Friday, July 26, 2013

A Foreign Affair

Tom Waits in concert 1976

A friend cornered me during a social event the night before last, breathlessly relating yet another tale of a bar boy who had become the love of his life. As he's quite the butterfly while on the road I had to ask (to his chagrin) which of his rented admirers this might have been.

To be clear: I have no problem whatsoever with people who are primarily sex tourists - whatever floats your long boat, I say. As long as they show their rented admirers some respect and treat them as they'd themselves wish to be treated, what's the problem with being a participant in the transactions of the World's Oldest Profession? My grandfather used to say "as long as you don't do it in the streets and scare the horses", and that's probably as handy a measure to use as any. But I've already veered off topic, so let's return to my friend's new love.

I've known him for at least 20 years, and while he's a good-hearted person overall he's a strongly opinionated, my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. The closest I've ever come to coming out on top in a debate is to agree to disagree about the topic at hand; the best one can hope for when talking with someone who has more immovable opinions than Thailand has motor scooters. As usual, I simply smiled, said "good for you" and wished him luck. I suggested he keep his emotional guard up and keep his options open.  Hearing him speak two breaths later of soon getting back to the clubs in Bangkok I'm guessing that's precisely what he's going to do!

The overwhelming majority of stories I hear from people who are on the prowl while on holiday are more firmly footed in the land of the short term (or butterfly) relationships. I know a few U.S./Thai couples who are sharing life across an ocean between visits, but they're part of an extremely small percentage of couples I've seen made it work. Most I know are happy with a loosely-bound coupling, if they even consider anything more than casual hook-ups.

If you're single and far from home - unless you're joined at the hip traveling with someone - you have the opportunity to savor the moment when the thought comes to you that you're a stranger in a strange land, and, for at least that moment, nobody knows you and nobody that does know you has any idea where you are.  That idea terrifies one person I know, but I find it usually makes me feel pleasantly giddy.  Granted, you have to suspend your fears for a bit, but your odds of being harmed while walking down a country road in Isaan are certainly no higher than they are in your own neighborhood back home.

So... what the hell does any of this have to do with the "Foreign Affairs" title or the photo up top today? Since you've stayed with me this far I suppose you deserve an explanation, so, as convoluted as it is, here's the Reader's Digest version:

I became a fan of Tom Waits back in the early 1970s. The man's own singing voice can set off nearby car alarms if I'm playing his recordings at much of a volume, but he's a songwriter (and more importantly a storyteller) who can paint a picture with his lyrics that can move me like few others can. How can one not appreciate a song about leaving someone without saying goodbye that begins "I will leave behind all of my clothes I wore when I was with you", or lines like "the rain sounds like a round of applause" or "how can you close your eyes and say good night, and go to sleep without me"?

I've seen Waits perform, but I've only had the opportunity to get proper pictures of him on stage one time - in November 1976 - and one of those photos is the lead picture today.

While I'm out wandering about in Thailand the tune and lyrics to his song "A Foreign Affair" often come to my mind, for some reason. Maybe it's inspired by that "nobody knows where I am" thing, but often it's while observing other people visiting the same place.

I'm posting the lyrics below, and below them are audio and YouTube links to an Asian guy playing and singing a credible version of the song... certainly as good as what I sing to myself while walking. For those of you willing to try Waits' original version it's at the very end of today's post.

A Foreign Affair

When traveling abroad in the continental style 
It's my belief one must attempt to be discreet 
And subsequently bear in mind your transient position 
Allows you a perspective that's unique 

And though you'll find your itinerary's a blessing and a curse 
Your wanderlust won't let you settle down 
And you'll wonder how you ever fathomed that you'd be content 
To stay within the city limits of a small Midwestern town 

Most vagabonds I knowed don't ever want to find the culprit 
That remains the object of their long relentless quest 
The obsession's in the chasing and not the apprehending 
The pursuit, you see, and never the arrest 

Without fear of contradiction "bon voyage" is always hollered 
In conjunction with a handkerchief from shore 
By a girl who drives a rambler and furthermore 
Is overly concerned that she won't see him anymore 

Planes and trains and boats and buses 
Characteristically evoke a common attitude of blue 
Unless you have a suitcase and a ticket and a passport 
And the cargo that they're carrying is you 

A foreign affair juxtaposed with a stateside 
And domestically approved romantic fancy 
Is mysteriously attractive due to circumstances knowing 
It will only be parlayed into a memory

The Tom Waits version. You've been warned... his style easily qualifies as "an acquired taste".

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