Melville: Chapter X: A Bosom Friend. (Moby Dick. 1851)

bosomfriends4“If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.”

Reminds me of when I was in living in the library of a guesthouse of an Oxfordshire MP, and sitting up one night eating my first Indian food with a real Indian man, who explained to me that the problem with Americans is that they’re the only people on earth who you can stay up talking to all night, become closest friends with, and the next time you see them they treat you as if it never happened. I could never understand what his name was, because everyone drops their R’s in England anyway, so it sounded to me like Nasa. Anyway, his analysis was correct, at least going forward in our own friendship.

“I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.”

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Melville: Chapter V: Breakfast. (Moby Dick. 1851)

Split_Decision_BreakfastChapter V: Breakfast

They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quite self-possessed in company. Not always, though: Ledyard, the great New England traveller, and Mungo Park, the Scotch one; of all men, they possessed the least assurance in the parlor. But perhaps the mere crossing of Siberia in a sledge drawn by dogs as Ledyard did, or the taking a long solitary walk on an empty stomach, in the negro heart of Africa, which was the sum of poor Mungo’s performances–this kind of travel, I say, may not be the very best mode of attaining a high social polish. Still, for the most part, that sort of thing is to be had anywhere.

Trenton

I had no intention of writing about this–Trenton of all places–but spending one’s time doing piano exercises leads the mind to wander and point by point, well, everything belongs somewhere. I moved in to my room in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, and, after a quick dinner, unpacked and set up my music things to spend until 2am finishing my composition assignment. In the morning I dallied…

I used to see signs, advertisements, ‘what sort of traveler are you?’ accompanying idiotic photographs of things that this traveler or that traveler does, like carrying a surfboard, or looking at baskets of exotic peppers and roots, or holding a camera. What sort of traveler am I? What a stupid question. What sort of traveler am I? I’m the sort of traveler who will treat a situation with mechanical ease if pressed to absorb too much too quickly, and I’ll walk away with nothing. I went to the Louvre twice–both times it was free, and both times I used the ‘secret’ entrance that doesn’t have a line. And what did I see? Mostly Watteau. I spent hours with Watteau. Both times. I never see any of the exciting things I’m supposed to see. Everything seems larger than life until I arrive, and I’m stricken with the thought that I’m only rushing forward to see a Thing, just this Thing, which doesn’t have much relevance to my life, and I’ve never particularly longed to see it before. What have I longed to see? Not the Mona Lisa, but Watteau, yes, I’ve longed to see Watteau. So I’m that twat who sits on the floor, gets in your way, who just stares and takes notes. Sorry. I need time. I take most things slowly, I take them until I’ve had enough, and then I move on, like a baby pausing with a cheerio half in its mouth, watching you before finally looking away.

I spent a lot of my childhood traveling, it seems, and I think I remember nearly all of it. I didn’t appreciate much of it, though I gasped when I was told I should, but it’s difficult to appreciate anything that hasn’t been denied you. It’s difficult to recognize beauty when you haven’t been shown much in the way of ugliness.

As I dressed, checked the weather (which is a useless action on my part, as I’ll dress the same regardless), made sure the cat was alive, locked the door, and left, I looked at my little handmade map and wondered if I should take a taxi to the trains, or perhaps I should just walk. No. No. Walking is lovely, it’s how I usually get around! because it leaves me in complete control, and taxis are most efficient, but…my little map said I should take a certain bus. It would cost $2. I had exactly that many quarters in my shirt pocket. But it’s a bus. A city bus. Where would I put the money? Or sit? Or get off? And every time it moves I’ll fall over, and nobody will like me, and it’ll smell bad, and there’ll be children everywhere. I stood at the corner with a very short, old man and his short, old wife, and a third short, old man. They spoke another language. Trucks kept coming and parking in front of the bus stop, and then behind one another, so that we didn’t know where the bus would be. I just followed the three old people wherever they went. I felt like we shared something. The bus came. They all flashed passes, I put my quarters in the slot. In France the busses would blast off like spaceships, the driver would multitask, tipping the bus over corners while counting the change you placed in his little tray, and then typing something, the ticket coming out of the machine, and then you’d slide to the back of the bus, over the accordion in the middle, and pray. This bus eased into everything. I got off at the wrong stop. I walk quickly, and by the time I got to the stop I was supposed to get off at, the three short, old people were getting off the bus. They didn’t even recognize me.

It’s this feeling I love, of being back on the road, of not knowing what I’m doing, but knowing I’ll do it somehow. And I don’t think experience helps. Every place is different, every building, every city, has its own customs, even the pizza shop in Amherst, Antonio’s, has its own customs, and when customers don’t know the customs, well, it mucks up the system. All the ticket windows had signs saying they were closed. They pointed off into space, go to the other ticket windows. I paced for a minute before going to the closed ticket windows and asking where the others were. The woman told me she was open. I asked for a round trip ticket to New York. She said I’d have to go to the other ticket windows. When traveling I always have my eyes on, my country-mouse eyes, so that people, especially women, become very motherly and sweet to me, I’m excessively polite, I appear confused. And then I walk confidently, I keep my chin raised and my eyes set, I pretend I know what’s going on. At the other window they said their machines were broken, they couldn’t sell me a round trip ticket to New York. But they could sell me one to Trenton, and once there I could buy another one.

On the train I felt hypersensitive, I mean, everything was brighter and more saturated than usual, so when this guy sat next to me in his wife-beater, smelling of sweat and old cigarettes and warm beer, and then produced a paper bag of horrible meat, finishing that with a dessert of spicy pepperoni, I waited and waited for my nose to become accustomed to it, please, I prayed, please don’t let him begin chewing tobacco and spitting into a cup, I couldn’t bear it, and as the car cleared out he refused to get up and move, he just sat with me. And then he was gone.

Trenton took two seconds, bought my ticket, waited with a bunch of aging-rock-star sorts, and then off to New York. Penn Station. I had 13 minutes left, and that wasn’t enough time to be a subway hero, so I hailed a cab and got to the building with 2 minutes to spare. Hooray. They served us coffee in china cups and saucers. It was delicious coffee.

Internet timetables said the last train that would connect in Trenton would be leaving at 23:06, so after a spicy Indian dinner with Caleb we parted ways, I told him confidently that I knew which sub would carry me back to the station, and he said okay but that he had to make a call before he went underground, so goodbye, and once underground I found I really didn’t know which train to take, and I hid behind a column so that he couldn’t see stupid me waiting for my imaginary subway-train to Penn Station.

I got there.

I missed the train right before the correct one because I found the train before I found where to buy a ticket. I bought the ticket, the train left without me, I caught the one I’d planned on catching. It was luxurious. All five of us sat on the left side. It smelled of sweat. The train wobbled and swayed nauseatingly. I moved from the window seat to the aisle to be closer to its center, like you’re supposed to do on a plane, I took an antiemetic, I felt better, and we arrived in Trenton at 1am. I bought my next ticket. Rushed down to the next train, and the conductor said it wouldn’t be leaving until nearly 6am.

This is the sort of thing I love the most.

To be stuck at a train station at a generally ungodly hour, alone, hungry, tired, where do I go? what do I do? but knowing that it’s not really worth doing more than smiling about things, because it’s not like any harm will come of the situation, probably.

I walked slowly back up the staircase, the police sat at the top, a young woman was speaking to them, and the key word I picked up was ‘internet’–she walked over to the screens showing the timetables. I followed her there and asked if she missed the train to Philly also. She had. We’d seen bad timetables. She could go back to her friend’s place. I could go back to New York, get to Caleb’s place by 4am or so. I hoped she’d decide to just stay. She did. Maybe I tried talking her into it, I don’t remember, but I know it wasn’t difficult.

I remember her shoes, they looked like they were yarn socks, and I remember she had three-quarter length sleeves, I remember the color of her eyes, the shape of her nose, her lips, her teeth, her smile, her complexion, and how the skin rounded her hands and fingers. I don’t remember anything else, not her voice, not even her face.

I suggested we take a walk somewhere, try to find someplace open late. We left the station, there was a police car parked across the street, and a cemetery, an old man on a bench coughing,
‘we should remember landmarks or something,’ she said.
‘there’s that old bum.’
‘he might move.’
‘he doesn’t sound like it.’ we turned the corner at a church, turned to the left, and in the night there were no cars, no lights, no people, just building after silent, dead building, she said she wasn’t cold, I felt responsible for her, no gas stations, no convenience stores, every block the same, I would check behind us, I told her that I have tendency to get myself into bad situations, ‘do you get out again?’
‘well, I’m here now. But, what I mean is that you should not entirely trust that going along with me here is safe, so if anything seems like a bad idea, speak up, okay?’
We briefed each other about where we’d been that day, about who we are, where we are from, what we do, what we hope to do. We had Judaism in common, and being in the period of days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.

It’s during these days that we’re supposed to ask forgiveness from anyone we’ve hurt in the past year. I haven’t been able to come up with anyone from whom I haven’t already asked forgiveness. Last year I had to make a number of embarrassing phone calls. This year I think I’ve been pretty decent. It unsettles me. I must have been awful to Somebody. I’m unsettled.

A taxi stopped at a light nearby, I went to his window and asked if he knew anyplace that was open. He asked why we were outside and I told him. He said ‘go back to the train station and don’t leave it. And definitely don’t walk any further, this is a dangerous place, you’re going to get mugged, go back, right now, go back and stay indoors until your train comes, okay?’ So we began walking back. This time I was able to walk on the side of road, which is where the gentleman is supposed to walk, but switching sides felt somehow awkward before. The cab met us fifteen minutes later, told us to get in, and then sped off, taking us to the back of the station where a cafe was, he said. He said that for $80 he’d take us to Philly, but I told him I only had $15 on me and apologized. He wouldn’t accept any money from us, but made us assure him we’d stay indoors. We sat at metal patio furniture, drinking hot chocolate under a Coca-Cola umbrella, indoors. We spoke for hours, she never looked tired, she rested her arms on the table, one hand always very near mine, leaning over the table, making eye contact, engaged, laughing, smiling, easy discussion, creeping towards political views, families, religious experiences, as I found she’d been brought up far more religious than I had, it was simple, it was enjoyable. At some point she sat back in her chair, crossed her arms like she was cold, and I couldn’t figure out how it intersected with anything we’d been discussing.

We took a walk toward the bathrooms, I was in there for less than a minute and she was out before me, she said a homeless woman was brushing her teeth and gagging in there, and afterwards we sat on benches on the wall. An old man sat down next to me and began telling me about how he’d been schizophrenic but that he took medication for six weeks and it cured him. He’d left the hospital after being there for a decade. He’d strangled the nurse. He’d kill his sister. He laughed and laughed and laughed. I suggested to her we take a walk. We went to the timetables, we stood there watching people around us rushing and doing everything with so much more energy than necessary, moving like death was  in pursuit, and they announced the train was boarding. She chose a seat for three, put her bag between us, sat with her knees up, her shoes off, we kept speaking softly, waiting for the train to move, in between silences she’d catch my eyes and then we’d quickly look away. She began biting her nails for the first time that evening. Eyes. And she would close them;–rest her head, and then open them gently and catch mine, and then close hers again. The train lurched forward, she didn’t fall, she didn’t flinch, she rested her cheek on the rubber seat, or in the air, I told her she didn’t have to sleep like that, she said, ‘no, it’s fine’ with a tone of finality, and with that bag between us, with her legs and feet and her bag between us, three armed sentinels, all was still, and all was silent.

One night in the guest house of a British MP I was curled up on a sofa speaking with Nassar, he was telling me about his childhood in India, his travels across America, he served me lamb samosas, and as I took a bite he said ‘I hope you’re not vegetarian.’ He told me about how in nearly anywhere in the world if you sit up with somebody, anybody, and speak with them half the night, learn about each other, it brings you closer to that person, and that the next day you two have a closer relationship, you look at each other with different eyes, but that in America, you sit up with someone half the night, tell your stories and get to know each other, and the next day at work, they pretend it never happened. Americans are friendlier, yes, but their relationships are shallower, their friendships are almost meaningless, their words, no matter how heartfelt, are nearly empty.

It was nearly 7am when the train woke me up, I touched her shoulder–her shirt sleeve was white–30th Street Station bustling, again, we were sequoias, and they were mosquitos, we walked slowly, they were being born and dying faster than we could breathe, she didn’t look at me, at the lobby the air roared, we faced each other and couldn’t make it halfway through any sentences, being shoved by people, unable to continue speaking softly because of all the noise, so much movement, so much light, so much sound, so unlike our little Trenton, I began to ask if she–I’m no good at these sorts of things, I’ve rarely bothered, it’s difficult with anyone, even with Caleb, knowing him for years, our goodbye was awkward and difficult, yeah, we’ll get together soon (of course we will, we have unspoken weekly dinner arrangements), Jessica makes it easy by hugging me and saying something encouraging about the future, and Céline would smile and wink before ducking into a car, but here, in the 30th Street Station, her whole body screamed reticence and foreboding, she looked at me with eyes that said ‘I’ve never seen you before in my life’–
‘I’ll be around for a few–‘
‘I don’t know my schedule, but, I mean, you can call me maybe, I don’t know, maybe.’
I thought about all the times I’ve given fake phone numbers to people, fake names, fake e-mail addresses, all the times I’ve climbed through bathroom windows and hitched rides with paperboys, and the branch she was clutching snapped, and wordlessly she was washed away toward the trolleys, and I turned back upstream, walked as quickly as I could, chin raised, eyes set, walked right into the dead end of a windowed hallway, oh so lost.

Miller: The Colossus of Maroussi (1941)

835241602I have one of the most remarkably poor memories of anyone I’ve ever met. Perhaps the very worst. What I can handle, though, is something a lot of people have told me is not only strange, but also difficult: I’m generally reading between 20 and 30 books at a time, and I stretch out reading them sometimes over years. It’s a bit foolish, but I seem very able to compartmentalize many parts of my life that way, so they exist in their own worlds uninterrupted. That’s characterized as a coping device as part of some disorders. How fascinating. So, judging by the book’s price, which was written in British pounds, I’ve been reading this book for two years. It’s a little over 200 pages. From the moment I began it I was enthralled in that way only Henry Miller and Anais Nin have ever done me. It’s essentially a travel book recounting Miller’s year-long vacation in Greece, and a remarkable account in that there’s nothing in vaguely erotic, which is usually Miller’s big draw. The emphasis is on Miller’s own experiences, his own transformation, and he makes clear that he does take some artistic license–and then the book isn’t really about Greece at all; it’s about Miller and his friends. His travels, the people, the sights, all are generally used to illustrate larger points–the sort of explanations that leave me breathless, unable to continue, always visualizing myself lost in space, but floating with determination.

Of course his Greece is much like his Paris, pre-War, and though he speaks in a recognizably modern voice, he lives in a world very much lost to us, I’m quite sure, as we all come to look the same and live electronically. In the book everyone loves Americans and America. They cheer us for saving them, and hope that we will save Europe from the war. I’m thankful that there was a Henry Miller writing during those years that I’m so fascinated by, and I wonder if perhaps he could have existed at any other time, if Henry Miller invented those years or they invented him.

I’ve decided it’s time to begin with Proust, who’s one of those writers everyone seems to throw the name around, whose work everyone has apparently read, though not me. So, it’s time to begin. july 5 07

Chicago

Visiting cities used to exhaust me utterly, until last spring when, as recorded here, I think, I gave New York a try with a goal of being drunk the entire time, and it worked out, and since then I’ve had no problem with cities at all. Little towns, like the one Manny lived in in Connecticut, they’re easy to digest, there’s a single coffee shop, and an ATM, and really not much else that I can remember. That town is mine, I might never go there again, but I’ll be there always, nothing will change in it without my knowledge, because nothing will change.

Chicago means these things to me: one of my favorite bands is Chicago. The Smashing Pumpkins came from there and I don’t really like the Smashing Pumpkins except for that one album. Upton Sinclair. Hemmingway and his story about the option to cross the lake to Canada as a means to avoid the draft. Isabel Archer. Characters in Gatsby. Capone. Michael Jordan.

Going to a new city is like watching minor surgical procedures under local anesthesia, it happens, it happens to you, and you don’t feel a thing. I overcame this in France by walking. I suppose spending the past month or so that I’ve been back mostly sleeping has atrophied my legs and feet and I just didn’t notice until I set out on Friday morning to see what this city was really about. I will say that United Express is a wonderful airline, I was thrilled with them. And then the El to reach Chicago from O’Hare was a depressing experience, very bumpy and slow, I was quite sure I’d have to get off and have a rest, but I made it okay.

I walked around trying to find someplace to eat, and happened upon the Juicy Wine Co. whose website makes it seem as if they actually serve food, but as far as I could tell all they had was wines and dried meats. Of course, I went because I thought it must be some exciting new creation, “Juicy Wine”–so I went in, and I think I was the only person who didn’t work there, and they all looked at me and I said, “so…what is it?”
[they give an answer]
“So…it’s not anything…novel?”
“Well, we’ve been here for two years, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of us.”
“I just got here today.”
“Oh. Well, you should go upstairs, people like the upstairs.”
And with everyone looking at me, waiting for me to order, I just, what a douche, ordered some tea, a black tea I’d never heard of before, with hints of chocolate, and the truth is I wanted so much they offered but I couldn’t afford any of it.

I’ve got to remember to get a DNA sample from my dog, I feel like she’s suddenly gained some perspective on time and mortality, the expression on her face is always horrifying now, as you can tell she can’t decide if she’s done enough with her life, if she was happy, if those two times she made love to another dog could have been better, probably, because she never loved him, wondering where the rest of her children have gone, has she run enough? does she regret the time she jumped through the car window? is she embarrassed about her son? as the cancer spreads through her body is she truly content with the course of her life? her near brush with fame as she took on the Westminster Kennel Club show, flown all over the country for special training as a champion, my sweet little dog, she doesn’t even smell so bad. Yes, my darling, I will clone you, I will clone you as soon as I have the money, and I’ll make a new clone of you every year so that each time one of you kicks the bucket I won’t even really notice, it’ll be wonderful, you’ll all have the same name and when I shout it all twenty of you will come running to say hello to me, you were my first best friend, and all eighty of you will be my last, don’t eat each other when i die.

So the following day I walked only ten miles–it felt like more–but that’s probably because I was wearing Italian leather dress boots. Some seven miles into the journey a man said “shoe shine” as I walked by, and I thought to myself, “asshole,” before walking another ten steps and the sudden recognition that maybe he wasn’t criticizing me, but was rather offering me something. I spun around and asked how much. He smiled and opened the door as he said $5, more expensive than at the airport, but…hell, he was in better shape than the old men who work at the airport.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Have you been to Mexico?” he asked.
“Are you here for business?” he asked.
“Where did you get these shoes?” he asked. Ah, now, finally, a subject I enjoy.
“Paris.”
“Ah, yes, you’d find shoes like these in France, in Spain, in Italy. And they cost you a lot?”
“No, not so much.”
“$200?”
“60-some euros.”
“What?”
“Yes.”
“They’d cost over 200 if you bought them here. I know this because I’m also a shoemaker.”
“Do you see this style of shoe often?”
“Oh no, that’s why I asked where you got them. You don’t see these here.”
And he shined them up shinier than when I bought them, so shiny that they look like Marine dress boots, so shiny that I can see my reflection in them. And then I continued on to the Art Institute to see their two paintings by Watteau, but they were closing, so I continued on to where I was heading…

i chose Clark Street because it looked most interesting, as if I might see the most on it, and it took me past Wrigley Field, whose name in my youth I was proud to know, and if I could have seen a game there, I would have, I’ve never been near a major-league stadium before. And, most importantly, the site of the Valentine’s Day massacre. The old buildings are torn down now, and it is only a parking lot, but…as I stood there and looked through the gates, it still doesn’t look like the surrounding area, there’s something darker about it, more run-down and horrific, my favorite place in the whole of the city I saw, buildings close together in ways physically impossible, a shroud of ignorance to the warmth and sunshine of the day, it was somehow delightful, somehow precisely what I wanted to see. As I continued walking I thought of how I swear I saw the garden of eden in a forest I was camping in as a boy, nobody else was around, but the image is so clear in my memory, I wonder if I was lying to myself then, and also now.

I’ve never seen so many cemeteries–like driving out of Brooklyn and just driving and driving for ages through that cemetery the highway traverses, everything about New York suddenly makes sense when you see that cemetery, everything about the world makes sense. In Chicago people die also. I would be on that schoolbus taking me to camp and the girl sitting next to me would say “if you breathe while we pass the cemetery ghosts will enter your body.” I don’t know why that’s such a scary thing to a child, to have a ghost enter your body, because I don’t know that I’d much mind it now, but, in any case, I would hold my breath, and even as I passed the cemeteries, hungry, and all these wonderful restaurants, I figured it might be a bad idea to eat in front of a cemetery. There are signs saying that out of respect for the dead you cannot allow your dog in the cemetery, there’s a sign saying out of respect for the dead you cannot allow your dog in the Vietnam War memorial. I went to a coffee shop and called Joe to see if he was in town, but he wasn’t, but we were talking when I guy sat down next to me and began talking rapidly about Chris Brown being sent to jail for committing only three felonies, what the fuck, if every time someone committed three felonies he was sent to jail, hell, everyone would be in jail, well, I don’t fucking care, what’s this word mean? Gouge? What’s that mean? Does that mean to hit? And I sit there with Joe yapping to me in one ear about what he’s going to do with the arts community of Cleveland, as their guru, and in the other eat this guy yapping about beating the shit out of his grandma and how, well, who fucking cares about Chris Brown because he’s my rival and if he’s in jail I can finally just take his place, good riddance, I’m a singer, hey, look, look man, this guy here, he’s an actor, he’s got a show, I’m an actor too, I’m a singer and a rapper and an actor and I had an audition for a TV show yesterday and the secretary in the lobby said I probably did well so I’m expecting them to give me a call anytime now, I’m feeling pretty good about all that. Joe’s conversation finished, and this guy keeps talking, telling me his life story, crack-addict mother, father in prison, what it’s like to be young, gifted, and black in America, hell, he’s been everywhere, he almost got strangled to death by Luther Vandross’s men because when they introduced him to the Temptations he was all like “so what? what are you gonna do for me?” And then he mentioned he was gay. And it all became clear. This guy wasn’t looking at me like a person, actually, he wasn’t looking at me like an ear, he was touching my arm because he was looking at me like a piece of meat. I don’t mind being hit on, okay, I’ve always minded being hit on in the past, and this time too, I hate being hit on, but that’s because the right person has never hit on me. There you have it. So now, I have this grand-matricidal guy who wants to stick his penis in me, and he’s cried twice, and he’s been talking to me for over an hour, I mean, Jesus, how many fucking lame stories can he possibly have if he’s only been alive for 22 years? And suddenly, thank the good lord, I get a business call about some freelance work I’ve been doing, actually, more like an advertisement calling to make sure I understand how to use their product and let me know about specials. I take the call and the guy runs out to smoke a cigarette with his friend, a big Native American who’s been trying to come in and keeps getting shooed out by my new friend. There’s no way to escape–he’s got me cornered in here, no back door, and he’s standing in front of the only exit. I get my scarf on and pack my bag. His scary friend comes in and demands “____wants your information.”
“My information. Right. Do you have a pen?” And I write down a fake name and number. When I leave my new friend takes my hand and won’t let it go, he hands me a piece of paper with endless ways to contact him, tells me to call anytime. “Well, I’ll be in town for two weeks, so you call me too” I tell him. He says, I should probably let you go, but he still doesn’t drop my hand, and he asks if he can come see me perform tonight. “I wish you could, but we’re sold out tonight.”
“Can’t I just…you know, drop by?”
“There’s fire regulations, and the doorman won’t let you in, there’s already too many people, you know, fire regulations, we’ll get in trouble.”
“When can I see you?”
“Sunday, 3pm.”
“Okay.”
I’d be a thousand miles away by then. He dropped my hand and I scampered off and turned the first corner and then hurried down alley after alley, searching closely for any signs of black people…terrified of blacks because…one wants to make love to me. I tell my brother this and he begins listing rules for when you’re allowed to shoot somebody legally, and how it’s against the law to fire warning shots. You say “leave me alone I have a gun.” you pull it out. and if he still doesn’t turn his back, you kill him. “i’ve been trained to put two shots to the chest and one to the head before he even hits the ground…that’s also illegal outside the military. when you fire, you do so for one reason: to thwart an attack. once the danger has passed, any injury you inflict is entirely illegal.” a few blocks down i got back onto Clark and continued my wonderful journey through the heart of Chicago!

As I crossed over to the ‘miraculous mile’ or whatever they call it, I grew cold, my feet hurt, and I realized I could separate myself from the pain, I could stand up straight, walk normally, and despite the pain, actually my socks were bloody in multiple places when I changed them later on, I could be apart from it because it didn’t frighten me, but this feeling of dread came over me, a vast feeling of aloneness, that hasn’t quite subsided yet, I feel as if I’m standing over the abyss that is time and waiting for it to close, or shake, or smoke, or something, anything, and rather, I’m just getting older as I wait. I walked the rest of the way. I spent most of the weekend panicky because a stomach flu was going around and I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s a message from god, and if so, what’s the message? And everyone probably thinks I’ve lost my marbles, which I have, but…well, I was on edge, Chicago, on edge.

Here, I’ll end on a positive note. Everyone was really friendly. That’s how the midwest is, friendly, which I find creepy, I’m so used to coldness. Actually, the only person who was unfriendly was still only unfriendly in a friendly-sarcastic way. It went like this, at 1am as I checked out from CVS and, since they didn’t give me a bag, I was in the process of taking one for myself, and the checkout guy said.
“Oh, you wanted a bag.”
“Yes, please.”
“I thought maybe you wanted to save the environment.”
“At first I did, but then I remembered I have quite a long way home.”
“You have a long way home. Right. That makes sense. A long way home. So you want a bag. Yeah, okay.”

Ass.

Otherwise, everyone was friendly. In fact, the guy sitting across the aisle from me on the plane home wouldn’t shut the hell up. He’d wait for me to blink my eyes open or reach for a gummy bear or something and begin asking me inane questions to which I’d provide vapid answers and try to shut my eyes again. And then while we were out for dinner last night the guy sitting next to us begged us to let him tell his story, because he’d just now been released from jail and was getting some dinner and his girlfriend wouldn’t even come home from the arcade to see him, and he had to tell his whole boring story. And even after his story was finished and we’d all agreed it was a wonderful story he should call the newspapers with, and then turned back around, he insisted on telling us more. What I mean is that everyone is friendly, in the whole world, the whole goddamn world is friendly, and there’s a great big cloud over my head, and I check my face for wrinkles, I love showering.

Chicago is a nice city, and I wouldn’t mind living there. But there’s something about the coast that makes me feel more comfortable, as if when the apocalypse comes I’ll be able to escape the wrath of god quicker if only because the ocean’s an hour away and i could always swim to france if satan gave me magic powers!

Bayeux

Bayeux was a tragedy from the start. Every day for a week I would wake up early in the morning, trudge down to Gare St Lazare, sitting at the front of the metro with all the old women, and ask where the train to Bayeux is, nobody ever understanding my pronunciation. And each day the train would not get there in time for me to get inside the museum to see the famed tapestry. I would use these days to go shopping and visit all the little things in Paris I otherwise would not have seen, perhaps, although I didn’t want to leave Paris at all. Ligne 14 seems to be the furthest underground, it takes four escalators to reach, I think, and as it approaches its final stop at Olympiades, everyone who’s familiar walks to the front car of the train and then runs out to be first up the escalator. The last of the escalators is very long, and at the top are old women handing out newspapers, they may be communists, I’m not sure, I never took one, and in the evenings a large tent is set up and candy is sold, life-size candy bananas and all the colors and shapes and smells to make me feel like a child. I never bought any, on Celine’s advice, because she says it’s all filthy from chemicals floating around in the streets, and I suspect children touch it all. But when Celine took me to a Christmas market I did buy a macaron flavored with bergamot, how many chances does one have to taste bergamot outside a teacup? And also I bought a dried banana and a dried kiwi. I was in heaven, and it was while I was enthralled by my purchases that Celine and her mother sneakily found out what sort of scarf I was hoping to find, I pointed to a bunch of men, anything with stripes, I want to be French! And they bought it for me for Christmas!
Finally, I left early enough in the morning to make it to Bayeux, and its train station is not inside the town itself, but rather far outside it. I was on a schedule, and I heard the sound of English, so I broke my rules to ask a man if he spoke English, and he was stereotypically Irish. ‘Do you know how to get to the tapestry?’
‘Don’t bother, mate, it’s closed.’
‘What do you mean it’s closed? Are you sure?’
‘Trust me. It’s closed until tomorrow.’
‘Is there…anything else to do here?’
‘There’s a pub across the way.’
I had 20 minutes to eat and then catch the next train to Paris. I left the train station and went to the hotel, a grimy place decorated with American and Canadian and British flags and signs saying ‘we welcome our liberators!’ They didn’t have any food at the bar, so I figured I’d walk to the town and see if maybe this Irish guy was wrong, I mean, it’s Bayeux, it has no reason to exist anymore except the tapestry, there’s nothing else in it, how could they close the tapestry? But they had. Some unimpressive doors held a small paper sign with a messy handwritten note that they’ve decided to close for a few days. I walked into the town, up and down the streets, all their shops marked ‘SOLDES!’ just like in Paris, but already the Paris mindset had poisoned me, nothing was chic enough. They’ve tried to give some history to the city by marking every old building and explaining its construction, how the upper floors extend over the lower floors, for instance, to help prevent rain from getting on the ground floor. The oldest building in town still has a fleur-de-lis carved in it, though you cannot see it, it’s so faded, the building boarded up and for sale, an inn that royalty may have stayed once, maybe, or nobody really knows what the hell happened there, but it’s old, the other buildings have computer classes inside, they look modern and lack character. Water flows through the city, stone restaurants, water-wheels, tunnels and iron grates. I couldn’t find a bank anywhere–somebody directed me inside a smelly food store where I found an ATM, and went up and down the streets determined, now that I’d missed my train and would have to spend the whole afternoon here, to find some food to make me happy.
I wanted a mozzerella sandwich, fuck French food, and I found a tiny place that served them, I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as I walked in the door, but the fat woman who owned the place had already seen me, and I felt like it would break her heart if I left. She had an enourmous menu and almost no food, a few pastries scattered in a glass case, a few sandwiches in the window. I ordered a mozerella sandwich, and a small plastic baggie she’d made up herself of haribo candies. Food prices were about half of what they were in Paris, and I was delighted although a bit nervous–it didn’t seem right, are they okay to eat? It wasn’t mozzerella, it was chevre, which even by this point was beginning to make me gag a little, and I threw it away, this goddam skimpy sandwich, I won’t miss the tapestry and reward myself with a shitty sandwich, and went to a larger bakery and bought one of those, I wish I remembered its name, a common French sandwich that they have two types, one for men and one for women, and it’s a piece of bread with some meat on top of it and some melted cheese, very messy and greasy and not especially enjoyable, but…well, it was enough, and I had my candy, and then, when I’d exhausted the town and its narrow sidewalks covered in old people and hipster teenagers,
I went to a bakerie filled with mirrors, one of these places in which there’s barely enough room to walk, so they put in two doors so you can just be forced through like goats, but I loved that it was filled with mirrors so that I couldn’t figure out where it began or ended, I bought a bag of madeleines and something that looked like a baguette but the woman told me was sweet. Sweet is a meaningless term in France because sweet may mean something that is only sweet in your imagination it’s so subtle, like eating a piece of bread while looking at a sugarcube, or something so sweet that your blood congeals before your tongue even knows what’s going on. I prefer the subtle sweetnesses, they remind me of the taste of love. I was running out of money, I continued back to the train station, stopped at the hotel and spent two hours working on translations and drinking chocolates and coffees because they were so unbelievably cheap, some obnoxious old men came in and sat behind me talking loudly to everyone, they seemed to know the bartender, and an old black man came in and sat and watched everyone with a silly grin on his face that one would never see in America, he kept adding comments here and there and everyone treated him very well, and a young woman, perhaps my age, but with eyes that said she had two or three kids, and a short and fetid old woman who shuffled around chewing on her lips, and when I asked where the toilets were and if I had to pay, I went to them and she followed me in, and I closed the door, turned on the dim orange light and stared out the window, and didn’t even undo my belt, just stood there, knowing this horrible smelly woman was on the other side of the door waiting for me, staring, and I finally opened the door, and there she was, staring at the me as I knew she would be, and I stalked out, still having to piss. I had had a brilliant idea, to take the chocolate they gave me and put it in my coffee and it would turn into a chocolate coffee. It didn’t work, once I’d finished the coffee it looked like someone shat in my cup. I tried to eat the horrible stuff to save me from shame, brought my dishes to the bar, paid my obscenely small bill…
and then I caught my train, after taking my pills I fell asleep and a man woke me up fifteen minutes later to let me know we had to change trains. So I followed him out, and he led me to the parking lot where he got in a car and drove away, so I went back underground and found my way to the station, figured out what train I would need to Paris, and spent a while in convenience store looking at erotic novels and debating what the conditions would be for me to have to buy one–I think I promised myself that if I could find a magazine about weight-loss I would buy some erotica. I couldn’t find the magazine, so I just left when my train arrived. I probably ended the evening by picking up a pizza and sharing it with Nathalie, we would drink tea and listen to Keren Ann, and she told me how wonderful it is that I take trains to nowhere and see nothing, because it gives me something to write about. And then I don’t write about it until today, when she knows I’m miserable, she calls and reminds me of these things that we could sit around and laugh at and our wonderful evenings, and she tells me to write about this.

‘You have your music, and your writing, and I have my photography. You need to write, you need to write, and do it now, because you need to use this powerful energy for something or you will lose it for nothing. You are part of a chain.’
‘I don’t like being this part of the chain.’
‘But it’s what you are. Other people depend on you, because when they hurt, maybe it will be something you wrote that will make them feel better.’
‘I don’t care about how other people feel. I don’t care for them, I only care about me and how I feel.’
‘But just think, so many people will suffer like you, so  many people will be hurting, and most of them do not know how to create music or write beautiful things or take photographs, they just have to suffer in silence, and when they are through suffering, they have nothing to show for it. ‘
‘Then I want you to write me about things we did together.’
‘I don’t understand. Like what?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, like ending up in the Luxembourg garden and the cafe being closed and sitting in those green chairs in the cold eating our desserts for breakfast, or that bitch with the hot chocolate–we had a lot of hot chocolate episodes, or going out on New Years and being unable to find a bar!’
‘Or going out on my birthday and walking for hours trying to find a bar and finally you got annoyed and demanded that I choose any bar!’
‘I didn’t get annoyed, but they were all going to close soon and we Had to get a drink.’
‘And afterwards we spent a whole hour in the fucking cold trying to find a cab!’
‘I need you to write all these stories, all the stories you can think of.’
‘Yes, I will, and I will send you the recipe for flan and you will impress your parents with your cooking.’

Dijon pt 4: my theories concerning possessive contractions, marriage, feminism, racism, the relevance of hexameter, sex and music, and why jazz could have only come from America.

chouetteI think when I first began speaking French with C, I was trying to suppress how silly I felt by being a bit dramatic about it all, so that when I’d say oui (mostly they don’t say oui, but instead say what I think is spelled ouais) I’d shake one finger in the air and say “ah, oui!” while nodding with an expression of knowing a secret. And because she and S found this funny they would do it too, or repeat it after me, to the point that it’s now habit for me, and I’ve been told a few times that people like when I do it and appreciate it. ‘Appreciate’ may be a word that’s confused in translation. But it’s sometimes difficult to remember that while I take a word and translate it into English before comprehending it (generally—although I’ve been finding that I speak many words without translating now), they do not. This is their language, it’s what their thoughts comprise, it’s their feelings and their dreams, it’s how they cry out in pain and pleasure, and I think that’s something one should not forget or mistake the value of, that ‘oui’ to them is not ‘yes’ to us, it’s not the same word in a different language, it’s a different word with a similar meaning.

And I don’t know if I mean all words are like this, but I think it may be significant that ‘Stephen’s chair’ (which may once have been ‘Stephen his chair’—and if French is any indication of how different rules of grammar may be [from what I can figure, in French the gender of the object determines the gender of the article or pronoun used before it, so that ‘this is Jane and this is her father’ would be translated to French and then literally to English is ‘this is Jane and this is his father.’] it’s been argued that using << ‘s >> to show possession could not have resulted from a contraction with the word ‘his’ because why do we say ‘Jane’s book’ and not ‘Jane’r book’? Perhaps I’d be correct in guessing that in English, where we still, despite the small battles being won by feminists on this front, persist in assuming anything whose gender is unknown is masculine [for instance, when using ‘one’ as the subject, unless otherwise obvious, the correct pronouns to use are all masculine] at one point assumed, grammatically, that the gender of any and all objects, regardless of whether it has an additional gender in reality, was masculine.

Feminists say ‘ah, look at this patriarchal society, men get paid more and don’t have stereotypes against them and even the word ‘woman’ has the word ‘man’ in it, as if we’re a modified man’ and then begin making all sorts of alterations to language, such as changing fireman and firewoman into firepersons while deciding that ‘actress’ and ‘Jewess’ should be done away with entirely in favor of their masculine counterparts. Sometimes they even spell women with letters to eliminate the ‘man’ portion, thus women becomes wimyn or something to that effect. Yet, these feminists still use the masculine contractions—I won’t be convinced of anyone’s convictions, no matter how many balls are crushed along the way, until every object in the English language is given a gender and contractions are dealt out accordingly. There you go, feminists, if you want to show someone you’re serious and want to do it without merely adopting the most repugnant habits of the worst sorts of men, go reinvent the fucking dictionary. And to everyone convinced that marriage is something between a man and a woman, I suggest you go research the origins of the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ and conclude by retracting women’s right to vote, okay, okay, I mean retracting all women’s natural and basic rights, returning them to the status of property, because from what I can tell, if you’re playing by the dictionary, then you’re dealing with terms and concepts from dead languages and societies that understood magic better than you understand how to spell your own name.

Let me spell this out as I understand it: Man meant man. Wife meant woman. Husband meant a married man in relation to his wife, that is, his woman, coming from the words ‘house’ and ‘bóndi’ (‘occupier and tiller of soil’ according to the OED—and on its suggestions I’m also guessing that the word ‘bind’ probably originates in the proto-indo-european language) and unless I’m terribly mistaken I think it’s therefore obvious that the word husband is a word produced by an agrarian society, that without the creation of the concept of property, there is no marriage, and marriage is not so much the binding of two things together as the binding of one beneath another. So, there you go, fuck off, conservatives! Say what you mean, and don’t try to qualify it with casuistries you heard from O’Reilly; you can all go to hell with the liberals! No, actually, you can all go to hell, just leave me the chefs and the prostitutes. And to show how little you mean to me, I’m not even going to close whatever parentheses and brackets I may or may not have left open, because you’re not even worth my going back to figure it out! As I once heard, if you were on fire, you would not be worth my piss.

Oh, and by the way, jazz and its emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats is, it seems to me, is a reflection of the iambs that are what make up our English speech patterns. Translations of ancient Greek epic poetry are difficult because we don’t have a language that adapts to its patterns of dactyls. If they’d taught us that in school we’d have less trouble understanding why we have to learn these fucking terms in the first place. Who cares where the stress is? Why does it matter? The music of Hildegard von Bingen I’ve heard, being from the 12th century, was written without regard to time-signature, which may actually mean that there was only one time-signature used in church music, and leads me to believe that the music was passed down in 4/4 with the emphasis on 1 and a lesser emphasis on 3. I don’t find this difficult to relate to hexameter of Greek and Latin verse since it deals with lines of dactyls, which translate naturally—I don’t have any books or internet with me, so I don’t know what the rhyme schemes are, so much of this is based on assumptions and rhyme might change everything—into 6/8 time, being two sets of 3 beats with the emphasis on the 1 and 4; except on occasional circumstances, 6/8 is conducted as 4/4, if not a bit more fluidly, since 6/8 feels as if it has no sharp edges.

My point is that Latin and Greek verse in hexameter, which may reflect speech patterns of their times just as iambic does for us, translates easily into 4/4 time with emphases on the first and third beats which is the heart of all ‘white’ music. But English is not a Romance language, and it plays by different rules. Looking at slave dialects from the American South, it’s obvious that the peculiarities are formed by considering language from sound alone, and never the written word. People in Africa, it is said, had a long tradition of complex rhythms—even in India today this is still normal—so decoding English was probably done by rhythm, which perhaps instilled in their sense of language a sensitivity to iambs that perhaps would have been lost with an initial literacy. I’d say it also has something to do with sexual and social norms—how sexual can one be while dancing according to one’s society? Why is a samba or tango so far removed from swing given what we know of life in Argentina, Brazil, or Spain, in terms of how people act, how they speak, and the emphases on beats in the music? None of these things can be removed from each other, because they’re all tied in so closely with a culture. One can express sexuality while dancing to jazz, but has to do so while barely touching one’s partner. What is it about the way French is designed so that every word connects to the next without awkwardness, so that if one ends with a vowel sound the next begins with a consonant sound and vice versa, and how does it tie into their ways of life? Allow me to make one more mention of 6/8 time and the fact that it is proof that life is not all binaries merely by 6/8’s making 4/4 more round and more fluid—yes, add one more beat, a third option to yes or no, and things suddenly become a little more circular, which leads us even to sexual positions and the way that our grandiose wedding marches and My Country Tis of Thee’s are the perfect soundtrack to the puritanical missionary position and its binary allowances. This is why science movies about amoebas reproducing are set to John Cage rather than the second Brandenburg Concerto; this may also be the reason porn makes me so uncomfortable, because I can’t get over the fact that they actors never thrust in time with the music—music that, I must add, is particularly suited for fucking. Tango is more violent and sporadic, moving between 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2 and simple 4/4, which suggests periods (which, by the way, do not disgust or bother me, although this parenthetical remark is to confirm that I meant periods of time, not blood) and movement and the need for catching one’s breath at intervals and maybe even most of all the need for violence and pain. Or the aching, clutching, breathless, pathetic and desperate and not unlike the last spurts of energy before one succumbs to death and the way it seems counterintuitive to be so thirsty when sweating oceans, ‘deep song’ and the mysterious rumors I’ve heard of the way Spanish men do not thrust at all but move circularly…

Anyway, I got my chicken sandwich, which was a foot long baguette, a few pieces of lettuce and some mayonnaise, and tasted delicious. So there. Public transportation is a blessing, it runs like clockwork, nobody checks your tickets and everyone seems to follow the rules, buying their passes without a stick being held over their heads. Television advertisements are few. They find American television exasperating because of the number of ads. When there is a movie, it plays through without, if not wholly, then with only one brief interruption by, advertisements. Television shows are much the same—advertisements are memorable if only because there are so few. And in the meantime, people are protesting right now that the government should ban all advertisements on stations for which one doesn’t have to pay.  As it’s nearly 3am now, I begin writing next about going to a bar with many people after leaving this modern apartment, and then about Strasbourg.

Dijon, pt 3: efficiency and prudence

The mindset I mean is that in the US, so far has been instilled in me is that the purpose of life is to assure oneself and one’s ‘clan’ (of sorts) prosperity. That is, you should be wealthy, but you should also bring along with you anyone that you’re prefer in your life, which may be some of your family, and may be some friends, or may be nobody. You live to work, your children are an investment to ensure that someone can continue to work when you cannot, and so that you will be somebody’s child when you have the strength of one again. We drink coffee to wake up and wine to sleep, parties are mostly to find mates or to drown sorrows, our blockbuster films are about checking dreams off a list before death, our bestselling books are about places you must go and things you must do before dying. We demand results, we demand objectives.
‘”Play by Ear.’”
‘Uhm…is it what comedians do?’
‘Improvise?’
‘Yes.’
‘No. I think improvising is what you do when…well, yes, like on the comedy shows, and when, for instance, you need to make dinner but all you have is a cabinet full of spices.’
‘Like we’ve been doing.’
‘Right.’
‘To play by ear, that’s something you say when you want to avoid making plans immediately and would rather just put it off until later. That’s actually part of the American Civil War, that nobody wanted to deal with the Blacks problem until it had already exploded. We also say ‘let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,’ to mean the same thing, as in, we’ll deal with it when we reach the problem. Does that make sense?’
‘Mm, no.’
‘Alright, when you improvise, you know what the outcome will be, but you don’t know how you will reach it. The comedian’s outcome will be a laughing audience, ours is dinner. How we get there, we don’t know. To play by ear, you’re not sure what the outcome will be, but you know what you’re going to do in the meantime.’

On the night of the party, we forgot to eat dinner on time, or we ruined it when it was being cooked, or something like that, and so we didn’t eat. Everyone at the party had a piece of bread in one hand and a drink in the other. One after another of the girls sat down next to me to speak in English and suggest that I help with studying for the upcoming examination and talk fondly about America. Someone made me a strong drink with rum, and someone else had me try anise, and Scott always told me to stick with one drink for an entire evening—except beer, because beer is good anytime—which is probably why I was dizzy when I got home and unhappy the next morning.

But my point is that the amount of time spent eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and conversing, by which I mean, all the activities that lead Americans to call the French lazy, is really, so far as I can tell, the only reason to live. They delight in other people, they delight in their senses, and they delight in their bodies, and as far as thought goes, I think it was Abelard’s school in Paris that influenced the direction of Cambridge and Oxford, and in recent years my preferences in the arts tend to be French—and if not, then first widely accepted by the French. When we think of lazy we think of fat people or drunks or dogs sleeping under trees, so that when we call the French lazy we think of them as lazy Americans, when what seems more the truth is that the French swim through pleasure in the same way that girls can swim through love. But they work when they must—and seem much more serious about their work when they do, perhaps because on the other side of work is pleasure again. The customer seems to always come first at stores, everything is always clean and well-ordered in even the shittiest of restaurants, nobody seems to become exasperated at their jobs and things move very quickly. Things are always very clean here—I mean, when I see shit on the sidewalk, it’s always fresh shit, and despite the scarcity of trashcans, there’s almost no litter. Everyone always finishes everything on their plates—I mean everything, every last grain of rice, even every last droplet of salad dressing, even a mound of mustard, if that’s all that is left, it will be eaten. I’ve been told it’s because it’s been paid for and, even if one cannot eat another bite, it must be eaten because otherwise you’re not getting your full value. I think this may be how they treat life: why blush about diarrhea? why refuse an experience? why deny yourself a single thing that is or has the potential to be amazing? and why turn it into an item on a list, like a vaccine, when you can have it again? I don’t mean that I have this mindset, but I do mean that I wish I did. That being said, I’ve also heard that in France I will always be hungry, that their meals are very tiny. It’s not true. I’ve never seen so much food as I have here, and I’ve never seen so many people so consistently eat so much food. Yes, their meals last twice the length of American meals, but they eat four times the amount of Americans, and somehow do so without needing their napkins and still talking twice as much. I ask how it’s possible that the French can all be so thin if they eat more than Americans. “That’s because all you eat is grease. Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, Coke, nothing but sugar and fat. We may eat more than you, but we have a balanced diet.” I was shopping for clothes recently and the only sizes I could find were smalls and mediums. There were very few mediums.

That evening we met up with friends and went to a bar. We walked down cobblestone streets until reaching a place in the wall that I did not recognize as a door. With effort we pushed the giant metal door open and then pushed it shut again, and once inside the dark, stone room, I felt like I had found my way into a castle’s walls. We crept up a winding stone staircase towards a light and knocked on a wooden door, and then—we were inside a gorgeous modern apartment, unremarkable except in how comfortable it was. C  gave me a number of rules when I got here. One was that our yogurt is on the middle shelf on the left. Another was that it’s very important that I never wash any of the teapots because much of the flavor in tea comes from all that buildup. Another was that I need to wait five minutes after I turn off the water in the shower and then turn it off again. The hot water is only produced twice a day, I’m pretty sure. But, as I learned over the summer, you only rinse yourself off with it, and then wash off the soap, and then rinse out the tub. During a shower, the water doesn’t run for more than a minute or so. I learned this by asking her over the summer. I learned also about how we shouldn’t keep anything electric running except when we’re in the room. None of this has anything to do with saving the earth: it’s about bills. All the windows here have shutters—not for decoration, but for keeping heat in. They are often used as window blinds also. My own windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling and have handles as if there was a porch outside. Sometimes, for what reason, I’m not sure, they open on their own. Now, it’s snowed a few times since I got here, and when I woke up this morning and they were open, I found that I hadn’t even noticed the difference in room temperature. We don’t keep the heat turned on. We wear warm clothes and when we’re stationary, we’re generally wrapped up in blankets and drinking something warm or alcoholic. And furthermore, beginning with kisses on the cheeks, people are much physically closer to each other all the time. [At first I found it unusual, but by the time I left I didn’t mind it at all, in fact, I enjoyed it…while here I’m ashamed to wipe my nose in public, there it became easy when I saw everyone was always doing so…they accept that they have bodies, and two months of being cold became easy, and a wonderful excuse for hot drinks all day long–coming back the cold US I immediately reverted to more wasteful habits when it came to heat, not intentionally, but because I found myself shivering much easier. There’s so much we take for granted.]

A few times when girls meet me, they hesitate and then put out their hand for me to shake. Everyone goes silent, and when, a moment later laughter erupts, the girl looks around and then offers me her cheek. When we ate lunch at somebody’s parents’ house yesterday, when wine and anise were being served the girl’s father ran in and, a little embarrassedly and a little concernedly, asked “would you like a coke? Not cocaine! I mean—I mean that we have found one bottle of coca cola—would you like it?” I asked C, do Americans have such a reputation? And she said we do, that when one thinks of an American one thinks of someone eating a hamburger and drinking a Coke.

So I am always sitting next to people very closely, or walking closely, or speaking closely, it’s very easy to make eye contact with people I don’t know, and everyone has been very friendly. When I went to a restaurant (I didn’t know if it was a restaurant or not…it was mostly a bar) to grab lunch one day when I went to school with C, I went to the bar and asked if I could buy something to eat there. The woman asked me a question I didn’t understand and when I told her so, what would be customary in the US, that is to repeat oneself at the same speed but to speak very loudly and make the person feel like an idiot, she asked me simply if I want something to eat, and I said I did, and she pointed towards a door that connected the place to another building and then said “non, non!” and motioned me to follow her, and ran to the door herself and came back a moment later asking if I’d like a sandwich and I said yes and asked what sort of sandwiches there were, and when she began speaking I didn’t know what she was speaking about and just looked confused until she said poulet, and was on the verge of doing a chicken impression with her arms when I exclaimed “poulet! Oui, oui!” [Knowing the word for chicken is second most important to knowing the word for bathroom, and what I didn’t express here at the time was how pessimistic this experience led me to feel, unsure of whether I should be sitting at the bar or a table, knowing how remarkable it was that I’d gotten myself food, and wondering how the hell I’d ever do it again. People ask me now if my French is good. No, by the time I left my French was not good, but I could travel and thrive easily without speaking a word of English, buying strange things, navigating strange cities and transportation that didn’t make any sense, and doing all these things fearlessly—perhaps I didn’t know the language very well, but by the time I left I knew enough to communicate effectively.]

Dijon, pt 2: language, body functions, customs, comparison to US.

Nov 30 11p My jet lag is still significant, I think, so much more of this past week has been slept away than I’d prefer, but still, I’ve done quite a lot, and not a single touristy thing. What I’m most pleased about is the fact that I spend the majority of the day speaking in French, even though my French is still very poor and I can’t even get through a simple café transaction, though, as in America, the moment anyone realizes that I’m not a native speaker they treat me like I’m retarded and then things go much smoother. Céline says I’m actually improving each day, although I think I’m having more trouble each day. The only explanation I can come up with is that with each day I become a little more invested in normal conversation, take for granted things I don’t have difficulty with, and long to say more complicated sentences in the meantime. Or it may be that I can only fake it for so long before becoming exasperated and resorting to charades or list-making. But I’ve even made some jokes that were understood within the past few days. Everyone speaks a little English, especially the students, who can speak very well, but I generally refuse to speak English to anyone except, when necessary or when having a more meaningful conversation, with Céline, who will stand back until I look at her with the expression that says, ‘translate, please!’

What we call the bathroom they call les toilettes. It’s a term that makes Americans blush, but it’s also what the British call it. But the reason they call it that is that the toilet is generally in a separate room from the sink, shower, etc. It’s a dedicated toilet-room. The other room is the bathroom. Just being with the girls over the summer made me a little less self-conscious about body-functions and the like, things that are rarely discussed in the US, or at least inappropriate. Here, it’s fairly common to see people pissing on the sidewalks, and I don’t mean in a corner, I just mean, in the middle of the day, against a wall on a busy street. Homeless people and drunk people. It’s legal to be drunk in public as long as you still have an open container. Yes, you read that correctly. Otherwise you’re considered a drunk. When I told you about how Céline has a remarkable ability to find money–$70 during the first few months she was in the US—and everyone tells me it’s just because I don’t pay attention to my surroundings, well, perhaps also it’s because not a day goes by when Céline does not instruct me to step over some river of piss on the sidewalk or a trail of fresh shits. And so, on the fourth morning, after going out to a housewarming party the night before and going to sleep dizzy, it was a considerably unhappy morning as I sat curled up under a blanket and watched French game-shows and Céline finally asked, “Stephen, you’re not going to like this question, but I’m sorry, I have to ask it, I’m really sorry, I know you’re not going to like this or else I won’t know what to tell you to eat to make you feel better…when you poo, is it…uhm, er, liquid?” I put the pillow over my face and cried “ouiiiii.” At the party, one of the first questions Céline was asked was ‘is it okay for us to burp in his face?’ She told them no, and she told me that things were probably going to be crazy, that there would be a lot of noise, dancing, and people ‘blurping’.

Almost immediately, kissing cheeks to say hello and goodbye became tedious rather than nerve-wracking because I had to greet so many people who insist on it—nearly everyone insists on it. I have trouble with names because they’re all new to me, and sometimes people say their names when I meet them, and sometimes they greet me with a word I don’t know—so I’ve taken to just repeating whatever they say and I assume that 66% of the time I’m correct (either I’m just repeating their name to show I’ve heard it, or repeating their greeting as my own, or sounding like an idiot.) As with body functions, everyone is significantly more open about sex, and the majority of their conversations, if not revolving around it, at least reference it freely, along with body motions and far more slang than English has seen, I’ll venture to guess since the Elizabethan age if Shakespeare is any indication of what common people understood. A room packed with people, more bottles than persons, loud music, baguettes, red peppers, pork ribs. But one of our roommates did not come, even though the rest of us did, and her boyfriend also. It was because she didn’t receive an invitation. Parties for us in my experience are generally word-of-mouth affairs, anyone can attend so long as they blend in, if you invite someone, it’s understood that their roommates and partners are also invited because it’s understood that if one of those persons is specifically not invited, it’s only polite to not attend yourself. Not here. If you’re invited you go, apparently even if that means leaving one of your close friends or girlfriend alone for the entire evening. I was given a glass of wine, everyone seems to prefer a sweet white wine from the region, good wine costs almost nothing, and nobody sniffs or swishes it. I still cannot get over how well everyone dresses. The dress boots with zippers that are so difficult to find in the US, they’re in every shop window. Everyone wears black, and nearly all their clothes seem to be black—I’m just constantly astounded by how everyone of all ages look like models.

Tonight I was having an English conversation with Alexandre, who I met in the US and so have an English-language relationship with him, so that when we were talking alone I felt fine speaking English. And we were discussing differences between the US and other places, how, for instance, getting through customs was instantaneous here, where I didn’t receive a passport stamp or need a visa or have my bags checked, whereas arriving in the US, they were all fingerprinted, made to remove most of their clothes, had their bags searched and required significant paperwork even for brief visits. I’ve been told many times that entering the US they were treated like criminals. Alex finds Canada attractive because it has the benefits of the US but hasn’t its shortcomings, one of the benefits being that if you work hard you can be paid more. And this is, I think, the beginning of the American mindset. I may be about to briefly discuss a few conclusions I reached after the events that I will sometime later recount, only because I remember them now, but the events themselves will serve as illustrations and if later disputed, are true now, and are, further, conclusions I did not expect.