Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Education of Francis

Copyright 2005 by s. light
This may not be reprinted without the author's permission.

I had to go to Berlin. It couldn’t not happen. If we were going to Europe, then we definitely had to see Berlin. Maybe for some people, it’s nothing more than the place where the Wall came down, or for others, where the Wall went up. Then there’s my grandparents’ generation with meanings from before the Wall, of stormtroopers and swastikas. For me, all of those things were there, building blocks for this city that had been such a culture clash for so long, and now was totally open and redefining itself on a global scale. That was why I wanted to go there, and, as I would later realize, because this city had played a part in practically every event that defined our planet in the twentieth century. That, and the fact that I’m a bit of a U2 freak and they had recorded “Achtung Baby” there. Yes, I know; “Achtung Baby” would ultimately lead to the “Pop” album, where everyone just kind of went, “Huh?” But, damn it, “Achtung Baby” is a good album and damn it, I was going to Berlin.

Of course, we would end up cutting Berlin short. I have some family in Germany and we stayed with them an extra day or so because they kind of guilted us into it. And after Berlin, our last stop would be Amsterdam, where we were meeting some friends from home, and well, it was Amsterdam; there was weed to smoke. So, Berlin was cut to two full days and change.

It was on a Wednesday that we arrived, in the early evening. A couple of beers in the basement bar under our pensione and we called it a night. Okay, we called it a night after she made me use the “Helmut” voice. “Helmut vants you, fraulein. Oooh, dat is goot!” The next morning, having breakfast and checking out (they were full for the rest of our stay), we noticed a flyer for a guided walking tour of the city given by residents who spoke English as a first language. This was the kind of thing we hadn’t done, preferring to explore each city on our own, rather than be at the mercy of a tour guide. But, since we were cutting Berlin short and the flyer said the tour didn’t last longer than four hours, we figured it couldn’t be that terrible. Besides, they listed everything we knew we wanted to see: Brandenburg Gate, parts of the Wall still standing, even the Victory tower (where the angels sit on the head of the statue in Wings of Desire). The second tour of the day met at the lightpost in front of the McDonald’s across the street from Zoo Station at 2:30.

2:30. Lightpost. McDonald’s. Zoo Station. Chocolate shake.

There’s a few other pairs of non-European twentysomethings hanging around, until finally, this guy comes over and collects everyone for the tour. He’s about 5’5”, short brown hair, goatee, naturally tanned, wearing a pullover sweater with a shirt underneath, olive green pants, and carrying an over-the-shoulder satchel (not a man-purse, mind you, but what a guy would carry in college). His accent is English, sort of. No, it’s Australian. His name is Francis and he’s from Australia and he looks like a 7/8 scale model version of George Michael without the rock-n-roll fashion sense. Later, Pam would notice his protuding round buttocks and “Faith” would become our song of the day.

Francis begins by finding out where everyone is from. A pair of girls are the only other Americans, the rest of the group being Canadian, or so they claim. I don’t remember where the girls are from, but somehow it gets out that we’re from Texas (if he didn’t ask, we told him, because, throughout our trip, we hoped the iconic mythos of our home would make people like us more than just being from “the States”). Francis realizes he has his work cut out for him, since “the American education system doesn’t care at all about the rest of the world.” Hitler and the Wall are about all that our group has come to associate with Berlin. He actually rolls his eyes at us. We’re walking through Berlin’s version of Central Park, the Tiergarten, heading towards the Victory tower.

“They used it in a movie, I can’t remember which,” Francis says of the monument.

“Wings of Desire,” I chime in.

“Oh, right, and U2 used it in a video. They recorded one of their albums here, too.”

“Achtung Baby,” I don’t chime in. He’s beginning to get on my nerves and it’s only been ten minutes. This has the potential to be a very long four hours.

He starts to give us a history of the park, telling us it was first used as a hunting ground by the king. I think he said it was Frederick the Great, but it could have been a Wilhelm. (I’m an American and therefore lacking in the education department.)

“Andy Warhol did a painting of the King. Maybe you’ve seen it?” Francis asks.

Blank stares from the group.

“What? Are you all culturally destitute?” He is incredulous.

I told myself I was not going to be a brash, blowhard American. I told myself I was going to accept and respect different points of view; the U.S. is not the entire world (thank God). I told myself I would let my horizons be broadened. But, this is just getting to be too much.

“Is this how Australians treat paying customers? I didn’t shell out $40 to be insulted by a squirrely little twit. I have seen many Warhols. Famous ones. In person. I just haven’t seen one of a German king. I don’t think not having seen one specific painting qualifies me as culturally destitute!”

Unfortunately, due to Francis’ smaller stature, his jaws are closer together and don’t have to move very far in order to work and produce speech; he begins talking again about something else before I am able to give voice to my protests.

We continue on through the park and to the Victory tower, where we hop on a bus without paying for a short ride. We end up standing next to George Michael, er, I mean Francis. He begins to make conversation about American politics. We do not tell him of our general apathy towards the government of our own country, as we do not want to be called yet another kind of destitute. We are from Texas so he starts on Bush and son, who will shortly announce his candidacy for President.

“We don’t like him. Nobody in Austin likes him. He’s not our fault. He’s stupid. We hope to God he doesn’t get elected. He can’t run a business, let alone a country. He’ll just call Daddy or Daddy’s friends for help. Please, tell us more about DaimlerChrysler’s new headquarters. That big, spinning logo sure is neat.”

Anything to change the subject, but he chooses to start in on Clinton and Monica and Hillary and even Chelsea. “He really got caught with his pants down.” This generates a chuckle from within himself. “What do you think of Hillary? She’s a real bitch, huh? And that Monica’s a little power-loving slut, isn’t she. Do they not realize what they’re doing to their daughter? But then, she doesn’t really have the looks, does she?”

We were hoping to get away from all this stuff by going to Europe; at the least we didn’t want to be bombarded by it every hour. And now, the guy who sings “Careless Whisper” is grilling us on the whole damn mess. Okay, so it’s just a guy who looks like the guy who sings “Careless Whisper.” Nonetheless, it isn’t what we feel like talking about. So, getting off the bus, we start to drift to the back of the group, catching up only when he’s talking about this building, or that monument. This goes on…

“The Wall used to go right along here.”
“You can still see bullet marks on the front of those buildings.”
“This was Checkpoint Charlie.”
“The river was mined.”
“We’re now standing on top of Hitler’s bunker.”

…until we make it into what used to be East Berlin, where we’re standing in a plaza bordered by three old buildings that mostly survived the war and were then restored; one of the buildings is the opera house. In the middle of the plaza, in the ground, is a scratched piece of plexiglass, through which we can barely make out some empty bookshelves. As it turns out, this was where the Nazis held their keggers, except they called them book burnings and there probably wasn’t a keg. Also, as it turns out, this is where VH-1s “Behind the Music” helps us win a battle on the European front of the Late 20th Century Culture Wars.

It starts with an off-the-cuff ‘80s pop reference: “Girl, you know it’s true…” and then the other American girls do a little Milli Vanilli shoulder shake/running-in-place move.

“Really,” I say, “only one of you should be dancing, since only half of them is left.”

“Oh yeah, right,” one of the girls says with a little laugh.

“What do you mean only half’s left?” Francis asks, as we begin walking on to the next point of interest.

“What? You don’t know?” He shakes his head, so I continue. “One of them is dead. He committed suicide, like, last year.”

“Really. Which one?”

“I think it was Vanilli.” A Canadian decides to be funny.

“If,” I say, “you mean the lighter-skinned one, Fabrice Morvan, that’s right. I think he was from Germany even. It was his second attempt. The first one, he wanted to jump off a balcony at Cedars Sinai, which is L.A.’s favorite celebrity newsleak hospital. Or the balcony was somewhere else and they took him to Cedars Sinai. Whichever.” I realize, suddenly, that my spongebrain has turned on and I must now release all that I know on the subject. This may not be so bad.

“Wow,” Francis says.

“Yeah. Rob Pilatus, the other one, or Milli to his fans in the Great White North, is actually playing music, small-time, trying to be honest and everything.”

“Are you a fan?” he asks.

“No, there’s this show called ‘Behind the Music’ on VH-1.”

“Yeah, we saw the Milli Vanilli one right before we left,” says one of the American girls.


“It’s MTV for older people. At least it used to be,” I say. “Now, I watch it more than MTV. ‘Behind the Music’ is their biography show. It’s usually about a band or singer who’s kinda disappeared. They hit it big, had problems, usually drugs, and now they’re just happy to be alive, keeping it real and getting back to the music and all that.”

“And they did a whole show on Milli Vanilli?”

“Yeah, where they came from, everything. They interview the producer who put it all together. They even showed the performance where their cover got blown.”

“Yeah,” Pam says. “It was for MTV, and Downtown Julie Brown was there.”

“They’re out there singing,” I continue, “and all of a sudden, the tape skips and they freak out. The crowd doesn’t know what’s up, but Downtown Julie Brown makes them get back out there and finish the show.”


“And then, of course, they have to give back their Best New Artist Grammy. Then, it’s all downhill, they put out an album called “Rob and Fab” or “Fab and Rob” and it tanks, leaving them with drugs and depression, and well, we already told you the rest.”

Silence from Francis and his until-now, easy-working fast-acting mouth.

I no longer care about looking out for his next slam on Americans. I no longer care about his lack of knowledge in music and film. I no longer care about Warhol paintings. I no longer care about the shortcomings of the American education system or the superior qualities of its Australian counterpart. I no longer care about the perfect score Francis would get in the appearance category for his version of “Last Christmas” on the special holiday episode of a syndicated lip-sync television show. At this moment, I only care about one thing: I am not culturally destitute.

Okay, so I’m not pop-culturally destitute. But isn’t that all that really matters? It’s not about the innovations or the social commentary anymore. It’s about what came before that’s getting referenced now. Don’t tell me pop culture isn’t culture. Sure it is. Some would just say it’s much lower, than… fine art, or ballet, or opera. For the love of God, Warhol is pop-culture. We’ve used up all of the original ideas. This guy in Sweden got the last one in 1961; I saw a filmstrip about it in 7th grade.

Culture is one of those words that has different meanings to different people. You could say it’s the parts of a society that define it. Hey, I like that. Culture, for me, is the parts of a society that define it. And, sure, you could break these things down even more, like high or low, cyber-culture, drug culture, etc. There’s probably balding professors and grad students in turtlenecks arguing about it all right now, while a cute, neo-hippie girl puts the froth on their cappucinos. Whatever. The point is, I know a little bit about at least one part of culture. We all do. Sure, I know plenty of stuff about plenty of other subjects, but right now, all that really matters is that the world has been saved from pointless mass hysteria, because Francis from Australia has learned that this American yahoo is not culturally destitute.


At 3/04/2005 10:41:00 AM, Anonymous pazam said...

yay! this one's my favorite. 7/8ths george michael still makes me laugh.

At 3/07/2005 11:42:00 PM, Blogger Kiwi Cowboy said...

You should have demanded your money back. Especially from an Australian, who, unfortunately, comes from a country almost as globally ignorant as the USA. Just because there are Aussies all over the world doesn't mean that they are expanding their tolerance for other cultures. Trust me; I lived there.

At 10/27/2005 11:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know your stuff! Just two things, though. The one who committed suicide was actually Rob Pilatus, the biracial, green eyed one. And he was neither Milli nor Vanilli, the same way there isn't a Scritti and a Politti in Scritti Politti. I know all this stuff because I was a big fan of MV when they were popular (And I can't deny I still have a fondness now.)


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