Revisting Europe: The Old to The New

Revisting Europe: The Old to The New

I had a friend who used to say that when you first go to Europe, you kind of think how quaint and ancient everything is and you say to yourself “Oh, I love Europe!” And then after a week, you start to realize that nothing works, the plumbing sucks and there are no shower curtains. I used to scoff at him as a provincial, a typical American…But now I kind of understand his point. This is not to say that I think, in any way, that Europe sucks. It is more a way to mention that Europe looked really old to me after a year living in Tokyo — I have been altered by hyper-modernity. I did not really notice this in Berlin — that city, like Tokyo, was pounded to rubble after WW2 and rebuilt under the suspect aesthetic gaze of Stalin. But, when I arrived in Bristol, I was charmed by almost everything — the suspension bridge that spans Avon River gorge, the 18th century buildings dominating the hill tops, the Victorian cottages lining winding roads, the vaulted brick ceilings at Cosies’s where I played records alongside my friend Steve Rice (who graciously put me up and fed me a delicious roast chicken with salsa verde); I was even charmed by the plumbing at Steve’s house — a not-smelly system where the waste-water from inside rushed out of a pipe in the back-yard directly into what I would imagine is a running sewer. It is a little odd to be charmed by plumbing, but I was because there was something so human about that rush of water echoing in the cool night air. London was much the same, enveloping me in history in a way that I have not experienced for a while: the train stations harkening back to the Industrial Revolution, that patina of coal smoke appearing out of the mist of a Turner canvas; the lean of the 2-story flats of Tottenham, built for workers in the late 19th century. The pub I played in with my friend Mark Professor was a classic of the type — scrolled wood-work, nicotine-stained, bar polished by endless elbows and spilled ales. In Whitstable — a small, seaside town about an hour and half from London — I found a village that was precisely like what I Imagined an English village to be: two, three hundred year old shops on winding lanes, footpaths cut behind homes, windswept pubs on a chilly beach. I stayed with my friend Pete whose wife is Japanese. I mentioned to her how I was sort of awe-struck by how old Europe seemed after Tokyo and asked her if she had the same reaction. She kind of agreed, mentioned that their home was relatively new and then showed me how the woodwork was not properly finished way in the back of a closet built into the stairs. “This kind of thing would not happen in Japan,” she said, “Different kind of craftsmen.”

Prague was simply magical. I had not been there in thirty years and had simply forgotten the immense, physical beauty of the place. I wanted my wife, my children with me just to show them what buildings could be — to watch their faces as some freaky fairytale came to life with gothic spires peaking above medieval rooftops, castles rising up out of hillsides, art-nouveau facades dripping with ornate beauty like a melting wedding cake. And then Barcelona…Less than 100 years before the streets dripped with blood, snipers in attic windows, the grand boulevards, pitted, ransacked by Nazi aircraft supporting Franco’s fascists; PUOM supporters led away into dank basements by NKDV operatives with cheap suits and 9 grams of lead. All that washed away leaving a city resplendent with ancient churches, Belle Epoque apartment buildings and breathtaking arabesque squares ringed by rhythmic archways. And finally Lisbon which, by the way, is a city I fell head over heels in love with — cosmopolitan, cheap, great wine, incredible seafood, warm, funny, sarcastic people and a certain vibe of…what…freedom maybe? I don’t know exactly, but Lisbon is a city I could happily live in. It undulates like a breaching whale — hills rise and fall, Baroque churches alongside 14th century castles; old trams climbing rusted tracks, incredible vistas and tiled sidewalks glinting in the street lights. I realized it was not the “oldness” that was so striking in Europe, it was simply the range of architecture — the details, the hidden statues and gargoyles and spires and towers and lions and angels and carved stone and filigree iron and Romanesque weight and soaring columns and breath-taking squares and rotting drains and centuries old masonry turning to dust and corner stones rubbed smooth. I was re-awakened to architecture, my eyes constantly drawn up and around to simply take it all in. It made me pause and realize that, bar a few famous buildings and old temples and shrines, I could not even describe one building in Tokyo.

The reality is, Japanese culture is ancient, but Japanese cities (particularly Tokyo) are not. Wood-based architecture burns and fires, wars, earthquakes and tidal waves have taken their toll time-after-time. For the most part, Tokyo looks like it was created somewhere between 1972 and 2004. When it comes to genuinely “old” things, the Japanese philosophy runs counter to  Europe so far as the case of “originality” goes. In Europe, a ruin is a ruin — to fix something old, to rebuild the Colosseum say, would be to tarnish history, to create a replica.  In Japan, there are acres of forest with sacred, old growth Cedar that are used to constantly refurbish and repair ancient temples, shrines, castles.  Entire historic buildings have been re-built from the ground up and no one bats an eye, or suggests that it is a re-creation.  In the Japanese mind-set these buildings are still living, and the use of ancient wood-working techniques and hallowed lumber conflate the past and present.  Even the old still looks new in Japan.

I admit, I came back frightened that Tokyo, which existed in such beauty in my mind, would be wiped away by centuries of European architecture. It did not happen. In fact, being in Europe re-set my senses and fixed a critical eye upon my new city. I realized that no, I never really looked up in Tokyo, never had my eye drawn in by cast iron and ornate sconces to the horizons. Instead, it was the street level that held my gaze — the details drawing me in: the potted plants framing doorways, the tatami screens, the printed curtains, the bold advertising, the colorful lanterns, the elaborate displays of fruits and vegetables and fish; the mysterious alleyways beckoning to me; the streets that wind at random like creeks in a forest; the odd angles and seeming chaos of Tokyo city planning; the endless neon; the waves and waves of people filling the streets from end-to-end; the giggling schoolgirls taking photos of their bubble teas. The absolute bustle of the place. The pace of commerce. Whew. Tokyo is the kindergarten teacher — the city itself an assortment of blocks set up by a toddler. There is an awareness of impermanence, a city put together with the vague idea that it will all have to be rebuilt again when the next disaster unfolds. I realized, with the weight of Europe still pressing on my mind, that the beauty I see in Tokyo resides in its people, the residents who day-to-day fill the streets with a crackling energy and aesthetic. They are what make the streets come alive so forcefully that the actual architecture of the place is transformed into a unique beauty that has such a firm grasp on my heart.

P.S. Europe. I love you. But, shower curtains…They Work!

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