I suppose the Grand Canyon is one of those places that haunt your imagination way before you visit them. I had seen it in movies and read about it countless times, I had imagined it while reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and seen it on Instagram time after time: drone pictures, helicopter videos, dangerous-looking selfies. I guess it is one of those places you know before you even see them, that is not rare. But it is also one of those places that still baffle you when you see them. I visited the Grand Canyon last month and can recall very vividly that scene of “rock and sun” before me.
A family trip to Las Vegas was really the perfect excuse to visit the Grand Canyon, since the state of Arizona, where the Grand Canyon National Park is, neighbours the state of Nevada. It sounded pretty close to me, but it took about 6 hours by bus to get from Las Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had the chance, though, to make some stops along Route 66 and eat some really good American pie. We also made a stop at In n’ Out on the way back, so no complaints about that.
After 40ºC weather in Nevada, I was glad to find that the weather in Arizona was much milder, at around 30ºC at noon. There were few clouds in the sky and when I finally got off the bus at the National Park all I saw was a scorching red vastness of rock. It was infinite in its size, the kind of grandeur that makes you feel lonely and small but strangely comfortable. Walking along the rim all was vastness: upwards the infinite sky, downwards an ever stretching smoothness of rock, in front of me a dusty path that stretched further and further.
At the moment I recalled many things that Edward Abbey wrote about Monument Valley in Utah:
“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear— the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, a thought, an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Indeed rock and sun compose the greatness of this landscape, with the hardness and the assurance of those things that need no nurture, that don’t grow and don’t die, just remain. Rock and sun, dust. There is something reassuring, transcendental and even biblical— “dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”— in being surrounded by rocks.
Writing about it now, about a month afterwards, I think of a more recent read, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Do you ever read something and think how you’ve wanted to express that but hadn’t found the right words? There is a part where Solnit writes:
“Solitude in the city is about the lack of other people or rather their distance beyond a door or wall, but in remote places it isn’t an absence but the presence of something else, a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or may not turn over.”
—Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Not an absence but the “presence of something else”, the presence of perennial things, beings that transcend time as we perceive it, in watches and calendars, and give us a glimpse of that other time, time as movement and stillness, time as things that remain: rock and sun. Perhaps these things that remain allow us to touch, if only briefly, the things that remain within our contingent existences.
“They say the sky is the same everywhere […] But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, li-ghter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”
Of all the cities I’ve visited, Cambridge is still one of my favourites, and a place very close to my heart. Its colleges, its trees, going punting in river Cam, the orchards, the sheep, the libraries, the bikes, the markets— Cambridge is just as soothing as it is inspiring for any fellow lover of literature or art. Its streets and alleyways are poetic in themselves; bricks and chimneys on one side, monumental gothic structures on the other.
Cambridge is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209. The University includes 31 colleges with different buildings all over the city: King’s College, Queen’s College, St. John’s College, Trinity College and Clare College among them.
The city is both vibrant and mysterious, full of life and yet strangely whimsical. It seems to go back in time a century every morning, with its traditional cafés and shops, its stone streets, old willows and wooden bridges—and then to come back to the present at night, its main streets filled with music and laughter, kebab places, international students everywhere. Some people say Cambridge is very similar to Oxford, both very old university towns, both undoubtedly pretty — but I think there are some things you can only see and feel in Cambridge.
Having been before in many cities that became books, I was amazed to see in Cambridge a book made into a city. Although perhaps it was just a city that made me feel I was in a book. Thomas Hardy said about Cambridge, “What institution is more majestic than Trinity College? […] There are towers and battlements and statues, and beside these things there are cloisters and gardens and bridges”. And certainly, towers, turrets, battlements and green extensions of grass compose the landscape surrounding river Cam. The cobbled streets almost always shine under the rain, and the yellow reflections of the street lamps and the chapels baths almost every building in its glow, even in the mist.
The heart of the city seems to be King’s College Chapel, gathering all the light around itself. A few blocks away, buried in bikes tied to every surface, there is The Eagle, the famous pub where Crick and Watson discovered the DNA structure in 1953. The whole city guardes important memories for knowledge and science; it was here where Stephen Hawking studied, worked and wrote his most important theories on relativity and the cosmos. And it is not hard to imagine it, with the amount of unkempt students that wander about the pubs, or that spend hours in Costa with no more company than a laptop and a pile of papers.
Cambridge is a good place to look around. People watching here turns almost always into a contemplative experience. The people, the tea rooms with fogged windows that cast an eerie glow on the street, the yellowish grey of the buildings, brick by brick, only interrupted by the sudden green of the trees and the grass. Every few streets there is a park, wide extensions of grass maintained in a perfect balance between neglect and artifice, or some shrubbery with eternally damp little flowers, trees that seem older than the colleges.
The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, being the fourth oldest university in the world. In its many colleges studied some of the most brilliant minds, like Newton, Darwin, Hausman, Keynes, Stern, Thackeray, E.M. Forster, Nabokob, Malcolm Lowrt, Sylvia Plath and Terry Eagleton. Many times, specially when punting, I wondered about what it must feel like to study in a university like this— are there any vestiges, any aura or atmosphere, around places where art has happened, where so much poetry has been written? There must be. However, the whole city seemed submerged in this kind of atmosphere for me, a timeless bubble where people were safe to contemplate and write and learn.
Not far from the centre, 20 or 30 minutes by bike, there is a place called The Orchard. It is a little cabin with outside seating where they bake the best scones in England. There, it is said, between apple trees and tall grass, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster sat to write. And it is hard to think of a better place to write, although Cambridge is full of them: riverside cafés, underground coffee shops, little tea rooms in every corner, giant trees perfect for reclining, comfortable benches in front of beautiful buildings, semi deserted pubs with thick wooden tables and huge chimneys.
Much of the time I spent in Cambridge, I spent in places like that. The rest of the time I was probably around Market Square. Old Market Square, where dozens of stands appeared every morning; fish, fruits, baked potatoes, kebabs and, above all, second-hand books. Two big stands had my attention, offering treasures buried beneath hundreds of best-sellers and paperbacks of all kinds. This is where my Agatha Christie collection started. Before, I had read Sparkling Cyanide and so the first book I bought in Cambridge was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where I met Hercule Poirot. Later I bought At Bertrams Hotel, where I found the best detective of all times, Miss Marple. Almost every week I would buy a paperback for one pound, which resulted in tremendous difficulties when going back to Mexico.
Apart from my Christies, in Market Square I found a beautiful edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass from 1971. A beautiful brown book with golden letters on its back and yellow pages. Later I also found a sixties edition of The Italian, a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, basically unknown now but very famous in its time, a red book with its title almost unintelligible. Radcliffe is one of the authors mention in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, one of the books I read before arriving in Cambridge. Some weeks after finding The Italian among piles of old Grisham’s novels, I decided to look for The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel which Austen’s heroine reads. I spent many months hunting for it among second-hands books, and I finally found it in Waterstones, a new Penguin edition, around a thousand pages long in tiny letters. This literary founding only increased my love for both the city and literature, so much I decided to get my degree on literature. Some other loves were also found, among them afternoon tea with lemon and milk, Chelsea buns and cycling.
Because Cambridge is a city to cycle. The place where I lived was about two miles away from King’s Parade, where I went almost every day, so a bike seemed to me the best transport. The city centre is completely covered in parked bikes and the number of cyclist is by far bigger than that of the car drivers, two facts that make me think of Cambridge with nostalgia now that I live in Mexico City. And having a bike there was a good idea… until November, where I started reconsidering after falling a couple of times due to the frozen streets. But my budget would not allow other types of transport, so reconsideration didn’t last long. I have always thought one can get used to anything, from two pairs of socks (the second over my jeans to avoid trapping in the wheels), to carrying a chain and lock and remembering where among that vast sea of bikes I had parked mine.
Still now I remember what it felt like to ride a bike from Parkers Piece to Hills Road, then through Cherry Hinton Road and Coleridge Road… even when much time passed until I knew who Coleridge was and how important his poetry would be for me. Much time passed, too, until I had to say goodbye to that grey bike that kept me company and whose little front basket carried my books so many times.
“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.” —Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.” —Gertrude Stein
For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.
The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.
It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.
Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.
Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.
Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.
Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.
Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.
Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.
The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.
If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).
And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.
In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.