The plane rises eastward and circles south, then west, then north. The neighborhoods are suddenly tiny below. Their tininess seems permanent. All that confusion—how do you know when one village ends and the other begins, when will the next bus come—is as tiny as the homes. I don’t need it anymore. I can see the entirety of the island creep out of the frame of the airplane window. I lean forward to see back. The last yellow rock turns to sea. And now, like flicking a lightswitch, I am gone.
Vienna is the tall man in the piercing shop who sells me a gleaming new earring. Instead of eyebrows he has intricate tattoos, his arms are messy with multiple layers of ink, his gray hair hangs in wisps from his crown. Death metal snorts over the stereo and samurai swords glow on the wall but he shows off the earring with a pair of tweezers and I can tell that he is a precise, gentle man. I ask him if he can put the new earring in and he agrees. He wraps one hand in a latex glove. He reaches up to my right ear. He pulls the clear plastic post out of it and slides the metal earring in and clicks it shut. No pain. There you go, he says. He holds up a mirror. I look like a kid again. Like part of the world.
I walk out of his slot of a shop into the light of the ordered, intentional city. Everything is new. Everything works. I walk until my legs hurt, until the rain starts and stops again, until I have seen every sight in Vienna. There is no water aside from what comes from the sky. You could walk and you wouldn’t have to stop, ever.
Budapest is a riot. At the last minute, Hungary ties Iceland in the Euro Cup and the fans pour out of the bars into the street. First there is a man revving his motorcycle until white smoke gnarls in the air. Then the gathering crowd chants in time to the revs of the motorcycle. Guys climb up stoplights and on top of the flimsy bus stop shelters. A tram halts in front of the crowd and switches its lights off, resigned. By the time police show up the road is already out of use, so they park their cars across it and fold their arms and watch. Someone waves a red flare from the branches of the tree. Cars skirting the pulse of people honk their horns in exaltation before they zip past. From down the road parades of fans march in a red, white, and green pilgrimage toward the action. It is almost like a war.
But nobody dies. Nobody even gets hurt. The police aren’t nervous, and the drivers forced to take a detour don’t seem frustrated. People drink beer in the street. Families. Teenagers. Grinning older men. I walk away when I’ve had to change my definition of riot: this will rage into the night and then wander happily to bed.
Bratislava is the guy who appears at the threshold of my hostel room at three in the morning and tries to start a conversation with me. What’s your name? Where are you from? Uh, I’m trying to sleep. He nods heavily and sits down on the edge of his bunk. Sets his half-full glass of beer on the floor. He stares in my direction for a few more seconds before he lies down on the bed in all his clothes, including shoes. Sixty seconds later, he’s asleep.
Two hours later, I wake to snores no healthy person could generate. He’s choking on his own lungs. I try to ignore them. I try to incorporate the snores into the scene. But that’s the scene: sleeplessness. My morning train is in the station, cold and ready. I am not ready. The long congested night opens its eyes wide.
In the mountains, I discover a home. The front porch of the hostel looks out on a green grass hill of sheep and the bare peaks of the mountain range beyond. A Canadian with an asymmetrical haircut plays guitar and murmurs French lyrics heavy with mystery. A spunky dog pants until someone throws his toy into the long grass. The Australian who runs the hostel plays a rugby match in the computer nook, and you can wander down and see it if you like. Or you can drink beer and watch the mountains with the rest of the row of people on the deck—English, Australian, Bulgarian, American, Taiwanese. You could melt into the place like Odysseus into Calypso’s Ogygia, which the Maltese say was their island of Gozo. You could stay forever in these mountains; the place holds you.
Zdiar is the hike up and over those mountains. The black flies swarm me on the way up. But after two hours I am breathing the saddle’s impossibly fresh air and descending past a quartet of cheerful old hikers wearing bikinis bottoms and tank tops. Mountains nestle; beach forces you to confront the fact that you will die. Mountains kill too, but without vague empty dread. They pull you into them and you let go.
Or you don’t. I get a bowl of fazula soup at the café halfway through the hike. Then I continue my descent. My knees wobble. The forest parts wider and wider until it curls back into itself, an end.
Krakow is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. It is the Main Market Square, as big as six football fields, so that no matter how many people enter there is always room for them. It is the gray-haired drummer at a café in the square’s navel, who blasts a ten minute drum solo while the remainder of his jazz quintet rests. It is the clocktower that rises behind the man like an umbilical cord: here is time. It is Wawel Castle, a wonderfully piecemeal structure that the clocktower stares across the rooftops at. It is the river below the castle. It is the bridge across the river. Krakow goes in and out of itself. Main Market Square is a window into the victoriously empty heart of the city; a city is nothing more than space. Every day people trace thousands of whirring lines across it. Every night those lines fade.
Prague is the Kafka statue: an empty suit on top of which sits the author, miniscule and plain. How small a legacy is. The sleeve holes of the suit are empty, and the neck, but the author sits astride them like he is riding a lion trailing flames. The statue’s pedestal sits on an arrangement of tiles in the shape of a round black bug: the roach.
Beneath a tree, in front of the statue, a Spanish tour group coheres. Kafka is this, the tour guide says, Kafka is that, while individuals approach the massive suit and tiny man. Flashes capture them. Their eyes glaze and the guide lifts her chin. When they leave, there are other tour groups to replace them. The statue becomes a statue of tourists posing in front of the statue. Kafka would be tired, angry, proud.
Then I arrive in Germany. I cannot believe it: F. picks me up at the station, we drive by the pointed towers of Lübeck’s Hostentor, then the countryside passes and we pull into a gravel driveway. We are already there. We get out of the car. There are chickens. There is a mud room and a foyer and a spiral staircase up. The place is so warm. It is a home. She shows me the chickens and the shed-in-progress and the mint and schnittlauch growing outside, and then she shows me the barn.
Germany is the van inside of it: navy blue Volkswagen Bus Type 3, 1992.
The van is wood-paneled inside. It has a sink and a refrigerator. It has two beds, one under the pop-up top and one in the trunk. There are little compartments for everything. The steering wheel is wider than a human body. The gear stick is a long black pole capped with a plastic knob.
It is F.’s father pride and joy, and out of the generosity of his heart he lets us borrow it. We drive the van to Celle, where four hundred year old buildings lean into the four hundred year old buildings beside them and proclaim the names of the families that built them four hundred years ago with a rigid hope. We drive it to Treseburg, where the village’s three restaurants close at seven o’clock and so we eat storebought rotkohl instead, sweet red cabbage with vinegar, straight out of the bag. We drive it to Göttingen, where the streets are paved with books; steps fall soft on them after Germany loses in the semifinals of the Euro Cup. Then we drive the van to Berlin, where the wall is now a wall of billboards, tourists, and the chaotic hope of the sun. Light has fallen on the land. Still ocean is nowhere to be found.
At six o’clock on a Monday morning, I wake up and leave the van.
I walk through the RV park into the city’s gray.
I wait for the train. At stops the engine shuts off and there is an always surprising silence on the platform that the doors open up to. Every few kilometers, you can see exactly what you’re doing: leaving, slow and steady. F. is still in the van, sleeping. Malta is still in the ocean, blind with sun. I am on this train, and the train is on the tracks, and the tracks go to the airport, which will take me home. It is impossible to see the moments, because I move right through them. Then the train stops again, the doors open to silence, and the moment, for a moment, is almost unbearably clear.
Coming home is a thirty-six hour epic of being present where there is no place to be present at. But I am reading Be Here Now and it is infecting me with a strange, patient peace. Six hours for my first layover, fourteen for my second. Ram Dass says, THERE IS NOWHERE TO GO & THERE IS NOTHING TO DO.
But this is more than the bewildering sense of suchness you get from being on a plane. Malta, the window, has fallen past. New windows to be installed forthwith. I’m not sure I have not learned to see clearly; I don’t think I can separate what I experience from the gauze of feelings stuck to it. But I can say I paid attention, sometimes. John Cage says, [T]he mind may give up its desire to improve on creation and function as a faithful receiver of experience.
Still I land in Cincinnati twenty minutes earlier than scheduled. I rush through the vacant terminal, the moving sidewalks, the escalator that rises to the baggage claim where my bag is already traveling in a lonely circle, and I yank it off the track.
I set it on its sagging haunches. I look around the enormous, familiar space.
I’m back. I am suddenly, alarmingly, still here.
This is the sixteenth and last in a series in which I lived in Malta for a year. Find the rest of the series here.
This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.