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Showing posts from September, 2006

Krakow Diary Day #12 (Thursday Sep. 28): They Really Sing

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Chili and Vodka Night at the Villa Decius was a real eye-opener. It's amazing what you can learn about your fellow intellectuals under conditions such as these (chili and vodka) that you can't learn elsewhere.

It didn't surprise me that Katja and Tanja danced.

It didn't surprise me that the Elusive Laryssa Andriejewska offered not only a toast but an unknown Ukrainian drink she set on fire (then doused).

It did not surprise me that hip post-modernist Polish novelist Mirek Nahacz (on the right, talking to Nicolai) had country music on his laptop and just happens to be one of the only people in Europe who loves "The Sot-Weed Factor" by John Barth as I do...

Nor that German poet Nicolai Kobus' brand new book of poetry is looking spectacular...

Nor did it suprise me that both Big Intellectual Bears - Ambrosi Griszikaszwili the Georgian Translator...

...and Andrej Khadanovich the White Russian Poet (you can read his poems in German translation here) - both showed up…

Krakow Diary Day #11 (Wednesday Sep. 27): This is For All Those Women Out There…

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…who have been complaining about my tendency to notice beautiful Krakow women over-proportionately to good-looking Krakow men. This photo of a sweet specimen of all-out maleness, snapped in the upscale shopping mall Galeria Kazimierz, ought to keep you busy for a while.

Krakow Diary Day #10 (Tuesday Sep. 26): On the Funkiness of East European Sculpture

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I cannot avoid the subject any longer. I have been challenged to explain why I insist on 1) calling a sculpture "East European" and on 2) calling East European sculptures funky."

It was Katja, in her comment below and in the background of this photo), who put this challenge to me. To make matters worse, a friend of mine write, in an email to me (he was apparently too cowardly to publish it as a comment. He wrote, somewhat threateningly:

"Noch schreibst du mit ironischer Distanz über die slawische Bohéme. Warte nur bis die östliche Subversion dich von Grund auf - wie man früher gesagt hätte - bolschewisiert haben wird! Erste Anzeichen werden sein: du stellst die Friseurbesuche und das Rasieren ein, und plötzlich verweilst du auffällig länger vor den Pfeifenauslagen von Tabakgeschäften! Weitere Anzeichen: sich anbiedern, in ukrainischen Problembüchern verewigt zu werden - und sei es als sterbendes Kapitalistenungeziefer! Vom Wodka ganz zu schweigen!

"Und soeben l…

The Shocking Truth About Socialism

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Suddenly, this whole question of communism vs. socialism takes on a new, bone-chilling aspect.

You see that bottle "Strong" beer, second from left? That's my beer. Only, it's not really beer anymore. It's the sad, hollow, emptied husk of a beer; the remnants of a beer, the remainder, what's left for the worms to invade when the soul of the beer is gone. Yes, that beer is beer no more. But I – the owner of the beer – did not drink it.

I bought the beer, I transported it form the Supermarket to the house, I stored it in my room until I felt a need to enjoy the beer slowly rising, I placed the beer in the fridge to prepare it for drinking the next day, but when I came down to the kitchen this evening to actually take and enjoy the beer, it was gone. I took everything out of the refrigerator, every item, one by one: the packages of sliced cheese and sliced sausage, the plastic bag with the stalks of parsley in it, the cartons of orange juice and milk, everything,…

Krakow Diary Day #9 (Monday Sep. 25): I Am Committed

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So, I have made the big decision: I am going to use part of this time to write a novel.

That is, part of a novel: The first fifty pages or so plus the outline. I should be able to get that finished in three months.

I have written novels before: as a kid, mainly, full of ideas about expressing my self and competing with Shakespeare and entering literary heaven. With that in mind, I feel just a tad silly about trying at my age and as an established journalist to write a novel. I have to assure myself that this is not about expressing myself or creating greeat art or any of that crap; it's about depicting my subject in a different way - in a potentially more popular way (more people buy successful novels than successful non-fiction books) - i.e., it's about taking my subject to a larger group of readers (and at the same time being able to takew liberties with my subject that I could not take as a journalist). Telling me that, writing this - this thing - as a novel makes sinse.

Th…

Krakow Diary Day #8 (Sunday Sep. 24): Capitalism Revisited

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Last night was vodka night: A bunch of European writers sitting around the kitchen table drinking, so of course the conversation turned to capitalism. This time, the conversation surprised me. When I claimed, just to get it out in the open, to be capitalist, they disagreed. Not because they think I am a good person, but because I don’t have the money. It turns out I had been misunderstanding the European/German definition of capitalists all this time:

"A capitalist isn't just someone who lives in and agrees with a capitalist system," claimed Erica the Post-Socialist-Feminist. "A capitalist is someone who controls the capital, like Bill Gates. Didn’t you ever read Marx?"

Per this definition, Bill Gates has only been a capitalist since becoming a success, which is when he was able to "control capital." When he was working in his garage, determined to someday control capital, he was not yet a capitalist. Neither was the guy working in the garage next store…

What's Wrong With This Picture?

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On the Rynek I saw this group of kids walking around with German flags on their cheeks. Patriotism is a good thing, of course, but I wondered if this was a wise way to show it.

As I passed, however, I noticed they were speaking Polish. That was even more puzzling, so I asked, and it turned out that they were language students of German and English and this was World Language Day.

Krakow Diary Day #7 (Saturday Sep. 23)

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This is Tanja Malarczuk, a Ukrainian autobiographical novelist with three books (collections of short stories and novellas) under her belt at 23, and she is a Xenologist (?), which, she claims, means she can understand languages without learning them. Three months ago she didn't speak English. Then she went to Germany for a visit and everyone was speaking English and she felt frustrated, until a couple of weeks passed and she could suddenly speak English. Just like that. I believe her. (Maybe it helped to have watched a lot of English-language movies all her life).

In this photo she is speaking not English, but a more international language, one far more powerful and widespread than English, and in course you don’t understand what she is saying, this is the translation: Don’t take my picture!

Last night I came down into the kitchen to get a beer before retiring and there was Tanja. Cagey Tanja, who does not like to talk much about herself. Ah, but I knew I would catch her in a tal…

Krakow Diary Day #6 (Friday Sep. 22)

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I told Katja Thomas, the young writer from Leipzig, that I believe she is using this grant not so much to write, but to find herself as a writer. She avoided the subject by saying 1) we all use our entire lives to find ourselves, and 2) that I the kind of person who always has to stick people in drawers, as the Germans say - labeling them. She is right of course, I am that kind of person. (In fact, I think that's what it says on the label of my drawer: "Guy Who Is Always Labeling Other People"). The Germans are excessively afraid of someone putting them in "drawers." In fact, one of the drawers I put Germans into in general has the label: "People Who Think They Are Too Complicated, Individualistic and Unique To Be Put Into Any One Specific Category."

(Photo: I warned her that this bad photo of her, with the shadow falling as it does, makes her look like her head has been chopped off and digitally pasted back on, she said, "Yes, that's me.&quo…

Krakow Diary Day #5 (Thursday Sep. 21)

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Long Live East European Intellectualism!

The good news is: It's still alive! Yes, young, thin, angry Slavs still read complex poetry to adoring fans in trendy run-down bars about (according to the woman sitting next to me, who claimed to understand a few phrases) young, thin, angry Slavs who refuse to join the rat-race and express their rebellion by sitting around drinking beer all day.

I felt like the guy who walks into a meeting of the Jehovah's Witnesses as an atheist and walks out a beleiver. Coming from the West, where young writers know about getting an agent and selling film rights before they have something to write about, I was ready to roll my eyes at this kind of writer. "Posing" is what I would call it. And in a bar in New York it would be true. In the US, the age of Beat is over, and now all that's left are writers who strike the angry-young-artist pose until the Hollywood scout shows up.

Serhij (Sergei) Zadan, a young (30-ish), hip Ukrainian writer …

Krakow Diary Day #4 (Wednesday Sep. 20)

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There is even a famous writer among us lesser stars on the firmament:

Erica Fischer, the Viennese/Berliner journalist who wrote, among many other books, Aimee & Jaguar. It is about two women, a German and a Jew, who fall in love with each other during the Third Reich. (It was turned into a popular movie that should have made her rich, but Germans tend not to pay much for movie rights.)

Now, if you're a journalist looking to write a book, the secret is finding the right subject, and I have to say, if you want to learn how to pick one, follow her example. Aimee & Jaguar has everything: Nazis and Jews, love and the Holocaust, not to mention lesbians. Most journalists would kill to find a subject like that. This woman has a pretty good eye.

What is she working on now? I will find out.

Krakow Diary Day #3 (Tuesday Sep. 19)

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The others have arrived.

There are nearly a dozen of us living in the guest house behind the Villa Decius for three months. I arrived late, as I was still in the US, and so I missed an excursion they made together over the weekend to the Ukraine. They returned Monday night, so I am beginning to meet them in the halls and in the kitchen.

Laryssa is a tall Ukrainian translator (Ukrainian/Polish). I don’t know what she translates because she doesn't speak much English. She is shy and you know what that means: I suspect she is hiding some kind of mystery. Alas, I will never know what it is. Unless I start learning Ukrainian.

Here's a photo of the funky East European sculpture in garden:

The Nazis Are Back… And This Time It's Personal!

The big news in Germany is that the Neo-Nazis scored big in Sunday's regional elections and now have representatives in three regional parliaments (up to now it was two).

Everyone is upset, as they should be. They're even discussing doing something about it! That's how they upset they are.

Before spiraling into a panic and declaring an upcoming Fourth Reich, I looked up NPD, the Neo-Nazi party that was most successful, in Wikipedia and discovered that this has happened before. The NPD had enough voters in the 60s and 70s to get into regional parliaments. Then they went away again. The difference is: Back then they were popular in the West, not, like now, in the underpopulated and underemployed East, and back then they were not in three parliaments, but in a total of seven.

It's not like Germany hasn't been through this before. Maybe they should stop panicing and start asking themselves what it means.

What no one talks about is: If you were an under educated, unempl…

Krakow Diary Day #2 (Monday Sep. 20)

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Settling down to work. Always a difficult project. I have about a week to make a decision: What am I going to write? Novel or non-fiction? Or both?

The reason I have a week is because once again I am behind: I did not finish my two non-fiction book proposals before coming to Poland. That means my Beautiful German Frolein and I are finishing them up this week per e-mail and she will send them to our agent then.

So the question still stands: Novel or not?

Here's another novel rule:

RULE OF NOVEL-WRITING #2

It has to be sexy.

I remember having a discussion with a table full of Germans one day. The subject was: Why everything is political.

I was astonished how naïve they were. These were very intelligent, highly educated and extensively experienced people. But they thought everything came down to politics when clearly everything comes down to sex.

You can name anything and if you turn it around for five minutes you can find sex in it. Politics. Ever notice how sexy power is? Talk about…

Krakow Diary Day #1 (Sunday Sep. 19)

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The Truth About Krakow: It is filled with beautiful women. And when I say beautiful women, I mean really excruciatingly, painfully gorgeous women.

It was a sunny and sweatingly hot Summer's day, which is unusual for this time of year, as it is no longer summer, in this part of Europe. Arriving in the Villa Decius, I was tired from getting up early to get the plane from Berlin and shlepping hundreds of pounds of books through Berlin then through Krakow, so the plan was to flop down in bed and write off the day. Then my Beautiful German Frolein called and gave me a piece of her mind: You're in the most beautiful city in Poland on one of the most beautiful days of the year and you’re laying around in your room?

So I struggled with the map and the bus schedules and got into town, had a couple of beers (the only word in Polish I know – I can’t pronounce thank correctly, but "piwo" is easy) and sat around watching the girls go by. It was a day to remember. You should have …

A Tale of a Girl and a Hat

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The Youngest Cowgirl came over the other night in Berlin, just before I left for Krakow, to pick up her cowboy hat. Actually it is an Australian outback hat, but I picked it up in the best Western Wear shop in the West, Double H in Salem, Oregon, where I buy my cowboy boots. What do you think? Doesn't she look good? She rides too, but her mother swore that she would continue wearing a helmet, not a hat, when riding. Germans! If you've ever wondered why they have such a hard time being cool, it's not because they don’t have any ideas, it's because all their ideas are shanghaied by their all-powerful, deep-seated yearning for security. Imagine them in the Wild West: In their hands, it would have been the Reasonable and Safe West.

In fact, here's an illustration by My Beautiful German Frolein from my new book:

The Weeks of No Fighting

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My writing and life partner, whom I refer to simply as My Beautiful German Frolein, and I made a pact when I returned from the US last week: not to fight the two weeks I had in Berlin before leaving for Krakow.

Amazingly, we have succeeded up till now.

It hasn't been easy. I could tell – yesterday, once; today, twice – that it was boiling up inside her. Not anger, just the will to fight. A hankering for it. This hot desire to show me who's boss, to show me in no uncertain terms that I'm a stupid useless man, an inferior product of evolution, and a pain in the ass to boot.

I felt it too. I wanted to show he how much trouble she is and what I have to go through to endure her presence. I don’t know where it comes from, but it comes, it pushes, it pulls, it eggs us on.

But we fought it. Didn’t happen. We pushed it down, repressed it, with a nearly heroic act of sheer will.

Now I wonder if that's healthy.

Krakow Diary #2 (Novel Rules #1)

There are two ways to go about this.

A: I start my third non-fiction book.
B: I venture into novel territory.

As a journalist I know I can write another non-fiction book and I trust myself to make it good. A novel on the other hand, is untried territory.

The problem with a novel is this: Most of them are so bad. Wouldn’t you agree with me that we have arrived at the literary age when non-fiction as literature has taken the throne once occupied by the novel? (In literature, I mean. In fiction in general, clearly TV has taken over when the novel has gone all soft and mushy and useless.)

Especially regarding historical novels, i.e. novels about the Middle Ages: They're mostly so bad. You can tell that the writers are intimidated and have sought refuge in research. As with most historical movies, everything's about the set. The camera concentrates on getting the pretty pictures right, and so do the writers.

A good historical novel about the Middle Ages would have to read like, say……

Krakow Diary #1

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In just under a week I will be in Krakow for three months on a writing grant in the beautiful renaissance Villa Decius, thanks to the German KulturStiftung der Länder. Three months of just writing, working, being a writer. In Krakow, no less, reputedly the most beautiful city in Poland. This is what I've dreamed of for years.

And I still don’t know what I'm going to write there.

The Dog

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A biggest challenge I found at home was the dog.

WHY WE STILL LIVE IN THE MIDDLE AGES #1: Witchhunting Now

From America:

If ever I were to write a historical novel about witch-hunting, I would spend 99% of my research time watching Fox News. It could be relabeled Witchhunt 24 Hours – not because they slander innocent people, but because of their aesthetics.

Nowadays "witchhunt" means an unjust attempt to railroad an innocent and usually helpless person. But are theatrics involved that do not require the person actually be guilty. The show is just as exciting if the witch is a real witch. Witchhunting, and Fox News, is beyond justice and injustice. They are about News as High Drama.

The moment I got to the US, some American nut was arrested in Thailand for confessing to the killing of a little girl ten years ago named JonBenet. Ten years ago, the case was all over the media. It was one of these weird tabloid cases that are perfect for a cheap crime show: rich family that refused to talk to the press, which made them seem guilty and a little girl who they dressed up in adult costum…