Friday, August 08, 2003

Go Tell the Spartans

The most exhilarating and annoying thing about being an advocate for Gay rights, is that I've had to become an armchair expert on damn near everything. Here's a question from a loyal reader, which I've tried to answer as best I can:

Last night I saw a terrific program on PBS called the Spartans. I have a
well read layman's knowledge of ancient Greece and I guess I knew this but
the program brought up an interesting question. At the age of 7 Spartan
boys were sent to live with the rest of the men of Sparta. They were
assigned to an older man to help them and this man in essence became their
family. The program emphasized that homosexual activity between the boy and
man was not just tolerated but that it was expected. it was all about
creating a bond between the soldiers and was considered a positive act for
the state.

What I keep reading and hearing on the news is that homosexuality is inate.
That gays do not have any choice in the matter and therefore attempts to
"convert" gays is wrongheaded. Since homosexuality is innate parents don't
have to worry that their kids will be influenced by gay scoutmasters or
school teachers since it is nature and not the environment that determines
sexual orientation. Being gay is natural so it should not a thing we should
attempt to change.

OK But assuming that the percentage of homosexuals has remained the same for
the last 2500 years and that percentage is about 6% how could have all these
Greeks been comfortable performing these acts if they were not "born" gay.
One answer is that the culture of the time supported gay acts. Does this
not suggest it is possible that gays can be created by the culture?

First of all, in the here and now, most Gay men today do not experience their sexual orientation as flexible. Gay women are somewhat different; sexuality in women appears to be less hard-wired than sexuality in men. But in either case, any attempt to "convert" Gay people without their explicit consent -- even if it is only by "officially discouraging the homosexual lifestyle" -- is a gross violation of individual human rights.

Second, the very idea of "sexuality" as an innate component of personal identity doesn't surface until nineteenth-century Western Europe. One could argue that the idea of human "sexualities" could be seen to a very limited extent in the eighteenth century. But it certainly was not operative throughout most of history, including antiquity.

Third, that doesn't mean there were no men who loved and had sex with other men, or women who loved and had sex with other women, prior to the 1800s. Some societies accepted the sex acts of these people without question, but they were very much the exception. Most perpetuated a double standard, condemning men-loving-men while leaving women-loving-women alone. (Historically speaking, male or female unitive desire has been considered irrelevant to the institution of marriage, and in many parts of the world this is still the case. It's no coincidence that the notion of innate human "sexuality" arose shortly after the rise of democracy and the promotion of "love-match" marriages.)

Enough with the Gay 101 stuff. Now, on to the Spartans.

Spartan men were required to have mentoring relationships with young boys, and these relationships were expected to possess a sexual component. However, any actual penetration of the boy was strictly forbidden, so the sex -- when it happened -- was intercrural (penis between the thighs). Penetration of a male was only permitted if the passive male was the slave of the active partner, although this act was considered especially cruel and demeaning to the slave. "Good" masters didn't do it.

Spartan society encouraged homosexual contact between males, but it did so mostly by limiting the presence of women in their lives. Sparta believed that attachments to home and hearth would damage the cohesion of the all-important military unit. Spartan men lived full-time within their military encampments, perhaps slaughtering an occasional Helot or two to keep their skills up. Conjugal visits from their wives were rare, and for procreative purposes only. So in Spartan society intercrural sex between males was not a product of sexual desire for men as such.

This sexual ethic still persists in certain Islamic societies, where women are almost completely absent from public life, and in American Army units where women are at best extremely scarce. Both of these cultures are virulently, even violently anti-Gay, yet within them men engage in nonpenetrative sex acts with other men. Apparently there's no stigma in getting your rocks off with another guy, as long as you don't penetrate him (or if you do, as long as he is clearly an inferior and you're raping him), and as long as women are far out of reach.

In these situations, as with the ancient Spartans, most homosexual acts are nonpenetrative and faute de mieux. Unitive love -- the central component of what we now call "sexuality" -- has nothing to do with these acts of physical sexual release. That's why men can have this sort of sex with men without great discomfort, even though they're innately heterosexual.

Now, to your big question: Could a society "promote" homosexual relationships? Yes, of course it could. Inflexible separation of the sexes -- such as occurred under 19th-century Mormonism, perhaps, or even the contemporary Taliban -- would probably do the trick. But Gay kindergarten teachers who say that some men love men and some women love women can't do it. Gay Scoutmasters can't even do it. It takes a very carefully engineered situation, and a lot of state interference, to make homosexual "sex acts" more common than heterosexual intercourse. Even then, these aren't indications of innate sexuality, because the main component of unitive love seldom enters into the equation.

What, then, of Spartan women? Well, since the lives of Spartan women are undocumented save for their rare intersections with the world of men, I can't say much about whether Spartan women had homosexual relationships. My guess would be that they did -- and that, since female sexualities are more flexible (and more patient, perhaps) than the male varieties, unitive love among women was much more common and physical release much less so. But since Spartan society and the ancient historians who chronicled it assigned little importance to women, this must necessarily remain a guess.

Update (3:30 p.m.): My reader responds.

Thanks for your reply on the Spartans. I think you are saying that the man-boy thing in the barracks was not really homosexual activity because it lacked deep down commitment (pun intended).

Actually, I'm claiming that this was homosexual activity, even though the men involved would not have considered themselves homosexuals, and even though we would not consider these men innately homosexual today.

Sexuality and sexual activity are not necessarily related. Think of a Lesbian (or for that matter, Bisexual) woman in a heterosexual marriage. The sexual activity is heterosexual, but the sexuality is not.

I believe that this type of activity in today's culture would make a non-homosexual very uncomfortable verging on repugnance.

It might, but it doesn't always. That's why I brought up the contemporary example of "circle jerks" within the American Army -- clearly homosexual contact to orgasm, and thus unquestionably homosexual activity, yet for the most part not performed by men we would consider homo- or even bisexual.

This is why I think my original question may be right, that under certain cultural conditions homosexual behavior can be taught. At any rate the nature vs. nurture argument is far from being settled.

Absolutely. Sexual identity, at least as we understand it, is most likely a combination of several different factors, some hereditary and some environmental. From the standpoint of individual liberty, none of this matters. Being Gay is a complicated business. So is being Straight. That doesn't give the state a license to prefer one over the other. And when it does, some major problems ensue.

Sparta's totalitarian government controlled all aspects of its citizens' lives, reaching into the most intimate human relationships. But the great Athenian orator Pericles reminded us that such regulation, however virtuous the intent, came with a hefty and terrible price. Sparta was a major military power, a force to be reckoned with in the ancient world. Yet it had no sculpture, no art, no architecture, no theater, no poetry, no oratory, no trade, no prosperity, and ultimately no morals or ethics. Only free states -- states which, for weal or woe, leave ultimate decision-making power in the hands of individual citizens -- can develop and possess these things.

History proved Pericles right. Hundreds of years later, at the height of the Roman Empire, Athens remained a center for art, culture and learning, while Sparta was a quaint backwater where people still lived in ugly little huts. Perhaps that's the most important lesson we can learn from the once-mighty Spartans.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Theater Capsule Reviews

The LiveArts Summer Theater Festival and Heritage Repertory Theater season came to an end last Saturday, leaving Charlottesville mostly bereft of live theater. Fortunately, we culture vultures don't have to go cold turkey: The Ash Lawn-Highland Opera Festival will continue through August 17. To give you an idea of this summer's Charlottesville theater season, I'll start with two productions by Heritage Rep, then cover four LiveArts festival offerings. Since all of these plays have closed, I'll eschew specific praise in favor of general impressions.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo: Alfred Uhry must be the most overrated playwright in the business. Still, with all those awards it's clear that someone must believe his tame little plays contain matters of interest. The best I can say for Heritage Rep's production of Ballyhoo is that it more than does Uhry justice. But solid direction and excellent performances can't conceal the overwhelming dullness of the play itself. Basically, Ballyhoo is a simple, seven-character drawing-room comedy about two sisters who get married (though not to each other). On the surface it may concern a Jewish family in 1930s Atlanta, but deep down it plays like (yawn) another retread of Sense and Sensibility. I'm told that the city of Atlanta commissioned this play as its cultural contribution to the '96 Olympics. Suckers.

Return to the Forbidden Planet: Another production from Heritage Rep, this is one of those pastiche "1950s musicals" you always see in summer stock. I'll grant that Return is stronger than most of its ilk, but that's not saying much. (Smokey Joe's Cafe, anyone? How about Grease?) The rickety production barely squeaks by on energetic performances and wacky, Dr. Seuss-like sets; it feels like the kind of noisy, frantic entertainment you'd stumble across some hot afternoon at an amusement park. The dialogue is hilarious if you know your Shakespeare, bewildering if you don't; I suspect British audiences would enjoy this show much more than Americans.

Endless Air, Endless Water: The LiveArts Summer Theater Festival offered a world premiere production of this Robert Shaffron play, and for me it was far and away the highlight of the summer. Endless Air is a four-character comedy set in outer space, but it's a far cry from the camp theatrics of Return to the Forbidden Planet. Rather, this play focuses on a pair of Gay astronauts who are caught necking on national television, then have to deal with all sorts of flak from ground control (including one astronaut's surprisingly pragmatic girlfriend). Shaffron's few attempts at profundity fall flat, but he more than makes up for them with solid characters, sharp comic writing, and high-flying imagination. In a particularly inspired bit of low-cost staging, the two lead actors simulate weightlessness by pulling themselves around the set on rollerblades. I've seen much better plays this year, but I don't think I've seen a show I flat-out enjoyed as much. Since Gay audiences seem particularly receptive to this unusual coming-out story, here's hoping other theater groups decide to give Endless Air a shot.

Raised in Captivity: Here's a play that makes Oedipus Rex look like The Waltons. Playwright Nicky Silver seems like one of those theatrical sadists who loves to beat up his characters in new and exciting ways. For example, one character is sliced with a knife, loses a lot of blood and goes insane. One stabs herself in the eyes. One quits his job and spends months painting white canvasses with white paint. One is kicked out of the house; one is informed (sort of) that he was the product of a rape; one is sentenced to life in prison for a murder he really did commit; one is a speed freak. Dear God, what a wretched lot these characters are! Their hijinks are funny enough, and even a little heartbreaking from time to time. Still, I can't help thinking that if they were only stuck in an Alfred Uhry play, their lives would be considerably happier, if more banal. You may contrast this drawing-room comedy with Ballyhoo for all the comparisons you'd ever need between safe, stolid Heritage Rep and wild, adventurous LiveArts.

This Is Our Youth: Another fucked-up drawing room comedy-drama, this one by Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan is perhaps best known for writing and directing the feature film You Can Count on Me. But This Is Our Youth was his first major work -- the one that put him on the map, so to speak. Now from what I've seen of Lonergan's work, his trademark is the unpredictable emotional confrontation between stand-offish losers. And even though This Is Our Youth contains only three characters, there are plenty of dramatic confrontations, as well as enough character monologues for an entire evening of Actors' Studio auditions. One minor gripe about the LiveArts production: Charlottesville is a Southern college town, and its young actors don't have their New Yawk City accents nailed down.

Lloyd's Prayer: This odd little play by Kevin Kling is a good idea on paper, but to work onstage it needs a brilliant director, or at least a brilliant stage manager. At LiveArts, alas, it had neither. What it did have was a splashy lead performance by Sebastian Greiman as "Bob the Beast Boy." (I saw some of Sebastian's work as a writer/director last year, so I was pleased and relieved to see him acting this year.) Lloyd's Prayer spoofs Southern revivalist religion -- among large, slow-moving targets surely the largest and slowest -- yet in Act II it moves beyond facile satire and becomes queerly sentimental. This play may be uneven and tonally inconsistent, but I thought it well worth the ride.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

National Pork Service

About a month ago, after I returned from a few days on the Outer Banks, I wrote the following to a friend in New York:

Cape Hatteras National Seashore was pretty, but those boxy McMansions up and down the beach are just plain cruddy. Except for a few areas in Ocracoke [a remote town accessible only via ferry], I think we can safely declare all inhabited areas of the OBX a "charm-free zone."

In some ways, the OBX are a textbook example of the folly of governmental land management. On the one hand, you have beautiful areas where absolutely no development is allowed, ever. On the other hand, you have everywhere else. In these "unprotected" regions, development has run amuck and pays no attention whatsoever to the demands or the aesthetics of the environment. The newest housing developments are filled chock-a-block with five-story boxes on stilts, and they all look like they're waiting for the next hurricane to blow them off the face of the earth. There's no happy medium in the OBX, no sense that human beings can live respectfully within nature. It's all one or all the other. Depressing.

If the government weren't keeping huge chunks of the seashore completely off-limits, I suspect private developers would take more precautions to manage their presence, and tread more lightly upon the shifting sands. The long-term rewards would be worth it. After all, once you've covered the entire OBX with ugly five-story boxes, nobody will want to vacation there anymore.

I suspect there's a corollary to this as well: The national seashore creates the tourist trade, which fuels a frenzy of development along the coast outside of that seashore. There are, after all, plenty of beachfront areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts which have not been completely choked off by new housing developments. Granted, none of these places are adjacent to a national seashore -- which proves my point. The national parkland makes the whole area a tourist destination and brings crowds of people in, which in turn fuels a lot of hasty and environmentally irresponsible development.

But it doesn't matter what environmental havoc these places might inadvertently unleash on surrounding areas. That's because, at least in the US, national parklands have become an important form of "pork." With an initial rush of park service money -- and perhaps more importantly, the official cachet of the Park Service name -- a small, enterprising community can build a major tourist trade out of next to nothing. Now most of the time they don't, because the national parkland in question doesn't have an inherent tourist draw. A simple quiz: Would you go out of your way to show your family the humble birthplace of Booker T. Washington? The public housing unit where Jimmy Carter lived for a year? How about the last house Andrew Johnson owned? A couple of grassy Indian mounds? Reconstructed Revolutionary War earthworks?

Not interested, gentle reader? Yet all these areas are part of our great National Park Service system, theoretically building tourism in their respective communities -- assuming, of course, that anybody cares enough to show up. Now for my part, I happen to have visited all the areas described above, and many of them more than once. But park hounds like me are a rare breed.

I'll grant that the few visitors who show up spend time and money in local communities near these national parklands -- but if the national park doesn't grab their interest, they won't spend very much of either. The sad fact is, that without a constant flow of sweet federal cash, the vast majority of our national parks would simply disappear and never be missed.

The new tagline for today's National Park Service is "Experience Your America," and when I reflect on this statement, I find a deep, abiding, eternal truth in it. For instance, there's a huge tract of swampland in the backwoods of South Carolina. Since I've been paying for its maintenance and upkeep ever since I became a taxpaying citizen (which begs an important question: How does one maintain a friggin' swamp?), this land might qualify, in a very literal sense, as My America. And if you paid US taxes at any time over the past twenty-five years, some part of the Congaree Swamp could be Your America, too.

So, fellow Americans, why not go out and see the great big swamp? After all, we've bought it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

While I was praying, somebody touched me ...

I haven't written too often on religious matters, but the Episcopalian Church (otherwise known as "I can't believe it's not Catholic!") has captured my attention with their recent election of a Gay man, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. You may insert the lame one-liner on "breaking the glass cathedral ceiling" at your convenience, gentle reader.

Yesterday Robinson's election seemed far from a sure thing, as allegations of sexual abuse started crawling out of the woodwork. The allegations weren't exactly surprising; these days, if you're a Gay man and you're involved with a Christian church, you can pretty much expect some type of sex scandal to taint your reputation eventually. We can perhaps thank the Catholic Church hierarchy for bringing the old Gay-equals-pedophile stereotype back into the cultural mainstream, as they attempted to wash their hands of a pervasive (and apparently worldwide) culture of homo- and heterosexual abuse. From a distance, the Catholic Church's "cleansing" seems like scapegoating, but most Catholics are pretty satisfied with the outcome. And if the Church ends up driving away most of its Gay followers -- well, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. After all, some people just weren't meant to be part of the body of Christ.

But Catholics might do well to note how the Episcopalians have conducted themselves over the past few days. The sex scandal came from a church leader, who claimed that the bishop-elect touched him "inappropriately" and "repeatedly" during a meeting. As it turns out, the man considered this action a sexual advance, and felt duty-bound to report it to the committee. He did not, however, feel duty-bound to leak his testimony to the press; Robinson's more rabid opponents did that, in a last-ditch effort to embarrass the church before the big vote. (Because this man wished to retain his privacy, I won't mention his name here. But in leaking the story to the world, Robinson's opponents leaked the man's name as well, to his great discomfort.) The opponents delayed the vote by a day, but ultimately ensured Robinson's election as bishop. It was a dirty trick, it was certainly unethical. But was it true?

Well, the best answer might be "no and yes." It turns out that touching did occur, but in full view of the congregation. Robinson had placed one hand on the man's back and another hand on his arm, in what sounds like the classically condescending touchy-feely position that most pastors adopt when they're talking to the (ahem!) laity. For some reason, very few people go insane over this. I did, when I was younger; in fact, the main reason I enjoyed my Baptist Church upbringing so much when I was a kid, was that religious fundamentalism gave me license to cry, sing, dress up, and get hugged by good-looking men -- all those sissy things men weren't allowed to do outside of church. I especially liked the times where men hugged me, as I sobbed openly into their shirt ("Oh, don't look at me, I'm a wreck -- and it must be all Satan's fault!"). I must have been such a little drama queen, but I digress.

Frankly, I don't doubt that this man's complaint was, to his mind, legitimate. It genuinely unnerves some Straight men to be touched, however innocently, by a Gay man. It's not so much that these people believe they're sexually irresistible to Gay men. Rather, these guys hold to a simple syllogism: Gay men want to have sex with men; I am a man; therefore, Gay men want to have sex with me. If this were true, I'd have a much easier time getting laid. Let's see -- Gay men want to have sex with men; I am a man (or at least I was last time I checked); but for some reason Gay men don't want to have sex with me. Damn. But as much as the thought of Gay desire excites me, it makes a lot of Straight guys uncomfortable, as it seems to have done for the man in this story.

That said, the Episcopal Church didn't go into screaming hysterics over his allegations, but took them for what they were worth. As sex scandals go, this was really mild. You can't really prosecute a guy for patting you on the back, and if you tried, where would it all end? So within 24 hours, Robinson's name had been thoroughly cleared, the Episcopal Church U.S.A. announced its findings to the American media, and Robinson was triumphantly elected bishop. It was a remarkably sane business, as religion goes -- though Robinson, alas, may now have to think twice before he so much as shakes hands with a Straight man.

Right now, Gay Catholics who are looking for a new spiritual home have just witnessed a remarkable display of acceptance and equanimity from the leaders of the Episcopal Church. Here's hoping the Episcopalians grow and prosper under this new sign. And here's hoping other Christian denominations follow their lead.

Hostel Takeover

I promised myself I'd write more about the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Although I managed to write a review-cum-essay on Paul Green's The Lost Colony, first performed in 1937 and still going strong just outside of Manteo, I intended to produce at least two other posts about the country's favorite strip of East Coast beach. Over the past month one of those posts grew more generalized in scope, as I started wondering about America's national parks. As an advocate of limited government, I shouldn't like them as much as I do -- and yet I seek out these sites whenever I'm on the road. I think I can justify them to some degree, although the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Outer Banks shows that they also have a major downside.

I stayed in a fairly large youth hostel in Kitty Hawk. I'll omit the name and link because as far as I know there's only one youth hostel in the Outer Banks area, and I'm going to say some very unflattering things about it. The place itself was picturesquely situated about two miles from the beach, in a slightly run-down neighborhood where regular human beings could still afford to live year-round. Such neighborhoods are increasingly rare in the Outer Banks, and it seems they're not so common elsewhere either.

Well, this hostel had a major advantage of price: At about $20 a night plus tax, it was the one type of accomodation I could legitimately afford in my current unemployed state. Anything cheaper in the OBX would mean I'd have to pitch a tent, which I didn't particularly care to do this time around. Now hostels may look cheap from a distance, but a well-run, efficient operation can nickel-and-dime its guests to death if they're not careful and well-prepared. In addition to my bunk fee, I paid for one set of bed linens ($2.50) and one set of towels ($1.50). If for ten bucks I could have the pillow, blanket and mattress they provided wrapped in disinfected, antiseptic plastic, I would gladly have paid for it.

Or perhaps not, considering the state of those towels and bed linens. When I travel, I always pack a few of my own towels in case of emergency -- and the towels I received from the youth hostel were emergency enough for me to use my own. I assume -- at least I hope -- they had been washed before I got them, but I wasn't absolutely sure. The bed linens were slightly sandy and threadbare. My pillow was flattened with overuse and smelled strongly of human sweat. The pink blanket on my bed -- half of a queen-sized bedspread, clumsily cut down the length -- had several small, dark, curly hairs tangled in the fibers. I didn't even want to think about what was in -- or on -- that mattress, reminding myself that with all the money I was saving, I could buy plenty of delousing cream and shampoo back home.

The men's dormitory smelled like the sort of place where sixteen college-age men would bunk down for a night. If I were an aspiring Gay novelist I might say that the musky odors of morning maleness wafted gently through the air, but since I'm not I'll just say the whole place reeked of rotten man-funk. This might be some cockeyed paradise for a sexually voracious Gay man -- especially a young Gay man with no real sense of personal hygiene (which describes most of the young or young-ish Gay men I know). But as I grow older and my hormones become manageable, I find that Gayness becomes less about hot, malodorous sex and more about aesthetic things like theater and interior design.

Did I say "interior design"? Gentle reader, the interior design here was beyond bleak -- mostly beaten-up beds, secondhand tables, an armchair or two. The men's dormitory had a stuffy front room with lavatory, a frigid back room with a window-unit air conditioner, and a full bathroom adjacent to the back room. I think the place was meant to look somewhat rustic and woodsy, but it just looked cheap, cheap, cheap. I took a top bunk in the back room, which gave me easy access to the bathroom and a direct flow of fresh air from the window unit (the better to avoid those weird smells).

The one thing I did not have easy access to was the bed itself. Most bunk beds, I gather, have built-in ladders for those who choose (or are forced) to sleep on top. These beds had no such feature, so reaching the top was a task akin to rock climbing: Place left foot, then right foot gingerly on arm of nearby wobbly armchair, always praying to the god of your choice that said armchair will not collapse while you are standing on it. Shift right foot to headboard of bottom bunk. Remember while you are doing this, not to step on the guy who might be sleeping in this bottom bunk. Swing body slightly over edge of bunk and make a fast grab for the top railing -- first with the left hand, then the right. Your feet should now be dangling precariously in mid-air. Slowly pull self upward until torso rests firmly on top bunk; wriggle feet desperately for extra impetus. Congratulations! It is now bedtime.

The bottom bunks in this back room were occupied by transient construction workers, who were there for the entire summer and who by now had found and claimed the prime spots. They had the unquestioned run of the place -- bed, bath and communal kitchen -- and it only cost them about a hundred bucks per week. In tourist-heavy areas like the Outer Banks, there aren't enough places where temporary summer workers can actually afford to live; as a result, the woman who serves tourists a hearty pancake breakfast every morning has to commute at least an hour just to make her morning shift.

Even though I'm a limited-government conservative, I sympathize with the plight of the workers. Honestly, I do. But it's one thing to sympathize with the proletariat, and quite another to sleep with them. Mark was my bottom bunkmate; he had come from Virginia a few weeks back. He and his friend Ben worked all day widening and repaving the four-lane federal highway that runs through the Outer Banks. Every night these two went out and partied, and every morning at 5:30 they woke up and got back on the job.

But on my first morning at the hostel, Mark did not wake up at 5:30 a.m. His alarm began its unholy screech at 5:30 on the dot, but after an hour and a half the alarm was still going and Mark had not moved so much as a muscle. I finally said the hell with it, gingerly lowered myself from the top bunk, and took a morning shower. Mark was Straight, but cute enough for me to forgive him; besides, whenever you bunk with cute young men, there are bound to be disadvantages.

Later I learned the rest of the story. At 1:30 in the afternoon, Mark's boss on the road crew found him, still sprawled out on his bunk with the alarm clock chirping an inch away from his right ear. The alarm had run nonstop for eight hours. It seems that Mark and Ben had gone out partying the night before -- as they always did -- but this time Mark had taken three Xanax pills before getting himself good and stoned. By the next morning he was borderline comatose.

(A few weeks ago, I told this story to a friend of mine. He thought it would have been more fun if Mark had actually died in the bunk beneath me. "Think of it this way," he said. "If someone ever asked you about it, you could always say, 'I've got slides.'")

From what I can tell, nightlife on the Outer Banks is frenetic but dull, as it is in most places which cater primarily to tourists. I left the nightly pub crawls to my neighbors Mark and Ben, who were undoubtedly more experienced than I at such things. Before I left, I learned that Ben had a "party story" of his own: Just the week before, he had drunkenly broken an exposed light bulb from a fixture in the center of the room. It was so easy task, since the light fixture was on the ceiling. But Ben is a tall fellow with a Germanic build, and he accomplished it with a careless flick of his arm. After over a week, the light bulb had still not been replaced, and Mark still found shards of broken glass on the floor. That's the state of housekeeping in a typical hostel -- or at least one where you don't have some fastidious Nurse Ratchett character who can keep everybody in line.

I've given disproportionate attention to the two transient workers because they were my neighbors and fairly obnoxious ones at that. But the vast majority of these hostellers were easygoing, Eastern European college kids. Initially I feared that the kids would clog the bathroom every morning, with long lines for the shower and the potty. No worries there. These were Europeans, after all. They never used the bathroom to bathe, and I have no evidence that they used it for other purposes, either. Perhaps they secreted waste and assorted bodily toxins through their skin, like certain Amazonian treefrogs.

I noticed another difference between Europeans and Americans as well -- in particular, that Europeans approach the idea of vacation in a very un-American fashion. I consider myself in many respects a representative American, and I've found my American work ethic is seldom more vigorous than when I'm on vacation. (Indeed, it is seldom vigorous except when I'm on vacation.) I embark on frenzied sightseeing tours, trying to make sure I get everything in before it closes. All these places are good for me, so I have to fit them in. They will make me more knowledgeable, more interesting, or more experienced -- but they will make me better. As an American, I expect to return from vacation a changed man, hopefully a better man than when I started out.

European college kids, on the other hand, don't share these virtuous expectations. They like to hang out, and as far as I can tell, they travel specifically so they can hang out. They don't necessarily hang out with the locals, either, which might have some cultural or educational value. No, they meet each other at the hostel or on the beach, and they talk and smoke cigarettes. Sometimes they ride bikes around the neighborhood; sometimes they plan their next big ride on Greyhound or Amtrak. Mostly, though, they just hang out. They could be in Anchorage or Key West, and they'd still talk to each other and smoke cigarettes. One is free to do these things in America, I suppose. But while American-style vacations (like mine) tend to be focused on places and things, Europeans' vacations seem to focus on people. Which is more worthy, I cannot say; I can only say that for my part, when I am on vacation I prefer places and things.

Fortunately for me, I absorbed at least a little of the European vacation ethic by the time I left. I decided to "hang out" with the college kids, though I spent more of my time talking with an Irish fellow who was relieved to find an English-speaker who wasn't stoned or wasted all the time. Chatting with the Eastern Europeans was more difficult, as none of them were fluent in English. After a few halting attempts (during which I learned that several of them came from Poland and at least one hailed from the Czech Republic), they gave up and started to talk to each other again.

A dirty men's dorm, a dirty, itchy bed, foreign college students, drunk construction workers -- such was the state of the hostel, or rather the flophouse, where I spent my vacation. As I left the Outer Banks, I thought about offering the hostel some parting gift, as I am told contented hostellers often do. Perhaps I could give the hostel a new lightbulb to replace the one Ben broke a week before I arrived. Perhaps the hostel could use a broom and dustpan, to sweep away those shards of broken glass on the dormitory floor. But finally, realizing I had paid the folks in charge of the hostel twenty bucks a night to sleep with funk, filth and fleas, I decided they'd received enough from me already.

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