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I’m Experiencing the Dystopia of an American Airport While American Olympic Athletes Distort Reality in Rio: What it Says About Wider U.S. Society’s Interactions With the World

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A few weeks ago I was returning from Turkey to the United States via Germany. I didn’t mind the eight-hour layover since it meant that I could drop into one of my favorite cities in the world, Munich, and have a relaxing summer stroll around the city. When I got to the border of the European Union I handed my passport and boarding pass to the police officer on duty. He took a look at the boarding pass and reminded me that I had a connecting flight in eight hours. I assured him that I was well aware of that, and that I was only going to take the train into the city for a few hours. He looked at the pages of my passport and just shrugged (probably thinking “this guy won’t miss his flight”); then he stamped me in and handed back the passport and boarding pass with a smile. And that was that. No elaborate questioning, just two people interacting.

I got a day ticket for 13.75 Euros and took the S1, getting off at Moosach. Since I am interested in seeing the famed Munich Olympiastadion, built for the 1972 Summer games, I head in the direction of the Olympic Park. The wide tree lined streets which feel like a mix between central and eastern Europe are peaceful and I take in my surroundings, my last tastes of Europe before returning to the United States. It is one of those times where the traveler thinks “what would my life have been like if I grew up here?”

The Olympic park is off the main street and when I finally enter it feels like a secret garden. The rolling hills and small pond make for an idyllic setting, one of those that could only be on the “old continent”. I hike up the tallest of the park’s hills and, at the top, am rewarded with a stunning view of urban Munich on the one side and natural Munich on the other. The day is calm and peaceful, August in Germany, and I feel as if my senses have been heightened by virtue of these few moments in this small pastoral greenery in the middle of Bavaria. I decide to grab an 11am beer at a beer garden—one of those things that would be impossible to do across the Atlantic—and think about my route to the center; after all no trip will be complete without a few jerseys.

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Beautiful Park, and the Beautiful Munich Olympiastadion. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Among the tourist hordes in central Munich I find a couple shirts from last season on deep discount—a Puma Borussia Dortmund shirt and Kappa Wolfsburg shirt. For lunch I head to one of the Turkish kebab places in the red light district by the Hauptbanhof; to my surprise the man behind the counter speaks Turkish to everyone in line except me (I am spoken to in German—guess I’m not Turkish looking enough). I eat my doner and watch a group of Turkish construction workers come in for their lunch, like the Mexican construction workers at the Mexican restaurants I would frequent in Texas. I can’t help but think how strange it is that societies get stratified like this, cheap labor from abroad creates a social hierarchy based on ethnicity—the economic system comes to define the ethnic group and create a new social reality where none existed before. Knowing its nothing I will change, I go back to my doner—the must-try snack of Germany that has overtaken the traditional German snack of bratwurst as the nation’s most popular fast food. Of course, the popularity of the street food itself shows how the imagined ethnic hierarchy can take on a mind of its own.

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The Shirts Spread Out on the Counter at a Munich Airport Bar. Because…I wanted to. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Back at the airport I myself get stratified into another kind of imagined hierarchy, this one based not on ethnic background but on nationality. I take the long trek to gates H43 through H48 at the Munich Franz Josef Strauss Airport. It feels like a Japanese death march, the long grey nondescript corridor leading to the special zone of the terminal where flights to the United States depart from. At the ID check kiosk I ask the man if there is anything beyond me—I do it every year, just hoping—praying—that it will change. But it never does. “Just a vending machine. And toilets. There is no restaurant or bar”. Since the disappointment on my face is noticeable, the gentleman levels with me: “I’ll give you the stamp—you have a while until boarding, it won’t board on time. Go back to one of the bars and when you come back just show your stamp and walk to the gate”. I thank him for being a human being and head to the convenience store for a Lowenbrau to pass the time. Its 3.25 Euros, and the lady accepts the 3.20 Euros I give her.

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Its a Lonely Walk to the End of the Line. Image Courtesy of the Author.

When I enter the boarding area at Gate H45 it feels like I have entered another world. Indeed, there is nothing to eat save for what one can scrounge from the vending machine with their left over Euros. My fellow Americans count their (Euro) pennies to perhaps purchase a small bag of potato chips as sustenance before boarding. There are not enough seats to accommodate all the passengers bound for a transatlantic flight so everyone stands around like refugees awaiting their departure to a new future. In the bathroom, the paper towel dispenser is broken and it is clear that the single rest room cannot possible satisfy the demand of four gates worth of passengers. I marvel at the chaos all around me that marks my trip to the United States, sequestered in a small corner of one of the world’s most modern airports. When I ask why we are sequestered as such, a Lufthansa employee tells me that it is for “security”. I can only nod, finding myself wishing I was back in the Olympic park taking in the fresh air of Munich instead.

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The Toilets Have Seen Better Days While We Stand Like Refugees. Images Courtesy of the Author.

After an eight-hour flight full of romantic comedies I find myself waiting in line for one hour at the Boston Logan International Airport. U.S. citizens are left in a hallway, being let inside to the main “processing area” in fifteen person groups. I marvel at the tight security—certainly the tightest I have seen on my journeys over the past summer. “These guys are crazy” mutters the gentleman in front of me, an Italian-American, and we begin talking. I find it amusing that entering countries in Europe rarely necessitates as much song and dance as entering the United States—my own country of residence and birthdoes. The man uses the word “dystopia” to describe the proceedings and I have to admit that its an apt description.

As the “cowboys” of U.S. Customs & Border Patrol “herd” me into the “processing area” where I wait to use one of the automated self processing passport scanners, I wonder how efficient this system is. While the process to enter the United States at airports is one of the most draconian I have ever experienced on my travels, the Mexican border is still porous and many Americans are up in arms when talk is made about increasing security on a border that has become so world famous that even people from as far as Africa are flocking to it. The man in front of me is as frustrated as I am when he mumbles “I don’t think they even catch anyone”. I have to agree—the police state mentality only exists in the world of airports, a realm that is dis-engaged from life on the ground outside. It’s a sort of nether region between the Orwelllian world and the real world. But it is also this emphasis on “security” that allows the United States to portray itself as an oasis of stability in a world rapidly becoming characterized by seemingly random outbursts of violence; it is a city on a hill while chaos swirls below. And that is where I now move into discussing this in the context of the sports world.


On 14 August 2016 four members of the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team accused Brazilian police of robbing them at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro when they were returning from a party. American Olympians Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen claimed that their taxi was stopped by people posing as police officers and that money and personal belongings were demanded from them. The state media organ of the United States, the New York Times, was quick to frame the story as one reflective of security concerns in the Brazilian city when they wrote that the robbery heightened “anxiety over violent crime in the host city of the Summer Games” in the article’s opening paragraph. It is not surprising that the New York Times was quick to denounce Brazil and play up its instability, but they may be regretting their decision now.

Four days later, on 18 August 2016, it emerged that the swimmers had actually fabricated the whole story. In fact, if it was just a mere fabrication it might not have been so bad; instead it was an outright lie trying to cover up the fact that the swimmers themselves had been the ones in the wrong. They allegedly urinated on the wall of a Shell gas station, then vandalized the bathroom in a drunken rage and refused to pay for the damages. Mr. Lochte himself then claimed that he mistook the gas station’s security guard for local police—something I might have believed had I been born yesterday.

Police in Rio didn’t believe it either and charged Mr. Lochte with filing a false robbery report, and the swimmer was forced to admit that he “over-exaggerated” parts of the story which, I imagine, is the politically correct way of saying “I lied through my teeth”. On 19 August 2016 Mr. Lochte wrote on his Instagram (the post-modern form of apologizing, in which the most crucial part—looking the one you offended in the eye while asking forgiveness—is impossible): “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.” For some reason, his defense hinges on his being in “a foreign country with a language barrier”; in Mr. Lochte’s mind this simple fact exonerates him for vandalizing someone else’s property. In all honesty it is an embarrassing defense, but one that cannot be separated from the situation perpetuated, in part, by the United States itself.

Take this small excerpt from ABC News’ 30 August 2016 story as an example:

“I think it’s everyone blowing this way out of proportion. I think that’s what happened,” Lochte, 32, said today on “Good Morning America” when asked whether he embarrassed the United States with his actions in Rio de Janeiro.

“Like I said, I did lie about that one part,” Lochte said of his claim that a gun was held to his head at a Rio gas station. “I take full responsibility. I’m human. I made a mistake. A very big mistake.”

Here Mr. Lochte is still downplaying his actions when he says it was “blown out of proportion”, and when he does admit lying it is only about “that one part”, the gravity of the situation—that there is a larger lie that is insulting to another country—is missed. Even when admitting responsibility, it is only on an individual level. “I take full responsibility”. ”I’m human”. “I made a mistake”. Of course, this focus on the individual can be traced back to the American ideals of individualism and “freedom”. But don’t think that Brazilians aren’t, rightly I may add, a bit perturbed. In a 18 August 2016 New York Times story Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, tells the truth in no uncertain terms: “[The episode] has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it”. Although Eliseu Padilha, the chief of staff for Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, said that “This episode will not in any way interfere in the relations between the U.S. and Brazil . . . This could have happened with individuals of any other nationality,” I do not believe it. I’m not convinced that it could happen with individuals of any other nationality.

And this is where I return to the immigration line at Boston’s Logan International Airport. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to visit many interesting international (and domestic) destinations around the globe, something that I owe my parents a huge thank you for encouraging no matter the destination. Therefore, I have been able to see that all is not what it may seem. Of course the United States is a safe, stable, country. Of course in the United States things run fairly smoothly and with (comparably) minor disruptions when compared to some other places in the world. But—and this is important—that does not mean the United States is without its flaws, and it does not mean that other countries do not have their positive sides as well. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can commit a crime in a foreign country—like vandalism—and expect not to be held accountable for it. Like the golden rule in life, doing unto others as you would want done unto you, there is the golden rule of travel: Do not do in foreign country what you would not do in your own country and expect to not face the consequences.

Too often in the United States we hear about “how bad it is over there”. “There” can be anywhere. It can be Mexico when we hear about the drug cartels. It can be the UK when we hear about the Brexit. It can be Africa when we hear about Ebola. It can be Greece when we hear about the financial crisis. It was Turkey when my neighbor, having heard the news about the 2013 Gezi Park protests, told me “I heard its really bad there”. Unfortunately, the judging that is implicit in such comments comes without any real knowledge of the situation. Just like the reporting done by the state media organ The New York Times, which rushed to emphasize security concerns in Brazil following the first reports of the swimmers’ “robbery” so as to frame the swimmers as innocent victims, U.S. newspapers are often all-too-quick to frame events taking place in foreign countries. (Note the use of the term “state media”—you might hear it mentioned in many publications in the United States, but never in reference to domestic media. This is an example of that framing). And, given that just 35% percent (a generous figure) of Americans have passports, many Americans are unable to visit places to see the truth for themselves. Although the number of passports in circulation is increasing, I tend to believe this is more due to the increased global interconnectedness of the world that necessitates a passport—if only for one trip—that then stays in circulation albeit unused. I even have friends who have passports but have never used them.

It is this combination—the desire to portray the United States as somehow above the fray of the world and the population’s relative ignorance of international affairs—that creates a dystopian reality at airports. It is also one that, unfortunately, sometimes results in people acting out and confirming the image of the “ugly American” abroad that is already present in people’s minds. Perhaps the most absurd thing about the whole incident is that Mr. Lochte really didn’t face any repercussions for his actions. Instead, he was handed a role on the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. Only in America can you embarrass yourself, your team-mates, and your country and…be given a role on TV in the end. Life—and the American Dream—go on.

Judge Not…Lest You Be Judged Yourself

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Place: Planet Earth

Time: 11:00 PM

I’m standing in a bar on a weeknight, it could be anywhere. I’m not alone, many people feel the need to break out of the monotony of their daily lives every now and then, if only for a few hours. I’m sipping on a whiskey and Ginger Ale, leaning against the wall as usual. Savoring each sip helps you take it slow. Kind of like life I suppose. I’m savoring so much, in fact, that I fail to notice the commotion going on to my left.

“Get out of here, stop injecting yourself into my situation! Youre such a b___!” A man is yelling at two women, directing his rage at one in particular. I just stand there, staring straight ahead. I examine the patterns on the wall. After all, this isn’t my fight. And it probably isn’t at least one of these women’s.

As the voices rise I gather that it is some sort of dispute over unfaithfulness—someone may or may not have cheated on the other. I don’t know the details, since I’m still staring straight ahead. I notice they eyes of everyone in the bar…staring back at me, past me, at the couple to my left. One man keeps making eyes at me, and all I can do is roll my eyes. Life is hard for everyone, who am I to pass judgment on someone else’s domestic dispute? It isn’t my dispute. And it isn’t anything I can fix. After all, if I could fix others’ relationships, I’d probably have my own, right? Or so my reasoning goes. And I continue with the Ginger Ale and whiskey, looking straight ahead without flinching. I hear a fist slam against the wall and the man in question walks past me, kicking the door open. He’s off into the night, his (now former, I suppose) girlfriend is still seated, smoking s cigarette. I move to the bar, for another. I hear the man who had been looking at me whisper to what I can only assume to be his date.

“I think he’s his friend.”

I give him a look.

“You know that guy?”

“Never seen him. In my life.” Even if I had…what’s it to him? I get my drink and go back to my wall and look out at the bar. The couples, when faced with this domestic disturbance, have redoubled their efforts to be loving to one another. The phones are out for selfies, the hugs are firmer and (one hopes) more meaningful. I guess its a useful social experiment: When faced with love gone wrong, people realize the value of love. Its an odd paradox of living according to others but what would one expect in a world where people measure their own lives by comparing them to others’ on Facebook?

Fifteen minutes later an elderly man stumbles in. Stocking cap with headphones, wearing a long trench coat to the middle of the shins which are covered by rainbow socks. He’s certainly disheveled, might even be a bum, but he’s got a twenty-dollar bill out and ready to drink. Just like everyone else who is…here…on a weeknight. I keep staring ahead but I notice all the eyes now turned on this new arrival. As he stumbles towards a seat across the bar people are whispering. An older man—they might even be the same age—takes out his phone and starts taking a video. I feel like he’s laughing at the man from a position of power; they are of similar ages yet—seemingly—in different positions in life. The stratification makes me sick, so I just keep looking straight ahead of me, trying not to notice the insulting behavior all around me.

The bartender takes a seat next to me and the man next to him asks about our newest visitor. I have to interrupt their conversation, if only for a minute.

“Y’all are sure getting a lot of amusement from sideshows tonight”, nodding at the girl who had been in a domestic dispute just minutes before.

“Yeah, I know that guy. He’s not drunk. He has Parkinson’s disease. That’s why he walks like that. But people think he’s drunk. Like look at that guy, taking a video.”

He takes the words out of my mouth; the judgments people are levelling on one another at this point would shatter even the most optimistic person’s views on humanity and I let him know my feelings. No one has the right to pass judgment on others based on baseless preconceptions.

Five minutes later the video taker orders a drink from the same bartender as he laughs at the old man. “He has Parkinson’s disease. That’s why he walks like that. He isn’t drunk.” The video taker looks shocked…another ten minutes and he’s out the door, ashamed and unable to look anyone in the eye. Before I go, I thank the bartender.

“Nice job tonight. You did well.”

Motoring From Ocala to Daytona

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Taking inspiration from Jeff Klinkenberg, I researched a few routes on Motorcycleroads.com and settled on the Ocala National Forest. I couldn’t have known at the time that it would take me from Florida’s past to its present over the course of a little over one hundred miles of asphalt and painted yellow lines.

Sometimes in life it is therapeutic to drive somewhere where there is no phone service, where it is almost as if you don’t exist. The Ocala National Forest fits that description perfectly. Florida route 19 bisects the forest north/south and offered me a perfect opportunity to disappear, if only for a few hours. At the beginning of the route I couldn’t help but take a picture of a bear crossing sign. Its up there with some of the funnier highway signs I’ve seen, including the “Farts” warning in Norway and the classic falling rocks design on European highways. Walking back to the car the silence is complete. There are no noises, at this point not even any passing cars. Just trees and the two-lane highway, a straight line that (I wish) went on forever.

I spend a few hours exploring the dirt roads that dot the forest, avoiding the pick up trucks that seem to appear in the middle of the road at the top of every crest. I guess people get too used to being alone in the forest, and I understand it. It feels like driving on tightly packed snow and I have a little fun before reminding myself that if I screw up the car I will be providing lunch, I suppose, for the local bear population.

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Back on the pavement I see a sign for Ormond Beach, outside of Daytona. After the natural solitude of the forest the beach will offer a different experience in nature for me and I turn the car east to the coast. As I head to the coast I think of the father’s words in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, realizing that—eventually—the forest will swallow Florida route 19. It’s only…natural.

From driving on dirt roads I go to driving on the sand. I find it odd that one should even be allowed to drive on the beach, it is an assault on nature. But it doesn’t seem like anyone cares. Looking up and down the sand one sees that nature has already been assaulted in the name of money. Hotels line the beach for as long as the eye can see. I smile at the birds that seem oblivious to the encroachment of humanity encouraged by greed.

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Further down the coast past soviet style condominiums, in Daytona Beach, I decide to get myself a piece of art, a little bit of southern kitsch: the airbrushed hat. I order my design and ask the man where he is from. I know its somewhere I can relate to. “I am from planet Earth” he says, laughing. No doubt many people ask the same question daily. I am offended that he would think I want to insult him, but then again I know the depths of human ignorance that he may have faced.

“I know that much.”

“Palestine. I am from Palestine”. Indeed, somewhere I can relate to. As I wait for my “art” I step out onto the boardwalk, staring at the beach roller-coaster. I guess this is life on the beach in a culture I never got to experience: Beach culture in the American south. Staring out at the water I think of the absurdity of life: a Palestinian airbrush artist making hats for people who (most likely) would not be able to point his home out on a map. Its odd, but it is what America should be. Everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone does something. Luckily for me, this man does his job well. For me it is definitely more than a hat, it is a piece of art.

On the way home I come upon the Mecca of human encroachment on nature: Daytona International Speedway. The track looms over the road in all its grandeur, the epicenter of American motorsport. For a moment I wish I could take my Saab for a test drive but preparations for the Daytona 500 are taking place.

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Forty minutes later and I am again in the middle of the Ocala National Forest, stopped at a four-way intersection on Florida route 40, running east/west. The sky is streaked in purples and oranges, another day ends in a watercolor. The past 150 miles have taken me through the various ecologies—and road types—of Florida: From Swamp to Beach; from dirt road to sand. I don’t know of another state that can offer such contrasts in such short distances and that, in itself, makes it a good day. The light turns green and it’s time to go, I find myself wishing all crossroads in life were this simple to negotiate.

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But they’re not. And that is why “motoring”, in the Gatsby sense, is enjoyable. Moments after the intersection I crest a small hill to find myself looking squarely into a pair of headlights. I slam the breaks and flash my brights, the erring driver squeezes between an SUV and eighteen-wheeler. And that’s where the fact remains: When going for a drive your life is in your hands, literally. If someone crosses the double yellow on a two lane your only recourse is in your hands. Perhaps it is the proximity to death that makes adventure worthwhile. After all, what of the world—or life—would we learn on the couch?

 

Drive sound track:

George Strait: Run

Survivor: Eye Of the Tiger

One Direction: Perfect

Jerrod Niemann: Drink to That All Night

Cole Swindell: You Should Be Here

The Oak Ridge Boys: Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight

 

 

Memorial Day 2015: Boom Towns, Re-Building Towns, and Ghost Towns BONUS: Austin Aztex Home Shirt 2010

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The Boom Town

Driving into Austin at 10 pm on a Monday night you see lights, lots of lights. They could almost stun you, the driver, who was all but lulled to sleep for over 150 miles on the smooth pitch-black roadway from Houston. But the speed limit was raised from 70 to 75. So that is a plus. In between the neon signs advertising Target, HEB, Super 8 Motel, and Fiesta you head down I-35 as the lights of downtown Austin almost overpower the highway, the cranes that dot the horizon distract you and take your eyes off the road for a few seconds. The small town has become a metropolis overnight, or so it seems.

Austin, Texas, America (as 98.1 KVET says) is indeed America’s fastest growing city—it experienced 12 percent growth from 2010-2013. They say 110 people are moving to Austin every day. But that migration isn’t necessarily positive, as a 2014 Austin American Stateman article explains. Many smaller homes are being demolished to make way for high-end luxury condos, the kind of gentrification—exacerbating the wage gap—that has made people around the United States and the world disgruntled. On the surface, it all makes sense:

“For the sellers, many of whom raised their families in the homes, the demand for lots in their neighborhoods offers an opportunity to cash out at a price that can exceed the value of their property. For the buyers, it’s a chance to live in a central area, near shopping, dining and entertainment, while avoiding the headaches that can come with an older home.”

But some residents quoted in the article beg to differ. Mark Rogers, who holds a PhD in art history from UT Austin and has lived in east Austin for 30 years, says that “It’s kind of like losing memory through the loss of structures…That’s what architecture does – it connects you to your memories and your experiences, and when you have so much change that a whole neighborhood and eventually a city changes, we kind of have collective Alzheimer’s.” Resident Mary Standifer adds “there is a sense that people are gutting the neighborhood, not blending with it or becoming part of it. You want people to move here because they want to join in your neighborhood, not because they want to reinvent it.” Austin developer Ed Wendel went so far as to warn “We are hollowing the middle class out of Austin.” Just like industrial football has pushed the original fans away from the game, so too has gentrification pushed the original residents out of a formerly sleepy city in central Texas that is now home to a Formula One race.

The next morning you wake up road wary and want breakfast tacos. The same 85 cent breakfast tacos you ate so often as a student in a stiflingly hot room, under the sign that read

“The heat you feel / waiting for your meal

is a small price / so maybe think twice

The cost to keep you cool / would be passed on to you

so please refrain / to complain / about no air conditioning”

You want those tacos that filled you up for three dollars and change. But the Tamale House—the one you had discovered long before it was featured in the New York Times— no longer exists. It closed after the owner’s death, may he rest in peace. The neighborhood isn’t even the same anymore. The seedy old service station down the road has become a shiny new In-N-Out Burger, advertising jobs for 10.25 an hour and attracting clientele among Austin’s newest residents from California.

But that isn’t all that’s gone from Austin. A cursory look around will tell you that. The great Omlettry building with its mural is slated for destruction. Fran’s Hamburgers, which you once tasted out of pure curiosity, is gone only to make way for that mass-produced (yet “local”) taco chain Torchy’s. Austin Eater has a long list of other Austin dining institutions that are being cleared out in order to make way for shiny new restaurants; even one former Tex-Mex place is becoming (again) luxury apartments. You can only suppose that rents are getting harder to afford…or maybe it is just greed, a desire to “cash-out” while the getting is good.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://austin.eater.com/2015/5/18/8621885/the-omelettry-s-iconic-burnet-building-will-be-demolished-next-week

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Image Courtesy Of: http://austin.eater.com/2015/1/22/7871571/check-out-the-destruction-of-old-fran-s-hamburgers

So that is the boom-town of Austin, Texas, America. You leave more than a little disappointed. You’ve spent three years of your life here but it feels as if those that moved here last week feel more at home in the city than you do. But you comfort yourself with a visit to the old House Park and the old Austin Aztex jersey you own—the one that moved to Orlando and became MLS’ Orlando City FC. Who knows how much longer House Park will house a team, given the recent flooding…then again, cities can recover from floods.

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Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/Crysta_Lee/status/603064428251086848/photo/1

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The Re-Building Town

You walk down Tulane Avenue, the terminus (or beginning, depending on how you look at it) of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61. Looking around tells you that New Orleans is a seedy place. Young men staggering around in wife beaters on the second floor balconies of cheap motels stop to stare at you, the newcomer who is so conspicuously out of place. You look away, focusing on the cracks of the uneven sidewalks trying not to fall on your face. One intersection reminds you of an eastern European city, the lush green park in the median dominated by the statue of a hero from a bygone era—in this case it is Jefferson Davis.

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Underneath the I-10 underpass is an above ground cemetery, one that survived the horrors of Katrina when the flood waters came through. Across the street is an abandoned University of New Orleans building, graffiti covering those areas a person can reach. Soon the seediness gives way to debauchery. Blonde girls taking part in bachelorette parties sport t-shirts reading “that’s what she said” while drinking grenades, young men on the prowl wearing identical button downs are drinking Bud Lights, while older couples take in the scene while sipping cocktails. It seems as if everyone from 20 to 60 is strolling down Bourbon Street in an alcohol-fueled haze. Its on the parallel side streets of the iconic French quarter where you really get a feel for this unique American city that feels more like Europe, the French architecture and overhanging balconies provide you with endless stimulation as long as you don’t step in the puddles of vomit when distracted. Its only ten o’clock but the night is just getting started.

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It is nice to get out of the touristic quarters and spend some time in other areas of the city. You visit the Southern Art Museum and take in some “culture” all the while ignoring the two girls who stumble up the stairs with drinks in hand. Classy is all that you can think. After that you head to the Louisiana Superdome, the massive American football stadium that housed survivors during Katrina. The roads that were flooded then have since been rebuilt, leaving no traces of the destruction. Walking along the historic tram line (which also reminds you of eastern Europe) on Saint Charles Avenue you head towards Tulane University, the wide green boulevard tells you that this is a more affluent side of the city. Its seediness remains where empty Budweiser bottles lie in the gutter but its nothing you can’t get over. The kind owners of the Blind Pelican even offer you a signed shirt, there you learn that New Orleans is back among the fifty largest U.S. cities for the first time since hurricane Katrina. So it is possible for cities to come back from the worst of disasters. It doesn’t surprise you; the city has a unique charm to it despite everything.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/hurricane-katrina-superdome/

 

The Ghost Town

Just off I-40 near Hickory North Carolina exists a peculiar site on the side of a two lane back road—a small village that has become a ghost town. Henry River Mill Village was once a small textile village before the mill closed, now it is up for sale for over 1 million dollars. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, you think, and indeed everything is cyclical. The boom comes, the bust comes, and then the rebuilding comes. If Austin is at the height of its cycle and New Orleans is trying to come around, then the crumbling houses of Henry River Mill Village are at the bottom of their cycle, burst by the industrial revolution, but they might cost someone a pretty penny someday. You can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of a ghost town being resuscitated by Hollywood but then again, this is America. Everything can happen. Your mind spins as you walk along between the shattered houses, but you can’t feel the shattered dreams in this atmosphere. It is the golden hour just before sunset on a late Spring day and the chirping of birds is all you hear, dotted by the occasional sounds of a passing car. You want to lie down on the grass and take it all in. But you don’t. You need to keep moving. You head back to your car parked in front of the abandoned company store that advertises pastries from another time.

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All These Roads That Lead to Nowhere in Particular

You’ve been driving for 12 days and over 4000 miles. You only have about 500 left and you want to go for a walk. You need to stretch those legs. Ahead of you, on pavement dotted by sprouts of grass, you read “This way to Hell”. You snicker, even if you are sure that someone, somewhere, thinks Hell is in Pennsylvania. “Death Ahead. Turn Back”. “Yeah, ok,” you think, looking at a lone cross sticking in the grass as if for guidance. The birds are chirping, the sun beats down, and there is no one in sight. There are no cars to hear. On either side of you trees reach to the heavens along the highway to Hell. Besides the birds, all you can hear is your Nikes beating against the crumbling pavement. You walk the (dotted) line like Johnny Cash. Its like a death march, one and half miles in a straight line under the sun. You shouldn’t have worn a dark blue shirt. But you did. Then you see what you wanted to see. No, it is not the “Hail Satan” poking through the bushes. It is the wide black expanse cut into the mountainside, Rays Hill Tunnel, where scenes from the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s great novel The Road was filmed.

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Some portions, like the tunnel operator’s room, feel like they are straight out of a horror film. Other portions, like the walls, are dotted with graffiti. Some are eulogies to lost love, most are so vulgur they make you almost ashamed to be reading them. But you do, as you feel the cool moist air of the tunnel fall all around you. But you can’t relax here. The feeling is too odd, too uncomfortable, too chilling. That feeling might be called reality: The reality that nothing is permanent, not nature (this was, after all, an unspoiled mountain side before the Pennsylvania turnpike) and not any man made structure (nature is slowly reclaiming what was taken from it, busting through the concrete). So while we build cities by destroying what we built as in Austin or build cities in the wake of nature’s wrath as in New Orleans it is important to recognize that none of it is permanent. We are all temporary in the histories of our cities, of our countries, and of our world.

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Before the Graffiti:

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Images Courtesy of: http://www.briantroutman.com/highways/abandonedpaturnpike/

 

So, on Memorial Day Weekend, I urge readers in the United States to celebrate the beginning of summer and remember the fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the United States of America so that we may live in this country, an ever-changing country full of all kinds of cities and towns. To readers outside of the U.S., I urge you to celebrate the beginning of summer and get out and explore lesser-known parts of your countries–you never know what might be out there.

Happy Memorial Day and Have a Great Summer!

 

NOTE: All Images Property of the Author (thisisfootballislife.wordpress.com) Unless Otherwise Stated.

Knoxville and Eastern Europe

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One of the true joys I get out of travel is being able to connect the places I visit to one another. For many the Southern United States and Eastern Europe might as well be on different planets. And that’s ok—they are, after all, on opposite sides of this all-too-large world we live in. As if that were not enough, I also acknowledge that Knoxville, Tennessee specifically may not sound as exotic as Tallinn, Estonia or Sofia, Bulgaria or anywhere in between, for that matter.  But I hope to bridge that gap if only for a few minutes.

On Sunday morning I went for a walk in downtown Knoxville for a few hours. I wandered through the perfect tourist spot that is Market Square—complete with a Cormac McCarthy quote embedded in the granite—and purchased some suitably “southern” University of Tennessee gear (a substitute for a soccer jersey) at the Mast General Store, before heading towards the campus.

While aimlessly wandering down Cumberland Ave (I didn’t care that those driving by may have thought I was on a walk of shame) I found myself in World’s Fair Park. Despite the cold temperature I felt strangely at home in the park, and when I came upon the statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff (who played his last concert seventy-one years ago at the University of Tennessee, by the way) I realized why. It felt like I was squarely in Eastern Europe. Forget the beautiful campus that screams “America” just meters away, forget the discarded red solo cups and cans of Natural Ice that dotted the sidewalks; just focus on the statue—built by Victor Bokarov of Russia—and the puddles that have formed at its base, the rail road tracks and the Sunsphere rising into the grey sky in the background. In this moment, standing in the mist, I could be nowhere but an Eastern European capital. And that is not—necessarily—a bad thing.

Underneath that cloudy sky I reflected on the places I have been and the places I will go, ultimately realizing that one does not need go to exotic locales to feel the thrill of travel within oneself. In fact, Tennessee and Eastern Europe are not really that far apart. Think, for a moment, of what the American South is—or was. Essentially, it was a resource rich periphery for the industrial north. It was mainly about control of the South’s agricultural land—not about slavery, despite what some historians may tell you—that the American Civil War was fought. And what was Eastern Europe? In addition to being a buffer to Western European expansion, it was also an agricultural breadbasket for the Soviet Union. So how far apart are Knoxville and Kiev, really?

The name University of Tennessee’s sports team—the Volunteers—can serve as an example. It comes from the fact that Tennessee provided an unprecedented number of volunteer soldiers to both the war of 1812 and the Mexican-American war (http://www.utk.edu/aboutut/traditions/). The university itself was also not immune to war, it once served as a hospital for Confederate troops during the US civil war (https://www.utk.edu/aboutut/history/). All just a few small things I learned in one drizzly early spring morning in Knoxville.

 

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