19 February 2011

Innocence Abroad

During the spring break of my senior year, my Ma told me that I shouldn't make too many summer plans since I'd likely have to work to make my book and spending money for college in the fall. I resigned myself to another summer of detassling. A month later, she handed me a plane ticket to Frankfurt, West Germany - I had been given the trip as a gift, she told me, and I wasn't to ask too many questions about its provenance. (I still don't know who paid for it. When I got home I was asked to write a nice thank you note and she'd see it delivered.)

Needless to say, I was over the moon. West Germany, for six weeks!? I couldn't even imagine it.

The world was much, much bigger in 1987 than it is now. International calls were expensive, rare, and of poor quality. You saved them for Christmas, and you learned to pause after you spoke so the party on the other line could hear and respond: there was a three or four second delay, and if you weren't careful you would end up speaking over each other, which I learned the hard way on the annual call to my brother Ray when he was stationed overseas in the Army. There was no Skype or internet, of course - if you wanted to communicate with someone in a foreign country, you sat down and wrote a letter, long hand, on onion skin paper, and put it into an airmail envelope, and mailed it with a stamp. If you were lucky, it would arrive in two weeks.

Come to think of it, that's how you communicated with people in other parts of the U.S., too - domestic calls were expensive, and people still wrote letters to communicate. I couldn't call my eldest sister who was away for college in Texas - I would get in trouble if I did when the phone bill came. If I wanted to tell her something, I had to get a pencil and paper and sit down and write it out. Same with my brothers in the seminary in Wisconsin, or even with grandma and grampa.

All flights were expensive - very expensive - but international travel in particular was well out of our reach. Going to another country was so rare that I remember a trip to Canada when I was in fourth grade - we'd driven to see my brother Chris in Detroit, and we drove across the river on the Ambassador Bridge and back through the Detroit Windsor Tunnel. I was thrilled. It was rare enough that us three little kids got our picture taken under a sign with a Canadian flag that read: "Tunnel to USA" as proof.

Travel to Europe was Halley's Comet rare - my dad had taken a trip to the UK for work eight years prior, and when he came home we all sat in the living room as he told stories about the long flight, seeing churches and castles older than our entire nation's history, walking Hadrian's Wall. I was completely mesmerized. Even as an 8 year old, I couldn't quite fathom being able to touch something made by Roman hands. Fort Ouiatenon was the oldest European history (and thus what I counted as "mine" at the time) that I had been exposed to, and that I felt almost viscerally, but this! He had a stopover in Shannon, Ireland, on the way home and bought me a set of three porcelain leprechauns with "Made in Ireland" stamped on the bottom. I treasured them as exotic and kept them on my table by my bed.

And now I was going to West Germany? I couldn't believe it! I was to stay with the family of a girl who had stayed with us the summer before, in Oldenburg, Niedersachsen, a lovely old city in the north. It could have been the German answer to Akron and I wouldn't have cared, but it wasn't. It had a charming pedestrian zone in its center, a great old castle, and we rode bicycles everywhere (and I mean everywhere - to school, to the grocery store, even to church, all of us, the whole family, on bikes, to church in our church clothes! I was - well, not shocked, but definitely surprised and charmed).

No internet, no skype, no Google, no Wikipedia - just as you couldn't call someone around the world, you couldn't, from your bedroom or home, look at pictures of Oldenburg, Niedersachsen, West Germany. You could look in an encyclopedia, or in your library's travel section about Germany, but that was it. When I say that it was terra incognita, that was truer then than is possible for any part of earth can be anymore. Try it - Google East Timor or Majuro or Malawi and you'll get pictures, phone numbers, maps, and dining recommendations in under a second. I may have been 18, but I was not much different than the Americans that Mark Twain had lampooned a century before.

What opportunities are there for that kind of exploration now? I'm not sure they exist. When you don't speak the language and are standing outside the closed station in Donauwoerth, Bavaria, having got off the last train of the evening, and you don't know where the youth hostel is and there's no one around, well, you need to be a little resourceful. No cell phone. No internet. You learn to work it out, that it will work out, that even when it doesn't work out it will still work out, if in no other way than in the great stories you get along the way.
At different points in my life, people have told me that they thought I was intrepid - like when I passed up a promotion to teach English in Japan, knowing nothing at all about the country; or even when I went to Lisbon by myself, on a whim, for a long weekend. I'm not sure that's true, but if that is a part of my character, I have to give credit to the generosity of an unknown benefactor, to trusting parents, and to a great host family. Credit, and thanks.

18 February 2011


One July morning in 1987, I was seated at a kitchen table in Niedersachsen, Germany, listening to rapid Plattdeutsch.

I was used to not understanding speech in the house, or only snippets, as I was staying with a German host family and my one summer of German was wholly inadequate to the task, but there was something urgent being discussed.

"Hast du diene backpack?" I was asked.

"Ja, eine moment bitte," and I got it.

My very kind host father with the ready smile went into his office and emerged with four plain white envelopes, his smile strained. His wife eased from my bulging bag the lunch they had packed me, took out the hard boiled eggs she had kindly prepared for me that morning, unwrapped them from the morning's newspaper, and handed them to her husband who re-wrapped them in the plain white envelopes.

They saw me looking at them, and in response to what must have been a quizzical expression Frau H. said simply. "Morgenzeitung (morning paper). You go Berlin. Verboten." And she shook her head.

I was stunned. I was leaving that day for Berlin, the first stop on my solo, eight day train trek, and I of course had to go through East Germany to get there. I would see East German soldiers. I would be in a communist country. There was no freedom of the press, and thus the morning Oldenburg newspaper was contraband. I sat up and started to pay closer attention, and to think about what I was doing - what had been a lark was now serious; what I had learned about totalitarianism through books and news media an ocean away I was now going to see through the glass of a train window, up close and personal.

My host father had business in Hanover that day, or so he said - I suspect it was drummed up so he could point me in the right direction and make sure my ticket was all sorted - and he rode with me and we spoke, as much as we could, about politics and weather and crops and history, and I was very glad for his company. My mind was reeling, though, and I wasn't real focused. What else was contraband? I was a very religious adolescent but I didn't carry a Bible or prayer book or even a rosary, so I was okay there. My journal? I wrote a ton, and scribbling in English could be anything to an East German guard. What about cash? I had deutschmark and dollars, but barely enough for my own purposes, not enough to foment revolution. But how much was too much?

I bid "tschuss" to Herr H. in Hanover and boarded my train east. I saw on the timetable that this particular train started in Paris and ended in Warsaw, which I felt bound it, and me, to history. Just east of Braunschweig we slowed to a crawl as we crossed the border into East Germany through barbed wire, yards of precisely groomed sand and open space, and square towers three stories tall with 360' of reflective glass on top. (When years later I read about a panopticon, I recalled those towers.)

I stared so hard my eyes hurt for the next few hours, watching the grey countryside, the unknown car makes, the small fields, the belching industrial megaliths and the occasional pock-marked building - pock marked by gunfire from WWII 42 years earlier, I realized with a shock - roll by. I looked in particular for people but saw very few, and certainly none very close to the tracks. In Magdeburg, East German soldiers boarded the stopped train and three went to each compartment, checking passports, while others stood at arms, backs to the train, coiled muscle and nerve.

I had my new passport at the ready, and after what seemed like 10 minutes of staring at my one entrance stamp, the soldier handed it back to me, unsmiling, and moved to the next car. No one searched my bag. I wasn't going to be pulled off the train and into a small room and asked questions. But everything radiated control, and a lack of liberty, of movement, of behavior, of speech.

There is a difference between knowing that not everyone in the world could get in a car and drive across a continent, and seeing the barbed wire and minefields and guard towers to prevent them from trying. Between knowing that not everyone could read whatever the hell they wanted, and wrapping hard boiled eggs in envelopes instead of newsprint so as not to appear to be smuggling illicit media. Between knowing that not everyone could board a passenger train that stopped in their city, and seeing, ten feet away out of a train window, soldiers with guns drawn who had orders to shoot them if they tried.

It was a lesson in liberty; the liberties that I had - liberties I scarcely understood and had taken completely for granted, at 18 - and those that others, even in Europe, did not.

When I got to West Berlin I checked in to my hostel and immediately went to the Wall. It ran through neighborhoods and was copiously graffitied, colorful, ugly, and omnipresent like a whine in your ear that you can't quite shut out: less or more intrusive, but always there. I developed an entirely unoriginal theory during my two days in Berlin: Berliners were all a little bit mad. More than anyone else in the world in those Cold War days, they lived in the mouth of a gun; their tomorrow might never come, so why not eat, drink and be merry?

I watched West Berliners in the parks and neighborhoods that abut the Wall ignore it, uniformly, and literally turn their backs to it. When I crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, I walked from a color film into one that was black and white. Buildings were pocked by Nazi and Soviet bullets from 45 years earlier and nothing was new or colorful. After the anarchy and madness and vibrancy of West Berlin, it was disorienting. I walked miles around the city, getting as close to the wall as I could in residential neighborhoods, and here in the East it was just ugly: monochromatic, menacing, ugly. I saw it for what it was - not as a symbol of the Cold War, not as metaphor, but as an instrument of state power, and state control. If I ran towards it, I could get arrested. If I tried to climb it, I would get shot.

The grandeur of the Brandenburg Gate, with its fascistic fronting lines and spaces, the better through which to see, with its adorning statue's back to Bonn, Europe, and the West, and face to the east, to Poland and Moscow.

Two years after that trip, when the Berlin Wall fell and totalitarian regimes across Eastern Europe collapsed, and I saw people my age dancing on the ruins of it, I knew I was witnessing history. I couldn't get enough of the shots on the news: East Berlin, and then Prague and Warsaw and Budapest and Bratislava and Sofia and Bucharest, became free. Totalitarian regimes collapsed. Fascism, under whatever name it took, was faltering. Millions of people across Eastern Europe could read whatever the hell they wanted, and go where they wanted. If people in Magdeburg now wanted to board a train, they would no longer be shot.

Many people have been making comparisons this week between Cairo, 2011, and Berlin, 1989; or speculating how far the comparisons should go. I was reminded of seeing what liberty was and wasn't. How what a state said - East Berlin was capital of the Deutsche Democratische Republik, after all - and what it did could be so blatantly at odds. How the will of the governed could be subverted by force, overt and opaque.

Watching the events in Tunis and Cairo come to their joyous conclusions, I was thrilled again. I have no ties to Egypt like I had to a sundered Germany, no ethnic bonds or study, and the tyranny under which Egyptians lived was perhaps not the same as that of the East Germans in 1987, but the truth of the matter speaks in eloquence beyond words. I was deeply moved as courageous people came together in Tahrir Square and demanded their liberty. There are not too many times in human history when the world has seen such a thing, and I've seen it twice now.

It's a long road ahead for the Egyptians and Tunisians and Iranians and Bahrainis (and, and, and...) And while the Belarussians might have some thoughts on that, so do the Poles, and the Latvians, and the Czechs. More liberty is better, more people living under more liberty is better.
I am proud to have been reminded of the freedoms I have by the people in Cairo. I'd love to learn the lesson again from Tripoli or Tehran.

17 February 2011

Missed story of the week? Ivory Coast

Yes, across the northern rim of Africa there is unprecedented news and activity this week, but in western Africa there is news, too, and an opportunity for the United States.

In Côte d'Ivoire, a strongman was voted out of office and he's not leaving. Laurent Gbagbo, the losing president in question, is clinging to power despite calls from his neighbors in the region to step down, despite offers of asylum in other west African nations, despite (nearly - keep reading) no one believing any of his manufactured claims about legitimacy, or getting the most votes, or needing to stay for law and order.

The most recent development, as reported in Le Monde this morning Paris time (article in French), is that M. Gbagbo has seized two French banks and frozen their assets in order to have the funds needed to pay the military and police on whom his support is based.

No money to pay the soldiers, no more régime for M. Gbagbo. And what is paying his soldiers to do? Murder people who voted for his rival, M. Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara happens to be from the northern part of the country, and is, like most people in the north, Muslim. Many of Ouattara's voters (though by no means all) are Muslim. The people turning up dead in morgues and in mass graves around the country? Muslim. M. Gbagbo's religion? He is reported to be "a devout Evangelical Christian." (And Pat Robertson's CBN has come out in support of him. No, I'm not kidding. Original CBN interview here.)
If you have a strong stomach, you can read what the good Christian has ordered his thugs to do in an article I first read in the Chronicle.

Why this religious regional division? It is a legacy of colonialism. When the Europeans left western Africa, they left nations whose borders were drawn by bureaucrats in London and Paris to facilitate maximum economic exploitation of the region with no regard to local tribal alignments, languages or religions. They make no sense. If you were to draw a line on the map roughly from Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west to, well, the Nile River, really, you'd have largely Muslims to the north, and largely non-Muslims (Christians, animists) to the south. This line nearly bisects Nigeria, Central African Republic, Benin, Togo, Ghana and yes, Côte d'Ivoire. Add this careless border drawing and the resulting competition of regions, religions and clans for resources and power within nation states to the bloody ills to the European legacy of intrusion into Africa.

So, where is the opportunity for the US here?

Our stated ideals - in this case, democracy and the legal transition of power - absolutely benefit Muslims and all Ivoirians, and would be an example for us to point to where we are actually doing what we said we would. It would also be in our strategic interests - tertiary, fine, but still -for a stable democratic state to develop along Ghana's western border, where Mr. Obama visited not long ago. If the state were not a strong man ruled cleptocracy and were at all reasonably governed, the standard of living would increase, and perhaps Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire could be regional incubators for stability, prosperity and democracy.
Applying significant diplomatic pressure to ease out M. Mbagbo and allow M. Ouattara to assume his rightful role as president is a low risk, moderate reward move for the Obama administration.
Take a look at the headlines, and then a map. They - and we - could use one about now.

01 February 2011

Road Trip!

It's taken as an article of faith in my family that "Brennans love road trips." All of my siblings, though my brothers in particular, have elaborate stories about epic trips when they + another brother/ friend/ hitchhiker went from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska in an AMC Rambler in 27 hours, and how much fun they had doing it.

I am not immune: One evening, after wrapping up business in Cincinnati, I drove to visit a sister-in-law who was laid up during a difficult pregnancy. When I walked into her Knoxville hospital room, surprising her, she asked "What in the world are you doing here?" I answered "Well, I was in the neighborhood..." She loved that line, but to my mind there was truth to it - Cincy is a lot closer to Knoxville than Chicago, so why not?

I have an atlas on which I've highlighted every road I've ever driven in the US, and I will look at it before I take a trip and drive new roads, just to have more to highlight, more to see, more memories to steal away. I've had some epic hitchhiker experiences as well - from Denver to LA, from Sacto to Tahoe, across Nevada, in Hawai'i, outside Arcata, the length of California - and I've always loved throwing a bag in the car and heading out.

Why is this, this centrality of road trips in our shared family lore, and individual pride, and myth-making? We all cut our teeth on the same road trips growing up, after all. We spent the same number of interminable hours on sticky vinyl seats, with no air conditioning, fighting or avoiding fighting with siblings, being sick or avoiding the physical manifestations of sickness of siblings, shoving siblings' things out the window.  And all of this while our - well, what else can be said? - heat-crazed, exhausted, clearly en-maddened parents drove us across four states to get to a campsite, or a lake, or a historical marker, and all while they yelled at us to "Wake up!" or "Put that book down!" so we could "Look at the scenery!" or "Pray the rosary!" So why, given this background, did we all, without fail, as soon as we each had the resources to buy, beg, or borrow (or rent, in my case) a car, grab a sibling or a friend or a hitcher and an atlas and go on a road trip?

But we did. (Stockholm syndrome, maybe?)

My first childhood memory of a family vehicle is the Tan Van. It was a Dodge Tradesman Maxivan, or what some friends have since called the church bus, with two bucket seats up front, an engine that protruded in between them, three bench seats, and an extended storage area in the back. (Driver's view, right, exactly our model.)

Each bench seat could accommodate three seated people, which is nine, plus Mom and Dad in the front bucket seats, which is eleven, which leaves me, #10, to sit on the engine, facing backward.

It wasn't the safest perch in the van. Had we hit anything I would have been thrown into the windshield at such an angle that my head would have been forced into my sternum, snapping my neck instantly, before the glass shattered and spewed me out of the van into whatever it was that had just been hit - but it was the 70s. No one had accidents.  Which was just as well, because no one had seat belts.

I don't mean that metaphorically - literally, no one in that vehicle had seat belts. Our Tan Van had rusted out so badly that you could see the road rushing past underneath you, and finally it got to the point where my dad or a brother sawed a piece of 3/4" plywood to bolt onto what was left of the van floor so no one would fall through. They drilled holes in the plywood so we could bolt the seats back in, but no one was drilling holes for the seat belt posts. They got left behind in the modification.

The plywood floor was an improvement on the rusted metal floor that had been there before on a safety level, sure, but the main advantage of plywood over rusted metal?  It was quieter. The previous floor was deteriorating sheet metal.

Know the sound of rain on a tin roof? Or the sound of a rock being thrown by a lawnmower into the side of a car? Imagine that incessantly, at highway speed, while you are lying on the metal in question. Throw in the whine of the tires, and you're there. That old floor had transferred the energy of every rock kicked up by a tire, every pothole not avoided, every drift onto a gravel shoulder into sound. We slept on the floor, on blankets, and we heard and felt it all. Despite that, we slept so soundly that when we'd arrive back in Fowler we'd have to be carried up the steps and into bed, but I guess that's being 7.

Until siblings aged up into driving, Mom or Dad would usually drive and the other rode shotgun; then behind them older kids on benches, then younger kids on the floor. Given that math, any more than three kids in the van and I slept on the floor. Which was a piece of plywood bolted into a van. With a bigger older sibling stretched out on a vinyl seat immediately above me unrestrained in any way. Going between fifty and seventy miles an hour on mostly two lane roads, for the 8 to 10 hour circuit from Fowler, to Raymond, Illinois, to Springfield, and then home.

God, I miss the 70's.

Sometimes we'd do the whole circle route in one day - leave Fowler at 6 am, get to Grandma and Grandpa M's in Raymond, Illinois, at 10:30 or so, stay for lunch, drive to Springfield to see Dad's relatives, possibly stay for dinner, and drive home, leaving at 8:00 at night for the four hour drive back.

My parents had to have been just nuts.  They had to have been!  But at least on those trips to Illinois we were visiting relatives, so they had a putative objective.

For our summer vacations, there wasn't even that.

It couldn't have been the traditional objective of a vacation: how could taking one or two weeks, loading us all up into the van, and driving to Michigan, or Philadelphia in 1976 to see the Liberty Bell, or Dallas, Texas, in the middle of summer after the eldest moved there for school (god help us, I think I'm still hot from those drives), have been a vacation? And it's not like the Tan Van was worry free driving. One Dallas summer trip, the axle broke in Sikeston, Missouri - on hour six of a fifteen hour drive. (I clearly remember it was Sikeston, because there was a road sign that had the US highway shields for routes 60, 61 and 62 together on one post. I was thrilled!) We sat in a city park, all of us who were on that trip (and I don't remember numbers, but I remember there were a lot of us, and I remember it was damn hot), waiting while it got fixed. That can't have improved our moods, and there were nine hours to go, packed into that van, sticking to those seats, fighting with those siblings.

Can you imagine doing that, now? No DVD players, no headphones, no video game controllers of any sort - only AM radio, books and the rosary. We would play car games to pass the time, and talk to each other in between the fighting, and see the country roll by us. From my perch up front, facing backward, sitting on a folded up blanket in the summer to protect my butt from the heat of the engine, I got to see things I'd read about flow out behind me: the Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch, interstate highways cut through rock in southern Missouri, rice and cotton fields in Arkansas and Texas - fields with standing water, fields with crops you couldn't eat - all things that made me realize that the way things were done in Benton County wasn't the only way to do things.

It was my introduction to travel as education. Through the encyclopedias I'd take on every trip so I could learn about the the crops and cities and state trees, birds, and flowers, as we'd pass through. Through the atlas I'd stare at for hours, memorizing the roads and the numbers and the counties. (I won't say that this initiated my lifelong love of maps and geography, because I don't remember a time I couldn't stare at maps for hours, but it certainly cemented it.) Through the stories read to me by my sisters, when I was a real little guy, and by my father when it was mom's turn at the wheel. He'd cycle through the Little House on the Prairie books, and when we got to "The Long Winter," regardless of time of year or where we were, we'd have to bundle up in blankets if we wanted him to go on. Through the stories my brothers would tell me about people they knew, from Chicago or Detroit or Minnesota; and what they'd learned in school, and they'd talk about music, or their worldviews, or family stories which, even then, involved cars.

After all I guess they were fun, those trips. I never realized the generosity that my exhausted and harried parents demonstrated by taking us on them.  To connect with cousins and grandparents, to learn something about the history and geography of our country, to give us shared experiences as a family were all great lessons and great experiences. It was cheap entertainment, on one level, as gas was 29 cents a gallon, campgrounds didn't charge us much, and we bought food in a grocery store and made sandwiches and lemonade at city parks along the way, which was good, because we couldn't have afforded anything more.

Whether we were driving to Watseka, Illinois, for Dairy Queen on a hot summer's night (dilly bars, 39 cents), or to Lincoln, Illinois, for a family funeral when it was so cold our great aunt couldn't be interred because the ground was too frozen, and the heater in the tan van didn't stand a chance of keeping us warm, we were having the shared experiences that comprised our youth.

Maybe that's what the road trip experience has come to mean for those of us in my family - some nostalgia-suffused combination of freedom, the wonder of new experience, and familial bond that we have tried to recapture.

But maybe that's just my view, why I love them, and what I have tried to recreate. Maybe that's what I'm hoping for when I'm driving west on US 56 outside of Clayton, New Mexico, watching the sunset behind the Rockies and seeing "purple mountain majesty" for myself; or when I'm waking up after spending the night in a rented Chevy Cavalier on a cold, foggy morning in Port Angeles, Washington.

Maybe I'm just hoping to see it forward this time, as an adult, instead of sitting on the engine, looking down at the map, choosing a path, and then looking up to see it roll away behind me, backward, gone before I saw it.