The landscape will shift here for a while: I’m updating the site. Making it more simple and accessible. Getting it ready for an audience that doesn’t speak Dutch. The thing is, I’m almost finished with my novel and I need something to keep me from finishing it. Diversion is what that’s called, I think.
We arrived by elevator on a moon-shy night. Two pretty boys in ripped and burned-out T-shirts led us into an anteroom where a doctor was sliding on medical mittens. She was tugging at the latex with her teeth. We were told to strip, leave our scarves, hats and umbrellas on a steaming pile of abandoned garments. The soaked up rain in wool ponchos and trench coats was evaporating; there were high levels of human-radiated heat.
“I’d like to order a hamburger,” a broad man said. He wore a motorcycle jacket and mirrored sunglasses. His hair was black and shiny, shaped into a monstrous crest.
“Just because I’m wearing my uniform, doesn’t mean I’m on duty,” I said, softening the blow with a smile. “Besides, I haven’t seen Lafayette yet. Perhaps he’s not coming.”
We eased into a bustling salon, sealed up in plastic. Faces were stamped with excitement, suspense, kaleidoscopic paints. A zombie offered us a cocktail. Our hands reached out, but we were bushwhacked, bear-hugged from behind by Spartacus.
“Don’t let this corpse bleed you dry,” he warned me, pointing to the dapper vampire at my side.
“Happy Birthday, Spartacus,” the vampire said.
We traded small talk for gifts, eyeing the characters around us. Near the bar, a full-breasted redhead showed off her shapely behind in a tight scarlet over-knee dress. Three guys in bulky sneakers were semi-loafing on canes, debating whether to pop another pseudo-pill; transvestites dotted the dance floor, some allured in low-cut attire, others in checkered tweed suits. I spied a car mechanic, one fat grizzly bear, a state trooper. They weren’t talking.
“Hey Alice, what’s up?” an orange-suited prisoner asked.
“Alice is in Wonderland,” I replied. “I’m her evil twin—packing fairy blood.”
Lady Gaga was turned-up. A man sporting tighty-whities waltzed in, otherwise well-dressed from the waist up. The vampire and I started prancing. Occasionally, I offered him my throat. In between highballs and chitchat, the champagne flowed. When the green surgeon arrived, we knew it was time to quit the joint.
After the age of Almodovar came the year of Disney, and now, the era of TV series. We wondered what Spartacus would opt for next. At least we learned one thing: being mutilated, dead or inhuman doesn’t stop you from having a good time.
In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee narrates the story of an elderly writer who meets a young woman in the communal laundry room and asks her to type out his essays. The book itself is interlaced with these essays and the young woman comments on them.
The first series of essays is mostly political. The second series deals with topics like writing, birds and Bach – often with a personal undertone. The young woman prefers the second series and when I first read the book I disagreed with her: the political essays are far more urgent. After reading the book for the second time, I must agree with her: the humanist essays are far more memorable.
Coetzee about ageing:
“My hip gave such pain that today I could not walk and could barely sit. Inexorably, day by day, the physical mechanism deteriorates. As for the mental apparatus, I am continually on the qui vive for broken cogs, blown fuses, hoping against hope that it will outlast its corporeal host. All old folk become Cartesians.”
It’s Sinterklaastijd in Holland. Literally this means “The period of Saint Nicolas” – not to be confused with Santa Claus. In reality it’s an excuse for throwing all dietary restrictions out of the window. Children and adults alike are consuming unbelievable amounts of high-sugar and high-fat products like kruidnoten, taaitaai and marzipan. The Easter Bunny with its chocolate eggs can’t even compete.
A big favorite in Sinterklaastijd is the chocolate letter. As the Dutch excel in making things personal and educational, most stores are equipped with endless shelves on which they display the 26 letters of the alphabet – each letter exists in different flavors, so you are not limited to buy someone the first letter of their name, but you can also show that you know them a little by choosing the milk, pure or white variety.
Last week a journalist from Rotterdam brought me one of those letters, and as she had read my novel, in which the main character is a health-and-environmental minded person, she had chosen a Fairtrade version with reasonably pure ingredients. The journalist had assumed (not incorrectly) that my novel contained autobiographical elements, and that I would be happy to receive chocolate that was free of slave-labor and bad additives.
The letter, however, did display a small figurine recognizable as the head of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), and I explained that it would tickle a chuckle out of my American husband, who perceives the Dutch tradition, in which we surround an old white man with dark skinned servants, as rather racist. When my husband saw the chocolate letter, he indeed made a comment, and when he saw me cutting a piece off my C, he asked: “Are you going to eat Black Peter?”
As I had already studied the ingredients of this particular chocolate piece and had noticed the E-nummers, I answered, a little too quickly: “No, I won’t. Too many colorants.”
My husband just looked at me baffled, thinking: “I rest my case”.
On the ever inspiring TED site, I recently viewed the talk ‘The origins of pleasure’ in which Psychologist Paul Bloom investigates our love of art and wonders why we like an original painting better than a forgery.
In his opinion is has to do with the history of the piece of art that somehow enriches our experience. Human beings are essentialists, he claims, and our beliefs about an object interfere with how we experience it. Before we can fully appreciate something, we need to know what it is, who made it, and where it comes from.
I don’t disagree with his theory, but I think that something is missing. Why do we feel betrayed when we discover that we have been looking at a forgery? Not only because our assumptions were wrong, and we are staring at an object with a different, less interesting, history. It’s also because we are magical thinkers.
When I’m standing in front of a painting in a museum and I observe the details from up close, or when I place my hand (when allowed) on a marble statue, I secretly believe that the genius of the artist is still present in his or her work, and that by approaching it, a bit of that genius might jump over to me. An original work of art could therefore inspire us, as a forgery cannot.
But perhaps we have become too rational to admit to this type of thinking. Being an essentialist is much easier to accept.
Or what I took away from the mountain.
The evening began with a fire. Under the doubtful eyes of four city men, our sturdy Swiss host constructed a pyramid of twigs. He showed no fear of the rain clouds overhead. Inside the house, eight pairs of hands were busy preparing and when the flames died down, various meats and vegetables were put on the grill. The fumes of smoke circled up in the air as a sign to the valley-people that life up on the mountain was good. Later, during dinner, stories and invitations flooded the tables and when the glasses were empty, our whole party moved up to the floor where the wine bottles were kept.
The evening began a second time in the music room. The host and his father took up their positions from years ago, facing each other across two grand pianos. They communicated in their own private language that was nonetheless understood by all. Later, a guitarist joined and another, and then some timid drumming was added and some even more timid singing. It all became clear that we hadn’t gathered to eat together – it was for the music, that we were there.
The evening began yet again around an antique table. After the musicians had grown tired and we had all gathered around a plate of Azerbejdżanian baklava, the uncle of the Polish hostess suddenly tapped his glass. “We will all speak!” he decided. “One by one. About what it means to be here.” And for reasons that became obvious to me later, he chose me to begin.
Of course I was nervous, put on the spot like that, but fortunately I had written something about the mountain the day before. So I quickly recounted my story about languages, the privilege to hear people compose, and the lingua franca of music. Before I knew it, my turn had passed and a cynical guest surprised me by opening up about the emotions he had felt earlier that night. As the circle continued, the stories became more and more personal. One guest returned to the guitar, a second spoke about the beautiful glimpses of family life he had envied and yet another confessed how much he missed his friends in his new town.
The more the others spoke, the more I regretted my own words. How presumptuous of me to have mentioned that I was a writer and therefore not trained for public speech, how cold of me to have quoted something I had written before, how rude of me to have forgotten to thank the hosts. The evening had turned into Plato’s symposium and my failure was weighing heavily on me: I had forgotten to use the word love!
For a moment I considered asking for a second chance. I had to prove that I was just as warm-blooded and touched as the others, but before I could gather up the courage, the host and hostess took over; they were intentionally chosen by the uncle to be the last to speak. They thanked us for having come to their mountain and expressed the hope that we would all take something away with us when we left. Something that would help us cherish and pursue our own special gifts.
Their words soothed me instantly. I didn’t need to speak eloquently about love; the others had done so already. I didn’t need to be better at public speaking. After all: I was a writer, which was perhaps less of a presumptuous statement than a plain fact. I could write about love anytime I wanted in any words I choose. All I needed to do was to silence my critical self and observe. And so the evening began once more.
It’s a sunny day in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I’m walking on one of the raised balustraded terraces along a row of tall trees. Up in a branch, a bird is calling out. It is hidden from sight by the first spring leafs, but its two-tonal call sounds bright and clear.
Seconds later, it is answered by a second bird. Their dialogue continues, with short and regular pauses in between their exchanges. I’m imagining a romantic pursuit, although they might as well be sending out territorial warnings.
As I pass the birds, I notice that the answer doesn’t originate in a treetop, but comes from close to the ground. I scan the gravel surface around me. I’m curious to see which bird is making this distinct sound.
Underneath the tree, on a park bench, sits an older African man. I look at him, while waiting for the birds to cry out. The call sounds, and when the African moves his lips in synch with the answer, I feel an intense rush of happiness. To my ears, he has mimicked the bird’s two-tonal call perfectly. I send him a warm smile, hoping that it resembles that of a child who experiences the pure joy of discovering a magic trick.
He looks up at the tree, and then returns to me. His eyes ask: do you think the bird has figured it out yet?
At nine in the morning, the sky above Paris is blue. Great, I think, today I can make a sunny walk on Boulevard Raspail. From my past experiences in trying to find sunlight, I know that this street guarantees unobstructed radiation from eleven till two. Skies in Paris might be cloudless, but with all the narrow streets and tall buildings, the winter sun is eluding.
By ten thirty the clouds have moved in. Too bad, I think, but I could go out later for a pleasant round in the park. No sun, but also no traffic. It’s a second winter favorite.
Around two my stomach is growling. When I am writing, it is often impossible to tear myself away from my book. I decide to have lunch first and go out later, but before I’ve finished my salad, it starts to rain. I comfort myself with the thought that it won’t last all day.
I continue my writing again and get absorbed in my story. In the back of my mind, I must notice that the rain has stopped and patches of blue are calling me. Still, I’m not willing to let this chapter go unfinished.
At five thirty I make some tea and realize: it’s now or never. Within an hour the sun will set and the whole point of the walk, receiving some daylight, will be obliterated. I open the door and stick my head out. The temperature is mild, the clouds are dark. New rain is eminent. I sigh and close the door. This is why I spend my days inside.
I had so much fun with you this weekend.
That’s the added bonus of leaving – when you return,
we are overly excited to see each other.
But I feel the weekend should not be over yet.
Sorry, honey. Reality is hard. Monday will be here tomorrow.
But my weekend did not start until Saturday afternoon.
Friday night was taken from me, I sacrificed it to my work.
Therefore: my weekend was incomplete.
But it’s the quality that counts. You just mentioned how much fun we had.
Yes, but I could have had more fun, if the weekend had been longer.
I feel unfulfilled.
Okay. Then you should file a complaint.
Yes. I’ll do that. Anyone would agree that a weekend without a Friday night is unsatisfying. I need an extra day to complete it.
I don’t think the Bureau will agree with you. Generally they only compensate for weekends that were ruined by natural disasters
like volcano eruptions or the flu.
Of course they’ll agree! The Bureau for Unfulfilled weekends will recognize the necessity of the Friday night for the experience of a Full Weekend.
Like I said: file a complaint and we’ll see.
I bet you tomorrow is still Monday.
I’m reading Black Dogs from Ian McEwan, trying to proceed slow, be attentive; his prose deserves it. Still, I’m hurrying toward the scene in which the dogs will appear – not only the title, also the storyteller has promised me it will be the novel’s crucial scene. On page 60 the author teases me, makes me believe it’s coming up right now, yet he holds back. I read on, and on, getting more excited, reading faster, trying to slow down my mind; the psychological insights deserve it. When I finally reach the scene taking place in the gorge, the black dogs closing in, on page 144, disappointment sets in. Is it a bad scene? Not at all – I’m just sad because there’s only thirty pages left of this novel.