House of prayer
March 2, 2018 § 2 Comments
My church in Vienna is Joseph Brot, a bakery. They make a big, dense loaf of rye sourdough filled with nuts called “That one, please.” One day I’ll learn its name.
My fifth day of travel had beaten me down and well. Too much walking, too much freezing, especially too much freezing. I pulled the plug early in the day and returned to the home of hostile youth. So far I’d eaten a brace of eggs and a bowl of chicken soup. The brick-hard, cobblestone-heavy loaf of bread was in my backpack for dinner.
The room supplies you with tiny plastic shot glasses, so I filled one up with water and had my evening meal. Bread and water. Sound delicious? It was. The crust was thick and hard and rough, and it tore the edges of my mouth and roughed up the roof of my mouth like sandpaper; it cut my tongue and it hurt my jaw to chew, my teeth moved in the gums as I ripped each piece out from the main body of the loaf.
I went into the bathroom to refill my shot glass, and spit a mouthful of blood into the sink. All of this could have been avoided with a device called a “knife,” but on reflection it could best have been avoided by something called “staying home.”
I ate a quarter of the loaf, stuffed the rest back into the paper bag, put it at the foot of my bed, read myself to sleep. That seems to be the best thing about jet lag. Every time is a good time to sleep.
More Vienna, more coffee
Before I hit the wall, I had hit two new coffee joints. The first was Cafe Ritter, an old school coffeehouse on the model of Cafe Sperl, minus the billiard tables. One inescapable conclusion is that wintertime is a bad time to go to the big coffeehouses because they are drafty, high-ceilinged, and poorly heated. Unless you arrive with a blanket and a foot warmer, after a couple of hours you’re going to be very cold.
The second place was Coffee Pirates, located near the university. It had great home-roasted coffee, was located in a small, cramped building, and was filled with students or those posing as such. I posed along with the other posers until the combined effects of travel, jet lag, and exhaustion evicted me. No matter what type of coffeeshop I’d been in, none played music, an amazing relief.
On the outside, looking in
I awoke a few hours later and dug back into one of my recent purchases, “Moses and Monotheism,” by Freud. It was like reading Sherlock Holmes, only so much better. Freud has an amazing ability to tell a story and to unravel a riddle. His application of psychoanalysis to history and anthropology is mind-boggling. It is astonishing when you read truly great writing by a truly great mind. Think how much smarter he would have been if he’d had Facebook!
I read a few reviews of the book after getting halfway through, only to learn that it’s been discarded and discredited by mostly everyone, which, if anything, only made me like it better. Freud is not for those who like swimming with the current. But I did fall into the wormhole of Wikipedia links on anthropology, and wound up reading, in addition to critiques of Freud’s book, the story of the Mead-Freeman dispute.
Anthropologists, it seems, are caught in the conundrum of whether you should get your observations by participating in the culture you’re observing, or whether you should do it analytically, from a distance, like Freud did. The problem seems impossible of resolution for the same reasons that underlie Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. You can know the momentum or position of a particle, but not both. Same with anthropology: You can observe from a distance and lose all the detail, or you can interact and have all of your observations distorted by your personal experiences and by the fact that people behave differently when they are being observed.
This paradox is what it feels like to be in a coffeehouse. On the one hand you want to be a fly on the wall, but on the other hand you want to be a fly in the soup. And since you can’t be both, you’re neither.
Travel is fundamentally this way, being part of something you don’t really belong to. It’s as alienating as it is anonymizing, liberating, and in the case of Vienna in winter, cold as hell.
My alarm was set for 5:00, not for any particular reason, as the irregular sleep hours meant that I’d surely get up before then. Throughout the night I’d coast in and out of consciousness, thanks in part to the guy next door who had a truly first class snore. It resonated through very thick walls, sounding like power equipment on low mode, or like suitcases being dragged over gravel.
Also dogging my sleep was the rustle of paper. Every few minutes I’d turn over and hear paper. It was weird. By three o’clock my stomach was growling, and I stretched out under the covers. The end of my foot slammed up against something hard, covered in paper. Ah, yes, of course. The wake-up bread. Time for prayers.
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