By RANDALL BABTKIS, writer, poet, and professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
On Friday, Aug. 26, the incoming CIIS MFA cohorts in Writing and Consciousness and Creative Inquiry met for orientation. At the end of the afternoon when we finished business, Cindy Shearer led us through an exercise of making art together. Like the MFA program itself, Cindy's exercise crossed genres, mixing visual and tactile art with writing. Each of us made postcards for an upcoming exhibition in Danville. For me, less than a week back home after summer travels in eastern Europe, the activity flung me backwards. I found myself again in that moment of experiencing the world in postcard format—the vivid sensations of motion mixed with memory and with wherever you happen to find yourself right now.
It's 5:08 pm in eastern europe. Or make that 17:08 in European time-speak. Or transpose it onto the American landscape and it's 11:08 in the morning in New York, Connecticut, DC, Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Subtract 3 hours for the west coast and you might just be getting into your day—at 8:08 one recent morning in California.
I am going backwards on a train from Berlin to Warsaw, Poland, and am now, clearly, in Poland. We are passing a little station called Buk, which seems located in the middle of a cow field. To be clear, I am seated backward in this train, which is moving forward, so my view is to the rear and toward everything we have already passed. It is a useful metaphor.
When not snapping pictures of myself in mirrors, I am in my assigned seat. The other seats are all empty. The train has slowed but is not going to stop for this town, which, by turning to the other side of the train compartment, I can see is geographically located out the opposite side of the tracks, the cows in pasture.
Buk features a brick factory, a few sweet houses of very dreamy, fairy tale-like composition—maybe they are made of sugar canes and marshmallows—coated with the melancholy palettes of eastern Europe: gray-blue or Prussian pinks and reds. Or just the sunny yellows which surround a parish church.
Buk also has a granary and some strange tower with a dome, about six or seven stories tall. Eastern Europe seems especially fond of towers with domes. They are ubiquitous in the architecture. Some resemble a detached corner turret of a castle, though most stand alone in fields and seem vaguely futuristic, out of some "Jetsons" moment from the recent past. In Berlin the day before, I got the impression they were just abandoned spy posts. The windows in those domes all looked down into the streets from high enough to peer, with binoculars, into any window and learn what was going on in this strasse or that strasse.
And in Switzerland (one day prior to my overnight in Berlin), on my way to an alp, the train conductor suddenly felt compelled to tell me that all was not as it seems. "It's not that picture perfect in Switzerland," he insisted. "Everyone is peering into everyone else's business," he warned.
"For example"—and suddenly the conductor leaned in very close to me, providing a certain amount of atmosphere and heat—"if you go away on vacation for a week, the post office will make inquiries. If you don't answer your door, the carrier will deliver your mail and packages to a neighbor. Your neighbors will open the mail and read it, or take the package and examine its contents, and maybe send it back to where it came from. You might only learn of this casually, or second hand."
I thought that was the sort of thing that only happened in totalitarian states—the kinds of eastern European places of the recent past I was headed for. It is hard to know whether people's stories represent a slightly paranoid truth or wide reality, but I suspect—at least where the Swiss Burghers are concerned—the conductor knew what he was talking about.
The people I have met on my trip through Europe, consisting so far of three countries in three days, seem eager to talk—a good sign of openness, tolerance, liberalism, and what we used to call western democracy. They stop me in shops, in my hotel, on the side of an alp, and ask to hear something about me and the world I come from. In a way, that feels most welcome, since I am traveling by myself; it gets a little weird being so far outside conversations. It is easy to feel forgotten in a place of foreign tongues that only occasionally put words into the air that tip off to a subject: die Symphonie or Doppelklicken, or Ekonomisch, words I have heard and written down, for example.
And there is something wonderful about falling into backwards motion, surrounded by all the foreign sounds. Writing postcards and revisualizing things you've seen before, or have never seen, maybe just dreamed or imagined, is a good way to explore this.
We have now pulled into and back out through Poznan Glowny (central station), in the small city of Poznan in the northwest of Poland. The train compartment has filled up and I am lucky to be sitting in a fairly comfortable, if slightly down-on-its-luck padded seat with five foreign companions, none of whom seem able to communicate with me. I am heading to a writer's conference in Vilnius, Lthuania. One young woman—again I am thinking backward into my past—reminds me of a disguised cartoon spy from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. This Natasha—in a fake blonde wig with a ring in her nose and hiding under a raccoon hat, seems the most eastern European of the bunch. Then she surprises me and answers her phone with a posh London accent. We can hear the man she speaks to over the rumble of the train on tracks in our little room. He has a deep voice with another British accent. She asks him if there is a long queue, and hangs up suddenly. I am about to speak to her to break the silence when she closes her eyes to signal there will be no conversation. She is into her deeper thoughts—the backward ones that happen when we ramble into dream. There are other types of deeper thought, of course, but I am facing backward now myself, and content with that—heading somewhere new, where my great-grandparents fled in the past.