The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.
It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.
Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.
As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.
And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.
The garden looks as if the gardener has left and never came back, but things have continued to grow according to his plans for a while. Then everything started to fade into the unregulated beauty of natural growth.
I’m in the back garden of a small church.
Fallen fruits mingle with wild flowers. Here and there, old tombstones rise from the tall grass as if they’ve grown out of the earth.
Transylvania, the high plateau in the Western part of Romania, is where you can find many wooden churches built from the XVIIth to the XIXth century. They were built as small village churches. However, there is something about them that goes beyond their functional role. Maybe it’s their modesty, despite the disproportionately long, thin towers. Maybe it’s the way they fit into the landscape.
Some of them are still used by the locals, although it tends to be for special occasions.
I am not writing about churches as religious symbols. What I’m interested in is how things created by other people, in different ages, speak to us irrespective of our beliefs. I’m also interested in how human creation interacts with natural landscape, to the point where there’s no clear line of demarcation between the two anymore.
The construction techniques for these churches have evolved to deal with the limitations of the time and context they were built in. Metal was scarce and wood was plentiful, thus the construction was made using as little metal as possible. Sometimes, no metal at all.
If from the outside these churches look like they are about to take off, with their long thin towers pointing towards the sky, the interior looks and feels more like the inside on a villager’s house. Hand-made carpets, sheep furs and a narrow passage towards the altar, as if crossing through the family rooms towards the “good room”, reserved for guests.
But it’s the gardens that attract me the most. Part old cemetery, part orchard, part flower garden, they are full of life. The names on the tombstones are almost erased by rain, wind and the passage of time. The grass grows wild.
In spring and summer, these gardens are full of flowers, some of them cultivated but most of them wild. You cannot really tell where the cultivated part fades into wilderness. Old apple and plum trees punctuate the landscape with their weird shapes, like humpback witches. Their roots reaching deep into the ground, into the ancient tombs and further still.
I wake up suddenly in a place I don’t recognize. As I lie on my back, I look up and I see colors. Like an unfocused lens, I see blurry patterns before I can make out objects. And then it dawns on me. I am still in the puppet theatre where I’ve come last night for the performance.
I cannot remember what happened after the show or how I got to spend the night here. The colors above me are the puppets hanging on the walls of the small theatre room. These are the old puppets, retired after having served in so many plays over the decades. Now they are facing the scene just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience. They can watch the new puppets performing in exactly the same plays they used to do.
Am I dreaming? Did I black out? It’s simply not possible that I’m still there.
I’ve dreamt of this room so many times. Its old wooden beams. Its long wooden benches. Its small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood and dust. The little funny speech of the master puppeteer at the start of the play. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settling down and stopping their whispering.
And then it starts.
It’s funny, you know. You enter this room and you look around and there’s a cynical voice inside wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the play. If your adult mind will still be able to access that state of grace. To enjoy the show. I’m not talking about putting yourself in the shoes of a child. I’m talking about letting yourself be swept over. Looking at what’s happening in that spot of light in front of you with total openness and wonder.
When the play is over, as people go out, the master puppeteer is always there, thanking each of them. He is still using his puppeteer voice when he tells them, with a smile: “If you loved the play, go tell your friends about it. If you didn’t love the play, it stays between us.”
Am I locked in here? Did they simply forget about me at the end of the play?
It’s all so real. I can feel the hard wooden bench I’m lying on. I see the puppets just above. I feel the amazement of being here. It’s dark outside. And there’s that unmistakable smell of old wood and dust.
I close my eyes. I am here, whether it’s in my dream or not. What will be will be.
These two photos are separated by more than two years and a half. I’ve taken the first one in the spring of 2019 because I was struck by the image of the lone tree against the moody sky.
It was a cold, humid and moody day. The tree looked like it had been dead for some time. But it stood tall, its branches reaching out for something. Reaching out with no expectation of receiving. The stone wall to the right belongs to a medieval chapel.
I came back in December 2020 and I saw the tree fallen. It hadn’t been cut. It had simply collapsed under its own weight. It fell towards the stone wall, its highest branches reaching over into the chapel courtyard. Its branches are still reaching out, like the human casts of unfortunate citizens of Pompeii, caught by the lava with their hands reaching out for an escape. Just like the first time, it was cold and cloudy.
There is a Romanian folk tale in which the hero goes through all sorts of trials in order to achieve his dream – immortality. When he finally gets back home, victorious from all the battles but jaded and without having achieved his goal, he stumbles upon his own death. The grim reaper had been there all the time, waiting for him – for him and nobody else.
I don’t know why this tree reminded me of this folk tale. Maybe because, in its dry stillness, the tree offered an impression of endurance beyond life, until it collapsed. It projected an image of immortality and it met its own death there, in the field.
“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.
Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?
Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.
“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”
This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.
Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.
For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.
It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.
Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.
Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.
Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.
Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.
What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.
It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.
Late November. The weather seems to have sucked the color out of everything. I’m living among shades of grey. But I dream in color.
I wander across Miradouro de Santa Lucia, the terrace overlooking Alfama and the Tagus river. Where street players and singers gathered every evening. Where I’ve waited for sunrise. Where I’ve stood silently at night, listening to a song together with other passers-by. A moment of connection created by a human voice and a guitar.
Then I continue on to Portas do Sol, the larger square from which numerous streets branch out downwards, to the river, or upwards, to Castle Sao Jorge.
There’s a small coffee shop, right here on the corner. They open really early and they serve coffee and pastel de nata. They only speak Portuguese but we understand each other in the universal language of people in need of caffeine.
The few other clients are locals taking a few minutes on their way to work. I am the only outsider here, sipping my coffee outside while the owner is still cleaning up and arranging the tables. But I feel like being where I should be.
The sun has risen right in front of me. I have this whole morning ahead, like drinking spring water with your bare hands, like virgin snow on the mountain. Everything can still happen. I’ve lost so much and I’ve lost myself so much, but here at this small table with its cheap tablecloth I feel like everything is still possible.
“Obrigado”, I say to the coffee shop owner. I continue in English, telling him how much I loved the pastel. He’s nodding and smiling. He doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying but understands it’s a compliment.
I go off the main road into narrow back streets that zigzag uphill. Beco de Maldonado, Rua dos Cegos, Calçada do Menino Deus… It’s like going back in time. I could imagine myself walking these streets 30 or 50 years ago. Nothing would need to change to account for the passage of time.
There’s nobody outside but the houses are alive. There are voices inside, there are noises of people cooking, cleaning, just going about their normal lives. The first fallen leaves of late summer are blown away by the breeze.
There’s something in me that would like to cling to this moment, that would like to stay frozen in this snapshot like a fly caught in amber. I’ve always had a hard time letting go of things that I love. Accepting that they come and go.
But right here, surrounded by pigeons flapping their wings in the sun, I just leave things be and I let go.
The train won’t be on time. It won’t arrive ever again.
Its ghost is chasing through the woods. The vegetation is slowly taken over.
I’m standing here as the sun goes down and this incredibly warm light washes over me. In the background, everything lits up like a giant bonfire.
I discovered these abandoned train tracks somewhere on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. Most probably, they were used to transport coal from Limburg towards the nearby industrial cities. This former mining area is now a national park.
A trip in the dark in a cold December morning, to revisit a place of love and leave it behind.
“You cannot get rid of your shadow”, she thought while driving. It was 5:30 am. A chilly December morning. Definitely not the kind of morning when you’d jump out of bed at 5 and take a ride in the dark. And still, there she was.
What was she looking for? Behind the wheel, she was asking herself exactly this – and it was hard to find a good answer. It was more of a compulsion. When she woke up that morning, after few hours of sleep, she just couldn’t resist it anymore. She felt that she had to return to that place.
As if you’d been running for a long time, trying to leave your shadow behind, and now you finally give in and turn back. Your shadow is there all right, glued to your feet.
She had not been to that place in a while but she knew it well. In fact, it’s where most of her dreaming took place. It’s where he brought her for her birthday, in what now seemed like a different life. It’s where they laid down in the tall grass, watching the hypnotic shapes of the clouds backlit by the setting sun.
What was he saying back then? She could not quite remember. But his words were like flashes into the night, illuminating the sky for a split second. Burning her on the inside, one flash after another. She remembers feeling as if she was there, completely present with that moment, and at the same time watching the whole scene from outside. Watching his lips move in slow-motion and the tall grass dancing in the night wind. Telling herself “this moment will pass and never come back”.
That cold December morning, she felt compelled to return and look for that fleeting moment and the echo of his words. Look for him, knowing full well he won’t be there. Look for her, as she used to be back then.
Like being stuck in a dark room and searching for the door, where you know the door has always been. But the door is not there any longer. Everything you feel is uninterrupted wall on all sides. There’s no exit.
The wind picked up and brought her back to the present. She had been staring at the spot where, in a different geological time, they’ve set up the tent and listened to the sounds of the night. Owls, foxes, dogs and many others, impossible to identify.
Behind her, the long black shadow cast by the streetlight is pointing towards the place where the sun should have already appeared. It’s dark with just a hint of light on the horizon. An aborted sunrise. The thought that all this may well be a dream, one of the many dreams that took her back to that place, is strangely comforting.
As she is standing there, an invisible camera moves away from her and goes up for the final shot. She looks around as if she wants to take it all in. Then she slowly walks away, her shadow getting incredibly large, like a giant finger pointing towards something far away, across the fields.
She gets smaller and smaller into the picture. Just a spec, a pixel in a noise of pixels. And everything else – the places they shared, the forest, the muddy fields, the farm at the end of the road, the village nearby – is getting smaller and smaller. The world wakes up and all the colors, sounds and smells of life get into the picture as the camera moves away.
The girl dragging her feet glued to a long black shadow has disappeared completely.
The noisy tourists have finally disappeared. They must be having a late dinner in one of the newer, fancier restaurants of the neighborhood. Or having cocktails in a bar overlooking the city. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional couple walking slowly and holding hands, or an old lady walking a dog.
At night, city streets live a different life. Like a nocturnal animal, they wake up to different sounds, smells and movements. Freed from the layer of agitation and noise brought by humans, they are breathing again.
The locals are living their quiet home life. There are voices and smells of home cooking, but everything is slowly dissolving in the breeze.
From time to time, the breeze picks up. It carries smells of ocean and seaweed, of deadwood floating away to nowhere. Boat lights are flickering on the Tagus river, each of them carrying its own story.
This ancient hilly quarter of Lisbon, where people have left on the ocean never to come back, where lives and loves were lost to famine, plague, fire and war, is not my home. But I feel so much at home here. So much in touch with the thousands of stories slowly unravelling around me.
A cat comes to caress himself against my hand. He looks at me and then he goes away into the dark. Am I accepted into this hidden, almost invisible street life? I am not felt as an intruder? I stay silent and let things be. It’s almost as if I’ve become part of the landscape.
I hear the sound of a cruiseship horn far away. I’ve never been on a cruiseship but it hits me violently. It brings back memories of travelling to unknown places, leaving behind what I love, being left behind by a loved one.
Are these my memories or have I become part of this place and now I am dreaming its dreams? I cannot tell anymore.
Narrow streets are leading down towards the river like torrents on a mountain after a heavy rain. The wind has stopped and everything is still and silent, as if frozen in a picture frame.
There is an imperceptible movement somewhere, the water molecules are rolling downstream in slow motion. But to the naked eye everything seems frozen.
It’s early autumn and the first colorful leaves are slowly gathering on the water. The Great Falling of Leaves has not started yet.
I’ve stopped for a minute to have a drink of water and watch the sun playing its hide-and-seek through the branches.
It’s cool down here. It’s a good place to rest and stay silent.
Panta rhei said a Greek named Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. Everything is in flow.
There are hundreds of books, articles, movies, plays and paintings building on these two words. Panta rhei. You cannot step in the same river twice. Everything changes constantly.
Right here, although there is a small waterfall upstream, the silence and stillness are overwhelming. The water rushes down the waterfall and all of a sudden calms down as it zigzags between the rocks.
I’m sitting there and the stream is still on the outside but is moving through me. And it carries with it all the sorrow, clarity, regret, realisation, depression and hope of the recent past, like leaves on the water.