Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In the Company of Cats and Chocolate

I keep my company with a cat these days. This rusty-black German Rex cat with one cloudy blue-grey eye. He lives in the shed next door. Each day, after lunch, he stalks by the front stoop, grizzly and damp. He comes up the short walkway leading to my door on his way around back with taut, coiled steps. Once he is within swiping of distance of me, he pauses. Every muscle rigid, almost vibrating while he evaluates me. Perhaps of all animals, cats have the ability to glare. But this shed-dwelling sovereign exceeds all average feline standards. He is downright livid at me for bearing witness to his afternoon cat errands. At some point, he moves on with a authoritative “I pardon you” and tumbles in a graceless plunge through the shed window. He is my only company and he hates me.

Trinity College, Dublin
The truth is that, for the moment, I am more alone than I have been a considerable amount of time. Just me and the cat. The days arrive gray and rainy with a very vocal wind. The winds seriously shrill here as they run up the gabled, tiled roofs of the neighborhood. The windows buck against their frames and the bare tree branches are tiny chutes of sound that the wind barrels through in long hissing arcs.

While talking to my mother one day, she could hear it in the background of our conversation.

“What is that?” she interrupts herself mid-sentence.

“It’s the wind, I say. Don’t worry. It sounds worse than it is.”

“Do you remember,” she begins in that way that reaffirms that I’ve forgotten important lessons from French class, “that the French have different names for the winds. They’re supposed to have different effects on your mood. The way they say the Santa Anas do.”

I don’t remember this. And haven’t heard this. But it turns out that yes, there is a wind in France called the Bise Noir which is said to drive villagers mad. Something I am certainly at risk of here a bit – tucked away in front of the computer screen sprinting through as many chapters as manically as I can.

Someone recently shared with me the blog of a woman who chronicles her solo travels. For Valentine’s Day, another blog enumerated the benefits of being single and abroad as covered in this woman’s posts. Among them are the lack of itinerary, the ease with which you meet other people, excitement, newfound confidence, and the ability to forge lasting connections with those that you do meet.

The observations themselves aren’t revolutionary, but they certainly seem true. Which means, that yes (even besides the cat), I haven’t been entirely alone.

Molly Malone, Dublin
On my last night in Dublin, I had no hotel. This was an intentional maneuver since my flight was somewhat early in the morning and I knew that some Irish pub would surely be showing the American Super Bowl. I figured I would save a few Euro and just stay up late. After several hours wandering Dublin by myself and dinner at an Indian restaurant where a group of Welshmen (flush from their win that day) invited me to join their conversation, I ended up finding a pub in Dublin’s Temple Bar promising seven screens of Super Bowl viewing. I went inside and leaned against a cocktail table by the nearest blue and white Tom Brady jersey that I could see, dubious about my Patriots during that first quarter.

The game was going badly for my team and I think I was scowling a bit, but a fresh-faced and cheerful looking Irish boy looked over at me: “Patriots fan?” he asked and I nodded and he pulled me up to his table with one arm and said “Aw, come here.”

After that, I felt very much at home with some ardent Dublin Patriots fans. We pumped our fists in the air at touchdowns and, at other times, stared fixedly at the TV screen willing the scores to change when things took a turn for the worse. Between quarters we smoked cigarettes out front and the Irish Patriots fans asked me questions about my book, one of them admitted to being a poet and a human rights advocate, the other, an engineer. We talked about New England and we talked about football. In the final hour of the game, no one was allowed to leave the bar and we sat back-to-chest and shoulder-to-shoulder watching those last few yards between the Giants and touchdown close dismally one by one. I watched them score and with a minute left in the game, I held my breath for every play until the Patriots finally lost.

As we wandered out onto the street, we slung our arms around each other and let loose some commiserative moans. For another few minutes we stood there, talking, laughing, and finally getting to the point in the conversation where we exchanged Facebook profile names with promises to find each other eventually. And so there – the first friends that I made as a solo traveler (if you’re reading this now – Hi Peter and Seamus!). I felt very sad to leave and I looked back over my shoulder several times at their small knot of bodies still groaning over the loss as I walked back to my hotel alone at three in the morning to fetch my bag for the airport. Funny how being alone after being so thrown together in such solidarity with other people (even with strangers) leaves one feeling even more isolated, quieter.

I said I wasn't going to post this picture
of myself... but it reveals too much truth...
Then my first week of French class, writing, shopping and long hours at the writing desk that this lovely family installed for me. I keep the heat low throughout the house, wear my fluffy blue bathrobe, sometimes doubling up on scarves. With just my little head visible over the top of my robe, I look a bit like a bloated, fuzzy Smurf.

Which is why I decided I needed to leave the house on Friday night. The problem is that it is very difficult to leave the house when it is so cold. There is no new snow, but the little that has fallen (nearly two weeks ago) dusts about in small piles and refuses to melt. Even when the sun blares all day, the wind and the hard temperatures are only enough to make tiny dunes of the thin sheet of flakes that cover my little back yard.

Café des Halles, Brussels
Anyways, I put tights on under my jeans and waited for the late night tram to take me into the heart of downtown. On the way to the bars by the Grand Place, I walked through the Rue des Bouchers where a young, dark-haired man wearing a chef’s vest stopped me and referred to me as "princess" throughout the conversation. I paused in that blue and green lit neon walk for a moment to talk with him (what minute can't I spare when there is literally nowhere that I have to be). He brought me into the restaurant that he ostensibly owns and gave me a glass of champagne and then took me outside to the heat lamps, produced an ashtray and we smoked together. When I said goodnight, trying to make a graceful exit out of a lie that I have to “go meet a friend,” I headed towards an area that Bri and I visited two weeks past and find a bar that claims to be part café, part dance hall, part art gallery and find that it is indeed a lovely venue.

Café des Halles, Brussels
It looks like a converted railway station with high sweeping iron beams that hold up the domed roof. The walls are brick with intermittent columns supporting the three levels that wrap around the whole room. There is a fountain at the center of the room as well as a sweet-looking DJ who I glance at throughout the evening. My young-looking server is charged with the sad task of conveying notes on pieces of cardboard boxes from a gentleman at the bar that I never quite see that gives me his number with scribbled Sharpie messages in French. He sends me a drink and later on a genial New Yorker takes a picture of me and ends up telling me about San Francisco and himself. And despite the trip out and the pleasant conversations, I still feel rather lonely. Not at all the Irish camaraderie I had so enjoyed less than a week before. But without an itinerary, agenda, or anyone to answer to, I was able to select my chances for myself. I treated myself to taxi home and jabbered with my driver in awkward French. That counts as practice for French class, right?

My benefactors here have a daughter that lives in Brussels and after a few missed connections, we had finally made a date for Saturday afternoon. And despite the cold, we decided to spend the afternoon taking a walk around the pond in the Bois de la Cambre.

Bois de la Cambre, Brussels
Charlotte, tall and willowy with wildly bright eyes, is an actress, comedienne, singer with a concert coming up at the beginning of the month. As two wool-wrapped artists on our own for the first time, we ended up going over a lot of our troubles with art, our giddiness for it, the personal trials associated with it. At intervals she would point things out to me: a red-throated robin, blocked off areas of the ice where skating was forbidden, large rock archways, and the small island at the center of the pond. She gently corrected my French as we walked. And even though the wind had bruised us blue by the end of it, I was surprised when I looked at my watch and learned that we had been talking for nearly two hours. We ended up in a café with our hands cupped around two warm bowls of carrot soup accompanied by thickly sliced bread and small flowers of butter.

Chez Charlotte, Brussels
Afterwards, we went to Charlotte’s place with a brisk walk along the sidewalks of Brussels, peopled with families out with strollers and men with their newspapers and girls with high boots. Her apartment is in an old town house style that would have once housed only one well-to-do family, but is now split into three floors of one bedroom apartments and the whole thing begins with a high and green-as-grass front door. We go up two flights of stairs and arrive at Charlotte’s apartment which is the ideal artist apartment – tastefully decorated with antiques, cards from friends and flooded with light from the high windows. I look across the street at all of the other buildings in the old Belgian style standing at attention, shoulder to shoulder and wonder how someone couldn’t be inspired here. I imagine that every flower box at every window along the street is the home of a poet, sculptor or dancer. And we continue to talk all afternoon long.

Is there anything better than making a new friend? Meeting yourself again for the first time and wondering what you might look like as you puzzle over an unknown French word? It is perhaps the greatest joy of traveling by yourself - you find out not only who other people are, but who you are as you get to know someone who has absolutely no sense of your past. You carefully unpack yourself for the first time in good long while and find out what you're really carrying around with you.

And so I find myself alone this Valentine’s Day. And yet, untroubled by that fact. Even with the Bise Noir blustering outside my window.

Full-size Chocolate Orangutan, Brussels
(I think the only thing that would make the Belgians
happier is if they could have made it out of beer)
This weekend, I also visited a chocolate shop with another friend – the premiere artisanal chocolaterie in Brussels: Pierre Marcolini. Of their highly varied selection (saffron, violet, rose, anise) one of their offerings is a tour around the world in a box – through chocolate. Each tiny truffle represents another country: Venezuelan chocolate, Swiss chocolate, Belgian chocolate, chocolate from Ecuador. I bought a box for myself and find myself this evening up late after too much coffee eating through a tiny voyage around the world. One of the best ways to travel solo.

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