Friday, February 11, 2011

Nonverbal Communication

After a few minutes of chilled silence—the sort of silence which only good friends can manage between them, that silence in which it is clear that the only way to clear up this misunderstanding is either wait a couple of days, get a whiskey or two and grunt, or play Call of Duty—we found the Irish pub. It was at the tip of a building next to one of the many old churches in Lille. Since I’m a horrible note taker, and am writing this nearly thirteen months after the fact, I forget the name of the place, and so I shall call it O’Houlehain’s. The face of the pub was black with bronze lettering. Through the frosted and darkened windows, I saw some flickering Christmas lights on a couple of Christmas trees.
I opened the door and was greeted by three things: First, a blast of warm air; Second: a blast of music in the form of The Pogues’ “Pogue Mahone;” and third, the bartender, a large man in an Ireland rugby shirt shouting, “Close the fecking door, ya gobshite, before I bash yer fecking teeth in!”
I closed the door. I learned my lesson in Knoxville: When a bartender tells you to do something, you do not dally. The Student and I walked up to the bar and now, the guy was cool. “What’re ya havin?”
I scanned the taps. “Murphy’s’ll do.”
“Good choice.”
The Student scanned the taps. “Guinness, please.”
“Good choice.”
He served up the drinks and The Student and I headed over to a table next to the window. Outside, the snow was picking up, and a couple people walked around, hunched over and clutching some shopping bags.
I took off my coat and laid it over the back of my chair. The Student did the same with his, and we both sat down and looked outside.
It was a few minutes before I cleared my throat. If you’re not a guy, or you are and you’ve never been in this sort of situation, let me play sociologist and explain what was happening at the table.  
We were easing over the wounds of the spat in the only way two red-blooded heterosexual American men knew how: Sitting in awkward silence and making non-verbal indicators of apology. The first, was my scratching two centimeters above the top of my right ear. Translated, this meant, “Er, yeah.”
The Student rolled his shoulders. Translated: “Yep.”
I scratched at my chin: “May have overreacted.”
The Student twitched his eyebrows. “Probably shouldn’t have dipped to academic discourse.”
I scratched at the bridge of my nose. “Nah, my fault entirely. I really shouldn’t have thrown you against the wall right next to the hobo.” That’s when the throat-clear came around. “We cool?” it asked.
The Student grunted, which, in our parlance, meant, “Yeah. Good thing the trip’s almost over, right?”
“Woah,” I said, “what the fuck does that mean?”
The Student, startled, looked at me. “What?”
“That fucking grunt.”
“I cleared my throat.”
“That was a Goddamn grunt, and you know it, pisher.”
“What are you talking about? This is insane. First you throw me up against a brick wall and no—”
“You forgave me for that.”
“What? Why would I forgive you for throwing me up against a fucking wall, you imbecile? You didn’t even apologize for it.”
“Fuck you. First: You twitched your eyebrows, which means you agreed that lapsing into an academic fucking lecture about Palestine wasn’t the best way to blow off fear from our encounter, which, implicitely, means you forgave me for my actions. Second: I scratched the bridge of my nose, which meant ‘I apologize,’ to which you said ‘it’s cool’ but then you grunted, which meant you were glad that the trip was almost over.”
Throughout my analysis—accurate analysis, I might add—The Student’s head slowly went from ninety degrees to touching his right shoulder. And, after I finished, he said, “You seriously need help. You have a case of generalized anxiety disorder that surpasses any known case. You could be a boon to science. Your ramblings have the potential to cure untold amounts of people of their problems. You got all of that from fucking gestures?”
At this point, the bar tender brought over a couple of glasses of whiskey. “If you ain’t gonna kiss and make up, yeh can drink and make up. Just shut the feck up before yeh drive away my customers.”
I looked around. The pub was devoid of human life, like Hoth. But this was not something to say to a, man in a rugby shirt. So, we took the whiskey and begrudgingly apologized by doing so. Placated, the bartender nodded, went back to the bar, and came back with two bills. “Now get the feck out,” he said.
“What?” I asked. “We drank the whiskey. That means we get to stay.”
“Shove it up yer arse, yer a couple a gobshites. I know yer type, feckin tourists. Yeh’ll just sit in here and yell about how feckin quaint France is. Pay up and feck off.”
He was growing more and more irate. We picked our wallets out of our jeans, paid and drank up, and got the fuck out of there before glasses started to fly. Dropkick Murphys’ “Finnegan’s Wake” started playing as we left.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Palestinian Lands

After a certain amount of time spent with another person, I want either to get away from them or to see them dead on the street. (It passes quickly, relax.) This varies from person to person, but, generally, it happens after I’ve been around someone for a few days.
In this case, the breaking point came while The Student and I were in an area of Lille that seemed like we’d walked into the Gaza Strip.
We’d spent the earlier part of the day wandering aimlessly, talking not to exchange ideas or anything like that, but to keep some parts of our bodies moving so we would not turn into human icicles. I didn’t know how the homeless managed to keep alive during the winters, but I sure as hell respected them.
Anyway, after roaming through the Catholic university’s grounds for about half an hour, we wound up in the east side of Lille. I’m not sure what we were trying to find out there. I think, perhaps, that we’d found what looked like an upscale market, and followed the street thinking we’d find a pub or something like it. Instead, what we found was a street which, as we progressed, so too did the buildings from normal upkeep to what seemed like the slums.
I pointed this out to The Student, and he launched into a lecture about how I was allowing my middle-class, some might say bourgeois, sensibilities to effect the way I was seeing the world around me. The buildings, he said, may be decaying, but that did not mean that there was a correlation between their state and that of the residents.
The slowly increasing number of Middle Eastern folk glaring at us from doorways told me otherwise. Then, when we walked down an alleyway and saw a giant Palestinian flag mural which featured a couple of AK-47s crossed in front of the flag, I decided that The Student could shut the fuck up and die for all I cared. “We need to get out.”
He was staring at the mural. “Er.”
“We’re fine,” he looked around. A guy wearing a shirt featuring a red splotch on the Israeli flag was staring at us while leaning out of a window on the other side of the alley. The Student dropped his voice. “They don’t know we’re Jewish.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” I asked, my voice low—I might have been angry, but I wasn’t stupid. “We couldn’t look more Jewish if we were wearing tefillin, you schmuck. We aren’t welcome here. Let’s get out of the area where everything’s halal and there’s a guy with a blood-stained Israeli flag leaning out of a window.”
The Student looked at the man. The two made eye contact and the guy in the window retreated. A couple of other guys who’d walked past one side of the alley walked past the other end and looked at us. “Yeah,” said The Student. “Maybe we should.”
“Goddamn right. What the fuck,” I said as we walked out of the alley and back from whence we came. “Two American Jews traipse into a place with more angry Palestinians than East Jerusalem. What schmucks.”
We walked down the street at a speed just under running. In retrospect, we might have been overplaying the presence of a threat. Looking back, as we walked out of the alley and back to the market, the looks on people’s faces weren’t those of “I’m going to slit you open from navel to throat, ZOG,” but more of “Why are they running so fast?” Of course, there was the guy with the Israel shirt, so who knows?
At any rate, we made it out of the area without being harassed at all. Of course, I was now enraged at The Student for putting me in that situation in the first place. Even after we passed the market, he wouldn’t shut up. We walked down a side street back in the direction of La Musée Des Beaux Arts and he kept chattering about the various reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how that bled over through Middle Eastern politics in the first instance, and Judaic-Islamic relations in the second instance. No doubt that what he was saying was wise, informed, and all of that bullshit, but after a few blocks of hearing about how, really, one could not easily lay blame to either side without being accused of xenophobia, I wanted to strangle the man.
“But of course,” he blabbered on, “I don’t know. The last time I’ve held an in-depth conversation with a Palestinian was in high school. And, if memory serves, that was about how much we both hated trig. Really, the media doesn’t paint the clearest picture, or is that a clichéd thing to say nowad—”
“Shut up,” I said. Then, for good measure, I tossed him up against the wall opposite. We happened to be right next to an adult video store and a suddenly silent and awkward bearded and glassesed busker with a cheap acoustic guitar. “You’ve been talking for twenty fucking minutes, God damn it. It’s cold, I’m cold, I’m hungry, I need a drink, and you won’t shut up about political nuances. For fuck’s sake. Just talk about God damned Star Wars or something for once.”
“S’il-vous plaît,” said the busker, laying down his guitar, “pardonez-mois, monsieur, mais vous-êtes—”
I shot him a look that said he should shut the fuck up.
He did.
“Now,” I said, “get out your fucking travel guide and we’re going to find a place that’s warm and where I can get a God damned beer.”
The Student, not changing his facial expression, took out his travel guide.
I took it from him, flipped to the drinking section in Lille, and saw we were a block away from an Irish pub that had been opened by a guy named Seamus the Scot who suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder. Seemed good to me. I flipped it shut, shoved it back to The Student, shoved my hands into my pockets, turned my head down, and walked.
I guess this happens to me because I’m fundamentally an individualistic person. I don’t like to be around exclusively the same people for long stretches of time, and throwaway conversation (stuff like, “Boy, I sure am glad it’s Friday!”) infuriates me.
While The Student’s one-sided discussion wasn’t nearly in the realm of TGIF-platitudes, what he was saying was incessant and just as unstoppable as Superman on speed. Was my reaction overkill and unnecessary? Yes. Of course it was.
            (In case you’re wondering, this is also why I would never be a good guidance counselor. Imagine: Some middle school kid walks into my office almost in tears about his parents getting a divorce. My reacion is to simply lean back with a wry grin on my face, bark a quick laugh, pull out a bottle of Jack nestled in my desk, and say, “Kid, that ain’t shit. Lemme tell you about how I found out my parents were getting divorced.”)