“No, we’re not going in there,” said The Student.
“What? Why?” I asked.
We stood in the middle of a snowy driveway. To our right was a huge parking lot, in the middle of which a massive red and yellow circus tent was being set up, with an accompaniment of several smaller tents and some trucks idling, sending some exhaust up into the air. Off in the distance, past the parking lot and the river that ran by it, the spire of the h, with an accompaniment of several smaller tents and some trucks idling, sending some exhaust up into the air. Off in the distance, past the parking lot and the river that ran by it, the spire of the hôtel de ville shot up into the air, partly obscured by falling snow. On our other side, a large park, covered in snow, running children, and couples walking arm and arm. Behind us was a busy ring road, traffic moving around, and the other sounds of the city. In front of us was the Citadel, and a sign that made us a bit antsy. It read, in English, “Military land, no entry unless otherwise specified.”
I was of the opinion that if there wasn’t a gate, and there wasn’t a gate, then it was free entry. After all, the sign that pointed in the direction of the Citadel was brown, and that, as far as I could tell, was the sign that it was a public area of historical importance. And so, my suggestion was that we should just mosey on in and have a wander. Chances are that we wouldn’t get very in-depth on account of the whole language barrier, and neither of us was well-equipped to deal with reading different grammar as well as alien vocabulary, context clues be damned.
“We’re not traipsing into a military base,” said The Student, pulling his cap over his head and digging his hands further, somehow, into his puffy coat.
I pointed up at the top of the Citadel walls, which were a yellowy stone, and ornately carved with people that, I supposed, were to represent La République Française. “See those?” I further asked, pointing at the row of NATO flags along the walls. “Those are NATO flags, which means this is international territory in NATO’s possession. And who’s a major member of NATO? America. And what are we? Americans. We elect the government of America, thus we own this land.”
The Student furrowed his eyebrows and cocked his head forty-five degrees. “That is the most retarded logic I’ve ever heard. I mean that in the most literal sense. I once knew a person with Down’s Syndrome, and that sounds like it could have come from their mouth.”
“Or Glenn Beck’s,” I said, nodding a little bit.
“I’m glad you acknowledge that. Now, if I may state my reasoning—”
“The reasoning of a pussy,” I said.
“—then you can see where I’m coming from,” he said, moving on as if I hadn’t said anything, which, frankly, was the best course of action. “First,” he said, ticking off a finger on his black-gloved hand, “you can clearly see the man in French military fatigues standing at the top of that little archway up there, yes?”
I looked at the Citadel entrance that the driveway led to. Sure enough, standing on top of the wall, behind the archway, underneath a French flag and over a carved woman looking off to the horizon, there stood a man in military fatigues holding an automatic weapon, a French flag stitched to his arm, and he was staring at us. I nodded.
“Does he look pleased at our continued presence here, staring at a military base?”
I shook my head.
“Does this, in turn, say to you anything akin to this being a tourist attraction?”
“Well, he’s French. They’re smarmy by nature.”
The Student glared at me.
“No,” I said.
“Second,” ticking off another gloved finger, “while you’re correct in that one sign in the center of town was brown and had ‘Citadel’ on it, every other sign in the vicinity has ‘défense d’entry’ on it, as well as ‘militaire.’ This, to me, does not make it seem as if the public is welcomed with open arms. In fact, this states that we’re approaching a military installation, while it may be NATO-based indeed, and, to my knowledge, military installations are not tourist-friendly. You know, because of the guns.”
“I don’t see what guns have anything to do with it.”
I stared blankly at him.
“We’re in Europe. They don’t like guns over here.”
“Ah,” I said. “Yes.”
“So, that’s why we’re not going to go into The Citadel.”
As if to punctuate his logic, a truck horn sounded behind us and we dashed over to the park side of the drive. A large, covered truck drove by and entered the Citadel. I wasn’t sure, mostly because I only glanced, but in the back, I was pretty sure I saw some people in chains.
“You didn’t see people in chains,” said The Student.
“What? How do you know?”
“Because that’s absurd. This isn’t a prison, it’s a rapid defense base.”
“What? How do you know?”
He pointed to a sign to our right that, in French, stated that this was the home of a NATO rapid action group. I assumed this meant they were the fastest to scramble to action in Call of Duty, and were thus rewarded with gamerscore achievements on X-Box live, but it probably had more to do with something serious. Like a terrorist attack. Or an invasion. Once again, real life is extremely dull.
“Fine,” I said, “we won’t go into the super cool military base, but you’re a dork for not even trying.”
“Even when trying would possibly end up with being thrown in military custody.”
“That’s the best kind of trying, man.”
So we decided not to go into the Citadel, but rather, around the Citadel. See, while the interior of the star-shaped fortification was off-limits, the exterior was a park. So while you couldn’t go inside and play with guns, you could walk around the fifteen-foot walls and the moat and pretend that you were a Gaul or something and run up and punch the walls as if you were a one-man siege. I tried to do that, but The Student held me back, saying that I’d hurt my fists. Whatever.
Anyway, we walked around the perimeter of the fortress, alongside the iced-over moat, between the walls and the leafless woods in the park, and took plenty of pictures. Rather, The Student took photos of various crumbling walls around the perimeter, some monuments to World War One and Two soldiers from the region, and some winter wildlife, whereas I tried to get the attention of some black Labs who were, as far as I concerned, circling The Citadel at sixty miles an hour while their owners stood around and chatted. Other families, distinctly Labradorless, went around Citadel with plastic sleds, on which sat toddlers who stared around as if this were the pinnacle of awesome. And, as The Student knelt in the snow trying to get a good angle on the way the sunlight reflected off of the ice on a pond of the northwestern corner of the fortress, I was suddenly hit with the realization of exactly where I was.
See, this happens to me from time to time. I’ll be complaining about something going horribly wrong with the day (such as someone looking at me weird on the bus or something) and then, in a flash, I’ll realize just how stupidly lucky I am not to be in Somalia. Or, in a less jokey way of putting it, how lucky I am to not be stuck in a situation where I’m starving, homeless, or dying. And, right then, standing in France on a snowy day like I hadn’t seen since my family moved out of Ohio, in what was in all honesty an absurdly easy Master’s degree, I thought, “Holy shit, the toddlers have it right.” Then, for good measure, I said it out loud.
“What?” asked The Student, now laying down on the snow getting an extreme angle photo of a frosted-over leaf.
“The toddlers are right.”
“Yeah,” he said, clicking the shutter. “I heard you, but what are they right about?”
“Life being great, and that we’re stupendously lucky to be where we are at any given time, and not some—’”
“You kidding me?” asked The Student, standing up and brushing snow off of his coat. “You just figured this out? We’re students in a foreign university, paying less than an out-of-state student does to go to UT for one year, and we’re going to get a Master’s degree within that one year. Yeah, that’s a pretty good deal.”
I scratched the back of my head. “Well, you know, it’s just sometimes I think that it’s not.”
“Why?” he asked, looking through the pictures he’d taken.
“Well, you know,” I said, shuffling my feet in the snow. “Er, the wind.”
He looked up, cocked his eyes at me and said, “Are you retarded? I’m beginning to think you are. Like, a highly functional form of something or other. I know some people in Psych, I can ask them to diagnose you, if you want.”
I cleared my throat. I’ve always been afraid that it will turn out that I’ve got some serious things wrong with me, that, deep down inside, I’m a nutcase. There’s precedent for this in my family. One of my grandmothers had bi-polar disorder, another developed dementia, paranoia runs rampant; neuroses are expected, and the list could be endless. Once, in high school, someone asked if they could psychoanalyze me and I all but shouted, “Get thee gone from my sight.” However, since then, I’ve toned it down a bit. “No thanks,” I said.
“You sure, man?” he asked. “A couple of us are a bit worried about you.”
“Woah, like who?”
“No one,” he said, digging his hands and the camera into his coat. “I’ve said too much.” He walked away and I followed.
“No, seriously man, what’s going on behind my back?”
“Nothing. Just, you know, nothing.” He sped up.
I squinted my eyes. Paranoia was taking hold. “I’m gonna find out, you know,” I said.
“Sure,” he said.
We were now back in the park area, and I was ready to let the matter drop. For the moment. There would be a time, sometime soon, when The Student would be inconceivably drunk, and at that time, I would strike with such a barrage of questions that—“What the hell are those things?” I asked, pointing to a series of stone disks stacked on top of each other right next to a green-painted metal jungle gym.
Out came the camera, and then the rapid fire clicking. “An extension of the jungle gym?”
“What the hell kind of kid would choose stone disks over a jungle gym?”
“One that understands that playground equipment doesn’t necessarily need to conform to societal standards.” He moved closer to the disks and took another batch of pictures. “Because what is a ‘jungle gym’ but a Western European, most likely Anglo in origin, seemingly derisive moniker for a batch of twisted metal, perhaps a leftover from colonial thought – in which case, the ‘jungle gym,’ and, indeed, the entirety of the ‘playground,’ must be seen in the lens of post-colonial literature.”
I decided to let him go. He was on a roll.
He shuffled around some more and took more pictures of the disks with the jungle gym in the background as he spoke. “Thus, we must consider that all nations with ‘playgrounds,’ or, ‘exhibitions of post-colonial, Western supremacist thought,’ reflect each country’s colonial history. In the light of such thinking, does a French jungle gym portray the same thinking as an English jungle gym? Do these stone disks, in other words, call to mind a representation of French rule in, say, Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. Are these stone disks, in fact, a representation of Angkor Wat, and thus are the French equating their past colonial power to that of a spiritual or religious deity?”
He stood, stretched, and snapped a couple final shots. “If so, they are imprinting the Occidental-centric view of the world upon their children by virtue of having these ‘jungle gyms’ in every playground.” He turned to me and nodded. “I think I’ve created a doctoral thesis, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “I think they were rolled here by Neanderthals and have stayed in this spot for centuries.”
“Yes,” he said. “Quite. Shall we head on?” He checked his watch. “I’d suggest that we get some food in town and head back to Pascale’s before the party tonight.”
“We really going to a journalism party?”
“Because it’s going to be absurdly dull, man. Bunch of nerds hanging around, probably awkwardly, drinking soda or something.”
“Have you ever met a journalism student who wasn’t clutching a bottle of alcohol?”
I thought of The Drunkard. “No. You’re right.”
“And the Universe rights itself and continues forthwith. Speaking of, let’s head out, shall we?”
“Sure,” I said.
We walked back to the drive and walked away from The Citadel.