Friday, February 18, 2011

Travelling the Next Day

We arrived at Gare Lille-Europe the next day, said goodbye to Pascale, got onto the Eurostar.
There, I incredibly awkwardly hit on a girl, who immediately stopped talking to me.
Other than that, the only thing I have to say about the day is that travelling, especially when it comes to England, is the worst. I would experience this again at New Year’s, but, to make a long story short (O, that I could have done that at the beginning of this sprawling blog), the English are just about as bad as Nashvillians when it comes to dealing with snow. You’d think they wouldn’t have any problems with the stuff, since they live in an area of the world that was once known to attract Vikings like nerds to World of WarCraft, but... I don’t know. Maybe some unknown gene deteriorated since the medieval era. Maybe that gene was responsible for the English acknowledging that snow is simply rain that froze way up in the atmosphere and, along the way, turned into the fluffy bits of stuff in which people like to pack ice and try to kill each other. If that’s true, however, that means that that gene is also lacking in every person who was born in the Southeast United States. And, if that’s true, I believe that I should get a MacArthur Genius Grant just for the hypothesis, and start working—post haste—in some well-lit lab in Harvard at this very moment.
Those thoughts flashed through my mind as The Student and I stood in the Godawful cold and good, British wind at Ashford International. Our train was late—thirty minutes late—and the group of travelers we were among stared at nothing but the yellow box up on the wall that showed us how miserable we would be.
The digital numbers on the right, under EXPECTED, flickered. People gasped. They reappeared. It would be thirty-two minutes late. The reactions ranged from resigned sighs to, in the case of one balding old man with glasses and an aura of absolute insanity, an open string of obscenities so vile that a baby across the platform exploded into shrieks. I clapped—golf clapped, mind you; I didn’t want to get this man’s attention—and The Student glared at me.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Don’t do that, the crazy bastard will hear you and come over here.”
“Oi!” shouted the guy, talking to another man who stood next to him. The other guy was wearing a green jacket, blue jeans, black shoes, and had earbuds in his ears.
He took the earbuds out. “Sorry mate?”
“Fuck off,” said the old man. “Don’t ‘sorry’ me, you cunt. I saw you lookin at my bike. Well fuck off, it’s my bike you little bastard.”
The other guy’s eyes widened and he backed away, towards the cafe.
The old man glared at him all the way and, when the other man was in the cafe, the old man turned to the next person nearby—a harried-looking banker-type in a nice suit, wire-frame glasses, and holding a black briefcase—and said, “Fuckin see that? Tryin to cozy up to my fuckin bike that bugger was. Fuck off, I said to him, didn’t I?”
“Ah,” I said to The Student, “back in England.”
The Student grunted. “Yes. Back in the land of chavs and pasties.” He sighed and pulled out his cell phone. “Yep,” he said, “I have to set up my study carrol tomorrow; check out seven books that are on reserve before Templeman sends them back to God-knows-where; check out three more books that they pulled out of the archives; and—”
“Archives?” I asked. “How old are the books?”
“They were published last year,” said The Student. He readjusted his glasses. “Templeman, or so I’ve been told by an inside source, is slowly shifting into a position to make itself not the library of the university, but, instead, the IT hub.”
“Sinister,” I said. “But it makes so much sense. The fact that there are only two librarians on staff. The presense of thirty IT workers on the second floor. The slowly-shrinking amount of books in the stacks, while the number of computers irrevocably increases.”
The Student solemnly nodded. “Say,” he said, dropping his voice, “I think you might be interested in this. There’s a group of us in the Literature, Medieval Civ, and Creative Writing M.A.s who are joining together to put a stop to this.”
“Oh, yes. We’re planning a—” he looked around, presumably for agents of the University. “We’re planning an occupation of Templeman. Nothing major, just something to get the University’s attention. Maybe hold the head of IT hostage.”
“Woah, seriously? I don’t know...”
“Narrator, think about who I’m talking about. A bunch of nerds in black sweaters and glasses. We’re not going to hurt anyone.” He sighed. “In all honesty, people probably won’t even realize we’re occupying anything. You don’t get very far unless you’re doing something like that for some irrelevant political statement.”
“Like the NYU kids?”
“Like the NYU kids, exactly. Anyway, consider it. We meet on alternating Thursdays down at Coffee and Corks. If nothing else, you might meet a single girl and hit it off.”
“Eh,” I said.
“Okay, Diogenes, whatever,” he said.
“Attention,” said the ominous, Essex-ish voice on the loudspeaker. “There will be a train bound for Ramsgate and Margate via Canterbury West arriving at platform 2-b in ten minutes. Southeastern apologises for any inconvenience, but will not do anything to compensate you for our slovenliness in preparing for half an inch of snow. Thank you.”
The crowd erupted into cheers. I smiled. At least I wouldn’t have to wait in the cold for another half an hour. And, who knew, the madman to my right might entertain us all some more by threatening pigeons, or something.

Fifteen minutes later, we were on the train. The Student and I managed to push our way through the crush of people trying to get on and nab a couple seats with a table in between them. Sure, we might have trampled an old woman along the way, but, damn it, we scored the table.
The train started up with a whirr of the electric whatever-it-is-that-runs-the-train and a jump, resulting, judging from the ruckus behind me, in someone nudging the old man’s crappy old red bike. “Fuck you, you little shit, get the fuck away from my bike!”
“What? I didn’t touch your bike.”
“I saw you touch the fucking bike, now fuck off before I hit you. I might be old, and you might be young, but I will break your nose just the same.”
“Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down, and don’t look at my fucking bike!”
I grinned. Ah. England.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Next Four Hours

We still had four or so hours until Pascale would return to Lille. Four hours to go and the museums were closed and we’d been kicked out of the only pub we could find. The sun was setting and, standing in the plaza next to La Musee des Beaux-Arts, the digital thermometer across the street read –2 degrees. Granted, this was Celsius, and not Fahrenheit, but still: Screw that.
The snow was blowing harder than it had during the rest of our trip, and I was slowly blinded by the precipitation. The sun was, by and large, gone from the sky, and I was getting pissed. And not in the good way. Not in the British way that implied so damn drunk that one would be happy wherever one found oneself, but in the American way. “Fucking God damn it.”
“That’s a horrible obscenity,” remarked The Student.
“Oh,” I said, affecting daintiness, “dear me, so terribly sorry I tread upon your intelligentia sensibilities, fine chap.”
“I simply did not mean to drive you to uncomfortableness in any sort of way. Simply not my intention. My intention was to simply state that it is God damned balls fucking cold out here and if you don’t agree, then you’re obviously some sort of fucking cold-thriving-on lizard.”
The Student sighed and pulled out a map.
“Oh,” I continued, “what are you looking at now? Some silly little excursion based on the Crusades? Maybe Charle-fucking-magne? Charles Martel? Ooo!” I shouted, jumping up and down, “Are we going to break into a castle and look at the tapestries, because it’s a castle and it has tapestries?
The Student sighed, much in the same way that a tired parent would, rolled the map up, and slapped me upside the head with it.
I shut up.
He held it an inch away from my face. “No,” he said. “Bad.”
“Er,” I said.
“I was looking up an internet cafe down the road from here, near some wine bar or something, if you must know.”
“When did you hear about that?”
“I went into the tourist information center earlier.”
“When earlier.”
The Student sighed and rubbed his temples. “When you spent forty minutes staring slack-jawed at the fire-jugglers.”
“Oh,” I said. I had. They were immensely talented, and I believe that if you are a decent human being in any definition of the phrase, then the sight of fire will render you motionless and thoughtless for anywhere up to an hour.“Well,” I continued, “cool. Where is it?”
“I don’t know if we should go. You’ve been a real jerk, and I’m pretty tempted to simply walk over to an all-French bookstore and take the map with me.”
“That would be an extremely unkind thing to do; and I’m very sorry for being a dick. It’s just that my father was a medieval historian and he used to thrash me oh so violently when I was a child.”
“Do you ever not lie?”
“The Narrator’s Ratio is 10% truth, 10% half-truth, and 80% lies and bullshit.”
The Student nodded and walked off. I followed, hoping that he was taking us to an internet cafe, and not an all-French bookstore.

Five minutes later, I saw the sure sign that we were heading towards an internet cafe: in front of a door, more slouching than standing, was a group of three bearded, bespectacled guys in kinda-shitty shirts and jeans, smoking cigarettes. We got closer and I saw that the windows of the storefront were covered in posters of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, World of WarCraft, LOTR Online, and a couple of Chinese MMORPGs I’d never heard of. This was no bookstore.
We walked by the guys standing outside, nodded to our fellow nerds, and walked inside. It was lit like an office. Some extremely bright fluorescent lights slightly buzzed overhead. Some wall-mounted flatscreens played the French equivalent of GTV, and all around the walls, lining the windows, were tricked-out gaming machines. There was a small corridor with some glass-walled rooms to either side; the rooms were, too, filled with gaming towers.
I gave an appreciative whistle. This wasn’t an internet cafe, this was a mecca for all things geek-holy. One of the guys behind a computer looked up, said, “Oh,” then walked over to the cash register. He had a walk that I’d only seen in massive stoners. It was strange, how they had a walk unto themselves. Kind of a loping thing, not too quick, not too slow, the arms kept slack and the entire body relaxed. You know, Shaggy, from Scooby Doo. He made it behind the register, shook his longish hair and said, “Salut.”
“Salut,” said The Student. “Deux L’ordinateurs pour demi-heur, s’il-vous plaĆ®t.”
“Oui,” he said, “intrenet?”
“Oui,” said The Student.
“Chouette,” said the guy. He tapped some keys on the machine, printed out a couple of slips of paper and gave The Student the login instructions. We headed back to one of the rooms, took a couple of computers, and sat down. The Student handed me a slip of paper and typed furiously away at his computer.
I, on the other hand, was treated to extreme confusion. The French keyboard is sublimely different from the American one. This is, perhaps, not surprising to a lot of readers, but for me, it was a shock unlike anything since arriving in the UK and making the transition from an insane region of a country in which the religious majority is still thrashing against the thought that Muslims are not inherently dangerous; to a region of a country where Muslims are seen as the people who make food for you when you’re plastered.
I spent about ten minutes trying to figure out why I couldn’t log in, figured it out, opened Firefox on the computer, and then reverted to one of the apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, slapping the keyboard in rage as I couldn’t log in to precious, precious Facebook. With five minutes to go, I logged in, saw about five messages from Laura berating me for not responding to the first message about my libretto. I dashed off a quick reply that I was in France, extremely sorry that I couldn’t get back to her earlier, and please God don’t cut me from the cast. I jotted down the number she listed in her message to call someone about it, was about to respond that I had received the number, and then the internet cut out.
By this time, The Student was standing behind me. “Get everything done?”
“No. Fucking keyboard.”
“It’s not that hard, man.”
“Yeah it is! The shift key’s all...” I pointed at the keyboard. “Short and shit. I barely managed to get on Facebook, man.”
“I thought you brought your laptop with you.”
“I did, but I didn’t bring the charger.”
“Ah,” he said, “don’t have a European adaptor, huh?”
“Nope.” I spinned resignedly in my chair and sighed.
“So what was that?” he asked, nodding at the screen, that now showed the login prompt.
“Oh, I have to pick up my libretto when I get back to Canterbury.”
“The trials and tribulations of an actor, yes?”
We left the cafe.

Two hours later, we’d made our sixth lap of Rihour Square. After our third lap, we went inside a bookstore for an hour or so, wandering around, making guesses at what the book titles meant for everything we saw. The majority of novels in the store all looked the same. That is to say, the binding was virtually identical. White covers, black text on the front showing the title and the author, and a red, yellow, and orange stripe in the upper right-hand corner.
After a half hour inside the place, we started being tailed by workers in that special way that translated to, “We know you aren’t going to buy anything, thus, you must be trying to steal.”
Shortly afterwards, we left the store and made a couple of laps around the square.
“Fuck it,” I said. “Beer’s on me. We’re going to a cafe.”
“I can’t take this anymore. We’re walking around this square like it’s going to change if we do it enough times. It’s a boatload of bullshit, and we’re going to go into that cafe right there—” I pointed to the cafe across the square, opposite the fountain on which we had sat for ten minutes before being sprayed with water, the yellow-and-white cafe, as opposed to the red-and-blue cafe next door, “—and we are going to drink the shit out of some beers before getting back on the Metro and going back to Pascale’s.”
“I don’t think I want to drink beer brewed with shit.”
“Fuck you,” I concluded before stalking off to the cafe.

I don’t do well in restaurants. It doesn’t matter if the aisles between tables are huge or miniscule, I will probably knock into someone enjoying their beer or food. I talk loudly about subjects no sane man would discuss in public. I make self-depricating jokes about Jews with such frequency that a person observing from the outside would think I was a raving anti-Semite.
We walked into the yellow-and-white cafe to see that it was even smaller than I could’ve imagined. There were no seats in the middle of the cafe—everything was against the walls. The tables were tiny, the seats were tiny, and the coffee was tiny. But we weren’t at that cafe for coffee—we were there for beer. And thankfully, the beer was not tiny.
I have no idea what the beer was called, only that it was a semi-local lager sort of thing with a picture of an abbey on the front. Maybe it was called Abbaye, but maybe not. Anyway, it was good, and I recommend it to whomever is in the area.
We spent the hour or so in the cafe in by and large silence. We’d hit the point where conversational topics had been exhausted. I could have asked The Student how things were going with Rebecca, but, at the same time, I wasn’t interested enough to spend God knows how long talking about someone’s relationship. See, I go through waves of caring. There will be three-month-long periods where I’m about as bad as Diogenes of Sinope, followed by periods where I consider myself something along the lines of Cyrano de Bergerac, and then the remaining time spent dashing back and forth between them and generally confusing myself. The point is, with all of that going through my mind on a generally day-to-day basis, I had no inclination to hear about the troubles of others.
Eventually, Pascale called The Student to say that she was back at the apartment, so we drank up, paid, and left.
We arrived back at the apartment without incident, ate, talked about the ways we tried to waste time, and crashed.