Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My obligatory post-travel polemic against American suckage

Now that I have seen the world with my own eyes, I feel intellectually validated in denouncing certain shortcomings of my own nation. Forgive me that some of these will be patently obvious.
I. America is too fat. You know, I really don't know what it is. Maybe its the reduced popularity of fast food, the chain smoking, the walking everywhere, the traditional diet, the marathon clubbing, or just generally higher standards of personal pride, but most Europeans seem to maintain a healthy body shape without too much difficulty. Everytime I saw some Snorlax abroad, I strained my ears to hear them talk and, sure enough, they were American or English (England is becoming the new us, their obesity rate is like 25% now, while ours is about 30%). I really don't think that the American "obesity epidemic" (they always say "epidemic" like it's no more preventable than swine flu) is beyond our control, it's simply beyond our willpower.
II. America is too frumpy. And this is from a man who routinely buys all his clothes at Kohls or the thrift store. I think Michael Pertner put it best: "if I have to go back to College Park where all the girls just wear North Face and sweatpants and uggs, I think I might cry." While some European fashions barely qualify as such and God help us should they ever jump across the pond (case in point, poofey pants), they are at least fashions which i more than can be said of most American clothing, which properly belongs in the category of "eyesore."
III. America does not appreciate the benefits of good public transportation. DC exempted, public transportation in America is archaic, dirty, hard to use, expensive, and unreliable. Most Americans live in some suburb which lies beyond the reach of public transportation anyway, effectively forcing us to be a nation of car owners. Great for the US auto industry (who managed to screw things up in spite of it all), bad for the public and the environment.
IV. America is too provincial. Europeans, no matter what their walk of life, always seem to have been everywhere, whereas most Americans don't even have passports. Even Gerard, a dairy farmer with no college education, had been all over Europe, Asia, and a few places in North America. I suppose living in a continent where two hours has you in a completely different nation and language makes you appreciate the virtues of multiculturalism. Even the most hopeless yahoo from Palookaville, Pennsyltucky would let go of his ignorance and posturing if he had a good long stint overseas. Why? When all you know is your own culture and country, it's easy to start thinking of other nations as abstractions, dots on a map with unpronounceable names or sputtered names on the evening newscast (Eyjafjallajökull?). Abstractions are easy to process. There is little moral dilemma in invading an abstraction. If you cannot adequately process anything beyond your own mental borders, the big other, the outside becomes something to be feared and, if possible, controlled. Once you've been there, walked those streets, tasted that food, it becomes a place and a people as real and dear as your own. You realize that the much vaunted "differences" between "us" and "them" are largely contrivances of unscrupulous people who need your opinion or your vote. Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck would be laughed out of any public forum in Europe. They simply wouldn't have an audience. Stunts like Glenn Beck's planned redux of Martin Luther King's march on Washington wouldn't happen. It used to be that Americans abroad used to have to apologize for George Bush, or pretend to be Canadian. Now, we have to apologize for Teabaggers. I'm sorry world, these guys are pretty embarrassing, but I swear, we're not all that dumb.
V. America is too religious. There I said it, sue me. Not that I think that religious convictions are per se a bad thing (quite the contrary actually) but that the disproportional influence of religion on public life and policy here in America is embarrassing and must end if America is ever to be taken seriously as a civilized nation. Civilized nations are not necessarily non-religious, but they are secular and ecumenical. The current stranglehold of religion on conservative politics in America is both un-American (ahem, Establishment Clause) and un-Christian (a religion that is by necessity, a faith of the disenfranchised and downtrodden).

Next time, my polemic against the suckage of Europe. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Go home, or make a home, or rest

So while my travels are technically over, I realize that I never said anything about London.
I think that a stint in an English-speaking country was a good cultural readjustment for me. London is very large, and very busy, but fairly clean and as I had mentioned before, the most user-friendly city I've ever encountered. Katie and I had a good anti-colonialism rant in the British Museum while viewing the Parthenon Friezes (which rightly belong in Greece). The British Museum as an entity poses an interesting moral quandary since it's collection consists largely of the spoils of decades of English Imperialism, especially in Egypt and Iraq. While I can't in good conscience support what amounts to high-minded piracy, I concede that the Museum has one of the most impressive and coherent collections in the world and it's location in the heart of one of the world's leading cities makes it hard to match as an educational resource. Should Greece, Egypt, and the rest simply forget about it all and leave things be for the greater good or should they assert their rights and say "those pieces tell the particular story of a particular people and they belong rightly in their ancestral homes." The British Museum has a fantastic collection of British artifacts telling the story of the British people from the Celtic and Roman periods through the Middle Ages to the present day. Shouldn't that be enough? What quanta of cultural superiority gives the British Museum the right to keep the Parthenon Friezes against the explicit desires of the Greek government and people? Are Katie and I just nationalistic and biased (considering that we're both extremely proud of our Greek heritage), or do I have a valid point here?
Of course, there are other hallmarks of imperialism adorning the British capital, such as the amazing curries and samosas that Katie and I stuffed our faces with in one of London's Bangla neighborhoods. In a country infamous for its bland food, it makes a certain twisted sense that a recent poll named chicken tikka masala (with a pint of lager) as the favorite dish of the UK. While chicken tikka is good, it's no more traditional Indian than the oft-mispronounced General Tso's chicken is traditional Chinese. Both are products of post-Imperial systems where traditional recipes are tinkered with to meet the tastes of a nation with limited pride in its own cuisine.
My battery's dying and my yia-yia is nagging me to set up her mobile phone. College Park is about 35 C and about 98% humidity. Yeah, I'm home.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Spanish Bombs over Andalucia

So regrettably, I spent much of my week in España curled up in the fetal position in a bed or couch somewhere with a killer sinus infection. I felt like I was cheating myself by failing to go out and party like a rockstar with Amy and the rest, but all my body wanted to do was remain horizontal for as long as possible. I still made a pretty good run of things, visiting four cities--Valencia, Granada, Sevilla, and Málaga--in my time there.
Aside from the aforementioned holocaust of hair, Valencia was a guay-ass place, reminding me of an upscale Miami with less cocaine. Walking around the spacey Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias in Valencia was a highlight as the surreal futuristic architecture made me feel as if I had walked into the set of a sci-fi movie. Everything was sleek, white, impeccably placed, and looked as if it shouldn't stand up, yet it all did. More architectural showpieces than the "highbrow entertainment" venues which they ostensibly function as, the buildings of the Ciudad are the demonstration of an imagination liberated by technology. Will all our new buildings have such panache in the future? I can only hope so, since that would be hella cool. Having observed the passion for beauty that permeates so many of the public buildings of yesteryear in places like Praha or Firenze, I can only hope that our generation leaves an equivalent architectural legacy, rather than prisons of boxy functionality. In Valencia and in Nice, I also encountered that peculiar European phenomenon of topless sunbathing. Really, the practice seems like good common sense, after all, how distracting are tanlines, but I was a bit concerned that I would engage in some inordinate ogling. My female readers will be pleased to know that this was not that case, since the whole topless phenomenon when observed in situ seems more utilitarian than erotic. The sunbathers are nude, not naked, since their state of undress is brazen and intentional and they have not been caught in a fleeting moment of immodesty. They are nude in the way that an art model is nude or an anatomical drawing is nude since their lack of clothing served as a statement of power rather than an exposure of weakness. That said, there were certain breasts which I wish had remained cozened in their bikini tops for both the sake of the aesthetic health of the community and for the sake of my own scathed retinas. Once seen, some things are never unseen.
Wednesday night, I took a night train from Valencia to Granada, which was a soothing and pleasant experience, or would have been if the eight-year-old son of one of my compartment-mates hadn't kept barging in at odd hours. Granada is a splendid old city in the Andalucian foothills. It is home to the Alhambra, the palace of the last Moorish Sultanate of Spain. The Alhambra is Spain's most visited tourist attraction (€12 to get in) and with good reason as it is both expansive and beautiful. The Islamic architecture exhibited there stands in start contrast to the Western styles I have grown used to at this point with it's emphasis on abstract patterns and Arabic script. The ornateness of the patterns and the prevalence of an alphabet which I cannot read made the palace even more dreamlike. It was easy to lose myself for what seemed like hours just mesmerized with the labyrinth of forms in a single wall or doorway. Plus, the multitude of fountains and ledges gave me a serious jonesin' for some Prince of Persia.
Granada is also home to the free tapa every time you order a drink. There are about as many stories to the origin of this Andalucian custom as their are tapas, but what doesn't change is that you get a free tapa with every beer or sangria and they are usually pretty sustaining. Consequently, Andalucia is a pretty cheap place to eat; just keep buying booze and the food will follow. At night, Granada is overwhelmed by swarms of midges which in turn attract legions of swallows to chase down and, well, swallow them. The noise of the swallows in the deep purple twilight is unforgettable.
By the time I hit Sevilla, I was starting to feel better so I was able to actually enjoy myself in this Andalucian capital. One of the highlights of Sevilla was the vast Plaza de España, a huge circular building constructed for the Ibero-American Expo of 1929. The building feels stately for some unknown purpose, so much so that George Lucas actually filmed part of one of the shitty Star Wars films there.
When I finally made it to Málaga, an ancient port town at the southern tip of Europe, I was ready to party. I had an unintentional good time courtesy of some extremely drunk Englishmen who brought out tray after tray of free drinks, including three tequila shots. I was able to get sufficiently drunk to sleep through the noise and lack of AC in the hostel on my piddly remaining Euros.
I'm back in London now, in the impeccable company of Katie Wallner. It was a real sight for sore eyes to see her, my friend of some four years, after weeks of shotgun friendships. Just when I thought I was enjoying my life of artful loneliness, reveling in the conversation of strangers and the unflagging companionship of books, I came to realize how much I really do need people. While the life of exile holds a certain level of charm and serves as a fine soul-making practice, it drains the life out of you eventually. I think, after all my wandering, I am finally ready to go home. I don't quite miss America yet, but I do miss my friends and family and you cannot divorce a place from the people who fill it.