Thursday, December 22, 2011

"No Golfing" - A Reverse Viaje

Going back in time six hours is a bitch. I don’t mean like H.G. Wells, “going back in time”, but like changing time zones. Your body doesn’t like it, your head doesn’t like it, and it makes everything seem wavy and strange when you try to focus your eyes.
            Today I woke up at 5:30 AM Eastern Standard Time, which would be 11:30 AM in Valladolid, Spain. To make the best of this unceremonious jolting of the brain-time continuum, I decided to get into my Subaru Forester and head to the gym. Unfortunately, the gym is not all that close to my house, and if you’re familiar with standard, American suburban-wasteland “planning”, you’ll know that when something is three miles from your house, you don’t always have a direct route. You have to make some choices.
I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, we already have traffic at 5:45 AM. And I made some shitty choices. I went to the longest lights; I got stuck behind people driving their $100,000 Lexuses at the speed of low-battery golf carts; and at one point, I was trailing a school bus that seemed to be picking up every wayward child in the vicinity. Leave no room for doubt: this all made me very angry. But it was a warm, terra cotta feeling of soothing anger; a nostalgia for traffic jams past.
Anyways, after about three hours in traffic – give or take two hours and forty five minutes – I got to Spring Hill Rec Center, currently high in the running for the Most Generic Suburban Place Name of All Time award, highlighting an adroit use of the classic combination: Soothing Adjective + Unoffensive Geographic Feature. As the candle would have sung in “Beauty and the Beast”: a tale as old as time.
As I turned my sturdy, liberal bumper sticker-bedecked Forester into Spring Hill’s parking lot, the newly awakening sun’s rays illuminated a wooden sign on the side of the access road. When I read this placard’s warning, I realized that where I had arrived, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was just as strange of a locale – just as much part of my world-hopping adventure – as any cathedral’d villa in Spain or any ancient mosque’d hamlet in Morocco. This sign, perhaps ignored by many of the locals as if it were something as commonplace as a speedbump or as routine as a traffic light, blew my mind. It baffled and astounded me; I couldn’t believe what it said:


            We’re all accustomed to seeing signs telling us not to park somewhere, not to idle for too long in one area, or even demanding that we not give money to pandhandlers.
But telling us not to play golf?
Have legions of flat-capped, caddied renegades straggled so far off the course that they have started impeding traffic? I want you to understand that this sign was nowhere near any type of golf course. There was nary a green nor sand trap for at least five miles in any direction, so what does this mean? Have people starting teeing off wherever the fuck they want? And moreover, has this become a problem warranting an official county sign?
This was not in a field where one might practice his or her drive. This was not near any kind of surface or area conducive to the playing of golf. It was next to a narrow access road leading towards a rec center. Granted, the game of golf is indeed a pastime that can be construed as “recreation”, but would this suggestion be enough to set off an orgy of chipping and wedging so as to require a warning to halt these activities?
The suburbs are a strange place. Despite the often banal and superficial façade, there are things going on behind these manicured lawns and on these power-washed driveways. It is a place of intrigue, wile, and deception. Just as much as Montmarte, Madrid, or Marrakech.
I have thought about this all day and, honestly, the only conclusion I can draw from the “No Golfing” affair is this:
We are all insane.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

París I - Banlieues

            First of all, to call the bucolic Beauvais Airport “Paris – Beauvais” is tantamount to saying “San Francisco - Modesto” or “New York – Trenton”. If you missed those narrowly-scoped geographic references, those are two cool, world-class cities incongruously linked to two much shittier cities because they have cheap airports about an hour and a half away. Of course, I’ve never been to either Modesto or Trenton, but I’ve read their Wikipedia pages. Things aren’t looking good.
            Actually, Beauvais is not a bad looking town. It’s got some pretty verdant green fields and some pretty quaint looking countryside. What’s the word I used before? Bucolic? Yes, that describes it perfectly. Truthfully, I’ve always thought that “bucolic” sounds like a disease pathology and not like something relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life. ORIGIN early 16th cent. (denoting a pastoral poem): via Latin from Greek boukolikos, from boukolos ‘herdsman,’ from bous ‘ox.’, but hey, I don’t get to make the rules. Some old, rich white men do.
            After the initial 45 scenic minutes of the shuttle from the afore-insulted Beauvais airport, things started to get grimy and much more smokestack-y. This outer ring of Parisian suburbs, called banlieues in the barbaric native tongue of the Frenchmen, were not what most would consider feats of aesthetic architectural achievement. Most of the buildings are lifeless-looking high rises that seem to have been mail-ordered by the dozens from some sinister art-deco building warehouse.
From what I have heard, many of these areas are not places you would live if you have the means to go elsewhere. They are the French equivalent of the large-scale government housing projects in major U.S. cities, complete with many of the same features of social depression and malaise.
The Parisian banlieues are not a pretty place from a distance, and I know that things are no better from close up. In fact, that word in and of itself in French, like the word “projects” in English, carries a connotation - deserved or not - of crime, gangs, poverty, and of a large minority population. However, like most European cities, their “projects” are on out the outskirts of the city and not inside it. Interestingly, translations of the word “suburb” or “suburban” in many European languages connote the exact opposite of the American English equivalent.
(If you want to see a damn good film that illustrates this phenomenon, check out the movie “Gomorrah” – a modern-day Italian crime epic set in the suburbs of Naples. Not a pretty looking place to live.)
However, seeing Paris’s less glamorous side first was a good introduction for me, an American that has all the wrong ideas about what “France” means. I was thinking berets and mimes and art museums and dinners by the Seine and fine wines and snobby waiters. And while Paris does have all of these things – though perhaps not in the imagined quantities – at the end of the day, it is a giant, world city. And as one of the most important cities in all the world, of course it has soot covered smokestacks and block housing and people on the streets and miles of graffiti-painted walls, claiming injustice and begging for a peaceful (or other) resolution. Of course the people here struggle, of course they are grimey, of course they are on the grind, and of course they fight for what they have, just like anyone else in the world.
Paris is not at all postcards and paintings, and I was naïve to think so.

In real life, it’s much, much more alive than that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


            Spain is a place of contrasts, for me at least. My life as an American teacher here is a strange concoction of wildly different situations. There are alternating waves of intensity, ranging from the very active and high energy, such as my work at the school, to vapid expanses of bleak llanura – flatness – where I feel understimulated and, frankly, a little bit bored. The periods of high activity are some of the more frenetic I have ever experienced: I have to think on my feet almost all day long, and mainly in another language. Likewise, the flat periods are often devoid of stimulation, with a paucity of motivation to change the current situation at hand. It is certainly a strange life. It’s a good one, even if at times it can be very difficult. Honestly, without the difficult times, there is no why I would know just how sweet the good times really are. That’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
            This kind of oceanic existence – being raised and lowered by a metaphysical tide – is nothing new for me. My life has always been up and down, just like everyone else’s I guess, but maybe a little bit more extreme. We all have light and dark periods, but most of us never reach celestial exuberance nor infernal depths. Truthfully, I would try and avoid describing my own world so melodramatically, but like I mentioned before, I recognize the radiance during the times of contentment because of its stark contrast to those times where everything has a more subdued, matte finish. Either way, I try to keep the sine wave – la onda – from peaking too high in the Himalayas, but at the same time stop it from scraping the bottom of the deep-sea trench, this oceanic life I have somehow found myself circumnavigating.
            I’m going to expand on this more in a second, but I’m going to put this up now as a preliminary to my foray into some more philosophical themes here. And don’t worry – it is all related to this viaje – this journey. Being here, in and of itself, is a foray into the philosophical, so it is only right that I go into it here on this blog. It’s something that directs a lot of my thoughts and thus my worldview.
            Hold on tight.