It’s our first night in Strasbourg, and I’ve still got rucksack with me. We’re sitting in a bar, the same bar from which I’m writing now, watching as a friend’s friend opens his birthday gifts, and I’m going a bit mad.
I’m hungry. We traveled all day. I’m tired. I just left a city I love.
That must be it, I tell myself. I’m just tired and hungry and I’ve been traveling and I’ve some sorrow, and
it’s all fucking war.
I see them, preparing. I see the fire on the water. I feel the blast of heat. Crows eat out the eyes, indifferent to the suffering of innocent or guilty.
I turn to Alley.
“You, uh…you hearing her?”
She nods. “Fuck, She’s loud.”
I feel a little better, but not better, but not worse, anyway.
We’re drinking in the crossroads of war, not our war, not even war here,
There’s no way I can tell you what it was like to leave him.
We woke really early, and I tried not to wake him until it was time. But he was awake, there, sitting outside in his garden soon after I made my tea. She slept a little longer, later to say “I saw both your sadness, and so I gave the space for it.”
I saw her sadness, too.
Alley and I hefted our bags onto our backs, bade fare well to the Witch of Rennes, and trudged through the early morning stillness to the gare routière (the bus station). Train travel has been very expensive this summer because of the strikes, so we’ve used lots long-distance buses and covoitures (car shares) to get from city to city.
It’s 4 hours from Rennes to Strasbourg by train, but 12 hours by bus; I bought us tickets to split the difference: bus to Rennes, train to Strasbourg.
So we boarded a bus to Paris early in the morning, after bidding farewell to Rennes and its Witch. Alley and I were both sad, and grumpy with each other, a matter which deserves a few words.
For over a month, Alley and I traveled together with fewer troubles than I’d ever had traveling that long with a lover. Sleeping in an airport, sitting together in tight spaces on buses and in the back seats of cars for long periods. Trudging long distances to camp sites and room rentals. Hiking up a mountain and realising we’d run out of water by the top with another 5 hours to go. Sharing small beds and an even smaller tent.
We always wanted to photograph the same things–never the things other people wanted to photograph, but always remarkably what the other person was noticing at the moment. We’d stumble over each other, suddenly noticing how redundant it would be if we both posted identical images.
Worse, we’re both writers, and write about the same things. We like the same stuff, we draw inspiration from the same wells, the same magic, the same resistance.
Yet only a few times do I remember us beginning to wear thin on the other. Minor battles of will over what we’d cook for dinner, about whether or not we were carrying too much stuff or one was walking slower than the other. Was the other spending too much time talking to people back home rather than experiencing the now? Was the other being too overbearing?
For thirty days of travel together, we got on frightfully well.
We arrived in Paris a little after noon. I’d just that morning found out a good friend from Seattle was arriving into Paris by plane before heading off to Berlin that day–I sent him a message, and we were all able to meet together for a few hours in the east-bound train station, a crossroads if there ever is one.
He was going to Berlin for the first time, and I smiled, remembering how I’d told him he’d love the place when he and I had first met. I also remembered my own first time, more formative to my soul–and sexuality–than any other event in my life. To be able to greet him in France on his way to Berlin while Alley and I were likewise in-between places was pretty profound and reminded me of something about myself I’d somehow forgotten.
I am often standing at the gates of other people’s experiences, greeting them as a guide.
You can’t plan such events, only learn to recognise them when they arise and act accordingly. Give attention to the threads around you, refuse to insist that the gods make things clear, that a dogma and blueprint be forged far ahead of others initiations and you’ll find yourself standing where you are needed.
Of course, you’re not just needed, but you need it as well. The joy or sorrow on another’s face, the trembling ecstasy of their body or the fierce moments of otherworldly power you midwife into the world aren’t just for them, but also for you. You become more yourself, which is also more others and Other, able to weave or unknot the threads of others and of your own.
We parted Paris by train on the TGV, traveling at over 100 miles an hour without sensation of movement towards another crossroads, Strasbourg. High-speed rail is brilliant, and much less damaging to the earth than automobiles. I’ve elsewhere railed against the absurd position of Americans regarding cars, and there’s no argument that will ever persuade them, so I won’t bother.
We arrived in the station near ten in the evening, where my oldest friend in Europe met us.
Returning to the Place You Return, June 20
Three years ago, I wrote about arriving in Strasbourg after Bretagne to be met by my friend Duf. That time, I’d been camping alone for four weeks in Carnac, Rennes, and Quimper, hiking mountains, following ancient paths and wandering cities at night like a ghost. That first time, I’d be constantly covered in leaves and grass from laying so long upon the earth away from others. There was once a twig caught in my beard, and I’d long ceased attempting to keep my fingernails clean.
Arriving in Strasbourg that first time felt like I’d stumbled out of a forest and seen my first city in decades. I’d had trouble adjusting to being inside, difficulty falling asleep to city sounds. Walls made me uncomfortable, and electricity. Duf had been quite patient with me then.
This time, I was better adjusted to the idea of ‘city,’ but I was in a different kind of shock.
I heard them immediately when we arrived. The land in Rennes is different, charged, active. You can’t ground yourself into the earth in Rennes: Alley and I both tried and had the same experience, the land sending more energy back into you than you try to ground into it. In Rennes, you ground in the river, or in the trees, off the earth a little bit, in things which know how to do it better. But grounding into the river is a different matter all its own, since the entire Vilaine was a worship site of Taranis. No temples or shrines, nothing man-made, and so nothing that the empires of Rome could later build over and claim for their own imperial religions, be that the Roman state religion or the Catholic Church.
Because of the river and because of its history of resistance to Empire, Rennes feels less like civilization and more like an ancient, primal forest. The gods are mostly undisturbed, the Dead and the Korrigan are more sovereign and thus also less at war with the humans who live there.
Strasbourg’s a different matter altogether. It’s a crossroads not just in the Other but in this world, and one that has seen very little else but war for centuries. It was a Celtic township in 1300 BC, later conquered by the Romans, then retaken by the Alemanni, then by the Franks, then ruled independently for hundreds of years until the king of France took it, then the Prussians, then France again, then the Germans, then France again, then the Nazis, then France again.
It was the site of the largest slaughter of Jews in France after the Black Plague, as well as one of the largest sites of the Dancing Sickness. Gutenberg started his press there, Calvin hid there for a little while. And now? It’s the site of the Parliament of the European Union, another occupation, and one that neither Alley nor I could ignore while we there with the impending Brexit vote.
Strasbourg is also an unquiet city, in an unquiet land. To the south-east are ancient pagan fortifications surrounding Mont Sainte Odile, which I visited last time I was in Alsace. And further south (through Switzerland) is the only known inscription to the goddess Cathobodua, whose voice both Alley and I heard the first night we arrived.
At The Crossroads of Summer, June 21st
I could hear other gods in Strasbourg, too, especially on the Solstice. In all of France, the solstice is celebrated with live music in every city, even many small towns participating. There’s nothing comparable in the United States: though of course some cities do small city-wide celebrations for the summer solstice, none are national, and none that I’ve ever attended are so brutally real.
I wandered the streets alone that night, as Alley had taken a bit ill with all the magic. I’d noticed a change in her since we left Rennes, and I’d been particularly aware that most of the messages we were both hearing from Cathobodua and the Dead of Strasbourg were particularly for her, not me. That first night, it was I who mentioned her by name to Alley. We’d been sitting quite close together in a tavern, and we were both unsettled by what we were hearing. But Other voices warning of war aren’t particularly interesting to me–I’ve seen enough to know how things are crumbling, and I’m more interested in awakening hope against fear.
Then again, I’ve got more time in Europe before I officially return; Alley was leaving in a few days, and there were things she needed to hear before she left.
So I wandered the streets alone, but not alone, watching the faces of the revelers, listening to what was behind the music echoing off ancient stone. In front of the Cathedral of Strasbourg I let myself open into the ecstasy of others as drums played, as humans and other-than-humans danced together, Drum beat from skin echoing against stone back to skin, torchlight and smoke and bodies released into what they can be, not what they are civilized to be.
I’d seen it before, but not like this. I’d seen Dionysos dancing amongst people, but not in a place like this.
An exchange with some Americans on the internet that evening still amuses me. An essay had been posted on Gods&Radicals where the author suggested a Dionysian Naturalism. A detractor protested: how dare others invoke Dionysos that way?
I’ve seen his name scrawled by rebels as grafitti on churches built over ancient Pagan sites. I’ve seen his dead dance through crowded bars shifting the laughter of the inebriated into a chorus they likely don’t recognise but join regardless. I’ve seen him suddenly arise in trees, later arising in the death of a madman, later arising again in the soul’s eventual exit from the torment of suicide.
Like the other gods I’ve met, they don’t stay caged in our terms and insistence, any more than humans do.
It’s hard not to grieve for the pain of those for whom a god cannot be anything else but what they know that god to be. A tree whose branches cannot sway snaps at the slightest wind, and it’s’ the temperance of metal which causes the sword not to shatter when wielded. In a fall, the bones of a tensed body can break.
“Would it not be better if we were to stretch into ourselves like felines?” Peter Grey asks, and is that not also how anything grows? The muscle always tensed becomes useless, the heart defended by castle walls will never dare to love, the soul constantly defending borders will never take flight in travel, and the mind that entrenches will never learn to dance.
When First We Met Here (interlude)
Duf dug out some old photos of my first time in Strasbourg.
That’s me on the left, yeah.
Here’s one that I’ve looked at repeatedly for more than a decade, curiously.
And one we took that day.
I’m not sure I feel much different from then. Smarter, certainly. More powerful. Much more the sort of guy I’d prefer to fuck, actually, which–of course, is a good measure of being.
Actually, I remember my body quite well from those years. Always awkward, always uncertain, never quite comfortable with what it could do, and rarely comfortable with what it wanted to do. Last year, a friend of mine, an iniatrix of sorts, urged me to become the body that could embody the magic I experienced. It’s a truth I’m still unraveling.
Another Parting at a Crossroads (June 22nd)
Alley left this morning. headed first to one German city and then another, from which she was to fly back to the States.
That was sad.
We walked to the station together, trying to laugh about all that we’d seen. But she was going back to America, and America is awful.
The day before, we’d made a video together, after meeting with a friend of Duf’s from the States fortunate enough to live now in France. Though from radically different backgrounds and areas, we’d all taken to each other immediately, particularly in our shared bemusement about what we once thought was ‘freedom, and our mutual embarrassment at tourists from our homeland.
12 years before, Duf and I, along with a former lover, and one of her friends, would sit together on the steps of the Cathedral making fun of the American tourists we’d hear. You could pick their voices out without any effort–Americans are fucking loud, much louder than other tourists, and completely unaware of the spirit of a place.
One such day, we’d witnessed what has become an almost archetypal experience. A teen-aged girl shouted at her father from across a massive square in front of the Cathedral, her voice louder than the musicians playing ancient instruments for a gathered crowd.
“Dad! Dad,” she squealed, oblivious that she’d caught the attention of hundreds of others.
“Hey!” the father bellowed back. “Where’d you guys go?”
Not waiting to close 100 feet or so between them, the mother responded. “We went to Hagan Daz for ice-cream. They even speak English there!”
One sees such things often in France. When people ask if the French are rude to American tourists, I usually answer indirectly, recounting that incident, or many others I’ve seen.
The day we’d made the video, we’d heard many Americans being perfect charicatures of themselves, and anyway, Alley was a bit depressed about leaving and I wanted to cheer her up:
I watched that video after Alley left the train station. We were both staving back tears as we parted, which made her laughter that much more satisfying to watch.
Alley leaving marked a change in my journey, one I’m still adjusting to. Things you forget that are good about traveling with another get remembered quickly when they’re gone, like having someone to watch your bags for a moment while you go piss. Also, we’d had an entire month of a shared narrative, one which suddenly ended when I watched her train leave.
And I’ve another two months here.
The Crossroads of Europe (June 23rd)
There was a heatwave in Strasbourg that started a little after Alley left and remained until I left. The weather in Rennes is moderate most of the year, benefitting from the same air and water currents as Great Britain and Ireland. It was really a bit too hot to do anything, but there was also a protest march against the Loi Travail.
I especially wanted to see what the difference would be between the protestors in Strasbourg and those in Rennes. Rennes is heavily anarchist, while Strasbourg has many more communist-leaning people. But Strasbourg also has a large Fascist movement, both through the officially non-Fascist (but pretty damn close) Front National and many more overt neo-Nazi groups. There’s anti-immigrant and white-supremacist graffiti everywhere, but still much less than the revolutionary calls put up by leftists.
Leftists in Strasbourg have another problem, though. Because the city is also the seat of the European Parliament and has been named as a target of terrorism, the police and military presence is massive. Just two blocks away from my friend’s house were several heavily-armed anti-terrorist soldiers, stationed inside a protestant church next to a school. I’d pass them daily on my path to walk her dog; he’d shit within view of their assault rifles.
In such a climate, the protest was small relative to what’s occurred in all the other major cities in France. A car tried to drive through the march but was stopped by a group of anarchists; tourists snapped photos and took video while a band played anti-capitalist renditions of popular songs, including Dolly Parton’s Jolene. Van after van full of police lined the streets around the place the march started, as I’d seen in Nantes and Rennes the week before.
If anything, though, the presence of so many police indicates how seriously concerned the government is here of the movement against the Loi Travail. Just as in Black Lives Matters protests in the United States, the State sends an overwhelming show of force against the protestors to make sure they know how readily they’d consider a violent response if things get out of hand.
It’d been mentioned repeatedly by friends in Rennes that the French government had placed most of their police presence in cities where the Euro Cup is taking place not around the games themselves, but in leftist and immigrant neighbourhoods, lest those latter groups attempt to disrupt the games. So, in Marseilles a few weeks ago, there were very few police to prevent the damage caused by rioting English and Russian soccer fans because their violence does not threaten the government.
Of course, it’s always the same anywhere. France is only different from the other countries where I’ve lived on account of the bold resistance to the police state.( I’ll be writing more about that in my next piece on Gods&Radicals.)
Choosing a Direction, and Leaving (June 24th)
I spent most of my last morning in Strasbourg writing in the only cafe I’ve yet found in France which makes a latté, the sort to which I’d become a bit addicted in Seattle. Alley and I had spent quite a bit of time there, over-caffeinated and thus drunk on thoughts, so it was a bit odd to sit there without her.
Admittedly, I miss traveling with her. I’ve traveled plenty of times alone, and generally prefer it, but as I told her when she parted, she’d helped me see the deep radicalism in France that I’d only glimpsed the other two times I’ve been here. It helps, certainly, that I watched her read Tarot for activists at an anarchist bar, or that she’d come back to our temporary lodging laden with communist and anti-capitalist posters, t-shirts, stickers and flyers.
I’ve traveled alone plenty of times, and I love it, but this time felt a little different. The world, actually, seems different–America’s hard-right turn a near inescapable inevitability, the UK’s exit from the European Union signalling a major shift in the political balance of nation-states. The massacre in Orlando, and in Oaxaca, as well as the radical re-structuring in many Pagan groups in the States: all this suggests that the world I have known is changing faster than I can usually track.
I’m not sure what I’ll return in North America, if I ever return.
There are storms in all the crossroads, obscuring our view.. Duf and I watched the results of the Brexit poll on the French news, which had little to say about Oaxaca, and only a little regarding the resistance to the French State the day before. It all seemed both far away and awfully close, while all the other violence in the world faded from the view of the public.
There are storms in all the crossroads, and some obscured my own view.
Almost two years ago now, I got an email from a friend. “I saw you,” he’d said. “Five times or so, wandering around Dublin.” And then he’d told me he put my name into the 30,000+ person lottery to be one of 50 people inside Newgrange for Winter Solstice, a small chance indeed.
And then he really saw me in Dublin, and we were inside Newgrange together as a strange sun dawned through those stones.
Before Alley and I left Toulouse for Rennes, he saw me laughing in a crypt through which a hole had opened into a modern city. And I knew what that meant, and laughed from that crypt in Rennes with another voice.
Just before I left Strasbourg, I asked him a question. I’d decided to return to Bretagne for awhile, shifting my original plans to head east back into the northwest. From the storms in the crossroads I could not see clearly, but he sent me an image from one of my own dreams with a message.
“An assembly of gods.”
I packed my rucksack, put on clean clothes, and Duf walked together to a friend’s for dinner. A storm threatened, black, lightning streaking from cloud to cloud but never touching ground. I thought on what Cathobodua had been telling Alley and I as I watched ravens scream over the Pont Corbeau before the storm hit. I though on Taranis–I was on my way to his river again.
And I thought of all the other gods I’ve known, too big to fit on altars or shrines, too wild to pinned down in image or in book.
All the gods that slip from your fingers when you try to grasp them, but take your hand when you offer it.
All the gods who flow like rivers and destroy dams, who surge like the tide and upend cities.
Gods who do not come when called, but echo back when you hope to be heard.
Gods you climb mountains for, hang from cliffsides to talk to, sleep in cornfields to hide from.
Gods who wail in the shouts of heretics and revolutionaries, who jeer back on the faces of tortured witches and murdered dissidents.
Gods who whisper in the moans of the dying addicts, who groan in the crash of clear-cut forests.
Gods who arise when we assemble against the racist and the fascist, gods who descend when we shout grief to the skies.
Through the storm at the crossroads I heard them call, and I’ve gone to find out what they’d like to say.
Previous Pilgrimage Journals:
Can You Tell Me How To Get? (Brooklyn: May 10th-12th)
Across Water Are Other Memories (Manchester, May 12-13th)
What We Are Becoming, Waiting (Shrophire, May 13th-15th)
A Language of Growling Earth (Bristol, Bath, May 15th-May 18th)
An American Exorcism (Cardiff, London May 19th-May 22nd)
We Are Bodies, Desiring (Marseilles, Arles, May 23-May 27)
We Headless Ones, Speaking (Perpignan, Pyrenees, Toulouse May 28-June 3)
When Magic Wakes, And Laughs (Rennes, June 3-June 19)