Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Greek Easter, pt.2.

Easter in Athens
The gods willed otherwise . . .

In a year in which Greek and Roman Easter fell upon the same day, I resolved to spend Easter on the small, remote island of Karpathos, which I had read about in an old National Geographic.
    By this time I fancied myself an old hand at Greek travel and made the trip with the casual indifference of a commuter.  Once arrived at the terminal in Athens I strolled through the empty customs lane for returning nationals, announcing in practiced Demotiki that I had nothing to declare, and caught a 35-cent bus downtown, where I intended to walk across Syntagma Square and pick up a schedule at the boat office, then off to Pireaus to catch the next sailing to Karpathos.  But the gods willed otherwise.
    The boats were on strike.
    And it was not one of your typical Greek strikes, not one of those worker-declared holidays that they tolerate there, and everyone knows they will go back to work next Monday.  It was a real strike, with much head-shaking and upturned palms, baffling even the usually authoritative old fellows in black suits who sip thick coffee from tiny cups at the coffee shop to Neon on Omonia Square.
    I was stranded in Athens.  Miles away, across the wine dark sea, in the charming mountain villages of Karpathos, the sturdy Romoi were observing Holy Week with their ancient rites and processions while I was stranded in the dirty cement canyons of Athens, listening to unmufflered traffic and breathing the same air that was dissolving the marble off the Parthenon.  Odysseus on his journey to Ithaka had been frustrated by the wrath of Poseidon Earthshaker; I was put upon by the ill humor of the seafarers union.  The Age of Heroes was indeed passed.

Omonia Square lies about a mile or so north and west of Syntagma Square where Parliament sits and blond and slender Scandinavians take their iced coffee in a sea of outdoor tables in the cool shade of trees and awnings across the street from the King George Hotel.
    Omonia is not shade and graciousness, but commerce and traffic.  All distances in Greece, I am told, are measured from Omonia Square, and it is on Omonia Square that sits Kafenion to Neon, the New Coffee Shop.  New perhaps in Ali Pasha’s time, or when Otho the Bavarian was made King of the Greeks in 1833, but new by no other standard.  It is a great, cavernous, high-ceilinged room on the corner of an ancient building fronting on the Square, strewn thick with small tables where old men sit in rumpled black suits drinking thick Greek coffee and reading newspapers and smoking continually.  The waiters, in white jackets as venerable as their customers, bring coffee and water and empty ashtrays onto the floor, and the old men can sit as long as they like over a 15-cent cup of coffee.
    “I will tell you what is wrong with America,” said an old fellow in a worn black suit at the next table, without my ever asking.  “Everyone works too hard.  You don’t have time to live life.  I have a cousin in America, and I know it is so.”
    What could I say?  He was right.  A Greek man gets married and has children and works hard taking care of his wife and kids and parents, and as soon as his sons are big enough to take over, he gives them the farm or the shop and they take care of him and he spends the rest of his life drinking coffee and playing cards with his old friends down at the coffee shop.
    Middle-aged Greek men wear old, comfortable clothes and hang out with their buddies.  They do not chase girls.  In fact, they have as little to do with women as possible.
    “Women are no good,” my source at the next table volunteered.   “A woman of good character is almost impossible to find.  You are not married?  Good.  You are better off.”
    There are few women in Kafenion to Neon.  By Orthodox practice, a man may marry three times, but I doubt that many use up their quota.  I do not think Greek men have mid-life crises.  I think I might learn something from Greek men.

(My story finds its way back to Greek Easter in the next installment . . .)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Greek Easter, pt.1.

I hadn’t intended to go to Greece for Easter.  I originally found myself there at Easter time simply because I hadn’t wanted to go in the crowded summer tourist season, or when it might be cold and I would need to pack heavy clothes.  Here are a few of my stories of Easter in Greece.

An Accidental Easter on the Island of Crete

My first Easter in Greece began unpromisingly on the island of Crete, when I found I had left my passport and all identification back at the car rental office at the port of Iráklion and no hotel would have me.  I discovered this inconvenience when I arrived late evening, on the southern coast, at the village of Plakiás, after a several hour drive across the island.  When I tried to phone the car agency I found that everyone had gone home for the Easter weekend, which came as a surprise, as I did not think it was Easter.  Some years Greek and Roman Easter fall on the same day, but this was one of the years that they did not, and I realized that I had arrived in Greece in the midst of Holy Week and my passport would be sitting safe on the desk of the nice man at the car rental agency in Iráklion, which would be closed until he came back to work next Monday.  I thought it all very unbusinesslike.  But I had a car and a pocket-full of money and was at large in Greece, and was sure everything would work out just fine.
    I drove a few miles down the coast to the monastery of Moní Preveli, confident that the monks would offer a room to anyone as personable as myself.  But alas, the monks were off on some monkish business and the place was in the care of an agéd and ill-tempered Cretan peasant.  I would be overstating my knowledge of Greek to say that it was elementary, but it probably made no difference, for as Lawrence Durrell once wrote, you may speak Greek quite well and still not be able to understand a word of a Cretan peasant.  In fact, I am sure that neither of us understood a word of the other, though he managed to communicate quite clearly that I would not be staying there that evening.
Leaving the monastery, I gave a ride to an elderly Greek couple who told me there was an inn farther up the coast.  Their directions took me down a treacherous and unpaved road coiling over mountains and along cliffs, but at the end I reached the sea and found the promised inn, and one so obviously isolated that I was sure a missing passport would be no problem.  And indeed it wasn’t, though, alas, there was no room in the inn.  They had, I believe, only four rooms, and all these were taken, but I shouldn’t worry as someone might leave tomorrow and I could sleep on the beach in the meantime.
    Well now, what is adventure but inconvenience rightly understood.  A night on the beach, on the shore of what the Greeks call the Lybian Sea, sounded positively romantic.  I had supper at the inn and then looked for some soft sand to curl up on.
    But there is no such thing as soft sand.  Or, after a while, even comfortable sand.  And then the winds came up off the sea.  I dug a burrow into the sand to get out of the wind and tried to fashion a comfortable surface to lie on, but a few inches below the surface the sand was not only no softer, it was also wet.
    I returned to my car and found that, as I suspected, a Volkswagen Beetle is about as comfortable to sleep in as a box of carpenter’s tools.  I unpacked my clothes and used them to try to cushion the knobs and levers that poked out from every surface.  I was only partially successful.
    Taking another tack, I walked back to the inn and bought a small bottle of ouzo, which turned out to do the trick.  I relaxed and drifted off into a passable night’s sleep.

The next morning when I came into the inn  --  the first customer of the day  --  the owner seemed to be singing a church song and I remembered that this was the Sunday of Greek Easter, and so I greeted him with the traditional “Christós anésti”, Christ is risen.
    You are a Christian, he asked, and when I said ‘yes’ his attitude became friendly and solicitous.  I did not realize why being a Christian should make such a difference until later in the day I began to meet his other customers, some very strange young people from a hippie colony who had been living in caves down the beach since the ‘Sixties, and I understood why he was so pleased to find that his new customer was God-fearing and reasonably well-scrubbed.  Although he was never able to give me a room he apologized for it regularly and lent me a blanket to sleep on.  When some Italian tourists arrived in the days that followed I discovered that I was sleeping on a nude beach.

It was my first Easter in Greece and I had a fine time, sometimes sleeping on the beach and sometimes curled up in the front seat of the Volkswagen, lulled to sleep by the soft licorice warmth of ouzo.  Though the hoped-for vacancy never materialized, the fellow at the inn fed me well and we damned the hippies together.  I found a place far down the beach from the feral cave-dwellers and disrobed Italians, where I passed my days reading and writing and lying in the sun, perfectly contented.  And even today, when I smell the sweet licorice aroma of ouzo, I remember that happy time on the beach on the shore of the Lybian Sea.

(More  Easters in Greece to follow . . .)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

a few days in San Miguel Allende

Once upon a time in Mexico, by a happy accident my friend Nancy was also there, in the not too far off town of San Miguel Allende.  She had by this time been there a month, staying in a guest house, and by my arrival ought be an old hand who could show me the sights.  But we did nothing much of that, and most of the time we sat in the shade at her guest house, or on the cool patio of a restaurant and watch the shadows move across the tiles and the breeze stir the fronds of the potted palm.  In a shop I bought ex-votos, primitive paintings on tinplate offered in church in thanksgiving for prayers answered, with their picture of the supplicant in his dire straights and the saint approaching to bring remedy, and below, in old-fashioned script, an account of the saint’s miraculous intervention.  The fellow who sold them to me was quite candid about their possible inauthenticity, but I bought them as art rather than antiquities and am wholly pleased with them.

    San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful hill town in the State of Guanajuanto, north and west of the capital, not far from Dolores Hildago, from which sprang in 1810 the War of Independence against Spain.  San Miguel is full of churches and the shops of artesans and throngs of young gringos who, though numerous, were surprisingly easy to ignore, as most were there to study Spanish at one of the institutes or learn a craft at a workshop, or so they had told their parents.  Despite these young gringos it is a pleasantly Mexican town, with hilly cobblestoned streets and farmers in from the countryside and old women wrapped in shawls toddling around on their inscrutable errands.  And church bells ringing, sometimes on the hour and sometimes for no clear reason at all, as if for the pure joy of Christian noise.

    There were whitewashed walls and red tile floors and dusty streets and luxuriant green plants with their preternaturally red and yellow and purple flowers.  When I was a little boy and had seen magazine photos of Mexico I had thought the colors were wrong, perhaps the result of Kodachrome left too long in the hot sun.  But that’s the way the colors really are.  Unreal, over-ripe colors coming out of hard, dry ground.

    One day we took a bus to Dolores Hidalgo where we visited the church from which Padre Miguel had issued his call to revolution.  At the end of the transept to the left of the altar, rising three stories, is a gilded retablo filling an entire wall from floor to ceiling with a Baroque extravagance of saints and angels and clouds and swirls and heavenly geegaws.  There is not a word of text. It is pure sensual beauty to club the intellect into submission and after standing before the work for only a few minutes I felt my soul being drawn toward Rome, though once outside the church I regained my protestant composure.

    But mostly we passed our days sitting and talking.  The others in the house decide we are “the lovers,” and leave us in peace.  We sit in the shade and watch the bright Mexican sunshine and sometimes talk and  sometimes not, and in our cool room at siesta time listen to church bells and watch the curtain move in the breeze, and in the evenings bathe ourselves in the smell of jasmine from the garden.

It is a blessing to be in paradise when you have the good sense to appreciate it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 6

My drive around southeastern Iowa concludes

Whatever will you do there, she had asked, but she shouldn't have worried.

It was a cold outside and there were fellows sitting around the antique shop, talking.  I picked up a box of arrowheads.  “They came from Bob Morris’ place,” one of the fellows said.  Someone else nodded agreement.  “See a lot of ‘em around here.”

When spring rains wash down the creeks and ditches, and farmers plow their fields, they find arrowheads and stone tools.  We Americans live in a land not much more than two centuries away from the stone age and so these things are all around us.  Digging for artifacts can be controversial business, but surface finds on private land pose no problem.  I grew up in country like this and knew that most of the farmers picked up arrowheads and had some in a cigar box or Mason jar in the tool shed and eventually gave them to the grandkids.  I had come by some that way, myself.  I bought the box.  Later, I bought a polished stone axehead.  “They found that down by Agency.”  None of it cost much.

                                                               *  *  *

Even in the bleakness of late winter, it was beautiful.  In the folds of a hill I saw an ice-covered pond.  I could see it from the road, surrounded by bare trees.  In the summer it would be hidden by the leaves, a magic place for a child, a place where spirits might live.

In the low morning fog of my first day the trees and buildings had suggested little Russian villages, their round-domes silos changed into Orthodox churches, but in the early afternoon of a cloudless day, in the bright winter light and transparent air everything is exactly what it is and fantasy is impossible.  But then evening comes  and in the hazy arctic light the disk of the sun dissolves into bands of reds and vermillions and magentas and sets as though it were going to be gone from the world for a very long time.

I wasn’t at all bored when I was in Iowa.  How could I have been bored in such a wonderful place?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Iowa by car, pt.5.

I read the newspapers and visit old airplanes

I read the newspapers.  The Ottumwa Courier bills itself as “Southern Iowa’s Best Newspaper,” and I am sure it is so.  The women’s club heard a talk on how to communicate.  There was instruction on how to shake hands: Lock thumbs, not too weakly, not too strong.  Count 1, 2, 3 and let go.  They practice.  “Should a woman offer her hand first?” asks a member.  “You bet,” replies the speaker, "Let them be the jerk.”  The business women’s group saw slides of someone’s trip to Ireland.  The High-Vee Stores will sponsor the annual Easter Egg Hunt at the Medical Clinic parking lot.  Please bring your own basket.

There’s serious stuff.  Michael shot Kimberly Renée, his live-in girl friend.  The State says it’s murder.  Michael says it was an accident.  He was shooting at stray dogs who were trying to steal the deer carcass he had left out for his pit bull.  The investigating office was unimpressed.  “If someone points a gun and someone pulls the trigger, I think they intended to kill someone,” said the skeptical lawman.  It’s a close one, but I would give Michael the benefit of the doubt.  The trial continues, in Monroe County.

                                                    *  *  *

Near Blakesburg is the Airpower Museum.  Despite its Curtis LeMay name it is the unwarlike activity of the Antique Airplane Association.  It consists of a grass airfield and some apparently deserted buildings on a country road out in the middle of nowhere.  When I found the place the only living creatures to be seen were a pair of large, friendly dogs in the back of a pickup.

I discovered a lady puttering around the buildings who let me into the Museum and I found myself inside an aircraft hanger in the midst of an amazing jumble of antique and obsolete aircraft packed wing to wing, so close together that I had to crawl under wings and fuselages to see them.  The old craft were beautifully restored.  I was left completely alone to sniff the old wood and leather and run my fingers over the taut doped fabric and take off into the clouds of imagination to a time when flying was adventure and not computer-generated boarding passes and preflight security theatre.  An hour or so later I came back outside to find the place still deserted.  I patted the dogs and left.

                                                                          * * *

In the company of the departed

I like country cemeteries.  They tell the names and hint at the origins of the people who had lived there.  There are fancy stones that tell you who the important families were.  There are little stones that tell about children who died so young, and how they were grieved.  I look for telltale dates to see if the pandemic struck here.

There were grave stones of Civil War veterans, with their roll call of units: Company “C” of the 19th Iowa Infantry, Company ”B” of 180th Ohio, Company “H” of the 67th Illinois, Company “A” of the 10th Vermont.  Veterans who came west after the War and died in ripe old age, the Union they had fought for secure and prospering.

Beside some of the grave stones are the iron marker of a veteran: a cross for the Spanish War, a star for the Great War and an eagle for the Second War.  For the Civil War there are iron markers that say “Union Defender, 1861-1865”.

Far back on a gravel road, on a hill overlooking a creek, I found Rock Creek Cemetery.  There was a one-room church, painted white and well kept up.  The date over the door was 1884.  The older graves were in the back, shaded by large evergreens.  It was bitterly cold on a late afternoon when I was there.  The ground was thick with pine needles and soft under foot.  I was very alone.

There were children’s small stones with a sleeping lamb.  There was a memorial to Melissa Yeller, who died in 1871, at the age of four years.  On her stone you can still read what her parent wrote:
        We loved this tender little one,
          And would have wished her stay;
          But let our Father’s will be done,
          She shines in endless day.

By contrast, on the stone of Theo. Atwood, who died in 1862, we read the laconic report: “Killed by the accidental discharge of a gun.”  I wondered why they felt the need to add that detail.  Perhaps it wasn’t all that accidental.

In the orderly cemeteries of the Amana there are no family plots.  Each member is buried in the order of his death, with a simple and uniform stone giving his name, age and date of death.  On the older stones the notations are in German; on the newer ones they are in English.  Carl Oehl told me that the Great War had been a traumatic event for the Amanas.  As pacifists they would not bear arms, and 1917 had not been a time when people were kindly disposed toward pacifists, particularly those who happened to speak German.  On one of the stones the simple formula of name, age and date was expanded to read: “Gave his life serving his country - June 8, 1945 - 22Y 9M 26D”.

(to be continued . . .)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 4.

Purposeful living

Near the town of Kalona I saw the name “Yoder” and remembered the famous Supreme Court case of Yoder v. Wisconsin, the case that upheld Amish religious principles in the face of a state’s compulsory school attendance law.  There are Amish and Mennonites around Kalona.  They came from Germany in the 19th Century to farm and try to live the sort of life that God intended.  In trying to live simply and independently the Amish have tried to avoid owning or depending upon electricity or gasoline-powered equipment.  It’s not that these are evil; it’s just that relying on them makes you less independent and more subject to the pressures of the world.  The Amish may hire a car for a special trip, but prefer a horse and buggy for daily use.  As you drive through the countryside, if you pay attention you will notice that some of the prosperous-looking farms aren’t connected to the utility wires: those are Amish.  They are a caution to a world that often seems imprudently interconnected, where a malicious teenage hacker in Tajikistan can loot your bank account or shut down the Northeastern power grid.

I visited with Earl Wright at his antique shop in Kalona.  He showed me old photographs of Amish life and told me that the younger folks like to come by and see their relative’s pictures, though they wouldn’t own the photographs themselves.  When a young Amish man becomes an adult he has been doing productive farm work  --  not just chores  --  for six or seven years, and gets his own farm, so there is none of that aimless drifting that afflicts so many young people in “the world”.  Earl told me that young Amish people were staying and, unlike so many rural areas, the communities were growing.  In an interplay of pragmatism and religious intentionalism the Amish appear to have worked out a life that seems right to them.

North and west from Iowa City are the seven villages of the Amana.  Unlike the Amish and the Mennonites, who were individual farmers, the Amana Society was a collective community, which functioned successfully until the pressures of economic integration with the wider world forced the Great Change in 1932, when families became economically autonomous.  Among other things, the Change required that kitchens be added to the tidy brick and stone homes, as previously everyone had eaten in the community dining room.  Today, about 2500 people live in the seven villages.  Through the Amana Society, members of the community and their descendants still own 25,000 acres of prime Iowa land.

My first contact with Amana was on a cold morning as I was driving around trying to find a coffee shop.  I had about decided that the good people hereabouts must take their morning coffee at home when I came upon the Amana Inn.  Outside, the world was cold, deserted and windswept; inside it was noisy and alive.  I told a waitress that I wanted breakfast and she motioned me to a table.  No one came to take my order.  They just started bringing food.  Orange juice and coffee and potato pancakes and eggs and sausage and bacon and toast and jam and syrup and fruit and honey and hashbrown potatoes and probably some other things that I have lost track of.  I could have fed an Ethiopian village with that breakfast.  And as I, for whom breakfast is normally toast and coffee, struggled to make a dent in this gargantuan spread, the motherly waitresses  --  who were speaking German  --  kept refilling my coffee and inquiring if I needed more of anything.  The bill came to $4.95.  I did not eat the rest of the day.

I visited with Carl Oehl, who owns the Rathskeller in South Amana.  He told me about life in the old days, and how it was now.  He said that some old-timers complain that the place is going to hell, but that’s just because people don’t drive cattle down the street anymore.  German is still spoken at home.  “Kids study it at school and come home and correct Grandma’s pronunciation.”  Carl thinks it’s still a wonderful place to live.

(to be continued . . )

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 3.

My late-winter road trip through southeastern Iowa continues . . .

History & Architecture, the Skunk River War and National Public Radio

I stopped in Crawfordsville because there was a sign outside of town announcing that it was the birthplace of the Republican Party.  The fellow at the general store, the only place open, said that it was so, and phoned over to the bank and a lady brought me a photocopy of an old newspaper article that told the story.
     In February of 1854, the state convention of the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party and others met at the Seceder Church in Crawfordsville and resolved to create a Republican Party.  A month later another meeting, this one in Rippon, Wisconsin, attended by some of the same people, also resolved to create a Republican Party.  Crawfordsville feels it is unfair that Rippon gets all the credit, though they concede that there is not much riding on it.

Keokuk County was the site of the Skunk River War of 1863.  In August of that year, a young preacher from Tennessee named Talley had rallied secessionist settlers and set off with an armed band to drive the Yankees out of the nearby town of South English.  In the ensuing shoot-out with Union sympathizers, Talley was killed.  Inflamed by their leader’s death, rebel supporters from surrounding counties formed the Skunk River Army.  When word reached the state capital, Gov. Kirkwood immediately departed for Keokuk County with eleven companies of militia.  By the time he arrived, the Skunk River Army had disappeared.  In 1967, the County historical society put up a plaque to commemorate the “war”.

                                                                      *  *  *

Towns were seeded across the state at approximately ten-mile intervals, so that a farmer could drive to town in his wagon, do his business and get back by dark.  The pattern survives to this day, though so many of these small towns are no more than shells, with empty brick store fronts left over from the days when these places served an economic purpose.  In the summer, grass from front lawns and vacant lots spreads out, encroaching on sidewalks, giving the nearly deserted towns a pleasant, park-like carpeting of soft green, though this time of the year looking more like brown shag.

In the countryside and in the towns the old buildings are beautiful.  Gaunt and upright, two-storied wooden-framed Gothic Revival homes, sometimes forlorn and empty, with windows broken, their families moved away.  They make noble ruins, monuments of a happy age, now departed.  Others stand occupied, with wide porches from before the time of air-conditioning, in winter their windows covered with clear plastic to keep out the bitter prairie cold.  Along a street in Iowa City I saw a row of Gothic cottages, in sad repair, with flattened pasteboard boxes insulating their foundation; poor people living in homes that, with a little work, could be architectural jewels.

In small towns the old buildings around the square are usually red brick, with iron stars in their side anchoring metal reinforcing rods.  Lamentably, many of them have been modernized, with sheet metal or Masonite panels over the lovely old brickwork.  By a happy practice, it usually happens that the bottom floor only is disfigured this way, and above the insipid improvement rises the old brick or stone crown of the building, often with a marble medallion bearing the date of its construction or the name of the pioneer businessman who caused it to be put up.

On the cornerstone of a high school I saw the date “1917” and thought of their first graduating class going off to the Great War.  Young men who had gone to church and done chores and studied Latin and sent off to France, some of them maybe not to return, in a quarrel that had nothing to do with Iowa.

I talk about the history of these places because that is a way to distinguish them, as their current appearance all seem in my memory alike.  Homes and buildings mostly from the same era and in the same state of repair.  If there is a new  commercial building it is usually in some franchised design for a nationally-branded product, and on the edge of town, more oriented to the highway than to the old business center.  Their populations seem all about the same: a few hundred claimed on the sign, though you’d never know there were that many by looking, particularly not on cold days like these.  It’s their history that brings them alive to me, that reminds me that these spare things I see are just the visible part of something older and deeper.  Not just things set in a landscape, but also symbols of things.

The names on the old stores were not chosen to be clever, but mostly honest German or Swedish surnames.  One gets the feeling that if you had some problem at Hofsteader’s Department Store that there was a Mr. Hofsteader somewhere that you could talk to about it.  Nowadays, in every town of any size there is a computer store.

A most amazing piece of commercial architecture is George Preston’s service station on Rte. 21, in Belle Plaine.  I don’t think Mr. Preston really sells gasoline there.  The ancient pumps don’t look like they have been used since the Coolidge Administration.  It is a simple wood frame structure, but the wonder of it is that every inch of the building is covered with obsolete metal filling station signs for products and companies, many now long vanished into memory.  I remember Red Crown gasoline and Studebaker-Erskine Service, and Voltmaster Batteries, but Iso-Vis “D” Oil and Nevrnox Ethyl and Manhattan Gasoline? 
    The all-knowing Wikipedia tells me that George died in 1993 and the building is maintained by his son.

                                                                       *  *  *

As I drove, I listened to the radio.  I listened to high school basketball games.  “Yeah, Bob, we figured that if we kept up the pressure that we could wear ‘em down and I guess that’s what we did.”  I listened to evangelists: “It is no accident that you are listening to this program” and, of course, “Your contributions make our ministry possible.”  I heard folksy commercials: “We are sellin’ so many eggs that we are gonna have to hire more chickens.”  There was trucker music about “Rubber Duckie” and “Smokey” and “Look out for them bears.”  There was country music about a good-lovin’ woman in love with a good-livin’ man, and a poor fellow worrying that his Ruby was going to take her love to town.

Punching the dial one night I found National Public Radio.  An earnest young woman was explaining that the male-dominated art establishment was threatened by feminist aesthetic criticism.  That is not what is going on in Iowa.  For the real Iowa, listen to Christian radio.  When the concerned wife says to her husband, “John, you’re slipping back into your old life,” you know that John has been drinkin’ an’ chasin’ women again.  That’s what people worry about out here, not sexism in the arts establishment.

One evening I went into a truck stop.  Accustomed to the pure air of Palo Alto, where smokers are as despised as slaveholders, I asked the young fellow at the register for a seat in the no-smoking section.  Rheumy-eyed teamsters looked up from their coffee, peering at me through clouds of blue smoke from their Marlboros, wondering no doubt if I were one of those New York Jewish liberals they had heard about.  The young fellow at the register found the idea of a no-smoking section interesting, though of course impractical, but he seated me as far away from the other diners as possible, an arrangement which undoubtedly pleased them as much as it did me.

(to be continued . . .)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 2.

Conjuring spirits

On a bright morning in a coffee shop I silently pronounced the names on my map, trying to conjure up the spirits who dwelt in those wonderfully-named little towns to stand and unfold themselves.

There were good 19th Century names.  The French emperor, to whose wars we were happily only spectator, was given not only his namesake of Bonaparte, but his victory at Marengo and his defeat at Waterloo.  Our own Civil War gave us Lincoln and Grant and Harper’s Ferry, all loyally Northern.

There were Indian names.  There is Wapello and Keokuk, Osage and Osceola and Ottumwa.  It wasn’t that long ago that this was Indian land.  The town of Agency was an Indian Agency post in the early 1840s.

There are stories behind the names.  Wapello was a chief of the Fox, second in command to Chief Keokuk of the Sac and Fox Confederation.  The tribes had been pushed west and had fought the Americans in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Young Abraham Lincoln had fought in that war, a captain in the Illinois militia.  After the war the Sac and Fox had been pushed out of Illinois.  Wapello and Keokuk had argued for peace with the white men, against Black Hawk’s counsel of war.  But peace did not save them and after a treaty in 1842, they were removed to a reservation in Kansas.  Iowa is not Indian land anymore.

Names remain.  Ottumwa was originally an Indian village called Ottumwanoc.  According to one tradition, the name means “swift water” or “tumbling waters”, as there are rapids there.  Another interpretation is “place of the departed”.  Other versions interpret the name to mean “one or a small number of persons who live alone by themselves” or “a place of hermits” or “a place of perseverance or self will”.  The early white settlers called it Louisville, but, in 1845, changed it to Ottumwa.  Etymologies like that make you wonder how well the white men ever understood the Indians.

Wapello is also the name of a county which saw, in 1881, the Great Wapello County Gold Rush.  In that year, Mr. O.J. Briscoe announced that he had found gold on his property at Bear Creek.  He built a mill and would from time to time show off nuggets he said he had found.  Briscoe and his associates owned a good deal of land around the discovery site and were not averse to allowing others to share in their good fortune, selling off land for as much as $500 an acre.  After a while it was noticed that no one else was finding any gold.  Mr. Briscoe, now a prosperous man, moved west and was not heard of again.

Even apparently straightforward names have their story.  Centerville, which is not really in the center of anything, began life as Chaldea.  Perhaps displeased by its pagan associations, the Rev. William S. Manson prevailed upon the townsfolk to change the name to Senterville, in honor of a politician from Tennessee.  When their petition to change the name reached the state capital someone apparently thought the unschooled settlers had misspelled the name and corrected it to Centerville.  Trying to rescue some distinction, the residents persisted for many years in spelling the name Centreville, but eventually relented.  Simon Estes, the opera singer, is from Centerville.

Mystic began life as Mistake, which is what the original settlers thought they had made in coming to Iowa.  Some years later, when the railroad came through and built a station, the train people misunderstood the name and called it Mystic.  By this time the residents had made peace with the place and the name stuck.

                                                                       *  *  *

There are small towns that have been touched by fame.  Ollie was the home town of O.C. Bottger, the famous trap shooter, who defeated Annie Oakley in a shooting match in 1903.  Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow visited Cincinnati, in Appanoose County.  In those days, darting across a state line was a practical way of shaking off pursuing lawmen.  One might suspect that Bonnie and Clyde had recently withdrawn some money from a Missouri bank.  Bonnie went into Herman Elledge’s dry goods store and bought a pair of overalls.  She put them on in the back room.

Sometimes it’s just as interesting not to know about a name.  How did there come to be a Cincinnati here?  Did settlers moving west remember passing a prosperous city on the banks of the Ohio and hope for as much for their new town, here far removed from any river, hard on the dry Missouri line.  Or were they thinking of the society of Washington’s veterans from the great war that their fathers or grandfathers might have fought in?  Or were they remembering the Roman original, the citizen-farmer called away from his plow to save his country?  Being ignorant of the truth, I could have all these meanings milling around in my mind while Bonnie Parker put on her new overalls in the back room of Herman Elledge’s dry goods store.  Somehow, I had never pictured Bonnie Parker in overalls.

I was wrong, I realized, about the circuit board map, though it wasn’t the roads but the names that brought it to life, hyperlinks to the invisible, parallel existence of the past; portals to we time travelers.

(to be continued . . .)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 1.

A roadtrip need not be long or exotic.  There are interesting things 
nearer at hand than we may think.

Whatever will you do in Iowa?

For what seemed a good reason at the time, I was to spend a week in southeastern Iowa in the late winter, with several days of free time between meetings.  My friend Dianne, being a poet, put into words what I was thinking: “Whatever will you do in Iowa?”

Like most Americans, when I thought of Iowa I thought of godly people and corn.  A great deal of corn.  Except this would be winter, when there would be no corn.  It would be winter and there would be snow.  Possibly a great deal of snow.  Relieved now and then by ice and mud.  I imagined rural Iowa in winter to resemble someplace in Siberia in the off-season.  This may be why I saw Russians.

Early morning on Rte. 218, south of Iowa City, tired from an overnight flight, I found myself somewhere in the Ukraine.  Gently rolling fields, a sea of brown mud from horizon to horizon.  Probably bad tank country this time of year.  Heavy ground fog.  Few trees.  Some buildings in the distance: farmsteads with the clustered house and barn and outbuildings and round-topped silo, hazy outlines in the fog, looking like a tiny Russian village with its domed church.

As morning ripens the fog of Russianness dissipates.  The Russian villages of prosperous farms are replaced by smaller, older Gothic Revival farmhouses perched on top of small rises in the rolling fields.  Solitary and upright, riding the frozen brown sea, nothing but empty land and bright winter blue sky as far as the eye can see.  Dark, angular, Gothic, offset by a round satellite dish.  It was probably time to stop for coffee.

                                                                 * * *

The trip was made on short notice and I had no time for my usual research, though I wonder if I would have taken Iowa research seriously.  And so, finding myself on the ground  --  in-country, if you please  --  I turned to my most reliable source of information: the Auto Club roadmap.

I spread out the roadmap on the counter.  It was unpromising.  The counties marched in straight rows east and west, orderly and uniform as Prussian Guards.  The highways, too, ran straight  --  east and west, north and south  --  as if on a featureless plain that offered no obstruction to the works of man which, I suspected, was largely the case.  It reminded me of nothing so much as a circuit diagram.  And held out, it would seem, as much promise of adventure.

But what wonderful names there were on the little towns that lay along the state and country roads: Cylinder and Gravity and Diagonal, Badger and Beaver and Coon Rapids, Imogene and Emeline and Clarinda, Mingo and Climbing Hill and Honey Creek?  Or Morning Sun and Rising Sun, Lone Rock and Buffalo Center and Lost Nation, Confidence and Defiance and Prosper?  Or Otterville and Correctionville and What Cheer?  And where would I find so unselfconscious a name as Prairieburg?  How could I not want to visit them?

This is what would give my time in Iowa its structure.  I visited little towns with interesting names and talked to people in coffee shops and asked people in second-hand and antique shops about the things they had and read small town newspapers and listened to their radio and went into town libraries and talked to ladies at the historical society and read local histories and looked at photographs of farmers and cows and if I saw a sign pointing down a gravel road I would drive down to see what was there, and tried to pay attention to see what the people who lived there had made of their life and if I might learn something that might make my own life better.

I realize that when I describe it that way it sounds sort of grimly purposeful, but after all it was winter and the days were cold and short and I liked to pretend I was doing something worthwhile and not just wasting my time driving through desolate countryside.

(to be continued . . .)

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Great American Road Trip

I had thought to write about some time spent in Guatemala, but then I became aware an amazing thing that had been sitting unnoticed beneath my very nose.  And perhaps yours, too, for that matter.

The Great American Road Trip

Road trips are so much a part of American life and thinking that it scarcely occurs to us that they are travel.  To an American, travel is passports and dangerous-looking foreign plumbing and Frenchmen poking through the underwear in your valise.  In our curious perception, sitting in an airplane seat from Chicago to Paris is travel, but driving along the old route of US 66 to Los Angeles is not, even though you drive past Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield and the courthouse where he practiced law, the largest Indian pyramid in North America at Cahokia, cross Mark Twain’s Mississippi at St. Louis and go through the Missouri hills where Jesse James hid out between bank robberies, then drive through Comanche lands and the Indian Nation and see the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, the Navajo lands and the Three Mesas of the Hopi, past the old territorial prison at Yuma and across mountains into the Mojave Desert and finally come to the end of the highway on a Pacific beach.  You might have also seen along the way the Grand Canyon and a giant meteor crater and driven through a lava field where the sharp black rock came up high on both sides of the road and traveled for days through country where wonders human and natural piled up on all sides.  But that isn’t travel; sitting in an airplane seat is travel.

I love long car trips and have driven across country many times and know that the off-ramp of the Interstate can drop us into places as different from our own as if we had beamed down from the Enterprise.  And during most of those trips I kept a journal.  I drove slowly and stopped often and saw wonderful things.

So if you want to travel, but don’t want to worry about drinking the water or having Frenchmen poke through your underwear, get in a car and go for a road trip.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

the Conversation with the Cabdriver

I have one last grouse about travel writing before I pass on to something more interesting.

There is a sin of travel writing that I do not think I have ever seen on a blog, but have been irritated by when encountering it between hard covers.  It is the telling conversation with an English-speaking local, often one connected with the travel industry, such as a waiter or tour guide, but in its paradigm form may be thought of as the Conversation with the Cab Driver.  In this trope the writer describes a conversation with a local whose only apparent qualification is that he speaks English, wherein his source explains in detail some local problem or situation, which the writer passes on uncritically to the reader, and then inquires no further into the matter, even if only the slightest research before he got there would have revealed that this was only one view of the matter, and a particularly partisan one at that.

This is not due diligence on a writer’s part.  It is laziness.  It is journalism of the sort that leads its readers baffled as to why the articulate liberals interviewed in the square before the revolution don’t look at all like the people who wound up in power after the revolution.

If a travel writer tells me about his conversation with a cab driver, I suspect he didn’t do much on the trip.  A cab driver can be a very interesting person to talk to  --  after all, it’s part of what they do to generate a tip  --  but it’s not the window into a place we were hoping for and it suggests that the writer, our agent in this enterprise, has been derelict in his duties and is not earning his pay, let alone a tip.

If our traveler goes to Morocco I might want to hear the gossip in the souk, but I would not want to pass off the political analysis of the cabdriver on the way in from the airport as the unchallenged truth about anything.

I once had an interesting conversation with a Moroccan cab driver.  We talked about Ibn Batutta.  It was during a cab ride from Boston to Cambridge.