Prague · Salzburg · Ivrea · Alpine Shangri-la · Hiking in the Alps · Third day in Paris · La Paris ·
I think people often take circuitous, at at least oblique, routes to their goals, and not by accident but intentionally. I arrive in Prague at last, six weeks after leaving home. I arrive on the night train so by 6:30am I am in the old town square, taking pictures simply because there was no one there... I don't know what anything is or where I am, but no matter, it's for me alone to have a conversation with and find out the answers. This was a indeed fortuitous chance for a first impression--I quickly concluded this is the most beautiful city I've seen in Europe so far. Of course, I've not seen Florence, Venice, the other likely favorites of large cities, but Prague, frequently described as "magical" lives up to its reputation. History is alive here and the architecture is more varied, giving it a more charming and accessible feel. I extend my stay and scour the English newspaper which has a young, irreverant editorial tone I'm used to. However five nights pass quickly... I must leave tomorrow. Perhaps I can write more about it then...
This small hometown of Mozart's is a beautiful jewel of a city. A river runs through it, a castle overlooks it, baraque ornamentation in layers and layers like icing, the city is simply a storybook setting. Some building facades seem to be leaning against granite hillsides like stage backdrop, but the catacombs in the same hills prove they're indeed hollowed out many centuries ago. Baroque style is not my favorite but it absolutely works here, and the Austrian work ethic kept everything well-maintained and prestine. I stand in the cathedral square watching a large-scale chess game and am enchanted.
The next day I chose to go an hour outside of town in place of the ubiqitous Sound of Music tours. My destination are some ice caves high in the Austrian Alps; I know what I like. After train, bus, walking, funicular, more walking, I leave the heat and enter the caves where it's 0 degrees inside. It's hard to imagine the mountains being hollow inside (though a week later I went spelunking under Budapest) and house a kingdom of ice. In places the ice have thin layers that can be read like the annual rings of trees... it's estimated the ice in the cave is more than 1,000 years old. A blink in any geological measurement of time, but puts human history into perspective.
From Switzerland I made a detour to visit northern Italy, Ivrea, where a new interaction design school is gaining attention. The town of Ivrea didn’t have too much to offer, working class, unkept, in the smouldering heat I have a hard time imagining staying here for two weeks, let alone two years. The town is dominated by the company of Olivetti, which is 1911 produced the first typewriter. The navy ministry placed the first order, and a new industry was born. During the war the company focused on precision machine tools, especially when German supplies were unavailable. In the design industry the company is well-known—the ad department, headed by Adrian Olivetti himself, created many memorable designs throughout last century and the company worked with leading architects to create then shocking buildings for factories and workshops. These all glass facades don’t look so good anymore… as is the old industry. The company is shifting focus to research and services, in the new sectors of communication—including founding the interaction design school.
A muddy river divides the town; a sculpture dedicated to Olivetti junior marks its main bridge. Rather naively conceived, there is a small tower of rusted giant-size nails, then an even bigger nail, with Olivetti’s bust on its head, inserted into the wall of a small waterfall. Rather than commemorating a productive, influential life, the sculpture’s impression on me was that Olivetti’s reward is an afterlife of toil, being hammered into the wall, being pounded by water. It reminded me of Sisyphus, pushing a rock up a mountain each day for eternity. I felt tired from walking and from the sun. Haven’t we all earned our rest? (My dream is to coast down a river in a valley, there are mountains on the sides for me to admire and to scale if I felt the urge, but meanwhile it’s effortless, smooth sailing.)
But then I remember an interesting interpretation of Sisyphus’ fate—that he is lucky rather than punished, that each day he has an assigned duty that he can perform, and the next day and the next day, and he does not have to worry and sleeps soundly at the foot of the mountain each night. Indeed our work, be it blue or white collar, are not so different from Sisyphus’s task, and to curse or to be grateful for this fate is a decision for each, or, until we’re worn down enough that we give up and accept the inevitable. How does one push a rock up a mountain? This might have been a Zen koan. And the secret of the universe is that each time it would be different.
I pass by the bridge a couple more times during my stay. Though the sculpturer’s idea is still of doubtful quality to me, perhaps accidentally it achieves a more accurate portrait of a working stiff. To work is to participate in humanity’s procession, it is said, and I am aware that my hiatus from it is only temporary, not just for economics, but, well, what else is worth the bother? Not that I’m saying it’s the only way to live, not at all. To have time for oneself, to live by unconventional means is admirable, but to be forever idle is to be out of tune with the rhythm and progression of all things. Until our bodies disintegrate, until time and pressure wear us down, there is work to do.
When Kahlil Gibran asked, "Does not your house dream? And dreaming, leave the city for grove or hilltop?" He must have had the Alpine meadows with the Swiss chalets in his vision.
"Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow.
"Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments."
Some of these lazy mountain villages are truly shangri-la.
As I imagined in the anxiety and excitement before leaving, or perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I would feel most at ease on a hiking trail. But then the Alps are really something else. The two first days of hiking near Interlaken, at the heart of the Swiss Alps, have been among the most beautiful walks I've been on. (The others: Yellow Mountain in China; the Great Wall; Olympia national park; White Mountains in the height of Fall colors; Baja California.) The glacier-carved peaks are bold and awe-inspiring yet delicate at the same time, with every turn a more beautiful angle from which to admire them. The paths often cross snow still; but the wildflowers, more numerous and colorful than I have seen anywhere, alpenroses, daisies, pansies, crocus, gentian, dandylion, and numerous others I can't name, have dressed the meadows beautifully for warmer weather. The hikes are often very strenuous; but the keen walkers here twice my age can easily kick my ass. A humbling experience in many ways.
I learned the names of the little blue wildflowers in German, though I can't utter the most basic greetings. I would be quite content as a botanist.