Tag Archives: bordeaux

Location, Location, Location

Since most foreigners immediately notice an American accent, it is rare that I have the luxury of blending into the crowd and, after living abroad for years, I have noticed a cookie cutter conversation regarding geography that continues to underwhelm me. It goes something like this—New Friend: So, where are you from?  Me: The United States.  NF: Wow!  That must be nice living around New York City.  Me: Actually, I am from Kansas City in the center of the country.  It is the city where Charlie Parker was born.  NF: So how far away is that from California?  Me: Well it’s about a twenty-four hour drive east of Los Angeles.  NF: Cool.  I always wanted to live in Texas.

People seem to characterize the center of the United States as a vast tornado-bitten plain of cowboys and rattlesnakes where everyone loves Tim McGraw and the public schools are filled with Beliebers.  Cultural athletes play jazz and snobbish old people stand alone promoting classical music.  There is no inbred culture. It is a rare find to come across publically supported local art shows and concerts from upcoming talents and when it does come, it often carries the form of garage band imitations and Thomas Kinkade reprints.  Midwesterners do, however, have deer posts and ATVs with conveniently located strip clubs just off the interstate.  Many of the people there come from a generation of nineteenth-century settlers that had to fight to survive. Carrying guns was a question of finding the next meal and defending oneself against unknown elements.  Harsh winters required a reliance on friends and family in an open plain where death was never far away.  How is someone supposed to build a career on the arts based on such forlorn values?

There is a useful element to this distinctly American worldview, and, for all of its stigmas, growing up in the Midwest is not as impossible an experience as people from the East and West coast might imagine.  It is easy to criticize such antiquated traditions as gun socials and country music as old-fashioned,[1] but it does nothing to contribute towards building on already proven building blocks of moderation, creativity, and pragmatism. Americans from Oklahoma to California carry an attitude of independence and entrepreneurship.  They realize that the onus of success rests squarely on their shoulders if they are to achieve their goals.  Instead of blaming others, they look inward for finding solutions.  Sitting thousands of miles away from most continents bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Americans have also embraced isolationism starting as far back as President George Washington: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is . . . to have with them as little political connection as possible.  So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith.  Here let us stop.”[2]  Our history (all kinds) makes us who we are.  Being from the “other” is distinct and deserves to be recognized. It is not a pejorative of individual abilities, it’s a facet of our national personality.

After living abroad for three years, I meet many people that seem impressed when I talk about how and where I have lived.  People seem to be enamored with a perception that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; their particular location is somehow less valid than what lies just out of reach.  At the beginning perhaps this is convincing; people in Europe suggest that Milan could never be as captivating as Chicago and citizens of the Midwest openly suspect that Columbia, Missouri holds no comparison to Bordeaux, France.  Fear of failure is one reason that people make up fantasies that tell them they truly could achieve their dreams if only they were over there.  For most, that reality never arrives and they have their excuse.

In sorting out this location conundrum, I propose a basic view of American expatriate Paul Bowles, a writer and composer who spent the majority of his adult life in Morocco.  There exist two kinds of movers throughout the world: tourists and travelers.[3]  The tourist moves from here to there and everywhere with a willing suspension of reality.  They recognize, whether unconscious or not, that this current living situation is foreign to their sensibilities.  It is exotic, exciting, and fleeting.  It is also likely to be quite meaningful.  The traveler on the other hand views foreign worlds as a catalyst for calibrating sensibilities, reconsidering worldviews and perhaps even learning new languages.  The traveler carries a more lonely road of discovering for themself the intricacies of what makes the foreign unusual and what makes them who they are as citizens, friends, and artists.  If they return, they remain changed forever.

In spite of such pithy comparisons between colors of grass, traveling abroad essentially teaches the individual that most people live like everyone else.  People wake up, eat, work or go to school, have a lover or two, enjoy their friends, take a shower, and go to bed at night. Some of us do this process in English.  Some of us live this in Swahili.  The caveat to self-understanding lies in finding the 1% difference between our culture and the other.  Finding and embracing those distinct differences is part of the challenge of artistry.

Today, we live in a time where location is becoming less important. The world is becoming smaller, and people are more connected than ever before in the history of the world with programs like Skype. With a bank card (or a smartphone), you can pay for anything just about anywhere in the world and have it sent to you.  Ideas and innovations are being flung around at a velocity that is truly mind-boggling.  Location, at its essence, has been and will continue to be a question of finding people that share common values to network and build connections with.  New York City has traditionally been viewed as a place for assertive musicians to launch their careers.  Today, there are so many voices in the same place with the same mediums to communicate, it is easy to get drowned and burnt out of the system to say nothing of cost of daily expenses.  The economic principle of diminishing return remains in force especially here.[4]  The question is now more than ever about being clever enough to build your own way from where you are with what you have on hand.  Find something compelling to do at a level that reflects everything else you have been paying attention to, and you will become a wild card, a pioneer who had the courage to try.

Choosing a place to live is all about making the choice. Once that is complete, move on with the plan and build on what has been started.  It becomes quite simply a question of jumping in with an educated guess, odds be damned, and going for it.  Significantly, moving around a lot does not necessarily equate progress. However, it almost certainly will involve closing and opening a lot of boxes, paying tolls, purchasing gasoline, or passing airport security.  Have the wisdom and the creativity to take your own gun and stake a claim.  Whether it is on a “sexy” tractor or a profound truth, if it is well located, it may succeed.

 

[1]Just consider the 1998 hit “Kenny Chesney–She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” YouTube (23 November 2009), posted by KennyChesneyVEVO.

[2]George Washington, quoted in “George Washington on Foreign Affairs * September 19, 1796,” Library of Virginia, lva.virginia.gov/lib-edu/education/psd/nation/foreign.htm.

[3]Paul Bowles, “The Sheltering Sky,” (New York: Ecco Press, 2005), chapter 2 .

[4]The law of diminishing return states that if all factors of production stay the same, output will decrease over time if another factor (such as population in a concentrated area) is increased.  For example, the Harlem Renaissance was spearheaded by people like Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday, but the movement eventually lost its revolutionary nature over time for multiple reasons, not least of these being oversaturation.

 

Aquitaine Central

La vie bordelaise est composée de beaucoup d’arrondissements très intéressants. Chacun a son ambiance particulière car le gens préfèrent rester avec ceux de même métier et de même nationalité. Mais souvent, les gens de tous les quartiers se mélangent dans la rue Saint Catherine le samedi après-midi. Il ne manque ni les riches ni les vagabonds. Les magasins de vêtements (haute-qualité sont complets, même McDonalds et FNAC. Pour les restaurants il y a Café des Arts à côté du cours Victor Hugo ou le Thai Box Minute et Mezzo di Pasta pour les goûts plus cosmopolites (mais pas trop cher). Puisqu’il y a toujours des gens le samedi, tous les artistes apportent leurs affaires là-bas avec l’objectif de rameuter le maximum possible de public. Vous trouvez des peintures, des musiciens, et parfois des jongleurs, donc ce n’est jamais ennuyeux là-bas. La vie bordelaise est intèressante pour sa variété culturelle, son climat, ses rues vivantes, mais sa plus notable caractéristique ce sont les personnes qui habitent là: sympathiques mais réservées, cultivées et pui ont le sens de la terre—ils sont inoubliable!

The Welder’s Torch

It is one of those nights where everything was supposed to happen and in spite of your best intents, the evening still turned out dull. The musician’s playing is unconvincing inside of a dank and cavernous auditorium. The director is underwhelming, mounting an impenetrable enthusiasm for a work that deserves no such credit. The audience is lukewarm and dodgy, dressed in their typical after-work street clothes and ready to go home for the night. After the concert the fog in the night can’t even commit, playing as a dark and wispy entertainer who forgot how to be wispy. And then the bullet-shaped blue and white tram in a mostly gun-free society pulls up, so the musicians had might as well get in and go home to cap off such a colorless night.

“Hey Jacob, why did Hitler kill himself?” my Israeli buddy inquires. Pulling out his handy smart phone he rattles off some of the best Jewish jokes he can download. I purse my lips and think about it. I even take jokes too seriously tonight. “Because they sent him a gas bill!” he cackles. Yanir continues to rattle off a few more politically incorrect jabs as the train rolls along. Prochaine arret: carnot-mairie de Cenon . . . Cenon Gare . . . Jean Jaures. A boring electronic message passes across the sign in the front of the tram car—Monter sans titre de transport, c’est frauder! “Merde,” je pense. I smile and acknowledge another musical colleague, the Spaniard across the walkway. “Que opinas del concierto?” I ask with forced enthusiasm.  She doesn’t appear too much more impressed with the evening than I was, but forces a friendly reply.

Prochain arrêt: Thiers-benauge. My friends are now practicing their French together, making fun of the unimaginative night and the conductor who pretended he didn’t drop his glasses off the podium mid-performance even though he really did. As we pull into the station, I see arms flying. A few people standing around watching. Fists clenched. There is an issue here, and two men are about to go public on my boring night. The doors open and their words and sweat and pride and pissed-offness spill into the tram. Their coats swirl around in the dress of a violent black and blue dance as they join the multitude of onlookers in the mostly gun-free society.

When I was a boy in some Jesus Camp Kansas City church, I remember being brought to sit and listen to numerous Sunday School lessons about all the Christian martyrs. The Apostle Peter died upside down on a cross; he insisted he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like his Lord. St. John was banned to an island of seclusion—probably for talking too much. John the Baptist had his head cut off in a jealous mix-up between a king and his step-daughter. Usually the lesson would move to modern times to point out the common people around the world who are killed for their beliefs. The message, however, was always consistent at the end: Would you die for your faith? Would you stand firm and not waver in the moment?

Certainly, this is one of the silliest questions humanity could ever ask, nearly on par with “How do you remove a club soda stain?” and “Why don’t black guys get white tattoos?” Its saving grace, however, comes when we really are placed in those moments of reckoning where a decision must be made and there is no choice in between. That is when an individual’s true colors come out and he shows the content of his chatter.

When Americans travel abroad, it is difficult to keep a low profile. We barely speak English, much less any other language. We tend to talk too loudly in group settings. . . well, any settings. We wear baseball caps and flashy gym shorts in public. Our fate and identity is often sealed before we even realize it. Once recognized, people tend to have opinionated reactions. We are either their new best friend, knighted with the privilege of being their new English teacher (bad idea) and Hollywood connection (worse idea) or their greatest jihad enemy, the central problem to global warming, and a snobbish religiously imperialistic globocop. Nevertheless, living in France is one of those few places in the world where traveling abroad as a Yankee can be a real asset. We share much in common culturally. Americans have burgers and fries. The French have wine and cheese. Life is not so complicated after all. There is a strong economy which promotes creativity and diversity. Americans and French alike insist on speaking the mother tongue and look down their nose at those who cannot or will not. They both export great musical traditions that have influenced and entertained people around the world. Most importantly, both France and America have maintained an openness to foreigners. This cultural diversity has fostered a youthfulness that keeps innovation flowing and avoids stagnation. Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, and Latinos all live under the same flag, and although they might not always like it, they are better together than they are apart.

There are certain kinds of truths learned about one’s own country that only come from time spent traveling abroad. A tourist will vacation for a few weeks a year gawking and photographing their time away in a brazen effort to impress their friends with trinkets and tales upon return. They are happy to sample an exotic flavor and remain in the same breath entrenched in their comfortable lifestyle. The traveler, on the other hand, will hold his culture up to the microscope, take out his scalpel, and wait. He watches to retain only the best of what he sees and relentlessly juxtaposes his country of birth with his location of choice. Little by little, he cuts away the weak qualities of his homeland, embraces the strengths of the new, and grafts in the changes as he sees fit. Eventually with time, the sense of homeland washes away until there is simply a life lived for the richest risks and greatest opportunities it may bring. The traveler loses his responsibility to a land and blind homage to a faith and becomes a nomad. Home becomes his tent, his suitcase, his friends, and his memories.

So there they were, going at it as if Armageddon was at hand in that blue and white bullet tram. Their fury filled the area quickly; the walls pressed in to embrace the violence. A French woman weakly screamed and backed away hastily—her large black leather purse made it hard for her to move nimbly, especially in her pink high heels. People were circling around to watch. There was no time to think, only moments to respond. Just then, the man in the black jacket pinned his arms at his side, grabbed from behind the back. He flew into the crowd and away from his enemy, unceremoniously landing on the floor. My friends parted more or less like the Red Sea for him, gawking at this strangely lackluster night gone wrong and this man squirming his way past them on the floor toward the nearest exit. As he got out to circle around the window and renew his barbaric dance, the doors began to close. Pounding and spitting and swearing filled that ridiculously ammunition-shaped tram in a mostly gun-free society as they said their last goodbyes. An Arab woman with running blue mascara stood by sadly watching the two as they parted into the wispy night.

A World Without Plastics

After a nightmare 26-hour bus ride with the Alsa company, I finally made it to Bordeaux, France. Fortunately, when I made it there I found plenty of time to find myself inspired by two musicians, one of whom I met a few months ago thanks to a Google search and Facebook connection. Here are two people who make music for themselves and in their own way instead of catering to an academic system or predefined musical role. Imagine for a moment a young promising saxophonist who just graduates at one of the strongest conservatories in the world and is considering his next career move. Paris is calling. Amsterdam is booming. The United States is always an exciting option. Everyone wants a teacher who studied with Jean-Marie Londeix. What does the young artist do? He figuratively sells everything he has, rents his own flat to serve as his studio, and hounds the Chopin of saxophone composers to share the workspace with him so they can build a musical partnership. It reminds me of when the man found a treasure in a field and then went to sell everything he had so he could gain access to that field and get his treasure. That´s what these two men have done: left all the other distractions for seconds so they could access their ultimate goal of creating internationally-acclaimed classical music. It brings to mind how Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington were joined together. Their combined musical approach was a greater sum than their individual efforts alone. One would finish the other´s phrase and their ultimate connection redefined the way the world appreciates jazz today. In a significant manner, that is what is happening in a small wine-dominating people-accepting community just north of the Pyrenees.

In Bordeaux I found two men who actualize the words of Goethe for my life, “Treat a man as he ought to be and he will fulfill his potential.” They live in a world where anything less than pure excellence is simply unacceptable, as they quickly and generously showed me. Once a person takes the chance to interact with others who operate on such a plain, it is hard to go back to the same old ways. It brings about the birth of a new standard and a belief that truly anything is possible.

Crossing the border by bus between Spain and France is an immediate contrast for one simple reason: plastic bags. They don´t exist in France. Not in your convenience store, not at the supermarket, and not on the side of the road either. Once you get used to the inconvenience of only buying as much food as you can carry, you start to notice how things look different. The trees appear richer with greener greens and fuller branches. The fields appear healthier as if they have a new ability to breathe. Add that with rich rolling hills and the majestic wind turbines that occasionally occupy the view along the A-10 and you have a beautiful country that shines out without needing to travel to the tourist equivalent of a Roatán or Iguazu.

The amazing thing that you learn from visiting any new country lies in the moment you begin to understand the differences between you and all the other people in the world who live in a way apart from yours. They might speak a different language. They might consider duck liver a delicacy. They might not use plastic bags, and they might even make music in a unique and excellent way. At the end of the day, you come to realize that different can work too. Different is not always wrong. You might actually learn something from different. That´s why I admire Christian Lauba and Richard Ducros as two men who made a concious decision to do something different than the others around them and dedicate their work to creating fantastic music. Every day that their music is played around the globe realizes a testament to their efforts. How can you not be inspired by that?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZIEsN3g-jQ