A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

GK's Travel Diary
European Book Tour 2004
GK describes the literary life on the road while promoting Love Me in Europe and traveling with his siblings.

Home—March 9, 2004

There was no time to write on Monday. Up early and off to the House of Lords where my old boss at Faber Matthew Evans had arranged for us all to have a tour and lunch and then watch a debate on the subject of judicial reform, which is a hot issue right now. Matthew is a Labourite going back to childhood and is uncomfortable being addressed as Milord and in fact seems a little uneasy about the whole nobility business with its royalist touches and the dim cathedral-like atmosphere but the Blair government has severely reformed it, casting out most of the hereditary peers and moving toward making it an elected upper body. It has long served a purpose as a sort of public forum where issues can be aired and debated before Commons is ready to take them up. The tour, conducted by a Welsh tour guide, had a definite royalist tinge and was all about ritual and where the Queen sits when she gives her speech at the opening of Parliament and where she dons the crown and so forth. The chamber itself is long and narrow and for this debate it was quite crowded. The controversy has been front-page in the papers for days. Unfortunately I had to hop on a train to Brighton to do a show at the old stables of the Prince Regent ---- his old summer castle is there by the sea, with its dome and its turrets ----- one look and you realize where Walt Disney got the design for the castle at Disneyland ----- where the Prince went for assignations and such. Got back to London around midnight, then up early for breakfast with Malene and Peter and Marius, and then a quick cab trip to catch the train to Gatwick and get on the plane. Eight hours home, which isn’t bad when you have a lot of work to do, and it was good to get here. Snow on the ground and spring some distance away, but here’s where the heart is and my girls and the radio show, so here I am. And now that I'm here, I'm heading out to California.

London—March 7, 2004

Took the train up to Bath, a lovely town on the London-Reading-Bristol line with an abbey church and a Wife of Bath Café (guess which nation’s tourists that’s aimed towards?) and a magnificent Guildhall from which the town is run by a council and where I did a show in the Great Banqueting Hall to about eight-hundred people, part of the Bath Literature Festival. A terrific crowd and crystal chandeliers and grand oil paintings around the room of grand seigneurs and magistrates in ermine robes and swords and stuff. Very ornate. A man introduced himself to me afterward and told me that wherever he goes people always ask him if he is me. I gave him a good look and didn’t see the resemblance and it was disheartening to think that people were seeing me in him. I’ll bet guys walked up to Cary Grant all the time and told him the same thing.

Walked to the train station to catch the return train and bought a box of sushi from a café near the station and took it aboard the train and the third piece I ate was bad fish and I spat it out and didn’t eat anymore and have now waited two hours for the projectile vomiting to start and it hasn’t. Sat with my brothers and sister and had a two-hour conversation about family history ----- this trip is turning into a seminar ----- and waited to vomit and didn’t. So I guess I’ll go to bed. Tomorrow is Parliament and then I’m ready to go home.

London—March 7, 2004

Another long breakfast discussion this morning, family history and a lot of footnote material, discussion of our beloved Aunt Eleanor and how magical she was, and Uncle Bob’s role as oldest boy in the family and how he had to be the foreman on the farm because Grandpa was old and make the other kids work. Delved into other topics ----- will Martha Stewart be allowed scissors in prison? Can she decorate her cell? ---- but mainly spoke about family history. Talked about making a family website, to which people could contribute historical material. Discussed the problem of keeping our family focused on history when we have such a strong evangelical tradition and this distorts history by selecting only those bits of history that lead to a clear spiritual moral ---- e.g. Joe Crandall’s drowning in Trott Brook that led our Dad to a personal commitment to Christ ---- and eliminate all the stuff that is confusing ---- e.g. human nature.

Came back upstairs and took a shower which is a confusing experience here. One should not be irked by such a small thing, one should focus on larger spiritual things, but English plumbing is in its early experimental stage, I believe. Lots of pipes and tubes and faucets and gizmos, but you get the water going out of the shower head and the temperature keeps changing. And tiny adjustments of the faucets produce vast temperature swings. You crank the cold faucet down 1/360th of a full turn and the water goes from arctic to volcanic. A man hates to spend fifteen minutes taking a shower, for crying out loud. At home in the land of the free, we have showers with two controls ---- a knob that sets the temperature and a knob that controls volume. You leave the temp knob set at 100 degrees or so (that’s Fahrenheit, pal) and when you jump into the shower, you simply crank on the water and there it is. Two minutes and you jump out all pink and happy and you’re done. Why is this not possible here? And who can I put that question to? Tomorrow we pay a visit to the House of Lords, courtesy of an old friend from Faber who is now the Labour Whip for Lords, and perhaps I shall mention this to His Whipness if the conversation should tend in the direction of personal cleanliness. Or godliness.

My niece Jackie came over, who lives an hour from London and owns a glassware shop. It’s odd to be related to somebody with that accent, who refers to motorways and lifts and pronounces bath bawth. But then she comes from the southern branch of the family that fled the winter and took off for Florida forty years ago. They have their own odd accents and they’re all Baptists and if you should mention George W. Bush around them with less than religious reverence, they get all quiet and squinty. He is to them the Apostle George and all of his works are good and pure if only we have the faith to believe. So we all have our little peculiarities, everyone except me. I am a journalist, an empty slate, and I simply record the lives of others and pass on information, a public service, like the phone company.

London—March 6, 2004

A long talk over breakfast this morning about family history and our parents’ elopement and marriage and the schism in the Plymouth Brethren in 1948 that divided our family ---- all of these things fascinating to us and not so to our spouses and deadly boring to our children, and that’s why you take a trip with siblings. Our spouses would’ve been up and away from that breakfast table and off to the Tate Gallery or the Elgin Marbles or the Glass Daffodils at Denham Palace but we are happy to sit and natter about kids we knew on the West River Road in 1955 and so forth. I will not bore you with the details. When you marry, you leave your father and mother, as Scripture says, and you beget and start a new family, but somewhere inside us we are eight years old for the rest of our lives and that is why you hang out with your siblings.

We go to J.M. Barry’s play “Peter Pan” this afternoon, speaking of being eight years old, and supper with the British wing of the family tonight. (At an Italian restaurant.) Except brother Stan is going to a football game. He is, for reasons none of us can understand, a passionate soccer fan and is going to take the Tube out to a distant suburb and sit quietly in the stands among drunken burly obscene men, some of whom will get into a brawl and others will vomit on themselves, and there will be arrests and an item in the paper (9 INJURED IN TWITCHLEY GREEN RIOT) but he’ll enjoy the game. Which will probably be a 1-1 tie.

Last night I got lost on the Tube trying to get to Hammersmith and arrived late at the theater for “Oliver Twist” and missed the orphanage part ("Please, Sir, may I have more?") but the rest was absolutely splendid, a new adaptation done in a lovely and utterly earnest melodramatic style, not campy at all ---- how could it be anything else? ---- and Oliver of course is a stuffed owl but Mr. and Mrs. Bumble are good parts, and the Fagin was really magnificent. A fabulous villain, sneering and prancing and wheedling and cozening and stalking the stage. You looked at him and you just wanted to be that actor, having the chance to sneer like that and do that creepy voice. By George, American theater is short on really good evil characters. And when Bill Sykes is caught after murdering Nancy and hauled away, and then a trap in the ceiling opens and the actor comes dangling down with a noose around his neck, slowly turning, the rope audibly creaking and groaning, Sykes dead and stiff ---- Oh it is so good. But Fagin is a great beautiful crème brulee of a part. I regret that I have never created a really good villain. I am going to work on this.

London—March 5, 2004

Busy busy. A reading last night at Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road to about a hundred folks tucked into the gallery on the 4th floor, near Military and Art and not too far from Humor. About half of them seemed to be Americans, some college students on their Junior Year Abroad from Smith and Wisconsin and Stanford and Michigan, and some Americans married to Brits. And one lone Norwegian, young Anders from a little town north of the Arctic Circle, tall, dark, pleasant, here to study theater.

Afterward went to Wapping to visit my daughter Malene who is finishing a novel and at work on a biography of Hans Christian Andersen. And her husband Peter, a violinist just home from tour in the States. Took a cab back to the hotel and thought the driver said, "Fifty pounds," which seemed steep to me, but heck, I'm a midwesterner, I don't argue with these people, and I don't want to look like a piker, so I handed him fifty and he looked at it in astonishment and handed me back thirty-five. Fifteen pounds. Big difference.

Worked non-stop on the book this morning before and after a trip to the BBC TV studios to do four and a half minutes on one of those morning news shoes with a man and woman co-anchor, just like in the U.S., and then more book revising, and then to the BBC for a couple interviews, one with a writer named Francine Stock, a lovely intelligent soft-spoken woman who's written a couple novels, the most recent is Man-Made Fibre, which I mean to read. Waiting to go into the studio to do the interview, I sat for fifteen minutes and overheard six big fat old Brits standing around pontificating and blowing and showing off for each other in their most theatrical accents and I wanted to slap them, each one. But didn't. And Ms. Stock, who is all Brit herself, made up for the aggravation.

A play, "Oliver Twist," tonight and then "Peter Pan" tomorrow with Malene and Peter and their little boy Marius and then something else happens.

A boring report. Sorry. Will try to get hit by a cab or something interesting.

Glasgow/London—March 4, 2004

Three little culture bumps in the Fatherland:

1. Woke up this morning and hustled to pack and get a taxi to the airport to fly to London and at check-out found an item on the bill ---- 800 pounds for a phone call ---- a five-hour phone call, said the solemn desk clerk, a boy with brushy hair ---- and I gasped (Yikes!) because 800 pounds is a chunk of change. You could buy a first-class ticket to America with that and ride up front in the wide seats with a double Manhattan in your hands. I wanted to pound on the desk and use the good Scots word “fooking” which doesn’t mean what you think it means ---- words mean what I say they mean and this word means “blessed” ---- holler at the clerk, “This is fooking thievery by the Hilton Fooking Hotel, you and that fooking Paris Hilton!” ---- but I knew right away what it was for. I had dialed up an Internet connection in the States and sent e-mail and then neglected to disconnect and left my computer holding the phone for five hours while I regaled the audience in the ballroom downstairs with bon mots and then come upstairs, gone back online without noticing that the computer was still on the line, sent more e-mail, and unplugged the phone jack. That’s how I racked up 800 pounds in long-distance charges. My computer sat holding the phone as did a computer in America, both of them breathing, eating bonbons, waiting for the balloon to go up. Yikes, indeed. Now in America, I would have pleaded with the clerk and perhaps asked to speak to the manager. “Oh please please please, Mr. Man, excuse my stupid carelessness.” I would have hoped that the power of celebrity might move him ---- even celebrity as low-voltage as mine ---- and he’d look at me and cry out, “My grandma is a big fan of your show!” and wipe out the charge. This would not happen in Scotland. Even if I were the Pope pleading in my weak voice, waving my bishop’s staff and pectoral cross, it wouldn’t move this clerk. Scotland is not a forgiving country where fools are concerned.

2. The plane to Heathrow was packed, every single seat, three rows on each side, and me in 22B sitting between a Scottish businessmen on a cellphone and a young woman working a crossword. An American’s heart sinks at the thought of an hour in a tiny middle seat. And yet these Brits are very very good at managing under cramped conditions. There is good humor afoot and the flight attendant finds a place in the overhead for my bag and the crossword lady smiles at me and the businessman winds up his call and we take off and everyone is content in his or her space, nobody complains, we receive our coffee or tea with a grateful heart, we are careful not to jostle or irritate each other, the plane lands, and we file off in good order, and it wasn’t that bad, people. It was not that bad.

3. I collect my big bag (bloated with books and other purchases) from the baggage carousel and wheel it to a lift and descend two levels and walk a hundred yards to a train platform where an electric sign gives you the correct time and the time of the next express train to Paddington. It should arrive in five minutes and indeed it does. I wheel my bag aboard and stow it in a rack and take a seat in a clean comfortable car, pay the conductor ten pounds, the train glides away, and in fifteen minutes we are pulling into Paddington. Now cut to New York ---- imagine the miserable hour you’d spend getting from JFK to midtown, or LaGuardia when the Triborough is jammed. What grief a big city can inflict on the visitor if it chooses to. People have talked about a train from LaGuardia to New York since LaGuardia was mayor. No soap. Brits complain about their rail service. Don’t.

Off to Foyle's bookstore tonight for the Pub Day launch of Love Me. Meanwhile, today I have a hot hand and am going great guns on the new book, thank goodness.

Glasgow, midnight—March 3, 2004

An authors dinner in the main ballroom of the Glasgow Hilton, a couple hundred diners at tables, and the author on stage with a lovely broadcaster named Janice Forsyth. The author in a black suit, white shirt, red tie, tennis shoes, and suspenders that were a little tight and kept his pants hoisted to geezer level. Janice, blonde, elegant in black blouse with a golden horse on it and black slacks. The Glasgow Herald sponsored, along with Glenmorangie malt whisky which now I can pronounce correctly. Used to put the accent on the third syllable but it goes on the second. Dinner was salmon and there was some malt whisky to drink which I declined, of course, being on vacation from those things. Or, as I’ve heard Aussies say, “I’m off the piss.” The Faber & Faber edition of Love Me is particularly handsome, wine-colored, with a sort of cartoon skyline of New York. The audience asked about cougars, asked why PHC isn’t broadcast here (it is, on BBC7 which can only be received on digital radios), asked if I’d ever met Alastair Cooke who at 95 has finally given up doing his weekly “Letter from America” on the BBC (yes, I saw him once, in a radio studio in New York, and was too awestruck to introduce myself), and I found it oddly difficult to understand the beloved old Scottish accent, the accent of my grandpa, and kept asking people to repeat things, like a codger. Maybe Paris threw me off. One lovely young woman with red hair in the crowd and she turned out to be a woman named Amanda from St. Cloud, Minnesota. She’s been here only a few months and she’s picked up a nice Scottish accent herself, and why not? So would I if I had the chance.

Glasgow, p.m.—March 3, 2004

A long day of work that began in Paris and came over the Channel and into a hotel room and now, having worked on my book all day, I go downstairs to an authors dinner sponsored by the Glasgow Herald and Glenmorangie Distillery, at which I shall be the author. Dinner and an hour on stage and then signing books. It's a good distraction from the vapors of homesickness and loneliness that afflict the travelling man. A rainy day in Scotland and I miss my wife and child and my own kitchen. But today for no reason at all I wrote four limericks,

There was an old lefty named Kurt
Who wore his heart on his shirt.
The poor pay of teachers
Or the death of small creatures
Left him speechless and visibly hurt.

And similarly

A bleeding heart liberal named John
Empathized hither and yon
And whenever he put
Down his small narrow foot,
He wondered what he had stepped on.

And thus one makes his way through waiting rooms and lobbies, scribbling on scraps of paper. And now I must put on a suit and tie and go downstairs. (Also a shirt and shoes and socks.)

Glasgow—March 3, 2004

Up at 7 and out the door, packed, at 7:45 with a little confusion about the airline ticket ---- where? In my pocket? No. In the room? Back to the room, comb the place, look under the bed, in the wastebasket ---- not there, so I hopped in the cab to Charles de Gaulle and as it sped along the Seine I found the ticket in my briefcase, and the driver, watching in the mirror, said something triumphant in French. French is the language I most regret not having studied. It wasn’t offered at Anoka High School and here I am, forty years later, Frenchless, a language beggar in Paris, dependent on the generosity of strangers, such as the bellman who knocked on my door at 7:30 and asked, “Do you need a hand with the luggage?” and the desk clerk who made last night’s dinner reservations, two young French men whose English is ready and natural and spoken with a smile. The receptionist at the hair salon, on the other hand, was uncomfortable about English and had to fetch an interpreter, as did the clerk in the art gallery where I bought a photograph of the Grand Palais. She ran across the street to a café and hauled someone over who I took to be her nephew. My sister Linda’s French is pretty good and my brother Stan’s even better, so they navigated the city very well, trying to stay au francaise and fend off the helpful Parisians ready to spring into anglaise. I have bought two satiric magazines recommended by my friend Milan who teaches French in Duluth ---- Canard and Charlie Hebdo ---- and perhaps I can learn a little derisive French. Or at least get some new ideas for the Café Boeuf.

At Charles de Gaulle, a quick hop and a step through security and onto the plane, a small jet, and worked on my new book for an hour and landed in Edinburgh and a car took me to Glasgow whilst I listened on headphone to a CD of two “Pop Vultures” shows, a new radio venture by Prairie Home Productions, a show for public radio about pop music, and learned something about break dancing and hip hop and was listening to Kurt Cobain as we pulled into Glasgow, my Grandpa Denham’s city. A work day and then a reading tonight and an early plane to London. The hotel room is all business: bed, bureau, desk, lamp, and outside a cold and rainy Scottish afternoon. A good day to sit and scratch away at a manuscript.

Paris—March 2, 2004

Our hotel is on Rue Dauphine, a block from the Seine and the Pont Neuf bridge over the Seine to the Ile de la Cite and the Louvre and the Prefecture de Police and Notre Dame. It is a postcard neighborhood of narrow streets and four-story houses, many art galleries and restaurants, bookstores (librairies), little cinemas (one showing Clint Eastwood westerns), and an apothecary shop where I got a Vichy Homme Deodorant Bille Peaux Sensibles and Cible eau de toilette so I can smell French and Homeodent2 Plantes et Fluor so my breath will be French and Phytofix Gel Fissante so that my hair will have a French gloss. That was after I went to a hair salon and got my locks trimmed by a stylish young Vietnamese man ---- I told him I wanted my hair to look as if I had been to Paris ---- and now for the first time my hair is swept back and lightly gelled. Think of Sean Penn. Or Penn of Penn & Teller. Or maybe William Penn. A lovely neighborhood to walk around in, everything on a humane scale, little shops, few cars, no overpowering buildings, everything graceful and light, and very few tourists on a brisk March day. We made the obligatory visit to Notre Dame and took the circuit round the nave and through the choir behind the altar and decided not to climb the bell tower. Such a pleasant day on the square, with groups of French students on field trips, looking relieved to be out of the Louvre and in the fresh air. A river barge coming up the Seine with a load of coal, a wooden vessel with curtains in the deckhouse windows, and one could imagine a barge family living there, Mama at the wheel and Papa in the engine room. A long visit to a bookstore on the Place Sant Michel, Gibert Jeune, and I stood and glanced through a collection of Janet Flanner’s pieces for The New Yorker and then bought a short story collection because it had a John Cheever story (“Goodbye, My Brother”) that I couldn’t remember having read. Went to a toy store and bought a French lotto set (Qui croquet Quoi?) for my daughter and a little music box that plays “La vie en rose” and then at a nearby gallery I could not pass up two little aquarelles of neighborhood street scenes and a couple lithographs which I managed to purchase and have sent to St. Paul though the proprietoress spoke no English and my French consists of gestures. No problem. Naturellement. Where there is money and good humor, there is a way.

Oh the great dignity of the French. A Midwesterner is deeply impressed by this. Their elegance, their manner, their self-possession. Nobody is goofy or sloppy or flabby, everyone has a look about him, and is deep in thought, and if you look at them, they look straight back at you. Even the teenagers. I’d imitate them if only I knew how. Like other Europeans, they are not apologetic about occupying their space ----- where we Minnesotans would say Excuse me as we brush by someone, Europeans simply edge past you and if your peripheries touch they don’t apologize for it ---- but the French have that special unmistakeable élan and one envies them for it. And also the interesting mix of African and Asian and Middle Eastern and French faces and many many hybrids. I passed the restaurant where I had made a dinner reservation for 7:30 ---- Ze Kitchen Galerie on Rue des Grands Augustins --- and at 6:30 the kitchen staff was sitting at a long table and eating their dinner. The chefs and waiters and the bottle-washers all together, eating the same food off the same china as the clientele and enjoying a glass of wine. Remarkable. So democratic.

Phil and Stan and Linda went to the Rodin Museum and I walked around the neighborhood, bought my pictures, got my hair cut, sat in a café and read the paper. Such simple things have the power to make a person happy. Dinner was pleasant, the restaurant almost empty at 7:30 and full at 8:15. A raw tuna appetizer, and monkfish in a crayfish emulsion, and then for dessert a vanilla-pepper ice cream (glace), two flavors I’d never tasted in combo. Strong on vanilla and a light pepper. Mint tea and a long walk around the quarter for digestive purposes and then to bed. Tomorrow I’m off to Charles de Gaulle airport and a flight to Glasgow for a reading Tuesday night while the siblings take the evening Eurostar express train to London. And now I'm going to bed and read John Cheever.

Berlin/Paris—March 2, 2004

Monday/Tuesday a.m.—On Monday we did as one should do in a strange city and hired a guide and a car to take us around for five hours and fill our heads with odds and ends. Our man was Volker Werner, a tall trim young fellow with a shaved head and a sharp beak, and we gave his English a tremendous workout and plied him with questions about German history and language and Who Was That and Why and How, and he answered away with great aplomb. We looked at the Olympic stadium where Jesse Owens won his medals in 1936 and the handsome Philharmonic Hall which we’d seen the inside of on Thursday and which is near where the Wall once ran. The Wall is omnipresent though it is gone. “For people my age,” says the young Volker, “it’s not so important, we could live anywhere in the city, we are Berliners, but for older people it remains a divided city in their heads.” We walked through a graceful series of courtyards from the Thirties, with lovely art deco railings and porches, and outside, in the sidewalk, were set small square brass plaques marking the doorsteps of Jews, with their names, the dates they were rounded up, where they were taken (most to Theresienstadt) and when they were murdered. The old gold-domed synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse still has a security detail posted in front of it. We stopped at the Schloss Charlottenburg, the enormous sprawling summer castle of the Margrave of Brandenburg, and paid our homage to the Hohenzollerns who rode high in the saddle and lived on a grand scale indeed until 1918 when the Kaiser abdicated and all the relatives had to pack up their comforters and chafing dishes and get out of town. Like so much else, the castle was badly damaged by bombing in the war ----- Berlin was 80% destroyed ---- and was painstakingly restored, a process that continues today. (You don’t know what pains-taking means until you’ve met Germans and seen Berlin.) In twenty or thirty years, everyone who remembers the war will be dead and Germany will belong to bright young forward-looking people like Volker. He dutifully showed us the site of Hitler’s old Chancellery on Wilhelmstrasse ---- gone now, razed by the Soviets after the war, the entire vast marble complex gone without a trace ---- and the vacant lot where Hitler’s underground bunker is, collapsed in the earth, a ruin soon to be built upon --- where the insane man spent his last days issuing orders that could not be carried out and declaring his innocence and blaming the German people for the defeat ---- but none of this has the same resonance for Volker as it does for us aging Americans. I was born in 1942 and grew up reading about the war and Hitler and then, one shining day, I came upon The Diary of Anne Frank which brought the period to life in a way that history books did not. So I am a person for whom the late Thirties and 1939-45 loom large, the history that I barely avoided. For Volker, the last days of the DDR in 1989 and the fall of the Wall and reunification are the interesting things. He showed us the enormous warehouse where the East German secret police kept their files ----- this was a regime that spied on one-third of its people ---- and the building that artist/squatters took over and made into a little colony in the middle of the eastern sector. I spent a happy hour in KaDaWe the enormous department store ----- in the age of WalMart, what a joy to walk into this old-fashioned mercantile palace -----and bought pads of writing paper and about twenty various ballpoint pens, red and blue and black.

A nice supper with Joachim Buerkert of Nuremberg who brought our show to Berlin two years ago and now arranged this trip. We tease him about everything, his new girlfriend, and how much of Germany we Americans have let him discover ---- the churches we’ve taken him to, the tourist sites he had previously avoided ----- and we work his English pretty hard so that he’s forced to open his Deutsch-Englische book and find out what “boob” means. The Germans were under the impression that puritan America raised a great outcry about Janet Jackson’s costume malfunction at the Super Bowl ---- they want to believe this, I think, so they persuade themselves that the nation rose up in righteous indignation ---- and we assure him: not so, it was a big national joke. An aging popstar pulled off a publicity coup. Good for her. He is reassured.

The train leaves for Paris at 9:39 and for some reason we haul over there around 8 and spend an interminable time waiting but at last it arrives, a handsome blue sleeper train, and we load into our compartments, Stan and Linda in one and Phil and I in another. Upper and lower bunks and a fine little lavatory with a shower that actually works and the train pulls out and I take two Ambien and crawl under the comforter and watch Germany fly past for awhile and then lower the shade and go to sleep.

Tuesday morning

France at the window. French meadows and towns. French highways and trucks. An announcement in French that we will arrive in the Gare du Nord at 9:15 and so we do, to the minute, and bundle into a van. Stan and Linda speak passable French and we rumble along through the beautiful movie-set streets and past a café Le Deux Magots, the name of which I recognize but can’t remember why. “Ah, you know your French cafes,” says the driver. “That is where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir spent time. And Ernest Hemingway.” Over the Seine past the Louvre and the I.M. Pei pyramid to the Hotel d’Aubusson where now, having rushed off this bulletin, I am heading out ---- to get a real Parisian haircut and step into Notre Dame and sit in a café and write with my new pens on a pad of paper and look thoughtful.

Berlin, a.m.—March 1, 2004

Monday 7 a.m.—Our last day in Berlin, and the last morning in this elegant hotel room. Hotel Adlon is one of the world’s great hotels if you measure according to how comfortable and charmed and elegant you feel there. Service here is impeccable, and the staff performs their work in a very warm spirit ---- the man who just brought my coffee at 7 a.m., for example, and the Herald Tribune ---- and the women who did my laundry and left it neatly folded in a basket. Danke schoen. One could live much simpler than this ---- one has done so and one will do so again ---- but these luxuries are meant to be enjoyed in the same warm spirit. So I enjoy this hotel room.

Three floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the Unter den Linden and the office building across the street with a Starbucks on the first floor and give you a view of today’s blue sky. The maid who makes up the room in the morning always opens a window a few inches to air out the place. A brown sofa and two easy chairs on one side of the room, a commodious bed on the other, and a long graceful desk in the middle. Prints of two ducks over the sofa. A big armoire facing the windows, with the TV and a fax machine inside. Several little table clocks. A gray carpet, leaving a three-foot border of oak floor around it. The entry room has a marble floor and dark woodwork and cabinetry. A round table in the middle with a vase of flowers on it. Two closets. The bathroom has two sinks in separate corners, a shower stall, a toilet closet, and a beautiful tub in the center of the room, a long deep tub with faucet on the side, the head set into an alcove with a print over it of an old hotel in Dresden. One really ought to take a long soaking bath in this tub, with a towel behind your head, reading Der Grosse Gatsby but I don’t have a copy on me. My wife would have submerged herself in this bath and I would’ve brought her coffee. But I’m alone and what’s the point? The toilet closet has a little sink and two entrances, one through the bathroom and one from the entry room so your guests can use the toilet without going through the bathroom and seeing your dirty underwear.

I am reluctant to leave. I enjoy this country more each time I come. Minnesota is, down deep, a German culture, industrious, soft-spoken, compulsively modest, as is Sweden and to a great extent other Scandinavian countries. When I stood in line at the Reichstag yesterday and observed the other standees, I could’ve been in a line waiting to get into the Ice Palace in St. Paul. One is constantly aware of the horror of history, and how the German sense of inferiority and something rigid in their culture led them into the idiocy that was World War I ---- an idiocy shared by other great powers ----- and then the terrible wound from that war created the conditions in which the virus of Naziism flourished. All those ferocious blank faces with their arms raised in salute as the little Austrian housepainter rode by in an open car. Almost all of those people are dead now and soon everyone who lived through those times will be dead, and then the cloud will lift. One does, however, think of America and about the rage burning on the right and the proposed constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage and the intense feelings of class animosity, stronger now than at any time since the Depression, and one can better understand what happened here in 1933. We live at a time when, to a great degree, hatred and resentment and fear are the main engines of politics, and what good can come of that? We are one country, and one thing that unites us is our common duty to give to our children a better country than was given to us. This hangs heavily on a man late in life. All of those gorgeous opportunities that were given to me in my youth ----- what have I done to assure them to young people today? I don’t know how to answer that question, but there it is, it won’t go away. And now it’s time to go walk around and see the town.

Goodbye, dear old hotel room. I would happily spend a month here, writing at this desk. I hope the next guest feels as buoyant and graceful here as I do.

Berlin, p.m.—February 29, 2004

Sunday night—The Café Tocher is on Pariserplatz, on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, and here, at 11 o’clock, the American Embassy assembled a roomful of guests, Germans and Americans and some people who weren’t sure which they were, for a hearty brunch of scrambled eggs and rolls and wieners and all manner of delicacies ---- I looked for eel so as to make sure I didn’t have any but there was none to not be had ---- and also to hear the American writer read, namely me. They gave me a platform with a table and chair and microphone and glass of water, as if I might sit down and drone out of a book, but this was no day for that. So I declaimed some American poems instead, a little Dickinson and Frost and Langston Hughes and Cummings and Mary Oliver and James Wright. James was my teacher at the University of Minnesota and had a Fulbright to Vienna where he discovered the poems of Rilke and Georg Trakl, which changed his life. (The lady who runs the German end of the Fulbright program was there, I learned later.) It was great fun to stand and recite and I managed to fill an hour with this and that. And we all sang “Down In The Valley” to piano accompaniment by the esteemed Herr Frey who tossed in some Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein impressions. And in honor of our president, I sang a cowboy song. It being an official Embassy event, I went to pains to be non-partisan, and that was a pleasure, I must say. And there, a block from the Reichstag, is no place for an American to blather about American politics, so heavily does the cloud of history hang over the place.

Here, Kaiser Wilhelm’s parliament met through the Great War and here the democratic republic was formed after the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918. Here the first National Socialist parliamentarians appeared in the late Twenties, who came to the parliament with a calculated strategy of obstruction, aiming to make democracy ineffectual. They were elected by their constituents but they had a larger agenda and wore the brown-shirt uniform and swastika armbands to the chambers of parliament, an ominous sign of what was to come. The communist and social democratic parties could not effectively unite against Hitler and so he slipped into power and once he arrived, he conspired with his brownshirts to set fire to the Reichstag in 1933 and that fire, which he blamed on the communists, enabled him to declare martial law and suspend civil rights and begin the reign of terror. It all happened here and when you walk through the Brandenburg Gate and turn right and see the Reichstag there, you are stunned by your faint memories from high school history, the pictures of the fire and of Kristallnacht and the round-ups of Jews, memories that suddenly become sharp. Here, on these streets, walked the feuding democrats of the early Thirties who permitted Hitler’s passage to power. And from that, the whole grim story, the collaboration of the Lutheran church, the capitulation of the Army, although the nature of the beast was pretty well known.

You walk in the front entrance of the Reichstag and realize that the exterior is only a shell (from 1894) and the interior was gutted by the fire and further destroyed by Allied bombing in the war. The new interior is very open, the Bundestag chamber visible behind glas walls. You take the elevator to the roof and there you can walk up a ramp to the top of the dome, which is new from ten years ago, glass, louvered, beautiful, and which gives you a fine view of the city. We stood at the top and looked in all directions and now I am back at the hotel exhausted from the commotion and from the enormity of history that falls on you here. The Germans may be accustomed to it but I’m not. I’ll turn out my light though it’s only 7 p.m. and get up early and do some work and then go out for a last long look at the city. And buy gifts. And spend an hour in a stationery store and buy some Pelikan pens and notebooks. A guilty pleasure. It’s almost obscene, the pleasure to be taken in the purchase of paper and pens.

Berlin, a.m.—February 29, 2004

Sunday morning—Berlin has the third-largest Turkish population of any city in the world, a German journalist told me: there is Ankara, Istanbul, and then there is Berlin. He was gloomy about the future. Crime is rampant, he suggested, and the city wallows in debt and morale is poor. “We simply have no sense of ourselves as a nation,” he said. “We envy you Americans your patriotism.” And now this morning, a knock on my door and an exquisitely beautiful dark-skinned Turkish woman brings in my breakfast tray, speaking what sounds to me like perfect German. Precise, delicate, musical German. She simply is the most beautiful woman I've seen since ---- well, since I left home. Breakfast is a basket of rolls, a plate of cheese, a soft-boiled egg, and a pot of coffee. Such a luxury, to have this feast brought by someone so extraordinarily lovely. I imagine she is twenty, the daughter of immigrants, who grew up in a good Turkish home in Deutschland, and now perhaps she is working for a year or two before she goes to the university and takes a degree in political science. It will break her poor parents’ heart but she’ll marry a German and her proud Muslim bloodline will be intertwined with one from Saxony and a little brood of very beautiful, slightly exotic looking German children will emerge. One sympathizes with the immigrant parents, who must’ve grieved over their decision a thousand times ---- the agonies we endure in behalf of our children ---- and yet one can imagine that the breakfast woman might do very very well here. Our Norman ancestors who flooded over from France into Anglia were surely despised by the pasty-faced natives, but look at the gifts they brought and how they enriched the English language. Globalization is a painful process, but what is the alternative? In America, we are invaded by Hispanics and we find ourselves in a trade relationship with China that is not entirely to our liking, or which at any rate costs us heavily in jobs. In Ohio, where I was last week, the job drain is felt acutely. The President is going to have a hard time convincing Ohioans that he is turning the economy around. But how do you hold this back? Germany had a desperate dark century of nationalism that flowered into genocide and now Germans must live in a new world, and so must we all. I hope for Bush’s defeat. I think he’s the worst President since Harding, small, dull, manipulated, a man possessed of a fatal lack of curiosity and small dark impulses, a man who should have been impeached twice, the first president in my lifetime in whose life one simply finds nothing whatsoever to admire, and the loss of jobs may be what causes him to lose his. But these are complex issues and the glib solutions that a Democratic candidate puts up are not going to work, you can count on that.

Berlin, p.m.—February 28, 2004

Saturday night—Well, I did a little show in the ballroom of the Hotel Adlon tonight and I did pretty darned well if I do say so myself which I just did. A couple hundred people, about half Germans, half Americans, including Mrs. Coates, the American ambassador's wife, and various embassy people, and a bunch of German broadcasting folks and some writers and journalists, and I did the Star-Spangled Banner, "All Shook Up," some blues, some Elvis, the Bizet Habanera, and a song for my daughter, and "Home on the Range" and, doggone it, it was okay. It could've been worse. The pianist Alexander Frey played with great bravura and panache and people laughed a lot and there was even an encore. I love doing this, love it unreasonably, love to sing and play with the microphone and be dramatic in my own geeky way and let the lilacs free in the night. By George, I even sang "Dixie." And they were moved by it, even knowing it’s politically incorrect. It’s a moving song. The fact that it was a rallying song for old rednecks means nothing to me ----- I say, take the enemy's songs and make them our own. The ambassador's wife was gracious and lovely. Her husband is a former Republican senator from Indiana ----- she is from Waukegan, home town of Jack Benny. And then, voila, who should appear but Dustin Hoffman. He was in attendance, sitting up in the mezzanine. He and his wife Lisa are here to visit their daughter who is in the midst of her junior year abroad. A sweet man and very gracious to the good people around him who are naturally struck dizzy by the presence of a movie star. It's the only real celebrityhood in the world today. Everybody knows who Dustin Hoffman is ----- though Germans are used to seeing him speak German in his films ---- and this causes a sort of electricity to shoot through the room. He told me that my singing reminded him of Ted Lewis ----- the old radio crooner who did "Me and My Shadow" ---- and he said that in his desperate early years, he had taken a job briefly in Fargo, N.D., as the director of a community theater. He did not seem anxious to talk about it, so I did not press him for details.

A little brunch show tomorrow morning at the Café Tocher for the American embassy, and then a couple days of sightseeing. I am looking forward to the Monday night train to Paris. We each have a berth, Philip, Stanley, Linda, and I, and the train leaves at 9:24 and arrives in Paris at the Station du Nord twelve hours later. This is a childhood dream that one never gets over, the love of sleeping cars and the wheels going clickety-clack and European cities ---- Aachen, Brussels, Strasbourg ----- passing in the night. Planes cannot hold the same allure as the old Pullman and the cry of the conductor and the burst of steam ----- well, I guess we’ll have to do without the steam ----- and the anguished farewells to loved ones as you go off to rejoin the regiment, and so forth.

I recommend travel with siblings. It means that you're very well understood and you don't need to say much by way of explanation and the power of inference is ten times greater and there’s no need to tell your life story. They know it. Oh boy, do they know it. My recommendation to you, dear blogreader: call up your siblings and arrange a trip. You won't regret it. I tell people that I’m traveling with siblings and they look at me strangely as if this were abnormal. "So do the old sibling rivalries come back into play?" they ask. No. All your childhood disputes were over by the time you turned twenty. ---- Okay, maybe forty. By 61, you're pretty much in the clear.

No, we're not going to church tomorrow. It was discussed and we're not going.

Berlin—February 28, 2004

Saturday. A chill cloudy day in Berlin, a good day to sit in your room and write, which I’ve been doing. My brothers and sister are out at the museums, shopping at the big department store on Kurfenstendamm, going to the Cathedral tonight to hear the Mozart Requiem. Last night I started to slip off the track of Berlin time and back onto St. Paul time, staying up late late late, 6 a.m., and then getting up at 11 to rehearse for the show tonight. This used to happen to me years ago in Copenhagen: I’d get onto a Danish schedule and then start to slide and wind up sleeping from 6 a.m. to noon, like Elvis. The rehearsal is with the pianist Alexander Frey, who will accompany me tonight at the Adlon, which is putting on an American Night in celebration of the Museum of Modern Art collection that will reside in Berlin through September ---- MOMA is redoing its Manhattan quarters ---- and Mr. Frey is an American conductor and raconteur, a young Oscar Levant, Chicago-born, and an organist. He has an enormous pipe organ in his third-floor apartment in Berlin that makes you wonder what arrangements he’s made with his neighbors. The rehearsal goes like a breeze except for “Great Balls of Fire” which I really want to sing, and he wants to play, but he’s missing the rockabilly gene and we go over and over it. He’s playing beautifully all around the beat, a sort of Art Tatum treatment, and with rockabilly you really have to hit that backbeat with your left hand and stomp your right foot and make the beer on the piano jump. “It’ll be just fine!” we keep assuring each other. “I don’t have to do it!” I tell him. “No, no, no, it’ll be great,” he says.

The Adlon ballroom is set up with tables and a low stage, a Boston grand piano, two-hundred people expected, a capacity crowd, and they’ll get hot dogs and chili for supper and then champagne. Gianni van Daalen, who manages the hotel, and Marylea von Daalen, who manages Gianni, are busy supervising the set-up when we arrive for a sound check. She is a St. Louis girl, and he is a Dutchman who grew up in Italy, then in France, now lives in Germany, a real European.

I came on this trip, imagining it would be a holiday, but now work is pressing, a screenplay that’s in the works and a new book that should come out in June and the radio show and other projects, and I manage to find other things to do ---- wrote a column for a magazine the other morning, about the President and his inability to talk, which really is hindering him this election year, and the magazine seemed interested in it, and now it looks as if they won’t print it. Maybe it was too disprespectful. But it was fun to write, even if nobody ever reads it. At my age, you start not to care about publication anymore. Writing itself is good enough. Tonight I get to stand up in front of two-hundred people in Berlin and sing an hour’s worth of American songs that I love, and that’s good enough for me. All my life I've gotten to make my own pie, and sometimes it turns out to be apple and sometimes it's mud, but it's always been mine. Failure is only a problem if you failed by trying to follow somebody else's instructions. If your own pie fails, it doesn't hurt that much at all. Anyway, failure is a crucial part of life. And so I'm floundering on the screenplay, and the book, and I can't write a magazine column to save my life, but I'm still having a pretty good time.

Berlin, p.m.—February 27, 2004

Evening. The Berlin Philharmonic plays in a Moderne hall, lights hanging on cables over the stage and also curved acoustical panels that look like Danish relish trays from the 50s, the orchestra encircled by the audience. The orchestra comes on stage en masse, a classy piece of stagecraft, and then the concertmaster and the maestro, Simon Rattle, the Englishman, with a great mane of gray hair, conducting without a score, the Stabat mater of the Polish conductor Szymanowski and the Bruckner Fourth Symphony. Magnificent music and it all made me think of my violinist wife and how much she would have loved it all, the precision and the big attack of the strings, the magnificent bass section, the minimal style of the conductor who lets the players play and doesn’t crowd them. At times, in the Bruckner, the violins rocked forward and back like rowers on a galley. At intermission, a movie star sighting: Dustin Hoffman making his way through the crowd and the Germans doing their best to not stare. The crowd brought Rattle back for four curtain calls after the Bruckner, and on the third, he appeared in the horn section and had the first French horn stand for a bow and the crowd roared and also for the trombones. Trombones! Bravo.

Berlin, a.m.—February 27, 2004

Friday a.m.—A good night’s sleep and thank you, Ambien. A woman in the hotel café told me last night, “Colin Powell uses Ambien,” and with complete authority, so I reckon he does. It goes well with a good German bed, under a comforter, by an open window looking out on Unter den Linden. The street dead-ends here, at the Brandenburg Gate, so the traffic sounds are gentle. Phil and Stan and Linda come to my room for breakfast ---- rolls, cheese, coffee, boiled eggs ---- and then our German pal Joachim meets us on the street for a long amble into what used to be East Berlin and before the war, the center of the city, Alexanderplatz and the Cathedral and St. Hedwig’s, the Catholic church, and the Museum of Antiquities where the Kaisers kept the treasures they took out of Greece and Egypt. Joachim admits, a little sheepishly, that he is not so familiar with Berlin, being a country boy from the south ---- he lives in Heidelberg now and teaches at the University ---- so he keeps checking his map and passers-by ask him, in English, if he needs help. Before the Wall fell in ’91, he admits, he visited East Berlin only once, as a high school boy on a field trip, and it was so strange to him, so impoverished and “gray,” that he never returned. He was more interested in France and England and America. The streets seem empty on this chill gray day and there is little police presence, considering that we’re in the midst of the federal office buildings and the embassies. The street is blocked in front of the American embassy, and a few security men are there and also in front of the enormous Russian embassy. The buildings are brick, or stucco, five or six stories tall, functional, difficult to date, not so different in style from commercial buildings in Copenhagen or Stockholm. An old guardhouse of one of the Friedrichs, a little Greek temple, has been made into a memorial to all who have suffered in wars: inside, simple stone walls and floor, a large round hole in the roof like that in the Pantheon in Rome, and an enormous squat statue in granite of a mother holding a child in her lap. Farther, in the Cathedral, we arrive in the visitor’s gallery in time to see a parson ascend to the pulpit and read a passage from the Song of Solomon and the organist plays a Bach chorale which reverberates like water flowing. There are twelve people in this vast rococo pile, under the high dome. Across the street is the copper-colored glass and steel rectangle of the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the East German government, now closed on account of asbestos and about to be demolished. The plan is to erect a replica of the old Hohenzollern Palace that stood here until the Communists tore it down in 1950. Over the plaza, with its statue of Marx, stands the great tower built by the old regime, with a bulb at the top and a TV tower sprouting up from it. We take an elevator to the top where we look out on Berlin from the enclosed observation deck: the Tiergarten not yet in bloom, the new glass towers of Potsdamerplatz, the old nightclub section of town which was bombed to the ground and lay vacant, a no-man-‘s land with the Wall passing through it and Checkpoint Charlie, once a Cold War flash point, now a museum. We climb a flight of stairs to the revolving café above and sit down for lunch, and make three revolutions as we eat. The waitresses are quick, as are all service people in Berlin, to detect foreignness and their “Guten Tag” switches to “Good day” and they remember, through the meal, which language you represent. It throws them a little bit if an American tosses in some Deutsch, as we are wont to do, in the interest of world amity ------ toss in an “Ich mochte” or “Entschuldigen sie” ---- it flips their switch and they spiel off some German and then catch themselves. I am offered a little dish of lard and out of politeness I spread some on my brown bread and eat it. Quite salty, with little flecks of rind. Tonight we shall attend the Berlin Philharmonic, for which Joachim has snagged us some rare tickets, and tomorrow night I will do a little show in the hotel ballroom, as part of some sort of America Week here in Berlin which includes an exhibition of art from MOMA in New York. Eating lunch and looking out at the city, it strikes me that I should be sure to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the show. Plus a cowboy song, “Frankie and Johnny,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” and Irving Berlin, of course. “What’ll I Do” and something else. And “Home on the Range” and “Down In The Valley”. On the way back to the hotel, I practice the national anthem, trying to find the right key so that I don’t hurt myself on “land on the free”. People hear this and glance at me. I am feeling ever so slightly jet-lagged around the fringes and need to lie down before the concert tonight. One does not want to make strange snorting sounds during the Dvorak.

Berlin—February 26, 2004

Wednesday—My daughter says goodbye to me in the living room, engrossed in a game of Monopoly Junior, about to put a hotel on Indiana, and my wife drives me to the airport and says a fond goodbye and tells me that on our upcoming vacation, I must promise not to work on at least three days, and into the terminal I go. A first for me: getting the boarding pass for an international flight out of a E-ticket machine ---- only difference is that the machine asks for your passport number. The NW DC10 to Amsterdam leaves Minneapolis out of Gate G-6, the same sort of gate as if you were going to Grand Forks or Phoenix, no big deal. I am going to Berlin, Paris, and London with my brother Stan, brother Phil, and sister Linda, a novel notion for us. Part business, part un-business. Going to Berlin to scout out the next Prairie Home Companion show there and to London for the publication of Love Me with side trips to Glasgow, Bath, and Brighton. A trip booked mostly by Internet, except this leg which Deb Beck at the office put together, thank goodness. The flight is full and she managed to get me a seat in row 22, the exit row.

Linda, Stan, and Phil are waiting at the gate when I get there. Our aim is to sleep over the Atlantic so we’ve avoided coffee today. I’ve been up since 4, having arisen in a hotel room in Toledo where I did a show Tuesday night. Brought a pillow along and an eyeshade and a fresh supply of Ambien sleeping pills. We are all armed with medications and intent on skipping the airline meal and dozing off and waking up in Europe. And-------

That is what happens to me. A small uncomfortable seat, but it doesn’t matter. The plane ascends, the seat goes back, the eyeshade comes on, and from then on there are only brief snatches of consciousness, a little turbulence, and then the sensation of my seat back being pushed to the upright position. The flight attendant. We’re in our descent to Amsterdam.

Thank you, Ambien. All of those wretched jet-lagged days drooping around Europe, wanting to lie down at noon and sleep for eight hours ---- gone.

In Amsterdam, we have a few hours and zip into the town center on the train and look at the harbor. And then to Berlin, an hour by air, and to the hotel near the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, on Unter den Linden. A bowl of potato soup and a phone call home and then into bed. I do a show here Saturday night, for the opening of an exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a little reading in a café on Sunday morning. An American in Berlin. I will try to do right.

Travel Diary Archives

European Book Tour 2004
Tue, Mar 9—Home
Sun, Mar 7—London
Sun, Mar 7—London
Sat, Mar 6—London
Fri, Mar 5—London
Thu, Mar 4—Glasgow/London
Wed, Mar 3—Glasgow, midnight
Wed, Mar 3—Glasgow, p.m.
Wed, Mar 3—Glasgow
Tue, Mar 2—Paris
Tue, Mar 2—Berlin/Paris
Mon, Mar 1—Berlin, a.m.
Sun, Feb 29—Berlin, p.m.
Sun, Feb 29—Berlin, a.m.
Sat, Feb 28—Berlin, p.m.
Sat, Feb 28—Berlin
Fri, Feb 27—Berlin, p.m.
Fri, Feb 27—Berlin, a.m.
Thu, Feb 26—Berlin

European Tour 2001
Sat, Mar 10—Dublin, 2 a.m.
Fri, Mar 9—Dublin
Thu, Mar 8—Dublin
Thu, Mar 8—Dublin
Wed, Mar 7—Dublin
Tue, Mar 6—Dublin
Mon, Mar 5—Berlin/London
Sun, Mar 4—Berlin, 4 a.m.
Fri, Mar 2—Berlin
Thu, Mar 1—Berlin, p.m.
Thu, Mar 1—Berlin, a.m.
Wed, Feb 28—Berlin
Sun, Feb 25—St. Paul
Mon, Feb 19—St. Paul

Rhubarb Tour 2003
Mon, Sep 1—Louisville, KY
Sat, Aug 30—Oklahoma City
Fri, Aug 29—Santa Fe, NM
Wed, Aug 27—Medford, OR
Sun, Aug 24—Seattle
Sat, Aug 23—En route from Sacramento to Seattle
Thu, Aug 21—Over Iowa

All Entries
March 2004
February 2004
September 2003
August 2003
March 2001
February 2001

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