Montag, 16. Juli 2012

It doesn’t exist

Translated from the German by Kimberly Weinrich

South Main Street. North Main Street. Single-family homes clustered together in well-ordered bunches. Two and three-story building facades downtown, just like the ones in the Western movies of the 1970s. Bowling Green, Ohio: Just how real is the real America? In the middle: three months in the Midwest in a small town in Ohio. This town often tips the scales during elections. The winters are long and hard, they say; we are leaving on the first of February and are packing our down jackets. Ohio is the Buckeye State, and there's a saying that goes: If you don't like the weather around here, just wait five minutes. There are election signs in the front yards, small ones, like the ones marking plants in botanical gardens. There are signs for the security companies guarding the homes, and sometimes signs supporting the local school. Thomas Bernhard and Marlen Haushofer, Martin Kessel and Anna Weidenholzer, and my own work, too: these are going to be the topics of the Wednesday night lectures at the German Department at Bowling Green State University and at a café in Bowling Green. At the end of my stay I will have traveled to around 15 states (some only passing through). I'll have been to Lubbock, Texas, for example, where next to my hotel, a little circle of tents have been set up facing the Bank of America. On the way from the airport to the city, Anita, a professor of German, had already pointed them out. And indeed: Occupy. The posters read "Google NDAA now" and "Banks too big to fail," with the words crossed out like they are on no-parking signs. Owen, a man of around 50, is the only person I find there in the evening. I take a photograph, and he comes right over. He's not a demonstrator, he says. He just wants to relieve the Occupy people. His wife is involved, but he isn't. Drunken college kids had attacked the tents a few days ago. He doesn't really have anything to do with this business at all, he's just a good Christian. I'll have visited Ithaca, in upstate New York: a 50-meter-long pedestrian zone, ethnic restaurants, and small shops in a so-called city center; three arthouse cinemas and several theaters; the art museum designed by I.M. Pei with the sensational 360-degree panorama view of the wooded hills and Cahuga Lake – everything to please the European/urban aesthetic rolled up in one, especially since having arrived via Ohio and Pennsylvania at the birthplace of DFW. DFW: this is what New York intellectuals call David Foster Wallace. Never mind that most of them hardly dare to venture this far out into the provinces (which appear to have especially active triathlete and hippy populations). It's Saturday morning, and the sun is shining. New York only has one arthouse cinema more than Ithaca does, but of course still thinks it's the center of the universe. So I've arrived in the real America, where black managers joke that they best take cover (I better don't move) when a police car passes, where shoppers hand over piles of coupons at the supermarket checkout to save money, and two friendly older people who have never left their own town drive me half across it just to show me the way.

Facades? Backdrops?
Bowling Green lies in the middle of nowhere. South Main Street, North Main Street, and so on. Many small towns look like the drawing in the first edition of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio: single-family homes clustered together in well-ordered bunches, two and three-story building facades downtown, just like the ones in the Western movies of the 1970s. And in fact it is in the hardware stores and gift shops, sometimes even the bookstores and the interior decorating stores, that one still sees a downtown. It's not a stretch to see these facades as backdrops, and the inhabitants as mere set actors. And this perception is enhanced among many visitors to the US in their encounters with Americans. Superficially friendly and warm they are, the Americans. They always wish you a great day, a wonderful evening – but that's it. Yet these niceties say nothing about the people themselves, just that they are friendly. (Where else would a rest-stop attendant invite someone just asking for information to their home directly?) The fact that a credit card company advertises its efforts to keep Main Street alive by supporting small and mediumsized businesses – think what you will. Yet the supermarkets in Bowling Green are not on Main Street, of course, but on the outskirts of town, located in every direction on all the highways going in and out, along with all sorts of fast food restaurants, filling stations, churches, and bowling alleys. I had read, by the way, the correspondence between Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein and the accompanying essays over 15 years before actually discovering Ohio. I was able to find the same picket fences between the houses, the same sheds in Bowling Green and other small towns as on the Main Street of Sherwood's Winesburg. Most of the time a bit of sun makes them appear less foreboding. But when you have gotten used to them, you start to be able to differentiate more, and the charming ones shine out from among the devastated ones. In the middle of nowhere there is an organic market. It smells like the one where I used to buy henna to dye my hair in the eighties. Near the Franciscan Square in Graz, it sold health food, quite a radical alternative at the time. But I am surprised at how limited the selection is here: root vegetables and tubers, potatoes and beets. Of course they carry natural cosmetics, spices, and organic oakmeal. The man at the register has lots of tattoos. He assures me that he can special order the herbal tea I want and it will be here in less than three days, but for me it still smells like 20 years ago. It's heroic to run a coffeehouse in a city of 30,000 people (17,000 of whom are students), and I had heard a lot about it before coming here. When the winds are right the smells from the roasting house waft across the City Park, which also has a public golf course. "Grounds for Thought" in Bowling Green is the site of intellectual and social exchange, a place where you can get good coffee and excellent donuts, but even more, no one forces you to be sociable, and there are second-hand books, records and comics. Not for nothing does it crop up occasionally in the poems and other written works of my predecessors. It was probably just a matter of time until its owner ran as a Democrat for the Ohio House, as he did for the first time in 2012. Thus you quickly and easily get used to the fact that the furniture at "Grounds" reminds you of elementary school in the seventies, and in any case, you start to suspend your memories and comparisons, or at least start to apply them only to things within the US, probably because the country is just so huge and expansive. In the first week another student gives me a coffee cup, several tins of cream (or is it powdered milk? No, it's half and half), and a sponge to wash out the cup. She also gives me a crate full of old tourist brochures: the Great Lakes, Amish Country, Chicago. Campus life. Contact is made primarily during the fire drills at the student dormitory, where we have our apartment. (Nights, sometimes on the weekends.) There's a healthcare center, a very large wellness and recreation center with several pools, there are emergency call boxes, indoor football fields, a football stadium, a huge basketball arena, and so on and so forth. There's even a cinema with 35-millimeter projectors, but they only show DVDs, because there aren't any film students who know how to operate the projectors, and in any case, attendance is weak or mandatory. The city police report is published in the student newspaper, a modern pillory of sorts: mostly, but not only, students who have been caught doing something illegal and/or have been reported to the police (urinating in a public place, minors under the influence of alcohol, rowdiness, vandalism or similar) are listed with their full names and home addresses. Many of the images remind me of ones I've seen before, in books and films. Some are considerably larger and more impressive in real life (the Niagara Falls and the casinos surrounding them); some are less noticeable and less often seen (the American flags in the front yards they like to show on European TV; but on the other hand, being stuck for miles behind a plodding "Ron Paul rEVOLUTION" pickup truck); and some are just plain incomprehensible (Americans' love of chilled soft drinks at all times of the year).

Don't mess with the good things!
I brought my entire daily routine with me and not just the espresso maker for making coffee at home. I go to the office every day just like Kessel's Herr Brecher goes to his agency in the Friedrichstrasse before he loses his job, in order to keep writing a novel. At the supermarket I choose the Cheddar cheese because it's cheaper, and it doesn't taste that different from Swiss cheese anyway. Hot dogs are adapted and included on the family menu. I jog across campus instead of through the botanical gardens of the Belvedere in Vienna. With Molly, a student, I spend several hours discussing Frauen in Vasen and unter uns. It's usually very windy, but summery temperatures are a surprise, and sometimes go on for weeks or days at a time. It's simple to talk about facades of existence. I've become fond of the wooden fences, the sheds, the porches on the small houses which sometimes look like doll houses. But there are few trees in Wood County, Ohio. On my last weekend in Bowling Green a fellow writer relates another common saying: Don't mess with the good things. The author and her husband are going to leave the city as soon as possible to spend their vacation in Italy, as they do every year. While sitting on a bench near the German Department – I like to sit outside when I read – I can hear the sound of children yelling and playing in the Children's Development Center which is located near this garden at Johnston Hall. I can't pick out my son's voice. When he speaks his first few sentences in broad American English, we can hear and see clearly how Twain's Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim went up the Ohio River towards freedom, the same river that gave this state its name. What will I be able to tell afterwards? Who knows.

First published in: Die Presse (Spectrum), 26 May 2012
© Angelika Reitzer

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