“There are no places anymore.”
This was the complaint we two hitchhikers, Anna and me, heard from an American traveler at a roadside stop. Our informant — who was saying this to his two compatriots many decades back — was an itinerant artist, a writer perhaps, looking for suitable environs for his endeavors. He did a run-down of the great cities of Europe, telling us the extent to which each one had fallen off its game.
I couldn’t see it, myself. To me, Europe was the garden spot of the planet, its nooks and crannies full of places, each exquisitely distinct, ready to be etched in memory.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Stefan Zweig, a writer who used to be widely known and admired, till the Nazis actually burned his books. (Until that happened, his publisher thought his worries exaggerated!) The book in my hands, which survived the burning, The World of Yesterday, takes the reader from the late nineteenth century’s Austro-Hungarian empire to the early nineteen forties, when the Nazis overran Europe. Zweig writes with almost childlike lucidity and freshness, so that we are there with him – through all the times and all the places.
In his twenties, he spent time in the Paris of 1904. What a magic city he describes! The cafes open to every class and type, intellectual and artistic productivity at high pitch, women singing as they sewed at their windows, the populace in cheerful, joking spirits and — over the public spaces — a haze of loveliness.
It is a different Paris that Hemingway writes of after The Great War. No longer an island of good humor and solid achievement, but still a “moveable feast” of multiform charms – and of course alive with expatriate talent.
After World War Two and the German Occupation of Paris, the default visage was grim. When I saw it, the city was still extremely sexy, darkly mysterious and insistent on its own never-surrendered character.
The last time I was in Paris, in the early 1990’s, a peculiar theme ran through my farewell visit:
There was no background music and no story.
When I walked through a museum devoted to the city of Paris, it was undergoing renovation and the labels on the exhibits had been temporarily removed. I did not know what I was supposed to be seeing. I took a Bateau Mouche to tour the city via its waterways, but the boat lacked a guide to give names to what we were gliding by. The sites I had loved, like Notre Dame, were almost erased by the mob of tourists who left an encircling girdle of litter all round the old cathedral.
New York? If you want to see how it looked when it dominated the twentieth century, see the film, “Portrait of Jenny.” The tall towers, their great silhouettes framing the night skies, the big-city way people dressed, the double decker buses, the atmosphere of urbane, unimpeachable assurance!
Now? Well, it’s been so desperately hurt! Stephen Vincent Benét wrote a short story about New York in its heyday. I believe he named it “East Side West Side,” after the opening line of a song, “The Sidewalks of New York,” that people sang then. As I remember his story, it ends like this, presciently:
When they bomb the town to pieces
with their planes from the sky
there’ll be a big ghost left.
And when that’s gone
they better let the sea come in and cover it over,
for there never will be another one like it in all the ages of man.
I listen to old-time country music, partly because those singers came from places. Normally the songs aren’t about the landscape, but they do refer back to the surrounding shapes of hills and their dirt roads.
Nothin’ left but the floor
Nothin’ lives here any more
Except the memories of a coal miner’s daughter.
It’s not all gone, of course. I exaggerate, by focusing on the places that defined the landscape of real life to me. I don’t wish I was back there now. The world and the people in it are “lighter” than they used to be, and maybe the falling away of defining places has been part of that process. We can’t live in the museum cities of the past. But still,
Earth’s the best place for loving
as I think the poet Robert Frost reminded us. We must look for a way to make it beautiful again.