Nighttime casts the simple in the role of the sublime, upstaging reality’s part in the production.
It was strange enough to experience Taiwan without parents, but to be in the care of a host family exploring a Confucius temple in my pajamas was all too surreal. Dreams and nighttime are naturally associated, and it is in a dream perspective that I remember many awe-filled and lonely evenings. The memories of my Taiwan experience, a two week winter extension of a summer camp for gifted children in South Dakota, are frayed at the edges. The face of my host father is lost to me, and the only detail still clear to me now was the daughter’s need to complete her French homework — her third language, a detail which put my linguistic ignorance to shame. The mother had asked if I wanted any clothes washed, and I volunteered everything I’d packed after changing into pajamas. I assumed I was done with cross-cultural experiences for the night, a reality shifting mistake.
The air was cool but heavy with Taiwan’s promise of rain. The ground was gravel and what pavement there was was uneven, but memory has repaved that night’s real cobblestone with more recent, European stones. Two temples were visited that evening, and my trepidation as the host father swung open the door of the second stays clear. We pushed our way into a sanctuary ablaze with candles and scented with imposing sticks of incense, and I felt alienated by this holy encounter. A short, fat, fifteen-year-old white kid from the Midwest was wholly out of place in Taiwan, even when not half asleep in his pajamas in a place of worship. Perhaps my discomfort was due in part to Taiwan’s harsh reality as target practice for Chinese missiles. America does not officially recognize Taiwan as a country, yet there I was experiencing my first time as a cultural and racial minority in a land not saturated with tourists.
A few nights later on the technical edge of the new millennium, I found myself amidst my own continuing fears of apocalypse and crowds of hundreds of thousands in Taipei, Taiwan. A man offered to buy a few girls in our group as a jump start to his new year which was our cue to bunny hop in single file away from the main celebrations. We were an absurdist splash of brown and blond dots following a trail of leading black in a wider, raven sea. I spent the rest of the night perched on a fountain at a Taiwanese high school, talking to no one and watching fireworks in the distance. In the grand sense I was at peace, yet I still felt cheated by my isolation. Others in the group were discovering alcohol at a distant TGI Friday’s. I was left alone, alongside a group of my peers to wallow in my own reflections while they wallowed in their want for alcohol.
Nighttime is often my most dominating memory of a trip; it is the spectacular set piece, the rising action in the play, the last song in a musical. I was only eleven when I visited Egypt, something I am unsure if I should be thankful for the experience or regret I couldn’t appreciate it maturely. I remember the trip, yet I rarely think of it. My nighttime experiences there were some of my first surreal memories. Near midnight in a private resort town outside of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, I remember huddling together with my sister in our bed as my father pounded the wall with a towel to kill mosquitoes in the next room. My sister and I curled up, fearing not only malaria, but also the rats that’d invaded our borrowed flat.
Another night on a guided tour of Karnak Temple, a woman fainted from the heat that even desert night had not granted reprieve. I see the parting of the crowds as she fell backwards, slowly, as if she were drowning. Someone must have caught her against a backdrop of crumbling pillars emblazoned with hieroglyphs, but like the intricacies of the Confucius temples in Taiwan, the details are now hazy. One last evening recollection of Egypt is set on the balcony of the Mina Palace Hotel in Cairo. From there my family could see the Pyramids, and we watched in amazement as nightly laser lights show danced across the theater of the sky. The night air was cool and refreshing; night air is often cool and refreshing. My nighttime memories are filled with these atmospheric clichés, yet I cannot clearly separate and describe just how the air clung to my skin as I watched a technicolor projection of a ship paddling across the Nile. This technological laser light show fad of the nineties seems ridiculous now, as if the Pyramids are not impressive enough, but at that age I was upset we were not there, experiencing the event and hearing its soundtrack from an even closer vantage point. The logic of an eleven year old failed to account for all of the other beautiful, college fund depriving excesses of the trip.
Seven years later with thoughts of Egypt buried, I discovered the beauty of an empty main street in Aberdeen, SD covered in snow on New Year’s Eve. Prior to that night I often missed the point in South Dakota; I still do. That night I was fully taken with my friends and found peace in my surroundings. I attach great stigma to my birthplace, but I cannot find fault with a group of teenagers experiencing snow as if it were their first time. Self-destructive and prone to depression, we made snow angels in the street. Dream memory here erases the self; I cannot see where I relate to the events on that street iconic of small towns worldwide and Jimmy Stuart’s resolve not to die. In memory, I drift almost as lightly as the snow amongst other free and joyous bodies, spotlighting their actions. That night I feared I was beginning to understand what so many Midwestern writers cling to — “a sense of place.” This “sense” derives from the point I discovered that night; it is often the people that make the experience in an otherwise uninspired landscape.
New Year’s two years later was the third act in a sublime play of New Year celebrations marking the coming odd year. Rome was alive with explosions, and everywhere Italian youths threw festive dynamite, making the occasion feel like a desperate celebration in a warzone. My apocalyptic fears once again renewed. I was in this ancient city with the first friend from home I had seen in months; a boy who was the latest source of endless issues; and his friend from home. We finished an amazing meal of pizza, pasta, and bread and an even more amazing Tiramisu to which life now pales in comparison to. After leaving the restaurant, the boy I was obsessing over became casualty to urban warfare, his leg being hit by the shrapnel of a celebratory firecracker. We decided to escape the area of Roma Termini and find a bar, quick. Never has it been so hard to find drink on New Year’s. We eventually gave up and took refuge in an overpriced snack bar inside Termini. My friend from home was the only one successful in getting drunk, and by 11:00 both she and the obsession’s visiting friend were tired. They retired to their respective hostels, and the obsession and I set off in search of life-altering splendor on New Year’s amongst the encroaching sounds of small explosives. Walking towards the Forum, we entered a barricaded side street and discovered an open air concert. There we counted down the seconds until 2005, and when the time came, a combined arsenal of firecrackers, champagne poppers, and imagined car bombs all crescendoed at once.
Following the celebration we set off in different directions, the obsession in search of the Colosseum, and I in search of myself. This is a poetic lie, for we were headed in the same direction, I am just prone to metaphor. We passed the remains of several celebrations on our way to Rome’s icon, an overpriced train wreck of a tourist attraction re-ruined by renovations and archaeologists but pretty and colossal regardless. I felt alone with my awe that night in Rome, yet I was intensely aware of the obsession’s presence next to me. When I travel alone, I wish for someone alongside me especially at night, sharing in the experience. My own thoughts play a weak second fiddle. The obsession and I conversed sparingly; we did not need conversation, which is to say I think he enjoyed the silence, and I tried to keep quiet.
A few nights later I found myself alone with my thoughts and my visiting friend in Venice, the city of love. Love not for a friend has never been with me on these otherwise amorous nights, an issue Venice could only accentuate. I was amazed by how a city overwhelmed with tourists in daylight could become my own after dark. Its pavement was as empty as its canals were still, and all that stirred were the friend and I, lost in the winding corridors of Venice and ourselves. We eventually found our way back to the hostel, but both our searches go on for the greater endpoints in our journey.
When I visited Prague my expectations were not fully met; I wanted a whimsical five act play but found only a one act show. Walking on Prague Castle’s terraces at dusk in December, I believed I had found “my” Prague, but it was an unstable victory. Prague presented me with a conundrum; it is a city of beauty, but I was unmoved. Licensed civic merchandise proclaims “Kafka wandered these streets,” yet I did not feel his dark, isolating surrealism in Prague. Nighttime adds romance to places I visit, but it does not explain them further. Mysteries escape my grasp and grow. Even if I could arrive at some meaning on sublime nights, the readings would be false. Dream logic does not apply to the waking world. Perhaps my experience with Prague is marred by an incomplete nighttime experience; did I leave before intermission? My vista above the city was breathtaking at dusk, but I was asleep at midnight. I went on one of the city’s ghost tours, but even the supernatural could not win my admiration.
Despite my inability to connect to Prague, I found the surreal performance I was looking for two months later on a winter’s night in Berlin. Walking amongst the untouched snow which clung to dirty pavement in a deserted east Berlin filled me with awe. I was once again in the isolating presence of the obsession. While the past New Year’s had been an exercise in outrageous excess, this night was an experiment in subdued minimalism. It made me want to spin around with arms outstretched and collapse. I did this in the Lustgarten, a modest city green tucked under a bleached down of fresh snow. As I spun, my vision filled with monuments on all sides: to the north the Berlin National Gallery, to the east Berliner Dom, to the south across Under Den Linden the DDR Parliament building, and to the west the bank of the Spree. I was amazed by how much there was to see on the eastern side of Berlin. The communists may have crushed up the old Prussian palaces to build their ugly Deutsche Demokratik Republik parliament, but they left the paradoxical Protestant Cathedral and museums untouched. Following this dizzy blur of history, the obsession and I strolled along snowy Unter Den Linden, Berlin’s main boulevard, and marveled that things were still open. England changes one’s world view of “late.” Arriving at the Brandenburg Tor I was again forced to spin around and collapse. I forgot to bring my camera, but the cool stillness of the evening freezes images in my head I could not have captured any other way. The living image of the Brandenburg Tor, larger than any picture frame or canvas, will stay with me, not some detached sunshine version sold on postcards.
Somehow snow makes things feel more secure. I doubt my paranoia would have allowed such wanderings on the back streets of Berlin otherwise. The orange ambiance of the night made Berlin’s wooded city park especially dream-like. A lurking fountain set behind the trees appeared to possess moving figures. In this forest, I later learned, Vladimir Nabokov encountered a stranded bathtub amongst other refuse in a pre-World War II Berlin.
My silent trek continued past the soon to be opened Holocaust memorial made eerily poignant by the snow, through the failed bit of city planning known as the Sony Plaza, past the seat of Berlin city government, alongside the last standing bits of the Wall, through Checkpoint Charlie, past the Luftwaffe Headquarters, and around so much more, somehow seeing almost all of the Berlin sites in one late night journey on foot. We had come full circle and arrived back at the Lustgarten where we were faced by the unexplained sight of rave lights in the Berliner Dom’s cupola. Pausing to observe the strobing colors dancing across the windows, the obsession and I thought we might have heard music, but one does not really hear the ocean inside a seashell. We stared for a while longer, pondering the aberration which would be more at home in a dream. We even circled the building in attempts to find an open door or foot prints. I wondered what Martin Luther would have thought of the whole ordeal.
Some nights, I think, are meant to be simple acts of beauty, adventure, and confusion. Nights are the playgrounds of dream, which allow the false logic of dreams to escape into reality. My experiences in the twilight are often much stranger than my dreams. I dream of mundane days at school yet wander at night pajama-clad and in a state of waking disbelief.
Before venturing back to the hostel, I saw a statue of a woman in front of the Berliner Dom wink, and all I could do was blink and rub my already open eyes in response. No alarm clock rang out to interrupt the vision, for I was already awake.
This piece was originally written in 2005 for Art of the Memoir, a creative writing course I took my sophomore year of college while studying abroad in Birmingham, England. I was proud of it at the time, but now quite a few sentences scream PRETENSION! and cause me to cringe when re-reading it. In the indomitable spirit of George Lucas and making something awful, I’ve attempted to edit out some of the worst bits to see how much less cringe-worthy I can make it.
Read the un-edited version here.