Sunday, January 13, 2008

Things Look Better When You Put Them in a Circle

That's actually what it says on a German postcard I have. Inside the circle are some emails from people I met in Berlin at dance clubs and art galleries. I was glad to rediscover them and stay in touch. In the spirit of circles, I thought I should post a non-chronological summary of my exciting travels in Germany, since I never did that when I came back.

First of all, the boundary between art and everything else doesn't exist in Germany. Public art is everywhere, which I envied on numerous occasions. That is probably what I loved most about public spaces in Europe. There is, of course, indoor art. But I noticed that people wore their clothes like pieces of art, erected their lives around art, and lived for kultur. Pictured on the right is the farmer's market beneath the Munster Cathedral in Freiburg. Cities themselves, and city planning in general, is done with a better understanding of the public sphere and aesthetics (with gains for efficiency) in mind.

The people of the Eastern part of post-DDR Germany have a collections of "degenerate" art and public Marxist artifacts that isn't often seen. In Chemnitz and Leipzig I attempted to understand the important German art movements of the 20th Century, adding new interpretations to older forms.

I noticed that German girls were startlingly cute but could at times be eccentrically deterministic. At least one German girl whom, for whatever reason the cosmos has, always did her laundry exactly when I did mine. There was something oddly fatalistic about the whole place though. Germans are serious and simultaneously not-serious about folklore and other myths in places like Bavaria and Baden-Wurtemberg. For one weekend I stayed with on a family farm in the Schwarzwald and learned how they make Schnapps from apples. Then I hiked 40 kilometers into the wood and ruined my Birkenstocks - (silly Northwesterners use them for everything.) All is well that ends well, however - I met a German hiking troupe who shared a backpack full of white wine with me and we hiked back to Gengenbach together.

On the other side of the Rhine, French women live under a completely different cultural logos. (But I visited in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region, which I'm led to believe is less French than, say, Paris.) On the other side of Munich, Czech women can be assigned very astute gender codes. The image of the half-naked woman holding a Kalashnikov in one hand and in the other hand a bottle of vodka (or MP3 player) is evidence of one kind of male-dreamt phantasy leftover from the Soviet-era: but half-naked women with guns are supposed to be hot on both sides of the Atlantic. But after visiting the museum of communism, Kafka's museum, and more "degenerate art", the lens I viewed the Eastern parts through was probably tainted by cultural impressions of post-Soviet transitioning. (That impression is probably what drives part of the tourist industry there too.) The Czech women I met in Prague were adventuresome and liked to dance.

Did I mention that the G8 Summit also occurred while I was in Germany? (Time is a circle, right?) Unfortunately that was in the northernmost part of the country while I was studying EU agricultural policies (see "Viticulture and Capitalism") and EU expansionism in the southernmost part, Freiburg im Breisgau. Otherwise I certainly would have been there filming on behalf of the independent media collective. "Stop G8" was spraypainted in yellow and red all over Freiburg.

Looking back, annoyance was a dominant theme in my trip. At the Dachau Concentration Camp, the American students I was with annoyed me spectacularly. American tourists also annoyed me at bars and various other places in Munich. It seemed I could not escape the pervasive tentacle-ish expanse of American culture even while overseas. I wanted to know Germans, not Americans, especially not crude Americans. It almost sounds cliché to talk about the ugly American, but since most of my friends aren't ugly Americans, I was really surprised that the other students in fact were. It threw me off-guard. I remember two students from Claremont talking about wearing fur coats, how fashionable it is, and how animal rights activists can go to hell. They were loud and had short attention spans too. I wanted to puke my vegetarian food all over them.

At one point I analyzed a lecture at the university in Freiburg by a well-known American intellectual, Saskia Sassen. After studying European politics, I looked back on American sedition laws with sickening disapproval. Police states seem to bubbling up everywhere though.

I made a twelve-day excursion to Turkey, and feared that I was going to be stuck there during a riotous military coup. The AK party was re-elected 4 days later after I left. In Ankara, the capital, I visited the mausoleum of "the father of the Turks", Ataturk, and felt something Stalinist crawl up my spine. In my entries, however, I did not purposely leave out all the good things there is to say about Turkey. There are many good things to say about Turks, just not Turkish politics. Americans tend to see Turkey as setting "an example" for democracy in the "Islamic" or "Arab World" and I think that's very degrading. Turks are not Arabs; there is a high degree of animosity between Arabs and Turks. So if anything they're setting an example for other Turkish nations. (Invading Northern Iraq is not setting a good example!)

A Turkish man told me this joke: What are the three shortest books in the world? Let me tell you. The first is the connoisseur's guide to English cuisine; the second is the comedian's guide to understanding German humor; and the third is the Turkish guide to Turkish democracy.

I should mention the haikus I wrote. Back in the EU zone, I waxed poetically on everything from sidewalks and physiology exhibits to the primacy of vegetables and the day that cameras will rule the world.

Wayfaring my way to Nuremberg, school was out and I was free to be thoughtful and artsy in my own little world. In Dresden I over-Sartreized the pleasures I took in traveling. I spent a day in Wittenberg and visited all the places where Martin Luther had lived and taught. In Hamburg I must have gone to a dozen art galleries, all of them very good. I also met a house DJ on the Reperbahn (a popular street for clubs and prostitution) who invited me to a house party. We got very drunk. My impression of Bremen is that it's a sleepy town, and that probably has to do with the fact that I arrived too late for my hostel reservation and I ended sleeping in a park by a bed of flowers and under a windmill. It was dreamy and allergenic at the same time! But, it was summer season, and I found that to be a rather quixotic adventure in itself.

Another quixotic adventure took place in a small Dutch town where, because I was stranded at a train station after midnight, I met a married Bulgarian gypsy couple and they invited to stay at their home for the night. (No, it didn't end up the Tarantino film "Hostel" - I escaped the next morning safe and sound.) We watched a Bulgarian gypsy movie on their television and talked about all sorts of things using a pidgin version of Turkish and German, since neither of us could find a satisfying common language. I thought they were very hospitable and came to my rescue just when I unexpectedly needed it. But they were also too hospitable, since they made me an exorbitant amount of food to spoil me and make me feel like some sort of king. It was also unnerving since they wanted me to eat while they watched.

I can understand their traditionalist background, but that was too disturbing for me. I ate a couple tomatoes and then I said I was full just to be polite. The whole ordeal was the Bulgarian gypsy's husband's fault though, since he ordered the wife around like a farm dog while he insisted that we men lay back, relax, and smoke cigarettes. My disgust soon overcame my gratefulness and I left early the next morning.

Amsterdam is one of the freest cities in the world, and my time their was too short. But, I must say, Berlin is really where I felt situated as if I belonged there. It's incredibly diverse and has all the freedom and accompaniment of intelligent, sexy people I could have imagined. I visited fewer art galleries in Berlin than Hamburg because the city was too spectacular not to live in it and introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you. Berlin is where I met the swinging, transsexual dancer from London, who goes by the name "Hollywood". One Friday we partied all night in a former nuclear power plant, though it's now turned into a 4-story dance club, and we hung out with a group of refined party-tourists from Madrid. Two brunettes from Paris, Marie (and Marion?), especially excited from all the speed they took, led us to some very wild night clubs. In the taxi Marie laughed and said to me, "I can't stop dancing!" Another night-creature I met in Berlin, named Victor from Buenos Aires, spoke at least 12 different languages very fluently.

Travelers are impressive!

At the same time I hope I made impressions upon people (how can you not as a visitor?) and I hope that those impressions reflected well on myself and my country. Even at home, one is always a representative of some place or another. I often become an effigy for various sorts of things - "the left" when I'm in the presence of my neoconservative uncle, or "people who know something about technology" when I'm at work, for example - so being aware of one's representations and appearances does mean quite a bit, though that sounds somewhat superficial. Representations and appearances mean perhaps more to me than it meant before I visited Germany. Art and kultur also mean a lot more to me as well.


existentialborean said...

an unexpected wealth of things. huroo.

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