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Notes from the Field #2

UW Daily, 21 July 1999, by John Roderick
No longer available online. If you feel this article shouldn't be archived here, please contact the librarian's desk.

John Roderick is a UW comparative history of ideas major who is walking from London to Istanbul. His journey began May 4, as he set out walking immediately upon his arrival in London.

    He said the idea came to him overnight and he bought a ticket to London the next day, fearing the plan "would become corrupted or would become buried under an avalanche of other ideas" if he were to delay.

    John is walking across the continent. He is carrying a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a rain jacket and a compact history atlas of Europe.

    He has been corresponding via e-mail with Jim Clowes, associate director of comparative history of ideas, and has agreed to share his notes from the field with The Daily.

    He said "communication is very important to me and one of the first things I look to do when I arrive in a city.

    "Most of the time," John says, "I am in the countryside and unable to contact anyone."

    I'm in Vienna and have much to report.

    Leaving Prague, I realized that I was not even halfway to Istanbul. More like a third of the way. No matter how I did the math it came up that it would take me at least two and one-half more months of traveling to reach my goal.

    Part of me wanted to stay in Prague forever, open a Mexican food restaurant and start overcharging tourists for apple juice. But the larger part was starting to miss the walking, the rhythm I've started to develop and I couldn't wait to begin the long trek to the South.

    The trip across Romania and Bulgaria, although I can SAY it really fast, will take quite a bit longer to WALK. All of this puts me in Turkey no earlier than the middle of September, maybe not to Istanbul until the end of September, which was daunting at first and threatened to panic me. I am committed to being in class fall quarter. Worse, I am vulnerable to wanting to be home in Seattle drinking lemonade at the Cafe Septieme.

    I've been thinking, could the Holocaust happen in the U.S.? It would be a science-fiction writing seminar to sit and come up with all the possible scenarios.

    What surprised me, and so generated an emotional rather than intellectual response, was how unlikely it was to have happened in Germany. I've read a million historical accounts that discuss German continuity, or whatever other explanation for National Socialism, but always harbored a sneaking suspicion that they were simply monsters. That somehow they could be exposed as a different kind of being.

    The fact of their humanness was an emotional shock (because, of course, I didn't intellectually believe them different) and so exposed me personally to my own capacity, and my friend's and countryman's capacity, to act like monsters.

    No historian ever thinks to himself, "Yes, I would have been a Nazi too, I am susceptible." Or maybe the honest ones do, I don't know so many historians, but I always said to myself, "I would have resisted. I would have stood for what is right."

    And I still think I would have.

    But to suggest that National Socialism is exclusively a product of a post-war generation of psychologically damaged, fatherless children looking for both a scapegoat and a father figure is to delude oneself. Because in one way or another every generation in history has been a damaged, fatherless, generation, or not.

    Could it happen in America? Not the same way, not with the Angel of Death uniforms and Sound of Music Technicolor. It could be a multi-cultural reaction to Christian fundamentalism that results in death camps full of Presbyterians. Who knows?

    On a different note I would like to describe a physical sensation. I've started walking some really long days, a couple of times going over 50 kilometers. At the end of the day, sitting with my feet up, I have the feeling that my feet are ringing, like when your ears ring. It's the only way to describe it. Not tingling but ringing. I must massage them and tug at them for a while before I am even able to sleep.

    I've almost completely stopped sleeping outside for the time being. Lodging is cheap here and I am so tired and drenched with sweat that I really long for a shower and bed. But I still want to sleep out, I feel there is something to be gained from it.

    It's a delicate business, keeping myself feeling capable of keeping on. The prospect of some midnight existential despair hitting me in a field in the Czech Rep. is enough to keep me looking for a bed in the villages. It's hard enough when that feeling hits me in some strange farmhouse. I must try not to feel any remorse if I never sleep out again, there is enough going on without it.

    I would love to put my arms around some group of American college students and sing the theme to Happy Days, but they would almost certainly be drunk, which complicates things for me.

    I'm not using the fact that I have stopped drinking as an excuse to treat myself to a self-pity cocktail, but throughout this trip it is a fundamental difference between me and almost everyone else.

    I'll walk into some village pub, where every male resident of the surrounding 10 kilometers is clustered around the bar, and I'm aware that, if I could share a few pints, the distance between us would crumble in the warm glow of mutual intoxication. Don't speak German? Buy the man a drink!

    I've traveled this way before, and some of my favorite memories involve "drinking into brotherhood."

    Unfortunately, apple juice and coffee do not have the same affect, on me or on them. When I politely refuse their proffered drink they are not bitter or hostile, but there is less enthusiasm, even if I make a concerted effort to bridge the gulf.

    But drinking is THE principal social lubricant of the world, of every culture, and the irony is that, although I am now more interested and more able to penetrate other cultures and to truly engage other people, I am afforded less opportunity.

    If you have even been sober at two in the morning at a European Disco you know that it is not quite the epicenter of beauty and love that it seems to be when you've been drinking all night.

    However, the universal matchmaker is introducing me to many non-drinkers. My time in Prague was greatly enhanced by two Irishmen, one of whom didn't drink, and also by your suggestion back in Amsterdam that I take in a few classical music concerts. I did in Prague and they were very filling.

    One was a student performance that, while inexpert, was adventuresome both in the music selection and the individual performances.

    The next night we attended a more professional orchestra, and the playing was tremendous, but the music selection was so conventional and staid that there was little in the way of surprise or suspense.

    A few days later, in the town of Benesov, a Czech girl stopped to give me directions and ended up taking me to a concert of a famous Czech guitarist, his first in over a year, on the grounds of the castle of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand.

    She didn't drink either.

    And today, a rainy day which I decided to spend sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and writing instead of soaking myself, a middle aged man shared my table and in our sign-language and pigeon-German conversation indicated that he was a non-drinker also, although a chain-smoker.

    So the non-drinking faction is either growing or starting to get out more.

    Thank God I have a hat. I was given a straw farmers hat by a man in Holland, I don't know if I told you, and it has broken the ice for me in every village in central Europe. It is the same hat worn by every farmer, and I take it off when I say hello, so the old people treat me like I am some ghost from the past.

    Everyone should wear a hat for the simple reason that you need something to tip when you say "good day."

    I'll keep it short tonight. Hope to be able to write more tomorrow.

back to top |  Notes from the Field 7 July |  21 July |  11 August |  Crossing Europe on foot, interview

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