Giessen, day 1
October 14, 11 pm. On my first RegionalExpress (RE) train right now, traveling from Kassel to Giessen after first going from Berlin to Kassel on the ICE. (I got to see about a block or two of Kassel in the fifteen minutes I waited while transferring trains; too bad I couldn't stay and see more, because Kassel looked like a really nice city. By the way, REs are not nearly as nice as the ICEs; think of the latter as the major line hooking up New York and Chicago, and the former as the dinky train that gets you from Chicago to Peoria.) Now that I'm out of Berlin, I'm starting to feel better about the major freakout I had back there. Of course, I also just smoked a big ol' doobie not too long ago, so I'm sure that isn't hurting things either as far as calming down.
I think staying with Alamar here in Giessen for a day or two will be fun. (Alamar is not his real name, by the way; it's an online username, like the German equivalent of "riotgrrl.") To remind you, Alamar is one of the punk bloggers I found on Google who has been helping me figure out cool non-poetry things for me to do while in Germany. Giessen seems like a decent city, based on what I read in the guidebooks, and I already met Alamar at the Frankfurt slam so know that he's decent as well. Maybe I'll spend both days there, or one day there and one with Esther in Bonn, or Etta in Mainz, or Ricardo in Cochem. I'm playing it by ear at this point, feeling safe to do so because Alamar's already promised I could stay two days if I need to.
I keep promising to sit down and write about the little cultural differences I've been seeing in Deutschland, the things that maybe don't deserve an entire entry but are interesting nonetheless. I've got a good hour or so to kill before Giessen, so I guess let me try to do this now.
--Germany is very clean. I mean, literally, you can walk right through the center of a big city here and see maybe two cigarette butts on the sidewalk the entire time. There's a reason for this, you know; in fact, it's a law in Germany that you can't throw your butts on the sidewalk, and you can get fined 30 damn euros on the spot if caught. The Germans keep their cities spotless, sometimes by force, I assume because the Green Party has had such an enormous influence over government policy here for so long. Every trashcan has a complicated series of recycling holes in it, with separate containers for glass, paper, plastic and biological material, and you can get fined for throwing the wrong thing in the wrong one. The entire country looks much better as a result, and cities are saving enormous amounts of resources by using so much recycled material. I think that more American cities would benefit from following their example.
--Germans take their bicyclists and pedestrians very seriously. Like, did you know that motorists have to automatically stop for pedestrians when they're in the pedestrian zone, in some cases even when the motorist has the right of way? Or, that you can get fined for stopping your car inside the borders of a pedestrian zone? Or that half of every sidewalk is devoted to bicycle lanes (sometimes painted a different color, like in Frankfurt, sometime paved with a different type of stone, like in Duesseldorf)? Or that you can get yet another fine for being either a pedestrian or a bicyclist in either wrong side of the sidewalk? Yeah, neither did I.
--On the other hand, there are some things Germans treat much less seriously than Americans. Like nudity; there are nude people literally in about one out of every four public billboards here. Some of them even approach softcore pornography, usually cheap garish ads for strip clubs and bordellos. Oh, and bordellos, for that matter! Ja! Prostitution is legal in Germany, in fact, just restricted to one geographical area in each city, and I just cannot tell you how strange it is to walk through a red-light district and see completely legal advertisements for women you can pay to fuck. Like...hmm. Like imagine Wal-Mart opening a chain of bordellos, ja? Big and flashy and very professional but in this very low-brow kinda way. Like a giant, three-dimensional porn magazine that you can walk through and participate in. Fucking weird. Oh, and pot too; as long as it's late afternoon or evening, you can pretty much walk down the middle of the more quiet, residential streets here in Germany, smoking a joint in public, and no one else cares or even notices. Oh, and people pulling out joints in bars too, right in the middle of a public commercial area. It's an interesting way to run a country, I think, with all the strict laws being applied to things like recycling and cleanliness, and the relaxed attitudes about things like drugs and sex. It's the opposite way than it's done in America, and I think Germany is much better off for it.
--It's true; Germans are obsessed with plans and order. I had heard this many times before coming to Germany, but was trying to keep an open mind back in Chicago; now that I'm here, though, I can see how true the cliche is. Man, you should see these schedules these slam hosts come up with for their shows; everything is planned down to the exact minute, then the minutes are actually written down in a notebook, one at a time, with little arrows everywhere pointing to what's going on at any random moment in the entire evening. And the trains - Jesus, don't even get me started on the trains. In the 25 or 30 trains I've ridden in my first week on the road, not a single one of them has been over two minutes late. The stations have these giant five-foot-long posters, printed individually for each station, listing the exact details of every single train in tiny little 12-point type. (There are a buttload of train types in Germany, by the way - DB, which is to get from city to city [and can be broken down even further into ICE, IC, RE, R, and others]; S-Bahn, which is like the suburban commuter train; U-Bahn, which is like the normal el system in Chicago; and trams, which work like busses [many more stops] but on tracks instead of wheels.) And not only does every tram have an electronic station guide, which automatically updates itself after every stop to show what's next on the list, but also a giant LCD screen in the front showing the next station as well, the current time, and the exact number of minutes until it arrives there, both in text and spoken German. Ordnung muss sein (Order Must Be), muthafucka!
--Germans are sometimes just as confused about Americans as we are about them. Man, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard this one: "The first time I went to America, I go to store and the clerk says, 'Hallo, how are you?' And I think, 'Wow, Americans are so much friendlier than I thought they would be! Here is complete stranger asking me how am I!' But then I realize that she wants no answer, just 'Fine, how are you?' I do not understand why everyone in America keeps asking each other 'How are you?' when they do not really want to know." Ja, ich verstehe. Fortunately I've gotten to bring some welcome news that maybe not so many young people over here seem to know; like how many Americans don't like George W. Bush, how there are a lot more protests and demonstrations in America than they know about, how there are in actuality millions of people in America fighting for more gun control, death-penalty restrictions and other issues most Germans take very seriously. Many of the young Germans I've met seem to think of America as one vast uninterrupted blanket of Republicans - Big Mac in one hand, gun in the other, shooting at our fellow drivers as we barrel down the highway, suing each other over the least little offenses and excitedly discussing which country we're going to invade next. I don't blame them for thinking this way, of course, and am happy for the chance to get to report some news from the front that maybe they didn't already know.
--German writers have a very complicated relationship with their language. Now that I'm over here, it's becoming a lot clearer why the Germans are so obsessed with the poetry slam (there are over 70 here now, with more literally being created monthly); not because of a fascination with hiphop, like I think many Americans assume, but because they go back and forth with themselves over the length of German language, and the rigid rules for grammar here, and whether this is a good or a bad thing for poetry and song lyrics and other very rhythmical types of writing. So, you see some of the poets here do this interesting thing with language, which is to basically lop off giant sections of their words until left with just the core of their meaning, both so that they can be fit more rhythmically into their poems but also so that their meanings are more ambiguous, like writing in English. Then, some of the other poets just skip that step altogether and simply write their poems in English, which then brings up this complicated argument over whether this is being a traitor to your native language. (This is an argument they've been long going through in Germany, started decades ago in the world of rock music; you should just see the kind of debate that ensues when two drunk German poets get into a conversation on the subject.) Being from an essentially unilingual country, of course, I find it fascinating, and I'm equally fascinated in seeing what all these different types of German poets think on the subject and how this differs not only individually but also regionally.
More observations later, but for now we just pulled into the Giessen station. Tschuss.
October 15, noon. There's an expression in America that goes, "If someone hands you lemons, make lemonade." I can think of no better place to heed this kind of advice than while on a foreign vacation, and no better reason for doing so than because of the events of my own last 24 hours. I'll explain.
A recap, first, for those who missed yesterday's entry. I'm supposed to be in Berlin right now, hanging out in weird East German bars and flirting with "Run Lola Run" types and supposedly having the best experiences of my entire tour, at least according to the Berliners I've talked with about it. But Berlin turned out to be a nightmare - no one was expecting me, there was no place for me to stay, the Berliner poets didn't seem to give a shit that there was no place for me to stay, people were cold to me, I was treated a little rudely by some, und so weiter. So I said 'fuck it' and wrote to all my other German correspondents instead, explaining the situation and asking if anyone would be kind enough to take me in for two days until my regular tour schedule starts up again on the 16th in Koblenz. And sure enough, one of my online readers, this "black kid" (German slang for "goth") named Alamar said, "Oh, Jason, come down to Giessen. It is a small town, maybe, not too much to do, but we maybe will be able to show you a good time." So I hop on the train in Berlin at 7:30 pm and arrive in Giessen around midnight, not really knowing what to expect.
Man, I should be used by now to this German habit of underselling every single thing in their lives, but I'm not, I guess. Giessen, it turns out, is not in fact some podunk little town with nothing to do, like Alamar made it sound, but rather this thriving, bustling university city (population 80,000, 20,000 of whom are students), with a twelve-block downtown left over from Medieval days, now entirely a pedestrian mall, with hundreds of stores and thousands of people on the street on a random weekday morning, and more cute fucking little frauleins than you even have time to swivel your head and see. Oh, fuck yeah, especially considering what an opposite state of affairs I had found myself in just 24 hours previous. Giessen has been a splash of warm water in an otherwise pretty chilly two days of my life, and has gone a long way towards calming down from what I will now be referring to as "Der Berliner Probe" (literally translated, "The Berlin Test of Strength").
Not to mention, Alamar and his roommates are the greatest, warmest, friendliest, most funny, most curious hosts you will ever have the pleasure of meeting in the entire country of Germany. One of them, in fact, Enrico (Spanish name, German guy), was waiting for us in the kitchen when Alamar and I finally got to their place last night about 12:15 or so. "You are American, ja?" he asked me, then whipped out a bottle of bourbon. "You like the Jim Beam, ja?" Hey, I'm originally a Missouri boy - you bet your sweet ass l like the Jim Beam. So, I pulled out my weed (which, by the way, is the greatest international icebreaker in the history of time), we rolled up a spliff, poured a few glasses of neat bourbon, and had a most fun and rollicking conversation around the kitchen table (it's always the kitchen table in Germany) until nearly 3:00 in the morning.
Enrico is such an interesting guy - young, leftist, anti-war, fascinated with American culture even while being confused and pessimistic about it. He's teaching himself English on his computer right now, and was eager to sit around last night and have me tell him all the things about American culture he didn't understand. "Why do they call the 9/11 site 'Ground Zero?' I thought that was a term for the Hiroshima atomic bomb site, where many, many more people died. Isn't it insult to Japan to call it Ground Zero? What did American artists think of 9/11? Why do we not hear more from you? Will there ever be a revolution in America? How can the American people stand that George Bush wins election by the courts instead of the people? Why did Michael Moore get booed at the Oscars?"
Just in case you couldn't guess, by the way, Michael Moore is talked about almost in godlike terms here among young Germans, and I'm not exaggerating that statement one bit; just mention the name to most young Germans and their eyes will narrow, and they will say in this very quiet voice, "Ah, yes. Bowling For Columbine. A very important movie. Michael Moore is a genius. He is only man in America to tell truth about your country." Which in a way is great, because I'm happy to hear that at least a little bit of the opposing viewpoint in America is getting out to a global audience. But in a way it's sad, too, because almost none of the young Germans I've talked with have any idea of just how much protest is going on inside of America right now, and just how many people in America hate Bush. You say things like this to them, like how there are actually millions of Americans who love Michael Moore too and agree with what he says, and their eyes will get wide. "Really? We thought he was a...how you say...exile in your country? No, not exile. Lonely villain, ja?" Nein, nein! It's really frustrating sometimes to see how one-sided the information coming out from America is for most of Europe; how they only get the pro-war information, and the Jerry Springer reruns, and news about people suing each other over spilt coffee, and teenagers flipping out and killing dozens of people with automatic weapons. Not nearly as much alternative news and other information about America gets distributed to Germans, which is really a shame. Then again, if my website isn't already dedicated to complex stories about what it's really like to be an American these days, what is? So it's kind of nice to be able to be an information spreader as well during this tour, and not just a recorder of other people's stories.
By the way, the much more interesting thing to me about American culture in Germany is how the author Jonathan Franzen is a fucking superstar over here. For those who don't know, Franzen is this interesting American novelist (you may remember him best because of the flare-up concerning the Oprah show in 2002), whose books sell okay in America and are well-liked, but is certainly not a marquee writer like John Grisham or Danielle Steele. In Germany, though, he's like Stephen King or something - every bookstore you walk into has big giant posters of him on the walls, and most of the young Germans I've talked with about literature mention him in the same breath as people like Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. I'm intensely curious to know what it is about Franzen that connects so well with the German populace.
OK, so, es ist getting ein bische kalt (a little cold) hier at this outdoor cafe, so I think maybe I will go home now, ja? Boy, I just cannot express enough what a profound turnaround my life has experienced in the last 24 hours, or how incredibly fucking happy I am that Alamar and his roommates have allowed me to experience the turnaround in the first place. Drinking and smoking and talking with cute girls about philosophy in a weird German-English mishmash, in the middle of a thousand-year-old plaza on a sunny day; is there really any better thing in the world? Thanks again to Alamar and the rest, and I'll speak with you again tomorrow. Tschuss.
P.S. If you really want to charm the socks off some Germans, dump the "Ich spreche nicht Deutsch" crap and instead simply say, "Mein Deutsch, es ist nicht so gut." The former phrase is the standard High-German sentence you see in every guidebook in the world ("I speak no English"); every time I used it when I first started the tour, I could see the store clerk or bartender roll their eyes ever so slightly and sigh, as if to say, "God, another American tourist, here we go again." The latter phrase, however, is almost the exact repetition of a common phrase Germans learn here when studying our own language ("My English, it is not so good"); when I use this line, I get a very sympathetic laugh and nod from the clerk, and a response along the lines of, "Ja, OK. We will try it together in English, ja?" It's the little things, people. It's the little things that mean so very, very much in another country.