Before Us / Beneath Us

Posted on 20 August 2018

There are over 6 million people artfully scattered and stacked in tunnels beneath Paris. The problem of overflowing and stinking cemeteries in the late 18th century was answered with the availability of tunnels leftover from limestone mining centuries prior. Between 1786 and 1860, bones from a handful of cemeteries were relocated into these passageways, but more than that – bones were carefully arranged into decorative walls and pillars. The catacombs of Paris aren’t open in their entirety to visitors, but their sheer volume is conveyed by the mile that is.Paris Catacombs I

It takes about 45 minutes to wander through the ossuaries. The scale of death expands and compresses. Each bone you see belonged to a person, a life in its expanse – and bones are stacked above one’s head, well over an arm’s length deep, noted because there are arm bones in the stacks, skulls interspersed carefully and artfully in the front before the organization dissolves into piles toward the back, less visible. It’s entropy made visual, I suppose. Life becomes bones becomes dust.

Paris Catacombs II

Six million people is over a billion bones. Six million people is, perhaps, half a billion filaments of love. Six million people is more stories than that. Take your range of emotions, the number of people you care for, the depth of your own universe; multiply it by six million. That’s the Paris catacombs. By 7.4 billion – that’s the world today. By over 100 billion – that’s the number of Homo sapiens who have ever lived.

Paris Catacombs III

For those who don’t know, I work in environmental policy. Every day I am confronted with the enormity of my work, the depth of need, the near-unstoppable momentum of societies through time. One person can make a change, but that is a rare person. Most of us will be bones in the ground or ashes in the sea and memory of us will fade away, like those of my great-great-grandparents. Perhaps an accomplishment will live on, will nudge society’s trajectory. But here I am, trying with much of my might – and I alone cannot stop climate change. Or whatever it may be.

Paris Catacombs IV

There’s the world outside, and there is the space within. Everyone is home to their own expanse, their own universe, and it’s hard – perhaps impossible in full – to completely comprehend the vastness of another’s, though they certainly exist in parallel. When you feel a total loss or an encompassing joy, the impact of that emotion is your universe.

What I’m getting at is, while you perhaps cannot change the universe, you can change a universe.

Paris Catacombs X

Each skeleton has its story, and most skeletons, I think, shaped another’s story. I am telling myself that matters, too.

A Taste of Bruges

Posted on 4 August 2018

The two most common reactions I’ve gotten when I mentioned visiting Bruges have been, “oh, it’s so cute!” and “oh, it’s really crowded.” Both are true; it’s crowded because it’s cute. And yet, we managed to miss the crowd crush and enjoy our few days in the city.

Bruges Markt

We arrived by train from Brussels (so comfortable! so convenient!) and wandered through the drizzle with our backpacks to where we were staying. This set the tone for our stay: walking under grey skies and in the rain. We did get some sun while there – and some strong downpours – but in large part, we had to content ourselves with being wet. We still walked around, but I suspect many others did not, leaving the streets to those of us who accepted getting damp.

Bruges StreetBegijnhuisje, Bruges

Bruges is a canal city, and the center of the city is surrounded by a circular cut lined by a trail, parks, and even some windmills. Pedestrians have right of way everywhere, and taking cars into the city center is discouraged. As such, Bruges is tremendously walkable and that’s how we explored the city – by foot, for kilometers.

Bruges SwansBruges Canal

I’m an adamant proponent of wandering around in new places. Rather than pursue one sight after another we covered as many streets as we could, yes, seeing sights along the way. Walking outside of the center’s core also meant that we were often the only people walking on a given block. Wandering these streets gave us a better glimpse of residential life in Bruges, and allowed us to slow down and notice the details.

Bruges LightBasiliek van het Heilig Bloed

I also appreciated Bruges’ waffle stands, its chocolate shops, the veggie burgers and fries on offer, and the beer (the lambics!). What a treat to stroll around, taking in the sights, and when it began to utterly downpour, duck into a bar.

View to Jan van Eyckplein

On our last morning there, I ran the canal around the city center. The parkway stretched out ahead, windmills marking the way into the distance, and the canal reflected the blue of the sky that had been lacking for most of our stay. I decided I needed to come back – not just to Bruges but to other Belgian cities we hadn’t been able to visit. And by bike.

Run around Bruges

Walking around Bruges may not have been the most adventurous thing I’ve done, but it was downright pleasant.

A Haunting

Posted on 10 June 2018

My most vivid memory of Saint Petersburg is this:

Listen. The cold sun glares at me as I walk along the Fontanka embankment. I walk southwest to where the canal meets the Neva, and then turn around and walk back on the other side. I keep my gaze fixed straight ahead and step in time to the music in my ears. The grey of the streets and the buildings blends with the blue of the sky where the white light of the sun rubs them together. As a woman, I stick out with my flat shoes and casual clothes, but I’m stopped and asked for directions anyway. I’ve been here long enough, have been walking around long enough, to often answer.

Fontanka Embankment

I walked a lot. I walked from school to where I assisted English classes to where I DJed at a club to meet friends at various chain cafes to where I stayed. At the time, it was a compulsion, almost. I didn’t know what else to do and I did not want to be anywhere. Walking was being alone, it was creating a space for myself with my music, floating through the public but detached, aloof, closed.

Specific sites were ignored for whatever streets I knew I could follow and not get lost on. But I walked through courtyards that struck me more than any palaces. They had a story I could relate to somehow, some way. They spoke to me and did not affront me with their grandiosity as men with piss-wet pants lay and old women prostrated themselves on the sidewalk before them. The contrasts frightened me. I was stabbed to the core. Fellow students drank in bars as I sat with them counting my cash and choosing the cheapest drink on the menu. I let myself withdraw from the frivolity and the laughter. I couldn’t.

Discomfort dogged me where I stayed. Resentment at my hosts for picking on my misunderstandings and American accent spun into resentment of myself: what are my struggles when they survived the Siege of Leningrad? So I turned this fury outward again, wishing I could spit at the people lining Nevsky as Victory Day approached with posters of Сталин, наш герой—Stalin, our hero. People pushed me on the tram, on the metro, as I waited for friends in front of the bookstore. Move, girl, they said. Pushed me to the side like everything else, away.

Frozen Fontanka Eternal Flame, Mars FieldI looked at everyone else through a sheet of glass. I couldn’t quite make contact. Maybe it was language, maybe it was my disturbance—or should it have been labeled political awareness? I was apart from those who were having a good time, and I was apart from those who were truly suffering, or who had across history. Ghosts following me batted at my head, “you don’t deserve sadness.” As I lay with my upper body spread across the kitchen table, my hosts, ghosts in their own way, repeated: “you haven’t seen life, you don’t deserve sadness, don’t drink.” I would retreat to my room and, where no one could see me, place my fingers on my throat in the shape of a gun.

The conclusion came to me: I’m weak. I should be having a great time, this is a special period of my life, and yet. Undeserving. Unattractive in my gloom. Unwanted. The sunset grabbed onto the sky for extra time as the May days lengthened. I walked down the embankment, flowers for my hosts, the blokadnitsi, in hand as fireworks burst over the rooftops in celebration of ending a period of death that really did not end. There was a group of men at a corner by my house who stuck their cell phones in my face and took photos as my hands shot up, blocking them, blocking them all.

Victory Day Fireworks 2009

Disturbance reverberated in me, and why? I increasingly separated from others because they didn’t have it. The annoying it, that made me half a second too slow to smile, that oozed from me and polluted everything. Perhaps it was my novelty, but a Russian group of friends continued to invite me to events and I was grateful in a way, as I glided along with them like a shadow, watching. Or maybe a black hole, absorbing.

As the days grew lighter, as the sun became sharper, nearly all of the novelty from the slushy and dusky winter of my arrival had worn off. I packed my bags as the semester ended unable to comprehend my exact feelings about leaving. In the early morning, the moist air sat heavy and cool on my shoulders I sat across from the statue of Pushkin waiting for my bus to Helsinki.

Pushkin Statue, St. Petersburg

Months later, in the village pub, one of my professors looked at me very earnestly, with a caring that I could rely on, and said, “since you’ve returned from study abroad, you’re so much more confident. You just don’t care what others think anymore.” And though, at that time, it wasn’t yet fully true, maybe the battering had hardened me somewhat. But there were still raw wounds. Every so often over the years, a scab will break and there’s an open pit beneath it, and I can tumble in. Russia did not give me that, but it did scrape off a scab.

Throwing oneself around the earth has implications. If done well, it can be molding. One can absorb and learn and be better, only there’s much of this world that is harsh and if you face it and draw it in under your skin, and if you have that pit where it may fall – there’s that.

I was there.

Posted on 27 May 2018

Tupiza, BoliviaTupiza CactiRoad through SW BoliviaA lonely mountain, SW BoliviaCute grass puff!Mirrored MountainsBolivian AndesLaguna not so VerdeStorm over Laguna ColoradaSW Bolivia SettlementLonely rock, SW BoliviaLaguna HondaBolivian FlamingosAltiplanoRock pillars, SW Bolivia

It’s easy to forget. I decided to look through a batch of photos in my collection from almost six years ago. Many hadn’t even been edited. The beauty of where I’d been jars me. It echoes better in my mind now that I scroll through these images again. I am not sure if I’ll ever be in as stunning of a place as southwestern Bolivia again. Everywhere you look is a shock to the soul. The vast and varied altiplano with its scattered settlements is so far removed from my daily life. But, I was there. I was there. I was there.

In The Right Place

Posted on 8 May 2018

My awareness was fraying at the edges. It was morning in Brussels, but per my internal clock, who knows? Three nights in Ohio skittered by, each one wonderful but marked by progressively less sleep. Next was a transatlantic flight, which was marked by more anxiety than sleep as I sat isolated, thanks to a kind flight attendant, blasting music into my ears so I wouldn’t hear other passengers retching on the bouncy flight. I got off my string of flights in Brussels eager to spend some time exploring on the ground, but also a little jumbled, not entirely aware. I glanced at the train track number for my train to Brussels from the airport and climbed onto the first train that pulled up.

Brussels Bike Sign

About half an hour passed and I realized something wasn’t right. “We’re not going to Brussels are we?” I asked my seatmate. “No…. sorry…” she replied. Well, shit. The conductor called out that our next stop was Antwerp. I disembarked. Good thing Belgium is a small country; I bought a ticket to Brussels and got on the correct train this time, and the detour was only a bit over an hour. Had I continued on the wrong train, I would have hit Rotterdam, then Amsterdam. Next time.

Brussels Grand Place

I arrived at Brussels Central Station, finally, a bit disoriented, plodding under the weight of my backpack. I circled the station, crossed a street, climbed stairs to a lower street. I met my partner, Ben, at the door of the building we were staying in and climbed up the narrow and uneven stairs to the top floor. I was landed in Brussels, a bit shaky, more than a little tired, but eager because here I was.

Brussels Church

After dropping my packs on the floor and neatening up a bit we walked out into the city. I didn’t know what to expect, really. This was my first time in Belgium (airport aside), and I hadn’t done a whole lot of research. I had no notions of what to expect. My tiredness was gradually shed, especially with my first waffle, and I rapidly came to greatly appreciate Brussels.

During our couple of days in the city we wandered around on almost exclusively on foot, from the historic squares in the center to the European Union buildings through parks scattered in between. I also went on a run with a local running club in the Sonian Forest, which stretches out for acres to the southeast of the capital area. These simple activities highlighted part of the reason why I enjoyed Brussels so much: it’s a human-focused city. It’s easy and safe to walk around. Many streets are closed to cars, and many of those that aren’t have little traffic anyway. The public transit is great, both within the city and across the country, as I had accidentally found out. Green spaces are easy to reach. And, though this has nothing to do with city planning, I adored the food – namely the waffles and fries.

Brussels Arc de TriompheMake the Planet Great Again

On our first night in town, we walked to a restaurant about ten minutes away where I enjoyed a dining on a veggie burger and eavesdropping on the various languages being spoken around us. On our stroll back, we ducked down into a dungeon of a bar, which was a delight. The mood, set by the staff, was friendly and goofy, an expanding lamp-like glow in the dim underground bar. This feeling swirled with me the rest of our time in Brussels, despite the rain that persisted. We simply strolled around and enjoyed ourselves.

Mont des Arts Brussels Street

Brussels is a city for people. We weren’t doing anything special there, or going after any particular sites, really; we were just having a nice time. My mind solidified as we alternated between exploring and relaxing and I regained my sharpness without a press of anxiety. I felt no pressure to see certain things; only to see. I could watch the ducks, or sit and eat some fries, in one of the many parks or squares just and experience this place. There’s something to say for that.