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You know, I had to do it once. I had to involve myself in at least one or two strange political diatribes with some bizarre foreigners and document the whole thing so as to chew it around and taste it.

I had to.

The whole thing started with a map of the US, and my Indian-born, African raised, English-accented roommate asked me which parts of the ‘States had the fewest “natch-rul disasters.”

To be fair, we had been discussing Tornados and Hurricanes, so I guess that’s the premise for a question that implies some great fear of our bizarre landscape.

So I pulled up Google Earth and started showing him how the really safe spots were right in the middle, north of Tornado alley and west of the New Madrid fault line. You know, Montana, the Dakota’s, Iowa, Minnesota and so forth. The boring shit.

He asked about the Rockies and the various other geographic hotspots. We zipped over to Africa, where he showed me Malawi, his home for most of his life. He’d been born in India, but the native tongue of former British colonial Malawi was English, British-flavored, which accounted for this bizarre mixture.

We spoke of geopolitical issues at the moment and the conversation landed somewhere familiar, Iran. Iran is a subject that arises almost instantly with any foreign student as an American taking various courses on government and politics. It is, for the Russian, German, Austrian, Indian, British, Serbian, Czech, Turkish, Pakistani and Spanish students, THE issue to prod any nearby American with.

When issues of the current Presidential election, or America as a foreign existence arises, they always ask some version of the same question:

“Is President Obama going to bomb Iran, and if so, what the hell, man?”
Usually it’s more broken, with heavier accents and the one atypical word that gives away their grasp of the language. And usually they say it with light in their eyes and with a little fire in their lungs, like they’re addressing a crowd of fervent supporters.

An Austrian economics student down the hall asked me the same thing, —in his own way — while we chain-smoked in the rain under our little concrete outcropping. He spoke of it like a certainty.

“And what is happening when you fight Iran? What is going to be consequence of that?”

“A complete fucking nightmare,” I said. “But don’t worry, Obama won’t do it, he isn’t completely incapable of reason.”

He laughed and turned, nudging me with his elbow and only half kidding as he says, “Ahhh, come on. You guys always fighting someone, and someone will need that oil, right? Valuable resources always will start war.”

I took a drag and laughed. He knew the oil argument was silly, he’d said so, himself twenty minutes before. He was a serious student of world economics, and he knew that most American oil came from Canada, and that Iran had to sell the stuff as much as anyone needed to buy it, and that it was going to hurt them not to sell it more than us not to buy it.

But he was serious in his tone about war, and I understood why. It hit me in a real way that Iran wasn’t exactly scary to me. St. Louis is 6,700 miles from Tehran, and the Iranians can’t hit me with an Intercontinental Ballistic Anything at that distance. Their technology hasn’t evolved to the level of global strikes.

But Vienna is barely 2,000 miles from Iran, the geopolitical equivalent of “across that pond and behind the tree.” Iran could do all kinds of damage in this part of the world by sheer proximity to its madness. Wounded animals, rabies-infested wild things, do plenty of damage just flailing about — it doesn’t have to be trying to hurt you in order to do it.

And that’s why everybody talked about it, like they’d be able to hear the gunfire down the street if we started a fight in their proverbial backyard.

I appreciated, for a moment, the wonderful comforting feeling of the two very large oceans separating me from the majority of violent organized enemy militaries. We have an incredible fortune, as Americans. With no major economic or military threat in North or South America to contend with, the United States effectively exists on an island, the most defensible natural position in the world.

Combined with our unsettling global-nuclear-strike capability, we essentially have established the safest sovereign nation in the history of mankind. A friend, just returning home from a 3-year stint stationed in South Korea, once told me about the sheer scale of our nuclear power.

“We literally have enough active nuclear subs in the water to level every major city on the planet a few times over,” she said this, laughing over a beer and a half-eaten roll. She looked up at the sky for a minute, like someone fighting the urge to laugh instead of throw themselves in front of t a bus. “It’s comforting, you know? I mean, it’s comforting as long as you don’t think about how many subs the Chinese, or the Russians or the Israeli’s must have, swimming around down there.”

“It’s amazing they don’t bump into each other,” I said gloomily.

“They will, eventually. That’s when it’ll stop being comforting.” She finished her beer and smiled. It was a hollow smile.

And yet, despite our world-wide-web of nuclear payloads, we still spend half our days acting like strung-out, coke-sniffing mosh-pit types leaving some raving underground punk concert at dawn, drunk on paranoia and sniffing around for a scuffle.

I never got worried about the nightmare scenario, because it doesn’t really exist anymore. Sure, Russia could nuke us back into oblivion, but we’d kill them with a massive, dying swipe of our nuclear paw before tumbling into the blackness. We’d wreck the whole place, nuclear winter and savage nightmares of a globe without any future.

But that scenario is gone. Russia doesn’t want to obliterate mankind because of some argument over Karl Marx that everybody would just rather forget about. Sure, they don’t like us, but we don’t like them either, and it’s all kind of about avoiding the kid at the party that we don’t enjoy.

With Kim Jong Il dead and his regime crumbling, his missiles with them, we can’t get all freaked out over the most dangerous peninsula in the world anymore.

The only real fear is some freaked-out religious radical with a big suitcase filled with awful stuff smuggled out of the old Soviet Union twenty years ago and rigged up by some East German car maker with glue and shipped to the highest bidder.

And we’re back to Iran. Iran, getting nuclear, and the people who live on their street have a bigger problem, because Iran doesn’t HAVE to get nuclear to mess with their worlds.

American Accidentalism, I like to call it: the unintended consequences of completely benign and occasionally benevolent actions. Totally separate from our tangible, obvious failures and crimes, this is the stuff we’ll never really notice unless we try.

It’s the difference between understanding why Japan might not be totally peachy-keen with us (hint: it starts with lots of burning American ships and ends with a mushroom cloud) and understanding why the 22-year-old Austrian economics student thinks America should reign in its “spread of military bases near the Black Sea.”

He doesn’t find America suspicious or potentially dangerous because he thinks we might wander into his country, plant a flag and pick a fight. He worries about us because he thinks we’ll blunder into the house across the street, accidentally set it on fire and then flee the scene of the crime in sheer terror, hoping his house doesn’t burn down too.


It’s about noon in the Naschtmarkt, and people are teeming in close-quarter crowds like Catholics waiting for the Pope’s blessing in Vatican Square. The Naschtmarkt — an open-air market that stretches nearly half a mile in the 3rd or 4th district of the city — is a bussling sea of life and commerce. One end is almost entirely made up of Café’s and restaurants, where diners sit mere inches from the throbbing masses, bumping and pulling each other around. Past the eaters are the markets themselves: endless aisles of shops with awnings to guard their trinkets, treasures and otherwise from the hard sun.

At first it is food — butcher storefronts with massive slabs of raw meat on display, waiting for some fat, hungry carnivore.

“I’ll take that side of beef, and make it snappy, I’ve got a small dragon to feed.”

Everywhere there are fruits and spices and booths for schnitzel or falafel. Pears, apples, dates, strawberries and peaches, a multi-color heaven of freshly grown produce is just part of the experience. Watermelons, oranges, grapefruits are everywhere. Fish markets with massive whole fish laying dead-eyed on cubed ice stink the air and people jam like crazy into narrower and narrower alleys of goods. The stores become so close that awnings from adjacent stores collide covering the entire thing in a faux shade and funneling people, hungry and wallets bursting, into packed crowds so harsh that turning in place is no longer an option.

After a few minutes of this crowd I’m about ready for alcohol or dangerous chemicals. Everything of value I have in this country is zipped in my backpack, which is being yanked and bumped with every step. This is the place one worries about pickpockets. Nobody wants to be robbed in a foreign country and a crowd like this must be ripe with half-wit crooks with light fingers.

I’m tempted to do something radical and give myself some breathing room — do something drastic at the next tug on my bag — just to show the crowd I’m not messing around. I’ll wait for some poor sap to push on my bag or jostle me from behind. Then, I’ll spin hard at the waist 90 degrees sending my elbow flying back behind me, high, aiming for the temple.

Crack some poor fellow right in the skull and send him crumpling to the ground with a whimper. Then, turn and become sincerely distraught by his injury.

So sorry, chap. Thought you were some no-good thieving little punk trying to lift my pocketbook. Boy, the sun and the crowd here must really have my nerves on edge. You know, a man can’t be too safe in a foreign country, with all the beggars about. Don’t worry my poor fellow, we can get that swelling down with a fine slab of meat.”

Yep. Send a violent, sudden message and get myself a nice wide berth for the rest of the afternoon. The two other  girls from St. Louis — Emma and Kim — who have accompanied me to the market for advice and consent purposes, are ahead of me. Having already helped me select a gift for my girlfriend, they’ve decided to move deeper into the market, on the western edge where the food stands end and low tents sell goodies, antiques and handmade knickknacks like Tijuana.

I spend a few minutes haggling with a South American woman over the price of a plain, ancient silver ring I have a powerful desire for. After a few moments of broken-English debate, we settle on the price and I slide the old thing onto my finger, enjoying the weight of it. Soon, we push on to another tent a few yards away were a stern-looking Arab sells sunglasses and jewelry. I examine a few pieces before moving on, only to be issued a sharp rebuke from the owner.

He looks down at his felt case and sees a ring missing. He sees the ring on my finger, which I am still toying with, and a look starts across his face that says he’s about to call me a thief, and maybe crack me in the skull with some wicked looking weapon he has stashed behind his table.

In a dark, ominous tone he points to my ring and says “You pay.”

“I already pay.” I respond, falling into that tragic habit of speaking incomplete English to someone who first address you that way, as if it will help his understanding. I point vigorously to the tent with the South American woman and explain that I already bought this damn thing and that maybe he should keep a closer eye on his merchandise.

He doesn’t seem to believe me and I’m becoming genuinely overcome with fear. Another Arab man — who I imagine is some kind of enforcer for greedy American punks trying to lift merchandise from the hardworking people of the market — appears and I suddenly imagine myself locked up by the local Polizei as I try in vain to explain that I didn’t steal, and that I detest such allegations. Emma and Kim materialize next to me and help ease the tension, insisting to the stern man that I didn’t take it.

He seems to believe them, or maybe he simply has a policy against disagreeing with young, pretty women who are potential customers. He waves distractedly, allowing me to sulk away to the next booth.

Deeper into the market the goods become less impressive. We’ve reached the outer edge, having long-since passed the point of no return. There are no tents now, just cheap plastic tables with bizarre collections of goods, some of which surely must be stolen.

A man with one leg and a face like the side of the Grand Canyon shows off his wide array of electronics. Cell phones of every kind, car batteries, clock radios and music boxes are just a few. I see fine speakers, a car stereo and what I am certain is some kind of toaster oven. I consider briefly accusing this man of thievery. I could really freak him out, wander over and demand he return my property.

“My car stereo!” I would screech like a banshee. “You hop-along little twerp, you didn’t think I’d come looking for you because of your sorry state, eh? Well I know that’s my damn radio, and I’ll have it back before you shill it to some passing tourist for 10 Euro. Hand it over before I have the Polizei come down here and break your fingers!”

But no. Such pranks are irresponsible in a foreign country no matter how certain I am that this bizarre, obviously pilfered collection is less than admirably gained I must admit with some reluctance the balls that it takes to sell it in the open street.

I see knives, too. One, a big, silver, gleaming thing with a CCCP engraving makes me want to gut one of those massive fish in the booths far behind us, just to test the quality of the blade. It is a brilliantly clean piece of metal in a high-quality, tan, leather holster.

“Russian” the woman who owns the knife says to me. “Russian. You like?”

“No, I no like Russians,” I say, forgetting that she probably doesn’t really get sarcasm coming from an English speaker.

I find an Iron Cross, dated 1939 and I nearly buy it, but I can’t quiet reconcile the strange look she gives me when I handle the thing as I consider it. I inspect it in the sunlight, admiring the age and history of the trinket, but I can feel eyes on me and suddenly I imagine airport security rifling through may bags upon seeing the little guy winking at them on the XRay Machine.

“Search this Nazi fuckers bag,” they say, in stern, foreign voices. “Filthy racist swine, coming into our country just to bring memories of Adolf and his little war back to the U.S. to sully our fine name. Cavity search the owner of this bag, make him suffer.”

I don’t buy it. I set it back down on the table, next to some chipped tea pots and an ancient looking China set. I try to ignore the other little trinkets daring me to whip out my money. Among them: a blade engraved to an “M.H. Peloe. In Service to the Royal Navy, 1902.” There’s a long, steel cane with a handle made from animal bone and another with a broken compass on the grip.

I spot a typewriter and nearly demolish several people making a beeline for it. A fine piece of essential equipment, I think to myself. It looks like it could handle being dropped out of an airplane — hulking out of a massive black box. I touch the keys gently, mentally calculating the weight of it, and wandering if I have the moxy to buy it can carry the brute all the way home. Then I notice that it is a German typewriter, and I light a cigarette and curse at no one in particular.

The girls are rifling through piles of clothes in a thick crowd of women like shoppers on Black Friday. Two Arab women pile four or five tables with random clothes like an outdoor Goodwill. They are cheap rags but relatively clean. Passers dig through the pile of cloth, occasionally holding something up to the light or pressing it against their figures to determine proper size.

I stand and watch them for several minutes as one of them refuses to pay more than 4 Euro for a black tank top with frills. Money is exchanged and they meet my eyes, jerking their heads to the side indicating I should step to the side of the street with them and out of this mad crowd and the hot sun.

We cross the street, leaving the crowded market behind and work our way into an antique bookstore where I contemplate for several minutes inquiring about an old copy of Mien Kampf.

Then, I remember that the man who owns this bookstore probably won’t enjoy my fascination with that part of his history, and the image of airport security explodes into my head again.

No historical paraphernalia. Not today.