by James McGirk
As I approach my fifteenth year living in the United States, I thought I ought peek under the hood and scrape some of the gunk off my filters to see how much distortion and prejudice has crept in between my ears. Marco Polo, patron saint of expatriate literature provides an excellent experimental model for doing so. Polo didn’t write his account of his 24-years exploring on behalf of the Kublai Kahn, Travels of Marco Polo; technically he dictated it to Rustichello de Pisa, three years after returning to Italy, while imprisoned in a Genoese prison.
Before Rustichello put his quill in Marco Polo’s inkwell, Polo just seemed like an old crank. One of those old traveler types who recounts ribald stories in exchange for food and drink; to his incredulous neighbors he was a merchant who had set out on an errand for a foreign sovereign and returned home twenty-four years later without much to show for it beyond some very strange stories. It wasn’t until he was captured by the Genoese and thrown in jail with a romance author were his stories documented and eventually published. The story goes that Marco Polo dictated his travels to Rustichello de Pisa out of sheer boredom. Although one does wonder whether the forced encounter between Polo and his amanuensis was entirely coincidental.
Even after dozens of folios and translations, Travels of Marco Polo retains the rolling rhythm of memories recounted out loud. Polo describes city after city, first outlining demographics and key economic details before meandering into anecdote. I thought I should go through the cities I had lived in the United States and, without doing any research whatsoever, I would describe the cities as if I were imprisoned in Genoa, and forced to affect Marco Polo’s style. I will begin my journey in Colorado as I did long ago:
The Mountain City of Boulder
Let me begin in the small mountain state of Colorado, in the city of Boulder, a city of some 60,000 souls laying approximately a day’s journey from the great aerodrome of Denver International Airport. Boulder is subject to the President of the United States of America, and its inhabitants worship myriad gods and goddesses, though most accept Jesus Christ as their lord. The city rests at the base of a great cliff, in the foothills the Rocky Mountains, the tallest and most forbidding of mountain ranges in the United States of America, though its highest peaks are dwarfed by the Himalayas.
You must know that the weather is harsh, Boulder’s winds are capable of swaying tall buildings and were said to be the strongest in the United States. During the winter months snow buried the city and during the summer monstrous thunder and lightning storms swept through the small town, but despite how strange and forbidding the weather was, Boulder was a prosperous town and considered a great center of learning.
There were two types of inhabitant. Perhaps half of the population were migrant; students, enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder studying arcane lore such as Kinesiology and Tibetan Buddhism; the other half preyed upon the students, selling fatty foods and alcoholic beverages or letting rooms at extortionate prices. (In recognition of their status as chattel, the students dined at lounge named after the Donner Party, a group of explorers who were caught in the snow and were gradually forced to cannibalize one another until the snows melted.) The animosity between the groups grew while I was there. After a day at the stadium watching football – a martial sport played by teams of heavily armored men who batter one another to capture an inflated pigskin – in unseasonably hot weather, I watched the students burn their belongings and chant obscene slogans at the local constabulary. Canisters of noxious gas and streams of water were fired into the crowd and the miscreants were quickly dispersed.
During the winter months, both the students and townspeople woke up freakishly early, climbed into large four-wheel drive cars and rode up into the mountains, where they fixed long, flat metal slicks to their feet and slid across the snow at frightening velocities, occasionally colliding into one another or trees and injuring themselves severely.
Besides the discoveries and scholarship produced at the great University, the inhabitants produced warm winter clothing in abundance, a peculiar red tea from the hibiscus flower called Red Zinger, and various ales with fanciful names and muddy tastes (weakened by law to a mere fraction of the potency found elsewhere in the United States) and unhealthy but satisfying food stuffs. The city had a great appetite for organic produce, cannabis, hallucinogenic mushrooms and brightly colored fabrics.
Though the city was bucolic and beautiful it had a sinister side. Deep woods surrounded the city and there was a large graveyard running through the middle of it. Mountain lion attacks were frequent and many perished when they fell drunkenly into the snow. The year before I arrived a child was snatched and slaughtered in her own home. The following year, in a nearby town, two schoolboys procured automatic rifles and explosives and killed 17 of their fellow students before committing suicide. I too felt very unhappy in the thin air and departed for the coast, struck mute by some psychological quirk.