Friday, November 12, 2010

We Arrive At Pascale's; Sleep

In about twenty minutes, after the ride on the metro—during which Pascale drew a diagram of the line we were on and circled the important stops—and a short walk, we arrived at Pascale’s apartment.
It was in a big apartment building in the southern part of the city. Walking along the street to her apartment, I was hit by the realization of a couple of things that I already knew, but didn’t actually think about. The first was that cars here drove on the right side of the road. Now, of course, I knew this as a fact beforehand, but it’s one thing to get off a ferry and spend a few hours in a dingy port town and to get off a train and spend five days or so in another city. What I’m trying to say is that I got out of the metro station near Pascale’s place (Port du Douai) and was almost hit by a city bus because I’d been trained to look a certain way in England. “Jesus Christ,” I shouted.
Pascale laughed—mainly because The Student had the same reaction to the same city bus.
“Okay,” I said. “Think America.”
“Duly noted,” said The Student.
The second thing that I knew, but hadn’t thought about, was that I was in a city. The English call Canterbury a city, but, truth be told, it lacks all defining characteristics of a city. The international presence in Canterbury is made up of take-away shops and students at the university. A city, by virtue of being a large place, has an international presence that influences the culture. In terms of architecture, Canterbury has two modern buildings: The one I noticed first is an apartment building near the West train station; the second is the library of Canterbury Christ Church (which The Traveler, a guy named Gilles, and I infiltrated much later in the year). Other than that, the architecture is largely composed of either 1960s blocky buildings, a shopping area, and Tudor buildings. Fair enough—but, after a while, you start to yearn for a reminder that you live in the 21st Century. And, of course, one of the most important characteristics of a city is the bustling atmosphere created by the movement of people and vehicles. Traffic in Canterbury is, a good portion of the time, stuck in place, and the people walking around the city are shoppers, tourists, and students. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, don’t get me wrong, but, in my opinion, you need a certain amount of franticness every now and then to wake you up—like a shot of strong espresso.
Lille, as a counter to this, had energy. Even out where Pascale lived, where it seemed to be in the not-quite-upscale area, the equivalent of a blue-collar neighborhood in a city, there was the immediacy and necessity of being somewhere. People had places to go, and, if they didn’t, they wanted to go somewhere. Walking around wasn’t a way to waste time, but a way to get to where you needed to be. You could see it in these people’s faces, that they lived in a city, and, thus, acted as such. It was at this moment, right after dodging the city bus and crossing the street, that I looked around, saw some people’s faces, and realized that, damn it, I really missed being in a city. “Bloody Canterbury,” I said.
The Student grunted. Presumably in agreement.
We walked up the stairs to Pascale’s place (she showed us how to work the locks as if we’d never seen the mechanisms before—this, I learned, was because The Student could never unlock the door to their house in Park Wood, even while he was sober), she picked up some stuff, showed us the bed, and dashed out the door to make it to her morning classes. Her schedule was intense. It was everything I’d hoped my schedule as a postgrad would be. She was in class from nine to seven at night, she had responsibilities on the university’s paper, she had projects, she had deadlines—it was, shockingly, like she was earning her degree.
I, of course, didn’t think about this that first morning. I thought about how I’d beat The Student to get the bed. Instinct took over. I shoved him to the floor and dashed up the ladder to the top of the bed. I should explain: Pascale’s room was tiny. It was like a single room in most dorms in the states—essentially closet sized with enough room for a bed, a desk, a warddrobe, and a couple of chairs. Like most space-conscious students, Pascale had converted her bed into a bunk, and thus squeezed some precious floor space out of the arrangement.
“What the fuck, man?” asked The Student, holding himself on his elbows and staring at me as if I’d just stabbed him in the back.
“My bed. You brought a sleeping bag for a reason,” I said.
“So did you.”
“Yeah? So?”
“Fine, whatever.” He unrolled the sleeping bag on the floor and climbed in with one fluid motion. Would’ve taken me five minutes to get it unrolled—clearly, I’d made the best choice for all parties involved. “How long are we conking out for?”
“No more than—” I didn’t finish the sentence before blackness and unconsciousness swept over me.
I woke up six hours later at the onset of the afternoon, stretching and blinking. The bed was in disarray—I’d done the usual of apparently convulsing in my sleep. I put on my glasses and looked outside. Through the small rectangle of Pascale’s window, I saw people walking outside in giant parkas. Still cold, then. I took a pillow and hurled it at The Student, snoring lightly on the floor.
He woke with a snort and looked around. “What? What time is it?”
“One in the afternoon.”
He flopped back with a thud and groaned. “I suppose we should go out.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Neither of us moved for a few minutes. He took the initiative, though, and splashed some water on his face from the nearby sink. I followed suit, nearly tumbled out of the bed, and put my shoes on. Then began the process of layering. You see, Canterbury never got truly, truly cold. Never in the sense that one had to throw on four layers or face the threat of some sort of frostbite. I’d looked at the weather forcast for Lille, though, and saw that it was going to be below freezing all day every day for the time we were there. I was prepared. T-shirt, sweater, jacket, pea coat. I couldn’t move my arms, but, damn it, I’d be warm.
The Student came out, did the same, and we walked out of her apartment, locked the door, and left the building. We stood outside, teeth still chattering. I pulled down my hat. “Where to?”
The Student shrugged. “Centre de ville?”
I blinked at him. “Don’t start that French shit with me, boy. You speak English while I’m around, less I bust a cap in yo ass.”
“Mangez ma merde,” he responded, and started walking.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Travelling The Next Day

Unless you have been up all night, drinking, carousing, and doing things of a questionable nature, four-thirty is not a pleasant experience. I opened the curtains, saw darkness outside, and groaned. Even the birds—which, around Canterbury, seemed to wake up in ecstasy every morning—sung in a register and tempo which I took to mean, “This hour should not exist.” Still, I was going to get another stamp on my passport, so I manned up, took a shower, made a quick breakfast, heaved my duffel bag over my back, and walked outside.
Woolf College, deserted, looks like a prison under lock down. At least, shivering in the darkness in my pea coat, my wool flat cap pulled down low over my head, that’s what I thought about. I stood out there, waiting for The Student to head down my way from his block.
He wore a puffy brown coat—the sort of thing you’d expect to see on a child with an overprotective mother instead of an adult in grad school. The hood was pulled up over his face, and I saw that he was wearing corduroy pants and boots. He had a backpack, a messenger bag, and a sleeping bag with him. “Yo,” he called.
“Yo,” I answered.
He walked up to me and we turned towards the other side of the College, making our slow progress to the footpath. “Big coat,” I said.
“It’s cold,” he said.
I nodded. We were talking like we were in a Cormac McCarthy novel, and my overactive imagination started kicking into gear. There was no doubt that we’d get waylaid on the path by highway men. Sure, we’d reason with them, but, in the end, they’d strip us of everything of value and, because I thought of The Student the weaker of us, would kidnap him and use him for slavery. They’d kill me. No doubt there. Cannibalism might be involved if it turned out we were in The Road. As for The Student’s belongings, well, I’d be happy to let Rebecca have them.
“Supposed to be this cold in France?” I asked.
“Yep,” said The Student.
We continued on in silence. Walked past Eliot College and were now in the woods. Lapsed back to Cormac McCarthy mode. I listened to the wind for the sound of hooves on ground. Maybe diesel-powered trucks, belching smoke and driving through the woods. I’d hear gruff men shouting to each other, “Look for signs of camps.” They’d hold guns and have ammo. We’d be easy prey for killers. I wasn’t a killer. The student wasn’t a killer. I started sweating. Dead giveaway if any of them had a powerful nose. They probably did.
“Quiet out here,” said The Student. He shivered in his coat.
“Yep,” I said.
Yes, The Student would definitely be the one of us to be cut down. The arms of his coat swished against the side. Easy sound to recognize. He should have worn a wool coat. Could have told him, but that would have been useless. He wouldn’t have time to go back to Woolf to get it. The highwaymen would catch him by then. I wished I had a revolver on me, but they were illegal. Not that laws had much to do with a wild land like this. I looked to my left. A fox dashed through the trees.
We made it through the footpath and into the neighborhood at the bottom. Silence here, too. Now they didn’t even need to come through the woods. Just had to drive down the roads in their massive cars/big horses. I shook my head and snapped back to reality. I really should have had some coffee that morning. Reading No Country for Old Men the previous night probably had something to do with it. (That’s the thing about the UK. Even if you get lost in the countryside, you’re probably no more than two miles away from a country pub.)
We walked to the train station, bought tickets to Ashford, and waited. I looked at the station clock for the first time and saw that we were half an hour early. I grunted. Well, at least we definitely wouldn’t miss the train.
As the time got closer, a few people in business suits arrived at the station and, generally, looked even more miserable than us. The Student fell asleep on the station bench and I took out a book to read. Doing that was harder than I thought it would be. Apparently, my brain had no interest whatsoever in concentrating on reading at six in the morning. I closed my book (the new You Just Don’t Get It, Do You? by Richard Dawkins—chosen by the head of the course for a module next term) and took out my wallet. I have a habit of keeping receipts long past the time when they are useful. After I realize that I have no idea what they’re for (generally because the ink has faded), I use them as scrap paper or bookmarks. Today, though, I would use them as pellets to harass The Student. I did so, and he stirred a bit.
Finally, the train arrived, I pushed him awake, and we got on and both promptly fell asleep until we arrived at Ashford.
After passing through French customs and getting on the Eurostar—a mammoth train that was, at this hour, surprisingly full of people who somehow had the capacity to talk—we fell asleep again and woke up as the train zoomed into France, briefly stopping in Calais.
By the time we got to Lille, predictably, I was more tired than I had been at six in the morning. You’d think that after four years spent napping in the mid-afternoon after getting no sleep the previous night, I would have remembered the sorts of problems that came from not getting enough sleep.
We got off of the train and walked into the station. My initial reaction was that it was big. My second reaction was, “Jesus fuck it is cold in here.”
The Student nodded, shivering a little himself. “Little bit, yeah. I understand that they need to keep the sides open so trains can enter and leave, but you’d think they could have... I don’t know, doors or something in train stations. Christ. This place must get boiling hot in the summer.”
I turned to him and said, “How can you think of summer at a time like this?”
We walked a little ways down the platform. The Student displayed a method of looking for people that resembled my own: He looked through the crowd, occasionally waving at someone, and then quickly retracting his hand as he realized he didn’t know that person after all. We walked through the train station—a place about the size of London Victoria with one major difference: Lille-Europe was actually modern. Nothing against the train stations in England, but, for the most part, there’s no difference between their appearance now and what they probably looked like a hundred years ago (save, of course, digital displays that tell you exactly how late your train will be). Lille-Europe is a big bastard, made of concrete and plate-glass up top. Shops, a couple of cafes—basically, normal fare for any transportation depot.
It was around this time that I noticed something that, for some reason, hadn’t registered before: I was in a non-Anglophone country. More so, I was in a country where, even though I was essentially on the level of a five year old with mental difficulties, I could speak the language. I looked up at one of the blue signs showing where platforms and the metro were.  “Hey, Student,” I said, pointing to the sign.
He paused in his searching and looked at me. “Yeah?”
I nodded to the left, towards some escalators, an elevator going down, and a group of ticket machines. “That way to the metro.”
He looked over. “Yep.”
“What, aren’t you surprised—nay, shocked and amazed—that I could discern where the Metro was, using only my skills dans français?”
“The symbol over that ticket machine is a white ‘M’ in a square. It’s obvious that that’s where the Metro would be. Look, I need you to shut up for a second and think where my friend would be.”
“You’ve got her number, right?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t pick up.”
I didn’t even realize that The Student had been on the phone at any point since we got off of the train. That’s what I get for being amazed by signs in another language, I guess.[1] I looked around, trying to think of where I would be if I were a French college student. Naturally, my first inclination was, “a café!” But then I realized that such an answer was a disgusting stereotype and that I should be more sensitive in the future. My second answer to my question was, “in a boulangerie!” That’s when I came to the conclusion that I’d spend the entire time in Lille giggling away to myself about the Frenchness of the city while The Student hid his face or otherwise disassociated himself with me. I saw a sign pointing outside, to a plaza separating Gare Lille-Europe from the mall (in the part of Lille called Euralille—essentially, offices and this shiny, shiny shopping center). “How bout there?” I said, pointing to the sign. “People like plazas.”
The Student shrugged and we followed the sign, walked down an escalator, and found ourselves outside in a snow-dusted plaza with a couple of statues and a bridge to our right, following the main road to the mall. It was early enough that there weren’t many people out, and those that were were dressed in overcoats, boots, and gloves. A few flakes of snow fell lazily from the sky, and a stiff, cold breeze made its way across the plaza. Off in the distance, I saw the skyline of Lille—mainly made up of cathedral and church spires, with, confusedly, the upper half of a Ferris Wheel in the distance. I nodded. I liked this place. Granted, I hadn’t really set foot outside of the train station, but it seemed like it would definitely be a nice change of scenery—if nothing else—from hanging around Canterbury so much.
The Student’s cell phone rang and he answered it. “Bonjour, Pascale! Ça va bien? Oui, oui. Ah, er, where are you?” It seemed The Student’s French was on par with mine. “By the platform? Must have missed you, okay. We’ll come back in. Au revoir.” He pressed a button (hitting a few others with his gloved finger), and put the phone back in his front pocket of his coat. He nodded and said, “Right.”
“You know something?” I asked as we made our way back to the escalator.
“Everything here—it’s all so... French.”
Thankfully, escalators keep going up even when you don’t. The Student stopped his ascent and turned back to me. “What?”
“I mean... the Frenchness of the whole place is just insane. You can practically smell the garlic in the air.”
The Student grunted. “Look, please don’t say this sort of stuff around Pascale.”
“Cause that’s not—it’s just mildly—just don’t say it.”
“Look,” I said as we came off of the escalators, “if I want to say something, then I’ll damn well say it. It’s my right as an American!
“You’re in France now.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m surprised there aren’t fucking mimes everywhere.”
He grunted. I knew, right then, that most of my enjoyment this trip would come from harassing The Student. Not his friend though, she was letting us crash at her place and I’d be a good guest. But, so help me God, The Student would come to believe that my sole goal this trip was to shit on a crepe. I’d ensure that only he would hear me, and then I would proceed to make the most absurd jingoistic statements possible. “Hey,” I’d say, “let’s go get Freedom Fries, though I bet they’re better in Amurika.” Or: “Hey, look at that church. Ain’t got nothin on an Amurikan church. Bet they ain’t even got room for a revival in there.”
We made our way to the platform and then The Student was sideswiped by a short, thin, smiling French girl with brown hair, wearing a blue coat and jeans. The air went out of him in a rush and he dropped his bags.
The Student and Pascale exchanged a burst of plesantries in French—I’m taking it all to mean some very basic catching up (after all, though The Student had better French than me, his wasn’t far beyond the level of elementary)—and then The Student turned to me and said, “Pascale, this is The Narrator; Narrator, Pascale.”
I gave my winning smile—the one I take to mean nonthreatening and the one least likely to scare off children—and said, “Hey.”
Pascale smiled and said, “Nice to meet you.” She then laughed and said, “Oh, I get to practice my English.” She had a lovely accent—I’m assuming it was vaguely Northern French, but, as I’d find out, I can’t discern Parisian from Norman. She turned to The Student. “I haven’t since Canterbury, you know.”
“You’re doing fine,” The Student said.
“Okay,” Pascale said, “shall we go to ze train and zen we will go to my apartment?”
“Please God, yes,” I said. “I’m exhausted.”
The Student groaned.
“Okay, follow me.” She led us through to the areas that said ‘Metro’ and to a very bizarre form of ticket control.
Lille’s ticket system ran thusly: There were no homicidal gates. The ticket barriers didn’t look the least bit intimidating; they were clean, steel columns about three feet high with a little black slot with two, welcoming lights—one red, one green—above it. The purpose of the slot was to stamp the ticket. The process involved no chance of the ticket getting caught in the machine, a total time of one second—one point five if you were slow or confused about it all—and very little chance of getting crushed in any onslaught of passengers. I even took a few trips on this thing during rush hour and had no problems at all. There was a black line connecting all of the columns, running at an angle to the escalators, which, I think, served to tell you where you could go if you hadn’t paid for a ticket. The whole system ran on trust that people wouldn’t go through and ride without a ticket. (In fact, it seemed like the business that ran the metro in Lille only checked tickets twice or so a week—around five o’clock during weekdays.)
Of course, I wasn’t there that long, and I wasn’t in the company of ne’erdowells, so there is a very strong chance that I was only seeing one side of Lille—but, hey, I rather like my invention of the city.
Anyway, we walked up to the ticket machine—similar to any digital dispenser with the exception that it was, of course, in French. This threw me for a minute. I had to utilize my rusty, piecemeal language abilities to navigate through the machine. Suddenly, I was back in my high school classroom with the utterly insane Mr. Edwards, who stopped a lesson on verb conjugation to rant about the Concorde, and whose car was found to possess massive amounts of porn and hypodermic needles when he brought it in to the mechanic shop at the high school. I wept a little bit, then, and Pascale came over and explained exactly what I had to do.
I wiped my eyes and said a tearful, “Thank you.” I bought a day card (an easily-losable strip of paper about a third of the size of a credit card) and joined The Student and Pascale in the long schlep down the escalators and into our train.

[1] A while ago, I was in Houston visiting my brother. At one point, he took me to the Vietnamese part of town (which boasts the highest Vietnamese population outside of Saigon), and, I’m not kidding, I took thirty pictures of street signs that had Vietnamese characters under the English. Easily amused does not begin to cover my mentality.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Epilogue to The Traveler's Second Tale

I jumped up and applauded when The Traveler finished his story. I’m not sure what it was about it—perhaps it was the fact that, like everyone in my generation, I’d grown up with Mario—but it really struck a chord with me. The Drunkard rose his glass to The Traveler. The Student looked at his watch and said, “Good story, my friend. However, I’ve got to go.”
“It’s three,” said The Drunkard.
“Yeah,” said The Student. “But, well, you know how the busses are. What with their not-quite stable schedules and propensities for being late. I figured that—”
The Drunkard reached up and gripped The Student by the shoulder, pushing him down. “Have a seat,” he said. “I insist. You can walk up to campus if needs be. The weather’s not that bad.”
“I saw a rabbit fling against the city walls, propelled by the wind, as I was riding the bus earlier,” said The Stalker.
The Drunkard shrugged. “Well, you know, tough shit on the rabbit, I guess. Anyway, I enjoyed the story, Traveler.”
The Writer cleared his throat and drummed his fingers on the table. It was clear he had something pressing to say. “If I may interject,” he said, “with a comment upon your story—for that is why we are here, is it not?”
“I thought we were here to while away the time,” said The Drunkard, “but I guess not.”
The Student snorted.
The Stalker slurped at his cider and said, “I consider your methods of interjecting when you did barbarous, Writer. Karma, as they say, remembers all.”
“Who says that?” I asked.
The Stalker turned to me. “People of note.”
“Anyway,” said The Writer, “it pains me ever so much to see you once again not sticking to real life. Why, oh why, must we all—except for me, of course, avoid real life? Why must we all cling to falsities like folklore, and, ah, characters from video games? The world is a place of enough existential confusion that a wealth of philosophically-charged stories may be produced. Enough to fill a library—and, by my reckoning, that’s only by one person.”
For all the pretension in that statement, there was a valid point. It was true that life threw enough challenges in the way of the average person that anyone had the potential to become a philosopher. And, for the record, I was never one of those people who believed that writing things of, to use a term that may be horribly vague, “literary merit” was a waste of time because such projects did not sell. I don’t think anyone in our circle was a subscriber to that train of thought.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” asked The Student to The Writer.
The latter raised his eyebrows. “Pray tell, what?”
“You’re being an intellectual fascist.”
The Traveler grunted. “You don’t change your mind often, do you?”
“A constantly changing mind,” said The Writer, “is the sign of a weak mind. We must hold to our convictions if we are to have any effect on the world’s ways.”
“However,” said The Stalker, “what you’re failing to grasp in your infantile, posturing mind, is that when faced with the possibility that you’re wrong, it is perfectly acceptable to admit you’re wrong.” He slurped from his cider. “For example: When The Drunkard’s flatmates dragged me out to Madame Guillotine, I realized that skinning and hanging a rabbit from his door frame was the wrong way to take criticism. And, thus, I have not done it again.”
The Writer cleared his throat. “There’s a slight difference between skinning a rabbit and refusing to change your mind.”
The Drunkard returned to the table. “Is fuckface talking again?”
The Writer sighed. “And the crass voice of the day returns to the table. Please, Drunkard, find your way out of conversations that are above your comprehension. Perhaps you should find your Cloyd friend and talk to him about NASCAR.”
The Drunkard responded in a quite civil way, I felt: He threw his whiskey in The Writer’s face. (I wondered just how much money The Drunkard had to be able to afford literally throwing it all away on drinks. The man must have been walking into some serious debt when he finished here.) Then he stood up to order another one. The Writer nodded and said, “I may have deserved that.”
“Do you not agree,” said The Student, “that dipping into pop culture in order to illustrate a point might just be the way some people think? I’m not saying that’s the way The Traveler thinks, but—”
“Some times it is. I thought having a piranha plant pop into a story would be hilarious.”
“Ha!” said The Writer. “You see? He didn’t even go into it with any sort of thought of having a deeper meaning! There was no commentary intended on the purposelessness of the modern middle class life. No wise message about—”
“I really, really wish you would shut the fuck up,” said The Stalker.
“—the way society chews people up and spits them out,” continued The Writer.
The Stalker dragged a palm down his face. “Really, I wish you would stop talking. You’re giving me a headache.”
“In short,” continued The Writer, “your tale, Traveler, was mindless entertainment, worthless to the point of vapidity. Void of substance. Lacking any value. You have wasted the time of everyone at this table.”
The Traveler took all of this with one eyebrow raised.
The Stalker, however, was clenching and unclenching his fists. “One more word from you,” he said, “attacking this man’s story, and I swear to God I will hit you.” There was something different about his voice. The undercurrent of terror was gone. Now, I think, there was only the voice of a normal man tired of hearing someone who’d—and I’m going to lapse into a bizarre phrase here, one that I wouldn’t normally use but seems to be the only apt thing to say—gotten too big for his britches. “You’re prattling on, mimicking things your instructors have probably said in workshops to students trying to write things for fun.”
“Ha,” said The Writer, leaning back in his chair with a triumphant grin on his face. “That’s where you’re wrong. I haven’t been in a single workshop this year.”
“That’s fucking it,” said The Stalker. He leaped out of his chair, about to dive for The Writer when The Traveler blocked him and walked him out to the beer garden.
“Um,” said The Student. “Right. Well, look, Writer, perhaps you should take his story as a commentary on the tropes of folklore. Something to poke fun at the inherent pessimism of a story about a being that possesses people to fulfill a purpose.”
The Writer snorted. “Oh, good. A spoof.”
“Your mom’s a spoof,” said The Drunkard, returning to the table.
The Writer’s head drooped. He took off his glasses, folded up the end bits, and laid them, gently, as if his spectacles were a flag being put to rest upon a coffin, on the table and said, “Drunkard, your method of argument is infantile.”
“So’s your face,” said The Drunkard.
The Writer placed his glasses back on his head, nodded, and got up from the table and left the pub.
A Cheshire cat’s grin spread over The Drunkard’s face and he took a triumphant sip from his glass of whiskey. “The day is mine, huh?”
“I guess,” I said. “Student, should we head out? I haven’t started packing.”
“Woah,” said The Drunkard. “Where are you two going?”
“Lille,” said The Student, standing up, “in France.”
“And I wasn’t invited?” asked The Drunkard.
“Er,” I said.
“Well,” said The Student.
“Nah,” said The Drunkard with a laugh, “don’t worry about it. The French don’t really have the best of beer, and I can’t drink wine to get drunk. Feels like blasphemy.”
We said to say goodbye to The Traveler and The Stalker (if both of them came back in considering they had been out there for a bit, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that The Stalker had cut The Traveler’s throat for getting a glimpse of... I don’t know, the dual nature of his being.) Then, we left.