Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Cruising Through Europe

There were several times today when I thought to myself, "It's September 11th and I'm not really doing anything special to commemorate that fact." But then, as midnight approached, I began to feel strange about letting the date pass unacknowledged. You see, I have a whole box of material from that fall that I have meant to revisit many times but have simply not been able to look at.

In fact, my aversion to recalling the months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is so strong that it wasn't until a few minutes ago that I could bring myself to read the piece I started writing in November 2001 but never managed to finish. I think I might try to do that one day. For now, though, I thought I'd share it as-is, a long fragments whose incompleteness testifies better to my mental state then and, perhaps, now than something more polished ever could.

Cruising Through Europe


I couldn’t stop. Twenty hours earlier I had boarded a Lufthansa jet in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport. Now I was in Italy for the first time, having finally managed to extricate myself from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have the right map. I didn’t have Italian currency, having discovered at the airport that the secret code for my ATM card was too long for European machines. I was driving a Fiat Brava rental car with a clutch radically different from my VW Passat’s back home. And I was unspeakably tired. Yet once I found the road, I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to drive.

I was sure that everything would work out if I could just keep moving. I’m still here, so it must have. But in the short term, my faith in movement only made things worse. Because I didn’t pause to get my bearings, I ended up missing the on-ramp for the Autostrada. I drove for hours on regional two-lane roads that seemed to be headed in the right direction, but were exceedingly slow going. Periodically, I would see signs for the Autostrada and head in that direction, only to find myself stuck in yet another belltower-dominated town, navigating a maze of traffic circles and one-way streets. Since few roads in Italy are numbered and my map only showed major highways, I had no way of knowing how badly I had lost my way.

At one point, sitting at a traffic light, I realized that my car had a cassette player. Digging through my carry-on bag, I found my case of tapes and extracted Yo La Tengo’s I Hear the Heart Beating as One. I’m enormously fond of the American road-trip. But I can’t imagine taking one unless I have control over the music I hear. There’s something comforting about the fusion of new landscape with old sounds. And on this day it was particularly welcome. Hearing the record’s first track slowly swell to volume, I relaxed. The call-and-response of song and steering wheel helped me through another 45 minutes. When the tape switched over to Yo La Tengo’s Painful on Side B, however, I started to panic again. I was supposed to arrive at my destination in the south of Austria by 6pm. It was already 4pm and I was still seeing signs for the same cluster of towns: Venezia, Treviso, Padua.

Finally, I located an entrance to the Autostrada. But I had no lire. As it turned out, I probably could have used my credit card to pay the toll, if I had known which lane to pick. With no knowledge of Italian, though, I was too frightened to get on a freeway I might not be able to leave. So I drove back to the nearest towns, looking for an ATM that might work. Because it was Friday afternoon, the banks were already closed. But I was sure that my experience at the airport had been an aberration. There had to be a machine that would accomodate a secret code of more than five digits. Wrong. When I returned to the States, a friend told me that there are Citibank ATMs in every major city that will do the trick. But I was mired in the small towns of the Veneto.

Despairing of ever escaping Italy, I decided to backtrack all the way to Venice. At least I would be able to get a cash advance on my credit card at the airport. And the signs for Venice were a lot easier to follow than the signs for points north. After another hour, I arrived back at Marco Polo. I finally did secure some lire, though my worn-out brain requested less than I should have. More importantly, I managed to extract myself from the airport’s parking garage. A few minutes later, I was finally on the Autostrada.


This was one occasion when I would have reached my destination faster by slowing down. But I was overwhelmed by the desire to stay in motion. Michael Herr describes a similar feeling in Dispatches, his book on the Vietnam War:
“Best way’s to just keep moving,” one of them told us. “Just keep moving, stay in motion, you know what I’m saying?”

We knew. He was a moving-target-survivor subscriber, a true child of the war, because except for the rare times when you were pinned or stranded the system was geared to keep you mobile, if that was what you wanted. As a technique for staying alive it seemed to make as much sense as anything, given naturally that you were there to begin with and see it close; it started out sound and straight but it formed a cone as it progressed, because the more you moved the more you saw, the more you saw the more besides death and mutilation you risked, and the more you risked of that the more you would have to let go of one day as a “survivor.”
Herr’s breathless prose here provides a window on the specific horror of the first televised war. But it also reveals something important about American identity. We aren’t accustomed to feeling like targets. And when we do, we hit the road.

Like most Americans, I definitely felt like a target in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Once I had collected myself, I realized that my long-anticipated trip to Austria was in jeopardy. Yet I still booked my flight for Europe in late September, figuring that air travel would be safer because of the new security measures. If the world situation worsened prior to my departure, I would stay home. Ironically, it was the situation at home that took a turn for the worse. Even while the American-led intervention in Afghanistan struggled to make headway, it was already clear that there was little chance of the conflict spreading in the immediate future. But the comfort that this realization might have brought Americans was deflected by the discovery of multiple letters containing anthrax in the postal system. Suddenly, it wasn’t just men from the Middle East who were inspiring anxiety, but our trusted mail carriers.

As I write this, we still have no idea who sent those deadly letters. Yet, whatever their intentions may have been, they certainly picked a perfect strategy for undermining the American home. Having a mailing address is a prerequisite for participating fully in the modern world. Without one, you can’t use credit cards, own property, or vote. Some wealthy people have a separate office to handle their correspondence. For most of us, however, mail comes to our place of residence. It is the place where our private and public lives most consistently overlap. We are delighted when the mail brings good news, depressed when it brings bad. I’ve heard people say that an unwelcome letter or unanticipated bill has “contaminated” their space. Now the metaphor has become frighteningly literal. But the metaphor lives on.

Like many Americans in the wake of September 11th, my wife and I had to make a conscious effort to limit the flow of information into our house. Not only did we make it a point to keep the television off when our almost three-year-old daughter Skylar was up, we also told ourselves not to look too hard or long at the horrifying images. The fact that FOX News and CNN rapidly developed a strident “yellow journalism” that would have made William Randolph Hearst proud gave us another reason to tune out. Even brief exposure to the marketing of “America’s New War” made it hard to remember that we were, in fact, the victims of a terrorist attack. In the first few weeks afterwards, we got most of our information from The New York Times, whose daily supplement in section B, “A Nation Challenged,” forcefully reminded us that the appropriate injunction was not “Remember the Maine!” but “Remember the Arizona!”

Once the anthrax scare began to dominate the headlines, though, our attitude towards The New York Times changed. Somehow, the fact that the newspaper was delivered to our door like the mail marked it as being part of the problem. The mere act of removing its blue plastic sheath seemed dangerous. But it was reading the paper that proved hardest. I vowed to read the summary of the previous day’s developments printed on the bottom of page B1, yet found it increasingly difficult to complete even that five-minute task. Kim stopped reading the “news” altogether, confining herself to “Arts and Leisure.” From that point, our commitment rapidly decreased. By the middle of October, I was taking two or three of that week’s papers out of their wrapper on recycling day.

I recognize that this is a fundamentally irrational response to the prospect of bad news, like that of the person who refuses to get screened for cancer just in case he has it. The parental role we had exercised in limiting our daughter’s exposure to potentially disturbing knowledge had been turned back on ourselves. We were content to live as toddlers. But we were happier as a result. To read the paper was to risk losing what little sense of security we had left. The more information we absorbed, the more we perceived ourselves to be “sitting ducks.” In contrast to Herr’s experience as a wartime correspondent, this was one case when it might have been easier to preserve our innocence by staying in motion. The “cone” of awareness Herr describes grew in proportion, not to how much ground we covered, but to how much news we allowed into our home.

As I boarded the plane in Phoenix on October 25th, I was glad that I had decided to fly Lufthansa to Europe. I could have taken comfort in Lufthansa’s safety record, in its stringent security measures, in the mere fact that it wasn’t an American airline. But what pleased me was something far more mundane: the newspapers. The racks at the end of the jetway presented me with the new issue of the weekly Die Zeit, as well as the Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Rundschau. I eagerly clutched them all to my chest, intent on immersing myself in the minutiae of German life. Sure enough, although the papers held planty of information on the war in Afghanistan and the latest events in the anthrax crisis, their tone conveyed a sense that these stories were simply more “news of the world.” The melodrama of American television and the fixation on details in The New York Times was absent. In fact, you almost had the impression that September 11th had only marked a watershed for the United States. By travelling to Europe, I hoped to be temporarily moving back to a time when it was still possible for me to read the news with detachment.


As I left Marco Polo Airport behind me for a second time on October 26th, I felt relief. I could finally immerse myself in the familiar logic of the expressway. From that point onward, my drive to the Austrian town of Klagenfurt became considerably less stressful. Yet it did take longer than it should have. Traffic was heavy. I wasn’t sure of my car’s capabilities. But mostly I was just too tired to make time. Years of making ridiculously long drives with Kim – we once left Chicago at dinner time and were in Denver by 8:30 the next morning – has impressed upon me the importance of stopping to refresh my eyes. When I start to zone out these days, I pull over. Luckily, this wasn’t hard to do on the Autostrada. My friend Joel had told me to look for the Italian roadside rest areas. “You can get a wonderful cappuchino and tasty panini, Charlie. You’ll love it.” With this helpful advice in mind, I stopped repeatedly.

At first I only had the courage to order coffee, figuring correctly that I could pronounce “espresso.” The panini were another matter. There were many to choose from and I was sure that I would be asked questions about my selection. So I waited until I was close enough to the Austrian border to be able to make my requests in German without feeling overly rude. The panini were pretty good, though more like convenience food than I had imagined. Then again, it was difficult to gauge their taste through all the cigarette smoke. We’ve become very spoiled in the United States. It’s actually possible for non-smokers here to avoid all but the briefest encounters with tobacco. Europe is another matter. I actually enjoy the scent of good tobacco when I stand outside with my friends who smoke on a cold, rainy San Francisco night. But my asthma acts up whenever I’m in a room where someone is smoking. As a consequence, my stops at rest areas became a strange balancing act. I stayed long enough to clear my head, but left while I still had reasonably clear lungs.

The strange thing was that, for all of the discomfort that cigarette smoke brings me, I actually found the bad air quality comforting. It reminded me of my childhood, when my grandmother would provide biting commentary on the world, perched over the ashtray. And this memory proved peculiarly consonant with my desire to escape to a safer time in American history. The events of September 11th were responsible for many ironies. But the fact that the 1970s suddenly seemed like a time of pastoral innocence – when highjackers wanted to go to Cuba instead of their graves – was certainly not the least of these.

As I finally neared Austria, I was grateful to be entering a country where I could speak the language. My plan was to stop at the border to exchange my lire for Schilling, then hunt down a more substantive meal in Klagenfurt. Unfortunately, I managed to find my way into a trucks-only lane as I left Italy and shot past both the border control and the building where I had intended to convert my currency. By the time I came to the next exit, I was already well into Austria. I drove on, pulling into Klagenfurt an hour later.

I had opted to stay at the Best Western, because I was able to reserve the room over the internet. It was 9:15pm on a Friday night. But, as far as I could discern, I was the first guest to arrive. And the hotel manager seemed to be the only employee. Overcoming flashbacks from The Shining, I collapsed on the bed. But when I woke the next morning, I realized that I’d stumbled on the right choice. The hotel was right in the middle of the town, which was full of Baroque buildings in pleasant pastels. More to the point, the hotel manager set out a full breakfast spread for me and the couple who had arrived after me the previous night. Having discovered that Austrian ATMs were no more receptive to my secret code than Italian ones, I knew I wouldn’t have any cash until the banks opened on Monday. Breakfast was my only sure thing, so I piled on the bread and cold-cuts.


As it happens, I was attending an American Studies conference. When I arrived at the university, I discovered that all but one of the American speakers had cancelled. This wasn’t too surprising. But the tone of the European scholars there was. To be sure, many of them mentioned the events of September 11th in their talks. And the conversation during coffee breaks frequently turned to the crisis in the States. What caught me off guard was the detachment with which the terrorist attacks and anthrax scare were discussed. It wasn’t just the fear that was missing, but the feeling. Somehow I had imagined that people who study America for a living would have been more deeply moved by the mood in my homeland. Instead, I was both pleased and perturbed to find that the American situation had seemingly registered with these American Studies scholars as more “news of the world.” It may have been a part of the world in which they had a personal and professional interest, but its turmoil was still being perceived at an emotional distance.

This was, of course, exactly the sort of detachment that I had sought while reading German newspapers on the airplane. But it felt wrong to me in this context. I wanted my panic to be acknowledged, even as I also wanted to put it a few thousand miles behind me. It was an unspoken panic. With the exception of the obligatory expressions of horror immediately after September 11th, I had continued to maintain my usual ironic façade in public. I savaged the impulse-item patriotism I saw around Tucson. When I heard smart, highly educated people at my university state that they couldn’t figure out why terrorists had targeted the World Trade Center, I mocked their willful ignorance. As I put it when speaking to a colleague who had, like me, spent many years in the left-of-center San Francisco Bay Area, “Hasn’t anyone around here heard of globalization? It wasn’t called the “Local Trade Center” after all.” I don’t mean to disown my critique retroactively. The intellectual in me continues to deride the cluelessness of the American media and the masses who take its manipulative coverage for absolute truth. Yet the simple fact is that I was scared.

Having kept my fears hidden back home, I certainly wasn’t going to reveal them to my hosts. I smiled, sipped coffee, made polite conversation about the topics that always seem to come up at meetings of international scholars. But the more I played along, the more I felt cut off from the conference’s other participants. I periodically slipped away from the proceedings in an effort to regain my composure. It didn’t work. I noticed that I was persistently short of breath. Something was wrong with my oxygen flow. I used my inhaler over and over without noticing significant improvement.

It wasn’t until dinner on Saturday night that I started to relax. The beer I drank seemed to mask my respiratory discomfort. I convinced myself that my breathing problems had been the work of my mind. When some of the conference participants went out to a bar after the dinner, I went with them, demonstrating my familiarity with the working-class German tradition of drinking beer with shots of Jägermeister. When I finally arrived back at my now not-quite-so-deserted hotel, I was almost feeling good. But a phone call home to Tucson quickly put me in a darker mood. The anthrax scare seemed to be getting worse by the minute. More postal facilities, some of them not even handlers of government mail, had tested positive for spores. Kim sounded bleak.


When I woke the next morning, I took a deep breath. Everything seemed to be in order. I went downstairs for my second round at the breakfast buffet, picking up a newspaper to read while I ate. The latest anthrax developments were in it. But they didn’t register with the force of Kim’s words the previous night. For one thing, the Austrian paper was fixated on the new rumor that right-wing extremists in the U.S. were responsible for the anthrax letters. The idea that American Nazis might be the culprits held clear appeal for a nation with a fascist past. But I found it comforting too, figuring that the report, if substantiated, might ease tension between Americans and Arabs. More than that, it was the simple fact that I wasn’t reading English that lessened the burden of the news.

I always read when I eat, even if it means reading the same sports section a dozen times. Because reaching for the paper has become a reflex, I didn’t even realize I was reading in German at first. I had just grabbed what was there. After a few minutes, I caught myself and thought “That’s strange. I guess my German is in better shape than I thought.” Yet this discovery concealed something more significant. Looking back on the experience later, I realized that reading about “Milzbrand” instead of “anthrax” made the danger less palpable.

When I got to the university, however, my anxiety started to wax. By the time I had arrived at the conference-closing luncheon, I felt like there was a lead weight pushing down on my chest. I made small talk with the Austrian student across from me, in spite of my respiratory distress. But I was desperate to get away. Even though he was clearly eager to continue talking with me about Mixmaster Mike and E-40 -– both, like Sly Stone, products of my former hometown of Vallejo, California -– I made my apologies and went back to the hotel.

I had made reservations to stay in Ljubljana, Slovenia. . .

That's where the narrative breaks off. Still to come were my decision to stick around Klagenfurt in order to get cash when the banks opened, so I could pay back the conference organizer who had leant me enough to get by; the "primal scene" I experienced accidentally opening the door to a room at my hotel festooned with fascist regalia; my odd run-in with a local leather craftsmen who mistook me for a German spy hired by his competitor in a neighboring town to photograph his designs for mobile phone holsters; the agony I felt trying to decide whether it would be worse to buy some over-the-counter Cipro, thereby revealing my American identity and concomitant paranoia, or persist in my pretending to be European and possibly succumb to anthrax as a consequence; the realization I had that my respiratory panic was probably the result of eating too much Vollkorn bread during my attempts to load up on the hotel's free breakfast, since it contained nuts I was allergic to; my failure to find a single guide to speaking Slovenian, even though the border was only thirty minutes away; the disturbing realization that the Slovenians in the toll booths apparently spoke no English or German; my inability to find a parking spot in Ljubljana, despite trying for over an hour; the way I mustered the courage to stop at a rest area in Slovenia for an espresso, so I at least had some interaction with the country aside from driving through it; my attempt to visit Trieste, once I'd crossed back into Italy, which was thwarted by bad traffic and my sense that the dark, brooding city was more hallucination than a reality in which I could set foot; the terrible fog on the Autostrada between Trieste and Venice, which made for the most harrowing drive -- 100 miles an hour with barely a car length between me and the cars in front and behind of me -- of my life; the futility of trying to return a rental car at the Venice airport after 9pm; my decision to break the promise I'd made myself and my partner not to visit Venice proper -- we wanted to see it as a family -- because there was nothing else to do before my flight the next morning; the Don't Look Now simulations I effected by getting lost in the labyrinthine old city; and how surreal it was to arrive back in Phoenix after spending four days -- only four -- filled with such intense experience.

In other words, I have a lot left to write about. But having to go to the place where I need to retrieve those memories in full detail is not a prospect I presently have the will to countenance. I mean, I've told most of the stories enumerated in the previous paragraphs many times, but never all at once and never with the pressure of portraying the whole of my odyssey bearing down on me. Some day, though, it would definitely be worth the stress it would cause me to finish the job.
Tags: autobiography, fragment, history, travel

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