Perhaps it’s a little abstract… but then that’s the point.
Everyone with whom I have had more than five minutes worth of conversation these days wants to know: “What did you enjoy most about Europe?” — and I stumble through the fragmented and chaotic answer that, simply, there was just so much to see and so much diversity that I can’t, honestly, pick one thing that I enjoyed “the most” without discrediting the rest of it. And now, nearly a week after my last bumbling moments through the dutch countryside, I still couldn’t put my finger on one precise moment in time when I said to myself: “Hey, this is THE moment. This is IT. This RIGHT HERE is my vacation at it’s peak.”
Wouldn’t that just be too simple.
Thinking about this problem has led me down an interesting path, however. I think I could see it from afar even when I was racing through the multiple cities and countries, riding in a train or bus or driving a car, eating multiple gourmet meals, drinking a broad selection of beer and wine, retracing steps through cobble-stone streets or even just waking up each morning and pushing away the fog to recall what country I fell asleep in the night before. Perhaps even Karin and Ryan could pick out that moment when traces of the theme appeared literal in snippets of conversations or examples bubbled to the surface of contemplative moments in random locales.
So, what did I learn on summer vacation? The exact words haven’t exactly ‘gelled’ in my mind yet, but I think — I think — it has something to do with the contrast between REALISM and IMPRESSIONISM — in art, in form, in function, in life. Everywhere. The contrast. The purpose. The deception. The truth. The pursuit. And even, as it were, the consequence — positive and negative — of following those paths.
Though, of course, I can’t speak to the ineffable experiences of my travelling companions, near, close, or far, if I’m referring to the other two or the other fifty. It doesn’t even matter. Everyone gets something completely different from a so-called adventure through the world and I wouldn’t assume to enforce what anyone else got from their own wanderings any more than I would take (with good humour) having my own moments interpretted. But I need to solidify this (in as much as that is possible) so that I can go back to normal life and stop pondering the meta-purposes of vacation and just happily incorporate them into my humble existence.
Life goes on, they say.
One of the most literal examples that hangs in my mind is age — and what is REAL age? We saw some (arguably) old buildings. Commonly, buildings built as early as the 12th century (plus or minus countless generations). They were all over the place, with museums, restaurants, shops and stores, internet cafes, Pizza Huts, and storage rooms stuffed into their interiors. Eight hundred year old buildings being used to sell french fries or store folding chairs. But how REAL are those buildings? The bricks and sandstone is replaced every other decade. Some were bombed to rubble in the various wars, and rebuilt exactly as before on the same foundations. Wood rots and is replaced. Halogen lights dangle from medieval architecture. Are those REAL buildings? Or are they just IMPRESSIONS of old, long-since-disassembled structures for we moderns to enjoy?
Or, consider the example of Prague. I’ve now been to Prague. At least, I think I’ve been to Prague. We saw the city and it’s life brimming from the seams of a tourist haven. We sheltered our visit by prancing through palace, stepping carefully across the Charles Bridge, buying tacky souvenirs and ice cream from abundant shoppes lining the narrow, winding, cobble-stone streets. I wonder: was this REALLY Prague? Or was this an IMPRESSION of Prague: an idealized simulation of what Prague might be if it were just an example of modern tourism: Beer, goulash, and “Czech Me Out” t-shirts in every store window. When the rain came and washed away all the tourists the square was uneven as if something was stewing below trying to gurgle out.
Karin noted my third example: Language. There was only a single occasion over the course of three, widely-travelled weeks when English was insuffiecient. We ordered pizza in a small city in Slovakia and the waitress fumbled to communicate with us. We ate only because our fingers were adept at pointing to the menu in the appropriate places. But everywhere else — EVERYWHERE — I could communicate verbally in English to whomever I happened to meet. Some might insist that this is great. Sure. No effort on my part. Why complain? But was that REAL? Was it authentic? Was it something that represented an exact picture of the culture and people in who’s city I was a visitor? Or, what was it? An IMPRESSION? A feeling on the canvas that had been painted there to help me feel comfortable about my travels? An interpretation of Polish or Hungarian culture splashed across a North American theme.
We discussed the (literal) REALISM versus IMPRESSIONISM with Henk who’s bias leans towards interpretting emotions on canvas. His art is impressions of his inner thoughts and deepest beliefs. He expressed his disappointment at the abundance of REALISM in Canadian art. So many “Grizzly Bears” and “Mountain-Scapes” does not seem to compare with dynamic feeling evoked by interpretable art. I wonder about blogging: this is REALISM. This is life, scripted. This is a photographically concrete image of what happened today. This is a precisely painted douglas fir standing beside a river with glistening salmon jumping in the currents. REAL. But I want to write more IMPRESSIONISM.
I took photos of grafitti in Eastern Europe. When I was caught, my travelling companions spying me out of the corner of their eye snapping a digital recreation of some Polish spray paintings, there might have been a bit of a chuckle. But then grafitti is IMPRESSION isn’t it? Loosely? Culture art seeps from the hearts of the people and erupts onto repeating surfaces of granite and marble, sandstone or cobble-stone.
I rode on a bus for two weeks with a cross section of North American and Oceanic personalities. We had all arrived at a small hotel on the fringe of central Berlin with passports in hand but very little else tying us to our true personalities. Names and birthdates, countries of origin, and anything else we dared to express of ourselves. What happens in Europe, stays in Europe? Maybe. But what is REAL? Who is REAL? Is that guy with the hangover every morning really a tea-totaling moralist? Is the outgoing girl at the back of the bus really just shy and reserved. Does the smart guy with his nose in his book really burn away his days at home playing video games? Or, is the quiet couple near the front of the bus really taking a break from being the outgoing centres of attention back home? Who can say? Did we all just become IMPRESSIONS of who we’d like to be when we get on a bus full of strangers? Or can we even change the REAL?
And of course there was my camera. Thirteen hundred photographs slipped neatly onto a waffer-thin memory card, glimpses of fragments of cities. Extracting the essence of the life into pixels is what we all happened to do, each of us, toting around cameras and flashing the shutter open for fractions of a second for what? A glimpse of the REAL so we could bring those memories home and relate them to our families and friends who couldn’t travel with us. But those literal images are REALISM subject to IMPRESSIONS of our memories. Nothing more. I called my incessent snapping “photo journalism” wherein scenic shots were bracketted by reference shots, or foot shots, or people shots, or artistic elements to be pasted together later. It was all to refresh my own mind, to flash my own IMPRESSIONS into something concrete so that there might be a glimpse of proof to my memory. For what it is worth those captured moments can never be experienced again. I took those photos because the moment was interpretted as special — irreplacable — a glimpse of a fraction of a second to be recalled for as long as I can make the image last in my head, on paper, or as data. There is nothing REAL about it.
But then what’s the point? What DID I learn on summer vacation? We travel about the world, leaving our lives and our things behind (mostly) locked safely in our little homes. We walk out the door, we get on an airplane, and the next thing we know we’re barrelling across Berlin in a train, drinking red wine on the Danube, or frying schnitzel in a camping trailer in a small country village in the middle of the Netherlands. And then it all becomes just a memory. I guess I affirmed to myself both something obvious yet also something that lends to the further interpretation of life: REAL lasts for a fleeting moment, but as humans with minds and imagination we are left to give out IMPRESSIONS to the world. We express, that’s all. I hinted at this earlier, but maybe I’ve been a little hard on myself. I’ve been aiming for the REAL. I’ve been aiming for precise, exact, but fleeting moments when all I can do is provide impressions of it all. And that could be something elusive yet satisfying: art, words, thoughts, everything. Maybe this seems a little disatisfying for you, I having travelled the world and come back with nothing more than a glimmer of philosophical existentialism. But then again, this is just my impression.