Article 25

A Ride in Croatia

In Uncategorized on 10/10/2016 at 10:30 am


Clock in Vodjnan Square, in Croatia. Drawing by Steven Paul Lansky.

Of writing, riding and setting things right

By Steven Paul Lansky

I sit outside the sidewalk café Fondaco in Vodjnan square, a small village in Istria where I sketched the other day.

I’ve been reading Natalie Goldberg from The Great Spring, where she talks openly about her celebrity in New Mexico. She tells in another chapter of talking with me, crying together while my Aunt Katie, to Natalie, Katherine Thanas was dying in Santa Cruz, Cal. – when I took a Sit, Walk, Write workshop at Ferme Villefavard in central France in 2012. Four years ago next month. Katie had been a painter who studied with Richard Diebenkorn before turning to Zen and eventually becoming an abbot.

\‘Difficult friends’

I’ve just ridden five miles or so, the most I’ve cycled this year. On a borrowed bike in the cool morning breeze – first coasting alongside a hand-hewn rock wall that reminded me of Joe Enzweiler’s, who died of brain cancer in Kentucky a few years ago. Joe, a poet and Cincinnatian, had built such walls in Northern Kentucky and lived in a cabin in Alaska, wintering south, summering north, not unlike me these days – some in Ontario, others in the tropics and Ohio.

Joe and I were difficult friends. I don’t know why, but he rubbed me wrong back when we took workshops in poetry from another Cincinnati poet and essayist, Dick Hague, someone I seem to let down, then support, let down, then support. Dick loved Joe as a poet and pool shooting, beer-drinking prophet. Joe seemed a sort of golden boy in Appalachian poetry circles. I envied him, was drawn to him, but never felt satisfied with his responses that I received as dismissive.

It rained when I got to the shore of the Adriatic. I ate my banana and peach, then had a lunch served by Slavko, a shaved-headed policeman turned waiter who complained that, in Croatia, Americans didn’t tip.

“Don’t they tip in America?” he asked.

I lent him an Allen key to replace a door handle on his shed from my borrowed bike’s tool kit. I teased him, “Now you owe me a tip.” He held a straight face, ignoring my remark. He set an umbrella for me, shelter from the rain, one of several kindnesses he did for me. The cook grilled fresh calamari, boiled potatoes in salty butter and parsley.

As I write this, a group of German tourists listen to a man lecture on the square as seven Harley Davidsons brumble slowly past. I’m part of the scenery to the Germans. Meanwhile some kids draw with big sidewalk chalk, eating push-up popsicles on the hastily erected bandstand that wasn’t here yesterday.

Seventeen-year ride

Natalie loved Aunt Katie and described me as a burly pony-tailed man who had studied with her before, quoted me, remembered a conversation that Katie had regretted, and recounted about a coat. Even now, I’m not sure which coat I carried – which coat they carried. I guess Zen monks get concerned about colorful appearances – mixed messages abound. These two had ego attachment to being noticed, and then criticism of that notoriety, as if it is better not to stand out, but to try to change those that do.

There is a spoken blending that monks aspire to while wearing black or brown robes, shaving their heads and appearing in the foreground and background simultaneously. This is ego suppression, a subtle dance with non-appearance, or a need to be different.

What’s weird to me, as I sit here, a man rode up on a 29 inch wheel bicycle, leaned it against the salmon-painted stucco wall next to me, sat in his cycling kit with American and European company logos, cleated shoes, and no gloves – the helmet glistening. I knew him right away: Lance Armstrong or the dapperist doppelganger this side of Austin, Texas. I read to my mother from his book, It’s Not About the Bike as she died of cancer, a painful, slow process that tore me apart in 2002.

Now, disgraced in sport, Lance and I share in common a difficult time. Mine has been attributed to schizophrenia when I committed small crimes in my youth, once threatening my mother over marijuana money after being arrested for taking a Rolls Royce for a joyride in Baltimore when I was 20. My family did not know how to handle me and marijuana. I have written a crazy audio novel about those days, Jack Acid. They farmed me out to professionals so they could maintain appearances and their stable lives. They cared, but didn’t have a clue about drug addiction when it came to their child, even though both were professional psychologists.

I ended my 17-year mystery ride with pot twenty-seven years ago. Like Lance, I was a young upcoming cyclist in my teens, with about half the physical talent he had, and without the need to climb the ladder of social status. Both Lance and I are victims of a dope culture that we didn’t understand.

Fallen idol’

Here I am in Croatia – afraid to talk to him .He sees me in indigo jeans, a denim shirt, blue jacket, making music with my pen by sketching, starting a story that makes his suffering important and my own citizen saga somehow relevant. (Citizen is another novel I have written about schizophrenia.)

The contrast and comparison of insides and outsides – the aggressive nature of drugged individuals and competition make us American. I had started at Harvard; no one could cry for me. In the 1980s I did volunteer work as a teacher, worked as a social worker in the 1990s. Since 1999 I’ve pursued a writing career, even teaching at a Midwest university. Lance is a fallen idol. I’m on the rise.

Chimney swifts circle overhead, twittering their late afternoon song, a Basset hound clicks past, her toenails long, and I hear Italian conversation from inside the café. A music filters over the voices, thin and reedy – like Joe Enzweiler’s speaking his truth as I share mine.

The church tower, visible over an ancient stone building with wrought-iron flower boxes and a lamp above the street, is the tallest in all Istria. Like Lance, for a time, for some people it led the way for a region – led them in many mistakes. The red tile rooftops, the gutters, wooden shutters, make this square a site suitable for moviemakers.

The man who bought me zeleni chai, green tea, when I sketched the tower and buildings below it, welcomed me here in Istria, regardless of my past. I don’t know his name – he calls me visitor and treats me as dobrodošli (welcome). Lance seems welcome here. Natalie Goldberg would be, too.



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