Cities in winter: a wanderer in Europe

by on Wednesday, 21 April 2010 6710 hits Comments
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December 2009 has been cold in Europe, and snow has been falling everywhere, something that is not seen every year. When I was a child, the spectacle of snow piling into the streets was rather common. It became more rare as the years passed by.

I had to travel this winter, going to Paris and Toulouse in France, Munich and Aachen in Germany, before crossing Holland to go back to France. I had to go to offices and universities, I had to hasten through the streets and the underground, but I had also time to wander through the parks and the squares, to dream when looking through the windows of trains slowed by the weather, and to let recollections come back to my mind. I was thinking of all the cities I had lived in, of their minds and structures, of the way they have become engraved into my soul, as is a novel to which you often come back, as also are a movie, a piece of music or a voice that is dear to you. It was so hard to me to separate the core of my being and of my memory from these places in which I had lived and wandered: Paris, as a succession of villages, the Seine river separating the city as does a sudden twist in the plot of a novel, the capricious streets turning around and making you suddenly lose your way, like the disorderly dreams of my student days have been doing to me; Brussels, tragic and gray, where my first job and the first apartment of my own were awaiting me, and that sounded to my ears so melancholic and disenchanted; Toulouse, where I worked afterwards, with its pink melody of bricks, coffeehouses and spacious riverbanks; Lyons, as an elegant elegy that tunes down emotions and passions to the level of a quiet, discreet melody; and the contrasted cities of Holland, Spain and Italy like symphonies resonating with wind instruments and percussions; for two years, I had known New Haven, New York and Boston, and they had sounded to me like a poem in prose or like the lyrics of a song by Ella Fitzgerald…

And then I went to Asia – and different music and poems filled my mind. The walls of Tokyo had been to me like neat lines that separate chapters in a Japanese novel, the unity and plot of which you are unable to discern; Taipei had slowly become like an old-worn poetry anthology, which you know so well that you automatically go the page you wish to reread; Hong Kong has been like a surrealistic poem of which you renounce to penetrate the meaning, just letting you be drawn away by its rhythm and associations; Chengdu was like ancient poems that you do not understand very well but that you turn page by page, just letting the atmosphere enter like smoke into your body and your mind…

flavie_kersante_bristol1I was back in Europe, and it was like finding again the poetic anthologies I was reading as a child, words, turns of sentences and rhymes that sounded familiar like the noises of the street where you are living and that awaken you every morning.

There is something in the fallen snow in the streets of a city that make nature and culture meet suddenly, and culture then shows its basic frailty, how it can be engulfed by a sudden surge of nature’s hidden energies. It is also as if the intense poetry of the city’s lines, memories and trajectories become incarnate, unveil their essence to the eye of the wanderer, suddenly able to penetrate the secret that makes this conglomerate of buildings, empty spaces and people hold together as a whole. Snow always speaks of the invisible.

And, through these leisurely train trips, cities in Europe were extending a kind of fraternity across hundreds of kilometres. Scattered on the map, they were gathering in the palm of my hand, composing a dense, intense community of desires, fears and sounds that was transcending its material form. In the course of my winter travel, the cities of my youth were gathering into one, becoming smaller and smaller, denser and denser – a short and eternal poem that will float around you on your deathbed.

 

(Photos by B.V. and Flavie Kersante)

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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