Monday, September 5, 2016

Belmondo at the STARS Hotel

The elevator doors opened on a dark hallway.  I stood there uncertainly, listening and sniffing, like prey.  The hallway smelled like insecticide.  From the end of the hallway came a rhythmic buzzing sound, like the sound of a trapped fly.  Music.  Another hotel guest was in there, playing music. I identified the song as a ubiquitous pop song that had been following me, yes, like an insect, for weeks, months, the way pop songs do.  I'd learned the chorus by heart without trying, without wanting to.  It went, "Whoa-woo-whoa-woo-whoa-woo, whoa-woo-whoa-woo-whoa-woo, I'm fallin', and I'm takin' my time on the ri-yee-yi-yee-yide." I willed myself not to sing along.

What if they opened their door, right then, in the dark, to find me standing here? There must be a light, I thought.  Don't panic.  Just look around.  Hovering in the air in front of me was a tiny orange light.  I reached for it, miscalculated the distance -- it was closer than I'd thought -- and poked it, hard.  The hallway lit up, though still dimly, enough for me to see a long dark stain on the carpet.  I said something aloud, I don't know what, and started down the hall, looking for my room number.

The room smelled of insecticide and baby powder scented air freshener.  It had badly peeling wallpaper, and two twin beds pushed together instead of a queen.  I opened the curtains to see out the window, which overlooked a black roof and faced another building.  A shirtless man appeared in the window directly across from mine.  He raised his forearm and pressed it against the glass and leaned his forehead against it, looking down, lit a cigarette.

"Who are you, Jean Paul Belmondo?" I said.  He removed the cigarette from his mouth and rubbed his two fingers against his lips -- I swear he did -- like Belmondo did in "Breathless."  I pulled the curtain shut.  I said, "No," I said.  "Nope.  I will not be nice about this.  I am not going to be nice about this."

Downstairs, I told the desk clerk that my room was not acceptable to me.  She was young and shy and at first answered me in halting English, then switched back when I continued in French.  I did not tell her about the smell of insecticide or the unlit hallway or the stain on the carpet or Jean Belmondo in the window, all of which, in the aggregate, had been what had propelled me back down to the lobby.  I told her about the twin beds.  She lowered her eyes and countered, timidly, that I had reserved a room with two twin beds and that is why I had a room with two twin beds.  As she said this she checked the computer as if she didn't believe herself.  I said, "Why would I do that?  It's just me.  Why would I reserve two twin beds?"  She showed me a piece of paper that documented her assertion.  I repeated myself, speaking louder and faster.  I recalled someone once saying something about "speaking from a place of fear," and I had laughed, despising, as I do, expressions like that.  It was the kind of thing people said for effect, but at this moment it was what I felt I was doing:  speaking from a place of fear.  And what did I fear so intensely?  Discomfort.  A failure of complete strangers to recognize what I was entitled to.  The outrage of twin beds.

She fled, in any case.  There was urgent whispering, alternating with a placating murmuring, in the tiny office off to the side.  The girl returned.  She handed me a key.  As I took it, feeling sheepish, I heard the creak of a chair in the tiny office, where a woman with curly gray hair and tired, dark eyes with identical gray pouches hanging under them leaned back into the open doorway and smiled grimly at me.

"Is okay?" she asked.  "Yes?  Is now good?"

"Yeah, sure," I said in English, taken off guard.  

"Dickensian," I remarked as I rode the elevator up to the new corridor and the new room.  I jabbed the orange light.  The dark carpet was stained, but there was no sound from the other rooms, and no smell of insecticide.  I found my room.  It also smelled neutral.  The wallpaper adhered to the walls.  One double bed was bolted to the wall.  I opened the curtain just as Belmondo closed his, hanging his head, defeated.

In a corner opposite the bed a small black television seemed to be trying to find a hole to crawl into.

"Don't worry," I told it.  "I won't watch you, I promise."

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Never again.

This post goes back in time to my departure flight from Boston to Istanbul on July 14.

The passengers sharing my row are going to Lahore; I peeked at my neighbor's boarding pass as she tucked it into the pocket in the seat back.  They talk loudly, greedily, in the American style.  The style of my people.  Talking at the world, fending it off and consuming it at the same time, they hold up their cell phones as if they need them to supplement their own five senses.  They examine the movie screens in the seat backs.  They master the mechanism of the tray tables.  The boy – who is, I notice, about twice the size of the girls – pokes at the movie screen.  This seems to be their first time on an airplane.  They explore it openly, colonizing, taking possession with an appalling air of entitlement that is both aggressive and innocent.  

Turkish Airlines is based, of course, in Turkey.  We all have a layover at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul.  Two weeks ago at Ataturk, men wearing stylish black down jackets to conceal the bombs wrapped around their torsos emerged from taxis, entered the airport, and murdered forty-four people.  I dreamed last night that I wandered by mistake into the area where they had put up a memorial for the victims that I saw in the news.  A grief-stricken dream-airport-employee told me I shouldn't be in there, but wanted to show me the photos.  Then he couldn’t find them, and then I couldn’t find my way to my gate, and then there were other less friendly airport employees hovering around the edges of the vast empty room where I'd found myself.  It was one of those dreams that you never find your way out of, so you take it with you.

My row-mates have black hair, light brown skin.  The girls' hair is long and straight and shiny; it falls over their faces constantly as if to protect them, and constantly they throw it deftly back over their shoulders, and almost instantly it slips back down, veiling their faces, reflecting the ceiling lights. I count them -- there are six young people, three of whom are in my row, traveling with a woman wearing a head scarf who seems to be their mother.  She sits directly in front of me, and is silent and still.    

Do they know about the men emerging from taxis wearing winter jackets on a hot summer night, about the one who was shot and rolled about on the floor, struggling to detonate his bomb?  I saw a surveillance video of this man struggling, suffering, we all saw it.  Of course they know.  We all know.  But we have these plane tickets, we have these plans.  We want to fly away and have experiences and fly back, like well-trained falcons. 

They nest.  Two of them pluck the little plastic-wrapped headphones from their seats, but the one next to me doesn’t notice hers.  It’s on the edge of the cushion and her knee brushes against it and it falls to the floor.  She folds herself up like a bird.  She tucks her hair behind her ear.  She doesn't yet know she's lost something.  It's rarely recorded -- that moment when you have lost something, when something goes missing.

I should tell her.

I settle back in my seat and take out my book and start to read, and right then, all together, as if obeying a silent order, they spelunk in their carry-ons and their hands emerge holding IPhones.  They discover the USB ports in the seat backs and plug them in almost simultaneously.  Everything they do is deft and urgent and authoritative, as though this entire planeload of people depends on them.  As though we await their orders. And yet I am sure that if their mother were to stand up and walk back down the aisle and disappear, they would be instantly at a loss.

I reach down and secrete the dropped headphones in the palm of my hand.

As always in families, there is one who is different – here it is this boy.  They’re all talking, but he can’t seem to stop, and he repeats himself aggressively, aiming his questions at the girl to his left.

Will there be wifi?  Will be there be wifi?  Do you think there will be wifi?  Should I ask her if there will be wifi? 

He asks this with the urgency of someone who has entered a dark space.  Will there be light?  Will there be air?  

Do you want me to ask her?  I can ask her.  Do you want me to?  Hey, should I ask her? 

The Turkish Airlines crew, I suspect, will not suffer fools.  They smile severely at the passengers, aiming their eyes at hairline level.  There is only one male crew member, it seems, and he does not look at anyone as he goes about the work of corralling people into their seats.  He places carry-on luggage into the overhead storage bins, shuts each one with a snap once it's full.  He seems jaded and brooding.  I wonder where he was when he heard about the attack.  Likely in an airplane, 40,000 feet in the air, all of them, having to react to the news without skipping a beat, while pouring coffee, offering this, offering that to squirmy, petulant travelers.  The women are devastatingly beautiful.  They all have their hair pulled back and up into flawless buns, their eyes made up with long dark lines that extend beyond the lids.

I don’t think that the noisy boy should call a crew member to ask if there will be wifi, but want him to, just to see what follows.

The sister beside him tells him no.  She says it like this:  “Nooo-wuh!"

I see now.  This has been a long trip for them already.  He has been talking since he opened his eyes this morning.  She has placed herself on the front lines, absorbing his constant barrage of questions and demands, fending him off.  She tells him to shut up.  She tells him to stop.  She tells him she doesn’t know.  She tells him to shut up.  She tells him to stop.  Whenever she says “Shut up” or “Stop,” she gives the final “p” its own syllable – an elongated schwa.  “Sto-puh,” she says.  “Shutuhh-puh.”  She rides these expressions of annoyance like waves that keep picking her up and moving her away from something she wants.

The girl next to me is successfully ignoring her brother.  She is smaller, more self-contained, as though she knows that at any moment she could take flight, alone, and transport herself to Pakistan.  He asks her direct questions that she lets fall; he seems accustomed to it and is unfazed.

I turn back to my book, read for a few minutes, until the noisy boy raises his voice, this time at the smaller sister, the quiet one next to me whose headphones I have stolen.  He and the other sister, I see, have opened their headphones and plugged them into the seat backs next to the video screens.  His eyes widen when he sees that my neighbor has no headphones.

Where are your headphones?  Don't you have any?  I have headphones.  They were right on my seat.  You idiot.  They were right on your seat.  Look.  Look on your seat.  You're probably sitting on them, idiot. 

The quiet girl flutters, panics, turns in her seat, searches underneath her for the headphones.  Three small worry lines appear in her forehead.  I know nothing of this girl except this, and that it will always be true:  when she loses something, three lines appear in her smooth forehead, and the people around her, like me, reflexively want to erase them.

You can ask for some headphones.  I'm not gonna ask for you.  You're the one who lost them, idiot.  You're the one who lost them.  Ask.  Go ahead, ask.  Maybe they'll give you more, even though you lost them like an idiot.  

I unfasten my seatbelt, turn in my seat, bend over, pretending to search for the headphones on the floor.  The girl watches me without looking at me.  I open my palm, offer the headphones.  It’s like feeding a bird. She flutters and giggles lightly and takes the headphones and plugs them into the port under the little movie screen.  She caresses the screen of her phone as if to console it.  She smiles as lists of names and phone numbers track rapidly up and down, each one accompanied by a tiny face, taking stock of her life so far.

Hours later, she is sleeping easily, folded up in her seat, when I also fall asleep, finally.  I dream that I awaken to find the male flight attendant kneeling beside me in the aisle, picking something up off the floor.  I try to see what it is, but he notices I'm awake and quickly fists his hand around it.  Then he looks me in the eye and says this to me:  Never again.  You will never come back here again.  

Saturday, August 6, 2016


Note:  SNCF is the acronym for the French railway system.

I glance at the man across the aisle from me.  I am used to tourists with glowing skin, in flattering, impeccable clothes, eating ice cream, just so.  Walking aimlessly, gently touching merchandise as if blessing it, turning over price tags, assessing their surroundings with satisfaction and entitlement and certainly no sense of urgency.  This man seems agitated and sleep-deprived.  Harassed, even.

The SNCF, he says loudly into his telephone, is a huge piece of shit. 

He already got off the bus once when I got on.  I had to back up and get back down to let him by.  He held a hand-rolled cigarette between his index and middle fingers -- going out to smoke, I assumed, but then he disappeared.  I assumed he lived in Niort and was returning home. 

Twenty feet away, in the grass, were gathered several young men and their dogs.  This is something new this trip:  angry, often drunken young men sitting on the ground, against walls, accompanied by big contented looking dogs on leashes.  I was at first interested in them and in their dogs.  On a regular basis, as if staged, one of the dogs loses its temper and barks furiously at some approaching person or dog that has somehow given offense.  It has a grudge.  Always, the dog’s owner holds it back, just barely.  The young men seem thin and hungry and weak.  You can see their muscles moving under their grimy skin.  Still, somehow they muster the strength to restrain their dogs when necessary. 

He returned, and then spent what seemed like a long time standing outside the bus, talking to the driver, his hand-rolled cigarette between his index and middle fingers.  Their conversation seemed to be what was keeping the driver from leaving, and I was annoyed and confused.  They seemed to be having a discussion about bus routes, the driver to be attempting to put it all into a grand historical context.  But what do I know?  I couldn't hear much of it.  I heard some introductory clauses, "At that time, you see," and "Normally, what happens is that," and "In my opinion..."  The driver seemed to be trying to appease the man’s frustration, to explain why the world is the way it is, to take him under his wing.  It wasn’t in his job description, but he did it anyway. 

"But what is he doing?" hissed a woman behind me, who had been complaining of being too cold, due to the air conditioning.  While the man across the aisle was gone, the driver also tried to assuage her discomfort.  She, too, was inconsolable.

Finally the conversation was snapped in two and the man got on the bus. 

The driver accompanied him, checking the seats and floor for trash and counting the passengers.  Most of the seats were empty.  The man stopped and glared at me and said something to the driver about "Madame."  I realized there were assigned seats -- I'd forgotten -- and I'd taken the one he'd been in.  What did it matter?  There were so many empty seats.  It didn't matter to him or to me or to the driver, who shrugged and smiled at me.  I said, "I can move if you want."  He ignored me and sat on the opposite side. 

Now, listening to the man on the phone, I learn what happened:  he didn't reserve a place, and the offices where he was supposed to be able to buy a ticket were all closed.  He'd left the bus to buy his ticket to Bordeaux, where he had to change buses again.  I don’t know where he finally bought it, but having succeeded seemed to bring him no relief.  The driver didn’t know anything, he said.  None of the drivers know anything.  Nobody knows anything. They're filthy beasts, they're a dirty species of whore, they're shitters who make you shit.  The driver told him that he drives the buses all over, one day in Portugal, another day in Canada, he never knows where he’ll find himself next.  I wonder if I am misunderstanding his French, as this doesn't make sense, that he’d drive a bus in Canada and then return to Europe to drive a bus in Portugal, or to Portugal.  It seems outlandish.  Maybe the bus driver was exaggerating for effect.  Maybe he meant it was as if he drove a bus in Canada one day and in Portugal another. 

I could write some stupid story where he and an American tourist make friends on the bus.  One of those tempting and insipid unlikely-alliance stories that inevitably disappoint when tension abates, when the mean one is won over and turns out after all to have a caring heart. 

Outside, one of the dogs, a German Shepherd, suddenly throws himself into a fit of barking directed across the street.  The owner hugs the dog, embraces it, and forces it to sit.  Then he forces his own face against the top of the dog's head -- you might say he's kissing the dog on top of its head, but he doesn't move from that position, pushing down so hard that the dog lowers his own head and finally lies down on the ground.  They are in that pose as the bus pulls away. 

As we approach a red light, the man across the aisle, defeated, tucks his knees up against the seat in front of him, leans his head against the window, and closes his eyes.  I'm relieved.  I don't like him awake.  He still has that bent hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers.  He didn’t smoke it.  His comfort object.   Will it fall from his fingers when he is really asleep?  Or will there remain that small, reflexive tension in the tiny muscles of his hands, reliving the wrongs of the SNCF, that gigantic piece of shit? 

I close my eyes, too, and hope we don't have intersecting dreams. 

When you travel, almost everyone you see is someone you will never see again. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

La Couarde

I pedal blithely into the village and stop next to a church, lock my bike and wander inside.  I examine the leaflets on the table, vow to remember the title of one, to make my friends laugh later:  La Fidelite:  Mission Impossible?  I step quietly down the middle aisle, follow a side aisle back, look at a model of the church, read some comments in the little book left there for that purpose.  I find one that's memorable:  "Returned and retrieved lost helmet."  I wonder if the priest of this church read that message, imagine him passing the helmet and worrying about the well-being of the person who left it, hoping they would return to retrieve it.  But you don't always know where you've lost things -- that's why they're lost.  I hate losing things, hate being lost.  I'm on a small island, so if I know what side the ocean should be on I'm not lost, not really.  These villages, though.  Several times I've gone to visit a village and gotten completely lost trying to get out.  I dart around, trying different ways out, like a sparrow in a train station.

A man enters with two young boys and they dip their hands in the holy water.  The boys look anxiously at their grandfather as they first watch him and then do it themselves.  He seems to be showing them how for the first time.  His eyes are averted, his expression resolute, ready for them to fail.  I feel the need both to leave them alone and to escape. 

The church releases me -- it could take me or leave me -- and I wander in the growing crowd, past artisan and clothing and toy and shoe stores.  I pick up a newspaper and have a coffee at a cafĂ©.  A child at the table next to mine launches into a temper tantrum.  He doesn't want to wear his hat.  He uses the only means of persuasion at his disposal:  repetition.  "I don't WANT to put on a hat.  I don't WANT to put on a hat.  I don't WANT to put on a hat."  Repeating it, and repeatedly being ignored, inspires him in the direction of primal rage. I understand him.  More than anything else, I find, being ignored when you speak does inspire rage. 

"You can cry," says his mother.  "That will change nothing."

As he screams, I read about terror and heightened security and Arabs being spit on while out taking a walk on the Promenade des Anglais in their hometown.  I read about the things people are saying about the attacks in Nice, Munich, Rouen.  After something terrible happens there is panic, confusion, incoherence, and then silence as people gather their thoughts.  They decide what to say, and then start saying it.  People are saying things and other people are recording the things they say and disseminating them indiscriminately, democratically, and the people who read and listen to them then think of their own things to say.  I fear they resonate in the wrong ears.  I know that a good deal of it does.

Marine LePen says, (triumphantly, I think), "They are killing our youth, assassinating our police, and cutting the throats of our priests.  Wake up!"  Donald Trump says France wouldn't have this problem with terrorism if people were allowed to carry guns.  The Turkish press says that Obama was behind the failed military coup.  The boy at the table next to me says he doesn't want to wear his hat. We should be listening to that boy, I think.  Choose your battles, I want to tell his mother.  I’m with the little boy.  Some people just don't like wearing hats.

On my way out I realize I've left my glasses somewhere and retrace my steps.  I get irritable when I lose things, and have to take a deep breath and rehearse my question in French before asking, ever so calmly, "Did you find a pair of glasses?"  I ask at the bakery, at the little souvenir store where I bought my friend a ceramic spoon rest for her kitchen, go back into the church, where the grandfather and the two boys are standing in a chapel gazing at the candles in their little red pots.  Is someone sick, I wonder?  Dead?  Or are they simply attracted to the flames?

This time, it turns out the people at La Maison de la Presse, where I bought the paper, folded my glasses up and placed them on top of the register when I floated out, stricken by the dire headlines.  They all seem immensely relieved when I enter and ask after them.  I'm touched.  Such a simple thing:  to fold up a pair of misplaced glasses and place them, hopefully, on top of a cash register.  They hoped I would return for them, and now I have.  We rejoice together.  "Now you can see!" they exclaim. 

I say goodbye, exit the store thinking:  things like this should matter more. 

When it comes time to leave the village it seems to have swallowed me.  I can't get out.  I ask a woman selling striped sailor shirts.  She points and says uncertainly that she thinks it is that way, but "the bike path, I don't know.  I come by car." 

I ask a woman in the street who looks local.  I can spot the local people by the way they seem to hold their heads at a different angle, taking it all for granted.  They chat with the painters and masons and carpenters who work inobtrusively inside open doorways.  They indulge those of us who have flown in from other places to roost in the sun, to ride bicycles in trembling lines, calling to each other, sprinting into the ocean and being thrown out again by its waves.

She points and says,  "You go straight, straight, straight.  Then there will be signs.” 

I go straight, straight, straight and come to a T.  There is a sign with a double arrow on it, pointing both left and right, and above it a sign with an image of a bicycle.  She said there would be signs – not that the signs would be helpful. 

I push on, delving into street after street.  And then, in a breath, there.  I'm out.  I see a sign for Saint Martin.  I know where that is. 

As I pedal, I come up behind a woman riding side-by-side with a small boy wearing a striped sailor shirt.  I ride behind them for a moment, too shy to ring my bell, listening to their conversation.  They're hurrying to meet Papa, who is waiting for them at the windmill.  Then they're to go eat, all of them together.  The woman turns her head and notices me.  She reaches down, places her hand flat on the boy's back, and gives him a little push. 

"Move over," she tells him.  "Let the lady pass."