Thoughts On The Trip Home That Do Not Involve Skull-Fucking The FAA|
“So what,” Wolfgang asked me, “Is the biggest difference between America and Germany?”
Such a complex question, naturally, could only be answered by examining the early history of Doctor Who. And so I did.
See, in the early 1960s, Doctor Who wasn’t a science-fiction institution that had been running for decades, as British as tea and the Union Jack – it was simply another children’s show that had been running for three successful seasons, but could end at any time. And so the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, had an uphill climb; not only was he replacing the beloved William Hartnell in the role of the Doctor (imagine, say, Alec Baldwin stepping in to replace Jack Bauer after the third season of 24), but he had to find some way to revitalize the show.
Thus came the Season of Monsters.
Before Troughton, Doctor Who had occasionally tried to use its time travel motif for historical purposes, showing what life among the Aztecs or Marco Polo was like. But with the new Doctor came slews of new, kid-friendly monsters, and it seemed that each week another alien lifeform was invading Earth.
Or, more specifically, London.
Doctor who galvanized its audience by showing the cyborg Cybermen wandering through the London Underground, had aliens walking down the steps of famous London landmarks. And its effect was spectacular – everyone in England was transfixed by seeing the aliens walking through famous London landmarks.
The entire country.
That’s how small England is.
Not to put a damper on such a fine history, but the thing about England is that it can be driven across in an afternoon. The sight of Cybermen walking through the subway could stun a nation because most Englishmen had been to London, or at least knew several people who had. It was a casual thing to go to London – a three-hour train ride. Everyone could do it, and a high percentage of the country had.
Thus, it felt like an invasion to them. This was someplace they had seen.
America, on the other hand, is fucking huge. I lived forty-five minutes away from New York, so I visited a lot, but in the Midwest people speak about New York as if it’s China or maybe Bangladesh. It’s a third of a country away, and yet New York is someplace that – as a percentage of the American populace – practically speaking, nobody has been to.
Put Cybermen in the New York Subway tunnels, which are arguably far more iconic, and it wouldn’t have the same impact. People might go, “Wow, look, Cybermen in the tunnels,” but the number of people who would feel that gut punch of “That’s mine! I’ve seen that!” would be, well, not enough to galvanize a country by any means.
That’s the problem. America’s too damn big.
It took me awhile to figure this out, of course. At first, I thought that the biggest difference between England/Germany is that Europeans were used to losing wars. After all, English history basically starts with a sound thrashing by the Normans – William the Conqueror, anyone? – and Germany has a set of wars they’ve lost. They know that you can’t win them all, but America hasn’t lost a home war in the past two centuries – hell, we haven’t been attacked. (We send troops overseas, but that’s hardly the same as, say, the Blitz.)
But then I remembered that we had lost a big fucking war – I’d just been on the winning side of it. Someone in Dixie might have a damned different take about losing wars in America.
And that’s the problem with American culture – there isn’t one. We try to cement it together with television and stories, of course, but the fact is that during World War II almost every section of England felt a bomber pass overhead at some point. But us? Hell, a whole city got decimated to the south of us, but if it wasn’t for the news mentioning New Orleans, I never would have known. We never saw refugees, never smelled the rotting bodies.
Lacking CNN, you think that Kansas would have seen the smoke from 9/11?
Fact is, there’s no event that would be large enough that all of America could share it. China could invade both the Eastern and Western shores, turning California and Georgia into slaughterhouses, and there would be some people in the middle of Iowa who the war would never touch. We can watch it all on television, of course, but that’s no guarantee of commonality; I know how angry New Yorkers are about 9/11, but their “Let’s make America safe again” fury is entirely different from the “Kill those damn Iraqis!” sentiment you’ll frequently see from people in the South, miles away. It’s the same incident, but the reaction you get from seeing it on a screen versus attending funerals is a scale that cannot be duplicated.
Now, I’m not saying that England or Germany are mono-culture. I know there’s a huge difference between Bavaria and the rest of Germany, and the amount of shit that poor Sara takes in Leeds for being from Seven Oaks tells me that there are significant differences. But you do have some things that are universal.
We have McDonald’s. And the Simpsons. Aside from that, our 200 years of history is a small pat of butter being spread across a nicely-browned toast the size of a wheat field.
And that’s about it.
When in Germany, I came to watch the whip-round on a regular basis. See, Sandra and Wolfgang both spoke English, and so we carried on laughing as we do – telling stories, cracking puns, and mocking the sillier bits of history.
Then came the whip-round. People’s heads would pivot as they realized that the voices they heard were not speaking their native tongue. For the first time, I was the foreigner, and I could see the oh-so-brief flash of quizzical concern: what are they saying? It’s not me, isn’t it?
Then they turned back to their meals. It wasn’t a huge thing. But still the heads turned.
I was quite glad to not be in the tourist areas – for five days, the only English we heard was from out delightful hosts. Everyone spoke German around us, which is a tricky thing – German seems like it should be easy to learn. There are a lot of words that are the same, and you will frequently encounter some sign that has all English words that happen to be the same in German. But I took two years of German in college, and it’s never quite as simple as that.
I could have gotten by without Wolfgang and Sandra, natch – people here do speak enough English to get by in a restaurant, and our waiters did try to match my broken “Enschuldi” and “Bitte” with drink orders and the like. But now I want to learn a foreign tongue. I’ve seen it done. I know that I might be able to do it.
One of the difficulties in traversing foreign lands is the “Your Finger Your Fool” syndrome, which is named after a footnote from Terry Pratchett Discworld novel. See, in the local parlance, a mountain is called “Your Finger You Fool” because an explorer pointed to a mountain on a map and asked a native what that mountain was. The native, not understanding the concept of a map, replied….
…well, you get the picture. So the mountain was named from the ignorance of the foreigner.
But the YFYF syndrome is taken directly from history, and I was always very scornful when reading books that detailed how American explorers consistently got the roles of the Native American tribes incorrect, desperately trying to shove everything into a box that they understood.
I used to mock them. And I still do, but now I have sympathy.
See, when you’re in a foreign land and lacking a native guide, you tend to think that the first thing you see is completely indicative of every other thing of that type. “A three-pronged plug!” you say, noting the bizarre set of holes on the wall. “Ah, that’s how it must be here,” you say sagely.
Thus, everything you see becomes the standard. If there’s a vending machine that sells stained panties, you shrug and go, “I guess a lot of vending machines sell stained panties,” blissfully unaware of the local hubbub over this machine, which is odd even by local standards. If a bus has plush velvet seats, you then assume that all buses have plush velvet seats.
This leads, of course, to riotously wrong assumptions, many of which may never be corrected. People will return home, saying, “Do you know that on Germany street corners, there are men who play the violins with their feet?”, blissfully unaware that no, an entire country cannot be summed up by an isolated instance.
But the problem is, it fucking well can nine times out of ten. The whacky wall plug? Guess what, that’s bog-standard pluggage. The fact that nobody ever serves you water with your meal unless you hold them at gunpoint? Also completely true. The problem with the YFYF assumption is that it works absolutely perfectly nine times out of ten, but that tenth time it’s so wrong it’s absolutely insulting.
Yet there is no better way to do it aside from asking a lot of dumb questions – which may not be possible if you don’t sprechen der lingo.
Those poor, poor explorers.
A good vacation should be like a whirlwind romance, quick and exciting. You want that dizzying realization that things are different, and the space to fall in love and explore this new and tantalizing thing, and the lovemaking as you traverse every possible nook and cranny before you have to go.
You want the love – that superficial sheen that’s new and never-ending. Wha you do not want is to wake up in the morning and go, “Christ, she’s picking at her toes again.”
Unfortunately, Gini and I almost broke the romance. Staying for fourteen days sounded good, but after a while the newness had faded and we were left with another big fucking town to get around in. The lovely “Wow!” factor of the tube vanished, turning it into merely a mode of transportation. We’d seen all the signs. The English accents became commonplace.
It didn’t quite ruin the trip, but vacationing is hard work. You’re hauling your luggage from place to place like a refugee, hunting down good restaurants, walking all the damn time. Sightseeing is lovely, but you have to actually get to the damn sights, and that involves a lot of down time as you’re just transiting from place to place.
What spackles that boring conveyance is OMG NEW I LOVE THIS PLACE, the intoxicating giddiness of exploring somewhere you’ve never been before. It fills the hours in ways that a book or a PSP never can. It makes advertisements something riveting, turns an overheard conversation into a symphony of extravagant reminders that you are away. And once that wears off, you’re walking around with a kind of vacationer’s arthritis, wherein the cartilage of “COOL!” has worn away and now bone is rubbing directly against bone, leaving you with isolated bits of pleasure sandwiched between sitting next to hot, sweating strangers on uncomfortable seats.
We got out just in time. There was one bad morning, and that was it. Thank God we escaped.
It’s been a damn fine trip, with damn fine friends. I have developed two new and exceptionally fierce e-crushes, none of which will go anywhere because I’m married and they’re taken and they’re foreign, but it’s nice to get that little shiver of, “OMG, I KNOW SOMEONE CUTE.” And I have memories.
Gini and I have been spending our days fantasizing about some sort of bizarre teleporter thing wherein Val and Dora and Misty and Wayne and Jo and Craig and Sarah and Sandra and Wolfgang could all be within driving distance, and we’d all dance around the maypole and see movies and have a great fucking time. But alas,
Last night, I went to the Lucas Arms pub – my grandmother was named Doris Lucas – and as my last act in England that didn’t involve cursing the airlines, I had my final Guinness.
“I miss her,” I said.
“At least her last words to you were, ‘I love you, Billy,’” Gini reminded me, and I began to weep in little hitches that I pulled up short.because we were in a pub, with men and football on the telly and rich red wallpaper with gilt trimmings. This wasn’t a place to weep; it was to sit with other people.
There was music playing, some weird techno mix that had both synthesizers and bagpipes. It was alternative, like the kind of thing they play at the end of a sad episode of dramatic TV, where they slowly fade to black as the music plays, weightier than any dialogue. And I swear I felt the camera pull back and away as Gini stroked my back and I drank my final beer, saying goodbye to my Grandma and my trip and all the days that will never come again.
I love you, Gramma.
I’ll see you soon.