Sunday, July 17, 2011

Green water

Sunday, July 17
Bern, Switzerland

Its raining in Bern. A lot. But in the skylit atrium of the Allegro Hotel the jazz duo (sax and upright acoustic bass) are playing American standards with lyric lines about "blue skies" and "sunshine" -- and the tag line of "lets call the whole thing off." Its funny, because my first memory of Europe, after landing in Frankfurt after my junior year of college, was that there were jazz bands everywhere. The lingua franca of Europe -- or at least of German-speaking Europe, seemed then, and seems still, to be jazz. And its good jazz. Straight-up, right on the money jazz. 

Childhood allusions abound. Its all about trains here. And, as a child, I was all about trains (and dinosaurs) all the time. The brand was always Marklin -- the perfectly made, endlessly durable (even with me around) miniature scale railroads that ran the length of the apartment on 86th and East End. Lord forbid you close a hallway door and disrupt and disconnect the rail line that ran from my bedroom to the far end of the living room, with a determined stop kitchen-side to take on Ice Cream. 

Boarding today after the flight in from Dulles to Zurich and looking out from the second level window of the spot-on-time train was a walk into the notion that life really is a movie, and that it runs in the glass windows of your field of vision all the time, like an endless array of screens snapping you back-and-forth from today to yesterday, way, way back and, sometimes, way, way forward. 

The engines which dominated those model railroads of my yesterday were hard at work outside my window on the Intercity rail from Zurich Main Station to Geneva Airport. The tiny workhorse red diesels which now seem almost always to be marked "cargo," the strangely cigar shaped electric engines dragging long strings of passenger cars I coveted as a kid, the trestles and the tracks -- all of these were floating past the windows of my car (the floating part was probably just jet-lag at work, but, hey, its fantasy). 

Overhead the rain patters away at the glass like an oscilloscope -- reflecting and radiating the sounds of the sax and the plucking of the bass. Disney must have been in Bern in a jazz-soaked deluge when he thought of the "Toccata and Fugue"sequence for "Fantasia." The wait-staff, from the waffle-makers to the hostesses to the bus-boys walk with that snap to their step that says "I love jazz." 

Today and tomorrow -- my two brief summer days in Switzerland -- are about tour planning for October with the exceptional team at the US Embassy here. In a country known for its organization pulling a major tour together to take place about 75 days from now is not a small task -- but its a great one. Wandering the town is a bit impractical right about now barring a broad and wide umbrella, but the soundscapes and the scenery solves the problem of how to prepare and from where to draw inspiration. 

I remember the inspiration of those small red trains and those enormous tall trestles, the reinforced-with-lego-blocks and books and toy boxes trestles as they rose from the ground to the coffee-table, physics unheeded and the practicality of obliterating an entire living room in pursuit of the ultimate construction forgotten. 

One night, deep into one of my Mother's legendary all-night cocktail parties at 535 East 86th street, long after I was supposed to be asleep, I remember cranking up the power on track two, the track for that little work-horse red engine, and sending it forth into the Living Room just to see what would happen. Power on I snuck down the hall and took station behind the cement support column that stood strangely in the front hall (it was a 26 story building after all, so something had to be holding it up), my childhood friend and sweetheart Amy at my side, to see the outcome of a railroad at work in the midst of a five-sheets-to-the-wind gaggle of adults. 

We got to our post as the train rounded into the Living Room unnoticed. My Mom always insisted that if I built it she'd leave it, but that it had, as she said, its time and place. As the engine and its load headed up that trestle one thing was clear -- it would never survive the encounter with the glasses hard-on the track. But then that was the point, wasn't it? 

Cresting the top it went straight into the forest of glass and, as the first of them went over, the room got very, very quiet. Things went spilling, slopping and slipping onto the table, a little Noah's flood all my own. 

You could even here everything spilling -- it was that kind of quiet. And then, inevitably -- the same way as the sound of rain on the skylights in Bern, you heard the familiar refrain " PAUL! GOD DAMMIT!"

That was always the cue to scramble -- but as Amy and I bolted for the bedroom (why we thought that would save us I really never have figured out) I remember seeing something just pouring over the lip of the coffee table. We'd created our own little river by the rail bed. But the color was wrong. It was supposed to be blue. Or clear. This stuff, whatever it was, was green. "Wrong color" I remember I heard in my head. "Next time I'll have to fix that."

Today, on a great trestle high over a great full, flowing river on the outskirts of Bern, heading to two days of meetings about art and imagination, I looked down into that water and learned that we'd been right all along. 

Better than imagination lay reality. The river was running green. 

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