June 20, 2001
The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

 
At last, I have been to Ikea. Wow. It's not just a store, it's an adventure. I think they should call it "Ikealand." I'm still kind of stunned by it -- that you walk only one way through a mapped out flow through the entire store, like Disneyland, and there's so much stuff and stuff and more stuff, and that you just take those little pieces of paper and then go hunt up all the stuff you want in the warehouse, and you can dump your kids in a play area and pick them up later. Wow.

I've been traveling for work recently, to the U.S. -- hence the lack of travelogue about such (you've all been subjected to more than enough stories about that country from me). It is often much cheaper to take the train to Frankfurt and fly out from there than to fly directly out of the Bonn/Köln airport. And that's fine with me, because it's well under two hours one way, and I love trains, and I love train stations, and the ride is gorgeous. Trains and train stations are romantic, mysterious, diverse and intriguing, with only the very occasional desperation or annoying people that permeate airports and airplanes. I'm happy in train stations. I feel like a real traveler, in much the same way I do when I load up the truck with dogs and camping gear. I love looking around at the other travelers, and making up stories about them to entertain myself. I'm easily amused. My most recent trip to Frankfurt was on the train Johannes Gutenberg. Like all of the German trains I've taken so far, it was modern, roomy and clean. You can sit in an open car, either in a traditional kind of row -- two seats on either side of the train, like an airplane but NO WHERE near as tiny and clausterphobic -- or at a table with two seats facing you. The latter is my favorite. I don't know why, as I can't read or write on a train -- I just like having that table in front of me. You can also sit in a car that's divided up into little rooms, each with six seats, three on either side, facing each other -- I like these when I'm trying to sleep. All of the seats, no matter where, are very wide and comfortable. On this train, there are big automatic sliding glass doors between each car.

I know that, for many of you experienced European travelers out there, these kinds of descriptions seem quaint, or even silly. But you have to understand that, for the most people in the U.S., the whole train thing is completely and utterly exotic.

There's even a "quiet car" on a lot of German trains, where loud talking, listening to the radio or using cell phones is verboten. I hate cell phones. I wish every airport had either a cell phone-free area, or required cell phone users to go to an enclosed designated area. Cell phones are the car alarms of this century. I continually confirm, each time I am subjected to yet another loud cell phone conversation, that cell phones are used primarily by people who are uncomfortable at being alone and/or waiting for something (a plane, to be at the front of the line, etc.), or by people who loathe the idea of engaging with strangers in some way. How sad. I don't particularly like standing in line or waiting alone for a plane or a bus, but I also know that waiting provides a lot of lovely opportunities to think, observe, write, read, make decisions, even to meet other people. I wouldn't care about cell phones if these people didn't talk in such LOUD, piercing voices. I've been jarred out of many a moment with the phrase, "I'm at the airport/ grocery / bus stop / movie theater! Where are you?!"

Anyway...

Trains are made for enjoying the view outside, and the view from Bonn to Frankfurt is stunning. You go along the Rhein for almost the entire trip, and you pass beautiful little German villages and castle ruins and meadows and vineyards and castle ruins and statues and memorials and castle ruins and forests and castle ruins. I haven't been through Koblenz until this trip -- it looks really beautiful, and I intend to go for a more extended visit soon. One startling feature of the town is the huge statue of a man on a horse out in the middle of the river. I might have gasped when I saw it -- I was just so surprised when it popped out in the scenery. Turns out that it's a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and it is actually built on a sandbank at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhein rivers. According to Lonely Planet Germany, the original statue got blasted in WWII, and only the stone pedestal remained. Soon after 1989 (known as the Wende , when Germany was reuniting), a wealthy local publisher donated DM3 million so that a replica could be built. Koblenz began as a Roman military camp around 10 BC, and was called "Confluentes" because of its location.

And mentioning Kaiser Wilhelm II brings this ditty to mind, taught to me by my Papaw:

Kaiser Bill when up the hill to take a peak at France
Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.

I passed another huge statue way up on the top of the hill on the opposite bank of the Rhein, South of Koblenz, but I haven't yet found out what the heck it is. [September 10 update: it's "Germania", atop the giant monument Niederwald Denkmal, glorifying the establishment of the German Reich in 1871).

I like the Frankfurt airport okay, as much as I can like an airport. What I love is the schedule board and the sound it makes as each individual letter and number flips over with new information. It's a comforting sound, a human sound, a natural sound, with rythem. No need for a beep or a digitized voice to tell you the schedule is being updated -- the sound of the little flipping blocks tells you the board is changing.

The most startling thing I saw in the Frankfurt airport was a woman coming down the escalator with a major Kentucky mullet. And I wondered -- does she know it's a mullet? And a Kentucky mullet at that? My friend Kendra and I ponder this often, particularly after we've had a few beers -- does a woman like this one walk into her hair dresser's and say, "I want a MULLET! A big honkin' MULLET. And make it a Kentucky Mullet!"

I wrote a lot in my journal while in the train station and in the airport. I never see anyone writing, with pen and paper, anymore. Just typing away on laptops or talking on their GOD DAMN CELL PHONES. I wonder what people thought I was writing? I feel a bit uncomfortable taking my journal along, for fear of losing it and someone reading it. Yikes. I didn't take Elvis the iBook this trip, but I will have to for the next one -- I'll have too much work to do, I need to be able to reference various stuff, and I need an easy way to check e-mail.

Ofcourse, no airplane trip would be complete without Mr. or Mrs. Annoying Passenger. This trip, it was the Mr., in the form of a young dark-haired ever-so-well-dressed gay man who never took his sun glasses off the entire trip (you know, those incredibly-blinding plane interior lights are just sooooo harsh). He stopped by the back of the plane, where I was sitting, to have a chat with the flight attendants while we were still at the gate. "When can I use my cell phone? What about my CD player? Can I move out of the seat I have now? Are there any babies around, because I just cannot get any sleep with babies around." Annoying passenger ended up with an entire center row to himself, while the rest of us were squeezed in like sardines. No one dared to try to take one of the seats in "his" row. He did volunteer the space under "his" row for some excess baggage brought on by another passenger. When the flight attendant asked, "Are you sure?", he snapped, "I wouldn't offer if I wasn't sure." He still had his sun glasses on.

I really am a wonderful airline passenger, and I should receive some kind of award for being such, preferably cash.

Why do planes fly? I have tried understanding why, but I'm afraid to think about it too hard while actually flying, for fear that it will be like Tinker Bell -- stop believing and she dies, stop believing and my plane will drop out of the sky, because it's only faith that keeps it up.

While in New York City on this business trip, I took a tour of the United Nations headquarters. Cool, and definitely worth the visit, but the facilities are in dire need of an upgrade (it's so obvious they don't have much money). Also, the guide never mentioned what International Year it was (FYI, it's the International Year of Volunteers, and I have the official IYV condoms to prove it). Still, the tour is very interesting -- and you can take the same UN tour yourself, from your own computer! But, online, you won't be able to take the tour with four nuns, as I did.

In other news:

Recently, I went with a co-worker to a party held by the section of our company that is focused on Africa. Actually, at first, we accidentally went to the wrong party (both were outdoors), because we saw a bunch of other co-workers there and thought, this must be it! The "right" party was fun, although I looked like hell (since it was a barbecue, I dressed way down -- big mistake). Most of the attendees were African, however, and many of the women were dressed in bright tribal colors and they looked so comfortable and beautiful. And they were all speaking French. The food was excellent, and I got to know a lot of people I hadn't talked with at all since I started four months ago. I was exhausted by 10 p.m. (or 22:00, as they say here) and really wanted to go, and the person I was there with decided she did too, to get ready for her own party the next day. But when we tried to leave, the host grabbed us and said, "No no! Now is the dancing!" So we went upstairs and danced three songs. Then snuck out. Rumor has it the party went on well past midnight.

Another day, I'm riding my bike to work, tra la la, slightly hungover from yet another night of wine and Spainards and Germans and a Brazilian bar, happy to be riding along my Rhein river (yes, it's mine now -- I've earned it). The sun is shining, the temperature is kind of cool, the Rhein looks lovely... and up ahead, I see this huge crowd of bicycles. Teens on bicycles. All grouped together and blocking the pathway. Highly unusual. I start to ring my little German bike bell. Ring ring. 'Cause that's what you do in Germany when you want to gently but firmly tell people, get the heck out of my way. Ring ring. No response. Ring Ring. No response. Finally, when I'm almost right on top of them, one of them moves, but not before I almost slam into her. I start shaking my head. And I hear this little snot-nosed I'm-here-on-Daddy's-money up-talking American voice say, "Don't you even shake your head at us." And I turn around and in my best New Yorker don't-assume-I-don't-speak-English voice yell "FUCK YOU, STUPID BITCH." I doubt she'll make that mistake again. Or maybe she will. In Italy. And someone will deck her.

That story brought down the house at the Underground, a club in Köln. Okay, not the whole house -- just the Americans I was hanging with. I went to Köln by myself for the first time -- a German co-worker mapped out what trains to take -- to see Big In Iowa, a band I "know" from Postcard2. I found the band right away (American midwestern accents really stick out in Germany), drinking out in the beer garden with their tour mates, Reto Burrell & Band, from Switzerland. Got to have awesome discussions about Twang and Austin with the boys, then met up with the girls -- a partner of a band member and her friend -- for lively talks about Southern sayings that don't translate well for Europeans ("Honey, I could just eat you up! I could just sop you up with a biscuit!") and the art of yelling "Wa--hooo" at concerts, which we demonstrated liberally once the bands hit the stage. The club has a great feel to it, and the bartenders found us (the girls) highly amusing, as we threw down Czechoslovakian "Budweiser" beers (a huge improvement over the American version) and flirted with Reto (he's right -- Chris Knight is really under-rated). The crowd was much older than what I was expecting (most people looked my age!) and really enjoyed the mix of rock and twang, demanding encores and even singing along (Reto & Band do an amazing country version of "Purple Rain," and Big in Iowa did a thundering "Not Your Steppin' Stone"). But no dancing. Germans just do NOT dance. Big in Iowa is a TON of fun live, they sound TERRIFIC live, and their own songs are fabulous. Wow. Definitely worth checking out if they ever come to your town. I was jonesin' bad for alt.country live music, and that night, except for the lack of dancing, it felt like being back in Austin. It was the most fun I have had in weeks and weeks.

I got home at 2:30 p.m., after a lively ride with a Turkish cab driver who spoke no English. He was hilarious.

I'll end with this: the Web site jumptheshark.com tries to pinpoint that ineffable moment when hit TV shows overreach. The founder named the Web site after a "Happy Days" episode in which Fonzie, wearing his leather jacket as he water-skis, jumps over a shark. The site is fantastic.

More later . . .


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