23rd August, 2016
I’m not managing to find time to write in my journal. The schedule my sister-in-law has conceived for us is full and brilliant, one with all the colour and light and shade of an Edouard Manet panting of Dejeuner sur l’herbe. And this is as it should be on a holiday.
The problem for my journalling is that there is no time for reflection and writing. The days are long, the evenings of food consumption stretch out and I wouldn’t miss Marita’s fresh plum and apricot and almond tart, or her white nectarine and redcurrant crumble, both served up with mascarpone and runny cream, for anything — but by the time I arrive back at the hotel I’m too tired to apply myself to anything much and end up writing scrappy notes, and attacking journal entries in retrospect, which is the nature of this work, of course.
All forms of life writing involve the act of looking back but for a journal the writing needs to occur close to the experience, ideally at the end of the day. This has been a problem throughout the trip and has made me feel desperate at times that I will end up writing the final entries when I am home again and by then I will be clutching at the threads of a dream, or a mirage, that has been swallowed up by time and jet travel and distance and it won’t really be a journal anymore. It will be writing ‘about a journee’.
This is all I have managed to record about Bern. I glimpse the small historic city of Bern through trees, as the car descends the hill. The view is partially obscured by splatters of rain on the windscreen and lacy tree foliage. So the sighting of a city that looks like an illustration from a fairy tale goes like this. I see something wonderful that looks like a walled city. It’s gone, hiding behind more emerald leafage. The view opens and terracotta rooftops, church spires, bridges and the outline of impressive parliament buildings reveal themselves against the sky. There is a river down below this walled city, a deep, mysterious, fast flowing river coloured aqua with lots of white mixed in.
We park the car and gather at the bridge to walk along the river to a restaurant that sits just above the waterline in the middle of a dam. Along the river path we see the famous bears of Bern on one side and the river running, so fast it terrifies me, right up to the edge on the other side. I remember viewing these bears, many, many years ago on our first trip to Europe. It’s coming back, not the bears, who seemed unremarkable and a little pitiable, having to exist on a slope in a European city, far from their natural wild habitat, it still seems like that to me, but the thing that is re-emerging is a visit to a composer’s house, somewhere on the outskirts of the city in the snow. The building is painted pale lemon and is two-storeyed and refined and beautiful on the inside. There are roses still flowering, in an island in the snow. The pale peach petals are faded and more like old fabric than flower. It is warm inside the house and I don’t want to leave because it is very cold on this day, trudging through the snow, in the bitter wind.
I think the composer was Liszt but I can’t be sure. Perhaps it was Schumann. I hate these blocks in the memory banks.
At the restaurant I choose a mushroom risotto made not with rice but with quinoa. It arrives piled up high on a plate, far too much of it and I have to leave over half of it behind, but it is very tasty and nourishing. After lunch we ascend a vertical slope that goes straight up, like walking up an arrow to a stone bridge that only a moment ago, from the restaurant, we had glimpsed towering high above us. It’s not my heart that struggles, or my chest. I feel the battle in my tummy. By the time we reach the bridge everyone is gasping, and the conversation has stopped. But nobody lets on. I just know from the heavy breathing. We take photos in the rain of the mighty river. The power, the force the velocity of that water as it sweeps round the dam is truly paralysing. My niece has been boating on this river. My sister-in-law says she is planning on floating downstream sometime in the future with her friends. Apparently people do this, somehow, and they don’t drown. I can’t imagine it.
On this day I feel uncomfortable because I’m wearing the wrong footwear. In the morning I thought ‘art gallery, Paul Klee, it's summer, so I will wear my Minnie Cooper sandals.’ They look more like leather jandals actually, only there is a strap at the back and they are more stylish than jandals but they are entirely inappropriate for the super elegant city of Bern on a wet Tuesday afternoon where everyone is wearing Italian trainers, made out of soft, suede and leather fabrics. Also, my sandals look weird with my three-quarter length, sleek, olive raincoat that cinches in at the waist, with a belt and buckle. As I walk down the arcade of designer shops under the arches by the main cobblestone street in Bern, I am aware of people looking at my feet. I’m sure they are and it’s not just the strange footwear that is attracting attention, I know they’re looking with distaste at my swollen ankles. I have very bad oedema today. I don’t know why on this particular day when it’s not really that hot, I should be troubled by it but it’s arrived and I’m convinced people are thinking, ‘Look at that woman’s ugly, elephant ankles.’ I want to go home and get my boots.
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)