Haunting is the word most often applied to this song. Chances are that you already know I Wonder as I Wander, an Appalachian ballad heard on the street in North Carolina (USA) by John Jacob Niles. Niles, a Kentuckian singer and lover of traditional music, found the music produced by a ragged young girl enthralling. He paid her to repeat the song many times as he took notes. Niles subsequently brought the song from mountain towns to the world beyond. Now known across the globe as a Christmas Carol, the melody has been recorded by Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Barbara Streisand and Placido Domingo, to name just a few. The latter I find quite distressing. This song needs to be heard a cappella.
Chances were not that I would hear the elderly John Jacob Niles himself perform the song live, a few years before he died in 1980, but I did. He was mesmerizing. Fortunately: a fellow student eventually wrote down the lyrics for me on what became a highly protected sheet of lined paper. See the handwriting: this artistic person was an accomplished calligrapher. She was, however, not able to lift words back off the page into the voice, as Niles did. But her script contains the sound of his voice for me, and I am grateful.
The phrase is clearly entrancing: I Wonder as I Wander became the title of the second volume of writer Langston Hughes’ autobiography, which appeared in 1956. Missouri-born Hughes was widely travelled: the USA, Mexico, Cuba, West Africa, France, Spain and the Netherlands (he was washing dishes at sea when he jumped ship in Rotterdam) – many were the states where he cast a critical eye on society and culture.
Not all of his peers viewed this as a strength. As Arnold Rampersad notes in his intriguing – indeed: gripping - 1992 introduction to the autobiography, one reviewer in the 1950's sneered that Hughes had done “more wandering than wondering.” The suggestion was that Hughes had failed to probe the compelling issues in his life, and of their times: the 1950’s, with political, social and racial differences polarizing in new post-WWII ways.
In the early 1930’s (when John Jacob Niles reportedly heard I Wonder as I Wander in Appalachia), Langston Hughes visited the Soviet Union and China. He always denied being a Communist, but he was on file at the FBI in the chilling McCarthy Era.
“It was time for us to not see each other for a while; we really needed a break." The young woman across the aisle was clutching her cell phone, staring out of the train window as she conversed. The car was fairly quiet and all passengers could follow her side of the conversation.
“We needed to take some distance.” That sounds like private information to me, and, if possible, I would want to avoid sharing such personal details with strangers. This is an old saw-horse for non-natives in the Netherlands: we converse more readily than the natives with strangers in public spaces, but we prefer to keep details of our private lives out of those public encounters.
Having said that, there is visible evolution underway; conversational boundaries appear less daunting. Whether or not this is happening independently of the ever-increasing vociferousness of the xenophobic right-wing (on occasion this can trigger responses such as “if you don’t like that in NL, just look at your own country” or “you can leave if you don’t like it” – before things get that far, I try to say: most countries seem to have one. Both countries which continue to supply me with passports certainly do), I can’t say.
More good news: xenophobes from England travelled to Amsterdam this weekend to join their Dutch comrades in an anti-foreigner demonstration, which basically fizzled out due to poor attendance. The righties were indignant about being forced to hold their rally far from the city center. Police kept the xeno’s and rival groups at a safe distance from one another, and I believe the Brits even got a free ride back to the airport in police vans. With so much hostile debate - on the streets and in parliament, for that matter – one doesn’t necessarily want to spend a train trip as witness to the hashing out of a private relationship, no matter how skilled the speaker may be. By the end of the young woman’s conversation with her estranged (business?) partner, she was chuckling and suggesting time and place for coffee.
For those wanting to avoid uninvited input of this nature, the Dutch railway system offers an alternative: many trains include a ‘Silence Car,’ a compartment where conversation, use of telephones and over-modulation of audio devices are discouraged. I respect the zone – not even my emery board comes into view. ‘Silence’ (and the Dutch equivalent ‘Stilte’) appears on the windows for those seated inside. The phone and conversation ban is also introduced with small visual aids on the walls. The challenge can be to identify the car before boarding, by catching a glimpse of the sign as your train speeds up to the platform before screeching to a halt. I scan the cars with some anxiety as they pass; my successes in entering Silence Cars have been purely coincidental.
Several recent occasions come to mind, all of them on trains passing through Amsterdam on their way to Schiphol Airport. Natives who have unwittingly taken seats in the quiet zone can generally be cajoled into a reflective state or at least into reducing their conversation to a whisper. Some collapse in giggles when asked by fellow passengers to respect the rules; others demonstrate belligerence – all of which contributes to even more noise.
A good number of the passengers are foreign visitors on their way to catch a flight home at the end of a busy working day or week. Once on the train, they are experiencing their first moments of leisure, remembering local hosts fondly. They make phone calls to offer thanks and to finalize agreements; they ask people to look out for a vest or scarf carelessly left behind. A Swedish businessman had evidently been working hard: he was slap-happy with laughter as he bid his hosts farewell. A Greek salesman ran a last inventory check, commenting on items held up from the open briefcase on his lap. A man speaking a minority language from the Surinamese interior was harangued into silence by a businesswoman (with whom I shared a moment of significant, simultaneous eyebrow-raising) speaking Sranantongo, the unifying language of Suriname, along with Dutch, of course. A group of French-speaking women introduced great mirth and good cheer into the wordless zone with chatter and laughter (please consult video fragment below). A fellow passenger, again across the aisle, explained (breaking off her glare at the rather derelict figure, with a bandaged hand and unkempt hair, hunched sideways in the bench across from mine in utter oblivion as he emitted a loud, grating snore) - she explained in a delightfully heavy Amsterdam inner-city accent why this was okay:
“They’re foreigners, they don’t know the rules.” I was grateful for this unexpected encounter with a glimmer of tolerance in the zone where we were meant to have immunity from exposure to any and all contrasting views.
A recent dinner-party conversation peaked when two people seeing each other for the first time in years confessed to remembering neither the other’s name nor details of the previous occasion. The pair spontaneously began to consider the option of creating new identities at each social gathering, not out of devious motive, but for the purpose of generating conversational surprise and more profound enjoyment.
The idea was hatched out of necessity. They couldn’t think of anything else to talk about, and they subsequently discovered common ground in their shared view of weekend social gatherings as a frenzied plundering of thoughts from weeks past. After thanking each other for the empathy displayed in this brief exchange, they categorized the content as a potential new thread of friendship, and acted accordingly. They also shared the opinion that identity as a concept was all worn out and should be allowed to rest for a while.
The significance of names has been considered in previous posts, including It had to happen sometime Pt.1: http://lifebeforenews.blogspot.com/2007/12/it-had-to-happen-sometime-pt1.html, written at the time when a British school teacher in Khartoum (Sudan) had been jailed for soliciting and adhering to the advice of her six-year old students: the teacher had asked the students to come up with suggestions for the most beautiful name for the Teddy Bear she had brought into the classroom for teaching purposes. One happy little boy chimed in with his opinion that Muhammad was the best name ever for the toy/learning prop. Word got out. Some citizens of Khartoum were outraged and took to the streets in protest. The British woman was arrested. The case spawned a new name: the Teddybear Taliban. A teacher can’t be too careful these days. Mobs appear in different forms. They can take to the digital street.
The origin of the name Teddy Bear (see reference above to It had to happen sometime Pt.1)
is all the more remarkable when considering Teddy Roosevelt’s M.O. at the time. Roosevelt’s profile rose in an age when ideas about masculinity were under undergoing radical rewording. The posture struck by a reasonable leader, a rational man of character, was no longer convincing enough – and not far enough away from girlish sentiment. The new male model was a competitive man of action.
The British school teacher was eventually released by Sudanese authorities and deported back to the UK. As much as her detention may have been more a matter of political expediency than judicial procedure, she was better off having a few walls and metal bars between her and dynamic local males.
Fortunate circumstance allows me to assemble these titles on my own bookshelf for this group picture to be presented during a wee presentation later today on engaged writers from the USA. Preparation of said presentation has robbed me of the time to post thoughts here on just how these (and many other titles) books occupy common ground.
I have called upon the reader to enlarge a photo and read on 1 previous occasion, in March 2009, with the embedded text Salt Lake City Again.
I am already on the alert while approaching the multi-story building – in the absence of a sidewalk, I’m forced to walk either on the rim of the bicycle path or in the soggy grassland at its edge, where my foot is quickly engulfed by mud. The bicycles hurtling along the straight stretch of road before the curve around the building are being pedalled at significant speed, the cyclists absorbed in phone conversations, composing text messages or pressing ahead to meet deadlines – the options for the pedestrian aren’t good.
As I reach my destination, a broad sidewalk looms, but weaving around abutments near the front entrance reinforces the vigilant mode – one of the outdoor columns under the overhead protrusion of the first floor is built in at a sharp slant. The column's trajectory appears haphazard and does not enhance a sense of stability.
To my relief, the mood is altered inside, where a front desk belies activity: computer lights blink, rotating stools are askew, as if just vacated, and the digital sign board and clock are blinking. The message is that security measures are in force, but nobody is around to scrutinize my arrival.
In the utter silence I proceed to the upper stories: along a ramp, a staircase, a transitional passage which leads through a dining zone (closed today, the packaged ingredients safe behind a roller shutter) and past the elevator, which I board. The meeting room I must find has a number in the thousands, but one digit provides the clue to the actual floor, where I emerge and see another glimmering digital display, directed, it seems, at me, condemning me to this empty stretch with information indicating that I have arrived.
Along the open-plan dual-passage hallway, through the ceiling-high windows bordering office spaces equipped with high-tech gear, I see no one, I hear no one, and a dream-like mist descends as I inspect the lifeless corridor. I decide to walk back to double-check the location details and en route I encounter the evacuation chair, neatly fastened to a central wall. The white figures on the green plastic are my only company this day – my eyes dart from the word ‘escape’ back to the digital sign board on the opposite wall and then to the elevator door, where a menacing grind warns of its opening.
This is the story of a few Parisians, some of Chinese origin, others of French and mixed parentage. Some of the Chinese are or were undocumented, others have forged their way into French society. Some are blood relatives, others are bound by official documentation or unspoken agreement, pressure from and loyalties to distant dons.
I first met them through French friends of mine, a couple in Paris, long-time residents of the building where the drama unfolds. Occasionally I visit these friends; unfailingly they are gracious hosts. I started to write about them when I met one of their (now former) neighbours, a little girl I call Hua.
Previous posts about Xiao Hua’s life in Paris can be found here:
Pt 1 - May 31, 2007 Pt 2 - June 25, 2007 Pt 3 - September 14, 2007 Pt.4 – July 21, 2008 Pt.5 - May 14, 2009
As mentioned in Pt. 4, Hua and her family have moved house. My friends now have use of the space (once home to Hua, her parents - or at least the people now legally recognized as her parents - and then also to a baby brother), the room under the stairs originally used as a sweatshop, and they harbour resentment towards the French couple who they see as having sided with the landlord who evicted them. They don’t know that the wife negotiated to make sure the Chinese family received a pay-off in exchange for leaving.
Their story so far is better than many others. Not long after Hua’s detention, French police entered a first-floor apartment in the same neighborhood in search of a thief and/or stolen goods. A middle-aged Chinese woman on the premises jumped out of the window to avoid the police. She died in custody the next day.
Hua is now a young teenager. My friend runs into her only very occasionally on the street. The girl’s father turns up from time to time, looking gaunt, in a wheelchair. He has been ill for the past couple of years and a hospital resident, receiving treatment for tuberculosis – making him unable to work, but he has attained legal status in the country, at least temporarily. The status extends to his children, but not his wife. Last summer he went to China for two months with the children. He could never pay for the travel on his own, so one assumes he was performing a service for the network which brought him and the children out of China. Even as a sick man he was seen in Paris selling trinkets from a blanket on the pavement, perhaps encouraged to do so by influential figures in his daily life.
Meanwhile, the noise from the Chinese family upstairs (with windows opening onto the courtyard outside my friends’ apartment), introduced in Pt.5, dropped a few decibels when the (illegal) back-room gambling space where the father hosted games on Saturday night was moved to the street-side, the front. The back room is now the terrain of the 3 little sons. The oldest is about 9, and they are nearly identical, happy to communicate with my friend downstairs, squealing with delight when she responds to their proddings with ‘ni hao.’
The father is a professional gambler and a wife-beater. There have been fewer violent incidents since the night when my friend called the police. But the father does not like her. The boys, on the other hand, know that she intervened, and continue, when not pulled back inside by the mother, to greet my friend.
As mentioned previously, they all inhabit an old apartment complex with several stairwells rising inside two five-story buildings set back from the street, home to many dozens. A stone lane runs from the street door past older and lower row-homes straight back to the last stairwell. The key code to the street door had been passed around, and the dark area just inside had become a favourite haunt of local (Chinese) prostitutes and their Johns for their brief encounters. Before that, a brothel had flourished in one of the upstairs apartments, and the young women would chat and laugh with abandon as they came and went.
Eventually the landlord renovated the door area and supplied a new code. The prostitutes have stayed away. The entire building complex has had a facelift in recent months: outdoor walls and stairwells have been sanded, resurfaced, varnished and painted. Toxic fumes and dust plague the residents, but it’s good for the property.