Monday, November 18, 2013

What traveling taught me about breathing air and drinking water and riding trains

A couple of nights ago in my living room, otherwise known as Lou's, I met a guy who had lived in Munich for the last seven years and was now married to a German woman and father to a young boy. (I briefly mentioned this the other day.) He was a light-skinned black guy with a kind of afro whom I had never seen in the bar, and it being half-priced Wednesday with the usual crowd, I was naturally curious about the stranger.

Our conversation started because I had seen that his driver's license was from Germany when he had to show ID and continued when he discovered my interest in travel. He was originally from DC and returned on occasion to visit family, as was the case now, and he told me his dad, who lived in Florida, would drive twelve hours to see him in DC but wouldn't take a nine hour flight to Munich to visit him. We both agreed that is crazy. You don't even have to do anything on a flight except watch movies and drink beer or in my case red wine (much better for the nerves) and if those don't appeal to you, bring a book or another gadget. Most of the international flights have videogames, too, some of which are quite addicting. Sure, you have to be patted down like a criminal in the airport and if you're of the peasant class like I am your seats are cramped, and the turbulence is far scarier than hitting a pothole since you're like a billion miles in the sky, but if you can get over that, flying really is much easier than driving.

But I suspect it isn't the flying part that scares him or the rest of America who won't cross an ocean. I'd like to call it intellectual laziness but that would be judgmental, so I'll just call it fear of the unknown. All you do is buy a little book with your picture in it, go into this giant metal room with a lot of chairs, sit there for nine hours and do the abovementioned activities, and exit the room into a place where you might not understand what people are saying and the roadsigns are circular with odd-looking symbols on them. The people look like people although they may have more or less melanin in their skin than you and they may be wearing clothing you'd never find in your GAP back home, but you'll hear them laugh and cry and realize that you are of the same species of animal. As I talked about in that previous post, our nation really needs some exposure to lifestyles and cultures other than the stars and stripes so we can change the course of our foreign policy and international dealings and maybe get people to like us again.

I was curious how he felt being a black guy in Munich, especially one married to a white woman, and he said he felt far more comfortable in Munich than he did in Washington, the latter consisting of white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods that only mix at certain intersections. Remember, this is Munich we're talking about, you know, where all the Nazi stuff began and where neo-nazis are still well-established. Despite that rightwing nuttery in Bavaria, he said he's never really felt it, not like he does in the US. That neo-nazi stuff isn't all that different from the Tea Party mentality aside from the obvious historical and swastikal implications. (Ooh, new word!) In both cases you have a bunch of weak minds who feel threatened by what they perceive to be a loss in status and who don't believe they're getting a big enough slice of the proverbial pie for themselves. But the Tea Party mentality was only part of his problem here in the US. He also has a problem with the black population of Washington, who are themselves pretty racist on account of our own history of gross human rights abuses, a cousin to fascism called slavery. In Munich, he doesn't have to deal with any of that. He's just him.

He may have had a pretty rosy outlook on that particular issue in Munich (and he admitted as much when I said the Turks would probably strongly disagree with him), but that was just part of why he loved to live in Germany. I understood him completely when he said that after he studied in Munich seven years ago he didn't want to leave, because I had done the same thing. I had stayed an extra semester when my first one was over in Luxembourg, gone back the next summer for a graduate program, worked an internship in Ireland, took a three month sabbatical in Bulgaria, and am still trying to figure out how to get back to that piece of the planet we call Europe. For him, it wasn't just a love for bratwurst or a sense of adventure or the freedom of the autobahn. It was a love for the way of life, for the practical way of going through the quotidian deeds of human existence. His reasoning was expressed rather bluntly but I agreed in principle: Americans are stupid. We live in a stupid way. We politicize things that are just normal ways of life in most of the world, practicalities like public transportation, which is a way to move people from one place to the other in a practical manner. In Europe, you can get anywhere by train, even to remote villages, and it won't cost you a week's paycheck to do so. In the United States, if you support public transportation, you're labeled a "liberal" and even more extreme, a "socialist," for daring to want efficient modes of transportation. Not only that, many Americans are PROUD to sit in gridlock every day in their cars rather than build better transport systems. That is the definition of stupid!

In the sixties and seventies, when car companies started buying up public transportation systems and shutting them down so they could sell more cars, we stopped being smart about our cities and started the endless sprawl that has sucked the soul right out of this country. We flattened whatever was in the way and put up big box stores where landmarks or forests used to be, and we labeled it as progress as we watched our friends and family pack up their small businesses and join the corporate chain gang as just another number. In Europe, you can visit 500 year old churches that are part of a city's identity or buy a baguette at a corner bakery that has been there for 300 years. In America, we tear down $235 million baseball stadiums that are 17 years old to spend $672 million to build a new one (instead of spending $200 million to upgrade the existing one), and wealthy people like the Braves owners who get richer from it make us pay for a lot of it with our tax dollars! Then we complain about "government spending" while happily handing even more dollars to those same rich people! Meanwhile, the places that defined our childhood and became who we are no longer resemble the places we knew. Our identities, so important in connecting us to one another, simply vanish.

That is the definition of stupid.

If more Americans would get out and see the world, really see it - not just the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben or the Colosseum but the way people carry themselves, how they talk to each other, what they buy at the grocery - they'd realize how stupidly we do things in this country and they'd see that things like public transportation, clean air, and health insurance aren't political issues, but normal ways of living as civilized human beings. Why am I a "liberal" because I don't want factories pouring out cancer-causing pollutants into the air and water we breathe and drink? Does that make any sense at all? No! I don't want cancer-causing pollutants in my air and water because I don't want cancer! We need clean air and water to live, not because it's some agenda.

Yes, Europe has its struggles with stupid, too. It has the French blocking a diplomatic deal with Iran because it can't get over the fact that its power and prestige is a chapter in a history book. It has Hungarians creating draconian censorship laws for journalists as if it had never suffered a half century of Soviet oppression. It has Greeks skipping out on paying their taxes and then rioting when the government takes austerity measures because it can't pay its bills. It has Starbucks and McDonald's and all of that soulless processed bullshit that's meant to save time or whatever in our stupid processed lives, and that stuff is starting to encroach upon their slower, happier way of life.

But it's still a slower, happier way of life. They still buy fresh bread everyday at the bakery around the corner. They still have siestas and mealtimes and take time to enjoy their food. They still take their four to six weeks of vacation a year. We waste our lives away, hoarding what little scraps of wealth our corporate overlords drop from their golden tables and pointing to our "economic power," saying, ha ha ha, you stupid Europeans, spending all your days on vacation when you could be making money! Then one day we wake up and we're 75 and we say, what happened to life? Where'd it all go? And we don't even remember the insides of the various cubicles and offices that took it all from us.

As the saying goes, "Stupid is as stupid does." Choose smart. Choose life.

To prove my allegiance to at least some version of capitalism, I ask you to please consider clicking on the sponsor below. I am looking to fund a project involving words and airplanes that I will be describing in more detail once I have more details, and any help I can get is greatly appreciated.

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