To state the obvious, it’s been forever since I’ve posted to this blog. Adding a few more bytes of binary code to the bloated digital world we call the Internet seemed futile and I moved on to other things. It didn’t help I stopped travelling the ancient streets and monuments of inspiring Europe, settling into a steady Canadian journalism job.
I’ve since come to realize a few eyes and changed perspectives is all it takes to make a web post worthwhile. Some things are too meaningful not to share. It also helps that I now live in Montreal, a city bursting with culture and history.
The other day I visited Montreal’s Museé des Beaux Arts, hosting a collection of sculpture, painting, photography and artifacts going back to the Middle Ages. Having recently read War and Peace, I naturally gravitated to the Napoleon exhibit, a collection of items from his era and the person himself. You can see the Emperor’s famous bicorne hat, complete with the tricolour cockade emblematic of the French Revolution. Napoleon wore his hat in this distinctive fashion to distinguish himself from his generals; it was certainly a success, as nothing else in the exhibit was as symbolic of Napoleon as this piece of felt.
At the end of the long hallway was a small room with circular windows on three sides looking out over Sherbrooke Street. Inside this room was a bust of Napoleon staring blankly as you approached, held up by an eagle of state. The sculpture was lit from above by warm light, a striking contrast to the dark grey sky and buildings outside.
What got me was the reflection of Napoleon in the windows. It was as if he was floating ghost-like over the street.
The ghost of Napoleon in many ways still haunts the western world. Long after his lonely life ended on the little African island of St. Helena in 1821, the earth shattering changes he and his wars imposed on Europe continue to be seen in national borders, law and government.
This is perhaps more true in Montreal and Quebec than the rest of Canada. The emperor-general’s Code became the basis for the Quebec Civil Code, manifestly different from civil law in other provinces where they are based more on British Common Law.
As a living man Napoleon already had his mind on what legacy his name would leave behind. I am sure this tyrant-saint would approve of his grave face leering over a city still under the influence of his ethos, two centuries after the Battle of Waterloo.
“Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” – Things Fall Apart, p21
I will probably write about and long for Ghana until the day I die. Sitting on that sand bar where the Volta River meets the Atlantic Ocean, no noise but waves and wind, I read your book, Achebe, and it made me want to write how you did, to capture the spirit of a people who will never be the same, a dying way of life on an imprisoned continent.
You filled me with wisdom from a time and place I never had the chance to know. And there were the demons too, the demons that haunted the evil forest, the ghosts of the twins left there to save the village from damnation. You brought them all out on that beach, under that baking African sun, for me to roll into a ball like banku, pick off piece by piece, and turn into my own.
If I followed that low, fine coastline, first east and then south, I’d come to your homeland. That gulf, with its green water crisscrossed by skinny fishing boats and fat oil tankers, the pivot around which Africa would turn. The Gulf of Guinea.
Your name is a time and a place to me, one of my best. Your book opened my eyes, cleared my throat, gave me reason to speak.
Chinua Achebe. May you see your grandfathers, and may they smile as they welcome you into their hut, to crack the kola nut, and tell stories of great victories, you pride of the village, pride of Africa.
The second part of my series on futuristic architecture is on Berlin’s Sony Center. Like a moth drawn to a bright light, I wanted to see this structure since Wikipediaing cyberpunk all those years ago.
The dome of the Sony Center glows bright and resembles a funnel, giving it the impression of a psychedelic tornado, frozen in time as it was tearing up Potsdamer Platz. The colours change every 30 seconds, causing people like me who love this stuff to tilt their necks skyward while enjoying a hot coffee in the center’s unheated square.
The Sony Center looks like a background from Blade Runner, or Johnny Mnemonic, and a dark, dystopian future has always interested me. I love Aliens, Terminator, those movies that validate the dark foreboding you feel about what is to come for us all.
Underneath the square there is a maze of tunnels and the U-Bahn isn’t far away. The whole center has the feel of a bunker, while it’s really an upscale shopping mall.
In honour of Sony Centre, I’ve created my first GIF. Watch while listening to trance music really loud to get the full effect.
Long blue lights, aluminium walkway, cables angled upwards like an X Wing. The London Millennium Bridge looks like it could have been teleported from the year 3000.
This is especially true at night when the lights glow, forming what seems like a stationary laser beam across the Thames River, a laser you can walk on.
It was once known as the “Wobbly Bridge” because it shook when people walked on it, so they closed it … for two years. The Millennium Bridge spent the first year of the new millennium as an £18 million, useless piece of metal hanging across the river.
From pitiful beginnings the bridge has become a favourite walk for tourists and locals. Taking the bridge to the north bank of the river puts you face to face with St. Paul’s Cathedral, and south leads to the Tate Modern Museum, both unmissable landmarks.
I can still hear the metallic clangs of shoes on alloy as mine and a thousand feet ahead and behind me walked along, just a few inches of thin metal separating us from the brown silted water below.
Going through my old travel photos I noticed a similarity between memorials to tragedies on opposite sides of Europe, made by different people. In the summer of 2011 I was in Dublin where I photographed the Irish Famine Memorial, a collection of statues of immigrants walking to the ships carrying passengers to North America.
Last year when I was in Prague I came upon the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the bottom of Petřín Hill. Again, the statues were thin, dark metallic figures, commemorating a tragic event in a nation’s past.
Rowan Gillespie, who made the Irish Famine memorial, had no connection to Olbram Zoubek, the sculptor of the communism memorial, as far as I can tell. I like to think they imagined similar concepts because the historic events they were memorializing were similar. There’s something chilling about the figures in Dublin and Prague. Their thinness, like walking ghosts, hopeless, desperate, among us but at the same time drawn in their own miserable worlds, as if they’re a time capsule in a transparent case, so we can all look inside.
Both are very democratic tributes to the nameless people who became victims of circumstances beyond their control. Their anonymity makes them more powerful, as if they could be anyone’s ancestor. Their metallic composition makes them strong but they’re thin and frail at the same time, like individuals who, despite the toughness of their spirit, can only overcome so much before breaking.