I am not a Doors fan. This should be cleared up right
away. Sure, I own their greatest hitswho doesn't?-but
to call me a fan wouldn't be truthful. There was a moment
in my life, however, when the sound of those four hippies
from Los Angeles was the sweetest sound imaginable.
In May of 1997, I accompanied my paternal grandmother
to visit her sister in Kripp, a small town 25 kilometres
south of Bonn, Germany, on the Rhein river. I was filled
with a feeling that suggested both excitement and extreme
anxiety. This was my first trip to Europe and I eagerly
anticipated steeping myself in Continental sophisticationa
welcome respite from my North American suburbanite existence.
At the same time, I was still reeling from an alienating
and academically unsuccessful first year of university,
and the ultimately-justified worry that my then-girlfriend
would cheat on me while I was away.
Upon arrival, I was immediately confronted with a number
of unexpected consequences. First of all, my smattering
of high school German proved entirely useless. I could
ask for directions to the washroom or for another serving
of potato salad, but beyond that I was dependent upon
There were ways around the language barrier: first and
foremost avoidance. I did my best to avoid having to speak.
I became extremely adept at charades, working out trans-Atlantically-accepted
gestures for most situations. My Uncle Hans, a kind, but
bitter Socialist in his 70s, had a different approach;
if we weren't understanding each other, he would slow
down his speech and increase the volume, getting slower
and louder each time he repeated himself. Clearly his
method had its problems, but over time (i.e. the amount
of time it took for me to just start pretending I understood
him), it proved successful.
Another unexpected consequence was the amount of free
time I had. My plan to immerse myself in European culture
hit a setback when I realised my only real companions
were senior citizens who spent most of their time laughing
about jokes I didn't get. There were the occasional road
trips to local sights, but mostly we just hung around
at home and ate.
Given the food's quality and unusualness (white asparagus!),
the near-constant eating was okay, but I did get restless
after a few days. To fill in the mind-numbing boredom,
I took to reading and biking (radfahren).
The biking was good. It was about twenty kilometres
to Bonn, then the German capital. The route I took was
a seawall along the Rhine and it was a beautiful trip.
The Rhine valley would roll out for miles and there were
all sorts of peculiar German idiosyncracies on that hour-long
bike ride: the seaside beer gardens, the austere German
monuments and the starkness of the Bauhaus-styled Bundeshaus
(the German parliament).
I enjoyed riding along the Rhine. It was solitary, but
it cleared my head and I got to reflect on where my life
was at and how to put it past me. I had just completed
my first year at UBC and it had been a fairly spirit-crushing
endeavour. I'm one of those people that had a great experience
in high school and to this day my high school friends
remain some of my best friends. University for me was
something akin to prematurely slipping out of the womb.
I had no real desire to be at UBC, but familial pressure
and societal expectation assured that I would be attending.
It was a brutal experience, mired in alienation and confusion.
I began listening to the Smiths incessantly and Kerouac
fueled my dreams of escape. Serving as my grandmother's
sherpa on a trip to her sister's did not really constitute
Contributing to this malaise was the ever-worsening
condition of my relationship with Anne. Anne was my first
serious girlfriend and she was just finishing Grade twelve
when I left for Europe. She had been growing distant and
our trans-Atlantic phone calls were dispassionate and
frustrating. During one of these calls, she had the task
of informing me that she was going to be at an Eastern
university in the fall. I think I would have weaselled
out of relaying such a heartbreaking message over that
distance, but she approached it with a casual professionalism.
Of course, I would find out later that she had cheated
on me with some one from Kamloops, which probably contributed
a significant amount to her not-really-there vibe.
Bonn itself didn't have a lot going for it. It was pretty,
owing to the fact that it was one of the few cities in
that area of Germany to not be firebombed during the Second
World War. This didn't mean there was anything to do.
My cousin joked about B-O-N-N being a German acronym for
city without a nightlife, but I never really understood
On my days in town, I would eat food acquired by pointing
at menus and hit bookstores looking for English books,
which were always overpriced. I eventually took to reading
English-language newspapers like the European edition
of The Wall Street Journal and The European,
both of which were focused almost entirely on business
news. Ordinarily, I would have no appetite for stock tips
or CEO profiles, but under the circumstances, I was voracious
I started to go crazy. No more novels or financial news,
I thought to myself, I needed a more engaging medium-I
needed to hear English. To meet this formidable task,
I turned to the short wave radio in the bedroom I as staying
in. Scanning the airwaves, I heard a Russian news broadcast
(or at least what sounded, to my ear, like a Russian news
broadcast), an Italian radio drama, some German and a
bunch of static.
I remember thinking how odd it was that there were so
many disparate radio broadcasts in the air; that the city
was saturated in these floating transmissions. But my
philosophising on radio waves was cut short. Suddenly,
the radio became a linguistic conduit. The wordsthe
sonorous English wordscame humming to my ears.
"There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin' like a toad."
A wave of relief came over me.
"Take a long holiday
Let your children play."
Never had the voice of someone so dead sounded so alive.
"If ya give this man a ride
Sweet family will die
Killer on the road."
I was being led back to the confines of my comfortable
language and Jim Morrison was leading me by the hand.
"Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man"
What the fuck is he talking about? Who cares!
Finally, someone was giving me English and it wasn't a
reluctant German or a distracted girlfriend. It was Jim
fucking Morrison and he and I were loving it.
"Riders on the storm," he sang
"Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm"
Mother of Christ what a song. "Dog without a bone,"
"actor out on loan," what did it all mean? To this day
I haven't figured it out, but-incomprehensible as it may
be-that song got me through that day and through the rest
of my trip.
I don't know when I'll make it back to Germany. I'm
still at UBC, though now much more happily. With my grandmother's
death last year, however, I wished that I'd been a bit
more open to the experience of living without my mother
tongue. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all Jim
Morrison died living in Paris.
Myles McHugh got out of here alive.