Time sure is relative. The months between booking my flights and boarding moved like molasses. Then, all of a sudden, we’re a few sleeps from home.
If we’re Down Under, I guess Europe is Up Over. It’s been a strange month Up Over: incredible experiences, brave little adventures — and some really tough days, with the death of a friend back home.
At the time of writing, I’m on a train to Berlin. A few seats over, someone’s phone plays the theme music for Fruit Ninja — a game developed in Brisbane. It’s a very clear, warm afternoon out there and the view from my window looks like what you’d design for a model train set or Sylvanian Families. Green, green, green. A windmill. A caramel-coloured cow beside its peaked farmhouse. A valley with a cluster of houses and a big church at the centre.
The other night the Black Forest Writing Seminar group came together one last time to read the our new work in an incredible stone cellar — more a dungeon, really — under bars and cafes in the centre of Freiburg. I read a pantoum I’ve spent the last two weeks bashing my head against and finally got right.
Before the two-week writing bootcamp in Freiburg, my friend Tahnee and I spent a couple of days in Munich and a week in Italy. In Munich we spent long, golden summer evenings on the banks of the Englischer Garten’s little river with friends who’ve been studying there, including a partner I’d not seen in a year. Aussie readers, imagine 1000s of students, families, nude older men and all their dogs cohabiting in the heat at a park, everyone with beer cooling in the water — and everyone behaving themselves? At home, there’d be accidents, glassings, assaults. It seemed freakishly idyllic. Munich’s famous surfing river runs through this garden, but you can also jump in the water and take a free ride along the freezing, rushing water. The first time my friends went in, I sat on a rock in the twilight and watched. The second time I stripped to my underwear, jumped in, and screamed my head off. I emerged triumphant! Now, I’m not a risk taker. I am a spooked possum. So this was a pretty big achievement for me (and sorry to the friends who had to listen to me go on about it for the rest of the day).
The only place I’d been before in Italy was Venice. As a child, Venice in winter was very mysterious and beautiful. Naples and the Southern Coast are very different — less mystery, more sunshine. I loved it. We stayed on a lemon farm for five days, eating food grown and cooked on the farm by three generations of family. Swimming on the beach down in Sorrento, full of Campari sodas, was amazing. I didn’t anticipate how much swimming in the sea off Capri would top that. Definitely filing those memories away as moments when my mind felt exactly like the water: clear, safe, cool.
We also took a day trip to Pompeii, which fulfilled my child-archaeologist dreams. I never realised it’s a whole damn city. Thousands and thousands of people choked on ash or had their brains pop in their skulls like popcorn. You can touch the stone they touched 2000 years ago. In the Naples National Archaeological Museum, I saw this wonderful momento mori from Pompeii:
We stopped in briefly in Rome. Thousands of years of history and ruins are right there. Buildings from all eras rub up against one another. We didn’t have much time in Rome, but I got to visit the cat temple — a refuge, cat hospital and sterilisation program built under an ancient Pagan temple, so I got to pat about 30 cats. Seasoned travellers might question my choice of “one place to see in Rome”, but I was very happy.
Freiburg was a complex experience. The city itself comes as close to a perfect place as I have ever been. The locals were incredibly helpful and my fellow writers were a zingy, clever, generous bunch. I’m sure I’ve made a few firm friends. Unfortunately, on my second day in Freiburg, I heard that my friend, editor and an incredibly talented, bold writer and feminist Kat Muscat had passed away. That first week of the seminars was swallowed up with feelings. My memory’s full of weird gaps. I’m especially grateful to the people who looked out for me during that time. Then, in the second week, I got a cold Zen-style, which means bronchitis and extreme fatigue. I nearly gave up. But I pressed through, managed to read all the things and write all the assignments, and I’m glad I did.
I didn’t get to explore Freiburg as well as some of my comrades, but I ate a lot of blackberries, wandered around the fairytale-esque old town, cooled my feet in the Bächle, and flexed my high-school German. We had one night in the Black Forest itself, where I found a little fluffy dead sightless shrew and a huge orange-speed-striped slug. I ate wild strawberries and raspberries. And there was a cat to hug. And I’m proud of the poems and essay I wrote, holed up in my hotel room overlooking the Dreisam River. Adrianne Kalfoupolou was a wonderful, challenging poetry tutor who went out of her way with our little group. And, of course, studying with Roxane Gay, even via Skype, was pretty cool.
So, back to the present. I’m about four hours into a six-hour train journey to Berlin, where Tahnee and I will meet up again at a hostel in old East Berlin. Let me tell you: I will be glad to see a familiar face. On the 14th we’re getting tattoos together from a Brisbanite-in-Berlin and then on the 15th we fly home, arriving on the morning of the 17th. I’m looking forward to coming back to my drafts and texts from BFWS — and putting pen back to paper in Brisbane. But I’ll be coming home to a Kat-less Australia, which is strange and sad and full of echoes.