I was sitting and reading at Martha & Bros, a just-under-the-radar San Francisco institution, a handful of coffee shops (exactly five), entirely as family owned as the name suggests. Martha is from Central America—Nicaragua, I think—and she staffs her shops mainly with a seemingly endless supply of nieces, friends of nieces, and cousins of friends of nieces from the old country. The walls are painted with murals of hillside plantations with macaws in the trees, the back-counter gossip is in Spanish. Sometimes the music is Latin too, although just as often it's unobtrusive coffee-joint music, "smooth jazz" or soul/pop or grown-up rock.Today it was a variant of the last, Ingrid Michaelson and Jason Mraz and people like them whose names I don't know. It's a common sound in S.F. cafes, one I tune out easily. The only note that nearly caught my attention was an announcer's voice—this wasn't the usual Pandora but apparently a radio station, probably KFOG, which every white person in the Bay Area between 30 and 60 seems to listen to while driving to work. It's harder for me to tune out speech than music, especially caffeined-up rock-FM speech, so it kept forcing its way through my book and into my consciousness. But even as it forced itself, I never fully understood what was being said. Gradually, in fact, that's what brought me to full awareness: the refusal of the words ever to coalescence into any sort of sense.
Which is when I paused and listened and realized there were some words I knew, just not words I'd been looking for. Jetzt. Ihre. Neue. Fünf. The radio was speaking German. And as I listened longer, I discovered that about every third song, although its sound was never incongruous with the rest, was in German too.
The explanation wasn't difficult to imagine. An employee chooses a station off some selection of streaming music options (iTunes used to offer this, someone must still) and either doesn't bother to read too closely or doesn't know enough non-Spanish to pick out the nuances of Rock Radio Hitwelle. Even so, it struck me as a little bit miraculous.
This is globalization, certainly, but not how we would think of it if we heard an American station in Managua, or even in Berlin, where guilty worries about cultural colonialism would start creeping up. Yes, it was American music, but looped back to us and varied subtly by another nation—not a downtrodden nation by any means, but not one with any imperial authority in the arts or popular culture. After all, Germany failed in its last effort to impose its culture on the rest of us, to have us listening to Wagner and watching movies about bright-eyed young goatherds in the Alps. Failed quite badly, actually. Its musical intrusion into a Nicaraguan-American coffee shop was not only not fraught with significance but was quite wonderfully, randomly insignificant.
The online version of that German station no doubt exists mainly for Landsmänner sent far from home and missing not only their home-cooked culture but their familiar, everyday reworking of American culture: the tired department manager at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla, the sweaty staff at the Deutsches Generalkonsulat in Lagos. But because the internet is the internet, it leaks out. It finds the wormhole through space and appears, uncomprehended, barely noticed, but welcome and amusing and vouching momentarily for the bigness and strangeness of things, in California, in Nicaragua, in anywhere.