Thursday, October 16, 2003

Since I find it difficult to do any actual work with tonight's (or tomorrow morning's) Game 7 looming in such a foreboding fashion, I took to reading this Slate diary about Seth Stevenson's Japan adventure. It's quite funny. No, it's really, really funny.

As I have argued before on this blog, there are traditionally two jokes in America that never stop being funny. Anything involving a) cops in donut shops -- face it, always funny -- and b) French people, especially if the French person in question is wearing a beret and hopping along with a baguette over his shoulder singing, "Alouette, gentille Alouette." Funny, funny.

But wait. The French are no longer funny. Today they're the enemy. So I therefore nominate the Japanese as a replacement in the always-funny nationality category.

Tell me, was not one of the truly redeeming scenes in Kill Bill that Japanese tea room sequence, in which the sword master yells things in violent-sounding Japanese to his friend about getting the tea?

It reminded me of a wordy 8,000-word travelogue I wrote of my adventure zig-zagging across the Balkans by train, from Turkey to Prague, starting on Sept. 18, 2001. I met a very special Japanese man named Hoshino on this trip. I've posted some excepts of the travelogue here.

This is me crossing the border between Turkey and Bulgaria:

I am convinced that one day somebody should write a horror story that involves Eastern European train stations. Like about some guy that wakes up in the middle of the night and doesn't know where he is, the train is stopped at some abandoned border junction, the entire wagon is deserted and all the passport controllers are phantoms or zombies who say things you don't understand in a threatening or ominous way, and everything's written in Cyrillic.

I shared the ride with a shy Japanese guy who barely spoke English, but made a good effort. He was nice. I never learned his name. It seems wherever you go, there's always that sole Japanese male traveler.

The train was loud and rocked back and forth pretty hard, and we left the window cracked open in case some bandits tried to pump poison gas into the cabin, which is what you always hear about. At some point (in Bulgaria or Turkey, I'm not sure) a horrendous industrial-strength smell came into the cabin. I wondered if it was the sleeping gas. I would have closed the window but I wanted to air out the cabin -- still, the smell kept getting worse and worse. It was almost unbearable, yet there was no escaping it. It was smelled like a cross between industrial sulfur, rotting food, and something that had been dead for two weeks. The stench was truly horrendous.
Eventually the smell went away. That guy wasn't Hoshino, but for some reason I wanted to share the part about that awful smell. Plus, that guy foreshadowed Hoshino's appearance. He was the proto-Hoshino.

About a week later, while attempting to cross the Romanian-Yugoslav border by taking the local train from Timisoara to Jimbolia (a small town on the Romanian side of the border) I met the real Hoshino.

So I boarded the train to Jimbolia, and there, while sitting across from yet another smiling peasant type woman, I first saw Hoshino. He stood near the door reading an outdated copy of my very same Lonely Planet Eastern Europe guide. I tried waving a few times to him so I could hold up my own newer copy of the same book. He didn't notice. Finally I went down to the door and said, "Excuse me, I have the same book" and the look on his face was one of surprise and relief. He was Japanese -- yes, funny, it's always the lonesome Japanese guy traveling on his own -- and had some odd obsession with tennis. When I told him I was from the USA he immediately whipped out his "World Of Tennis" book and showed me that the top Boys Tennis champion in the world was in fact American. This of course made me proud of our fine country. I think he must have been the only foreigner on the trip that didn't want to ask me vague questions about the WTC attacks, in fact, so talking about the boys tennis champion was fine. He didn't know Hana's sister but he seemed to know everything else about tennis. He was traveling around Eastern Europe watching various tournaments. Hours and hours later I figured out that he was in fact a sports journalist.

Hoshino was 42 and prone to sudden unexpected exaggerated laughs and Japanese style "Ahh!" Like the other lonesome Japanese guy I cabined with on the train to Sofia, Hoshino spoke very little English.

So there we were. I'd found the only other person in the world who was crazy enough to try to cross the border in the same way I was, on this local train.

When we got off at Jimbolia, Romanian border guards immediately accosted us and demanded our passports. They told us to wait in the fly-infested waiting room for four four hours until the next train came. The head border guard spoke only Romanian and German, so we got by in mein halting Deutsche.

A lesser Romanian border guard sat right next to Hoshino on the fly-infested bench during the wait. He stared at him like he was some strange animal. After a minute Hoshino looked back and laughed loudly. They other guy didn't laugh back. I sat outside and read my Ghost Stories and clipped my nails, thinking how nice it was that I wasn't bored in the slightest. (Really, I wasn't.) Some locals threw chestnuts at me across the pavement platz fronting the train station. I took a picture of Hoshino. He pointed at the camera and said, "Made in Japan!"

Shortly after 6pm the train finally left for Kikinda, after numerous passport formalities. We'd made friends with the guards by then -- again the head guy wanting to know something about the WTC attacks, this time asking, in German, if my house in New York was hit. Hoshino presented them with origami swans.
Maybe one day I'll post other parts of the story. That's enough for now.

Hoshino and I eventually made it to Belgrade in the weirdest manner possible. On the Serbian side of the border, we again befriended a border guard ("You are from Japan. Chwhat are you doing in this part of the hworlld? Are you llost?") who sent us to Srenjadin in the back car of his colleague. His colleague found that all buses and trains had left and sent us to Belgrade in a taxi with a driver who listened to B.B. King.

Hoshino ended up spending the night with me in my friend's apartment in Belgrade. He left the next morning looking for a hostel. I didn't see him again.

On Jan. 3, 2002, I received the following email from Hoshino. I am not making any of this up. This is the email, cut-and-pasted, nothing changed.

SUBJECT: I`m Lituania President Hoshino !! SAMURAI


I'm Japanese Hoshino who is Backpacker around East Europe.

I travel around the Baltic states,specially,Kaliningrd & Lituania.Now,I came back Lituania which is my second country.

& I make myself Y.H worker.About 2 months stay with work in Y.H. If you have trip around Baltic,coming in!!

2002,very good start of beginning. Some good Drama'll be waiting me.How is miracle my Backpack trip in east Europe.

When I stayed in Kaliningrad Russia Region,I made the girl friend who is Russia beauty.It's dream of all Japanese.

from Hoshino who prof, or derector of Lituania. bye !! SAYOUNARA

Y.H is Old Town Y.H in vilunius Lituania.
Hoshino, wherever you are, bless you one hundred times. You are The Man, Hoshino!! SAMURAI.


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