Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An ode to the bee, or why I left the circus

Oh buzzer of nobility and joy! How I aspire to be among your hum! I marvel at your indefatigable drive, as you fly and gather, nestling your little legs into the sex of a flower and caress and coo the golden powder from its now fertile pink and tap it goodbye as you take off for the hive, to deliver your offering to the great one, only to turn around and return to the thousands of flowers, performing the same task again and again perfectly, thoughtlessly, joyfully as if nothing could be easier or more important than your feet's pollen tickling.
Licking my spoon, which should be stirring this precious sweetener into a piping cup of blueberry tea, uniting perhaps once again blossom and extracted pollen, though this particular golden glob made a detour to my mouth where hints of rose and wax meld into a bouquet of exhilaration, awakening the buds of my tongue who expand in ecstasy from this sticky droplet. How amazed I am at this delicious byproduct you graciously put into this world whilst daily keeping it afloat. My gratitude swells with every sneaky spoonful.
It is with awe and wonder that we humans behold you bees and your flawless organization. What other species on this wide earth is capable of such feats of collaboration? Perhaps the ant, but they make conga lines through kitchens of busy mothers and march about like body builders where they aren't wanted, so they do not count. perhaps the sardine, whose angle of movement is identical to his classmates, and who has no fear of sharks for in this mass he, with his 2 inch body span, is bigger! But they do this for protection and do not make stunning fortresses like the ant or save the world like you, the bee, so let us forget them too. You are the example of a perfect government. There is a Queen whose sole motive is the hive, and all her subjects, whose sole motive is the Queen. Each knows his or her place, each works tirelessly for the greater good, each finds purpose and life solely in contributing to their community. If only we humans could do the same!
We have invented, in sci-fi books and movies, alien races that have this kind of perfect governance and unified intent combined with intelligence. Maybe they can grow living dwellings with symbiotic needs, or they have weapons that link perfectly with their arm for maximum firing potential. Whatever the result, it is this combination that seems unassailable! The power the human race could wield if all our forces and abilities were combined to one unquestioned purpose, the worlds we could discover, the healing we could give this earth. It makes me giddy with dreams of the hammer and sickle!
And though communism has not really panned out quite perfectly, I still preached the possibility, I still longed for a chance to see for myself if I was good proletariat material! I am not too proud to be part of a hive, I could work a thankless job day in and day out for the love of my brothers and sisters. How noble! How kind! And those sentiments continued to solidify, as I biked through former soviet states and talked to many an old woman who reminisced about the glory and beauty of communism. I egged on their nostalgia and was affirmed again and again, communism is a better solution than capitalism. The bees hummed between the sunflowers and I smiled at them and their industriousness, and their selfless toiling and thought, if only we were all bees! Little did I know that my communist trial was soon approaching.
It came in the form of a cartwheeling, paint splashing, red nosed anarchist bicycle circus who 'yoohooed' at each departure, with bells ringing and tinking. 'Hooray huzzah! We are misfits, we bring silliness and happiness! We have no system forcing us to keep a constant eye on the clock or carry a leather briefcase and we want none of it! Hoorray! Clingle clink, tink tinkeroo, go the bicycles till Timbuktu!' What better trial could one ask for?
I had high hopes of the coherence we would ultimately embody. I pictured the beauty of a company who lived and traveled, performed and bowed together, of the ease with which we would interact on stage (the street) and the natural grace we would assume as we brought smiles to remote villages and laughter to the goats on the mountain roads. Perhaps we too could perfect telepathic communication which would flow between our heads, like the ants and their silent marching. 

But in the beginning must be words, "meeting at 9!" someone would call, and the word would spread, from the camp fire where kasha was too quickly solidifying, "more water!" to the tent of the snoring Italian "I'll catch uppa" to the river where 3 giggling goddesses were having their biweekly bathe. 9 comes around and some people are there with bowls and spoons eager, cups full of turkish coffee and feet ready to circle. But many are still in the river, the Italian still not emerged, a Goddess comes up to us dripping and shimmering "oh? not everyone is here yet, I'll just.." and she's off, this happens with 3 more, 45 minutes and 3 group "Stephano!!" cries later, all are assembled. Some, just arrived, are chipper and jolly, others, kasha and coffee long sitting cold in their hands are bitter and grouchy. Now the meeting can finally begin, but who to say something? Not I, I said too much in the last meeting, urged a vote and got some scowls. The girl who usually talks if I don't pipes up, a natural school teacher- with her sweetness no one ever suspects evil power hungary tendencies. Why they suspect this want of power rather than efficiency in me is beyond me. "who will be navigator?" one girl raises a bold hand, relief spreads, she's not so slow. "who's caboose with the tools?" I offer, this will keep me out of the frustrating push in front. Anxiety spreads, I am not a practiced bike mechanic and my patience is not well spoken of.. well at least I carry a lot of weight if someone can't get up a mountain with their load. Tents packed, fire peed upon, bike bells ring a ding ding. This is the best part of the day, 17 enthusiastic cyclists departing onto another unknown road, to see what the world throws at us, each set out for me is a bit of hope, maybe today we will figure it out.
I ride up to the mob, they've been standing at this fork not knowing what to do for the last 2 hours. Someone rode past the navigator and did not stop and this fork, no one knows where she is. Scouts have been sent ahead in both directions, not come back yet. Two are now in town getting food it is a good town for a show, but we must find here. "well, she knows what town we're going to," I suggest "let's go make a show and she's certain to find us in the street" the motion is past and on we go clacking into town. Someone doesn't feel well and insists on finding a place to sleep, the rest can do a show without him and any others for an early bedtime. A few go with him the rest stay and juggle, play, laugh dance. The town is mesmerized and bring us carrots, cabbage, 5 huge bags of cucumbers, small change, popcorn and a bouncy ball- our clown is going to have fun with that! Ok. Off to find the tent colony, we load all these vegetables on our creaking bikes, you can hear their dismay at the added weight. We huff and puff up a hill until a shout is heard "Scheisse!!" cucumbers come rolling down the hill towards me. Ahead mohammed dismounts his now 3 bagged steed into the scattered nonsense that just fell. His rack broke under the added weight. I would stay with him, we passed a mechanic close by, the rest should bring the food to the colony and start dinner. He disappears down the hill, I wait on the curb, but am hailed by some friendly Serbians. "Zdravo!" they yell "Raki?" Sure, rakia wouldn't be so bad right now. In world speak I lead them to understand Chicago, circus, juggle, bicycle, India. They laugh and laugh and pour more rakia until a frantic member of the crew bikes back from where he had come up to the fence "fabian fell, he's really sick" My hosts look from my red to my anxious face, "Raki?" Why not?  Soon enough Mohammed comes back, rack welded, we depart for the camp where dinner was miraculously underway. That night we get 3 visits from locals, police, fire department, all wondering what we are doing there. Not a good spot.. but we make it through the night. Tomorrow maybe we would figure it out.
Now this was in the beginning and of course things could only get better from there. Our limping hive should learn to walk soon enough, but there arose a few bumps that I found even time could not smooth.
I realized to my dismay, that I am not good proletariat material. I care too much about my own personal/mental growth and stimulation to readily lay down my self education for a greater good. I did not like to stop my reading or practicing at the call for a meeting, I did not like to sit through meetings of unaccountable length when I could have been doing x, y or z. I care about my individual creation and was not ready to sacrifice that for a larger group masterpiece, which applies to music but also the art of travel, of getting to know people and culture which was impossible in this huge ameba. But the worst realization, which was quite eye-opening in regards to my usual feelings towards communism, was that the thing I longed for most was freedom. In this mass, consideration for the others bound me to make mall my decisions on movement, or even just how I spent my time, with the group. If I wanted to go meet with someone or take a walk or go somewhere to play, really there would have to be a meeting to see if I would be needed in the next hour, and calling the meeting would take almost an hour, so usually I just abandoned these plans and read, sat, waited. And beyond anything else, this feeling of captivity haunted my dreams.
In the past when I thought of the capitalist argument against communism, freedom always seemed to me a sort of luxury for the rich capitalist. That in middle to lower class America this notion of freedom is a mirage keeping people in their place, and that while they feel they have full reign over their lives, they are actually forced time and time again into positions of powerless acceptance of what the capitalist machine has decided for them. I had decided that this false freedom was worse than a complete absence of even this attempt. But finding myself with these restrictions on my movement due to a group, rather than my "Education", I felt the paranoia, the pride, the individual in me screaming for flight or fight! Because in the end, I am not a bee. In the end it was impossible for all of us to drop our egos, our personal interests. In the end it was as my lover refrained "herding cats".
I believe the instinctual human has no natural ability to care about a greater whole. We as mammals are tribe/family based and have an affinity for hierarchy and competition, survival of the fittest has made us so. Our reason, however, has also been evolving and I do believe on a spiritual level, humans want the end to universal suffering. In this hypothetical, we revere the bee, and have tried many times to mimic her wisdom. But it is very hard. This is what I have learned. Communal living is a skill and a discipline, it requires intention, patience and unfortunately a good system, a genius system really, one that I don't believe exists yet. But I think we are getting closer. The more history I read, the more hope I allow myself. We really have come a long was and though I have crossed another system (or rather 3) off my list as potentials, the optimist in me says try try try again.. or just wait for the apocalypse. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Myths flapping in the wind

Once upon a time in the far away kingdom called atlanta, two sisters went to see a miracle. Over the blank white face of a mountain, which peered over a gathering crowd, rode 3 confederate generals, Generals, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis. Upon that rock face, lazers displayed neon green country roads, takin' me home to the place I belong, a trumpet's horn bending and stretching like a mouth singing in a raspy low louis voice, Georgia.. Georgia, the whole day through, Georgia brown she ran all over town and a fiddler sent the devil back to hell! All sorts of images appeared which glorified Georgia, the south and the United states of America. We even got to witness these stone Generals come back to life and ride once more! The whole event ended in fireworks, parachuters and a standing ovation singing the Star Spangled Banner. It was a nationalism saturation and some people were crying out of love for this beautiful country. The sisters too had tears in their eyes, only it was from laughter.. and shock. 
I suppose at the time this patriotism was mostly just that- shocking. I didn't really see the harm in it, and I felt that if this sort of thing moved people and made them happy, I didn't see reason to get upset. Sure we have a dark past, (and present) and none of that was mentioned, obviously, and perhaps ignorance was not exactly scarce in our fellow onlookers, but this didn't strike me as particularly dangerous- a field of slightly overweight T.V. addicts holding Coca-Cola cans and starry flags.. no not so scary. 
But I am living now in a place where flags scare me. Of course, it doesn't help that the flags I see are all red with a black double headed eagle screaming for freedom. That eagle has claws that intend to gorge out ever eye that looked apathetically or hungrily at its imprisonment.

But it is not just this flag that scares me, no in fact even the flag of macedonia, which reminds one of a kid beach resort, a red sky with a yell sun smiling across its expanse.. one cannot help but smile back, and yet that flag too scares me. But most of all the Serbian flag, which appears very European with its red, white and blue, indeed the same as France, England, Australia, Russia, US, one looks upon those colors and thinks- ah, there is a tame land, what people could be blood thirsty barbarians under those colors? And, well of course all could and were, and are, but the difference, the betraying characteristic, the tear in the mask, the terrifying balkan double headed eagle lurking in those European colors, instead of waging war and spilling blood far from home, as the 'sophisticated' flags do, they wage war and spill the blood of their neighbors. 
Of course, I would never accuse Serbia of being the lone guilty one, in fact, it seems Serbia has just been played time and time again by the real instigators of this whole mess- the powers. It seems such a wicked game, those that Serbia so longs to join, imitating the colors, trying to prove his sophistication by jumping through hoops the EU sets out for him, those powers are the ones that brought this war to be. I have read and heard so many different stories, that it is impossible to say in any certainty what actually happened, but I know that since long before the Ottoman empire completely collapsed, Serbia was just a tool for Austria or Russia to hold back the Turks, and harm each other. True to form they couldn't fight a neighbor, so they got Serbia to do it. They, through where they put money, which officials in the church and state they supported, where they gave guns, what rumors they set up and spread, insured that the fire of inter-balkan hatred was fanned. They tried to keep it at a manageable trash fire, throwing in more logs when needed, but not allowing it to get big enough to become dangerous to them, which of course backfired into WWI and Europe burned too. But far from learning their lesson, the powers continued this puppeteering in the balkans through WWII and into the war of the balkans in the 90s. And now the puppeteers laugh when their marionettes ask if they can please join the big boy table. We call them barbarians, that they need to do x y and z to atone for all the crimes that the they just committed, knowing full well that we ourselves were pulling the strings! 
Dance, Serbia, Dance!
It was in such anger that I first beheld all these flags. The sole reason for them in the balkan wars was Nationalism, a kind of racism that I had such hard time understanding at first. And I would get upset at their jokes making fun of their neighbor balkan countries. I didn't have any patience for their long history lectures that detailed every century from before Christ onward on what was happening with their people, and when which neighbor came in and invaded them. But completely ignorant, and happily so, of when their neighbor was invaded, how many neighbors their own country had slaughtered, and when asked some have replied, "who cares? they are evil!" The hatred is so deep that all through the Ottoman times of oppression it was said by every Nationality here: "Rather eternity under the Turks than a year under the Serbs/Bulgarians/Greeks" (depending on who was talking). It seems they feared freedom from the Turks lest their neighbor might rise up and conquer. It's like all these Balkan countries are siblings under a king of old (the Ottomans.. or now the EU) and though the king is a tyrant and beats his children, they all would rather please him and hope for a greater inheritance, rather than work together as brothers and divide land fairly. And since the king is so much mightier, and competition with him is futile, but they are all power hungry competitive brothers, dying to pick a fight, they do so against each other at every chance they get. Each trying to prove to the kings- stepping on the hair of one brother clawing at his ankles, barely restraining another under the crook of his arm, panting and red faced- that he too is a man! But the kings, we know, are far from the noble role molds the brothers attempt to impress. They too, of course, are children, but with money to dress as adults, to watch the entertaining war dramas on screens and send their battles abroad. 
I have been reading about such savagery. I am reading a history on the balkans, leading into WWI, a new heroine of mine, Mary Edith Durham who travelled all over these parts one, writing about the cultural and political situation and was apparently stubbornness incarnate. She has retold stories of murder and mutilation, somehow they must go hand in hand here, of decades straight in Serbia where every person that came into power would be assassinated or exiled, none ended a term peacefully, without the opposite family taking power- Obrenovich or Karageorgevich. I tried to say, well we are barbaric in our own way, but really that's not how I am going to understand- trying to compare barbarism of this day and age will get me no where. What I have had to learn is that really societies have different moral codes. What impaling heads on pikes meant to us 100 years ago, meant something very different here. Along the same lines, going to war over one city means something totally different to them as to us now. To me it seemed utterly ridiculous when someone said the other day, full of pride, that if the Serbs tried to take Mitrovica, there would be another war and that he would be the first volunteer for the front lines.. as his father had 15 years ago, and now his father is dead. I looked at him and just wondered, how could he care so much about one boarder? Why would he rather die than see Serbia take this town? Where does that kind of irrational patriotism come from?
Well Albania, and all the balkans countries, had to struggle to keep their culture alive under the Ottomans. The religion, the language, their race was under siege, and it was only through remorseless Nationalism that it was preserved. There were attempts made by the Turks and then the Serbs to stop Albanians from reading and learning in their own language, and it is indeed a miraculous thing that this culture has survived. That they all have. I am such a geek for traditional music, dance, art, custom. I am so glad there are so many languages, so many ways to dance in a circle and techniques to transform milk. The point of travel, for me, is seeing different culture, so yes, I too would fight to preserve it! But at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives? 
Tito kept peace in these lands by banning Nationalism, I've been told that language and religion was not a problem under him, people felt free, all talk dreamily of Tito and those golden years. But occasionally I will also hear of his strict (meaning bloody) hand when it came to Nationalists, and on the one hand some say he was a tyrannical dictator trying to keep power like all the rest, but on the other, he had seen what these balkan peoples do when allowed to be Nationalistic. He didn't kill nearly as many Nationalists as they killed each other.
But trying to count numbers of people killed and detailing who was oppressed by whom and what years is the last thing that will promote peace. People take those numbers and create myths about them. The power of story is so strong, so much stronger in fact than fact. Stories can be and have been passed down for so long about the hatred one should have for their neighbors, that it is a part of this culture, like a religion even. I hear stories of families burned in their homes, of hiding school in mosques, of the angels across the sea (meaning US). And people believe these stories, on every side, people have real stories, some they have witnessed and can pass down first hand, some are cherished since the 13th century, so oft repeated, that to question its legitimacy would be to question God himself. And I don't want to question God! I don't want to question my friends, and their stories, their culture, their being. I just wish that they had room in their hearts for another story. 
Many of my German friends remember a story from WWI, when sunk in trenches for months on end, Christmas came, and through the smoky grey air, carols floated over the enemy lines. The Germans started singing along, and in this yearning for peace on all sides, the line was crossed. Soldiers went back and forth bearing gifts to their enemies, singing, and loving, and none were shot. This is a story I am told, and it happened, but whether it did or not is irrelevant. The Germans want to remember a story of longing for unity, of brotherhood, of humanity. They want to remember the English and French, and later the Americans as allies, and so we all are right now. 

There are of course stories of peace in the Balkans, of people getting along, but even though people know that is what I want to hear about, few tell me those stories. And indeed, those stories are harder to remember. Firstly, gore is a much better story and sticks in one's head, and secondly, that would muddle the world view. It is much easier to declare oneself a victim of oppression, and to know that there are bad guys and good guys. As humans we see patterns and want to see patterns, and to declare that all slavs are evil, well, it's an easy sentence. It takes much longer to say, we've had some bad times with the slavs, but they were also quite humane at times, even likable. No.. that is long and complicated, and doesn't have a very satisfying rush of emotion, as hatred does. It is hard, it is complicated, it takes effort, and who knows if anyone even wants a new story, it is perhaps just an idealistic naive American dream. And I've seen what western dreams imposed on eastern ideals can do, so I will not fight for it. Nor will I ever ask them to choose love. Choosing to bear hatred or love is usually not a choice, sometimes we have lived in it so steeped, that that lens through which to see the world is the only thing keeping us alive. But the choice they do have is which stories to pass on. If the children, as almost all have before this generation, hear more stories of hatred, they too will grow up with that lens. But if they grow up hearing even just a few stories of love, despite spiteful teeth through which they are muttered, maybe love can have a chance.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On church bells and the call to prayer

The season was still summer, albeit late september, and the circus was escaping Montenegro which had all extremes of welcome, from putting us on national television to chasing us down threatening cops and face bashing if we did not stay at threatener's house. Even the 'hippy beach' which somehow everyone in Europe talks about, had a funny sort of welcome, once we got past the feral street dogs, the hippies also grouped together in the packs they had come in and somehow treated this like any other beach resort- with umbrella drinks and sunglasses, just this one was free- so no beach chairs and no 5am garbage collectors. Sometimes a newbie would come to the beach, dazzled by the beauty and saddened by all the trash and would spend hours picking up the offensive bottles and bags, and would lie satisfied and self-righteous before the setting sun, only to wake up the next morning to find the beach once again buried in the plastic floating in from last night's tide, and oh how the locals would laugh! But this was not our fate, we decided internally that Montenegro was a country of insanity and Albania, with the calming force of Islam, with the emphasis on hospitality and giving to the poor, Albania would have peace for us.
And indeed, crossing the boarder was magical. The scenery abruptly changed from coastal mountains to middle eastern looking hills, dry rocky riverbanks with spindly twisted trees and bright pink flowers, and as we biked, wide-eyed at this new kind of beauty, we heard a voice floating toward us from upstream, a voice that tasted of dark flavorful stews, an arabic maqam which leaned into the tension of the melody, the tension of life, and resolved it with a sigh, come to pray. It was the first time I had heard the call to prayer, and I dismounted my steed and stood by the river to properly soak it up. And soon later as we biked into town we saw in a restaurant a wedding party dancing to some turkish beat, and I was so excited to be surrounded by this kind of music, the original reason for my trip.
I was not successful in collecting traditional songs with the big group, nor really as a solo cyclist. For some reason even in eastern europe every guitarist you meet still just wants to play obnoxious western rock covers, or maybe the covers are from a balkan band, but they follow the same formula bands do back in the states. And in all the cafes, western european radio stations would be playing euro trash techno, and I'd hear oh so comforting german coming in reporting the weather in Hamburg while I sat in Belgrade. But not in Albania! Here the stations were all albanian and the music was so much more influenced by the east. The ottomans were rampart through all the balkans, until croatia, austro/hungary, but in Albania they embraced Islam and the Eastern values, probably first due to tax or violence, but the slavic peoples had Orthodoxy or Catholicism so strong, they rejected the Islam, and thus didn't take on the culture or not nearly as much, which the music reflects. All balkan music was influenced by the Turks for sure, but in the rest of the balkans I heard a distinction from Turkish music, here there is more tempered tuning (necessitated by the accordion) and different beats and tempo. Of course, the standard circle dances you can use the same basic step everywhere, from serbia to albania, bulgaria to turkey and all the surrounding countries. But there was such a clear difference even just in what was blasting out of cars as they drove by. In Serbia it was pretty western sounding, and there was a mix of what you heard. But in Albania it was just these middle eastern beats, maybe fused with techno, but never would you hear officious english or german stammering out of the speakers, never the shredding of an electric guitar. At first I was so glad of this, I thought that here in these lands, their music is so steeped, traditional music so ubiquitous, so uniform, I will have no choice but to learn it, that's all people will play on the street and I'll meet tons of musicians in no time to teach me their folk music!
But what I failed to realize was that really the music was my first warning sign. If eyes are the window to the soul, I find traditional music is the eye of a culture's soul. If the music is solo based, or if everyone plays at the same time, if the dancing is a private or public event, if there are "masters" or just teachers, if women and men dance together or separate, all these things and many more are reflections of a society. And the complete absence of any other musical styles was a warning sign to their disinterest in foreign sounds, ideas, people. But I blamed the coldness I felt as a reaction to being in a big group and I made plans to set off on my own for Istanbul, reputedly a musical hot spring.
I arrived, after what was indisputably the worst ride of the trip- an endless highway over endless rolling hilled desert, next to endless trucks blaring their horns at me, against an endless headwind into a city that rose up on a hill and I thought, finally I've arrived! as I saw the 20 story buildings shimmering above me, but when I got there, I just saw more stretched out before me, and more, and more. I stopped thinking and merely rode flabbergasted at this endless jungle of buildings until dazed and battered, I stumbled into an irish pub, the James Joyce, I had cycled over 700km just in time for the jam! I must have been a sight to see.. and smell..
There at the table sat my to be most gracious and generous host that I could have imagined, who besides making my stay so comfortable and easy, did the ultimate miracle for my soul- he played banjo with my to my heart's content! How wonderful to hear that good old-timey stompin, how I missed the perfect combo of the twang of the banjo with the wail of my fiddle!
He was, however, the bearer of bad news. He who has been living in Turkey the last 15 years, fluent in Turkish, an amazing all around musician, including Turkish Saz player, came here for the sole purpose of learning Turkish music, had not yet found a traditional turkish music scene, or people to play traditional music with. He said that he has met more people to play Turkish music with in the states than in Turkey. I think this is because of the tradition of the music. It is a solo based one, with a master to teach all the proper maqams. According to Bob, my host, most people study Turkish music in the university and it is treated like classical music in the states. Ensembles are arranged at school or between professionals hired for weddings or other private events. There isn't a jam or session culture like there is for old time or irish, and it seems there isn't as much even a culture of amateurs that just get together to play for fun.. this too is a little like what I know of the western classical scene. So there was all that standing between me and my desire to learn this music, which was wasn't prepared to let stop me at first, and I got books and CDs of the maqams and started practicing. But what really ended it for me, or let me be convinced to leave Istanbul, was a different part of the musical tradition, was was of course a reflection of the culture- that women don't play.
It was in varying degrees of discomfort that I went about a couple months of life in a muslim country. I know that there are so many perspectives on Islam and its oppression vs liberation of women, that Istanbul is a very mild case anyway, that I really wasn't there long enough even to make any definitive statements about my feelings that will hold for any set amount of time, but I do know that it was hard for me. It was hard for me to walk down the street lined with cafes where dice clacked melodiously against wooden tavla boards, where I so desperately wanted to play too, but there were only men who filled the chairs, and I knew to sit down would be breaking cultural rules. It was hard to see every cafe this way, not a woman in sight, and not think of what women do to have fun and socialize? It can't be only shopping and the movies! And it was with difficulty that I rationalized that the home is the woman's domain, that it was her strength and authority that forced husbands out of the house, out of the way and into the cafes. I got myself to understand this. But it is hard for me with a superhero mother, with her hand in a million projects, as my role model, and with my western ideals of challenging conventional gender roles, and of course being a street rat with nowhere to go when it is cold but into a cafe. It was hard to be uncovered in a colorful sea of hijab, so I covered. It was hard to perform as a solo woman, so I just performed in groups. It was hard to walk alone in some parts, so I stayed with a man. It was hard to speak out against that man in public, so I stayed silent. But slowly, I found that I was assuming the role of house keeper. I found that I started to be afraid of being alone.. and the worst, I found that more and more even privately I was keeping silent. I found that I was stepping into a role, into a mentality that isn't mine, that I was assimilating to a culture that I didn't want inside of me. I could have stayed. I did find people to play with, all westerners, but it was certainly the most thriving musical scene since Berlin. I could have made a life for myself, I could had fiddled my way maybe even into a traditional music scene.. but that act in itself is of course breaking tradition, the very thing I am seeking to learn. And, had I stayed, five times a day I would hear a voice commanding me to come pray, and reinforcing my subconscious acceptance of my subordinance.
And so I silently turned around and followed a man back the way I had come, back west.. and when we crossed into Bulgaria and heard the calm distant chiming of church bells, I think I cried. It was like coming home.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sleep on a snowy night

Looking out my window last night, I noticed how bright the backdrop was for the barren tree, this tree whose presence I'm usually only vaguely aware of as a spot blacker than the black of the 8pm sky, but last night it stretched up with all the fierce loneliness of a true november tree against this white sky and I realized that light must be getting caught between the abundant clouds and the year's first snowfall in Kosovo, and it was at that thought, nestled under 2 down sleeping bags, behind a solid glass pane, in a bed elevated from the ground, in a house with a toilet inside, I admitted for the first time in my life, that it is a joy to sleep.
It was not long ago that I used to declare that were it an option, I'd never sleep again! I was obsessed with time and it's stinginess, and I found ways of tricking my body to save time lost on tiresome sleep. I tried self hypnosis, walking down stairs into a pool that shimmered in my unconscious, or go on walks through woods of my own sleep deprived creation, seeking energy balls of light, which I'd hungrily swallow like some magic drug and continue on with my sleepless day. But once, I got caught in my shimmering water and could not find the stairs back up into consciousness! I felt my physical body hyperventilating and shaking all over, and I started to panic, swimming around frantically and finally decided to kick off from the bottom and jump back into consciousness instead of going the gradual pleasant way up the stairs. The shock was jarring and I decided to give up on self hypnosis. But my demands for time were insatiable and I tried a new method- polyphasic sleeping. I slept only in 20 minute sections, 6 naps dispersed throughout the day, totaling 2 hours in a 24 hour period. This worked for a few months, but being on a rhythm completely alien to all of my fellow humans made me feel a vampire, walking through the night, sleeping in the day, but also just the awareness of being so alone in this contrived state made me give that up too, and I ceased with the alternative sleep methods, but still relished my disdain for this sublunar need. I wanted to be a being entirely reliant upon my mind, my time entirely dedicated to the advancement of my thoughts and ability of my fingers. Sleep was frustrating, and even eating, the time that goes into acquiring, preparing and even merely chewing on food became a nuisance and a bore.
My cycle tour would logically have been a place for me to shed these notions, my stomach was much more demanding and being now and outside cat, my rhythms were now tied with the sun and moon, and it did feel healthy to rise and set with the sun, and of course it felt miraculous after a long day's ride to collapse into my tent and disappear entirely under the moon, but I always knew that this trip was a different sort of existence, and once I got back to the city, where days fly faster than ducks, I would roll up my newfound sleep dependence in my tent and leave it there for the next adventure.
Of course I enjoyed this sleep enriched way of going through the world. Between long nights of dreaming, I would spend days on the saddle first in Germany, loping up the new scents of spring which budded all around me, and seeing bright sunny days filled with bright sunny people and I thought this tour could go on forever. But of course my legs brought me into more dismal places. First it just started with the ugly looming soviet buildings that went on for miles abandoned, which spoke of a complex history I was inevitably going to hear more detailed. But really countries simply started getting poorer as I progressed east. I would see the ruins of a once functioning village, whose fields were now nothing but dust from the flippantly laid road, which cut the village and many fields clear through the middle, and I poked behind these roaring trucks, kicking up anything in their path, and watched the villagers silently looking away from these monsters destroying their food. And then biking through eastern Europe, Romani don't have to hide their shanty towns, they know that hidden or not the local police will pick fights only if they are bored, so I so so many houses of tin and trash. Now they all wash together in my mind into a river of aluminum cans, cardboard roofs and wary faces, peering at me through cracks in the wall of garbage.
And to see all this was certainly distressing, even though I knew that they all existed. Of course, we all know that there is extreme poverty, that it gets so much worse.. but then I started going into the villages with romanesque speaking friends. I went when the leaves on the trees were already past their prime. They had glowed with embarrassed beauty for maybe a week, stunning or boring their observers apathetically, but this too shall pass, their fire withered into a crumbling brown and piles of these once collectable beauties now crunched underfoot as we entered the fortress of plastic bottles and torn shopping bags, dogs fighting over their spilled contents.
We were going to pick up the kids for kindergarten and as we walked in, children rushed at us with huge smiles and open arms. My friends are well loved here and it was beautiful to see such unrestrained joy. I was not so trusted, my broken few serbian phrases didn't get me very far and my hat was too big, I may have looked scary. But one slightly older girl, maybe 9, took pity on meand showered me with hugs and smiles. I was charmed, but only to realize she was trying to pawn off the baby she had been made responsible for so that she could go play. But of course I couldn't take that baby! I had to tear myself away from her sobbing little figure to follow my friends and all the smaller, yet unburdened kids back to school, the squat. Most of these kids were barefoot, none had jackets. Apparently they all had bronchitis and the leaves were all already off the trees. Winter is coming. The squat is collecting clothes but they had just brought all the warm things to the migrants, whose stories put me at such a loss. They are spilling out of the refugee camp which the government has provided but only has room and resources for maybe 10% of them. 300 or more are just in the woods with absolutely nothing. No food, water, warm clothes, roof, floor, tarp, stove, nothing. How they plan to survive through the winter I have no idea. People from the squat are trying to go every week with clothes and water, but it is not enough, and really what the people want the most is that their stories are heard. Many who have been through Hungary and Greece say that Serbia is so much better. They talk of just being thrown in prison for years, where they also starve and freeze, but are also beaten and tortured.. and yet, they keep fighting.
This is really what has been sticking in my head. Throughout this trip, I am continually thrown into closer contact with extreme suffering. With standards of living so low that as a white western person of privilege, I just have to wonder why? What are they fighting for so dearly? To live another day of hunger and cold? To sleep another night next to a husband who beats his wife daily? To be spat on and despised for merely being born? These are things that to me, I feel would be unbearable and simply not worth the effort. I have to wonder if I would just give up, and perhaps that is what the western european governments also think as they spare hundreds that distressing choice, and simply let them sink at sea. But those refugees, or these Roma parents, or whoever across the world, they are fighting for something, something infinitely more precious than anything else- life. Life, survival, it is obviously our whole world, it is all we are really meant to do and it is worth it. And I'm sure for many it is to an nth degree when they have children worth living for, love more powerful than death, this too carries people on to the next day. And I am so inspired by these warriors for life! They make me so ashamed of my afore mentioned disdain for those earthly necessities. I'm so ashamed of how I yearned to be a robot, that I wasn't even willing to do the basic things an animal needs to survive. But oh how glad I am to survive! How glad I am to be inside looking out, to have a full belly and 2 pairs of wool socks on. How glad I am that I have this life I can cherish and protect and that I share this with every being on this planet. How glad I am that I made it to a home just in time for snowfall, that I can curl up under 2 down sleeping bags and enjoy, fully enjoy this basic human need- to sleep.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cycling into life

My dear friends and family, it has been a long time since I have come to this site, and I am afraid I have left many wondering and finally inquiring as to what has become of me and my travels. They continue! But perhaps, like this blog, in a different form. I have realized through my journeying that travel is simply life, varying levels of itinerancy are probably going to be shaping my life for a while, and therefore it has been weird to write about my everyday life on this site. But I am still thinking and writing, and I plan on posting thoughts here from time to time about culture, about travel, about life.
For those that appreciate knowing the route, it went as follows: Germany, quick flight over to Catalonia, back to Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, quick hitch over to Croatia then hitch back to Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, U TURN, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo. I am now in Kosovo living with my cousin for the winter, writing, reading, playing, hibernating, who knows what the future will hold for me and my steed!
Thanks so much for all the love and support from all my wonderful friends and family, and until next time!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An impossible dream in Serbia

What was a normal carefree oblivious night, beers clinking over scattered cards, children chasing dogs about the tight squeeze of a flat, became a nationwide state of panic- those walls that had happily, calmly reflected the shadows of domestic stability were shaking uncontrollably, as thin whistles careened through the air landing in huge explosions, glass showers flooding the streets, fires lighting up the sky and sending people screaming into the streets, the year was 1999 and NATO had just attacked Serbia.
My friends have relived that night for me, they have told of the horror, the shock, everyone has their own nightmare about the Aggression, but one thing they all remember- the flocking to the bridges. Knowing that the few precious bridges were the immediate targets for the american bombers, everyone stampeded to them, loaded up with beer and food to last them days, and the bridge party began. While planes circled overhead, hungrily looking at the defenseless city below, Serbians drank and made merry, relying on the humanity of the pilots to not bomb these bridges packed with civilians, standing with fervent pride and lunatic defense of their country, laughing in the face of death.
Eventually the vultures sulked off to their new nest- Bondsteel, the largest american base in the world, built immediately after the Aggression, with no tax requirement or hostility from its now allegedly independent host Kosovo. This was not the reported reason for the attacks, we were told that it was due to violations of human rights by Serbians to Albanians in Kosovo. Now Kosovo, which was once mostly Serbian, has a 10% Serbian nationality, who are guarded heavily by abundantly glaring barbed wire and military presence, protected from the local Albanians who have gotten used to endorsed violence against their northern neighbors. The few Serbians remaining live in ghettos, denied of proper education, health care and basic security. No Serbian I've talked to feels remotely safe going there, indeed many have been or are descended from those that were chased out of that territory with blazing torches, and in their absence beautiful ancient orthodox cathedrals are being flippantly destroyed and their once majestic capital has become so hostile, a visit might cost them their lives, but no one in the US is taking about human rights violations now.
And much of this violence was started by my government, and my government chooses to turn a blind eye to the situation now, and along with the rest of western Europe, continue to recognize Kosovo as an independent state without giving Serbia any choice in the matter, even so far as to protect its people.
Despite all this, despite the blatant injustice and degradation and disrespect my country has shown theirs, Serbians have welcomed me like a long lost family member. They have been so inexplicably generous and thoughtful. I feel such guilt as they bring it yet another plate of food or offer their own bed and wish to sleep on the couch so I may be comfortable. They would give their last piece of bread and starve the next day to honor their guest and this mentality, this way of treating travelers, strangers, even enemies is so inspiring. it will forever be my ambition to give travelers I meet later on in life, true Serbian hospitality. Though I'm afraid it is a job that must be taken on by a whole country. For it is not just in a home that one feels it, but on the street when asking where a certain park might be, and the random victim may not know, but will call everyone on his phone till he does, and then walk the lost tourist wherever it is they needed to go, or in a sport store opening every bike pump to see if it might fit a deflated tire, or the bottomless bowl of ice cream sponsored by the village bums fascinated by a banjo in a park, or that one can barley bike 5km without someone driving, biking it running up to offer a drink, a meal, a place to sleep. Serbians believe everything is better in company and don't like to see someone who looks like she might get lonely go without properly explaining why she must be on her own, and then still quite begrudgingly.
But in the days that I do manage to muster up the energy to become my once more socially apt self, I find myself always drawn to parks, where I get the most appreciative audience a musician could ask for- sometimes somber, quiet, respectful, other times laughing, hooting, dancing, quite regardless of major or minor or even tempo, with a musical sensibility of their own making, a herd of kids, who seem to find staring at a banjo as interesting if not more so than the swings, a high compliment indeed, and worthy of rapt attention and then rambunctious curiosity, my fiddle. They all wanted to try and, to my extreme delight, I have already 3 kids begging their parents for banjo lessons!! I am spreading the gospel of clawhammer through eastern Europe, soon I will have an army if mini Serbians dressed in overalls and straw hats, defiantly thwacking dum dicke dum dicke dum, and together we will march to Kosovo and enchanted by the contagious joy of these glorified, out of tune snare drums the Albanians will have no choice but to dust off their fiddles and join in with this knee-slapping, boot-raising clamor, which we'd take down to Bondsteel and make the american sliders dance the Cherokee shuffle, give right to your partner, say how do you do? Left hands back, say fine thank you!

But unfortunately our aggression has not just affected the southern Serbians in Kosovo, but has contributed severely to the economic situation in Serbia as a whole. "NATO polluted soil, water, and food production for an unbelievable period of four billion years. Direct economic damage caused by aggression was estimated to an amount of over one hundred billion dollars"(www.globalresearch.can/13-years-since-nato-aggression-against-Serbia-violation-of-human-rights-of-serbs-in-the-province-of-Kosovo-and-metokija/29687) This, handled of course by the ubiquitous corruption of governments in general in eastern Europe, led to a dramatic rise in unemployment that went from 12.8% in 1998 to 19.5% in 1999 to a staggering 45.9% in 2012. Of course these statistics are disputed, but some are listed as high as 64% others low as 23%.
Regardless, unemployment is quite bad here. I have meet countless people with first hand accounts of this fact and lately have been witnessing some atrocities resulting from this overwhelming poverty. One of which affecting me deeply as it has to do with my merry band of mini music makers, many of which are child beggars, skipping around super markets, parks and highways looking for money or food. The abundance of these kids is one thing to wonder at, you can't go anywhere without a child asking for money, but this poverty takes them to such extremes here.
My host today, after bringing one of these girls a bag of food from the store, was thanked by her attempting to feel him up on the street and ask to come to his house alone later. He, quite shaken and repulsed, said that the implications were quite clear and that his rejection was amusing to her. He said that he had seen on multiple occasions, young girls walking up to car windows in secluded areas, pulling down their shirts to show what they have to offer. It sounds to me like the poverty these families are brought to has made child prostitution almost an acceptable part of this culture, and obviously, since it is so widespread, is being rewarded. Even I can see how acceptable this part of their culture is when I see for example, scantily clad girls, often 13 or 14 wiping the windshields of cars driving up, not paid at all by the gas station, just by the drivers that enjoyed their performance. Or the fact that possession of child pornography is legal here. The situation is indeed quite upsetting and has me again beating my head against the wall as to what I am to do, where to start the fight, who is it against, what is the sword, what the shield?
I have been feeling so much love for these people, so much warmth and affection for their openness, their forgiveness. I have made many friends here and through these connections have become keenly aware of what they are and have been going through. I wish so much to help my friends, young and old, and have been trying by going around bringing my music and joy and now by sharing a part of their side of this horrendous tale, but it feels like so little, like this is an unrightable wrong, an unfightable foe. We need a Don Quixote to dream this impossible dream.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Simmering Evening in Budapest

The pot was boiling and bubbling all day, the simple broth became more delicious smelling with each passing hour, meat bathed first, sending suds of fat and blood to the surface, which potatoes broke while splashing in, followed by carrots, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, spices came bringing a paint-like consistency. The red took on swirls of thick deep orange, the colors one might find in an oil painting to compliment a black and white room of a sunset over a sea, with one lone shadowed ship sailing atop these calm waves of fire, I didn't want to eat it, so beautiful were the colors. But the stomach of a cyclist cannot appreciate art, in fact, it rarely allows for manners of any kind, and in the beginning of this trip I looked on with the others in horror as my stomach pillaged grocery stores and kitchens, I knew I had to take responsibility for the monster within, but knew not how and blushed deeply as I shoveled a 4th or 5th portion down my throat. I have now gotten used to its perpetually impoverished state and attempt to simply accept and laugh, and in this manner I took part in destroying the masterpiece before us, marginally able to listen to the bouquet of tonal inflections around me. Spanish flirtations from a couple from uruguay, hungarian bickering (for everything in Hungarian sounds like bickering) from a family across the table, accented German, one hungarian, one swedish, jump-roping in and out of understanding- all complimentarily pitched and in a good tempo to accompany the true concerto of my attention- the food too slowly entering my stomach. I felt the soloist was underprepared and no matter how many notes he played, how many bites I ate, never could he catch up, become full. They chattered amiably, as if the huge pot of stew could possibly feed us all, as if the impending doom- the bare black bottom of the pot- was nothing to worry about, as if the pot had even filled them already! But slowly the panic died down as my belly begrudgingly puffed up and went to sleep, I was full, and the pot's bottom remained clothed by the beautiful painting and we were all herded into a few cars, it was time to dance!
The danshus, dance house, glowed in content as we walked up, the band was already sawing away! Hungarian bands are often comprised of one violin, 4 strings, two back up violas with 3 strings, and a bass with 3 strings. The 4 stringed violin plays the melody, the first back up viola plays basically only the on beat with the bass, and the other plays basically only the off beats, and all with great bows of gusto. This boom chuck boom chuck starting slow and steam rolling ever faster. Hungarian folk music is really just like old time. It is all about the slight subtle variations to this rhythm which, without paying REALLY close attention to the nuance and complexities, sounds like a sledge hammer moronically pounding against your temple, I felt right at home!
Then gradually the dancers started to appear. Mostly a couple dance, but sometimes 2 couples would join to do some hopping together. We (Hanna and I) joined in and were led through the spinning and stomping madness which filled me with hilarious joy, to be circling round and round, always faster aboard the enthusiastic train. Sometimes we would just walk in a circle and our leader would slap himself on the thigh or foot quite loudly, so Hanna and I of course preceded to try the same, hopping and slapping and having a grand time. But they all sort of stared at us vigorously slapping ourselves and we realized that none of the local women participated in this particular part of the dance. In the couples, it would always be the man quite unchivalrously abandoning the women to slap himself as long as he please, she looking on awkwardly in the middle of the dance floor, until he graciously grabs her and resumes their partnership. As the night got more heated with more dancers, the women were rendered obsolete, as it was really just out of kindness that they were even allowed to dance, an the men started their brawny parade of slapping. One after another, men would take the floor and with chest protruding and nose high, would stomp and slap with the band, raising his legs and feet making lots of noise, demonstrating his all superior manliness by flapping like a hen. I think I would have been more enchanted had the women any means of expressing themselves, or way to shine on their own, to display their own skill or strength, but they were only there to provide audience to the testostronic tournament.
My host was one of these women, and I asked her about it and the machismo in general and she said that it was absolutely abominable, even from a local perspective, and that she has tried to forbid her daughter from ever marrying a Hungarian man. Even to her boyfriend, who is apparently not that bad, she could not say for such a long time that he was doing a step wrong in the dance. She and all the women in their community found it slightly awkward to dance with him and she finally gathered up the courage to tell him while we were in Budapest. After they had a huge fight about it, he was only convinced after calling a man to come there at 11pm from half an hour away, to prove that she was right.. and just that she had been right had put him in such a fowl mood that he could barely talk to us when we came home. The machismo is so deeply rooted here in Eastern Europe, but especially in Hungary, it was so blatant that to slide over it with a smile felt like slapping all the women around me with a dirty rag. It came not only in such obvious displays as this, but in how free they felt to interrupt women, to assume their superior knowledge in anything from directions (which they often didn't actually know) to preventing me from repairing my bike, they had to do it, without any experience or information OR prompting, I knew what to do very well, did not ask for assistance and these men in their bullheaded assertiveness on several occasions really messed up my bike. They also tried to play power games with me and get me to do things against my will because they knew better, and I really shouldn't be in a tent, I must come home with them, don't be silly transformed into my being ridiculous, to stupid, to impertinent, to impossible when their games don't work and they swear at my back as I ride off into the woods to set up my tent, alone and content.
I do wish I could end my negativity there, but it got worse when the band took a break and the bass player came to enjoy his drink in the company of these two interested looking foreign girls, who happened to be debating the usage of the word nigger with two swedish guys. Stumbling into the conversation the bass player was delighted at the mention of black people and seized the opportunity to rattle off his racist jokes which got progressively more and more appalling. He was shocked that we didn't know these jokes, and somehow oblivious of our lack of laughter.. and my fumes. I flared up and he sort of laughed about how he wasn't racist or anything, but.. and told another! Oh how my stomach retched as the others around him laughed, and remembering other men here who have tried to pull out this old, disproven, Nazi research about genetic racial differences and intelligence, and knowing that police in Hungary have the right to, without any reason, pad down anyone they see fit, and knowing black friends that have been searched so many times, where most white people never, and the impossibility of the task to show this culture how backwards some parts of it are, and that even as I raged, I was only seen as one crazy lady to be quickly forgotten or merely a joke made out of to follow the one about the nigger boy. How to fight?!
Well our way was to show a bit of our own muscle by taking a turn playing some music, after asking of course. And we played with healthy power woman stomping, we sang loudly and proudly, we performed with joy and confidence and used this as means of displaying our gender's independence and ability. And while the music was appreciated and there was great applause, I don't know if the message was conveyed. I will continue to try these subtle maneuvers, and I think more and more I am becoming comfortable with not even being subtle. My anger has been simmering this whole trip. It started as an idea, a simple broth, and more and more experiences have been turning my yellow discomfort to an orange frustration to a deep blood red rage. The stew is now boiling with power and energy and hot as it is, it is delicious, and I don't want to waste any of it!  I will try not to be unnecessarily rude, but I don't mind now being called crazy or even having things become antagonistic. I have had enough smiling and stepping back. Even if it does nothing, even if the racism and sexism remain utterly unchanged, it means so much to me to not ignore, for that perpetrates. I don't want to hide this fire to be polite, I don't want to belittle my strength. I am trying to stay aware of manipulation, of the slippery ways men have been taking power from me, and I am holding my ground. I have found my footing and I won't fall.