Saturday, February 19, 2011

In Search of Immortality

 Feb. 7
 Ich war hier: Street art and burial plots

“I was here.”  Plaintive and universal. Recently I’ve been struck yet again by how much people want to be remembered and how that desire expresses itself in life and in death, no matter where humans exist on the planet. It isn’t even bound by Earth. Planting that flag on the moon? We were here.

Dog rights
Two places in Vienna, as in most cities, where this sentiment is particularly manifested are wherever there’s a flat exterior surface and in any of Vienna’s fifty or so cemeteries.

For many younger people, I was here is expressed through graffiti and ubiquitous “tags.” I was here – defacing the storefront and spray painting my mark on sidewalks and stairwells. I was here - and my stencil proves it. I was not only here but generous – sharing my artistic vision with all who simply pass by.

Vienna is not only known for its architectural beauty and classical music but also for its street art and graffiti. It actually has “legal” walls for graffiti, as do some other cities, which, as Keir says, defeats the purpose. Part of the joy of graffiti is rebellion and leaving your mark on the already-there. It’s trespassing, a defiance of property and ownership. Legality makes it, well, establishment.

Donau Canal
While Vienna lies on the Danube, we rarely see the famed river. Most of the Vienna we inhabit – that is the First and Ninth Districts – is instead on the Donau canal that leads to the river. The history of where the Danube flows in relation to Vienna is yet another story of ingenious engineers solving the problems of human needs versus nature’s plan.

Iron Man 
Along the walls of the Donau is an extensive, varied collection of street art that goes on seemingly for miles. Is it art or defilement? Is it grotesque, provocative or inspiring?  Does it add to or detract from the landscape? Should it be there at all?

Some is minimalist, some rococo.  Some works appear spontaneous, others intricately  mapped out. Whimsical borders the political, abstractions collide with realism, ugly nudges beauty. The gender of the artist? The  nationality? Who knows? Who cares?

Keir is doing a unit on street art in his art class, and he has chosen a photographic self-portrait that he’s turning into a stencil that will be painted onto a legal wall, so once we’ve returned to the U.S., one of us will have boldly stated: I was here. And that statement will last until the elements or the authorities or other artists wear it away.

Cemeteries are all about I was here with a big emphasis on WAS. We headed to the renowned Zentralfriedhof yesterday, Sunday, our first outing since illness felled us both -- perhaps the reason our excursion was decidedly morbid. We went without any maps, plans, or preconceptions, which was a mistake. It was a glorious day – sunny, and for February, balmy.

The cemetery is in District 11, Simmering, a district relatively unknown to us, and as our TomTom proved useless, we wandered a bit in the Kangoo before arriving at one of the gates.

Now this particular cemetery is the second largest in Europe. It has  several gates, some massive, leading to the burial sites of more than 3 million people (Vienna’s current population is less than 2 million) residing in mausoleums, tombs, and 300,000 gravesites. The math is a little funny, but apparently the family plots count as one.

Having not been there before, we happened to enter through a somewhat nondescript gate, and it quickly became clear that we were in one of the Jewish sections. Given the beauty of the day, we were surprised that we were the only ones there. Beyond that, although we knew the cemetery itself was huge, we bumped up against large stone walls on every side of this particular area, which puzzled us as we expected the cemetery to be one huge “community.” Later, Jim was told the walls were to protect this part of the cemetery from vandalism; the original Jewish cemetery, the remains of which are now overgrown, was desecrated by the Nazis in 1938.

At some point, I will write about Vienna and its Nazi era, but I’m still too puzzled and overwhelmed to attempt it.  Sharing streets and buildings with the ghosts of Hitler, his mongrels, and the welcoming masses is deeply disturbing.

Suffice it to say, we noticed the names, the dates, the headstone marked “Survivor” (in English not Hebrew), and an unusual headstone of a woman with the names of her husband and daughter followed by Beerdigt in Amerika – buried in America.

We finally accepted that no access to the rest of the cemetery existed. As we returned to the front gate, an irritated man wearing a yarmulke, whom we hadn’t seen when we entered, walked quickly out of a building and intercepted us as we were leaving. Through German and pantomime he chastised us – or at least Jim – for not covering our heads, at least that’s what we think he said. We explained in German that we were very sorry, but we can’t read German very well, so we missed the small sign on the gate, which was open when we arrived. He pointed to the sign again and again. Again, we said we were sorry. He was not only displeased; his disgust was palpable.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less and less tolerant of religious attitudes and rituals, primarily for one reason: These things are unnecessarily divisive and such division is the last thing we need on this crazy planet. This man’s contempt for two middle-aged non-Jewish non-German-fluent non-Austrians, who had clearly intended no disrespect to anyone or anything, aggravated us. I didn’t mind being told of our error, but the manner in which it was done seemed unnecessarily insulting. And, yes, I get it: Jews, Vienna, Hitler, horror, death. But that unpleasant exchange colored the rest of the afternoon.

We drove to one of the main gates and found scores of people wandering through these boulevards lined with graves. Here, too, however, were divisions: the Protestants there, the Catholics there, the Mormons there, the Orthodox there, the Muslims there, the Buddhists there, the 500 most important Austrians there, the children there, and I couldn’t help but think: Dead is dead. Why do we persist in our divisions after death? I have no idea where the atheists or agnostics or Wiccans might be buried. I wonder if they have their own special sections, too.

We did find the graves of some of the composers for which this cemetery is famous, including Beethoven, a few Strausses, Schubert, Brahms and Mozart, although his remains, of course, aren’t there. I wondered if any of these people had designed their own memorials, some of which were starkly elegant and evocative; others a bit frou-frou; a few provocative.

Larger than life
The cemetery is over the top: tombs large and substantial enough to shelter the homeless, statues of weeping stone women draped across men’s gravesites, a sculpture of a gigantic knight  kneeling at a gravestone, a tall tombstone on which the deceased’s bust appears-- above it a hovering cherub places a laurel wreath on his head and below stand adoring goddesses.  Extravagant, beautiful, weird.  All this for the dead? And that line from Ecclesiastes resounds: All is vanity.

I used to enjoy walking in cemeteries, but perhaps because of its lack of subtlety and excessive sense of self-importance  (although it’s probably not fair to blame the dead for the excesses of their loved ones), this one felt unusually creepy. Maybe it was just the wrong day. When the trees leaf out and the flowers bloom, maybe the marble shouts of “Look at me!” will be quieted and acquire a more harmonious aspect.

Missing him 
We’ll return in the spring with a proper map and try again. The best part?  I heard a birdsong I’ve never heard before, but I couldn’t see the bird – such a wonderful, simple thing to hear a new song.

The cemetery stirred up memories for me of a simpler cemetery.

Fort Pierre, S.D., is a tiny frontier town, which at least in the old days had a low reputation - bars, brawls, strippers, and loose girls and boys. It stands directly across the Missouri River from Pierre (which, of course, had none of the above…), where I grew up. I don’t remember why, but about 40 years ago, a friend and I drove up to this deserted, overgrown cemetery deep in the country outside Fort Pierre. The small dirt road simply ended at this old, black wrought iron gate.

I can’t recall the name of the cemetery but it seems to me it wasn’t too far from the Bad River, which I think was the setting for one of my father’s stories. He and my little brothers, then about 11 and 12, were hunting along the river and sliding quickly down a riverbank, my dad in the lead. Suddenly, as he was about to slide by, he noticed a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike, right on the edge of his path, and feared for his boys behind him. The story goes that he shot that snake from the hip as he slid by – Indian Jones-like – and he and his sons had a good day.

None of the cemeteries described on the Internet seem right, but I remember the graves and crumbling stones that were practically hidden in the tall, dry prairie grass.  A lone squat tree stood just inside the gate, and the only sound was the disinterested wind. The place felt true.

Miner's way out 
I’m perplexed by why humans care so much about gravesites. Beethoven’s grave isn’t important – his music is. I can understand seeing the places where people were born, lived, thought, loved, fought, created, fornicated  – all of that shapes a life. But why the need to concretely memorialize the dead? I remember every day that I’m mortal; I don’t need cemeteries to remind me. The fact is, memories of most us will fade away within a couple of generations – as they should.

During my recent neighborhood wanderings, I came across a plaque on a building that translated to: He who builds palaces for children opens prison doors. The author was Julius Tandler, whom in pre-Internet days I would have known nothing about. What’s important isn’t so much who he was  - complicated, contradictory, if the Web is to be believed - as that he left words behind that he believed in and that have lingered with me since I read them. Where he’s buried is inconsequential.

Life Disjointed 
Understandably, given our outing, Jim and I talked again about our own after-death preferences, and, luckily, we agree with each other. Cremation. Mix our ashes. Keep us in a simple (but not white – I’ve never liked white) piece of pottery or a wooden box. Eventually, release us into the air. Jim has always marveled at how we are all made of stardust. Send us back on a clear, starry night. No gravesite necessary. Just look up, breathe and remember: We were here.

 Feb. 16: News Flash: Well-Traveled Mail

Today we received my sister’s US Priority Mail sent on Dec. 11, 2010. It only took 67 days! This is the intriguing part: It’s stamped “Missent to Ho Chi Minh City.”

Now, my sister’s printing is crystal clear, the address was spot on, so any guesses as to what happened? Now maybe there’s hope that Keir’s friend will eventually get the letter he sent to her in September and maybe, just maybe, she’ll get the Christmas package he sent her before next Christmas. Thank you, postal workers in Vietnam!

On an expat web site, someone suggested that people be sure to write EUROPE on anything sent to Austria. It seems a bit of Austrian mail ends up in Australia. This confusion is common enough that there are T-shirts here that say “There are no kangaroos in Austria.” Despite globalization, a whole bunch of folks seem to be geographically challenged. Can sending mail between Europe and the U.S. possibly be this difficult in the 21st century?

Feb. 2: Misti's piece on being an economic refugee ran in MinnPost:

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