Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter Journey

From early 2005

Up at four AM and then down a winding 1930s staircase burdened with a heavy black bag and a thoroughly stuffed olive-green duffel. Goodbye to elegant Lund in the black morning, and so long to Sweden. No more endless dinner parties, and never again the suspicious glares of white neighbors. No acid bath of petty hate in the future, no more miasma of anti-Americanism.

After explaining that I was on my way home, I was treated to an extended burst of Middle Eastern conspiracy theories for the duration of the drive to Malmö. In stilted but otherwise quite good Swedish, the Lebanese cabdriver launched into a run-on about how he liked Americans but could not understand how close minded they are. He went on about how for six months we had pretended that it was an Arab who had blown up the Oklahoma City federal building. Osama had only admitted to the World Trade Center hijackings because Bush had paid him to. Also, the United States had tried to colonize Somalia under the pretext of famine relief.

Surprisingly, he did not mention the most recent theory making the rounds—the one expounded on in the main stream Arab-language media—that the US had triggered the recent South East Asian tsunami by detonating a nuclear weapon under the sea off Indonesia.

Being a Lebanese Sunni, he was a bit surprised and then happy when I told him that I am one-quarter Lebanese as well as American. Such a stark mixture of respect and hate that many working-class Muslims have for us, and such a far cry from the friendly curiosity of the university-educated Middle Easterners whom I had enjoyed the privilege of going to school with.

This last encounter was nice, though. There was still very much a want for friendship between peoples, and on a vindictively selfish note it's good knowing that a significant portion of the Muslim world's complaints about the United States are as well founded as those of Western Europe's.

During a finial dinner with some Swedish friends an individual inquired how I felt about Congress having outlawed the term French fries. This well-educated person was deadly serious in his belief that use of name "freedom fries" was now the law of the land under penalty of jail.

Ok then.

What else did I hear in my time there?

George W. Bush has outlawed stem cell research and is well on his way to criminalizing abortion. Gay people hide in fear, afraid to be seen on the streets. Racism plays a dominant role in US public life. We have a murder rate comparable to Somalia or Ethiopia. Violence did not decline during the 1990s, it has only been covered up by a media conspiracy. North Korea is no more repressive than any other Far East Asian nation. We have a massive imperialist army of millions. The history of slavery, the killing of Native Americans, and evolution are not taught in American schools.

The American Indians were exterminated.

"Where are they? Have you ever seen one?" one fervent individual had asked me.

On my first meeting with my girlfriend's grandmother, she asked me: "How do you feel about your country having killed so many Indians?"

Probably the same as you feel about your people having burned to death Sami who refused to convert to Christianity, I thought.

Social Security does not exist; neither do welfare payments, public housing, Medicare nor Medicaid.

Congress is in charge of the Army; the Marines answer to the President.

The US government is utterly incompetent. It flawlessly controls the global media and is on the verge of world domination. It's dominated the world for years. It's a new Roman Empire. It is ascendant. No it's in decline. Wait it's still rising to power.

It was the Soviets who liberated Western Europe from the Nazis.

The cab driver and I parted ways at Malmö's central station. In the warm rain, we exchanged promises to meet and talk again at some unspecified future in order to talk and solve the world's problems.

Thus far it had been a muggy and messy winter in Sweden. There had been no frosts, and instead of renewal, there were trees blooming in mid January.

I said farewell to the muddled season on the ride across the Öresund bridge to Denmark. Most of the train's adult passengers were strung out in an early morning semi-conscious stupor. Two snow-suited children were ecstatic to be on their way to the airport. Then there was me, riding some crest of adrenaline and supernatural clarity despite the night of forgone sleep.

Something leftover soldier adaptation there, that when the demand rises up, a homunculus residing in the brain presses a switch, banishing not only need the need for sleep, but sleep deprivation's hangover side effects as well. I had skipped slumber in hopes fast forwarding nine time zones to eastern shores of the Pacific, and when sleep finally came—after several hours of security lines—it was on a plane as planed.

I woke up over Holland under a still black sky and looked down on luminescent orange flows of engineering and economic rationality. Radiant towns shone under a translucent veil of low-altitude clouds and formed knots in the curves of lit highways. These in turn were flanked by the rectangular glass infernos of industrial-scale greenhouses.

This orange-illuminated civilization seemed to float on water, supported by only a film of land that was crosshatched by the straight-cut slashes of dark-blue canals. Then the urban core of Amsterdam overwhelmed everything.

This is the religious experience of travel that I love--seeing the varied faces of the world while feeling a sense of underlying unity. There are so many variations of "the same but different" to experience in this life.

Slept deep on the next flight. Didn't wake up until there were twenty-kilometer long plates of ice visible through the window. Said hello to North America at a Canadian expanse of glacier-worn rock rising up from a wasteland of white. Not a good place to crash. Below there were only rounded gray stone cliff faces and razor-like snow to greet anyone who managed to successfully fall out of the sky alive.

It was somewhere over the plains states that the adrenaline really kicked in while listening to Led Zeppelin with an echoing thought of how cool it was to be screaming over the US at five-hundred miles per hour on the way home.

Flying over Southern Texas there swamps, moss-draped trees, and wide muddy rivers on the approach to Houston. Customs was sticky.

We-the-masses were corralled into lines still wearing our heavy winter clothing, while the local officialdom was attired in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. That was all right though. We-the-masses were going on to cold 'n clammy San Francisco in a California reeling under three-weeks of the heaviest snow storms seen since 1916.

Baghdad by the Bay was drenched in rain when I arrived, and the Sierras were still choked closed with snow. Starting to feel hollowed out and having been on the move for twenty-four hours and with no place left to travel to, it was crash time.

Thunder woke me when a conflux of cold and warm air collided above the city. After eight hours at a Best Western I was feeling West Coast synced. Breakfast was last night's pizza and the morning's exercise a nine-block duffel-bag hump to the Grey Hound station. My black bag hadn't made it. I'd put her on the conveyor belt after clearing customs in Huston, and somehow she'd found her way off into the astral world of the Continental luggage system.

Baggage happens, as they say.

As it turned out, the Hound wasn't running yet. The passes were still closed, and the station was a refugee camp of Asians on the way up to Reno for cheap gambling, blacks on their way to points all across California, and humpbacked white pensioners with purple hair out for a weekend in the casino wilderness. The best part was to come in Vacaville, when two correctional facility officers put a newly released felon on the bus.

"Good morning to the bus," the just-released man said, once we were underway.

Even louder: "I said good morning to the bus!"

By the second greeting the large bouncer riding shotgun was already on his way back to deal with this problem.

The Hound takes no shit from anyone.

That was still four hours in the future though, and rather than hang around to enjoy the camp atmosphere in the meanwhile, I wanted to wander The City. For two dollars I checked my duffel and emerged in the financial district.

Beautiful. Gray steel and glass rising up and up. Fog, bagels, and a cup of weak coffee. I drifted on the fringes of the morning workday rush with a cardboard beverage container in one hand and a folded edition of the Chronicle under the other arm and drifted up Bush Street.

Did you know that there is a Clinton Street in San Fran that predates Slick Willy, just as Bush Street was around before both Senior and W? Got a Powell Street there too as well as a Hayes and Polk. One day I will devise a dragon-track system for predicting the rise and fall of the Federal political elite based off the road grid of San Francisco.

It was not the time for such deep thoughts just yet, though. Rather, this chain of unscripted moments and small pleasures was made for climbing past small barber shops with rates advertised in German, Japanese, and English. Narrow concrete steps led me up through pedestrian alleyways between tiny homes for multi-millionaires and billionaires to the top of Nob Hill.

There the city spread out around me. Heavy clouds shrouded the mountains to the north, the ocean was steel colored, and the bay was a slate gray.

After too damn long, after four years of petty hate directed at my homeland, it was so good to be back in the chaotic reality of good and bad that is the United States. This was no stuffy dinning room of Swedes taking satisfaction in my people's setbacks, shortcomings, and sufferings--both real and imagined. The here and now was rain and salt and living cold. It was the surroundings of wealth, the homeless poverty on Market Street, and the vast enveloping middle-class suburbs. It was the Gray Hound station, the icy Sierras ahead, the brown eyesore that is Reno, the balance of Madison, the forward-looking spirit of Portland, and the sublime beauty of the Oregon coast.

Home is love and failure and rejection and triumph.

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