Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Rilke Vending Machine

The mood in the van was tense after we left Aquileia. We'd found a fat parking ticket on the van and while Nick deciphered the Italian (language test #3), we took a detour to the airport to handle some caravan-related business at Hertz.

As the Hertz negotiations went on, it looked like we might not make it to Duino Castle in time. According to the tourist brochure at the airport, the Castle closed at 17:30 p.m., and it was nearly 17:00p.m.

Pulling out of the airport, we'd reached the official "family" road trip limit: we were tired, hungry, and restless from sitting in the van. Stopping at Duino Castle would add time to our trip and we could arrive only to find the gate closed. Still, I lobbied for at least a glimpse and enough family members joined in to make it a democratic decision.

The Castle is the main event in Duino. Shops and cafés sharing its name have cropped up nearby, the usual rash of tourist traps: overpriced coffee and water, candles with cheap stickers depicting the Castle, bookmarks made on someone's home-laminating machine. We parked up the road--careful to check and double check the road signs after our Aquileia parking mishap--and walked uphill toward the Castle compound.

Plan A: Check the Castle ticket office

Plan B: Sneak by the barrier

Plan C: Scale the stone cliffs

Beginning with Plan A, I arrived in the ticket office where I found two people huddled behind the cash register counting change and--I assumed--closing up for the day. I'd prepared a dramatic speech, a plea for us weary travelers in the style of one of Rilke's elegies (well, loosely....okay, not at all, but that was the general idea). When I approached the desk, though, before I could open my mouth, the woman recited the price from the chart in a monotone voice.

"Open?" I said, not even trying to practice my Mr. Hammond-enhanced Italian (see Trieste entries for more on Mr. Hammond).

The woman nodded and I almost jumped a foot into the air. For some unknown reason, the Castle was open later than usual. I couldn't believe it--no need to scale the cliffs!

The people behind the register at the Duino Castle had one thing to sell: access. And that is why flocks of visitors came: to set foot where years ago people walked without a price of admission, where they needed only ownership or an invitation. Now we handed over coins to step through the gate. So, we were in, and energized by the grace of a late entry.

First, the gardens:

The view of the cliffs:

Those cliffs we might have had to scale if Plans A and B didn't work:

We all found our way to the terrace....

....where a large sign told us, in case there was any confusion, that Rilke had written his Elegies. I pictured him, wind, rain, and snow, scribbling away until the last word was down. Of course this wasn't how it happened, but according to the sign, so it seemed:

Mark dropped to his knees and called out--à la Ace Ventura: Pet Detective--"This is my Graceland." Okay, not quite, but he did strike a pose by the sign:

Lauren had loaned us a bilingual edition of the Duino Elegies, and we read from "The First Elegy," beginning with the first line that he supposedly heard in storms off these cliffs:

"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying."

"And so I check myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobs. Alas, whom can we turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and the sly animals see at once
how little at home we are
in the interpreted world. That leaves us
some tree on a hillside, on which our eyes fasten
day after day; leaves us yesterday's street
and the coddled loyalty of an old habit
that liked it here, stayed on, and never left."

"O and the night, the night, when the wind full of worldspace
gnaws at our faces--, for whom won't the night be there,
desired, gently disappointing, a hard rendezvous
for each toiling heart. Is it easier for lovers?
Ah, but they only use each other to hide what awaits them."

"You still don't see? Cast the emptiness from your arms
into the spaces we breathe: perhaps the birds
will sense the increase of air with more passionate flying."

"Yes, the springtime needed you. Many a star was waiting
for your eyes only. A wave swelled toward you
out of the past, or a violin surrendered itself
as you walked by an open window. All that was mission...."

After reading, we made our way to the top of the Castle:

And saw the cliffs again from a new perspective:

"But listen to the wind's breathing," Rilke said in "The First Elegy," "that uninterrupted news that forms from silence."

Back down the stairs to the gardens and grounds, we found the Rilke Vending Machine tucked into a landing on the way down the tower.

The vending machine sold mostly water, some snacks, and a few sodas. What else would it sell? Letters? Ideas? Personalized stamps with Rilke's picture in the corner? I'm not sure what I expected.

Would Rilke have written his Elegies if he had access to a vending machine that served up candy and water at the touch of his finger? In "Letters to a Young Poet," Rilke wrote, “Write about what your everyday life offers you…use the Things around you…the objects that you remember.”

What if this was the object that everyday life offered him? He might have written the "San Benedetto Elegies" named for the fancy water company that stocked the machine.

Still, I liked the anachronism of the machine. Rilke could climb the steps of the tower, drop in some coins, and get the sugar rush he needed to finish the poem. No less far-fetched than him spinning all the words for the Elegies from the sparse landscape and seaside view from Duino.

In the central courtyard, we found a well and as with any well, felt the need to drop in a coin and make a wish. I dropped in some tiny fraction of a Euro and wondered if a smaller coin meant less likelihood that the wish would come true. At the same time, my wish was vague and nebulous. Both seemed to count against me in the world of wishing. But the company and setting balanced it out. After this superstitious detour, we snapped a few more pictures up close:

And far away:

We said goodbye to the castle:

And passed through the gate again:

That night at dinner, we didn't talk about the parking ticket or the airport detour or even all the things we saw along the way.

We just shared a meal at Vnck under climbing vines with Mao underfoot and the whole night ahead for writing it down.

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