April 2004

United Simplicities of America

2 weeks in LA and Mendocino County, 2 hours North of San Francisco.


Have been unconsciously avoiding America ever since Bush came to office. (Infact, the last time I went, I arrived in San Francisco the day of the Florida debacle.) On all previous occasions, through my 20s, I’d been entranced by the syrupy euphoria of US consumerism (those delicious Jamba Juices! cheap CDs! bookshops that stayed open till 11 and served caffe latte! Nike Town!) Then I read “No Logo” and the joy bled out of Nike trainers. Borders arrived in London and caffeinated bookshopping became a bore. I read Chomsky and America started to seem like a bad habit.

Almost 5 years passed and the sense of subcutaneous disapproval stayed put. I got into Buddhism which took me eastwards but also made the circuits of consumerism less appetizing. But then, 3 weeks ago, I decided to go back for a visit. And to LA of all places.

My best friend Gary was there. I had 2 weeks holiday. There was a monastery in Northern California I wanted to go to. So, big-heartedly, I decided to give the 290 millions Americans in the US of A a second chance.

Of course, I absolutely loved it. America is a great place. Blind and destructive it may be, as it secures the endless supplies of cheap labour and fuel it needs to support its dazzling lifestyle. But once there, you cannot help but be won over by its big-hearted simplicity.

The newspaper journalism is dreadful. Really awful. And the TV news is not much better. But the people are warm and friendly. The sun shines on them. Materially and metereologically and mythically. California is a blessed land. LA is a dream of driving. Warm and sunkissed, sleeking down long paradigmatic boulevards – Sunset, Hollywood, La Cienega, Santa Monica, Melrose… they’re all dreamy names that bring a smile to the lips of even the most politically hard-headed.

While I was there, there was talk of a US job that would mean me relocating immediately to LA. My instinctual and strong response was: No, I cannot truely imagine leaving the depth and rootedness of Europe for this simple inconsequential pleasantness. But after another week I wasn’t so sure.

I travelled up to Abhayagiri Monastery in Mendocino County and sat with the monks there for 4 days. And in the long afternoon walks up to the ridge of the mountains that ringed the monastery’s valley, I felt gloriously and simply human. And I wondered if all that enculturation, that cultural elaboration that being European brings is really all that enriching. Whether the Californian path is just as if not more valid. Simple is a good thing.

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and stopping off at the sunny spiritual hottubs of Esalen, I also realised that there is a very energetic spiritual life going on in America despite the demonic powers in government. I also reconnected with those Beat poets I used to love as a teenager. The urban looseness of O’Hara. The 50s dislocations of Berryman in the Dream Songs.

It’s all there in the sunshine. The Madonna Inn and Esalen. And I’m not sure that my heart hasn’t melted…


Polska Polska

Just back from a 4 day jaunt to Krakow.
It’s weird being back somewhere that was so significant in my life after a 12 year gap. Getting off the airplane and seeing all those signs written in Polish – it was as if my mind were slowly redeveloping images and sensations in a silver solution and ghostly memories were resurfacing, mostly pleasant, mostly poetic.


I went to Poland back in 1992 as a poet manque, following a college crush who was working on an anthology of young Polish poets. So the whole Krakow experience was particularly drenched in verse and desperate attempts to frame everything as an image, to percieve everything as a poem.


Now the Rynek, the main square, has the same clean, smart air as Vienna or Prague.


There are loads of shops and cafes, innumerable clusters of Poles milling around, seeming proud of their city. So many young Poles. I went out on Saturday night and noticed that there was not one person over 30 out on the streets. Only Poles in their twenties, taking in their prosperity.

I asked a taxi driver what the Poles thought about the upcoming accession to the EU. “For the young people it is everything”, he said. “For the old people, it’s loss of pension, higher food prices and unemployment.” I couldn’t be sure whether that was just the reflexive grumpiness of the old or a valid point. EU membership is always trumpeted as the salvation of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But as with all these grandiose gestures of the West, there’s usually some hidden agenda which causes the new Entrant to pay through the nose for the priviledge of membership.

Meanwhile I strolled the streets and squares happy that the Poles looked so hale and hearty. The Krakow I visited all those years ago had the doomy nobility of nearby Auschwitz about it. Dark, brooding, full of the wounds of the War. I’m glad that’s gone (though I’m glad I experienced it aswell…) I ate some of the best cake I’ve ever had. And some delicious food. I watched lots of movies with Polish subtitles. I read in suitably Central European cafes filled with wood carvings and Polish film posters.


And I went up into the mountains near Zakopane, Poland’s premier ski and hiking resort. From a warm and springy England, I suddenly found myself back in the heart of European winter. Thick snow all over the mountains, all the path annihilated with white, endless vistas of fir trees and clouded crags.


To be honest, it wasn’t great hiking, but I did stay in a beautiful alpine hut with a silence that battered my ears and air so fresh it anaethetized me for 10 hours straight.

I came back slightly amazed that I’d been away at all. A weirdly intense 4 day immersion into all those delightful Polish things: szarlotka, the flocks of pigeons against the Rynek sky, the water running out of broken aluminium drains, words like “zegarmistrz” . The slightest whiff of Nowa Huta.