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Notes from the Field #1

UW Daily, 7 July 1999, by John Roderick
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    John Roderick is a UW comparative history of ideas major who is walking from London to Istanbul. His journey began May 4, as he set out walking immediately upon his arrival in London.

    He said the idea came to him overnight and he bought a ticket to London the next day, fearing the plan "would become corrupted or would become buried under an avalanche of other ideas" if he were to delay.

    John is walking across the continent. He is carrying a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a rain jacket and a compact history atlas of Europe.

    He has been corresponding via e-mail with Jim Clowes, associate director of comparative history of ideas, and has agreed to share his notes from the field with The Daily.

    He said, "Communication is very important to me and one of the first things I look to do when I arrive in a city.

    "Most of the time," John said, "I am in the countryside and unable to contact anyone."

    I am in Münster, just off the road this afternoon. It took a few weeks just to get here, I imagine a few more weeks will find me someplace else. I'm glad this World Wide Web works so flawlessly.

    I pushed myself too hard starting out and now I need to heal, my feet will take a couple of days. The tick bite so far shows no sign of lyme disease.

    Amsterdam is the same as always, decadence and sin held in check by mute Scandanavianism. The ring of streetcars fills the space. All around are students just as I was 10 years ago, to whit: Too much luggage, frantic to get stoned, headed off on a whirlwind train tour of Paris, Rome, Barcelona, or just returning.

    I've been sleeping outside about half the time, which I used to do frequently when I was drinking, but now the immensity of the outdoors is unfiltered and fearsome. A tree, which in the day is a welcome shelter, by night becomes a hydra; the fields are full of specters, wolves, vampires.

    I understand now why mankind cleared the land, not only so they could work it, but so they could TAME it.

    I spent a night on the beach on the Dutch coast above Den Haag. Sunset transformed the entire environment from a beachy, sailboaty, windswept idyll to this endless emptiness. The beach became a tiny sliver against which the sea and sky railed. I was assailed not by any horrible weather, thank God, but by vastness itself, which I was ill-equipped to contain.

    Loneliness does not begin to describe the horror. It was mortality. I shied away and let my imagination conjure a haven in the form of dreams because, as much as I would like to think differently, I am not elastic enough yet to lead with my chin.

    The first night out of Amsterdam I slept on an earthwork, a battlement surrounding the village of Naarden. It was a clear night, I could see for miles, and the quarterly chime of the bells in the nearby church tower lulled me into a comfortable sleep with little of the dread I described before.

    The next night I slept in the home of a devout woman, a member of some Anabaptist or Mennonite church.

    The NEXT night, however, I slept in the forest, far from a town. It was a perfect night and I was tired and happy when I made my camp. At dusk, a deer crashed through the forest into camp and came face to face with me.

    I had fruit and water and in every way felt content and ready for a night in the forest. Then the sun went down. I was soon enveloped in dread.

    My great distance from any town was now a source of horror. I consoled myself with the thought that, in a city, no one would respond if I screamed anyway. I was not long consoled. Searching my feelings I soon realized that I was not afraid of any tangible thing. There are no fierce animals in central Holland, save a few wild boar, and if anything were to approach, I would hear it in the underbrush for half a mile.

    No maniacs were likely to find me way out in the brush. No, I was afraid of the loneliness, the quiet of nature and the dark. I couldn't sleep all night.

    I was soon over the raw fear, but settled into a truce with the night which required that I be vigilant and not rest for too long.

    Now, with a few days of traveling since, staying in people's homes, I am beginning to be more charitable toward myself. People build fires, they travel in groups, they stay in lodges.

    You speak German, yes? And, know the German mind a little? It is very odd. In my past travels here I tried hard not to be an ugly American (with no luck perhaps) but never learned a thing about the Germans, at least not compared to now, seeing them at home in their little villages where the train doesn't go, and passing them out in the fields, exchanging nods and Gutten Tags.

    Unlike the Dutch, who like to arrange porcelain figurines in their windows, the Germans use three bricks where one would do and are unashamed to keep their shutters closed.

    The Dutch seemed governed by a strict social covenant that required open curtains and spotless living rooms. And tastefully, if never artfully, arranged porcelain figurines. The Germans are no less conformist, but much less fey.

    Many of these towns in the West were totally destroyed in the war. Some, like Münster, made every effort to rebuild in an old style, so that even under an inspection it seems to have escaped unscathed.
    A closer look reveals it is all new. Some of the smaller towns just built in a watered down German style, which is bland as Bellevue.

    At home, I am one of those people who decries every demolished building. I will wail when an unremarkable brick warehouse is destroyed, I feel history draining away. In Europe, in the past, I was especially conscious of ancient places and the cavalier way the locals disregarded them. I wanted to protect them all, with U.N. peacekeeping forces if necessary.

    Yet now, when I pass through a small village which was founded in 1300, yet was mostly constructed in 1950, I feel a strange surge of pride. Yes, we destroyed your town. We bombed it and put a stop to your diabolical Nazism. It is a strange feeling. I was raised with an inflated and indulged mythology surrounding World War II and now, maybe, it's coming home to roost in this strange satisfaction.

    The Germans are very successful now, of course, they rebuilt well, and I pity them also, knowing a little about the historical chaos that contributed to their national identity, but everywhere I look I see the shadow of Nazism. Not an actual shadow, because every trace seems to have been erased, at least from public view. Maybe that accounts for the shuttered windows.

    I look at a map now and see I have a long way to go. A new Hungarian friend has made me promise to meet him in Vienna for a Metallica concert in the middle of July, which represents a lot of walking.

    I have forgotten until now that Germany is really just preparation for the body of this trip, which is the eastern part of Europe, where the rule of law is not always paramount. I am just beginning.

back to top |  Notes from the Field 7 July |  21 July |  11 August |  Crossing Europe on foot, interview

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