The Way Things Were
Nothing reminds you of the way things were, than coming back to them all of a sudden. In my last letter I wrote about the differences between the small town where I now live and life in London – among other things – and these past few days some of those differences have been brought home to me like a sharp smack on the back of the head. This is not, I must add, the first time – noticing the differences and the smack – I just notice it more because I had written those words last month, and they were still in my mind. On Wednesday I took a little trip out to a city about two hundred fifty miles south of here called Wiesbaden. The idea was to meet up with a few people, celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of a club, eat a meal and then travel back again. Not, you might think, too stressful, and not even time consuming: if all had gone to plan I’d have been with these other people for no more than six hours and that would be it finished. So, naturally, I took two days holiday and it didn’t all go to plan. We were only together for four hours.
What brought the difference between a small town and city life back to my mind was my hotel room which, sad to say, overlooked one of the main thoroughfares in the centre of town. This is a city which doesn’t close its doors around nine at night; some of the bars remain open until four in the morning, some of the better restaurants until two. And the buses run until about two in the morning as well, with a bus stop, as luck would have it, directly beneath my window which, because of the central heating, I had to keep open to avoid dehydrating. Not that I didn’t try avoiding such a problem by drinking appropriately before going to bed, but I’m not sure Guinness is necessarily the right choice. So I was plagued, it felt like the entire night through, with noise. Once you’ve lived in a quiet town for a few years – I’ve been here for twenty now, and never on a main street – silence, or as close to silence as you can get, is normal. Come along with a squeaky shoe in the middle of the night, and I’m going to be awake and wondering what all the commotion is.
The last time I experienced this was in Baltimore – another celebration, another two days away from home and cat – but this wasn’t so much the noise as the amount of light. Our town really does switch off most of the street lights at night because they’re simply not needed. The centre of Baltimore – I always seem to have hotels right in the centre of town, perhaps that’s the problem – was lit up like an evening football game right through the night, and I was up on the thirteenth floor. They called it the fourteenth, but it was really the thirteenth. The only time there was any noise in Baltimore was when a police car set off along the absolutely deserted, car and pedestrian free, brightly lit streets with his siren going full blast.
So I was in Wiesbaden for two nights, in an hotel right in the centre of town, buses that run until two directly outside my window and a bed I am not used to. The only thing I really dislike about staying in hotels – about being away from home, come to think of it – is having to make do with a foreign bed. You cannot get comfortable, no matter what anyone cares to tell me, comfort is not a thing to be enjoyed in an hotel room when you want to just sleep. Not even after drinking several more than enjoyable pints of Guinness. I remember how long it took me to get used to the silence out here in the middle of nowhere, over twenty years ago now: the lack of noise was disturbing. I had always had traffic nearby, or other people – especially in my army years when privacy was about as rare as silence – and all these noises were normal, part of the surroundings. Then, suddenly, all gone. A few birds calling out at six in the morning from the trees outside my first apartment was a relief, otherwise I’d have thought the apocalypse had taken place overnight and I was the last living being on the planet. The silence itself, back then, was unearthly, as much as the lack of other people close by.
I don’t think I have quite so much of a problem with this state of affairs as I would with other things from my past: I know that it is only for two days / nights and then I can get back to peace and quiet and the relative obscurity of a provincial town, which makes it easier. Even so, lying in a strange bed, listening to the bus waiting at the stop right under my window at two in the morning? I can think of better things to be doing. And at least I am sticking to one of my hard and fast principles: not succumbing to the ten cities in seven days tourism I mentioned last time. Absolutely no plan in mind at all, aside from the meeting, which means freedom to roam the city and explore with no stress, no worries about being late, or too early, or having someone depend on you for anything. A chance to look in the second hand bookshops – who all seem to call themselves antique dealers, no matter how new their wares – explore the oldest parts of the city and meander through small alleyways before diving into a museum or art gallery, or just sitting at a table in front of one or another bakery enjoying a sandwich and coffee. There was sunshine, I hasten to add; not much and not for any long period of time, and certainly not enough to remove the chill in the air, but it was there and much appreciated by all.
And the visit to Wiesbaden, despite the bad nights, gave me a chance to visit and enjoy some of the museums: most cities tend to be much the same when you get down on the ground, but what they have to offer in culture – aside from late-night bars and a plentiful supply of Guinness – often makes the difference. I made my way to the main museum almost as soon as I had unpacked my bags and the first thing I saw, after negotiating with the main desk not to have a tour guide in English, was a painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker, who was born in Bremen and whose museum I had visited just a week ago. And right opposite her work – there was only one example – a landscape by her husband Otto Modersohn; I could almost have stayed at home! Of course, it was definitely worth it because so many other wonderful works of art were on display, covering not just the Old Masters but also newer artists who are just making their mark felt on the art world. Perhaps some of those coming up in exhibitions and the arts news these days will make a living before they die, unlike so many of their predecessors.
What’s in the greatest glory, if it be but glory?
asks Juvenal. And I am sure many of the artists of our times are keen to reap the glory as much as the can, as long as it brings bread on the table too, which glory alone cannot do. Sad to say, many of the exhibitions of modern artists I have attended, and I think it would be three in February at least, there was no opportunity to contact the artist themselves, and no hint of whether any of the works were for sale. Not that I can afford the prices many demand today, prices which would make an Old Master spin in his grave, of that I am sure.
This is another form of noise which disturbs: the belief that the world owes some people a living, and that this living should be so far above the actual costs that it is more luxury than anything else. I have no problem when a work of art – or a book, a photograph – comes on the market with a high price, providing it has shown its worth over many years. But for a young artist, one who has not made a dent in his own circle of friends let alone anywhere else, demanding thousands of dollars for something similar to a chocolate box decoration, it just makes my ears buzz.
Our glory is in the testimony of our conscience.
But, I must admit, I am very conservative in my choices when it comes to art; don’t want just anything on the walls, after all, the space pictures take up could be used for bookshelves. Or, some might say, I’m fairly conservative – as in old-fashioned – when it comes to many things, and thus letter writing rather than mailing, books rather than a gadget and many other things still hidden which hark back to the past and not to our over-stressed, immediacy-driven, technologically modern society.
One of the main things that I notice about living in a small town, which I most certainly miss after my experiences in various cities around the world, is that there is a lack of culture. By this I don’t mean that the people who live here are uncultured, uneducated, illiterate or bovine (to take it to extremes), but that there are no galleries and no real museums. I have to write ‘real’ because there is a local museum here, but it is small, has had the same group of people running it since the day it opened, and this small group is very, very stuck in their ways. A cultural life with works of art, with exhibitions, readings, talks and similar simply doesn’t exist here for the most part – although we do have a cinema and they do their best, right down to inviting well-known actors, now and then, to read books to the public! – and it is almost impossible to create. A friend of mine is trying to interest locals in photographic art, and has converted part of his carpentry shop into an art gallery. Entry is free, the artists are quite well known, there are talks and the gallery is open to all the usual hours. All of five people came to the official opening of the last exhibition. The next begins in two days. But since we are not in a major city, and entry costs nothing, most people ignore local events. The cinema with a big name attraction, that’s slightly different. Anyone else hardly gets noticed. There is a very small town mentality here, and I miss the chance to go out the front door, turn left or right, and have a wide selection of venues available.
At the same time, I don’t want to live in a major city again: I’ve become used to the silence, the ability to just walk straight out into the country, stop at a farm and get fresh eggs and be back home in time for breakfast. I’ve become used to knowing the people around me, which may seem strange, but if you live in a big city, you tend not to get to know your neighbours all that well; at least, that is my experience. I’m sure it isn’t the same all over, but certain in London, Paris, Berlin and a few other cities where I have spent a great deal of time, anonymity is a given. On the one hand anonymity is good, as I am sure you can appreciate, especially when it brings peace and quiet and a chance to do the things you really love and enjoy without disturbance. On the other: there is something missing. That said, I don’t think I want to change my small, not-quite-so-anonymous town for the city again, not on that level. I can ride the bus in to town, or drive if it’s late, and experience all the big city lights and frivolities, and come back home to a quiet bedroom with the chance of undisturbed sleep at any time I want.
And then there is the cost factor, of course. Cities are expensive. It’s cheaper to live in a small town and drive in to events, to museums and exhibitions, even to the bars than to live in the city and walk, which is crazy in some ways. Big city hotels are expensive too, despite the lack of sleep we have to suffer when staying: there is no compensation offered for a bad night; the breakfast is still the same. Well, no, that’s not quite true. In Wiesbaden, as is normal in most German cities, breakfast was in a small room, calm, quiet and relaxed. My trip to Baltimore was completely different. I think the restaurant was on the fifth floor, and it was more like MacDonald’s than an hotel . It was loud and packed with people, including children running around and calling out – not that I have anything against children, this is merely a comparison – and there was almost a rush about eating. It was a big hotel, but the restaurant struck me as being too small for its needs. After a bad night’s sleep, it was most certainly not suited to my disposition!
Still, another experience in the course of life. Perhaps, one day, I’ll have grandchildren to recount all of this to, rather than putting it down on paper and sending it across half the world. Perhaps I should collect postcards to show them what it was like, back then, in this century, when I was no longer young, but young enough to be annoyed at having a bad night’s sleep.