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A trip through Europe: On insanity, Euro camping, and art


We were in Europe for three weeks, so I missed your message and have not had time to return it until today. As soon as we hit the ground after returning on Friday, I got busy setting up my fall semester–two online courses and two face-to-face classes. Since we left on the trip the day after the summer semester ended, I had no time to do anything for school until that jet-lagged few days after the long trip.

I appreciate the note and thanks for thinking of me. I knew when Robin Williams’ story hit the news that people would say things about suicide as a selfish act and ask the “how could this happen?” Well, I get it.


Suicide may indeed be selfish and it may be irrational, but it makes perfect sense when you’re in the throes of the pain that precedes such an act. I’ll never forget how rational hanging myself in the basement seemed a few years ago when I was in some real, serious pain. At some point, it dawned on me that, well, this probably isn’t very sensible and maybe I need to get some help. I didn’t want to kill myself. I wanted to turn off the pain. And I needed outside help to do it.

That said, I can look back on that time with a sense of humor and see funny things in it. For instance, when I was in the hospital, there was a guy in there for alcohol rehab:

“How many years do you say you’ve been sober,” he asked.

“Twenty, almost twenty one,” I said.

“Look at where you are after all this time. What’s in this sobriety thing for me?”

“Yeah, well, you got something there. But at least I ain’t drinking,” I said.

Truth was, of course, that I can’t imagine the kind of horror that episode of mental breakdown would have been for me if I had been drinking. Still, to this day, I think the one thing that sustained me through that time was something that I learned in great measure in AA: Nothing’s permanent. This period of pain will pass.

Sorta Buddhist, now that I look at it. Impermanence. The transience of life. This sort of thing used to make me feel as if life itself wasn’t worth the time. But now I see how transience gives life meaning. How can I make the short time my fellow creatures spend in life a little easier?

Many of the articles about Williams also say things like he struggled with demons or that he couldn’t reconcile the creative personality the exigencies of life as a celebrity. I don’t know about Williams, but I drank and used drugs primarily for the effect they produced. Alcohol use exacerbated certain character defects and mental problems I had anyway. Taking alcohol away did not solve these issues. In fact, I got crazier for a time after I quit drinking. Only lots of work, reliance on others working toward similar solutions, and soul searching abated the insanity. Many alcoholics day they also rely on God or higher power. I don’t know about God. I only know that one day I had to drink, and the next day I didn’t. I don’t really care if God or higher powers allow me to live a sober life or not. I only know that I have to do the work of sobriety and have neither the will or time to argue about gods, demons, or higher powers.

Even with sobriety firmly in my pocket, I still wound up in a situation where stringing myself up seemed like a great idea. Maybe I knew they hell that drinking gave me and didn’t really know what it was to die. But to get myself out of that hole, I didn’t hand of a creator. I needed and found a licensed, albeit mortal, professional who deals with and helps out crazy people all the time.

Talking about these things tends to bum other people out, I think, and there’s only so much talking that does any good. I look back on the whole episode and laugh.

And I remember what I went through like it all happened yesterday. I go through periods of steep, almost bottomless mental anguish, particularly in the spring. Call it depression, bipolar mood disorder, or blame it on miasmas, genes, or demons. None of that matters. I just know that when I’m broken, I have to do something to get out of my situtation. I have a self-awareness today that lets me avoid the worst of it and call on others for help in crises. That’s what works. Life ain’t perfect and it’s not always cakes and ale. But it’s interesting and almost never boring.

Moving on to other subjects: We spend three weeks in Germany and France. We went primarily to visit my parent figures, Josef and Marlies. These are people closer to me than my own parents. I met them almost thirty years ago when I was working in the vineyards in Trier. They are 80 and 84 now. Their son was my brother and my friend. I went to Berlin three and half years ago after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. When he died later that year, I was devastated, and that grief probably set me up for the visit to the nervous hospital.

I needed to see them while they are still with us. (I think that the next time I go to Europe, it will probably be for a funeral.) They are in good shape and had plenty for us to do. We spent the first five days or so with them in the little village they live in outside of Trier. We ate, walked, and talked a lot. Just being with them does me a lot of good and this time was no different. Their village is set under hills covered with vineyards and some of the most beautiful land I know. Being in that landscape also worked its wonders on me. I’ve worked very hard lately, and the people and the landscape took some of those burdens and their aftermaths off of me.

We then met my friend Udo who took us for a five-day romp through the middle of France. Our primary goal was a construction site where craftspeople are using 13th-century tools, materials, and methods to build a castle. I expected a hoakey theme park with Renaissance-fair people dressed in period clothing eating turkey legs and yelling, “Huzzah!” But it was nothing of the kind.

We spent two days getting to the castle, driving nothing but the American equivalent of county roads through picturesque landscape, tiny French villages, and immense, sometimes heavily wooded landscape. We camped in a tent-like contraption attached to the top of a VW van and made the best of these tiny, strange campground, which I imagine resemble the likes of American RV camping. It wasn’t bad, but when I go camping the last thing I want is a home away from home. I mean, isn’t getting away from home the reason for camping? But Virginia was comfortable and Nick loved dealing with the complicated set of poles and zippers this tent thing presented us.

We drove through Chablis, which is a tiny little dorf in the middle of vast vineyards. We saw churches, and stopped at Corbusier’s famous Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp. The whole tour was very picture book, something out of the movies.

After our visit to the castle, we spent three days driving up through the Burgundy and into Champagne, which, though I had always envisioned vineyards and ancient cellars, was mostly more like Kansas. We stayed a night at a French hotel in the vineyard region that was very French, and very atmospheric. We ate four-course dinner that demonstrated that the French know their way around a kitchen. Then, we drove up through Belgium and Luxemburg into the famous region where the American fought the Battle of the Bulge against the Germans. From there we drove to Koblenz where we spend three fine days doing not much at all with my friend Ivo.

While we were there, we spent some time with our good friend Martin, who is building a giant camera obscura that he’ll set in front of the famous cathedral in Cologne. It’s two sea containers and will be the largest camera obscura in Germany. The camera looks like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Pics of Martin’s work and will give you an idea of what he does and what people might expect when they go in to see the cathedral projected in the camera.

Then, we ended the trip back at my parents’ house in their little village outside of Trier.

In all the trip was a fabulous, if contemplative trip for me, and a trip full of good memories for Nick and Virginia. Nick had problems leaving. Though he and my father figure, Josef, don’t speak each other’s languages, they got on famously. My head got screwed up from time to time in all the translation for Nick and Virginia, and the trip home was two days of hard travel on buses and planes, with a too-long overlay in Philadelphia. Otherwise, our journey was a complete success.

Nick now knows the traveler’s dilemma, poor kid: You want to get home but you really want the road to be longer. You really don’t want your journey to end.

It sounds as it you’re starting over again–new wife, house, job. I’m anxious to hear about all of them. Let me hear of you soon. 

Yours, as always, 

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