Discover more from living together, somehow
on returning... ....to 2023
some no doubt glib and broad brushstrokes impressions on travelling to, and coming back to, the 2020s
A month of travel does a lot of things to your head. If you’re lucky, however, you come back, and no one has done anything to your house and your things.
For me, it’s also almost always the case that returning is more interesting than leaving and being away. The most precious thing about travel is less about the new things I saw when I was there, and more about the fresh way I can apprehend my own life, for a week or two, when I get back.
This week we had a few of those gorgeous days of crisp winter Melbourne sunshine – and a couple of crappy, showery days, where the squall inevitably blows in, precisely at school pick up time, or just when you need to get on the bike.
But the light in this country – at all different latitudes – the vault and colour of the sky, it’s something very different to Europe, and something really unique in my experience. The light is also a different colour to the typical spectrum of days I lived in Tokyo. The sunny light in Melbourne in winter is truly gorgeous; for a city rightly famous for fickle, crappy weather, when it ‘clicks’ here, it’s lovely. I really cherish the light in winter here.
What did I notice, while thinking my way across 16,000km, under this sunshine?
‘civil’ aviation: the containerisation of economy air travel post covid
In order to get to Europe this time, we bought tickets on Finn Air. This seems counter-intuitive, given the latter’s massive issues since the closure of Russian aerospace. The solution to this, it turns out, is not only that of the wombat (routing around).
By the end of the trip, my dad joke nick name for the carrier was Thinn Air. To say one ‘bought a ticket with Finn Air’, and for that to mean that there was and is an airline with ground staff and customer service is a bit of a misnomer. More than a bit. The truth – which bears re-telling for what it tells us about the global system of civil aviation post-covid – is that Finn Air is codesharing itself into the semblance of a long-haul carrier. Like a lot of things in 2023, Finn Air ‘from’ Melbourne ‘to’ Berlin is a big fat LARP, in which they pretend they’re our airline, and we ‘pretend’ (or just accept) that we’re getting on board an aircraft flown and crewed by Qantas, Lufthansa, Singapore, British Airways, Air France, or KLM. ‘Thank you for choosing to fly Qantas’. Lol.
In our case, the following codeshare-collective ‘ricochet’.
We checked our bags in hella early, as you do when you’re schlepping across timezones with a three, seven and ten year old. But then Qantas – who we discovered were our actual carrier on the sector between Melbourne and Singapore – had some issue coming into Melbourne. Depending on the customer service staff you spoke to (none were Finn Air), it was either a plane that had been delayed coming in, or it was a technical-engineering issue-fault with a Qantas aircraft’s engine. As a consequence of this, we had seven and some hours in the airport, and 70 bucks worth of food vouchers as compensation1. But this put is on a different route, so when we made it to Singapore, instead of going to Helsinki on an actual Finn Air aircraft, we were bounced to Munich – on a Lufthansa flight.
There were two consequences of this, one curious to behold, the other (first world) annoying. The curious: we had made it from Melbourne to Berlin ‘with’ Finn Air without once encountering a single one of their ground staff or customer service, let alone getting on one of their aircraft. The first world annoying thing: our bags had been checked in so early they didn’t get the memo on our re-routing. This meant queuing at Brandenberg (never great in any queue there) with the dozen or so other tired and harried passengers (from Canada and Russia and the US) with their own lost bags; it meant a few days of data entry, emails, text messages; it meant two days in Berlin with no clothes (it’s okay, we are first world, there is Uni Qlo); and it also meant – miraculously – that the bags were eventually re-routed precisely to the place we were staying. The global supply chain: it didn’t work, then it did, just, somehow.
For me, this speaks to the declining but still miraculously intact ‘civility’ of civil aviation: the carriers are LARPing when they say they are going to carry you from your port of origin to the destination. But collectively ‘somehow’, they messily – yet effectively – co-operate to shoot millions of people 16,000km across the earth, 11km through the air in a way which is totally routine, safer than any other mode of transport by some margin, and now has literally 101 films to choose from, with reasonable audio (if you bring your own phones).
The post covid global system of civil aviation is less civil, more reliant on ICT (and systems talking inter- one another), and the human experience (in economy) and, from a ‘human’ point of view, is several clicks more logistical. One just has to accept one is (eg) going to Munich aboard a Lufthansa aircraft, rather than Helsinki aboard a Finn Air aircraft. This is basically fine; but imagine shooting Rain Man in 2023.
Thus in the 2020s, ‘cattle class’ have become the unit-ized ‘contents’ of any given aircraft. We are all just containers, repeatedly emptying our pockets of contents and our bags of laptops and devices... in this sense, ‘civil’ aviation – at scale and for economy – is being progressively containerised.
We’re all just stuff and things in the global supply chain.
ecology and geopolitics in abeyance in ‘23: obvious ‘forces’ of capitalism and culture
One thing that really strikes me as an Australian passported first world traveller2 in the 2020s is the way that global capital is the prime structural force pushing and pulling everyone’s lives, yet how this is everywhere tempered by institutional and local cultures, which really affect the atmosphere and delivery of this fundamentally capitalist reality we’re now still living in.
Geopolitics, epidemiology, and an angered-wounded ecology are going to swerve back and matter ‘more’ (to whom? see footnote) at some unspecified moment in the next ‘when?’, but 2023 is a moment for me, from my observer position, to really notice the power of capitalism, and of culture. Moreover: to really watch it surged back to ‘full power’ after 2020-22. There is no global pandemic now, as social fact (although people still die of covid all the time). There is only overtourism and now ‘revenge tourism’.
Ironically – given the containerisation and ensuing ‘collective handling’ of civil aviation in the age of codeshare and Thinn Air LARPing – you can really notice this crossing of capitalism and culture aboard any given carrier. Qantas’ whole style and delivery is just so neoliberalised-Australian; Lufthansa do the poopy-officious German thing to a tea (tsk tsk if you want a second beer, but you’ll get it grudgingly3); Singapore airport, like Singapore, is just so fucking Singaporean, and such a contrast to Brandenberg, Malpensa, or Nice. Each one of these cultures has such a strong taste and aftertaste; each leaves an impression that lingers; each has its own deeply local style of delivery and dysfunction.
At the same time, the generic-global is everywhere. Everyone has a smartphone (with either one of the two American operating systems), Marvel movies dominate the on-board movie offerings, and, aside from Pokemon and other manga/anime, America totally dominates cultural production for film, games, and to a lesser extent music; Apple Pay was ubiquitous (even in Germany, a country that has seemed to take the worst of cash and cashless in its janky payment systems); and, sadly, like bad new tattoos (of which, so many, so bad!) vaping has become a Thing everywhere (though much less so in Singapore, where the smokers still huddle in the designated areas, outside of which they will be ‘seriously dealt with’, as one sign reminded all passers by).
In sum, capitalism and its dynamics are global social facts that are still dominated by US-based systems (and Chinese manufacturing), but local cultures are what construes and interprets it all, and they do really matter in terms of the ‘end user experience’.
Oh, but: in Europe, it’s still like people can’t (or won’t) ‘see’ China, haven’t clocked it yet. I’d have to go live in a place to know that this is really true, but this was my strong surface impression. Europe is still trapped in a Eurocentric reality (in which Germany seems joyless and lost, Italy seems hot and chaotic, and France seems self-absorbed and strike-riven [plus ca change]), although, from IT and payment through to currency and cultural production, ‘all of the above’ are actually very noticeably dominated by America (as Stiegler excoriates France for), and – just quietly – dependent on Made in China.
And, for me, personally, once I was back in Singapore (what a weird, ‘impressive’ messed up, peculiar, interesting place4), I ‘clicked’ back into the Asia Pacific, which seems to me, for better and worse, centrally located in the century in which we actually live, and a key ‘location’ of the global-capitalist present and its dynamic.
Cities are hot, crowded, and expensive: why don’t we all buy affordable houses in villages, and grow our own vegetables, and get off the rat race treadmill? Cos…
In our first week of travel we had the particular privilege to spend time one of the smaller villages among the small villages of the Masino Valley. Like a lot of places in the ‘triangle’ of northwestern Italy roughly between Milan, Genoa and Turin, it got totally smashed by covid in 2020 – to the point where everyone we spoke to had an older relative who died because of the virus.
It’s also a clear snapshot about what’s messed up about the constraints on how most of us are capable of living now, what constrains the possible, because of how capitalism tends to roll out, for most people and their commitments and who and what they have to provide for. But for example; one can buy a cottage in some of these villages for 15-25k euro (yes, it will need some renovation); the good soil provided locals – backbreaking!, reliable, healthy – subsistence in living memory; there is abundant fresh alpine water, which tastes amazing; and it is stunning. And ‘cos it’s Italy, you can have cake for breakfast, and that is totally valid and fine and delicious.
At the same time, Val Masino is a place that nearly all the young leave, where the middle age return to visit old relatives, and where things are being held together – just, for now – by older people, especially women, who are remarkably spry for their age, but undeniably 87 or 107. Italy shares the ‘Japan’ problem of ‘akiya’: abandoned homes and villages. In tiny places like Cevo and Civo (where we were), like places I’ve visited on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa (and check Maboroshi no Hikari, amazing), one can glimpse a liveable-viable and perhaps interesting, likeable post-capitalist reality. Some kind of good future, one unlike ours, with different constraints, seems weirdly possible in Val Masino’s villages – and appealing, if you ‘squint’ at it in a certain way.
But for the meantime, like so many places in the world, Val Masino is being drained of youth and vitality, and is not quite replenished with the money, services and infrastructure it needs to thrive: first the school in this village closes (and the kids there need to bus down to the next village), then you need to go Lecco to see the doctor; now they’re talking about cutting back on the (already sparse) bus service, &c &c. So of course it’s also clear why young people flee to cities for their opportunities and institutions; what’s also increasingly clear is that a decent urban life as a tenant-roommate in any global city is a diminishing possibility. We need to use existing infrastructures far more sensibly and creatively, now; but the will and the structures to do so all seem to pull in the opposite direction. Another unfortunate global social fact.
Above all, what was notable to me in the Masino Valley (in contrast to Milan) was the absence of tourists: in their presence (above all in Italy), there are always too many of them; we among them. I didn’t like the tone of Agnes Callard’s recent piece in the New Yorker on this topic, but she basically nails it: something in contemporary tourism lowers the collective IQ and we all end up doing – and paying and paying for – a bunch of dumb and pointless things we would never do back home in our everyday contexts. Why do we?
In a sense this problem is as old as the grand tour, and I would encourage anyone to read Flaubert in Egypt to also glimpse how little has changed in the past hundred and seventy years: the cameras are smaller, the sex workers have condoms… I’m sure the ice cream is safer now. But: why do we travel if this is what we do? And why do so many people choose *that* tattoo? Many of us would be so much better travelling locally and regionally, and not getting *that* tattoo; but, like the drainage of localities and village life and the containerisation of civil aviation, bad tattoos and overtourism and revenge tourism are global social facts with their own very powerful momentum and path dependence. I knew this from reason before departing; in the past month, I came to know it from experience once more, and didn’t love it or my fellow tourist humans. Whole thing is kinda gross.
My repeated surface scrapes of Berlin, 18 years and counting
I first arrived in Berlin in 2005 as a backpacker: chasing techno glory, and also en route to Prague and Budapest. We loved Berlin so much that we made plans to come back, and we lived there for a few months during that summer. It was a wonderful time in Berlin, especially as a 20-something without kids who was wild for techno and all kinds of experimental electronic music. ‘In those days’, we were conspicuous as the first Anglos jogging around Rummelsberger See (people would really *look* at us… now those same ugly Aspics we had are hipster shoes); the term Berghain had less currency than ‘the Panorama Bar’ (somehow the ‘the’ was later dropped), and it was the easy club to get into: not nearly as crowded or cliquey as some place called Weekender, on Alexanderplatz, that I never bothered trying to get rejected from. WMF had a kind of temporary club set up... I think near Ostkreuz too, and this was the hot ticket that summer. I went to some mnml fest with Richie and Magda and Troy Pierce and Gaiser and so on…. I saw Steve Bug and Ellen Allien at the bar. Watergate was kinda second prize, but would have these wild, unannounced after hours parties. I remember slipping in to a Sunday morning extravaganza with Richie Hawtin, Sven Väth, and the Wighnomy Brothers, after which I was invited to Club der Visionaire by some rando for the after after after party. Those were the daze.
With the above paragraph as my baseline and regular visits (to see family and friends) in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018, it’s interesting to notice that Berlin has gone through some very big and very obvious changes over the past eighteen years. These days, the east really doesn’t ‘feel’ vestigial-ly GDR like it still did in ’05; in 2023, you really notice that Friedrichshain, which was coming on the boil in ’05 as Mitte turned into a mall and Prenzlauer Berg started getting too expensive for ordinary wages, seems kinda trapped in an endless expat-driven reboot of its 2000s heyday. Everyone just looks older; it is all still there, it is all far from fresh.
Up in fancy Prenzlauer Berg, at the park opposite, Gethsemanekirche, English was the lingua franca among park parents (who would slip back into Italian, French, or, um, English), and German the mere dialect of a large, gentrified minority. Further east and south, down at Helmholtzplatz, things had gone ‘full Copenhagen’ in terms of dress code, e bike penetration, and cafe prices: again, the weird thing was that even locals seemed to hesitate before speaking German in shops, as it was never clear if the person making your coffee would be Italian, Finnish, or a Kiwi.
Who is Berlin for, in 2023? Without a doubt, this is no longer the city of the lebenskünstler, or even the Easyjetset. In every way, it has become just another generic, expensive European city, renovated for its bourgeoisie and the tourists, but where most locals are still stuck with low wages, second rate produce, and hard tap water that you have to filter out else you end up with a chalky scum on your skin and in your tea and coffee. Who wants a scaly kettle?
In global-relative terms, it’s still a great city and an awesome deal for a lot of people: it’s a paradise for the couple of Ukrainian refugees my partner made friends with at the park last year. And you’d have to go a long way to find a place that has such decent public transport, has better mastered mid-rise apartment living, has windows that actually seal, and that everywhere offers a simply outstanding selection of affordable soft and hard getränke at the späti (drinks, so nailed!), and Dr Oetker’s Knusper Schoko (so tasty!). All the same, analogous in the way Europe/the EU/the ECB didn’t show up for Greece when it counted in 2008-10 (but rather punished and chided the victim), Berlin has become just another crowded, unaffordable big city – with galloping inequality and an eroded, diminished sense of it as the ‘leader’ of something truly great (that people without much money behind them could also partake of).
And nagging underneath it all is this question of energy: absent the two decade Sweetie Deal between Germany and Russia, and with coal and nuclear on the way down, how will Germany keep Berlin warm and bright? It’s unclear to me if Germany (qua its government &c) has a way through these really complex ambiguities, let alone a good way. Right now, it seems lost, while all interactions with officials still have that joyless officiousness that reminds you the Prussians ‘won’ over all the other ways of being Germanophone.
However, I don’t say this with any kind of cultural narcissism or pride. Melbourne in 2023 truly sucks for more than half its population5, with cost of living and inflation eroding wages, savings and purchasing power (as in so many places), adding in both the totally out-of-control and past its use-by date Ponzi Scheme of Australian real estate (when will it end?!) and suburban sprawl and gridlock. Oh, and the windows here don’t seal properly, so the overpriced housing is also drafty.
on returning: what’s so noticeable, on the street and (seemingly) in the world now
Coming home: aside from the gorgeous light and the quality of the tap water and produce, the most conspicuous thing I really notice about Melbourne is the stupidity of drivers and traffic. This is a global problem, but there is a very particularly Australian expression of this auto-mobile stupidity, where drivers manage to be both mindlessly unaware while also railing it, in huge SUVs: somehow, a percentage of Australians have mastered the art of being both mindless and very aggressive, for no discernible advantage. It’s so interesting to re-experience this here while trying to walk the kids safely to school: there is nothing in ‘conditions’ that mandates this kind of behaviour, and you don’t ‘get there’ any faster (cos of speed bumps, traffic lights, and traffic): it’s a nearly pure instance of a culturally-based mindset, and like punching on after binge drinking, or like online gambling (or blowing it all playing Two Up in the ‘yabba), it’s a way of expressing a ‘me first’ opportunistic entitlement that is morally indifferent to the fact that it’s usually ‘gained’ at someone else’s expense. In the case of drivers: at the expense of child pedestrians. This is a country where adults in 3 tonnes of steel menace children, and feel incensed when someone points that out to them.
Speaking to nearly everyone on my travels: everyone is aware of the difficulties, contradictions, and problems of where they live now. Nearly everyone acknowledges that things are a bit meaner and shitter in the 2020s so far, and most people are trying to make their way while dealing with global social facts – capitalism, social acceleration, heat waves, strikes, postponements, cancellations – that, as Beck and more recently Rosa notice, tend not to admit of a single causal ‘agent’, let alone a solution or ‘way out’. There is no ‘one’ responsible for how things now regrettably are. We are in a very strange moment together: it’s clear that things could – and will – go in a number of strong directions, and when this ‘weather’ arrives, the storm/ earthquake/ meltdown/ pandemic &c will hit hard and fast, and have all kinds of ‘bad weird unpredictable’ effects. But for now, we have no idea what is going to happen in this decade that we are already well in the midst of. It’s a weird space, dealing with a moment of true indeterminacy in the uncontrollability of the truly unpredictable complexity in which we now live.
It's still a great world, for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it: but how long can this go on for like this? I’m unsure if there will be another opportunity to make the trip I just did, but the full body full spectrum experience it was (with three kids and the worst head cold of my life) did show me some things.
We really do live in interesting times, but we don’t know what they are, or where they are leading us.
This is fascinating: a several hour delay in Australian aerospace will get you 70 bucks worth of food vouchers (which is, like, lunch and a couple of coffees at MEL). Had we had the same delay in European aerospace, we would have had grounds for several hundred to over a thousand euro’s worth of compensation. We *did* end up getting compensated… but by Lufthansa… although none of this was at all on them… very weird and very 2023.
Insofar as: were I *trying* to travel on a Pakistani or Afghani passport, not even the slight ‘sand in the gears’ smoothness of ‘civil’ aviation would be open to me: ‘escape velocity’ from geopolitics and being stuck places is a privilege of the global passport lottery. If you’re not ‘living’ geopolitics, that must mean you’re from somewhere that’s still stable and rich.
Finn Air will gladly give you a second one, if you pay for it! On Qantas, in contrast, there were some young muzz bruhs on the wines between Melbourne and Singapore, and the flight attendant managed this incredibly artful handling that supplied them just enough wine to keep them calm and happy (and not bothering anyone else), but not so much that it was Boonie’s 52 cans in ‘89.
The only thing that’s wrong and offensive about William Gibson’s ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’ epithet is that it’s the United States who fucking invented Disneyland, and has the death penalty in 27 states (and American Samoa).
I’m basing this on the fact that roughly 1/3 own their houses, 1/3 have mortgages, and 1/3 are tenants…. so like: it sucks for ALL tenants here, and really sucks for at least half of people with mortgages…