European Diary: Room 4121, Konventa Sēta; Monday, June 7, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

Midnight Stroganoff. “Pupi” means boobs. Little freaked out. Too far from home. But it will pass.

Went to Latvijas Archīvs across the Daugava – shitty part of town, looked like the old ghetto we toured (was it?), huge old wooden buildings, long ago stripped of paint, like a black and white photo from the turn of the last century showing some dirt-street shtetl full of traders in some remote czarist province. All those countries were irretrievably remote since I was born, due to the Iron Curtain. But that’s been down (only!) a decade now.

I love walking into old photographs of extinct worlds or into paintings from story books written in an alphabet you can’t make out.

European Diary: 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 6, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

Latvia has a crazy mix of people: blond Latvians, Russian cabdrivers who look like nothing so much as great lumps of fat with golf tees for eyes, Asians from the Russian Far East, Poles, German tourists moving in great, slow groups like camera-toting glaciers or ham-drunk re-enactors of the barbarian migrations of the 1st century, Swedes, Estonians, people who look like they bought their clothes at Prada in Paris, others who look like Oregonians in town from their berry farms, still others who look fresh from a shopping spree at the Cuban Slut Superstore.

The women here are unholy. I figured out why they’re so sexy – from puberty to death they are trying to look appealing to men; they’re trying to look sexy and they’re succeeding. As S. said, “I don’t think there are many lesbians here.” They all wear low-cut pants or short skirts. One of the most popular pieces of “clothing” are white pants made out of window sheers. Their racks wobble like Superballs thrown into a shower stall, regardless of size, and some are frankly stupendous. Perhaps this is due to walking on cobbled streets in high heels, each step setting off the pechugonal reckoning. And their dumpers have the quaking heft of black girls at the prom.

***

We have separated somewhat from this useless group of addled and self-absorbed geriatrics we have taken to calling “The S- S- Show,” after its leader. It culminated with a dinner last night at the Otto Schwarz, after an interminable day yukking it up in the killing fields. The long and short of it is that this is S- S-‘s private club, a septuagenarian sock-hop, an old people’s caravan holding up traffic on the intellectual and emotional freeway, every Volaré signaling a left turn never to be taken. This group combines the social sophistication of a high school lunchroom with the self-righteousness of the victim. Even though the overwhelming majority of the 107 people here did not survive the Holocaust, they still seem to seek the admiration they imagine draping themselves in its mantle will bring them.

I think it was the third time I heard S- S- announce to the nodding crowd of Q-Tips that the Second Generation had a “solemn duty” to his generation that drove me to throw in the towel. It seems perfectly appropriate to this cave full of graying fruit bats that they should harrumph about the duties of young people while acting, as nearly all of these had, either embarrassed or inconvenienced and irritated every time we asked them for information on the fate of S.’s family. They have all the social skills of the old and the fact that most are East Coasters and therefore have the taste of mobsters adds to the effect.

At any rate, to hell with them all. The ones who survived the Holocaust are bitter, half-crazy, running to the bar for vodka, or doddering and rambling. The majority of them are coasting on the coat-tails of the Holocaust. All of them are vulgar and greedy for the little pleasures of gobbling and gulping, and can’t be bothered to help a poor girl reconstruct the narrative of her past. To hell with them.

As to this “solemn duty” to the men and women whose generation endured the Holocaust, so be it. I acknowledge and accept this responsibility. My wife has been aware of it long before she ever came here, as her father was a survivor. Although I am no Jew, I felt the responsibility to that history for these simple reasons: because I am a man, because I am a husband and because I am an American, and our history, as much as any European, is bound up in all this.

All very well and good. But what does that mean? For my wife and I, it means first thing first. We are here for only one reason: that very duty that has been spoken of so frequently. In the last four years, despite the pain of it, my wife has put together as complete a history of the life of her father and the life and death his parents as she has been able. It has been a good start, reclaiming the very thing the nazis hoped to destroy: the memory, the identity, the beliefs and the history of the Jews, of these specific Jews, these individual humans, everything that says, “I was here.” We are here in an attempt to further integrate that still-fractured and incomplete history. And, frankly, we have had little luck doing it.

“We have asked dozens of you people if you knew S.’s father, born and raised in Riga, survivor of the ghetto, Stuffhof, Buchenwald, Mittelbau Rora; or her grandfather or grandmother. The discomfort, the blank stares, the backs turned, have not helped us. If you wish for this group to end when you die, and in the meantime for it to be a dining club of old Latvian Jews, I do not fault you for it. It is yours and it is your choice. If you wish it to be a private, family affair, I have no criticism of you I wish to make. How could I? However, when you speak, over and over and over and over again, of my wife’s generation’s duty, to you, then I fault you. If you do not, or cannot, tell your stories, if you are unwilling to free your memories, to answer questions, then there is no future for this and we cannot and will not be able to do this duty of ours.

“I do not presume to judge the difficulty of what you went through, or the strain of living with it. But facts are facts: without your help we cannot do our duty. If you are unwilling, or unable, to do your part in transmitting the message, stop requiring it of us. If this is going to continue on into the future as something of import, something that will outlive you, something more enduring than a midnight cruise down the Daugava with your bittersweet memories, then consider when you plan the next Reunion: Where are the lectures on history? The workshops? Where are the life-histories gathered and published and distributed? Where are the Latvian language classes? Where are the Shabbat candles? Where are the genealogy seminars and the roundtables of survivors and specialists? It doesn’t sound as fun as dinners and dancing and receptions and cruises, does it? It sounds more unpleasant. It sounds like your duty.”

[When I wrote this, right after it happened, I was furious. Although I am no longer as upset at the situation, which has receded in time, and although I admit it is not very charitable to excoriate those involved so resoundingly, I still mean now what I said then. And I think it is important to remember that not only was I speaking about a specific group of people in a certain situation but that these are Morpheme Tales, subject to no editor and therefore to no censors. I have tried to not even impose self-censorship on these writings — a task more difficult than I had anticipated. There is enough mealy-mouthedness about. I take responsibility for thinking my own thoughts and expressing them with reason, but without endless qualification. If that snits some people off, I think it’s worth it.]

European Diary: Terrace of the Melnais Kaķis (the Black Cat), Livu Laukums; 7:00 a.m.; Friday, June 4, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

S. is ill; I have continuing sinusitis and the preposterous insistence on the part of the sun to shine until the middle of the night and beyond makes sleep difficult. I’m at the café with almost seven hours of sleep versus four last night. S. is still sleeping, G-d keep her.

Late yesterday afternoon we visited the observation platform on Svētas Pētera. The cathedral itself, dating from the 13th century settlement of Rīga by the German bishop Albert, was uninspiring and we figured it was due to a botched “restoration.” It turns out it was bombed in World War II and, G-d help us, the Soviets rebuilt it. It looks like it was built by street corner day laborers – cheap brick and wretched plaster work. The Soviet influence will be felt here for decades.

Last night we attended the formal opening of the Reunion of World Latvian Jewry at the Jewish Center in Skolas iela (School Street) last night. The theatre was full of people, including Jewish association leaders from the U.S., Latvia and Israel and the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to Latvia.

The hall was encompassed by a balcony and all the walls were cream, scarlet and gold with a large golden “MD” on the shield above the stage. It looked like a lighter version of the theatre from Terry Gilliam’s film, “The Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen.” Among the festivities later later missed, a performance by the winner of the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner, Maria N., a Latvian. Yikes.

Today we are supposed to go to the Jūrmala resort at the beach but think we may need simply to rest.

European Diary: Room 4121, Konventa Sēta; 8:00 a.m., Thursday; June 3, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

We are not here for some ethnological observation – to “see how others live.” We are here to address that part of life that is fraught and sustained by memories, as well as that part of life that is halted by memories, incomplete memories, a life which can only revive and move forward by finding enough of the missing material to create a sensible narrative. This is a far more important charge than activities which, though presented as important, are little more than tourism.

***

The pronouncement by American bishops that politicians who favor abortion rights should be denied communion is typical of the Church. This is a group in which its most important and powerful bishops consistently protected dozens – hundreds? – of child rapists, declaring the image and authority of its organization, its prestige, more important than the faith, safety and sanity of its parishioners.

I remember a few years back when the San Francisco bishopric’s P.R. representative keened and mewled that a bunch of fags in nun costumes prancing about on Easter was just the same as the attempted extermination of six million Jews and when the outrageousness of this statement was pointed out, this same flack accused those who complained of being anti-Catholic. The Bishop, after being contacted about his minion’s actions, remained silent. Silent. Hrmm… Why does that sound… so… familiar? Oh, right! The cover up of all the child raping priests.

What self-deception that the most powerful religious organization in the history of the world would present itself as an innocent victim of much more powerful and sinister forces (shorthand, as always for Jews and, in this case, fags – probably people who carry library cards as well.) This arrogance and the actions it has allowed have bankrupted the Church, morally more than financially. I can’t see how it could ever recover any moral legitimacy. It is in danger of devolving further and further into its medieval hermit’s role as world-hating lunatics’ cave. The Catholic Church is becoming the nut-job militia of religions: dangerous, unbalanced and blind.

Well, all it took was unremitting arrogance, self-deception and un-Christian anger in the face of 2,000 years of European Jewish history, and hundreds of covered-up child rapes, self-righteousness, exclusion and pridefulness, but the S.F. P.R. weasel’s pronouncement has – I’m sure he’d be delighted to know – finally come true. I am “anti-Catholic.” And will be for so long as every bishop does not get down on his knees and pray to God, to ask for forgiveness for his cowardice and self-absorption, and beg the victims of his arrogance to forgive him, not until he stops making excuses and playing the victim. What would Jesus do, indeed. Probably not send his P.R. weasel out to slur Jews!

I hope self-righteousness is a pleasant companion for the Church in its moral dotage and death.

Once, it had Thomas Merton. Now it has Mel Gibson.

***

This is only the second time in the history of the Morpheme Tales I have felt obliged to clarify. Considering most of journalism is filled with a stagey concern for “balance” by people who are leaning crazily to one side or another, I have tried to eliminate self-censorship and say what I mean clearly, even if it means the minor notes are left unstruck. But I have had feedback from people I respect who have read this and been unsure whether I really have some unreasoning animus against Catholics. It’s a polemic, with the words chosen as much for effect as for an accurate reflection of my feelings. I do not hate Catholics, nor do I hate the Church. I am incredibly disappointed in the Church as an institution, one I have considered joining, and do have disgust for the individuals I have encountered — and read about — who have behaved immorally with the excuse that the ends justified the means. I also do not believe that any human institution has any right to expect to remain above criticism. This idea is at the root of most of the Church’s missteps throughout its history.

European Diary: Room 4121, Konventa Sēta; Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

Latvia exists, in part, outside of time and outside of history. The birch forests receding away from the bay and the Dauguva River, recede from written history as well, into a time that was never written down. In Rīga itself, the vaguely Scandinavian, vaguely German, vaguely Russian buildings hint of an empire no one has ever heard of.

Contemporary Latvia is roughly split between Russian immigrants who surged into the place during the 60 years of Soviet rule (and some left over from czarist times) and the more numerous native Latvians. The Russians are blocky, fleshy apparatchiks with poorly made suits or young pimply brutes with bowl haircuts and cheap girlfriends, reeking of cheap perfume, sporting paste jewelry that leaves green rings on their necks and fingers, wearing cheap dresses pulled off a truck in the Ukraine.

The Latvians on the other hand are blond often as not, taller, graceful, Western-facing since the Hanseatic days of the 13gh century, at ease in the world, almost like soulful Swedes, sporting outfits from the center of contemporary global fashion consciousness. When they speak their native language they sound like Italians speaking Norwegians. They are cosmopolitan, mercantile traders who chafed under the rule of a people who acted and thought like the Latvians’ brutal hick cousins, hating the big city their metropolitan cousins moved about in with such ease, but jealous of them and covetous of it as well.

***

We got in late last night, arriving at the Hotel de Rome at 11:30. We found out we were actually in the Konventa Sēta, a sister hotel three blocks away, a complex of buildings next to St. Peter’s Basilica, a 13th century Rīga landmark. The building we stayed in started out as a refectory for the Order of Sword Knights who founded the city, then, later, became an almshouse for widows.

At 2:30 in the morning, there was still some dark blue light in the sky. We are in extreme Northern latitudes – on a par with Norway. Got to sleep at 3:30, slept until 7:30, had breakfast in the Raibais Balodis, back to bed until 11:30. With the sun out so late everyone stays up. I saw little old ladies returning to the hotel at almost 11:00 p.m. We went to the Latvian survivor conference’s orientation at the Rome, but over half the group, including the leader, were held up in Belgium. We asked around after people who knew S.’s family in Rīga. One lady knew a friend of the family, A., who lives in San Francisco. Another fellow, also called Mr. J., who lives in Stockholm, spoke at length with me in German. My German was more up to the task than I had expected. S. felt a bit overwhelmed but hopeful, and grateful. I was proud to help.

Tomorrow we go to the Jewish Museum, on a guided tour of the old city, which I am really looking forward to, the reception and dinner. We hope to find the house where her grandparents lived, the synagogue where her grandfather was cantor. Should be interesting. This is the most foreign place I’ve ever been – including El Salvador and Guatemala – and it’s something of an adventure.

***

Vecrīga is the best preserved old city I have ever seen – lovely, well-kept, full of businesses, bars, cafes, record and book shops, restuarants, street vendors. Look about th ecity from a high point like th Otto Schwarz restaurant on top fo the Hotel de Rome or the observatory on the Svēta Pētera Baznīca belltower and you feel you’re looking around at a 15th century engraving.

Today, we walked all around the incredibly lively, bustling and capcious old city in the cold northern sunshine with the fresh breezes coming off the river and breathing through the birdch stands, tidal marshes and the sea as though in and out of lungs. Unfortunately, hwoever, we wound up at one nasty, pretentious café after another. Twice we ordered food. The Georgian shishlik (as a formmer S.S.R., “exotic” food in Latvia still tends to borrow from its former fellow socialist republics, primarily Georgia and Armenia) was underdone, the potatos uncooked and the salad rancid. At the “Cuban” restuarnat on the river we were treated to suspcious eggrolls and a crème brûlée which consisted of a pile of freakish wobblings covered in goo and served by a shivering Ruskie half-wit in a Hawai’ian patterned mini-skirt.

So I insisted we go the Otto Schwarz, the ‘best” restaurant in town, figuring that, with luck, we could find a hamburger patty and mashed potatoes we could choke down. Instead, it was – after nine 0’clock in the evening it was still as bright as day – in this largely deserted restaurant, one of those meals you remember forever. As an old man played and occasionally sang old jazz and songbook standards we ate lemongrass-coconut milk-shrimp soup, a vegetable tart with goat cheese, salad with basil dressing, croquettes with spinach, (along unfortunately with a criminally overpriced, dreadfully sweet pinot grigio) and marzipan-ice cream cake.

The paneling, gilding, emptiness, elegance made me think of the loss of pre-war Europe. In the distance the stepped spires of the churches, the over-ground trolleys, the few old people in furs in the corner: it all felt like the ghost of a time lost in a moment of violence that can never be reclaimed, not with a lifetime of prayers. The sacral absence again that is the only possible memorial for the death not just of eight million Jews but of a whole way of being. Europe died long ago, the Europe that was an idea. The only living idea left to the world is America, and it too finally will be thought for the last time, then lost.

European Diary: Courtyard of the British Library, 1:00 p.m., Monday; May 31, 2004; London, England

Just visited the Ritblat Gallery where we saw a first draft of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen with Siegfried Sasson’s remarks penciled in. Thought I was going to bawl or faint. Also, Finnegan’s Wake, the oldest extant complete copy of the New Testament (Codex Sinaiticus) culled from the collection of the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai – it is any wonder I’ve always wanted to go there? (See below) Also saw the Gutenburg Bible, the Magna Carta, the First Folio, as well as the bill for Blackfriars and pages from Leonardo’s notebooks.

It was an emotional experience but very powerful physically as well. It made me want to study again, so I can join the British Library and man-handle the manuscripts: HOT INK-ON-VELLUM ACTION!

We need to go to Heathrow soon and take the short flight to Amsterdam and slightly longer one to Riga. Not looking forward to suffocation-by-airplane-seat. Told S. I should have fashioned a traveling garment out of a fitted sheet. She suggested a book: “The Sweatpant Chronicles: 17 Countries in One Pair of Sweatpants.”

***

The initial and terminal poems from “The Sinai Elegies”:

The temple

Once the Temple at Sinai stood fixed in my mind in the shimmering heat

Of the white desert in the stillness of midday. No figure

Marred the emptiness, no bird broke the held breath

Of the sky. The Temple stood silent in the midst of silence.

Like the structure itself, stone shorthand for its own architecture,

This vision stood scrip to the gold of a greater truth.

Like the Incan runner holding speech in a knotted string,

I bore sanctuary in the folds of a luminous dream.

I hurled myself across the erring oceans, rejoicing

At each failure, each mistake I made I blessed,

For every ill wind that ran my ship aground

Marooned me closer to the terrible desert.

And the Temple stood fixed in my mind. The nights were hot

With desire, the roads blazed with it. The names of things

Were strong in my ear, the year long in its shadow. But now,

O, now the Temple is gone. I am lost in the tide of days.

Kingdom come

Now, the Temple at Sinai stands fixed in my mind in the deepening

Dark of the lengthening night with the timbre of starlight,

Possessing the desert like a held breath possesses the body,

Defining by degrees what it is and is not.

The stars revolve with the vault of Heaven, turning like a great

Stone lid. Intangible and infinite space seems

Palpable; Time, finite. This is the instant the anointed voice

Spoke and ceased. And this is the moment right after.

And I no longer care that there within its walls, where a crude

Lamp burns gold, stands the basin of polished

Stone the cut rose floats in and that,

Should I withdraw it from the Water,

The Rose revoke my Exile and my name unfold within me.

Let my Name unfold within me and my body turn to dust!

I have learned nothing but that something remains.

Let thy kingdom come down like water.

European Diary: Courtyard of the British Library; 2:35 p.m., Sunday; May 30, 2004; London, England

The flight and its preparations were a trail, but worth it. London is very comfortable, not at all foreign, though others would probably disagree. Excellent to be in a real city again; things feel possible. London has become much richer, culturally, in the sense of a global culture, than it was the last time I visited – 20 years ago? It may be that I just see it more; I spent only a day or so here before.

The first two days here this time were devoted to rest and Sunday, it appears, is the day on which London becomes a tiny village again and everything shuts up tight. Most of our cultural activities will have to happen when we return oat the end of June. London has more museums, art and theatre than any other city I’ve ever seen, possibly more than NYC. We did wind up taking the Tube to Leicester square and walking through the West End, eating a typically English, yet not horrid, dinner at a restaurant – Brown’s? – in the theatre district. Then, a jog through an open-air drag queen convention on the streets of Covent Garden.

There are too many tourists and immigrants to count here. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff are Spanish, Russian, French, Georgian and Italian. Stores are run by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs, doing the same work as is done in the U.S. by Mexicans, Salvadorans, Vietnamese and so on. Once, on Oxford Street, S. and I got up from a café (Nero & Great Palace) and as we walked I heard so much French and Arabic I thought for a disorienting moment that I was in Paris instead of London.

Tomorrow we fly to Latvia. I expect it to be interesting and, for S., very emotional, but nine days is quite long. She has already started saying, “Curt, I want to move here.” There is a lot of media here.

***

Added bonus: 70s punk rock hooker look still alive and well here, especially among the middle-aged and unattractive.

One other note: It is a terribly noisy city. British reserve, indeed. I wish they would “reserve” their voices, doors and horns.

American Monster V: Going Dutch

The murder of Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh on Tuesday, November 2 has proven the catalyst for an epidemic of violence that has deeply damaged the image of the Dutch, both domestically and abroad, as a tolerant people.

In the almost three weeks since the murder, on a daylight street in Amsterdam, mosques and churches have been bombed and a 15 hour shoot-out took place between Islamists and the police in The Hague, which resulted in the wounding of one suspect and two police officers.

But Van Gogh’s murder is only the latest in a series of violent actions by Islamists in this small country. When S. and I visited Amsterdam this summer, our friend, C., an American graphic designer who had lived in the city for five years, commented that the country’s tradition of tolerance had produced unforeseen results. Namely, Islamic religious leaders, who had gained entrance to Holland due to that country’s liberal immigration laws, were preaching violence against the unrighteous, that is, against those whose culture and laws had allowed them to be there in the first place. The Dutch.

The enormous amount of immigrants, many from Islamic countries, have been welcomed into Holland over the past decades. Holland’s tradition of asylum extends back at least to the 16th century when many thousands of Sephardic Jews were welcomed into the country after they had been expelled from first Spain and then Portugal.

The problem is that these latest immigrants were provided with the necessities for life but were not required to become a part of the Dutch society that they felt alienated from and, with the encouragement of some imams, grew to hate. There were no economic forces driving them into the mainstream, they were frequently physically isolated in ghettos, and there were no languages requirements, resulting in second generation Dutch of Islamic heritage who speak no Dutch.

The earlier (May 6, 2002) murder of the anti-immigrant demagogic politician Pim Fortuyn was the first high-profile shot fired in this conflict. Although Fortuyn’s murderer was not a Muslim, many believed his strident condemnation of Holland’s immigration policy was a factor in creating the atmosphere in which he was killed.

In her September, 2002 paper, “The Netherlands: Tolerance Under Pressure,” Joanne Van Selm of the Migration Policy Institute said, “The atmosphere seems increasingly unwelcoming. Tolerance is clearly showing its limits.” It seems she was on to something.

Holland has the highest population density in the European Union: 388 people per square kilometer according to a 2000 United Nations estimate. As of 2003, 18.4 % of Dutch, almost 3,000,000, were foreign born. By 2002, according to the Dutch Central Office for Statistics, the population of the Netherlands was growing by 329 people per day. (Admittedly, it is always difficult to wade purposefully through the mass of data each government and organization provides, much of which is contradictory.)

At any rate, Holland has a great many immigrants, virtually no breaks on the process; they are coming at an increasing rate and are becoming a higher percentage of the country’s inhabitants and they seem increasingly to be at odds with Dutch society as a whole.

I wrote C., asking him simply, “What in the hell is going on over there?”

He said:

“It would take quite some time for me to respond properly, and you probably know as much as I do.

“While the hubbub over the last weeks’ events — first van Gogh’s murder, then the appalling ‘revenge’ attacks on a mosque and a school, and finally an unrelated but terrifying siege by the police of an apartment block in the center of the Hague which turned out to be housing a group of grenade-tossing terrorists (yup, they were Muslims, too), and which was accompanied by a disturbance on the street by a group of very white teenagers — has died down for the time being (we haven’t started an war in a show of righteous indignation), everyone is saying that the Dutch tradition of enlightened tolerance is deeply wounded.

“Whether this is the case or not, is yet to be seen. Most people would say that van Gogh was not a beloved figure, and few actually saw his films or read his other work. The clips of Submission which I saw were indeed outrageously insensitive, and I would imagine that many would find the film highly insulting. Not nearly as insulting, however, as the work of the fool who killed van Gogh, or the work of the imam who urged him to action.

“There’s a growing trifold split between the radical Muslims in one corner, the reactionary Dutch in another corner, and the ‘enlightened’ Dutch, many of whom represent the government, but many more just normal people, in the other corner.

“I have a feeling that a logical, legal solution will be found for the imams who incite their associates to violence. And that reconciliation with the rest of Islamic Holland is possible. But at the same time, the reactionary segment of the population is a sort of powder keg. They were the one’s who elected the Pim Fortuyn party into a minority government.

“And speaking of Fortuyn, an annual survey (conducted by one of the newspapers? I’m not sure, really) to select the Greatest Nederlander of All Time, revealed the bald-headed nincompoop Fortuyn to be the winner this year. Never mind Rembrandt, Erasmus, William of Orange, Admiral de Ruyter, etc….”

I responded:

“That’s a good point, that you have stabby-stabbies on one side, meatheads on the other and the regular Dutch in the middle and, arguably, enabling the meatheads to whack on the stabbies and vice versa. Hopefully, unfashionable as it is, and in some way counter to Dutch sensibility, you’ll take the imams to task and require a little come-along as opposed to really dropping the hammer. One of the things I took away from my safe European home this summer was a weird feeling about the change in culture and the potential for civil strife due to immigration. This situation and dynamic bei euch is a good example of this.

“I think this will be Europe’s number one challenge in the coming years. All-in-all, the whole world’s freaking me out. And as for self-righteous wars, don’t count your chickens before they’re ethnically cleansed.”

C. wrote back:

“The police and the government have been busy for years now trying to figure out how to ‘deal’ with certain religious leaders who not only preach revolution, but who urge their congregation to react violently toward sinners, which of course includes all of the infidel West. (Instructions given recently by one sage for dealing with homosexuality — something which they surely claim only occurs outside the Islamic world — are simple: hunt them down and push them off a building.) That they simplify matters by describing the citizens of their host country as “firewood for hell” only makes this business of tidying up Allah’s world easier.

”It seems to me that the simple laws prohibiting incitement to violence would be sufficient grounds for prosecution. Sure some people will decry this as undermining the right to free speech. But surely freedom of speech does not include directly urging organized groups of people to attack and kill others. As far as I’m concerned, once one crazy acts on this speech, then the speaker is liable. At any rate, I’d rather see simple measures to maintain the peace used, than for everyone to get so alarmed that they start setting up death camps.

“Yeah, Europe’s been dealing with this stuff for a while now, and will continue at an accelerated rate, now that our borders are open. The reason France and Germany are so quiet about it all these days is not, I think, out of anti-American spite, but because for them Islamic revolutionary violence is a real yawner. Been there done that, and still being there.”

I responded:

“I wonder re. the free speech limitations. I wonder that is, if structural laws, that don’t impinge those rights, might be as effective and less morally dicey. I mean things like language requirements, limitation of social services (or hinging them on certain actions, like language acquisition, etc.), employment requirements, immigration limitations and so on. But I am the first to admit, I am not a policy pro. Very complex. And may require someone with vision. Unfortunately, most Men of Vision envision themselves as heroic statues. “

C. said:

“The question of structural limitations is what the Netherlands is currently working through. Minister of Immigration Verdonk has, over the last few years, rolled out a policy of integration, which is the focus of a great deal of discussion and anger.

“Under her policies, those who wish to immigrate must take a language test, and a cultural test to prove that they are integrated into Dutch society. There are several problems with this approach. First, the cost of the imburgerings classes are high, and must be paid by the immigrant/refugee. Second, the criteria for knowledge of the Dutch culture are hard to pin down, to put it mildly. Can you imagine an American Cultural Test which would be equally applicable to someone from the Lower East Side in New York as someone from, say, rural Red State America?

“Verdonk’s moves are essentially an effort to discourage immigration. And they have worked. The rate of immigration has actually slowed substantially from its peak in 2000, largely due to her policies. But the liberal majority still finds this sort of tactic repugnant. The First Public Mock-Imburgerings Test was held in October in the Paradiso, and received a large turnout. The idea is that Dutch people gather en masse at a nightclub and attempt to pass the test. Most expressing shock and bewilderment at the bizarre questions. I’ll have a look and see if I can find any record of the questions/answers and reactions from the public.

“For some reason, I have neither been asked to take the real test, nor ordered to attend the integration classes. I was told that these are for people from other cultures and not for me. Perhaps it only applies to those who are classified as refugees? Maybe this gap in my own knowledge is proof that I’m not well-enough integrated. I have read the literature on how to obtain Dutch citizenship, and it does say that ‘a sufficient knowledge of the Dutch language and culture are required,’ so I’m diligently taking Dutch classes at night, and hoping that I understand enough of the culture to squeak by.”

American Monster II: We Dream of What We’ve Lost

Since before I was born what came to be known as the Eastern Block was off limits to Westerners. I don’t mean it was simply impossible for most to travel there. I mean something more insidious. I had a picture of every place I ever traveled – Wales, Spain, Germany, Canada, West Covina. Those pictures were incomplete, sometimes ludicrous, but they existed. Italians talked with their hands and ate pizza. The French talked with their hands and drank wine. In England they didn’t talk, ate fish and listened to Pink Floyd.

But I had no pictures of the Eastern Block countries and I certainly did not have pictures of the individual countries within it. In fact, the notion that there were countries radically different from each other behind the Iron Curtain was not a notion that occurred to us at all. They were all gray places and they had tank parades. Traveling with my wife to Latvia, the land of her father’s birth, a land he turned his back on after surviving the concentration camps that eager Latvian collaborators helped the nazis put him in, was a revelation.

Latvia was like wandering into someone else’s fairy tale. from the road sides, chest-tall luminescent green grasses waved in constant motion, groves of white birch trees spiking skyward, great gray rivers rolling into unknown seas, high-stalked flowers doting the fields with color. You half-expected a hero in leggings and embroidered tunic to step out from behind a birch bole and fire a magic arrow into a supernatural deer who would then turn into a rival prince, whom the hero finally realizes too late is his long-lost brother.

Traveling to Latvia’s capital Rīga was also like stumbling onto a powerful empire that you never read about in school, with guild halls as tall as skyscrapers, rich merchant houses in yellows and blues, cobbled streets with cobbles as big as cantaloupes. on one narrow street you would find a plaque marking Wagner’s tenure as music director of the symphony. Berlioz and Mendelssohn were also in residence here. dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also came from Riga. but all this history is hidden, and to see it suddenly laid out before you is unnerving.

In Riga, which is on a parallel with Aberdeen, Scotland, the sun set after midnight and rose again before six. I would sit on the wide sash of the window in our room – the hotel was a convent for widows and, before that, the dining hall of the sword nights – and peer, going slowly mad, into the night sky, willing it to burn out my rods and cones so I could sleep. But sleep… Never came.

The Latvian language sounds like a Norwegian speaking Italian. It is round and tonal. It has the lilt of a vaguely Scandinavian tongue, although it is neither a Germanic nor a Slavic language. It’s only living relative is Lithuanian. When a Latvian speaks, what with Estonia and Finland right up the road, it sounds like the recitation of some unknown epic influenced by the Kalevala. “Atvainojiet, es nerunajat latviski,” you’d say. “Ludzu, kafiya ar piem. Cik tas maska?” you’d ask. Looking at a sign or a menu or the front of a newspaper was vertigo inducing. You couldn’t even figure out what part of speech a given word belonged to. It felt funny. And dirty. And you loved it.

I’ve been in El Salvador and Guatemala and Latvia is, hands down, the most foreign place I’ve ever been. I experienced a relentless ecstasy of otherness. I was constantly on the verge of a magnificent psychosis. These feelings were, to her surprise, shared by S. I think she expected, at least in part, to come back to the land of her father, her grandfathers and grandmothers, and feel some ownership, some familiarity. But she really did not. One day we spent walking around the city from one hideous restaurant to another trying to find something edible in a city whose questionable culinary heritage was further compromised by 50 years of soviet rule, under which every hint of culture was suspect. It culminated with us sitting outside on the patio of a Russian-run restaurant on the banks of the slate-gray Daugava. It was, as close as we could figure, a Cuban restaurant. The waitresses, pale Russian girls in turquoise miniskirts (you know, like they wear in Cuba), mottled by the cold, delivered an alleged crème brulee wobbling menacingly that had the taste and consistency of whale meat and eggrolls so suspicious and malicious we almost burst into tears.

Finally we had had it. We retreated to this once elegant city’s best restaurant, the Otto Schwarz, which sat on top of the soviet era Hotel de Rome. Although the hotel was the apogee of late Soviet design – cheap and mirrored, with yellow metal instead of gilding, like one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces – the restaurant was another page out of a different part of the past. It was lodged in between the World Wars, a time before that line had been crossed that can never be uncrossed. Sitting virtually alone, the gorgeous city was spread out beneath us: the parks, the canal, Vecrīga, the old city wandering downhill toward the river, the “new” suburbs of the 1800s with their jugendstil buildings, iced and ornamented with stone pine cones, caryatids and atlases, the stylized onion domes of Svētās Pētera and the Doma. Inside, amid white table clothes, walnut wainscoting, silver service and crystal, an old man played jazz standards and chanson on the grand piano, short-coated waiters delivered lamb shanks, potato croquettes and spinach shrimp soup and marzipan. It was loss made physical. It was the drifting back to a time before the glass broke and was scattered. It was a monument to the death not only of six million Jews but of a whole way of life. It was the eulogy to a Europe that was once whole. It was the period that marked the last full sentence Europe ever spoke to the world.

We went to Rumbala, the forest where S.’s grandfather, a cantor, and grandmother, along with 25,000 other Latvian Jews were shot, the Kaiserwald transit camp and ghetto where her father was imprisoned before the long ride to Stutthof, near Gdansk in Poland, and to Buchenwald. When her father was freed in 1945 he was contacted by his brother, Simi, who, with his blond hair and blue eyes, had been hidden in plain sight by a Latvian family. “Come back to Latvia,” Simi said to Israel. “It is a new place. It’s free.” “Nonsense,” said Israel. “The Russians are as bad as the Germans.” S.’s father went to America. He moved to San Francisco. He was a young man, free for the first time, single, handsome, European, in the best city in the world at the time, a city full of cocktail bars and movie stars. Simi became an officer in the Soviet Army.

I sat there in the Otto Schwarz restaurant in Riga and watched S.’s eyes wander out of time over the city of her father’s memories. I listened to the echoes of that lost time, feeling it pass over me. We dream of what we’ve lost. I saw Europe dreaming.

American Monster I: Europe Was Our Ideal

Europe was our ideal. Europe at one time was not merely a place, not simply an economic or political entity. It was not even just an idea. In Europe one found an atmosphere of free inquiry, a prerequisite for scientific and philosophical activity that was largely absent elsewhere in the world. Europe had developed and implemented the powerful notions of individual worth and political liberty, of democracy, of the free pursuit of one’s own fate, or the freedom to change that fate, to move from one place to another, one profession, class or religion to another. It was the richest place on earth, both in economic terms and in artistic ones. It held the reins of world governance, both through dint of moral authority and power of arms. What happened in Kinshasa or Chicago meant little. What happened in Paris or London meant everything.

The picture the American media presents of Europe is that of an undifferentiated mass, dead-set on going toe-to-toe with the U.S. as an economic, political and military force. To American conservatives, Europe is a tourist trap filled with indulgent, unrealistic sybarites; a Greece to America’s Rome. To liberals, it is a promised land, bathed in the golden light of reason and peace; a Judea to America’s Babylon. But Europe is a fiction that we change to fit our needs.

And Europe is no longer our ideal. I discovered this recently during a month and a half spent traveling with my wife, SJ, through Latvia, Holland, Germany, France and England. We traveled in a post-9/11 world and at the time of the expansion of the European Union, the time of the elections for the European parliament, during Euro 2004, the European football championship, which, for the first time, featured Latvia as a contender and Greece as the winner.

Europe was my ideal. I first went to Europe when I was 17 on an unofficial student exchange put together by my high school German instructor. The liberation of walking around Cologne, West Germany (already you can sense how it’s changed, just from the names), fresh from rural Oregon was a watershed moment in my life. My father was a sailor and had seen Vietnam, Singapore, Korea. The wide world, in other words. Europe opened up the world for me like Asia did for my father. I would never again confuse Oregon for the world. Though much later I would realize Oregon too was part of that wider world.

There is no substitute for travel to get at the truth of a place. Like the peripatetic Indo-Irish novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell, I too believe most truths are truths of place. In the American media, the picture of Europe is one of a thriving, coherent and threateningly swanky though slightly irrelevant culture, full of proud, even belligerent, Euro-citizens dead set against the U.S. and determined to go toe-to-toe with it as a world force. But that picture is incomplete, perhaps even altogether wrong.

My experience is best illustrated by the encounter SJ and I had with a waitress in Berlin. We had stopped into a traditional German restaurant in Berlin in a side street off the Ku’damm – all Thüringer wurst, glüwein and Berliner Weisse mit Schuss – for an early dinner. Berlin is a city I had last visited before the wall fell. The Potsdamer Platz I remembered was an eerie, gargantuan concrete wasteland surrounded by Stalinist apartment houses and dotted like a de Chirico painting with vague, paranoid figures emerging from and returning to the shadows. In the last five years the building in Berlin has reached a fevered pitch. The Potsdamer now resembles, in the early summer evening, a cheery version of Blade Runner, full of curved glass walls, blued steel and tiled passageways, stuffed to the gills with modern, lively German citizens. When I hailed this new Germany to the waitress we had been talking to, she shook her head. “No,” she insisted sadly. “Germany is dead.”

Another example of how this Europe I walked around in differed from the one I had watched on CNN and read about in the New York Times was the build-up to the elections for the European Union’s parliament. Considering that the parliament was responsible for trade, labor, environmental and cultural issues for the 25 countries of the Union, one would think the elections would be a major concern. The EU had just expanded, adding 10 countries only two months earlier. But every European broadcast media, from France’s TV5 to Italy’s RAI to the BBC reported a wide-spread apathy. Euroscepticism, as they termed it, was everywhere. Interviewees from Porto to Aberdeen, from Den Haag to Naples complained that the enormous 732-seat parliament was expensive and corrupt and that the Union took huge amounts of money out of the member states’ coffers, returning virtually nothing in return. One report outlined the travel scheme for the parliament, in which members were allowed to claim reimbursement for up to eight times their travel expenses.

In fact when the election did take place, from the 10th to the 13th of June, the turn-out rate was only 45%, very low for a region in which voting rates regularly approach 80%. And those parties that did get elected were protest parties. The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party won in Britain. When the BBC asked new UKIP European Parliament Member Robert Kilroy-Silk what his party intended to do in the European Parliament, he replied, “”Wreck it – expose it for the waste, the corruption and the way it’s eroding our independence and our sovereignty.” The other members’ Ministers almost all came from parties in opposition to their sitting governments. So much for a united Europe.

SJ and I sat in the Leche Vin, a bar off the Place de la Bastille in Paris with David, an old photographer friend from Boston who had just finished an assignment to illustrate a new edition of the best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which is set in part in Paris. As SJ and David talked about… well, whatever photographers and painters talk about, I chewed the fat with Roland, a Frenchman who had spent time living, as I had, in San Francisco. “I love America,” said Roland. Hold tight. A Frenchman who loves America? “I love it so much I can hardly say.” He talked me through his time as an engineer in the bay, how he had, alas, fallen in love with a French woman, followed her back to Paris and promptly broken up with her. He asked me what do the American people think about the war? What do the American people feel about the election? Who do they think will win? What did I think about John Kerry? What did I think about France? I loved it, I said. Unreservedly, wildly, I loved it more in person than I did reading about it in books, which can scarcely be imagined.

The Europe I encountered was not much of a Union. It was not the X to balance out America’s Y in the equation of global power. Europe remains a collection of sovereign countries, each not farther away from the other than one U.S. state is from the next, but each holding within its borders, as though within the covers of a book, a different chapter of the world’s continuing history.