Saturday, October 12, 2013

Leaving Kansas

Being a stranger is more of a state of mind rather than much of a fact. You stop referring to home as Home and start calling it Romania, Turkey, or wherever you are from. Travelling there becomes not the Long Road Home but the Long Road Back. Back where?
When I was a kid I grew up in a dilapidated industrial town in Romania. It’s still there in relatively the same state as I left it: with chipped paint, some decrepit buildings, and a series of Western European franchise department stores to mark the ever encroaching capitalist expansion.
That’s fine. Pale old people walk their grandchildren, who are still too young to legitimately run away forever and their sense of desperation lingers in the air.
I remember when I was someone’s very young grandchild there were three brothers growing up near me in the neighborhood. The older was Sergiu, the younger was Bebe, and the one in between fell off the first story balcony of a construction site, landing on a set of concrete steps, and breaking the fall with his back. He survived. That’s all I remember about him.
When the kids would run around in the sun and get into scraps, Sergiu always called me the Englishman. He did so because I spoke fledgling English and was a bit of a showoff. He spoke to me in the same way that I now address some people as “breakfast” or “douche-pickle.” I remember him shouting at me: “Hey Englishman, say something in English!” It’s like that Eddie Izzard joke where an American dad and his kids run up to the very British Eddie and say: “You! Say something in British to my kids!” only with a bit more aggression.
Today, the same benevolent sun shines through the trees, above beautiful hilltops and between old smoke stack silhouettes. There are crosses along the road leading to town. The crosses mark the graves of young men and women, boys and girls, who have died in car accidents and took the quickest way out.
Fifteen minutes outside of town there is a small village called “Friday,” in verbatim translation. There, cows wander slowly back to their households from nearby pastures and stop to shit in the middle of the road.  Horse-drawn carriages are sprinkled about making a mess of traffic. You know they’re there because of the long lines of cars behind them, stacked up and stuck in second gear.
Besides the traffic and the general commute, the town is now empty. Fifteen years ago there was a cinema on the main square. I watched Titanic there, and cried when Leonardo didn't get on the damn floating door. Now the cinema is gone — replaced by a club of some sorts where the local interlopers show up to do fuckall. There was also a bookstore that got replaced by a bar. Not an utterly tasteless place, but the mix of hash-smoking-lounge-decor with the super-loud-music-rave-party vibes gives it a disjointed feel, like someone frankensteined together passive-aggressive with schizoid.
Talking with anyone who still lives in town about ‘what’s going on’ yields the same response: “Nothing…” If the town was a person it would be dead and the epitaph written on the tombstone would be just that: “Noting…” Yes, with the typo.
Now I live in Budapest. That’s in Hungary, close to this rather big lake and otherwise the flattest terrain known to man. There is also the Danube. It’s a river.
Bableves is a good food and I like it. It has beans inside and it’s rather creamy, but not exactly like bean soup. Palinka is way too heavy on the stomach (at least the sorts I have tried), but a worthy accomplishment either way. The men are all blondish (yes, all of them!) and funny looking but really friendly. And the women are tall and beautiful; it must be something in the water supply.
I do not speak Hungarian. Yes, I have been here for five years or something. Yes, I have drunk, dined, lived and breathed next to Hungarians. I have plundered their women and raped their men. But I never learned the language. I plead guilty.
I do tell myself that everything would be so much easier if I did speak this local language. I could walk up to girls and say “Hello, I’m so-and-so. How’s your relationship with your father?”
But no, what I do instead, is emulate my childhood linguistic tormentor, Sergui, and say,  “Hey you, say something in English” or “Ok, now try that in English” or if i’m feeling particularly polite:  “Do you speak any English?”  More often than not I act the bully.  I push harder:  “You will speak English. You will do my bidding,” I whisper.  “There is no choice.”
And how do they respond?  Like this:  “I am veri sori may Inglish isz not veri gud.” So, they apologize for not speaking English and I don’t have to apologize for not speaking Hungarian.  It’s ironic, but feels good. Perverse, but good.
I’m not lazy to learn the language, I’m just busy with other things. You think “I’m not lazy, I’m busy” sounds like an excuse? Let me offer relevant examples of how I’m right and you are totally wrong:
Misery doesn't rain. It pours.
Love is not blind. It’s retarded.
Egos don’t bend. They break.
Vampires don’t sparkle. They burn.
Need I say more?
Living anywhere is not about learning the language or swimming in the local culture or going native and growing a traditional mustache. You do that anyway, to some degree. What you do need to realize is that living anywhere foreign and alien means being a stranger — and not just on a conceptual I-am-not-in-my-own-country sort of way. You may trick yourself into believing it is a pervasive and constant feeling that might feel like loneliness, homesickness, or general longing – but it ain’t.
The rules of the game changed a long time ago when you crossed the border whether you liked it or not. Prolonged exposure to the outside will brand you an outsider as a default state. And here is an example:
Do you remember watching The Wizard of Oz? The one with Judy Garland? Well it is a story about a girl who lives on a farm with her frustrated family. The girl’s name is Dorothy. Her life is not something you would label as ‘peachy.’ Her relatives don’t completely resent her, but would still prefer her stay out of the way, and hold her breath if possible. The only friend she seems to have is a dog named Toto.
Now, the story takes a turn when Toto irritates the farm landowner by dry-humping his leg. The landowner declares that Toto should be euthanized or destroyed, to which the rest of the family starts considering sharp objects and a dog size hole in the ground. Somehow the sanctity of the farm depends on the death of the terrier.
Have you ever considered the alternative of asking the landowner to be reasonable and just kill Dorothy instead? That would be consistent with the story actually.
I digress.
 In her first act of self assertion Dorothy runs away from home in an attempt to save the dog. This is when fate rolls in and casts a magical storm that lifts both Toto and Dorothy into the whirlwind, and flies them out of Kansas. Then:  Bam! One lawnmower to the back of the head later, she wakes up in Oz.
You may already anticipate the journey of self discovery Dorothy faces in the magical land of Oz. She walks from here to there in a great effort to find a magical macguffin that will take her home only to realize that the power she sought was with her all along. The Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow are all metaphors for discovered courage, a heart of gold, and thin-as-paper human intellect. All the while, Dorothy gets molded by the strangeness and other-worldliness of Oz. Then, at the end of the journey, the four companions discover the prize as being much smaller than they had anticipated. The Scarecrow had a brain all along, the Lion had courage, and the Tin Woodsman had a heart.  And Dorothy – she had been wearing the power of going home on her feet the whole time. So, sparing everyone the anticipation, Dorothy does just that:  she goes home.
And here is what I consider a problem with the conclusion of the story:
What you never see in most monomyths is the protagonist returning to the place of origin after prolonged adventure and saying “There’s no place like home.” Hell no! They usually get kicked out because of their acquired alien nature. Strangely enough that is not what Dorothy learns after leaving her abusive family and diving into Oz and embarking on the trippy journey on the yellow brick road. She learns that there is no place like home. How? Why? This can’t be happening!
Now there is the possibility that the writers were all high on paint thinner by the end and just made Dorothy come out as having a really bad memory. It’s not like her family was trying to kill her only friend, and had also sat quietly by as they watched her run into the eye of a raging tornado. No sir!
So it’s not that. Here is my proposition:
Dorothy is completely disassociated with reality upon her arrival back to the Kansas farmstead. Her mental burden is so great that when she wakes up at home surrounded by her family, she refuses to accept a dire reality: that despite the effort to save her dog, the poor little terrier was killed in the storm. So with this reality in mind, the second act is reduced to a psychotic episode in which the protagonist wrestles with the demons of cowardice, stupidity, and the callous neglect that she received from her family.  Dorothy’s reward is a colorful dream of redemption.  It is a dream of magic, mystery, and flying monkeys that comes to a black and white awakening: the dog is dead!
Dorothy tricks herself into believing that the sheer existential dread of being pushed around is actually ok – something to be desired and sought after. Just look at the last scene here. Seriously, notice how no one but Dorothy acknowledges that the dog even exists. And you know why that is? Because he isn't there. Dead, I say. It’s just Dorothy hallucinating and rambling on and on about something that she knew in the beginning to be false: “There is no place like home. I love you all very much.” Wrong and wrong!
Her journey should have been a process of change wrought with the anxiety and reluctance of both the initial departure and the possible return. The journey didn't mean anything to her because she didn't make it back, not completely. She failed in being a stranger to her family and her home. She did not change one bit, and whatever knowledge she gained was left behind in the dream world.
One must never become a “Dorothy.” Journeys like this need to be accepted and embraced otherwise you’re only going to be hallucinating Toto, your hometown, your childhood dreams, your past.
I never look back at my hometown with a sense of nostalgia. I mean, I always thought I did. But looking back feels too much like saying I’m sorry, I give up, I had no idea where I was going so, hello everybody, I’m back. And there’s a pervading sense of guilt for giving into the comfort of past days. Maybe what it takes to really go back is a complete sense of loss, just like Dorothy felt when Toto died. I hope that will never happen.

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