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Harbor Hindeloopen, day 3. It’s six AM, bright as day and I’ve set up office in the “kuip”, the back deck of a hundred and fifty year old Dutch cargo sailing vessel, turned pleasure craft. The “tjalk” was used to move around the many bigger waterways of Friesland and Groningen, the two most Northern provinces of the Netherlands, surrounded by the “IJsselmeer”, what used to be the “Zuiderzee” (South Sea) before a 30 Km dike closed off the often rough waters that flooded the small fishing towns, and the “Noordzee”, (North Sea), the sea that connects the Dutch with all the Scandinavian countries North of here. The tjalk is about 50 feet long, and sleeps ten plus crew. The large sails will be hoisted today as we will sail out on the big body of water of the IJselmeer. We have been rowing two wherries through canals, small rivers, across lakes from one picturesque town to another. As experienced crew, used to racing skulls, this is kindergarten rowing all over again, or as one of the members of our group said, I’m learning to scull a rowboat. And it is, the wherries are wide and stable, which we have found is a blessing when we cross bigger waters, like we did yesterday. A stiff wind whipped up the water and our wherry rocked like a bath tub. We learned to use our starboard and port hand independently to tame the different wave action on each side of the boat. In the too narrow canals we are getting quite adapt to “slipping” the oars and glide under bridges, often laying down flat in the boat, so as to not hit our heads. A long narrow water way required “top half” sculling with tiny strokes to make progress, because there wasn’t enough room for the oars. Meanwhile the cox kept the wherry on the straight and narrow, literally. As rowers we are learning new skills, as people we’re growing new synapses in our brain. Our oldest member who has serious trouble sleeping when at home, is sleeping like a baby, because her brain is so stimulated all day with new sights, language, maps, and activity all day. Or is it the Dutch air?
Moving about water from place to place is not a hike along a trail in the wilderness and yet, the elements of moving forward, scouting, dependence on weather for making progress, using the body, i.e. rowing to move, and the immersion in nature 24-7, make this water travel just as transformational. Our first day looked miserable, with 15 hours of rain and a wind force of 13 ml/hr predicted, but we got out, learned how to use the boats, and rowed, in rain gear we had pulled together, to the next town. It wasn’t a pleasure row, it was a buckle down, manage the difficulties and get there row, as some days on the trail can be, with the glow of triumph and toughness, trembling through our bodies afterward. Talk of growing confidence! The warming spicy Jouertse jenever (gin) after, helped a bit of course. The sunny second day is all the more sweet after such an experience. It’s the contrasts that wake us up to ourselves, rousing our sleeping competencies from the comfort of home living.
It’s a risk taking nine people on a trek like this, not everyone is cut out for the “trail”. So far everyone is smiling. Try eating raw fresh caught salted herring with ice-cream on the side, as one of the members ventured to do. That’ll wake up your senses!
The deep throated sound of the Ferrari came up behind us at least at 200 Km/hr. I know because the speedometer of the Volkswagen I was in showed that we were moving at 160 Km/hr. The feeling was that of efficiency, not speed. A feeling of order as the cars moved to the right lane to let the Ferrari go by. In the corner of my eye, the perfectly lined up trees in the woods formed a solid green barrier. There were no buildings or bill boards along the way to pull my attention away from the goal ahead, a small valley in the heart of Germany’s Sauerland.
The lunch stop cafe smelled of fresh milled wood, filled as it was with new wooden tables and chairs, local products of the forestry industry all around. The waitress adroitly placed the tall beer tumblers on the table, balancing the tray with one hand then moving the empty chair, left there by someone who had left the table for a minute, over against the wall with the other hand . Another chair seemingly unoccupied, followed, two chairs in a row against the wall. “Ordnung", order first, always. Dirty cups were picked up right away, orders taken for more drinks and food, a smooth waitressing operation, efficient.
Upon our arrival at the Gasthofen, the inn, the smiling owner smoothed his clean, crisply ironed shirt over his sumptuous belly and showed the way into the “stuben”, where the shining bottles of schnapps and liqueurs lined the back of the bar. Waffle with strawberries and cream?, was his invite to tempt our resolve to eat and drink less, walk more, this visit. The way the words “möchten sie?” were spoken gave us the savoring mm-sound followed by throat opening ch-sound and a light hearted elevated ending “sie”, so that our mouth wanted to open automatically to receive the delectables. Who can resist?
Food, efficiency, order and speed, are the hallmarks of the German life. Even the public toilets are an example of these qualities. Spanking clean, with a smart gizmo that rotates the toilet seat silently through a disinfecting unit at the push of a button, they give you back a coupon to spend in the cafeteria after you deposit your coins in the turnstile entry. I couldn’t think of a more efficient way to streamline the eating and elimination cycle.
But traveling and experiencing public restrooms did start me thinking about other countries and their cultural elimination habits. Take India for example, there they do a pretty efficient job of the eating and elimination cycle as well. You use one hand for eating, the other to clean yourself, and you squat instead of sitting down. No need for cleaning the toilet seat, one stop for hand and body cleansing. No coupon though for another meal at the exit. Holland has the do-it-yourself mentality. You want a clean toilet seat? Do it yourself. Public toilets provide small paper pads and cleaning fluid and you can go at it, and be an eco friendly toilet user. The Icelandic people are less fussy, not as clean as the Germans and Dutch. I suppose cold toilet seats harbor fewer bacteria and don’t need cleaning as much…..I could go on, the French toilets are another story, with a sensual bidet as part of the elimination cycle.
Hmm, you wonder, where are we going with this? I wanted to make a point about cultural habits in a very down-home way and share my Autobahn musings. What happens to all of us who are between cultures, us intercultural people, who were born one place, grew up or moved to another? Do we become a mishmash of cultural habits? Do we lose our identity and uniqueness? Do we adopt an intercultural set of habits, an amalgamation of behaviors that blend us into the world’s habit patterns? It seems that way, as all hands are now holding the smart phones and tablets all over the world and constantly check for info and distractions.
As our brains lose the capacity to think deeply in our own unique language pattern and we communicate in emoji symbols, we maybe losing more than we think, we maybe losing the feel for a place, rooted in the habits of our forefathers and mothers, we maybe losing character and quality and like Omar Mateen did in Orlando end up borrowing from one culture to express our native values in a place we call home but isn’t, with disastrous results.
The German character of efficient operating, of cleanliness and order, and a delight in sumptuous quantities of food was just a reminder to hang on to and refresh personal cultural roots as a way to strengthen the character we were given in our place of origin. A reminder to remember our origins, not to impose them on others. At a time when cultural background is a hotly debated and sad topic of conversation, lets remember our uniqueness and welcome the differences. There are many ways to clean a toilet seat.
Iceland, Day 3. I finally met two Trump supporters. It isn’t easy when you live in a liberal, educated community. I met them in Iceland, on the bus to a guided hike to beautiful hot springs up in the mountains. He was a white man in his late sixties, traveling with his wife also in her sixties. They were educated. Didn’t he say he had two masters’ degrees? He and his wife were finally able to afford a vacation abroad, after putting their children through college and getting out from under debt. “It’s the blasting taxes, they’re robbing us!” He stated. I asked why they supported Trump. “Obamacare, we hate Obamacare. It’s going to cost us trillions!, unsustainable!. Trump will be able to negotiate, he’s a good businessman.”
“You don’t think that healthcare should be a basic right for all?” My question. “And what about taking care of people without insurance, as we end up doing, which drives up the insurance cost of those who have it?” “No”, he said, “Maybe”, she said, she seemed to waver and said she didn’t agree with him on everything. Good for her. Any argument, any explanation of facts I gave, was met with a Trump slogan. He told me how he had worked hard all his life, how he didn’t have much, spending 7 years in Seminary (a Baptist one, the conservative fundamentals were coming out), being in education and motivating the minority kids to work hard. “It’s possible, you just have to motivate them, I did it. You don’t have to support them”. Good for him! I gave him a few stories from my work in a juvenile prison, it did not seem to make him wonder a bit. That was just it, we weren’t having a discourse, exchanging thoughts, ideas, looking for solutions for all. We were having a volley of opinions going over the divide between worlds we came from.
I wanted to understand why he ended up on his side of the divide, so I continued the conversation to get a glimpse of his world. He chose a cruise ship from which to see the world, I chose an international youth hostel. On the day tour we were on, he wanted to tell stories about fast cars and rodeos in Arizona to other group members, I wanted to hear stories from the theater director about life in Greenland. He and his wife lagged behind so much (weight issues) on our hike and made it to the hot springs so late that they didn’t have time to actually enter and soak. Why they chose a hike for their day trip, I wonder. Maybe because it was the cheapest tour on the market, and didn’t require any gadgets (except good lungs and legs)?
This man felt “gypped”, the twisted smile when he told how they didn’t get to soak said it all. This was a man who was missing the boat, time and again in his life, from seminary living on a low budget, to a job in social services that didn’t pay, to supporting kids who had to do better (but didn’t do it on their own power), from dragging a too fat wife up a mountain, to not being able to read the label or ask a question and buying a heavy bottle of sugary soda, instead of filling up a small water bottle on the hike up (he didn’t know water in Iceland is free and safe to drink out of all faucets and springs). This man could see others, including me, were enjoying themselves, either because we were faster, better informed, or just stronger (the Norwegian sailors hiked up drinking beer from start to end).
This man longed for the good years (which ones, I wonder) when a man got somewhere when he worked hard. I feel bad for him. I now understand that he will listen to someone who tells him that he will make America all better again. This man is tired, tired of trying to keep up with the times, the changes. He wants to have some fun, even if his fun speeds up climate change (driving fast cars), destroys the environment and people (bull riding) He looked wild eyed, when I told him that demographics are changing, creating unstoppable changes in our society, and that a wall won’t stop that. I feel sorry for him, he seemed scared, lost in an ever faster changing world around him. I get it. This man wants someone to stop the world. There are many people who want the craziness around them to stop, including the Jihadists, refugees, and traumatized, hungry children all over the world. Trump will certainly stop the world as we know it, at least for a period and then all hell will break loose. I wonder who this man will blame then for his misery?
Iceland, Day 2
It’s almost nine thirty at night and the sun is still up and shining warmly. I’ve slid into a whirlwind of exciting sights, finding my way to the places I want to explore. I have worked myself out of a jet legged fog by listening to the violin soloist doing his magic at the symphony practice. I watched the faces of Icelanders in an exposition of Icelandic emigrants to America and Canada. Why did they leave? Opportunity? Adventure?
I speak with younger people, millennials. A nurse from Hong Kong tells me about her choice between travel and putting money away to own a too expensive flat. I agree “travel!”. An Iranian researcher, originally from Shiraz (yes the wine!) working at Max Planck institute in Germany tells me about wanting to find a professorship at a university in a couple of years and live a “good”l life. “Just simply teach at a university?” I ask, “you obviously have a lot going for you.” “Yes, why not?” He can marry whom he chooses, the new deal with America has eased tensions at home. He is happy with a life without war, with some freedom of choice. I feel pushy in my demands for him. A female judge in juvenile criminal court from Berlin shares her strategies for retirement. We all laugh a wry laugh as we talk about Trump. They’re scared that the Donald will get to power and change everything for them. A Belgian waitress tells me about winter in Iceland.
“We read, we stay at home, you can’t go anywhere, we listen to music”, she tells me. “Yes, winter is “boring”, chimes in another Icelandic waitress. And the winter is LONG!.They know strong women with choice are commonplace here, they can walk in the streets late at night and be safe. Family life is the going thing. There is hardly any crime, there are opportunities to work and travel. I think of the beautiful long legged bodies walking along streets, running, bicycling, with little make-up, natural living and it’s not good enough for them. They believe in elves and trolls here. The ticket salesman at the window looks like one....Ahh, such conditions, such choices.
The landscape reminds me of Eastern Oregon, of the high mountains of the Himalayas. Yet here I am, smelling the salt of the sea and tasting fresh caught fish in all forms. Tomorrow I will get up early for a hike to bubbling hot springs, hike and soak, sounds like a good combo.