Details, breadth

I like families. I like being around them, talking about them, learning their intricacies. I don’t know, perhaps it is my selfish determination that I have too small of one, or the perhaps equally absurd belief that through its knowledge will I obtain the true understanding of another person. Either way, it is often when I am immersed so deeply within another’s backdrop: a dinner table, a raucous of wine and good feeling, the sodium yellow glimmer lighting up the eyes of one speaking of his/her first love, slow steps through hallways, during which I experience that feeling of immeasurable satisfaction.

And so I am often thankful when people share these details with me, invite me to their dinner table per se. Through the lens of their native environment, friends and family with whom they have spent a lifetime, I can perhaps achieve some sort of firmer understanding, some grasp of how or why a friend thinks one way, speaks one way, does one way.

Uniquely, I think of two family dinners I have had the pleasure of attending over this past year, with the respective German-speaking families of two dear friends of mine. (Might I add that I think I did better language-wise the second time around, a little less overwhelmed I think, a bit more practiced? Still a long way to go though.) Both times, I felt lucky enough to get a broader spectrum of Germany, a bit more dimension than the hustling, international, urban scene of Berlin, which outside of its salient and unparalleled recent history, felt less unique in itself and more of the hipper, darker variety of major metropolitan center. Never did I get a sense of cultural faux pas as much as when I arrived ten minutes late to a scheduled family lunch, hurrying across a wintering strawberry field, or a renewed wave of cultural vertigo as strong as when news of the CCC Congress’s change of venue showed up on the Tagesschau as the first news event of the day, when just hours before, I had been right up against the LED-lit venue, and had gone through three perfectly smooth train transactions to get to my friend’s family home in the middle of Niedersachsen. I bought that ticket from a real live person! And I had to use my German! Seems a silly, minor thing to get so excited about in retrospect, but it sure brought things into perspective at the time.

Before I get on too much of a detour, what I want to say is how much I honor the details, the often wordless gestures between individuals. A hint of pleasant surprise, a nod of appreciation, an out-of-the-way artifact: these are the subtle but often most remembered things.

Infuriating turn at Greyhound

I feel like I’m a fairly prepared traveler: everything in order, arrive on time with only the very occasional mad dash, documents usually organized, packed, ready. I think the large majority of the populace attempts to do the same, to maintain a healthy, smooth relationship between travelers and various modes of transportation. Because of this preparedness, to some degree, I’ve managed to have very little travel incident: my flight cancellation to Seoul and reroute through Amsterdam come to mind. In both of those cases, the problem was resolved rather simply; I spoke to one, at most two service reps before a simple and satisfying solution was reached. It is this expectation of quick resolution that has spoiled me, and my nightmarish dance with the New York City Greyhound station cast in great relief how terrible on the spectrum of customer service one can really be.

My problem was simple. I had printed my ticket but lost it somewhere before getting to the station. I was on time, early even, but the extra fifteen minutes flew by in a flurry of confusion and unsatisfactory answers. For some reason, Greyhound bus drivers are required to collect riders’ paper tickets, an act that seems antiquated (Bolt Bus — which funnily, is a Greyhound funded venture — allows passengers to show their tickets on smart phones). Fine, so at the station, there are self-serve kiosks at which will call tickets can be printed using a credit card or ticket number as confirmation. I was directed by the bus driver to said kiosks, where I swiped in with my booking card. My ticket order was in the system, but printing was not an option because I had already done so on my own on an earlier date. Ok, no duplicate printouts allowed, which seems silly because physical copies are being kept by the drivers, presumably to make sure ticket forgery or multiple printing does not happen. I speak to the woman manning the automatic kiosks and she directs me to the manned booths.

There was one woman working. Time was ticking down; five minutes till departure, and it was the last bus of the night. I was going to get on it. When I make it up to the counter, I recite my story again, show the woman the pdf on my laptop proving that I did, in fact, buy a ticket. She shrugs and tells me I have to go to the Burger King across the street to print out a copy, and that there was nothing she could do to help me. Seriously, I’m bowel deep in Port Authority, five minutes till take off, and she’s not even batting an eye. She says I will probably miss my bus. I ask her if I can buy another ticket, and she says yes, but she couldn’t sell me one, I would have to go back to the electronic kiosk. Alright, shuffle back to the kiosk because this lady wasn’t being particularly helpful, punch in my city, and watch the price flash across the screen. Fifty dollars. Remember, I have already paid for a ticket. Okay, cancel transaction, turn around, feeling a bit flustered now.

I figure I’ll make one more attempt. I go downstairs to the gate with my laptop and find the bus driver, who has just boarded the last few passengers. I smile, try very nicely to explain my entire situation again, try to reason, show him my ticket with the appropriate date and time, even throw in a bit of flirtation. He shakes his head, apologizes, but says that he still needs a paper copy of the ticket. I used all of my words, the full set, to try to be convincing, but it wasn’t until I pulled out a few frustrated tears when the neighboring bus driver comes over and nudges the guy, saying, hey, the girl’s obviously bought a ticket, just have them print out a copy when you get to Baltimore. Thank you, random other bus driver. Finally, the guy relented and let me on.

Really though, there were so many parts of this chain of events that just didn’t make sense. Will call ticket printing is a complimentary service provided by Greyhound, yet no one in that entire facility had the power to pull up my reservation and print out a copy. Instead, the best alternatives suggested to me by the customer service representative were either to run across an avenue to go print my ticket at a fast food joint, likely missing my bus, or to spend an extra fifty dollars, more than the cost of my original round trip ticket. Those are terrible options! And illogical to say the least. Why turn something easily resolvable into a frustrating fiasco?

Greyhound, I’ve been pretty good to you, throwing my business your way, but the way you handled this really disappointed me. I think this incident is enough to bump you down on my list of travel options, making you a last resort at best.

 

A series of events

So, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about this scene. I am not quite sure I can pinpoint the exact thing that keeps bringing me back to it; perhaps it is actually a myriad of forces — layers of the onion so to speak — the rain and wet feet, bags heavy with brown glass beer, chairs in one line, slogans on sweatshirts, and the words which followed, pulled out of some deeper place only accessible during this particular syzygy of events.

It’s interesting that I observed most of the action through a veil of pseudo-comprehension. Whatever words were exchanged, or shrieked in the rain, flew by with little meaning, but the circumstances seemed quite clear: from the first tumble of that umbrella over the rails to the heavy pregnant pause at the end of a thought. It seems that delinquency is a predicament shared by nations.

I suppose I agree with the statement that the German education system makes it easy for someone to make something of themselves, not necessarily to succeed through the higher education equivalent in the States — which would be university followed by postgraduate work, industry or something along those lines, or the whole self-made man ideal — but perhaps technical or artisan work, something “with the hands.” High quality education in Germany can be obtained at incredibly low cost and enjoys widespread availability. Anyone with a mind to learn can, and should. Yet, there are still abundant youth who could care less about educating themselves or doing anything particularly worthwhile for society. They would much rather run rampant, destroying property, intimidating strangers, acting out on all aspects of the word hostility.

Now, I live in Baltimore, surrounded by all the infamous drug dangers and lawlessness it seems to be most known for (I believe there are far more interesting things, like its desperation, history, and growing pockets of scenes, but I digress). City education has been facing the same big problems for years: high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, suburban migration, all culminating in the loss of tax base, inadequate funding, and the inability to retain good teachers. Here, I sense a more straightforward connection between these lost youth and that which pushes them towards vandalism and crime.

The girls we ran into in Stuttgart aren’t quite so dangerous. Even as they speak in slang and toss around other people’s property without much care, I can hardly envision them doing more than throwing a few insults. Certainly, they would stop at stealing purses or pushing bikers into streets. Or would they? I don’t presume to know where people’s limits are as they become adults.

Even within the context of different circumstances and opportunities, I think the root of this issue is comparable between our two societies. Breaking out of one’s conditions is hard from within. It is easy to point and say, one should act in a particular way, and certain behaviors are clearly self-destructive, and the correct path is so obviously marked that one would have to be blind to miss it. But is that so? As one of those girls, perhaps it seemed the most natural thing in the world to behave as they did. Why worry about school until I have to? Why worry about giving back to a society that places me on the bottom rung? And here, in Baltimore, why buy into a legal system that does not give me enough monetary support to lead a decent life? Why conform to society when it will simply get me labeled a chump?

Yes, society, or at least the structure it provides, is here to benefit us, and we should make use of said benefits. But then again, when was the last time I took full advantage? I still spend exorbitant amounts of time wasting my time, in my own personal delinquent way.

Location: Stuttgart, Germany

A new metabolism

Everything here seems so figured out, every cog in the wheel following an intricate schedule of tugs and turns, each tooth locking the next with near surgical precision, with little room for error or greasing. My bus stops in Storavatnet and I jump out and cross the divide onto another bus, who closes his door behind me, the last passenger. He had been waiting for me. As the brakes release, the hulking vehicle pitches forward and makes the 270 degree wind up onto the bridge to Sotra; and suddenly, it is snowing again, sheets of sticky, white clumps gusting towards the windshield. The cloud is a single strip of menacing gray across the sky directly above us, and I can almost make out its structure as it forms over the mountains in the western horizon. On both sides of me, the sky is a clear vivid blue, and the sun is shining.

We slowly cross the divide, and an island appears through the fog. By the time we stop in front of Glenn’s house in Hjelteryggen, only some ten minutes later, the sun is shining once again, and there is only a shean of water on the ground belieing any existence of snow. His is the type of house I think of when I think of Norway. A multistoried cabin, all wood on the inside, timbers and beams naked like the inner belly of a whale. Spacious and cozy and rustic all at the same time, and warmed by fire, heat, and a fiercely happy husky pup.

Poor Glenn on his liquid/mashed potato diet after having a tonsillectomy, watching as his friends ate all the solid food his mother created. I felt for him, but it didn’t stop me from cramming all the delicious chicken and chocolate cake down my gullet. This meeting was both novel and familiar. Novel in the environment, halfway across the world from where we last met, with the addition of family and friends and scenery, and the perk of unexpectedness. Familiar in the themes: friendly banter, shared lives, ubiquitous Go. He is hosting the first Bergen invitational this summer, which is an exciting development. Of course we played a game (it is after all, what brought us together in the first place), and I am quite thankful, that this act managed to reawaken my inner Go warrior, making me once again think Go thoughts: attacking and defending, survival and slaughter. I told Glenn I would work on my inner viking, and try to be more violent on the board. Perhaps I will improve some more when our next lesson occurs, wherever and whenever that may be.

Traveling south after all that was a bit of a challenge. I seem to have adapted to the chilly climes a bit too well. When there’s no snow to tumble through, I venture it feels almost stifling. In the direct sun in Stavanger, I find myself unwilling to escape the clutches of winter and consistently ducking into shade and wind tunnels to find some semblance of refreshment.

Location: Stavanger, Norway

This is…

When I’m on the road, my mind is a mass of existential questions, but as I quiet down and settle into what could only be called a daily regimen: crawl out of bed, put on acceptable outside clothes, go to class or work or both, allocate my down time between friends, family, and the growing list of side projects which demand my dwindling attention; I find there is less time to consider such things. Where are my hours on trains and planes, my minutes emassed from walking around unfamiliar places, seeking public transportation, being lost? There is a certain newness in the environment then, an unfamiliarity, which disappears the veil structured by familiarity. I allow myself to look intently, see clearly, because it’s the first time, or the only time.

Day to day, I still suffer clarity in moments of beauty. I walk to a friend’s house, and am physically bowled over by the stretch of boundless sky and fluttering autumnal leaves. I pull out of a parking lot, and the city looms before me in all her glory. I feel castrated, unable to express in so many words or images what it is that digs into me in these moments, but whatever it is, is visceral, and it takes just a moment for me to leave that place, to disappear and reappear down the block, lose sight, and I am what I was before, a driver lost in the ocean of stop signs and traffic lights and crowds.

There is a connection between the availability of leisure and the enjoyment of it, and I am lucky in that I am allowed both. When the world wraps around the curl of my exposed skin, douses my hair and hands, I am glad I feel so overwhelmed.

Waiting for buses in Incheon

One of the things I hate about travelling is finding myself smelling like swine, sweating through my layers because I have worn too much and it was only the last time when I had been shivering under my scarf. I throw down my belongings in a haphazard heap by the miniature table with enough space for two cups of coffee and no more and plan to order an espresso before the waiter comes by to kick me out.

Except there is no waiter here to kick me out, nor to take my order. The soft row of emergency lights glows along the lopsided marble hallway, subtly accenting the displays beneath: Korean Traditional Craftworks Gallery, Kids Zone Nursing Room, Transit Hotel, and I slip by them one by one, following the faint trace of travelers. I round the corner and behold a line of them, blankets of various colors and sizes, covering lumps emitting various sorts of primal snorts and grimaces, and I find my own private corner next to them in an attempt to wait out the night. The remainder of this vast, energy-intensive husk is silent, dark.

It’s like staying in a mall after hours, in all those scenarios imagined in childhood storybooks and zombie apocalypse movies. All of this enormous venue, built to sustain the demands and vices of thousands upon thousands of people, stands open for me. It feels frivolous, and I like it.

Location: Incheon airport, South Korea