I lose all.
Topher McCulloch-First Draft
Art of the Memoir
Nighttime casts the simple in the form of the sublime, upstaging the role of reality. It was strange enough to experience Taiwan without parents, but to be in the care of a temporary host family, to be in a Confucius temple, to be in my pyjamas, was all too surreal. It is natural to associate dreams and nighttime, and it is in a dream perspective that I remember many wild, lonely, and excessive evenings. The edges of my Taiwan experience are frayed like the well-worn and loved edges of a dream carpet I often ride. The face of my host father is lost to me, and I cannot remember if my student host for that evening was male or female. The only detail allowed to me is the student's need to complete their French homework (that someone my age could speak two languages fluently and be learning a new language altogether was mind-bending to me who could barely manage an “Ich hei√üe Helmut”).
What was serene and awesome has become a fleeting instant, a flash in my mind, a moment I can hold on to and brag about but not fully recall or recollect. The air was cool but heavy with the promise of rain. The ground was gravel and what pavement there was was uneven–memory has repaved the real cobblestone with more recent, European stones. Two temples were visited that night, and I can recall my trepidation as the host father swung open the door of the second, and we pushed our way into a sanctuary. Sticks of incense surrounded us, and I felt uncomfortable and alienated with this holy encounter. A short fat fifteen year old white kid was insanely out of place in Taiwan, but that is what I loved most. Call it what you want, but Taiwan, Formosa, The Republic of China, is not a popular place for many tourists. Chinese missiles pointed towards the island from a channel of only 30 miles do not scream welcome; America does not even officially recognize Taiwan as a country, yet there I was, a Anglo Saxon Midwestern experiencing his first time as a minority. On the night of December 31st, 2000, I found myself amidst continuing fears of apocalypse and amidst a crowd of thousands in Taipei, Taiwan. A man offered to buy a few girls in our group which was our cue to bunny hop away from the main celebrations, a splash of brown and blonde in a black sea. I spent the rest of the night perched on a fountain at a Taiwanese high school, talking to no one and watching fireworks in the distance. In the grand sense I was at peace, yet I still felt cheated.
Nighttime is often the most memorable aspect of a memorable trip; it has the power to isolate and elevate events to the supreme. I was only eleven when I visited Egypt, something I am unsure if I should be thankful for or regret. I remember much of the trip, yet I rarely think of it. My nighttime experiences there again become surreal. Near the midnight hour in a private resort town outside of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, I remember huddling together with my sister in our shared bed as my father pounded the wall with a towel to kill mosquitos in the next room. My sister and I curled up, irrationally fearing not only malaria, but also the rats that had invaded the borrowed flat.
Another night on a guided tour of Karnak Temples a woman fainted from the heat that even night would not grant reprieve. I see clearly the parting of the crowds as she fell backwards, slowly, as if she were drowning. Someone must have caught her. I know the backdrop for this event was multifarious pillars emblazoned with hieroglyphs, but like the intricacies of the Confucius temple they have blurred into soft focus.
My final evening recollection of Egypt is set on the balcony of the Mina Palace Hotel in Cairo. From there my family could see the pyramids, and we watched in amazement as the nightly laser lights show danced across the theater of the sky. It seems ridiculous now for there to be a laser light show, as if the Pyramids are not impressive enough. But at that young age, I was insanely jealous that we were not there, experiencing the event from an even closer vantage point. The Mina Palace is the only hotel with a view of the pyramids… I believe it is possible to ask for too much. This trip to Egypt nine years ago is why I will have college loans for years to come.
Apart from Taiwan, New Years 2003 and 2005 held great beauty and promise that daytime can not hope to offer. It was on the eve of 2003 that I discovered the simple beauty of an empty main street in Aberdeen covered in snow, and it was on the eve of 2005 that I beheld the magic of Rome, a city at war with its jubilance. Prior to that night in Aberdeen, I had often missed the point in South Dakota. For the first time I was fully taken with my friends and finding peace in my surroundings. I attach great stigma to the state of my birth, but I cannot find fault with a group of teenagers experiencing snow as if it were their first time. Even my “best friend” Maren, who was fighting with her then boyfriend, gleefully embraced the prosaic whiteness. Crazy Mike (so called for various run-ins with the police, most notably dressed as “Timmy the Broken Condom” which entailed a curfew violation and a half, to say the least) paraded up and down the street, strumming what was most likely not his guitar. He serenaded those who had spurned his advances in the past, but during that moment, no one was complaining. Emma, prone to severe depression, and Steph, prone to extreme self-destruction, made snow angels in the street. Dream memory here erases the self; I cannot see where I relate to the events on that street iconic of wintery small towns world wide. In memory, I drift detachedly amongst other free joyous bodies. That night I feared I was beginning to understand what my English teachers meant by having “a sense of place.”
New Years 2005 established further a pattern of sublime occasions on the odd year. Rome was alive with explosions. Everywhere Italian youths threw festive dynamite, making the occasion feel like a desperate celebration in a warzone, an apocalyptic last stand. I was in this ancient city with Maren, whom I had not seen in months, Mike, the latest source of my endless issues, and his friend from home Adam. We finished an amazing meal (pizza, pasta, and bread of course) and an even more amazing Tiramasu to which life now pales in comparison to when Mike became casualty to urban warfare. We decided to escape the area of Rome Termini train station and find a bar, quickly. Never has it been so hard to find drink on New Year's. We eventually gave up and compromised with an overpriced snack bar inside Termini. Maren was the only one who succeeded in getting drunk, and by11:00 and both she and Adam were tired. They retired to their respective hostels, and Mike and I set off in search of awe-inducing splendor on New Year's amongst the enclosing sounds of small explosives. Walking towards the ruins of Rome, we turned down a barricaded side street and discovered an open air concert. There we counted down the seconds until 2005, and when the time came, a combined chorus of firecrackers, champagne poppers, and car bombs all crescendoed at once.
Rome's candor dulled the pain of a half-hearted hug when I wanted a shocking New Year's kiss.
Following the celebration we set off, Mike in search of the Colosseum , and I in search of myself. That is untrue, we were headed in the same direction, I am just a poetic liar. We passed the remains of several celebrations on our way to the symbol of Rome today, an overpriced trainwreck of a tourist attraction re-ruined by renovations and archeologists but pretty regardless. Much of this seems like a boring itinerary. I wish to emphasize it was an amazing occurrence, made unique by the shroud of darkness. I felt alone with my awe that night in Rome, yet I was intensely aware of Mike's presence next to me. When I travel alone, I wish for someone alongside me, sharing in the experience. My own thoughts play a weak second fiddle. Mike and I conversed sparingly; we did not need conversation, which is to say he enjoyed the silence, and I tried to keep quiet.
A few nights later I found myself alone with my thoughts and Maren in Venice, the city of love. Love that is not for a friend has never been with me on nights such as these, an issue that Venice could only accentuate. I was amazed by how a city so populated with tourists could become my own after dark. Its pavement was as empty as its canals were still, and all that stirred were Maren and I, lost in Europe and ourselves.
I am composing these memories close to one am at Sir Toby's hostel in Prague. I am alone in the basement, where a cold brick cellar has been converted into a chapel/reading room. For now I am at peace with my loneliness and with Prague. When I visited Prague for the first time a few months ago, I was confused and drawn in. I am in love with its Bohemian ideals, but the capitalist reality spurns me. Walking on the castle terraces at dusk last December, I believed I had found “my” Prague, but I have neglected to grant Prague similar experiences of nighttime awe for want of 25 cent tram ticket this time around. Prague has presented me with a conundrum; it is a city of beauty, but I remain unmoved. Prague has rebuked my attempts to photograph it, going so far as to freeze my camera, and when that was not enough it made my roll of film vanish. Prague has thrown me into an existential crisis.
Nighttime grants majesty to places I visit, but it does not explain them further. Mysteries escape my grasp and become enlarged. Even if I could arrive at some grand meaning on nights such as this, the readings would be false. Dream logic does not apply to the waking world. How can I possibly interpret flashing and strobing colored lights in the cupola of the Kolner Dom, a Protestant Cathedral in Berlin. A rave perhaps? Martin Luther would be scandalized. How can I grasp the meaning of how Unter Den Linden “unter den Schnee” makes me feel? Why do I find Berlin comforting when Paris pushes me away and Rome makes me uncomfortable?
These are all questions to muse over at night. It is the questions without answers that are the most appealing at the witching hour.