Parlez-vous Alien?

Just back from a couple weeks in Europe and, as artist and writer Austin Kleon quotes Jonah Lehrer in his book Steal Like an Artist, “Difference and distance are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has changed, and that changes everything.”


The GF and I mapped out a trip starting in London then down to France and across to Germany, chasing cathedrals that have installed Marc Chagall stained glass, a good excuse as any to get back to the Continent (more about the amazing artist Marc Chagall here).

The UK is easy enough to get by in, even though we are two countries separated by a common language. The biggest problems in Britain were the lack of edible food and the fact that everyone would stop dead in their tracks and stare at me because I’m a big guy (think linebacker or tight end size). Trains ran on time and everyone was unfailingly polite, except for the odd lot who said with their disdainful upraised snoots, “You think I’m an asshole, but that’s simply not true. It’s just that I’m British and you’re not.”

The quantal shift happened when we took the Eurostar to Paris. Now, I adore Paris, and this was my fifth time there. But my French is limited and badly accented, broadcasting to Parisians that I am stupid and dull, so I try and keep my mouth shut and just soak in the vibe. For the first time, however, I was travelling with a native speaker. (The GF, though American, spent several years growing up in Paris and was a French major in college before going to law school and becoming a litigator. Oh well. Can’t have everything.) So I vacillated between feeling totally left out of the conversation—not intentionally, but in effect—and thanking my lucky stars that we could get where we wanted to go and do what we wanted to do with minimal friction.

Of course, we had to be in Paris at the height of the epic flooding, and by staying in the middle of the Seine on Ile Saint Louis, we could just about watch the water level rise from our hotel room. Then there were the railroad strikes that we were able to skirt on our way out to Reims, but finally bit us on the butt on our way to Metz. As we sat in a broken down train and were informed that our connecting train no longer existed, a French woman started speaking with the GF: “Take the next TGV two stops, get on bus number yadda yadda, and in two hours you’ll be in Metz. In fact, that’s where I’m going.” “Um, can we follow you?” “Sure.” Like waving a magic wand, the train started up then and rolled into the station, we followed, and we got into Metz only a half hour later than scheduled.

Speaking of alien languages, outside the bus/train terminal in Metz we were in the taxi queue with all these kilted Scots. Apparently, they were travelling football fans, and sad ones at that, having just come from watching their side get the snot kicked out of them by the host French in a Euro 2016 qualifier. They were all trying to get cabs to take them to Luxembourg, as the trains, like our connection, no longer existed. So, being in an alien world, the GF decides to take it a step further and starts talking to these drunk Glaswegians in her best Edinburgh accent. Scotty, beam me up. Please! I flipped open my communicator and told Scotty to belay that when the Scots started asking where the GF was born in Scotland.

Little did we know when we got to the hotel, the crazy Scots had drunk the hotel bar draft beer dry. Figures, when you’re on an alien world. But later that night we were redeemed. Dining at this microscopic Italian place across the lane from our hotel, our meal was interrupted as the victorious French national football team tromped in, clomped upstairs in their still grimy jerseys, and started drinking and singing. Try putting that into the bar scene in Star Wars.

When all of this happens, it’s in real time; only later do you reflect on the serendipity and absurdity of the situation. It is doubtful any of these anecdotes will find their way into my work; ultimately, it’s the cumulative effect of travelling in poorly-charted territory, the exhilaration, the uncertainty, and the puzzled relief of actually getting where you’re going. The gestalt of difference and distance changes you and Lehrer is spot on.

If I could point to one thing that might make it in, it’s more conceptual than allegorical: on our last night in Paris—morning, to be exact, in the 5 AM variety—I was awoken by the violent clashing of garbage cans as the trash collectors worked their way up the sleepy little street that longitudinally bisects Ile Saint Louis. The GF slept through it, but as we were packing a couple hours later I mentioned it to her. Sounded like the garbage men were really pissed off and trying to make as much noise as possible. Well, guess what folks? The Parisian trash collector’s strike started a week later. That’s foreshadowing on any planet.