The red arrow, or rather what remains of it, points to a narrow barrier of rocks barring my way. Technically speaking it’s not difficult to find small footholds to climb up. The problem is, after overcoming it, on both sides the slopes rapidly fell as if eager to reach the mountain valley. I could not walk upright, fearing any misplaced step, or a gust of wind would rob me of my balance and roll me down to the unfathomable depth. My heart and legs faltered at these thoughts. Surely I’m not expected to continue on such a dangerous path? Besides, no further red paint could be seen ahead. Maybe this is the wrong place. But where else should I go? At this point, the cross on top of Hönigspitz was already lost behind the final few hundred meters of steep rising.
I looked back at the small figures of the two hikers coming this way, who I descried a while ago and induced me to hurry up lest I be caught up with and lose the title of being the first one to reach the peak. That idea was completely gone. Now I only wished them here sooner. While waiting for them, I walked back a bit to find a place to rest. But wherever I moved, in front of me was always that formidable descent that gave me no peace. Leaning back against the rocks as much as possible, I imagined a stream that may rush down from here; started to comprehend how fearless the water has to be. Thankfully the anxiety did not last long. How swiftly the couple traversed the single foot path where I spent quite some time and effort finding firm rocks for both of my hands to hold on to so as not to fall sideways. Soon they popped up around the corner, Thomas and Mara!
They confirmed that horrible path is the right way to the top, and asked if I’d like to join them. Oh of course, I happily joined them – they looked so pro. On the other hand, they apparently also noticed me as the opposite. So Mara led the way, me in the middle, Thomas the rear and sometimes at the outer side to protect my flank whenever applicable. Now I understood what a mountain ridge is. All my life I had been hiking in mounds. Or at Hefelekar, the ridge was much wider and stairs were built. Yet Mara and Thomas walked the delicate string as if that 2700 meter elevation wasn’t there – they walked upright like decent human beings. While I constantly dogged down and almost crawled my way up. Maybe that was to punish the nonbeliever who wanted to reach Jesus’s cross – an unpleasant thought.
Now that I wasn’t alone anymore, and the couple kept me busy with conversations so that my small brain had no room for thinking about the risks, the danger seemed dismayed and to have retreated. The challenges were to keep up with my companions’ pace in this tough ascension and at the same time make sure each step is firmly grounded. Even though they asked me to tell them whenever I feel like taking a break or if they are too fast, I guess I could still push myself further strength and perseverance wise, so as not to bore them too much. This way after much fun of rock climbing (made easier by tracing Mara’s pioneering steps), crawling (when it was relatively level) and Thomas’ many promises such as “we are almost there”, or “this is the last small bump to overcome”, we reached Hönigspitz!
The northern side of the mountain range were clothed in virgin snow: a vast white headpiece touches her waist; the white dress develops into long stripes and finally laces at the fringe. We took a food break while admiring the views around us. Thomas remarked that I was probably the first Chinese to ever ascend this peak because it’s not so known other than to locals. “Is it because here it’s not as nice as the other side in the Texelgruppe Nature Park?” I worryingly asked. He replied:” No. It’s because here it’s much more difficult to climb.” That was a satisfying answer 🙂 Then I started to worry about the way down. There’s no way I could descend the same way I came – it was simply too steep. The couple told me their plan of going on along the ridge towards the other slightly higher peak Hirze Spitze – the namesake of this region and apparently the highest peak around, and then returning back to the middle point between the two peaks where there would be a much easier route down. While having to deal with the scarily tricky Alpine mountain ridge again doesn’t sound exactly appealing, taking the same way back is all the less so. So I accepted the former challenge.
At the descent point I opted to stay put and wait for them. The staff at Krammeben forbade me to go up to Hirze Spitze anyway. Before they embarked, Mara offered if I wanted an apple, a banana, or her jacket. Such kindness… I shamelessly took the apple… I guarded the sign post in this profuse serenity, now watching Thomas and Mara making their way to the neighboring spitze, now waving to the paragliders riding the east wind, now singing little winged songs to my silent snowy audience, most of the time nourishing my soul by inhaling the breathtaking mountainscape near and far. Alps! read more …
As I was reading about the route Kafka used to take everyday to school accompanied by the family chef, suddenly the strains of HaTikvah was heard. It may not be much of a surprise since Kafka was known to have wanted to make aliya, the strange thing is that barely passing 8 bars, the music deviated from what I know so well. It then became apparent that this is not the Israeli national anthem, or a remix of it.
Recalling that the music of HaTikvah was adapted from some pretty pedestrian folk tune, I went to the Wikipedia page in hope of finding some confirmation that the presently playing piece was also a derivative of the same source. There, the name Smetana struck me familiar. Wasn’t that splendid hall where I listened to that underwhelming concert inside the municipal house called Smetana Hall? – It’s probably not the Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK’s fault, but my insisting in going to the concert after a whole day’s hike to blame. Now as the second movement of Smetana’s symphonic poem set, Vltava, greets me again, my hypothesis is validated. For some time, I enjoyed the discovery of the hidden links between these initially unrelated dots scattered all over my trip. But it seems to be a well known fact domestically.
Now as I think of it, isn’t it most suitable to choose this piece of music for that short film of Kafka’s Prague? On one hand, the HaTikvah-like melody alludes to his Zion heart, on the other, a Czech rendition reflects his cultural identity. By the way, this is not the only occasion where the museum designers show genius choice of music. Firstly I was met with some non-trivial ambient music in the introductory part. And close to the end in the literary analysis section, some spooky metal sounds are heard accompanying Kafka’s hand injury drawings made for his insurance company, creating a creepy absurd space. I would say the museum is quite experimental sonically and visually.
They also offered scholarly and deep interpretations for Kafka’s work, which were difficult to chew. To be honest, when I read Metamorphosis, I hardly saw anything beyond the storyline. But I’ll have plenty of chances to read between the lines now that I bought a set of three books compiling Kafka’s short stories from the museum shop – almost as impressive as the Autechre EP box that I got at the live show!
On a somewhat remotely related note, the nude with arms raised (and armpit hair exposed) by Pablo Picasso actually reminded me of George Samsa’s sister at the end of Metamorphosis, stretching herself to receive the infinite generosity from the sunshine as much as she could; her parents suddenly realize that here is a full fledged young woman ready for the future. This is not to say that I finally start to whole-heartedly appreciate that drawing. Although admittedly, Catherine’s explanation helped a lot towards that end. She says naivism tries to unlearn the academic training and focuses on the essence of what one wants to convey through childish paint strokes. In this particular drawing, I indeed starts to see the innocence, youthfulness and all the signs indicating the fresh positive, instead of singling out the grotesque squiggles supposedly representing her hair and hands. We also agreed that his intentional neglect of making her face pretty and leaving the natural underarm as is were an explicit challenge to typical modern viewers such as us, who are knowingly but irresistibly conditioned to popular media dictation of what is considered to be feminine beauty.
It’s been a month since then. Memories are fading. So I’ll group all the rest of the days together and document some highlights.
Remembering one of my Italian friends wearing a fancy suit for the Israeli aerospace conference, who told me that’s just being European, I thought I had to bring my JK uniform – the closest thing I’ve got to formal clothing. But on the way to Hyeres I suddenly realized: I packed my skirt, knee-highs, uniform shoes and even the bow knot, but not the white shirt! I soon turned from being horrified to glad for my consistency and a possible solution of buying a substitute in a local mall. As the plane approached a small rustic airport, round bales of hay which I only saw in paintings* seemed to tell me there are no malls here. At the suggestion of the Hotel reception, I went back to land the next morning and traveled to Grand Var at the outskirt of Toulon. At the first store where I bought a boy’s white shirt, I met a very nice high school girl who was helping in the store. She led me to the next store I was looking for. And when I finished shopping and found no taxi outside the mall – Grand Var is not Grand Canyon after all – the girl came out again and walked me to the exit where the taxi that a customer in her store helped me ordered was. Pimples flourishing on her sunny cheeks and forehead, she would complain about not being good with school and stuff. How nice to behold the face of a high school girl with all these innocent little troubles, thought I – the 114-year-old… …All this while she didn’t really speak English. In the end she typed her farewell message for me on Google Translate and I really didn’t know how to fully express my gratitude.
In the mall I bought three shirts in a row because all of them were somewhat casual. I thought I would leave the difficult question of which one to choose to tomorrow when I would be speaking. In the afternoon, the conference officially started. The organizer Stephane – I still miserably remember I assumed it to be a French version of Stephanie and addressed him by “Ms.” in emails, TWICE!- opened with a welcoming note. To my amazement, he came in beach T-shirt, shorts and flipflops. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, when he needed a pointer, he grabbed a fallen tree branch taller than even me. At this point I understood that I should be glad that the difficult question was no longer relevant. And without loss of generality, let me just omit that part concerning some certain amount of Euros…
A by-product of that shopping trip was that I had a glimpse of Hyeres center, where a plethora of small-scale palaces lined up the neat boulevards. I have no idea what these eye candies are. But it was definitely nice to have walked around that place.
Before going there, we were warned that “the comfort in the conference center is limited”. But it time and again challenged my bottom line. First there was no air-conditioning in the lecture room. I managed to cool down thanks to the fresh island air. But to the bigger others, life was not easy. Second was of course the lodging. I didn’t complain about the small space which had me bump into the bed corner all the time, or the shower head – or rather the lack thereof from which the water poured down quite bluntly. The jaw-dropping fact was that there was no air-conditioning again… And no WI-FI… These definitely hit new lows. Later Julie told us this place is sort of like kids’ summer camp or military camp. Then it makes sense.
I was well aware of and prepared for sharing the space with another girl. I was confident that academia people have to be nice. This claim stands unshakable. Moreover soon it turned out my roommate was cooler than just nice. Elektra, unlike the introvert me, is an outgoing person with unrestrained bright laughter. Despite striking differences in sociability and bedtime, we both read before sleep and advocated leaving the window wide open for fresh air during the night (thus making ourselves open targets to the mosquito army).
Whenever Elektra fondly called me “μήλο my apple”, my heart stealthily turned into a sweet blossom. By the last night – the last beach time we were going to spend together – I found myself changing into bathing suit without bothering to enter the bathroom anymore. Elektra let loose her wild laugh and teased me. I rushed to explain myself ** by citing the imminent meeting time with others. But it’s undeniable that the somewhat intimate week of sharing personal space and stories, especially of witnessing Elektra’s carefree attitude with regard to changing in front of her roommate, I gradually gave up keeping that awkward distance. read more …
The last day of the conference. Before 11 a.m. the lectures were all over. I wasn’t sure if I paid attention to them well. During the coffee break, I found out everybody I know was to leave the island immediately except for Ernst Jan. We went to see them off at the port in the middle of the day under the blazing hot sun. It was that laid-back kind of atmosphere that made my eyes half closed. All of a sudden, Ougustine came to hug us and went to join the line. Then I noticed the line moving and that signified the departure of my friends. I only managed to locate Elektra who called out to me, and Julie beside her. We hugged and kissed and bid farewell. It was so brief and there wasn’t any chance to say goodbye to anyone else that I hung out with. The next moment the port was empty, leaving me a bit bewildered- a feeling I had long time ago. I always find it hard to digest that friends who created and shared fond memories can just disappear from my life this easily. But I also realize for truly sociable people, it happens all the time and they don’t lament it.
Two hours later, Ernst Jan and I were sitting at Le Pelagos. After the Delft native introduced me to their rowing culture and their enormous civil engineering revolving around dikes, somehow we came to the topic of Israel’s conflict. I looked up at him when he used the word “aggression”, albeit in a careful tone as if that would irritate me. I did find it offensive as Israel never acts unprovoked (okay, minus that 1956 war). So far I had seen myself as a little ambassador of Israel to the world, ready to discuss any complex problems in an educated manner. But before I could make a statement, he said in the gentlest possible way – in a mosquito’s volume – that Farah was a refugee from Lebanon. I gasped and my mind went blank. But that was not all. Her house was destroyed when Israel invaded southern Lebanon. The whole family fled to Egypt where soon afterwards there was unrest and again they had to run away. Eventually they settled down in France. And now Farah lives in Australia where she did her research. For years she could not speak to an Israeli. When she met Israelis she got so angry that she felt like punching them in the face. Only a year ago she gradually overcame this.
As the story unfolded, the images of my limited interaction with Farah came rushing through my mind. I always introduce myself first and foremost as a student from Israel because I never like to present myself as being from China. Like most, Farah verified that this most-definitely Chinese looking person is not Israeli. But why in the world did I add, in the face of a Lebanese, that I like to pretend to be Israeli, only falling short of declaring myself as a self-appointed Israeli ambassador? I somewhat perceived a tip of the iceberg of my silliness when she naturally pursued: “Why do you like to pretend to be Israeli?” There was apparent underlying meaning pointing to her distaste towards Israel. But I chose to ignore her being uncomfortable and clumsily shrugged it off by saying “It’s just fun.” Now that I came to know what kind of bitter personal history she had had, I totally regret my insensitivity. Perhaps later on we got along well: the next day she told me how her nervousness before the presentation could be manifested in her shivering voice; in the afternoons we went to beaches together; during a coffee break I offered my condolence for her stolen bikini; the last morning I think she came to sit right in front of me at breakfast. But all this is perhaps due to me not being Israeli, and/or her being more mature.
I remember that miss universe incidence where the Israeli girl still in the army service cheerfully insisted in taking a selfie together with the Lebanese girl. I sneered at the narrow-mindedness of the Lebanese when it was reported that Miss Lebanon was harshly criticized for that photo. Back then, it again proved for me that only the Arab states perceive us as the enemy, refuse to accept coexistence and perpetrate the century long hostility, whereas we don’t hate anyone and just want to make peace. So when we come across someone from the other side, we lightly go up to them believing we should make friends with them and they should NOT have a problem in making friends with us. But for them, they could not take it lightly. No matter how legitimate a reason Israel has for launching the offensive, what happened on the ground were massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and large-scale displacement of the Lebanese population. Displacement, what a neutral sounding word! But now I suddenly see the substance in this word by relating it to a real person, whom I spoke with and respect. Sometimes our simple-mindedness, innocence, mixed with insensitivity can become stupidity. How can I blame those people for not ready to befriend us?
Ernst Jan asked me to imagine myself being in Farah’s situation. But I could not. I was already saddened and I knew I could not take it to place myself in her shoes. That would be too agonizing. For all these years, I have refused to see the real pictures of any human misfortune, be it the suffering of Gazans, the stories of our fallen soldiers, or the Holocaust. Therefore I love to read history books written by serious scholars. Largely devoid of emotion, I can stand reading numbers, which I forget in a millisecond, or words like displacement, casualty and death. And after reading the books, I believe I know what happened without having to undergo mental depression. But real pictures are indeed there. Sometimes they are just suddenly before your eyes without warning. In the future, I will still hide behind the texts. But this shock lesson indeed significantly influenced me towards giving more weight to the ordinary civilian on the other side when thinking about the conflict. read more …
It turns out that La Tour Fondue only serves for Porquerolles. In order to go to Port Cros, one has to be in Port d’Hyeres first. As expected, this one hour morning cruise was one of salty breeze, gentle sunlight. Leaning on the white rail, I sometimes gazed at the northeastern end of Porquerolles tilting at an unnoticeable pace, wondering what I had missed due to the previous day’s accident; sometimes I stared at the dancing white foams creating a glistening rainbow. There I gradually slipped into drowsiness, and Melville’s beautiful narration emerged in the center of my consciousness:
…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature… In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space…
I came to Port Cros mainly because of the advertised underwater trail. To reach it from the port, one first needs to hike along the cliff edge of the island for 40 minutes. Even though the cliffs ran fast down to the water, the thick vegetation gave me a very comfortable sense of safety. It was such an enchanting trail because you never completely lose sight of the sea or the impenetrable forest. On the left, there was the sound of waves crushing against the rocks; on the right, there was the synchronized buzzing of cicadas celebrating the heat. I have freedom in my left hand and love in my right hand. Here there was such a variety of trees growing wildly into each other that made the shady trail barely passable. Upon arriving at the destination I was almost sorry.
But at the same moment, I suddenly realized I hadn’t rented any snorkeling equipment yet! That’s of course very typical of me. I ran up where I came from, saying Bonjure to all the people that just started flocking to the beach. Got the mask and tube for almost twice the cost of that on Porquerolles. On my way back to the beach, I chose a different route, steeper and more winding. And obviously I don’t mind getting acquainted with this scenic part of the island by walking it three times.
Now I finally got to what I came here for. Plage de la Palud was a fluffy beach again. The shallow water was muddy. The underwater trail turned out to be quite similar to Crique de la Galare. Yellow carpet, white ginkgo leaves and rolling grass thickets glittering with sunlight rays. There perhaps were a few more kinds of fish. I spent about 40 minutes around the area, looking for the true face of the murderous medusa to no avail. I would conclude that it wasn’t boring, but definitely not very breathtaking. It shouldn’t be surprising though. After all, these three islands are so close to each other. There’s no reason to expect anything different in the underwater landscape. So probably I didn’t miss much by dropping the second snorkeling destination the other day.
In the afterthought, what was really nice about Port Cros was definitely its intimate cliff trails. The island is an official national park (the smallest in France) where trees are specifically protected. I left la Palud and its screaming, laughing kids altogether. As soon as I ran into the bosom of greens, it was all tranquility and solitude again. Along the way, I discovered several more picturesque coves where no bathers visit.
When I got to the east most point, I already felt a bit tired and wanted to turn westward back to the village. But over there I lost the trail. I looked back and saw clearly the trail led me here. But before me was some extremely difficult rock climbing down to the water. And it wasn’t the right direction that Google Maps pointed for me. I stood there for a few minutes, not knowing what to do. Just then, though I was all alone all this time, just when I needed help, two human beings magically appeared before my eyes. They were coming from high up towards me. Then I realized I was supposed to climb up. I gladly greeted the two guys hiking the opposite way and said “Youu saved me!” “Why?” “Here I thought the trail led me to nowhere and I was stuck. Then I saw you guys coming down and now I know where to go.” They laughed and wished me good luck. read more …