Cochem, day 4 / Trier
October 29. 8 am. So here I am, back in Cochem for the second time of the tour, resting up at Ricardo and Karin's house, seeing some more of the Mosel countryside and getting ready to go to Wiesbaden later this morning, site of my last show of the tour. Cochem in the early morning, by the way, is a simple yet powerful experience not to be missed if you're in the area; in the autumn this heavy fog settles into the valley here during the night, so you're greeted in the morning with a misty view straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale. Plus, I've learned, the tourist hotels all keep their free breakfasts going until exactly 10 in the morning, so if you can manage to drag your own ass out of bed before then, the streets and cafes of this town belong to only you and the locals - a much more pleasant way to start the morning than being herded like cattle through the narrow streets of this Medieval town.
Yesterday was a long day of sightseeing and car riding - which was great, because it included several things I thought I was simply not going to get a chance to see, but also exhausting because I was still reeling from three late nights in a row in Regensburg and Bonn and desperately needed some sleep. It started at 8 in the morning, when Ricardo and I gave Karin a ride to work; then the two of us headed to Burg Eltz, one of the many castles dotting this region and the one that travel writer Rick Steves says is his "favorite in all of Europe."
It's easy to see why when you get there; it is, in fact, neither an abandoned castle nor a restored one, like 99 percent of the castles in the region are, but one that has miraculously survived all the wars and Crusades and pillages and Allied bombings that have taken place in Germany over the centuries, and continues to be filled with the actual furniture, paintings and heirlooms the Eltz family has slowly been collecting over the last 500 years. (The Eltz family still owns the castle, in fact, and unbelievably still continues to live there six months a year. Could you even imagine?)
The admission price is steep - six euros for a 45-minute tour - but well worth it. The rooms continue to be in pristine shape, and there are paintings by famous Renaissance masters scattered all over the place, most often personal gifts from the artists themselves to the Eltz family (and many of them with a knight painted into the background with the coat of arms from the Eltz kingdom). Plus there's an impressive collection of original furniture, frescos, weapons, oriental rugs from when various Eltz males would go off to fight in an Ottoman war, und so weiter. And, this being a weekday in October at nine in the morning, Ricardo and I also had the entire castle almost to ourselves; by the time the tour started at 9:30 there was still only one couple joining us. (In fact, the tour guide is usually instructed not to repeat her spiel in English, but she did it this time anyway because the group was so small and she could tell I was so interested. It was much appreciated - and she was one of those cute little blonde Rheinlander hotties too, so that certainly didn't hurt the tour either.)
After the castle Ricardo and I continued our way to Trier, stopping off every so often to run such errands as candy shopping, lunch, and finally showing me a German porn store (which was interesting - it was very similar to an American porn store but with a lot more S&M and fetish videos, plus with a different way of handling the back booths - in Germany you go into a big room in the back of the store that is like a bar, that you pay a flat 9 or 10 euros for, and then you can either sit in the middle with your buddies and drink and watch the big screen, or go into a little booth along the wall for free so you can jerk off). On the road we got into a conversation about the education discovery I made in Munich - about how in addition to high school and university, there is also a two-year transition education here, called simply "Training" by Germans when they speak of it in English. (In American terms you can think of it as a sort of internship or apprenticeship; or sometimes it's more like going to Devry or one of those other very specific trade schools you see advertising on daytime television.)
"The entire system is ridiculous," Ricardo was complaining to me. "They make you get training for jobs that need no training whatsoever. You want to clean hotel rooms? Get your training. Want to collect garbage? Get your training. Who needs school to clean hotel rooms and collect garbage? And if you can't find a business willing to take on your training, you're screwed - either dream of someday going to University or work at McDonald's. And once you get into training, it's not much better than being a slave - for two straight years you get paid only 300 euros a month, and no one in Germany can live off 300 euros a month. And the only reason these companies take you on anyway is because they get a tax break from the government for doing so - so at the end of two years, 'Thanks for the slave work, you're fired, bye-bye.' And it starts all over again."
Ricardo stopped the car in one of these random towns and pointed out a kid to me - twenty years old or so, sitting on a bench at a bus stop, overweight and pasty and playing a videogame on his cellphone. "That is the face of modern Germany," he said bitterly. "This kid, he is stuck here in this town of 500 people. Grades not good enough to get into University, and his parents are poor anyway so it's not like he could've afforded it. There are maybe only five companies in the entire town able to take on trainees, but he can't get into any because they're already filled or maybe even cancelled because of the bad economy. He can't look for work in other cities, because a driver's license here is 2,000 euros and he can't afford it."
"Did I hear you right?" I asked, astonished. "Did you say two thousand euros for a driver's license?"
"Ja! One-time fee, and then you never worry about it again the rest of your life. But tell me, what eighteen-year-old with no job and poor parents can afford 2,000 euros? Much less the money for buying a car and insurance and permits and gas and parking fees. So he's stuck. No job, no education, no mobility, so no chance at getting an education. No opportunity to even hold a well-paying blue-collar job, like Americans just take for granted if they can't afford University. No future. So he sits at the bus stop and plays games on his Handy and thinks about killing himself, which a growing amount of young Germans do each year. No hope. No future." He shook his head. "It's a fucking mess. It's a fucking mess here in Germany right now." And then he threw the car into gear and we kept driving.
Trier was a disappointment, my first of the tour. I mean, the Roman ruins were great; the city has more of them in better shape than just about anywhere else in the region, including a huge section of the original defensive wall, an entire bathhouse and an entire gladiator arena. The problem is that the city of Trier knows this, and has over the years developed an entire industry of tacky, tasteless tourism that sometimes is so pervasive it threatens to ruin any enjoyment you might have gotten from the sites themselves. Almost every Roman site in Trier besides the wall, for example, is enclosed by an ugly modern chainlink fence, and you have to pay an admission charge to be let inside and see it in any more detail. Meanwhile, the sites themselves are ringed by dozens of cheap kiosks and badly-lit stores, selling the shittiest collection of tacky tourist crap you've ever seen, constantly reminding you that you're only being welcomed because of the huge amount of money the city can make off you. Even the tourist map at the information center, which is usually free or at the most 25 cents (and which I obsessively collect, because it's about the only regular souvenir I can afford), costs two entire euros in Trier. A disappointment, ja, especially when comparing it to a place like Cochem, where everyone makes you feel like you're a sincerely welcome visitor to the city instead of the fat American cow being led off to the slaughter.
And that's pretty much all I have to report; we got back to Cochem around 6 pm, and it took me until 8:30 to type up my little epic entry about Bonn, and then until 10 pm to get it all posted to the internet and check my email, and by then I was so exhausted I simply passed out, despite originally planning on going to Ricardo's friend Carlo's place to drink beer and watch The Matrix: Reloaded. And now here I am on the RE, my third-to-last train of the tour, slowly making my way to Wiesbaden for the last new city and last performance of the tour.
Johanna called me last night. She wants to see me again. She's decided to take the train down from Bonn and meet me in Wiesbaden. And as stupid as it sounds, my heart sorta leapt into my throat when I got the news. I didn't think I was going to get to see her again, so to hear that she's been wanting to see me as well has elated me like a 16-year-old getting a girl he has a crush on to say yes to the Prom. Pathetic, I know. I've never claimed my life is anything but pathetic.
Lots of people have now asked me if my views about America have changed after my first trip outside it; they have, in fact, but not in the way you might expect, which is why I've been putting off talking about it. I've got some time right now on this train, though, and I definitely wanted to get this down before the tour ended, so here finally are my complicated thoughts on the matter.
The typical American reaction to an international vacation is a well-known, almost cliched one; they leave our country feeling fairly happy about our society and system of government, then slowly realize in the other country how much there is about America to dislike - the lack of persistent memory among many of our citizens, our obsession with fast-food solutions to complex questions, our xenophobia and lack of global political understanding and obsession with celebrity culture. I, however, started my tour with almost the opposite mindset - I was disgusted with America almost to the point of emigration 21 days ago when I first left domestic soil, and have consistently been the harshest critic of my country and our current administration in all the conversations I have here with young, politically-aware Germans.
But I too have ended up changing my opinion a bit in these last three weeks; the irony is that it's been for the better than for the worse, and they're all things I would've never realized about my home if not coming somewhere else and realizing how much I take them for granted. Like simple public politeness, for example - when you look at the way Germans treat each other (versus how they treat hapless tourists with unfolded maps on streetcorners, which is actually quite wonderfully), it can be shocking sometimes to see just how rude they can get. In fact, this is the absolute number-one thing I hear from Germans who have visited America about what they liked the best - our habit of constantly saying "please" and "excuse me" and "thank you" in public, our unforced willingness to get out of the way when someone's trying to get around us in a crowded area. When you look at the general population of America and not necessarily our current administration, in general we really are quite a polite society, more so than maybe you'll find in lots of areas of Europe.
This ties in closely to Americans' natural willingness to simply be friendly and outgoing with total strangers, which is something I've just taken for granted my entire life; every day in Chicago, it seems, I have at least one pleasant little conversation with a complete stranger, whether that's about the weather with a grandmother on an el, or about the book I'm reading with a waitress at a coffeehouse. It's not that Germans don't want to be this way themselves; indeed, every time I've approached a stranger here this month, no matter where in the country I've been, I've gotten into the same pleasant little conversations I would have back home. The problem is that the society itself has fostered an attitude that doesn't support this; any time a German approaches another German in public here and starts to talk to them, the second German almost always assumes the first German is trying to get something from them and will give them the cold shoulder. It's something a lot of Germans I've spoken with get really frustrated about in their country, and I can't say that I blame them.
Americans don't have nearly the obsession with plans and schedules and order that most Germans do, which can sometimes be a nightmare (just try to get six Americans to meet at a restaurant at the same time, and you'll see what I mean) but for the most part seems to be a more pleasant way to get through life. We're much more capable of reaching a consensus when two competing parties need to find a middle ground, versus the common German habit of stubbornly sticking to your guns and either winning the entire argument or utterly losing. More American patrons of the arts, it seems, are willing to take chances with unknown projects and artists; I doubt you will ever see the popular rise of a German McSweeney's, for example, or a German Salon.com, or a German Alice Sebold, or a German Radiohead. And the oldest cliche about America has indeed turned out to be true - it's still very much a place where people are allowed to pursue whatever kind of job they want, whatever kind of career, whatever kind of life, with a minimum of hassle. I've realized with some dismay this month how difficult it would've been for me to have the career I've had (jumping from job to job with very little education besides a self-taught one, getting more jobs simply because I was good at the previous ones) if I had been born in Germany and forced to go through the very restrictive educational system they have here.
That all being said, it's been alarming to be in another country and see with more objective eyes just how fascist America has become in the last three years, and how there is an environment there that rivals Germany itself during the Kaiser era right before World War I: an obsession with the military, and a belief among many citizens that being a soldier is the most noble thing one can do with one's life; an obsession with the concept of "perpetual war," that we cannot define ourselves as a people unless we have an enemy to define it for us; an ineffectual, unintelligent leader, who sort of bumbles his way through world affairs and is loved by his populace for being just as dumb as them; a general erosion of our freedoms and civil rights, perpetrated slowly and systemically with a war-obsessed central authority figure (named Ashcroft in this particular case), with the vast majority of citizens not caring because they're being lulled to sleep by popular entertainment; and most dangerous of all, an administration that thinks of itself as an empire, and believes it has the moral, almost divine right to invade any country it wants at any time it wants - since, of course, we so naturally are the best, smartest people on the planet, and why would anybody want anything other than to emulate us? Heil Hitler. Oops, I mean Bush.
Looking back across the pond here during the final days of the tour, I am both excited and sad to be returning to America - happy that I discovered so many things about my fellow citizens I had never really appreciated before, more worried than ever about the way our current administration seems determined to fuck that all up. Despite what Lee Greenwood might think, the fact of the matter is that the United States is no longer the freest country on the planet; I have found that it's much easier to vocalize dissent here in Germany than it's been in America for decades, much easier to get the cops to respect your right to protest, much easier to enact real, concrete changes to the things you don't like, much easier to hold a public protest without thousands of your fellow citizens getting in your face and screaming, "SUPPORT THE TROOPS, MOTHERFUCKER! SUPPORT THE TROOPS, YOU FUCKING HIPPIE FAGGOT!" I wish more Americans could afford to travel to another country and see it for themselves; to see with their own eyes how ridiculous it is that we continue calling ourselves the freest country on the planet. We're not, and if we don't collectively do something serious about it soon, we may soon lose the chance altogether.