Genesis

Through my public health work, I’ve learned something about epigenetics—the phenomenon by which factors in the environment (diet, stress, air quality, whether your grandmother smoked or not) attach themselves to our DNA and become a part of us, capable of being passed on to future generations.

I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry by which it happens, but I’m drawn to  the idea that we absorb our environment—or perhaps it’s the opposite, our environments absorb us. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just back from a week in Haiti, a country that has been a part of my environment since well before I was born. From 1927 until sometime in the late 1940s, my grandparents ran a sisal plantation outside Cap Haitien. My mother and her siblings grew up there. Talk of Haiti permeated my childhood. We learned Haitian words for body parts (boonda for rear end) and foods (my mother’s egg custard was zeffelie, Creole from les oeufs au lait).

When I was four, my parents and grandmother took me to Haiti on a trip whose particulars I remember far more powerfully than its overall structure or duration. I remember, for example, the number of the hotel room where my grandmother and I slept (12); my encounter with a young girl who pointed to a plant in the hotel garden and uttered the word fleur (and my astonishment that I could understand her); the endless drive on a dusty mountain road; the night we dined al fresco atop a steep hill while Haitians danced the limbo, and my parents ordered  succulent steaks for themselves and a tough cut of cheap beef for me, confident I would never register the affront.

Haiti is not only the locus of my mother’s childhood and site of my own first foreign journey, it’s where my father spent World War II and where my parents met. It is thus, in ways both symbolic and real, primal—the place without which my brother and sister and I would not exist.

After that 1959 trip, I did not go back, nor did my parents. Too much political upheaval, the logistics too daunting. My mother spent the rest of her life savoring the sounds and smells and tastes of Haiti. She kept plantains in her fruit bowl and limes in her refrigerator (even if she rarely ate either), and in her later years, she sometimes danced to Haitian music when my brother played the right CD. She became obsessed with the notion of her life as a bon bagaille—Haitian for a “good time”—and insisted we describe it as such after her death, which we did.

She repeatedly asked us to scatter her ashes in Haiti.

We promised we would.

Specifically: “I want to be scattered in the Caribbean north of Haiti.” The north, where Columbus landed—a place of origin not just for us but for the North American imagination.

“OK, Mom.”

By the time my brother and I made our way to Cap Haitien last week, our father, too, had died, and we combined their ashes in a pair of pill bottles and on an outing to a fish restaurant in a cove near Labadie beach, scattered our parents in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Afterward, over lunch, a fellow traveler raised his bottle of Prestige beer. “A toast to your parents,” he said. “They’re finally home.”

The day felt as if my mother had orchestrated it.

As I sat on my hotel patio the next morning, absorbing the pre-dawn sounds of Cap Haitien—roosters, the tin clang of cathedral bells, sensations my mother must have carried in her bones—it occurred to me that Haiti had long been lodged in my chromosomal matter and was now, in my 60th year, expressing itself. A latent contagion, adult-onset.

Coming here had been a pilgrimage. We’d found the pink hotel where my mother and her family had lived for two years while waiting for their house to be built, and where I’d stayed as a four-year-old, in a majestic room (# 12) surrounded by gardens of fleurs. The plantation of my mother’s youth lay off in the distance from where I now sat with a mug of coffee (strong and black the way my mother and grandmother always drank it), beyond the bay over which a bright January sun was rising, hidden as primal scenes should be. I sat, sipping coffee, remembering my mother’s memories, knowing they would soon morph into mine, were already, in fact, mine. My inheritance.

My Mother’s Caribbean

????????????????????????????????“As she told me stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. As I did this, I would occasionally sniff at her neck, or behind her ears, or at her hair. She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf. At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying; I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed.”

That’s Jamaica Kincaid, writing about her mother in the exquisite Annie John, a novella I read for the third time yesterday while flying from Grenada to Miami on my way home to Ann Arbor. Inside my copy of the book (whose cover cracked in half midway over the Caribbean, so old is the volume), I found a note I’d written to myself in an unspecified year:

“I first read this book eight years ago and fell in love with it. I picked it up again a few weeks ago on a dreary January day and fell for it all over again.”

Such is the nature of literary devotion. This time I took the affair a step further by carrying the book to and from Kincaid’s kind of island; I even coupled it with her delicate screed of an essay, A Small Place (now reviewed in the newly released  Understanding the Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter). A Small Place indicts those, like me, who swoop down on beautiful islands for a mid-winter respite from our colorless lives.

“When the natives see you, the tourist,” Kincaid charges, “they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Flying over Caribbean yesterday, I spotted a larger place, the island where my own mother grew up: Haiti, whose stories she has not tired of telling, even now, in her 92nd year. She grows teary when I report by phone from Miami that I saw the dun-colored country of her childhood from the air.

At 30,000+ feet, Haiti is an unpeopled bit of geometry surrounded by an ethereal blue sea that edges into sky, into a kind of nothingness that suggests (to me at least) the state of my mother’s mind these days. I sit staring from my window at the place where my mother slept under mosquito nets and checked her shoes for scorpions in the morning and listened as the family maid, Ta Gras (from Alta Gracia), brought the morning’s coffee to my grandmother. It’s an idyll Kincaid might attack, given its context–my grandfather was managing a sisal plantation, and the U.S. Marines had recently occupied the country.

Still, these are the stories my mother fed me until I no longer knew what she was saying, and as we fly over the turquoise sea where her mind increasingly dwells, I tell myself she is laughing.

Going to the Mountaintops

Maria Gunnoe, in front of her barn in Bob White, West Virginia

Maria Gunnoe, in front of her barn in Bob White, West Virginia

I knew I was straying from the beaten track when I got an e-mail telling me to bring my own food and water because “you wouldn’t want to drink ours.” Later that night my husband and I tried to find my destination—the dubiously named Comfort, West Virginia—on a road map and couldn’t.

By the time I checked into the motel 24 hours later, I was looking over my shoulder for I don’t know what—somebody in a pickup with a gun pointed my way? I shut the curtains tight, double-locked the door, and poured a scotch—forgetting that the ice cubes were probably contaminated.

Welcome to coal country.

I’d come to interview Maria Gunnoe, an environmental activist (though she hates the term) who’s had death threats because of her 15-year battle with the coal industry over its practice of mountaintop-mining removal, in which whole mountains are blasted to rubble in the quest for coal. Hence the region’s poisoned water and air.

Except for a couple of crossings on the turnpike 30 years ago, I’d never been in West Virginia before.

On the drive down from Michigan, I plugged in a CD of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which touches on mountaintop removal and Big Coal. The book kept me gratefully awake as I tunneled south through Ohio toward Charleston and the dark hollows of Boone County.

While my eyes took in the ancient and beautiful hills Maria Gunnoe is fighting to save, my ears absorbed Franzen’s blistering account of Bush-era America, with its greed and military miscalculations and environmental assaults. I thought a lot about freedom—the many freedoms Franzen’s characters seek and find and discard, and how fickle those freedoms prove to be; my own freedom at being able to get in a car and fuel up at will and head off on the interstate to visit a woman who’s risking her life to show Americans what our independence costs; the freedom of speech for which the 44-year-old Gunnoe is willing to gamble her existence.

Two weeks later, snug in my suburban house that runs on electricity powered by the coal that’s being ripped from the mountains in Maria’s backyard, I’m still thinking.

Here & There

Thomas Mann understood how it works. “The first few days at home after a change of scene,” he wrote, “are likewise experienced in a new, broad, more youthful fashion.” On the drive home from the airport on Saturday night, for instance, I briefly saw the road signs on I-94 through foreign eyes, and ever so briefly perceived English as a foreign language, an impenetrable assortment of letters rather than the transparent idiom I grew up with.

The birds in the backyard the next morning struck me, briefly, as an exotic presence. I’d forgotten about them. Against the snow, a cardinal perched dramatically in a leafless lilac outside the kitchen window seemed a gift. (I’ve long thought we’d do a great kindness to Europe if we were to export this beauty with its cheerful song.)

After a month of coffee only, my Yunnan tea tasted foreign in ways it usually doesn’t. By Monday the effect—like jet lag—was thinning. For, as Mann understood, “we are quicker to grow accustomed to the old rules than to their abrogation.” I went to the post office, the grocery store, the bank. Stocked up on Clinique at the mall. Filled the suet feeder, watched a bit of football.“ And if our sense of time has grown weary with age,” Mann goes on, “or was never all that strongly developed—a sign of an inborn lack of vitality—it very soon falls asleep again, and within twenty-four hours it it as if we were never gone and our journey were merely last night’s dream.” I love being home. I love being abroad. (Sometimes I even love the transition between the two.) I love the awareness one brings to the other. Like Mann, I wish that awareness lasted longer. If it did, maybe I wouldn’t have such wanderlust. My next trip starts a week from tomorrow.

Flying

f1

The Loreto, Prague

It stands, a marble-encrusted box in the middle of a cloistered space on top of a hill above a castle overlooking one of the most storied cities in the world, the place the mythical princess Libussa identified as Prague, a city whose fame, she predicted, “will touch the stars.”

The treasure within the cloister within the city is the Holy House of Loreto, believed to be the site of the Annunciation, miraculously lifted from its original location in Nazareth and borne through the air here to Prague in the 17th century. The layout and dimensions of the room (30 x 13 feet) come from Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who in the year 328 identified and measured the original Annunciation site in the Holy Land. The room has been replicated throughout the world, some 50 times in the Czech Republic alone, where it helped reinvigorate the Catholic faithful in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War. I’ve only seen this Loreto, not the others. It is a mystical spot, even if you don’t believe in miracles.

It’s one of the treasures I’ll be looking for from the sky tomorrow morning as we take off from Prague on the first leg of our trip home.

­

f2

The Loreto, Prague

Our Lady of Loreto is the patron saint of air travel, so our visit yesterday afternoon was perhaps a fitting farewell (though unintentionally so—I’d been meaning to go since the day we arrived but kept putting it off.)­

Years ago, after I spent a semester in New York as a college student, I wrote my name somewhere in the city—I can’t remember the location—intending it as a promise to myself, and to New York, that I’d be back. I’m older and less superstitious now, and I won’t be leaving any marks in Prague, unless it’s the heap of recycling I dumped into one of the city’s brightly colored bins this morning.

The other treasure house I’ll be hoping to spot from the skies tomorrow is the garret apartment where we’ve lived since November 30. It sits on the top floor of a five-story building built in the late-19th century as an add-on to the pink bauble known as the Kinsky Palace, which sits onOld Town Square, and whose front balcony was the site, in 1948, of one of the country’s bitterest junctures, evoked in the opening beat of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting (which I’ll be reading on the flight home tomorrow):

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out onthe balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citiens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium. …”

 

f3

Kinsky Palace, Prague

Restored by Italians in the 1990s and bought up by Americans and who knows who else (a friend tells us one in every six real estate transactions in Prague now involves a Russian), our building in back of Kinsky Palace is home to a tattoo parlor, some sort of high-end household-goods shop, a restaurant hawking pseudo-Czech cuisine to tourists, and five floors of residents.

I’ve lived here twice now and have come to love the sound of bells through the skylights, and the astonishing quiet of the place, despite its proximity to the loudest square in Prague, and the sight, through those same skylights, of jets soaring overhead to who knows where. Most of the time the plume of jet exhaust is gone before I can look up twice, a reminder of how quickly our journeys pass.

Writing of journeys in 1822, William Hazlitt spoke of how travel—the act of being by oneself in a strange place—invites thinking and reverie. I’ll miss that. Hazlitt has it right: in a strange place, even one that’s becoming familiar, long-forgotten things encroach, “burst upon my eager sight, and I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.”

Pig Love

p1The Prague Post reports that among the nations of the world with the best prospects for a child born in 2013, the Czech Republic ranks 28th—lower than the U.S. (16th), higher than Costa Rica, Portugal, Poland, Greece, and Slovakia. (For the record, Switzerland comes in first.) Reasons for the country’s relatively low ranking include “a relatively poor diet, inadequacies in the health care system, high levels of pollution, and excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption.”

I can’t vouch for health care, pollution, or tobacco consumption, but I’ve consumed my share of alcohol in the past month, and I certainly find the diet a challenge. Even with a kitchen, it’s hard to avoid pork. We bought what we thought were pure bread dumplings at Tesco the other day, only to find them larded (literally) with pork. I won’t lie: they were tasty.

Another Prague Post report reveals that in 2010, Czechs slaughtered 2,982,361 pigs—vs. 10,169 sheep, 527 goats, and 251 horses (the grocery chain Albert recently added those to its meat offerings). There was no mention of cows.

As I’m writing this, I’ve got a soup going on the stove, yet another concoction flavored by pork. We bought way too much bacon the other day, smoky, dense, and attached to thick ribs, and I’m racing to use it up before we fly home on Saturday.

p2And so, as I render pork fat on the front burner, let me render homage to the noble animal whose flesh has done so much these past four weeks to enrich our diet (and apparently impoverish our health). Oh smart, inquisitive beast, quick to adapt and easy to accommodate, capable of living on small patches of land and willing to consume our garbage, oldest known domesticated creature besides the dog, prolific breeder and quick grower, yielder of what Charles Lamb called “a kind of animal manna” whose taste is no less than “ambrosian.” There is, writes Lamb,no flavour comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, crackling, as it is well called—the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance—with the adhesive oleaginous—O call it not fat—but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it—the tender blossoming of fat—fat cropped in the bud—taken in the shoot—in the first innocence—the cream and quintessence of the child-pig’s yet pure food. …

 

p3They serve pork every which way in Prague, and we’ve tried most of it—pig knuckle, Prague ham, sausage, pork roast, bacon, ribs, crackling, even the innards, which seem to have found their way into a thick orange soup I bought at the corner store one day, in a jar whose ingredients I couldn’t decipher. In my newfound devotion to the pig, I am reminded of the matanza I witnessed one January three decades ago in Spain, another pig-addicted country—the cleansed carcass of the hog displayed on a kind of trellis in the front yard of a farmhouse, women off to one side making blood sausage, men inside the house, in a firelit room, drinking red wine and eating the first links of cooked chorizo straight from the fireplace. They invited me to join them. It remains one of the best meals of my life.

 

The ritual of the midwinter slaughter is mostly a bygone thing, here as elsewhere, which is a pity. The likes of Michael Pollan would have us know where our food comes from, and a matanza surely does that (though I lack Pollan’s willingness to take the knife into my own hands). Even the man who invented Wilbur the pig—the sometime hog farmer E.B. White—sanctioned the kind of meals that, for better or worse, distinguish Czech cuisine.

“The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom time, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an ancient pattern,” White wrote in his piquant 1948 essay on the death of a pig. “It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.”

Border Crossings

“Much travel is needed before the raw man is ripened.” —Middle Eastern proverb

Over the weekend we took the train to Berlin to visit friends. It’s a mostly pretty, five-hour trip, half of it along the Vltava (Moldau) River, which quite mysteriously morphs into the Elbe just before the German border. Along the way, I read Tony Hiss’s 2010 In Motion: The Experience of Travel, a suitably meandering exploration of the notion of “deep travel.” More than the familiar distinction between “tourism” and “travel,” deep travel (or, as Hiss prefers, Deep Travel) involves matters as wide-ranging as time, space, and human evolution, and—if I’m reading Hiss right—can apply to anything from a global expedition to a trip around the corner to buy milk. Take yoga’s mindfulness and add it to travel, and you’re more or less there.

b1Among much else that got this traveler’s brain going, Hiss speaks of those moments on journeys “that take us out of ourselves rather than just away from the place we were leaving. Moments when something has shifted.” He likens such junctures to a “magic carpet,” which can elevate us to another platform of experience where we become “aware that we have somehow been jarred loose from pieces of our ordinary thinking; we are not quite sure what might happen next for better or worse. A threshold has somehow been crossed; a horizon has receded.”

 

As I sat there in the little six-seat compartment of our Czech train, watching literal platforms float in and out of view as we journeyed from one former Soviet bloc country to the other—a trip once unthinkable and now routine, like driving from Ann Arbor to Chicago—I thought of other border crossings. Back and forth from Spain to France in the 1980s, when the conductors had to noisily expand or contract the wheels under the cars to fit the differently gauged rail tracks in each country. (Spanish tracks were impossibly wide and slow, French narrow and slick—all of this, I was told, a defense strategy instituted by Franco.) Or my one visit to Berlin during those same years, the fraught crossings by subway and bus and on foot from west to east and back again, scenes out of a movie except that this was real—though far more real for the families I saw opening their bags for inspection in Friedrichstrasse station than it was for me, with my sturdy American credentials and plane ticket out of there.

 

b3Maybe because it was cold outside, and I’d brought a fur hat with me, and we were on our way to Berlin, I thought—as I sat in the Czech train, next to a heavyset Russian man whose phone kept emitting flutelike trills—of the movie Julia, and of Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in that big hat riding the train through the night into Hitler’s chaotic and terrifying Berlin. And I began wondering to what extent movies shape our experience of other places, provide what Hiss calls an “entry point” or “turnstile” that leads us out of ourselves into “the land of mystery.” Or story.

 

b4So there I was, absorbed in my cozy journey within a journey within a journey, when, just inside the German border, a uniformed man with Polizei stamped on his breast pocket knocked on our door and asked for our passports. Cavalier Americans that we are, accustomed to driving cross-country with just a driver’s license (and to a European Union that seems to have shuttered most of its border stations), we’d left them in our apartment in Prague.

We handed the policeman our Michigan driver’s licenses and smiled.

No passports? he asked. We shook our heads.

He frowned. Ungünstig, he said. Unfavorable.

b5The film that had been slowly unspooling in my mind now lurched from Julia to The Lives of Others, and I imagined us spending the night—the week, the rest of our lives—in a Stasi jail (I’d just heard our cop speak Russian to our seatmate, proof that he knew his way around the old regime). I imagined being dumped from the train onto a platform somewhere in the former GDR, snow falling, shivering in my unlined shoes.

 

The policeman was now telling my husband, in German, that the fine for crossing a European Union border without proper ID was 3,000 €. I looked at my husband. He looked away. The movie screen in my mind reverted to Julia, and I assumed a poker face—Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman parrying questions at the border, cool as ice. (Where was my cigarette?) The policeman asked how long we planned to be in Germany. Two days, we told him.

A small eternity—of the sort I’d just been reading about in Hiss’s book, in which the experience of travel can alter one’s perception of time so that a single minute feels like fifteen—passed. The policeman handed us our documents, wished us a good journey, and left. End of interlude; the turnstile clicked shut; we rolled on to Berlin.

 

b6Two days later we crossed back into the Czech Republic without so much as a glance from anyone except a young Czech conductor with a friendly face who asked to see our tickets. We reached Prague in time to celebrate Christmas in a city suddenly clogged by tourists from around the globe—a post-Soviet, post-Wall, 21st-century, European Union capital in a continent that still feels (even to this chastened traveler-tourist) deceptively, blessedly, borderless.

Veselé Vanocé!

Carp Diem

Los dias abandonan
su piel, como las culebras,
con la sola excepción
de los días de fiesta.

Estos son los mismos
de nuestras madres viejas.
Sus tardes son largas colas
de moaré y lentejuelas.

The days shed their skin,
like snakes,
with the sole exception
of the holidays.

Those are like they were in the days
of our old mothers.
Their afternoons are long trains
of moiré and sequins.
—Federico García Lorca, “Teorías. Tío vivo”

 

c1The blue tubs have finally appeared on the big square near our neighborhood grocery store. Kapr, they read: carp. The traditional Czech Christmas Eve meal—fried carp with potato salad.

Penitential in spirit, murky in practice—a bottom-feeder whose flesh is cleansed (so a Czech acquaintance tells us) by several days’ soaking in the family bathtub. The custom is not without its trauma. Our friend reports that as a kid she always hid when her dad finally bludgeoned the fish that had become something of a pet. Today, to her relief, he buys them dead.

c2By mid-afternoon today, the two fishmongers at the blue tubs in our neighborhood were doing a quick trade—and to judge by the state of their aprons, most customers were buying to fill their refrigerators, not their bathtubs.

Rituals form the core of holidays like the one the Christian West is about to observe, but we don’t always recognize them as such. I’ve often wondered what aliens would think of our practice of cutting down a live tree and bringing it inside the house in midwinter and hanging little pendants from it (a rite the Czechs, too, have adopted: a friend tells us their tree goes up on Christmas Eve and has real candles).

Surely the act of installing a fir tree in your living room is no less bizarre a rite than having a street vendor slaughter a giant goldfish for dinner.

In ritual, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writes, “the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”

Which is one reason the holidays, as Lorca so lyrically suggests, wear sequined trains, while the rest of the calendar dresses in sturdy shoes and knee-length skirts. One of the pleasures of travel is the chance to see—and newly consider—the difference.c4