Carving out islands of decency

Hi T,

Quick note on travelling foot, as you would say in Swedish. The Joan Baez tour is over for my part, it ended suitably with a Bob Dylan concert in Lörrach yesterday. I’m making my way to northerly latitudes now for a completely different style of life and reason, and am once again confronted with the contrasts that life brings.

I left Ulm and travelled via Esslingen and Tübingen to Freiburg. In Esslingen I stayed with our former flatmate and fellow food enthusiast. She cooked up some amazing Persian/Filipino fusion as always and we enjoyed long chats about the corrupted spheres of academia, where contacts are more important than skills, and good social abilities can smooth over the rough edges of poorly conducted research. I guess there isn’t too much we can do about this phenomenon, we are just humans after all and can never really be objective in our way of relating to others or the work they do. We agreed that the most important thing is to recognise this limitation and not let it push us into even more corrupt tendencies by not admitting when we are wrong or just don’t know. It was a St Andrews flashback, and I felt glad I have left this world for the time being.

Somewhere along the way all technology decided to abandon (or liberate) me through suddenly and unexplainably dying, so I am now without phone, time, and camera. It doesn’t bother me other than that setting an alarm in the morning is a bit more challenging.

So how do I feel here, post-Joan tour and leaving the groupie lifestyle behind? I miss it of course, but I’m also content and happy, and feel that I managed to get what I wanted out of it. You see, when I met up with Joan in Wiblingen, just outside Ulm, we talked about Amnesty International and how to get people involved or at least engage somehow with the state of the world. I think it was inspiring for both her and me, and she promised she would mention Amnesty in her upcoming concerts. The following concert was in a very hot circus tent at a festival on the outskirts of Freiburg. Lots of sausage-munching, beer-gulping Germans again, but also a wish-tree and some grassy slopes where you could take a nap. It was great again, of course, and the crowd was very enthusiastic, cheering at pretty much everything Joan and the band did. This time, she took a few moments to make a longer political statement – about the lack of decency in the world today, how there is more violence than she has ever experienced before, and how we must attempt in the midst of this to carve out little islands of decency for ourselves. Islands of compassion and non-violence that can, through their very presence, inspire and invite others to join. This of course brought a roar of sympathy and approval from the crowd – and she went on to say that Amnesty International is one such island, and that every little action, however small, has an impact and is worthwhile. Needless to say, the local Amnesty group experienced a boost in interest at their little information table after the concert. I left, happy that our wee chat might have encouraged Joan to be more open about urging people to take action for a better world. I feel that something worthwhile may have come out of my infatuation with Joan’s music here, so I am actually rather fine with leaving it at that.

After the concert I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to meet someone, so I sat down on some steps in a prime people-watching location and waited for this someone to turn up. After a few minutes an elderly American guy (I always seem to attract these fellows) asked if he could sit down next to me and embarked on his life story. It turns out he wasn’t American after all, but born in Germany and had just lived his entire life in the US without ever bothering to get citizenship. After a couple of arrests related to minor offences he was without warning placed in an immigration detention centre where he stayed for a year and a half. Realising that he might never get away from there, he decided to agree to be deported to Germany, left his entire American life behind, job, partner, house, and arrived in Germany in February three years ago, carrying 34 Euros and not even a winter coat. He’s managed to carve some form of life out for himself now though, is active in church groups and volunteers at sporting events. Just shows you how life can turn suddenly and you never know where you end up – we are all there, but for fortune, and it does good to remember that.

The day after the concert I spent wandering around the beautiful squares filled with old houses and ice cream cafés of Freiburg. I then made my way south for my last concert. Bob Dylan in Lörrach last night was pretty fantastic. His newest album has given him opportunity to show that he actually can sing, he did some songs from it and also a rendition of Shelter from the Storm in the same style, utterly amazing. Blind Willie McTell, Duquesne Whistle, Visions of Johanna, Ballad of a Thin Man, and The Levee’s Gonna Break were also highlights. The Bob Dylan crowd is an interesting mix of real connoisseurs, who can’t hide their excitement as soon as they notice a harmonica solo is different, and people who just come for the name and the image. Next to me, at the very front, were two ladies discussing fabric patterns and lace. They bobbed along to all the songs more interested in looking at the crowd around them than anything else. I wondered what Bob thinks of playing night after night to people who only go in order to say that they’ve been… As per usual, he didn’t speak a word. But he smiled, bowed, and seemed to enjoy himself immensely. I certainly did.

Now I’m travelling to Norway to sign on a boat in the Tall Ships Races. I’m actually flying to get there – not something I’m feeling too proud about – where did all my principles fly off to? Anyway, I’m flying from Schiphol, Amsterdam. Ironically enough, it seems like this airport is committed to “achieving sustainability” (whatever that means). So they’ve gone for green sofas, plastic plants, logs instead of benches and are playing bird song and waterfall sounds instead of music. What I like though is the bike powered phone charging station – and you can also go outside and sit in the sun, among real plants, without having to buy something in a café. To get there you go through revolving doors hooked up to generators that charge the electric buses that take you out to the oil-guzzling aircrafts. A step in the right direction perhaps. The best thing though is that they have water fountains where you can fill your own water bottle. That if anything is an island of decency in this crazy airport life.

I haven’t managed to switch to my sailing brain enough yet to remember when I’ll next be in port, but I’ll give you a shout here sooner or later. Until then, peace and gratitude.



There are strange rivers

Hey T,

Another blog in quick succession here – I’ll just pretend that you are having an exceptionally large bowl of porridge and justify my monologue tendencies by having to fill the silence when you’re munching away. There is so much to tell from München that I don’t want to let it wait, another Joan Baez concert, a Pride parade, and thoughts on pain and the state of the world.

The concert was part of the Tollwood festival, which compressed an incredible mix of cultures and half of Münchens population (or so it felt) into a small part of the Olympiapark. Crowds are such strange rivers, you’re never quite sure where you’ll end up when you’re walking in them. Being such an experienced concert goer by now, I arrived early with my book, got a good seat in one of the front rows and settled down to read for an hour or so before the concert. At the moment I am reading a book by B. K. S. Iyengar in which he discusses life and yoga practice and how to go about both. I read a really interesting passage on how to approach pain in asana (the physical postures of yoga) as well as in life. Iyengar writes that pain is an inevitable part of yoga practice, as the body stretches and learns to hold itself with grace. The pain shows us where we need to focus, emphasise our efforts, and pay extra attention – it is there as a useful guide more than anything. It is the same with pain in life (he claims), and if we approach it as a teacher it is not unbearable but rather constructive. Crucially though, Iyengar explains that

”It is not just that yoga is causing all of this pain; the pain is already there. It is hidden. We just live with it or have learned not to be aware of it. It is as if your body is in a coma. When you begin yoga, the unrecognized pains come to the surface. When we are able to use our intelligence to purify our bodies, the the hidden pains are dispersed.”

So there I was, contemplating how we relate to pain in our lives, as Germans were eating pizza and drinking beer around me, Amnesty International going around with petitions about cyber hacking, and Dirk and others from Joan’s band were tuning their instruments on stage.What a change from the first time we saw Joan, when I was so nervous I could hardly sit still! By now, I thought, I knew the set list, knew the introductions, knew the surprises and so felt I would not be too overwhelmed by emotions during the concert. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Joan started the concert unexpectedly, for me at least, with Railroad boy – a song I haven’t heard in a very long time. The serenity with which she performed it caught me by surprise and I was once again sobbing in my seat, getting compassionate glances from the middleaged couples around me. And it continued that way. Apart from the songs they had performed in earlier concerts, Joan had added quite a few more explicitly political ones, like Jerusalem, Day After Tomorrow, and Here’s to you. Her unwavering gaze and commanding gestures when she performed these reminded me of her younger self, she has so much authority mixed with urgency – I feel sorry for anyone trying to argue with that.

She also did Strange Rivers, one of my all time favourites. The moment I enjoy the most during the concerts though, is when she performs Wenn unsere Brüder kommen. I take some time to look at the audience around me, and get some strange comfort from the teared up faces I see, some people crying rivers of sadness or joy, I’m not sure. Yesterday was no exception. Towards the end of the song, amid the roars of approval, a man stands up not far from me, waving at Joan and everyone else. Turns out it was Konstantin Wecker (the guy who wrote the song) himself! Joan called him up to the stage and gave him a big old hug – everybody was applauding, laughing, and crying, hope and despair mingled in the air – it was just great on so many levels.

I started to wonder whether it is not something to do with the pain Iyengar is talking about. We all have pain inside us for the state of the world, be it the environment, wars, poverty etc., but we learn to live as if it is not there. It is as if our awareness is trained to ignore it in hectic everyday life. It is as if our minds are in a coma.

As yoga lets us access, learn from, work with and hopefully eventually transcend the pains of the body and mind, can the music of Joan and others let us access the pains of humanity we all carry within us? I certainly feel like it. And if we are to trust Iyengar, we need to start accessing, observing, listening to and learning from that pain if we are ever going to be able to understand how to live with and beyond it. Joanna Macy has done some really interesting work on this as well. I am more and more convinced that this is how we need to approach the challenges ahead of us, like climate change – through going within and recognising the pain first of all, letting it show us how we need to relate to the world around us. Don’t think it will be the go to-approach in the Paris summit though…

Earlier on during the day, my excellent hosts had lent me a bike and I was busy trying to cycle like a local around town, past Marienplatz, Frauenkirche, Englischer Garten, and all the rest of it, when I stumbled into a Pride parade. The noise of it was deafening, and it was such a huge, diverse, and colourful (in every sense of that word) group of people. FC Bayern München, Mums and Mums, Dads and Dads, young and old, political groups, protesting groups, partying groups… My favourites were the Gray and Gay group of elderly gentlemen. I joined in for a little while, walking with the Amnesty people. Now I’m thinking, wasn’t this also a strange river. Strange river of people who had used pain and suffering in their own lives, or in their vicinty, and created something positive, joyful, and I have to say, graceful. Just shows what you can learn and create from pain, you only have to start by recognising that it’s there.

(I am publishing this the morning after I wrote it. Since then I’ve managed to go to another concert with Joan, this time in Wiblingen. The crowd was tough, but she charmed them with stories of Dr King, non-violence, and career advice for president Obama. I’m couchsurfing in Ulm with a girl in the local Amnesty group, so I hung out with the Amnesty people at the concert, and managed to get them backstage afterwards to have a chat with Joan. It was a blast, she was as cool as ever, and Blair still remembers us hitchhiking to Barcelona!

Oh, and the mandatory photo, just to make you jealous.)

JoanUlm copy



”Every day on earth’s another chance to get it right”

Hey T, Isn’t it fitting that our first ever post should be about Joan Baez? Seeing that she is the one who brought us together in so many ways, I think she is also the one to keep us going. IMG_0470I have now been to two concerts with her since arriving in Austria, one in Linz on Saturday and one in Vienna the following night. They were both amazing, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. The one in Linz attracted mostly middle-aged/old Germans who sat very faithfully in their lined up chairs and nodded their heads to the tunes they recognised. Towards the end we were some who actually went up to the stage but it still had a very civilised feel to it, perhaps because of the towering presence of the cathedral right next to us. IMG_0480 Vienna attracted a much more mixed crowd, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people our age at a Joan concert actually. It took place in Arena, this place in a more industrial part of Vienna that started out as a squat, but is now a fully fledged concert venue and culture centre, the old brick chimneys still dominating the building’s structure. I really liked the feeling that the squat could turn out to be something productive, they were not only holding the demolition at bay by the presence of humans, but they actually created something that gave the buildings new meaning and life. If you want to overcome the past you need to reconceptualise the present and reinvent the future the graffiti-covered brick walls seemed to tell me. The atmosphere there was great and Joan did encore after encore. She also told a great story about having a fight with a restaurant owner in Linz after the police had told her and the band to keep their post-concert dinner music session down – apparently her peace, love, and non-violence is not always so easy to apply to everyday life. It’s inspiring that she’s so open about it though. The set list as I remember it: God is God, There but for fortune, Silver Dagger (introduced with ”This is a song from my first album… from 1906”), It’s all over now Baby Blue (only in Linz), Stagger Lee, Wenn unsere Brüder kommen (fantastic song – should be added to the Peace not War playlist), Me and Bobby McGee, Just the way you are (Dirk’s song), Diamonds and Rust, Joe Hill, The Sound of Pots and Pans (song from the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul), Long Black Veil (only Vienna), Swing low sweet chariot, Seven curses, Give me cornbread when I’m hungry (oh yes Gabe still does his amazing solo), House of the Rising Sun, Don’t think twice, it’s alright, Gracias a la Vida. Encores: Sag mir wo die Blumen sind, the Boxer, Imagine, Donna Donna, Blowin in the Wind (only Vienna). In Linz I couchsurfed with a lovely girl who took me for a walk in the sweltering heat and told me about how Linz used to be dominated by Nazi steel industries and now is filled with Russian tourists buying magnets by the thousands. But apparently Russians are not so keen on visiting anymore since the Ukraine crisis and ensuing sanctions hit, and the entire Austrian tourist industry is feeling it. Those are some important magnet sales. We also walked by a bike fixing party, with people chilling, doing and learning bike maintenance, and planning cycling events I suppose. What struck me was how like our Bike Pool events in St Andrews it was. Sure, there was maybe some more beer and sausage than we would normally have, but I’m sure I saw someone who looked just like our dear bike mechanic and life enthusiast F. It just brought home to me how we are really all rather similar on this planet. Wherever you go you seem to find the same kind of people doing the same kind of things. I think this is also what I love so much about Joan’s music, she somehow manages to tap into this – she transcends the verbal barriers of communication that we set up and makes people across generations and cultures access feelings and reflections that go so much deeper. And despite being in different circumstances and having different experiences, people seem to be able to come together through her music and see that there isn’t really that much keeping them apart. In Linz I chatted a bit to a guy who said that she is like a conscience for the rest of us, and I think there’s something in that. Something there let’s us access what we deep down know is right and wrong, our hopes and pains for the world, and we feel that we are not alone in them. Looking around at the faces of the crowd when she sang Sag mir wo die Blumen sind, and not seeing a single dry cheek, I thought that people do feel that conscience, that awareness, that unity in cause and action among humans, even if we can’t always express in words how we can go about acting on it. But it convinces me that we should continue trying. Hope this finds you, as it leaves me, filled with hope, humility, and happiness, M