Written Between Amsterdam and Berlin

I found this gem in my Word vault.  I sound more than a little cranky in it, but a day of travel will do that to you.

November 3rd, 2011

We’re tired, now.  The thrill of hurtling through countryside, of exclaiming that this or that “looks like America,” and even the slight guilt that comes with comparing everything with America has worn down into nothing but crumpled fatigue (although, you know, we only do it because we’re homesick). 

Now it’s black outside and all we can see are our own reflections in the window.  I can see Maria dumbly using a plastic knife to smear Nutella onto bread for a halfhearted dinner.  Gabi is engrossed in her Twilight-esque book, turning page after rustling page.  She gets up to let Maria out, and remains standing, which irks me more than it should.  It’s not too much trouble to sit back down, and then get up again, I think.  Anyway, it’s better than clogging the aisle and gawking over my shoulder when I’m trying earnestly to hide the fact that I’m writing about you.

I can’t decide what I want to do.  I do some of my German assignments for a while, and then I read 50 more pages of John Adams.  Then I listen to a few podcasts, but I laugh out loud a few too many times, and have to stop before I’m thrown off the train by old Clint Eastwood across the way.  The constant ding of his incoming emails is, of course, inconsequential.  I finally settle down with crossword and iPod.

We’re not even in Berlin yet, and I don’t know if I have the strength to see another city.  To figure out the metros, to find our hostel in the dark, to plan (and fork over obscene amounts of money for) museum trips and monument viewings, to decide which restaurant to eat in for every single meal, to give my signature blank look when confronted with quick streams of local language.

And yet, here it is.  Here are the lights, here comes the announcement over the intercom in three languages.  I’m here, and now that I see it, perhaps I do have the strength to get off this train after all.

Election Eve

Four years and four months ago, I arrived in Rome, Italy with my Girl Scout troop.  I was seventeen years old, had never been out of the country before, and was suddenly being led from terminal to terminal by my troop leaders, flanked by my equally bewildered friends.  What stands out in the blur of sensible rolling suitcases and duty-free shops is a certain train station we spent an hour in, waiting for our hotel bus to arrive.  We leaned against the grimy tile, too tired to gush or take pictures.  Suddenly, a passerby, hearing our accents, flung both arms into the air:  “Barack Obama!  Barack Obama!”  he shouted, his Italian accent thick, his voice jubilant and echoing.

Four years and one day ago, I was a senior in high school.  I was old enough to vote by two months, and did so early in the morning, just after the polls opened.  Although my small town was (and is) primarily conservative, I wore my Obama t-shirt to school, and tried to ignore the raised eyebrows aimed at me throughout the day.  I watched the election on TV that night, watched the blue spread across the country.  And then I wrote the following blog post:

HOPE is a Four Letter Word

A quote I heard on the news right after Obama was announced as the winner, “Tonight I am forever proud of my country.” That’s how I feel. I’m just very proud to be an American (cue in patriotic theme music).

These results are especially cool because I voted. For Obama. About three and a half hours ago. I remember back in fifth grade when I went to this tiny private school, my friend Mara figured out that for the 2008 election I would be the only one in the class old enough to vote. I remember feeling really special, but not really understanding what it meant to vote. It’s just a very strange feeling to have an event predicted when you were eleven actually coming to pass.

Already on facebook the bashings have started. I’m not really surprised, but I just think it’s so sad. You know, if McCain had won, I would have been disappointed, but I wouldn’t have sat there and pouted about it and insulted him. I (hopefully) would have learned to respect him as the leader of my country and I would have prayed that he bring about the change America desperately needs.

Anyway, I guess that there are always Debbie Downers, and some of them will probably come around, or at least keep their negative crap to themselves. We can only hope.

Not very well-written, but the sentiment is one I hope will repeat in my post tomorrow: I want to be proud of my country and my state.  I want to enter the workforce a committed, protected citizen.  I want to run through train stations yelling, “Barack Obama!  Barack Obama!”   I want my LGBTQ friends to be shown acceptance and justice, not hatred and discrimination.  I want Voter I.D., which will spend excessive amounts of money battling a ‘problem’ that doesn’t actually exist, to be off the docket forever.

I also wouldn’t mind going back to Italy.

War Novels

1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup skim, dash of vanilla (I don’t know that the vanilla adds much flavor, but it’s fun to put in), small spoon of brown sugar, and many, many frozen berries.  Nuke for 2.5 minutes, and then add a spoon of peanut butter on top.

The food bloggers tell me the peanut butter is for protein, but I mostly like the way it melts and puddles over the entire bowl.  And yes, this oatmeal does keep me full for a good four hours.  I could likely run a triathlon on this oatmeal (given I had teammates to do the swimming and biking (Mom??)).

I’m eating said bowl of power oatmeal on our front porch, watching the heat creep up in shimmering waves.  It never did storm last night, despite my dramatics.

Both of my grandfathers served in WWII, but I don’t personally know anyone who has died serving their country.  I know I’m lucky in that regard, and this fine Memorial Day, I’m feeling extremely grateful to all of the American men and women who have served and lost their lives as a result.  Sitting legs crossed, oatmeal bowl propped against Mac, it’s hard for me to imagine ever doing anything that brave.  Mostly, I suppose I like to read about acts of heroism, real or fictional.

Here’s a list of war books I’ve read and enjoyed (as much as one can enjoy such a book):

1.  The Book Thief.  Friends, I don’t know that you’ve been lucky enough to listen to one of my rants concerning this book.  It’s easily the book I most often recommend to other people.  The force of my recommendations have even tended toward the creepy.  Think slipping a copy into someone’s house via cat flap.  It’s that good.  It’s about a girl who steals books against a Nazi Germany backdrop.  Simple enough, but when you consider that the book is narrated by death, and that the format of the book is perhaps one of the most unusual and most poignant you’ve ever come across, you realize that the magnitude of the story is much greater than you initially thought.  Ignore the fact that the book is shelved under “young adult.”  It should be shelved under “everyone.”

2. All Quiet on the Western Front.  This was one of the books we discussed in my “Atrocity and Modernism” literature class.  I took the class while studying abroad in Salzburg last fall.  It’s the story of a group of German friends who are pushed to war by their parents, and by their schoolteacher because war is viewed as a glorious, noble venture.  The young men quickly realize that the glories of war are far overshadowed by the traumas, by the tragedies, and by one’s inability to ever go back to one’s prewar life.  This book was gathered and burned in Nazi Germany for depicting war in a negative fashion.

3. The Red Badge of Courage.  I hated this book when I was forced to read it in 8th grade.  The only thing I liked was that we got to choose scenes to act out and film.  I remember staggering about the schoolyard, pretending to be a shot and delirious Jim: “No-no-don’t tech me-leave me be-leave me be.”  As 8th graders will, we seemed to have more bloopers than actual solemn footage in our video.  It was shocking, when, three years later, I was assigned the book in an American literature class.  It was devastating when, saturated in the newness of college, I was assigned the same old book my freshman year.  Admittedly, I grew to like it a little bit, mostly because the protagonist, Henry, is so darned relatable.  He’s stuttering, he’s scared, he’s desperate for glory but not brave enough to grasp it.  He thinks, in short, the way I’m sure many, many Civil War soldiers thought.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls.  This is the first (and last, at this point) Hemingway I ever picked up of my own power.  It was a struggle at times, but it’s difficult, as much as I sometimes want to, to dislike Hemingway.  He has an economy of words that is truly admirable.  And what’s even more admirable, the story doesn’t suffer for lack of telling.  Placed during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls depicts American dynamiter Robert Jordan’s quest to blow up an enemy bridge.

5. The English Patient.  I read this book long before seeing the movie, and although the two are entirely different in form, the basic feel is the same.  They are about a badly burned and dying man who is taken care of by a Canadian nurse in an Italian villa.  Also living in the villa is a mysterious thief who claims connection to the patient, and an Indian who’s job it is to defuse the hundreds of mines embedded in the surrounding countryside.  The story is a twisting series of flashbacks that reveal the characters’ roles on the Northern African World War II front.  It’s a lovely heartbreaking story, and for once, I think I can recommend both book and the film equally.

6. John Adams.  Another book I’ll recommend until I’m blue in the face.  Yes,  it’s technically a life-spanning biography, and not a war novel, but as John Adams played such a large role in the American Revolution (the instigation of, and the recovery from), and since so much of the book deals with said Revolution, I’m happily including it here.  Best biography I’ve ever read.  Hands down.  If you know who David McCullough is, I’m sure you know why: The extent of his research is enormous, and he arranges it masterfully so that the book reads not only as a chain of life-defining events, but as a thorough character study.  With this biography, I am converted; John Adams will forever remain my favorite Founding Father.  Because despite his  learning, his admirable sense of justice, and his ever-expanding ambition, Adams could be pompous, foolish, and stubborn.  He knew it, too.

7.  Gone With the Wind.  Everyone should read this at least once in their lives.  I think it’s expected that the novel is sentimental, telling of the terribly beautiful Scarlett O’Hara and her 1000-page-long pining for the married Ashley Wilkes (while all readers root for Rhett Butler instead).  What’s unexpected is how accurate a portrayal of the Civil War it is.  No history class I’ve ever taken has done better.  Battles are described in desperate fury, and even more memorably, the destruction of the South is depicted from a Southern point of view.

8.  Little Women.  I’ve read this book once a year since I was in third grade.  So I’m at about thirteen reads.  This is another novel that isn’t quite a war novel, but that concerns war enough for me to include it here. Little Women  is about four girls growing up during the Civil War: their struggles, their triumphs, their first dealings with wealth and love and adulthood.  Despite my thirteen readings, I seem to find some new bit of commentary every time I read through.

9.  Atonement.  I was really going to stop at 8, but then I remembered Atonement.  It’s about a lie told when one is a child, and how that lie comes to haunt people, and to impact their lives for years to come.  Written by the always good Ian McEwan, this book is on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Novels.  It deals with WWII, both the fighting and the nursing parts of it.  Warning: the ending will rip your heart out, but it’s very, very worth the read.