Farsick

“The esoteric knowledge will always be esoteric, since knowledge is an experience, not a formula” – D. H. Lawrence.

In the summer you could go up in the cable car to escape the crucible of heat that the village had become. Because Bolzano nestled at the end of the valley it could be the hottest place in Italy, even though it was its northernmost province. The sides of the mountains which circled around behind the old town collected this heat, which it absorbed into its rocky depths and then seemed to radiate with a suffuse golden haze over the town. I always thought of Bolzano as a golden place, especially when arriving from out of the mountains; and when I got off the train and stepped down onto those ever circling roman cobbles. In one place by the old path that led up to ‘Peter Ploner’ (a nice hut where, after a short hike up you could have a beer) there grew juicy cactuses, yet the wind up the top would make the pines sway, producing that lonesome mountain sigh that meant your transit to a different, snowy, alpine world, with that added hint of natural danger.

Surrounding the old town on the lower slopes of the mountains were the vineyards and the white modernist Italian type villas of the rich nestling alongside ancient stone vineyard farmhouses. Bolzano had recently been encouraged, ordered perhaps, to transform itself from a rather insulated, snobbish, quiet place into a cultural centre, especially the old village, which was really a separate entity this side of the river. Restaurants and cafes had been opened and there was a nightlife that poured onto the little streets in the evening. But it all still had a sense of this being stage managed a little bit.

For someone from my background, my new job was a kind of dream and at the same time it seemed sort of ridiculous. One minute I was down the Jobcentre in Putney, with all the charming stuff that entails, and the next minute up in a jet, commuting to work in the Italian Alps to be a professor. Sometimes I felt like an impostor; that the University had made a terrible mistake (maybe they really had) and that the Dean must have got me mixed up with someone else. My life seemed to be full of this kind of sudden alteration of status; I was familiar with it but it sometimes drove other people nuts, especially the ‘jobsworths’ of you find in authority.

At first, my route to work went from Heathrow to Munich and then by bus to Munich central station, then the train through the Alps to the Italian side of the mountains and the South Tyrol. The trains that went from Munich through the Alps were named after artists, which I thought was nice and made a change (almost everything in the United Kingdom being named after royalty). They were Italian carriages but at first they were pulled by German engines, which were red and looked like a Teutonic helmet.

It was a long train journey that, after some quite ordinary urban sprawl and some fields and dark German forests, began to engage with the smaller mountains and snake through the lower passes. Soon you could sense the scale from the parallax as the different sized mountains moved apart and away from each other so that you could see the bigger peaks that were looming behind, with snow on them.

From the aircraft before coming into land at Munich I think I saw these mountains on the horizon poking through the clouds, it made your heart ache badly. They seemed to call to me. I know it is crazy but I really had a premonition about what was going to happen, both then and earlier in my life.

Soon I was in amongst those mountains. When I was a kid I had one of those stereoscope viewers with circular slides which I loved to look through, one was of the mountains of the Alps. I remember the viewer was made of a kind of plastic that had a nice smell something like bubble gum. This was the real thing. The detail and the parallax as you glided with the train and watched the peaks shift slowly aside was awesome, but I fancied I could smell that same aroma of plastic from my childhood.

It was after a little halt called Brenner, where they changed the engine, that you noticed a subtle difference in the atmosphere and the light that meant the south.

I liked Brenner. It was so obviously a kind of outpost, a border place. Mountains were all round it ringing the tracks where, in the winter, long low carriages would stand with lorry containers on them, all with their adverts on their flat sides like some kind of big open air modern art exhibition. There was a little café on the platform with a yellow film half over its window which I always wanted to go into but never did because the stop was not long enough and I was afraid the train would leave without me. I hardly ever had any spare money on these trips, given I always had to pay in advance and claim it back as expenses, and you do not feel you can take chances like that.

The German or Austrian students spoke English as if they were born there, while the Italians spoke it haltingly, and some not at all, although they were supposed to. I didn’t speak Italian or German. I thought I would learn one or the other if I kept coming to Bolzano, but that was vanity. I had an office which I could use and which had my name on the door, though I noted this could be easily removed.

The job was apparently ‘hot-desking’ as I imagined; this meant that when I was gone someone else would be using the same office and would log-on to the same computer. These offices were like something out of James Bond, the windows had large slatted outside Venetian type shutters that could deflect the sun and worked by remote touch controls. The view was over the flat valley to the distant snow capped mountains that defined where it eventually curved off to the left. The computers were state of the art. My last teaching post had been in North London University and us ‘visiting lecturers’ (a euphemism for the academic proletariat) were lucky to share a tiny windowless office and old computer.

My first bit of teaching did not go so well, I was too nervous, and tried too hard. This was usual for me and I knew I would get better. Afterwards, after meeting some fellow colleagues who were quite impressive, I went back out through the foyer and down past the sun drenched bustling vegetable market and back to the hotel. I tried to fathom the differences, the world that my students inhabited, to work out what they meant; I needed to ‘click’ with the students and so I needed to ‘get’ this culture better than I was doing. In London all this was easy, I didn’t even have to try, even though the students were from all over the world and London was as varied as a world itself. But this was different. I was the alien here.

On my last trip abroad, to a conference at Massachusetts, I had a similar feeling. Nobody could sense that you were an alien from another world, so they responded to you normally, which was normal for them of course, but not you. Throughout the whole conference, where I wanted to sparkle with my intelligence, I acted like an idiot. I never used to believe much in let lag, thinking it was a fashionable moan of those who wanted to boast about flying, but it affected me badly, though it took me a while to realize it. There was a feeling of being detached. I was constantly tired but not sleepy. I was confused, but about what? My thoughts would not add up, like I was during the second part of a migraine, when I knew the words but couldn’t attach any important sense to them. And in America they spoke English of course, and that should have been ok, but it seemed to make it even weirder because, while I understood what they said, I obviously didn’t understand their real meaning. Maybe you could get drunk on that feeling, get addicted to it, it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, or not always, except when I met Cornel West and I wanted to impress him and all I could say was some inane gibberish about everything being because of ‘power’. It was a bit like sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking runs (I should say walks) in my family. I used to find my brother trying to climb into the fridge at night and help him back to bed. There is this feeling that you have after you have sleepwalked that you know something has happened different but still you cannot remember it and in fact of course you do not try to remember it because it is not in your conscious. The somnambulist is a strange creature, a kind of zombie, not entirely living in this world but nevertheless able to negotiate it. You are living out a dream and dreams are put together by your unconscious desires or repressions to fit with certain bits of reality that impinge on you but which you might wish were different. But in a world of zombies the zombie zombies are the sanest ones perhaps, though they don’t seem it; if you are at all sensitive to these things, as artists are supposed to be. It could I suppose be mistaken as a sign for being anti-materialist, for being a ‘cloudmonger’, but it isn’t, it is the opposite of that.

It was one of my German students who mentioned the term ‘farsick’ in a seminar I led about, if I remember rightly, things they personally liked and disliked. In German you can more easily put together words for different things, amalgamate them into a new entity with a new and different meaning, and this was acceptable practice and could enter into the language quite easily, apparently. Being ‘farsick’ is the opposite of being homesick: it is that longing to be in the distance, on the horizon, looking at another landscape, being away from the too familiar and homespun. The term resonated in my brain. When I was a boy I would stare at the jets flying over my council house garden and daydream that I was on them, going far away to a place for some kind of work (never a holiday).

But recently for a long time I had had a dream where I could not find my way home. I might get off a train at a station which seemed somehow familiar, and start to go home, only to realize that my home was not there anymore, or that I could not find my way. I think this is because it is true, both of my parents died (effects of asbestos) when I was a young man and so I and my brothers and sisters lost that central base which parents make and are. On the positive side, if there can be one to this, in my waking life I don’t feel so attached to anywhere in particular after that, and I want to feel that my home is with myself, wherever I am, or where my family is and the people I love. But this strategy never really works fully; there is always that residual feeling of abandonment.

Europe feels for me both distant and familiar, a strange home, especially now I have worked truly ‘in Europe’, Bozen-Bolzano being such a crossroads of European cultures. At the same time ‘hotdesking’ and contract working, being a ‘temp’, is a transient life, to the personality it is essentially like multiple redundancy and has the same effect on the soul, though incrementally perhaps. It is the result of this pan-European positivist philosophy that has been so popular since the bourgeoisie tried to have some Marxism in their social theory (in ‘sociology’) but without Marx and revolution (naturally). For me it is no wonder that it was a part of the problem that has led, these days, to such a huge crisis. When you are a flexible worker able to be ‘hired and fired’ at will, but living in a system with totally inflexible banks. My repayments were regular, my employment was not. I was also only paid (albeit a generous amount at Bolzano) in lump sums, which was awkward.

But of course nobody talked much about these sorts of problems in life, even my fellow workers in the same position. Everyone must act as if they were the sons and daughters of the rich (maybe all of them were) without a care for mere monetary problems, lest you lose your social and affective ‘credit rating’. Some of my fellow temps obviously weighed you up first as competition as if they were mini ratings agencies on legs themselves. You could tell when the sentiment was at work, that slight tone of bitterness, that very carefulness not to be controversial in any ‘bad’ way, the snide. Could you blame them? They must have been worried about their livelihood like me I supposed, but it made for a rather lonely working existence, separated from that camaraderie work could give you, which is one of the last best aspects of being an exploited worker. And the funny thing was in amongst all this you were supposed to deal with the ‘pastoral’ matters of the students, to care about their lives. How was it really possible not to pass on all these problems, how could ‘transference’ not take place, at least secretly, against your will?

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  • Thanks for this interesting post. I was googling the term farsick after seeing it in a poem by Valerie Wetlaufer and google offered me your post, which elaborates nicely on the idea. The poem I saw it used in is at
    http://poemdujour.tumblr.com/post/2618330374/poem-005

    Posted by peter knight, 01/08/2011 9:44am (7 years ago)

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