Excerpt from Disco Sour
The Bavarian market was full of visitors. Wooden decorations and Swiss flags for sale. Small Santa Clauses riding reindeers with little elves, strictly made in Australia. The scent of sauerkraut was all over the place, but during the Revelation Festival, no traditional würsts were allowed, in order to observe the traditional forty days’ vegan detox before Christmas. I started sneezing, which was the first warning sign of a peculiar allergic reaction I’d developed to the song El Cóndor Pasa.
A generic Indios band was playing an awful flutes version of that famous Simon and Garfunkel tune. Whenever I heard that song, my white blood cells started producing a certain type of antibodies that sent histamine into the cells of my nose, throat, lungs, stomach, intestines, and skin. Usually the reaction was mild, but sometimes it went so far as to seriously itch around my ears and down my neck.
While digging through the rabbit hole of Disney® archives, I had discovered the song was not Simon and Garfunkel’s but an orchestral musical piece by a certain Daniel Alomía Robles from Peru, who was inspired by traditional Andean folk tunes to write it in nineteen thirteen. Simon and Garfunkel covered it on their Bridge over Troubled Water ℗1970 album, for the joy of global listeners, but didn’t mention Robles at all in the credits. The story became more intriguing when the composer’s son filed a copyright lawsuit against Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t imagine such kinds of lawsuits were even possible before the Privatisation Concordat, when trademarks became a compulsory part of our common language.
To get back to the song, though, it was only when Peru declared it part of its national cultural heritage fifty or sixty years ago that cover Indios bands became an invasive pandemic in public spaces around the world, from the Gallery Mall on Baltimore’s Waterfront to the MAC®, the Munich Airport Centre®, where I was waiting to catch my connecting flight to the P.A.R.I.S.
Now, I wondered, why not some Schläger?
I entered the nearest original equipment manufacturers’ showroom to look up at the Nokia® stand. By then I had already made up my mind that there were only two possibilities to explain my loss. Either I dropped my phone somewhere in between the bar and the hotel while drunk, or Janine’s doppelgänger took it. As I had no way to find that out, and the insurance option had failed, I’d better get a new one.
“Good afternoon, mister,” said a middle-aged clerk standing behind a sensorial screen. The showroom was white and spacious, with dozens of manufacturers’ stands. Above my head, a series of holograms displayed products that were not in stock but could have been purchased by travellers on connecting flights, and delivered immediately outside the cabin at the landing destination. I was optimistic.
“We have very special Revelation Festival offers. Check out our waterproof Christmas tree,” she said.
The clerk’s fluorescent green onesie hurt my eyes, along with the golden dragon and the little bird of the Sinhang® logo embroidered on his hat. On his yellow name tag, TERRY REINTKE was marked in violet capital fonts. Sinhang® used to be the biggest Chinese original equipment manufacturers’ retailer group. They had gradually taken over airport shopping malls by twenty thirty-two, though they went bankrupt two years later.
“Very special tree, recharges aquarium fish drones with a timer,” she continued, showing me a plastic tree with coloured LED lights under a pod of water, where three red fish drones swam.
“I need a Nokia® Morph®, Ms. Reintke,” I replied.
“I can give you a very good price for the tree,” she answered.
“I like the tree a lot, but I need a Morph®. Do you have one?” I asked, trying to be nice.
I missed my transparent Morph® so much, with its flexible, anti-scratch, bendable surface; its changing color, which adapted to my clothes and moods; and its micro-solar cells, charging even with the slightest solar power on a rainy day. But above all, I missed MySpacing, Instagramming, Grindring, Tindering, and Snapping.
“The trade quota applies for Morph®. Very, very expensive, so very few here,” she explained, pointing at the Nokia® stand. It was indeed one of the smallest in the showroom, displaying a couple of old Symbian™ and one Morph®, which I hoped to make mine.
“You can also buy a Galaxy™, or we even have the iPhone®,” she offered.
A Galaxy™ was out of the question, while the iPhone® sounded dubious. The truth is that I didn’t have a choice. After buying my first Morph®, I found it difficult to move on to products made by someone else without losing everything I had already paid for. They had designed the device to have desirable offers and features, not to mention switching costs that created consumer lock-in, but this hadn’t been due to a master plan. It wasn’t like when Nokia® rolled out a calculated product roadmap over a decade or two. Rather, they set a strategic target to be the digital hub for consumers. The rest came from a long series of experiments that had created the ecosystem I was trapped in.
“How much for that Morph®?” I asked.
“Twelve hundred Swiss Francs,” she replied. That was around fifteen hundred xEUs at the current exchange rate, which was a ridiculously high price. But still, I would have paid it.
“Are you Swiss?” she asked.
“No, I have a European passport,” I replied.
“Ah, then it will be very, very complicated to make a Swiss Morph® work for you. You need a Swiss passport for subscription. I can’t sell foreigners a subscription. Swiss Morphs® only work with a subscription,” she said. Terry Reintke seemed obsessed with the words ‘very’ and ‘subscription.’
“You can also buy a waterproof Christmas tree, no subscription. Very cheap,” she persisted. In the meantime, a micro-pump started to feed the fish from the top of the tree. The dried plankton made a snow-like effect against the vast panorama of the Swiss Alps painted on the background. I thanked him and left the showroom, subtly scratching my neck. I was done with Christmas trees, fish pods, Chinese retailers, traditional Bavarian style, Peruvian flutes, and airport malls.
I bought a beer and a Pretzel®, plugged my headphones into my PonoPlayer™, and went back to the terminal. The departure hall minimalism stood in stark contrast with the postmodern pastiche of the earlier Munich Airport Centre® mall. It was a stunning example of geometric purity, its freshness reminding me of a Bauhaus villa from ninety twenty-four. Every architectural detail was conceived to look banal at first glance, but a closer look revealed specific functions you wouldn’t have thought to look for. A black square in the wall was a free coffee machine; a seemingly normal travellator calibrated its speed according to the weight and the amount of people on it; the gates looked like a series of white, metallic cubes, but their walls were entirely covered in OLED™ displays.
I pressed play, and the full-length digital master of Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space ℗1997 Spiritualized® was diffused in surround sound. It was all incredibly fine, light, and real. Everything seemed to be in the right place, and even if something was wrong, all I had to do was just let go.
Real travel like this, as opposed to commuting, reminded me of when I first started taking long-distance trips alone on trains. I was fifteen or sixteen years old. Mobile phones were not a big thing yet. To call home during trips I would buy prepaid phone cards or coins. I even had a collection of used prepaid phone cards from all over the world because it was such a trendy thing to collect.
Trains had separate compartments back then, with a maximum of six people in each. And that was fun, because it was a point of examining the carriages to choose the kind of people I wanted to travel with. I especially liked foreign tourists; I could listen to them talk about faraway cities for hours. They would ask me questions, and I would give them tips on what to see during their trip.
The whole idea of traveling was tangible and physical. There even used to be night trains, a smart, simple concept: you jumped on a train in the evening only to wake up in a city on the other side of the continent the next morning. There were borders but no security scans at the stations. I felt it was the vanguard of the continent’s future: peaceful and united. On the top of this, it was just so practical, even more than planes, because you didn’t have to waste time during the day. If the trip was too long, there was a bed and even a restaurant car. For me, that was real traveling, and I loved it.
There was a specific smell, especially in the summer, oxidized iron mixed with dust and old wood. That was the smell of the rails, which pervaded the corridors and the toilets, in the rare case they were clean. The toilets’ flush was activated by a pedal, mechanically sliding open a lid and revealing a hole in the floor of train. I remember staring at the stones below, hypnotised, after taking a leak. It was kind of scary, too, like, a hole in the train, what could have jumped from it? Think about the remote chance you would be sitting there, while the train passes through a tunnel. I heard all sorts of crazy stories about strange creatures living in the cracks of the rails in the dark, ready to enter through the hole.
Once, my parents sent me with my little sister to spend a month with our grandmother in the South of France. School was out, my mum was busy with exams at university, and my father was traveling, as usual. It was hot as hell, there was no air conditioning in those old carriages, and the oxidized iron smell pierced the nose. To keep my sister calm, I told her about the scary creatures of the flush-hole before we made the trip. She was seven or eight years old, and she was excited to be on a train without our parents for the first time.
My mum was stressed out. On the platform she spoke to me, as she never did before, about my duty to bring my sister safe and sound to our destination. It was probably the first time I’d been assigned such a big responsibility, and I felt a huge pressure, the same kind that was slowly but constantly mounting to deliver that speech in Chile. But on the train with my sister, all I had to do was to keep watching her sitting beside me in the same train compartment.
There was a couple from New Zealand sitting in front of us, and in the middle of a conversation I don’t really remember, we passed through a tunnel. I turned my head to check on my sister, but she wasn’t there. In the same moment, I heard her screaming from down the corridor.
I ran towards her voice. She was locked in the restroom and couldn’t get out. When we were in the tunnel, she panicked over the creatures that might have been jumping from the flush-hole and tried to go out, but something was wrong with the lock. She kept on screaming, and I could not calm her down. After all, it was my fault she feared imaginary creatures from the flush-hole. Finally, a train attendant came to unlock the door, and she was released. She was pale, but she started to punch my legs and chest with all her strength.
When we arrived in Aix-en-Provence, she told my grandmother everything, and I was blamed for the rest of the summer for having told her the story of the flush-hole creatures. I was never allowed to take care of her alone again. It was useless to explain that I had told the story to keep her calm and quiet. It was the first, but not the last, time I was blamed for trying to get it right. Since then, failing to get something right became one of my biggest fears.
That was also the last time I spoke to tourists on a train at any given moment, and since then, traveling lost its mystical and sacred aura for me. It transformed into banal commuting. A large-scale, stressful, uncomfortable, and wearing commute.
As a political geographer, Giuseppe Porcaro has been interested in how the intersection between technology and politics is moving towards uncharted territories in the future. He has recently published a series of scientific articles about how the internet of things and algorithms will change policymaking. Disco Sour is his first experiment with fiction and was inspired by a mission to Chile he had in 2013. Back then, he was Secretary General of the European Youth Forum, the platform for youth organisations advocating for youth rights. And on his way to Santiago, he missed three connecting flights across two continents within the span of 72 hours. Giuseppe now works as the head of communications for Bruegel, an international think tank specialising in economic policy. During the rest of the time, he DJs, reads, dreams, writes. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.
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