The frontier spirit

Culture shock USA - Part IV

I spent two years in Austin, Texas. When I left the town in 1992, originally to spend a year in Freiburg, Germany working on my dissertation, I didn't know I had left the town forever. Since then, I have been trying - in vain - not to want to go back. What's worse, my German friends don't understand my longing for Texas. "Say what? You of all people? You are always getting upset about those bubbas, and now you want to go live with them?" Folks, you just don't get it. Lemme explain.

When I moved to Austin in 1990, the city was going through hard times. A lot of office and residential complexes had been built during a boom in the 1980s, but the boom turned out to be a bubble, and for two years the apartment complexes across the street from my apartment were completely empty and fenced off. But the city did well in the 90s. When I visited the town in January of 2005, the apartment complexes across from my old apartment had been renovated and were rented. Some well-known companies either are based in Austin or have a major office there: Dell, Motorola, IBM, Intel...

At UT's Business School, future MBAs can enjoy sculpture that would have made German Arians proud: The man looks towards the future, the woman looks after her child, and the child looks to God. Do Texans look like this?

But the boom in the 90s also had some drawbacks. The city I knew called itself the live music capital of the world (I would have preferred it call itself the live music capital of the US, since Americans often say "world" and only mean the US or maybe North America, such as in the baseball World Series, which Cuban and Japanese teams do not participate in). However, the rising cost of living that resulted from the boom is said to have driven out many struggling musicians.

Nonetheless, live music seemed to be in the air everywhere in early 2005. On the first of three nights that I spent in Austin, I met a few people from the solar industry to talk about the details of my lecture at the utility company two days later. We went to a restaurant named Threadgill's; a band was playing in the background.

The food was great, and no one seemed to mind that we all basically had to yell at each other to talk over the live music. I only found it a bit odd because I had not experienced such a thing in more than 12 years. In Germany, no one would ever bring a guest to a restaurant for a get-together if the live music is going to be so loud that you can't talk; but then again, when do you ever have live music in a German restaurant? In Austin, food is often served to the music.

After we had eaten, one of the women said she hated to eat and run, but she always went to a jam session on Tuesdays. I told her that I also sing, and she asked me to come along. You've been living in Germany for 13 years, I thought, and you don't know anyone who has a regular jam session every week although you know every second jazz musician in Freiburg. And now, you haven't even been in Austin for 12 hours and you're going to a jam session.

The jazz musicians I know in Germany have rehearsals, but you can't just pop in because they only rehearse for concerts. Nobody I know gets together to jam for the sake of jamming. Let's not even talk about classical musicians; the word "jam" is not even part of their musical vocabulary. Most of them cannot even play unless they have the music in front of them.

No time to be critical

The next night, I was standing in a bar called The Hole in the Wall across from the University of Texas. I was accompanied by Ulrike Bathe, a graduate student from Germany. That Wednesday night, three soloists played one after the other - with no cover charge. The Hole in the Wall has live music almost every night.

The first woman sang original tunes with a rather modest voice and accompanied herself with a cheap Casio mini-keyboard. In between songs, she told stories that were longer than the songs themselves. After her, a young man played his own compositions on guitar. I've seen better guitarists, but this guy and the woman before him had all the talent they needed. Their performances had so much personality that everyone enjoyed listening. Their musical ability seemed to have only developed as a vehicle for the content of their music. They were on stage to share their personalities with everyone else, not because they had mastered Mozart.

I asked Ulrike if she also thought that such people would be frowned upon onstage in Germany. "Probably," she said, "but in Austin no one would even think of criticizing the talent of these musicians. Everyone is just happy to have somebody get up on stage and entertain them with their creativity."

"These musicians are real amateurs," Ulrike continued. "An amateur is someone who loves what they're doing (Latin 'amare' = love). And a 'dilettante' comes from the Latin 'delectare': to delight. Dilettantes find delight in the arts, but they are not Masters." We agreed that it was best that way.

After we had finished our second pitcher, Ulrike and I waxed philosophical. Why is it that Germans learn to play excellent violin and piano but only unpack their instruments when everything has been organized and the sheet music is on the music stand, whereas Americans just barely get their heads around fiddles and guitars but unpack them on any occasion, planned or unplanned, apparently without any fear of embarrassing themselves? Bach was a master of improvisation -- one of the best jazz musicians ever. When did Germans forget how to improvise?

As we started on our third pitcher, I tried to imagine what Texas must have looked like 150 years ago. A group of 15 to 25 people are sitting around the campfire, and there is no entertainment as far as the eye can see. So the group takes matters into their own hands. People pass around the few instruments they have, and everyone makes suggests songs to play and asks if anyone else knows them. Everyone is happy when someone takes center stage. After all, it might be your turn next.

In 2005, Americans all have television, IMAX, Internet, etc., but the frontier spirit has not died. We are still grateful when someone takes center stage. Nobody measures how far anyone else fails to reach excellence; rather, everyone starts out at zero and is credited for what they have to offer.

Indeed, I have trouble translating the connotations of frontier spirit into German. The dictionary says the German equivalent is "Pioniergeist" (pioneer spirit), but I feel that the connotations are not the same. Maybe I translate too many marketing texts, but German industry always claims that it has Pioniergeist when it means it produces high-quality innovations.

The frontier spirit that I rediscovered in Texas is something different. It also means creatively finding new solutions, but the solutions are more makeshift than high-quality. Quality is not so important; the main thing is that everything more or less works. You make the best out of the opportunities that present themselves. The solution doesn't have to be good; it has to be better than nothing. You don't try to shape the future; you just take life as it comes.

For more than 15 years, this sign has been a prominent feature on one of Austin's main streets. The poor guy who runs the "Biergarten" / "beer garden" (but certainly not "beir garden") has the ill fortune of being right next to the campus of a university with one of the best German departments in the US (UT at Austin was ranked sixth in German when I began my studies there... and ninth when I left). How often has this guy been told that his sign is misspelled? But what does it matter? It's probably the sign maker's fault, anyway. The main thing is that the beer is cold (Looking at each other).

As we finished our third pitcher, Ulrike and I agreed that Americans often feel that criticism is inappropriate. Does that help explain the politics of the country? Do you just have to say, "This is no time to be critical," to shut up Americans?

The Divided States of America

Ulrike was not only a German in Texas; she also grew up in the former Communist East Germany. When she was 16, she and her friends participated in the demonstrations in Postdam just outside of Berlin. She said she did not realize back then that she might be risking her life. Rather, everyone was more afraid that their lives would be made difficult because they were protesting.

So did Ulrike feel that Americans should be a little more politically involved these days? My brother and his wife in New Orleans told me that lots of people are involved in one organization or another and did try to get Bush out of the White House, but they also work all day, and at night they often just want to relax in front of the TV. And time is really at a premium when people have kids...

Yes, Ulrike said, Americans could be more politically involved. On the other hand, she added, Austin is full of Bush opponents. Not everyone thinks Bush is a great guy. All of the Americans she is friends with are disgusted by their government's policies.

As a former Austinite, I was not at all surprised to hear this. The capital of Texas is an oasis of progressive thought. Everyone who can't stand where they are living in Texas moves to the heart of the state - a sort of 'inner emigration'.

At the jam session my first night in Austin, all of the musicians were sitting in a circle, and we all took turns picking a song to play. Sometimes, it took a few seconds to learn the chords. One guy started playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want". Everybody knew that one, and everyone chimed in. But suddenly, the guy started singing other lyrics. He was singing about demonstrations that had done no good, and about how everyone had busted their butts. The other musicians went on accompanying him, and everybody had an understanding smile all their face. At the end of these new lyrics, everyone belted out the refrain: "You Can't Always Get What You Want".

My God, I thought, the whole house is full of committed Democrats. There isn't a Republican in here. That reminded me of the New Year's party 10 days before in New Orleans. Some drunk bastard had come up to me and accused me out of the blue of having voted for Nader. He said people like me were the real reason everything had gone wrong and all of his hard work had come to naught.

"He's full of it", a banker standing next to me said once this bozo had mozied on. "He didn't do a damn thing -- unlike my friend over there. He's a lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama. For months, he only did what was absolutely necessary at the firm so he could spend all of his time as a volunteer for the Democratic campaign in Alabama. You wouldn't believe how many pairs of shoes some people went through trying to get votes for the Democrats. A lot of people put their lives on hold to get these monkeys out of the White House. And what good did it do?"

A few minutes later, I walked through the apartment and had the impression that everyone was talking about politics and the miserable election results. "Aren't there any Republicans here?" I tried to remember whether my friends had also all been so clearly of one political persuasion back when I lived in the States. But I wasn't even sure how some of my friends back then had voted. No wonder that drunken sap of a Democrat had been on the lookout for Nader voters; he knew he wasn't going to find any Republicans at the party.

Come here often?

But let's get back to the Hole in the Wall: at bars in the US, you often meet people you don't know. You don't spend all of your time sitting at a table. You get up to order the next round at the bar, where you stand next to people you don't know. You play pool with people you don't know. You stand in front of the stage and listen to music next to people you don't know. And you shake your hips lightly, just like everyone else you don't know around you. Bars in the US are constantly flowing.

In contrast, German 'Kneipen' have clear borders. Generally, you sit at one table with the people you came with, you are served at that table and do not get up to place orders, and you do not get to know the people at the table next to you. In Germany, you meet new people through people you already know. It's almost like you have to have a recommendation.

German bars rarely have pool tables, snooker tables, or live music, where strangers naturally interact. And when all of the tables in a German Kneipe are "taken", you can watch people enter the bar, look around for an empty table, and then turn around and leave when they can't see any. I don't think Americans have this reflex for bars (in restaurants maybe, not bars). When all of the seats are taken in a bar in the US, things start to get interesting. It becomes increasingly difficult not to bump into people.

That one night at The Hole in the Wall, I had talks with five people I didn't know. In Germany, this is called "superficial". For me, it was a refreshingly friendly way to deal with people I didn't know. And if you live in town, you keep bumping into these people you talked to for five minutes a few weeks ago. This is one way we make friends in the US.

Ulrike confirmed this. In her case, this interaction with strangers had led to friendships with people she had not only met in bars, but also at gas stations and elsewhere.

Once again, I tried to imagine what Texas must have looked like 150 years ago. Everyone is an uprooted stranger. In the 1820s, a man named Austin brought the first families of English heritage into the then-Spanish colony that was populated by Indians. In this world of lawlessness, nobody could afford to have enemies, so everybody proactively tried to make friends with everybody else.

I had hardly been in Germany a week when I experienced the exact opposite. I was sitting at the bar in Irish pub in Freiburg with a German friend. A man two stools down was served a large portion of fries and overheard my friend saying how good they looked. This guy, a German, push the whole plate over to us and told us to dig in.

The three of us started talking, and I thought to myself, "See, it's not so different here! Germans are just as friendly to people they've never met. It's not that different at all!" But later, my friend confided that she was glad that guy had finally left because she thought he was weird. I suggested that he might not have been weird, but lonely -- like so many people.

Internet Café the Texas way

During the day, I needed to check my e-mails. I asked Ulrike if she knew of an Internet Café. I expected to find what I was used to in Germany: you pay out the wahzoo to spend a few minutes surfing on a PC that's not yours. Or you bring your own laptop, but you have to go get an expensive card from some German provider to access its "hotspot".

In Austin, I ended up in a real café without any PCs: JP's Java. The sign outside has the symbol of a Mayan owl. The owner of the café explains the significance of the Mayan owl on its web site -- and explains the frontier spirit just the way I mean it:

As the owl has taught me to "let go", the river has moved me to places I never expected to go. As it led me to open the doors to JP's Java, it also enabled me to receive these symbols. There are many signposts and triggers on our path that seem to say "wake up" and remind us of who we are.

The cafe was full of students and professors staring into their laptops. Whoever wanted to could plug into the cafe's sockets; the café had even provided extra power strips just for this purpose. You could pick which wireless network you wanted to surf on; by one account, Austin is considered the third-best wireless university town in the US. You only had to pay for your coffee, not for the power and not for Internet access.

For three days, I tried not to want to live in the capital of Texas. I drank draft beer from Texas, Germany (some of which I can't even get in Freiburg), and Belgium (take a look at this selection, ate incredible Tex-Mex, enjoyed sunny skies and 70° in January, was surrounded by live music, and met lots of new people.

On my last day, I took my laptop back to JP's Java to have a last look at my lecture I was going to hold that evening. I ordered an iced coffee, sat down on the open south-facing side of the café, took off my sweater and enjoyed the sunny January sky in a T-shirt -- and wrote a few e-mails to some friends in Germany who can't understand why I never wanted to leave Austin.

Craig Morris hosts open mike night Thursdays at O'Kelly's in Freiburg.

(Craig Morris)