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.

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Dijon, pt. 1

November 25, 8:55pm It’s funny, firstly, to think that there are other places, but it’s even more funny to actually go to these places and have to deal with them up close. The most wonderful part is that I don’t have to deal with them as a tourist, that is, I don’t have any serious connection back to my own world, and I don’t have to deal with them as a backpacker, so that I’m stuck in a certain role, I’m just here. The plane ride was fine, although I’d hoping to get the two seats to myself, because that’s what the computer showed, an old scowling French lady was there when I came to sit down, and made a comment about something, maybe she was making a joke when I took my tranquilizers, but anyway, I couldn’t understand her, and afterwards she did not want to speak with me, except I asked her “est-ce que vous aimez vole?” and she looked at me like I was crazy before answering j’aime! And I thought she was correcting me and I exclaimed j’aime! And she turned away. I was afraid she would die during the flight, though she showed no signs of it, which made me begin wondering if perhaps the French don’t die of old age, or maybe they don’t die at all. But if they do, oh, it would not be good to have her die during this flight. All around me people were speaking, even an American woman in front of me, middle-aged, who reminded me of Martha Stewart, flirting incessantly with a young black French man, very hip. It was a long flight, and took off more than an hour later than it should have. We flew into Paris as the sun rose and I thought it was the largest brightest city I’d ever seen.

Nov 26 8pm Once off the plane I waited for my luggage and getting through customs was very simple, and I could not be bored waiting just to hear the language and see how everyone acted and dressed—perhaps it is just selective blindness, but everyone seems much more fashionable here, even the people who I was on the plane with. I received my luggage surrounded by hasidim and young couples with babies, and customs took less than ten seconds, unlike in the US where it will take no less than a prison-sentence to make it home. Céline and her family met me at the gate, standing right in front, and things began feeling so surreal now as I said my bonjours and shook hands with her father and was taken by surprise, C. noticed, when her mother offered me her cheek and I slowly remembered that this is the equivalent of shaking hands, but I did not know I would be doing it so very often, later her sister and her roommates. I remember very little about walking through the airport, a reunion and also being a bit overwhelmed by hearing and seeing French everywhere. To the car, still before 9am, and most of the cars on the road were by companies I’d never seen before, all French, including the one we were in, and we listened to that music still popular in France that sounds 20-years dated in the US, they gave me a bag of croissants from McDonalds marked Le Petite Dej’ and spent a long time driving slowly down highways in traffic jams in the rain. But meantime, the houses and buildings were, even the modern ones, like nothing I’ve seen before, even when boring, there was something about them un-American, like I’ve seen in photographs but thought I never really paid attention to. Celine lives in a neighborhood of old houses, chestnut trees, which I’ve never seen before, spread out in flat layers, iron gates and children with pompoms on their hats, a neighborhood in which she says the houses begin at 500k euros. Her family lives in what used to be a farmhouse, and they point out that the upstairs they think held hay and the downstairs held cows, and it is part of a long building in a complex that her father is in charge of, as a mechanic, so when we drive up a gate opens. And behind another gate is her house, very pretty, a little dog named Awen jumps up and down at the window and she pokes at it before we go inside. She plays with her dog by dragging it by her legs and throwing a tennis ball and doing all the things I’d be afraid would damage a little dog, but he loves this, and when he runs and jumps at me, he jumps into me and bounces off like rubber and does it again.

I just received a message from Celine’s sister, and it says I am invited to dinner with their family, followed by “I hope you are not boring,” the whole sentence being “I hope you are not boring in Dijon.” Céline and I discussed this word only this morning, the difference between being bored and being boring. Celine says that once I asked what Solene was doing and she replied ‘she’s being boring,’ and when I looked shocked, that’s when we figured out what she meant.

The streets in her neighborhood are only wide enough for a row of parked cars and a row of driving cars, and so, if two cars meet as they’re driving, the one driving in the direction of the parked cars has to park. Every two weeks the cars switch which side they’re parked on. We went to the train station to get me a 12-25 pass so I can get discounts on train tickets for being under 26. And then back to her house for lunch, which is an extravagant event, beginning with fish-stuffed olives and a salad of cucumber and tomato on which we chopped up shallots and put on a mixture of mustard and oil, I think, and delicious bread with yellow raisins in it and all their butter comes in large molds with under a plastic cover and is sweet and, well, completely unlike butter I’ve had before. And then lamb, and potatoes, and butterbeans. And then, for dessert, many different cheeses. And then coffee. And then we sat and talked, and a few people have been surprised that I’ve learned as much French as I have in five months, perhaps because it’s quick, perhaps because it’s quick for an American? And, by now, I was very tired, so I slept for a while, and when I woke up Céline’s parents drove us to the train station where we met Celine’s sister, Nathalie, and then caught a small train to Paris. In Paris everyone is stylish and a bit brusque, which would have offended and surprised me had I not been with Céline to follow around and provide commentary. As we were standing there a woman came up to us and begged—actually, on the small train a gypsy woman boarded and I thought she was speaking with her daughter until I noticed how often she kept repeating s’il vous plait, and realized she was begging, so I looked away like everyone else. At the train station a woman asked me for money and I said je ne comprend pas and she began speaking to Celine who turned her away, and the woman said to her ‘you are mean, pretending to be Americans.’ And we caught the train, where we had reserved seats and for a few hours we were on our way to Dijon, and I thought I might be sick from the motion of the thing, so I was very sad, but we arrived in the cold wet night and, since there were no more busses for nearly an hour, we dragged our luggage down the dark streets, where I could not see how beautiful the city truly was, and to her apartment, where her friends and dinner awaited us. Sometime very early I suddenly became very tired and had to go to bed, where I slept until late. Dinner also was extravagant also—I love how much emphasis is placed on enjoying food and drink. Oh! And as for her family, they were not how I expected, I expected her father to be a little cold, and her mother to be silent, but not at all, I think the words Celine used to describe them lost the true meanings of what she meant, because they were both very funny, and very warm, and I felt quite at home visiting with them.

We went food shopping on the next morning, which was an adventure too, as they have so many more delicious looking foods than we do, partially because everything we see in storybooks as children, food as it is supposed to look, this is how the food looks here, it all just looks appetizing. So, we bought many foods, came home, and I spent the whole day sleeping. Dinner. And more sleep. And then this morning, waking up late. And spending the day with Celine, as we did on weekends, helping each other study, having breakfast and lunch and then she took me out to see the city—it looks like something from a storybook, just as Whitney’s little town at Oktoberfest did, so does this one, cobblestone streets and medieval churches and bread and pastry and meat shops and stands on the streets selling gingerbread and mustards, and many, many streets without cars, and everyone dresses in black, so stylish, the shoes I’ve been looking everywhere for, are sold in every clothing store window.

Jeanne d’Arc, part 1.

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I’ve always been highly conscious of lingering energy, though part of it may be my imagination, I’ve been to where Martin Luther King was shot, and it made me shiver a little, even at age 8, not because of what had occurred there, but because I knew without a doubt that he had been there himself. When I walked up the Statue of Liberty, despite the terror at the way it swayed in the storm, with every step I thought of all the great footsteps that were beneath mine. At Versailles, it was not the princes I identified with anymore, it was the poor running through the palace seeking the king and queen. For ten years I dreamed of the Hall of Mirrors, I pictured the gardens outside, it was a feat of unmatched la gloire! and at this age when very little surprises me anymore, I found that the Hall had been greatly enhanced by my imagination, I almost vomited in a London bathroom that looked similar.
What caught my eye was something behind the mirrors: my face. Would it only take one change of clothes, perhaps a haircut, to let me see what these mirrors must still remember? I think of young men and ladies looking at themselves in these mirrors, and I think of the revolutionaries running, always running in my imagination, through that hall, did they stop and stare? Did they know what to expect? Did it infuriate them to see the excesses, or were they awed by its magnificence? When I step inside any cathedral I have the same argument with myself–how many people could this cathedral have fed if it had never been built? Will Durant suggests that over-control of the population, leaving the failures in charge of procreation, is the downfall of some civilizations. If they stalled, is that what gave Marie Antoinette enough time to escape? And when they found the rooms empty, did they walk or did they run back out? Did they touch
anything? They tore down weather-cocks from the houses of the wealthy. The chambers below the Hall of Mirrors are pathetic, whitewashed, dark, low-ceilinged, even depressing when the windows are open, the library of men destined to never be great, to be filled with knowledge but fail to outlive the king. The bed where the queen would insist the entire court watch her give birth, how does a queen spread her legs? how does she scream? does somebody consume the afterbirth of the sun-king’s descendants? I can’t even clip my fingernails without thinking of Sir James Fraiser’s list of peoples who consume fingernail clippings and earwax in the endless battle against bad magic. I take a particular pleasure when in large cities of clipping my nails out the window, here’s something that won’t kill anyone it lands on, isn’t as immediately disgusting as spit, and gives the recipient the opportunity to retaliate. I suppose the only thing better than that would be to just slit your wrists out the window. I’ve heard that defenestration isn’t nearly as funny as it sometimes seems.
When I stand at the windows, I don’t care for what I see, but I care for what has been seen, and by whom. I care that this view once meant something. I care about the ways that stone steps are so weathered by footsteps in the Louvre as I trot to the top floor with one hand prepared to cover my teeth if I fall. I send out little prayers to the dead, even the dead who don’t deserve it, for what we’ve taken from them. And that’s the point I’m trying to reach, which is that I feel like going someplace allows us to take a little bit of it away with us, we don’t need to take photographs because we’re taking something of the essence in our hearts.
But…can it run out? I think so. But isn’t there more to it that I feel? Yes–it’s that I only take away what I’m seeking, or what I feel or know is there. I never take away ghosts I do not know. Which is why I feel nothing of kings and queens–for Marie Antoinette’s toilet, I only wonder what that second little hole is for? Céline says tampons and smiles. I wonder about the revolutionaries, not as revolutionaries but as people, because I identify with them as people, I identify with standing in the houses of the wealthy and poking my head around and gasping. I take a little bit of the revolution away with me, god knows there’s none of it left at the place de la bastille. Between the revolution and napoleon, the messiah comes and history gives way to modernity somehow, it’s not the Champs-Élysées of Joni Mitchell (or David Geffin, if you’re going to get picky) I walk down, no, because on one hand I’m trying to figure out where I can possibly throw a clementine peel since there’s no goddamn trashcans, and on the other I’m trying to figure out how
long I have before that quiche and its burnt chevre explode from my ass and how many years I’ll be put away for manslaughter afterwards, sorry Paris, is this still Paris? no public toilets or trashcans? That’s just fine. Because I’m crying softly for the Champs-Élysées of Watteau, and if forced, of Degas, and all I can feel are the goose-steps of Nazis, I can’t even feel Napoleon. Modern, modern is when you order all your soldiers confirmed infected with plague to be shot in the name of mobility. Do you remember what happened to your car-phone? Some would call that cruel, and some would call it merciful. I’m not afraid of death, so I call it kind. I can’t bear to walk all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, mostly because of the diarrhea, but also, let’s be serious, why do I care to see a testament to ultimate failure? It breaks my heart that Napoleon broke up with Josephine, and that’s why I hate him. That’s the only reason I hate him. Because I’ve read his love letters to her. Monogamy, the one thing princes cannot overcome, even Leonard Bernstein had to marry against his sexuality to assure himself a job conducting the NY Philharmonic. Life is rough. I don’t have enough money to see Blake’s illuminated manuscripts at the
British Library, and I don’t have enough to see the uncensored copy of Nin’s Winter of Artifice at the Biblioteque Nationale. Life is rough. Four different people have told me in the past 24 hours that they’re the only person who truly understands me. Life is rough! I nod weakly. The whole family is worried that I’m drinking too much and not eating enough. My first reaction to returning to Ameriker was to lose fifteen pounds. My mother says my belt isn’t tight enough, and to think these pants made my package look huge just last November!
Unlikely as it may seem, Jeanne d’Arc has always been one of my heroes. I remember where I was sitting precisely when I first saw Bill and Ted’s something-something Adventure, and two characters jumped out at me: Billy the Kid and Joan of Arc. I was better situated to pursue Billy the Kid’s footsteps, so I’ve trekked through deserts, cemeteries, ghost towns, I’ve stood on cliffs, been in the dirt houses of those people we still called Indians, I’ve seen the bullet holes in the walls, my skin has cracked in the dry heat, I’ve been blinded by the dust, I’ve been thirsty, I’ve been tired, I’ve held guns, I’ve felt my skin burnt by trucks on fire, I’ve been cold at night. And always that one foggy image of Billy the Kid, the idea of him hiding in bedrooms, his youthfulness and sharpness, his inherent greatness. One night at a bar Scott and I decided a new rule was in effect: wedding rings meant nothing, we would chase married women if they dared to look us in the eyes. In a way, murder is okay when it comes to legends. Daedalus is an object of pity, but I become uncomfortable to think of him as the murderer of his nephew. But Jeanne d’Arc…what has she meant to me that has lasted for so long, what does she mean to me now? How is it that I continue to feel attached to her? It has something to
do with all three of the things that have obsessed my aching mind since first my eyes were opened and I was ashamed, many years before I could even spell my own name: death, sexuality, and god. Since then it’s been Dreyer’s portrayal of her, and Shakespeare’s, and it’s been the way she’s haunted my memories of my future, the way I’ve always felt like a sacrifice, the way I’ve presented myself as the goat destined for Azazel, the way they tested me for scoliosis twice every year until I was 16 because they couldn’t understand that every time a butterfly died the muscles in my back would grow a little bit weaker. I haven’t quite learned to lift with my legs yet, though I’ve seen the signs a thousand times, I just never paid attention.