Saturday, April 25, 2009


I’m not always kind to musicians wanting to ‘get all philosophical’ or even intellectual, depending on how well they do it of course, but more typically it plays out in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of the month’s stash. I’m especially reminded of one singer’s self-deprecating reminder to herself last summer at a show in LA to ‘shut up and play’. I’ll have to admit, though, I find Warsaw Village Band’s notes to ‘Infinity’ especially timely and endearing. Maybe for me it has to do with global climate change or nuclear blackmail or water-boarding to flush out terror (!?) or whatever, not to mention over-population (which is apparently taboo to speak about), but for them it’s simply the birth of a child, which I hear can put you through some changes- “you start to think about the countless, nameless generations that preceded us… have accumulated their every trace in music, art, language – in a word – CULTURE.” As the external linear time-line measured by calendars looks increasingly challenged, the internal one measured by generations and shared memories takes on increasing importance. This is the psychological landscape that Warsaw Village Band tries to evoke in various ways on ‘Infinity’. But can you dance to it?

You can. Sometimes Warsaw Village Band, especially in previous work, sounds like nothing so much as Irish folk music… played with a double-time vengeance and supernatural intensity. The best example of this on the new album is the opening song, ‘Wise Kid Song’. This naturally ignites the chicken-egg controversy of which came first and who influenced whom, the Celts leaving music behind to be taken up by successive immigrants or borrowing it themselves from across the continent at a later date; it’s probably more the latter, but unimportant really. Other songs contain an ethereal chanting that extends that metaphor, evoking the Lindisfarne Gospels and a time when the solution to a crumbling Roman world’s chaos was best found internally, in sanctuaries and private meditation. To this day Poland and Ireland are the most devoutly Catholic of European countries, and that influence gets internalized into the music.

On ‘Infinity’ that sound gets broadened, with the help of other musicians and traditions, into something at times more abstract and Oriental as on ‘Circle #1’, at times more moody and dramatic as on the klezmer-inspired ‘1.5 hours’. Overall, though, the album seems to veer away from ethereal chants toward more down-to-earth blues, maybe not necessarily the Delta or Chicago kind so much, as on ‘Little Baby Blues’, but some sort of meta-blues that appears in the minor keys and plaintive cries of all musical traditions. There are songs here that evoke church gospel choirs and others that remind one of plantation field hollers. But the closest thing to good old-fashioned pop hooks comes on ‘Skip Funk’, which is pretty self-explanatory, just straight-ahead infectious boogie that sticks to your ribs. For my money they could explore that groove further.

Be forewarned- Warsaw Village Band uses a lot of violin(s), so if that’s your pleasure, then you’re in for a real treat, some soaring and screaming licks not often found on studio albums. If that’s a problem then start with small doses; it grows on you, and that’s probably the best test of any album, the repeat listen. I’d be very curious to see what these guys (and girls) can do live. The potential is there to go incendiary. I hope to find out soon (just leave the kid with a sitter, please; that’s all I ask. He’s cute as a bug, and I love kids, but work’s work. The last time somebody brought their kid onstage I was outta’ there and on the Metro before everbody else got finished going, “AAWWwwww (falling tone)…”). One thing interesting this band does is give most of their songs English titles, though sung in Polish. This is an interesting solution to world music’s ‘language problem’. I don’t know how well they actually match the content of the song, but still it’s nice to have some kind of verbal handle to attach to a song, a catchy refrain, even if the music IS the most important thing (90% of the time it is).

One more thing- this band LOOKS GREAT. I’ve got some exes who’d go ape-shit for these guys based on looks alone. Etran Finatawa’s got nothing on them there, except for the spooky eye movements at a distance. They could be the poster parents for anybody’s retro/vintage wear boutique. ‘Infinity’ by Warsaw Village Band is infinitely (pun intended) worth a listen. Check ‘em out.

Monday, April 20, 2009


So maybe you’re a college student who listens to ‘indie’ music and you’ve heard a novelty song or two recently that you liked from the Cambo-American rock-a-delic ‘world music’ band Dengue Fever. And maybe you figured this is another case of some foreign model-cum-singer-cum-actress raised on English language and white bread working with some American musicians to provide her some backup and some LA street cred while she tries to parlay her good looks and sweet voice into some sort of Hollywood E-tainment career? Once she’s got some press, then maybe she’ll revert to the standard Celine solution of middle-road mainstream generic English-language pop mixed with an exotic foreign accent, maybe become an Anggun for America? Think again. For one thing, the band found her, not the other way around. For another thing, Ms. Nimol doesn’t model or act, so far as I know. She’s the real thing, niang srey Kampuchea jahk Battambang who’s seen her share of reality, and I don’t mean ‘American Idol’. Finally, and most importantly, this band is first and foremost about the music, not any hype that might rise and fall with the tides. Hopefully you listened to more than the one or two songs that made the college radio circuit and found in the larger oeuvre something that made you want to know more… and listen again…

Or maybe you’re like me, and you’ve been wanting to see this documentary film ever since you showed up at the Bangkok International Film Festival almost two years ago, scanned the schedules and saw a title from a song you knew and realized that this documentary you’d heard of was screening… yesterday! ­*&^%$#! Being a world music fan, you’d heard the rumors and legends, knew it had been documented on film, but not that it had already had its premier at the Silver Lake Film Festival in LA earlier in that year and now was in the other ‘City of Angels’ (Krung Thep). Since then it’s been playing the festival circuit and universities and museums (never coinciding with my schedule btw), wherever there might be interest in an off-beat documentary that’s stylistically straight-forward, but about a real-life story that’s the stuff of multi-kulti musical fantasy. I mean, come on now- musician and friend wander through the Cambodian outback, then friend gets sick, whereupon they stumble on to an incredible long-lost musical genre? Musician and musician brother then search for a Khmer karaoke queen who unknowingly carries the musical gene, find her, and finally convince her to sing for an American public who have no idea what to expect when this band of freaks hits the stage? Yeah, right, and it’s coming soon to a theatre near me, starring both Harrison Ford AND Brendan Fraser, yada yada blah blah. Cut to chase scene. Cut to happy ending. FADE TO BLACK. Great log line yeah, but who’s gonna’ buy that script?

What’s that, you say? You’re not a college student who listens to indie music? And you’re not like me, some half-crazed hack with a laptop and a passport full of visas? Why not? So what in the holy Hell am I talking about? Perhaps a word or two of explanation is in order. Here’s the Reader’s Digest™ condensed version: musician DID discover an incredible long lost musical genre in Kampuchea, though it’s definitely a polished urban style, not rural gantreum. Now there are a lot of foreign musical genres out there that have yet to be properly documented, much less marketed, and many have come and gone with little notice. What makes 60’s Cambodian pop so unusual is: 1) this is from the early 60’s. Most Western pop music didn’t get heavily exported until the 70’s when R&R became Big Business; 2) 60’s Cambodian pop disappeared because most of its proponents themselves disappeared in Pol Pot’s myopic sui-genocidal attempt to remake Cambodian society in his own perverted image; and 3) the music is GOOD; I mean really really GOOD.

Dengue Fever’s early remakes only give you a glimpse into that era and a hint of the breadth of that genre. Fortunately the old videotapes still exist, can be ordered, and you can watch the Cambodian equivalent of American Bandstand for hours on end, the Cambodian counterparts to Paul Anka, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore, Neil Sedaka, etc. singing some of the best pop music ever produced, apparently without a clue that what they were doing was something special in the cultural history of the world. Apparently they kept playing right up to the moment when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge/K’mai Grahorm mustered their forces on the city’s outskirts, without a clue as to what was about to happen. The rest is history; it wasn’t pretty. People had a hard time smiling the first time I visited in 1998.

Or you can go to Sihanoukville like me and instead of hanging out on the beach or in bars, you can watch it all on Cambodian TV nonstop. But you said you’re not like me, didn’t you? Then you might want to cut to the happy ending and get a copy of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. To continue: After becoming hooked on the music, musician and brother musician DID look for a Cambodian singer and finally found one right in Long Beach’s own Khmer neighborhood. She’s Ch’hom Nimol. The rest is history, this time prettier. Not only did the band find a groove, but also a common cause in wanting almost immediately to take the music back to its source in Kampuchea, almost as if to ask for its blessing. By 2005 after all, Kampuchean people finally had something to smile about, what with beaucoup Chinese investment money and memories that had finally laid down their weapons after Pol Pot’s death.

This is the story that Sleepwalking Through the Mekong documents. Soon after forming, soon after finding a place on the soundtrack to Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts about a foreigner’s misadventures in Kampuchea, but long before finding a real audience for their eclectic brand of music, Dengue Fever went to Phnom Penh to play for the locals during the Bon Om Dteuk water festival. Director John Pirozzi’s experience with music videos and as a cinematographer in feature-length films, including City of Ghosts, serves him well here, mostly in focusing on the esthetic potentials of both the music and the landscape, and letting the story tell itself. In the best documentaries after all a script emerges only after the shooting has taken place and available footage is diced and spliced. This usually involves reams of footage to be culled through, resulting in a very high footage-to-final cut ratio, vis a vis narratives. Here I suspect that ratio is much slimmer and may account for the rather unusual 67 minute length, too long for a short film and too short for a full-length one. If this is a problem for presenters, it’s certainly not for viewers. Why add filler to a story that tells itself in its own good time, or worse still, cut-to-fit? This is the MySpace era after all, the new musical democracy. Can a film democracy be far behind? Give YouTube some time.

This whole project must have come out of some late-night conspiracies during down time on location for City of Ghosts, and the aspect of ‘winging it’ is one of the endearing qualitites of the film, the killing fields becoming a field of dreams, gods willing. The tossed mixed salad of locations is a treat, too, from live Cambodian TV to dark dingy night clubs to remote production stages. The story of a country’s search for a future and a past intertwine with the story of a band’s search for its own voice and its audience. They’re planting new seeds where they found old roots in hopes that the tree will grow proud and strong and bear much fruit. They’ve got some help from the locals, kids and grannies too, and eventually another story emerges, our own universal love affair with pop music and the warm rich feelings that not only emerge upon listening, but can re-emerge to some extent with each successive listening. Thus the living library of pop music becomes a guided tour and an ever-expanding catalog of our own collective emotional lives and the complex psychologies that arise to explain and enhance it. While this may usually involve the typical boy/girl dynamic and the added extras that make everything so frustratingly triangular and inconclusive, still this is the best clue we have as to how our nervous systems actually operate and the basis for much subsequent philosophy. More importantly these same frustrations that threaten to tear us apart also bind us together as humans with common experience.

At least now you don’t have to learn Khmer language to listen to Dengue Fever in the original so much anymore, as they’ve added more songs in English to their latest album Venus on Earth. Still, if the number of plays is the final measure of an album’s worth to me, then Escape from Dragon House still remains the magnum opus. How they can create such hauntingly beautiful songs composed back-and-forth between English and Khmer is a mystery to me and no small feat I assure you. It’ll be interesting to see what they do on their next album. They’ve come a long way from their first album of Khmer-language covers. Me, I’m just looking for a lobotomist who can remove the title song from Escape from my own internal play list, not that I don’t like it, but just the opposite. I want to get on with my life. But on second thought, naaah… I like that feeling. Sleepwalking Through the Mekong is available now on DVD in all the usual places. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


The best thing about Rimini is Federico Fellini. He was born here and revisited periodically in his films, most notably ‘Amarcord’. A full twenty years before his death Fellini was already mining his memories for material, because for him Rimini was not so much a place as a ‘dimension of memory’. Ahhh… thank you, Federico, for foreshadowing me. How many times have I used that same phrase without knowing its precedent? There is a street here named for every film Fellini ever made, all in a row, even the ones where he served only as scriptwriter for Rosselini (e.g. Roma- Citta’ Aperta), and even some I’ve never heard of, curse me and my protracted periods of escape from civilization! Who better captured the zeitgeist of post-war Europe, especially Western Europe, especially Italy, the horror and sheer absurdity left to befall the world’s most advanced civilization after its mass fratricide and imaginary Maginot lines, henceforth only to be moved eastward to cordon off Slavic lands with a spur through Berlin? Antonioni maybe? Naahhh… Truffaut or Godard perhaps? No way. Bunuel maybe, but he pre-dates the war and includes Mexico in his oeuvre, so I respectfully avoid any comparison there.

And Fellini, as with Bunuel, accomplished his task without resort to pop music props or cheap shots across the bow of politics. He accomplished it through the heart, not intellect. Even my mother got it, may she r.i.p., though she never saw a Fellini film. When I compared our Sunday dinners to a Fellini movie, she got it. The concept that something was ‘Felliniesque’ was something that you just intuited; it couldn’t be explained. The fact that anybody could ‘get it’ is a tribute to our collective subconscious. The fact that something could be hilarious and horrible at the same time makes no rational sense, but it makes film sense, and it mirrors reality. Of course he had and still has many copycats. Get a group of Italian kids together and tell them to act like their parents and you’ve got a film right there. Of course it takes more than that to equal Fellini’s art.

But I’ve got more mundane decisions to make, i.e. do I stay or do I go? The weather’s good, so warm in fact that I have to open my hotel window to let the radiator heat escape. I certainly wasn’t having that problem across the water in Croatia… what was it… less than a month ago? It seems like a lifetime. It’s so warm I buy a gelato and walk down the street slurping it like I’d almost forgotten how. My hotel room’s okay, if small, but they charge by the hour for Internet. That grates heavily against my modern sensibilities. I don’t like to use Internet with the meter running. That ain’t surfing; that’s swimming laps. In countries like Italy, and many others with a technology gap, to get Internet with your room you’ve got to go to the most expensive hotels or the cheapest hostels. Go figure. So where do I go? Jammin’ Party Hostel, $36 total and all the Internet I can surf, right in the privacy of my room. That’s convenient. Price is almost the same, except Net instead of TV. There’s no heat, but that shouldn’t matter. Rimini doesn’t come alive until summer, you see, so heat’s not an issue except in the ‘aperto tutto l’anno’ places. Many shops and restaurants don’t open until summer. It must be zoo-illogical by then.

Of course the weather turns cooler the minute I make my move. Without sun this California beach playground quickly becomes an Oregon beach playground, sun burning off late in the day if at all. And hostels are pot luck by definition, so when the players for the Ultimate Frisbee Championship come to town everybody else has to move to a satellite location for the duration. It’s not like there’s any shortage of rooms. This town is nothing but rooms… and other tourist ephemera, e.g. beachwear, fast food, and playgrounds for kids. There are even British pubs here, one of the U.K.’s most famous exports, along with pot-bellied pub owners. They’ve also got automats here; remember them? You probably don’t if you never lived in New York City in the 1960’s. I never saw them any other place or time… until now. I can vividly remember that being one of the first things we went looking for during our trip to the 1960’s World’s Fair, like Mississippi hicks looking at fast food behind plexiglass and going, “Gawww… lee! Shazaam (two syllables)!”

What has all this got to do with Lucinda? Well, she was here; or at least her voice was, blasting out across the street from the most unlikely of white satin/chrome/glass eating & drinking establishments. I couldn’t believe it. I stood there and listened to “The way you move…” until it finished, and then got ready for “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (and I don’t even like the smell of bacon; hate it in fact). It didn’t happen. It was just a one-off, but still that’s significant, to me at least. Surely these people can’t really understand what she’s talking about. I mean you can’t really understand what Lucinda Williams is talking about unless you’re from Lake Charles… or Nacogdoches… or Jackson… but still they get it. How do I know that? Because of all the diverse music to emanate from my CD/MP3 player in northern Thailand, guess which one always got a response? Guess. Lucinda won invariably, every time. Interestingly, like Fellini she also works from memory, relentlessly mining it for language and texture and nuance… but most of all feeling, just like Fellini.

So Rimini’s not SoHo, North Beach, Amsterdam, Berlin, Chelsea, the West Bank, the Left Bank, the Central Bank, Ginza, Gaza, Interzone, or any of the other cool hip groovy dangerous ungodly places in the history of the world, just a beach town with plenty of rooms… and oh yeah, they’ve got plenty of cheap Chinese instant noodles here, the sons of Zheng He having long since arrived with their fleets of Chinese junk(s). Between that and whole roast chicken for $5+change, I’m content… at least for a week. Unfortunately they don’t have blood (red) oranges, which I’d wanted the seeds from to take back. I’ve been saving it for last- bad idea. All they’ve got here are the navel variety. Why would I come to a beach town for navels? The tomatoes are good, no small feat for store-bought. They’ve got ‘that smell’ that you usually only get walking through the garden and brushing up against the leaves, maybe because they’ve still attached to each other by the vine. Maybe that’s WHY they’re still attached to each other.

Oh well, in a few days I’ll be home eating ribs (ha!) and making plans to do it all over again, some other place and some other time, in this case the Horn of Africa /Anatolia /Scandinavia. I’m on a roll. I got my ticket back to Roma today, so it’s just a matter of time until I catch my flight back to LA. Till then I’ll just watch the Frisbee championships and walk the beach and arrange and rearrange words as if I were God playing with DNA and… I just found out it’s Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter, the whole schmear! I’d have never known if someone hadn’t told me. You can’t tell it from any increased activity around churches or such. I guess that’s a sign of the times. All I see at the churches are obituaries hung up for notice. Happy Easter.

Finally on Easter Sunday I get a glimpse of Rimini the way it must look during summer, gridlocked with weekend revelers, general chaos and major mayhem. They claim to have a tradition of sunrise breakfast when all the previous night’s party fools chow down before going home. They also claim to have had a party bus shuttling people around the clubs all night, operational for the last twenty years, a fact they’re proud of. Wow! With ‘traditions’ like these, who needs degeneracy? It even starts to warm up a bit again finally. Maybe my clothes will dry after all. Temps are about exactly the same as LA on the western side of the globe where I triangulate myself, where love lies waiting if there’s a God. It’s supposed to be up around 30C-86F there by Sunday. YEOW! I know somebody who’ll like that. Then the day after the holiday’s over here, WHOOSH! It’s like a ghost town again, people gone back to work, and the gelato prices come back down ten percent, yummmm…

The Ultimate Frisbee championship is over and all the bozos have gone home to their own American and European countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Apparently the US won the big awards. There are miles of beach just waiting for the next holiday, then the Big One… August! I won’t be here, couldn’t take it if I were. Italians are like Thais; they like crowds. I don’t. Sometimes I think that the world is divided into two types- warm countries and cool countries. They talk on cell phones ALL the time; we don’t. We like ‘the other’; they like each other. Think beaches are ‘freer’ on the Adriatic Riviera, full of nude women strolling past you like Paz Vega in that movie whose name I can’t remember? Naah, not here, the only fur showing here is around the necks of fashion frou-frous strolling the shopping strip as the sun goes down and the cool night takes over. The beach itself by that time has drive-up campers jockeying for curb space as they ready the kids for bed and make sure the noodles are al dente. It might as well be Corpus Christi. I think the nudest beaches are in Spain, with an axe to grind against the Pope, or maybe a cross to bear. There was a funny commercial a few years ago where guys on the beach dreamed of America, where ugly women were forced to cover up. Tomorrow I catch the train to Roma; next day I catch the plane for LA. I’m outta’ here.

On the train I’m thinking I should re-think my previous attitudes toward Italy, and France too, after previous problems. France was not so much a problem, just an attitude toward foreigners or dissatisfaction at its own decreased status in the world that annoyed, but ITALY… now you’ve got to count your change carefully there. They overcharge and short-change to an extent that would make a North Vietnamese blush… then smile. Of course that’s in direct proportion to the number of tourists in the area you’re in, whether it’s high season for tourism or low, and whether you’ve been ‘made’ as a tourist. If the vendor gets a little shit-eating grin as he pulls out his calculator, look out! You’ve still got time to change your mind. I’ve had direct experience of this in Venice, in Rome, and even on trains, all in one week! But I’ve had no problem the past week or so in Rimini. People seem as sweet and nice as they could possibly be.

I knew if I waited one more day to finish this, then I’d have one more chapter. So when we pull into the station at Roma Termini, I decide to go ahead and buy my ticket to the airport for the next day. It’s €11. I put my money in the machine. It takes the €10 note, but eats the €1 coin, nothing showing in the count. I press the return button, but no luck. So finally I cancel and it spits me out a credit slip, instead of cash. *&^%$#@! Now I have to go stand in line, the very thing I wanted to avoid! There I lay down the credit slip and a €5 note, but the guy needs to see my documents for the re-imbursement, so I breathe deep, cross my fingers, and lay down my US passport. After the requisite signatures and flurry of button-pushing he hands me my ticket and a 1€ coin in change.

No way, dude. Altro tre’ Euro,” I blurt. He feigns a look of surprise, like ‘Huh?’ Ti ho dato cinque; resta altro tre’ Euro,” I assert rather boldly in Italian that may or may not be correct. He fumbles with his hands and change, and then thumps down another three coins. ‘Ha! You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to put one over on Hardie K,’ I think to myself as I walk to my hotel. Simple mistake or attempted rip-off, you decide. Then as I dump my change out on the desk back in my room I look at one of the coins closer. It’s a 100 CFA Franc coin, currency for several countries in Western Africa, but not much good anywhere else, almost identical in appearance to €1, just lighter in weight. Now I don’t remember the exchange rate, but I’m betting it’s worth less. Somebody woke up earlier than me today I guess. And this is Trenitalia, the national train company, for God’s sake! Things like this leave a bad taste. Welcome to Rome. Oh well, the rest of Italy is still nice, except Venice, same deal. I’ve still up-graded France on my list, and as fate would have I just might be going to those French-speaking CFA countries later this summer. This two-month trip came in at less than $3000, so I’m good financially, cost me more to live in LA.

The rest of the trip is uneventful. I go see the ruins of the Colosseum at sunset. I catch the plane the next day. Immigration and Customs are a breeze. Maybe they’ve got a new poster boy. There are rocking chairs in the Philadelphia airport. I rent a Mustang, see friends and run errands in San Fran. I catch my final flight to LA. I’ll hang here and TJ for a week then go to Seattle for the Seattle World Rhythm Festival. Then I’ll head for Ethiopia, go to the Selam Music Festival there, get my visa for Somaliland, Djibouti, etc., no big deal, just another day on the job. See you there.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Coming to France from Italy is like entering another dimension. The language becomes soft and swirly instead of clipped and crispy. So does the food. The pizze and panini (that’s plural, Homeboy; trust me) become crepes and quiche. It’s raining when I first arrive, but the sun comes out almost immediately in some sort of sympathetic magic. The Africans are selling sunglasses, not umbrellas. I think they’re all from the same hometown (the Africans not the umbrellas). The only common culinary denominator is the cheese and bread. Being an American, where bread is a minor component of any meal, except in sandwich form, I never realized the historical importance of it until I went to Thailand, where they constantly compare its importance to that of rice for them. And they’re right; I just never knew it. Of course I might have if we’d had better bread in my childhood. Pasteurized homogenized Bimbo white just doesn’t cut it. Fortunately we’ve largely returned to our Northern European roots in that respect, whole-grain brown and rich with flavor. Ditto for cheese, may Velveeta rest in peace. Finding brown rice in Bangkok is getting easier also btw, right there in the buffet line at Siam Square and almost any vegetarian ‘jay’ restaurant. You heard it here first. Cheese is still practically unknown there. Pigs are well-known of course, but not in ‘jay’ restaurants.

So in Cannes I immediately start looking for some Chinese stuff, food that is, since I obviously have a thing for it. We won’t talk about that other ‘thing’. It’s there, Thai too, but it ain’t cheap. Thais love places like this, sunny and superficial, so they’re here in force. Odd thing is, I kinda’ like it, too. It may be pricey in high summer, but not now, cheaper than LA and right close to the beach. I manage to find the most untypical place of course, down a long winding narrow off-center corridor which I finally find after immediately getting lost right out of the train station. That’s what happens when the tourist office is closed and I don’t have a map. It’s not deluxe but I’ve got wi-fi and a market close by. The market is incredible, too, vegetables and fruits and mushrooms that I didn’t even know existed. I’m in heaven, or as close as I can get without a Chinese takee-outee. And I’m warm for the first time in months. This is the French Riviera, deluxe apartments lining the beach and yachts lining the coast. There’s even a section for ‘historical’ boats, sailing rigs from times gone by, still ready to work, the teak only growing more beautiful with age. When I’m not in my room booking my June Scandinavian trip by Internet, I take long walks on a beach that extends to the horizon, punctuated by rocky outcrops and snack bars.

There’s supposed to be an African film festival in town, and I show up at the appointed places at the appointed times, but I’ll be damned if I can find anything festive going on, nor even any schedule, nothing. Festivals are supposed to be festive! That means balloons, flashing lights, etc. This is Cannes for God’s sake, home to the biggest film festival in the world! If I have to ask questions to find it, then something’s wrong. That’s the second time in as many weeks that a film festival has gone dud on me. Don’t they realize some people take this stuff seriously, even travel to attend? Fortunately all is not lost, though I don’t think this is the epiphany I’m looking for, i.e. the cheap chill spot to climax on. Rimini in Italy on down the line looks good, too, so I may have to go check that out while there’s still time before the trip home from Rome (homa from Roma?) mid-April. Since it’s the connection point for San Marino, another of those 192 countries on my list, I really have no choice. Frou-frou French dogs won’t give me the time of day here, either, the pure-bred snobs. Give me an old yellow dog any time, hybrid vigor and the works, please. Hold the mustard. Who needs these psychotic store-bought poodle pronto pups anyway? They couldn’t catch a rabbit if their pathetic lives depended on it.

Daylight savings time has gone too far. We’re barely past equinox and the sun is already setting at 8pm here. I guess I won’t have to go to the Arctic Circle to see the midnight sun. Just move the clock up like they do in China, and put Urumqi on Beijing time. That’s not the deal though, of course. The deal is to see the sun above the horizon all day long, just rimming the edge and rising up on a tilt to do it again without ever really setting. You need to get above the Arctic Circle around summer solstice for that, though, and given the price of accommodation in northern Norway, that may not happen any time soon. If I have a Russian visa for the Black Sea anyway, though, and it happens to be multiple entry… Murmansk is the largest city above the Arctic Circle anywhere in the world, and strangely enough Russia’s only ice-free port (with the help of ice-breakers) with unrestricted access to the Atlantic Ocean.

I get back on the train, still looking for my epiphany, next stop Rimini. To do that, I’ve got to go up to Milano, then back down through Bologna. Italy is so narrow, you’d think that crossing it would only be a question of where. But as they say, all roads lead to Rome. That’s because the Romans built all the roads of course, but small consolation for me. It’s like tacking a sailboat back and forth to get where you’re going. Fortunately railroads were built in a more modern era. Sometimes I think that the glory that was Rome was nothing more than one giant construction project. Almost every town in the Balkans had at least one Roman bridge, the ‘Rimski Most’. They’re still standing, many of them. Almost no roads were built between the Roman era and the advent of the bicycle, except for the Inca Trail in another world unbeknownst. That’s over a thousand years, a MILLENIUM for God’s sake. Of course that has more to do with the advent of the stirrup and alfalfa than the decline of Western Civilization. Sometimes we DO indeed get the cart before the horse, at least when it comes to riding bareback.

Did you ever imagine what Italy might be like without all the baggage of history, without all the tourists, or I should rather say ‘all the foreign tourists’? It just might be Rimini. Rimini harkens back to a day when beaches were for fun, just pure dumb kids’ fun, long before all the eco-tourism or the fashion promenades along the boardwalk. There’s little or nothing here for cultural tourism, just more hotels than you can shake a stick at, whatever that means. I’m not sure I’d want to see it in the height of summer. It must just be an anthill of sunburnt tourist butts strolling down the streets in search of pizze and gelati and giochi for the kids to play. But right now it’s okay, almost like a ghost town. I don’t like to hang around when the party’s over, but I don’t mind it when it’s just getting started, everybody painting and refreshing and remodeling, even though we’ve all got our fingers crossed, all of us, knowing that the people who get hurt in hard economic times like these are not the ones who caused it; it’s the rest of us with bills to pay and kids to feed. Pray to ‘em if you got ‘em, gods that is. And book your travel last minute this season if you’ve got the option; last-minute deals are opening up.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind for my epiphany/climax/whatchamacallit for this trip, but then neither was Vina del Mar nor Montego Bay for the last two. Hmmm… there seems to be a pattern forming here. Do I like provincial tourist resorts that are maybe just slightly past their prime? I’ll save the existential musings for later. Right now I’ve got a country to catch, San Marino that is, should be about number 80 on my list, almost half way, give or take a medieval principality or two. San Marino lies at the top of a hill about an hour out of Rimini, and if Rimini’s got the hotels, then San Marino’s got the castles, eight or nine at last count. But who’s counting? There are some good views there, but not much more than that for me. Shopping is not my favorite sport. Sex is, but I prefer the home court advantage, so it’ll have to wait. I’ve still got another week or so in Italy to kill and I have to decide where to kill it. Decisions decisions, life’s hard. The problem with Italy is Internet, or lack thereof. Search for hotels in Rome on Expedia and you’ve got thirty pages to peruse. Specify ADSL and you’re down to seven or eight real fast. This is a country for which the great paradigm shift of the last decade is cell phones, not Internet. They’re not the only ones. At least I’ve finally got a day over 20C-68F on this trip here in Rimini, so for the moment I’m content. Decisions will have to wait… until tomorrow.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


The train offers a unique and spectacular view of the Swiss landscape. The more pressure Africa puts on Europe the more these mountains just keep rising skyward, while renegade India covers the eastern flank doing the same thing in the Himalayas, sliding in and under like trying to steal a base. But for me Switzerland is defined by its lakes, not its mountains. They’re everywhere, pacifying the violent rugged landscape. It’s like a movie where the actors are natural landmarks and the acts are tectonic movements, all occurring in geologic time. It’s like a movie in 360 degree Sensurround happening right outside the train window, for Europe is defined by its train travel, too. Buses are typically only local here. It’s like a movie where all of Europe plays a partial supporting role, each major nation occupying a corner of the country and meeting somewhere in the middle. There’s a reason Switzerland is historically neutral. It has to be, with component German, French, Italian, and Romansch ‘other’ sections. This is Europe in microcosm, their pride and their prejudice, their heart and their handicap. While Switzerland learns four languages, America and the English-speaking countries create the popular culture that the world lives on, that serves as its operating system.

We’re moving into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland now, a part I’ve only seen briefly before, crossing the border at Chiasso. Borders are only a formality now, and not even much of that, maybe a Customs or Immigration officer looking at a passport or poking a bag, MAYBE. Sometimes they don’t even wear uniforms, just flash a badge. It’s only a few minutes to Milano from here, where I catch the train to Torino. The industrial heart of Italy doesn’t offer too much more than that, if I remember correctly, though it was one of the great new cities of the Middle Ages, along with Paris and London. That’s young by Italian terms. I’m traveling light now for the first time this trip, all my road food gone and no reservation for the night. Whether I’d have made the reservation if I’d had the Net to do it, I’m not sure, but I won’t pay the price of a meal to use the Net for an hour unless it’s absolutely necessary. I still don’t know why the cost of living can be so high in some countries in Europe, typically cold low-population Germanic ones, and not others. I’ve almost decided it’s all ultimately based on real estate values, but I’m still not sure, and that in and of itself doesn’t really answer much. Why is the real estate expensive? Italians complain bitterly about prices going up with adoption of the €uro, and that seems correct, perhaps explained by an increase in real estate values, or just merchants taking advantage.

At least trains are cheaper in Italy, but nothing fancy like those in some other countries. The clickety-clack of rails and tracks is hypnotic and soon I catch myself nodding off. Then I catch everybody else nodding off. Exccept for one or two people, THE ENTIRE COACH IS ASLEEP! I feel better and cop another wink. People ask me what I do to pass the time on trains. I nod. Outside the sky is clouding up and soon it’s raining. At least it’s not cold like Zurich. The sun is still high in the sky and we’re running on schedule so I’m not too worried about finding a room. I only worry if it’s late and/or a weekend and/or high season. Worst I’ve ever done was a $129 room close to Stansted Airport outside London. Ouch! At least they picked me up, nice of them since I was half dead already, rigor mortis setting in and that smell emanating. I almost booked a $60 place in Torino several days ago from Ljubljana, but hesitated on the final click, deciding to keep my options open. I may regret that decision. If I’m lucky they’ll have a booking service at the train station. They do. I request a place with wi-fi but back off that quickly to keep the cost done and snag a place for $50+change. Italy still considers Internet a luxury, not a necessity, another reason to go with hostels. They’ve always got Internet if not wi-fi, usually free. Why not? They don’t pay by the hour any more than the hotels do for TV. Internet spots in Italy tend to get lumped and marketed with video games and other juvenile pursuits, like Thailand where Internet is considered play, not work.

By now of course it’s pouring down rain, but at least my place is close, or at least not TOO far. The nice lady there asks if I can speak Italian but before I can explain my twenty-five percent-and-rising level, she proceeds to proceed with her 30% Simplified English, filling in the gaps with extra thick linguistic molasses, sweet nothingness the consistency of axle grease, but so gooey you don’t want to bust her chops, since this is something she obviously loves to do. That’s okay, Psycholinguistics 102; I’ll be conversational in both French AND Italian by the end of this trip, Insh’allah. My main problem now is that I’m ssstttaaarrrvvviiinnnggg, since I had no time to eat in Milan. I’ve got to get a ticket for a train tomorrow to Cannes also, so I’ll grab something on the way. There the ticket seller can’t or doesn’t want to speak English, so we do that in Italian, my confidence growing. At least the street food is reasonably priced again and the pizza is made by real Italians, so I get into the Italian fast food swing, pizzerias and pasticcherias, talking funk and eatin’ junk. Other than that I try to see what I can of the city in the short time I have, a city made famous by a Winter Olympics a few years ago, and trying hard to live up to its fame. Tourism is way up in the Piemonte, they say. Italy has so many interesting places, it’d be hard to see them all in a lifetime. The few images I have here will have to suffice. My train leaves early tomorrow morning and I’m dead tired from an early departure from Zurich this morning, so when I click the light and hit the pillow… zzzzzz…

Somewhere there’s a beach, warm and sunny, with all the fresh fruit I can eat, sweet and sour, and a fat ol’ massage mama ready to pounce on my back and pound the kinks out of me, pound the kinks out of my tortured psyche, turn me into mush… aaahhh… I’m melting… Then the clouds begin to roll in and the sky grows black. But it doesn’t rain; it snows. Everybody packs up and goes back to from where they came, but I don’t know where to go, so I just get on a train going to some place I’ve only heard of, written in an alphabet I can’t read, everybody speaking a language I can’t speak. All I know is that I’m heading south. I know that by the location of the sun. But instead of getting out of the snow it just keeps falling harder. And instead of going downhill, we’re going up, past cactus and agave, juniper and sage, into tall straight pines and tall smoking chimneys. ‘Welcome to Flagstaff’. That’s what the sign said as we hit a bump in the track. That’s the last thing I remember as the screen goes black.

When I wake up we’re stopped on the tracks somewhere. It’s snowing. The sign on the train station says ‘Limone’. Well there’s a contradiction in terms, ‘Limones’ in the snowy mountains. It’s beautiful, though, I’ll have to admit, even though my main objective right now is just to get warm. I’ve been gone a month and a half on this trip, been to Tunis, Malta, and Athens, and have yet to see a day of 20C-68F. Now it’s snowing again as I head south. Oh boy! Then we go through a long tunnel and the other side is like another dimension, like we traversed a cosmic worm-hole. Snow is gone and a different language occupies the signs lining the tracks, lining the roads, lining the walls of my perception. Welcome to France. We straddle the border for a while, even changing trains again in Italy, but that line continues to define, even more so down the road. Soon the loudspeaker announces ‘next stop Monaco/Monte Carlo’, and then we enter another tunnel. When we stop I get a brief glimpse of the country of Monaco outside, one of 192 that are members of the UN and therefore on my list. Otherwise why would I be here? I’m just passing through on my way to Cannes and the south of France of such world renown. Though it hardly sounds like ‘me’, that’s a changing and ongoing concept, subject to constant revision. When you travel constantly, some comfort and superficial attractions are welcome. Welcome to Cannes.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


I’ve woken up partially several times throughout the night, starting as we entered Austria and the ticket checker wanted to see tickets. That must have been Villach. That’s when the bozos got on and started reading something in German that must have been hilarious, since everybody was laughing so hard. I don’t know why getting on a train means it’s party time. I just wanted to sleep. That’s not easy when the seats don’t lean back and all the lights are on. Fortunately no one’s sitting next to me so I tie my scarf around my eyes and go for oblivion. That’s AFTER taking my secret sleeping pill. If I want to pass out fast and hard I just start studying Arabic; puts me out like a light, every time. I don’t know why. I wake up drooling and my Arabic language book’s on the floor somewhere. Don’t try this with your laptop. We’ve been stopped a while now. I wonder where we are. WE’RE IN FELDKIRCH! That’s where I had originally planned to get off to go visit Lichtenstein until I found out that the train goes right through Lichtenstein already. Sounds good to me. But that means that I’ve slept the whole way through Austria! Sure enough there’s a little glow on the horizon, meaning the sun’s starting to rise. It all starts to make sense.

The train lurches to a start and I get my last chance for a glimpse of Austria; sho’ is purty. Next thing I know we’re approaching another town but don’t slow down at the train station. The sign whizzes by- ‘Schaan-Vaduz’- that’s Lichtenstein! Then we cross a river and approach another town. This time the train slows down and we pull to a stop at the station. The sign says ‘Buchs, Switzerland’. So much for Austria and Lichtenstein. I’m glad I saw the little I got to see. I may have even passed through Austria before in the night, on the way from Prague to Budapest five years ago, but to this day am not sure. The sun’s rising higher now and a Matterhorn-like peak comes into sight, craggy pyramid like a golden eagle’s beak shining in the sunlight. I thought there might be a lot of snow on the ground since we got so much rain in Ljubljana the last couple days, but there’s none, plenty on the hills, though.

Now that I’m officially out of the Balkans it might be a good time to reflect on the highlights and low points. Yesterday certainly wasn’t a high point, being stuck inside all day because of the rain. It’s better than being stuck outside in it of course. Late night rides are always problematic, killing time waiting before, then trying to function normally the day after. The savings of a night’s rent isn’t always worth it. Then while I was waiting some local guy comes up and gives me a hard luck story about how he only needs €2.70 to get home, and nobody will help him. Since I was feeling good I wanted to believe him. In the US I’d never give money for a hard-luck story to some slob with a slur, but this guy seemed so neat and spoke such good English… I saw him again about two hours later. I guess he missed his train. This time he slides right past without so much as a glance. I know that vacant look, that studied gait, every step a calculated risk, every second a calculated eternity, an algebra with no variables. JUNKIE! He’d lie to his mother to get what he wants, then forget it just as fast. That’s why he’s hitting on strangers in the bus station. But you know all that. Remember Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever? So I decide to follow the guy into the ticket office and see if by some chance he’s actually buying a ticket, but… he’s gone, disappeared, vanished!

Then there was the guy at the bus station in Pristina, Kosovo. I was waiting for the bus when a nice-looking woman comes and sits a few seats away. Well not three minutes have passed until Vitalis man comes putting the moves on, purring sweet nothings under the radar. She blows him off, but politely, much too politely. Does he know something I don’t? Maybe she IS working, but… the bus station? The friend she’s waiting for soon shows up and sits down, so that should quell the rumors, but Vitalis man just gets up and moves a few steps away, lurking watching waiting. I’ve never seen anything like it, like something straight out of the Discovery Channel. The closest thing I’ve ever seen in real life was when Nonay was in heat back in Thailand and Kanoon had to hang right with her till lockup, and even after to make sure no other suitor got in his two cents. Dogs are like that. But this is a HUMAN; at least I think. Thoroughly disgusted I go get on my bus, which is now waiting at the platform. Then not ten minutes have passed until Vitalis man gets on, too! Vitalis man sits right behind me chewing gum so loudly I can’t think. What was he going to do with woman in his spare ten minutes, take her to the bathroom?

Fortunately most of the scenery and the characters were a little more pleasing esthetically. Tops of the list of places would probably be Dubrovnik in Croatia, Mostar in Hercegovina, and Ljubljana in Slovenia, vivid combinations of history, culture, and architecture without so many distractions that all that gets obscured. Tourist high season in summertime might be different. There is more diversity than might be immediately apparent, divergences in time and space amongst people with a common history, up to a point. Slovenia and Croatia could fit right into Western Europe without missing a beat while Serbia struggles to throw off its past, Bosnia struggles to cling to its own, and Albania struggles to pull itself together after dodging bullets for most of the last two thousand years. Bulgaria has ‘sex shops’ to rival Amsterdam and ‘escort’ TV ads till early morning. Dubrovnik even has a nude beach, while not so many miles up the road their cousins in Mostar kneel in prayer on Turkish kilims and loudspeakers call the faithful to prayer five times a day.

It certainly puts the rise of Islam in context, a reaction to permissiveness in the West, an unjust Hindu caste system, and Buddhist passivity to it all. I can’t help but think that this is the image Ahmedinijad and others have of the West. Obviously he ain’t been to Jackson. At least the West’s being honest. If he thinks Iran has no gays he doesn’t know his own country very well. It was a haven for gays before Khomeini, and I doubt they’ve all left, though many have I’m sure. It’s punishable by death I believe. You can’t enforce sexuality, though Islam certainly tries. I just saw the BBC debates on ‘Arab Unity’. Not once did anyone question why this was even desirable, nationalism being essentially systematic racism. What’s wrong with Arab diversity? Palestinians are the sacrificial lamb for racist ‘Arab unity’. Their problems will never be solved as long as they’re an international issue, not a local one. Thai Muslims tell me that Jews are their enemy. I tell them that that’s absurd, too polite to tell them that they’re stooges for political manipulation. But I’ll tell you. ‘Islam’ might mean ‘surrender’ religiously, but hardly even the most minor compromise politically. Still I credit Islam for removing personality from religion; they’re way ahead on that count. Of course Arabs and Muslims are two different groups, but the fact that the former fits mostly into the latter only intensifies the issues.

When the train finally pulls in to Zurich, the immediate impression is one of shock. The prices are stratospheric! That’s in the upper stratosphere, right at the stratopause, next to the mesosphere, where temperatures are supposedly about the same as on the ground here. After all the urban legends about the price of coffee in Tokyo or New York, and their subsequent de-bunking by people who have actually left the airport, I assure that a cup of coffee of any kind or flavor will cost you at least three bucks in Zurich. You can quote me. Prices here are as high or higher than any I’ve ever seen, and that includes Reykjavik. I haven’t been to Lagos yet, but I’m in no rush. It’ll be next-to-last, right before Israel. Some Muslim countries won’t let you in with Israeli stamps in your passport. This is where a hostel can save you some real money, since no hotel has rooms for less than a hundred bucks, or have long been booked up. In Western Europe there are guests in hostels even older than me! This is reassuring.

So the big goal in Zurich is to try to spend as little money as possible. In fact, I’m so put off by the high prices that I decide right then and there that I just won’t spend any, or less than usual, anyway. That’ll show ‘em who’s boss. Already I’ve booked a dorm room in the hostel instead of a private room there or somewhere else. Half the time I even end up paying for two just to get the private room since many don’t have ‘singles’. The concept doesn’t exist in the US. We don’t have rooms that small. Except for M6 it’s the same price whether one person or two. A room is just a room and a bed a certain size; how many people you put in it is another issue. There are no ‘kings’ or ‘queens’ either, just twins or doubles, one big bed or two little ones. This is boring, right, but how often do you sleep in a dorm? It’ll make you think. The nice thing about hostels is that you sometimes meet interesting people. The bad thing is that sometimes they feel like the downtown mission, this one especially, both for the institutional floor plan and the people staying there. It seems they’ve got the rooms divided by age, for whatever that’s worth. At least it’s got a kitchen. That helps in a pricey place. They’ve got thick brown breads, too, so that looks like the ticket. I’ll buy a loaf of bread and eat up all the leftover food I’ve been accumulating for the last week. That’ll work for me.

Zurich itself is interesting enough, but hardly the place for someone trying to get warm. The clock towers are almost like a cliché come to life and testament to a mechanical age that’s long been superseded by an electronic and digital one. Should somebody put up a full-fledge digital clock tower? I don’t think they could compete with video screens. I’m glad I only booked one day here. It’s too cold. I suspect some of these other ‘backpacker’ tourists are really here looking for work. With prices this high, wages must be astronomic, highest in the world I believe. So I get a train ticket for Torino (Turin), Italy, where I’ll stay a night, then continue on to Cannes, France, determined to get warm or die trying. It was either that or book straight through and spend half the night in the Milano or Torino train stations. Even I’M not THAT hard core.

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