Friday, October 29, 2010

The scent of sacramental candles

from an imaginary Lucerne diary, 2010

I went to some of the museums today. I took a sketchbook and some coloured pencils with me, and inside the Picasso Museum I settled down before a painting from his high Cubist phase and began to draw from it. I tried not to look at the page as I was drawing, and instead tried to move the pencil in the direction that my eyes were moving. Occasionally this means that the pencil strays off the edge of the paper, but that’s all right. I find that as I relinquish the feeling of wanting to control my hand, I start to draw more slowly, in longer, more continuous strokes. And then when I look back at the page, it turns out that everything is more or less in the right place; even if it isn’t, an interesting drawing of some kind is always there.

This way of drawing induces a meditative state, where you stop hearing and seeing what’s going on around you. But after I had been sketching for maybe twenty minutes, I began to notice a couple arguing a few feet away from me. They were American, a man and a woman in their sixties, and they were arguing about me.

“Is that pencil or crayon?” said the woman to the man.

“That’s crayon, definitely crayon,” he replied, in a tone that implied ‘how can you be so stupid.’

They went back and forth like this for a while, without even looking at me. So at some point I held up the pencil and said loudly:

“They’re definitely pencils.”

Their reaction was not what I expected. Their heads whipped round towards me, as if I had just grabbed them by the arm, and instead of looking grateful that I had settled the argument for them, they looked almost hostile, like I was interfering in their private business. The man was almost sneering at me as, taking his wife by the right elbow, he steered her away from what he evidently considered to be some form of danger.

When I left the museum, I overheard another conversation between an old man and the person at the admission kiosk. He was also American, but not well-dressed like the arguing couple. He had thin grey hair that was plastered over his scalp in oily tendrils. He was hunched forward in a way that suggested he couldn’t really straighten his back. He was asking the admissions person how much it cost to go in. She told him the price, clearly not convinced that he had the money to enter. He rummaged through the pockets of his long, shabby tweed overcoat and pulled out a few coins in shaking hands. As I went around him to get to the exit, I caught the faint odour of sacramental candles.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Kapelbrucke at midnight

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

No matter where I walk in this city, I keep coming back to the bridge.

Today I went there after spending a few hours in a subterranean bar, the kind that has rocky stone walls and low vaulted ceilings like the crypt in a church. Sconces were fixed into the walls bearing huge candles that were covered with rippling cascades of dried wax. In the centre of the ceiling hung a chandelier that looked like it was made from the metal rim of a cart-wheel. It was suspended over a wide plank table, but one person sitting at the table still banged his head every time he stood up or leaned over to kiss the woman sitting opposite. I sat in a table tucked into a corner, reading a book and drinking wine, until a gay couple started to have a loud argument. They were a young pretty man and a much older man with grey close-cropped hair, and although I couldn’t understand what they were saying it was clear from the raised voices, the talking at the same time, and the fact that the older man was getting red in the face that things weren’t going well for them. When the younger man abruptly stood and knocked his chair to the floor with a loud bang, I decided to leave.

It was past midnight when I went out into the street. Without really thinking about where I was going, I realized that I was standing near the narrow walkway that leads onto the Kapelbrucke. Only a few people were on the bridge at this hour, compared to the crowds who throng the bridge during the day. Halfway across I stopped to look down at the lights from the bars on the quay reflected on the river in broad brushstrokes of magenta and blue. About ten feet away from me, an old man was doing the same. I don’t know why, but he looked Swiss. I wondered to myself how many times in his life he had walked across this bridge, and how many times he had stopped to look down at the river at night.

Just then, the wind rose, and through the slats in the wood beneath my feet came a smell of diesel oil and fish

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

After the rain

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.


Things are a bit better since the last time I wrote. The carnival is over, and the streets are less crowded then they were. But there are still a lot of people around—mainly tourists like me. I find myself following the guided tours at the interesting sites, keeping at the edges so they don’t ask me to pay, trying to discern which language they are speaking, hoping that they will be speaking mine. The city is beautiful, and more impressive than I had expected. Everyone makes fun of Switzerland for being built on a small scale, and for being clean and efficient, as if running an orderly society is a mark of dullness. Hardly any of the buildings are more than a few stories tall, but there is such variety in the facades, from medieval wooden cross-beams to Renaissance palaces. Many of the streets in the city centre are cobbled, so that even your feet adjust to a new surface, are forced to be aware of the difference between here and home.

Towards evening, as the sun was about to go down, I was returning to my hotel when I saw an interesting looking woman crossing the square ahead of me. There had been a brief shower which had coated the cobblestones in a bright sheen of reflective water. She was walking with the sun at her back, so that her figure was in shadow and seemed to be joined to the shadow reflected in the wet road to create one vastly elongated person. As we passed each other, she glanced at me, briefly, and for a second I glimpsed her face, and saw that her right eye was missing.