Felicitas Hoppe on Travelling Across America “Sometimes, I just want to end up in the wrong place”

Armagosa Opera House: “I would have liked to stay, too”
Armagosa Opera House: “I would have liked to stay, too” | Photo: Jana Müller

Eighty years ago, the Soviet writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov headed out to explore America. Now, the Goethe-Institut invited author Felicitas Hoppe to follow in their footsteps. She travelled across the United States in six weeks. Afterwards, we spoke with her about it.

In 1935, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov travelled across the United States for sixty days searching for the essence of the “American phenomenon.” They published impressions of their journey first in a number of articles in Pravda and later as a travelogue entitled “One-Storied America” in Russian, but translated Little Golden America. The book shaped the way Eastern Europeans saw the United States. Now, Felicitas Hoppe, the artists Jana Müller and Alexej Meschtschanow and the scientist Ulrike Rainer traversed the land of opportunity. We spoke to the author about the experience.
Your ten thousand mile trip was more comfortable than that of the two Russians, going forty miles per hour in their unheated Ford. Six weeks in a car aren’t easy, though. How was the group dynamic?

It really was an exciting challenge. We didn’t know each other very well and the ages of our little group spanned three generations, so our perceptions and approaches were quite different. Our ruby-red Ford sometimes felt like a golden cage. We took our time at the beginning, so that we had to cover almost half of the entire route over the final ten days. We could hardly take any breaks or go off by ourselves. But, all in all, everything worked brilliantly; we’re proud of what we went through together.

How should readers understand the journey? How close did you follow the book by Ilf and Petrov?

The precise observations and very witty writing of the book made it the perfect guide and really made our journey a lot easier by laying a trail that we followed like scouts. It relieved us of many a difficult decision.

There wasn’t as much neon back then, but today’s America still is a lot like the one travelled by Ilf and Petrov There wasn’t as much neon back then, but today’s America still is a lot like the one travelled by Ilf and Petrov | Photo: Jana Müller What’s changed since the days of Ilf and Petrov?

Surprisingly little! Naturally the infrastructure has changed very much; the road network has been greatly expanded, the cities have grown. Otherwise, though, a lot was exactly as in the book. We even discovered hotels the two stayed in. During the drive, I read the sections in the book about those we were travelling through. That reveals the book in an entirely different light because you suddenly really see what you’re reading: the same subjects that we knew from Ilf’s photographs; a great deal is still standing there today. The landscape behind it has, of course, not changed at all. Yet the essence of the book by Ilf and Petrov – one-storied America – has really not changed at all. As soon as you leave the big cities behind you, you plunge into a kind of no-man’s land. The clocks tick differently in rural and small town America. The Midwest or Texas are like separate countries that have very little in common with Chicago or New York. You encounter the founding core of the nation that is still so foreign to us intellectuals today. People settled here who operate their little businesses and farms and live their lives. I’ll never forget a cashier’s curt response to the question of who governs the state of Nevada. She said, “What do I know, they come and go.”

What images do you remember most?

I’m actually a city person, so I was incredibly impressed by Las Vegas, the pinnacle of Disneyesque distortion. This cartoon of a cosmopolitan city quotes every possible city, from Big Ben to the Eiffel Tower. You enthusiastically make your way through this roaring juggernaut as if through a kind of limbo to end up in the seemingly redeeming desert. And at the edge of the desert, before entering Death Valley, there is suddenly this magical place: an elongated white building that looks like a monastery. And there’s a sign that says “Armagosa Opera House.” Of course, we went in and learned that the dancer Marta Beckett discovered this place on a tour in the 1960s and decided to stay there forever. Since then she has lived and danced there. I would have liked to stay, too.

Thanks to modern media, images from around the world penetrate our consciousness daily. How important is traveling in times like these?

I can only speak for myself when I say that travel substantiates experiences and what we call reality. The facts contained on the omnipresent web ultimately stress and irritate me. It may help travellers avoid bad hotels or restaurants, but sometimes, I just wanted to end up in the “wrong place.” Having to do something with one’s body, physically and mentally, and falling dog-tired into bed at night will always be a different experience than carefree surfing on digital waves.

Felicitas Hoppe looking through a doughnut Felicitas Hoppe looking through a doughnut | Photo: Jana Müller What will happen to your impressions? Can we look forward to a book?

At the panel discussion at the Goethe-Institut New York afterwards, an enthusiastic visitor brought me an American magazine that listed the twelve best-known travelogues about the United States. Ilf and Petrov were prominent on it, but sadly not any German books. I am keen to make a literary contribution. Not a remake of Ilf and Petrov, although I was very inspired by their way of seeing and speaking. Beforehand, I would, however, like to work with my companions Jana Müller and Alexej Meschtschanow on a format in which we productively combine text and images.

Was there a quintessence of the journey for you?

Oh, yes! It has to do with the way we experience engineering. Besides the bridges and dams, Henry Ford, the person and his work, was important to Ilf and Petrov. Their book describes Henry Ford as a corporate patriarch without his own office. He is incredibly ubiquitous! The man is everywhere and nowhere, can appear anywhere, is hero, boss and phantom in one. That is what makes him so powerful. For us it was very interesting to see how uncritically the anti-Semite of those days continues to be celebrated today.

Christoph Mücher and Karin Oehlenschläger conducted the interview.