Our Sea

I’m glad that the Washington Post has finally decided to do a decent piece on immigration to Italy — essentially, the reason that Premesso started back in 2010, and the issue that I decided to start writing about in Italy in 2008. Their piece focuses on the Mare Nostrum law in Italy, a complete liberalization of the past decade of immigration policy as promulgated by the Bossi-Fini law.

Mimmo Paladino (b 1948, Italy), Porta di Lampedusa - Porta d'Europa (2008).

Mimmo Paladino (b 1948, Italy), Porta di Lampedusa – Porta d’Europa (2008).

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Against Our Vanishing

I know this would happen soon. But I hoped it wouldn’t.

Allen Grossman, January 7, 1932 – June 27, 2014.

“Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing. The making of poems is a practice — a work human beings can do — in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world.  The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and, therefore, to be at all.”

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You All Want a Pepsi-Coke?

I’ve always enjoyed dialects, and I’ve had the good fortune to live in a few places with strong dialect areas, from Torlak to Veneto to Cantonese. But what about American dialects? Are we too young of a nation to really have them, as our transatlantic cousins might assert? I don’t think so.

I had fun with this dialect quiz today. Here’s my result, which put me squarely as a southerner, even if I don’t have an accent.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 12.59.43 PM

A Paducahan first told me that “you all” marks someone as a Kentuckian — here’s some statistical proof —  and the quiz reflects that. Each question seems to have a couple of very rare words or phrases that will mark you as being from a certain area. (This goes beyond the usual coke/pop/soda or sub/hoagie/grinder marker. Some of the words for tractor trailer or, as I said as a kid, 18-wheeler, truly baffled me.) For example, I always heard my North Carolinian grandmother call a rainstorm while the sun was shining “the devil beating his wife behind the door” — maybe not native to Kentucky, but a Southernism at any rate.

I got to the quiz via this write-up in the Washington Post about Joshua Katz’s map of where people say soda, coke and pop. I’m not exactly sure why the Post is running the feature now, when it seems like Katz’s maps came out a year ago, but they’re a lot of fun anyway.

Here’s a competing map and post. I think “dope” for a sweet carbonated beverage has likely died out, but I seem to remember hearing adults talk about it when I was a kid — “and over in Virginia, they call it dope.” One usage that gets omitted that I often heard in Eastern Kentucky is the combined “Pepsi-coke” — Pepsi being the brand name, “coke” being the marker for what kind of beverage it is. Then there is also the term “cocola”, which I could never get a read on — was the first syllable short for “Coke”? In the comments, the discussion about how to offer a stranger a non-alcoholic drink in abstemious Virginia is pretty fascinating.  Doubtlessly how we talk says a lot about who settled the area that we call home and what their — and our — values are. (Incidentally, why do so many southerners — including Louisvillians — get so revolted at the word ‘pop’? Quaint, yes, but nothing to get, uh, fizzed up about.)

Take the quiz yourself! There’s a longer form one here that looks like Dr Vaux’s original one that the NYT one was based on, but the maps have been disabled, so less fun. There are more questions, and more sample answers (including the aforementioned “cocola”), however, if you want to get an idea of what people all over the world who speak English call things like bank machines, water bugs, and sub sandwiches.

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Sorry, Charlie: Deep Parables of Consumer Capitalism

charlie tunaThere’s no age quite as awkward as the semi-pubescent 11-14 age range which corresponds to what we now know as the middle school years. My own awkwardness at that age can probably best be encapsulated by a rundown of my lunchtime eating habits: every day, a can of StarKist albacore tuna, some saltines, and a can of V-8. (The excess of sodium was probably what caused terrible cankers, I managed to figure out later.) My schoolmates called me “Charlie Tuna,” and I carried in my first grown-up leather wallet a picture not of family, cat or some braces-ridden, underdeveloped girl I had a crush on but rather a magazine cutout of the hipster fish. I dropped the diet after awhile — good taste, indeed, prevailed — but the habit persisted: in post-college years of impecuniousness, I loved a tuna melt under the broiler at home, or a tuna on rye with lettuce and tomato from one of Baltimore’s many fine delis. And in Italy, my British friends, also used to subpar canned fish, and I were awed at what we called “supertuna” — excellent Italian tuna, canned in olive oil — perfect for adding some protein to a fresh salad or plate of pasta pomodoro.

So it was with a mixture of delight and fear when I came across the following passage in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I just finished this week, deconstructing the meaning of the cartoon fish and his desire to sacrifice himself. Doc Sportello, the book’s stoned out-private investigator, is hearing an earful from his conspiratorial, and no-less-stoned-out, lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (p. 119 of the Penguin paperback):

“It’s all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, desperate to show he’s got good taste, except he’s also dyslexic so he gets ‘good taste’ mixed up with ‘taste good,’ but it’s worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it. . . .”

“Saunch, wow, that’s . . .”

“It’s been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea but no Tuna of the Farm?”

“Um . . . ” Doc actually beginning to think about this.

“And don’t forget,” Sauncho went on to remind him darkly, “that Charles Manson and the Vietcong are also named Charlie.”

Dark reminders, indeed, and one of the book’s few mentions of the Vietcong, which, has caused some Pynchonites, who’ve very accurately tracked the chronology of the novel to the spring of 1970, to raise an eyebrow or two. The Cambodian Campaign would have been getting underway about a month after the book’s start date of March 24, 1970.

Back to the topic at hand, the idea of the animal who wants to be consumed is a familiar trope in advertising: at least 15 years ago, friends and I chuckled at the image outside Señor Chicken’s in Northern Virginia — a cartoon bird serving up a plate of, guess what, Peruvian-style chicken. Billboards near the old Fischer’s pork-processing plant in my hometown used to feature pigs serving up bacon from “the bacon makin’ people,” and ads of cows serving burgers seem ambiguously ubiquitous somehow — now cleverly riffed on by Chick-Fil-A. And what about the Kool-Aid man, who invites us to drink him with his basso profondo “oh yeah!”?

What Saunch’s rant adds to the adman’s trope is the notion of “suicidal branch loyalty” and intense paranoia. We must like, even desire, late capital’s endless conquest and consumption; everyone is to be chopped up and stacked up for ease of consumption: “not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist!” I vividly recall in the mid-nineties hearing about college students from MacLean voluntarily getting A&W and other brand logo tattoos. (At least this company is offering their bod-mod-willing employees a raise for it.) And as always for Pynchon, there’s a nefarious They, and the flesh that They intend to extract from their unlucky creditors will be far more than a pound. Everyone will be caught, thrown aboard, dredged out of safety and fed into an all-consuming mouth — to what ends, we humble prey are not to know.

But far from being the fantasy of a man whose greatest work contains a series of Proverbs for Paranoids, tuna harvesting in 2014 is deeply controversial and linked to all sorts of unsavory effects of late capitalism: floating canneries in Southeast Asia operate under heated controversy and allegations of slave labor, the Mediterranean’s tuna stocks are rapidly depleting, and Mitsubishi is apparently hoarding a vast amount of the world’s dwindling stock — a fact explained to me in hushed tones and over tuna sandwiches by a lawyer in an office in the City of London a few years ago. Not only is StarKist not American-owned anymore, its Korean parent company seems to be up to funny business.

Pynchon’s metaphor — Charlie as spokes-fish for an all-consuming, self-destructive life cycle — looks right, and so the tuna of my early adolescence is to be stuffed into an ever-fattening file labeled “is nothing sacred?”. Perhaps, as he put it, using another excellent culinary metaphor, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”

As an antidote to the depressing reality of Charlie Tuna as the ultimate symbol of industrialized, exploitative, tastes-bad and in-bad-taste food I give you Anthony Bourdain and his Catalonian guide rhapsodizing over some excellent, locally-canned, and non-exploitative seafood in the home of Cervantes — who, incidentally, knew that there was such a thing as too much garlic.

Posted in america, food, literature | 3 Comments

Amid What Bells Do You Appear Rovigo?

rovigo2April’s poetry discovery was that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has not only a poem, but an entire volume entitled Rovigo, with the eponymous poem being indeed about that small town in Veneto midway between mythical Venice and sumptuous Bologna where I lived in 2007 and 2008. (Sadly the book is available only in German at Amazon, and only at the exorbitant price of $66.)

I didn’t mean to live in Rovigo. I had bigger and better plans — I was going to work in Milan, or Rome, or teach in Bologna, or at least do a fellowship in Modena. My girlfriend lived in Rovigo, but she wasn’t really from there, either — her family was from closer to Verona, and she’d grown up out on the Po Delta, and gone to school in Bologna, where we’d met. I’d gone there once or twice, to meet her mom and have lunch, and hiked along what I remembered as a humid canal path smelling faintly, not unpleasantly, of vegetation, to get back to that train station with its two windows, with yellowed photos of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and la Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso taped up, to go back to Bologna, which had trains going to Milan and Switzerland, not to the provincial destination of Chioggia and Adria.

I finished a master’s in 2007 and got to Rovigo in the infernal heat of Ferragosto, when no sane southern European works. But possibly I would not be working either: back home, financial TV personality Jim Cramer was bellowing at the Fed to “open the discount window.” The subprime crisis was happening. I wasn’t going to find a job in Milan, or Rome, or anywhere. Anywhere other than Oxford School, Rovigo branch. My temporary stopover ended up being slightly more permanent. And then, I got married. My train wasn’t going anywhere. Rovigo became my reality. I stayed a year. I go back indefinitely. I just got back, actually.

So I can agree quite well with Herbert that Rovigo is “a city of blood and stone like others/a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad someone coughed hopelessly all night.” It is, doubtlessly, a real city quite apart from the myths of nearby Venice and the feasts, architectural, gastronomic and otherwise, of Bologna. Professor Adam Zagajewski, himself no stranger to the Veneto, has more on this in an excellent essay.

There are a couple of translations going around the internet and I will post the one by Alissa Valles I found on Professor Zagajewski’s site here — I don’t read Polish, but the English-reader in me finds the unattributed translation on PoemHunter.com severely lacking. There’s a world of difference between the mechanistic “nth time” and the more intuitive, indubitably casual “umpteenth”, and “filled with love” is no comparison to “throes of passion.” And what about the gashed mountain nearby, “like an Easter Ham surrounded by kale” versus “like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley”? I’m less sure about that. Easter ham taps into that most sacred of Catholic holidays, celebrated with great vigor in both Poland and Italy. I’ll let the reader judge by linking to the anonymous translation above and pasting Valles’ below. As a side note, I wonder if Herbert’s gashed mountain is one of the nearby Colli Euganei?

Zagajewski’s essay in an excellent little study on how the foreigner — especially the educated and sensible one — experiences Italy:

[W]e’re only interested in those who died five hundred years ago. We’re not coming here to be reminded of the triviality of life, we’re not coming here to think of Berlusconi or Prodi, or of the reform of the health care system; we come here for the beauty alone.

But by the end of the poem,

the non-visitable city of Rovigo changes its color. […] He just mentions, nearing the poem’s closure, “arrivi—partenze,” keeping the Italian words in the text, and we understand what he means: arrivi—partenze, birth and death, beginning and end.

In the poem, Rovigo has become real, a real place in Italy where people come and go, are born and die. There’s a lot to unpack here in terms of the reality of life in small-town Europe in 2014: the Rovigo of today is, for many who work in more developed Padova or Ferrara, a bedroom community with cheaper rents and better eldercare for parents. For many recent immigrants, the neighborhoods around the train station are a cheap place to live while they go ply their trades in the bigger cities of Mestre, Padova or Venice. (Including, but not limited to, the world’s oldest profession.) As economic terms concentrate greater wealth and more features of a completely developed economy to internationalized mega-cities (of which Milan is the prime Italian, but not an especially good, example), Rodigini find themselves commuting more and more, going to work a competitive job in Milan and commuting home on the weekends. The arrivals and departures of Herbert’s poem, written over 20 years ago, back when Italy had more of an economy, are even more stark now.

One detail I will take exception to in Zagajewski’s essay is that Rovigo is a dull or boring town. Small or provincial, yes, quite likely. But it is not over-industrialized (for that the Venice-bound traveler need look no further than neighboring Mestre), and has three very finely preserved piazze — one of them Vittorio Emanuele, the others Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Roma, known to natives as Piazza Merlin — that would be the envy of a metropolis like Milan, where a piazza is often merely a traffic circle. As my mother-in-law tells me, the Adigetto Canal until the early 1950’s used to run straight through the middle of town, down the Corso del Popolo that is today’s main pedestrian drag, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see Rovigo as a smaller, less-developed Venice.

On a clear day, when there is no winter fog or summer afa — that crushing, grayish humidity that sticks between the Po and Adige Rivers in the summer heat in the lower Veneto — from the right bank of the canal out towards Sant’Apollinare, one can see distant snow-covered peaks of the Monti Berici.

rovigo salmon map ROVIGO

Rovigo station. Vague associations. A Goethe play
or something from Byron. I passed through Rovigo
so many times and just now for the umpteenth time
I understood in my inner geography it is a singular
place though it is certainly no match for Florence.
I never put a living foot down there. Rovigo was
always coming closer or receding into distance.

I lived then in the throes of a passion for Altichiero
of the San Giorgio Oratorium in Padua and also
for Ferrara which I love because it reminded me
of the plundered city of my fathers. I lived torn
between the past and the present moment
crucified many times by time and by place
But nonetheless happy with a powerful faith
that the sacrifice would not be made in vain

Rovigo was not marked by anything in particular
it was a masterpiece of averageness straight roads
ugly houses—depending on the train’s direction
just before or just after the city a mountain suddenly
rose up from a plain cut across by a red stone quarry
like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley
apart from that nothing to please hurt catch the eye

But it was after all a city of blood and stone like others
a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad
someone coughed hopelessly all night


Reduced to its station to a comma a crossed-out letter
nothing just the station—arrivi—partenze

and that is why I think of you Rovigo Rovigo

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The Point of the Jesus Lizard

Once in a while you see an example of rock music that makes you realize exactly what that well-worn exercise is all about. The Jesus Lizard and David Yow were to me always the supreme exemplars of rock music: a tension between precise, simple musicality and raw unhingedness; the Apollonian and the Dionysian. On the occasion of the Jesus Lizard’s brief reunion a few years ago, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in the New Yorker that Yow “acts like a storyteller who has just arrived, out of breath and perhaps drunk, with the need to tell us something unsettling.” I would go further and say that Yow seems like he has witnessed the end and that by the time we hear his apocalyptic message there will be no more anything, or as a friend of mine who knows rock’s tensions well once put it, “it seemed to me that part of the point of The Jesus Lizard was that in the future there would no longer be magazines like the New Yorker.”

Being there is still the best way to experience rock but this finely-made video captures the tension quite well.  The drummer and bassist pound out a syncopated rhythm; the guitarist’s hollow-body wails. The instruments are festooned with weird little totems, the singer sticks his hands in his mouth. Snippets of grim lyrics reach us through the noise: “the neighbor’s house was burning/but now is only smoking.” The singer contorts his face; he is possessed, a yowling messenger made mad by the unsettling thing he has been dispatched to tell us about. And just as it reaches a perfect pitch-point of psychic horror, it promptly resolves into four self-amused guys standing in a little room — the essence of rock music, as anyone who has been there knows.

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48 Hours of Eating in the Fragrant Harbor

All prices in USD, not HKD. 

We went to Hong Kong for a variety of reasons but near the top of the list was to eat. What we learned quickly is that food in Hong Kong is really expensive. But it’s good. Not only non-toxic (a serious concern in China that dampens my usual try-everything ethos) but often all-organic.

For a late Saturday lunch, we ventured to Linguini Fini, an Italo-American place in a mall of restaurants. Not a food court, but a high rise wherein each floor was a different restaurant.  The elevator opened directly into the lobby. Decor nice, food generally decent. Excellent burger. A bit small, but with smashed garlic and homemade ketchup and bright nice tomatoes and lettuce. You don’t see that in China — if so, be scared. But it was $23. S– got some ok pasta that was advertised as served with a veal, pig head and tripe ragu’ but it wasn’t that meaty. Pasta overcooked. $26. Bottle of Rogue beer? $12. Espresso? $7 each. Good espresso, though. Bit of a ripoff, but I have to remind S– and myself that this is still Asia and so such food may be exotic and pricey here. Plus Hong Kong seems loaded with British bankers making loads of pounds sterling. Total: $89.

Dinner was better. After braving the hour and a half wait for a funicular car and taking in the stunning views on Victoria Peak, we found Cafe Deco, a spacious place with a stellar view of Hong Kong. Very international menu, the type that usually inspires suspicion (pizza! kebabs! pasta! steak!) menu but they pulled it off. A huge multi-ethnic party of mainly men, led by an enormous mangione, seemed to be determined to test every different type of cuisine, and weren’t beyond giving the staff impromptu lessons as to how food should be prepared or served. We were more modest and split a 14 oz. New Zealand steak, a glass of Mondavi, an excellent salad with grilled parmigiano, asparagus and zucchini. Fresh baked-to-order baguette. For dessert, a fruit platter of fresh, real, non-toxic fruit. A little more than lunch at $92.

After seeing the vaunted (and twenty-year-old — most of my record collection is older than this guy) Tian Tan Buddha, we found ourselves stuck in Ngong Ping, a tasteful tourist village on Lantau Island. Opting to go local finally, we settled on Cantonese lunch at Pak Loh Garden, a large and fairly unremarkable place. Food was plain but decent: two kinds of pork dumplings off the dim sum menu, a huge bowl of veggies, mushrooms and noodles, and some grilled pork with mustard. Tea for two and they had the gall to charge $2 for some pre-meal peanuts. Total: 44 bucks. Thus better to get Cantonese in the real Canton, and no, I don’t believe the old Hong Kong saw that all the good Cantonese chefs fled the mainland for Hong Kong in 1949.


Saltimbocca and bucatini all’amatriciana at Posto Pubblico. Technical problems with WordPress prevent me from uploading more for some reason…

On our last night we managed to go to Hong Kong’s SoHo, a warren of narrow streets winding uphill with loads of hip places to eat, drink and live. We indulged in outdoor dining, which sane people should not do in Guangzhou, at Posto Pubblico, another New York-style Italian place. This one was a vast improvement over our mall experience and S– was happier. A heaping plate of spicy bucatini all’amatriciana with basil and wine-spiked saltimbocca alla romana that favorably compared with my favorite Roman joint in Milano. They brought good bread twice without being asked and I got a good glass of Montepulciano. The waiter was neither unctuous nor over-familiar and as he chased away a beggar dressed as a monk he chuckled to us, “Hong Kong’s biggest scam.” Price: $78. This is why we came here. S– went to freshen up and I sat there in the cool night air listening to the hypnotic house music and thought that with a full bottle I might sit there all night and relive my expat experiences of a decade ago, but that was not to be.

We’ll go back to SoHo to try the Mexican place, the two Argentinian steak places and the three other Italian places. I have faith as they seem geared to those who actually know food, not the desperate, meekly content expats who might think “I don’t care if these nachos are made with orange Doritos that include the toy; this is the only Mexican i’m getting for two years.”

Also worth a visit: the gleaming, ultra-luxe IFC shopping mall along the waterfront. A stop at Singapore-based TWC Tea is an elegant repose after a day of sightseeing, and for about $27, you can pick two teapots from a list of literally hundreds of teas, and enjoy some delicate macarons. For $22 you can take a box of 15 cotton teabags home. Bonus: if you forget that you are in a shiny, steel-and-glass mall, you can pretend you are in 19th-century Europe somewhere.

Our only complaint was the Harbourview, our hotel, which was a bit lacking, especially after our very nice accommodations in Guangzhou. Elevator service was lacking, our view was of a creepy courtyard, and there were few perks — not even free wi-fi. But it was very central, and we didn’t spend much time in it. Here in Guangzhou, we tend to spend more time at home, but that’s mostly thanks to pollution.

The difference between Hong Kong and the mainland is hard to overstate. Most importantly for us, the air is clean-seeming, breathable and it smells like the sea. There was a gentle breeze and generally, it was nice to be outside. During our 48 hours there, it was rainy and cool. No oppressive humidity that orders your brain, trained in the valleys of the Ohio and Po Rivers, to run indoors as quickly as humanly possibly or face certain death by heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion or all three. No mind-bending pollution. No assault on the senses of every kind of fetid smell you can imagine from organic (rotting pig blood? sewage? stinky tofu?) to chemical (paint thinner? asbestos? vaporizing steel? collapsing village? cocktail of all?). Most everything is orderly in that quintessential English fashion. Everyone, mostly, speaks English. After a few starts, I gave up trying with Mandarin, although I heard a quite a few tourists from the mainland speaking its gong-like, ringing tones. Cantonese sounds less harsh; more tones make it rich and florid. An L.A. transplant of Taiwanese origin I know says it’s the French to Mandarin’s English, although I’m not sure about that.

Hong Kong’s prevailing ethos — the luxury that money buys — has a lot more in common with London or NY or Milan than China, where the ethos is just pure money. Moreover, there’s a general feeling of uprootedness and confusion in China that is hard to capture or describe in a few words. Enormous highways and skyscrapers rise out of nothing. Traffic surges erratically and becomes horrible in second. People walking to work while doing taiji, sometimes even walking backwards. Old ladies cycle against the traffic on huge five-lane highways. People wander along the center lines on these same highways. The empty feeling of massive luxury complexes is highlighted by the huge labor surplus (5-10 people working in one small store, many just standing around). In a gleaming new train station, people sit shoeless on steps amid commuters, eating lunch. A wall breaks away to reveal a construction site, through which workers use forklifts to cart box after box of hundreds of just-hatched chicks, and commuters rush down sparkling new escalators. In short, it can be alien to the newcomer. This feeling was absent in Hong Kong, which I found very familiar despite vast differences in the language and local culture. Chalk one up for the people of the fragrant harbor.



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Two Competing Visions

From Per Petterson’s remarkable I Curse the River of Time, two visions of death. He seems to think that the first, and not the second is inevitable, yet he spends considerably more effort describing the second, more pleasant alternative, so which can he hope for?

…when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. Then that must feel like someone’s strong hands slowly tightening their grip around your neck until you can breath no more, and not at all as when a door is slowly pushed open and bright light comes streaming out from the inside and a woman or a man you have always known and always liked, maybe always loved, leans out and gently takes your hand and leads you into a place of rest, so mild and so fine, from eternity to eternity.

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Review of Peter Hessler’s River Town

Fuling, where Peter Hessler served

Fuling, where Peter Hessler served

Peter Hessler was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sichuan in 1996-1998 and his book chronicling his life there, River Town, is an excellent Peace Corps memoir. Even though I can’t think of a place more different from Macedonia, where I served, than China, he still has many of the same or similar experiences living in a remote, rural and developing place. River Town is also highly readable; one can knock it out in a day or two, despite coming in at almost 400 pages. Hessler is a dedicated teacher, even if he is still finding the voice that is so clear in later books like Country Driving: his tendency to mimic repeated Chinese adjectives can annoy, as does his repetition of turns of phrase that he himself admits are awkward and clichéd.  Despite his differences from most of the volunteers I served with — I didn’t know volunteers who went to church, for starters —  the experience is broad enough to resonate with Peace Corps volunteers removed by a decade and thousands of kilometers.

For these reasons, River Town succeeds more as a Peace Corps memoir than as a straight-up China travelogue. Hessler mentions how the one group he connects with the least are the new moneyed young males, arrogant, self-assured, and decked out in garish styles. Macedonia had a similar class — pretty boys with shaved armpits, garish faux-designer sweaters and fast cars, who would eagerly give you a lecture on how much money you could make doing whatever your Peace Corps job was back in America. Like Hessler, none of our group were really friends with this chunk of society. I’m sure large chunks of the rest of the developing world have their analogues as well, even if the stakes may be far higher in ever-growing China.

The book is not without its flaws. Despite being the ultimate Peace Corps book, meticulously chronicling the whole two years of hardships similar to volunteers all over, what I ultimately didn’t like about it was that Hessler’s problems all seemed easily resolved, leaving perhaps some vague sense of discomfort but nothing more.  Largely, his experience is one of positive, self-enriching activities. He rises early to write every day. He diligently masters Chinese without major frustration and speaks exclusively in it. He goes to church and give the church money. He meets crazy desperate women and whores, and nobly turns them down. He participates in macho Chinese drinking, but realizes it is wrong and boring. He cheerfully gets his students through Shakespeare and other English classics, even getting them to perform plays. He is a dedicated runner whose only issue seems to be grappling with American competitiveness.

Too much of this can make the author come across as sanctimonious at times. He tangles with all manner of foreigner-in-a-developing-country issues, but he almost always rationally and calmly makes the right choice, and even when he doesn’t, the consequences are banal: he almost gets into a fight with an ignorant villager, but just walks away after humiliating the guy. I was cheered to see that even the best volunteers almost got into fights with annoying villagers after a year and some of taunts and unwanted attention, but it might’ve been interesting to read about the Peace Corps volunteer who didn’t always make the right choice or who made bad friends.

Although I wasn’t expecting Hessler, who is largely realistic about the goals of his service, to adopt a pro-democracy viewpoint of either the humanitarian interventionist or neoconservative stripe, his judgment did seem off-kilter at least once, less for political reasons than the personal. But the personal is telling: at one point he meets a pro-democracy student whose English name is “Rebecca” and he dismisses him as a loser with a girl’s name, and after giving him an old Newsweek writes the kid off.  After a brief discussion about how this dumpy loser didn’t fit his image of the Tiananmen protesters as “noble characters,” he disappears from the book. Instead, he prefers the nobility of the party:

He was the only student who has anything like a dissident, and I remembered how I had imagined those figures before coming to Fuling. I had always assumed that they were noble characters — charismatic, intelligent, farsighted, brave. Perhaps that was the way it had been in 1989, and perhaps it was still like that in the bigger cities; but here in Fuling things were very different. My best students — Soddy, Linda, Armstrong, Aumur; the ones who were charismatic, intelligent, farsighted, and brave — those were the ones who had been recruited long ago as Party Members. If you had any talent you played by the rules; being a Party Member was good for your career, and in any case all of the students seemed to think that it was good to be patriotic in the narrow way that they were told to be. The image I had once had of the Chinese dissident had no reality in Fuling.

All I had was Rebecca — he was the only one, and he was a loser. He was a bad student, and he was socially awkward. He had no friends. He had a girl’s name. Some of these characteristics had conspired to set him apart, and in his bitterness his ideas had undoubtedly swung even further from the Party line. If there were big changes in China’s future, it was hard to imagine them coming from people like Rebecca, or, for that matter, from any of my other students.

I found the above passage recently reproduced on a blog with a strong nationalistic Chinese bent. (That’s nationalist in the present sense, not the 1949 Taiwan/Guomindang sense.) There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that the authors of such blogs using Hessler’s love of a winner to prop up their own idea that the true and good of China belong to the Communist party and that the marginalized and pathetic are ones who resist it. Of course Hessler spends an equal amount of time talking about how sick he is of the party’s ham-fisted attempts at controlling his school and the teachers’ interactions with students, but that is easily overlooked by the selective blogger.

Hessler does make a good point that being a Peace Corps volunteer makes a foreigner automatically marginal and thus attracts the local fringe element. This is definitely true: certainly Peace Corps volunteers attract both good and bad fringe elements. Sometimes the bad ones were the among worst – several of my colleagues and I had experiences with both categories. But most of the volunteers I knew, who were in-country for complex reasons of their own that might’ve included feeling marginal in their own country, always tried to lend a sympathetic ear to the good fringes. In my own town, my good friends Traki and his pal Ace, sons of a laid-off factory worker and a policeman-cum-hog-farmer respectively, were losers with bad grades who had taught themselves English from action movies. They wanted nothing from me but friendship and gave me just that and more in return.

Hessler’s ardent Chinese Communist Party students remind me of my Macedonian students who had what were called vrski — connections, most of which were with that country’s ex-socialist ruling class as well. They were civilized and the most “European” of my students, speaking usually excellent English well before I arrived, and I liked them — but they didn’t need any help. Mostly their parents had arranged decent careers and jobs for them, and they had little interest in things like scholarships to English-speaking universities and journalism clubs.

The students who were interested were indeed the marginalized — the Roma, the orphaned, the refugees. These were the students that eventually did move, get scholarships for their many talents — languages, computer programming, graphic design — and end up living and earning money abroad. Whether living in the West was ultimately to their benefit is perhaps another question, but I never had any doubt that working on the margins of the world I would end up serving the marginalized.

Posted in america, Balkans, Chinese, education, international development, macedonia | Leave a comment

Some Jon Cook Music

Jon Cook & Tony Bailey playing together; Crain @ the Cherokee 1995

Jon Cook & Tony Bailey playing together; Crain @ the Cherokee 1995

I didn’t make it to Louisville in time for Jon Cook’s memorial on March 9th, but I was in Louisville recently and I did extract some Jon Cook gems from my archives. The first two feature Jon’s collaborations with a couple of other recently- and tragically- departed Louisville musicians.

“Unhindered Perception of the Happy Machine”

[audio:02 Unhindered Perception of the Happy Machine.mp3]

For some reason I always liked this song a lot, even if the lyrics are barely intelligible and the song meanders along. Never recorded in a studio, this is from a show in Chicago in the mid-90s, featuring versatile drummer Tony Bailey, who also left the earth far too early in 2009. Listen to how the song verges on falling apart near the end, but Tony manages to bring it back together. Critics usually call Crain “math-rock” which implies an incredible level of tightness. I don’t dispute that Crain went through a period like that, but a lot of late Crain seemed fairly loose, held together by solid musicianship and that elusive intuition that all musicians seem to chase.

“Broken Heart of a Neutron Star”

[audio:06 Broken Heart of a Neutron Star.mp3]

Live at a 1994 Simple Machine gala emceed by Jason Noble, who also died last year tragically young. Not really my favorite take of this tune, mainly since Jon Cook doesn’t sing it and it’s his song, but this version is notable mainly for Jason Noble’s hyperactive and hyper-enthusiastic introduction. Louisville is indeed a muddy horse farm as well as something of sprawling metropolis, at least if you are from elsewhere in Kentuckiana. The rumor in 1994 was that the original title of the song was “Noble Attitude” and that Cook had written it about his friend.

“Double-Cross Pollination”

[audio:09 Double-Cross-Pollenization.mp3]

Not a Crain tune, but an Experimental Pollen tune. Experimental Pollen was a ferocious live band that featured Troy Cox from Evergreen on bass and engineer Will Hancock from 456 on drums. They played the party circuit ca. 1996-1997 and were most noted for headlining a New Year’s party at the Lausman’s family farmhouse on the outskirts of Louisville. An all-star AC/DC cover band featuring Cook, Britt Walford and Crain alumnus (and musician in his own right) Jason Hayden warmed the crowd up. This being New Year’s in Louisville, we didn’t need much warming up. Pollen took the ‘stage’ which was a hardwood floor, in front of several hundred sweaty, intoxicated kids with great anticipation around midnight. Will counted off, 1-2-3-4, and the crowd reared up, ready to jump as one to the sound of the rock. The first note rang out, the crowd all hit the floor at the same time, and there resonated a horrendous and violent creak — the sound of the floor giving way. The music abruptly stopped, the whole ugly engine of the bass and drums grinding to a halt. Cook sheepishly spoke into the mic: “Uh. I think we broke the floor.” One of the elder Lausman brothers ran downstairs, perfunctorily checked the foundations, and came back upstairs, giving the all-clear sign, and the rock commenced into 1997.

This song doesn’t have that raw energy but is a bit more subdued, which was another side of Cook’s songwriting. Experimental Pollen released a 7″ with guest appearances from noted producer Flood, which is pretty worth hearing (if memory serves) and also a split LP with Louisville heavies Wino. The split LP is worth hearing for the Wino songs; let’s leave the review at that.

Coming soon, I hope: a live 1992 recording of Crain doing the Misfits’ “Teenagers from Mars,” as well as more live material. Watch this space.


Posted in kentucky, music | Leave a comment