July 5 , 2005
We’re coming down the final stretch of the Chocolate Duran Tour, and I, for one, can feel a change. I’ve started looking ahead to the stuff I have to do when we get back home, making lists of errands and phone calls, focusing again on book chapters and summer reading, planning Mommy’s Big Birthday Bash, pondering La Casita remodeling stuff. And today, for the first time, I actually… started feeling a little homesick, speaking of La Casita. It’ll be nice to have our closets instead of suitcases, to be able to cook dinners and flollop on our couches and cuddle in our own bed again. So yeah, in light of that, our Activities have begun winding down just a bit.
We actually had planned a very special Indoor Activity for our last day in Iceland, July 2. No, not that, you perverts! Live 8. And luckily, we got to watch all of the London show on BBC, which was far preferable to watching the Philly one. Sorry, PhillyChix, I know you guys had fun, but even you gotta admit you’d take Sir Paul and Travis and Robbie over Will Smith and Destiny’s Child! So we reminisced about the original Live Aid, ate… lordy, “Mexican” food (Damn you, Husband-Type Man! Damn your Mexican-Food-Addicted, Fetid Hide, you wretch! I hope you’re proud of yourself, Mister Man! *kak!*) … and watched some superlative moments in Music History. U2’s and Annie Lennox’s performances were exceptional (esp. SIR PAUL! SIR PAUL!), and THTM liked the beautiful African arrangement on Dido’s “Thank You.” One of my favoritest things ever was Travis’s performance of “Stayin’ Alive,” and, when Fran Healy declared that he’d had to put on extra-tight undies in order to hit the high notes, he reached around, dug into his waistband, grimaced, tugged… and pulled out a tiny pair of black undies emblazoned MAKE POVERTY HISTORY on them. Robbie Williams, natch, brought the house down. In fact, just the interview from earlier in the day was a Spectacle of Robbieness; Robbie quickly turned the interview into a blatant-“Of COURSE I’m Not Gay”-flirting-with-the-cute-reporter, and the host declared that “Make Poverty History and Get Robbie Laid, those are the two messages for today.” Later, Robbie’s performance was kick-ass high camp; he did Queen bits, flirted, jumped barriers, camera-whore’d, and finally announced “Get out your prayer mats and hymn books, and turn to page 103. This is ‘Angels’!” to a crowd that went totally ballistic. Caught only a few clips of Duran in Rome; Simon looked totally tired and puffy (and was prolly just thinking repeatedly “Don’t let me blow the high notes. Please, don’t let me blow the high notes!”). Also caught a tiny bit of a-ha in Berlin, too. We watched the whole broadcast, and stayed up late re-packing and organizing… and because neither of us was able to get the hang of sleeping when it felt like 4 in the afternoon outside.
So yeah, we were both kinda bleary when the 5AM taxi came to fetch us for our 7:30 flight back to Amsterdam.
Crowded airports, crowded plane, hazy taxi-ride to our next Amsterdam hotel… ah, that day was pretty much a Lost Day. I was glad for a bath in a non-“shoilet” tub, and a real bed, not a hide-a-bed. We took a walk through the flower-market and ‘splored a bit, and read/wrote and ate Room Service Dinner, but mostly just tried not to nap, because, oh, with nice, dark NIGHT, we were gonna get a good night’s sleep and hit the town bright and early tomorrow, right?
We’d cuddled up, gotten cozy, and I was nestled back with THTM’s lanky arms ™ wrapped tightly around me, when I noticed I had an itch on my shoulder. And I had to scratch it a bunch of times. And then, there was a weird, ticklish sensation, and-
THTM turned on the lights to check on me, and I noticed not one, but, like, FOUR ugly, red swelling lumps on my left arm… and several nasty little buzzing ‘skeeters flitting quickly behind curtains and on ceilings.
Oh, no you don’t, bastards!
It became an epic battle of Man v. Nature as THTM, a.k.a. Tall Man, went on a mission of vengeance. Stalking around the hotel room, clad only in his Cute Boy Underwear and brandishing a rolled-up copy of The Economist, he muttered threateningly under his breath “No one messes wit’ my woman! No one messes wit’ my TERRITORY!” *WHAP!* “Dammit, fucker!”
He’s such a bad-ass mofo.
After about an hour, and the third successful *WHAP!*s (and accompanying black smudge on the wall), THTM turned to me and said mullingly, “You know, I need a nickname. …How ‘bout [THTM] the Bloodthirsty?”
“So does this make you my Viking Warrior?” I asked, dabbing some more rosemary-oil-stuff on another welt.
He considered this for a moment. “No, a Viking wouldn’t stay up all night killing mosquitoes, he’d just burn the place down. I think I’m more like a Knight of the Round Table. …Make that [THTM] the Valiant.” *WHAP!* “Fucker!”
I adore this spectacularly Dorky Boy.
Valiant he was, but I, apparently, was Dwanollah the Mosquito-Bait, because by morning, I had about a dozen bites. I guess the ‘skeeters thought I was tastier than THTM. Their loss.
It was pouring rain, and we ended up sleeping in late after the Mosquito Hunt, so we decided to put off our Museum Spree until the next day. Instead, we went on a little tramp around the neighborhood and found a place for lunch, sitting outside under a huge umbrella during the intermittent showers. It was cozy, if slightly damp. After, we hit a Tacky Souvenir Mecca by the flower market on behalf of our families. Then we split up and went on separate Rambles for a while; I went back to the hotel and took advantage of the wireless access to post a whole bunch of stuff and get some more writing done during the heaviest rains, then, when the sun broke through, I went out on a long pre-dinner walk along the canals and streets.
One of the important things about Amsterdam was a quest inspired by our first visit. A couple years ago, on our way to Africa, we had a lengthy stop-over in the Amsterdam airport, and as we were walking through the terminal, we saw an interesting sign above the predictable McDonald’s advertising a… “McKroket”! A what? It looked like some sort of breaded meat. At any rate, we had no time to see for ourselves, but the niggling question remained. So we decided, upon our return, to find out ‘zackly what a McKroket was. But, durn it, the terminal we flew in and out of at the airport this time was the one with the Burger King, not the McDonald’s. Alas and alack.
As I was Rambling, I noticed a McDonald’s across from our hotel. Normally, I have nothing but the highest of scorn for tourists – specifically American tourists – who eat this fucking crap when they’re abroad. Yuck. McDonald’s isn’t even palatable when you’re at home and on a road trip and that’s the only thing off the side of the road. However, a quest is a quest, so I ventured in. And yes, there it was on the menu, so naturally I ordered one and bore it proudly back to the hotel room, where I placed the bag lovingly on THTM’s pillow and even arranged the bedside gooseneck lamp as a spotlight.
Not long after I’d gotten back, I heard the key in the hotel door-lock. “I’m here,” he called, “but I’ve done something gross…” and I heard a telling crackle of paper.
“Wait!” I called back, grabbing the bag and meeting him in the hallway, and, with a flourish, we both whipped out identical McDonald’s bags.
I think this means we are truly soulmates.
A McKroket, it turns out, is SO not worth the quest. It’s breaded meat, all right, but more like a gooshy, squooshy meat-paste thing… sort of like meat mixed with really gross cream-of-mushroom soup. One bite was enough for each of us. Instead, we had a picnic that included something I’d scored at one of the little delis next door to the McDonald’s… round mini-carrots! Both tasty AND aerodynamic… and nice bounce-action off THTM’s forehead.
We’d kept the doors and windows shut in the hotel room all day, so luckily there weren’t any new mosquitoes, and we lumped out together and slept like babies. Which was good, because we got up bright and early the next morning and walked over to the Van Gogh museum for one last Travel Hurrah.
I wouldn’t say I’m a Van Gogh fan, not as much as THTM, but I was really looking forward to the museum. I started to really enjoy Van Gogh (pronounced over here as “Van Gah” not “Van Go”) after first seeing his canvases in person at the National Gallery, as opposed to print, and once you can see and appreciate how thickly and… well, differently… he used paint compared to his peers, things change. So, holding hands and wandering past canals and still-closed shops, we enjoyed a lovely morning walk and got there right after they opened. Still a lot of other tourists, of course, but that’s to be expected.
The museum itself, if crowded, was still fab, and it was groovy to see in person so many of Van Gogh’s works, in chronological context. Neither of us realized how influenced he was by Japanese prints and woodcuts, for instance, and now that we’ve seen some of those paintings, it’s hard to mistake it, even in his later (well, all of fifteen years later) work.
I was also intrigued by the small collection of portraits that Van Gogh and several other artists, including Paul Gaugin, did of each other, sorta meta-representational. In some cases, they become almost double- and triple-frameworked, even! But there are certain similarities to each: men, pictured with their easels or paints or some trapping of their art, pointed beards, shabby black clothes and worn hats…. Were they consciously painting each other in deliberate role of “artists”? Was it some kind of an inside joke about the costume of an artist, or the stereotype of an artist? Commentary that there’s “sameness” to artists? At any rate, I was reminded of somethingI read earlier this trip, Hemingway not-so-subtly slamming Wyndham Lewis, who
wore a wide black hat, like a character in the quarter, and was dressed like someone out of La Bohème. …At that time we believed that any writer or painter could wear any clothes he owned and there was no official uniform for the artist; but Lewis wore the uniform of a prewar artist. It was embarrassing to see him… (A Moveable Feast 109).
So yeah, were these conscious artists in “official uniform” or a joke about artists in “official uniform” or just a coincidence that helped establish an “official uniform”…?
We had a jolly time comparing paintings, debating and discussing favorites, and pondering things… par for the course when we hit art museums. Van Gogh is full of contrasts and juxtapositions… like “Fall of the Leaves,” which initially looks peaceful, but when you study the composition, you realize there’s something threatening about it. Or “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds,” which is dominated by these huge thunderheads… but they’re painted in a rich, beautiful blue. My favorite Van Gogh painting is the one of his bedroom, and it rocked to see it in person; the perspective of it seems so disjointed and asymmetrical that it seems he’s completely ill-at-ease about his own most personal space… but then, on the other hand, the colors are much brighter in person. I could analyze this one 20 different ways in just one afternoon! I also spent a lot of time studying “Gauguin’s Chair,” trying to determine just how the artist felt about his subject, and how and why he chose the things and elements he did to represent him. My overall favorite painting at the Museum, though, wasn’t by Van Gogh, but by another contemporary artist with whom I’m not familiar: Kees van Dongen. I may have to find a good print of this! I love the look of delightful challenge on her face.
By early afternoon, we’d absorbed all we could without reaching Great Art Hangover status, and THTM decided he wanted to wander around by himself a bit, and I wanted to find someplace quiet to write. I ended up wandering more than I intended, though, peeking around various antique stores and galleries. One in particular, Galerie Lieve Hemel, had an amazing piece in the window that made me think of Mommy: a western-style jacket, hanging as if on a hook… and it took a couple glances to realize that it was made of carved wood! It was remarkable, with all the folds, as if a breeze could make the fabric flutter. Darn THTM for filching the camera!
No, Birm, we didn’t go to the Anne Frank house. I already hate humanity enough as it is.
I wrote a lot that afternoon, in between re-packing my suitcase and scaring up all of the elements of my Anal-Retentive Flight Bag. Heck, after a month of European cities, there was a lot to think over and write about!
Mostly, I’ve been pondering the perception of America and Americans over here. First, it should come as a shock to no one that George W. Bush is perceived – correctly, in my opinion – as a barely-literate fucktard bully who lacks any of the qualifications of operate as a world leader and diplomat. I mean, in general, people here look on Americans as totally dumb for backing the moron. (Like Solla said, only half joking, “ America needs to elect someone else!” “We TRIED!” THTM and I wailed.) Only in a hubristic, completely self-absorbed nation like the United States, cut off geographically from most of “Foreign,” could this “We’re the GREATEST NATION IN THE WORLD” b.s. seem rational and patriotic. But in Europe, where most of the countries are small and interdependent, that kind of arrogance would be laughable… if not dangerous. One of the scary things we came across in our reading this trip (and I don’t know how valid it is, so take it with a grain of salt, please) was a statistic that said as many as 70% of Americans will never hold a passport for International travel… primarily because they have no desire to travel to foreign countries. And so many of those that do stick to the giant bus tours and freak out over anything that’s “not like it is at home!” (Like when Mom and I were in Ireland last year, and most of the entire busload of people broke out into excited cheers when they saw one of the hotels was… near a… fucking McDonald’s. “Oh, we should eat there tonight!” several gushed. Retards.) Only Americans would see the Europe, with more history, more culture, and, perhaps, better politics in many ways, as nothing more than their own personal amusement park to go galumphing around, all the while acting like it can’t POSSIBLY be as good as the good ol’ U.S. of A. They’ll spend bazillions of dollars on moronic Hollywood blockbusters and gallons of soda, but won’t make an effort to find out more about the world in which we live with an inexpensive off-season trip to Someplace Different. Heck, just getting away from the Americentric news media long-term was eye-opening for both of us; we weren’t saturated with non-news-news like the “Runaway Bride!” or the latest pretty pregnant Mommy-to-Be (white, of course. If she was a minority, it wouldn’t be news) murdered by her deceptive husband, or the happenings of completely useless human beings like Paris Hilton and Ryan Seacrest and various other Reality TV people. Instead, we saw a hell of a lot of stuff about the global economy, about political and financial and social situations in various African nations, and about the Middle East that wasn’t just all “Rah, rah, they LOVE ‘Merikins in Iraq ‘cos we got them an ELECTION and FREEDOM!” In Europe, you actually still regularly hear about Afghanistan.
Me and THTM have talked a lot about moving abroad ever since we first got engaged, and, while we’d both still love London for any number of cultural reasons, right now it seems too much like America what with the George and Tony Show (although, interestingly, the European perspective of Tony’s “friendship” with Dubya is not that of a fawning fussy Brit hanging on to a ‘Merikin President because Dubya is SO AWESOME, but rather, that of a savvy politician working the system and maintaining an upper hand with a decidedly less-than-bright ‘Merikin Boy).
Yet, with all this talk of moving away, it was weird for me to realize, via various journal entries and long mulling discussions, how very American I am and, likely, always will be, no matter where we move. On the one hand, I certainly don’t feel any particular sense of pride identifying myself as an American… but I suspect I always will feel like one. This kind of American Identity goes far beyond hating or liking the current president or agreeing with a war. Even I, who recognize the corporate pig-dog capitalist scum perspective of Mickey Mouse, pre-packaged food, Hollywood, the music business, the diet industry, and various “family” entertainment theme parks, to name but just a few particularly American elements, still have a very American perspective, an American way of thinking. And this trip forced me to think about what that is and what that means… and in the face of all this Disney-ification of American History, a pull-yerself-up-by-yer-bootstraps façade hiding sordid untold tales, it took on all sorts of different nuances and meanings.
I mean, this country was founded on racism, on separating and parceling out people by gender, color, class, social and financial status, much more outward appearance-based than other class-conscious countries (and really, what country isn’t class-conscious in some way?). But in America, in general, there’s a feeling that if you look the part – skin color, sex, attractiveness, certain clothes and accouterments, companions – you can fit into a certain social sphere and thus will be hailed by the Mainstream as… well, more than you are… given way more credit than you deserve. Look at Britney Spears, a blonde, cute girl from down South who, with careful monitoring and diet and exercise and professional makeup and fashion people and choreography and PR people to advise her what to say and do and a hovering mother to reinforce what the PR people said, was embraced as America’s Sparkly Pop Princess. And everyone was gushing about how smart and savvy and talented she was, how fashionable and trendsetting and in-charge-of-herself-and-her-destiny she was. Heck, she could even marry Prince William and be Queen of England someday, couldn’t she?! But, when left to her own devices, she imploded in spectacular fashion, first marrying a totally stoned doofus from her hometown, and then hooking up with Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel and White-Trash Poster Child (not to mention all the meth), and, in a desperate bid to be a real, live, taken-seriously grown-up, married him and proceeded to do the MOST IMPORTANT thing in the whole wide world to secure/establish her identity: become a MOMMY! And without the sparkly pop princess wrapping, without the externals, Brit-Bot was revealed in all her own borderline-retarded glory, decidedly NOT smart or savvy or in charge of her own self and destiny, a moronic girl to whom common sense is, like, a deep revelation to her, and spewing some sort of circa-Jr. High School drivel on her website about “false tabloids” or “I’m gonna take a year off, y’all!” is “like going to Harvard!” Wash off the NARS cover-up, let her wing it in interviews, and what’s left? Nuthin’. She hit, peaked, and fell in a five-year cycle. And ‘Merika was willing to believe the pulled-herself-up-by-her-(thigh-high) bootstraps-and-made-something-of-herself mythology as long as she looked and acted the part externally. Who cared what was real or not underneath it all? In America, one of the greatest strengths – as well as one of the biggest problems – is that you can ostensibly start from nothing and become President. You can invent and reinvent yourself countless ways. Heck, in five years from now, we may be hearing from a new, “mature” Britney who’s survived marriage to Mr. Manpri and is now a single momma and is tough and back on top of her game and hangin’ with the A-Listers again-
But in places like France and Italy, it’s going to take more than good hair extensions and a Louis Vuitton bag to “make it” in the upper echelons of society; you can’t just decide you’re going to rise to the top with a little hard work and/or cash. Their systems are, in many ways, so much more convoluted, and you can be fat and ugly and dowdy, but if you have that family history, a powerful last name, you’re usually set. A duke or duchess who has no money or is stupid or has bad skin and a huge nose and dresses badly is… still a duke or duchess. And you can be the sparkliest pop star in the world, but you will likely never be actual royalty, Princess Grace notwithstanding.
It works the other way, too, of course. Look at racial profiling. Look at the plastic surgery industry. Look at bullying in schools. Look at just about anything in this country, be it a grocery store line or a major corporation, and you’ll get some sense of someone or a group of someones marginalized because they don’t… look… right. Whatever the hell that means. In Europe, it has less to do with how you look or don’t look in many significant ways… perhaps in ways that an American couldn’t grasp even living there for decades.
Especially, in mulling over all this American-ness Stuff, I’ve discovered that one of the primary feelings of American-ness that I can’t escape, and probably wouldn’t want to, is the notion that you are what you do, you are your work. Our identities are often inextricably linked to what we do for a living… not necessarily all Hardcore Puritanical Work Ethic, but still, a sense of duty. Europe is different; people work in order to have the money to take a month off and live and vacation with their families. Leisure isn’t considered a waste of time or a way to recharge for more work… it’s leisure for its own sake. But a lot of how I feel about myself – as an adult, as a woman, as one-half of a married partnership – has to do with my work in literature. I am a student, teacher, professor, critic, writer, scholar, et. al., and my sense of self is tied, in part, to my struggles and achievements and participation in this arena. It’s how I define myself first and foremost; this is who I am, because this is what I do.
America, accordingly, is tied primarily to the strength, the power, the focus on, the development of the individual. We pay a lot of lip service in America to community and family and working together, but can’t even begin to comprehend how “community” and/or “family” in other countries work in comparison. With us, the individual is it: the hero/heroine, the one who makes a difference, the rugged explorer, the brave person who takes a stand and makes The Masses aware of injustice, the head of this or that, be it a company or a committee or the whole freakin’ country.
The cheese stands alone.
In the end, I am not a MyLastName or a resident of Whatever City or a wife or a mother or a daughter or an Italian-Danish-American or lumped into any one, exclusive group. Yes, I may be any or all of those things, but ultimately, for better or for worse, I am me. Myself. An individual. And I will always emphasize the value of the individual.
Those ideas about identity and the individual are as much of my essential being as my physical features or biological traits. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, alter that perspective completely. And because of those feelings, because of that outlook, no matter where we end up living and for however long, I will always be, in the end, an American.
(Realizing that kinda scared the shit outta me!)
But yeah, all that Serious Identity Musing aside, we had fun this trip thinking about which places might be fun and adventurous to live for a while, or, perhaps, even eventually to settle for years at a time, as soon as we’re free to take off. Paris is first on my list, followed by Venice, and then Zurich. THTM has Zurich first, then Venice, and then Paris. Venice, though, we both agree, isn’t long-term “livable,” so likely we’ll rent there and hang out for a few months, whereas Zurich and Paris we can both see living longer-term than that… six months to a year.
This is really something for the girl who planned to live in a nice, new tract-home in El Cajon or Santee while being a counselor at a high school, and the boy who planned to live in a nice, new tract-home in Orange County and be a fast-food district supervisor. Talk about moving beyond one’s level of comfort and familiarity!
Hell, just this trip alone was moving beyond our levels of comfort and familiarity.
Speaking of comfort…
The previous day, we’d requested no housekeeping, because we didn’t want the cleaning staff leaving the doors and/or windows open and letting in more mosquitoes. But on our way out to the Van Gogh museum that morning, we’d seen one of the housekeepers, who assured us that she wouldn’t leave the doors open and wouldn’t even crack the windows, lest another gang of the pesky buggers invaded.
We believed her.
Oh, how foolish of us.
Because when I got back, there were several ‘skeeters maxin’ and relaxin’ on the curtains, flitting around my head at the desk, and pretty much just lurking with diabolical intent. I was able to kill two or three by the time THTM got back, but there were still a couple left. We tag-teaming in a killing frenzy, then I soaked my latest crop of itches in a cool bath before bed, and, with all but the essentials packed and a wake-up call for 5:30 AM set, we cuddled down for one last sleep-
Except, as soon as we turned out the lights, there soon rose the tinny, evil buzz of ONE! LAST! LITTLE! BASTARD!
THTM groaned. “I won’t be able to sleep until I kill it,” he said, reaching for the light.
“Go to it, Ahab,” I encouraged. And, stalking around the room in Cute Boy Underwear, brandishing his vorpal Economist in hand, long time the maxum foe he sought. But there was no rest for THTM. I, on the other hand, when I’m tired, eventually will fall asleep under most circumstances, but still woke a few times to *WHAP!* “Bastard!” And finally, after a triumphant, magazine-page-ruffling double-*WHAP!*, THTM came to cuddle into me, flirting his feet with mine and wrapping his Lanky Arms ™ around me, murmuring “I finally killed it!”
O Valiant Man.
The rest of our trip, of course, was spent packing and schlepping and hurry-up-and-wait-ing. This time we had a direct flight, but of COURSE it was all sold out and of COURSE we were crammed in our seats, immobile, for hours and hours and of COURSE people were annoying and we were annoying and everything was annoying and at this point, we just wanted to get home and be at home and… be home.
But we had one final treat of Spectacularicality before we boarded the plane.
We were, of course, flying out of Schiphol, and as we began the long, tedious crawl through the security lines, we heard… music. Cheesy music. There was some sort of speaker-thing set up right next to the security area, and these… two… people… were all decked out in fake flight-attendant outfits, lavender and yellow no less, with lots of sequins. And with color-coordinated lavender rolly-luggage. The guy, who prolly went to sleep every night with dreams of Off-Off-OFF-Broadway dancing in his head, did a couple near-time-step shuffles and piped “Hey, everyone with luggage trolleys! Do the Trolley Dance!” and his female partner, with a little lavender pillbox hat to accentuate her ensemble, joined him in Rolly-Luggage Choreography, singing, ostensibly, the Trolley Dance Song: “Schiphol…something something something/Schiphol… the greatest place I know!”
How do they look at themselves in the mirror every day when they get dressed for work? Hell, I was embarrassed FOR them!
With that refrain firmly lodged in our brains for HOURS, we took leave of Vacationing, and, ah, headed home.
And that? That’s the Chocolate Duran Tour! Now it’s time to do butt-loads of laundry and start divvying up everyone’s souvenirs.
Na shledanou, Wir taten es, comment merveilleux! Ché viaggio grande! Ik had een dergelijke verbazende tijd!