Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tales of the road: part 10

There was a revolution while I was on vacation.

The protests in Cairo started January 25. I was in London, five days into my ramble and paying not much attention to the news. Won't last long, I thought, when I heard about it. Mubarak won't let it last long. While I went here and there amusing myself, frustrated Egyptians held out for change and 18 days later the strongman was gone. It was February 11 and I was making the return loop. It all looked the same in London, but the world had changed.

Unlike the Irish girl who quizzed me on Obama's re-election chances or the Belgian man who couldn't really believe we don't have a national heath care system, Americans don't give two shits about international news unless it affects their business interests or their family - with the exception of American Jews, who pay close attention to goings on in Israel. But word of people in the streets in middle eastern countries is a different animal. We see ghosts of Tehran 1979 and Saddam rolling into Kuwait and we wonder what this means to us and what's this going to cost us this time? Having had so much grief from Islamic fundamentalists the last thirty years we've got good reason to be wary. And besides, we're talking about Eqypt - a stable and predictable US ally for all those thirty years - not some wide spot in the road like Bahrain, or even obscure Tunisia. Eqypt matters.

While the youth movement was hoisting banners in Cairo, I was picking through postcards in Berlin showing similar, if whiter crowds massed in 1989 as the wall came down. Wandering through that tattered, glorious city I imagined what it could have been like to be held hostage in your own country - forced by wire and dogs and rifles to stay and subsist in a bleak world with no opportunity and little hope. Willing to risk your life to get away. Walking the Unter den Linden I thought about Berlin 1989 and Cairo 2011. They never built walls to keep people in Eqypt but twenty years later the world is completely different and completely the same.

Twenty years ago as a novice radio talk show host I learned how little people care about what's going on in the rest of the world, unless US troops are in the field. How hard it is to park your car in downtown Napa - that's a topic that lights up the phones. Gun control? Abortion? Taxes? People cared. Gorbachev and the European Union and Camp David round two? Crickets.

Why care about Eqypt? At the simplest level, our tendency to ignore the rest of the world doesn't work. We didn't care when young Iranians were pushing back against the Shah in the late 70s and our heads in the sand made us blind to the coming of the Ayatollahs. We've paid that price ever since. Right now it's easy to be amused by the guy from Google who tweeted a revolution and go back to watching TMZ. But listen, and you'll hear him say the US is no friend, the US backed Mubarak. Look, and see the Egyptian army driving American M1A1 Abrams tanks and flying the F16. The same US-funded army that kept Mubarak in power all those years, oddly now trusted to run things for awhile. We Americans like to root for the underdog and we like it when people clamor for democracy. But something tells me we wouldn't be warmly welcomed waving "Don't Tread on Me" in Tahir Square.

When the wall came down and the communists caved in some pundits said it was "the end of history" and we would now enjoy a "peace dividend." Instead we got Bosnia and the rampaging Russian mob. The populist wildfire in the middle east now has stirred the pot. It remains to be seen what meal will be served.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tales of the road: part 9

Last night a tight modern jazz quartet played on a houseboat on the Vltava river; sax, Gibson guitar, six-string bass and a drummer whose fast hands made his sticks look like the wings of a hummingbird. Between songs the front man chatted in Czech but now and then a phrase in English dropped in - "you know what women do to men" or "we've all been on that road before" - but the music was sexy and urgent, then sly and comic, and language was unnecessary for all of us listening.

Later at U Mahello Glena, a duo was starting up just as I walked down into the basement bar. One silent Czech, one talkative Brit, two guitars, in a room for about 20 people. The Brit was the lead, about 50, and had a raspy voice shades of Joe Cocker. Between songs he went on excitedly about a reunion show with old bandmates coming up this weekend in Putney. The local crowd didn't care much about his memories - the music was the story they wanted to hear.
Music cuts across all boundaries of ethnicity and language and space and time, from the American pop in the bars of London, to the hermit-like Dutchman spinning vinyl in Amsterdam, to the sad gypsy violinist playing for coins in Prague, the classical baritone singing on the underground in Berlin - the melodies and the harmonies and the rhythms and the dissonance align and realign in my mind and in my heart.

Not every music encounter has been joyous though. A few nights ago in Berlin, Henry and I went in search of a couple of possible hot spots, and end up talking with a bartender who draws us a very precise napkin map. As we're finishing our drinks, a man with a guitar comes into this full house. He looks like the love child of a coupling between David Bowie and Bob Dylan, if they both were crack addicts. A thinning mullet, even thinner denim jeans, the obligatory harmonica holder around the neck. He begins to play an old pop song and it sounds only vaguely familiar and he mangles the words in his thick accent. It takes awhile to figure out what he's trying to play. Henry and I suddenly become aware of a creeping stench in the bar. A moment of perplexity, then the realization it is the deep, intense type of body odor that suggests a portal to Hell has opened and the smell of eternal torment is leaking out. We exchange a look of Do you smell that? There is no one new near the bar. Henry says It's him, nodding toward the musician. Six people at the table next to us ask for their check with urgency. He launches into a misguided version of "Folsom Prison Blues" and now eternal damnation is audible as well as olfactory. Another table is up and walking out. then another. We ask for our check and hold our breath as we pass to the door.

On the street Henry tells me that in Berlin, street-type musicians come into bars and cafes, uninvited, and set up shop in the way you'd expect in the subways. They may be good or they may stink - literally - but the bar managers just let them be. even if they clear the room. I understand why Berliners like to avoid conflict, but they have some things to learn about capitalism.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tales of the road: part 8

Thursday February 3, 2011
In Berlin

That date up there - took me a little time to figure out what day of the week it was. Thirteen densely packed days on the road, a few thousand miles traveled, and I have lost track of time. I consider that a vacation success but at the same time I now see the end of the trip and the return to "reality."

Berlin is unlike any city I have visited. An architectural mish-mash of the old that survived and post-war modern, in parts as gritty as Times Square in the 1970s, as sleek in parts as Fifth Avenue or the Champs Elysses today. The uber-subculture of Tacheles feels like a cross between Mendocino County, a rave at robot wars and a spook house when the horrors are real, all under the blanket of an orderly city when pedestrians always, always wait for the green The streets fill with sober faces in a land that reveres beer.

After seven hours on the train from Amsterdam I went straight to an office building to meet my friend who teaches English in Berlin. I sat in on the class as he instructed five women, secretaries. Two of the women, each around 40, giggled like teens throughout. Both had grown up in the former East Berlin and would have been 20 or so when the wall came down. One of them repeatedly leaned over to her friend, looking at me, and speaking to her in German. Now and then she blushed as she giggled. My friend the teacher said, I'm going to have to separate you two.

Dozens of square miles of Berlin look wrecked, abandoned. Miles of graffiti and squatters taking over grand, ignored buildings, sometimes for art, sometimes for impromptu parties. The trash and chain link and broken things cast off remind me of bad sections of Chicago or Detroit. The city sprawls as I walk, festering in its past, fallow, but in all a promise of a flowering to come.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tales of the road, part 7

February 2, 2011
En route to Berlin

A thick mist makes Amsterdam even more gray as I join quiet crowds in the early morning.

(Note: A tip for travelers - getting a cheap hotel in the Red Light District may seem like a fun idea, but makes sense only if fun takes priority over sleep. Even on a Tuesday night, when all the red light windows were closed, the party in the street carried on to 3am, punctuated by drunken howls and cascades of stoned laughter.)

After 12 days on the road I am so complacent in my train-catching skills I come close to missing my intercity train to Berlin, standing on the platform watching it pull in and watching people get on and then realizing I should be getting on, too, about a minute before it pulls away. I take it as a sign to remain humble.

The unremitting gray persists across Holland and I think back to the dark paintings from Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" period that I viewed the day before, paintings set in places where there seems to be no light. Holland becomes Germany with just the faintest roll to the land, an occasional swell in the gray mist.

Across the aisle a man about 65 with a bristly black mustache below his shaved head wears tight black leather pants. I decide he is on his way to a reunion of former "Village People" tribute bands. In Osnabruck a chubby teenaged girl gets on carrying a 6 foot by 2 foot plastic rectangle and I spend miles trying to figure out what in the world it might be for and why she had to travel so far to get it. A stern-faced middle-aged woman walks purposefully on the platform wearing a hiker's backpack. The trackside graffiti is bland and monotonal. The visual verve of Amsterdam is far behind.

I doze and the cell phone conversation of the man behind me melds into my dreams.

Color, uninspired, but an effort, returns in Hannover. Miles of industrial sites and many cars. The graffiti looks more like tagging than art and Gothic cathedral spires have been replaced by TV towers with the VW logo. Two hours from Berlin it looks like a city in the American midwest. Hanover's parting shot: a hundred-foot long trackside tag says "This city licks my stinky cock," a statement that is both coarse and self-loathing.

The voice on the train announcing the stops keeps using the word "anschluss." To me, a word only associated with Hitler's annexation of Austria prior to the war. I realize the word must also mean "connection," which is why it keeps being said. Horrid, but not surprising, that I hear echoes of the Nazis as I approach Berlin.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tales of the road, part 6

Wednesday February 3, 2011

It's 1:11am in Berlin and my friend Henry is snoring like a banshee if banshees snored and I put on my headphones and write. Thirteen days into my travels some familiar music is nice, and putting words on "paper" is solace.

Four days/a lifetime ago, Sunday, In Brugges, I fought my instinct to just keep moving and after a battle with my intrinsic restlessness, I stayed another day. The reward was carillon bells and street scenes of grandparents and grandchildren partaking of simple joys and a huge pot of mussels Belgian style, like eating the ocean undiluted.

In the quiet time I thought back to a conversation with Patricia, the ex-pat American owner of the Jazz Bar who has lived in Belgium 20 years. She told me of her son who had dropped out of art school in Ghent and run way to live with Patricia's family in LA, where he is considered rude and overly opinionated and (God forbid) godless. There, he was asked if he believed in God, and answered Of course I don't, who believes in God? The family in LA being half Mexican Catholics, well, there's the rub.

Atheism in the US seems to be coming out of the closet the last few years despite the lingering posturing of the hard religious right, the remnants of the old Moral Majority. Recent writings by Chistopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and others have been best sellers, and even Ricky Gervais has weighed in on disbelief. Nonetheless, it remains de rigeur in the US to profess belief outwardly, regardless of one's true thoughts.

Not so in Europe, as illustrated by the story of Patricia's son. The irony is that these European cities full of atheists are full of churches - some of the most stunning, resplendent, imposing churches to be found, churches whose spires and bells loom over entire cities.

This day in Brugges I viewed a Groetmuseum display of entirely religious art, Flemish primitive painters, they're called, and the disconnect was front and center - the disconnect between the private beliefs of these Belgian and French and British and German museum patrons and the subject matter. Their forebears had a passion for the Passion, judgment and damnation and all the trappings. Today's viewers gave a lot of studious looks, and held quiet conversations, but there were no discernable moments of ecstasy or conversion taking place.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tales of the road: part 5

Monday February 1, 2011

There used to be a big name in radio, a guy called Paul Harvey, who would relate a story of some bizarre, usually abhorrent behavior in a foreign culture, and tag the story with the line "It's not one world." That was his code for saying white, Protestant, American culture was different and inherently better. Saner, logical, and just simply right.

In fact, it is, in so many ways, one world today. We've long lived in a universal Coca Cola and Levis world, but it goes so far beyond that now the sheer universality becomes boggling. For example:
  • Eating nachos in an Irish pub in Brussels
  • Watching "Jaws" on TV with Dutch subtitles
  • Following up nachos in Brussels with an Asian noodle dish served by an Irish girl in Brugges, in a bar with a Hindu theme
  • Meeting Mohammed on the TGV, a young man with Lebanese/Greek Cypriot parents who grew up in Kuwait and completed a degree in finance at Michigan and is now in a graduate program in London, and was on his way to celebrate in Amsterdam
  • Seeing little rural homes in Belgium from the train with their satellite dishes, junk cars and clutter of plastic kid's toys in the yard, and it all could have been Tennessee or Sheboygan or Fresno just the same
  • College girls on the train talking about One Tree Hill and How I Met Your Mother and half a dozen other American TV shows
  • European cats are just as indifferent as American cats
The takeaway for me: Paul Harvey was wrong and we are always more alike than we are different.

That said, there are lots of little things that are different in this part of Europe:
  • The Red Light windows of Amsterdam as neighbors to a pre-school and a renaissance church
  • People in coffeeshops rolling ginormous joints at 10am
  • Everyone speaking three or four languages comfortably
  • Getting a decent glass of wine for $4 everywhere
  • Intelligent grafitti
To that last point, an example or two, noting particularly that some grafitti here has an encouraging, rather than threatening tone, such as:
  • "MFA Angst!"
  • "Life's what you make it!"
  • "Believe life, not God"
  • "You're not Icarus, you'll make it."
This afternoon I met a 64-year old Indonesian-Dutch Army veteran of twenty years. He told me about getting a three-hour interrogation at the Houston airport when they learned he was born in Indonesia. He was on his way to visit his sister who lives on a farm in southern Arkansas. He told me what a good life that is.

So in the end, it's not a matter of better or worse, it's just that it's just one world.

Tales of the road, part 4

Monday January 31, 2011

My last night in Brugges I went back to the Jazz Bar. Patricia, the ex-pat American owner, had told me on my first visit that there would be live music. When I came in the second time she welcomed me and introduced me to her friends, regulars at her place.

Torben was a tall, bright-eyed, rustic, self-deprecating Dane with long hair and a beard and a fondness for mushrooms and make-believe in the forest - perhaps one leading to the other. Natalie with the beaming smile was born in the US but never lived there. When she told me her name she said it in a flat nasal way, mimicing how she thought Americans sound when they say it.

Patricia told them I was a writer and an actor and they began to tell me of their recent parts in a "theater play," as Torben called it, in Ghent. I asked what they play was about and they looked at each other and smiled and rolled their eyes and said they really weren't sure, except for a theme of "men are pigs." Some things are the same in all cultures, I said. They all agreed that Heidi, when she got there, could tell me more about it. She will tell you more about everything, Torben said. If you don't want to listen to her all night, don't talk to her. Everyone laughed.

Heidi arrived soon, and Torben got up from his seat next to me, guaranteeing that she would sit next to me, and then he smiled at me from the end of the bar - a smile that said get ready to have your ear talked off. He bought a round. We drank. I bought a round. We drank more.

Heidi spoke with a faint accent of London and told me she came from a weird ethnic mix that included some Huron Indian. She lifted her unwashed lanky bangs to show me a purple-red glow on her forehead that looked like the kind of bruise you'd get from falling down stairs. This is proof of my Huron blood, she said. Her teeth were proof of her English blood, a fact I determined on my own.

Later we smoked outside and she told me that she and Torben had been lovers. What she didn't say was that she was still in love with him, but from the way she looked at him it was another thing I determined on my own. She talked of her frustrations trying to get published and with her job as a translator. She told me Patricia was false and superficial, and Brugge was boring, and many other things, and eventually she said If you weren't a tourist I would take you home with me. I smiled but kept to myself the thought that even if I weren't a tourist, I wouldn't go.