Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Travel Logs: Londontown

Today in London, people are in the streets burning shit. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon these days, rioting being the preferred method to make a political or cultural statement. It seems like widespread hooliganism to me and I can only begin to comprehend the impetus for it, since I don't know the first thing about being an underprivileged immigrant.

But I'm not on here to write political commentary...the last time I did that I got crucified for being un-American (God help us, that's the last thing we can be). You see, I was just in London, I left ten days ago, and everything seemed so perfectly fine there. I was struck by how international and culturally diverse a city it is: New York has nothing on London. In fact, I noted that the percentage of white British-looking citizens was rather low compared to people of Middle/Far Eastern and African descent. London was absolutely bursting with life and color and seemed the model of peaceful diversity. People will complain about the immigration issue and say Britain has lost her britishness...but has she?

At ever monument, museum or historical site we visited, there were tons of people who were clearly Indian. And I noted how attached they seemed to the history and significance of each site, how much they identified with it, how deeply intertwined they are with all things royal and imperial. If you have studied British colonialism as I have, this makes perfect sense, for Indian people were taught for over a century to love the Queen and speak the Queen's English. Some African nations have a similar history, as do some Caribbean islands, and some Middle and Far Eastern nations. Britain once ruled the world, and in the end rulers pay a forcing out the conquered people's culture, and pressing their own values on that people, they create a situation where the conquered people's grandchildren identify more with the imperialists' culture. They naturally gravitate to the motherland as a touchstone for all things prosperous and hope-filled. But when she disappoints, when she does not open her arms, and offer her riches to them, the resentment inevitably grows.

Enough socio-political commentary from me...I await my excoriation.

If, after reading the news, you still want to take a trip to London, I highly recommend it. London is one of the most delicious shopping experiences I have ever had, and treated me to some of the most memorable sights of my life. I saw the Rosetta Stone, the mummies, and the Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum. I visited the Tower of London, saw the place where Anne Boleyn had her head forever severed from her body. I visited Shakespeare's oh-so-original Globe Theater, and had the deep pleasure of standing at the foot of the stage for three hours as a "grunt" while watching a fabulous play. We walked all over that city, and took the tube, and rode the double-decker red bus, to Bloomsbury and the British Library where some of my favorite authors and poets lived and wrote, and even down to the rocky shore of the Thames where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. We took very short trips through the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, which hold very fine collections. I saw the gravesites of some of the most famous men and women of all time at Westminster Abbey. And I had tea, of course, and it was perfect.

Going to London was important to me because it told me things about myself, from whence I came. I identify with that nation, and so do many people all over the globe. England is as British as she ever was, and what she does about the immigration "problem," only time will tell.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Travel Logs: Amsterdam

Amsterdam. We've been in Germany for a year and hadn't visited, so it was high time (no pun). We gathered opinions on what the most important sights were, and headed off for a super quick one-night stay. The kids were left with friends, since I was adamant we visit the famous Red LIght District.

I highly recommend seeing this city in fall, it was just too perfect, even the weather seemed suited to sitting outside at a cafe or coffeeshop. When we entered the Netherlands, the scenery changed, flattening out and revealing green pastures as far as the eye could see. The natural watery state of things leads to absolutely lush greenery and foliage. Upon entering Amsterdam, we found the city had its own unique palette. If you've studied the Dutch Rennaissance you are already familiar with this color scheme: a stark black background filled with shocks of color and light. The city is populated with brownstones, some of which have been painted black or grey, so they sit as dour as the old Dutch burghers who once ruled the country in their suits of black. The only ornamentation is the occasional pop of red or gold color in the shutters and signs. Even the residents of this city seem to have imbibed this palette and wear loads of black with bits of red or other color accessories.

Our first stop was the Rijksmuseum, housing several of Rembrandt's masterpieces, such as the Night Watch and The Jewish Bride. The latter piece stopped me dead in my tracks, fortunately there is a bench in front of it, where I planted myself and just stared agape at this stunning work for awhile. The colors, again: red and gold, are palpable, the paint loaded on with an incredibly generous spatula. Van Gogh said of this painting, "What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting. Believe me, and I mean this sincerely, I would give ten years of my life to be allowed to sit before this painting for fourteen days with just a crust of bread to eat." Dutch paintings have gained their world renown for a reason: they are innovative and unique in their color and detail. I stood before a tiny Adrien Coorte still-life, a white moth flying about fruits and spargel, set off by an inky black field, enamored almost to the point of tears. To see these works in person, after growing up learning about them in textbooks, was a truly full-circle experience for me. They are must-see works which no reprint in a text can reproduce accurately or at least not with fidelity.

We followed our art museum time with a visit to the Anne Frank House. The original building where Anne and her family hid during the Holocaust has been preserved and turned to a museum. The experience of touring this slender brownstone, walking the rickety stairs to Anne's shared bedroom, feeling the claustrophobia firsthand, is not the territory of writers, it can only be felt in person. The emotions I experienced in that place are ones I think everyone should have, they are sobering beyond description. At the end of the tour, there is a life-size photograph of Anne's father, standing in the house after the Holocaust, alone, the sole Frank family survivor of the death camps. He is standing where the sunlight is falling on him with a look so haggard and bereft, and I felt looking at him how little the sun meant to him, a man whose one ambition was to save his family.

Amsterdam has something for everyone. If art and history are not your thing, they've got debauchary too. I'm not looking down my nose at you, I promise! I looked forward to seeing the Red Light District above all else and it did not disappoint. We arrived at dusk on a Friday night, so the scene was really cranking up: the red neon lights glowed on scantily-clad prostitutes of all ages, shapes and colors. There is even an "Informational Museum" where the more intellectual of sinners can listen to a lecture on the facts about prostitution. The word on Amsterdam's Red Light is that stringent measures have cleaned up the scene, cracking down on illegal practices by organized crime groups and human trafficking rings. This is a bit comforting, though the thought that some women could be there against their own will is very upsetting to me. If women want to dance in windows, I'm fine with it, but no human should ever be enslaved and forced to sell their own body.

After the lurid glows of the Red LIght, the Coffeeshop district is a nice change of pace. The air is redolent of grass, and everyone is very chill, no packs of boys guffawing as there had been in the RL. The bars and restaurants in this area are a great place to sit outdoors and drink and observe the scene. If smoking weed isn't your thing, don't worry, it's still a pleasant place to hang out. The legality takes away all the scuzziness usually associated with marijuana. Amsterdam is truly fascinating for its ability to integrate practices considered illegal in the U.S. into mainstream society. You will even see families carrying their children down the streets of the Red Light with no sign of disturbance. Throughout Europe I've noticed the lack of shock factor associated with the naked body; it's everywhere and nobody even notices, even kids. It just goes to show stigmas breed a climate of shame and evil that may not even be legitimate.

Amsterdam is a place to visit with your mind open. It's a one-of-a-kind city, startlingly beautiful with its canals and gardens, culturally and intellectually stimulating, and irresistibly provocative. Don't just read about it. Go there.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Hole

Loneliness is a hole in your backyard
You dug with your brother and knew
No one could ever reach China,
But you kept digging until you hit water,
And now your dad wants you to fill it
But you can’t no matter how hard you try.
Do you even want to? The water,
Being the invasive bastard it is, seeps
From every crack in the soil,
Threatening brothers with a pond
The bereft mother earth cries, unabating.
Your biology teacher says water
Is the greatest solvent, Washing away
Even the worst crimes?
, you wonder.
Its particles so unstable it is constantly
Bonding together and then parting ways.
These fragile bonds lasting a trillionth of a second
More of an attraction than a true bond.
All this loss is a cycle you are caught in now
And the hole has no woman-shaped cork.
If you could take her hand and lead her back
To the cliff of that hole in the earth
And show her the map two boys drew
Of a yard as big as a continent and a hole
The size of Texas! (your daddy said),
Would she know what you were trying to tell her?
Or would she be content to be the lost element
Bouncing, floating, seeping, away?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Favor of My German Life

I've been in the states for over three weeks now, and frequently get asked, "Do you like living in Germany?" to which I always reply, "I LOVE living in Germany, I never want to move back to the U.S." I realize people are just trying to be polite and show interest, but their bewilderment at my response has surprised me. Invariably they will look at me with shock and say, "Really, WHY?" This scenario has been repeated ad nauseam since I've been here in Mississippi visiting my parents. Which leads me to the conclusion that Americans really are what Europeans think we are: the most arrogant citizens of planet Earth. I'm afraid Americans really believe they live in the only decent country, and are shocked to hear that people actually flourish and lead fulfilling lives on other continents. Americans really must believe that we hold the copyright on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Newsflash: Germans are happier than you. I don't mean they are as gregarious and raucous as you, but they are certainly happier in a quieter way. Their lives are simpler, greener, more active, more social, and more creative than yours. If asked to show any scientific proof for this claim, I probably couldn't actually find any, but it is my theory and is based on my own observations over the last year.

One indication that life is better in Germany: Americans don't want to leave once they move there. Every time I've watched an Army family pack up and go back to the U.S., it's been with heavy hearts, knowing they would not find the things they valued about life in Germany back in the states. I also know quite a few ex-pats living on the economy working civilian jobs. They are mostly young and single, and they all think they've hit the jackpot; I don't know a single one who wants to quit their job and go back to America.

When I tell Americans how much I love my German life, they protest, "Oh, but you have the American commissary to shop at, and American friends in you American post housing. You have the best of both worlds!" Though I concede I do have it much easier, I don't think my ex-pat friends are suffering. They enjoy much more healthy and natural food at the local groceries, they have friends that come from all over the globe, and though the rent can be steep, they have some pretty cool digs. So I'm not buying that military benefits are the reason why I love Germany.

The lifestyle Europeans embrace is so much more communal. I think of life in America as a series of movements from one air-conditioned space to another; in a word: synthetic. I used to live in my air-conditioned 4 bedroom home and then get into my massive air-conditioned SUV to go to the next air-conditioned space. All that artificial air never did anything for me. I wasn't happy. I had extra rooms in my house filled with extra stuff, but it didn't contribute to my happiness in any way. I lived in a nice home in the suburbs, but I only knew one neighbor, and felt completely isolated and miserable out in that neighborhood built on a prairie. Guess what? I'm happier living in a 2-bedroom apartment where my kids have to share a room. Sure, we get cabin fever, and sure, it gets hot with no air-conditioning, but that forces us to get out and so we are more social than we have ever been in our lives. I've realized I'm a rather extraverted introvert, and I really flourish when I get out and spend time on the lawn with my neighbors or at the pub with our friends. Germans eat outdoors at cafes and biergartens during all the warm months, because it's too hot to be indoors. The resulting atmosphere is pure magic, and something that is sadly lacking in America.

I don't always use my car to travel and that makes me feel good. I walk to work, my husband bikes there. We can hop on the streetcar and go downtown with a crowd full of people, or we can simply walk there in 20 minutes. There's a bakery and a florist two blocks away, or Italian restaurants two blocks the other direction. My daughter will attend kindergarten at a German katholische kirche in the fall, only a block away. I love the simplicity and safety of our life. I have never felt unsafe when alone, and never heard of any crime committed in our city at all. In Mississippi, my parents have moved out even further than the suburbs, outside city limits, in order to live in a peaceful crime-free neighborhood, so it takes 30 minutes in the car to get anywhere you want to go. I hate it. I hate the waste of gas. I hate being trapped in a car for so long, driving so slowly. In Germany, I hop on the autobahn, speed up to 95 miles per hour (152 km/h), feel a thrill as I watch my digital speedometer hit 152, and arrive at IKEA in minutes. When Germans do drive, they do it right!

Germans live more simply and more earth-consciously. They recycle absolutely everything, if it can't be recycled, you won't see it in their grocery. They share homes, turning them into multi-family flats, only the rich live in their own single-family home. We live in a stairwell with six apartments, and share 3 washers and 3 dryers in the basement with everyone else. Oddly enough, I enjoy it, and now find the big homes on big lots in America a gross waste of resources. People laugh at me for driving a MINI Cooper with two kids, but I love the thrill of zipping around in a small car in the midst of a sea of tiny cars, using less gas, being more energy-conscious. I don't miss my Yukon at all.

Germans are the most aware people I've ever met. They are in tune with the world around them, gardening prolifically, going wandern (hiking) every weekend, biking everywhere imaginable. They know about other cultures, speak multiple languages (English perfectly), and have traveled broadly. Life in Heidelberg is filled with cultural and artistic opportunities, and they never let bad weather keep them in or limit their activity. When the World Cup arrived, die fussball was king. Germans breathed soccer, it was on everyone's lips. I never even knew the World Cup was going on when I lived in the U.S. I have never seen such fervor and passionate support of any sporting event in the U.S., not for the Super Bowl, not even for the Olympics. It felt like the whole city turned out for public viewings in Heidelberg, watching on huge screens at biergartens. The excitement was so contagious, everyone in my family caught the bug. My son will be playing soccer in the fall as a result.

National pride is real in Germany, and in other European nations I've visited. They know who they are; Americans don't seem to have much of an identity beyond being materialistic. All I see in the states is a land of people obsessed with getting bigger and better stuff before they die and leave it to their heirs to sort through and dispose of the crap. I don't think U.S. citizens will ever return to that strong sense of nationalism they once had, mostly because too many pointless conflicts have left them bereft of any sense of patriotism.

If I had my way, I'd be a permanent ex-pat, exploring a world of new and better landscapes. For now, I try to satiate my wanderlust in expectation of eventually being sent back to the land of my birth. For the record: America's a bit vanilla for my taste, and I'm enjoying every scrumptious bite of my German chocolate cake.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Travel Logs: Italy, July 2010

Ahhh, Italia, sun-soaked land of wine and fabulous cuisine, also, the poster child for why Socialism doesn't work, and the land the toilet seat manufacturers forgot.

In 2008, I visited for the first time and fell in love with this zany laid-back heel of Europe. Two years later, coming from Germany, I wondered what I saw in it the first time. Compared with Deutschland Italy looks like third-world chaos. Laziness and corruption are an accepted part of life in Italy, with Rome being the centerpiece of all that is wrong with Italy.

We spent a day in Rome to see the Vatican, which we'd missed out on the previous trip. Big mistake. This happened to be the day after Italy lost their match with Slovakia, putting them out of World Cup contention. Apparently the rail workers and metro employees decided to hole up in their beds and make love to a bottle of grappa rather than cope with daily life...trains and metro lines were shut down due to strikes, and we were gouged by taxi drivers as a result (what is with us and taxi drivers? my kids will have no college fund once they are finished with us!) We finally saw the Sistine Chapel, a lifelong goal of mine, and I have to give Michelangelo credit, his ceiling frescoes are far superior to the wall painting by his contemporaries in the chapel, and painting was only his secondary medium! The guy was a genius, and I'm grateful for the chance to appreciate the tender beauty of his depictions.

Next, we spent two days on the beach in Tirrenia, and this was probably the highlight of the trip for me. Sitting on the sand next to a gorgeous Mediterranean, doing absolutely nothing. My kind of vacation. We enjoyed sea kayaking and Breck fell in love with boarding. The view was quite interesting, with gorgeous Italians prancing up and down the beach, doing their ocean version of the piazza passeggiata (stroll). They love to see and be seen, it seems. I don't think my kids even noticed any of the breasts on display, since there were so many Italian men sporting speedos, flowing locks, and huge pectorals, gender was a thin line.

We revisited the Cinque Terre and Tuscany for old times sake, and to introduce Joel's parents to our favorite places in Italy. Cinque Terre remains one of the best spots in Italy, unspoiled riviera towns with gorgeous views of houses clinging to the cliffs above the Med. I did notice a lot of tourists this time, and I'm afraid too many Americans have discovered this area, but I'd still go back for the chance to do some diving off those huge boulders in the ocean.

San Gimagnano and Volterra remain favorite hill towns in Tuscany for us. This region has everything you want from Italy: the best local cuisine, the most perfect red wine from the Sangiovese grape (Brunello), and beautiful poppy and cypress tree littered vistas. This is the land of vineyards and friendly wineries, the land that has inspired so many artists and authors.

Italy really is lovely, in spite of its inefficiency, terrible traffic, and alas! disdain for toilet seats (have I mentioned how much this bothers me?). On our drive down, we stopped over at Lake Lugano on the border of Switzerland and Italy for some picture-postcard views out of our windows at the charming Hotel Caroline (Brusimpiano, IT). The entire drive down through Switzerland was like a postcard photo, and I finally understood Richard Wilbur's rapture when he wrote, "the slightest shade of you valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes." All these lovely vistas, they really are worth all the minor travel headaches it took to see them. As the ebullient Italians say, "Ciao bella! Grazie! Ciao!Ciao! Grazie! Ciao!"
Once is never enough :)