• Bilzen, Paris, Brussels, Autre Fois: Le Printemps Perdu, Part I.

    by  • 18 May, 2003 • Biography • 0 Comments

    A Flemish farmer is “born with a brick in his belly”,
    But what are bricks to us are not bricks to Ikaros.

    Well, I got lost walking in these cities and towns in which I am certain Luc could give perfect directions to any passerby.

    You readers, if there are any out there, know something about me and my penchant for prefaces. Sometimes I think of my whole life as a preface. And, then again, there is the fact that this is an autobiography within a biography. And, then again, there is the fact this work is dependent upon my memories, which I have erroneously claimed to be near perfect.

    In short, I got most of IT wrong in this chapter. I’ve thought about this a great deal. The situation worried me. Then, I had a beer (Ah! Beer! Life’s anodyne!) and a bit of fetuccini Alfredo and came up with the solution. There it was, right in front of me: the forest rather than the trees, the truth rather than the recollected facts, the dialectic of life.

    The truth is this: This is how one gets to know a friend. I believe my mistakes are an important illustration of this. Hence, however ashamed of my mistakes I am, I will not revise this chapter, except to include this preface and, if Luc agrees, his errata, which I have appended under the rubric “Coda Dubois/Caveat Hoffman”.

    The original chapter follows.

    ———————

    So then, how did this Dubois fellow find himself sailing toward the sun in cyberspace, eventually becoming the manager of the IT Department at Maastricht’s Vijverdaal (the local lunatic asylum) waiting room and Limburg’s leading information science fiction publisher, namely, Europa Dada?

    He attended a Catholic boarding school in his family’s neighborhood of Bilzen, Belgium. I attended 12 years of Catholic school myself. I know the regime: Obey, pray and learn what you can on your own on the way to the afterlife.

    Luc has a disobedient streak in his character. “Disobedient” may be too strong a word. Perhaps “individualistic” or “skeptical” is more suitable. No. The word I’m struggling toward is “dissident”. This did not sit well with Pater Schoolmaster. When Luc neglected to attend the extracurricular sporting activities, he was sent off the pitch to the farm associated with the school as punishment. This was fine by him as he, the eldest son of a farmer, preferred baling hay to kicking footballs anyway. [As an aside, I must add that I’ve never really understood the fascination with European football. I always seems to me like 22 guys playing ping pong with their feet. And, after all, did you folks really want to adopt an English sport? Football is the most egregious piece of British colonialism in history.].

    [As a more pertinent aside: Luc and I were sitting on the Vrijthoff early one long evening. It was the spring of 1986, I think. (Pardon me. I’ve just dropped the cinder off my cigarette).

    [What happened? Simple. This fellow in a cassock, a Catholic priest, was walking across the square, a dark figure on a spring day. Ego in Arcadia. Luc pointed him out and remarked, “That could have been me.” Well, it could have been me as well. You see, the eldest son of a Limburg farmer is often tapped for the priesthood, as is the youngest son of an Irish Catholic. I have a feeling that Luc’s experiences with the Catholic hierarchy were no more pleasant than mine. I believe it had a great deal to do with the formation of his mind.]

    Luc apparently did well in his studies. He even received an award as the best German language student in the school, the comical coming-of-age upshot of which will be reported later.

    That didn’t matter. As a result of Luc’s recalcitrance, he was not recommended for university by the closed, patriarchal and idiosyncratic Catholic educational system; it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Hence, once again (and, I m certain Pater Schoolmaster thought once, for all, and forever), he was sent off the pitch to the purgatory of a polytechnic to study French for the purpose of becoming a translator.

    Like many of the Flemish, Luc felt a great deal of animosity toward the francophone Walloons. The only time I ever heard him express the least bit of prejudice, if prejudice it can be called, was during a conversation we had in the middle one of our many longish group company lunches at a pub. I mentioned something odd that I had read in the local newspaper about a land deal by which the Walloons swapped control over a piece of Flemish territory in exchange for giving up control over a piece of Walloon territory to the Flemish. Apparently, the Walloon government took control over the relinquished Flemish territory but reneged on their side of the deal to turn their control of their territory over to the Flemish. I was puzzled and asked Luc how this could have happened [I know what you’re thinking: “How could an American ask this question?” Your point is well taken. Nevertheless, I posed the question. One’s own insanities never seem so insane as another’s.]. He responded, “I’ll tell you why: that animal, the Walloon.” So then, of course, the French language did not sit entirely comfortably in Luc’s mind.

    Nevertheless, he moved on and took the course. Once he completed it, he, as he remarked, “could recite Racine from memory, but could not speak to a Frenchman on the street.” So what did he do? He decided to move to Paris to complete his French linguistic and cultural education (I prefer the French word to the English word “education”: “formation”).

    [We will return to earlier times in Bilzen later. Now, I am eager to get on to Paris. I am putting together the puzzle of a man. The pieces don’t come together chronologically. We are sitting across a table with bottles between us. We tell stories. We move from one topic to another. The puzzle lies within a circle. We search for the center. I’m becoming a bit of an essayist here, a second-rate Michel Montaigne, I know. I apologize. I can’t help myself. My approach to the writing side of life is desultory, many would say, some have said, lazily so; some have indicated that I am careless. Nevertheless, I cannot go back to Paris without traveling forward briefly to London (1996), unpleasant though that journey is for me. I invited Luc to join my London business – like Europe Dada, yet another unspectacular database enterprise failure – and we were having breakfast. I offered him some yogurt. He declined remarking, “The only thing I hate more than yogurt is fat.” Then, he launched into the following story.]

    After Luc attended the polytechnic, he had a “pen pal” who lived in the suburbs of Paris, a woman. She was from some country in Africa; I have forgotten which country, though I suppose it to be a CFA country. They agreed to meet at her family’s flat located in the outskirts of the city. Luc informed his parents that he, with only a sou or two in his pocket and even fewer fueille in his portefueille, was moving to Paris. They expressed doubt regarding the possible success in this venture. Nevertheless, he set sail, losing sight of the shore for the first time.

    Luc arrives at the address of his correspondent in Paris. The usual Luc knocks at the door follow. The door opens. He is about to meet this African woman. Who knows? Perhaps it’ll be that woman men constantly think about in the dark recesses of their souls. Constantly. Always. Even when they are not seeking, they are thinking of HER. You know, fellow men, THAT WOMAN. That magical creature, that endless passion.

    OK. Jesus! Forget that canned romance novel crap. What happened was this: This headlong, adolescent Flemish asshole shows up at some anonymous tower block in the middle of nowhere outside Paris with an idiot’s impression of what is going to transpire and…and…and, well…guess what? The family brought his pen pal out to meet him. His new “belle” turned out to be a “beau”, a kind of a “beau geste”, I suppose. Yeah, that’s right. “She” was a GUY, a BIG GUY, closing two meters and 100 kilos, standing in front of Our Pitiful, Horrified Little Picaro.

    Well then, after the usual introductions, the family invites Luc to sit down to dinner. They sit at table. A cauldron of some sort of stew is presented. The chief ingredient is bits of meat surrounded by fat. As I have mentioned, Luc is not fond of fat. What does he do? He doesn’t want to insult his hosts but, at the same time, he can’t stomach the stuff. So, he claims to be a vegetarian, a good, harmless lie (After all, one takes one’s shoes off in a mosque regardless of whether one worships Allah, right?). His hosts are accommodating. They offer him a bowl of yogurt. He didn’t tell me what he did with that.

    The evening grows old. Bedtime. His friend leads him into a bedroom and points to a large leather hammock. They are to sleep in the hammock together.

    We all want to know what happened after the door closed, but let us leave the young couple alone to get to know one another. For now.

    —————————————

    CODA

    On the dark end of the street…

    At first draft, I put this in the chapter proper. For a number of reasons, I decided that it didn’t fit up there. It must be written, however, if one is to understand Luc, and that is what I have set about attempting to do.

    I am closing on my 50th birthday. I attend more wakes than weddings. We have to attend this wake together.

    Before Luc lost sight of the shore for the first time, he lost something else, something no one can lose easily. Her name was “Ellie”.

    Ellie was a Flemish woman who had studied at the polytechnic with Luc. They fell in love. He encouraged her to perfect her French by moving to Paris with him. She refused. She wished to stay home to look after her mother. Families make fools of us all, many of us anyway. They argued and parted ways. She was killed in a car accident that evening.

    Sadly, I must include this incident, but I won’t comment on it at any length. Though I know something of this sort of loss, I haven’t the talent to express the meaning of the grief that follows it.

    I will mention one thing of possible moment though. When Luc first went into business for himself, he called his company “ElDee”. I asked him if this was a tribute. He responded, flatly, “No.” Of course, the company name could have been simply a play on the letters that make up his own name. You decide. Nobody ever called me a “romantic” or anything close to that, but perhaps I am. In any event, I am only the prosecutor in this case. You listeners are the tribunal.

    —————–

    CODA LUC/CAVEAT TOM

    Note though that chapter 4 is a little bit inaccurate in many places:

    – My family never lived in Bilzen, but in Lanaken

    – I did NOT receive an award for being the best German language student. As a matter of fact I didn’t do so well in my studies at all and I can’t remeber having said so either. I do recall that I got the best grades for German in polytechnic school, but that was relative to MY OTHER grades, and not relative to everybody elses grades.

    – I’d love to believe that my not passing the exit exam for university was only due to my recalcitrance, but I doubt it. Moreover I didn’t particularly WANTED to go to university either. When “sent off” to the polytechnic, it was to study French and English and German and Dutch (and a bit of Spanish)

    – I never completed the polytechnic studies: I dropped out at easter before the finals to go to Paris. Lingering on seemed like a waste of time.

    – The pen pal was DURING the polytechnic period (it might have started even before, but I don’t remember precisely)

    – The story with Elly (she was merely a girl, not a woman back then, as I was merely a boy, not a man) is a bit different: since I couldn’t convince her to join me in Paris (we were dating for 2 years when I “temporarily” moved to Paris), for the reasons you state correctly, I came back and took this job as a salesman for that carpet and furniture business, remember? Besides, Elly didn’t need perfecting her French, that was perfect as it was. So anyway, one evening in the first month after I got back we had this silly argument and parted ways, with the known outcome).

    END CHAPTER FOUR

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