Friday, November 15, 2013

European Vacation, Part I

As promised, here is the first of my (slightly edited) journal entires from our recent trip to Europe.

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Below are excerpts from the journal I kept while the wife and I travelled in Europe.  We had gone because the Wife had a medical conference in Brussels.  From there, we went to Strasbourg, Dijon, and Paris.  I'll break my journal up into a few different posts.  Where necessary, I've gone back and filled in clarifying details.

So here I am in Brussels, staying in what I think can safely be called the worst hotel in human history.  Let me amend that: worst luxury hotel; it's the luxury aspect that makes the place so irritating, because we (or, to be more accurate, my wife's employer) are shelling out 400 Euros a night for this place.  For that amount of argent you'd think we'd get a room where you could turn on the lights when you went to the bathroom.   But, hey, the breakfast room has four dozen books of fashion photography available for perusing while you drink your cafe!  And--as if that weren't enough (and it is)--a glassed-in dress from some recent avant-garde fashion collect awaits your approval in the area outside the breakfast room.  (The place bills itself as a 'fashion hotel' which is ridiculous on so many levels I can't even get into it.  Except, I will say that putting a hotel dedicated to fashion in the middle of Brussels feels like constructing a museum for temperance in the middle of Moscow).

Where was I?  Oh...the bathroom.  The bedroom has only two light panels--one by the bed and one by the door.  And the switches are...minute.  So going to the bathroom in the middle of the night means either stabbing hopefully at the panel until you hit the light for the bathroom (in which process you will inevitably turn on all the other lights in the room, thus waking your spouse)--or going in the dark.  And I mean the dark.  There is no ambient light at all.  Also, the "bathroom" is not a bathroom in the sense of "a separate room, closed off from the bedroom."  It is, rather, a disassociated set of functions--a toilet and a shower--both of which open directly into the bedroom.  (This lack of buffer zone between toilet and bedroom causes inconveniences of its own, which I won't get into).  Even worse, both toilet and shower use the same door.  Its pivot hinge lies directly between toilet and shower.  This one door must thus be toggled to close off EITHER the toilet or the shower--but never both.  This is very irritating.  And, often, discomfiting.

But no more about the hotel.  Except this--today I went to the front desk to ask if someone could help me book a train ticket.  I was told the concierge wasn't in till tomorrow.  What kind of "upscale" hotel, I wanted to ask, doesn't have a concierge on service during business hours?  Instead I asked when he'd be there.  "In the afternoon."  Did she know what time in the afternoon?  She shrugged.  And I cursed the hotel again in my mind. 

Anyway, I'm still feeling a bit tired, from the jetlag/time shift.  It's been overcast and rainy since we got here; without exposure to sunlight the human body struggles to adjust to new time zones.  Also, the dietary changes have been more difficult than expected.  I ate large salads every day during the weeks before we left, with copious vegetables for dinner.  Belgian food features lots of meat and butter, but salads and 'les legumes' (vegetables) feature less plentifully. 

What about the language?  I majored in French in college, but that meant only that I could read a Sartre play or a Mallarme poem and (probably) write a decent essay in response.  So I spent the months before we left working on my French (via a great app, recommended by my brother, called DuoLingo).  Since we arrived, I've been speaking with at-least moderate proficiency.

Brussels City Center
The difficult moments with a second language come in situations where there is no obvious context for the interaction.  After dinner tonight, for example (at "The Parakeet," an inexpensive cafe specializing in pitas), when the waitress came to clear our plates, she said (I thought)  "Votres choses?"  Our coats were nearby, on a chair, and so I thought she was asking if those coats, the ones right next to us at the table, belonged to us.  Which, admittedly, was an odd thing to ask.   ("Votres choses" for non-speakers, means "your things?")  So I said yes ("oui!")--these were our things.  And she looked confused.  Then, in English (always a dispiriting moment, when they switch to English) she said, "do you want anything else?"  And I realized she'd said not "votres choses" but "AUTRES choses?"  Which in a noisy restaurant, sound pretty similar.  But, had I'd fully understood the post-dinner ritual, the context for conversation after eating, I wouldn't have had to try and distinguish, in a crowded restaurant, between 'autres' and 'votres.'   Just one of many moments on this trip, speaking French, where I felt foolish. 

Not only am I continually reminded that I don't (and can't) fit in--the citizens seem pleased for me to be so reminded.  I can't know their rules and codes, they seem to say, and they don't wish me too.  Last night (at Lola, an upscale bistro) I asked (in French) for tap water.  That's a slightly unusual request; most people who eat out drink bottled water.   Sure enough, that's what we got--bottled water.  I thought at the time that I had made a mistake with my French, but today I learned that my French was fine, and that asking for tap water in Belgian restaurants is just "not done."  It was entirely likely, in other words, that I had asked for tap water (correctly), but just hadn't been given it.  More than that, by virtue of the incredible gaucherie I'd just inflicted upon this upscale restaurant, I'd marked myself as a tourist--a fool.   

And in doing so, I'd probably given my Belgian waiter a secret thrill.  I know: that sounds paranoid, but I often feel my Belgian interlocutors (good band name?) enjoy my repeated errors.  They want me/us (Americans?) to feel like outsiders, to sense our inability to belong.  Their codes, their behaviors, their comfort in navigating all the day-to-day rituals of European's as if that knowledge is all that the Belgian people--inhabitants of a fraying, minor European power--have to feel good about.  Their country may be about to split in two, they may be an afterthought in world politics, but hey--at least they know not to order tap water in a restaurant.  At least they know not to try to eat dinner at 6:30!

What I find surprising in all this, though, is that instead of discounting these rituals and codes as foolish (what the hell is wrong with ordering tap water?) I respond by trying to go along.  I know I'll never NOT look like a tourist, but I still want to try.  At the same restaurant, we were shown, when we arrived, a terrible table--awkwardly positioned, right next to the kitchen, at the very back of the house.  In America, I would always ask to sit somewhere else.  But here, somehow, I didn't dare; I didn't want to stand out.  I wanted to be accepted.  Which is odd, because--and I say this only slightly in jest--I don't have any great for the Belgium people.  I find them dour, irritating, and close-minded. 

And yet, I do find them intimidating.  Their lifelong indoctrination into a complex code of behavior gives them power.  If, in any given situation, you know, with certainty, what should be done--that knowledge, though it may limit your freedom, also releases you from the anxiety of having to choose.  If there is always a correct response, a behavioral code to fall back on, there is no necessity to stake out your own personality, define your own character in choice.  The code is an armor and a protection, and that protection is, I imagine, tremendously liberating.  This is the source of our nostalgic obsession for Downton Abbey, I think; its great appeal is not of wealth or status, even, it's that we could imagine inhabiting a society in which it's possible to learn all the rules.  In which everything was ordered such that there was always a correct action.

But I've gone off a bit from ordering tap water.

The Delirium Cafe
A few days later

It's now Sunday night.  The last post was from Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

What has happened since?

We got more comfortable in Brussels but never grew to love (or even strongly like) it.  We returned to Le Perroquet, and even once sent back a dish (a massive gaucherie, I know).  We made it to the old, medieval city center of Brussels; that lifted our opinions of the whole city (very lovely).  I made us go to the Delirium Cafe--a Mecca for beer enthusiasts around the world, with over 2000 bottles served.  I'm not a huge beer person, really, but it seemed silly to go to Belgium and drink no beer.  

At Delirium I had a delicious framboise, a fruity raspberry concoction which tasted not at all alcoholic but very strongly of raspberries.  We were there around 2 pm; at a table near us, sat a woman nursing a young baby.  She herself had the remnants of a black eye.  There were two other women sitting with her, all quite young, and several empty beer steins.  I wondered what their story was.

Besides beer and mussels (and enslaving half of Africa), Belgians are known for French fries.  Yesterday we went to a famous chip stand (a kiosk, that is, that sells only French fries.)  Maison Antoine, was its name.  It's been in operation for more than fifty years.  Because it's just a kiosk, if you want to sit indoors after you get your chips, you have to go to one of the nearby cafes.  Those that will allow you to bring in outside chips, have a little sign, resembling Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, on the windows.  That, we liked.

The fries, by the way, were not great.   

On Friday afternoon we took a day trip to Bruges.  It drizzled most of that day (indeed, has done so every day we've been here), but Bruges still had enough beauty to overcome it.  While I was there I kept quoting to myself one of the lines from In Bruges, a film that tries to generate comic energy by having a duo of sadistic gangsters juxtaposed against the city's quaint medieval loveliness.  (The line, like most of the movie, is R-rated, so I won't repeat it).

The Stadhuis, Bruges
Bruges felt to me a bit like Florence.  It's not actually a real place anymore; it's an exhibit, a staged experience for tourists (who thronged the place).  On the train ride back I tried to imagine what it'd be like to grow up in Bruges, a place so heavily impinged on by the past, a place where you are always being brought back to what has already happened a long long time ago.  (We did pass an enjoyable half hour in the Stadhuis museum.  Reminds me of an idea for a kind of esoteric humor joke, which is to do with the battle of the Golden Spurs, in Bruges history).  I think it would be incredibly claustrophobic--your sense of possibility and options, I imagine, would feel hugely circumscribed. 
A residential street in Bruges
I had some thoughts too about how European political parties frequently skew so much more radical than their American counterparts.  (There's no fascist party in America, whereas dozens of European country have viable, neo-fascist ones).  The weight of the past figures in.  There's so much more to want to be free from, in Europe--so much more to want to tear away.  To be a conservative, to want to limit change, means staying in the 15th century in somewhere like Florence.  It's not enough.  You want to destroy it all and start again, tear down all the museums and churches and have a blank slate to work with.  I don't know.  These are kind inchoate ideas, but...yeah.

Anyway.  Bruges felt like a place we had to go (being in Brussels); now, having seen it, we need never return.

Friday, November 1, 2013

"Celine Dion was Really Awesome to Him."

We got back from France on Tuesday in the early morning; I'm working up some entries on our adventures there, but they'll take a few days to assemble.

In the meantime, I recommend that anyone interested in Elliot Smith (and if you admire strong songwriting, you admire Elliot Smith) check out this oral history of his life and times.

One of the many interestings bits of info in it had to do with that icon of Portland indie songwriting, Celine Dion.  Smith, as you may remember, was nominated for a "Best Song" Oscar in the same year that Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" conquered the universe.  When he was invited to perform at the ceremony, there was something, let's say, of a disconnect between his world and that of Titanic-era Los Angeles.  But, it turns out that Dion went out of her way to make Smith feel at home during the Oscar ceremonies...
... the highlight of that event for Elliott was that Celine Dion made him feel comfortable, from backstage to onstage. It really was amazing. She made him really feel at home, like he was one of them.

ROB SCHNAPF: Celine Dion was really awesome to him. She really was.

For some reason, that made me happy.  Knowing Celine Dion, for all the terribleness her songs emit, is  a decent person.