Thursday, April 14, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part One: The Backstory

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...

Well, not quite, but it was going through my head a lot, so a bit of explanation may be in order. Early last fall, when I finished my rock and roll history book's actual writing, I knew there would be a lot of post-writing work to do. I also had the second half of my advance, and it was, in a sense, more than the first half because the immediate debts I'd had to repay with the first half weren't there, giving me some room. And I knew what I wanted to do: return to Spain and France as a tourist, seeing stuff I'd never seen before, like the western end of Languedoc-Roussillon in France and some more of the area around Barcelona. So I went to Google Flights and started playing around. By then it was too late to ensure a pleasant experience: fall was coming in, and although that meant good things for food, it also meant that the driving I was anticipating doing could be hard, particularly in some of the places I was planning to go.

Eventually, a plan emerged. UT Informal Classes had me down for the two I was going to teach (Austin music history, and a new one about being a tourist and being a resident in Europe) and the first one would start on the evening of April 13. SXSW took up two weeks in March, and I knew from returning to Europe after a number of SXSWs that what I wanted wouldn't be ready immediately thereafter. The alternative, waiting until after the classes, would probably give me the best weather, but the book stuff would be getting hotter around then, probably. I narrowed it down to Easter Monday (March 28) to April 11.

And then I did some boneheaded stuff. Prices were all over the map, and the best one seemed to be to fly from the US into Rome, then back to Barcelona. Weird, but in terms of time in the air, not very different than something that seemed more direct. I decided to think about it: I was committing a bunch of dough to this and I didn't want to screw up.

I did anyway, though. As time moved forward, I decided I had to act, only to find that the flight I wanted had sold out. Aha! I thought. British Airways has a non-stop from Austin to London, and I could connect there! But the BA website wasn't cooperating. I'd get to where I'd pay and it wouldn't load. I started the process over. Same deal. I quit in frustration, knowing I'd mess up if I were too angry. And I went back the next day, booking through American Airlines, which runs the route with BA. Austin-London, London-Barcelona and, in reverse, back. I was so happy to see the website work that I didn't notice that I'd booked a nine-hour layover at Heathrow to start and an overnight layover there on the way back. I had an idiot for a travel agent, all right. Me. But I'd bought it, so that was that.

As I went through this two-day process, what surprised me was the vehemence with which I was doing this. The project had gone from "I want to go" to "I have to go." What was up here?

That question began to be answered only weeks later. Shortly before SXSW was due to begin, John Morthland, an early colleague at Rolling Stone, my very best friend on the staff, and, afterwards, a guy who'd shared my house for a while before moving into San Francisco with other friends, had been found dead at his home of natural causes. My age, approximately. And the day of President Obama's speech opening SXSW, news spread in the crowd that Louis Jay Meyers, one of the event's founders, had died of a heart attack in the night. Again, my age, approximately. Naturally, I didn't know these things would happen when I was booking, but the idea of getting out of town suddenly, for some reason, seemed more urgent.

And there was more, not life-and-death, but a gathering storm of personal and professional issues that were closing in. The publishers of both of my impending books were working faster than I'd thought (thanks, digital age -- and I'm not being sarcastic) and there was stuff that needed doing. I started doing it, but I'd warned both publishers that I'd booked this trip and couldn't change it. Mostly, they were gracious about it.

And in the back of my mind, there was more, which the two deaths had nudged loose. Which I have to digress to explain.

Some years ago (not many, I see now, looking it up; not as many as I'd thought) my friend Mark Rubin alerted me via Facebook that some friends of his were coming to Montpellier. They were busking their way through Europe and had just been in Denmark and were headed to Italy. A duo, male and female, they wandered the world like this. The male half had been producing a singer/songwriter from New Mexico in Denmark, the female half told me as I picked her up at the Montpellier train station, and the two of them would arrive soon. And so it developed, and it's a long story, but they found a house with some hippies to stay at and the singer/songwriter and I started  hanging out and having long conversations. She was a doctoral student in botany, about to take her exam for the degree, but was also pursuing a music career. She was also smart as a whip, sharp as a tack, and all of that. And gorgeous. And too young for me. I managed to get the three of them a gig at a friend's bookstore, and there I heard some of her songs, and it seemed something was not quite right. Besides, of course, the fact that she hadn't copyrighted any of them and was selling self-burned CDs at gigs, which led to more conversation.

But that was nothing next to what happened once she returned to the States. A question about proofreading, posted on Facebook, led to a correspondence, which led to an uprooting of a lot of my cherished beliefs. If our late-night yammerings in France had been intense, our transatlantic correspondence was positively incandescent. We batted ideas back and forth via e-mail and occasionally in video calls with Skype. She was obsessed with architecture, the way we capture space and live in it and arrange it to make that act of habitation as pleasurable as possible. As she hurtled on to her PhD, she challenged my entire intellectual superstructure on a daily basis. It was like a carnival ride.

It ended badly, of course. I invited her to SXSW and she came, which was, from her end, not such a hot idea, cutting in to her study and preparation time as it did. I selfishly wanted to spend time with her, which I couldn't do in France, where I still lived. What happened in Austin was that the thing essentially imploded. She got her degree, although she had to put it off for some months after Austin, and she moved to the desert. The songwriting career seems to have quieted down. We lost touch, which is probably best for both of us.

I can't speak for her, but some of those discussions we had profoundly affected my life and thinking, and for that I'll always be beholden to her. After months of thinking about it, I can distill one of the main changes like this: Everyone needs reasons to stay alive, by which I mean far more than food and shelter. I decided that the only two things worth living for, on that level of existence above food-and-shelter, were love and beauty. The former you have to be open to, but if you search too assiduously, it will elude you. The latter is all around you, and you can also increase your input of it by going to places -- art museums, concerts, natural spaces -- where an elevated level of it may be available. This became my mantra, and I've been much happier ever since it has.

And that was foremost in my mind when I booked this trip. The love thing continued to be problematical. The beauty thing was waiting for me in specific places I knew -- and in places I had no idea existed. The deaths just underscored this in a big way, as did the changes these books would likely make in my life starting this fall. It was time to escape for a while and let things dangle. And, of course, to let other things in.

The trip started well, too: I asked at the Austin airport if I could somehow rectify my stupid mistake and not have to spend an entire jetlagged day in Heathrow, and the guy clicked some keys stared at a screen, went to talk to someone else, and bingo: a 90-minute layover rather than a 9-hour one. I'd just bought myself another day in Barcelona, getting in at 2 rather than 10:30pm. I'd planned the trip rigorously, as I always try to do, knowing there would be things that didn't go as planned, and being open to them.

Two weeks. This was going to be fun.

Next: Ola Catalunya/Bon Jour Catalogne

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