• It’s not a good idea to hold readings on Academy Awards night.

• You can never have too many earplugs in your bags.

• People who phone in to listener phone-in shows are invariably nuts, but the show’s producers always say, “No, we always get really nice, smart callers on our show,” and are so shocked when only whack-jobs call.

• People will walk up to you with an X-ray of their skull and say, “I don’t have a brain. See? Here’s my evidence.” And it turns out they really don’t have one. It happens, apparently … instead of brains they have a thin tissue lining their skull’s interior that is, it would seem, all one really needs to get along in the world.

• Try to memorize your interviewer’s name. Don’t write it down on a sheet of paper and refer to it. I did this once at an AM radio station in Ottawa during an early morning interview (which I shouldn’t have done in the first place), and the interviewer was so insulted that he’s made a career out of telling people about that one dumb interview in 1991, still, nearly a decade and a half later. Remember: one interview you don’t even remember can become the pivotal anecdote in a stranger’s life.

• Germans refuse to stand in line for anything, and if you tell them to line up at, say, a book signing, they start taunting you and calling you a fascist. This is true. Ask any author who’s ever read there.

• Europeans ask the rudest questions, with bad punctuation and grammar (“Douglas, what do you think if I say to you, that you be the failure of the universe?”) When you tell them they’re being rude, they play dumb.

• The factory that made Tums mints in St. Louis was kitty-corner from the world’s biggest, Barton-Finkiest hotel with half-mile-long hallways, and it also sold Red Skelton clown paintings in the lobby.

German Language Tour Diary from 2001

Hamburg Day One

I went to feed the ducks and birds on the Alster lake just off the Kennedybrücke. None of them came, but when I took a Polaroid, the flashbulb attracted them as if it were bread. I used to think that the future was California, but now I think the future is Germany.

Lots of press and not much time to walk around.

European book tours are so odd because they happen so many years after you write THE END on a manuscript. In one sense your book is so totally in the past that you find yourself going crazy having to discuss it. But then at the same time you have a distance that can also more clearly illuminate the motive behind the work. North American critics always assume fiction is thinly veiled biography. Europeans don’t do this. Americans ask, “What does this book tell us about the REAL Douglas Coupland?” In Europe they ask, “What does this book tell us about the world?” Either way, I am so sick of discussing myself, and I truly believe that answering too many questions over and over damages the soul.

I can see myself beginning to be obsessed with European TV towers. I wonder if Bernt and Hilla Becher have done a morphological study of them. Hamburg’s TV Tower has a bungee-jumping gangplank. If it weren’t so cold out, I’d be jumping in a flash. I love heights. Totems TV towers embody most everything about the 20th century that became archaic barely a year into the 21st. Little teeny cell towers won out in the end. I got into a discussion with a reporter about the future of Moscow’s Ostankino tower, and how, after its huge fire, it’s a useless piece of junk — yet at the same time, if it were torn down, the psychic damage to the Russians would be greater than if it were left alone. So it’s a Modernist ruin.

In Hamburg, they did one of those groovy/cool/hipster nightclub readings that everyone thinks is so hip, but they’re not, because everyone’s plastered and going to the bathroom all the time. They were doing construction on the other side of the stage walls — hammers and drills — and it was so bad it was good. I used to get stressed out when this kind of thing happened. Now I’m tranquil.

Hamburg Day Two

The letters Y and Z are reversed on German keyboards in relation to those in North America. Z is simply a more popular letter here. Still trying to find the @ symbol on the keyboard.

I found this great store that sells archival copies of German magazines from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and I went berserk on a buying spree. It’s so hard to find this kind of stuff in Canada, and the Germans are almost as bad as the Japanese when it comes to preserving their mid-20th century Pop legacy. I also found this street that sold mid-20th-century items, but it was closed, and then I realized I was the only person on the street neither selling nor buying drugs. It was a really cracky neighborhood.

Had an art opening at the Schauspielhaus and a good crowd showed up. This TV reporter asked me if I thought it was a bad thing that people were standing in front of the art, making it harder to see. The Germans are so Sprockets.

Cologne

The Rhine is flooding, and all I can think of is that time back in the 1970’s when a Swiss Sandoz factory burned down and they said the Rhine would be dead for the next 10 years. Is it still dead? Do fish live in the Rhine? I notice that the birds kind of avoid it, but maybe they’re picky cosmopolitan birds.

The sound system in the reading at the Museum Ludwig was so good, I got paranoid and wondered if it could read my mind as well as my voice.

I met Nick Hornby in the hotel lobby. His flight was canceled and so he had to kill the afternoon at the hotel, which is the most boring thing that can happen to you on a tour, so I commiserated. His new book is coming out in May. I think its title is, “How to Be Good.” His publisher told him he’ll sell thousands of copies unintentionally to people who’ll think it’s a self-help book, especially in the U.S. We then tried to think up names for novels that would sell thousands of copies based purely on the name. My best idea was, “Lose Weight Fast With Pictures of Kittens.”

Speaking of weight loss, I’m melting away the pounds on the Book Tour Diet, which is basically never getting enough to eat because interviews run long or there are too many people at the table making you talk, so that you can’t eat. Or back at the hotel in Hamburg, where the food was so absurdly overwrought and fancy, when all I wanted was a schnitzel. Anna from the publishing company says that any restaurant in Germany can whip up a schnitzel if you ask. I am going to hold her to this promise.

Found the world’s worst Internet café here. It had Russian computer equipment (whoa!). It was like 1992.

Berlin

I finally found out how to make an @ symbol on German computers.

There is a convention of people from the Copeland MEBM company at the hotel — different spelling from my name, but when the publisher ordered coffee to the press interview room, they accidentally ordered 400 coffees to the ballroom.

It was snowing, so it felt like last year.

I walked down to Checkpoint Charlie around the corner and started to cry because it made me remember how badly the Cold War messed me up, and I remember my parents’ faces when the Wall came down. They have beautiful Thomas Struth photos there … one of an East German border guard on one side, and an American guard on the other.

Did a lot of press, and the reading at the Roter Salon went well. It was an old socialist-designed theater, so the proportions were off-kilter to the capitalist sense of space — whatever that is.

Berlin Day 2

Went with a reporter to the Volkswagen showroom on Prinzenstrasse. Saw the new VW van prototype. I’m in love. We ate cabbage soup and it reminded me of that crazy-awful summer I had in 1980 working at the Daimler-Benz factory in Sindelfingen outside Stuttgart. Every day they served cabbage soup in the canteen. If I had any romantic Kraftwerk illusions about factory life, Daimler-Benz killed them for me.

Afterward we took a bus ride through East Berlin. I wanted to find old books and magazines, but there weren’t any, and in the end we went into this staggeringly depressing secondhand store off the Alexanderplatz, with what had to be the saddest, most depressing and ugly things I’ve ever seen for sale. And then in the basement at the end of the rack there was this T-shirt that said, “Official Shirt of Team Generation X” and I had an out-of-body experience, like when I was a Jeopardy! question.

Afterward, across the street waiting for the bus, I saw that the store is where the music store used to be — the one where I bought R.E.M.’s “Monster” album back in 1994 — the one I wrote about in “Polaroids from the Dead.”

Circles Within Circles Within Circles

The gold windows of the Palast der Republik have been smashed and spray-painted with graffiti. It’s beautiful in that ugly way. And the fact that it’s riddled with asbestos is such a good metaphor for life under oppression.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt reminds me of Chicago in that it doesn’t feel so much like a city as it does a business-class airline magazine folded up into three dimensions. It’s like that 1980’s song “Lawyers in Love,” by Jackson Browne. It was very hard to connect with the city.

We didn’t do a sound check before the reading event, and boy, did we pay the price. I had to wear this Madonna headset that turned everything I said into Darth Vader’s voice. The people in the audience knew it was a disaster, I knew it was a disaster, yet we all kept on going and it became a bonding experience in a way.

Munich

I was in a strange headspace all day because yet again I was flashing onto all of my horrible memories of summer 1980, the last months of which I spent in Munich after I bleached my hair and chopped half of it off with a Swiss Army knife. It was the final days of punk, and you could still do things like that, except that in 1980 Munich was still trapped in a disco time warp, and punk was nonexistent. But in September I went to art school, and all was well in the end.

Visited this traditional German clothing store called Eduard Kettner — all of this great loden green stuff made of boiled wool. It’s the most beautiful color in the world. Except Kettner’s has changed their clothes into an Eddie Bauer-clone style, so it’s not unique any more. Why did they do that? Globalization?

German women are really bizarre when it comes to walking on the street and standing in lineups, and I don’t know what it’s all about. If you pass them when they’re walking on the sidewalk, they make funny hissing noises at you, and if you’re standing in line at McDonald’s or anywhere else, they turn around and make you take their spot, but there are these nasty looks on their faces. I wouldn’t have mentioned this except it’s happened twice a day during this entire trip and I just can’t figure out what’s the deal.

The Muffathalle event was terrific, and I think people are happiest when I just sit on a stage and talk. I think they don’t mind reading, but talking seems to be best.

Vienna

The German train system is serving only a limited menu this month: “The Foods of Regione Emilia-Romagna,” which is all fine and well, except the only edible thing is the lasagna, and I’ve had it eight times this week and it’s driving me nuts. Out of desperation for something new I ordered the Porchetta, which I was informed was a traditional German dish — MISTAKE! It arrived at the table resembling a science experiment. It was like one of Damien Hirst’s cut-up animals in a glass vitrine. I had to cover it with a plate so I wasn’t reminded of dissecting fetal pigs in high school biology class.

We stayed in Vienna’s Fawlty Towers equivalent, The Hotel Regina. Everything was time-locked in 1901, and the staff was the rudest and most hostile I’ve ever dealt with. For no reason, and when I asked the people at the reading event what that was about, they all cheerfully said, “That’s just the way we are in Vienna!” [Note: I actually ended up using the hotel in my 2004 novel, “Eleanor Rigby.”]

The literary festival’s theme was money, so I talked about money for a half hour, and again. The big surprise-hit statement of the night was, “It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak tonight here in Vienna, the place where the subconscious was invented.” There was this big, “Ooooohhhhhh…” in the audience and then I said, “Excuse me, it’s a pleasure to be here in the city where the subconscious was discovered.” It is my personal belief that the subconscious is a lot like Antarctica. People only started going there in the early 20th century. It’s very difficult and expensive to make the journey, and even if you get there, you might not find anything interesting or helpful to you.

I stayed up all night to catch the 6:50 flight to Frankfurt, and walked through Vienna alone for a few hours, and it was like walking through a senior citizen’s subconscious. All the people were asleep and the cars were all gone and it was a dream.

Australian Tour Diary from 2005

Day 01

At a dinner many years back with Tyler Brule, we tried to figure out which airline and which flight would be the best ones to have drag queens as flight attendants. The answer was Qantas, Sydney/LA — and here I am on this very same flight with nary a bitter shriek, a half-drained martini glass or a tinsel wig in evidence.

* * *

It’s nice to visit Australia. After decades of watching backpacked, homesick Aussies milling about European train stations, I now get to see them on their home turf. Australian friends have told me that as a culture, Australians on their home turf enjoy “taking the piss out of people.” What will a culture of piss removal be like? Granted, I’ve been to Australia before, but for reasons I won’t go into, I don’t remember too much of it. My perceptions of this trip will be essentially dewy fresh.

* * *

Let’s get it perfectly clear right from the start: there is no way to fly to Australia without feeling as though you’re part of a science experiment. Time shrinks and expands according to an inscrutable equation. Passengers are asked to view a video entitled “Deep Vein Thrombosis” so that the 14-hour flight won’t kill them. An equator is crossed, and for those wishing to know what direction toilets flush when passing the equator in a 747-400, the answer is that everything gets sucked out of the plane directly downward with the force of 10 gravities. Thus, the mystery of clockwise/counterclockwise flushing will require a hotel toilet to achieve resolution.

* * *

Quick question: what is the very best thing about flying in a Qantas business-class seat? Yes, that’s correct — a personal A/C electrical outlet — my lifelong dream, and there it is. Finally airlines have heard my prayers. But as with any answered prayer, there is a dark side: 14 hours of Klondike Solitaire can leave your left hand feeling like a crab’s claw.

* * *

Just checked into hotel. The flushing system is vertical with no cyclone. The mystery continues.

* * *

Killer view of the harbor and Opera House, but the noise! There’s an elevated freeway 27 floors below and it might as well be two floors below.

Australia, Day 002

The hotel engineering staff fixed my noise-leaking windows that overlook my almost cartoonishly scenic view. The view almost looks fake, like on TV shows like “The Facts of Life Goes to Paris.” My room is a perfect, hermetically sealed bubble, which is just the way rooms ought to be. As an added bonus, it’s one of those hotels where everything, curtains included, is push-button. I am a rock. I am an island.

* * *

An astonishingly windy day. A group of school kids were pretending they were flying like Batman at the bottom of Macquarie Street.

Drove through the older part of town with a friend’s five-month-old chocolate lab on my lap, one of the happiest experiences life has to offer. Hugo.

The Canadian and Australian dollars are exactly equal, so shopping doesn’t feel foreign. Gas is $1.16 a liter.

* * *

As I go to sleep at 4 a.m. in Vancouver, here I go to sleep at a virtuous 10 p.m. I wonder how long my newfound virtue will last.

* * *

Have had some glorious walks, but 20 percent of my brain is always contemplating how much safer the Southern Hemisphere is in the event of airborne radioactive events.

* * *

Fashion note: not one single person here is wearing shorts. Nobody. It’s winter.

* * *

I had a bath but forgot to notice which way the drain emptied, so the clockwise/anticlockwise saga continues.

* * *

The Sydney Opera House is much smaller than one might think, and is a collection of buildings, not just the one. It took six years to build? Come on.

* * *

Visited with an architect friend doing a $6 million residence, except the people paying for it don’t collect art. What a waste. I mean what’s the point of being rich if you don’t collect art? Even people who make money from trash TV shows collect art. So …

* * *

Everyone in Sydney looks gay.

* * *

I wish I had one experience that became a haiku for the entire day, but I don’t. But being in this city makes me feel like a car just emerging from a rigorous carwash. Being here makes me feel good about the future.


Australia, Day 003

It’s toasty warm outside, yet everybody here is camping it up as if it’s deepest winter. Not just the absence of shorts as I noted yesterday — people here are wearing parkas and layers of sweaters. It is a society under an Antarctic siege. Or so one would be led to believe.

* * *

Saw a flock of sulfur-crested cockatoos in a jacaranda tree. It was so exotic and unexpected, as if I’d looked up into a tree and seen J-Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow bobbing their heads and foraging for nuts and berries.

* * *

I visited a hardware superstore, Bunning’s. It’s near the airport and the entire area there feels like the neighborhood around LAX, but there’s no graffiti here. None. I asked someone and they said, “Oh, graffiti’s over.” So I guess it is. I like visiting hardware stores in whatever country I visit. A hardware store is a comforting place, and all those raw materials give me all kinds of new ideas. And I’ve never seen a country with so many different types and colors of spray paints, which is weird, as they don’t do graffiti or tag here any more. I bought a few things, but they don’t use plastic bags in a lot of stores here now, as a way of reducing litter and landfill. Such a good idea. I hate white plastic bags. I look at them and all I see is the end of culture.

* * *

I think driving around Sydney feels the same way it feels for people driving around Vancouver for the first time. The same topography and the same kinds of roadways. And it’s all so clean. I had a three-minute bout of extreme homesickness and then it passed. That’s something about getting older I never expected, homesickness. I thought it left you forever once you passed 20, like zits. But no. I can barely even think about most parts of Europe now, let alone go there. I was so damaged by homesickness and loneliness in my 20’s and 30’s. I’m writing a short story right now called “Never Go to Europe Alone.” It’s good advice.

* * *

There’s a severe drought here that’s been going on for two years. Global warming, what else. And I’m told the summers are more humid than they once were. I remember in the 1990’s how some people were always trying to pretend global warming wasn’t happening and how it was a scam cooked up by alarmist think tanks. But now whenever you hear about yet another record-breaking heat wave or temperature, the room goes a bit quiet and everyone dies inside just a bit more. I think it’s all going to be truly ghastly by 2010.

* * *

Sydney seems to be the best parts of London, California and Canada all nested together. Hardly an original observation. But to look at the architecture here, I get the impression that after the 1970’s the country began to reject mother England and truly switched to American and continental European ways of doing things.

* * *

Met some Americans on the rooftop lounge. They were so gullible. We got to discussing how pretty Australian banknotes are, and I told them that Camilla Parker-Bowles-Windsor is already on the Canadian five-dollar bill.

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. Not only that, but it’s the first bank note in history to ever depict a person smoking a cigarette.”

“Really?”

But it does raise a very good question … WILL she be on the money? Sorry, but that’s where a lot of people may draw the line.

Australia, Day 004

Australians call the pound symbol on the telephone keyboard a “hash sign.” They seem to have a local word for just about everything, so I’m not going to fight it. Today I had to fly from Sydney to Melbourne, and on the way to Sydney’s airport there was some roadwork happening. Beside it there was a bored-looking woman in a safety vest and she was dawdling about with her SLOW/STOP paddle sign. The driver said to me, “Don’t those lollypop ladies take their bloody time or what?”

I thought I was being set up here. “Lollypop lady? Huh? What’s a lollypop lady? Did you just make that word up?”

“No, that’s what we call them here.”

I said, “Sir, every time you use that term to describe these hardworking roadside workers, you demean them.”

“Well then what do you call them?”

“The correct term, sir, is ‘flag hag.’”

* * *

The antipode of Sydney is the Azores.

* * *

I saw a kookaburra in a Canary Island date palm outside the Deutschebank tower. It’s a kingfisher! The bird life here is so amazing. I mentioned this to the guy beside me on the flight to Melbourne. He told me a ribald Aussie joke:

Q: What do you do if a bird craps on your window?

A: You don’t take her out again.

* * *

Here’s something weird: one in five Australian male children aged five to nine have asthma. Even if you factor in over-reporting of the condition, it’s quite an amazing number. Scientists have been working on it for decades, and what seems to be emerging now is that swimming-pool chlorine in tandem with the over-prescribing of antibiotics among pre-pubescents is the cause. Odd, as these were both socially liberalizing forces in their day.

* * *

Melbourne is just the sort of Southern Hemisphere dream city humanity will build itself after the Northern Hemisphere has died a slow radioactive death — glassy and sleek and progressive, with good botanical plantings and fresh air blasting in from all sides.

My hotel, unfortunately, is not a part of that dream. It’s a frumpy old grande-dame dump, and every commonwealth city with a population over 300,000 has one. No names mentioned. I suspect the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had a failed three-way with an aboriginal here during the 1956 Olympics, and it’s been downhill ever since. The hotel is like one of those movies where there’s a ghost cruiser line crossing the Atlantic during the Second World War. Attractive yet implicit in its essence is upper and lower class, and it’s ugly and mean.

* * *

I might also add “no high-speed internet connection” to ugly and mean, so I moved to a glass tower where everything works, and there are no hissing monarchical ghosts urging you to do things with your private parts that make you feel uncomfortable.


Australia, Day 005

I knew there was something superior and amazing about Australian culture, and now I know what it is — they’ve gotten rid of pennies — finally a country with enough guts to end the madness that is copper change. Not only this, but their five-cent piece is soon to be toast as well. As an added bonus, there’s also no sales tax, so whenever you get change, it’s always a large denomination coin or paper money, and you feel like you’re buying stuff at a lemonade stand. It all adds up to “Better Living Through Rejection of the Past.”

* * *

Gas is now $1.27 a liter here, an 11-cent jump in four days. I got it into my head that the air down here smells cleaner because it more closely approximates preindustrial carbon levels, but that’s just nonsense. Carbon levels are the same everywhere.

* * *

There’s a local politician here they call Mr. Windows because no matter what question you ask him, all he ever says is, “We’ll look into it.” Australians really hate politicians. For someone to enter politics down here is a brave thing to do. You’ll only be trashed and despised in the end.

* * *

The state of New South Wales uses British signage on their roads, but the state of Victoria uses American signage. This only blurs the never-ending California/England sensation of the place. If Melbourne has a twin, it’s San Francisco.

* * *

It rained today and I realize I haven’t seen rain anywhere in months, which made me homesick for Vancouver and homesick for the 1970’s, back when it still rained regularly. I’m wondering if my homesickness isn’t me being sick to be home, but instead it’s that I’m sick of what the world has become and sick of the way the world is going. I’m sick that people deny what’s wrong with our skies. I’m sick of pretending what’s happening isn’t happening. We did nothing to deserve this world and yet it was given to us and we’ve done nothing to honor this gift.

Tonight we walked out to the end of St. Kilda’s pier, and for the first time I felt like I was truly on the other side of the planet. The gannets and gulls and seabirds were snoring, and the nearly full moon mixed with Antarctic clouds tamed only slightly by Tasmania, and the sky was glazed with a color I’d never seen before — cold and white and very much indifferent to mankind. And then I thought of Antarctica and the sense of vertigo that comes from being so close to the edge of nothingness. And then Louise asked me if the sky looked different down here and I said yes, and then I asked how she was able to read my mind. She said that sooner or later everybody down here looks at the sky and realizes that they’ve come to a place that’s truly different. Sure, there are a lot of similarities down here, but somehow, in the end, the differences always win out.