I find myself growing more apathetic by the mechanisms of a large church.
There is a certain force and will that is required to move machination that is that large and complex no doubt and I would dare not suggest inadequate salutations for people who see it as their role in the tapestry of humanity to do it.
But I care quite little for it.
As I say this I am also keenly aware that those same people probably care very little what I have to say about the matter and that is not something I begrudge. In fact I quite welcome it. I have always found it ‘warmer’ (that would be the sentiment) to find a corner in any mechanism and try to grow something from there. Away from looming, interested eyes. Whether that growth is noticed or not by the commanders of the ship is not something I concern myself with, just as long as they allow me that corner without bother.
The concept of a ‘congregation’ has at its worst, frightened me, and at the very least, produced a kind of apathy. It’s like being invited to a stag party where the only person you know is the groom. There is a reason why you are there, but it’s never any fun to be honest.
I’ve always seen my faith as a relationship, and as far as I know, a meaningful relationship is always between two people. To suggest that the meaning of this relationship is somehow interlinked with the concept of congregating with a group of people I know mostly in degrees between ‘acquaintance’ to ‘stranger’ has always produced more questions than answers.
I have always asked God that is it absolutely necessary for me to be at church to be a ‘Christian’? He has never answered that question in a complete sentence to me. I do see his answer in patches. The most clear being the cell group I am a part of that has grown in a far corner of this mechanism. That this group of people would not have existed without the machinations of a large church is what keeps me coming back to its hulking cogs.
I have mostly welcomed this season of isolation. I am not unmoved nor undisturbed by the horror that continues to envelop the world but I have found some solace in the midst of the chaos. One being that I can have the programs I am required to be a part of without most of the people whom, if I have to be honest, I care very little for and they care very little for me as well. I am able to distill it mostly down to the people I care about, namely my wife, some friends and my cell members. It’s like I am suddenly able to bespoke the whole machinery into just the parts that I love.
I would be a little deluded if I did not admit that it’s something I’ve loved.
I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’.
I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option.
The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting.
Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep.
I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here.
But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.
‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’
Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)
I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything.
I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to.
I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it.
Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.
You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.
Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.
Actually, I probably think a lot more about my
travels after it’s done compared to when I am actually on it. Which
probably makes sense given I am generally more reflective in nature.
That’s not to say I am an imbecile during my travels.
The obvious subtexts can still scream out at me, but for the most part I
try and enjoy thing as they unfold. It’s only when I gird myself for a
flight home, suffer banal airplane food, drag my luggage to a waiting
car, endure a car ride that’s usually more
frantic than I want it to be, unlock the doors to my home, turn on the
air-conditioner, have my first local meal sometime in the next couple of
hours, and look at the pictures many times over the next few days, that
things start to sink in and I start to think
about the trip.
A lot of what I’ve been thinking about this trip
concerns a specific occurrence that happened during my time in the
mountainous town of Heiligenblut, more or less in the middle of our
trip. I had made my way up to higher ground with my
father-in-law (FIL) to grab a picture of The Church of St Vincent at
dusk, which is really the centerpiece of this otherwise quiet
mountaintop town. We were on the way back to the town center to
rendezvous with our respective wives when I saw the thing that
has stuck in my mind so vividly since. No, it wasn’t a portly man
crossing the street, naked, except for a pair of boots, in freezing
weather, although that would be pretty hard to scald out of your mind as
well. It was an aged gentleman, with a bottle of
milk in hand, coming out of the only supermarket in town, walking up an
open staircase just next to it, opening the door to his home, which is
stacked rustically on top of the market against a hill, and going in.
What? No nudity? Hamsters spontaneously combusting?
A dog peeing while doing cartwheels? Just a man with a bottle of milk
heading back to his home? You’re out of your mind joe. No I am not. Hear
me out. I can’t profess to have travelled
extensively so whatever I say in regards to this, you’ve got to adjust
it a little against the ‘talking out of your butt’ scale. So yeah, I’ve
not travelled a lot, but I have travelled quite a bit in the last
two-three years. At no point in any of our travels,
did I look at the life the people had in those countries and wished
that I had it too. Not even when we were high up in the quite magical
town of Kilmuir, surrounded by sea with the clouds just slightly above
us, did I feel this. Not even when we were walking
along the almost-unimaginably beautiful beaches of Paros did I feel
this too. I definitely did not feel it in the cosmopolitan cities of
London, Edinburgh and Athens as well. Don’t even get me started about
Australia. There was an itch in Bangkok, but it did
not amount to much.
But up there, looking at him, I was boiling green
with envy. Why? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just the combination
of the very pleasant weather, the small town infrastructures of
Heiligenblut (The town center was basically just
a single street with one market, and one bank), the view that was right
there in front of his home, how completely stress-free he looked. I
tried to reserve a small percentage that the man I saw was just a
tourist renting the place for the night or maybe a
terribly unhappy man inside but it was no use. Someone had to live,
somewhere in this town right? Jealousy justified then.
I wanted what he had. Being born here (Taking
massive liberties now), in this gorgeous town that just purrs in autumn
but looks like Santa’s holiday home during Christmas from the snow and
the simple but beautiful life that he was given
no choice on. Yes, perhaps we always want what we don’t have and
secretly inside he may be wishing that he has made it a corporate banker
somewhere in warm and stressful Southeast Asia and we could just trade
roles but I am going to fashion a guess and say,
no. He doesn’t envy my life, but I envied his terribly.
Nature has a way of righting the wrongs of men. If our exposure to Austrian civilization thus far (Salzburg) had left us cold (literally) in regards to the people in this country, then this seem to become better the further we venture into the wilderness. Thematically it felt like a similar point to the one I made about Greek towns and how they look more beautiful the closer they are to the sea, almost like they are nourished by it. It’s the same thing with Austrian people and the woods – they seem happier and friendlier the further we ventured away from a city. It’s almost as if men become less pre-occupied with oneself when they retreat to basics. Okay that’s stating the obvious. I guess removing oneself from the usual tropes, expectations and stress that come from trying to live and succeed in a dusty, loud and obnoxious city can allow someone to focus on other things, like being a decent human being. Heiligenblut represented the furthest into the Austrian woods we ventured into but before we got there we managed to spend two days exploring the region of Tirol, namely Hall and Innsbruck.
In the list of ‘places we could do without if we
ever came back to Austria’ (basically a useless list), Innsbruck hangs
pretty high up there. It has neither the cultural richness nor medieval
vibe of Salzburg and not enough of pizzazz to
be Vienna. The selling point that it is a ‘city surrounded by
mountains’ becomes moot when part of your program involves driving and
hiking up said mountains and generally being surrounded by them a lot.
Innsbruck felt a little like an Australian city to me.
Yes I am aware I was in Central Europe and not somewhere in between the
Indian and Pacific Oceans despite their similar names. It was a
pleasant city, with wide roads, brisk wind and pretty architecture.
Shops were arranged neatly in designated blocks that
were obviously calculatedly-painted in various colors. But it lacked
character and it ranked really low in the possibilities scale (For more
info on what that is, go here), with buildings neatly arranged in grids
so you can see the block you’re walking on
is clearly going to be boring. The chances of you being pleasantly
surprised by a store felt rather unlikely when you can see that the next
large block consists of basically just a Spar.
Hall on the other hand, cares little for trying to
be anything but itself. The town center in Hall feels like a place out
of time. In a tribute to the randomness of my mind, I find myself
thinking about that scene in that kitschy
Master of the Universe movie in the 80s starring Dolph Lundgren
where a portion of the city was transported back to Eternia because of
some cosmic key. Wasn’t Courtney Cox in it? She looked really fetching.
Wasn’t Skeletor basically just a man behind
a skull mask? There was also being that looked a little like a Troll.
Yeah, the ones on a keychain. What, the movie has a RT rating of 17%?
Come on, that’s harsh. Oh thank God it just about shaves it against that
awful Gerard Butler romantic comedy. Man, Gerard
Butler has been in some seriously awful films, except 300 that
is. That I enjoyed. Hey wait, that scene where he kicked the emissary
into the large hole, who actually has to go down there to clean the hole
of bodies? Are there steps to go down? I don’t
remember seeing any. Maybe they are lowered down.
Oh sorry, got seriously distracted there. Hall yes a city that was out of synch with time. Yes it was like that scene in that He-Man movie because its town center felt so old and medieval, which is quite displaced from the more modern surroundings you have to pass through to get into it. But it’s precisely this jagged edge to its geographical existence that makes Hall endearing. It’s akin to that friendly uncle you have that has become so unfashionable that he doesn’t even try anymore. Hall felt like that. It seems neither interested to be gradually more modern like its outer fringes, or to fully embrace its medieval-ness enough to make it relevant to modern times. Instead it sits somewhere in between – generally unbothered with what everyone else has to offer, comfortable in what it is. Flower shops stood beside pizza parlors and bookstores in a un-curated manner, all geared towards serving the locals rather than tourists. I do generally prefer towns that appear more concerned with serving its locals rather than pandering to tourists. I’ve always preferred a more immersive travel experience and I am not able to do that if the town/city I am visiting insists on treating me like a vacationer.
I had put off eating a Wiener Schnitzel up till
this point. Seeing it as the closing cut at the end of an encore, the
epic orchestral finale to a concept album. I need it to be perfect. My
resilience wore at Hall. Why? No idea. Probably
a combination of early morning driving, hunger and the friendly
waitress in a milkmaid dress at the restaurant in Hotel Goldener Engl.
Actually it may be because they had a veal one on the menu. It’s
normally pork. It was nice. Fluffy, breaded flattened veal
deep fried and served with potatoes and elderberry jam. It was nice,
but hardly world-altering. My mind drifts back to something my wife said
while we were on a short break in Bangkok earlier in the year, in
reference to a stir fried cabbage dish in the restaurant
Supanigga (I know, a rather unfortunate name), ‘How nice can a cabbage
dish be?’ Nevertheless we went with the majority, given that everyone in
the restaurant had that dish on their table. It was seriously awesome.
So I would transplant that same thought here,
‘How nice can a piece of deep-fried breaded veal’ be?’ Or to weave in a
more Malaysian-centric version of the same thought, “How nice can a
veal version of a Chicken Maryland’ be? The answer is nice, but far from
awesome. It was no Thai-style cabbage. That
saying it was decent enough for me to eat it a few times more for the
remainder of the trip. But what I thought would be the epic finale to a
widescreen concept album turned out to just be a catchier pop cut in the
middle of an unlistenable album. Appreciated,
but was never going to make the album good.
The thematic and literal high-point of the trip was
our drive up to the summit of Edelweißspitze. Well not exactly the
drive-per se because I was the driver so all I was focused on was for
our Jeep not to be a large orange dot falling from
a height to people at a distance. I have spoken before about how the
Caldera view in Santorini at times appeared so large that it feels
impossible for our eyes to take it all in at a glance. The feeling is
the same at many points during our summit up the High
Alpine Road. The trees looked more imposing here, threatening to reach
towards the heavens, the mountains standing tall like a threatening
monolith designed to suffocate your point of view and the river valleys
seemed so far away down that it feels no longer
real nor tangible. Nature of this sort heals the soul in a way.
Suddenly, you no longer feel like the most important thing in the world.
All self-centeredness recedes because you discover that there things
out there that are put in this world to make your
life’s narrative feel so insignificant. All the pressures of modern
life, the intoxication we feed ourselves to survive it, the arguments we
start and end to endure the people in it – it all just fades away in
one fell swoop and you’re for a moment, rewound
back to a vanilla state and you start gaining some perspective on your
existence again. I love that feeling. It doesn’t last of course. But to
feel it even for a moment, once in a while, is rather nice.
If Edelweißspitze brought us up to the clouds, then our next destination Hallstatt ensured that we fell back down to earth with a loud thud. In my recent travels, I have quite often encountered nature of staggering beauty in loggerheads with the tourism industry around it that aims to earn a buck out of it. And in most of those encounters, while the industry is mostly off-putting, in all instances it has largely failed to diminish the sheen of nature at its finest. Not quite so in Hallstatt.
The charm of Hallstatt is probably still somewhere in there, buried under caked layers of side-street peddlers, touch-and-go travelers and touristy restaurants but not quite enough of it peeks through to remind me of it. Instead the experience I get is a town that’s chiseled and constructed out of a holiday brochure. It has betrayed the spirit and soul of its history to serve its new master – tourism. I find towns and cities like that unappealing. The mental image is likened to to a sound stage for a movie studio. Construct a historical town out of nothing? Sure. Which is tragic because Hallstatt is a town steeped in history. But all that has been defaced by a glossy exterior that leaves a plastic taste to the mouth.
That’s not to say Hallstatt isn’t still beautiful. It clearly is. The sight of swans and sucks waddling in the lake, framed against the mountains and a seducing sunset remains one of the most enduring images of the trip for me. In some strange way, I am glad I experienced it, even more glad that it was only for a night but a place I am certain I would never want to return to again.
I had made it a habit on the trip to rise early to read my book in the morning, mostly outdoors, wherever I was and my most favorite experience doing that was at our accommodation near Hallstatt. The house had a nice backyard garden with a view of the distant mountains. I sat there, some sun radiating the ends of my toes, in relatively freezing temperatures, snuggled under a blanket, reading my book. It was very nice. I have the twinklies now just thinking about it. Many people may remember Mozart’s house or Mirabell Palace but I will always remember these little intimate moments more than the big tourist attractions. I basically travel for them.
People have asked me what I thought of Austria. The
truth is, every time I do, I largely think about the time we spent away
from the city and in the outback regions of the country. I think about
the wonderful hike we had up to Lake Sandersee
in Großglockner. Our scenic walk through the Margaritzen reservoir to
get there. The spicy goulash we had at Panoramarestaurant at Kaiser
Franz-Josefs-Höhe after our hike. All the places we stopped at along the
High Alpine Road to try and take the view in.
A moment at the summit of Untersberg, when I was alone with my camera
with a view of the entire valley in front of me. Trying to take a
picture without gloves at 3 degrees C and watching my hand turn red from
the biting cold (it was fun, really). The night
walk we made from our accommodation in Heiligenblut to our dinner place
15-mins away, through streets lined with homes, dwarfed by the
mountains around them. The wonderful staff together with the two lovely
Bernese Mountain Dogs Ella and Lucy at our accommodation
at Tirol, Gasthof Badl, who gave us the first and probably only proper
warm hospitality we would receive in Austria. In a sense, our trip joy
curve was bell-shaped. It summited at the mid-point of it all before
spiking up again when we hit Budapest.