27 August 2008

Weather Report III

LUND--It is 0230. The sky is the color of new jeans in the dark. Clouds are moving fast across it, looking like bleach stains that reveal star points in the night. In a month and a half I will have been here a year. The last days it has rained and rained with only brief moments of clear. I cannot remember a rainy day such as the day of Lena and her friend's birthday party. It began before dawn, steady and hard and continued that way through the afternoon and night without pause until early the next morning. And we were awake then.

I was surprised by the Swedish summer. It is almost pornographic. I mean that, not that men and beasts are copulating for cameras in the streets but in that it is too good, too perfect, too staged and unreal. The summer time has always been problematic for me, at least since coming into adulthood. I always forget there is no summer break, that one still has to work. In the depths of winter I imagine an endless period of canoes and sun, lemonade and beer, smoking grills covered in meat and surrounded by friends -- mornings and evenings that are simultaneously early and late. But of course one still has to work and summer is pretty much humid, sticky, and filled with bugs that don't stop work either.

But in Sweden, the Nordic wonderland, summer is hot and sunny but dry. People are beautiful, half-clad and tanned. The days last until near midnight while men and women and blonde-headed bairns frolic at the beaches of sea and lake and river. There are apple trees everywhere and berries and streams full of fish. Fruit grows fat and red and the kids grow blonder and browner whilst they fish for crabs and engage in healthful outdoor activities. Around the longest day of summer the Swedes gather and dance around a big long pole decorated with the likeness of testicles. They hop around like frogs and sing folk tunes. Then the days begin to get shorter. Near the end of summer the adults gather and eat loads of crayfish boiled in dill with fresh bread and cheese and drink too much schnapps and sing rousing songs about eating crayfish and drinking schnapps and then summer ends.

There are a couple weeks where every day is a rather dramatic battle between the sun and the shades. The summer does not want to die. The clouds roll in and there are tremendous winds and towering black clouds but they never seem to accomplish much. The summer is very strong and will not let them. Not that day. You look out and it is dark and you put on your oil-coat and hat and by the time you walk downstairs it is hot and bright. And you walk to the station and catch a 15 minute train and when you get there it is chill and grey which changes in turn to a bright and clear night.

But I think that today, or maybe it was Saturday, summer died. I felt the change. The season had ended though Fall I have yet to smell. The leaves are still green. None have changed and I wonder what, here, the first scent of Autumn is like.

25 August 2008

Storm Over Transcarpathia

These are two photos taken out the car window as Arpad drove towards home while a big electrical storm rolled towards us. Out there on the plains you can see the storms coming from miles away and they look very small while, at the same time, you know they are enormous. Across the flat Ukrainian landscape you can see the lines of rain and forks of lightning and around you it is sunny and then, with incredible speed, the storm is upon you and you feel very small.

20 August 2008

Observations and Notes from Transcarpathia

The following notes and observations are taken from e-mails sent to a number of friends of mine: the journalist, the historian, the poet and the anthropologist… you know who you are…

I have been stuck in a tiny Hungarian village with no Internet (or indoor toilet) for a couple weeks. The most common house style is a square one-story box with a semi-pyramidal roof, usually constructed of slightly irregular, locally-made bricks but also quite often of mud bricks (made in the yard in wooden forms from mud and straw), plastered over, much the same as is common in Latin America. Of course a lot of the newer houses are made of poured concrete or concrete block. The newer houses often are two to two 1/2 stories but the older ones are almost all single story.

On the side of every house is a grape arbor, both to provide shade and, of course, grapes--some of which are eaten but most of which, I am told, go into making wine. Isabella and Delaware and other Labrusca hybrids are quite common here. I would assume that they and other American-French hybrids were planted after the phyloxera epidemic that decimated the European vineyards in the 1800s and, unlike the rest of Europe, were not replanted with grafted vinifera vines later on. There are no French bureaucrats telling them they have to rip up the vines they've been growing for years. The hybrid varietal Noah is grown here and, as in France, it is said that drinking wine made of it will make a man go insane. In fact, I was told that making wine from it is illegal. A winemaker told me, however, that is doesn’t make you go mad it just gives you a headache.. There are other local varieties I tasted as well. One a sort of muscat and another that the old man who made the wine said was from a Carpathian (vinifera) variety. It was an unusual (good) taste.

While the houses in the villages are quite close together in neighborhoods they are, in many ways, traditional peasant extended-family compounds. Often the square house fronting the street (quite roomy inside) has additions extending back from it and usually a rather sizeable backyard which is, in fact, the family's private mini-farm with a variety of (always grapes) but vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc.), fruit trees (apple, cherry, plum, apricot, peach, etc.) as well as often quite a few chickens, ducks, rabbits and perhaps a hog or two all quite efficiently packed in. The enormous flat fields stretching off into the Great Hungarian plain are mostly for normal field crops. There is a lot of wheat, rapeseed, sunflowers, potatoes and maize. Most of the machinery, combines and such, are of Soviet manufacture and at least 25 or more years old. A great amount of labor is still done with hand tools such as wooden rakes and scythes. Up in the Carpathian mountains it is even more old-fashioned with traditional old style hay-stacks with a sharp center pole forming cones all over the landscape. The architecture there uses more wood than that on the plains and you see both wood board houses, often with elaborate, almost Victorian tracery, but also lots cabins, some using large flat-hewn logs and others using round logs.

Here, unlike Hungary where almost everything of the kind was either destroyed or moved to a tourist park, Soviet monuments are quite common. There are, however, monuments now in all the churchyards listing the names of those killed under Stalin. There are also many stories about pre-Soviet monuments (such as WWI memorials) that were buried for 80 years to save them and then put back up rather recently.

The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps more than anywhere I have been, seem to exist rather nicely side by side. There isn't much money, quite literally, but there is plenty of food and people grow a lot of what they eat. Arpad, the young minister, is always stopping briefly at some house and coming back with a bag of peppers or potatoes or cucumbers or such. There are a lot of cars, the most common of which is the Lada, many of them 20 years old or more. The Lada which comprises at least 50 percent of the car population, are that most common of Soviet things: a copy of something else. The classic Lada is, in fact, a Fiat copy--a boxy little economy car. There are lots of mopeds and small motorcycles and cycles with sidecars are fairly frequent. And there are new Mercedes and BMWs and such but the saying is, "If he has a good car he must not be a good man." The East German Trabant, common in Budapest, is in little evidence here. Then there are the Volgas. These were the best cars, 4 door sedans that look like about a '67 Plymouth--even those made in the 1990s. And there are other manner of weird Soviet vehicles: Kamaz heavy trucks, Neva jeepythings and others. There are also a large number of horse drawn carts. They are not buckboards in the American style but are narrow, no more than two feet at the bottom of the bed with angled board sides opening up to perhaps four feet max. They can put a shocking amount of hay on one, however. Two people who like each other's company can sit side by side up front and they are pulled by either one or two horses (rather scrawny things). The wheels and axels, however, are scavenged from motor vehicles. You also see many personal-sized tractors. They are an engine mounted on two wheels with a pair of steering handles. They can be attached to a cart in place of a horse or hooked to a plow or, I am certain, used in any number of ingenious ways. Also a lot of bikes, old trusty one-speeds for the most part and modern one-speeds that look like expensive, hi-tech mountain bikes but which sell for a little under $100. The roads, very often asphalt overlaid on old, square-cut, laid stone, are terrible, the worst I have ever seen. As is the case in Wooster and other small old Midwest towns there are perfectly good old brick roads that with only a little maintenance would have lasted forever. At least in the US they tend to resurface them but the Ukraine is a good example of what happens when modern tarmac isn’t kept up. Huge potholes and crumbling edges, probably keeps the mortality rate down, however, because on a good stretch of road the locals tend to put the pedal down.

The sky is huge. But it is somehow different from the West, from Montana. It has something of an element of desolation and dread rather than freedom and awe but perhaps that is my imagination. Cloud formations seem positively Soviet in size. The morning light is usually clear and bright though sometimes the days are simply hot and humid much like Ohio though somewhat more bearable (but it isn't August yet). Sunsets can be pretty spectacular but confined to the lower edge of the huge sky. At night you can tell how little developed it is because the sky is actually dark and black and there are stars. In the main, out in the country, it smells very clean and even the cities aren't really all that bad. Perhaps there isn't much heavy industry left. I don't know, but there are no evident pollution controls on the cars and cycles and the air ought to be worse in town than it is. Perhaps it is blown out and absorbed by the vastness of the surrounding plains. The plains of Pest extend from Buda-Pest, Budapest, two different cities actually, or originally anyway, separated by the Danube, all the way to the foothills of the Carpathians which aren’t too far (20 miles or so) from where I am. This is the Great Hungarian Plain and geologically as well as to a large degree culturally, this really should be part of Hungary. Other than the odd hill popping up every now and then (a geologist could probably tell you why) the land until the mountains is flat flat flat. The Carpathians are old mountains and remind me a lot of parts of West Virginia. Not terribly high, but very rugged and very steep and very heavily wooded though mostly in evergreens (on the plains there are, in spots, a lot of oaks and other deciduous varieties). Many rivers and streams run through the mountains, wild and rocky and shallow and seemingly very clear until a bend eddies with the same vast and indestructible collection of plastic drink bottles that clog the beaches of Utila, Honduras and other spots that ought to be pristine.

13 August 2008


TRANSCARPATHIA, UKRAINE--In the morning we drove to Muncachevo with Dr. Yuri Demjan. He drove fast, handling the car well but impatiently as if he might intimidate it into going faster and the cars around it slower. Demjan is a big bear of a man, a Ukrainian orthopedic surgeon that SARA has brought to the US for extra training, particularly in scoliosis correction.

At the Regional Children's Hospital he charged through his morning consultations: a little girl with a burn-scarred scalp, a boy with a badly broken leg he had operated on earlier, another boy with a sunken chest and finally a Svetlana Perminova, a 18-year-old Russian girl with an asymmetrical chest. A year before she had had her scoliosis corrected at Shriner's Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania with SARA funding. Projects like this, that find and help pay for people like Svetlana to have surgeries that can both save their lives or, especially in a case like her's, completely alter the quality of it, are a large part of what SARA does. Rev. Szylagi and I went back a few weeks later to visit her in the hospital. She was smiling, sitting with her mother, a little shy about her English but happy and eager to talk about how her life would be different now. "Look at her," said Szylagi enthusiastically, "She is a beautiful girl but before, before this surgery and especially before coming to Shriner's, she couldn't stand up straight, she was in pain. Now she has the confidence to go out in the world, find a job, go to school, have a family." And it was true. The difference between the photos of her a year before, her thin body twisted and bent, and the undeniably beautiful and confident girl who sat in front of me and talked in halting English, was incredible. I thought, as well, that her's was only one of hundreds and hundreds of surgeries and other medical procedures around the world that SARA has taken a hand in making possible--that hundreds of Svetlanas now had chances at normal lives because men like Dr. Demjan had trained in the US and brought their knowledge home.

We changed into scrubs and were soon into the first surgery, the boy with the sunken chest. The operation was quick and efficient. The patient was put under, the operating field was sterilized and isolated and two incisions were made on either side of his chest. Curved metal bars were inserted from one incision to the other, flipped with special wrenches and the chest thus expanded.

I had not slept well the night before and towards the end of the first surgery I began to fade. The thing with surgery pictures, unless you are documenting a specific procedure for medical people, is that after a while they pretty much look alike--masked people of various heights arranging themselves in a tableaux around a big green sheet with a small square of bloody flesh at the center.

The operating room itself was separated but its door opened onto a prep room with a door open to the outside. I went out on the balcony there and sat down on a mouldering canvas stretcher and promptly fell asleep with Leica's dangling from my neck. They finished the boy and found me snoring on a Russian military stretcher there on the balcony on a gently raining day.

"We find you a room to sleep," said Yuri, "Next surgery long."
"Thank-you," I replied.
"You want we send you girl?" he said, laughing and grinning.
"Make it two girls and a bottle of vodka," I shot back, not to be intimidated by a little Russian leg-pulling.
"Ha ha! You want big girls?" he said and stretched his burly arms out to a span that even in jest was terrifying.

A silent Russian nurse made up a hospital bed for me with fresh sheets. She left and I lay back on a nicely plumped pillow and I read from a copy of The Lord of the Rings that I had brought with me. I had just finished The Council of Elrond when I fell fast asleep to strange dreams. I was awakened by a different, equally silent nurse who led me to the balcony. Yuri was in the parking lot, "Surgery finished quick. C'mon, c'mon, we go. Time to eat."

And thus began, quite fittingly, my month in Ukraine, always a little tired, always rushing from one place to another and always, just around the corner, another meal.

02 August 2008

The Death of the American Dream

Write an essay on this subject and I will publish it here...

LUND--It is getting onwards towards late up here in Ultima Thule. That's what the Romans called it, this place of ice-gnawing savages far, far out of the reach of the civilized world. Now the local Nazi wannabees like the term. I suppose it does sound cool and Conan. No darkies would dare live in a place called sumpin' like that or whatever their twisted little brains might imagine. But I don't care much about them Nazzees anyhoo. What we're talking about tonight ladies and gentlemen and gentlefolk of all persuasions is THE AMERICAN DREAM. I have been reading the collection of Hunter Thompson's letters and his never finished book of that title. The damn thing is that book is the summation of everything he wrote. It is the question. It is a life work and fitting that it was never summed up in a book simply titled that. The question is too big.

But it is a question worth asking. What is the American dream? As I see it it was the greatest experiment in freedom and democracy ever to take place and, in ways, resulted in the best and most free society ever to exist in the history of humankind. But somewhere along the way we have lost our way. I hesitate to write more as I have been too influenced as of late with Mr. Thompson's inimitable style which is not my own and should never be imitated despite the temptation to do such.

I was debating this tonight with my Swede. Her idea, and I apologize if I misquote her, is that the American dream is the ability to, with ones gun and personal strength and fortitude, defend one's family and personal belongings, to kill whoever it is that might take those away, be it Indians, Cattle Barons, Evil Railroad men or garden variety thugs, perverts and serial killers. And then to be LEFT ALONE. If one wants to also protect and or help one's neighbors then that is fine and good but one is under no such obligation. And that, pretty much is the American dream... According to a Swede. And I can't all in all disagree but I don't think that is all.

So what is the American dream? How was it killed? Was it? Or did it just die of neglect? I want your opinions.