Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hometown blues

Melbourne is rainy. We used to be famous for it, before the drought. Then we had ten years of sunny skies that gradually went from cheerful to relentless. Now it's rainy again. I sit at my computer at work and stare wistfully through the glass as it pelts down on the street outside, pedestrians with umbrellas scampering for doorways. The whole country is underwater, as if to match the mood of my homecoming - granted, a rather solipsistic take on the latest climate catastrophe.

Rewind five days: I'm sitting up at one in the morning downing bottles of German Pilsner with my couch-surfing host Tom (who I've incidentally trained to chill his beer to Australian subzero temperatures) and talking about conspiracy theories, the nature of truth and objectivity, the awkwardness of German's reliance on relative clauses - and getting steadily drunker, steadily less concerned with nailing the niceties of German grammar. As the alcohol prises me loose of the rocks of rationality to which I habitually cling, I find myself launching ever more boldly into the linguistic unknown, abandoning caution and just riffing away, surprised myself at how the sentences just form where I'm about to tread, the instant before I'm about to plummet into inarticulacy. Tom tells amusing stories about trucking in Germany in wall days, the futile bureaucratic attempts to stop him speeding, the secret routes he found to bypass border controls between east and west. Outside, another heavy snowfall outside is slowly, softly smothering the courtyard.

I love this immersion in my German alter-ego, but the truth is, there's not much more for me to do in Berlin. I've about exhausted the city's touristic value, the pleasures you can skim off a place without any effort other than that required to show up. If I wanted to get more from this place I'd have to give it more too. Work, involvement, commitment. Tom asks me if I've considered living here - the language wouldn't be an issue, I could do translation work... And of course I have. I'd love to spend a year or two here, enough time to close the gap between my current fluency and the thoughtless ease of a native speaker. Enough time to develop the internal riches of biculturalism. But there's the matter of that small, beautiful anchor by the name of Jude. In some ways being a separated dad gives you more freedom - like this trip for instance. In other ways it is more binding, since you can't make grand plans with the mother any more. When you're bound at the ankle you move and plan together, you go where you like, as one. Bound by a long chain, you run about freely without thinking, then you trip over the chain. Now I've reached the end of the chain, and it's time to come home.

Jude at the airport, his eyes red from crying because it's taken an hour and a half between my landing and getting through the arrival gates - my baggage has been left in Berlin or somewhere. Jude giving me raspberries, grapes and nectarines in the car because he knows how I'll have missed these beloved fruits in snowy Europe. Now I'm the one with red eyes. Jude romping in the pool in the preternaturally bright Australian sunlight, everything suffused with a quality of dreams from 48 hours with no sleep, from the shock of the unfamiliar familiar. I wake up in the middle of the night because Jude has turned on the light and is wandering about. Was machst du? I say, completely bewildered, drawing an equally bewildered response.

And then the work desk, the rain, the all-too-familiar trivial frustrations of trying to get computers to do what you want them to. Like dealing with a person with Asperger's, only worse: Why must you do what I say instead of what I mean?? My sails, recently so full of the winds of inspiration, are already hanging slack on their masts. The astonishing part is not so much how I forgot this life, what it feels like, as the fact that it feels like I never left it. It absorbs me back into it without a ripple. As if everything that still vividly fills me - the wild unbreathable winds of the altiplano, the sound of the organ in the Notre Dame, Kafka's marvellous German, the lustrous pebble of my own solitary soul - as if all these things aren't and never were.

In The End Is My Beginning, a record of journalist Tiziano Terzani's dying conversations with his son, Terzani spoke of work and the importance of a "life in which one can recognize oneself." This, he believed, was more important than happiness - whatever that is. Lying in bed in a state of hallucinatory jetlagged half-sleep, I saw a sort of groove stretching out in front of me. This groove was my character, the self that solitude and the world have revealed. It was as palpable, as certain as conscience. Stay within this groove, the vision seemed to say, and you cannot go wrong. For you will live a life in which you recognize yourself, and such a life cannot possibly be regretted. But it seems to me that loyalty to this truth is a form of great courage, a courage that cannot be taught - or perhaps only by the rarest of men, like Terzani. The functioning of the great machine that is this modern world demands inauthenticity on a vast scale, and offers many anodyne rewards for the conforming. The demands, and the costs, of being true to the groove of our inner nature may be higher than we dreamed. But the cost of the alternative? Thoreau's "quiet desperation."

The only question is: what now?

No comments: