Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Das Ende, meine Freunde

It’s the moment you’ve all been dreading more than any other, broad R, but the one you knew would eventually have to arrive. But steel yourselves for the grim truth: here endeth the broad, always entertaining, often deeply controversial, never ever endearing, and characteristically overbearing internet narrative (i.e., “blog”) that was DF Revisits Mitteleuropa.

DF sits now in the glassy aerie of Munich Flughafen, hi above the Lufthansa departure desk (which is, fwiw, about 500x more efficient, modern, and friendly than the equivalent desk at LAX). It’s a moment for reflection and sheer, unbridled rage. Or wait, not the rage, just the reflection. So (or, as my Deutscher compatriots might say, “Zo”), what are the big-pic takeaways from Eurotrip 2010?

1. DF is smarter than he was a month ago. It’s not a high bar, admittedly; it’s like saying “The LA Clippers are a better team than they were last year.” True, perhaps, but not necessarily indicative of objective quality. Still, DF’s head was stuffed full of very interesting and provocative ideas during his time here in Europa: very valuable comments on some works in progress; mind-bendingly technical introductory empirical legal knowledge; and a less technical but no less challenging or interesting introduction to a rat-choice take on law’s expressive function.

In that vein, I’ve been reading Taleb’s The Black Swan sort of as a follow-on to the ELS stuff, and it’s been an interesting counterpoint for a couple of reasons. First, Taleb’s very skeptical of the capacity of empiricists to predict much of anything, at least for certain kinds of populations (non-Gaussian distributions, and he thinks almost all populations are non-Gaussianly distributed, and certainly that no interesting populations are Gaussianly distributed). Second, the book’s written in a brash, contrarian style that reminds me of Camille Paglia, with all the same intrigue and annoyance. Taleb is forever chastising this or that group as clueless or full of idiots, while at the same time warning us not to get caught up in overgeneralized narrative, and apparently unaware that his ego has led him into a pretty obvious contradiction.

Boy, you really wanted to read all that, didn’t you? Well, jesus, you know DF’s an academic nerd, so what did you really expect? But I get the point; I’ll stick to less heady fare from here on out.

2. DF <3s Europa. You knew this already, Broad Readership, but I’ll say it one more time: the world is a big and interesting place, and DF wants to experience as much of it as possible before he shuffles off the old mortal coil. This summer was a chance to really get into a new, and heretofore largely unvisited part of Europa: Switzerland, and more specifically Zuerich. There’s something very different about living in a foreign city versus just popping in as a tourist. I’ve really only been able to spend multiple weeks in a Eurocity a few times: Amsterdam 2001, Barcelona 2002, Berlin 2005 and 2006, and Zuerich 2010 (and there was Melbourne 1998, but that’s not Europa, obv.). Actually, that’s kind of a lot, and looking back it makes me feel really fortunate to have had the luck and wherewithal to make all these trips.

DF liked Zuerich a whole lot. It’s a hard city to love, so I’m going to stop short of saying that, and I don’t think I have the affection for Z-town that I did for, e.g., A-dam or Melbourne. Zuerich has many admirable attributes: a classic central European beauty, efficiency and cleanliness, an easygoing and accessible atmosphere, and a rich cultural and intellectual life. But it lacks the spark or zazz that one will find in, say, Barcelona, or most other cities really. Being in Zurich was like staying with a wealthy relative who is very generous and polite but a little bit cold. None of this should suggest that I’ve got any reservations about the place; I loved being there and I’d go again in a heartbeat. I’m just trying to capture the distinctive source of its appeal and contrast its appeal to that of other European cities.

3. Travel while he may, DF’s <3 will always be in America, and specifically in Los Angeles. I am already strategizing for next summer’s plan to escape the US and explore some foreign burg (current frontrunner: Buenos Aires, Argentina, baby). But however much DF wants, and perhaps even needs, to travel, he will always first and foremost be American. One of the interesting things about traveling is that it reminds me of how American I am (and hints at common threads that may be said to be essentially American). In the states, we often contrast ourselves internally—north v. south, LA v. NY, red state v. blue state—but abroad, Americans are more alike than different, and this is a useful and, I think, happy insight to take back with me.

As for the city, there are many things about LA that a reasonable person could well dislike: the crowds, the pollution, the shallowness, the traffic, etc. Zurich had none of these drawbacks, and I can imagine that visitors to LA from Z-town would likely be baffled at why anyone would want to live in LA. (Indeed, Euros almost invariably say that they like some parts of CA, including San Francisco, but powerfully dislike LA). But these things are, for DF, swamped and then some by the city’s familiarity and bewitching appeal. You can’t really explain love, or perhaps less dramatically, preferences, and so I’ll just leave it at that. I’ll miss getting to work via a funicular railway, or being able to navigate the entire city by cheap trams (and even by foot), and seeing a spectacular medieval skyline of churches on a daily basis, but for inexplicable reasons, I am looking forward to being back in LA, my home sweet home.

4. If I could live one day from the trip all over again, the choice is beyond question: June 23, 2010. My first day in Zuerich, beautiful weather on the walk from Rigiblick to ETH, lunch with colleagues overlooking the breathtaking expanse of the city, and then of course, of course, the game, the game, the game. I watch sports a lot, and have been high and low as a result of outcomes, but nothing has ever quite matched that moment (perhaps the Gibson HR, but that sort of illustrates the point). Ninety minutes of tension and worry and a sense of impending doom was transferred into an explosion of joy so great I was literally at a loss for words (again: where the hell did “Oh Jesus” come from? And why did I respond to people’s “gooool” texts with “OMG OMG OMG”—it was like what the very religious refer to as speaking in tongues, perhaps).

And later, watching the great vids of fans all over America celebrating the goal in unison, it suggested that part of what makes national sports distinctive is that people who share a common thread with you that you hold dear (being American) are all happy because their representatives have pulled off a miracle. As Bill Simmons typically aptly put it, “We will always have that Algeria game. Always.” Not “I” will have the game, or “my team” won, but “we” will have the game. And, similarly, there will always be a crystal clear memory of the time DF, delirious with nationalism and victory, wended his way through the streets of Zurich, a city he’d known for less than a day, whooping and chanting "U S A". Always.

Hm. That was a digression, and hardly a coherent one. Well, folks, the time draws nigh. My flight for LA boards in about an hour, and in that time I want to have one last taste of authentic local fare (I’m thinking sushi). So I bid all y'all farewell. I’ll blog at ya again next time I can finagle an international voyage. Auf wiedersehen!


1. Sunset over mtns west of Zuerich seen from Rigiblick/Villa Hatt.