|October 18, 2015 | Reading
“Every century, our drinking pendulum – the radical change in our relationship to alcohol – swings. In the 1830s we were the drunkest country in the world. By 1930 we had outlawed drinking entirely, with disastrous results. The swings accelerated after prohibition – in the 1950s and 60s we were again awash in alcohol. Although in the twenty-first century there are more laws and stringent social controls on drinking than there ever have been in our history, we are drinking enough to make alcoholism a significant public health problem.” - Susan Cheever
I’m flying through the new Patti Smith book, M Train. I devoured about half of it today while everybody else watched football. It’s not a rock n’ roll book, really – more, it’s about writing and getting coffee and weird things she does when she travels. Anyway, the photo. It feels like a different planet now, but I can remember when people in big cities lived like this.
“This is a wild, entertaining place full of culture, creativity, and craziness. I understand why Russians go to the United States and find it boring and too controlled. Here, it’s the Wild West, for better or worse. Worse, surely, if you have to live here with little means. For those with wealth the place must feel like and electrifying vacation where any amount of adventure or luxury is possible. For people without money, the chaos must be a cruel existence, because life can feel so uncertain. Little is possible, and little seems fair. I have kept that in mind at every stop on this journey, tempering the fun and wild moments with a dose of reality.”
“The only window in my room (number 107) gave out on a gloomy, fetid air shaft, from which a revolting odor arose. I turned on the light. The walls, the bed, the table, and the floor were black. Black with cockroaches. I have encountered throughout the world all imaginable types of insects, and have even developed indifference toward the fact, even come to accept, that we live among countless millions of flies, roaches, and ticks, among ever-replenished swarms of wasps, spiders, earwigs, and scarabs, amid billows of gadflies and mosquitoes, clouds of voracious locusts. But this time I was stunned; not so much by the number of cockroaches – although that, too, was shocking – but by their dimensions, by the size of each one of these creatures. These were roach giants, as big as small turtles, dark, gleaming, covered in bristles, and mustached. What made them grow so large? What did they feed on? Their monstrous proportions paralyzed me. For years now I had been swatting flies and mosquitoes, fleas and spiders, with impunity; now, however, I was facing something of an entirely different order. How should I deal with such colossi? What should I do with them? What stance should I adopt toward them? Kill them? With what? How? My hands shook at the very prospect. I felt that I wouldn’t know how, that I wouldn’t even have the courage to try. More – because of the cockroaches’ extraordinary dimensions, I felt certain that if I leaned over them and listened, I would hear them emitting some sound. After all, many other creatures their size communicate in a variety of ways. They squeal, croak, purr, grunt – so why not a cockroach? A normal one is too small for us to be able to hear it, but these giants? Surely they will make noises! But the room remained absolutely quiet: they were all silent – closed, voiceless, mysterious.”
“I noticed, however, that when I leaned over them, straining my ears, they rapidly retreated and huddled together. Their reaction was identical whenever I repeated the gesture. Clearly, the cockroaches were revulsed by a human being, recoiled with disgust, regarded me as an exceptionally unpleasant, repugnant creature.”
“I could embellish upon this scene and describe how, infuriated by my presence, they advanced on me, attacked, crawled over me; how I became hysterical, started to tremble, fell into shock. But this would not be true. In reality, if I didn’t come near them, they behaved indifferently, moved about sluggishly and sleepily. Sometimes they pattered from one place to another. Sometimes they crawled out of a crack, or else slid into one again. Other than that – nothing.”
“I knew that a difficult and sleepless night awaited me (also because the room was inhumanly airless and hot), so I reached into my bag for some notes about Liberia.”
I’m reading this very entertaining book in an attempt to understand why my interactions with French people are almost always overwhelmingly negative. The slightly haughty Frenchman, the openly contemptuous Frenchman, the Frenchman who is straight-up ENRAGED at my very existence – I’ve dealt with the entire range. I know, too, that it’s not me ( hey, I LIKE French stuff! ), and that it’s not because I’m an American, because this has come up in conversation with Peruvians, Swedes .. even Australians, the jolliest, friendliest people on Earth, will usually have a story about a disagreeable Gallic encounter.
Chapters include “The French are uncommonly rude”, “Paris is the European Capitol of canine excreta, The French are uniquely tolerant of Adultery”, and of course, “The archetypical Frenchman wears a beret and striped shirt and rides a bicycle festooned with onions”.
In Trieste, there is nothing between the Alps and the Mediterranean, and even the local news and gossip reflect this extraordinary Contiguity. On a street two minutes’ walk from the center of town, an old lady adopted a sweet little puppy looking in the garbage for food, and not until several months later did she realize it was a wolf. A young goat, having come too far off the mountain, had no other escape route but to throw himself into the sea, right there in the heart of the city, and several times the papers have run stories about Slovenian bears that have come to the edge of town to snack in local chicken coops. In Trieste, the industrial area backs up to a wilderness canyon called Rosandra, with sixth-degree cliffs, and that gorge takes you to the border in a half hour’s walk. That’s where the no-man’s-land is marked by my inn with the iron bar; a place typical of the Cold War, still intact, where thirty years ago soldiers from the now defunct Yugoslavia used to stop in for couple of rounds of unauthorized drinking with the Italian tax police.
Once, during the Jewish feast of Purim, in which getting drunk is a licit activity, a Jerusalemite rabbi whose family was originally from my area gave me the best definition of my Heimat (home). “When a Triestian sits at the head of a dock and looks out at the sunset with a good bottle of wine in hand, well, that is prayer, great and blessed prayer.” And if you pay close attention in those moments, he added, “the sea bristles with pleasure, the brass on the Karst turns to velvet, and women look at you with bursting desire. And the master of the universe, caressing his beard, says to you with satisfaction, and just a pinch of envy, ‘my lads, you’ve got the better of me yet again.’” In other words, the magnificence of the place resides in its unique contiguity with antithetical situations. Seeing is believing. The distance between a mooring berth and the opera house is fifty yards, between your boat and a tavern less than thirty.
I am proudly attached to this shoreline of mine, where I have dreamed up all my departures. There are nights, especially autumn nights, where the breeze kicks up, the air turns to glass, and the ferries to Istanbul weigh their anchors to pass in front of the freshly snowcapped Alps, when I really do have the sensation that God envies us mixed-blood bastards perched between worlds on this fabulous precipice. Standing at the head of a pier, without moving an inch, we can see Europe and Turkey, imagine the islands of Ulysses and the beer halls of Prague, where Bohumil Hrabal looked for his passengers; make out, among the ribbing of the surrounding hills, the front of the Great War, which intertwines with the Iron Curtain; sniff the warehouses of Serene Venice, packed full of goods from the East, and at the same time the wild smells of the wild steppes beyond the Danube. In the mid-1980s, when a Bavarian Chancellor landed with his helicopter on one of these piers, he said, “Unglaublich” (incredible), because such was the synthesis of the different worlds.
“STUPID, STUPID. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.” I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can’t remember Specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don’t need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I’ve heard this cock crow so often I don’t even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.
Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries, like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief – no, the knowledge – that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soulless, naive oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, ingenious American invention, will demand America’s medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a fascist, totalitarian, racist state.
Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It’s embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature, but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It’s about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world’s best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren’t everything, and America’s aren’t all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)
And are Americans emotionally dim, naive, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn’t understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It’s not irony that America lacks; it’s cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony. And what about vulgarity? Americans are innately, sniggeringly vulgar. What, vulgar like Henry James or Eleanor Roosevelt or Cole Porter, or the Mormons? Again, it’s a question of definitions. What Americans value and strive for is straight talking, plain saying. They don’t go in for ambiguity or dissembling, the etiquette of hidden meaning, the skill of the socially polite lie. The French in particular confuse unadorned direct language with a lack of culture or intellectual elegance. It was Camus who sniffily said that only in America could you be a novelist without being an intellectual. There is a belief that America has no cultural depth or critical seriousness. Well, you only have to walk into an American bookshop to realize that is wildly wrong and willfully blind. What about Mark Twain, or jazz, or Abstract Expressionism?
What is so contrary about Europe’s liberal antipathy to America is that any visiting Venusian anthropologist would see with the merest cursory glance that America and Europe are far more similar than they are different. The threads of the Old World are woven into the New. America is Europe’s greatest invention. That’s not to exclude the contribution to America that has come from around the globe, but it is built out of Europe’s ideas, Europe’s understanding, aesthetic, morality, assumptions, and laws. From the way it sets a table to the chairs it sits on, to the rhythms of its poetry and the scales of its music, the meter of its aspirations and its laws, its markets, its prejudices and neuroses. The conventions and the breadth of America’s reason are European.
This isn’t a claim for ownership, or for credit. But America didn’t arrive by chance. It wasn’t a ship that lost its way. It wasn’t coincidence or happenstance. America grew tall out of the cramping ache of old Europe. - A.A.Gill
” In San Sebastian, Spain, my soon-to-be husband and I drank cold beers at an outdoor cafe, watching children speed through an open square on scooters and bicycles, yelling as their parents drank nearby. ‘ This is what it’ll be like when we have kids, ‘ I thought.
I was wrong – so very, very wrong. Because in Los Angeles, and in the United States in general, we don’t have gorgeous town squares where parents sip beer and nibble on Manchego and jamon iberico while their offspring frolic nearby. We have Gymboree and Jump ’n Jammin, corporate kiddie warehouses designed to amuse screeching, pushing, crying children and to incite suicidal ideation in their parents. That’s what you see clouding the faces of those parents at The Little Gym and Pump It Up, standing around awkwardly in their fucking socks with their hands stuffed in their pockets. They’re thinking about death’s sweet embrace, and the alternative: spending the balance of their days on Earth watching kids shove each other in some padded, primary-colored purgatory.
And what protects most of us from such dark thoughts? Lager. Vodka. Pilsner. Tequila. But do they dispense alcohol at these godforsaken amusement centers? Of course not. Because just as American children are not meant to cartwheel through non-commercial public spaces paved with unfriendly cobblestones, troublingly devoid of Apple stores and Panda Expresses, American parents are not meant to pour alcohol down their throats in the company of children. As a result, American parents rarely have the chance to enjoy themselves in adult ways, away from home, with loose talk and salty cured meats and booze in the mix. If your kids are there and you don’t feel demeaned and edgy, there’s something wrong. If you’re not agitated and overwhelmed by the pointlessness of human existence, if your hair looks combed and you’re still wearing your shoes and you’re making eye contact with another adult who isn’t talking about bad teachers and potty mishaps, if your ears aren’t ringing and you don’t have the urge to strangle someone? You’re a shitty parent, basically.
Meanwhile, Europeans essentially go bar hopping with their kids in tow. “
This, the new 14th edition. First published 41 years ago, continuously updated. Seriously, fuck Lonely Planet — this is the most entertaining, fun, fact-filled travel book I can think of.
Page 211, on small-town hotels : ” In the smallest towns, selecting a hotel is usually just a choice of just one or two. Take it or leave it. This might sound grim, but I’ve found that these places almost inevitably provide rich material for entertaining stories and memories. The gigantic rooster tethered outside our window, loudly protesting its captivity every 30 seconds; the insane elderly aunt locked in a spare room who demanded Coca-Cola 24 hours a day; the landlord’s barking dog, stunned into temporary silence by an occasional firecracker lobbed from the front desk; a boardinghouse television tuned to incomprehensible quiz shows until midnight; being rousted at 5 a.m. by a desk clerk who invited me to visit his avocado orchard and watch him blow up a boulder with dynamite; blocking the door against a drunk who insisted on kissing me goodnight; opening the wrong door and finding a sheer four-story drop, and so on – an adventure or an anecdote awaiting every night. “
Page 435, on brothels : ” A typical small-town brothel is usually a rather hilarious place. ( Those that cater to tourists along the border or near resorts are designed for foreign tastes and can’t be considered typical. ) Although the women in a border town bordello might be slightly overdone, they can’t begin to approach the degree of high camp achieved by their sisters farther south.
Unless you’re really horny, a visit to a brothel that caters to campesinos and local businessmen is funny and surrealistic rather than erotic.
Regardless of the season, Christmas decorations are often used lavishly to create that special mood designed to turn a nervous campesino into a snorting stud. The sensual glow of the red, blue, and green bulbs gives just enough light to make the women clustered in a shadowy corner of the room appear tantalizing, muted, and desirable.
Like colorful jungle birds, they signal their potential mates with splashy purple, red, violet, and crimson plumage. The real knockout women almost overwhelm the senses with hair piled high in massive beehives and bleached a shocking white.
Just to rub it in, they will occasionally wobble to the bar on elevating high heels, then bend over to whisper confidentially in the bartender’s ear. This contortion raises the ballet-type miniskirt, flashing an enormously broad and bare ass into the room. “
Page 435, on bullfights : ” What is bullfighting? To the Spanish, who invented it, it’s the Fiesta Brava ( the Brave Celebration ); to the Mexicans it’s Seda, Sangre y Sol ( Silk, Blood, and Sun ); and to most gringos, it’s a cruel, ritualized slaughter of innocent cattle.
Bullfighting, also known as the corrida de toros ( running of the bulls ), lidia de toros ( fighting of bulls ), and sombra y sol ( shade and sun ), is definitely not a sport. Some call it a spectacle, while other see it as theater, filled with symbolism and hidden meaning. Siquieros, one of Mexico’s most popular muralists, contemptuously referred to bullfighting as ” the dance of the butchers. ”
Whatever you call it, one thing is certain: until you’ve seen a bullfight, you can’t begin to appreciate it. This, anyway, was what I kept telling myself as I shifted uncomfortably on the hard concrete bench next to Nacho, shielding my eyes from the glare of the late afternoon sun. In the ring below, the young matador nervously maneuvered toward another attempt at a kill. The bull watched him warily, its dusty black shoulders quivering with exhaustion and scarlet rivulets of blood. This would be the sixth estocada ( sword thrust ); less than two minutes remained for the matador to make his kill or be ordered from the ring.
‘ Use it on yourself, you pinche…! ‘ a voice raged from behind us.
‘ We’ll give the bull your ear! ‘ another frustrated aficionado ( fan ) cried, attempting to add injury to insult by hurling an expensive cowboy boot at the flustered matador.
‘ Put it up your…! ‘
The matador suddenly tensed, raising the bloody curved blade with his right arm, sighting along its length for la cruz, the crucial entry spot above and between the beast’s heaving shoulders. The bull tossed its head stubbornly, whipping long streamers of red-flecked saliva through the air. Then, with a final agonized bellow, the bull’s knees buckled, the huge body collapsing into the dust. The bull was dead, killed by a steady loss of blood rather than a sword thrust. The final moment of truth would have required a quick transfusion.
‘ ¡Cuidado compadre! ‘ Nacho said, ducking his head as a barrage of seat cushions, hats, shoes, and scathing insults were hurled upon the hapless bullfighter.
The bullfighter walked quickly toward the exit, his colorful traje de luces ( suit of lights ) the only bright spot in his miserable existence.
A large paper cup struck the humiliated torero ( without making a kill, he wouldn’t be honored with the title matador, ‘ killer ‘ ) in the leg, soaking his immaculate white knee-high stocking.
‘ They’re throwing beer! ” I laughed, amazed at the crowd’s ferocious assault. A volley of cups arched through the air, causing the bullfighter to run for shelter.
‘ That is not beer, compadre, ‘ Nacho said, his face darkening with embarrassment. I looked high into the stands behind us; yes, I could see men fumbling with their pants, bending furtively over paper cups.
‘ A very poor fight, ” Nacho sighed, grimacing slightly as a half-filled bottle of José Cuervo sailed over our heads and shattered in the aisle. Fifty feet to our right, the air filled with hats.
‘ What are they doing? ‘ I asked, amazed to see a veritable tower of sombreros piled on top of another. The majority were cheap woven straw of the type worn by campesinos, but mixed in were others, obviously expensive.
‘ It is nothing! ‘ Nacho answered. ‘ The benches are cement and cannot burn. ‘ As if on signal, the huge mound of headgear erupted in a column of bright flame. The crowd renewed its attack with missiles and expletives.
Reading. For fun : 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. For learnin’ : Edward Hasbrouck’s The Practical Nomad.
I keep trying to start For Whom The Bell Tolls, and it keeps getting away from me, or at least it keeps feeling like it’s for learnin’ when it ought to be for fun. I don’t know what is the deal, really, because I breezed through The Sun Also Rises and I got a lot out of it ( especially that sense of, oooh, THIS is why Hemingway had such a hold on our parents and grandparents, along with, of course, that sense of, I wish I was rich and bumming around Europe in the 1920s ) – but, then, I was about to go to Cuba, of which Papa H. is symbolic, both pre- and post-revolution, and so I was in a zone. Hell, maybe I ought to try taking Tolls down to Key West and reading it there ( I’ve never been, but people tell me it’s ramshackle and madcap and everybody’s drunk all the time, which sounds exactly like New Orleans, which is where I live, so I never really thought about it much until I was in Havana, looking back at Florida as the closest part of the U.S.A., and it’s close! ), or to a Spanish Civil War battlefield. It could happen.
You know, I was so taken with Rises that I even convinced myself I wanted to go to a bullfight. A couple of months later I was in a town in Mexico, in a little 1950s-time-warp hotel ( and they all, the hotels, seem to be unchanged from the 50s, which is one of the many, many things I like about Mexico. Time-warp means no grounded outlets, though, so if you want to plug in your laptop, you gotta use a ground-lifter, which I do not like doing. Zap! ), and I turned on the TV, and there was a bullfight on there, and I thought, oh, right, I forgot that it, in fact, SUCKS. “ The noble, courageous toreador gracefully dispatches the mighty bull “ – yeah, fuck you, why don’t you torture some kittens while you’re at it?
What I DO want to do is go to a soccer match in Mexico City, which I have heard described by people I’ve talked to ( and also by Daniel Hernandez, in his great book Down & Delirious In Mexico City ) as totally surreal, frightening, and more insane than the most brutal metal show you can think of.
This is a photo I took of that very TV bullfight. Aguascalientes, Mexico.
So, I like Murakami a lot. I like his odd voice ( I can’t imagine what he sounds like in the original, but in English, his tone is very specific and just sort of its own thing ), and I like how sometimes nothing much is happening except that he’s describing, in detail, what the characters are making for dinner, or what records they’re listening to. Some people had a problem with this aspect of the Dragon Tattoo books ( if I’d said The Millenium Series, you wouldn’t have known what I was talking about ), lingering descriptions of Swedes making coffee and frozen pizzas, but I liked that, too. And Hemingway, also, he’s like, here’s what we had to do to get checked in to the hotel, and here’s how much each bottle of wine cost, and we ate this and this and this, and the brown face of the man at the bar .. and etc. Anyway, Haruki Murakami Bingo has been circulating on the internet over the last couple of days, and it made me laugh.
As for The Practical Nomad - if you’re planning on doing any traveling beyond, say, a couple of days at a resort on an island .. well, okay, scratch that : if you are planning on ever taking a trip to another country where you are going to go to some different places and do and see some stuff and you have to make decisions and figure things out ( and maybe you’re not; some people don’t care about travel at all, and some people don’t want to have to think while they’re doing it, and that’s okay ), go ahead and buy it. There’s plenty of inspirational material here about the allure and romance of travel, but there’s also more nut-and-bolts information than I’ve seen collected in any one place. Hasbrouck’s not just a globetrotter but an experienced travel agent, and he gets DEEP into airline pricing systems – which fucks me up, because it’s all so difficult to understand. ” Double open jaw ” – ” internal open jaw, one way ” .. FML. But this book has actually changed my perception of the wider world in a couple of key ways, and has been a big influence on my ideas on how to go about seeing it.
” No matter how many beaches we pick up, no matter how many schools we build amid the rubble of villages we bomb, the world will judge Americans not as well-meaning individuals but as faceless supporters of a fascist regime drunk with military power and an unslakable thirst for oil. In the way Americans once held all citizens of the Soviet Union in contempt, in the way the world’s 1 billion baptized Catholics are somehow held accountable for every impetuous decree from a geriatric pontiff whose native tongue the majority of them don’t even speak, the world now judges Americans as an evil herd.
Unfair, maybe, but this makes a kind of sense. Universal scorn is what results from willingly paying taxes to a government that sends soldiers around the globe to secure oil fields and flatten ancient civilizations before trying to rebuild them according to its own shabby blueprints. More than voting, demonstrating, righteous sermonizing at cocktail parties, or forwarding Cheney-bashing e-mails, it’s April 15, not the first Tuesday in November, that reveals the depth of your political convictions. It doesn’t matter whom you voted for or who’s in the White House, if you pay the taxes that foot the bills, you’re complicit in the big picture. And you’re hated for it. “
” We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run. Because the world’s attic was still untidy. Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.
When we turn on the radio in a New York hotel room and hear Elvis singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, we are seldom struck by the peculiarity of our situation : that a dead man sings. “