Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mount Eerie

Last night, I finally saw Phil Elverum play live. I have been listening to his music since I was 18. I firstly discovered The Microphones' massive-yet-cosy The Glow Pt. 2, which led me to his more extensive catalogue as Mount Eerie. I'd always dreamed of seeing him in Europe, but had never imagined it would be in circumstances like this.

In July 2016, Phil's wife, Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer aged 35 -- leaving behind Phil and their infant daughter. I happen to own one of her books, so when I realised they were married, I felt doubly sad: for the loss of her, and for the unfathomably unfair loss that a musician dear to me would now have to shoulder.

Phil released the album A Crow Looked At Me earlier this year. It wasn't that I was refusing to listen to it; it was more that I didn't dare go there. I already couldn't listen to most of Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens' last LP that deals with grief of his mother, without flinching -- and there are songs on there that I have to skip altogether. Death is a topic that I keep at arm's length, made worse by the fact that intellectually, there is no point in doing that.

But when I found out Mount Eerie was playing in Berlin, at silent green, no less, there was no question about it. Of course I was going to go.

Courtesy of Linnea Nugent

Phil opened with 'Real Death', and I was crying straightaway -- specifically at the part about Geneviève having secretly ordered a gift for their daughter when she would eventually start school. 'Ravens' was also incredibly hard to listen to. The music was so understated, so matter-of-fact. Yet it crushed me.

A common theme in the other songs on A Crow Looked At Me is the particular ways in which mundanities, such as taking out the trash, remind him of his wife. In one of them, he confesses that the "conceptual emptiness" he indulged in his younger years is nothing in comparison to this. There is no theorising about what happens after death. This is all very raw, brusque, bare. While he sings 'I love you', he also sings, 'You don't exist'.

After the show, my friend Carrie observed that there was no catharsis to be found here.

'There are moments when you think there's going to be,' I said, mostly referring to a new song that features an anecdote about the absurdity of being in a festival VIP area with Skrillex and Father John Misty shortly after Geneviève's passing. 'But then it's like... nope!'

In the middle of his set, Phil thanked us for coming and asked whether everyone was doing okay, which was met with nervous laughter.

'We're all sad,' I thought, 'but none of it is close to what this man on the stage is going through right now. Yet none of us are immune to this happening to us, either.'

The show ended and Phil ducked through a door offstage. We clapped and clapped and clapped. Everyone must have known it would be grotesque to expect some kind of encore; it would be like forcing a bear to dance. The lights went on and the audience was caught red-handed: red-eyed, dehydrated, with solemn expressions.

My first reflex after walking out of that hall was to reject those songs I'd just heard. I approached the merch table where Phil was sitting, which had various Mount Eerie and The Microphones records for sale. A Crow Looked At Me was there, naturally, but I involuntarily overlooked it. Something inside me wanted to pretend I couldn't see it. This show had been my first exposure to the album. I will have to brace myself before I hear it again. It is challenging, but there is poetry in it (even though death is 'not for making art').

Instead, I purchased the Japanese edition of Lost Wisdom, Phil's collaboration with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire, and one of my favourite albums of all time. I got him to sign it, too, with my shitty blue freebie ballpoint pen.

I hope he sensed that when I looked into his eyes and said 'Thank you', I wasn't just thanking him for signing the CD.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Gdansk, Poland

I was feeling pretty unhappy this summer (which was ages ago, I know...). One of the the things I find really difficult about that time of the year is that you're expected to be having fun, doing something, being outside, all the time. There's a lot of pressure to go to places. Basically, to me summer signifies a lot of "shoulds" and it's just super annoying, on top of the fact the hot and humid weather just drains my energy and makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Autumn is my favourite season, but it's so short. The weather is cooling down now, so I'm able to carve out more of a routine that suits me and do activities that feel very "me". Now that I'm only working part-time, I've been able to make the most of the daylight hours so hopefully I won't slink into a horrible depression like I did last winter.

When I realised I hadn't really gone anywhere in a while, I booked a short trip to Gdansk, Poland in August. It's a city I'd been interested in visiting for a while. A bit too far away from Berlin for a weekend, too close to take off a week, it had been hard to find a good moment to go, but I'd mainly been interested because Gdansk is multilayered in its history. It was a medieval Hanseatic port, it suffered a whole lot during WW2 (due to being considered part of Germany for a long time) and it was significant to the eventual fall of Communism in Europe (the shipyard workers' uprising in 1980, for example).

The Polski Bus journey took around 9 hours -- not ideal, but I couldn't afford the train or flight. We pulled up in Gdansk at 7am. I left my luggage at the hostel and wandered into the Old Town. My first port of call was Costa Coffee (you can take the girl out of Britain, etc.), then I took a walk around the main square. The architecture was what you can expect from any medieval, central European city: ornate, earthy, colourful.

I walked down to the Vistula River (which is called Wisła in Polish and Weichsel in German).

I got told off for almost not getting off the bridge in time for it to lift up, letting three ships pass through.

I'd been planning to explore Gdansk by foot -- navigating transport in a new city where you don't speak the language is anxiety-racking -- but it turned out the place I'd wanted to go for lunch was in a totally different suburb, one that needed to be reached by train. I was already getting hungry and there was no way I was going to walk for two hours. I had brought some snack bars with me from Berlin to keep me going, so before I explored the transport options, I wandered to a residential area, lay down on the grass and dozed for a little while (cautiously making sure I didn't actually fall asleep; even though it seemed pretty safe there, I did have all my valuables on me).

I made my way to the main station to buy a ticket to Wrzeszcz (roughly "vzheshch"). The station was not laid out very clearly, so I practised pronunciation by muttering it under my breath a few times before approaching various locals to ask if this was the right platform.

I went to a vegan café called fukafe and they didn't have food-food, as I'd thought, but they did have a lot of raw cheesecakes and other goodies.

But that was fine, because there was a vegan pizza place about 15 minutes' walk away, luckily also located in Wrzeszcz! It was called Vege Pizza Port, had a queer and DIY vibe, and they also offered other vegan junk food like döner.

The next day, I was determined to get to Westerplatte, the site of the first battle of World War II (between German and Polish forces). I had to walk a really long way to get to the relevant bus stop, but it was quite good to see the outskirts of Gdansk proper while hoping those grey clouds meant nothing.

I successfully caught the right bus and bought the right ticket using very rudimentary Polish, and then off to Westerplatte it was!

It's a peninsula jutting out into the Baltic, so there were some good views out to sea.

Once I'd entered the actual site, the first thing that struck me was this enormous concrete structure -- barracks destroyed during the war. It was quite impressive, especially inside. It was well-preserved, with metal rods holding debris up to make it safe to enter.

The war memorial

View from the memorial

I would have stayed at Westerplatte longer but I was tired, cold, the end of the day was looming, and buses were very infrequent. There were also a lot of school groups and a lot of visitors in general, plus the bus journey back was packed and on a really bumpy road. I had kind of got to the part of the trip where I was glad to be heading home the next day. I don't even remember what I had for dinner that night (which is saying something, as vegan-friendly eating opportunities were few and far between).

An important discovery I did make was my new favourite treats. They are called Super Krówki, traditional Polish sweets that are now available in chocolate and toffee vegan flavours. So good, so of course I finished them off quickly (I didn't even get a chance to take my own photo). I have not figured out a way to get them delivered to Germany, so if anyone is going to Poland soon, please keep an eye out!

I sort of regret that I didn't see more stuff in Gdansk that I'd written myself in an SEO article for a client a few years ago! But I felt really beaten down by the heat and the non-ideal hostel conditions. It would be nice to visit again when I'm not so rushed; perhaps I'll stay in Wrzeszcz and have more of a chilled city break.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Some Thoughts on Travelling

There's a scratch-off map of Europe hanging in my bathroom, where I've used a coin to carefully rub away the places I've been. I am reminded of how little I get to travel around this continent of mine.

If I see my glass as half-empty: I've never set foot on the Iberian peninsula and I long to wander around a city where signs are written exclusively in Cyrillic script. I keep meaning to visit Iceland (so far I've only managed stressful stopovers at Reykjavik airport). I used to consider that my own little kooky, Björky goal, but the place has in fact burst in popularity among tourists over the past decade.

As a Brit living in a foreign but very international city, it's weird to constantly meet North Americans and Antipodeans who talk about how close and cheap everything is; how that's the main draw of moving to Europe, you can go to a different country every weekend. It's almost as if they expect Europeans to have emerged from the womb with a passport (or ID card) already clutched in fist.

On the one hand, they make a fair point. Distances are ridiculously large in those colonised societies, simply because the metropolises of today were generally built within the past 200 years (which is "new" in European terms). They are pretty much car cultures. Take it from someone who lived in rural Canada for half a year and was endlessly frustrated at: a) how far my lack of a driving licence got me (not very); b) how expensive buses and trains were to get to other places.

At the same time, despite owning that scratch-off map, I'm not a fan of the type of travel that's for the sake of crossing cities or countries off your list. Thankfully, there's no end of online articles out there about how travel is not an end goal in itself, about how travel doesn't inherently make you interesting or well-rounded, or how travelling absolutely is a privilege. This post sums up most of my feelings on it. This one a few more.

This classist, self-serving mentality needs to die.

Travel. Yes, it's funny how it's become social currency. People place a lot of importance on it, yet say the word over and over really quickly and it'll lose its meaning. Traveltraveltravel. In the crudest sense of the word, I just travelled by foot across the street to the pharmacy to replenish my supply of sanitary pads and toilet roll.

I explored more of Europe as a student while on my ERASMUS year (fuck Brexit forever) than I have as an actual adult with a full-time job. While travelling isn't exactly a priority when you're struggling to put food on the table - which is basically the fearful undercurrent to my frugality - it seems to me that time is a huge preventative issue, more than people like to acknowledge.
You see, if I'm going to go away, I do not want to cram a whole trip into a tiny weekend. The destination in question probably deserves far more of my attention than a couple of perfunctory photos of monuments and a comforting meal in the sole vegetarian café. Unless there is a specific something in or near the city that piques your interest and creates real anticipation, what's the point?
Not to mention that, as someone who is sensitive and thrives on routine, travelling in this way is also really exhausting. It always takes me at least a week or two to recuperate from it.

As a teenager and during uni, whenever I daydreamed about my future life on the continent, I imagined criss-crossing Germany via Switzerland to France by train - using all my languages within a week - then the following month, maybe ending up in some vague destination in Eastern Europe just because it had happened to be a ridiculously affordable flight.
Needless to say, this was a different, more naive time. Not only are we experiencing a political shift that means our freedom of movement may look completely different a few years from now, but sleeper train routes are being cancelled and regular trains are... just plain expensive.
I'm also trying to watch my carbon footprint. You can only take so many flights with Ryanair, EasyJet, et al before you think, "Okay, is this worth the stress if it's not completely necessary?".

I've just booked my first solo trip this year: a long weekend in a Polish city that I guess I will blog about later. I took only one day off work for it, because I want to save my remaining days for going to see my family at Christmas and, hopefully, doing one more longer trip in the autumn.
I'm going there by overnight bus - which, after a 15-hour journey to Lithuania a couple of years ago, I'd sworn never to do again.

But hey. I'm on a budget.