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."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Extended air travel is often nauseating, especially if you can’t sleep through it. To make matters worse, I changed planes in New Jersey. New Jersey, as the old adage goes, is the land of refined oil and crude people. Newark airport is where this comes to a head. No one there wants to be of assistance, in fact, they are seemingly there for the express purpose of making life as unlivable as possible; clearly with the goal of causing you to commit suicide. Newark is the natural population limiter. It exists so that others will die.

I found myself stumbling around the Newark airport, as part of a travel Odyssey that would make Homer blush, en-route to France, having left Portland to its rain and its gloom. My time in Portland had been restorative – certain crucial relationships had been repaired and I felt a sense of freedom that I had not before as a result. Upon boarding the airplane to Newark however, and it should have been a sign, any morning that begins at 5:00 tends to have its consequences – that things would be bumpy. I spent my first 20 minutes airborne after the plane had stabilized scrubbing vomit out of my jacket after the women next to me got air sick, a feat that she would repeat upon landing. How she was able to vomit on me with her face buried in an paper bag I leave to the field of theoretical physics to address. The flight also seemed to include an avian of screaming and baying children; but sometimes this cannot be helped. We flew at high altitude with the sun striking my side of the plain. I pulled the shade to prevent instantaneous blindness, only to observe in horror as said shade proceeded to heat up, blasting a cone of heat within inches of my head, forcing me to sit ever closer to my aforementioned weak stomached seat mate to prevent being scalded. The narrow jet of stale air blasting from the ceiling remained my only source of reprieve.

The second leg of the flight, from Newark to Paris was quiet and dare I say it and despite my inability to sleep, somewhat pleasant. As I write this, I am searing across the French countryside by train, en route to Montpellier. Montpellier is a small, Mediterranean place, very near Barcelona. The French countryside in beautiful in a stereotypically bucolic sort of way. Low trees, farmland and the occasional home. Everything you would expect from wine country. The French conform to stereotype, or at least as I remember them. Pleasant, helpful and wantonly stylish. There are more West Africans since the last time I was here, some 7 years ago, but despite rumors otherwise; they seem to integrate into society as a whole. The bulk appear to hold white-collar jobs and carry themselves with a dignity that has long since been broken in much of the American black population. The hostility of interaction between blacks and whites that remains altogether too explicit in America (Newark provided example after example of this) seems to be minimal in France. People seem content to simply live their lives and allow others to do likewise. Even those working service seem to retain a greater sense of human dignity and thus are more likely to treat you humanely. Even the elderly, and my train car holds a perfect cross section of the French population, seem to be able to interact with the young in a non-venomous fashion. Is it possible that things do not simply seem more civilized, but in fact are?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

2008: In which the Lion will Lie Down With the Lamb

I’m sitting in a bar in Portland. My friend Collin is telling me that bourbon only incites the soul and endangers the state. We are on our third drink of the evening. I have to agree with him, however there remains an alternative consideration. The state itself will grind on and we need some line of defense against the brain. The brain is not to be trusted. It must be beaten back periodically. Bourbon remains the first and best method for this. Irrigate brain with whiskey. Garbage in, garbage out. The lion will lie down with the lamb.

Portland is a strange city. It’s struggling to find its identity. I’ve always thought of it as somehow perennially adolescent. The Pacific Northwest is the youngest geographical region on Earth. It has been freshly sheered. Nothing in the West is old and the population of Portland reflects this more and more with every passing day. Young people pour in from across the country. It is rare to meet a native Portlander younger than their fifties. All the young are imports from the plains of the Midwest, the desiccated scrubland of the Southwest, and the occasional Californian. None of the Californians can drive. They run you off the road in droves. The bus drivers here have gradually been brutalized by having to fight off California drivers. Where just five years ago they would go out of their way to stop for you, and wish you a nice day, now they plow past with an abandon that is fostered by a desperate need for self-preservation. If they make the effort to stop, the Californians will destroy them. Steinbeck thought that California was a new Eden. Then the Californians ruined it. Still, good fruit.

The New Year slid by in chaos. I found myself stumbling around a more dilapidated part of South East Portland at one in the morning; having rung in the New Year with some friends and a pervasive reckless mirth wanting more. I have an appetite for destruction, but common sense dictates that I can only scrape at that plate. Still more was in the asking and more was to be found. What more entailed was a discoth̬que that could be best described as the waiting room for hell. Explosive club music pulsed in our ears, while the place as a whole sagged. The clientele consisted largely of completely fucked-out looking young transients and utterly ruined middle aged couples inappropriately fondling each other. This was the only location at which the two groups could ever meet. It is sort of a grim crossroads, where you go when you have become utterly hopeless. Again, the lion will lie down with the lamb Рbut only if the circumstances are right.

We found seating next door to a room that oxymoronically branded itself, in festive lettering: “the vice room” - a distinction that hardly differentiated it from the proceedings throughout the rest of the establishment and proceeded to try to get a feel for the place. We were only there for a laugh after all, and we needed to make the most of it. A friend of mine tried to pick up one of the transients, only to be rebuffed with all of the might that an anorexic in full bondage gear can muster. You learn something new about your friends ever day. It was then that we noticed the rather public fellatio going on in the booth beside us. One of the middle-aged couples had decided to take the claim of the bar to be “full service” at face value. Neither party involved seemed altogether that interested in the blowjob, but all the same, its mere existence seemed a good enough reason to leave. No way to get ahead in life?

And then out were on the street again, inhaling air that was without the taint of carcinogen and stale sweat. I nabbed the last bus home and stumbled into bed. I woke up to discover that someone, against my knowledge, had slipped an icon of John the Baptist into my pocket. 2008 then, was off to an auspicious start.