Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mid-week Gallavantery, or Australien Encounters of the Third Kind

Yesterday was, unbeknownst to me, Australia Day, or probably "A-Day" (pronounced "Outback Steakhouse"). I'm still not really sure what it is, but they were buying the beers so we went along with it.

Tuesday night, considering that nobody in DIS has classes on Wednesdays, is a pretty big deal here when measured in quantities of cheap beer and tequila shots. The place to be is called, coincidentally enough, the Australia Bar, or A-bar (pronounced "shrimp on the barbie"), a facet of this story that becomes very important on this apparently hallowed Tuesday. Conveniently, the A-bar is located, you guessed it, in the basement of our classroom building. There's a troll in their employ who listens with his hobbled ears for the last class bell of the day so he knows when to open the doors and turn the taps on.

Unfortunately for us, many people had impromptu study tours around the city early this morning, so many of our friends from about the town were not out and about. But we were incredibly fortunate to run into a charismatic Aussie named Alastair out prowling for a self-described "tortally mental paahty" to celebrate A-day. Being that we were in the Australia Bar, one would have thought that festivities would already be underway, but alas he was the first we encountered. Certainly not the last.

Being that his name was Alastair, I immediately asked him how he enjoyed thrashing about the streets of Rome and Sicily assassinating medieval Italian dignitaries. The fact that he knew exactly what I was talking about, which is to say the video game Assassin's Creed, was a great way to start the night. We talked about rugby and about how nobody in America cares about his silly holidays, and as it turns out he's a true Patriot deep down in the doughy center of his Australian self -- he was born on the 4th of July (a-freedom ring, I said somethin on the surface it stings).

After a brief and (if I may say so myself) brave excursion to talk to some obviously American kids on the other side of the bar, which is upsettingly large considering its proximity to our hallowed halls of learning, we (Alastair) ran into some other Aussies who pointed us to a smaller but slightly more legit bar where the A-day celebrations were already underway and, in as many words, "sufficiently mental."

The minute we walked into the bar, I knew that it would be a distinctly authentic experience. The haze of unregulated cigarette smoke, the roar of some very coarse Australians and the blaring of the Swedish Hockey League on the omnipresent and, relative to the rest of the bar's decor, anachronistic big-screens were almost too much. I, immersed in my oblivious state that can only be achieved as a culmination of living in the best country on earth for 20 years and being significantly drunk, walked into this establishment still proudly displaying my nametag. Walking up to a random table with a TV above it, I was bombarded by remarks of a strange tongue, at once the King's English and something entirely more depraved. I don't think I've been called a queer so many times in such a short duration -- and in so many ways that I don't understand -- at any other time in my entire life. Given that, the smug knowledge that their country is rapidly being depleted of its renewable fresh water supplies, inevitably making the Australians the chronic hobos of the world, was reassuring enough that I just laughed along.

The best part of this night, aside from the opportunity to lambast Australians while feasting on the heart of their pitiful sense of national pride, was that I realized how easy it is to be an American in foreign bars. As long as you stay in small groups, look harmless and are open to approach, anybody and everybody will come up to you with something to say about America. It may not always be good, but given that I've been brought up on a very liberal view of America and pride thereof, it's not hard to draw sympathetic connections between even the most god-cursing Communist views -- at least for the purposes of bar conversation.

We took the natbus back to the hojskole, which was a strange experience for the brief moments I was awake, and despite times of inebriated paranoia it did eventually deposit us in the frigid bosom of Helsingor's train station. Walking home was a unabatedly unpleasant journey. They say that this kind of weather is abnormal for Copenhagen, and while rigorous training running around in paper-thin costumes amidst Iowa snowstorms on Saturday nights has prepared me to endure the cold, there are times where I certainly don't enjoy it. Honestly I'd rather this climate than humidity, but walking on the kind of strange snow they get here is brutal on the calves.

On the "educational" front, though I'm sure you've ascertained by now that the real stuff of learning in this land is of the people and places that are distinctly outside of the classroom, classes still prove to be hilarious and mildly interesting. Most notably, Esben the reporter came in and ranted about PR people more and gave us some good concrete examples on ways in which you should abuse/hang up on/string along the lesser 90 percentiles of PR-ers (Public Relatives?). He also detailed some very interesting cases as well in which journalists become a frightening conveyor belt of corporate muck raked up by competing corporations, a scenario the likes of which drive much of the "investigative" reporting that goes on in the news world today. While you could certainly put forth a purist argument that information supplied by those who stand to gain from having it known has only a limited and tenuous seat in the house of capital 'J' Journalism, you could just as easily argue that the weight thrown about in this arena functions as an extension of the over-arching free market mechanism that compels companies to go honestly about there trade. The essence of healthy capitalism lies in transparency, and there are few better ways of ensuring it than to incentivize it in such a discreet way.

More recently, I have finally reacquainted myself with the real reason I came to this country to study. After an introductory session which our professor was unable to attend last week, we had our first Nordic Mythology class on Tuesday, followed by a study tour to the Nationalmuseet (you can guess that one) yesterday. Now, when I first was looking at Northern Europe for study abroad, I thought: metal, vikings, viking metal, bombshell blondes. Let's be honest, the academics were only truly appealing in their direct abutment to these 4 primal pillars of Nordic life. Needless to say, 6 months ago I was overjoyed at the thought of being able to study the sagas of the Germanic peoples and their entirely too-brutal descendants. On the first day of class, having just completed arguably the coolest short text I've ever read for a class to date barring Hemingway, my glorious quest for epic knowledge came to an impossibly fruitful departure.

Two minutes before the class was due to start, settled into a quiet world of internet distraction, I was wholly unprepared for the lumbering legend of a man who would walk through the door. Easily 40 feet tall and wide as an ox, in stampedes our professor: Morten Warmind. Yes, it is indeed pronounced exactly the way you want it to be. For all we knew, he was there to either instill in us a greater understanding of pre-historic Germanic cultures and customs, or alternatively to sunder us from our spirits and lash together our bodies into a floating dirge of indescribable evil, ascending to the heavens to put out the sun. Concealed in his already impressive beard are actually extra jowls, a critical part of Viking physiology that allows them to break the will of animal familiars with their howling. In Morten's case, these are utilized mostly in a side-to-side shaking motion while pronouncing words in a heartily British manner of disbelief or sarcasm.

We read the works of Tacitus, a Roman scholar who grew tired of the self-fallating tendencies of Roman academia and sought other cultures to chronicle for the betterment of the social sciences in his era. While nobody really knows where he got most of his information from, it seems concurrent with what little else modern scholars have been able to exhume from that time period. My assumption has always been that depictions of proto-Vikings and Germanic peoples were highly exaggerated and largely miscegenations between actual happenings and accounts from myth. If Tacitus is seen to be the authority on the Germanic tribes of this time period, then I can say that if anything modern implementations of Viking themes are understated.

To illuminate this claim through example, take this one warrior custom frequently undertaken by amassed forces before inevitable battle. The entirety of one force would, in full war dress, assume their position on the battlefield and then proceed to yell at the top of their lungs in unison. They would cover their yells with their shields, which were constructed in such a way as to induce resonance and amplify these war cries. Depending on the pitch, fervor and demeanor of the surely terrifying sound produced, the warriors would either hold their ground and fight to the death, each man itching for their seat in the Hall of Odin that awaits a warrior's soul, or all flee. Depending on the hermeneutic of interpretation applied to this bizarre and impossibly brutal ritual, you could in fact infer that battles were won or lost by the character of one army's bloodcurdling screams. The best part about this ritual is that they would yell not at the opposing army but at themselves, in essence interpreting the sound of their own battle charisma. Undergoing another admittedly convenient but not to far-fetched leap of imagination, you could deduce that if the yell terrified even themselves, they would consider it as a sign that the enemy had no chance and charge into battle.

I really can't think of a better way to initiate violent conflict than that, and I defy anybody else to try.

In news more suited to my usual demeanor and less about personal fantasies, music has proven once again to be a tremendous force in yet another important endeavor in my life. I came here, leaving my guitar behind with the thought that, much like at school, I wouldn't be playing much. I really couldn't have done a worse job at estimating the value of music on this trip so far. It's one thing you can talk about with anybody, share with anybody, and most importantly it's an extremely good way to pass the time in public situations where you may not necessarily have anything to contribute to the conversation (i.e. it's in another language). Being able to walk into the common room and pick up a guitar has assuaged an untold amount of awkwardness on my part, made me more approachable and also re-instilled the sense of importance that I have (everyone has) always placed in some way or another on music as a mediating force in life. I have no delusions of music playing more than a casual role in my life over the years, nor have I ever. But the fact that it still persists with me throughout everything I do, despite my best efforts to avoid taking any vocal or instrumental endeavor I embark on seriously, is a testament to its raw, objective power. As I learned today, Rousseau famously asserted that music is the true voice of feeling. As a person who has strained for decades to pack away true emotion at any cost, its transmission, I think, will be critical in any transformative process I undergo.