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Epiphany can be defined as the sudden realization of the essence or meaning of something, as well as the understanding of the truth of certain situations or one’s life as a whole. In Death in Venice, Gustav von Auschenbach’s recognition of his love for and obsession with Tadzio is a kind of epiphany that, while not exactly beneficial or positive marks a point in which the character experience complete clarity and begins to express honesty about his previously rejected desires.
Gustav von Auschenbach, having led a life of dedication to his craft, prides himself on disciplined perfectionism and dignity. His life up to the point at which the novel takes place has been largely uneventful. Many ominous occurrences help to illustrate Gustav’s state of mind at the story’s opening. His exchange with a strange gondola rower who turns out to be a criminal, as well as his sighting of a disturbing old man dressed to look youthful are both v
aguely perilous encounters which serve to establish Gustav’s uneasiness. Upon discovering Tadzio, Gustav slowly allows his principles and dignity to erode as his obsession expands. Tadzio seems to tap into the lifelong desires that Gustav has repressed in the interest of being fully committed to his work. The end result of this obsession, however, is the writer’s death.
While not necessarily in the dark before this epiphany, von Auschenbach was certainly very repressed. After feeling a vague need for a vacation, he travels to Venice completely unaware of what waits for him. The obsession is something that, given his principles, is extremely hard to verbalize. However, when he finally declares, “I love you,” it is clear that he has accepted the truth about his feelings and desires. Though neither overtly religious or spiritual, von Auschenbach’s epiphany marks a change in his profound change in his state of mind and worldview and could therefore be seen as spiritual. This epiphany was solely brought on by the travel experience, before which von Auschenbach had lived a stable and principled life. His deeply ingrained longings were awakened through his trip to Venice and his sighting of Tadzio. While von Auschenbach’s Venetian experience led him to a greater freedom and honesty, which is not to be ignored, his travels ultimately resulted in his mental torture and death.
Epiphany is not always positive, as indicated by Death in Venice. Discovery, especially self-discovery, can be quite painful and sometimes thoroughly detrimental. Gustav von Auschenbach, having lived a monotonous and increasingly stagnant life was unable to process the hard truths of his dangerous desires, considering them foreign, unpleasant, and sinful; his inability to ever speak or reach out to Tadzio being proof of this. While it was certainly a moment of complete honesty, von Auschenbach’s revelation and declaration of his love led him to further introversion. The downward spiral that began with the first time he laid eyes on the young boy grew from a preoccupation to a complete obsession leaving him unable to focus on anything else and changing his worldview and philosophy to suit his festering desires. This epiphany of his uncontrollable lust led to his bizarre death but allowed him to gain a deeper knowledge of himself.
In the biography of Naguib Mahfouz it is mentioned that the 1919 revolution in Egypt greatly affected the author. While Mahfouz wrote a novel more directly related to the revolution (Palace Walk) elements of revolution can be seen in The Journey of Ibn Fattouma. Ibn Fattouma sets out on his journey to find Gebel, a promise land of sorts. He makes his way through different societies along the way, and encounters many different lifestyles. He flees his home city because of the corruption that exists there, but as he travels through the different lands, he finds that problems exist in all societies.
The idea of revolution can easily be seen in the first place Fattouma settles, Mashriq. The whole society is based on a free love, free thought foundation, a stark contrast to more rigid societies. Even though this culture is open and free spirited, it is not without rules and regulations, and Fattouma rebels against these guidelines by trying to raise his family in the ways of Islam. The other lands reflect revolution through their insistence on upholding freedoms and security, and in the final land that he enters, the importance of self awareness. The majority of Ibn Fattouma’s resistance is passive, relating directly to the Egyptian revolution, which was a non-violent effort to stop the British occupation of the country.
The interesting aspect of the story lies in the final pages when Ibn Fattouma finally catches a glimpse of the land of Gebel and the book’s ending before we learn about the secrets the place may hold. Gebel is Ibn Fattouma’s chance to create a better existence for the people in his homeland. He travels for years in order to find this elusive land, and we never find out if he finds what he’s looking for. People travel to see new places and things and gain new experiences that will help them change their view of the palce they call home. Fattouma travels for exactly this reason, to find something in a distant land that will change the place he came from. As readers we don’t see the final leg of his journey because this secret that he seeks is unattainable. There is no one secret to perfection in life, and we do not see Gebel because Ibn Fattouma has already learned what he needs to know to make his homeland a better place. Through his travels he has learned to accept other cultures and is able to embrace their strengths and weaknesses. It is the skill, not the instant life perfection supposedly housed in Gebel, that will potentially help him make his home a better place.
I really like Ian McEwan’s novels. Before reading The Comfort of Strangers I had read Atonement, and found both to be interesting and engaging. McEwan’s stories are often dark and sinister, turning everyday moments into tragic events. There is something about the way he describes chaos and violence that is almost poetic, however disturbing the situation might be. As I began reading The Comfort of Strangers, I was instantly drawn in by McEwan’s style, but I was waiting to stumble across the story-altering twist, the piece of information that would drastically change the meaning of everything before it. With twelve pages left in the book, the twist came on page 115 when Caroline shows Mary the wall of pictures of Colin.
I’m not usually the type of person to yell at the characters in horror movies or books, I don’t usually tell them to leave the dark, scary basement, but McEwan made me care about Colin and Mary, and as Mary saw the pictures on the wall, I wanted her to run as fast as she could away from the crazy woman next to her. Even though I had expected things to go badly for Colin and Mary, when everything went downhill I wasn’t expecting how horribly wrong it would become. I was expecting some sort of confrontation between Robert, Caroline and Colin, but I was not expecting it to end in death, or at least not death in such a gruesome manner. Colin’s murder removes any of the romanticism that sometimes accompanies death in fiction; there are no dramatic final words, no tearful goodbyes. Because the story shifts to Mary’s perspective, we drift in and out of consciousness with her and miss Colin’s final breath, making his death even more sinister.
I think McEwan’s main accomplishment in The Comfort of Strangers is the message he presents regarding the dangers of travel. His characters go off to Italy to rediscover the strength in their relationship, and instead find themselves facing down death. It is this idea, that any traveler at any time in any place could easily fall victim to a dark and sinister death at the hands of someone more familiar with their surroundings that adds a truly chilling overtone to the entire story. Anyone could take a wrong turn and end up in a dark alley with an unsavory character, but that’s not exactly highlighted in any of the travel brochures that promise fun times and beautiful scenery. Colin and Mary wanted an authentic experience so much that they were unable to see the danger their new authentic acquaintances represented.
I took a trip to England once. I had always wanted to travel there, and I had finally gotten my chance with a trip through school. I was very excited, ready to see all the sights and hear all the British accents. Without actually visiting, I had decided that England was my favorite country, though I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps it was something about the way the rolling hills looked in pictures of the English countryside, although it could just as easily been the funny hats the Queen’s guards wear, I was always intrigued by the little things. In any case I had never been so excited for a trip in my life.
After a plane ride that seemed to take forever we landed at Heathrow airport in London. We stumbled out of the terminal and onto our little bus, perfect for our group of ten people. I’m not sure how long it took, be we ended up in the tiny town of Frome. Our hotel was small, but the sliding door in my room opened onto the lawn overlooking a perfect set of rolling English hills.
We spent the next ten days taking day trips on our bikes to all sorts of beautiful and exciting places like Stonehenge and the historic bathhouses in Bath. We saw caves and monuments and lots of rolling hills. I actually spent some time getting very lost on one of those hills, surrounded by tall grass and sheep. All these experiences were enjoyable and interesting, but they weren’t as life altering as I had wanted them to be.
About halfway through the trip we spent a day off schedule. This was the first day that we didn’t have every moment planned out, and it turned out to be the most interesting. Our bike trip for the day took us to a beach. It was July, but the air was cool and the water was cooler and the beach was deserted. Instead of sand the entire beach was made up of smooth, beautiful rocks and pebbles. We spent about two hours just having fun, running around over the shining rocks, trying to skip stones and some of us even dared to brave the chilling water.
It was on that rocky beach that I began to feel like this trip was going to be something unbelievably important in my life. There was something about sitting on the smooth rocks, staring out to the horizon that spoke to me better than a guided tour of Stonehenge ever could. I can’t say exactly why that moment was so important to me, but It was the moment my trip really began. I sat on that beach and stared out at the ocean, thinking that if only I could see far enough, I could see America, I could see the east coast that I called home. To be fair if I had seen any big mass of land it most likely would have been Ireland, but the idea of seeing my home from a completely different angle was fascinating to me. We left the beach, but I took a part of it with me, using the feeling of looking at things in different ways to enhance the rest of my trip. I’ll never forget the feel of those wet rocks beneath my bare feet, and I’ll never forget how my trip to England forever changed the way I travel.
While many of the novels we read had elements of epiphany, there were a few that stood out the most. I think that the epiphany in Sputnik Sweetheart is perhaps the most unique epiphany that we read about. When Sumire realizes that in order to be happy with Miu, she has to seek out a part of Miu that no longer exists in their current reality. In many ways this relates directly to why most people travel in the first place. In many cases, travel is a tool for discovering another part of or way of life that is not evident in one’s everyday life. People travel to escape the banality of the day-to-day, and they go searching for something more. In Comfort of Strangers for example, Colin and Mary go to Italy to search for a new strength that will help them improve their relationship. They too, embark into an alternate type of reality, a reality parallel to their own that is only accessible to them because they are traveling.
The realization that Sumire comes to is life altering, not only for Sumire, but for Miu and the narrator as well. By seeking out something completely different and leaving behind everything she knows, Sumire leaves the people she cares about in the dark. They are greatly affected by her departure and go to great lengths trying to find her. The question is, was Sumire’s epiphany a good thing or a bad thing? Because we don’t follow Sumire on her journey, we aren’t really aware if she found what she was looking for, but we do see the damage her disappearance does in the lives of Miu and especially the narrator.
In The Comfort of Strangers, Colin and Mary experienced a moment that seems to help them realize a goal of their trip. Much of this class has been based around the idea of finding the authentic experience through travel. While in the bar with Robert, Colin and Mary “began to experience the pleasure, unique to tourists, of finding themselves in a place without tourists, of making a discovery, finding somewhere real…they in turn asked the serious, intent questions of tourists gratified to be talking at last to an authentic citizen.” (McEwan, 29) They manage to find a small sliver of authenticity amid the normal tourist culture, and while this is important in the story, what comes of this discovery is perhaps more pertinent. Later in the story, the couple realizes that their authentic encounter with Robert has actually caused a great detriment to their ability to completely enjoy their trip. They spent so much time searching for something authentic that once they found it failed to notice how dangerous it could be. The epiphany here lies in the idea that while authentic experiences are welcome, it is important to realize that the safety and familiarity of tourist experiences are indispensably valuable.
The thing that struck me the most about MacCannell’s writings on authenticity in travel are how little that view applies to our society today. Globalization has drastically changed the landscape of travel and the role of the tourist. Tourists are not as obvious as they were; more common, yes, but they do not stand out in the same way. Traveling, and also immigration, are so commonplace that one can expect to see visitors in almost any city in the world. As families and groups immigrate to new countries, they are bringing their influence and languages with them. This, then, changes the perception that others may hold of this person being a “tourist”. In Berlin, there are tours of the city center conducted by English, Irish, or Australian students, and only in English. Doing one of these tours with visitors was, yes, tourist-y, but extremely enlightening. On this tour, I learned so much about the essential history of Berlin that I never would have discovered on my own. Was it any less authentic because the guides were not natives, but had moved for some reason to Berlin? I think not, and even so, I don’t care. You need a base to start from, and I think that this helped build it. Many Americans blur the line between being natives and being visitors because of family ties to a particular country. As these tourists speak languages that may not be expected of them, they are able to more easily access those very closely-knit communities in different countries. These communities are what MacCannell calls the “back region”, the impenetrable cores of authenticity in a culture. The role of the local, on the other hand, and the “back region”, are still very prominent today. I see this most strikingly in the Turkish areas of Berlin (see post #13). If one of us knew Turkish, then we would not only confuse them, but we would be instantly welcomed into restaurants and offered endless little glasses of free tea and treats. Immigration to Berlin has changed the how a visitor questions the authenticity of this city. Living here, I do not feel as though I am getting a true “German” experience because of the mix of cultures – but on the other hand, being around immigrant communities and the clashing and remolding of radically different cultures is the most authentic thing about a country. Even after living here for a semester, I feel that I will never fully be able to access these parts of Berlin. In fact, I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg.
A real gem in my neighborhood is the glorious outdoor Turkish market. Come rain, sun or sleet, every Tuesday and Friday, the market opens at 10 AM and starts to shut down (and hand out freebies) around 6. As far as I’m concerned, the market really can do no wrong. My roommate and I split a week’s worth of groceries for about $15 each. As I’ve been there over the course of the semester, it’s become something of an institution. It’s no longer just a place where we buy our broccoli, couscous and eggs: it’s a cultural learning center. It’s the closest one can get to going to Istanbul. Some stands sell freshly-baked börek – spinach and cheese-filled flaky pastries – and boxes of baklava. Women in headscarves push strollers around while they purchase entire bushels of onions and peppers. You would never think that Berlin has a high Muslim population – Germany, of all places! But then you have never been to Kreuzberg or Neukölln, where the signs are half in German, half in Turkish, and you can walk for a couple blocks within hearing a word of German on the street. The Market forms the core of this thriving Turkish culture in Berlin. It’s where families get together to get their most basic groceries, and where we can get an insider’s view on life in a non-Western culture. In Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, he almost exclusively describes places over people. He travels around Germany and Switzerland, describing the college town of Heidelberg. He sits in Biergartens with the students and notices the way they all interact: the way professors and students mingle easily over a drink, the easy raft ride down the main river that runs through the town, the beautiful castle over at the top of the hill upon which the town is built. He describes the towns with a mixture of awe and pleasure: awe at the beauty of the town, and pleasure at being able to participate in its lifestyle. I have a similar set of feelings towards the Turkish Market. On one hand, I am simply in awe because of how radically different this environment is from anything else I would experience in New York. The contrasts between the extremely progressive, cutting-edge part of Berlin that most people know and the family-oriented Turkish parts are astounding. Every time I go to the market, I’m reminded that I am truly not just studying abroad in a Western country. I can take a trip into Little Istanbul twice a week and while I admit that I am not immersed, I am still fascinated and drawn in.
Reading De Botton’s “On Habit” struck me as not only witty and funny, but clever. The bedroom in his apartment becomes his vacation, his journey, his plaything, his adventure. I certainly never considered my apartment to be anything of the sort. For me, my apartment was always just home. The bed was an object in which I slept and I stored clothes in the closet. My door was just a door – and yet, the author dares to examine these objects further. We see them every day and over time, it becomes easy to simply live in a space. I think it’s also fascinating how he talks about deconstructing the process of forming habits, because it’s so true, especially when studying abroad. It’s very easy to create a comfortable space for yourself and to stick to a certain pattern when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. No one wants to venture outside of their comfort zone, and that is exactly what studying abroad strives to do. Once you start to become even slightly comfortable in your environment, the human instinct to settle and form a routine sets in. After reading the article, I began questioning the ways I have formed patterns and to which routines I conform. I would take the same bus and subway to class every day – but if I wanted to change it up, I would take the same subway and a different train back home! I did my grocery shopping most often on Tuesday mornings, but sometimes Fridays. I sat in the same chair in my living room to use my laptop. I also began thinking more critically about the ways in which I had grown accustomed to my living quarters. Upon closer inspection of my apartment, I realize that there are in fact many more hidden corners and spaces than I had imagined. Once I’d gotten used to stashing certain items in different patches of my room, I’d forgotten that there had even been space there at all. The corner in which I stowed my electronics was quite large. The two feet between my bed and closet are usually covered with plastic bags or various articles of clothing, but upon cleaning up, I discovered a whole new floor space that I’d forgotten about. In my cabinets, I found shelves that held endless possibilities for storage. The little chair in my room was reborn as a chair, not just a close hanger. By continually stepping back to remind myself of the small possibilities hiding behind every formed habit in Berlin.
I'm sitting in my living room, facing my near-empty shelves and articles scattered across the floor. One of the windows is broken and does not close all the way, so it's just been chilly in here for the past week. One of the living room chairs has a crack that threatens to give way anytime weight is put on it. Our vacuum cleaner has not worked since the second week of the semester, and had been set out on the balcony for the remainder of the semester (it was my roommate's idea...). The fridge and freezer are inexplicably leaking all over the kitchen floor.... and yet, this is home. It has been for the past three and a half months. Now, I look into my room and see several suitcases and my computer bag all packed up and ready to go for tomorrow. There are so many things that I'm going to miss about Berlin, and also some parts of my experience that I would rather leave behind. For one, I'm going to miss the phenomenal Turkish grocery market, the cheap and delicious beer, efficient and easy public transportation with convenient metrocards, the amazing cultural scene, the history that is seeped into every corner. I definitely won't miss things such as the language barrier. That was by far the only real difficulty I hit this semester. If I could speak even conversational German, simple transactions such as asking to try on clothes, buying phone credit and listening to instructions on the subway would have not been a problem. I guess that is part of studying abroad: you risk putting yourself in an awkward position where you can't speak a word of what you need to convey. I'm already anticipating how strange hearing English left and right will be. I've become so used to straining my ears to try and understand German, or to just shutting it out altogether. Getting back to the States will be so... easy. I won't have to try too hard understand, but I would have to put in effort to ignore people, which is the opposite from when you don't understand the language at all. I think that the littlest aspects of my life back in New York will be the most noticeable. For example, I've only seen one coffee shop here offer sleeves for to-go cups. When I get back to New York, I'll probably carry my cup barehanded and forget. Also, the public transport is honor system, so you don't have to pay for each entry into the stations. You can jump on it whenever and take any mode - no fumbling through your wallet and pockets for a Metrocard. Overall, I've loved the experience, and I can't wait to experience these tiny odd moments in New York. They'll be permanent reminders of my short life in another country, another city. As long as I can remember these small cultural nuances, I know that I'll be carrying Berlin with me for the rest of my life.
Well, I am finally home in Brooklyn, after the return trip from hell! Snow in Paris led to hours on the runway, I missed my connecting flight, waited a full day in Amsterdam trying to get on another one standby, spent the night in a hotel, and thanks to some miracle, got home to New York late last night, despite the foot of snow and high winds.
Besides the exhaustion, frustration, confusion, and plenty of other –ion words I felt in my 3-day trip home, I think the strangest aspect was being in Limbo: no longer still in Paris, but not yet returned to my world at home. On the plus side, as I wasn’t yet distracted by re-entering New York, I had a certain distance from my life in Paris, and could think about it more objectively. My last few weeks were, without a doubt, my most fulfilling and exciting weeks in Paris, albeit also intense and chaotic. I had the feeling that my life was full, that I had invested enough in the things I was doing in Paris (classes, the play, new friends, and getting to know the city) to be extremely busy, but in an usually satisfying way.
Not surprisingly, reaching this state of happiness at the very end of my semester made me wonder if I couldn’t have helped myself get there sooner. Sitting around several airports, I asked myself what forces had been at work in the first few months that might have gotten in my way. In large part, I actually think the problem was the length of time. A semester in New York goes by very, very quickly. When I came to Paris, I knew I wanted to take my French skills further, see a lot of art, write, and generally revel in the city. There was a part of me, though, that didn’t want to get TOO attached. Pretty conflicted about leaving my boyfriend and close friends behind in New York, I think I came to Paris focused more on aesthetic and intellectual explorations than on social ones. I immersed myself in the language and the place, but didn’t work as hard as I usually do to form lasting friendships with people. I would only be here for 3.5 months, right?
It was much to my surprise, therefore, that I realized in the weeks before my departure that I had, indeed, met some wonderful people who were genuinely sad to see me go. I got phone calls from several Parisian friends, inviting me for a last dinner or coffee. Their sincerity and warmth really touched me, particularly because I hadn’t thought we were all that close. It made me think back to a French friend of my mom’s, who once said that the Americans were quick to make friends but also quick to forget them, while the French took forever to warm up but stayed friends for life.
I think that my sense of temporariness and slight reluctance in Paris was part of what kept me from feeling fully connected to it until the end, but the French slowness in making friends contributed to it. Had I been there for a full school year, I would have had the time to pursue and truly enjoy the friendships I had (perhaps unbeknownst to me) been cultivating. A full year wasn’t an option for me at this point, but the wheels are definitely turning in my head to figure out another time to live and work in Paris. Knowing now the length of time it takes to truly create a new niche for one’s self there, I think I would be less put off by the gradual nature of that process.
When I left a friend’s apartment on my second to last night, he gave me a Tupperware with leftovers from our dinner. “But I won’t have a chance to get this back to you,” I reminded him. “No,” he said, “But you’ll keep it until I come to New York, or when you come back here.” His kindness and hopefulness for the future was infectious: though I don’t know when or how I’ll make it happen, I’m sure now that I’ll find my way back to France, and I hope, to the friends I made there.