In Transit – Part 1

A Sentimental Journey

Embarking on a journey means boarding a train. You sit by a window, leaning on a dusty glass (do not lean on glass, it’s dirty!) staring at the trees flying by, the wires going up and down, the thundering noise of a passing train, the tattered stations, towns, and villages, the names that fade from your memory; the well-known routes and the realization that you have seen only a small bit of that road. How would the final stop look like? The intimidating and yet thrilling stories about not getting out of a train or falling asleep and finding yourself in a depot or staying on a subway train after a final stop. Even though for more than 20 years I mostly rode buses and cars, these images still haunt my dreams: missing or forgetting my stop, finding myself in an unfamiliar part of a town, or even arriving at some central station, a strange hybrid of a Moscow vokzal and a German Hauptbahnhof.

I always travel in my dreams, sensing both the freedom and danger of being on a road more vividly than in real life. Sometimes I get lucky to have this poignant experience in real life when wandering alone, -not as a tourist but as a nobody – through one of my beloved cities (New York, London, and Jerusalem); sometimes I manage to see the world through a music album, a book, or a movie; sometimes they even change my perception of a real city. After reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, I could not – and did not want to – shake off the feeling of being inside his novel during my next visit to London. While recognizing the familiar Tube stations – Knightsbridge, Earl’s Court, or Blackfriars – I kept on seeing their strange inhabitants in my mind’s eye; and when I stumbled across the stalls at Portobello Market being set up, I knew I was looking at the Floating Market from London Below. London was always receptive to my literary and musical allusions, readily gracing me with the joy of recognizing the places and locations of my dreams.

I remember having the vague yearning for journeys since I was little, dreaming about unknown places, deep forests, and mysterious lands. One day, in the early 1990s, I suddenly got a glimpse into my imaginary world. It was a short fragment from a TV program: a man and a little girl ride on a train, look out the window, roll it down, lean out, peek outside – and suddenly, the camera soars up, until we can no longer see their faces; the train crawls along the river and gradually dissipates in the black and white landscape. Stunned, I wrote down the name of this director, so that I would never miss this film: Wim Wenders, Alice in the Cities. When Wenders’s movies were finally screened in Moscow (it happened 3-4 years later) I was amazed to see how inherently close they were to my own vision and fantasies. The geometry of roads, the endless landscapes, the black and white aesthetics – all of these things made me extremely happy. I watched the whole retrospective then, and although I fell utterly in love with Der Himmel über Berlin / Wings of Desire, I also kept on thinking about another Wenders’s movie, Im Lauf der Zeit aka Kings of the Road (though I prefer the original German title ‘In the course of time’). It was an epic meditative piece, with the back and white wilderness, with “almost every frame <…> resolute, clear, and glowing, like a window rinsed clean by rain;” (*) the almost-absent plot, the quiet camaraderie of movie’s heroes, and the mighty accompaniment of guitars and saxophones, so naturally embedded in Wenders’ landscapes. Even though many aspects of this film were inaccessible for my 19-year-old self, I intuitively sensed its depth and significance; but I had to grow up to appreciate it.

Some things are better seen in black and white; by missing colors, you gain fuller meaning, by seeing emptiness between the lines you let your mind wander through some unexplored valleys.  Likewise, music can be fragmentary and sketchy, and yet imbue your heart with the joy of empathy and understanding. When I recently heard “Low,” the 1977 album by David Bowie, I was enchanted by the unusual, unconventional narrative formed by its song fragments and the wordless compositions. Of course, it took me a while to start fully appreciating the magic of this album; it fascinated me but remained evasive for any interpretation – that is, my own perception, and not the circumstances of Bowie’s life, which I studied diligently through his interviews. Listening to Low for the first time was somewhat similar to the experience of Ransom, a hero of “The Space Trilogy” by C.S. Lewis, as he makes his first step on the surface of a new world (“He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. He saw nothing but colors—colors that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are”). Suddenly, I realized that these songs could be accompanied by black and white imagery – and immediately the landscapes from Kings of the Road came to my mind. Everything fell into place, right up to the year when the album was recorded, and when the film came out. 1976, the year I was born.

To be continued…

P. S. The cover photo is by Gabriel Menchaca on Unsplash

Katya Neklyudova, 2021

In Transit – Part 2

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