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."

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