Hazel in europe: on the road
The airport affords not the slightest glimpse of the Dutch landscape. We wheel our things around, through Customs and Immigration - Jody says two words to the guy and we're through (only six of us: Laurie will substitute for Brady the first 8 shows) - and over to and down a precipitous escalator, then heft them aboard a hefty, rapid, modern, pastel, slanted-rectangle-shaped commuter-train. Now we're barreling through tunnels and along cement embankments, and suddenly a snapshot - a cow. A second, more surprising, perhaps more symbolic thing - a peacock, in full display. Then, after another period of rushing embankments is revealed an entire tableau: a telescopic vista directly up a canal that has, every hundred yards or so receding into the distance, tidy bridges across it, the third one of which displays a cyclist, riding along. For the very first time, I experience a sensation that will recur fifty times a day in this most strange and ancestral land: I've died and gone to heaven.
On the other hand, the first thing I actually accomplish in Europe is a near-fatal panic attack. Blame the folding-bike - it was both cause and relief: Our booking-agent Hans has met us at Central Station, walked us across the street to the pedestrian-and-bike ferry, and, having crossed the 1/2-mile-wide harbor (called the Y, "ee", an arm of the Zuider Zee, and presumably created 750 years ago when the Amstel River was dammed), led us on an interminable trek towards his place with all our drum gear and guitars and luggage and backpacks and suitcases. How far? Not far, says he. Finally, it is ridiculous to be lugging the bagged and collapsed bicycle, but I've already fallen behind, and in the three minutes it takes to unfold the Royce-Union and load my luggage on, they've all disappeared, and my running-with-luggage sweat turns to panic-sweat as the sun beats down, and I ride up and down this wierdly empty Netherlandish street in sudden desolation, looking for what might look like a pay-phone. Oh, here's one - only to become gradually and tortuously aware that though I've changed my dollars at the Station and taken the precaution of securing Hans' phone number, Dutch pay-phones only take phone-cards. Phone-cards, phone-cards? I'm afraid to speak to an operator, I don't yet know that virtually all Dutch speak English - herein reposes the crux of my envanishment, of course - so I search for a place that sells phone-cards, in this reserved, blank-faced, seemingly-deserted residential neighborhood, finally getting directions from a gentleman who doesn't seem at all surprised to be addressed by a panic-stricken American, to a post office, which I cannot then find. After 20 minutes that feel like three hours of rising hysteria, culture-shock, fruitless attempts to devise how to make a collect call on a 'multi-lingual' digital pay-phone, and no little nervous exhaustion from 17 hours of claustrophobic encapsulation, I fall upon the strategy of returning to the ferry-stop and waiting there for a rescuer. A third of the way back, here is Hans.
He has a tiny recently-remodeled home-on-a-barge on a narrow backwater of a canal that's studded with one or two odd little floating nesting-platforms for endearingly-scruffy duck-like waterbirds.
Speaking of ducks, one of our beautifully accomodating hosts at the Bloemstraat squat once had a job with a comic book company where she was required to lighten the gross racism and sexism in Walt Disney Comics and Stories, for translation and distribution in Holland. Just wouldn't sell otherwise, she says. Donald got to be hip in this place.
On the other hand, at one of the crass trinket shops for American tourists, here is a prominently displayed vilely racist postcard, marking the spot where tolerance and liberalism diverge. The Dutch have made a dangerous choice: no censorship for adults, openly discussed censorship for children.
Most Dutch are supernaturally polite, and so comfortable in English that in conversation with anglophones, some will go so far as to happily refer to their city as 'Am-ster-dam' rather than 'ahm-ster-dahm'. An extreme level of consideration on every side.
If a Dutch person jostles you, they'll speak English: "Sorry!"
The natural assumption of hipness, of themselves and of you, the off-hand air of competence, and the mystique of liberty remind one of Alaska or Texas or big-city college/arts districts like Chicago's or Oakland's.
Also like Chicago: endless large brick row-houses.
But less diversity of population than any of those - Holland's Asian and American colonies and conquests don't seem to have visibly enriched her populace. Perhaps just not in the relatively atypical environs of central Amsterdam.
Every other street is a canal - it's practically Venice. How this obvious bit of data - comparable to the provenance of a wall in Berlin or a tower in Paris - has escaped the notice of a trivia-glutton like me suggests how very fat is the world. And one's packet of prior assumptions.
When it rains, no-one wears a hat - the quiet machismo of northern climes, or does it not rain much? Surely the former.
A gaggle of guys dribble a basketball around in the park - with their feet. Get ahold of myself not to charge up and go, "Yo! Have some respect - do you see us Yanks degrading your holy sports objects?" Of course they do. What's disgusting in one culture is sacrosanct in the next - we don't swim in your toilet, please don't pee in our pool.
There are no movie theaters. How can this be? Maybe they're all in the zone people keep talking about, it sounds perverse and anachronistic: the Red Light district.
There's a pleasant bit of a rural feel to some of these urban neighborhoods, reminiscent of the clean and modest small towns of the Midwest, and of Staten Island as it was 30 years ago, and of recurring dreams of Staten Island as it was 30 years ago. Serene.
There's frequent poo on the sidewalks in the bohemian-type tourist areas. Like early '70's Haight-Ashberry, it's hard to say if it's dogs or incontinent/indifferent drug-fiends.
The charming English-language used bookshop is always shut, so here instead is the cheesy four-story American shopping-mall-style English-language bookstore. (It's largest section is boy-centric comic books, but the comics emporium in Anchorage, Alaska is notably more sophisticated - and better stocked with European work - than this place.) Here are a couple of things you'd never find in B.Dalton: the updated translation of Dutch novelist Louis Couperus' The Hidden Force (1900), a grave and lyrical satire of Dutch rule over Indonesia that beautifully counterpoints countryman Multatuli's earlier (1859) furious modernist send-up of colonialism, Max Havelaar. And a very thick little blue book, James the Brother of Jesus, by Robert Eisenman, whose successful decades-long campaign for the public release of the Dead Sea Scrolls apparently culminated in his discovery therein of Jesus' brother St. James as the pivotal figure in the formation of Christianity, and St. Paul as the Roman colonial pawn, who eradicated from what would become the New Testament much of Jesus' and all of James' authority and instituted the foundations of antisemitism. Personally, I've always thought James' Epistle was, next to Jesus, the smartest thing in the New Testament.
I soon find that most of the plentiful little used bookshops have a small English-language section, as American shops so often have a French section. At one very small store is a very old book about Al Capone that contains this ever-relevant Balzac witticism: "History cannot go on without much forgetting."
The International Herald-Tribune today says that stress-tests ordered to verify the safety of the traditional Dutch factory-workers' wooden shoes, sabots, have proven them, after an embarassing uproar following the Euro-government's ban, as safe as - and in some conditions safer than - the previously mandated steel-toed leather models. (As the industrial revolution was gathering steam, disgruntled workers inserted sabots into the hated machinery to bring it to a screeching halt, which led them to become symbols of the other sort of revolution: sabotage.)
This newspaper announces itself as a joint project of the Washington Post and the New York Times, but it quite baldly trespasses where neither of those august organs are ostensibly allowed - openly editorializing in front-page news accounts. Exhibit A: French Socialist Jospin's upset election victory is bewailed as a tragedy for Europe in every lead story.
On my ride to a well-barricaded (entering and exiting are reminiscent of a penitentiary) American embassy to get my passport renewed, I stumble (not inapt, applied to this little bike) across the great international flea-market, half-a-mile long down the middle of a specially wide street, sprawling with East Indians, West Indians, tourists, hustlers, musicians, bohemians, Africans, African-Americans, Indonesians, East Asians, many who openly defy ethnic categorization, and 'whites' of every description. Basically to be a part, I stop and rummage through a bin, find this faux-batik bandana, and purchase it for a pittance.
On my way back to our lovely squat, here is a wall of flower-seed packets on a street-kiosk at the intersection where a cobbled street makes its great hump over a canal. I purchase a couple for someone special back home with a ten-guilder note (about $5) from a tall, hale, and amiable older man. Around the corner, I examine my change and see I've been severely short-changed. It's upsetting to be taken for a gullible tourist, especially since the fresh passport has just eaten my my financial cushion. I speculate how to confront the two-faced fraud who had seemed so affable and accomodating, and it's a token of my wild monolingual resentment and psychotic personality that it crosses my mind to contrive to overturn his flower-stall. But, look, I have mistaken a 5-guilder coin for 5 florins, silly me.
European bathrooms are a little different. Examples: a) It's amazing that technology so basic should evolve so divergently: toilets drain towards the front, instead of the back, over a slightly concave platform whose only conceivable function is to facilitate - sorry - scrutiny, and are flushed with a button or plunger set into the center of the lid of the tank. b) The Dutch definitely have a problem with pools of urine on bathroom floors: the nightclubs and cafes we visit are astonishingly lacking in this mainstay of American establishments. c) In many of the private homes is a discrete notice (in English, interestingly) asking all pee-ers to please sit.
A jury of ones pee-ers?
We're on the autobahn - it's the original freeway - and now I can't remember where it's referred to as the Jewish Graveyard: the remains of the slaves employed in its construction were just left in the cement to avoid unnecessary bother. In '75, a Nez Perce Indian in Nespelem, Washington, told me that when the sacred Columbia was dammed on their reservation at Grand Coulee during those exact same years, many Indians were employed in the construction and that what with lax safety measures, wages in the form of alcohol, and the expense of fishing out careless workers, there are 35 of them integral to the dam. The benefits of genocide are fundamental to German and American ascendency.
Germany is remarkably similar in feel to Southern California. A strangely uniform density of 'development'; very stolid, very prosperous; freeways weaving everywhere; advertising blending seamlessly with generic 'architecture'; a deceptively soporific and almost-pleasing blandness passing for taste. I get the sense that a great many Southern Californians vacation in Germany and that a great many Germans vacation in Southern Cal.
Wherever you go in the U.S. there are at least 50 corporate products advertised everywhere - on billboards, stores, taverns, busses, bus shelters, etc. - from Wendy's to Newport to Coors to Pizza Hut to Nike to Microsoft. In Deutschland, there's only two that are absolutely everywhere: Marlboro and Coke, the other 48 no doubt arriving momentarily. The only other monopolistically dominant product is not a single brand, but a plenitude of brands of a single product - beer. Is this why the Spanish word for Germany is - Alemania?
Beholding the blatantly beefy economic development, I'd guess the victors in World War II were Germany, Japan, and the United States, and the losers England, France, and the U.S.S.R. In Nuremberg, our assertively Marxist host tells us with a small smile that Germany's prosperity is Adolf Hitler's revenge.
Fortunately my daily labors permit (require) copious screaming.
Our valorous host Alwin's apartment in East Berlin (people studiously don't call it that any more) takes me back to an adolescent visit to that of the writer Ralph Ellison in Harlem - a torn-up building in a desolate neighborhood, a thin cardboard coffin of an elevator, a warm and elegant and airy flat within. Much of East Berlin is clone and template to the warehousing of poor folk in big-city American housing projects. Once again, I'm reminded of Chicago. The el and the fabulous wealth of street art sharpen the similarity.
At Essen I first notice a pair of architectural elements we'll continue to see all over Europe, recurrent reminders of the American propensity to mow down structures that are well-built and attractively old, and replace them with the new and crappy: by the front steps of a house or triplex, a more-or-less ornate metal boot-scraping device, survivor of unpaved streets and profuse animal leavings. Also, many buildings, public and private, have a pair of low-arched swinging garage-doors, not always, or even usually, operable, but clearly designed to admit horse-carriages.
In the center of town is an extensive pedestrian mall. Not too interesting, with the dramatic exception of a portly and aging street musician playing note-perfect Bach on his ... accordion.
My Essen relatives take me along to the multiplex at the mall (!) for the weekly English-language movie (Jim Carrey's Liar, Liar), and when we emerge, it takes an absolutely scary length of time before I look around and go, 'Holy shit - I'm in fucking Germany!'
Here is the vast botanical garden called the Gruga, meticulously tended, rambles on forever, and which every hundred yards or so presents a tableau featuring at its vegetal focal-point a startling nude girl athlete in beautiful turquoise-patinaed bronze.
There suddenly looms up a row of eagle cages. I've never seen eagles close-up, and never been viewed with such contempt. Military-school teachers, mental hospital orderlies, opposing divorce counsel could learn something here. They like to sit up by the front of their cages, the better to examine their pitiful captors. They are huge and ragged, and make me want to pen up their keepers in these inadequate little prisons, see how they like it. The birds are identified by their Latin names, whose translations I'll later look up:
Aquila heliaca - imperial eagle
Aquila rapax - tawny eagle
Aquila nipalensis - steppe eagle
Haliaetus leucocephalus - bald eagle
Aquila chrysaetus - golden eagle
In Bremen it's fantastic and refreshing to rise early (if you crash at 5, 10 is early) and ride through quiet neighborhoods of tightly-fitted rowhouses that, perhaps partly due to the proximity to Holland, exhibit a charming air of benign neglect. At the giant multigonal ancient cobbled central square (filled, today, with the bicycle-fair), the noon church bells make such an ongoing glorious racket that one is overtaken by a rushing ecstasy.
Alongside the 1/4-mile-long switchback foot-path down to the river Weser is a tawdry and phantasmagoric international yard-sale, merchandise on tables or right on the grass. A small handsome woman in a handsome sari sells two categories of items: televisions, and jewelled shoes. Men have large tables closely packed with hundreds of antique pocket calculators. And here is an elaborate and extensive display of low-end motel paintings.
On the circuit back to the rugged multi-storied communal townhouse where we've been put up (across from the Kinder-Popper billboard), is Cafe Ole. Its aspect is so inviting, but there is no time.
Between its radical artists, radical lesbians, radical rock club, sophisticated graffiti, many bicycles, parks, trees, and waterways, and gentle elderly urban architecture, Bremen personifies a subversive strain of the German character, a heroic antidote to and relief from the unrelenting Cal/Deutsch axis of conservative developer-consciousness and bourgeois order.
Today's International Herald-Trib contains a small news photo depicting the ruins of the McDonalds in St. Jean de Luz, southwestern France. The perpetrator of the fire-bombing is unknown and still at large, and there were no injuries.
If Germany is Southern California, Austria is Northern California: more benign, more intelligent, looser, hipper. Prettier, more comfortable with nature. Germany, but with taste. Ornate old buildings, none ugly or grandiose, are adequately maintained, but not to the point of sterility.
Linz has live classical music drifting from windows and half-ajar doorways at every turn, and the most slatternly mannequins anywhere on earth, including Toronto.
And a hemp store, whose advertising icon is a hangman's noose, displays wicked hemp suspenders.
The audience, the club, the city of Wien (a.k.a. Vienna) itself: righteously sweet, and seriously hard-core. This gives us room to work and both bands cut loose with relish. In fact, make that rampage.
Buck's sharp dad Laszlo and pellucid step-mom Olivia take us home to Budapest suburbs and stuff us, ending with champagne and caviar.
Then we head to the town center (Buda) and uncle Andras and cousin Dani's house, where we are immediately served an entire other meal by Dani's mom. Not normally advisable, unless you're in a band touring on a shoestring.
We wouldn't have found the sheer proteinic octane to do our fantastically high-energy shows, 12-hour drives, equipment rassling, jet-lag, culture-shock, and all the being nice to each other, were we not regularly pressed by people more hospitable than we deserve into eating simpler and more delicious food than we could possibly expect.
If Amsterdam is dying and going to heaven, Budapest is coming home. Sprinkling rain in the fine old leafy neighborhood chimes straight out of the Northwest.
Andras has a vast modern jazz collection - pristine vinyl - and his wife a small shelf of small plain books, including Bulgakov, Camus, Erasmus, Joyce, Proust, and Seneca, all, of course, translated into Hungarian.
The dining-room of their house has two mammoth freestanding wooden cabinets, each with the wood gouged-out around the lock, evidence of the Soviet 'liberation' in 1945.
Daniel and his uncle (Buck's father, professor and raconteur Laszlo Bito) lead us up comfortably steep streets through the lightest bit of rain to the battlements of a citadel that overlooks the night-lit city and sports a humongous Stalinist art-deco faux-Winged-Victory WWII memorial with large blank rectangles marking where profuse thanks to the fraternal Soviet peoples once reposed. As he points to landmarks, Laszlo tells a medley of historical anecdotes, including how Hungarian head-of-state Admiral Horthy balked at Hitler's demand to deport the city's 400,000 Jews, and was rolled into a Persian rug by the Gestapo and spirited away.
When I remark to someone how, at home, Western Europe is reputed to be very strong environmentally, yet we are seeing clear depredations everywhere we look, and little noticeable activism. What about the Greens? I receive this knowing reply, "Well, you know, here they're called 'watermelons' - green on the outside, red on the inside." The Green parties are widely considered a sham? A hiding-place for back-pedaling communists? It's undoubtedly more complex than that, but it's a jolting switch. The line (supposed to be invisible now) has been crossed. In Germany, one of the activists told us that the main debate on the Left at the moment was whether, on their logo, the communist or the anarchist icon should be more prominent. In Eastern Europe, leftists wholly mistrust ideologues, and are not nearly so likely to trip all over themselves to find excuses for them, as do their counterparts further West.
An exceptionally lucid dream: I've reregistered to take courses at Reed College (where I kibitzed for a semester 30 years ago). It has entirely converted to film-studies, and keeps the whole student body under 24-hour electronic surveillance, but that's not so bad, really - the president of the college is Isaac Asimov. (A science-fiction writer whose freethinking fables and scientific puzzles helped me through a damn confusing childhood).
This morning, the others are sleeping in. The only plan for our day off is to storm the legendary public baths. I fold the map, unfold the bike, head out.
Along a major arterial heading downtown is a grassy embankment being mowed by a couple of guys in rolled-up shirt-sleeves and suspenders. Wielding scythes.
On a bus-bench in the center of town (Pest) sits a possibly homeless fellow sporting a hat that has a variety of plants, a couple of them pretty tall, growing out of it.
It starts to sprinkle a little, and he and I are the only ones with hats. Like Amsterdam, and the Northwest before the ungodly spawn of plastic baseball-caps got chic - people here don't mind a little rain.
A couple of times downtown I approach a news-stand with fresh morning copies of the Herald-Trib. A unique sensation, almost scary: no desire to know what's happening. Here and now are quite precious enough, and I ride right on by.
On the other hand, every time I see these golden arches, I reach for a flame-thrower, but it's never there.
Across the Duna (a.k.a. Danube) from downtown (from Pest to Buda, over the bridge of the weeping fish graffiti), there is a municipal funicular railway just like Pittsburg, Pennsylvania's, ascending at a 60-degree angle the castle hill. No bikes allowed on, and with perverse contrariness, considering they're the very first bikes I've seen in Budapest, there are rental bikes offered right opposite. But of course they're not for people who prefer a bike for climbing hills, but for tourists arriving from above.
Atop the hill (from where the sunray lit up Parliament), here's a bird's-eye view of a huge long perfectly-antique baroquely-filagreed 18th-century apartment building - festooned with 17 satellite dishes.
Especially noticeable in this city, owing to the view from its acropolises, is how in Europe they have always somehow forgotten to knock down and bulldoze all the beautiful old houses and buildings and road-features and replace them with soul-shriveling monstrosities cloaked in giant advertising. Can't help thinking it won't be long, though.
Like Portland, Budapest has classically dramatic horizon-to-horizon cloud formations.
When we've left the city and are back on the otherwise utterly-unadorned highway, every so often there are small round road-signs. Divided by a 'Y' into three quadrants (tridrants?), they display graphic icons of a horse-cart, a tractor, a bicycle.
We are speeding across the countryside a couple of hours out when Buck yells, 'Look! Castles!' We hungrily look - and groan in chorus. Across the hayfields loom massive grey generic highrise housing-projects. In a word, Stalinesque.
It's eerie that no livestock is visible on the farms along the highway. Is this the the communists and capitalists conniving to wreck the rural economy? Have farmers had to sell or butcher everything? Did collectivization wholly prevent private ownership? In the wake of the falling wall, is there agricultural reform?
The easy landscape is healing my disposition to the degree I can just about endure the music my travelling companions play on the van stereo. So far, their taste has largely run to the live Fall tape, endlessly repeated. Reducing me to prayer. Truly I revere hysteria and pretentiousness more than most, but a long-distance drive might call for something more in the way of subtlety or artfulness? I'd have found something at a rest-stop or somewhere, only the passport ate my incidentals, and we're retaining our nightly wages until we've paid the bills. Now, though, it doesn't matter. Fortified with real culture (see the Art chapter), not even Mark E. Smith at his most obnoxious can waylay my mood.
Not only is there no visible advertising polluting Hungary, there are no late-model vehicles degrading the visual field. From one end of the country to the other, no minivans, no luxury jeeps, no probe-shaped 90's cars at all. Too good to be true - there must nothing in the way of emissions regulations at all.
Cruising into Pecs. Here is an old van parked under a cherry tree, evidently for some time. So thoroughly and beautifully is it stained by falling cherries, I'm dizzy with pleasure.
Hundreds of miles since the last one, an actual billboard. I think it's for Triumph motorcars, but it's so torn-up, fallen down, wind-blown and dirty, one can't be sure.
Pecs is an ancient wind-swept stone-and-brick blue-collar town, oozing charm and funky sadness. Clean and disheveled, there's a plethora of little shops and markets, nothing very large and no dealerships (except the minute well-equipped Italian bike-shop). I take an Asian import store (mostly clothing) for a thrift shop at first, and there are several undersized general stores that vend what have the look of, but probably aren't, stolen goods, on half-empty shelves with weird juxtapositions of poignantly obsolete merchandise.
Because I don't attend much to clothes (I go for familiarity and comfort, OK?), I usually feel a little shabby-looking in the eyes of the normals. Not here in Pecs. It gives me a definite little turn, to fit in so easily and abruptly.
For all the sad surface poverty and, if not dirt, then dust, and the throngs of work-haggard diet-deficient people in the street, there's a definite sweetness in the air. Unmistakably, beyond the beauty of the old buildings and the sheer age and dignity of the town, it's the decent character of the folks.
Despite getting cleansed of their Jews.
Remember that great quote, when a reporter asks Gandhi what he thinks of Western Civilization, and he goes, 'I think it would be a splendid idea'? Too bad he was never able to travel to a democratic Hungary.
Croatia and Slovenia
As soon as we cross the border, here are the fattest trees we've seen so far - already cut down and cut up. And yet here beside a farmhouse is an old well straight from a storybook: brick, with a little roof, and a rope round a winding-crank, well-maintained (sorry) and evidently in current use.
Here we pass a Mercedes, remarkable for our not having seen one since Osterreich, and for how much it was not missed. We're also back to the occasional billboard with English-language text - cigarettes called New York Lights.
It's immediately more prosperous-seeming here. Lots of old, though small, farmsteads. Partly by its very design this countryside would have defied collectivisation.
The layout of the towns indicates their tenure since before the advent of cars. A weirdly ideal mixture of urban and rural: the road is fronted on either side by rows of two-story brick-and-masonry houses, each with an extremely long and narrow yard/garden-plot extending behind it, so that leaving by the front door, one is in town, and by the back, one is down on the farm. The houses are mainly so close together as to be attached, built of brick or stone blocks, and covered with a coat of masonry that is often flaking off to reveal the substructure.
We see masonry flaked away from brick all over Europe, especially away from the cities, but most prevalently here. It's always excruciatingly lovely to look at, for some reason.
Every few towns, there are clots of soldiers with their camo gear and military vehicles, but they barely spare us a glance, so it's more eerie than scary, reminding us how recently Croatia has been at war. Likewise eerie is the odd missing house every so often. It looks as though it got blasted and then tidied up, but it's hard to be certain if that's what is actually the case.
What actually is the case is that practically every town has campaign posters for Tudjman, the genocidal Croatian nationalist warlord. It's nice they're having elections, not so nice that the most prominent candidate is the local butcher.
A fieldworker is toiling away with a cultivating tool, not five feet away from a huge, immobile, immaculately-unconcerned stork.
A little further on, right on the roadside, a great big most adorable fluffy white dog.
Two-thirds of the way through Croatia to the Slovenian border, at Cuzma, the mode of architecture abruptly changes: here begin wooden buildings, old and gorgeous.
As striking as the evident increase in prosperity from Hungary to Croatia was, it's exceeded as we sail by the barely-discernable border into Slovenia.
Apart from the evidences of a flourishing economy, the first distinguishing feature of this new country is the regular appearance of certain antique structures that look like 15-foot-long 2-story-tall fences (or 15-foot-wide ladders). One or two have mats of hay or other fodder hanging from their rungs, so one speculates they are for drying or baling, but the clear sense of them is not obvious.
On our way through small forest and small farmland, here is an elaborate multi-tiered roadside mushroom-stand.
Ljubljana is an old and sophisticated and labyrinthine city of culture that's simultaneously modern and prosperous. It's bisected by a particularly attractive stone-block-faced canal or river spanned every few blocks by one fine bridge after another. There's lots of good, in both the political and the visual sense, graffiti. And the most incredible and successful squat in Europe - if you can call Metalkova a squat: it's 12 huge buildings, the one-time headquarters of the Yugoslav army, a Slavic Pentagon, if you will, turned post-modern cultural agora.
On my pre-performance ride, I swing by Central Station for a Herald-Tribune, but the closest thing is the Slovenian radical/satirical paper with the identical masthead: The Feral Tribune.
After our show, we're taken to a communal household a ways out of town, a spot at once both village and suburb, where our hosts, 7 women rockers/cultural-workers/political-activists (the usual European hybrid, we're coming to understand), pass on some history:
The Slovenes arrive here from the East in the 6th century and are immediately conscripted into the Roman Empire, calling themselves 'Samova Drzava'. A hundred years later, they form a semi-autonomous duchy with an elected leader, called Karantanija, that lasts another hundred years, before becoming subject to Germans, Austrians and Yugoslavia for the next 1250 years, at the end of which (1991), they forsee Serbia's intentions, make careful preparation, decisively repel the anticipated attack in a 10-day mini-war, and declare their long-awaited, very long-awaited, independence.
Conversation turns to the sentimental, cynical, fierce, witty, and beautiful Yugoslav cinema and its preoccupation with the ongoing hostilities, eg.,
Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain
Gregor Nicholas' Broken English
Emir Kusturica's Underground
Srdjan Dragojevic's Nice Villages Burn Well
I feel fortunate to have brought at least some minimal experience of our hosts' culture with me from Portland. And to experience, in turn, these folks' intense pride in the work of these brilliant directors.
The talk runs down as people hit the sack, but still wired from - our unusually manic, even for us, performance and the resulting endorphins; the show's warm reception and our equally warm personal reception; our unheralded discovery of Slovenia and its unsettling air of liberation from a thousand years of foreign dominion; and the stimulating talk - I go outside to take a look at the apparently-disabled bicycle leaning up against the house. A couple of adjustments and a tire patch or three, and it's up and running. Dawn starts to break and everyone else is sleeping, so there's nothing else but to hop on and head out.
Even before the discovery of the lake, six blocks down gentle cobbled lanes - immaculate, not a candywrapper, not a cigarette-butt - the sweet still air, the silence, the ambient sense of long and careful husbandry so alien to Americans and normal to Europe, together foreshadow the serene revelation. It's very narrow, this lake, more a lagoon, perhaps a dissevered section of river. It sports an occasional motionless white duck. And once past two closed-up outdoor cafes, there is no more village, just a white-gravelled lane along the long straight bank.
I remember playing that other venerable center of culture, Manhattan - we played our hearts out there, too - and when over the next 24 hours we'd repeatedly happened across incredible ensembles of street-musicians, I heard a small voice in my head say, 'Well, entertain New York, New York will entertain you.' The emphatic contrast of this place somehow re-summons this entity, and it quietly says, in a whisper extreme as New York's fortissimo, 'Entertain Slovenia and Slovenia will entertain you.'
For a minute, ever so lightly, it's raining. An enchanting moment. It is unironic and it is not mush - it is what mush aspires to be: it is tears of love.
Hazel, like bullfighting, like baseball, involves being a target. And being a target sometimes results in the unforeseen reprieve.
On the ride back up through this graceful stone hamlet, the local dogs now audibly (but invisibly) note my passing - the swelling birdsong must have awakened them. As I go by, I note a small piece of advertising and three neat and cryptic graffiti. Can you imagine a town in the U.S. with just one (postcard-sized) advertisement in the whole place, not so much as the short hideous word Coke anywhere? Or a town in America with only 3 graffiti - all three legible? The ad: a photograph, publicizing her CD, of the transcendant diva Grace Jones. The graffiti seem a little personal, practically spelling out my name: 1) PFERD, 2) SATAN, 3) "emo" trash.
Years ago, my mom told me the centers of classical Greek culture had gradually migrated north over the millenia, and that they persevered in many of their most compelling aspects in present-day Yugoslavia. I suspected her customary hyperbole, but now see I was wrong to. Though the war may be recapitulating some of the less attractive stanzas of our hallowed Greek heritage, clear resonances of the nobler aspects, from the obvious love of learning and architecture and democracy to residents' oddly familiar resemblance to well-known sculpture, infuse the fundamental make-up of this land.
Italy and Germany alike are quite similar to the U.S. in prosperity and dynamism. Each has a definite edge in some areas, each has distinctive drawbacks. But Italy has magic. Everywhere. Germany for the most part, only at her squats and co-ops.
Heading south in vast abundance: every permutation of farm, orchard and vineyard. Every single one scintillating and meticulous. Stunningly beautiful stone walls. Horses out of dreams. Huge, centuries-old stone barns. The sea.
The Adriatic, awesomely awesomely blue.
Multiplying scooters, sometimes with two aboard, thin the volume of autos.
Mountain of Beauty: Montepulciano is the impeccable red wine Roberto's mom serves us with her lunch-hour cold rice and tomato penne (diagonal-cut ribbed pasta-tubes). The most outrageously delicious meal we've ever eaten. OK, maybe not better than any other, just incomparable: so simple, served so casually, the prime ingredient that potent Italian familial affection: usually burlesqued, rarely favored with due credit (which so often seems to end up in the arms of the Mob or the Church), actually the sublime soul of Italian culture.
At the Forte, an anarchist book-stall sells Uccidere non e Assassinare, an Italian rendition of Edward Sexby's Killing No Murder, the seminal well-suppressed and well-discredited 17th century defense of tyrannicide. I've never seen an English version.
The esthetic styles of mass-market advertisers:
U.S.A. - maximize the cheesiness.
Germany - more cheesiness than the Americans.
Italy - lots more cheesiness than the Americans
At a very small street-side cafe in Rome: rapidly metastasizing little servings of steamed sicorria (chicory greens), green peas, string beans, fry bread (quite like American Indian - go figure), alternating thick slabs of improbably fresh tomato and improbably fresh mozzarella, and tuna penne. Superb in every particular.
Back at the Forte, a young pierced and decorated gentleman regales us with how three years ago, Andreotti, the President of Italy, was exposed as having commissioned a Mafia hit on the journalist Mino Pecorelli. Now that is an impeachable offense.
I ride for miles alongside the Tiber, crossing over now and again as the streets dictate. Once, there is a distinct splash, exactly that of a jumping fish. Quickly I stop and look, but frankly, the water looks too dirty to sustain a fish, and there are plenty of spots out of my line-of-sight wherefrom someone could have tossed something. But I nevertheless tend to think it's a hardy old fish. Saying hi.
Typical Roman traffic situation: on a four-lane street, in the middle of the block, an oncoming car is stopped next to the center-line, and its driver is having a desultory conversation with a guy on a motor-scooter headed the opposite way. The resulting streams of cars that have to veer around don't seem to mind.
The Colisseum: early example of a really successful mens' club - nice clubhouse.
The scene around the Colisseum is this: barely a smattering of the blandest sort of generic tourists. A quite blond and pathetic little boy of 6 or 5 being made to play violin for tourist pennies by a conspicuously cruel father, backed by the saccharine strains of 101 Strings versions of tawdry and garish 'classics' emitted from a tinny cassette-player. The sun beats down and the child beats back tears and keeps playing. Nearby, what looks like two American frat-guys in brand new tacky ancient Roman centurian uniforms are posing and flirting with a generically stylish young Asian woman. That's it. I resist the slightly creepy impulse to go inside.
Up the steep residential hill behind is a leafy bit of a park with a sweet fountain and lovely odd water-spigots for the thirst of passers-by. A thousand times more memorable and felicitous spot than the crumbled monument to empire below.
After the monstrous Mussolini edifice back up the avenue, symbolizing as it does grandiose hubris/ruin incarnate and acutely superceding the ancient Roman remnants amid which it stands, monuments pall. It takes the curiously eternal air of an anonymous city park, a scrap of earth miraculously surviving everything greedy humanity can throw at it, to give sublime relief.
Here is our 5th big, sweet, impressively-behaved German shepherd: one was in Amsterdam, one at the club in Enger (German, certainly, though nary a sheep), one at the lake house in Slovenia, the one that sniffed our things at the Italian border, and one here in the mob-scene clustering about and packing into the fancy midnight sweets bakery.
For a third time, I am the complete boorish American. The eight of us depart the fort on foot en mass, and find a corner morning-coffee place right away. While the women order, I snag one of two available tables. In a moment, a gentleman approaches, snatches up the folded newspaper that has lain unnoticed before me, and stomps to the back of the shop to read it standing. I guess a courteous person would insist he have his table back, but the women are here with their coffee, and so reliant am I on the spoken word for safe navigation, I choose the cowardly way, out the door, and have my caffeine outside. A few swallows, I've regained my poise (my pose) and step back into the shop: here is another gentleman, newly seated at the table adjoining, who sees I am of the party of women and floridly offers me one of his chairs. The walls of the trap are slippery, my descent goes unnoticed as I take the offered seat and turn my back. After the minimum decent interval, I rise and turn, thinking to unpretentiously thank the man and beat what they call a graceful retreat, and am faced with the kind of stare-down Josef Stalin was said to give people to make them shit themselves. For a good hour afterwards, the thought keeps recurring that he's going to come up behind me and break my legs.
Fellini, in all his colorfulness, has in a major way come to dictate the predominant visual image of Italy for Americans, but the exquisite and eclectic beauties of Rome are rather much more accurately conveyed by the monochromes (and chilling depths of irony) of the young homophiliac god Pasolini.
Just out of the city is an ancient, starkly plain, monumental stone farm, then immediately after, one or two million sunflowers. No doubt created for some lavish cinematic dream-time epic.
The newspaper is full of Kurdistan, Fujimori, Chiapas.
Into the night, through fifty tunnels, the invisible Mediterranean down the cliff to our left. We pull into Marseille at 2 a.m., our contact won't answer, no-one knows how to find a hotel where our van full of equipment will be safe, so we exhaustedly and pointlessly drive in expanding circles to eventually wind up at the grotesque geometric epicenter of French suburbia: Formule 1.
Apres moi, le fromage...
I don't take any notes here, because I only record things I want to remember. More than that, the details deeply incise themselves:
It looks like a low-end generic American motel, but has a unit like a bank-machine next to the front door that offers options on a screen and accepts paper money. No human interaction whatever, it triumphantly overtakes America's recent advances in crass commercialism (right up there with the fabled Japanese prostitution vending-machines). The machine ejects a plastic card that affords entry to malevolent wrinkly artificial-fabric-coated hallways, rooms the size of our van with bunk-beds and immovable tv, and down the hall, pebble-finish white-plastic-lined curvy-angled coffin-sized toilet and shower rooms: evil-smelling - at once antiseptic and contaminated. But 16 hours on the freeway is sufficiently exhausting that it's nevertheless welcome, however disorienting. What's galling is less distaste than disappointment. That the idolized ancestral country should prove so fertile a host to the most degraded American business standards, I mean, lack of standards.
Imagine the incomparable thrill, next morning, of the chance discovery, through a narrow, ancient passage beneath the adjacent freeway, of a Geant or Mammoth, it is not recorded which, i.e., a humongous French American-style shopping mall. In hopes of a loquacious ATM, I wander through in a confused daze, misbelieving the evidence of my eyes of the literally hundreds of French citizens pretending they are American shoppers.
The pool table at our club, L'A Cote ( 'The Nearby'), is the stage on which the hard-ass bikers who run the place perform their athletic dance stylings. It offers orange balls and yellow balls instead of multicolored solids and stripes, a clarifying innovation that discloses new relations and highlights both the running score and the position of the 8.
The international market in Amsterdam was all racial and cultural diversity, and Rome goes pretty far in that direction, thanks to the broad tourist presence and the genuine variety of Italians, but Marseille is especially cosmopolitan.
Along the highways and throughways on the way to northwestern Spain:
1) Very very very old buildings
2) Characterize Italian agriculture in one word? Intense. French agriculture? Personal. There's a stunning off-hand gentleness and delicacy to these farms. We rush past.
3) Surreal, surreal, surreal - rising majestically above the trees ahead looms a psychedelically huge Tweety-Bird. Fortunately, just a hot-air balloon. For one second, though, we had crossed over that final international border, into Toontown.
4) A svelte and elegant herd of black & white cows.
5) Everywhere windbreaks, often of lovely willows, between farm fields. Cultivated acreage blends imperceptibly into meadows.
6) A logging truck, fully loaded.
Euskal Herria, Euskal Herria
Here is a sky I've seen somewhere before, dramatic close clouds like in the Northwest, but darker and closer and sometimes with great, sudden, contrasting bright openings and shafts of sun. Now I remember - El Greco.
As it begins to rain, Brady, ever the logician, says, "We must be in the plain".
None of us yet aware of the false premise involved.
Here is a cop in a tailored red raincoat, handsome bald head exposed to the raindrops, writing a ticket.
Here is a sensational white cow, sniffing another sensational white cow's butt.
All of a sudden, amidst these Euskadis, people with piercings. Not since Bremen, except for that one guy. Becoming and distinctive, somehow, the way they wear these ornaments here.
The trouble with the Basques is partly linguistic. Spain is careful to call that country El Pais Vasco, because the word Pais can mean either 'country' or 'region', and so to the Basques, they're saying 'The Basque Country", while to the rest of the world, they're saying 'The Basque Region". The Basques are not fooled, and the rest of the world is happy not to interfere in the internal affairs of Spain. Regular Basques, not just the E.T.A. terrorists, consider Spain an army of occupation. Spain labors to call the Euskadis Basques as an instrument of hegemony, according to our friend Maite Fernandez Betelu. (Was Spain's naming of the Americas something similar?)
At Onati we play the basement of a community center called the Verdury (vegetable) Hall. The show's booker, the subversively charming and handsome Mikel, tells me it is very old, has had Sunday dances there for millenia.
The Euskal have the oldest autonomous culture in Europe. Their languages pre-date Indo-European (on which all surrounding European languages are based), and their long-time (until little more than a hundred years ago) autonomy from Spain enabled them to be the only country in Europe to preserve a majority of the ancient dance forms.
The Aramaic word for dance was rendered into Greek as 'rejoice': in the New Testament, if it says to rejoice, you're supposed to dance. But pagan forms were so persistent, the Church found it necessary to abolish all types of dancing except the recreational. Alone of European peoples, Euskadis preserved a full spectrum of dance genres: animal dance, agricultural dance, weaving dances (like around the May pole), war dances, ceremonial dance, and religious dance.
According to the Brittanica, in the barter, over the centuries, of conditional loyalty for noninterference, Euskal Herrians also managed, at times through the intercession of hard-core native sons like Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, to preserve their traditional theater and games, freedom from conscription into Spanish military service, and independence from the authority of Spanish bishops. Accomodating compellingly powerful neighbors, the Euskadis have insisted on a national culture of artmaking, and in the process managed to smuggle in many traditional structures of democratic self-government, including elections of deputies to provincial parliaments called - and isn't it curious that the word means the opposite thing in English? - juntas. From which lawyers and clergy were customarily banned as likely friends of tyranny. (What would that look like, no lawyers in Congress?)
Onati is the center of Euskadi liturgical dance. If it's not wholly coincidence our first show is here, you can't detect it in the impassive countenance of Unai, our imperturbable Euskadi booker and more-than-heroic guide and chaperone.
We make the trip From Onati to Arantzazu at 2 a.m., wildly awake on show-endorphins. It is precipitously up into steep mountains, and we can't see a thing except what might possibly be sheep.
Once again - this is starting to get monotonous - we awake in Paradise.
Buck and I are up early, ambulate our separate ways up the spectacular mountain, cross streams that run down beds of water-carved rock, peer over into the extraordinarily deep little valley, marvel at the improbable verticality of the surrounding pastureland.
Here's a sheep-shed with a tall stand of lush green grass growing from its roof. Standing next to it, a futuristic hi-tech deisel generator. Anachronism, anyone?
Tree-farms everywhere. Clearcut quite the alien concept.
Seeing the way the forests are managed, one can pick right up on the European mindset of old growth as a class thing. It makes more comprehensible the slightly contrasting American mindset that it's a 'resource', entrusted to the powerful. The forests on this continent have always been reserved for the nobility. The power-rush of mowing them down proves doubly profitable: enriches the clever city folk, impoverishes and disables the sinewy and independent-minded mountain folk.
Between the rain, the timber, and the touch of a rebellious attitude, the Pacific Northwest is well mirrored in this Iberian Northwest.
Down the road a spell, we can now see over and across the mountain forests, to multiplying vistas of sheep.
(Dipping into the encyclopedia again: Basque hegemony over the world sheep market developed in Latin America 2 centuries ago, before establishing further centers such as Idaho. More than for sheep, Euskal is significant for its fisherfolk and far-flung fisheries, the Newfoundland cod fishery, for one. And get this, at the harbor at Bilbo, women were rowers and stevedores as normally as men. But then, women here traditionally inherit equally with men - where one expects the fount of machismo, one encounters a well of feminism. Not to mention the tradition that peasants may sometimes ascend into the nobility.)
We descend further, and stone barns, great and small, lay paramount claim to the visual prospect.
Counterpointing some most dramatic rock escarpments.
There is Euskadi nationalist graffiti everywhere (mostly ETA, the revolutionary party, but some anti-ETA slogans, too, like next to the monastery at Arantzazu), and endless flyers and posters and stickers featuring collective head-shots of the imprisoned. Which has the cumulative effect of reinforcing a sense that this is territory under occupation.
A few evenings ago on the interstate in northwest Italy, we passed through Genoa, a city dug into the sharp gullies where the Alps march down into the Mediterranean, and consisting mostly of vast conglomerations of gargantuan apartment blocks - the Projects on the Riviera. Here in Bilbo are imposing masses of similar projects.
I'm later told by a gentleman in Donostia that, fearing Euskal Herrian democracy, Franco accelerated industrialization and transported hundreds of thousands of the poorest of the Spanish poor here, to man the factories and tip the electoral balance.
Which sends a woolgathering mind off to wondering about Genoa, and other cities that are all apartments and factories. I guess industrialization is all about relocation of nationalities.
Bilbo - the name is distracting, unholy marriage of Senator Bilbo and Bilbo Baggins, and it's tempting to use the sonorous Spanish - Bilbao. On the other hand, bilbo is also venerable English for the excellently-crafted sword, and as such perhaps a closer guide to the city's psyche.
The food is so good in this restaurant, we're eating like my oldest daughter Crystal always used to: with both hands. Asparagus salad, not noticeably dressed, paella (rice with bits of vegetables - remember Roberto's mom's risotto?), garbonzo stew, a sweet oily flat fish, 1/8th-inch-thick sheets of steak (rarebit), dry red wine. Eating on tour in the U.S. is a furtive ordeal. Eating on tour in Europe is concisely defined by the word - heaven.
Many dogs here in Bilbo, and they are scrupulously not allowed to shit anyplace you can see - where else on earth is this so?
Driving to Gorliz. Across the road, a snapshot: with practiced casualness, a worker tosses a pushbroom to a workmate on a scaffold two floors above. It's positively Euro.
Relatively hi-tech items pop up regularly in this country, anomalous to how old everything else is. Like the digital cigarette machine at our club here in Gorliz.
About 25% of young American clubgoers smoke tobacco. It's about 95% everywhere in Europe.
The bike climb up through and past the little town, past what look like yuppie retirement cottages, into the wild wind-swept and rain-threatening mountain farmsteds, is hard and steep for me on my wee one-handled velocipede. Our reward? Spectacularly grand views down the rugged coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
Elorrio is plastered with patriotic propaganda calling for human rights, freed prisoners and eviction of occupying military forces, but mostly freed prisoners. I ask one of the scenesters if the town is unusually rife with such material, and she says, on the contrary, it is typical, and has a look like it's a stupid question: where, indeed, is there a community not demonstrative in its desire for deliverance from the Spanish yoke?
Idealized portraits of Che Guevara pop up in perfectly conservative milieux, like next to sports results or in quaint family-style restaurants. One suspects it's more symbolic than ideological, but it's a little hard to see how it could be symbolic of much other than armed struggle.
The first day in Bilbo, the flawless repast above. The second day in Bilbo, a huge painfully plain omelet on dry baguette. This third day in Bilbo, absolutely mouth-watering hors d'oeuvre-like little sandwiches on toast, out of a corner deli. Not sure what's in them - I'm probably no longer a vegetarian - but man-oh-man.
And here is an interstate off-ramp called Gernika/Guernica - the freeway exit named for a fascist atrocity. The most renowned ancient junta met beneath the immemorial Oak of Gernika - before its fame as a slaughterhouse, it was the cradle of democracy.
Like all great cities, Bilbo is bisected by a marvellous waterway, but there is no pedestrian access. Which is not such a bad thing, for the magnificent Ibaizabal is unutterably filthy. The old city is so elegant and cunning, like Ljubljana and the best of Budapest or Amsterdam, that the revolting state of the river is palpably wrenching. As we gaze out over the river-wall, Carmelo calmly reads my mind, "Spain doesn't care."
The names of these Southern French country towns, (not to exclude an absolutely Dada range of eponyms: Champagne, Roquefort, Cadillac, Cognac, Condom and twenty more) are pretty funny to the type of juvenile sense of humor necessary for band-touring: as road-fatigue attains bone-grating levels of severity, we pass near Pau, Auch, and Aken. We go by Limeyrat - we know what they mean by that, and the conclusively appropriate Ars.
Now and then, a wind sock (though nothing that looks like an airfield). One or two sport a cryptic byword.
There've been no billboards, no advertising of any kind (not counting wind-socks) visible from the highway here. It must be some French thing. Altogether otherworldly.
We come round a bend, and the road weaves down into a pristine valley spread out below. The legendary South of France, its rolling landscape delightful as a dream, cliche proved sober fact. Except for the blindingly bright oval sign announcing an upcoming McDonald's. I don't quite want to put the flamethrower to it this time. Or even to the 'restaurant' this cheery sign designates. No, this time I want Corporate Headquarters.
Their vandalism is an abomination, mine a purification. Examine that philosophy.
In describing this region, Henry Miller employs his usual restraint: "...something to be grateful for all one's life...the country of enchantment which the poets have staked out and which they alone may lay claim to...the nearest thing to Paradise...this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot...it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself." (The Colossus of Maroussi)
In Perigeaux, the electric wait/walk signs feature a slender debonair guy with hands in his pockets. They recall to mind the jaunty falling-rock signs a couple of hours ago in the Pyrenees.
As in Marseille, all the hotels and restaurants have large signs in English saying 'hotel' and 'restaurant'. Time to confess: English is partly French.
Here, standing near our first French billboard - how advanced: it mechanically scrolls to a cheery new image every 10 seconds - is an extraordinary-looking woman straight out of the 1940's: bright dark-red coif, immaculately tailored suit and jaunty blue leather briefcase. She seems to be waiting for a ride, and in no way aware she is out of the ordinary.
Here, a slightly tatty little florist, infinitely various and lovely.
Here, next door, a small antique-shop, to die for.
At a tricky intersection, a sign: Prudence!
A brief stroll while we wait for Jean-Jean: up the street to the supremely darling and winding, but of course richly brown, requisite little municipal river.
Street-names: Rimbaud, Kennedy, M.L.King, Balzac, Hugo, Verne, and Lavoisier - can you imagine naming small-town American streets after Lenny Bruce, DeGaulle, Gandhi, Faulkner, Mailer, Asimov, and Einstein? (Or, for that matter, imagine Einstein executed by revolutionaries who'd seized the government?)
On to Lyons: Club Pez Ner is on Cours Tolstoi near the cross-streets of Rues Racine, Baudelaire, Verlaine:
Racine - "The face of tyranny is always mild - at first."
Baudelaire - "Proud of her height as if she were alive
She manages her props - her huge bouquet,
Her scarf, her gloves - with all the unconcern -
Or is it the disdain? - of a practiced flirt."
Verlaine - "The sky was much too blue and clear..."
On a main wall of Pez Ner's expansive tri-level band-dormitories is a huge color aerial photograph of Lyons, its centrally prominent feature the great meandering River Rhone - guess what - shit-brown.
Am I paranoid? Is that just silt?
I've misplaced the tasteful floral pink boxers that preserved my modesty through a hundred Hazel shows, abandoned at the radio station in Perigeaux (I'll generally draw the line at performing nude, hence the shorts - but on French radio? some things cannot be resisted.) But at a thrift store not a block from Pez Ner is a stupendous pair of flowered shorts that fit me like a glove, but not too much like a glove.
Standing in line to pay, I lean over and whisper to Brady, "The pants in France prance fancy in the dance."
The divine Stephane sympathizes on the subject of Formule 1, but says we lucked out. The time he made emergency use of one, the lone amenity - the tv - was broken and they were kept awake all night by huge mutated mosquitos that had somehow solved the conundrum of how to penetrate the sealed plastic chambers.
This man I've scarcely met, Stephane - his anguish at the loss of quaint pensiones to these abominations, of open-air markets to shopping malls, of family-run cafes to McDonald's, is so naked, and so reciprocated, that I make myself a promise, to return one day, when there is no rush or hassle, and incite assault upon and vandalization of these McDonald's and their hideous advertising, make graffiti and flyers and zines and radio-spots urging others to do likewise, to in some small way try to atone for what our sorry countrymen have wrought here.
Just short of the Belgian border, we're so exhausted from marathon driving, and marathon everything else, we end up again at a Formule 1. Destiny, I guess. Comeuppance for the thought-crime. (A familiar, sad to say, sensation.)
Next morning, the manager, overweight, in a bad suit, offers me a sneer of hostility, but when later in the parking lot I catch sight of him fetching supplies from the trunk of his brand-new generic American anal-probe-like car, he looks so forlorn that pity drowns the bile, and what's left is regret, for him and his calamitously mislaid culture.
A couple of Low Countries
Now, in typical rock-touring fashion, we'll play the next three shows in perverse order and drive 500 miles to cover 200.
We dash through Belgium like bats on their way out of hell, but can see it looks like Croatia's wealthy cousin: orderly, inscrutable, rectangularly repetitive, with a low-key minimalist beauty. And spooky.
As we near Utrecht, there's smog and "industrial parks" and a moderate-sized suburban office-block standing alone in what in its absence would be called a field, its windows done up architecturally so that the face of it looks like a perforated sheet of square-packaged condoms.
A piece of bad modern architecture is the exception in Europe, just about the reverse of how it is in the U.S. One reason it feels so much more civilized here. Good architecture just doesn't much get built in the U.S.
A case in point: freeway overpass guardrail/fences and freeway residential noise-barriers here are usually either plexiglas or an inventive mix of plexi and concrete. It can't be much of an improvement environmentally, but it looks decent, making quite a compelling difference.
Long before we know it, we're in the middle of northern Holland's fabulous agriculture.
Thrilling herds of blond dairy cows (Jersey?) - fat, sleek and healthy as can be.
Multitudes of athletic-looking horses.
A burnt-out van in a field. Shockingly beautiful.
More superlative horses - dark brown with white socks.
Every so often, an actual-size apparently-working windmill. Talk about inherently picturesque. Here (Remu, I think it's called) - a sewage-treatment windmill.
Noticing Carmelo's evident level of appreciation, I wonder if rural Sicily isn't something like rural Holland: a day or two's ride or sail to the centers of high culture, continuously over millenia, connected to the earth by habit and labor and necessity. Blase about their fierce standards of excellence.
Once again, we're approaching a picture-perfect 19th century Dutch village, nothing from horizon to horizon save the highway itself interrupts the splendor, when among the old-growth oaks and quaint church steeples rises into the sky the very stark and apocalyptic emblem of the world's doom: a McDonald's sign on a 50-foot pole.
When I was a little kid in America, the minute you left the city by auto, the landscape became dramatically fascinating and attractive. It's hard to say exactly when fantastic rural vistas went from standard to rare - it was gradual, starting with a trickle of 50's billboards and 60's food-franchises. To my admittedly misty eye, the logging-crazy, mall-building, suburban-development orgies of the 80's pretty much finished off Western America. But for Europe, it's not gradual, it's blitzkrieg. You can put your finger to the exact date of Europe's destruction: today.
As in southern France, one little sign critically destabilizes the whole landscape - in some ways, the entire region. How can citizens bear the shame of this desecration? The greatest works of God and Humanity are quite sacrificed here, by this harbinger of saturation commercialization.Why not just butcher babies on the Shroud of Turin?
Maybe I'm a little obsessed by this one corporation - I see it everywhere, from the moneychangers at Amsterdam Central Station the moment of our arrival: the reverse of each receipt is a coupon and schematic map to the nearest outlet. Then again, no other corporate entity is operating at quite this level yet.
Here is a charismatic and starkly-complaining sea-bird. Dark head and tailfeathers, gray wings, and handsome as all get-out.
Groningen is immediately beguiling. My mates who are navigating get in a bewildering snarl, it's almost as bad as construction-crazed East Berlin, a convolution of canals barring the way. Yet it is also ideal, a city that openly inhibits vehicular traffic. As in Amsterdam, bicycles prevail. Between ubiquitous bikes and waterways, and indomitable resistance to the Siamese-twin charms of demolition and advertising ("growth"), urban life is essentially transformed. I feel like heaving a great big sigh, it's like returning at long last to a home I never really had.
That last rest-stop mini-mart had the cheese selection of the swankiest yuppie supermarket in the U.S.A. Here, now, is a fairly large store that sells nothing, but nothing, but cheese.
Here is the Agony Coffeehouse. Maybe they're always out of pot.
We ask right away what happened at the great Eu - Rot - Op (against the establishment's - there has continued to be an establishment here, it's so archaic-sounding - Euro-top summit-meeting) demonstrations everyone at Amsterdam had been planning a month ago. Remembering the benign pony-tailed police at Amsterdam's Central Station, we're alarmed to hear of the systematic brutality of the phalanxes of riot cops turned out to punish the rude children. The excitement and dedication and idealism are very attractive. They smell sweetly, even if at the same time reeking slightly, of 1968.
Fabulous Club Vera has put us up at a slender hotel 6 blocks away along a mall, a word which means something absurdly different in this hemisphere. Everywhere (Amsterdam, Nurnburg, Essen, Bielefeld, Linz, Ljubljana, Roma, Marseille, Bilbo, Donostia, Lyons, and Groningen) there have been central areas of interlocking cobblestoned streets, narrow by vehicular standards, broad by pedestrian standards. Cars, if allowed at all, defer to walkers and cyclers. These thoroughfares are access to shops, so they are technically "shopping malls". But being open to the sky, and very old, they escape the suffocating sterility of the dreadful American, and even more dreadful imitation-American, species (talk about pedestrian standards). The Groningen region has, in fact, banned the latter - on economic grounds: malls are too debilitating to long-established local businesses.
We have four small double rooms under the gables of the narrow-staired 4th story, immaculate and cozy and looking out over the ancient prosperous well-groomed well-steepled university city. We sleep profoundly, it is so felicitous and comfortable.
And away. Southern Holland, like Northern Holland, is cow heaven. The sheer contrast prompts memories of the mammoth freeway-side cattle feedlots - Jody yelled "Cowschwicz!" as we passed - on tour a year ago between Fresno and L.A.
A profusion of sheep: white, brown, some that are brown and white. How darling they are curls one's little neck-hairs.
Back to Belgium, where, after driving a while, we happen upon a perfect replica of an American suburban commercial intersection. Shock. They're not able to get this quite right in France or Germany, but here, with the slightest of squints, we could be smack dab in Orange County. Or - of course - anywhere else.
Here, on this our last day of driving, we rear-end the commuter in front of us in an abrupt high-speed bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic-jam, and thereby in one second ruin the economics of the entire tour. Bummer.
Like Germany, lots of Belgium is suburb, and this carries a familiar subtext that pervades the European experience on so many levels for the American newcomer: that of being the original model for ones most familiar institutions.
Freeway bike-lanes: the least healthy or scenic place to put them, but as in U.S. suburbs, better than nothing, and most likely necessitated by the monolithic non-design of the suburban townscape.
It's wildly inappropriate to keep calling it 'suburbia', it's hardly subservient to the city any longer. The roles have reversed, what with the domination of high-tech-industry 'campuses' and the fulfillment of the Reagan/Thatcher miracle. More like uberburbia.
Here's a skinny, healthy man in his late 60's, striking, in a handsome beret, riding a serviceable-looking upright street-bike.
Here, standing alone, out in the boonies, is Discotheque Mannequin. Must be the Chug-a-Lug Inn, Belge-style.
Here is how ignorant we are. None of the 8 of us knows what language is spoken here. It looks more like Dutch than French, and we can't really tell if we've crossed the border on the evidence of highway signs or advertising. The border itself, in fact, is very casual, more like the Oregon/California line, where sometimes a trooper might ask if you're transporting fruit.
A very quick gig, another deep-as-death sleep, and the last of an incredible string of leisurely European morning coffee sessions, in our student hosts' small, bright, informal communal kitchen. Our extravagantly benign nurse and custodian Jeroen explains a constellation of elementary matters, not omitting the thoroughgoing extent of Belgian art culture and its offshoot bike culture; his utter inoffense at our every ignorance of things and people Belgian (Jean-Claude Van Damme?); and a few things about his language, Flemish.
We again return to Holland, having left once to circle Europe, and a second time to play the tiny Leuven co-op teen club - doen wat we beloeven.
On our way back north, the southbound traffic eerily turns into almost 300 - pardon me for counting, I've been a passenger in a van for 6000 miles - identically configured, wickedly little, Fiat-shaped mini-cars. Some kind of rally, but to great surrealist effect - they keep on coming.
Silo is 7 stories high, 150 yards long, 100 feet thick, old dark red brick, with windows only along the top story. And is served by a dirt road that, past all the sculpture, extends far into the Y to serve boat moorages. We laze away the afternoon and evening (and following our final show on the little corner stage, a couple of wee hours) at a small cafe run by the elastic cadre of artist squatters who are hosting us. You enter down through a long dim ancient dirty corridor, but emerge up into an airy little bistro that fronts, via French doors and a narrow, beautifully use-worn stone porch, the vast harbor. There's a burn-barrel out here that gets fed desultorily throughout the evening, the rising sparks and muted crackling enhancing all things. A swan who drifts by. A cool solo trumpet blowing far across the water.
On our last day, the unanticipated beauties and brain-stopping anomalies crop up at an accelerating pace. I'm getting really tired of recording everything, so what do I do? I go get an environmentally heinous disposable camera so I can capture the Silo sculptures and stalk bike paint-jobs en route to the Tropic Museum.
A rusted-iron spiral-staircase to empty sky, on a tall brick pedestal, midstream of a canal. Sumptuous.
Squash City, a huge bland square monolith in Silo's port-industry neighborhood. One or two alarming notions give way to the realization it's just a giant solid cube of squash-courts.
Here is a billboard for faux-American "Now" cigarettes. The text reads: "See me, Feel me, Enjoy me - The taste of Now". In English, pervertedly appropriated from Pete Townshend. Welcome to - that is to say - farewell to, Holland.
Here, a high-calibre store selling strictly art-books, somewhat like Seattle's noted pinnacle of yore, Art-in-Form, but more austere. Called Egidius. Excellent prices.
Heading back towards Silo from the diminutive but fabulously-stocked food co-op near what once was our home on Bloemstraat, being on a bike affords me a clear snippet of dialog from a beautiful young Euro-hippie cosmopolitan, bald with a dreadlocked topknot, accents simultaneously African-American and urban gay: "...So I said to him, 'If I want mercy, I'll fuck Mother Teresa...' "
Here, near the sophisticated and professional-looking fly-fishermen's outfitters, in the window of a tourist-hotel is a badly-printed flyer announcing meetings of the Multituli (the crusading colonial satirist, remember?) Society. Well, I don't think I'll be able to attend.
Here are two beautiful square dark-red bumper-stickers, one on a locked-up bike and one in a window. One in Dutch, the other in English. The one in English reads, "China Tortures Tibet".
Coming to Europe, we bring our own brew of American culture - and culturelessness - with us, and spread it around and mix it up with all that previous visitors have brought (and brought back). We aggressively utilize the resulting amenities, the lavish self-contained freeway rest-stops, the Pizza Huts, the disconcertingly universal commercial sub-English.
American business-language is probably derived in many ways from European models, but the European style precisely mimics the American: the last thing I see on the European continent is, next to one for Coke, a Phillips Electronics Consortium illuminated-plastic airport billboard with the faux-American tag-line: "Let's Make Things Better!"
silo. where we played is on the left
Amsterdam - ahm-ster-dahm
Y (or Ij) - ee
Deutschland - doich-lahnd
Berlin - bare-lean
Bremen - bray-men
Weser - vay-zer
Wien - vee-en
Andras - on-drosh
Dani - donny
Daniel - don-yel
Pecs - paitch
Croatia - cro-osh-ya
Slovenia - slo-veen-ya
Karantanija - car-on-tawn-ya
Cuzma(upside-down circumflex over the c) - choozma
Adriatic - od-ree-ot-ic
France - fross (maximize nasality on the r)
Formule 1 - foe-hmewl-on (maximize nasality on the n)
L'A Cote (grave accent on the a, circumflex on the o, acute on the e) - lah-co-tay
Euskal Herria - eh (as in "heh") -oose-cal heh-ree-a (slur together the eh and the oose, roll the r's, and stress the "ree")
Onati(tilde over the n) - oh-nyah-tee
Unai - ooh-nigh, stress nigh
Perigeaux - perry-go, and nasally roll that r
Silo - see-lo
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