Monday, February 27, 2012

Damn Fool Things

A gift from Belgium to England (and the statue, too)
“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose

Il me dit des mots d’amour
Des mots de tous les jours
Et ça me fait quelque chose”

It is mid-afternoon in Brussels on a day of rare sunlight. It is warm enough that I don’t need a sweater and my scarf is wrapped infinity-style dangling at my neck like an overlong necklace. I am in a room full of strangers of varying ages, cradling plates of homemade tiramisu, singing along to Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” led by a poetess in black and red Mary Janes. I’m singing in that noncommittal manner reserved for people who don’t really know the lyrics. The well-dressed blind woman next to me is smiling and the French teacher to my right with the uneven goatee is closing his eyes while he sings.

The curtains are drawn, the incense is burning… How in the hell did I get here?

In the network of people that I have come to know in Brussels, there is a young woman named Jessy who invited me to a “spectacle” (pronounced differently in French) of poetry. I don’t really know what this means… She gave me the time, the address, and if she told me something else, I didn’t understand it since she doesn’t speak English. I just decided that I would spend my Saturday afternoon this way.

It turns out that Jessy is a poet and a writer of modern fairy tales and once a month, in her top floor apartment overlooking a little garden, she dramatically performs myths that she has written for whoever chooses to stop by. On the stone terrace outside, the table is set with different juices. At intermission there is tea and cake and the audience is entirely composed of her friends and people from the neighborhood. This month’s recital was inspired and centered around Edith Piaf’s songs which Jessy uses as her starting point to tell about the origin of love and other quests in the name of ardor. She moves around the room in various poses like a dancer, but with the attitude of a woman in a bookshop at story hour, reading to children, with variations in tone and call-and-response sections (it reminded me of a Heroes project - how a good-natured audience shows up without the least idea of what to expect, but ends up in a group hug that seems strange, but just feels so right). After a month of French class, I have to say that if you’re going to try and learn French, a dramatic poetry reading is a wise investment of one’s afternoon.

Ostensibly, Edith Piaf’s last words were "Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for." It is a somewhat dismal note to end on (though certainly one earned by a life as checkered as hers was) and it turns out that it’s something that I have come to disagree with over the course of the past few weeks. I think, for the most part, that it is sometimes those “damn fool things” that lead you to your greatest triumphs or joys or an apartment full of artists, beekeepers, and linguists on a Saturday afternoon.

St. Paul Cathedral
Last weekend, I was in London. I arrived the day after having drafted one of the first poems that I’ve been proud of in a very long time, cat-inspired, and just after having finished Ron Carlson Writes a Story. I arrived late that night and was plucked off a street bench by two of my loveliest, Anglophile friends: Carrie and Bryony. We stayed up late whisper-gossiping over tea in Bryony’s kitchen and much-admiring Bryony in her new London life that suits her both spiritually and physically.

While Bryony was at work the next day, Carrie and I set out into the city with Carrie fully in the driver’s seat. We rode the 76 bus into town and alighted at the Waterloo Bridge (I love that they say “alight” in England instead of “get off”). We walked along the Thames, weaving in and out of well-maintained recently opened gardens with birds cooing on the pathways and Carrie naming the various scents of the flora we were passing. On our way to Westminster Abbey, Carrie noticed that we were near Trafalgar Square and asked if we could go there for just a moment. Pictures were snapped, lions were climbed (diseases were acquired), and we decided to enter the National Gallery.

Lions at Trafalgar Square
The walls of the National Gallery are painted with bold, strong colors: rosy reds, bright golds, waxy greens that serve to keep pointing you in the direction of the next painting. We saw Van Gogh’s sunflowers, some more Brueghel, Cézanne, Dégas, and many more since the National Gallery’s collection is clearly flooded with well-known artists, if not the most well-known (to me) examples of their work. My favorite was Salvator Rosa’s “The Witches” which depicted naked, wild-haired, fat women casting a spell with barely visible shadow monsters emerging from the background.

By the time we emerged and had lunch, we realized that we missed the opening hours for Westminster Abbey and that we would not, in fact, be able to visit any of our beloved writing forefathers: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Blake, any of them. I felt heartily disappointed and felt a small lump underneath the fish sandwich I had been eating.

Carrie at Westminster Abbey
Still, what was the harm in going there even after it was closed? Along the way we saw Big Ben, just turning on its green evening lights. And although we missed the proper visiting hours at Westminster, we were able to attend Evensong. This would end up being the best part of my visit to London. Westminster Abbey immediately became my favorite cathedral the moment I walked in. It felt bigger than I could manage and not all of it was visible from the entrance in the way that so many cathedrals attempt to be. The long arms of its various sects had to be peered into, rather than taken in from a single spot. And each separate corner was full of wild, active sculptures: angels alighting, dogs guarding masters, gods at work and prayerful weeping Marys. Their cloaks spun round them and they cast weird and wiry shadows all along the floor. The sound of my footsteps in my flats was enormous and the light from the afternoon sunset fired the rose window that we were seated under.

Big Ben
I said this afterwards and as pretentious as it sounds, I’ll say it again now: you really have no sense of a space until you hear someone sing there. A chorus of male voices announced the choir’s entrance and you could hear them before you ever saw them- each ricocheting harmony sounded very close and also mountains away and the whole room seemed sculpted of sound. Even the teenagers, bored and tired, staring at the their feet, annoyed at their parents for this religious detour, contemplating where they could escape to get the nearest bag of fries after this, perked up a bit, turned their heads to find the source of the singing.

In any case, the music was beautiful and in attendance at Evensong that night was a delegation from Gambia dressed in primary wild colors: purple, yellow, and deep, Valentine’s red. On the way home, past the BBC and Twining’s tea, I noticed that the disappointment lump had evaporated and was instead replaced with gratitude for having followed our plan-less feet to Westminster even though it hadn’t been according to plan.

The next night we saw a wonderful production of Sense and Sensibility at the Rosemary Branch Theater where Bryony works. In a space no bigger than a garage, the entire story was laid out perfectly believably, well-acted, and well told. In discussing it with Bryony later I said, “I still can’t decide if I’m sense or if I’m sensibility.”

Bryony hrmmed acknowledgement of the question before responding, “I think everyone wants to be sensibility, but really, most of the time, everyone, I think, is sense.”

Rosemary Branch Theater
But in the true spirit of sensibility that night, I allowed the group of barmaids, Bryony, and Carrie to shepherd me from one pub to another and although my tolerance for alcohol has perhaps built up a bit over the past month, any toe over the tipping point usually leads to strange outcomes. In this case, dancing at a gay bar at 4 in the morning on Whitney Houston tribute night in a London pub with old friends and new friends and finding that I, myself, was somewhere in-between the old and the new.

The other night, after I had finished writing enough of my book so that I felt like I had earned the right to live again, I decided to make some tea. I was tired, but I was also full of that restless energy that comes after having accomplished something (like finishing another chapter in your book). As I stood over the kettle, waiting for the hot water in the almost dark kitchen, I thought that it might be nice to take a walk. A thought that I easily dismissed: it was past midnight, I had to get up early and a finished chapter is nothing if the book doesn’t get finished. Silly impulse.

But then I thought: why not?

There is something dangerous about the “why not” side of my brain. It doesn’t feel like me – that cocky, smug voice that leans against the counter while I’m fixing my tea wearing thigh-high boots and way too much mascara. That side of my brain has resulted in some truly terrible conversational choices and jobs that I ended up regretting. It has also resulted in some of my favorite memories of jumping off cliffs in Hawaii and getting on a plane to post-disaster Haiti. “Why not?”: not a trustworthy lady.

In any case, the leather-boot-wearing me says “enjoy your robe too much to put on some shoes and go for a walk? Well, good, you’re really going to broaden your world view while drinking tea and closing the curtains. Fine, enjoy failing at life, robe-lover.”

She’s a bit harsh and the thing is – for impulses like this: midnight walks, interpretive dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Whitney Houston night – there really isn’t a good enough reason to say “no.” So “why not” wins and then I’m wrapped up in my red, hooded coat, boots on my feet and out the door.

Quiet Brussels - View from Atomium
Brussels is not like other European cities (or indeed even American cities) in how quiet it gets (especially in my neighborhood). Although there is some night life to speak of, at a certain point in the evening, everything goes incredibly silent, like someone put the world on mute. Walking down that street, every single footfall sounded invasive and also grand. I found my way to a road that I’d never been on before, a new market that I’d never visited, and two teenagers making out on a park bench. The mist from that night’s rain created little haloes around the streetlamps and I sat down to write at a closed bus stop under the light while the mist slowly dampened my wool gloves.

I feel like, when one is at large from their own life, they are far more inclined to say “why not.”

“Why not?” my new Italian girlfriend said to me when I asked her if she wanted to go to karaoke. What I liked most about her immediately was her willingness to be friendly and enthusiastic even though we knew very little about each other beyond the fact that we both like the series, Game of Thrones. She would just as soon as had a coffee with me across the street as she would have boarded a plane for Detroit if it promised to be fun. She doesn’t speak very good English and I speak almost no Italian which means that we can really only speak in French, which is really an embarrassing half-French riddled with errors that is its own language. It’s like two children speaking in Pig Latin, there’s logic in the attempt, but it’s still not a language that anyone else would recognize or speak.

Brussels Karaoke
But we made plans for karaoke at a place I found online and when we finally met up on Friday night, we found that the place I had found was at capacity, so we decided to find another bar, have a drink, and come back later. And then, magically, the nearest bar that we found, blue-lit with a disco ball at its center was also, coincidentally, having karaoke night. And although there were only six pages of English songs to choose from, Celine Dion and 4 Non Blondes appear to be popular on an intercontinental scale. A, my new Italian friend, said that we should sing a song together and to a crowd that clutched each other and sang along as we careened our way through it, we belted out Dirty Dancing’s “Time of My Life” (with me singing the part of the man). It was a strange but the animated crowd: the lanky armed waitress, the family with their 12 year old son, a man in drag, and a mustachioed karaoke DJ. The disco ball spun and I hugged my new friend at the end and remembered how to say “well done” in Italian: ben fatto!

This evening was my birthday. Although I don’t turn 30 for a couple more months, somehow both my old world and my new world families were together tonight in my little house in  Woluwe St. Pierre in Brussels. Because I will see neither the Deschamps, nor my mother and Michael on my birthday (since I will be traveling), they decided to celebrate tonight. We took three hours to eat dinner and sampled six different patisserie cakes from around the corner. My mother brought me Season Two of Downton Abbey (as well as several other little trinkets) and D bought me a beautiful dress that is exactly my style. JP poured champagne for everyone and toasted the room saying, “to Jessica, to the book.” The grandeur of the thing made me blush , but I do think that in spite of however neurotic one becomes, you should never be embarrassed to be at your own party among people that you love.

From the Eiffel Tower
The thing is, I think “why not” leads you to the families of your life. To Brussels to your true as well inherited family that has shared with you unprecedented kindness, to a bar where a man is dancing while wearing a silver boa, to some of your oldest friends belting out Whitney Houston in the wee hours of the morning.

Why not take a walk in the middle of the night? Why not smile too much at that boy on the tram? Why not sing along to Edith Piaf with your eyes closed? The damn fool things you actually end up doing are usually led by the damn fool things that are actually in your heart.

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