July 2007 Issue
Greetings from Tokyo, Ohio
Without even trying, the Buckeye State has become a global village unto itself.
Hlavne Namestie is the main square of Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. Large enough to impress but small enough to be comfortable, it is a cobblestone plaza lined with benches, sculpture and a plentiful assortment of cafes offering outdoor seating in any weather.
One day a few years ago, I was heading across the square to just such a cafe when I saw coming toward me a man wearing a gray sweatshirt, on the front of which were the letters "KSU."
Given the locale, those three letters could have stood for almost anything. Yet a notion about their likely meaning struck me immediately - struck me so hard, in fact, that as the man in the sweatshirt came abreast of me, I pointed at his chest and said, rather too loudly, "Kent State University."
Luckily, the fellow proved to be quite amiable about my unwarranted intrusion on his privacy and happily confirmed my supposition that he was, indeed, from Kent.
Some 4,500 miles from Ohio, in an Eastern European city that could never be mistaken for the crossroads of the world, two guys from the same small corner of the planet had bumped into each other.
It was a remarkable episode - remarkable, that is, unless you take it in context. Because in truth, it was one of innumerable similar moments of Buckeye serendipity I have experienced as I explored various parts of the world over the last eight years.
Sell your suburban Cleveland house, live out of a suitcase for nearly a decade, get as far away from home as you can - somehow, none of it matters. Ohio, it seems, is a global village unto itself.
My series of offshore home-state happenstances actually began in Germany in 1999. I was seated at the bar of an Internet cafe-cum-pizza parlor in Munich, drinking a hefe-weizen beer as I waited for a computer to free up. Two stools away from me, a young man was doing the same. He also happened to be wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.
The young man was from Taiwan, and despite a multi-layered language gap, I managed to ask him about his headware. I wanted to know if he knew what he was wearing, which turned out to be a dumb question. Grinning wildly, his eyes shining like high beams, he held up an index finger in my face and almost shouted, "Indians – Numbah One!"
In Bruges, Belgium, a few years later, I was eating pommes frites with mayo as I prowled around town when I came upon a group of American tourists. My usual practice is to avoid such encounters, but something about the clothing this bunch wore - caps and scarves of scarlet and silver - drew me toward them. "Wow," I said as I neared them. "Can't get clear of Ohio State fans no matter how hard I try."
In the private rooms of London's Scotch Malt Whisky Society - perhaps the most civilized spot on earth - I was once telling an English friend a story that included mention of Cleveland. The bartender that evening was a thirtysomething named Philip who, unbeknownst to me, was listening to the conversation. At the sound of the name of Ohio's second city, his eyebrows rose precipitously. "Are you from Cleveland, then?" he inquired.
Philip, it turned out, had in earlier days spent an academic year at Hudson's Western Reserve Academy, and he harbored nothing but pleasant memories of the experience. Even a northeast Ohio winter - far harsher than anything he had ever encountered in temperate England - even that, he insisted, had been a pleasure. And in the spring of his Ohio year, he had somehow managed to attend a baseball game in Cleveland. I asked him if he had tried a hot dog at the stadium, and the look on his face betrayed a near-blissful recollection. "The mustahd," he mused. "Cahn't quite remembah the name, but it was superb."
Occasionally, close encounters of the Ohio kind have even occurred in the United States.
Killing time in the airport at Newark, New Jersey, for example, I was once so zoned out on boredom and fatigue that I didn't notice the older man who took a seat near mine until he piped up with, "Och, I like your wee flag."
A small decal depicting the flag of Scotland is the only adornment on my luggage, and by sheer chance a true Scotsman had seated himself near me and noticed it. The two of us chatted for a few minutes, discussing Scottish towns I knew and the relative merits of - what else? - various single-malt whiskies. I asked his itinerary and found that he was returning to Scotland after having visited his expatriate son in the U.S.
"You have probably never heard of the place he stays," he said, using the Scots vernacular. "It's called Euclid - just east of Cleveland."
For reasons I cannot fathom, however, Japan seems to be the primary locale for Ohioana sightings. Even the name "Ohio" is a homophone for the Japanese word "o-hai-o," which means "Good morning."
The first culture-shock moment of my initial visit to the East came during a meeting with an English-speaking Japanese employee of a Tokyo company. During the course of our conversation, she asked me where I was from in the United States.
"A state called Ohio," I said. "You have probably never heard of it."
"My husband is from Springfield," she replied. "It is near Dayton. Do you know it?"
After leaving that meeting, I was again knocked on my heels as I walked down a street in central Tokyo. Above a storefront hung a sign on which a familiar white-on-blue milk bottle logo triggered long-dormant memories. Yes, Lawson convenience stores first opened in Japan in 1975, and they are now ubiquitous nationwide. Since the Japanese language lacks an "l" sound, however, the nearest spoken approximation of the name is "Roe-san" - which, it turns out, is close enough when you're asking for directions.
On a later visit to Japan I explored the science museum in Tokyo's Ueno Park. Entering one of its galleries brought me face-to-face with an enormous skeletal cast of Dunkleosteus, the fearsome armored fish of the Devonian era whose fossilized remains still turn up from time to time in the layer of Cleveland Shale that underlies northern Ohio. Indeed, the beastie's name honors Dr. David Dunkle, the former paleontologist of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
My most recent Ohio sighting occurred last December on Tokyo's Kappabashi-dori, a street that comprises some 10 blocks of kitchenware and restaurant-supply shops. One of the stores featured "antiques" and other nonsense from the Western world, all of it intended as suitable decoration for the interior of Tokyo restaurants that wished to project a stylish "American" persona.
A mad jumble, the store's inventory represented an assortment of pop-culture flotsam ranging from the arcane to the slightly insane. There were neon signs sporting English-language phrases like "Beer, Wine, Cocktails" and "Open 24 Hours." There were dartboards, chalkboard easels for writing daily specials, paintings on black velvet, maitre d' rostrums, lava lamps and stuffed animals. There were Texaco signs, as well as entire pages from old Life and Look magazines, all of them bearing advertisements for products from the likes of Philco and Ipana.
Also among the items for sale were a few dozen automobile license plates, circa 2002. And, in an example of coincidence run amok, one of those plates was not only from Ohio, but from Lorain County - which happens to be my birthplace.
Sell your house, live out of a suitcase, get as far from home as you can - at the end of the day, it would appear, you're still an Ohio boy after all.
P.S. - If you are the former owner of 2002 Ohio license plate "CJE 4144" and are feeling a tug of nostalgia right now, drop me a line. I can lead you to its new home.
Hope you like sushi.
Former Cleveland writer Mark Gottlieb now lives and works in a variety of locales on four continents.