The Quest for Johanna

Trip Start Nov 01, 2004
Trip End Dec 07, 2004

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Flag of Czech Republic  ,
Thursday, November 25, 2004

On dark mornings amidst the best (and worst) minds of my generation, I slipped into the solace of my head phones. Most often I would fall asleep to the poetry of Bob Dylan. 'Visions of Johanna' was most poignant.

And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it.

Louise held a handful of rain, (not water) and tempted many to defy it. She danced in the warm summer rain on the beaches of the North Sea; she slid and played in the slush that glazed Max Euweplein after a hail storm in Amsterdam; she walked the streets of Berlin, amphetamine coursing through her veins after nights in the shanty clubs that pump blasts of Techno music throughout the German night; she persisted in keeping the day alive after the summer rain had driven the sane indoors and midnight had long passed in Paris; she howled with the wanderers of the night whom she met in the streets of Tangier.

Louise, she's all right, she's just near. She's delicate and seems like the mirror.
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna's not here.
The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.

Louise was an imitation, a figure that acted out an ideal, but was never that ideal herself. She was the Australian girl who lied and said she was twenty-one. She allowed the all night boys to get her drunk and tell her lies. One of them told her he was a writer for Rolling Stone, and in her swoon she believed him. Sometimes a friend dragged her to her own bed, before the boys could drag her to theirs. When no friend was around the boys had their way. She imitated a speech she thought was cool, that she hoped would win acceptance. She told the boys that this was the life she loved, just living it and taking the little that came her way in terms of money and experience. In truth, she sent home to her parents for money several times during her gap year. Louise embodied many girls in many places; girls who glimpsed a bohemian life of wanderlust, and tried to be that life. Louise was the girl that would do for now, until the better girl came along. The better girl lived without delusions and without striving for acceptance, she embodied a moment without effort. She was Johanna, the absent lover of the mind.

In the empty lot where the ladies play blind man's bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the "D" train.
Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me.
He's sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I'm in the hall.

There were the young boys. They were all so useless, but so intriguing in their youthful devotion to pleasure. There was the scruffy one dressed like a time-lost Beatnik with his perfect unkept hair, tight fitting jeans, and bandana collar. Before his six month jaunt through Europe, he had been 'just living' in San Francisco, where the rent isn't cheap. 'I like it this way,' he said of his depraved life on the streets of Europe. 'I don't like to know where I will be next. I like having to find my kicks without pockets full of money.' He never seemed to run out of money to pay the whores one thousand Crowns an hour for their services, or for the small bags of Cocaine and Marijuana he bought from a bartender at the bar downtown.
There was the boy from Australia. One night he was eighteen, another he was twenty, still another night he was twenty-four. He wore a struggling beard and an amiable grin that was able to win over most of the faces he met. 'Sorry. I love talking to you, but I've got to work on this article I'm writing for Rolling Stone,' he told Louise before disappearing to his dorm room to touch flame to teacups of Absinthe.
There was the boy from Texas who wore a leather bracelet studded with metal spikes that he said, 'tells people I'm tougher than they are.' He stayed in the hostel much of the time, smoking and drinking Budvar and Pilsner Urqeull from pint bottles that the hostel sold for sixteen Crowns. He made sidelong glances at the tourists who told stories of their trips to the Museum of Modern Art, the Torture Museum, or the Communist Museum. (The Communist Museum, by the way, is housed in a building owned by McDonald's.)
There were the young British boys wearing turtleneck sweaters, watching the futbol matches by day and haunting the streets of Zizkov, the workers quarter, by night. The favorable exchange of British to Czech currency made for easily afforded weekend jaunts of prurient indulgence.
In Prague, the all-night girls prowl train stations at night. Together though, these boys visited the all-night girls at the Red Light Bar, a house with more privacy than the cavernous nadrazi. They staggered back to the hostel to be greeted by the less promiscuous guests drinking and laughing to the late hours in the common room. There was the Australian man and his wife who had turned a profit when they sold their home and used some of the cash for a six month tour of Europe. There was the German school teacher, the oldest guest of the hostel, who sat in the armchair scribbling away twenty pages a day on an historical novel set in Prague. There were the reserved British girls on the couch speaking to each other and taking in the scene. They had never left Albion before this trip. There were countless other travelers passing through for a few nights or a few weeks. The useless boys barged through the door letting the chill December air flood the smoke filled room.
'O my god,' said the Australian boy to the room in general. Already his entrance had won an audience.
'Where have you been?' asked the German school teacher. 'Back to the whore house again?' He had been in his chair writing for enough late nights to know the patterns of these boys.
'O yeah, we were,' said the alleged Beatnick. 'It was amazing. And on the cab ride home,' he paused and spread his arms dramatically like a soccer player that had just scored a goal, 'the cab driver gave me a line of coke. I blew it right off the dash board.' He brought one arm down in a triumphant stroke.
'I feel so good right now,' said the Aussie as he threw himself into a chair, his fingers shaking in a cocaine rush. The others had slid inconspicuously past the crowded room to the sanctuary of their beds.
'So what's it like there?' asked a hippie from the couch. 'They give you the whole shebang?'
'They're just sitting there in beds and you walk from room to room to pick the one you want.' He leaned forward and shook his head as if he had just emerged from water. 'Some of 'em were just laying there doing their homework.' He shook his head again as if the thought were too much for him to take.

'Quite a night, wasn't it? How did you sleep?' Steve asked the next morning.
'Oh, no,' he said. 'I didn't really tell everyone, did I?' A few that witnessed his late night confession laughed and assured him that he had told all. He hung his head in embarrassment, an amiable gesture that suggested innocence; that perhaps the previous night had only been an aberration from a less lascivious lifestyle. There are no Johanna's at the Red Light Bar, not even a Louise in that house of ill-repute.

The peddler now speaks to the countess who's pretending to care for him saying, "Name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him"

Some of the traveling youth are parasites. Some are parasites that have always been so and some are decent people who have been overcome by the freedoms found in anonymity and the indulgences of lands with liberal or lax laws. Part of the vision of Johanna is a hope that in traveling one will leave behind the familiar faces, old haunts, heartbreaks, and sour memories of a hometown and find a culture that offers hope-a culture not of parasites, but one worthy of a prayer.

Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze, I can't find my knees"

There was the man who couldn't find his knees. I knew him in too many places, too many half deserted streets, muttering retreats, under too many red rocks. He was in Amsterdam by the smart shop, chewing mushrooms on the street corner. He stumbled over the paving stones, oblivious to traffic crying, 'I have no body. I have no body. I have no bowdy-dy-dy.'
There were the two girls from Pakistan that were not used to alcohol. One sat on the floor in the hall crying and asking why. Why had she come and subjected herself to this? Her pleas trailed off and rose again in high pitched squeals and rants, flowing from English to Urdu and back again.
The man with no knees was on the couch telling us all to believe as the Vodka made his knees among the unfound. 'Believe, believe, believe,' he slurred as he slid down the stairs- the Vodka at the bottom of the bottle going with him to a transitory bed.
There was the girl convulsing among the cigarette butts, stale beer, vomit, saliva, and sweat on the dance floor. The gyrating bodies around her took an eternity to notice, to take the time from their Dionysian ritual to pick her up and rescue her poisoned blood. She could not find her knees and was not Johanna.

We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight, ask himself if it's him or them that's really insane.

Is it she or them that are really insane? Is it the travelers that are insane- the youth, greedy for experience in the unexplored darkness of night's promiscuity? Or is it them, the work today, get-by-if-you-try's? Is it those in the shelter of a quiet home while the traveler dances, for life or for death, on the dirty floor of a foreign night?

But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel
Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues. You can tell by the way she smiles.

For the vast majority Johanna is a vision. Johanna is the thing that hangs in the back of one's mind- the knowledge that life, as one truly desires it to be, is elsewhere. Johanna is the perfect lover, the one with whom to embrace life and youth. Johanna is a state of mind. Attainment of Johanna is a condition of pure contentment. For most, Johanna never comes. But it is the search- the visions of Johanna- that fuel mad voyages through unknown lands, sleeping in dirty beds alongside strangers, while the youth of a generation expend themselves upon the excesses of nations unfamiliar.
There is the lucky one- the one who has sifted through the wandering Louise's of the world and found Johanna. They lie entwined in an eddy of this too big world while the torrent of their generation rages in waves around them. They observe the torrent from a place of peace.

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.

By night the travelers ambled through the dark streets of lonely, depraved Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, and countless other cities where ones anonymity is both a quest granting blessing, and a loneliness bestowing curse. There was the music playing behind this scene that really was nothing to turn off. The heat pipes coughed in the staccato walls of centuries old homes, gutted and reborn as the hostel retreats of a generation. In Prague, the heat staved off the encroaching winter nights of a cold city with a colder past. The music played over the unending conversations between ever changing faces. The music echoed in the smoke filled chasms of bars and hostel common rooms; flowed in mellifluous rivers behind the yelling and the clinking of glass. The music played for the eager grasping of life and the numb stoned disregard for life, alike. The music serenaded the energy and the lethargy; the real and the unreal.

We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it

The music played behind the wandering search to find something- the visions of Johanna. We were all stranded-some accepted it, some revolted against it with fervor, still others were unaware or in denial. We found much on the road: friends, memories, experiences, cold nights in hollow stations, and warm nights in lovers' arms. But for all, the answer- the Johanna- that was supposed to come from traveling, from 'just living' (as the more naive or perhaps hopeful called it) was just out of grasp. It was not beyond reach though, and it was the reaching that made the journey unforgettable.
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