Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marking Harry Crosby Death Day

The Hotel des Artistes is gone, no longer a presence at 1 West 67th St in New York City. You cannot go there looking for a trace of Harry Crosby and Josephine Rotch Bigelow, though perhaps their impetuous spirits still lurk somewhere in the vicinity. But that's doubtful. They are as gone as gone can be.

Eighty-five years ago today they set out for parts unknown. For Harry, there was the sun. For Josephine? There was Harry. For them both, today, in the 21st century, there is a general unimportant absence. There is the myth.

Myth and literary obscurity.

The longer ago the 1920s become, the more compelling that era grows. The Great War. Paris. The Jazz Age. Shakespeare and Company. The Black Sun Press. Ocean liners.

Perhaps it is the banality and cultural emptiness of the present that makes Harry Crosby such a fascinating and extraordinary artist. As Caresse Crosby described him, Harry was "electric with rebellion." Despite his madness, his violence, his ridiculous demise, he LIVED.  Briefly, yes, but with intensity, with enthusiasm, with certainty.

Harry Crosby

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Searching for Ancestors in Old Calabria

Monday, October 20, 2014

ND and I traveled to Lamezia Terme in the company of Miriam and Domenico, a young Italian couple in their mid twenties with whom we'd arranged a day of exploration in Nicastro and Decolattura, the towns of ND's ancestors on her father's side. We were on a quest to discover what we could of ND's great grandfather Vincenzo DiCello, her great grandmother Rosa Perri, and her great great grandfather, Salvatore DiCello.

Miriam, bright-eyed, speaks quite good English from having worked several years for Lufthansa Airlines in Milan. She lives in the small village of San Floro where she helps raise silkworms. Domenico, a photographer, looks like a young Cat Stevens. He doesn't speak much English though understands a fair amount; he has Miriam explain that he uses film and prints his images in a darkroom he created himself. Fairly aloof, almost bored-seeming, he's the opposite of Miriam's outgoing, smiling presence yet he drives the car all day without complaint, no small endeavor given Italian city traffic and the steep & narrow mountain roads we eventually traverse.

Nicastro was once its own village but has since been absorbed into the greater sprawl of Lamezia Terme, though "old Nicastro" still exists higher up the foothills of the southern Sila Mountains. We go first to the City Hall where Miriam has already arranged for us to view Vincenzo's 1886 birth certificate.

Approaching City Hall, Lamezia Terme, Calabria

In a nondescript office on the second floor, a helpful records keeper brings out a huge old ledger book and lays it on the counter for us to examine. The birth certificate is written in beautiful flowing script of a style no longer seen and reveals that Salvatore was a farmer and that young Vincenzo was born at home on a street in old Nicastro. The functionary makes a photocopy for us but privacy rules prevent us from photographing the entry and ledger.

Outside the office of birth and death certificates

From City Hall we go to something like a cultural library where we look through archived copies of an Italian journal from the 1970s that published articles and photographs about the Lamezia/Nicastro area. We don't find any references to the DiCellos but we do see photographs of Nicastro from the early 20th century and get a visual idea of what the town was like in the years just after Vincenzo left for America in 1898.

Before embarking for old Nicastro and the search for Vincenzo's neighborhood and birth street, Via Casalnuevo, we pause for an apertivo of Campari and prosecco at a local cafe, the Bar Mexican.

Fortifying ourselves before the venture into Old Nicastro

Neither Miriam nor Domenico know exactly where to go in our quest to find the street so we start asking people, beginning with two Italian policemen. Belying the image of gruff and perfunctory street cops the world over, these two guys are happy to offer directions and engage in chit chat. It turns out that one of them actually has a DiCello in his family.

Getting closer to the old neighborhood, we ask a pedestrian for clarification on how to find Via Casalnuevo. With authority, he offers concrete directions. Great, we think, we're getting close. Then we ask another person who, also with the voice of authority, directs us in a completely different direction. This happens several times and we realize that everyone knows exactly where everything is, even when they don't. Eventually, we abandon the car and set out on foot.

Downhill proves to be the wrong direction

The consensus is to go up

After more animated discussions with various locals we come to realize that, though we're asking about a particular street, "Casalnuevo" these days actually refers to an area rather than a specific Via. It's not uncommon, Miriam tells us, that over the course of a century not only do neighborhoods change physically but so do identifying names and references. Nevertheless, Casalnuevo, street or locale, lies uphill so up up uphill we go.

It seems like we're getting close

The neighborhood is an Escher-like labyrinth of two and three hundred year old houses of stone, tile, crumbling mortar, little windows and weathered wooden doors. The aura of Medieval time suffuses everything. I imagine myself wrapped in a sackcloth parading through the byways swinging a smoking censor, intoning plainsong.

Eventually, we pinpoint a few houses on what is now Via Niola and conclude that this is Vincenzo's block. The birth certificate had referenced # 3 but as we stand there deliberating which house is which, an old woman emerges from # 9 and Miriam starts talking with her. Then a man appears from around the corner and a lively conversation ensues. Though neither can say for certain if this street was indeed Via Casalnuevo, in our hearts we accept that it is.

In Vincenzo's neighborhood

Vincenzo's stoop?

Far above, crowning the neighborhood hillside, are the ruins of a Norman castle (circa 1500) that exists in the same state of decay as when Vincenzo lived here. We marvel at the thought that these 116 years later our eyes take in essentially the same sight as Vincenzo's eyes ("nothing changes here," Miriam declares). Could such images and perceived phenomena be somehow passed down through DNA or through some heretofore scientifically unknown means? Could ND in some way possess the "knowledge" of this place by having descended from the blood and sinew of her great grandfather? We gaze around with hungry imagination trying to absorb this place that in ways we don't really understand must be part of ND, and she part of it.

The Norman castle seen from the road leading out of Nicastro
and into the Sila Mountains

Then it's on to Decollatura, a commune (as such places are known in Italy), sort of an amalgam of little hamlets high in the Sila Mountains. Decollatura is the birthplace of Rosa Perri, ND's great grandmother, an ancestor about whom ND knows almost nothing. Winding winding winding up up up into wild forest, chestnut trees in abundance, crazy switchbacks, steep! Behind us the valley falls away, a wide swath of the Lamezia Terme urban expanse and, far in the hazy distance, the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. After an hour or so of pretty much steady climbing, we level out and then descend a short distance into a valley in which sits Decollotura.

Before meandering the town in search of the old streets where Rosa Perri resided, we go to the Hotel Caligiuri which has a restaurant offering a "menu tipico a base di funghi." We are in the heartland of porcini mushrooms. The restaurant includes mushrooms in every dish. We eat porcini carpaccio, porcini risotto, tortellini in a porcini mushroom cream sauce, a thick bean soup with chunks of mushrooms.

The porcini altar

For dessert, we peel apart roasted chestnuts, warm and mealy, another regional specialty that, Miriam tells us, are just coming into season now. A rich dark café (i.e., an espresso) and a chilled glass of Amaro saves me from the soporific daze of overeating and, after photographing the mushroom shrine at one end of the now empty restaurant, we convey our deep satisfaction to the jovial host and step outside.

The cool mountain air instantly refreshes us and we set out on foot in search of old Decollatura. Walking is wonderful though the main road is narrow and lacks a sidewalk. I'm mindful of cars and keep to the farthest edge but Miriam and Domenico walk side by side in the way I've noticed Italians do, as if pedestrian rights come first and passing cars must mind them instead of the other way around.

Though tree-lined the street isn't particularly picturesque - there's a small bread maker, a gas station, a car parts store. Domenico stoops to retrieve several very large nuts, acorns from an imposing old oak tree. He shows them to us and Miriam tells us that it's normal for people to gather acorns in abundance to feed the family pig. Most Calabrian families, at least in the countryside, keep a pig that ends up as homemade prosciutto, soppressata, salami, etc. Most families also grow grapes and make their own wine, and keep gardens with many vegetables - broccoli, chard, onions, potatoes. Fruit trees abound too, figs and lemons, pears and apricots. When you eat with a Calabrese family, "local" means a few steps outside the kitchen.

Local style

We come to Piazza Perri which marks the beginning of old Decollatura. Venturing into the streets just off the square is like stepping back in time - the 19th century, the 18th century, perhaps the Middle Ages. Only the electric lines and the occasional restored facade recall the present. Narrow cobbled streets, deeply weathered stone houses two and three stories high form ancient alleyways. It's late afternoon, the lowering sun casts rich light on the stonework and on the green garden plots that edge the hillside just beyond the neighborhood lanes. It is quiet in the way that predates Modernity. A dog barks in the far distance, a church bell chimes, a rusty door hinge creaks; no motors rev, no television noise leaks from behind the house walls.

From one of the side streets steps an old wrinkled Italian woman who could have emerged from one of the old B&W photographs that we saw earlier in the day, except she's in color; a blue and white cotton dress, a gray sweater, worn black shoes. Her silvery white hair frames a weathered face with deep set, cautiously suspicious eyes.

Because we're seeking any scrap of information about the Perri family, Miriam engages her in conversation. This sets off a spirited exchange in Italian and quickly involves another elderly signora making her way up the street with the aid of a cane, and then still another woman who peers out from a house twenty or so yards up the street wondering what the commotion is. Soon the women are shouting to each other in earnest discourse, an enthusiastic musical banter like course old cellos played with worn bows.

Sharing old knowledge

We move around the corner and another wizened matriarch appears and happily offers her old wisdom to the dialog. She's dressed all in black with a green apron tied around her stout waist and her eyes twinkle with mischief.

Eliciting old wisdom

Apparently we're standing on the very block in whose houses the Perri families lived ("Perri Lane" I think). A voice shouts down from a wrought iron balcony three stories above us; a very rotund woman seemingly missing a few teeth proffers her opinion on the colloquy taking place below.

The Perri Colloquy in old Decollatura

Eventually, a middle-aged man, studious in glasses, appears and joins the conversation. His voice is soft and intelligent and though much of what he says goes untranslated by Miriam we do learn that all of the Perris are gone now, either passed away or long since departed during the three great waves of emigration that took so many Calabrians away to America and Australia. The man had studied this, it seemed; the first dispersal came at the end of the 19th century with tens of thousands heading to the United States (ND's great grandfather had been part of this one); a second one took place soon after, in the first ten years of the 20th century; and a third great departure, with many going to Australia, took place in the 1930s.

This last fact, about emigration to Australia, explains why the first two women we spoke with kept thinking that ND and I were from Australia even though Miriam explained that actually we were from the United States. To these two ancient and venerable Calabrese matriarchs, the distinction didn't matter; Australia or America, there was really no difference, both were a world away from Perri Lane.

Old Decollatura

Friday, April 11, 2014

Peter Matthiessen and I, Part One

Peter Matthiessen died on April 5, 2014 exactly seventeen years to the day after Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997. Both men played significant roles in my life, one more closely and intimately than the other, but both equally impacting.

As an avid reader in the 5th or 6th grade I acquired, and read, a copy of Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971). I was enthralled. That initiated a period of serious interest in the oceans, in sea creatures, in sharks. My classmate, Clarence West, and I spent hours drawing sharks and undersea divers and reefs and strange ocean life like the mola mola and the manta ray. And that interest in the ocean expanded into an interest in all wild things. Later came the yen to travel and traveling brought me to Peter Matthiessen's wonderful travel narrative, The Tree Where Man Was Born. I read that and fell in love with the idea of traveling overland through Africa (something that, 40 years later, I realize that I will never do).

Though I'm born and raised in New England, my family had relatives in the west and during many summers we would travel to Minnesota and Montana to visit relatives. Not only that but my mother was a lifetime student of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (formerly known as "Custer's Last Stand") so a sense of western-ness and American Indians and the Great Plains was in my being from early on.

I came of age politically in the early 1980s. Nicaragua and anti-nuclear power were my issues of choice. And then there was In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and the subsequent libel suits against Matthiessen and Viking Press and the book's suppression. I read the book and became obsessed with the case of Leonard Peltier. That is a saga of injustice that continues to this day and I'm sad thinking about Leonard Peltier in his jail cell in Leavenworth, KS thinking about Peter Matthiessen dying, PM his great advocate and defender, now gone.

I met Allen Ginsberg in the early 80s and we became lovers briefly, and good friends before and after, and stayed that way until he died. We traveled together to the Ruben Dario Poetry Festival in Managua, Nicaragua, 1986 (an experience about which I've compiled/written a book, Nicaragua Beat: Allen Ginsberg and the Sandinista Revolution, that remains unpublished). In October of 1986, Peter Matthiessen, and his lawyer, Martin Garbus, gave a talk at the PEN Club in New York about the libel cases brought against Crazy Horse. Allen Ginsberg and I went together, and I recorded the conversation. I still have the transcript of that event, it's never been published.

In the months preceding that event I attempted to meet with Peter Matthiessen and we exchanged letters. Actually, I sent letters and he replied hastily on post cards. I told him I was a journalist who wanted to write about the Crazy Horse case and Leonard Peltier and that I was a friend of Allen Ginsberg's and that I didn't want much of his time, just an hour or two or three.

In the end, we were never able to arrange a time for the two of us to sit down and talk. We did speak face to face after the PEN Club talk on October 8, 1986, and we did exchange subsequent postal communication, but that was the extent of our contact.

Though I typed up the transcript of the PEN talk, I never placed it anywhere and never wrote the long piece I'd intended to. Still, I'm grateful for having met Peter Matthiessen and corresponded with him, albeit briefly. Everything about him struck me as genuine, compassionate, straight forward, empathetic, generous. I've read many of his books since first devouring Blue Meridian. The Snow Leopard, I can honestly say, helped form my world view and my understanding of psychedelics and eastern spirituality in dramatic and everlasting ways. The Snow Leopard opened up for me the idea that a travel book could also be a deeply personal narrative, a journey inward as well as outward, a confession, a marauding questioning of reality, a pure-spirited observation of Now.

So when a close friend emailed me and told me that Peter Matthiessen had died, memories of my brief interaction with him came to mind, and I dug into my archives in search of documents or correspondence related to my attempt to write about him. Below are two postcards from him, replies to letters I sent asking about Leonard Peltier and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and wondering if or when we could meet. To his credit, he treated me with respect and cordiality and replied personally to my missives despite being exceedingly busy with more important matters than my youthful self.

First postcard from Peter Matthiessen to me, 23 May, 1986

Text of May 23, 1986 card

Text transcribed:

Dear Patrick Warner

Thank you for your
kind letter. I'm afraid
I'm too far behind
schedule to answer these
questions properly in a
letter, but perhaps we
could meet in the fall.
I'll be teaching at Yale,
but still be in NYC
once in a while
         Peter Matthiessen

Second Postcard from Peter Matthiessen,
September 26, 1986

Text of card from Peter Matthiessen, Sept 26, 1986

Text Transcribed:

Dear Patrick - I'm afraid I
arrive at Yale Tues noon and
depart Wed afternoon, with 2
long seminars, ..?.. papers, +
student interviews - I have
very little time, as you suspected.
Might be better to arrange a date
in Dec in NYC, sorry - Best
Peter M

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Viku Zen and Dark Star Howl

The crack of doom on the hydrogen juke box. Eyeball kicks. This is the Howl for the 21st century, a meandering back track of Tangerian bone grindings with the thick diction'd text of brilliance chanting into eternity.

Viku Zen's Howl

What reading of Howl is this? Late Howl. Ginsberg is adamant! Certain. Full of the poem. Fully realized. A masterpiece delivery. The soundtrack's atmospheric sketches compliment instead of overlay the text. The whole forceful incantation fully audible.

Resting briefly in catatonia

Contrast that with this wholly different collaboration, one across time. Howl, an early reading, certainly the 1950s, back by an ethereal "Dark Star" by the Grateful Dead from February 24, 1974.

We are all great writers on the same dreadful typewriter.

Vladislav Surkov on Allen Ginsberg

Russian businessman Vladislav Surkov's response to Western sanctions being imposed against him as a result of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It's a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.

I'm not sure how Allen would take such a comment, were he alive today. He'd be wryly amused, probably.

But Allen's memory of Russia ran as deep as the 20th century. He cultivated a relentless disdain for Joseph Stalin and would, at the least prompting, recite a litany of Stalin's crimes and the crimes of the Soviet state against the likes of Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Ahkmatova, Eugenia Ginzburg, and many others.

Allen Ginsberg was a tireless voice on behalf of many persecuted artists in the former Soviet Union. He would harbor no illusions about present-day Russia, about Vladimir Putin, or about the fate of free speech in today's glowering Russian nation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

David Sibley on Using Photography in Bird Guides

Christopher Leahy conducted a conversation with David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of the well-renown bird guides to North America, on stage at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge Friday night, March 14th. The occasion was the publication of the 2nd edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Sibley is particularly noted for his fine illustrations, all of which are paintings that begin as field sketches. When asked whether he found photography useful in the field as a means of capturing an image for later use in the studio, he confessed that it was not very helpful. He recalled that, when digital cameras became widely available, he'd purchased one with a good zoom lens and took it with him for that very reason, to record images to which he could later refer. The problem, he confided, was that he spent too much time concentrating on the camera - framing the shot, getting the light correct - and ended up not really seeing the bird. So he abandoned the camera.

Instead, he relies on sketching the bird. Often, he'll sketch parts of the bird - the beak, the tail, the feet - in order to record the detailed particularities of whatever he's observing. The sketching, he says, is a form of "interviewing" the bird, getting at those things that distinguish it from other kinds.

Asked about the actual use of photographs in bird guides, he suggested that they weren't as valuable as one might suppose. The problem is that a photograph captures a bird in a particular pose and in a specific setting (trees, marsh, seaside dunes, cliff, etc.) and this very likely contrasts with the circumstances under which a birdwatcher sees the bird. It can unduly influence you and provide context that might run counter to your experience. That is why his illustrations are all fairly uniform (the birds all face in the same direction, for example) and why he leaves out all depictions of habitat.

I could relate to his experience with the camera. Just last week while on a long bike ride I came upon a flock of turkeys on one side of the road. There may have been thirty or more and as I approached, they began crossing the road in front of me. Instead of focusing my full observational attention on them and really seeing them, I fumbled around with the small camera I carry with me trying to take their picture. I got a picture but not a very good one, and in the doing I sacrificed the chance of experiencing them on a deeper level.

Hawk and Habitat
photo by lescaret

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

George Plimpton and the 1980 Moscow Olympics

George Plimpton Obituary Mail Art (front)

Gratitude to for posting George Plimpton's report from the 1980 Moscow games. The United States boycotted those games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979.

Moscow Games by George Plimpton

Plimpton was the perfect journalist for the event. A participatory journalist first and foremost, Plimpton was a sports enthusiast of the highest order. An intelligent and witty observer, fearless in his own inimitable way, Plimpton's observations and commentary eschew the normal re-hash of events and instead pick out the quirky, the humorous, the incongruous from those games.

Ah, the Cold War, what a time it was. And to think of the events that transpired either directly or indirectly from that Soviet incursion. In no time we had the CIA arming the mujahideen (the Islamic anti-Soviet resistance). Of course, some eight years later, once the Soviets had cut their losses and fled that unconquerable country, the "freedom fighters" (thanks, Mr. Reagan) turned their sights on other targets. And voila, Al Queda emerges from the smoking ruins, still armed with stinger missiles and various kinds of destructive hardware courtesy of the USA.

Fast forward to today. Sadly, Mr. Plimpton has departed this corporeal world. Not so sadly, so has Mr. Reagan. But Al Queda remains.

And now we have the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, another bizarre Russian fiasco. Whose idea was it to hold the winter Olympics at a summer resort on the Black Sea? A classic Russian farce. Mikhail Bulgakov would have something to say, no doubt.

George Plimpton Obituary Mail Art (rear)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Allen Ginsberg Photographs to the University of Toronto

A giant collection of some 7,500 Allen Ginsberg photographs have been donated by the Larry and Cookie Rossy Family Foundation to the University of Toronto, which announced the gift in January. They now reside there in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and some have been made available online.

According to the University's press announcement:

"The Ginsberg prints provide visual insight into New York urban landscape from the 1950s to the 1990s. They also document Ginsberg’s international travels to Canada, France, India, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, the USSR and many other nations."

Here's a photograph that is not in their collection, taken January 21st, 1986 upon arriving at the Sandino International Airport in Managua. Ginsberg, Pedro Pietri and a group of North American writers and artists (myself included) had been invited to participate in an "invasion of poets" for the 1986 Ruben Dario Festival.

Pedro Pietri, Ernesto Cardenal, Allen Ginsberg
Sandino International Airport, Managua
January 21, 1986

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bruegel in Words

As Above, So Below (2002), a novel by Rudy Rucker, gives us a lively if somewhat melodramatic fictional account of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The known details of Bruegel's life are few so Rucker layers his novel with fairly prosaic relationships, almost soap opera-esque, and colors the narrative with known historical detail of the Low Countries under the reign of Charles the V and Phillip the II of Spain. What the novel lacks in prose elegance and style it makes up for by conjuring the sights, sounds, smells, and day-to-day goings-on of life in places like Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen in the 1500s.

During Bruegel's short life (1525-1569) he no doubt witnessed the atrocities and persecutions perpetrated by the Spanish monarchy against the occupied peoples of the Low Countries. His Massacre of the Innocents, a Biblical theme, has been adapted to portray a village scene in his native country and depicts the depredations unleashed on the citizens by the soldiers and mercenaries of the Spanish Crown. Rucker includes various details and scenes that aptly illustrate life under occupation and weaves these into the imagined narrative of Bruegel's life.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1567

The novel begins with Bruegel as a young man traveling to Rome and encountering real mountains (the Alps) for the first time (a salient detail as Bruegel would become known as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time), and ends with his untimely death of an unspecified stomach condition in 1569. In between, Rucker uses Bruegel's masterpieces as jumping off points for creating the fictional details of his novel. It's a useful method and lends meaning, real or not, to the works themselves while allowing the author to sketch key periods of the artist's life.

For those interested in his research and process, Rucker has posted his notes on the writing of So Above, So Below.

Two other novels in which Bruegel plays a staring role are Bruegel, or A Workshop of Dreams by Claude-Henri Rocquet (1991), and Headlong (1999) by Michael Frayn, both worth reading.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Close to the Fireworks

The balcony on the 4th floor of the Hotel Odinsve provided a bird's eye view of the local neighborhood fireworks on New Years Eve in Reykjavik.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Iceland, No Irony in New Years Celebration

Arriving at the Hotel Odinsve, Reykjavik, 12/31/13

The New Years celebrations that go on in Iceland, particularly in Reykjavik, could never happen in the United States. They could never take place in a country that routinely bombs other countries, that has an aggressive military industrial complex, a country in which police violence is endemic. Not with the gusto on display in Iceland and on such a massive scale, essentially 24 hours of thunder and lightening. Oh wait, there are the 4th of July celebrations across the US, true. They are certainly ironic given our penchant for launching missiles from drones. But I digress.

Iceland celebrates with explosions. With rockets and flares and showers of colored sparks. And without irony. Iceland has no military and the first police killing of a civilian in the country's 50+ year history occurred last year. And the police apologized. So no, there's no irony in the great Nordic fiesta. Instead, there's fun, glee, impish delight in loud noises, civic rapport.

View from the 4th Floor Balcony

Fireworks are sold legally throughout the holiday period and sales are especially brisk on the day of New Years Eve. All the proceeds from fireworks sales go to the country's emergency response and search & rescue teams so buying, and setting off, fireworks is not only encouraged but something of a citizen's duty. Throughout Reykjavik and its suburban environs, explosions and flashes of light and sparkles of flame begin early in the day and continue on into the night, increasing in intensity as midnight approaches.

Just to be clear - you can buy powerful, commercial strength fireworks on the street in the city and set them off right there on the sidewalk, between the buildings, firing them aloft right above the neighborhood. This goes on all over town. You literally have to be careful where you walk for fear of rounding a corner and coming upon a box of bottle rockets about to launch.

Everyone is good-natured about the whole thing, whole families stroll the streets, groups of friends gather in bunches talking and drinking. Toward midnight everyone streams up Skólavörðustígur St heading to the Hallgrímskirkja, the towering church that sits atop a hill in central Reykjavik.
Normally I'm unnerved by thronging masses, particularly in America where decorum and civility can often go missing, but this crowd was, in as much as a crowd can be one thing, polite. Or maybe considerate. Certainly not threatening. Plenty of civility. And enough decorum to make the genuinely enthusiastic reveling charming rather than boorish.

I witnessed one scene that sort of epitomizes the consideration of the citizens. From our hotel room's top floor balcony I watched a father & son, later joined by the mother, emerge from their apartment building across the street. They carried a duffel bag-sized cache of fireworks which they set down on the sidewalk. A few feet farther on was the entrance to an iced-over parking lot and there the family began setting of their fireworks. First little fizzy ground sparklers, then hissing ground spinner things, then firecrackers in whole packs and long strings. Finally they got to the big stuff, the rockets. The fuses crackled with white sparks and then the rockets whizzed upward and exploded not 30 feet above where we stood on the balcony. A wild burst of volcanic energy of the kind that almost never manifests in the demeanor of an Icelander.

Scene of the Fireworks, December 31, 2013

When the explosions finished I cheered and whooped the way an American sports fan would but the family below kept silent, almost as if they'd committed a solemn task that shouldn't be profaned with raucous behavior. Without saying much to each other, they very carefully picked up all the debris from their little explosive fun and took it with them, back into their building. A few minutes later, the father re-emerged to pick up a final scrap of something he'd dropped. I was particularly impressed because it was very clear that these people were just ordinary conscientious Reykjavikians who cared about their city and who simply did the right thing. They didn't do what they did because they thought someone was watching, because they thought they would look good or would receive an offer to do a reality TV show about their lives. They were just being stewards of their neighborhood and, by extension, their country.

But I saw them. They moved me.

What I didn't see was a single policeman during the entire celebration. Granted, I didn't stay out until the wee hours but I was out for the hubbub of the night, the main event. In America, the police presence would have been massive. And no one would have dared light off a firecracker. In America, the police shoot people everyday. But here, in Iceland's capital, with public drinking in the streets and amateur pyrotechnics setting the sky ablaze, not one uniformed official appeared in the midst.

That, I realized, was real freedom.