At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Nativity Scenes

Hanging out in so many heavily touristed areas, my brother and I didn't interact very much with the native population, and the few encounters we had were annoying. In the jam-packed Augustiner beer tent at Oktoberfest, a friendly but tactless Müncher guy squeezed in next to us with his Russian girlfriend, and after hearing us speak English struck up a conversation:

German: Where are you from? The States?
Me: Yes.
German: What state?
Me: Texas.
German (smiling and making excited trigger motions with his finger): Oh, you own guns? Bang bang!
Me: Uh, no.
German: You live on a ranch?
Me: No.
[conversational lapse]
German (pointing to my liter mug): Is that your first?
Me: No, I'm on my third.
German: Ah, no wonder you're so quiet.
Me: [nods silently]
German: How do you two know each other?
Me: We're brothers.
German: Oh, we thought you might be gay. Are you gay?
Me: No.
German: Me, I really really like women.
Me: That's nice.
German (pointing to my brother): Is he the older one?
Me: No, I am.
German (pulling his hair against his head): Because he's more bald than you.
German (to me): Are you Christian?
Me: Yes.
German (pointing to girlfriend): She thought so. She said you looked like someone who takes religion seriously.
Me: Thanks, I guess.

The second unpleasant native encounter was in the Prague subway station. My brother and I had just gotten off the metro and were rushing towards the stairs to catch our train to Frankfurt when a tall, unshaven, somewhat shabby guy sidled up to me, speaking in Czech and showing me some brass trinket. Not wanting to buy cheesy souvenirs from a black market huckster, I waved him off. He kept following and I said "Go away." He finally yelled "Stop!" and planted himself in front of me.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"I am a train inspector," he said, showing me the object again, which turned out to be a badge. "You understand?"
"I don't know if I believe you," I answered, looking at his unkempt beard, dirty jeans, and drab jacket.
"That's too bad. Let me see your ticket."
I handed it to him and, fortunately, he acknowledged its validity and left. I admit that he was just doing his job, but it was still a tense and embarassing experience. The officials in the German subways were clean-cut and uniformed, so it didn't even occur to me that this guy was the Czech counterpart.

Finally, at the entrance to Plzeň's "Beer World" a small old man with a wide smile approached and asked "Deutschlander?" I said "American--Texas" and he began talking about the friendly Texan troops he met when the U.S. Army liberated the town from the Nazis. (We did in fact see streets signs like "Washingtonova" and "Rooseveltova," presumably for streets renamed in the 1940s out of gratitude to the U.S.) I listened politely while worrying that he was going to hit us up for money, and in fact the conversation did turn in that direction when he warned us about Czech pickpockets. But he didn't seem to want anything but company, and when the chat petered out he went to talk to some other tourists window shopping at the souvenir store. Later, while we were eating goulash in the Na Splice restaurant, he came by our table and asked "Las Vegas is close to Texas, isn't it?"
"Um, sort of."
"Large buildings there, no?"
He sat at a nearby table and drank beer by himself. Apparently the poor man didn't have much else to occupy his time than to serve as Plzeň's unofficial greeter.

Now that I think about it, we did have one enjoyable encounter with a native, but it wasn't a chance meeting. An Austrian guy had worked in my brother's department for a few months in the spring, and so when it turned out that we would be visiting Vienna my brother arranged that we would spend the day with him. He was a very enthusiastic tour guide and took us to the best café in old Vienna, where I had a 4 euro thimbleful of Turkish coffee, and an out of the way Heurigen on a hillside overlooking the city. Very pleasant.

Robert Christgau Words of the Day

duc·tile adj.
1. Easily drawn into wire or hammered thin: ductile metals.
2. Easily molded or shaped.
3. Capable of being readily persuaded or influenced; tractable.

ser·rate adj.
1. Having or forming a row of small sharp projections resembling the teeth of a saw: serrate teeth; a serrate talon.
2. Having a saw-toothed edge or margin notched with toothlike projections: serrate leaves. (

Youssou N'Dour: Lii! [1996, Jololi]
Global conquest hasn't come easy, so it's a good thing N'Dour was smart enough and a smart thing he was good enough to stay in Dakar. This isn't the rough rhythming of his youth--he's pop-wise now and always will be. You can hear Jean Philip Rykiel's gelatinous Clavier, Cheikh Lô's rival voice. But as N'Dour and Lô both know, there are no rival voices--not really, not with this much clarity, power, ductility, serration. And as N'Dour understands far better than any other Senegalese, tunes are a boon. Here they connect more unfailingly than on any of his U.S. releases, with rhythming to spare. Move over, Tony Toni Toné. He is the world. A- (

Friday, October 03, 2003

Google/OCLC partnership--search WorldCat via Google.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

This Month's Choice

I. Spalatin has a review this month. She says of the book under consideration that is it "almost 'unreviewable' in its erudite richness...A superb contribution to the study of modern art." At least she's consistent. One of mine is in there too, but an editor screwed it up. I had written "begs the question against" and someone changed it to "begs the question of." He or she is confusing "begs the question" with "raises the question." Given this experience, I shouldn't be too hasty to judge other reviewers, but I doubt editorial high-handedness is the cause of I. Spalatin's gushy evaluations.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Tourist Traps

Most of the places my brother and I visited in Europe were extremely touristy, and we have a fair amount of experience with tourist traps in North America (the French Quarter, Gatlinburg TN [gateway to the Smokey Mountains], Quebec City, etc.), so we were led to reflect on those factors contributing to touristiness:

Cobblestone: The European tourist traps dominate. Both the small towns (Bacharach am Rhein and Rothenburg ob der Tauber) and the old sections of the big cities (Munich, Vienna, Prague) that we visited have a lot of romantically cobbly, winding streets. Quebec isn't bad, though.

Novelty Museums: Gatlinburg reigns supreme with its ultra-tacky Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum, but Rothenburg's Medieval Torture Museum has an entertaining collection of iron maidens, stocks, and thumbscrews. (We noticed Prague also had a museum with the same theme, but one was enough for us.)

Speciality Snacks: Tourists worn down by hours of sightseeing need a sugar rush, in Europe as in America. If Gatlinburg serves up funnel cakes and the French Quarter beignets, then in Rothenburg one can get "schneeballen" (snowballs), a globular sugar-frosted pastry, and in Prague people munch on Czech spa wafers. Quebec's poutine probably isn't connected closely enough to tourism to qualify.

Kitschy Souvenir Shops: I think the American tourist traps are champs in this category, but Prague had an impressive number of T-shirt shops with classy designs like "Prague Drinking Team" or Communist-era nostalgia (Aeroflot logos, visages of Stalin). In Vienna we saw the "No Kangaroos in Austria" shirt displayed in a number of shop windows, and many Oktoberfest revellers wore shirts joking about beer consumption. The gift shops in the smaller towns were more tasteful, and I picked up a Pilsner Urquell T-shirt at the brewery's "Beer World" tourist center.

Possibly Authentic Historic Garb: No contest: Munich, with thousands of people decked out in traditional Bavarian vestments. Those Munich guys have to be pretty secure in their masculinity to wear lederhosen. In Rothenburg we joined thirty or forty other tourists for a nighttime tour of the city led by a local dressed as a medieval night watchman, with lantern, pike, and cloak. The wait staff at Pilsner Urqell's Restaurant Na Splice wore what I took to be peasant Czech smocks. I don't think I've seen costumes in many American tourist traps except for Colonial Williamsburg.

Horsedrawn Carriage Rides: I didn't see this service offered in Bacharach or Plzen, but it was everywhere else along our tour.

Tourists: It might seem trivially tautological to say that a place is touristy to the extent that it draws tourists, but it does seem to be a relevant consideration--one is getting a less authentic experience to the extent that the people around you aren't native. We saw a lot of Japanese tourists in Quebec, but Old Prague was absolutely clogged with tour groups from all over the world--we heard Spanish, Italian, French, German, Russian, American, Australian, British, Finnish, Norwegian, Japanese, and Chinese spoken. We were all herded like cattle through the giant St. Vitus Cathedral. Perhaps Oktoberfest might have gotten more tourists, but the ratio of tourists to natives in Prague was obviously much higher. I saw a fair number of American tourists with the same travel book that I was carrying around--Rick Steves' Germany, Austria, and Switzerland--and in fact we saw one couple both in Bacharach and in Rothenburg, suggesting that they were obviously following Rick Steves' itinerary as slavishly as we.

Elevated Viewing Areas: The American version is an elevator ride up a skyscraper or monument to a top-floor panoramic viewing area. The low-tech, lower altitude version in the European medieval tourist traps is a tiring climb up a vertiginously narrow spiral staircase in a church or castle tower. We did this in Munich, Prague, and Plzen--I couldn't convince my brother to do the one in Vienna, though. Huffing your way up hundreds of steps, you are rewarded at the top with a beautiful view of the city, not to mention polyglot graffiti.

We haven't yet developed an algorithm that weighs these various factors and ranks the cities by touristiness, but my intuitive judgment is that Prague gets the highest score.

The Coronado Expedition: From the Distance of 460 Years.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

I'm back from Europe. The trip can be summed up by saying that we saw a lot of old buildings and drank a lot of alcohol. Is this the standard experience for Americans on the Continent?

Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the 20th Century.

New Annie Proulx novel set in the Panhandle. (It's #2 on Amazon's Lubbock buying circle.)