students.

The photos are taken, clearly, in the kitchen. The one on the left is of me and James, Gray's brother, and the one with several people are James on the right hand edge, then Gray's Mom, me, Gray and a visiting Dutch friend whose name I think was Albrecht. I hadn't met Albrecht before he turned up at the flat one day, but he said he was a friend of Henk, who'd given him my address.

Gray and I had visited Henk in Amsterdam earlier in the year. I met Henk and his friend Ben in Zahedan at a stopover between the Pakistani border and Tehran. Henk and Ben had also been travelling in India and Henk had kept a meticulous and wondrous record of his time there, not just writing in journals, but also pasting in the kinds of things that are unobtrusively part of your travelling life, train tickets, bits of cigarette packets, receipts, all the little things that only become evocative when you look back at them. At the time they were simply part of life and nothing much in themselves.

I admired Henk's meticulous compilation of memories, and wished I'd thought to do the same. Yet somehow knew that would not work for me. Even the journal that I'd kept had been lost in Chapora, Goa, eaten by a hungry holy cow it was surmised, which also ate a pot of lentils and ripped the tent in its eagerness to get at anything edible. Though it did not touch the Bhagavad Gita or Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, the only two books I brought with me. After this incident, I stayed with Vinayak's kind and friendly family, who shared their rice with me, gave me a mat on the porch to sleep on, and made me the present of an boiled egg, a very special gift, when I left.

So when Henk showed me his marvellously evocative and neatly pasted and captioned journal I was filled with a mixture of admiration and a vague kind of disbelief that anyone could be so supremely organized. There was also, if I'm honest, a seam of envy in my attitude towards that superb record of his journey. I'd intended to write as much as possible about my impressions of these places I'd passed through, an odyssey for me really, beginning with the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, and the night drive through France, the straight and tree-lined roads and the yellow headlights of the cars, finally arriving further away from home than I'd ever been, crossing a new border at Basel, into Switzerland. Bâle! Epitome of the strange, the foreign, the exotic!

Later, there was the San Bernadino Pass, Como, Venice, and the train through former Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, then on to Istanbul, a 4 day train through Turkey, to Tehran buses across Iran and Afghanistan, another bus from Quetta to Amritsar and a train to Delhi, so cold I got into my sleeping bag, and there was freezing fog in Delhi. A train from Delhi to Bombay/Mumbai and a boat to Panaji, Goa. Where it was hot.

And where my messy untidy and probably self-indulgent and introspective journals were devoured. No great loss really. I was a very beginning writer. It was only when I returned from the East and was living in Freiburg that the words began to flow, poems, and stories, though not very much if I remember rightly, about the travels.

From Desert Trails:
That night in Zahedan, remember? /Sitting huddled round a stove, drinking pots of tea/drawing lots for who should fetch the sugar/and once outside, wishing the desert would go on for ever/and knowing you'd have so much to say/so much to talk about/among the cacti and the green and purple rocks.

Pieces of writing about the great journey only came later, back in Scotland. Discrete and scattered accounts. Freiburg writing was fiction - or poems to do with the present. Memories of that time are all full of sunlight and tree blossom, the cherry trees weighed down with vast bunches of enormous deep red cherries.

The only rain I remember is one wonderful thunderstorm when I was out at the Burse, Littenweiler, the student residencies where most of my friends lived. I was standing outside, enjoying the rain, and Paul called out from his window, shouting wait for me, I'm coming out! and he ran downstairs and joined me outside and we both danced around in the rain.

There was rain in Amsterdam when Gray and I visited it. We were looking for Albert Cuypstraat, Henk's address, but Henk was not in. Gray and I were walking along in the dark rainy street, it was quite late at night, not knowing what to do next, when a figure draped in a vast waterproof cape, pushing a bicycle, walked towards us. It was Henk.

1 comment:

three sea horses said...

what great photos - so evocative of 'those times'! and what travels.. didnt realise you had done so much travelling back then. i knew you had, but .. funny how we can know people and still discover more hidden corners..
happy 2010!