Monday, February 23, 2009

Geography 237: World Industries

            This evening, I had the extraordinary pleasure of patronizing the Palau de Música Catalana, a gorgeous music hall designed by Lluís Doménech i Montaner, a contemporary (rival?) of Gaudí, and a Catalan himself.  Keeping with the traditions of both my home country and my adoptive one, I arrived just before the 8:30 curtain call, stormed up the steps, and yelled “¡rápido, rápido!” to the bartender as he took his dandy old time pouring the milk into my pre-show espresso.  I rushed into the dark Sala de Conciertos, and after confusing some poor German high-school girls with my Spanish, found a seat on the end of the row.  It was only after the music started that I remembered how to say, “seat number twenty-two”—zweiundzwanzig—in German.  

The first performance by the Salzburg Chamber Orchestra was a selection of Haydn, a very mind-altering experience, which was my first professional classical concert as an adult.  As Haydn gave way to Mozart—and naturally, being the classical aficionado that I am, I was able to identify each composer without first consulting the program booklet—I found the café slipping away, and ended up dozing peacefully in and out of consciousness throughout the performance.  Of course, I found the strength to remain fully awake only at the end of the last movement, after which we had an intermission.

            I was briefly confused by the intermission, as there was no sign that it was not simply the end of the concert.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if the lady seated next to me was just as confused, as she did not return to her seat for the last performance.  But I, being quite astute, checked the program, and found, much to my own surprise, that there was a full symphony of Beethoven that had yet to be performed.  So I slipped back into the bar, and after waiting for several minutes and watching one of the German kids get yelled at for touching the 2-euro pastries, I finally managed to order another café cortado just as the bells started ringing for the end of intermission. 

            So again, I gulped down the café, only this time burning my tongue (I told the barmaid to hold the milk, thinking that it would save time; it apparently also cools down the coffee to make it more drinkable), and dashed back into the Sala for the last performance.

            I found the Beethoven piece fascinating and relaxing, yet also stimulating.  As the classical sounds floated in and through my ears, I took some time to look around the enclosure and marvel at the architecture, the sculptures, and the elaborate mosaics of the Palau.  Soon enough, this gave way to a philosophical introspection, and my mind wandered from subject to subject: thinking first that, perhaps I shouldn’t have quit the trumpet in fifth grade; then moving on to Napoleon’s egotism; then to the nature of psychology; onwards to the self-fulfillment of the wanderer; wondering next why Americans are so fascinated by multilingualism and code-switching, while the rest of the world thinks nothing of it; at last to arrive at a veritable epiphany.

            The epiphany had really occurred to me earlier in the day, but it hadn’t fully clicked.  Just before my excursion to the Palau, I went to a Comparative Politics class for the first time (we are now in the third or fourth week of class, but my schedule is still quite a snafu).  While trying to decipher the professor’s slurred words, and in a desperate attempt to make conversation with a Spaniard (and a girl), I turned to my neighbor to ask a question for clarification.  After a few more exchanges, she asked where I was from, and after deciding not to lie and say “Canada”, I fessed up to being from “los Estados Unidos.”  The expected response followed: a shrug, a grimace, and then she turned rather brusquely back to her notes. 

            However, I was not to be dissuaded, and after our break (yes, most of my classes here have a ten-minute cigarette/coffee break), I pursued my new friendship with her.  I asked if she was from Barcelona, and after her answer in the positive, asked if she was Catalana.  She smiled (smiled!) and said yes.  It would seem that I had discovered the way into the natives’ heart.  Alas, in my very idiosyncratic manner, after scoring points with my very apt question, I had no response and no further questions, and turned awkwardly back to my own notes.  But a few seconds later, she asked where I was from, and with a hint of that Midwestern pride, I replied “Detroit.” 

            Now, I expected the blank look on her face.  Several times before, I had told Spaniards and Catalans I was from Detroit and received a similar look of desperation.  Every time, I patiently explained where it is located, and then proceeded to tell them about the automotive industry, which usually makes a connection for them. 

            I never expected anybody to know where Detroit was, or even to recognize the name.  But what surprised me—and still surprises me—is that my landmarks never seemed to work out as well as I had expected.  I had originally decided that the best way to pinpoint Detroit’s location without a map was to say that it is mid-way between Toronto and Chicago. 

            Apparently this is a mistake. 

            Nobody in Europe seems to have heard of either Toronto or Chicago, unless they’ve seen the movie with Catherine Zeta Jones and Renée Zellweger, which still leaves out Toronto. 

            Even the first time, this struck me as odd, but I never fully realized why.  The several Spaniards that I have spoken to knew where New York and Los Angeles are, but not much else.  My friend Adrian didn’t even know where Washington, D.C. was; he thought it was on the West Coast, somewhere near Seattle!  And it would seem that the same goes for Canada; that only Quebec City and Ottawa make it onto the map, if that.  The other industrial and commercial centers—Miami, St. Louis, New Orleans, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Boston—these don’t even seem to be relevant.

            Americans are berated for being the most geographically ignorant citizens of the world, yet it would seem that everybody else is just as oblivious.  I can name at least two or three major cities in two-thirds of the countries in Europe, even though I might not be able to pinpoint them on a blank map.  This may not be very impressive, but consider this: Europeans and the rest of the world have a strange fascination with the United States.  It may be a disgusted fascination or a horrified one, but it is a fascination nonetheless.  Yet despite the surprisingly central role that the US plays in international political discussions, the place that it has in the university classrooms, or the way it dominates television and cinema, it would seem that the rest of the world still has only a very basic understanding of the geography—physical as well as human—of the United States.  Despite the verifiable cultural, political and economic hegemony that America exerts over the world, it is still perceived as a blank-faced mass with only two major population centers. 

            Whether or not people like us, if they have an opinion about us, it would be worth their while to know a little more about us.  They should at least know the location of more than just two of our largest cities.

            Now then, if only I could find Teheran on a map….



  1. OOOOOkay, I posted a comment and my computer did not crash.

  2. Are you allowed to say 'rapido rapido'? You must have ingratiated yourself into the culture already, that the locals treat you as native, they did not punch you in the nose, and fellow students have to ask where you came from. love reading, Dad

  3. I loved this post. I laughed out loud in the computer lab and earned glares from all the students trying to study and be productive. I'm also jealous of your opportunity for cultural enlightenment...the closest I get in Galway is going to the local bar to drink a Guinness...

  4. Haha, awesome. Dude, you didn't finish the story with the girl! Did you do the hand-map? I realize I'm reading your blog kind of late...but it's fun! And I, like the Spaniards, do not keep time well.