Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Living With Islam

The Mosque

Mosque design is different from that of the Catholic churches one sees across Europe. While the Mosques outwardly are beautiful – integrating a distinctly Arab/North African architectural style, the insides are notably barren with the exception of a few prayer mats, and a line on the wall indicating the direction of Mecca. This is because inside ornament is considered blasphemous as it may distract from the business of Allah’s greatness. Where Catholicism seeks to awe the onlooker with ostentatious displays of grandeur, Islam is more modest. Jesus saves, Moses invests and Muhammad, apparently, economizes. The grand mosque in Niamey embodies this. One of the three oldest mosques in the world, the grand mosque is enormous – its outside splendor matched only by its Spartan interior.

Dedication of the Hajji

Boubecar pours the tea from pot to glass back to pot. This action is two fold – to cool the tea and to dissolve the sugar into it. The coals smolders beneath the starlight. He takes a sip, smiles and pours me a glass, the tea sufficiently tempered and sweetened. Boubecar has been telling me about how he has been saving up to go on the Hajj. The Hajj – or the ceremonial Muslim trip to Mecca is very important to Nigeriens. It is a pious status symbol of sorts – an indication that they have somehow arrived spiritually. While the Koran states that one should attempt to make the Hajj but once in a lifetime – many Nigeriens go as often as they can afford as a sort of spiritual one-upmanship. To able to be called a Hajji insures one a certain social standing, as after all it requires a certain social and economic standing to be able to make the Hajj to begin with. Boubecar boasts that his father has made the trip three times during his lifetime – all three by airplane – partially subsidized by the Saudi government, who now runs a sort of lottery amongst pious Muslims to determine who they will allow to make the voyage every year. Airline travel has made what was a once in a lifetime journey a potentially annual occurrence for those that can afford it.

Boubecar’s grandfather made the journey in the days before air travel. He traveled by camel, until his camel died by the Egyptian border, from which point he traveled on foot – working odd jobs as he went. All in all – the voyage took him four years; two to go and two to come back. When he came back, he was different – always strangely aloof. He had seen things in those four years – along that desolate stretch of the Sihel and then the Sahara that connects Niger to Algeria, and then to Lybia, Tunisia and eventually Egypt. That stretch north, through the Middle East – through desert and conflict before reaching Mecca – a city built in the Middle of the desert. Four years of starvation conditions and desiccating sunlight for a ceremony that takes three days and culminates with the hurling of rocks. Four years in which his family grew and changed without him. He came back changed – both as though he had achieved nothing and everything but spent. He came back though, and in some way, that was enough.

I sip my tea. It is good, a warming sweat feeling fills me as I look up at the night sky and at the thousands of stars that reduce us – that definitively let us know where it is we stand in the cosmic order of things, and I stifle a laugh.

The Tightening In its Miscellany

Islam in Niger is hardly the Sunni orthodoxy that one finds in the Middle East. It is a blend, a mélange of animist traditions and Islam, many of the practices of which are in violation of what the Koran itself reads. As Nigerien Islam has advanced in the last couple of decades, becoming an increasingly brittle ideology, and as a progressively younger population is brought up in the tradition, one senses a sort of cultural tightening. Many of these traditions have taken on very strange bents. For example, it is now considered blasphemous for a man to pee against the wall standing up, and this for reasons that no one can quite remember. Initially I had believed this practice to stem from the lack of public toilets and the pervasiveness of latrines but I was soon put straight after being accosted in a Niamey back alley by a Sheik with an axe to grind. What this means is that one sees, squatting in front of walls, boys trying to have a piss. Clearly there is now something semi-idolatrous about accidentally pissing on ones shoes – a reflection of vigor and conviction in these decidedly “hedonistic times”. Upon demanding which hadith or Koranic passage indicated that men should pea sitting down - I was refereed to some bit or other dealing with general cleanliness of person – which seems in some ways contradictory to the likely outcome of squatting and firing away, but who am I to argue with a sheik. I promised to try it his way next time, then held my breath before convulsing with laughter – doing Camus proud - as one must in the face of the absurd.

The Tightening in its General

Sufi Muslims – despite Niger having been famous for its Sufism – have begun to be curtailed and disparaged widely. Sufis are Islamic mystics, known in equal measure for their violations of Islamic scripture (such as their celebrated uses of wine and narcotics)s a means of achieving certain universal truths that they feel are not accessible through strict adherence to Sunni doctrine. Sufi’s though, despite being described as “Islamic Hippies” are no intellectual slouches, with many of the most important of Islamic skeptics and thinkers coming from some vain of the tradition. Now Sufis are condemned almost universally across Niger, there additions to the religion ignored in favor of Sunni orthodoxy or animalistic superstition – the latter of which has also been used to keep women from moving.

Women have also suffered greatly as a result of religious tightening. Sunni orthodoxy holds that women are not be educated. The roll of the women is to be kept – as some form of ornament. A woman, according to strict Sunni scripture is to be given that which she desires and is not supposed to work, as she should never have any reason to. What this has meant in practice throughout Niger has been a strong societal push towards insuring that women never leave the household, despite their having to work to keep the household afloat. Women spend hours before every meal pounding millet (which ironically robs the plant of much of its nutritional value), fetching water, and disciplining children, often while their husbands are away – often not working throughout non-agricultural seasons. Often times, non-existent Koranic passages are bandied about justifying this, though often they are derived from traditional social structures. Unlike Iran, which has the mitigating influences of both relative wealth and a traditional sense in Persian culture that demands women be educated, Nigerien women are increasingly domesticated and forced into servile rolls. This is the religious tightening in its most damnable. To watch as the literacy rate among women continues to decline in many poorer parts of the country – at a rate far greater than that of men is the most telling evidence of this. The cloistering of women and the requirement in the East of Niger that the chador be worn at all times, especially by married women – whom are considered to be the “property” of their husbands - where previously it had been a subject of choice go far to further illustrate this point. Desertification drives poverty, while poverty drives religious fanaticism. The more lush, eastern parts of the country remain the far more liberal socially and the most mellow religiously.

Ramadan Part 1

And then one day Ramadan was upon Niger. There was a sudden depletion of street food; and of life on the streets in general, a dramatic marker for the start of the Muslim month of fasting. Where there was a flood of vendors, now there is a trickle, largely foreigners, selling food to children and the few, proud hedonists who upon making a purchase, guiltily disappear with their comestibles, fearing community reprisal by the few hungry fasters who can bring themselves to go about their regular routines. People, weakened by lack of food and water stayed indoors as best they could. This is, of course, the harvest season - forcing people into the fields while systematically preventing them from consuming water. The Koran states that the fast can only be broken prior to sun down in cases in which one is driven so mad by dehydration that “they can no longer distinguish between a black and a white strand of thread that is held before their eyes.” Those that ventured into the streets look drained and tired – a look of hunger fills their eyes. This must be a triumph of will over human necessity. I am told that people begin to become habituated, or perhaps a better way to say it would be inured, to the effects after the first couple of weeks of Ramadan. But now, at the beginning, things are hardly bearable for most. People sit in their houses, the cooking pot ready, waiting for the sun to go down. Dinners are dashed off at a hectic pace, with enormous quantities of food cooked – much of it going to waste. People’s moods rarely improve following the breaking of the fast as they now are ill from overeating. Ramadan remains a charged time. Domestic disputes increase, and everyone seems to be yelling at each other all the time. Children are beaten, often savagely for minor infractions. Everyone is on edge, at least until time, and resignation take the immediate cut from the pains of hunger.

Ramadan Part 2

The mosques begin their call an hour earlier during Ramadan. It is important to give people the time to wake up and eat before the sun comes up and they must start their fast. The imams that work in the megaphones attempt to sing the traditional Islamic prayers. They do no understand Arabic well, forming sounds often without grasping the meaning of the words, and fail to harmonize well – leading to a tuneless jumble, punctuated by speaker static that periodically shifts musical tonalities. The speakerphone equipped mosques take on a new urgency. Ramadan represents one of the principle pillars of Islam. These are the sinews that the religion is fashioned from. The month of fasting remains crucial to the pious Muslim, as a mechanism to demonstrate his or her dedication to the faith. Mosque attendance soars, not only because of the increased aura of piousness, but also, because it is a good way to kill time while one is waiting for the sun to go down so that one can eat. There is an element of emptiness, wrought by hunger that the mosques try to feed through spirituality. The old wither. The end of Ramadan is said to be a time of renewal – both spiritual, and in the sense of routine. The renewal of life, or normalcy, and of the feeling of not quite togetherness - a lightheadedness that the fasting causes. Perhaps then, Muhammad renews.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

African Scenes

Bovine Abomination

A dead cow is lying in a ditch undergoing purification. On the first day, the cow had not been looking well - it was little more than an anemic mass of skin, bones and pustules - and it owners, knowing that the end was nigh had grudgingly abandoned it – quite literally putting it out to pasture. All the same, despite its slight mania at the end, charging about and bucking at phantom assailants, as if fighting death itself, the cow’s sudden collapse was in some way surprising.

The second day the buzzards came, and the smell: terrible and stomach churning greeted the countryside with an impermeable reek that stretched out for kilometers in every direction. The ants got to work after the buzzards had left, as did the maggots.

The third day, the smell worsened as purification intensified and the long chain fatty acids in the cow’s stomach were converted. The air became thick with the smell of bucolic acid.

The fourth day the odor became so intense that people could no longer think. All that remained was the head of the cow, but the rot again intensified. Those living in the adjacent field began their morning by stifling vomiting. The air seemed to hang thick with disease. People began to fall ill.

On the fifth day, the odor had subsided, leaving only a skeletal structure and a brown stain of dead plant life where the cow had been to remind a passerby of the cow’s existence. Thus, the cow had taken its revenge. Abandoned yes, but for days, impossible to ignore before its eventual restoration to the soil.


Heavy Weather

Rain storms in Niger are primordial. One can actually watch the natural process by which the atmosphere transforms itself. The normally pale blue of the sky is supplanted with a light crimson that matches that of the earth. The cloud of red earth that gathers blots the sun, pushing everything into darkness, and this before the rain clouds gather. This is because the rapid change it atmospheric pressure sees enormous winds, as hot, high pressure systems collide with cold, low pressure ones; carrying clouds of dust. The air suddenly feels very heavy – then comes the downpour – which is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Rain drops the size of fists slash at the earth while the wind continues to whip the earth into frenzy. To be caught in a rainstorm is to be lashed and beaten by the physical force of the weather. The ground, which is largely light sand, is transformed into great pits of mud. Lost travelers caught in rain storms are said to drown in these pits. Then, within an hour of the storms passing, the water is filtered through the silt and the earth becomes again dry and sandy. This process is massively cooling and at times brings several hours relief from the oppressive heat of the days.



Niger, despite the lack of buses, trams, subways and other typically western options, lives by mass transit. This is accomplished through bush taxis. Bush taxis tend to take the form of dilapidated late 70s vintage Peugeot station wagons that have an extra row of seats driven into them. Thus, a typical station wagon – and one should remember that the regular delineations of “seats” mean nothing to either the bush taxi operator or passenger – is able to accommodate upwards of 14 people, with luggage. Livestock that cannot be carried in hand, or be forced to ones feet is simply strapped to the roof. Thus one can sometimes expect to see live chickens at ones feet and live goats, and in one case, a donkey tied to the roofs of ones typical bush taxi. The bush taxis exist by their own laws of time. One spends hours waiting for a taxi and then hours again waiting for the taxi to reach capacity. Once a driver has secured a full load, the taxi is off, smashing over potholes on ill-maintained roads. The drivers know the roads well and avoid the worst of the axel destroying road obstructions. Police check points come and go – navigated via identification cards and occasionally hastily produced bills, accounts are settled between passing drivers going in opposite directions – occasionally seeing disputes in the middle of the road that can tie up traffic in both directions. Stops take place in towns where taxis are assaulted by local vendors pushing on one every manor of meat, confection and the rest, many of which are snapped up by hungry and weary travelers. There is a great deal of “off-roading” as often the bush provides for better driving conditions than the highways themselves. There exist two other things that can slow ones bush taxi ride – the 5 times daily call to prayer, which will see drivers temporarily abandon their vehicle, often in the middle of the road to stop and pray – and the breakdown, which, barring tools, can see one stranded, literally in the middle of nowhere until the next taxi comes around, which in some cases can be a matter of days. Water can run out quickly in Niger, with the heat of the sun making dehydration a constant and very real possibility people have been known to siphon blood off of livestock and the rest in order to survive a multi-hour bush taxi stop-over.

Niamey By Night

Weddings in Niger take the form of daylong festivals and always seem to fall on Saturdays. Saturday is the marrying day and to throw a wedding on a different day is to violate the strict traditional rules by which Nigeriens operate. The wedding I had gone to was very nice, a friends cousin, and atypical in that, the level of education and affluence of the family saw a move away from the formless garments that characterize traditional Muslim dress towards, tighter, and dare I risk saying it, more physically “complimentary” attire for the women. A traditional Tuareg band played and people danced. African dance takes the form of conjoined circles in which everyone takes a turn at being “showcased”. This can be simply a variation on a dance step or an intrinsically complicated gesture. Both are treated equally in the eyes of the co-dancers. One up-manship exists, but is friendly, and always concludes with boisterous streams of laughter. Africans laugh like no other culture - and they do it frequently – a deep, head thrown back affair that seems to rumble from their very essence.

Following the wedding my friend asks me if I would like to go to a birthday party. I was supposed to be back at the training site hours ago, and I am already breaking every regulation that Peace Corps subjects trainees too, so I figure, why the hell not, any damage has already been done, and away we go, whisked across town in the back of a Niamey city taxi. Transportation around Niamey couldn’t be cheaper and taxis generally pick up people on route, although unlike bush taxis, traditional seats are observed. Thus, one is always in a full taxi but never compressed into a corner.

Niamey is the administrative capital and largest city in Niger. At only a million, it is relatively compact, but undergoing rapid expansion. The population of the city doubled in the last 15 years and is likely to triple again in the next 20. Like Lagos, in next door Nigeria, the ongoing encroachment of the desert is driving subsistence farmers from the land into the city. This means that the city is getting poorer and the new residents tend to be desperate, giving rise to parts of Niamey where one, especially an “Anasarra” or foreigner does not want to walk at night – making the omnipresent and low cost city taxis all the more necessary. Niamey itself is situated on the Niger River and divided into five administrative communes, four on the mainland and one taking the form of an affluent island in the middle of the river – which houses the heads of state, the countries banking sector and the University of Niamey.

We are the last in the taxi, and thus in purely egalitarian manner the last to be dropped off, which sees us given an informal tour of the city from the back of the cab. The different neighborhoods have very different characters. The grand market area is rife with vendors, while the small market sees the best fruit and produce sellers – making it a necessary point of visitation – while also boasting roaming bands of thieves and other brigands – due to its proximity to the Ecogar Wadata (the terrifying bush-taxi station/hub) and one must watch oneself. The region around the ministries is upscale and mired only by the omnipresent collections of prostitutes at nights, serving not Nigeriens, but foreign aid workers who have come for a bit of sex touristy as well.

My friend and I arrive at the bar that the party is being held; at only to be served kegged beer (a rarity in Africa) and fresh mutton. There are two competing beers in Niger – Biere Niger (or Giraffe – for the animal that gives its likeness to the label) and Flagg – which are almost indistinguishable from each other. The difference seems to be that Flagg is the stronger and ‘hoppier’ (making it the slightly more expensive) of the two. Flagg then is the drink for evenings and BN (so goes the acronym) of the late afternoons when the sun remains highest in the sky. We mix with the party guests, almost all overwhelmingly educated Nigeriens currently working with NGOs, with the occasional American. The French as it turns out, have failed to make much of an impact in development work in Niger do to their apparent inability to stay on and provide programming follow-up. This means that French development missions see the French show up, thrust handfuls of money at projects and leave, much to the frustration of their African counterparts. This makes Americans (because of the Peace Corps) joint-European, and surprisingly, Japanese missions very popular. My friend and I spend the evening with two certifiable and decisively drunken middle-aged University of Niamey professors. One of them teachers philosophy and elucidates on the finer points of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathprusta” in a formal and decidedly African old-world French while wildly dancing on the table – never missing a beat, either musically nor in the realm of rhetoric. The other is a professor of English literature, who has studied in England and proceeds to start argument after argument through his ongoing fallacious insistence that Martin Luther King said, or meant to say “I had a dream” rather than “I have a dream”.

At two in the morning, we are crammed into the Land Rover of a Rasta Dreaded head of a ministry who continues the debate on King’s words with the English professor while explaining his long standing dislike of Hausa music (which is sort of a wailing sub-Baliwood affair with sickeningly, almost diabetes inducing saccharine melodies and heavily compressed vocals), occasionally pausing to curse at over drivers as we drive (as can be the norm in Niamey) against the flow of traffic and on the wrong side of the road. Traffic laws then are rarely enforced leading to a sort of semi-anarchy on the roads, which at times follows strict regimental patterns but at times degenerates.

I eventually manage to hitch a ride, early the next morning, back to Hamdallaye, and manage, through a process of sweet-talking and obfuscation to avoid the tyrannical penalties that could float my way. My friend and I crack jokes about how much easier things will be once I have completed my spell in “école militaire”.


Literature + Illness = Illness (with apologies to Roberto Bolaño)

Nigeriens are sick all the time, and while in Niger I am sick all the time. Between the mind-altering medications and constant string of inoculations administered to me by Peace Corps, I have found myself mildly delusional most of the time. I have been reading Joyce, Borges, Nabokov and Cervantes and my dreams take on epic dimensions, mixing and matching, creating mélanges of stray thoughts, hopes and odd literary phrases, which I awake with on my breath. This is a form of sickness – a sickness of the mind in which my physical decline sees itself mirrored in my subconscious. My writing, when I can manage it, has taken on a disjointed semi-stream of consciousness. I write, like Bellow’s Moses Herzog, letter after letter, never to be sent - to be burned or thrown out or forgotten. Schoenburg and Said have become my bedfellows. My mind shifts from atonal composition to orientalism in alternating bouts. Fevers take me and then leave me. Illness does not make for great art. It makes for more illness, epic delusions of literary grandeur and post-modern tragedy. The negotiation of difference becomes a negotiation of the same and all meaning or allegory becomes null. All verse becomes frightening.

The Cellular Tower

There is one piece of infrastructure in Hamdallaye and that is the Cel Tel tower. It is a new addition to the landscape – a strange, looming monolith to technology surrounded by millet fields. It lights up at night – boasting its own generator, guard and razor wire topped wall. The cellular tower is in many ways forbidden – it’s clashing with its national environment reinforced by the protective measures necessary to insure the tower is not stripped for scrap by starving people. While it offers unprecedented access to information and technology, it remains unlikely that more than a handful of the town of Hamdallaye’s citizens will ever have the affluence necessary to acquire a cellular phone and make usage of the tower. Still, the tower is a major draw, especially during the evenings. Like with cargo cults in the South Pacific people flock to the Cel Tel tower. They dance around it. They sing. Cel Tel showing interest in Hamdallaye is a sign of progress. It shows that the town, the country is on the way up. It shows that mass dissemination of information is a possibility, even if just a remote one for the small towns on Niger. Or, conversely, it represents the shrewdness of Hamdallaye’s merchant class – to lobby Cel Tel, to get the tower brought to Hamdallaye to insure that the Peace Corps, with its unprecedented wealth – with its trainees that every 3 months deepen the towns coffers with their culturally atypical purchasing power will continue to fatten their coffers, remain in town. After all – the rumor had been that Peace Corps has been considering moving the training site - citing lack of cellular access and the escalating cost of satellite phone usage. Now with a push towards community based training – the site may be disseminated all the same, providing a major drain on the economy. Still, the Cel Tel tower will stand – a testament of what can happen when a handful of Americans are cloistered anywhere in the world and that potential to access to communication will remain.

The Old Man

The old man’s eyes are white and opaque. He stares up at the sky, where through the halos of cataracts he can make out the dim hint of the stars, so bright in his youth. The bright blotch to the East is Niamey. Cities he knows hate stars, they hate to be reminded of their own cosmic insignificance as it clashes with their own sense of self-importance. This is why the old man prefers the country. This is where, from the woven matt he lies on, he can still, though just barely, see the stars. He grins up at the sky and thanks Allah that his stomach is full – even if it is just with rice and sauce. He remembers the fish of his youth, seemingly more plentiful and the wild corn that he used to cultivate by the river. He remembers the peanuts he used to farm, the taste of them, how they wore against his teeth, teeth that can no longer pierce the sinews of meat. He has been sick. He has had holes cut in the back of his head and filled with herbs and other medicines. The cure always takes strength from him before it gives it back. He holds his child, one of many to him and point to the sky, explaining it to the child – explaining the cosmos as he understands them. The meat and sinews of a farmer, the sun of a farmers and the father of a farmer. He talks about how life has changed and how it is different. The more people. The radios, flashlights and mobile phones. Technology is transformative, but also destructive. He has connectivity now, but the family has become more disparate. Islam has intensified. He remembers a time when the men and the women used to eat together. Now dogma forbids it. The two spheres were once unified but now they are different. Traditional roles have been altered and hardened along lines that do not permit for further revision. The seamlessness of the increasing subjugation of women and his acquiescence to it. The population explosions and the reduction in firewood, in food, and standard of living for everyone. The extension of the nighttime – the lengthening of the day through technology – indeed the conquest of the night. Then, under the din of radios in the distance, and the braying of livestock, he sleeps.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Compressing Time’s Arrow

A Peace Corps imposed relative communication means I have a time to cover in this post. I am attempting to condense the better part of a month. Thus time’s arrow – moving forward through compression becomes at best, “time’s dart” – but this is of course a much less charming literary metaphor…


The steel and aluminum frame of the 757, pregnant with its precious human cargo, hovers over Niamey. The touchdown is hard over the bumpy runway, a circumstance made all the more obvious by the three complimentary cognacs I had consumed in the previous hour – an act of defiance; a fit of pique even – to extract revenge on the cruel French customs agents who had surreptitiously confiscated my two liters of hard won duty free Johnny Walker Black Label – despite my being able to produce the correct documentation. My inability to appeal to the decision had more to do with my flight from Philadelphia being delayed than with lack of protocol. The confiscating parties then knew themselves to be in the wrong but acted anyways – fulfilling their function as autocrats. Or perhaps they just fancied a drink. Either way, I suddenly found myself making peace with two largely scotch free years.

Then came the slow taxiing and de-boarding process. The heat is becomes stifling the moment the aircraft doors slide open – the humidity such that the very atmosphere itself seems to be sweating. We are then forced to stand on the tarmac for 20 minutes before being shuttled, by bus, a total of 20 yards to the airport gate – an unnecessary formality that remains staggering. Following this, a rough and tumble time through baggage services and the customs and immigration services – the less said about these the better – and I am being loaded into a Peace Corps shuttle and being spirited away to Hamdallaye – a small village 30 km from Niamey, ostensibly, I will learn later, known for the importability of its drinking water- which will serve as the staging site for my initial nine weeks of Peace Corps training.

Niamey slides away into roadside bucolic desert stretches with the occasional narrow strip of mud housing and shops by the side of the road serving as towns. The angry eye of the sun intensifies. The insects swarm. Traveling in Africa tends to mean traveling in the stifling heat with a lot of other people. Ones typical station wagon, when converted into a bush taxi is generally expected to seat 13, discluding the driver. The first two days at the training site pass in a blur of bureaucratic haze and heat exhaustion – and just as the two days in Philadelphia prior to departure – we are not told much. Peace Corps has a policy of giving you “the information you need just as you need it” which at practice seems to fall into a mire of providing information sometime after one would like to call upon it. The heat muddies my mind. Thinking becomes a mechanism of the ephemeral – ideas half formed at fleeting and much of time base. Eat. Drink Water. Sleep. Repeat.

After two days, there is installation with host families. We are handed flash cards, taught how to greet and installed. No luck, my host family is remote, and rustic – read not-educated meaning they can’t speak a word of French meaning I am forced to blankly stare at them as they state demands (later I learn for gifts) and try to piece together information through note cards. With this GI tract punishing meals of pounded millet and a sauce that resembles a mélange of okra and snot – all misted with a misting of sand and the occasional incisor destroying bit of gravel. I am allergic to my mud hut, have a perennial sinus infection and appear to be discharging bloody bits of brain material through my nose. Feeling slightly awful all the time is a real possibility in Peace Corps Niger. Then there are the amoebas, the bacteria and the viruses – the less said about which, again, the better. Other culinary considerations include all things deep fried in rancid oil – none of which I could even begin to handle while well, never mind with my immune system thrown into disrepair. Nigerians, it should be noted, spurn vegetables (despite the easy availability of tasty squashes, mangoes and onions) and protein is limited and expensive – so it is all carbohydrates all the time, a sort of reverse Atkins diet. Weight loss is guaranteed. The Amoebas especially can see one dispose of 10 pounds in a day. People would pay for that shit (pun intended).

My host family consists of a muddled old goat, his multiple wives, various extended family and a hungry, malnourished brood of children. It is impossible to determine which children belong to whom, and it is better to now ask as disputes can sometime arise as parents forget who owns which child. Livestock dot the household. A rooster lives next door to my bed, both resulting in the threat of bird flu (that terrible future scourge of the 21st century!), and results in lost sleep. Roosters after all do not, as popular mythology dictates, rise with the sun, but generally rather between those misty hours of 2 and 3:15. The urge to “befowl” (pun intended) what little brain material is possessed by said rooster with a large rock is constant. Following this, there is the morning salvo of mosques that begin their loudspeaker assaults on the population at 5:00 every morning. Never mind that children here are malnourished and have distended stomachs as proof, the mosque, in all of its religious dogma is well equipped with regularly maintenance loudspeaker arrays so as that it can disseminate their propaganda. Nigeriens do no actually speak Arabic, few can read the Koran, let alone at all, and so the messages broadcast have some resemblance to Arabic, but are meaningless. They are simply a dogma followed that people purport to believe in without understanding a word of what is being said. A particularly amusing week of mosque babble came when the chief Imam was sick, away, etc, and his understudy took over propaganda duties. “Allah Akhbar!” sounded, but instead of launching into the regular variations that follow this came heavy breathing, then slightly withheld repletion, as if questioning, imploring “Is God still greatest?” More heavy breathing and this doctrinal conundrum was resolved. “Allah Abkhar!” Yes he is. All of this taken with the occasional sounds of wild dogs tearing each other to pieces in the distance, neighbors blasting radios well beyond their point of distortion well into the night, etc, tend to result in very little sleep.


Slowly, but surely, we are being given more freedom of movement. I managed a brief “demystifying” (as the Peace Corps jargon calls it) jaunt to Doso Ville, which is an interesting city in a particularly beautiful region of the country – right up on the Niger river where the baobab trees grow to monstrous proportions when they are protected by the government and thus not reduced to firewood for the local population. I have also managed several treks to Niamey to visit my dear friend Ibrahim, who I first encountered in France. Ibrahim is a charming, well-educated Nigerien, boasting a European education, brilliant ideas for the future development of his country and a healthy skepticism. He also likes to drink, which has allowed for the odd evening in Niamey bars, where I can engage my favorite vice to some extent. Niamey is interesting and I sense a research project possibility in rapid urbanization and how the city is trying to respond on its limited budget to provide infrastructure – surely more on this later.


More later this week.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Across the South – Part 3: Decadence at Dawn (From Dawn to Decadence)

I am trying to get to Monaco, but am stranded in Marseilles. Bad omens abound. My connection to Nice that I need to make my way onwards to Monaco is already 2 hours late and a third hour has been tacked on. My friend and I wander around the train station, pursued by a truly creepy guy who spits repeatedly on the floor, drips cheap beer and keeps referring to me as “Sir Alex Ferguson” after overhearing my name. As much as I enjoy being likened to Manchester United’s longstanding, and seemingly Olympian manager, the pool of mucus, beer and piss forming at the gentleman’s feet is off putting. My friend produces a can of Faxe, which proves itself to be a thoroughly undrinkable concoction - a beer that sits at 10%, has a Viking on the label, and comes in one liter cans. One sip of the stuff and we toss the rest, only to have it found by our gentleman stalker, who only becomes slightly more frenzied after drinking it.

Eventually we make it to Nice, but its after midnight and any hope of making it to Monaco is long since eroded. The bureaucracy of the French train system at this point continues to intrude. They will not refund our ticket to Monaco, and will not help to book us a hotel in Nice because, despite not being able to go to Monaco, it is apparently our final destination. We eventually, as a result of stealing wifi from a nearby McDonalds (French McDonalds being ever so fancy and perpetually en vogue – and remarkably the only place in all of France that offer free wifi) and secure lodgment in Nice. We wander the immaculate Nice streets finding until we find an open bar at 3:00 AM.

The next day, we decide to scrap Monaco and are off to Cannes – for the film festival. We discover as we arrive at the Cannes station at 6 PM that we have taken the last train as a result of a strike that has magically sprung up as a result of someone in the French rail system feeling slighted by the offer of a new retirement package being offered by the Sarkozy government and the rest of the service calling a strike in solidarity. France: ever the land of petulant revolutionary ardor. As a result of already having a modestly priced hotel in Nice, and Cannes hotels costing somewhere in the range of what I would get for my left kidney, we elect to, following our movie (the 1967 version of Bonnie and Clyde, which is really quite good by the way – and Faye Dunaway certainly a respectable object of lust) to stay up all night and walk the totality of Cannes. Having spent the previous day exploring Nice before going to Cannes, while my friend took a nap, my feet ache and swell as we make our rounds. My estimate is that I walked about 40 kilometers over the course of the day, in dress shoes no less.

The film festival itself, (apart from the free repertoire showings of old movies – hence Bonnie and Clyde –put on for the general public, and actually projected onto a screen affixed to s stage erected on the sea, with the audience seated comfortable on the beach) is for all intensive purposes an opportunity for the film industry to give itself a collective hand job. Ugly ostentatious displays of wealth abound. Celebrities, and their slightly creepy stalkers abound. For two weeks, Cannes ceases to be a French speaking place, and the unreasonable demands being imposed in English, by crude American Hollywood types is evident in the ever more lined eyes of the cities always prompt and always pleasant wait staff. It speaks to a certain toughness in the French characters, or perhaps the potential of lucrative tips that keeps these poor wrecks alive and moving.

Eventually, blurry eyed, and prevented by overly attentive security guards from sleeping on the beach, we manage to catch a bus back to Nice at 8:30 the next morning and collapse into bed – only to find sleep elusive on the Cote D’Azure. It pours rain but clears in the evening. At this point, trains are running again and we decide to make the jaunt back to Cannes in order to see the 1937 Errol Flynn pirate epic Captain Blood – which is even better than I remember it. Then again, any film that stars Flynn as a doctor turned pirate named Peter Blood cannot possibly be bad. An inattentive Brit collides me with as we leave the film, who almost bowling me over, and then quite rudely acting as though this is somehow perfectly acceptable behavior. I tell him to slag off, only to my amusement realize as I walk off that I just called Eric Clapton and “incentive for birth control” – and to his face no less. Upon hitting upon this realization, I feel like throwing a few well-worded phrases explaining to the man how a poorly conceived and wasteful 3-minute piano bridge ruins a perfectly serviceable song in Layla, but decided to hold my ire.

The Cote D’Azure itself is nice – like the city of Nice – owing much to the high concentration of money in the region that results in gentrification – a little of which would go a long way in Marseilles, but I digress. The Cote D’Azur is in fact Azure in color. The public art veers away from the ancient and towards the modern, or more painfully, post-modern. (What are they going to call the emergent art movement following post-modernity I wonder, neo-post-modernism? Neoclassicalism? Post-deconstructionist with modernist overtones?) Of course there is nothing wrong with post-modernism per se, and what could be more French? (I have a friend who refers to all things post modern as “Getting Frenchy with it”) but one can only take so many giant colored triangles and at one point, an enormous arc segment looking like the St. Louis arc was cut in half and then left on its side.

The trip back to Montpellier coincidentally finds me running into a bizarre Czech who my friend at I met outward. He was going to make a pilgrimage, by foot to San Francisco (the religious site in Spain, not the American city) without speaking a word of French of Spanish – apparently as a means of wrestling with his existentialist angst. One day of hiking and a night of rain were enough to convince him to abandon his quest, return to his girlfriend in the Czech Republic, and blow the money he was brining for provisions on original pressings of Pink Floyd vinyl – which is apparently the key to enlightenment. I tell him about the old trick with Alice and Wonderland and Dark Side of the Moon and he decides this somehow gives life new meaning. He makes me promise to read his 40 page novella about relationships – of which he claims to be an expert and I agree to put him up for the evening as the friend he staid with on the way in has grown tired of his sudden unannounced appearances and his tendency to fulminate endlessly on how functional his dysfunctional human relationships really are. I’m well enough entertained, he affable enough I a sort of bizarre way, and his random non-sequitors break up the routine task of packing and cleaning before my jaunt back across the Atlantic.

Across the South – Part 2: Unspeakably Delicious

After a brief, and decidedly regenerative, holdover in Montpellier, I was off to Marseilles, this time on business. In order to secure a specialized Visa for my upcoming Niger jaunt, I had to go to the American embassy in Marseilles where my patience and general goodwill towards humanity was put to all manner of tests. I would like to think I passed with flying colors, but I feel it is safe to say that embassy workers would not know an act of human compassion were it served to them on a skewer in a sauce béarnaise. Eventually, after multiple trips, multiple half hour security moves and having explained my self to no less than twelve people – including a surly guard who upon informing I would be returning replied: “you do that.”, my paperwork was finally accepted and my friend and I were free to drink mind warping pastis - after being served 3 other cocktails in advance. Upon ordering the pastis, we were cheerily informed by the bartender not to mix pastis with other types of liquor as the hangover (or as the French say: tete de bois - literally “head of wood” - which seems somehow very appropriate) would be biblical in scope . This as he poured us the pastis, having already served us other liquors and knowing full well what was to come. I detected what may have been a hint of a maniacal chuckle sequestered deeply within his veneer of bonhomie and good manners. Suffice it to say, we managed to escape with merely a few hours of penance.

Here I should pause to share a few quick words on the hotel situation in Marseilles. Regardless of what you pay for a hotel in downtown, it will be so filthy that you think maybe sleeping on the sidewalk is the more sanitary option. Evenings in Marseilles are hot, sticky and noisy. Cars run all night and all day. Insane Italians and arabs engage in mortal combat on the streets outside of every window. Showers do not work, and when they do, the water is brown. The constant automobile traffic gives the whole city as thin mist of carbon monoxide that can leave you light headed if you spend too many hours outside. This taken with the pastis – that foul anis concoction that is the official drink of Marseilles – and who is to argue with tradition – saw us seeing a bumpy night. While the French to begin with have a thing for public urination – this seems to have been elevated to a pass time in Marseilles, in which people are more than happy to piss down the middle of the steps of the central train station – among other places, giving the whole city a stink of urine that is only mitigated by the sea.

To say that my friend and I were delighted to leave Marseilles would be akin to saying that a condemned man, when spared the death penalty via a gubernatorial pardon via telephone just as he is being strapped into the electric chair is “relieved”. We made straight for Avignon, where we ate a surprisingly civilized lunch of duck fau gras (the French and their delicious uses of organs) and semi-toured the papal grounds before collapsing on the river bank beside the collapsed bridge (get it) and having a much-needed nap. Avignon is a strange city. It is of course the site of the former second head of the Catholic church during the years of schism in which dispute over the pontiff saw the French installing their own pope in Avignon and the Rome and Avignon pope intermittently fighting wars against each other between the Crusades. The papal grounds are as ostentatious and grand as one would expect, and that is something that really must be given to the Catholics – they do grandeur and awe far better than the Protestants ever will. Catholic Churches are designed to be monolithic – to encourage one to think that there is something greater than oneself, while the protestant ethic towards a personal relationship with god (and yes, my atheism compels me to use the little “g”) means that Protestant churches are nothing that anyone in their right mind would ever want to tour, unless of course one had an unquestionable taste for cheap wood paneling, off-pastel paint, and that ever-so-sickly smell of mold.

Eventually revived, we swallowed a restorative pair of Guinni (the unofficial plural for Guinness – and not to be mistaken with residents of the Oceania Island, or for that matter the African state) and drifted eastward to Nimes where we saw a bullfight in a 1st century Roman Arena (leading to my wondering how many people had died there over the years of Roman Gladiatorial combat.) This of course after consuming deliciously seasoned tripe sausages; which despite being traditional may not necessarily be what you want to eat before watching bulls and men gored. If fox hunting has been described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, then bullfighting can best be judged as the unspeakable locked into mortal combat with the highly edible - a point reinforced, as following the fight, the recently murdered bulls are butchered and given to the town’s poor. Of course there is nothing fair about a bullfight. The bulls are systematically weakened before they even come out where they are then lanced by a picador (one of whom, over the course of the bullfight, had his horse killed from under him), and then further slashed with barbs, leaving a bleeding and weakened animal to fight the matador. This does not prevent the bull from getting the upper hand from time to time – a point driven home by a particularly ornery bull getting the drop on an overly flamboyant "lancer", goring him on a horn and through the ass – with gleeful cheers from the audience. The fighter insisted, though he needed to be carried off on a stretcher, in finishing off the animal, as a point of pride, and then slashing off one of its ears as a sort of macabre trophy. Our Roman surroundings, and the glee to which the crowd supported the bull as it maimed its assailant got me thinking that maybe we should bring back traditional Christians vs. lions conflict – if anything as a point of international unity. Who after all, with the exception of perhaps a few American evangelical Christians, is not going to be a lion’s supporter?

Following the fight, we managed a quick dinner of seafood (the frequently advertised bull steak did not delight the senses) and boarded the last train back to Montpellier, swilling wine , before finally collapsing into bed.

Side note:

The original plan was to go to Lebanon. Beirut has always fascinated me and I had a friend I was going to stay with in Tripoli. In the end, despite the trouble I had in exchanging the ticket I had bought, I am glad we ended up not going as Lebanon was has been transformed into a war zone during the period I was supposed to be there. The day we were originally scheduled to arrive in Tripoli, the BBC screamed that the city had been, for all intensive purposes, razed. Never before had fighting in Lebanon moved that far north in the country and every sign seems to point towards the re-emergence of civil war, which like the rats in Camus’ “La Peste” have lied dormant in their metaphorical sewers, but are again being sent up to die in the streets of a free city. The tragedy of Lebanon has always seemed avoidable. Lebanon is one of the most pluralistic, open countries in the Middle East, and it is always shocking when violence erupts, often suddenly. Lebanese politics remain labyrinthine – and the delicate balance of Hezbollah, various Maronite militias, Druze, Turkmen, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Pro-Syrians, Anti-Syrians, Shiia, Sunni and dozens of others remains at all times unstable. The history of Lebanon is tragic beyond all else but much of the current instability can be attributed to US policy within the Middle East, which has further brokered instability. It is fairly clear that it was Syrian action that brought about, directly or indirectly the Hariri assassination, which has resulted in this newest mutation of violence within the Middle East, but the decision to make Hariri a symbol of the West, and the pressure leveraged against Assad by US action in Iraq and in posturing in many ways forced his hand. The results remains terrible, and the situation has only worsened following Israel’s vicious and widely condemned attempt at reinvasion of Lebanon during the 2006 summer war – of which Hezbollah emerged the big winner further shoring up their support at home. My Lebanese friends all expect the worst and many have changed their plans to return to Lebanon over the summer – opting instead to stay in Europe. As Lebanon descends into hell once more, one must take pause.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Across the South – Part 1: Spanish Eyes

The return to Barcelona, though not unexpected, has certainly come as shocking. I was supposed to be there hours ago, but I missed my train. Migraine headache. Couldn’t be avoided. Spent the day locked in fetal position, this after borrowing a car and driving someone to the hospital, learning how to drive stick-shift on the way. Unlicensed, and with my rather slip-shot skills behind the wheel, things could have gone far worse.

One of my best friends is waiting for me in Barcelona. We were supposed to see a futbol game - a real slaughter as it turned out with Barcelona thumping poor, and now for the better, Ronald Cumin-less Valencia 6-0. I miss the game because my head is splitting and I’m on the train. Feeling weak, half-blind and otherwise bloodied.

The train slides across the French border into Spain, and the quiet French crowd begins to thin out. While the French chatter in code, brief sentences tucked away, they are replaced by the Spanish who spout Latin cluster. Almost magically; conversations explode into a patois of Catalan with the occasional Castilian accent ripping through the din. I change trains to a commuter train tied to the Barcelona metro system. It fills immediately – old women and children fighting for seats as the train hurtles down the track. Wall to wall Catalan. Barcelona won tonight I hear. The city is happy. Celebrations crackle on the train, everyone seems to forget about the ugly business of getting along until manana. I try not to stare at the beautiful Spanish girls who look through me, reducing me to a permanent evanescence.

I jettisone the train at the Passagia de Gracia – feeling somehow sanctified – as if baptized by Spain and stumble into the hot Barcelona night. I am ravenous and stumble into the first tapas place I can find, wolfing down a plate of seafood and making small talk with a Mexican communications engineer sitting next to me. I can’t find the hotel I’m supposed to meet my friend at. There are apparently two and I end up wandering to the wrong one and spending a half hour trying to explain the problem to the doorman in my broken Spanish. He doesn’t speak a word of French or English and to call my Spanish (let alone my Catalan; which to call it primitive would be to give insult to Neanderthals.) Eventually my motive for polluting his lobby with my silly anglo mannerisms becomes clear. A cab is called and I leap in.

The driver and I manage to communicate in a sort of broken French on his part. We are stopped before we leave by two North Africans demanding directions to Portugal. My cab driver precedes to have an argument with them, in French, with me providing useful vocabulary for the next twenty minutes before we set off. We are then followed by the two, who continue to ask directions at every traffic stop. While this sort of schizophrenic conversation my driver seems perfectly at home in. I correct his grammar for him at his request, which is the first time, I think; I have ever spoken better French than anyone. The whole experience leaves me feeling, as P.G. Wodehouse once put it, as though hell’s very foundations were quivering.

Finally, the two pull off in their dilapidated Reno filled with baggage onto the highway that will take them to Portugal, a ride they have apparently made in a cot fueled two day sprint. (Cot is a nut that serves as a powerful upper, but takes hours to take full effect – popular in North Africa and in the Eastern horn – and having previously served as fuel for Jihadists the world over similarity to the way Eastern Europeans, and soccer militias, fuel their militants with vodka.) We reach the hotel, which ends up being next door to the Sagrada de Familia and I spent my evening drinking cheap beer on the balcony of the hotel and arguing about determinism – eventual nodding off just as the sun comes over the smoggy Barcelona horizon.

We get a relatively early start, sleep-deprivation aside, to discover everything of cultural interest closed on a Monday and end up going back to France that evening. Tortured pulls of whiskey and mega-doses of caffeine keep us moving.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Gin Strategem

As the sun caresses the Mediterranean, giving way to silky pastels and floral blossomings, all the while the mercury ascends its crystal lattice like a fundamentalist martyr off to a perceived heaven - the evidence of spring seems to be irrefutable. This has been greeted with progressively shorter skirts and descending blouses driving young man’s fancy towards piques of the amorous or alternatively towards retrograde rejectionism.

I am well fitted for the retrograde – especially in its liquid forms. My strategy to combat the heat has always involved gin and artificial temperature control. While strategy is suitable to me at the moment, it has become clear to me that it is one that may prove itself to be untenable during my Peace Corps assignment in Niger – a nominally Muslim (and thus largely non-drinking) country largely devoured by the gaping maw of the Sahara of which the majority of the population live in adobe huts sans electricity or running water. Temperatures there regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of these rather obvious limitations, my strategy to beat the heat as it were is in need of recalibration. One cannot reform a flanking strategy in the face of trench warfare after all.

But for now, I have gin. Wonderful stuff gin. Surely the cleverest use of juniper berries that humanity has yet conceived of (what else are you going to do with them? roast them with lamb?). It is a good multi-use alcohol, from the humble gin and tonic to the most elegant of martinis (and Christ, I miss “American” Martinis) to the slightly more post-modern - but nonetheless delicious - gin and ginger ale. (Important side note: the number of martinis that one should consume in a sitting corresponds to the rules governing women’s breasts: three is too many and one too few.) And what could be more refined than a well-made gin and tonic – ice, lime, gin, tonic, and in one especially rare case, lavender infusion– its difficult colonial legacy aside? Indeed, the gin and tonic was the brainchild of English colonial officers in India trying to find a way to make their anti-malarial quinine tablets more palatable. The discovery that the bitter things could be dissolved in mineral water made them slightly easier to choke down (and they were enormous circa 1820 or so), but the bitterness of the things – these being the days before artificial sweeteners – lingered on like a wronged divorcee. Finally, in typical English fashion, a decision was made somewhere along the line that the stuff could be mixed with gin (which was swilled in the officers mess, often in the form of pink gin – gin and bitters – which remains one of the least creative uses of gin. The result of combining the gin with the tonic brought about a chemical reaction sweetening the water and giving one quite a nice drink. So the gin and tonic, along with the Indian railway system may have been the only good thing to come out of colonialism. Debates may continue to rage on early Indian democratic institutions and their indebtedness to the British legal and parliamentary traditions; but the case for gin and tonic remains airtight.

My last post, which I failed to publicize, was about sanity, which seems to have taken me by surprise. Life seems to be moving quickly, almost more quickly than I would like. Sometimes, it is important – nay, crucial - to sit back, and sip the juniper.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


And then sanity crept its way in to my head. I’m not really sure when, it was that this happened. Sanity is a bastard, its obsequious, evanescent and intractable – forever absent but hinted at, like a character in a Beckett play, until one day it does arrive, quite unexpectedly.

There is something inexplicable about the Mediterranean. I think that I will always be happy here. Something about the soft blues and greens in the sky – the angle of the Earth’s rotation to the sun and the way it hits the water. The explosion of plant life, the plants swarmed with immigrants smelling of anis and spices.

And of course, there is the matter of sanity. My desire for self-immolation seems to be quenched for the time being. It is immeasurably easy to delight in the Faustian – to swill wine, nicotine and barbiturates from the cup of chaos and to weave an identity from this. Like a man in a cheap suit that he’s slept in, it is only a matter of time before things begin to fray – and the rumbles begins to show – even if he is wearing a suit.

I now have secured a Peace Corps placement. I am off to Niger come July. I will attempt to continue this blog for the next two years of my Peace Corps service.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Scenic Route

The jury remains out as to the veracity of T.S. Elliot’s famous adage concerning the inherent cruelty of April. Admittedly, my history with the month has been a mixed back. I had the (good?) fortune to be born during said month, and have recently, and I would argue shockingly, managed to see the back of my 23rd year and the beginning of a 24th. “Twenty four hours in a day: hardly enough time to sleep, let alone repent” according to one of Brothers Karamazov – likely Ivan the libertine – but it really could be any of the three with some variation in context. Should this same logic be applied to years? Who has time to repent these days? 24, I believe, now makes me officially too old for this shit (what “this shit” actually is remaining unspecified) but still too young to become a Torie (which incidentally, originally meant ‘brigand’.) This has been the first time in a long while that I did not spend the actual day of my birthday itself dwelling on mortality - which was a nice change of affairs.

As for the month of April itself, last April was when the wreckage of my life was collected back together after a grim month and a half of stagnation with the year peaking in late May or early June, only to be deeply entrenched within the realm of Dante by the end of July. By this logic, this would make August the cruelest of months, but it is a hard month to fault, what with that strange tint to the light which Faulkner wrote so well about.

* I would like to note here that I am in full agreement that those first two paragraphs look like some sort of smarmy book report. This is not to say that I apologize for this, indeed I remain firmly unrepentant in my folly.

This April however may or may not confirm Elliot. While the start has been “interesting” – interesting being a fairly obvious euphemism for something far grimmer – I still think the month has potential. I have already succumbed to some sort of god-awful sinus infection which I believe is making its way to my lungs, resulting in me starting my mornings by hawking up horrible gobs of occasionally bloody lung foam (I wonder if the solid bits really are morsels of the actual lung itself?)

This month has also already seen a day at the beach go horribly awry when a weekend excursion turned into a reenactment of the Botan Death March, (although mercifully with beer and seafood at the end.) This turn of events came about as a result of the decision of the French authorities to retract the bridge linking the beach to the parking lot at 6:00 PM, despite the fact that this is very much prime beach properties. We had of course arrived at 6:03 only to find no bridge and the car that we had taken to the beach on the other side of a march. Of course, the next point of crossing is a highway overpasses some 15 km (about 8 miles) away - suffice it to say, it often pays to read large official looking signs posted in the middle of the bridge when you walk over warning of its eventual closure. As always, it is important to have a sense of humor about these things, and I have long since accepted that any trip taken with other international students will rapidly become a comedy of errors. The caws of the flamingos that inhabited the march resembled disconcertingly resembled laughter to the degree that one couldn’t help but thinking that even a bird that spends its day with its head under water can see the ridiculousness of our situation. It also helped that I kept good company on the trek, including two Italians, of whom one of which has an air of Inspector Clouceau about him, often with delightfully funny consequences. Eventually, two other friends who had taken bicycles reappeared and agreed to help us out, cutting the 30 plus kilometer roundtrip in half.

As for the rest of the month, I will just have to see how it goes. Here is hoping that no one decides to try to show me fear in a handful of dust.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Working Backwards

As a result of my delinquency in updating this blog, I now have a lot of ground to cover. Like Billy Pilgrim, I feel unstuck in time: unglued and unwieldy.


I spent the last week wandering around farms in the Narbonne area with my GIS course, lost amid the sea of grass, closely pruned grape vines (it is only March), and soil. We looked at a lot of soil. I know nothing about soil. No one wanted to tell me anything about soil, but rather they wanted to pretend that I knew something about soil. I spent a lot of time looking at the wind traveling through the tall grass and pretending I was in the opening segments of a Kurosawa film. A week without whiskey and without cigarettes may be enough to drive a man to the brink. Especially when this is taken with perpetual pissing rain, which gave way to extreme heat on the last day, insuring sun burn (I’m not red, I’m rose I’ve been saying ever since.) The French are as a whole obsessed with their own sense of the bucolic (a word that is, unsurprisingly, of French root). Apparently however, to call farmland bucolic is a bit of a cliché, my professor cheerily informed me. Bucolic implies a little hobby farm with a goat and a red barn at this point. And the number of goats in France is large. How much chevre do the French eat every year? A goat load. The things one thinks of to fight off creeping insanity. I should add also that soil comes in many textures, colors etc, however it was all pretty decidedly uniform in the region we looked at, a source of frustration to those organizing the trip. We will be spending the next week representing these findings on a GIS map, much to my immitigable delight. I am glad I was able to exercise my urban planning education so decisively.

I think France is a good country to go out of your mind in. Like in England, you can be stark raving mad and people will just figure you a bit of an eccentric. There is a certain French mentality of obedience to authority stemming from the age and tradition of society, while at the same time, their runs the counter mentality of the Revolution, 1968 and the rest. It is an interesting dichotomy to see as my fellow students became further infuriated with the general lack of organization and more importantly, just bad luck that characterized the trip.

I should add here that I saw the first hems in the seamlessness of modern French integration as conflict arose between the African Muslim students and French students. It came down to a matter of ham. The French, for reasons that I cannot quite comprehend, love ham. They put it in everything – and generally in 3 or four varieties (along with a whole other host of pork items, from tasty blood sausages, to less tasty ham tripe concoctions). As a result, lunches were required to include ham (and wine, which really, you don’t want to drink knowing you have an afternoon of scratching around the bush with a truncheon ahead of you.) The Muslim students of course protested asking that some chicken be brought along as well. This was done, but the result was a source of tension in which the French sneered at the chicken and the Africans sneered at the ham, both making allusions to the superiority of one over the other. So integration yes, but less cultural cross-pollination than one would arouse. I also managed to spark a schism among the African students in asking if there was a sense of sectionalism within African Islam, which parked a debate between two students which saw them arguing about various hadith despite the fact that both were Sunni and from the same general region of Senegal – which I feel says something about religion in general. I would like to qualify myself here by noting that the question was formulated as innocently as possible and that I had no intention of sparking inter-Islamic conflict. African Islam is always characterized as far more homogeneous than its Middle Eastern equivalent, but never doubt the ability of the human mind to find difference and exploit that difference as a mechanism for declaring someone else a heretic or apostate.

There was also a lot of “sleeping rough” which I will come back to shortly.


The Easter (or “Paques” if one is so inclined) holiday was an absolute delight. Religious holidays in a post-Christian country make for slightly confused affairs where everyone just sort of mills about and drinks a lot. Champagne and eggs for breakfast all week gave things a certain air of the surreal, as did being so pilled up that I rattled (a combination of necessity – I have been fighting a sinus infection – and recreation). As for sleeping rough, I somehow managed to sleep underneath a picnic table adjacent to the student café/bar at which non-stop Easter festivities raged long into the night. My reasons for this remain mysterious and elusive – but smile and nod when I hint at larger cosmic purposes.

Of Easter, I must provide the following cut and paste job (sorry) from an e-mail I sent out on the Sunday itself:

Easter is to be renamed Zombie Jesus and Chicken Bunny Day: on which a bedraggled and "holey" (zing) Jesus rises from the crypt to team up with the chicken bunny - a genetic abomination in which a mammal has somehow acquired an avian reproductive system that yields a confection of sugar, coco bean (does the chicken bunny photosynthesize too?) and milk. The two then engage in ancient religious rites of hiding the chicken bunny's vile, stillborn, chocolate offspring only for them to be discovered by small children - the horror!

The Easter weekend also saw the prevailing wisdom of a postmodern adage concerning poetry that I here coin: when in doubt - especially when dealing with the fairer gender - stop, grin like a jackal, and hit ‘em with a poem. Reading Chinese dissident poetry to Brazilians in English translation may not have had the desired effect; but it certainly warped expectations.

My latin jazz combo also played a gig the day before the run up to the holidays, and it went well enough that the band is going to continue. I like the band. It keeps me less crazy to have a regular venue through which to play music and as Albert Ayler once noted, “music is the healing force of the universe”. Then again, by the end, Ayler was bat-shit insane and this is madness was only further manifested through his music, so who knows.


I managed to get myself to Barcelona on the cheap – which when traveling in Europe is a bit like finding the arc of the covenant. What is really striking about Barcelona, apart from the overall grandeur of the place is how clean it is. One expects the same sort of seediness that one finds it Marseilles or the other large Mediterranean cities, but Barcelona is immaculate without sacrificing local color. Barcelona is a good city to get lost in. The main metro transfer through which the whole artery of the cities mass transit system runs is called the “passagia de gracia” which seems fitting – as there but for the grace of god go I. Barcelona is too big and too incredible a city to take in. Rather it takes you in and you just have roll with it. It is exactly like a Pedro Almadovar film – only enormous and crazier.

Traveling to Barcelona with a group of French students can be aneurysm inducing experience. While having ditched the group and tour of the city within the first 15 minutes of the first day (I actually want to see the city, not the tourist sites) I found myself forced to communicate in Spanish, French and English all at the same time. I ended up speaking the long language, to the wrong person more often than not. The Catalan Spanish that pervades Barcelona also represents a point of departure. It is as though French grammatical rules were applied to Spanish.

The city, despite its geographical enormity is densely populated. While the downtown area is touristy, and one can get by in English, the older parts of the city are very different. Bars with tapas and old Catalan men playing dominoes and arguing about everything from politics to football, to the weather jut up against the trendy areas. And of course there is the flood of Latin Americans – a shockingly large percentage of them Chileans who fled during the Pinochet regime and who have never returned. Much like a Roberto Bolano novel, they all seem to wear beards and long hair, work odd-jobs and lead double lives as poets, or more commonly, failed poets. They run stands that sell Che and Communist kitsch by day to unthinking American tourists and by night comport in bars and coffee shops.

One can stumble around the city and see high modernism and tradition at once. There are whole streets dedicated to preserving Gaudi architecture that embodies this. While there is progress there remains the sense that things can be left until manana. Still, this is the part of the Spain that never broke under Franco, that always resisted and one gets a real sense of that from the city as a whole. Self-determination is crucial to the mentality of the city. It is so made so as to be able to accommodate everyone. In the sort of place where people can live their lives without expectation and without upsetting a set social order. People are exposed to everyone and everything and so they practice live and let live. To me this is a certain high water mark of Western civilization – that interaction with the other and the willingness to accept it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Stray Points

Point 1:

Absinthe should be made illegal. There is no telling what can happen under the influence of that unquestionably evil substance. Its effervescent green tinge should be the first warning sign, as should be the diabolic implications of the name of the oil: ‘wormwood’, from which it is fabricated. It holds an anise flavor that effectively renders it pastis’ evil twin. After a night of heavy consumption of the stuff, I found myself experiencing a day of reckoning for my worldly sin. It may have permanently broken my liver, and I still don’t think my head is quite right 3 days on. It should also be noted that the often hinted at psychoactive properties of absinthe are little more than myth; propaganda to sell a drink and to imbue it with an air of mystique, when really, you are just drinking very strong Ouzo. It is said that Ernest Hemingway invented a drink called, quite bookishly, “The Death in the Afternoon” involving absinthe and champagne. Like that parable on bull fighting, it is the sort of thing that you need to kill before it kills you. All the same, the small village that I had the misfortune to pass through, that distills the stuff needs to be razed. With a proof rating that scratching at 120, absinthe is far too strong for the consumption of animal, plant or mineral.

Point 2:

The French higher education system leaves much to be desired. While it is more rigorous to get into the better French schools there still seems to be something missing. Classes take the form of grueling six hour days in which the same tired talking points are recycled again and again because after two hours of the same material, brains and throats begin to wither and die, leaving a 4 hour marathon to finish. I will give to the French that French students are somewhat better informed on the issues of the day than their American counterparts, but this seems to be a function of their being better served by the local news outlets. There also remains some scorn for intellectualism among many, and the same dislike for anything of genuine artistic merit. Schoolwork is a facsimile of the real thing as after the aforementioned marathon school days, it is hard to get students to do much of anything. In the classroom though, the worry again is that the Socratic impulse has been rendered but a shadow of itself. While Americans as a whole, as a matter of cultural conditioning seem to be incapable of such an impulse, the French are simply unwilling of exercising it. European groupthink?

Point 3:

This is not to say that European society as a whole is missing something – Europeans tend to be far better informed and far more capable of dialogue than most Americans. My above critique is limited to the youth, and it stretches across youth internationally. Perhaps it is an ease of responsibility or an accessibility of cheap entertainment that has rendered abstract thinking a thing of a bygone era, but it is a slender margin that will genuinely talk to you about anything beyond the purely humdrum. A colleague has recently told me that my tendency to pepper my speech with quotation is revolting and that a sense of humor that does not dwell in the excremental or the mundane is necessary of explanation as it is “not funny”. I am or still not sure what exactly to make of this, but I can only conclude that I am savagely out of touch with the Zeitgeist.

Point 4:

The Zeitgeist isn’t all that great anyways; in fact, the Zeitgeist can go and fuck itself.

Point 5:

“Fuck” is a word that still has velocity, at least on the printed page. While linguistically, its use as cheap filler when one is at a loss for something more clever has robbed it of its expletive power; something about in on the page makes what take notice. It is vulgar, it is direct and it is monosyllabic, which makes it especially primal. It’s addition in any exchange forces one to stand up and take notice. It punches, kicks and bites. It is then to be used sparingly. This is the sort of thing that can get one in trouble.

Point 6:

After careful consideration love in which response is expected seems to be in many ways dishonest. It is contractual, superficial and a form of emotional blackmail. The only honest love is that which is either universalistic or that which is unrequited. While the former is an unattainable ideal, the latter is a poisoned chalice. Love is a broken emotion that does few of us any good in the long run. It is fickle, it is agonizing and it is, outside of the universalistic, hopeless.

Point 7:

Hopeless isn’t always as hopeless as it seems, but then sometimes it is even more so.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Marseilles, the oldest and second largest of French cities is often referred to as a French Naples. One industrious German guidebook even goes so far as to call in the Chicago of the Mediterranean, which is getting there except that Chicago only wishes it could be half as crazy as Marseilles. The Ancient Greeks founded the city of Marseilles and used it as one of their principle trade ports to the riches of North Africa. It has subsequently morphed into a crusader capital and finally, one of the focal points of Byzantium before modernity yielded the traditional maritime empire null. Marseilles is filthy, colorful and fantastic. Its is well over half made up of immigrants, mostly from Italy, Greece, Spain, The Middle East and North Africa. People tend to have about them that Southern olive complexion that comes from spending the year working in the sun. Dark features and complexions. The women have about them the sense that they used to look stunning before befouling their looks with pack-a-day smoking habits that leave them looking ravaged. The city literally sweats the smell of seawater and anise.

The fist thing you notice about Marseilles are the colors. While France as a whole presents itself in shades of grey and black, Marseilles is a flash of yellows, reds and blues. Europeans, especially Northern Europeans love to go on about “the mentality of the south”, which one must admit, has been useful in explaining some of the personality quirks of certain Spaniards that I’ve known, and this is clearly on display in Marseilles. With this though comes a certain grittiness – its very much like its portrayal in the French connection. I spent a couple of hours in a bar watching Italian football with some of the locals, not one of them who had French as a first language, which in many ways made me fit in better, except the local pidgin of Arabic, French and Italian is so much more complicated than French that you have to be from Marseilles to speak it.

As an avid people watcher, Marseilles proved to be almost too much. The denizens of Marseilles are not necessarily attractive, but they are distinctive and that is worth far more. Marseilles even has its own fashion sense – either athletic jackets and leather or expensive, though highly baggy suits with ornate vests and occasionally, fez’s. The town as a whole has its own flavor. Like Chicago it is enormous and sprawling, however, like San Francisco, its growth is controlled by geographical constraints, with the sea on one side and mountains on the other. Mediterranean societies all seem to have their particular quirks. Looking out at the sea, you can’t help but think of the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Greeks and the other great Mediterranean Empires. I’ve been hungrily devouring Herodotus in the hours since I’ve been back, looking for something I’m not quite sure of.

I came to Marseilles only after a winding road trip through the south of France, lateral movement from one provincial tourist trap to the next. The town of Aigues-Mortes is nice and all, and very interestingly contained within a 13th century castle that looks like a leftover from the battle of Agincourt, but its name, more or less speaks for the town, which is, after 8:30, decidedly post-mortem. We also passed through what felt like half a dozen other Mediterranean tourist towns, none quite as decadent as, say, Cannes, but all of which lacked that particular lunacy that makes Cannes appealing in the first place. The beech was of course nice, but I couldn't help but shake that feeling of artificiality that one gets from those types of places. The French then do plastic resort towns almost as well as Americans then, they just haven't quite discovered, or are blissfully culturally incapable of comprehending, the marketing mechanisms that make American tourist destinations so lifeless. It gives one hope that perhaps, the American cultural empire, for what it is, has yet to become all pervasive.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Local Knowledge

The Mediterranean Winter has finally shown its true colors. Rain and ennui has descended upon Montpellier, but, I am told, it will soon pass. Gloom then seems to be the norm for the moment at least, but then again, I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest long enough that there is nothing shocking here.

Local knowledge proves itself again and again to be invaluable. The problem with localized knowledge is that it must be earned, and usually through, to be charitable, painful “character building” processes. On the other hand, being an American in Europe does have in advantages. Europeans set the bar very low for the American intellect or ability to grasp much of anything and as a result, any display of knowledge or of being cultured is met with amazement. Such was the case with a particular Magyar who I managed to, gain the affections of through a working knowledge of classical music. She repeatedly stated how shocked she was not only that I had heard of Debussy, Ravel, Lssizt and Bartok, but that I could name pieces of music by them, and even, through use of computer, play them. And so I had found a gimmick.

Having a “gimmick” is very important sometimes. When one is, to coin a politically salient/correct term, “aesthetically disabled” – and I have been told that I have a good face for radio – one is driven towards some form of compensation. I have always relied on the verbal, if only because I find it hard to shut up sometimes, but in France, where my grasp of the French lexicon is not all that it could be, and as I have documented previously, I have had to find new, and far less verbose means of expression. This realization came to me after seeing borrowed bits of Blake, Colleridge, Wilde, and even Verlaine (in the original French no less,) crash to pieces on the shores of (mis?)translation and cultural impropriety. The local knowledge: the information of societal norms and cultural references that in many ways defines a society, is not mine. Here though, I had found a point on continuity with an intelligent and lovely European that did not center around an American pop-culture that I have never quite understood.

We decided that it would be one of those nice George Elliot novel type flings - the kind where everyone has a nice time; everyone learns a little something about themselves and leaves (and indeed there was a pre-existing time table do to the departure of my partner in fling’s impending return to Hungary). This of course, as always, gives way to the more Henry Miller type fling, which tends to end in ennui and dissatisfaction, but really, one must take ones “adventures” from time to time. The Victorians were all a band of sexually repressed prudes anyways. With the aid of a pocket dictionary I started trying to fall back on more flowery language, but without local knowledge this proved to be my undoing. As those that know me well know, I have a certain interest and tendency to comment on, interesting noses - especially of the Eastern European variety. This has resulted in a purely superficial admiration for the (familial Hungarian) Sarkozy government in France. The nose makes the state, but I digress. In an effort to convey this particular aesthetic quirk of mine, and in the hope of coming off as cute, I told the girl that I quite fancied her nose, using the French verb “envie” which my pocket dictionary assured me was both appropriate and safe. What those charlatans at Larousse failed to share with me was that the verb "envie" is used far more commonly as a euphemism for something far more "rigorous". This compounded with my correct translation of the part about the nose and you get the picture.

So while George Elliot giving way to Henry Miller seemed like a logical bit of continuity, the push to the literary world of the Marquis De Sade, and nostril penetration, proved to be too much. Unsurprisingly, certain forgotten “errands” were quickly remembered and I was left wondering, until a French friend clarified matters for me later that evening, what was so offensive about talking about a nose. I suppose the look of shock and horror should have been the tip off that my translation had gone a bit off, but I thought she was just touchy about her nose. Of course I tried to explain the mix up later, but when you need to explain later, it usually isn’t a good sign. And by then, in her mind, the possibility of culturally enlightened Americans had been forever muddied with grotesque, though unintended, sexual deviance.

Local knowledge earned. I am wizened and certainly not bitter – and who can be bitter when the error in question is that funny? Not quite my finest linguistic moment, but it solves any future problem of entanglement. And sometimes, it is better to simply be happy when it rains.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Little Drop of Crimson

I’m staring at the single drop of blood on my lapel. It is a scarlet thing that won’t seem to come out no matter how much I rub at it. My hand shakes a little. I apply a little more club soda and salt and the lapel finally comes clean. I take a breath and turn back to nursing my beer, now with both hands.

Three hours ago I’m walking down one of the main drags in Montpellier. Its one of those beautiful Mediterranean afternoons where the sun distributes its life giving rays sparingly. I’ve just finished some quick grocery shopping and I’m looking for a café where I can tuck into my paperback and maybe have an espresso. A man just ahead of me, in full motorcycle regalia guns the engine of his 250cc Yamaha and peals into the narrow street. He doesn’t see the car and the car doesn’t seem him. They collide with a sickening thud sending the rider flying down the road as the bike slides into the curb. In the moment he is airborne, it is a if time has stopped. I stand open mouthed, seeing the inevitable. Grim determinism rears its head. Some primal instinct tells the man to tuck. Brace for impact. He tries to coil up, but not quickly enough. He hits the ground with a wet smack, bouncing and skidding before coming to a stop.

Me and a shopkeeper - out for a smoke - are on him in seconds. The legs sit at right angles, splayed apart in ways they shouldn’t be. He’s still conscious but in shock, hasn’t realized what has happened yet. He has searing blue eyes buried in the recesses of his helmet. They look at us pleadingly. I am going to see those in my dreams for months I can’t help but think. Finally he moves an arm, but barely, meekly. He is starting to feel the gravity of what happened. I tell him not to try to move, but now he is struggling to pull off his backpack, which has been twisted onto his front and the straps of which seem to be cutting into his side. We try to hold him down, but he is fighting at it, and we are worried that we are only going to hurt him more by restraining him. His legs don’t move. The shopkeeper and I look at each other then try to help him get the pack off. I reach for a plastic clasp and undo it, while the shopkeeper whips out a knife and cuts one of the straps. We very slowly and carefully remove the thing. A crowd has surrounded us now; a sea of cellular phones and French voices floods my periphery. The driver is out of the car too, panicking, crying, crying, and shouting at everyone. Grief and shock spilling from him in a flood of emotion. Someone from the crowd tries to calm him down, keep him away. Some semblance of sanity and control seems to have been restored. Then the blood begins to bubble up. Christ, there is a lot of it. It has its own smell, salty and sanguine. The shopkeeper, who I later learn is named Francois, rips off his belt and a woman from the crowd hands me a scarf. We pull it tight around where the blood is bubbling from, hoping that the paramedics will be here soon and that we haven’t made things worse. The blood flow seems to slow. Still the legs don’t flinch. Now he is clawing at himself again, looking for something. He is incoherent, sputtering requests, commands, prayers, while the blue eyes continue to cut into me. He continues to search himself with broken hands as we continue to push down to keep pressure on the wound. Finally he pulls loose, with twisted fingers, a cellular phone from a pocket and half says something about needing to call his wife. I help him manipulate the buttons, and then help him hold the thing up against the helmet. He coughs into the phone for a bit, half formed words fueled by adrenaline and delirium, and then the hand suddenly loosens its grip on the phone. He closes his eyes for the first time. This worries me and I try to talk to him. His eyes flutter open again. He emits a low grown that sounds like nothing I have ever head before.

Finally, after what feels like hours, I hear the wail of sirens and we are bathed in flashes of red light. The crowd parts ways like the Red Sea before Moses and the emergency technicians followed by the police step through. One of the three EMT techs looks at us, then the tourniquet, gives us a nod of approval, a pat on the shoulder and takes over for me holding the wound. The other two unroll a gold foil blanket. They manage to move the downed rider into the ambulance in a matter of minutes, and are gone, careening down the boulevard. I never did get the rider’s name. The next twenty minutes are a daze. It is as though I am watching myself. I am talking to the police in my broken French, hoping for semi-coherence. The driver is finally calm, he gets the name of the hospital where the man is being taken and gives his statement to the police. The crowd begins to disperse. I look at my hands for the first time. They are stained crimson, but there is none on my clothes except for the drop on my coat. Once things have dispersed, the shopkeeper shows me into his shop and we clean up in the sink in the back, saying nothing to each other. After this we step outside again. The shopkeeper and I shake hands and exchange names. “Bonne chance.” He says to me. He is one of those tall, thin stoic types, but I notice his hands shake, just a little, as he lights a cigarette. “Bonne chance.” I reply as we part ways. It seems to be the only thing appropriate to say. And we both mean it.

It is the randomness of violence that seems to be the most striking thing about it. Violence is dehumanizing. It reduces to pulp and artifice what was once living breathing organism – reducing life to little more than a waste product. Violence comes suddenly and horribly, doing its damage. It is that randomness; that chaos of action that gives it much of its power. I remember reading accounts of Beirut during the civil war in which regular violence - bombings, gunfights and destruction - became so commonplace that people began to fail to react to it. It becomes unreal, or simply part of the scenery. Here though, violence remains very real. It is the suddenness of it that shakes you more than anything. The things that pass through ones mind, in those moments of horror as the damage in done, and in the immediate aftermath, that are telling. Violence hammers home ones values. Violence is the great equalizer; which makes it all the more terrifying.

I take a pull from my beer, exhale, and think: I’m glad to be alive.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Vampire for the Lord

France is a country that possesses in its character a certain sense of beaten back Catholicism. The French remain latently Catholic. This manifests itself in an Evelyn Waugh-esque studied conservatism of person that gives way to hedonistic impulses born from prolonged self-repression. With the high secularism apparent in the modern French societal idiom, this poses an interesting dichotomy. As for myself, while I personally want as little to do with Catholicism as possible, I must admit, I have, how shall I say this, never missed an opportunity to “take communion”. It is a culture then that loves to imbibe the blood of Christ, even if it agrees with me that perhaps the body tastes better with a bit of Roquefort. I am then a quite proper vampire for the Lord. A positively liturgical drinker if you will; albeit one who delights in the more macabre side of Catholic literalism.

Which is entertainingly where my prior knowledge of Montpellier came from before living here. Certainly, I’ve visited France before but I’ve never been this far south. The Montpellier regional wines however, are noted by Thucydides (though sadly not Herodotus, who remains the favored Greek historian). These wines may have slid some since then, many holding a slight metallic bite that is not necessarily bad with food, but which seems to be the impact of the international decision in recent years to ratchet up alcohol contents of wine, which in my mind has damaged the flavors. But I digress. The Greeks clearly knew something of Montpellier as they left their share of borderline creepy artifacts to be restored and considered by the population of the city in the years that followed. For example:

I think that I am also beginning to feel a certain dislocation vis-à-vis the English language. While it is easy enough to speak English in France, vocabulary limits dictate that certain things can simply not be discussed; as I also lack the French vocabulary to breech certain subjects. It is interesting to feel ones linguistic capabilities slowly drift away, to be mangled on the shore of platitudes. It genuinely pays here to be demure, coy even. The French, deep in their Catholic recovery are reserved, and often plane spoken. The hedonism only boils to the surface at certain carefully considered moments.

I spent last Saturday in the Pyrenees, two hours to the northeast of Montpellier. The snow stood in marked contrast to the Mediterranean. Again, blood of Christ for breakfast makes a bountiful if slightly disorienting morning. I have every intention of attributing this to the ‘religious fervor’ induced by early morning consumption of the bodily fluids of the heavenly host rather than its alcoholic content. It is clear to me that we need reclassify wine as food, leaving the ostentatious and often time unfair characterization of ‘booze’ to the harder stuff. We, (my party and myself and not to be confused with the royal we) of course moved on to the harder stuff as we charged down the side of hills in uncontrollable sledges, often colliding with the mountainside, trees, and I hope not small animals. The snow was nice, playing out a blanket of the virginal that we insured was soon to be irreversibly defiled. Following this was a long, semi conscious bus ride home and a celebration of such indisputable gusto that it was days before I was able to declare myself free of hangover.

I’ve also managed to abandon my recently acquired habit of smoking; in the midst of a city-wide Mardi Gras celebration no less. As a result, my body is deep in a nicotine crisis. My newly carcinogen starved lungs can’t decide whether to thank me or simply play dead. This weekend, I finally see the Mediterranean, which is some consolation.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


The gift of wit is one which is fleeting, and, in a language that one is only semi-proficient in, it is unreachable. Il ne traduire pas, the French say and as Steve Martin once noted, "it is as though they (the French) have a completely different word for everything." As an American, I have been abandoned to the other International students (and there are a lot of them). The factionalization and ghettoizaton of the international student community has proven to be the way of the world here. It is true, the French students will interact with you, but as a foreigner they regard you somewhat differently. Us internationals all have one thing in common: our French isn’t quite up to snuff so we speak in contorted pidgins. It is as though the Tower of Babel tumbled down upon us, spiting our attempts to reach the sublime, or at least the coherent.

The cost of everything in Europe remains astronomical, especially when one is trying to live on dollars in a country that is paid in Euros. My Spartan studio, which will bleed me dry over the course of the year, is comfortable enough despite its simplicity and its situation within the foreign student ghetto means frequent interactions with the ever-shifting allegiances of ethnic groups. Are the Brazilians or the Czechs now in ascendancy? Are the Germans and the Belgians conspiring against the Italians? Somehow, the in-jokes aside, and like the European Union it all holds together in a sort of sub-Machiavellian pseudo utopia, although it does lead to interesting group dynamics.

The ever-shifting set of tongues I have had to learn for survival purposes (as simply French will not cut it) has reasserted my appreciation for dissonance and disharmony. Sometimes white noise can have its value. Such was the underlying idiom in classical composition during the 20th century, but no matter, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and the rest were lunatics, tortured by the totalitarian parading as the utopian. But this is the 21st century, and we have the one Universal: club music – which is the same everywhere. Club music is what happens when thousands of years in the evolution of music theory; counter-point, harmony and the rest is suddenly abandoned. It stands in rugged juxtaposition to humanities' supposed societal evolution as a whole. The Universal language breaks down to American club hits that have been subsequently exported to an eager European audience. And so the Tower of Babel will be restored. Through club music.

Europeans love everything American, but mostly the pop culture. They watch our mass media and expect us to have some kind of insights into it, and often I don’t have the heart to tell them that so much of it is simply trash. The fascination with my Americanisms places me in a weird position of cultural identification with a culture that I have never quite clicked with. Such are the caveats of identity politics. This became all the more chilling upon my collision with a gaggle of drunken American girls – the most decadent imaginable – ripping across the main boulevard screaming about their need to defecate to anyone and everyone who would listen. They were the sort of puritan raised Minnesotans who one really wonders if American affluence has managed to defeat natural selection by failing to weed out. For the first time in my life, I simply pretended not to be able to speak English, and wondered if Dante would have reserved an as of yet unnumbered circle of hell for them. A French girl I was with asked me: “Is everyone that vulgar in America?” The best I could respond with was, “Well, only in the Midwest.”

Montpellier itself is an interesting city. It is a mix of old Europe and high modernism, and all presented against the backdrop of the Mediterranean. The skies at sunset turn a shade of lavender that I have never seen before, the sun’s rays refracted at just the right angle to coax the unique from the spectrum - dragging the invisible into the visible. Masonry of a bygone age marks the buildings – buildings that have stood for centuries. The grand boulevard in the center of the city sits only a hundred yards from an arc de triumph while a still functional (as a result of restoration) Roman aqueduct feeds water to the lower reaches of the city. Artifice outlasts Empire. Buildings hold as men crumble into the dust, taking with them their bitter secrets and shames. And of course, Montpellier has its suburbs, its strip developments and the like, but they are not as obtrusive as their American counterparts and they are certainly less far reaching.

Montpellier is without the bide culture of Paris – that culture that allows French men to walk around with that sort of twisted confidence that can only be gained when one hasn’t showered in weeks, yet one knows that ones cock is clean. This lack of self importance in turn further endears Montpellier. It’s vaguely quaint, but still, you can’t turn a corner without breathing history. One can imagine 19th century intellectuals, smashed on opiates and absinthe, rallying here to avoid actual work. This aside, the town is without intellectual pretension; the idiomatic expressions are down to earth and salty. Coarse verse rarely fails to delight. As I ruddy myself with scotch and night falls swiftly, I am left thinking, "this will do."