Winston Churchill Fellowship Travel Writing – 2

Friday morning started with an unexpected game of lost and found. The plan was to go across the road to a nearby cafe for breakfast. I got lost in the hallway in search of footwear. Michael told me my boots were by the front door, but I had not yet developed a concept of front or back, doors or rooms. This needed to be on the day’s priority to-do list. Learn the flat.

The café offered fresh fruit and yoghurt and a large array of cakes, breads and cheese. Michael observed that people outside were enjoying what looked like pie for breakfast. While discovering a variety of fruits on a long spoon, I concluded that I would need to be quite selective in my approach to the city, choosing one experience to give me a better overview, and then three to four to focus on in detail. I decided a walk up the hills would enable me to have the entire city described, and help me understand the larger geography surrounding Freiberg.

I’d had an image in my mind of a hill, a nice gently sloping hill. Wrong. This was what I’d call a mountain, a small mountain, thick with woodland and wildlife. It was beautiful, with nature’s great calm, but so unexpected and surprisingly close to urban busy.

After fifty minutes, Michael and I stopped and enjoyed a rest in a hillside café.  While there, he described the full wide view of Freiburg. I offered him my hand so he could use my finger and point to the different places described to us the night before. A geography started to structure.

Sitting high above reminded me of so many high places I’ve visited as a sighted person. I remembered the breath-taking view atop Sunshine mountain in British Columbia, the spectacular trees and greenery of Mount Royal in Montreal, the long distant urban sprawl seen from the CN tower, the Statue of Liberty from the Twin Towers, the high and awesome scale of the monument to Peter the First in St. Petersburg, which I climbed, and the angelic glitter of sunlight off San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate bridge. These intense memories of seeing can sometimes feel overwhelming. I’m reminded of a former world and at times feel separated from it like one deported.

In the same instance I feel gratitude for seeing many places and images which I call extraordinary.

Once down the hill, I wanted to get inside the Minster. I imagined the inside would instantly seduce and ignite my senses.  Michael led me to a door, which felt thick and ominous.  Within seconds of entering, a smell of stone and incense curled around me, and my listening reached high and wide. A choir was rehearsing while we walked the perimeters, a gift to the ears that holds one still and breathless.

I breathed the air – clear, clean and somehow inspiring.

We spent at least an hour walking and listening, touching stone carvings, the textures on the walls, feeling the heat off hundreds of candles. When I left I felt very present, as though my blindness had shifted. Not because Jesus touched my retinas, but because my sensorial hierarchy changed position. I felt alive, my listening, smelling and touching all finding nourishment and intrigue within this space, demoting sight as irrelevant for full pleasure.

I felt I’d returned to the bearable state of a receptive being.

Evening approached, and we set back to our flat. On my way up the stairs I discovered one side of the wall was exposed stone. It explained the slight dusty smell with an occasional wash of daffodils – Danielle liked her hanging flower baskets.

I took childlike pleasure going up the stairs hands off the railing and slapping the stone every five steps.

Being a Friday night there was a bit more noise outside my bedroom window. I reacquainted with my pillow and remembered the choir singing in the Minster. Unlike the night before, I was able to recall vivid experiences, sensorial moments of the day. And unlike the night before I no longer felt invisible.

Saturday started gently with another visit to the nearby café. There were many many more people on the streets and in the café itself. The sun was shining brightly to a temperature of twenty five degrees. According to our hostess, this was unusually warm for mid-October. I enjoyed an extension to my fruit and yoghurt and this time tried it with muesli. It had a softer, chewier texture than the London muesli.

After breakfast I returned to the flat to do some writing. While sitting in our lounge I was distracted by an increasing sound from three floors below. The street was rising with voices.

It sounded to the ear as a flooding river might look to the eye; moving, rising and coming closer. The voices were so clear and defined despite the masses, which I suspect was due to a complete absence of traffic. The only non-human sound in the distance was an occasional whir of an airplane overhead.  I did wish I could speak German at this point, because the eavesdropping potential was incredible.

In the afternoon Michael and I ventured out into the Saturday crowd. Buskers played on every corner; a hulk, a ukulele, a guitar, a violin, an opera singer and accordion. As I walked, white stick in hand, loving the soundscape, I observed that not one person had failed to notice I was sight impaired and slammed into me. Unlike other cities I’ve walked through, these Frei burgers obviously look out.

I asked Michael to take me to a mosaic. I wanted to understand them, their size, shape and arrangement of colour. Every shop had one, out front of its door, set into the cobblestones. Each was a picture of what the shop offered. A restaurant for example had a pig, a jewellers a diamond, the shoe shop had, yes, a boot, and the pharmacy had what looked like the cup of an apothecary. Not all pictures coincided, as some shops had changed in recent times. But I was struck by just how many had remained the same. My favourite mosaic was that of a large foaming beer mug in front of a health food shop. I crouched down, and felt it, all of it, while Michael described.

Next was a visit to the wine tasting café. We tried five different selections from the region, in white and rose. There wasn’t a bad taste amongst them, and none were overly sweet.  In the warm sunshine I sipped and listened. The expanse of voices surrounding me suggested hundreds of people were nearby, on the street, the sidewalk and patio. But I didn’t feel a hint of overcrowding. These were voices with a contented melody.

That evening we dined with two lovely blind people from the Freiberg area, Vivian and Daniel.

Vivian told of her training as a member of the German blind biathalon team. She had just competed in the Sochi Olympics..  Daniel was in his late thirties and had lost his sight in an accident in his late twenties. He worked as a waiter in a restaurant where all diners eat in the dark.  He also started a social club for blind people which is how he and Vivian met and became friends. I got the impression that the club gave visually impaired people much needed social interaction and community, and redressed the risk of isolation.

Vivian described her social experience as a visually impaired young person as one that started in a segregated school.  Wanting better opportunities, she later transferred into a regular school environment made possible through support from an assistant. This support followed her through to a post-secondary apprenticeship in preparation for her current job with the local council. As for her athleticism, Vivian was training every day with dreams of a medal in either cross country skiing or the biathlon in the next winter Olympics.

The dining ended with complimentary after dinner liqueurs. Daniel set off on a bus and Michael and I walked Vivian to a pub where she met friends. I reflected on our evening. I felt a real connection between myself, Vivian and Daniel, and a shared need for this. Thinking about Vivian’s school story, it also seemed clear that our need for shared connection is as strong as the need for access to the wider world, with all its choices and entitlements. Somehow a balance of both is what we reach for.

On our final Freiburg morning, Michael and I again met Vivian, this time with her family. Together we shared an excursion of the city. They knew where the most interesting tactile landmarks could be found, and most unusual sounds. Vivian led me between buildings and under stone arches, over a little bridge and to the tower bell. She also told us of the legend of Freiberg which suggests that visitors who find their feet in the Bächle waters, will have to marry a Freiberger. My feet remained dry.

That afternoon we boarded a train for Heidelberg.

Negotiating bags and ourselves proved a bit tricky once we stepped into the carriage. To my surprise, nobody offered to help us despite clearly being in need. Finding a seat together was also difficult.  Michael assisted me to a place and explained that he had tried to ask people to move handbags or briefcases from empty seats to allow us space, but nobody would clear things away. We travelled apart. As I sat listening to the clack of the train and wondering what was on view out the window, my mind again travelled to train journeys once taken with sight. Does my mind immediately gravitate to the seeing past when I find I’ve fallen into a sensorial void?

Come back on April 22nd for the next installment