Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hong Kong to Iceland

Another long flight and another blog post. I left the Eurasian land mass yesterday for Reykjavik, Iceland, and now I'm flying from Reykjavik to Boston, where the last nine days of my world tour will take me to various cities in the northeastern US and eastern Canada.   As we fly, the US government is nearing week two of the forced shutdown. The Republicans are freaking out about Obama's incredibly flawed national private insurance plan, but nobody among them seem to be complaining about the heavily-armed government workers who are going around having wild west-style shoot-outs with their alleged terrorist nemeses in Libya and Somalia, creating a new generation of terrorists with every bullet fired.

My last gig in Asia was in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong. Once a fishing village on the outskirts of China, essentially taken by force by Great Britain as a consequence of China's defeat in the Opium War, it has for a long time now been one of the world's banking capitals. There would seem to be no limits to Hong Kong's sensible contradictions. People I met were just as concerned about the lunatics running the USA as they were worried about the increasing role of the People's Republic of China in their lives. The Opium War that gave birth to this place is rejected just as thoroughly as the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which is publicly commemorated in a massive protest every June. This city which is one of the original homes of free enterprise is also a place where everybody has access to free health care. It has one of the world's highest concentrations of billionaires, but around half the housing – the better half, for the most part – is provided by the government. (According to my host, who seemed to know what he was talking about.)

And although the place is dominated by extremely wealthy people and is now under Chinese control in many ways, the public media is very independent. It may be a small country as they go, but there are many millions of people in there, and it seems notable to me that once again, on my second visit, I was an honored guest at Radio Television Hong Kong, on a radio show run by an English ex-pat, and interviewed extensively later in the day by a TV crew of young Hong Kong Chinese men from the same organization. In our wide-ranging discussions, no subject seemed to be off-limits.

The concert I did took place in front of a packed crowd of folks at a wonderful nonprofit venue called the Fringe, that includes a gallery, a cafe, a restaurant, and a theater. As with the last time I played there, the audience was a mix of mostly folks from Hong Kong, with a large minority of people from all over the English-speaking world -- including a good crew of supporters of the Celtics football team in Scotland, whose fan clubs of fine, upstanding leftwingers dot the globe. I was once again honored by the presence of Hong Kong's most infamous leftwing parliamentarian, who is popularly known as Longhair. Election after election he wins by a landslide in his working class district of the city. People say that many of the folks who vote for him may not know or care about his particular political orientation. They just know he stands up for his people, and he's equally unafraid of speaking out against the Hong Kong capitalists, the West or the People's Republic. They also know that he refuses to accept the generous salary offered to parliamentarians, insisting instead on only being paid what the average Hong Kong worker makes.

I left Hong Kong in the evening on September 16th on a sleepy red-eye flight to Abu Dhabi, and then from there to Frankfurt, where I arrived at 7 am Frankfurt time the next day. The first flight was on a crowded Air Seychelles plane. The second was on a spacious Etihad Airlines flight, which included the best food I have ever been served at 36,000 feet. The plane was full in equal measure of people from all over Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and as we dined in luxury up there, our flight path took us directly over the war-torn nation of Iraq, directly over Baghdad, according to the flight map, then over Turkey and into Fortress Europe.

I waited in the line for non-EU citizens. Darker-skinned people from around the world were being asked questions, like how long they were planning to stay in Germany, but as always, when it was my turn, the man just stamped my US passport without a word. (Sometimes they say “welcome to Germany” to me, but at that hour of the morning maybe he didn't feel like saying that sort of thing.)

After a series of long flights, there is something liberating about renting a car and having control over when and where I stop and get out of the thing and take a little walk or get an espresso at one of Germany's upscale Autobahn service areas, where the espresso and food served is generally worlds above any of the service places on the highways of their neighboring countries, despite the fact that most of their neighbors are still known for having better food, generally. Reputations are often undeserved. Many people in Europe outside of Germany will tell you about the rigidity of German culture and the intolerance of the society. But it's obvious to anyone who spends time in various European countries – certainly obvious to me – that it is in the neighboring countries where the far right is on the rise more than in Germany. And by other measures, such as the educational system or the kind of parenting you can see happening on the streets of any city, it is in countries like France where you can easily find authoritarian parenting far more than in child-friendly Germany.

And France was my first destination on the European leg of the tour, after picking up my German rental car. I picked up three hitch-hikers – one young Polish engineering student on his first visit to Paris and two young German anarchists – and headed towards the beautiful French city of Besancon, where I would spend a night at a friend's place, before heading on to the sleepy village of Foulain, where I was on the bill at a small festival. Spending the day walking around Besancon, admiring the architecture, the cliffs and the river, it seemed so puzzling to me that I didn't see anyone crack a smile once. I was told that the summer had been nice and warm, and this was the first few days of autumn. Sure enough, it was cold enough to wear a jacket, and drizzling a bit. But what is it about this society that people can't just accept the fact that they live in a part of the world where it's often cold and wet? I suppose it's the same in the Pacific Northwest, where I live, but equally puzzling to me. Having just come from a lovely but sweltering visit to Hong Kong, where in parts of China parked cars were spontaneously bursting into flames due to the extreme heat, I was revelling in the fact that I had to get out my rain hat, jacket and waterproof shoes.

With the help of my trusty GPS I found my way to Foulain, and to the old, abandoned chalet that is the Lothlorien Peace Centre. I had visited the website of the Lothlorien Peace Festival and had wondered about the fact that this festival in France featured a website in French, English and Dutch. Given that the vast majority of Dutch people are fluent in English, and given the fact that the festival itself was in France, this choice of languages seemed a bit unusual, until I made my way down the dirt road that brought me to the chalet in the forest beside a creek, a chapel and an old mill, and discovered that the folks who ran the centre, and most of the people attending the festival, were from the Netherlands. Although the website featured Dutch, all of the workshops and performances were in French and English, since everybody spoke one of those two languages fluently.

Being a performer at this little festival was very much like a paid vacation more than anything else. They put me up in a caravan beside the creek, in the most isolated part of the forest, and I spent much of my time there staring at the water and noodling on the guitar, when I wasn't visiting the building where a very round French chef was making some of the best vegetarian food I had ever eaten, or hanging out with the professor from Besancon and a great English musician I had successfully recommend they hire to play at the festival, Cosmo. And the one guy who came to the festival because I was going to be there, an older man named Konni Schmidt from the German-French border city of Saarbrucken, who was serving delicious home-made mushroom soup out of his food truck, and making plans for the next Paris to Moscow bike trip for peace that he organizes regularly.

Most of the folks attending the festival were there for the morning workshops, which were primarily being run by indigenous people from North, Central and South America, along with a smattering of folks from Europe, an old man from Greenland, and a young man from Japan. They paid many hundreds of euros to attend this festival, which is no wonder when you think about the airfare involved with flying all these folks there from the Americas. Some folks were clearly skeptical of me, because I was consistently sleeping right through all the workshops, just emerging from my caravan to eat and do my three musical appearances. I have nothing against shamans, but admittedly I'd rather catch up on sleep than participate in healing rituals.

After the festival I picked up two young French hitch-hikers and headed back to Germany, to the hills of Freiburg, just to the north of Switzerland, where I would once again have another gig disrupted by the antics of the Antideutsch. This wasn't surprising for me, but I felt bad to have inadvertently put my friends there through all that. They are busy leftists with other things to do than attend meetings with these confused young ideologues, but I suppose some things are hard to avoid. At least it made for many interesting conversations about German society and history and about the post-war evolution of the German Left, along with more fond reminiscences of protests in Europe that many of us had attended over the years, such as the G8 meetings in Rostock, and the IMF/World Bank meetings in Prague. Which also gave rise to recollections about a man who was a friend of mine as well as of other folks there in the Freiburg scene, the late Brad Will.

Like Brad, Luciano and other folks there are also media activists, among other things, and like Brad, their activism takes them to the intersection of politics and gardening. Currently Luciano is working on a documentary to be titled the Strategy of Crooked Cucumbers. (One of the many ridiculous, wasteful EU regulations which should seem especially bizarre to anyone from the US is that cucumbers in Europe must be straight, and wrapped in plastic, which is how you will find them in most supermarkets throughout the EU's member states.)

The German election had taken place on the day of my gig in Freiburg, and after the show, as we were sitting around a fire in the backyard of the commune, people were checking their smartphones to see the latest election results. As in Australia a couple weeks earlier, the conservative party had won. Though in the German case, if the main three parties to the left of Angela Merkel – the Social Democrats, the Greens, and Die Linke – were willing to work together, they would have the majority. But the party that got the most votes was once again Merkel's party, and given that the Social Demcrats refuse to form a coalition with the former communists in Die Linke, the general prediction was that Merkel, the European queen of austerity budgets, would find some coalition partner to work with and lead another government eventually.

In spite of the fact that the NSA spy scandal was on the minds of many Germans in recent months, the party of government transparency led by computer hackers, the Pirate Party, did not make it into government this time, getting less than the requisite 5% in this election. Folks with the Pirates in Frankfurt, where my next gig was happening, thought that one part of the reason for their party's bad fortunes was that they were no longer an insurgent party coming from the sidelines, but had been for a few years now holding elected positions, and being in that situation, were thus less able to mobilize their base to put in the immense amounts of volunteer work necessary to propel a marginal party like that forward, since once people are in office there is a tendency for their supporters to think that now they can relax a bit and leave it up to the professionals. (One factor that hopefully did not play a role in the party's recent misfortunes was the national attention the local spokesperson received due to his association with a “terrorist sympathizer” -- me – a couple years ago. And the association continues – he was the main organizer of the gig.)

I got up early the following morning, to drop my rental car off at the airport in Dusseldorf and fly to Copenhagen, where I had a show at the new Ungdomshuset (the old one was destroyed by the police in 2007). One of the original Ungdomshuset organizers, a fantastic artist and leftwing militant named Adam, had put together this gig, complete with a brilliant poster that featured me as a sort of guitar-slinging superhero. Much like the gigs at the old Ungdomshuset that Adam organized, this one featured an audience that was impressive both in quantity and quality, with folks singing along enthusiastically to many of my songs. I've never had a “hit” in the traditional sense, but it's easy to ascertain on a night like that which songs are the ones that have been adopted by the Danish anarchists and socialists there at the House of Youth.

After a night in the familiar surroundings of my home away from home in the Valby neighborhood, I left a suitcase behind there, since I'd be coming back to Copenhagen five days later, and took the train to the airport, for another SAS flight to Trondheim. Like the last SAS flight to Trondheim I was on in the spring, I was strip-searched by Customs. Whether it was because I had on the same pair of jeans I had worn in the smoke-filled halls of Ungdomshuset the night before, which apparently interested the Norwegian sniffer dog, or because they were waiting for me, I don't know, and probably never will. But after once again failing to find any drugs on me (and this time I didn't have any for them to find, anyway), I made my way into the city, with the help of the nice young Maoist who came to pick me up.

After another enjoyable, cloudy and smoke-filled visit to the squatted community of Svartlamon, several excellent meals at the Ramp, and a gig at the venue run by the same workers collective that runs it, I was on another SAS flight to Oslo. (A domestic flight, without sniffer dogs this time.) The gig there was taking place at a club known as Maksitaxi, a bigger version of the old bar called Taxi Takeaway. The old one was located right across the street from the venerable hippie squat known as Hausmania. The new one was located directly across the street from the premier punk rock social center of Oslo, Blitz.

The big news at Blitz was that a couple weeks before, a teenage boy who had just gotten involved with the punk scene there was standing outside the place by himself during a show, and was stabbed by neo-Nazis. After hearing this news over a joint with a few folks in front of Blitz, I spent a couple hours taking in the sights and sounds of downtown Oslo on a chilly evening, since my gig at Maksitaxi wasn't actually starting til 11 pm. After giving away all the coins I had to Roma street musicians and panhandlers, and hanging out with the statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that stands in front of the harbor, I went back to the club and heard a wonderful cabaret band that was playing before me, that featured a female vocalist with a captivating, casual but spot-on singing style, accompanied by a woman who played various clarinets of different sizes, and a man on a Spanish guitar.

Then it was my turn, and the crowd there in Oslo was just as enthusiastic as the one at Ungdomshuset, and sang along to the same songs, which seemed to be “hits” among the Norwegian leftwing youth, too. Unbeknownst to me, while my gig was happening, some apparent neo-Nazis stood in front of Maksitaxi yelling and doing their stiff-armed salutes, before they were chased off. I don't know, but perhaps the Norwegian far right is feeling a bit emboldened by the recent elections there, which brought the relatively xenophobic Progress Party to power – the same party that the infamous Anders Breivik was once a member of, before he decided it wasn't rightwing enough for him. (The former Prime Minister was a bit more progressive, but perhaps his moonlighting as a taxi driver in order to better connect with the people may have backfired, since he apparently is a shit driver, as well as an uninspiring orator.)

Back to Denmark, to the western edge of Jutland, where I sang for an audience of union officials and their families, in an office of the progressive union called 3F. One member of the audience was a former union official who had since been elected as a member of the Danish parliament, representing the most leftwing party in Danish politics, Enhedslisten (“Unity List,” otherwise known as the “Red-Green Coalition”).

The day after spending an afternoon being driven across the country by another 3F organizer, I had one of those days which hardly ever happen for me except in the great city of Copenhagen -- I sang at three different protests in one afternoon. It was the opening day for the Danish parliament, and folks on the Left wanted to let them know that they were being watched... The biggest presence was Enhedslisten, but there were various others – communists, anarchists, leftwing union members, and more. For me it was a little reunion of people from throughout the leftwing political spectrum who I had met from throughout my many visits to this Scandinavian country. The man who organized my first-ever gig in Copenhagen was there, as well as folks who organized my most recent gig there at Ungdomshuset. The most random encounter was with a wonderful older couple from Scotland who were stopping by to use the public toilet, and heard me singing on the stage. They had purposefully come to hear me play in the past in Scotland, Ireland and New York, but they had no intention of meeting up with me in Denmark!

The next day I burned some more carbon with a flight to Brussels, rented a car, and headed to Cologne. I wasn't sure what time the gig started, or what kind of venue it was in. I knew the name of the venue – Bauwagenplatz – but hadn't tried to make sense of the name. Figured I was looking for a pub of some kind. The traffic once I crossed the German border was horrendous – construction all along the way on that highway. I had been hoping to be at the venue by 7 pm or so, but didn't get there til 9.

I stopped at a pub that seemed to be near my destination, and asked at the bar if they knew where I was going. Unusually for a young woman in Cologne, the bartender didn't speak English, but she was very nice and came outside to help point me in the right direction.

I wasn't quite sure if she was saying I should take a left at the lights, or that the venue was on the left before I got to the lights, so I asked a passerby if he spoke English.

“Yes, I do,” he responded. “You look like David Rovics.”

Recognized on the streets in Cologne! Granted, we were only about fifty meters from where the gig was happening, but this was still a surprising development. He was trying to find the place, too. He got the directions from the nice woman, and we headed down the road to the venue, which, it turned out, was a sorts of squatted trailer park (“wagon place” -- Bauwagenplatz).

We walked in to the dimly-lit trailer park, and discovered I wasn't too late at all, just on time. The band that was doing the gig with me was just setting up. A female singer, and folks playing keyboard, fiddle and guitar, all of whom also sang. Nice, folky, traditional-ish, political material with a decidedly Irish influence.

There was a fire outside with a crowd of folks gathered around it, most of whom crammed into the yurt where the gig was taking place when the band started playing. Many of the folks there seemed to have Danish names for some reason, plus there were a couple of squatters from the US. One woman had hitch-hiked there from Berlin for the occasion (a long way away), and another woman, an organizer with Blockupy, had driven there from Stuttgart. I definitely recommend the pub in the yurt at Bauwagenplatz for any of you who might be planning any visits to Cologne...

The next day involved a windy visit to the Hambacher Forest, where environmental activists of various sorts are squatting on land that is soon to be bulldozed and turned into a coal mine.

As I drove down the dirt road, past a farm, towards the camp, I was welcomed by a large banner with a drawing of some menacing-looking riot cops, and the acronym, “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards). I guess when the police raid the place, they will be under no illusions about how these folks feel about the armed enforcers of the state... Another banner on one of the caravans features a German translation of an Earth First! slogan, which I associate with Darryl Cherney, whatever its origins -- “there are no jobs on a dead planet.” There are other colorfully-decorated caravans and tents, and then came the kitchen tent, and next to it, the requisite campfire with folks sitting around it in a circle.

There in the countryside near Cologne, Europe's biggest coal mine is continually expanding, eating up more good farmland and forestland every few months. The action camps keep moving, too, from one about-to-be-deforested forest to another. There was an older woman there who grew up on a farm nearby as a child, but was displaced by the expanding mine when she was 14. She and her family moved far away, but now she was coming back, to oppose the ever-expanding mine that so disrupted her life and took away her beautiful forest home.

Smelling very strongly of campfire smoke, the next day I headed back to Belgium, for two gigs in two lovely venues in Flanders, in Eeklo and Sint-Niklaas, for a decidedly more socialist, less anarchist audience. (In case there was any doubt, photos of Marx, Engels and Lenin adorned one of the walls in Sint-Niklaas.)

These two gigs were my last ones in Europe, and the first two for Kate Mara's tour, promoting the excellent documentary she and the great English photojournalist, Guy Smallman, made about the ongoing crisis in Greece, Into The Fire. It had only been a few days since the leaders of the fascist group, Golden Dawn, were finally being arrested by the Greek police for running a criminal syndicate, systematically beating and killing immigrants (and most recently a Greek, which apparently was too much for the Greek government to tolerate). Kate talked about the crisis in Greece after the film, and I fashioned my set around the theme of refugees. The crowd was sympathetic, but the questions people were asking Kate made it very clear that this film, and more like it, are very much needed right now.

Last stop, Iceland. About halfway between Europe and Newfoundland. Is it in Europe or North America? In so many ways, it feels like a halfway point – certainly in the geographical sense it is, that's unequivocal. All over the streets of Reykjavik there were tourists, about half of them from North America and half from somewhere in Europe. Mostly, I imagine, on their way from one continent to the other, taking advantage of Iceland Air's relatively inexpensive tickets to and from. For no extra cost, you can make your stopover in Reykjavik be longer than the usual couple hours between flights. In my case, I made it a one-night stopover, just enough time to fit in a gig at Cafe Haiti, organized by a half-Icelandic, half-Danish leftwinger named Siggi, who I originally knew from Copenhagen.

It's been a few years since the economic crisis that led the people of Iceland to rise up, throw out the old regime, and tell the big banks to fuck off. There is a humble pride about this achievement, which you can feel in the air, though also a palpable feeling of discouragement that so soon after what some have called the “Icelandic Revolution,” the conservatives have been voted back into office, like in most of Europe lately.

Nearby to Cafe Haiti, by the harbor, there is a monument to the fishermen lost to the seas throughout the ages. Siggi tells me that these monuments fulfill the same sort of role, in this country with no military, that military memorials fulfill in other countries.

The gig included a wonderful band led by two women, doing material mostly in Icelandic, with a clear hiphop and ska influence. After a restful night in the guest quarters, in the basement of the collective house Siggi lives in, I took the bus back to the airport, had some fine Icelandic espresso and fish cakes, and boarded the flight to Boston. The flight map on the little screen in front of my seat is like any other flight map, except that this one includes markings for every major shipwreck that occurred in the North Atlantic in the past 300 years or so. I see the marking for the Thresher. Phil Ochs wrote a song about that when it sank. Great song. I used to sing it in the Boston subways every day, about twenty years ago.

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