On Boxing Day, I spent fourteen hours in a Subaru, never dropping below 45 miles per hour unless we were coming to a full stop. New Years’ Day was similar, but light traffic meant it was only twelve hours.
My lovely wife has family near Atlanta, Georgia. I use “near” in the same sense that we live “near” Chicago proper – the city is easy enough to get to, but far enough away that we deal with different sets of daily struggles. Not suburbs proper, but smaller towns in collar counties.
We were meant to fly down to see my in-laws on Christmas Day, but heavy rains across the South scuttled our flight and rescheduled us for the day of my mother-in-law’s surprise birthday party. That wasn’t going to stand, so we decided to go ahead and make the road trip.
We’ve done it before. Each time, we say we’ll never do it again.
Part of the issue is half our route. Rather than take the expressway through Illinois, we usually drive State Route 47 all the way from the Wisconsin border to a small town with the unlikely name of Mahomet. If you’ve not been to our little slice of the country, let me say this: it’s really, really flat and featureless. In summer it’s not so bad. In summer you can watch the waving green and gold of the corn, the endless expanse of blue skies overhead, you can open up the windows and feel the warmth against your skin.
In winter, though, the crops are down and the skies are slate and the temperature doesn’t get above freezing even in the middle of the day. It’s a special kind of bleakness that comes with the fallow season of a land meant to grow, more hollow than the wide expanses of natural grassland and prairie in the west. There’s a promise of things to come in the rich black soil, yes, but it’s a promise that slumbers more completely than any fairy-tale princess or divine daughter of Hellas and it’s a promise that seems to stretch throughout forever.
You escape that dreamless slumberland when you enter Kentucky. This year, thanks to El Nino, western Kentucky is currently as emerald as Erin – a bright green carpet stretched across the rolling hills, broken by abandoned tobacco farms and herds of cattle in every color. Also thanks to El Nino, the rivers are out of their banks, ancient grandfathers high on a second wind and straining to be recognized. The Ohio River crossing into Paducah, from whence you move on to Nashville Tennessee.
I don’t mind driving through Nashville. It’s a decent bypass, and you get to see the Tower of Sauron – no idea what it really is, but by the Valar it sure looks like Peter Jackson’s most famous phallic symbol, including the twin horns to hold the terrible eye. There’s a lot of traffic, though, and I don’t believe there’s ever been a time when it wasn’t under heavy construction, so Nashville is always my cross to bear whichever way we’re driving.
After Nashville you come to my most and least favorite part of the southern leg – Monteagle. I’ve never lived outside the flat confines of the Midwest, and while I took a single trip across the Rocky Mountains I was younger, more distracted, and therefore more immortal at that time. The road up the mountain isn’t so bad, as long as you’re not in the right-hand lane and stuck behind an asthmatic, lurching cargo truck; but coming down? Tennessee drivers fly down that mountain like Jesus in a Ghibli, and the truckers make up every second of the time they wasted crawling up the other side.
This time around, we had the misfortune to spot the most insane roadkill I’ve ever seen. A deer which had not been hit so much as torn to shreds, its head and antlers staring up from the middle of the left-most lane as we came around a curve, the rest of it who knows where? Maybe thrown over that black mountain side. Fortunately, we’d seen the reflection of the blue-and-white police lights before we got to the gore.
The Tennessee River wasn’t just over its banks, it was over the treetops. Literally covering the trees, with just the hints of branches peering up from the whitecaps. We could watch the currents in the center of the river throwing up their sirens, waving and beckoning to take your hands of the wheel for just a moment and drive yourself into the darkness.
Chattanooga’s a strange kind of wonderful in the dark of night or dim pre-dawn. Lookout Mountain looms, but in the dark you don’t see it except as an absence, a blackness against which there are no stars. The same is true of the river on the other side of the road, a void which developers have not yet managed to cover with fluorescent light and fire sales. The city’s a sprawl, but one contained out of nature and necessity, and its lights make it nearly as pretty as Chicago in the darkness.
From there it’s the strange and lovely silence of north Georgia. Towns like Ringold and Rocky Face, Calhoun and Cartersville, towns which are posted along the roadside but invisible to the eye thanks to the endless folds of forested hills. It holds but a single point of interest for me, as someone who collects little quirks of the people he loves.
Somewhere along the drive stands an immensely tall railroad bridge, towering over I-75. Alongside that bridge is a wide river, which 75 itself bridges. As a child, my wife was always told to “lift your feet and duck your head!” So in keeping with tradition of long trips her family made so many years ago, we dutifully carry out the motions – lift your feet as you cross the river, hand on your head as you pass below the bridge. I don’t know why that should make me smile, but it always does.
So, too, does arriving safely, and stretching my legs, and sitting to supper after an eternally long trip.
We walked into the Weinhaus for our final dinner in Deutschland, moving through the tiny hallway into a wide berth of trencher tables and benches to be greeted by our usual array of polite waitstaff. Sitting down beneath the chalkboard menus, I felt something in the air – something foreign and homey at the same time – and did a double-take.
“Does that say Scottischer Haggis?”
“Ja,” said the waiter, “Our chef is from Scotland, and is homesick.”
Nowhere else in the world, nowhere else in my life, do I expect to hear the words “Our chef is from Scotland.” I know I won’t have schnitzels again for a good long time but this is a chance too good to pass up. Dunkelweiss beer, a dram of Oban, haggis, neeps and tatties.
It was brilliant, absolutely great. The lads each gamely took a bite and admitted that it was much better than they expected, and that it was even vaguely palatable to them; but for me it was the best thing I ate in Germany, all smoke and peat and the iron tang of vital fluids.
Returning home was brilliant and has remained so. The most amusing thing so far is the fact that L and several of my other lady-friends seem to have lost several pounds apiece in the three weeks I’ve been gone, stricken with grief at my absence and bereft of my usual tender care and attention (or no longer constantly pushed into the decadent temptations of good food and booze, take your pick).
I’m on my second coffee at Dawn’s this morning, working to get some facetime in and enjoy the bright sunshine. It was Tartarus-grey throughout my travels, the twittering of electronic lemures silenced by wireless roaming charges and leaving me divorced and solitary in a disturbing way.
I didn’t realize how much I needed to touch other human beings until returning from the trip into the arms of my manifold friends, holding onto one another, back-slapping and shoulder-squeezing in a way I can’t duplicate among coworkers and relative strangers. Right now Rob and Janet are treating their boys to homecooked waffles and bacon, Missa and Dawn are hard at work on wedding cakes and Valentines, Leanne’s at her show, Dan and Sharon are working their way northward, I’ve a massage scheduled for this afternoon and the sun is burning bright in the cloudless cerulean sky.
In short, all is right beneath all the stars of the wide old world. There’s good work to be done ahead and all the time I need to do it.
That was the worst flight I’ve ever been on in my miserable life. I’m shocked, because Cathay Pacific has a very good reputation and were directly responsible for my introduction to business class last trip – but a twelve-hour flight in economy on CP was far worse than the 16-hour flight in economy on United.
I thought it was just me, but as we deplaned and I began pulling the party together, Amanda was giving me the thousand-yard stare and Nitin looked more like death than I’ve ever seen. The whole group was intensely miserable until we left the airport.
The drive from Frankfurt to Neu-Isenburg was beautiful, a drive through deep forest denuded of leaves by winter and thick mist roiling at waist-level. Pete handed me the fear and loathing line: “This is werewolf country,” which becomes a watchword throughout the day.
Once at the Mercure Hotel, our spirits lift higher. We can shower, we can eat, we have German coffee, and the young lady at the front desk doesn’t stop smiling once. Her spirit’s infectious and her English is impeccable, and over cold cuts and coffee the group turns to me for directions.
I’ve loved, loved, loved being in charge of the decisions. Everyone trusts me to know where I’m going and what I’m doing, and when a turnaround is necessary we’ve all got a sense of humor about it. They want me to lead them on this mission, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anyone down. Heidelburg it is, for castles, cathedrals and shopping.
I’ll tell you this: Exhausted and demoralized men who are suddenly given German engineered cars and a speed limit above 100 mph make for a videogame experience as developed by tweakers. I fell asleep out of terror for my life as Norb and Pete raced each other through the mountainous countryside, waking only at the moment we enter Heidelburg along the river.
The city’s modern, of course; most of Germany is out of necessity. The era they rebuilt in is one of clean lines and curves, of bright lights and form following function. To go from that the the altstadt (old town), where we drive over cobblestones and peer at buildings older than our homeland but in impeccable shape, is a special visual experience for anyone who enjoys architecture.
The castle awaits. Heidelburg Castle is a beast of two eras and two minds: We enter up a cobbled slope rimed with ice and slush, knowing how difficult this trip would have been on foot, in armor, under fire and racing to storm the gates. Into the original fortress, built in the 12th century and made of thick slabs of rust-red stones, looking out over the valley and town to survey what once was some Lord’s domain.
From there we enter the barogue portion of the castle, rebuilt and expanded in the 16th-17th century. It’s brilliant, high arches and statuary in every nook, carved poems extolling the geneology of kings, emperors and palatines, wide avenues lined with trees and lit now with lanterns designed to resemble gaslamps. The courtyard area is immense and still lovely: a single tree twisting around the deep temple of the well, a working clock bigger than the sun from our vantage point, stonework that can’t be estimated or extolled highly enough. Nitin nods to me: we’ve left two of his partners in Hong Kong for two extra days which he was aslo supposed to enjoy, with a wink he tells me “This is better than the casinos in Macao would be.”
We descend the steep medieval stairs, past chalets on the hillside in which people clearly live. It must be like being in a fairytale, to come home after a day’s work to cling to the skirts of history, the beloved earth looming above you, protected by the memories of your ancestors and their generations which lie behind you.
In the altsadt we find ourselves in the old Corn Market and church squares, thick with university students and tourists like ourselves. The shops are souvenier quality stuff but the beerhall we duck into for lunch is comfortable and warm, with thick curtains across the door acting as an airlock against the chill. It’s still warmer than it is back home, so none of us are complaining, especially after a pilsner toast to our new travels and new successes.
Returning home, we break for a nap; after which members of the smarter gender admit they’re too exhausted to go anywhere for dinner. The men set out on a twenty-minute hike along the main street to the Frankfurter Haus and are rewarded for it well – the platonic ideal of a weinerschnitzel, breaded to perfection with the mint sauce created at a consistency I’ve never known. We share more beer, of course; as we try to sample the local offerings and color.
After that, it’s O’Ryans and our first law of travel: Wherever you are in the world, some idiot will slap an Irish name across a board and turn it into a bar. Soccer’s on the television and Guinness is in our hands for a good hour or so before a short political … discussion … ensues between myself and my manager.
This leads to our first addendum to the first law: Wherever you are in the world, drunken Americans will argue loudly in your local Irish bar.
In the end, we drop it and head back home, which means an apology nightcap to ensure no hard feelings in the hotel bar before drifting off to my best sleep of the entire trip. I’m writing this at 6:45 AM local time, and though I’m already showered and ready to go it’s still the longest I’ve slept consecutively since leaving Illinois, a full six hours of peaceful, dreamless slumber.
Now all I need to do is plan the day’s itinerary.
Bear with me a minute. I’m misting up.
I’ve escaped my handlers and am sitting in a one-man side booth at the Taiwan Beef Noodle Restaurant in Lantau Airport. The kid who sat me keeps calling me “boss” and the Tsingtao comes in a pull-top can poured into plastic cups. Every booth includes a built-in TV showing a modern Hong Kong soap opera, subtitled in what I’m guessing is Traditional rather than Simplified Chinese.
When I say I’ve escaped my handlers, I’m not exaggerating. The rest of my party is god knows where in Lantau, presumably wondering where the hell I’ve got off to. A bathroom trip wound up separating us about half an hour ago and since then I’ve been making my way to within five feet of Gate 67, right where I belong.
I’d worry more about their reactions if they hadn’t given me explicit directions that for the next week I’m to play the role I love the most. Some of you know Berek, and some of you know Jagger. I’m to waltz between the two for the benefit of our trainees, switching from the usual affable idiot mask to one of breezy confidence. You can’t expect me to put that mask on without giving a little breathing room.
I had to roll down the window on the taxi from the hotel, to feel the air in Tsim Sha Sui one more time. The thickness and warmth isn’t what the drivers are looking for but I’m the man footing the bill, so they can manage as long as I need them to. The mountains rising out of the harbor are black ice steaming in the night air, blocking the lights of the developed world. Once in a lifetime there’s a building jutting out, luxury lofts or dancehalls, I’m never sure just which, but mostly these steep declines are home to nothing more than trees and tiny beasts.
We ate at the 18th floor above the Symphony of Lights, the world’s only 365-day light and music show. Eight to eight-eighteen every day, the harbor’s building explode in neon, mirrored by the boats which cruise the lanes, all ringing to the music being pumped through every skyline establishment. Dined on samosa and spring roll, Serrano ham and sliced figs, deep fried soft-shell crabs with the pincers on and perhaps a few more beers.
Before that we were in the arts store. I’ve picked up my first piece by Zengli, photos to follow once I’m on European soil. The artists are brothers, sons of a famed pottery artist and makers of pieces that break my heart. There are thunder gods with primitive bellies like stormclouds sweeping forth, compassionate Kwan Yins with clay skin and clay dresses, laughing Buddhas and lords of land. I’m in love with their work and I’m on to my third artist’s collection after Janet Koukol and Jurgita Mekyte. This one’s for the house, for my beloved, and for me; all in one.
She’s got another piece coming, of course; and I’ve grabbed cufflinks and a proper feng shui compass for my own wear and office along with the streetsign magnets I expect to draw me to my own true north, this place, this motion, this burning prayer wheel to which I feel bound.
Classes went well. I bid farewell and had my photo taken with the students: Kazumi, JungEun, Adonis and Laura Chan, Inez, Yani and Esther, Diviya, Kath Au, Natalie, Miu, Millicent and Tara, wonderful ladies all. I’ve eaten more dishes than I can count: Peking duck to dim sum, sukiyaki to udon, all in excess of where I should. I’ve paid my respects to Murphy’s with Guinness, Bushmill’s and Jameson’s in a business scrum with my fellow-travelers.
My waiter’s steered me away from the duck breast soup and calls the vegetables so-so. On his recommendation I’ve got a noodle and dumpling soup coming with the final can of Tsingtao, ready to sleep on the flight to the land of schloss und streusels.
I’ve slept less than four hours a night and I feel fantastic. I’m wound on time and tide and the endless spice of life in a world that doesn’t want to let me go. Hong Kong clings to me in a way no human has, brushing itself against me, pleading, teasing, begging me not to go.
If I didn’t have a home, I swear I wouldn’t leave. There’d be one less artist in Illinois and one more busboy in Sha Tin, one more pacific expatriate to fill the void the royals left. I might not last a month, but by the mountaintops I’d try.
The plane starts boarding in about an hour and I don’t know when I’ll see this world again. I’ve run the numbers: Three grand should last me a week in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, another three for tickets – call it seventy-five and make it a mint. It can’t take that long to save up that money if a bright boy puts his mind to it.
I’m a New Year’s Baby where the Chinese are concerned. Who’s up for a birthday on the nightside of the world?
Walking home later in the evening I’m poleaxed by the unexpected sound of the Ladies from Hell – skirling bagpipes, midway through Scotland the Brave. Snare drums snap time beneath the wails, the sharp commands of a sergeant-major barking out in clipped Chinese. I’m just across from Kowloon Park where the stone wall banyan trees grow thicker than man’s torso and more twisted than man’s desire, sweating from heat and humidity and listening to the unbelievable. I take the steps two at a time and see them; a full pipe and drum corps of ethnic Chinese, marching up and down through the broad square of the park.
I may just start using Hong Kong as a synonym for unbelievable.