Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Frankfurt 12.5.05: Phallic Fatuity and Schmucke Schminke

Frankfurt airport, waiting for flight. We spent last night at the airport hotel. Airports have always struck me as perfect matches for purgatory—waiting rooms with little to recommend them except that they’re the “terminal” to which you must go in order to take the final stage of a journey, or initial stage, as it may be.

If airports are purgatory, airport hotels are so a fortiori. There’s no reason at all to be in one except to while away boring hours before a flight takes off. One sleeps badly, tossing and turning for the call one knows will come too early.

And everything is designed for someone else: someone rich, someone svelte, someone who travels frequently, someone male or the kind of female who fits easily into male hierarchical structures—e.g., an airline stewardess.

At the Frankfurt airport, you see all of this in its most methodical, thorough German fashion. Open the minibar and the first thing you discover is a pack of condoms.

Turn on the t.v., and you find that for a modest fee, you can buy non-stop porn from 12 to 12—pornography designed for men, with woman-demeaning titles like “Backdoor Babes.” It’s multilingual, for the convenience of travelers who speak English, French, or German.

It’s European—cosmopolitan, in other words, but with American taste ultimately prevailing, E.g., every film features repeated scenes involving one woman and two men. Europeans are evidently frank about the fact that two men enjoy getting it on with a woman as an excuse and buffer to enjoy homoerotic contact that simultaneously prevents their turning gay.

But in the European originals, there’s always a bit of sword clashing, of penis knocking against penis as the activity proceeds. In these Frankfurt airport hotel films, though, all that’s very carefully edited out. American men cannot admit that they enjoy or want what is the evident—the palpable—purpose of this form of sexual activity: the excitement of male-on-male action, albeit screened and mediated by the woman who makes it all okay.

Hence you see shots where it’s evident that the two members have just rubbed against each other, but the footage has been clipped out lest American male sensibilities be offended.

Which reminds me: the other big consumer of the Frankfurt airport hotel is American servicemen. With them above all, the stew of homoerotic desire that bubbles everywhere in this intensely male-bonded society must never be acknowledged or made conscious. Our infantilism must, at all costs, be carefully preserved. Our way of life depends on it.

Yes, dear reader, I blush to admit I did watch. And became quickly bored. One must do something in purgatory.

Things I learned from this trip: ebenfalls; gleichfalls. In Bad Soden, the doughty little Sparkasse cashier with too much blue eyeshadow who went toe-to-toe with the gentleman of the lost coin said ebenfalls, when I said to her as we checked out, Schönen Abend.

And Schminke. Happened on it in the dictionary, and then began to see it everywhere. The art museum in Köln had a Kinderschminke activity.

I also noticed that Schmuck can apparently be used in adjectival form to mean “pretty," but perhaps in the sense of over-the-top pretty. So I presume one could say, Wie schmucke Schminke! to complement someone’s make-up. Is there any language in the world where that statement is expressed in such outrageously funny words whose sound in no shape, form, or fashion seems to equal the idea expressed?

And so the trip comes to an end. I’m fatigued and low-spirited. Was when I left. Feel the same now, with a few knocks and bumps added.

Travel is frankly taxing. All the props of everyday life are gone—all those mechanisms (“I must work!”) some of us so expertly employ to keep relationship at bay are removed, and there’s only naked encounter, day after day, with one’s traveling companions, when one is supposed to be having fun.

With Steve, it seems that I am always capable of saying something utterly simple and flat, and, to my surprise, I find it has suddenly entered a world of never-never land, and we’re talking about the moon when I started with the sun.

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Sitting in the waiting room listening to my rude compatriots howling into their cell phones, oblivious to anyone around them, brings back to mind our last evening in Köln.

We went to a restaurant near our hotel called Jan von Werth on Christophstrasse. It looked a bit touristy but turned out to be a local hangout. We’d tried to get into a smaller and very local place behind Gereonskirche earlier, only to find every table reserved, and to be told nothing would be free before 7.

The waitress at van Werth was a sweetheart, very solicitous. It helps to speak a bit of the language—helps to soften the ugly American edge. She brought us a snack as we had beer—Schmalz spread thick on brown bread!

Food was good. We both had an Eintopf served in little silver cups with handles, potato, carrot, onion with sliced sausage on top. Then Steve had a Schweineschnitzel with kohlrabi and I a goulash with butter späzle and apfelmus. Good, but too much (and too salty) after the Eintopf and two Kölsch.

Anyway—the point I’m wending my way to—at some point, a young German man came in and proceeded to make a call on a cellphone at the bar near us. Had on an ill-fitting and very ugly brown pinstripe suit of some polyester-like material, wide lapels and wide pinstripes. He looked to be involved in some shady, unsavory business—all hole and corner in his expression.

As soon as he gets on the phone, the waitress glides up and tells him firmly he may not work in the restaurant. That strikes me as an interesting and fruitful approach to the encroachment of the cellphone monster.

Not, You’re disturbing people (as you clearly are, but such social strictures increasingly carry little weight with people anywhere). But, This is a Kneipe; people are here to eat and drink, not work. There’s a time and place for everything—a typically German idea: Wohnzimmer activity is not Schlafzimmer activity is not Toilette activity.

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Colm Tóibín, The Master (London: Picador, 2004):

“He envied them their lack of self-consciousness, their unawareness that their American voices, so filled with enthusiasm, were not as original as they imagined, nor as uncomplicated by history as they supposed” (222).

“Remaining invisible, becoming skilled in the art of self-effacement, even to someone whom he had known so long, gave him satisfaction. He was ready to listen, always ready to do that, but not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or the depth of feeling” (226).

“Old Newport, the old ladies and the half-Europeanized families, believed in talent, he said, more than they did in money, but that was because they had plenty of money, or had inherited enough never to think about it” (308).

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At the restaurant in Köln (last evening), a group of Asian-American men came in to sit at the bar; they asked the waitress abruptly and insensitively something about the place catering to American needs or tastes. She looked rightfully put out.

They then paraded to the bar and all proceeded to light big cigars, to a man jack. They then discussed in loud puerile tones the virtue of this or that expensive cigar and how to obtain them.

I know such behavior has not gone out of style in the U.S. Far from it, though the cigar-bar craze of the virile 90s seems to have peaked. Still, it strikes me that a certain type of American male goes to Europe to glory in the unrestricted macho freedom still permitted there—or so these types appear to think. European cultures have only begun to restrict where and when one may smoke, and the anti-Puritan sentiment remains very strong.

In the hands of men such as these, though, what an uncouth use these traditions have been put to. The restaurant owner had to come and open the front door, apologizing to us. The we-own-it-all display of showmanship (and for what audience?) was disgusting.

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The way Tóibín tells the story, Henry James—it would be fair to say—may have excelled in the art of learning how to live. He paid a price: he himself never lived fully, though his awareness of the interior lives and motives of others was delicate and prescient.

And perhaps this is the role to which gay men have been relegated . . . . Perhaps it’s the role to which I have been relegated in my family . . . .

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