France

Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

steves wine

Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person, which points up another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own: the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.

sarah-palin-flag-pin

Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, embracing criticism is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to engage in transformative introspection or to brook well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that mindset, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an uninvited truth; that happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience, a tacit acknowledgment that we become travelers by becoming open, but that we can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.

6a00e5518490a0883401a73d6a9491970d-800wi

Hello there, sailor.

Editor’s note: this piece recently appeared on Outside Looking In.

Advertisements

Defending the Lady’s Honor

by Mr. Motgol

Ha-bin was always a messy drunk. Every time she went out she got catastrophically hammered. British chick wasted. A weaving, incoherent puddle of babble and drool. But unlike a British chick, Ha-bin wasn’t tall or brawny, with ancient, boozy Viking blood pumping through her veins. Instead, she was a small Korean woman with zero natural tolerance for alcohol. As a result, every time she touched the stuff she turned into a chaotic wreck. You could set your watch to it.

This night she had been particularly indulgent. We all had. We had just closed a show, an English language production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It was a reasonably big to do, with plenty of attention from the local press, and decent crowds of both foreigners and Koreans showing up for the limited run. I played the main role and Ha-bin was the producer. She had put the whole thing together and it had been a resounding success, so after the show the cast and crew headed down to Ol’55 bar to drink until we all fell down and saw in triplicate. We were in Korea, after all.

drunk 1

Ha-bin cornered me in the bowels of the club. She was dressed in her usual regalia: tinted round glasses, army fatigue pants, and a black fisherman’s cap over cropped hair. The getup gave her the look of a Bolshevik lesbian.

I was literally leaning up against the wall while she mumbled on in slurred and hopelessly broken English, something about “foreigners together… Koreans… you know… beautiful… hip-hop… musical.” She seemed to be pitching her next project and after thirty minutes of this circular, one-way conversation, I grew restless and excused myself.

I found Big Brent at the bar. He was high school buddy who had also moved to Korea to try out the waters. Brent was a monolith of a man, tall and thick, whose glasses, gentle manner and quick wit undercut his raw, physical power.

“I’m getting kind of hungry,” he said, taking down half a mug of Cass in one gulp. “Wanna grab some food?”

“Good idea. It’s past three and nothing good can come out of staying here. I know a meat place around the corner.”

We were just walking out the door when Ha-bin grabbed me.

“Yaaaa…” She swayed, holding onto my shoulder. “Wherrrrre you going?”

“Uh… we’re going to get some samgyupsal.”

Ah, mashiketa!” She said. “I come too.”

“Uh, sure… okay.”

samrest

It was only a five minute walk to the little restaurant, but somehow we lost her.

“Did you see where she went?” asked Brent, as we sat down at our table. The place was dark and smoky, jammed with customers eating, drinking, and jabbering loudly over the constant sizzle of meat.

“No idea.”

“Me neither.”

“Well maybe it’s for the best,” I said, waving to the server. “She’s pretty wasted. Hopefully she just jumped in a taxi and went home. Last time we drank together she ended up passing out in the street.”

Two bottles of beer and some side dishes arrived. As Brent went to fill my glass, my phone rang. I checked the screen. It was Ha-bin.

“Wherrrre you?” she asked. I could hear garbled voices in the background.

“At the restaurant. Where are you?”

“Family Mart. Come get me! So hungry…”

family-mart

The Family Mart was a convenience store just around the corner from Ol’55, part of a Japanese chain spread throughout Asia. It was open 24-hours, and served as a magnet for the drunkest scumbags of Busan’s expat community. Like many convenience stores in Korea, plastic tables were set up outside, and it was perfectly acceptable to buy beer, wine, soju—anything really—and then proceed to sit down and drink it right there. The result, during the warm weather months, was a boozy pack of expats guzzling well into the dawn. The later it got, the sloppier and rowdier they became. The place was always a molten, shameful mess, ground zero for the stupidest drunken shenanigans from the city’s foreigner set, and this steamy June night would be no exception.

As I approached the brightly lit store, I saw Ha-bin seated at a table with a group of Westerners. I recognized my friend Matt, along with a young, dark haired woman and a wiry white guy with a scraggly beard and dreadlocks.

Ha-bin, was half slumped over, mumbling. A skinny cigarette burned in her right hand, more ash than tobacco.

“Hey, Ha-bin!  Let’s go eat. Come on. You’ll feel better.” I grabbed her hand.

“Ees zees your beech?” a voice stabbed out. The accent was strong and unmistakably French.

I turned to the source. “What?”

“I said: Is zees your fucking beech?”

Before we proceed, I must come clean: I hate white guys with dreadlocks. Can’t stand them. One look makes my skin want to rebel. This is a visceral, irrational prejudice, and while I’m sure there are and have been very decent, upstanding white men with natty dreads, I have yet to meet any. And even if I did, I probably wouldn’t give them a chance. I’d have hate them just on principle.

I let go of Ha-bin’s hand and addressed the mouthy Frenchman.

“She’s not ‘my’ bitch. She’s nobody’s ‘bitch.’

“No, she is a mozerfucking beech. She seets and talks sheet. Take your fucking beech away.” He waved his hand for full effect.

Already heated by booze, my blood turned to fire.

“She is my friend. Who the fuck are you to talk to her like that?”

“She is a fucking beech!”

“And you are a white dread shitstain!”

“What? You are tough guy, huh?” He stood up.

“Eat my ass you Trustafarian bag of cunts!!!”

“No, fuck you man!”

“Come on! I’ll pound your ass into the dirt!!!”

“Oh, you will keeck my ass??? You want to go! Let’s go! Come on mozerfucker!!!”

He kicked his chair to the side and stepped. It was on.

The dark haired girl screamed in French as he came at me. He was smaller and sinewy and like me, very drunk. He threw a couple of ineffectual punches and missed. I immediately got inside and, remembering my wrestling days, took him to the ground, where we scuffled and rolled around on the filthy pavement. I managed a couple of blows to the side of his face, but could get no real power at such close range.

His girl waved her arms and shrieked some more. I tried to subdue him and get another shot at his face, when suddenly I was grabbed from behind and dragged up from the ground. Another guy got a hold of him and pulled him away.

“All right, break it up, guys!.” Matt yelled, stepping in between.

Chests heaving, we stared at each other over Matt’s shoulder.

“Okay okay.” I threw my hands up and was released.

“Fuck this… let’s get out of here Ha-bin.” I waved for her to come, then turned and walked toward the restaurant. My head was reeling. I needed a smoke and a beer.

“FUCK YOU MOZERFUCKER!!!” echoed the voice of my nemesis as I walked away. “COME BACK HERE!!! I KEEL YOU!!!”

samgyupsal

Brent was seated where I left him when I returned to the restaurant, tending to the fatty strips of pork in the small grill in the middle of the table.

“You won’t guess what just happened,” I said, plopping onto the stool and lighting a cigarette.

“Oh? Do tell…”

A minute later my phone buzzed again.

“Wherrrrrare you???” Ha-bin’s voice moaned through the speaker over obvious shouting.

I hung up. “Fuuuuuuuuuck. I’ll be right back.” Brent, shrugged and continued grilling the meat.

light

The scene was much the same as I left it, though now Matt was now restraining Ha-bin, who was now in berserker mode. She unleashed a banshee’s wail of invective toward the Frenchman and his girlfriend.

“YAAAAAAAAA SHIPPALNOM!!! CHUGEOLAY??? AAAAAAHH??? SHIPPALMICHINYEO YEOT MEOGEORA!!! YAAA!!! MICHINNOM GAESHEKKIYAAAAAAAA!!!”

As soon as I approached I was spotted by the natty Gaul, who pointed, eyes ablaze: “You! MOZERFUCKER!!!”

He was on me before I knew it and knocked me off my feet. I felt the sharp scrape of the pavement against my shoulder as he pressed down. Now on top, he  jumped from side to side as I attempted to scramble out from under him. Finally I made it back to my feet, staggering. We squared off, throwing sad, drunken punches that never hit their marks.

“Knock it the fuck off!” Matt screamed, pushing me away with his meaty arm. “If you don’t stop the cops will be here.”

“Okay okay.”

Once again I threw up my hands.

“Just get out of here!”

I turned away and grabbed Ha-bin by the wrist, dragging her along. She jerked and screamed, swinging her free fist toward the couple.

YAAAAAAAAA GAESHEKKIYAAAAAAAAAA!!!”

“You walk away???” the French guy yelled back. “I find you mozerfucker! WE ARE NOT FINEESHED!!!”

mouth

Back at the restaurant we joined Brent, who peacefully dug into his meal and chuckled as I recounted the latest round. Ha-bin could barely sit. She leaned on an elbow and puffed on a skinny smoke, muttering to herself.

We ate and drank for fifteen more minutes. I was relieved to be out of the action. I had only been in a few fights in my life and hated them. And this asshole was hardly worth the effort.

Just then I saw him, outside of the restaurant, walking past with his girlfriend. Our eyes met and he stopped.

“MOZERFUCKER!!!!” he screeched, bursting through the door and tackling me at the table. Bottles, plates, silverware and glasses crashed to the floor around us, as we grappled in the greasy floor of the restaurant.

Big Brent sprang into action. He was lethally quick for a man of his size, and immediately he seized the raving pseudoRasta and, club bouncer-like, fucked him out the door like a bag of wet laundry. The French dude hit the pavement but was soon back on his feet, pacing back and forth and screaming to me.

“You come out and with fight wiz mee, mozerfucker!!!”

I had to give the guy credit for persistence.

At this point the owner of the restaurant was heatedly holding forth with Ha-bin as the smattering of other customers gazed on in semi-disbelief.

The Frenchman paced and raved outside of the door, ignoring his girlfriend’s pleas to move on. It was now very early morning, and the glow of the  day’s first light began to seep down the building sides surrounding us.

I took a breath and walked out the door, ready for round three.

He came out swinging, grazing my cheek but landing nothing. Again I took him down. I wanted to end this thing once and for all, hoping to use my size advantage for the old “ground and pound.” But he was a slippery son of a bitch and before I knew it, he was behind me, with an arm over my throat, attempting to choke me out.

He wrenched down tightly, and I gasped for air, but nothing was coming in. He had me good. My mouth moved and gulped like that of a goldfish that had jumped out of its bowl. I couldn’t let this happen; unless I did something, now, I was done. So I mustered all my strength and flailed my body while pushing up with my arm. This seemed to work. I felt him release and leaped back to my feet, sucking in the clear morning air. We stood there, staring.

“Are we finished?” I asked.

“No we are not fineeshed! We are never fineeshed!”

He came at me again, but never made it.

Big Brent had had enough of our pathetic spectacle. With amazing speed he flashed through the door, past me and went straight for the Frenchman. With his huge left paw he grabbed the guy by his nest of dreadlocks and forced him onto his knees. The dude’s girlfriend screamed for him to stop,  but Brent was in total control. Brent then balled up his right hand into a fist, and bore it down like a warhammer on the top of Frenchy’s head: BAM! He repeated this three more times: BAM! BAM! BAM!

This managed to stun our Jamaican Pierre, who stood up and staggered, his eyes now black holes.

“That should take care of him for a while,” said Brent, just in time for the cops to arrive.

A Korean police station lit up at night

They kept us separated at the police station. Brent, Ha-bin, and I were on one bench, the Gallic couple on the other. Ha-bin was an exploding rage-filled hairball the whole time. She screamed, cursed, wailed and repeatedly bum rushed our foes on the opposing bench, only to be grabbed by intervening cops, who she clawed, slapped, and even bit at. I was amazed at their ability to handle such abuse. They gently took control of her, holding her back and quietly asking her to calm down. They were obviously used to such goings on. Just another night at work for a Korean peace officer, it seemed.

After a few hours—enough time to sober up—they let us all go with a warning. I’m sure they were more than happy to have us out of their hair. Frenchy’s ire had not yet cooled. Unsatisfied with the outcome of our melee, he repeatedly offered to continue it at a time and place of my choosing.

“Any time! I weel be there! This is not fineeshed, mozerfucker!!!”

He even shouted out his phone number, three timeslest I have trouble tracking him down.

dove-hd-3

I never saw him again. It turns out he was an international student at the end of his stay. And though he was clearly out-of-line–an obnoxious, arrogant, champion drunken shithead–I had to grudgingly grant him one crumb of respect: the guy was driven. He didn’t give up.

How much fighting does alcohol cause? Too much to count. It’s the primary fuel much of human aggression, though there can be an upside to fighting dead drunk. Sometimes both parties are just too wasted to do any real harm to each other. This was certainly the case with us. Had we been a little more sober, somebody would have probably got their ass kicked.

A few weeks later I ran into an Irish buddy of mine who had witnessed part of the fracas. He was none too impressed with either of our prowess. In his musical Cork brogue, he only had this to say:

“You looked like a couple a Polacks dancin’.”

Brent moved back to America. During a recent visit we recounted the story over steaks, beers, and cigars, laughing at its patent absurdity and praising Korean cops for their unbelievable powers of forbearance. Silently, I recalled how nice it was to have him on my side.

As for Ha-bin? Her drinking days are long behind her. Soon after this incident she found God. That’s right, she got right with Jesus and became a born-again-Christian. Today she runs a Christian café/bookstore with her similarly devout husband. No longer does she slap dudes and bite cops. These days, the only thing getting thumped is her Bible.

I haven’t been in a full-on fight since. And it should come as no surprise that the experience did little to temper my disdain for white dreadheads. If anything, it’s exacerbated the bias. It’s made it to where I can barely travel in Southeast Asia anymore. Just picture it: There I am, trying to relax in paradise, wanting to murder every third backpacker I see.