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.

M

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“There is no oxygen in Syria”

Dearest T,

Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news (the maritime version of the song should of course be tack, gybe, tack again…), but the sea is indeed calling me. Water and wind is freedom of a different kind, which I’m sure you are experiencing through your frollics among feathered, weathered, and bewildered beings (birds, interns, and tourists that is). I am glad your flipflops have finally made you join me in lightly treading the earth – there is no better way and nothing as sexy as dirty feet.

I’m now sitting on a balcony, surrounded by the scents of lavender and mint, sipping some Bavarian beer in Münich. The balcony belongs to our German friend’s parents, they are the sweetest people and have welcomed me into their home like we’ve known each other for a long time, rather than just a couple of hours. I love meeting people’s parents, and can really see where our friend got his characteristics from, so in a way I actually feel like I know these people pretty well already.

My Münich adventures will have to be accounted for in another post though. I first want to tell you about a day I spent in Vienna. The day after my latest Joan concert I spent wandering around Vienna. I was struck by how orderly everything seems to be, the red trams always arrive exactly on time, the benches in parks are neatly in rows, there can’t even by a spontaneous food market selling sausages and schnitzel without there being a map detailing where you can find which stall. The order has it advantages though, the public transport payment system is entirely based on trust, no ticket barriers and only very rare controls – somehow people seem to trust each other to pay and get on with it – refreshing!

There is a lot of impressive classical Western architecture (eg. Athena, goddess of wisdom, facing away from the parliament – wonder what that is supposed to signify…). When I reached the point where I felt like marble monuments had thrown up everywhere (it didn’t take very long) I decided to put away my map and see where my feet took me. I stumbled upon some interesting book shops and, lo and behold, a peace museum! I loved their concept, they had used windows throughout the entire block to display short infos about ”peace heros” i.e. people who have fought for or advocated peace in different ways. That way the exhibition is open to everyone at all times. They also have a small room from which they work, where they had a more detailed exhibition about Bertha von Suttner. I went in and had a good old chat with them. The French intern told me all about other activities they have, such as peace kitchen, where they cook food from a certain country (e.g. Afghanistan) and then discuss the situation in the country. Combining bellies filled with good food with peaceful conversations – what a concept! Something you can never get enough of, and incidentally the best strategy for tense meetings I’ve ever come across. They also do film and conversation evenings and work a lot with schools. An Afghan guy who seemed to be in charge explained to me how they want to bring attention to peace, to emphasise it even, as this is the only way to prevent violence and war. We discussed the situation in Syria today. He compared peace with oxygen, without either people die, yet why is it so easy for us to understand the necessity of one but not the other?

I really like the idea they promoted to give attention to what you want to see in the world. If we have weapons we will find a reason to use them, but if we devote our attention to other, more peaceful, means of relating, what would happen? When talking to the Afghan guy, I couldn’t help but thinking of my recent visit to Belfast. I spent a fair bit of time wandering aroung the West part of the cuty, which is till very much divided between Protestants and Catholics, gaping at the murals like a proper tourist, much to the annoyance of locals no doubt. What struck me though, looking through book shelves in culture centres and graffiti in housing estates, is how much the conflict is remembered (and perpetuated?) by the causes and divisions behind the conflict. Accounts are always discussing where the divisions lay, what people where fighting about, and what the causes were. But there isn’t so much attention given to what unifies these people, what brought them together even during the conflict, and who thought to work for it. I wonder how history would be written differently if we were to pay more attention to the things in the past that we want to see in the future. If Irish history were written from the perspective of what the different sides have in common, instead of trying to spell out in detail what divided them, would we see a difference in how the two sides, still divided by a ”peace wall”, relate today?

Coming out of the Peace Museum, still not quite sure of where I was, I came to some fencing and barricades put up by the police. Putting on my best innocent and bewildered tourist face, I went up to the police and started questioning them, pretending I had arranged to meet a friend in the closed off area and asking all about it. It turned out I had stumbled upon the Iran nuclear talks, currently being held in Vienna. So I hung out for a while, evesdropping to what stressed out journalists muttered in terms of analysis to each other, as they came out through the barriers. And I couldn’t help but wonder if all the fencing was there in order to prevent the one Iranian activist standing outside with photos of political prisoners from getting in, or if they were preventing the delegates to wander around and be inspired in the Viennese streets – they might even stumble across the photos of Berta von Suttner, Mahatma Gandhi, Andrei Sakharov, Kofi Annan, Joseph Rotblat and company that the Peace Museum has put a couple of blocks away. Maybe that would have been too much inspiration.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Vienna. Apart from long and wholesome chats with my friend (who I hadn’t seen in several years, how time flies), I experienced some Viennese culture through the open air film festival, showing a modern dance on personal freedom expressed through gloves (fantasticly weird) and a jazz concert with, believe it or not, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. I didn’t know she can sing, but apparently she can – check it out here. I also had the best ice cream Vienna, and the world probably, can offer – all vegan and full of bits of proper fruit. My German is improving slowly, so far I’ve managed to buy cherries at a market and attend a yoga class all in German (die Schultern weg von den Ohren).

Bis bald,

M

(no photos this time, internet connection is not of such a nature…)

”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