A Few Reflections on our Europe Trip

We’ve just returned from three weeks in Europe. We went to Berlin first, where I had been invited to show my guitars as part of a world-wide invitational show called the Holy Grail Guitar Show. After that, we spent ten days in Paris and the evening of our next to last day the terrorist attack happened. I’ll get back to that.

Berlin is an amazing city. What struck me perhaps most is that Berlin is a laboratory for the future in Europe and the US. The city is the most diverse I have experienced. The buses, particularly in the neighborhood where we were staying, were filled with as many people of non-Western European heritage as they were with people of German heritage. There were great numbers of Muslims. There were Turks. There were Africans. It felt like Berlin was a place where integrated world culture was taken for granted. Maybe not taken for granted. I know there are plenty of Germans who are as anti-immigrant as right wingers in the United States, but that train has left the station in Berlin. Cultural inclusion is inescapable and irreversible there.

One of the loveliest moments I witnessed was when a thirty something German man on the bus broke in on a discussion among three other men. The German said, “I overheard that you are newly arrived from Syria. I just wanted to welcome you.”

Another very interesting part of the Berlin experience is that there is a huge presence of information about the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi era. In Berlin, at least, people are openly facing their society’s failures through a great number of monuments, museums, etc.. As others have suggested, Berlin’s approach could serve as a model for how we could engage American bases for shame, the legacy of slavery above all.

Back to the issue of immigration. One of the most interesting conversations I had with a German was with a friend named Moe. Moe, a native Berliner, born and raised, though his father was Sudanese, was very concerned about the influx of immigrants, principally because they were not  primarily secular. He pointed out that the shift in European society toward the secular, was a hard won shift that emerged through a long history of experience with religious conflict and religious extremism. He worried that immigrants from more religiously homogeneous cultures wouldn’t understand the critical importance of secularism in such a diverse democracy. I definitely understand Moe’s concern but I think that these days the assimilation of immigrants from very different cultural backgrounds is an inescapable part of urban life. The question, I think, is how can the immigrants be truly included in the full society so that they, too, experience the advantages of modern society. That sounds kind of naive, but I don’t see what other sensible option we have. Isolation and de facto segregation clearly aren’t working in Europe. Moe also explained to me that there were areas of rural Germany where he couldn’t travel because he wasn’t “white enough”, that there was such xenophobic mania in these parts of Germany that even a German who didn’t look German enough wouldn’t be safe. What a sick and dangerous species we are.

On an entirely different note, the guitar show was great. I met many makers whose work I admire and, to my great surprise, found that most of them had been following and admiring my work for years. Many makers told me that they felt the non-traditional ground I am breaking with my designs is freeing up possibilities for all makers. To find that the stuff you are making in private in your little studio really means something to lots of people around the world is a wonderful thing to experience. It gives me even more license to go ahead being who I am. I was afraid that many guitar makers would be offended by my work because it is so rough, so outside the typical refinement of guitar building. But  everyone seemed to get that each way of making contributes on its own terms and that the variety and range of approaches is a good thing.

For years I have admired the work of an Italian guitar maker from the 1960s named Wandre Pioli. Wandre was a true one-of-a-kind maker and artist whose designs were wildly creative and unconventional. I’ve always secretly felt a kinship with Wandre as a fellow full out weirdo. Well, just by coincidence, the guitar show had a special table featuring Wandre’s work because a definitive book on his work, the first actually, had just been published. The author, Marco Ballestri, was there and we had a number of conversations. My greatest compliment of the show was Marco’s telling me that I was the 21st century Wandre.

On to Paris. Paris was lovely. We were in an absolutely beautiful apartment in a stunning part of one of the oldest and smallest scale parts of the city. The best part of the trip was just taking walks in our neighborhood. Our apartment was so old that the owner had no idea how old it was. From my research it could have been built in as early as the 1400s. The 1600s is probably more likely. The construction was heavy timber framing. The joists and beams were all hand hewn, and held together with wooden dowels rather than metal. Access to the bedroom was via a tiny spiral staircase that I was surprised could even handle our weight. Access to the apartment was through two courtyards and up six short flights of ancient stairs. The construction of our apartment was very approximate. By that I mean that the joists in the ceiling were not consistent widths and not consistent distances from each other. Everything was similar but far from exact. Everything was “in the ball park.” It struck me as the physical equivalent of the sense of time when the building was built. As I understand it, bells would ring for major divisions of the day, but time had nothing to do with our modern notion of judging time by the exact minute (or hundredth of second on my smart phone). Now, in construction, each joist is exactly the same depth and exactly the same spacing as every other joist. In general, I feel we are slowly and progressively being consumed by meaningless precision in modern culture. Of course, that very precision is the basis of the construction of the Eiffel tower. It has advantages under some circumstances, but I think we have begun to compulsively see exactness or uniformity as innately valuable.

Our next to last night, Joan and I went out to dinner in our neighborhood. After dinner we went walking. We thought about walking one direction, which would have taken us right toward the Bataclan theater, about twenty minutes’ walk away, but we decided we were too tired and walked the other way to shorten the walk. The moment we got home the sirens started. There were hundreds of sirens that continued throughout the night. I was watching TV when the reports started coming in, gunfire in a Paris neighborhood, then in two locations, then that the guns were kalishnikovs, then ever rising numbers of dead and wounded, then explosions, then more locations and hostages. There was a huge amount of time (two hours) between the early reports of deaths and hostages at the Bataclan and the eventual storming of the theater by Paris police. We were very worried about the fate of those people the whole time and very little was known about their circumstances. We were frantically trying to figure out what was really going on by checking English news sources on the web. The president announced that the borders would be closed and we had no idea what that meant, whether it would have any impact on out return flight. It was horrible. We finally went to sleep. The next morning, I checked the news then went outside to get some bread. Authorities had said to stay inside the night before, but I felt trapped by the whole event and felt I had to reclaim my freedom to be in the world. Many Parisians felt the same and it was very reassuring to see so many people defiantly back out on the streets of their city the following morning. Even so, there was an obvious sense of sorrow everywhere.

The whole experience really shook all three of us terribly and is still very much a part of my mood a week later. I am haunted by all of it, in fact, terrorized, although I refuse to let it keep me from my life. The grief however is profound and just as with 911 will take time to come to terms with.

All in all, it was a magnificent though very challenging trip. We are so grateful to all the people who contributed and made this trip possible. I know that with time the positive parts of the trip will no longer be overshadowed by the momentous events of its ending, but for now my mind is on Paris and its loss.

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