Kodachrome memory of a first trip to Washington, DC. August, 1974. (That’s me on the left, and that’s the adoring entourage who used to follow me everywhere.)
We’re standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which looks out to the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument in the hazy background. Pandas were still a new fixture at the zoo, buses weren’t air conditioned, skirts were short, hair was long, and Nixon resigned as we packed our own bags to leave for home. By then, our feet were tired, we were hot to melting point, and we thought we’d really seen some history.
We weren’t wrong.
But history keeps marching along, in a sometimes dramatic form, and here I am back in DC again.
Watch this space for more photos, more sore feet, and certainly some history.
Everyone is talking about today’s solar eclipse. It’ll draw its dark line diagonally across the US today, but the inky darkness will bleed out across most of the country– even those of us who aren’t in the line of total eclipse. It’s been the big story for days now, leading a news cycle that has contained other chatter that included stories about North Korea and Russia: a big old stew of news that brought to mind two posts from a couple of years ago; posts about Moon Pies, Cold War, Russians, and North Korean politics. Strange bedfellows, maybe . . . maybe not.
Seemed an appropriate time to bring out that original post (Moon Pies and Moon Landings), as well as it’s follow up on the saga of Choco Pies in N. Korea. Happy reading, bon appetit, and Godspeed on eclipse day!
Moon Pies and Moon Landings (Modern History and the German Grocery Store)
I began writing this post under the title “The Perks and Perils of Shopping Abroad.” However, I soon realized that the insights you are about to read are much broader than my mishaps in the grocery aisles.
The larger story starts in the years after the Second World War. (Or even after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.) It gains steam in the Cold War and the Race for Space. However, the more immediate story starts in the aisles of my local German grocery store, Edeka. And like the larger story of political machinations, it’s fraught with perks and perils.
For example, it was recently brought to my attention that the lovely, fragrant German laundry detergent I’ve been using for about three months is actually fabric softener. Who knew? Well, in fact, I had suspected for a few weeks. My clothes were so fragrant and soft! But were they clean? Well . . . they weren’t not clean.
These things happen when you shop abroad.
But great things happen too. This morning, I was meandering the aisles of our grocery store, picking up jam, sorting through coffee, and pondering fish, when I stumbled upon the most amazing thing on an Eastern European/Russian shelf. Moon Pies! Well, okay, Choco-Pies–but they were Russian Moon Pies! Eureka! For all of you non-American (or non-Southern) folks out there, here’s a little lesson: Moon Pies are chocolate, graham, and marshmallow pies that are a Southern staple and made in Tennessee. Before the markets were flooded with snack cakes and convenience food, there was the Moon Pie. Apparently, they were produced beginning in the 1920’s and they were certainly big stuff in the sixties and seventies. (My mother loved to pack my lunch with Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, but my heart, and my taste buds, yearned for Moon Pies.) They were iconic. And delicious.
And here I was, in Germany, staring down a Russian doppelganger! At first I laughed, and then I greedily stuffed a box into my shopping cart! I considered my good fortune as I walked the streets of town, heading home with my grocery bag and its treasure. But as I walked, I started thinking about more than my good fortune. I started thinking about the doppelganger-ness of the little chocolate pie: the shadowy counterpart, the ghostly (and ominous) double. The American Pie/the Russian Pie: forever locked in a shadowy dance.
For sure, I’ve watched too many episodes of “The Americans,” the Cold War spy drama, lately. But my odd brain was playing out this Spy v. Spy (Pie v. Pie) drama and finding it fascinating.
By the time I got home, I was mad to know more. I ripped out the Choco Pie box and scanned the label for clues–amongst the Cyrillic (Russian) script and German sticker stood out something I could decipher. Original since 1974. Ha! It wasn’t the original then–we got there first. Not only did we get to the moon first*, but we got to the moon pie first. I chuckled as I opened the box and saw that the pies were smaller than their American counterpart. Well, what did I expect.
But then I took a bite. Oh my. I took another bite. They were delicious. So fresh, so chocolaty. I felt conflicted in my patriotic soul. There had to be an explanation for this; no way the shadowy double could rival the Southern staple. Think, think! (Take another bite.) Think some more! Oh–of course–the problem is that too many of the American Moon Pies I’ve eaten have been plucked from dusty lower shelves of rundown convenience stores or seedy Stuckey’s truck stops. Who knows how long they had lingered there, gathering dust and grime? That’s it. That must be it.
I was raised in the 70’s with a taste for Moon Pies and Tang. In my mind, that era will always be about playing kick the can, catching fire flies, eating Moon Pies, and drinking Tang like the astronauts. I remember some of the Apollo missions; I coveted the GI Joe astronaut dolls (Barbie never had the astronaut get up, although her house and pink convertible weren’t too shabby); and I marveled when Skylab sustained people and research in space.
I didn’t cheer on the Cold War or Nuclear Proliferation– they scared the hell out of me– but I was a product of a culture and a time. I didn’t know whether I was an observer or participant, but I felt the adrenaline of the Race. The Race for Hearts and Minds, the Race for Space, for Superiority, for Survival. And then I tucked my head down into a Moon Pie or Mad Magazine and took refuge from the noise of it all.
Only to find today that, maybe– just maybe– my youthful Soviet doppelganger was doing the same thing in 1974.
Only she couldn’t call her treat a “Moon Pie”. . . because we got there first.
Just another lesson learned at my German grocery store.
*Sort of. We put a man on the moon first. But before that, the Soviet Sputnik program beat us into outer space and the Soviet Luna program reached the moon with unmanned crafts.
Update to “Moon Pies and Moon Landings” (first posted just a few days after the Moon Pie post)
This may come as a shock, but apparently my Moon Pie post was not as loopy as it sounded to many of you. Turns out Moon Pies (or Orion Choco-Pies, their Russian/Asian doppelganger) really are a propaganda piece in the machine of Cold War. The present tensions between North and South Korea, that is.
The opening lines of John Hall’s article read like this: *Chocs away! North Korea unleashes latest weapon against its rivals in the South – counterfeit Choco Pie cakes to rival delicacy available over the border *North Korea has a roaring black market in the popular Choco Pie snack Sweet treats change hands for £3.60 in Pyongyang, but only 17p in Seoul *So popular they are even used as alternative payment by some employers *But Kim Jong-Un is angry at the North’s love of a South Korean product He is now making his own Choco Pies in order to bring down their value
Well, Mr. Kim Jong-Un, the joke is on you. You are just putty in the hands of the universal Moon Pie awakening.
We try to be normal. We really do. But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.
This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:
The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music. (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.) Ideally, these photos look a little like this:
This is the top gate at Mirabell. (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.) We spent some time here. We took some photos here. But none looked like this.
What did they look like? Well, look to your right. This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens. Why is he sleeping, you ask? He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens. Singing Do-Re-Mi? Oh no. No. This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him. My favorite scene from that movie, below. (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)
I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter. In another year, she’ll be heading off to college. And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August. They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing. I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.
Ein Konig und ein Hirte– a wise king and a shepherd at Ripon Cathedral some years ago (2008?)
Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future. After all, they started before our children were born. In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon. On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb. In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar. So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm. Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers? Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep? And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn? Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.
When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious. It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.
They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?
Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal. What else can you do?