Monday, March 5, 2012

Night Fever

Me in the Parc Pépenière, Nancy, France
I woke up alone that morning in a strange bedroom with my back pushed up against a wall after having slept on a fold-out futon with a sizable divot at its center, that I was tacoed into. I’ve been traveling through the European countryside with my mother, her husband and their friends. In their company, I’ve seen Place Stanislas: the small, guilded city center of Nancy and wandered along the canals of Bruges. We’ve had several family dinners in well-lit restaurants or fireside in a farm-style ranch near a rolling hill in the French countryside where I can hear sheep bleating in the night. We’ve toasted with several different white wines, champagne, we’ve laughed at my tripping French and I’ve gleaned from the wheat fields of my mother’s well-traveled friends several short story ideas. This morning, I’m waking up at 6 a.m. to ride from France back to Belgium.

The bedroom is cold. The blankets are bunched up under my chin and I’m pillow-creased across my face and disappointed at how misty 6 a.m. looks between the slats of my window.

I’ve been waking up alone for almost thirty years now, the thought occurs to me.

It’s a five hour drive to Bruges in the squat blue rental car that my mother and Michael rented. The time passes quickly enough with my mother repeating all of the GPS instructions to Michael as we go. There’s me; in the back seat awkwardly typing on my orange-juice sticky computer, visible to Michael in the rear view mirror, and my iPad is the backseat DJ.

Me and My Mother in France
In the backseat, I can spread out, write, read, and (when I want to chat) I can lean forward to stick my head between the driver and passenger seats during conversation (which is always fun). It also feels very much like being a little kid again. The grown-ups paying for the gas, the food. The grown-ups who, after having found each other and figured out how to live together, keep a house together, and take intercontinental vacations together, squire me about on my European experience. And as I look at their paired profiles in the front seat and then look over to the listless seatbelt in the vacant seat across from me, piled with luggage at its feet, it seems as though there is an implied absence.

View from the Hotel in Bruges
Right now (as I write this) I’m here. In Bruges. The canals carry sound in strange ways across the courtyard so that as I’m outside by the waterside gate it sounds like the boy careening home drunk on his bicycle in the middle of the night on the street outside is actually going right past my ear. The water is mostly still, just slow, gentle eddies as a duck dives into the water for a midnight dip or a swan goes to take another lover. This is Bruges by night, but first there was also Nancy by day.

I have actually been to Nancy, France before when I was in my Senior year at Epping High School, although it turns out that most of the memories have been white-washed over or transposed into watercolor, because seeing the city now as someone totally enamored by nothing more than food, architecture, and art (rather than the intricacies of the high school relationships of the thirty other people that I was traveling with then), I am in love with Nancy – a city in the Lorraine region of the French paysage. It all seems very new.

Place Stanislas is a wide-open square that made me squint even in the initial gray afternoon light. The square is bordered by darker stones and then the rest are these bright ochre stones which pave a pedestrian only square for festivals, cafes and other city events.  As the fountain of Neptune pounded away in the background we walked past the Hôtel de Ville, the Opera House, the Museum, my mother ducking into the tourist shop. And then (right in the center) is Stanislas himself. The gray monument capped with his statue peering through the Arc de Triomphe by Héré  leading to the adjoining Place de la Carrière reads

Place Stanislas in Nancy, France
Stanislas Leszczynski, King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine and Bar, 1737–1766
To Stanislas the Benefactor, Lorraine is grateful, 1831, Meurthe-Meuse-Vosges

What was the king of Poland doing in the middle of a square in France almost 850 miles away from his home? I wrinkled my nose and asked my mother’s friend, an English teacher here in France.

Well, she tells me, Stanislas, twice the king of Poland ended up having to abdicate the throne for a series of reasons, but after his abdication in 1736 he settled here and was named the duchy of Bar-le-Duc and Lorraine and during his time there he was noted as a good host, a patron of art and science and the architect for the idea that eventually became Place Stanislas, uniting both the old quarter and the new quarter of Nancy. A good man, apparently, and partially responsible for uniting the Lorraine with the rest of France, father-in-law to a queen, overall well-remembered. Not bad for a foreigner living in another country.

But apparently in his old age he had become particularly enormous, boasting an untenable rotund fat body that he hauled around on his 89 year old legs and still it wasn’t old age that did him in. One night, going to stand by the fire after dinner, he lost his balance and fell into the flames and although his skin was immediately seared by the heat, he could not right his enormous body and instead flailed about as he burned, doing little more than rolling around in the embers. Help arrived, summoned by his screams, but not in time. He was seen to by a doctor immediately, but it wasn’t until four days later that he died in great pain from those burns.

Place Stanislas in Nancy, France
These are some of the things I learn while traveling…

My skin, almost 250 years later feels sympathy pains. I look up at his flowing robes, the confident hand resting on the hilt of his sword, the other pointing to the North and I wonder if a former king who died in flames knows that I’m wondering if he was ever in love, if he cared about his children, what music he appreciated.

Le chat noir in the Window in Nancy
The old quarter of Nancy was also bright, peopled with almost as many statues in its walls, alcoves, and alleyways as it was pedestrians. By the time we finished lunch along the Rue des Gourmands the sun was properly shining and all of the cafes had come alive with people, reading, smoking, laughing and talking in rapid-fire French in high spirits, probably encouraged by the springtime-promising sunlight. In one of the lacey-curtained windows of one of the shops along the way, a humorless black cat watched my progress across the street with gray-green eyes and flicking bottlebrush tail. I stopped to look at him, each of us evaluating the other and his tiny butt shot into the air, ready to pounce through the layer of glass separating us if necessary, when I took a step towards him. I ran my fingers all along the panes and he chased my hand.

Chez Ablancourt
Later that night, back home with the Ablancourt clan, I stepped outside while my mother and her friends were talking about the qualities of French vs. American elections. In the dark, back at M’s place in Flavigny, the mountains were one long low, hulking shadow and the air was almost warm. Little solar lights lined the stone walkway to their house where I sat on their stoop, afraid that I had locked myself out. The whole world smelled both funky and natural: like camembert cheese and rain.

And for some reason, in spite of the fact that I have spent the past week in the company of a shifting group of wonderful people that I love very much, I also felt very alone. 

Thinking about kings burning, reading poetry by Cavafy, listening to too much Dylan and seeing old acquaintances that knew you way-back-when, sometimes it all leaves you gasping for air when you’ve put it all together in combination. And it makes you feel a ghost in the air around you – of the person that you haven’t yet stumbled upon that makes the poetry, shifting ground, food, and hard historical stories make sense yet in the context of your own life.

Boat Tour in Bruges
Here is a story. Thomas Hardy, author of some of my favorite novel-length heartrending catastrophes, was 30 years old when he met his wife, Emma. They were married four years later and the marriage lasted until her death in 1912 (thirty-eight years all told). He was a 72-year-old man at that time of her death and she was buried on a shady stretch of green in Stinsford parish. He was a notably published author at that point, estranged from his son, and re-married to a woman 39 years his junior and all he could think about was the wife he had lost.

He wandered around Cornwall where they had met years earlier when he was studying the architecture of a local church and wrote poems about their young love nearly forty years after it had all gone away and even though he was to be honored after his death by being buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, the family insisted that he be buried next to Emma in Stinsford Parish. To this day his heart is buried in Stinsford while the rest of his remains are housed in London’s Westminster. Poems like “Without Ceremony” and “At Castle Boterel” are about the merciless forward movement of time, especially when it comes to maneuvering us further away from our love.

I think, no matter the height of our career, the joys of our travel, the pleasantness of the company that we’ve kept along the way, sometimes we are helpless, soppy poets when it comes to missing lovers we’ve lost or the love that still has yet to arrive.

I wandered around Bruges noting the cozy, two-person tables inset into the walls of restaurants overlooking the canal with champagne buckets nearby, the couples pawing at each other by the lights of the fountain in the park, the blankets draped over the edges of the horse drawn carriages as invitations. Bruges is an old city, romantic for its architecture, living and breathing stones, and flowering crocuses all around the borders that are still marked by windmills and connected to the rest of the world by bridge.

In fact, the bridge that my grandfather stopped to paint in Bruges over 40 years ago is still there and along the inside lip of the bridge there are little dangling locks that are meant symbolize the steadfastness of love. The Love Bridge or the Wedding Bridge leads over the canal, away from a church into the center of town and is still used by blushing brides today as they take their first steps into their married life.  40 years ago, my grandfather sketched out a painting alongside his friend – both men charmed by the romance of the arched pathway, the moist springtime air. I picture them seated on the low wall along the path leading from the church with berets on (thought it is unlikely that either of those men ever wore a beret) eyeing the bridge as one couple after another walked through their line of sight to kiss at the bridge’s midpoint. And in spite of the traffic that they must have seen, the painting that hangs in my grandfather’s house is un-peopled, leaving me with a sense that they saw the bridge more as an invitation to lovers than an exposition of lovers.

Anyways, these were the thoughts that I was carrying around with me on Friday. Someone was suddenly taking her time abroad and herself far too seriously, and I’m not sure how long I would have stayed on that course, but by that evening it was time to put on my new dress and head towards Le Bouche à Oreille to hear Charlotte Deschamps in concert.

Which, it turns out, reminded me what this whole grand mess is actually about.

Charlotte Deschamps in concert is a grand pleasure. A mixture of old cabaret-feeling performances with poetic ballads and other cheeky, clever little larks of song. I had my flip camera at the ready and was glad to capture a song called “Les Filles de Woluwe” (a song about the girls in the neighborhood that I live in). From my seat among new friends ranged in the chairs around me in the dark, I watched someone blissfully talented enjoy performing her art for a group of enthusiastic patrons. I smiled and laughed interminably throughout the whole thing even though I missed much of the all-French lyrics. The whole audience cheered the entire song list that was followed by several encores and featured some brilliant original musical composition by Charlotte’s friend.

Museum Night Fever at Bozar
And I followed it up the next night with a similar surprise Brussels pleasure. I learned that Saturday (after Kevin’s early morning arrival) was actually a special event in Brussels in which all of the museums in the city open their doors until one in the morning and transform themselves into concert halls, dance clubs, poetry slams, and live performance venues, complete with lounges and participatory graffiti. It is a special event hat happens once a year called Museum Night Fever. Kevin, shouldering his jetlag rather well, took to the late night challenge amiably and only hallucinated a dragon once (which, considering the substance of the evening, was really quite a credit to him).

There we were in the Musée des Beaux Arts with about four hundred other people ranged along their marble steps watching a howling band play while two other girls danced interpretively in long sliding steps all around the middle landing (planned or unplanned, who knows?)

“So the Heroes are actually really big in Brussels?” Kevin smiled as we watched the interpretive dance and accordion playing shift into a heavier metal band. I punched him in the arm.

Bozar at Museum Night Fever
Brussels, usually so quiet, was fired with spontaneous art of every kind last night. 24 of the city’s museums had transformed themselves and in every corner of the city, people were touring the galleries while listening to rock music, participating in a flash mob (or a silent mob – that was an option, too – but I don’t know what that is), or watching stringed quartets.

When we entered the Grand Place to go to the Royal Museum an enormous red box had been plonked down in front of it with large white words written in Flemish across its front, a bull horn was placed in the artful cracks through its side and someone was shouting poetry. As a group of loosely affiliated foreigners, we saw a great deal of the art of Brussels in one evening and the shift in my attitude in the face of new art was palpable. And it definitely helped to fuel the six hours of writing this afternoon. It’s funny the way that art can change the face of a landscape, can change the way you think of yourself in that landscape, can make you un-know yourself a little bit. It can leave you feeling unglued, but it can also remind you of the possibilities of the life you do not yet know, instead of the hall of doors that all seem to be shut.

The thing is - the aloneness, the time spent apart from all the rest of the business of life, well, I guess that feels right to me. What do I love about this damned writing thing? The answers to that seem to be multiplying. And they are questions whose answers have only come in company with a small touch of isolation. So maybe knowing who you are is overrated. And maybe romantic love is important, but maybe its absence shouldn’t live so near to the center of a wounded heart. Maybe assigning a value to anything isn’t really a key to discovery at all. Maybe just long walks, good music, passionate practitioners of interpretive dance and really, really amazing chocolate are the actual keys to self-discovery.

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