FROM THE BUCOLIC TO THE SHAMBOLIC — PART THREE: THE FINAL LEG HAS A FOOT OF CLAY

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It was important to me that a brutal hangover not define the second leg of our visit. After eight or nine hours of deep convalescing and gagging back bottles of whole fruit puree and several cans of something called Kofola, followed by a triumphant-if-wobbly set of fifty pushups, I felt sufficiently resuscitated for exploration. Once out of doors, the crisp November chill was its own medicine, helping to further refortify my wilted zeal.

My immediate impression of Old Town Prague: a pewter-colored paradise, both beautifully grim and palpably affluent. My people came from this part of the world over a hundred years ago. It certainly felt like a place I might have some roots in.

Besides the Kafka and Mozart connections, I remembered Prague as being a popular gap year spot for all those spotty-faced philosophy and anthropology majors back in the nineties. For all I know, it may still be a going concern for that crowd. It was a little difficult for me to really get in to the place for the throngs of tourists; the place is just lousy with them. For contrast, there are the local commuters, recognizable by how they haul ass everywhere (scurrying for the sake of scurry, if you ask me). You cannot stroll through town without feeling conspicuously casual whilst in their harried midst. Meanwhile, the tourists were all day and night gawping and snapping pictures with their smartphones, as well as their I-Pads (which looks excessively dumb). Other than a few snaps of the ol’ lady up against some of the carved granite scenery, I didn’t take a single photograph; I wasn’t trying not to, I simply didn’t feel compelled. My sense was that Prague had already had all the mystique snapped out of it thousands of times over and counting. Other than proof positive that — Hey, lookit me in Prague that one time! — what was really the point? That’s all I witnessed around me: tourists collecting some Facebook fodder. Watching all the people strike their contrived smiles with a canned candidness induced in me a tectonic groan or two. I think, if you could stand the cold, the best time to see the clock and the square and the bridge and all that stuff would probably be around four in the morning on a Tuesday in mid-February, (or anytime during the next flood).

I’LL HAVE THE SAME

One thing that struck me about my first experience abroad, starting from Madrid and ending at Heathrow, was the near absolute homogeneity of all peoples everywhere, though particularly in their manner of dress. Everyone from rebel fighters in Syria to child molesters in Daytona Beach seem to agree: distressed jeans represent the sartorial zenith in bottom apparel, even if one or two un-evolved curmudgeons like myself think they make the double-knit lapel-a-thons of the seventies seem downright natty and individual in retrospect. I’m sorry, but I will never understand the idea of wearing what are meant to be utilitarian trousers with bizarre wear patterns blasted into them that both weaken the fabric and defy all physiological explanation. Maybe I’m just annoyed because I quite often find myself absentmindedly wondering what the wearer of said dungarees would have had to be doing for the last several years in order to have giant, perfectly rectilinear fade spots on the backs of their thighs, when I could instead be wondering about…other…more…Godly pursuits…

I’m not about to suggest that this quotidian creep doesn’t extend throughout Bohemia as well, but their brand of sameness was effectively mitigated by looking so collectively sharp. Seamlessly book-matched to the Gothic spires and up-lit edifices shrouded in cold fog were knee-high leather boots, scarves and dramatic wool coats. I mostly credit this to the frigid temperatures while I was there, but I fantasize about some broader, stylistic underpinnings. Even our cab driver was dapperer than the original Dan.

I hadn’t packed enough season-appropriate duds myself, so after day two, the urge to hide in the hotel room and eat free food was great — a temptation upset by all the mirrors placed throughout my quarters. A lot of hotels really like to jazz up their guest rooms by installing mirrors on every vertical surface without a window or door, making a person uncommonly aware of themselves from every angle. I don’t care how much of an Adonis you fancy yourself, (I do not), it really gets old. So, I recycled my one pair of long underwear and sallied forth to buy some coffees and Budweisers, both of which are entirely different beasts in the CR. Not unlike the Euros I pissed away in Portugal, I found it dangerously easy to part with the candy-colored Kronas, depicting hirsute men with impressively delineated eyebrow musculature. The money is downright psychedelic-looking in contrast to the grim granitescape in which I pissed it away, where the sun starts to go down at half-past three and where I saw almost nobody smile, laugh or flirt.

Alongside everything being dark and chubby and blocky and Gothic, (like a lot of the chicks you knew in high school!), the absence of foliage in and around the square really added to the post-apocalyptic gloom of the town. On my first trip to the astronomical clock, there was a crazy bagpipe/tablas/bass guitar trio performing drone-y minor key ragas in druid robes and long hair. They matched perfectly the mood of the place, much more so than the weird dixieland jazz & 80’s MOR I heard pouring out of everyplace else. It was actually some pretty good din for being in the heart of such a touristy area, and I kinda regret not buying their disc they had available for purchase.

And that wraps up my flea-bitten, rambling insights on Eastern and Western Europe. This will likely be as close to a travelogue as I’ll ever dare veer. I still don’t understand how people like Bill ‘n’ Ted travel in what amounts to perpetuity. I can honestly say I will never have passport envy, and I suspect even more than before that for a lot of people, world travel is more about the status than experience or personal edification; doing something exotic to say they did something exotic. Of course, there are still parts of this fantastic planet I need to investigate: the Outer Hebrides, the forested foothills of Mount Fuji, and maybe even a quick romp through Antarctica. Still, on the heels of this last adventure, I’m not in anything like what I’d call a hurry.

The Future of Olde Fashioned

I’m only just now coming to this Times opinion piece from last November by assistant professor at Princeton University, Christy Wampole. Overall, it’s an expert meditation on the irony-afflicted, retro-crazed hipster movement and its apparently baneful effects on everything from our modern culture to how America is perceived abroad. Wampole presents the hipster as a sort of walking recycle bin spilling over with pallid imitations. Even the term hipster is an appropriation (my mind still stubbornly flashes to a mental snapshot of James Coburn).

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I’m not being disingenuous when I say this piece was an eye-opener for me. I keep a low noise floor when it comes to anything relating to popular culture (to this day, I have never heard a Britney Spears song). After having read Professor Wampole’s piece, my takeaway is that the hipster fad is really more of a cheap surrogate for youth culture than actual youth culture; y’know — if it ain’t youth culture, it’ll do until the real youth culture gets here.

There were one or two things about Wampole’s otherwise highly enjoyable polemic that lodged in my craw. First, this kind of thing really boils down to a guilty pleasure; sociological grabassery, or the more academic version of your favorite band sucks. I mean, let’s face it: getting at the exploded view of whatever shape mainstream happiness has assumed today and comparing it against your own personal blueprint is bound to prove disappointing — particularly for anyone as erudite as Dr. Wampole. As such, poking holes in a target as broad and flimsy as the hipster is almost too easy; a bit like crafting an elaborate argument against using Brasso as a condiment, just for the sake of having an excuse to exercise your skillz at arguing. Then there was that purple-ish patch she quoted from her friend with the three names. No. Just no…it’s one or the other: three names or bombast; you don’t get to have both.

The really big pimple, though, was Wampole’s suggestion that having affection for things non-contemporaneous to one’s personal history is somehow hipster bedrock. I deeply hate this idea, and so I figured I might spend a few well-caffeinated paragraphs chipping away at it.

RETRO V OLDE

Terms like retro and vintage can cast even the most magnificent artifact as something ditzy or kitsch. After all, do we regard the librarian who listens to Preludes and Fugues for the Virginal as a big retro music chick? Is the man who sharpens his straight razor with a horsehide strop really just being retro? Is everyone on The Antiques Roadshow really just a buncha hipsters? Is the long haul trucker who loves real maple syrup just being all pretentious & shit? Is the carpenter who covets postwar power tools for their superior durability really just being an insincere asshole?

(No.)

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I happen to really like the old stuff. I’m tempted to insert the word timeless here, but I won’t, because one, it’s overused, and second, I think it’s become something of an intellectual smokescreen used by some people to get out of feeling stuck in the past, by scratching out the ‘sell by’ dates printed on the sides of all their treasure.

I first became occupied with matters antediluvian when I was twelve or thirteen — so late eighties — well before buzzwords like retro or vintage, and long before I entertained any notions of nostalgia. I grew up in a provincial hinterland where the only entertainment available outside of my own devout onanism consisted of an incomplete third-hand encyclopaedia set, free Marvel comics from 7-11, and a diminutive G-rated VHS library. For whatever reason, G-rated films from the 80’s tended also to be period films. We had them all: Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, White Fang and the last film in the Indiana Jones trilogy. Best of all the bunch were the generic SP copies of Chaplin and Mayo flicks that were mixed in. I watched and re-watched all of these tapes, soaking in the look of them, but especially the clothing, hairstyles and set pieces. I easily lost a years worth of sleep over those pale blue spectators worn by Doody’s character in The Last Crusade. Why in hell didn’t women’s shoes still look like that? (80’s shoes sucked.) And how about the hair? Whenever some moll slapped her beau in a Howard Hawks film, she’d unleash a tonsorial avalanche of dramatic, Vitalis-sodden forelock. I remember thinking to myself that that’s how all men’s hair should look — five miles of shellac’d tresses piled up and shoved back in shining waves (also sucking in the 80’s: coiffure). Whenever I’d watch a modern-day G-rated film, everything looked like bullshit to me; the ridiculous stonewashed jeans someone like Rick Moranis might be wearing looked like a lost bet compared to the ones Clark Gable was chasing around in forty years before. Even the coolest cars in contemporary films were forgettable at best; yeah, keep your pretentious-ass’d Delorian — gimme that 1937 Lincoln Zephyr coupe-sedan!

Like any impressionable squirt, I started trying to style myself after my heroes. Vintage clothing boutiques weren’t yet a concern anywhere around me in those days, so I started seeking out contemporary duds that embodied even the vaguest elements of the clothing from my favorite periods. I went apeshit for argyle patterns, pale yellows, salmons, tans & browns; likewise, linens, gabardine and freckled tweed all made the strings go zing. I remember I came across a shirt in a Ross Dress-For-Less made from a tan hopsack-like material; I lifted it, got it home and cut the collar off to make it look more like something Leslie Howard might’ve worn in The Petrified Forest. Shoes were the trickiest. I settled for a pair of disused saddle shoes rescued from the back of my dad’s closet, as they were the closest looking thing to a pair of spectators I could get my hands on, (I wore three pairs of socks just to make the bastards fit — two pair of crappy white gym socks covered with one of my three pairs of more stylish argyles). While the other delinquents were off skateboarding and huffing paint behind the 7-11 on Saturdays, you could find me cycling my ass off alone to the Jo-Ann Fabric four zip codes away to cadge Rit dye and period-looking buttons with which to retrofit a modern piece.

This might all sound like some precocious, fetishistic bent, and maybe it was that; but it was also sincere. It certainly had nothing to do with beingĀ hip. I actually made life difficult for myself, but I couldn’t help it; that’s how deeply I appreciated what I perceived as the more imaginative compositions and superior construction in the old stuff as opposed to the Hobe beachwear shirts and puffy LA Gear booties so coveted by my peers (in whose inevitable ridicule I did bask).

I salute anyone sensitive enough to discern and embrace the details of certain bygone conventions, even if their enthusiasm does spill over into cheap approximation from time to time. In fact, I think this single distinction is one for which Wampole or her editor might have better allowed for: Ideally, one shouldn’t trivialize the object of their passion with tawdry imitation. You won’t see me running around trying to look like an ersatz Gatsby or Tom Joad, (yeah, I know, I’ve seen that kid around town, too). But feeling inspired by sensibilities which came before your ability to load up a diaper is truly a mark of refinement. It says something about you; it says you’re not welded to the here and now; you look around and pick out what works best, regardless of what fashion or tradition dictates. If you were that way, and we lived on the same street, we would absolutely be friends (Wampole would be the chick on the block who avoided eye contact whenever you waved hello) — yes, even if you drank PBR and wore short jorts and had a forty-niner mustache and played the trombone. The euphonium would be even better, though…

This is something of a pet theme to which I’ll invariably return.