October 30, 11 am. Making my way back to Cochem from Wiesbaden. What a strange, strange 24 hours it's been.
My arrival in Wiesbaden yesterday went just fine; train on time, clear instructions to the tourist information center, free Stadtplan and friendly locals who were able to help me find an internet cafe. Wiesbaden turned out to be a lot like Koblenz and other cities in this region hit hard by the war; instead of rebuilding in the architectural style that had been here before, they decided to start with a fresh slate and just start building again in the modern style. So you have this strange mix in Wiesbaden; a Stadtmitte (central-city district) that is quaint, historical, pretty and pedestrian, but is then surrounded on all sides by a city full of modern buildings, all of them built in various styles from the 1950s to the present. And, as with Koblenz, I don't mean to imply that it's ugly, because it's not - Wiesbaden in fact looks like a perfectly pleasant, perfect normal mid-sized American city, like Tulsa or Cleveland or Little Rock. It's just...hmm...jarring, I suppose, to be on a street that looks like something out of a fairytale, then suddenly turn a corner and feel like you were instantly transported to modern Indianapolis.
My day in Wiesbaden was slow and unhurried - just walking around the city, sticking my head into shops, checking out the "world's largest cuckoo clock" (which was pretty damn cool, to tell you the truth), trying to imagine what the city was like in the 1800s when it was a major spa and casino destination for the rich and famous. I splurged at lunchtime and bought an actual sitdown meal at an actual sitdown restaurant, my first with my own money since the entire tour began. I picked an Italian bistro on the north edge of the pedestrian district, which turned out to be owned by this very pleasant middle-aged gay man and filled with his pleasant middle-aged gay friends, all of them drinking wine at one in the afternoon and talking and laughing and sharing pasta and playing with the owner's dog.
I had a feeling there was a Lebenskuenstler district somewhere in the city that I wasn't finding, so after lunch I swallowed my fear and approached two guys hanging outside a skate store, both with dreads and covered in tattoos and piercings. "Entschuldigung," I said. "Ich bin ein Tourist und verstehe nicht Wiesbaden. Ist der ein District fuer Kuenstlers hier? Uh, Kuenstlers, Schreiberen, Studenten, Gays, und so weiter. Schreiben en mein Plan, bitte?" ("Excuse me. I am a tourist and don't understand Wiesbaden. Is there a district for artists here? Uh, artists, writers, students, gay people, etcetera. Will you show me on my map, please?") And sure enough, the guys were pleased as punch that I had approached them with such a question, and three of us spent about five minutes just looking over my map and having them point out various cafes and stores they thought I would enjoy, which led to a little discussion about what I was doing in Wiesbaden and what the poetry slam is like and how my tour has been going. See, this is exactly what I was talking about before - most Germans you'll meet are just as friendly and outgoing as anyone else on the planet, and most of them have a sincere desire to help strangers and get into little conversations. God help you, though, if you were a German and tried to do what I had just done; 95 percent of the time you'd get a cold "I can't help you" in return.
If I haven't explained this already, my show in Wiesbaden came about in this weird way - it wasn't on my original tour itinerary at all, in fact, but this guy named Jeke, one of the twelve or so people who collectively run the Wiesbaden slam, happened to be the guest co-host (along with Duesseldorf's Andre Bolten) of the slam in Frankfurt where I performed on day 2 of the tour. And Jeke liked my work, and asked if I'd have any interest in coming to Wiesbaden at the end of the tour and squeezing in one more performance. And about a week ago I realized that I was going to have the extra time, money and days on my railpass to do so, so I said "what the hell" and agreed to perform, knowing barely anything about what I was getting into. And when I say "barely anything," I'm not exaggerating - in fact, Jeke had forgotten to send me even the address of the place where I was to perform, and I knew nothing about the venue other than that its name in English was "The Slaughterhouse" and that it may or may not be a music club.
Ah, but not to worry - lack of information just gives me one more excuse to go talk to cute girls! (Yeah, like I need another excuse.) So that's exactly what I did yesterday afternoon at this coffeehouse where I had been hanging out, to the incredibly cute dyed-hair punk-rock waitress who had been kinda flirting with me in this charming mish-mash of German and English.
"Sure, ja," she said. "I go to the Slaughterhouse all the time; it's really easy to find. But you are a tourist, ja? How could you have possibly known about the place?"
"Oh, well, I'm this American writer, see, and I'm on this big book tour..." Insert ego-stroking bullshit conversation here. Viva. La. Tour.
The Slaughterhouse was this incredibly cool place, by the way - an entire complex, in fact, that used to actually be a slaughterhouse, then was taken over by a bunch of punk-rock squatters in the 80s and slowly turned into a whole series of youth and skate and art centers, now so successful that it's recognized by the city government and receives a subsidy every year to help fund their programs. Man, ask me how cool it is to see a DIY experiment work out so well. Unfortunately I guessed completely wrong as to what time I should be there, and ended up arriving a full hour before they even opened; fortunately a couple of people from the collective were there already and let me in, and fed me free beer and food for the entire rest of the evening. And then a few minutes later Johanna showed up as well, and they let her in as well, so she and I simply sat there and drank and gabbed for two hours while everyone around us ran around and set things up for the show.
"I read your entry about me yesterday," Johanna said.
"Ja, ja," I replied; I was the one, in fact, who told her about the entry, and encouraged her to read it so she could tell me if there was anything she wanted changed (a standard offer I make to people I write about at the journal). "What did you think?"
"I...liked it." She smiled. "It was strange to read so many nice things about me. I do not really accept compliments very well." (Yeah, no shit - if there's one set of people on this planet who seem utterly unequipped to accept a compliment, it's the Germans.) "The only thing that worried me," she continued, "is maybe people thinking that you weren't telling the whole story; they think maybe something happened between us that you didn't write about. I showed it to my friend and she thought the entry was fine, but that she maybe would get the wrong impression also." I could see what she meant. So, to be clear, nothing physical has happened between Johanna and me, because she has a boyfriend and I'm about to leave the country and neither of us really have a desire to make things all complicated at this late a date.
Johanna had some gifts for me - a mix tape she had made combining American and German bands, and another tape of a German poet she really likes, along with printouts of his poems and a short biography and a picture of herself. We talked more about what meeting each other has meant to us, and what our parents are like, and whether or not she'd actually come visit me in Chicago next year, and all kinds of other personal little things that were wonderful to discuss but maybe don't make for the most exciting of journal entries. And then she said goodbye to catch her train again, and I walked her out, and this time we did hug and I almost kissed her anyway but then got control over myself again and sent her on her way.
I got back and found that two University students wanted to share my table with me, so I said of course and got into a fun little conversation with them the rest of the night. The Wiesbaden slam is run differently than any of the other slams in Germany I've been to, and in fact most of the American slams I've been to as well; in fact, they not only have a featured performer before the competition part of the show, but the feature gets an entire hour to perform by themselves. They had already booked their main feature before meeting me, this sorta mousy girl who read very plainly and I assumed was talking about the usual academic subjects that someone who looked like her would read. And then at the break the two guys I was sitting with broke into uproarious laughter, and I asked what they were laughing about, and they said, "Oh, that story that woman was reading. It was so dirty! It was a lesbian S&M fantasy; women smacking other women on the asses, stuff like that. Oh, that was great!"
After the break the collective gave me 15 minutes of my own to perform; it was without a doubt the most comfortable, most assured performance I've turned in over the entire tour, and it seems like the audience responded to it in kind. (At least, they seemed to actually understand my poem in German that I do every show, and laughed at all the parts where Americans laugh too.) Then the slam, which was apparently a little shorter than usual but still very fun, and then I was asked to go up and read one more piece, and I read "strangeplastikrobot," and am so tired and emotionally wrecked at this point in the tour that I started crying at the end of the piece, and then everyone came up to me after the show and asked if I was okay. And yeah, I was okay, but it's an emotionally up and down time for me right now as I approach the end of the tour and go yet one more day without getting a decent night's sleep.
The students I had been sitting with took me outside after the show and got me so high I could barely feel my own ass by the end, as Jeke and the others cleaned up the bar. We went back inside and I was just standing there listening to everyone jabber in drunken, stoned German, when suddenly this cute woman standing with us appeared to get into an argument with some of the people in the group. "What is it?" I asked, looking around.
"Oh, she wants you to read that German poem you did tonight in English for her, and we told her to leave you alone."
"I want to hear the poem!" she said, frowning and stomping.
"Sure, sure!" I said, laughing. "I'd be happy to read the poem again in English."
"And on top of the bar," she added, tapping the wooden countertop. "Read it while standing on the bar."
So I did - and was so drunk and stoned myself that I decided to do it in the same speed I read my poetry back in Chicago, which is usually so fast that none of the Germans have the slightest clue what I'm saying. But these guys had all just heard me do the poem in German an hour previous, so they were actually able to follow along and seemed to really like it. And then the ten or so of us headed back to Jeke's, where we sat around jabbering about intellectual topics and drinking yet more Biers and smoking yet more Kiffe. And then finally to bed, exhausted like I haven't been in a long, long time, around three in the morning.
And now here I am, back in Cochem, just taking it really easy and getting ready for my five-in-the-damn-morning wakeup call tomorrow. And then the next 24 hours are definitely not going to be the most fun ones of my life - three-hour train ride from Cochem to Frankfurt, eleven-hour flight from Frankfurt to Chicago, ten-minute train ride and 30-minute bus ride from O'Hare to my apartment, and then hopefully about 48 straight hours of sleep. We'll see how it works out, anyway.