A slightly different angle (10)

September 21, 2018 Leave a comment

‘Dag buurman’,  ‘Nomaste Chimiki’ (hello neighbour). His best Dutch. My best Nepalese. He grins, I smile, we clasp hands. I order one of the menus on my shortlist. One syllable suffices for him to pass on my order to the kitchen. 

it’s a cozy place. Deep red walls, black tables, some bamboo upholstery, Nepalese flute music in the background. The kitchen, the counter, the bar are all behind me. From my favourite table, I view over a cobblestone street that ends in a house with an arch beneath. That house once belonged to the secretary of Charles V. Now it’s part of an elaborate 4-star hotel. 

The family runs the restaurant. Chimiki, his wife, her brother and sister, some lineages I’m not sure about. Acquaintances hop in and out. Like so many, they fled to Belgium during the Nepalese civil war. Louvain has a Nepali community.  Chimiki’s wife says I come so often that I’m part of the famiy now. 

There i viewed part of the football worldcup, whenever Belgium was nearing the finale (they didn’t make it). Family and friends gathered. So touching to see the fanatism of especially their women for Belgian football. When we finally lost, sister lost her voice. I couldn’t help but smile. I wonder what they would do if Nepal had to play against Belgium. They would be entangled in a serious conflict of interests. 

Whenever I want to pay, Bancontact runs slow. Chimiki starts to count the time, I joke that I’ll pay for the amount of seconds. He grins again. ‘Good idea!’ Slender, black hair, big white teeth. 

I realise I’m no part of the family. Just like they are no Belgians. But it’s remarkable how easy lifes can blend. Like molecules. And how hard it can be to pull them apart again. 

See you chimiki! 

Advertisements
Categories: My work, Stories

A slightly different angle (9)

September 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Five or six weirdos, and me.

There’s the guy with his right ear accreted to his mobile phone. He looks North African, has curly brown hair and a studied casual pose, always wears a brown blazer and stands with both legs crossed, slowly bending his knees sometimes, one hand holding his phone, the other one in his pocket.

But when you observe him from a distance, it soon dawns that he never talks. To no-one. His holding a mobile phone is only airs, the phone a piece of dead metal. Being hooked to it must be his concept of having success in life; to be involved in serious communications with important men while waiting for a bus. But in fact, he never communicates.

Once, a grin of mine must have revealed that I spiked his balloon and looked through his carefully designed self-image. It made him angry and he pierced threatening to my face. Since then, I know it’s best to be careful and ignore him.

His mental state is disturbed. It’s evident that he craves to communicate with people and hates to admit that he never does. He wants to be left alone, yet cannot stand being alone. Keeping up appearances of normality is his lifeblood. Pricking through it destroys him.

Deformed communication might be the hallmark of weirdness. Deep down, a flame to be with other people still burns, but there seems to be no way to get there in an indifferent world. This leads to resentment, awkward behaviour and further distancing from others whose tendency to ignore them gets only deeper cemented. A vicious ball gets rolling. Till we reach a new equilibrium and they are forever pigeonholed as weirdos.

No weirdo really interacts. But they all make their presence felt, often by talking loud and agressive to no-one in particular, with an easily placeable voice. But not always – like the mobile phone man demonstrates.

All in their own territory. Their territories rarely cross, and if they do, they won’t ‘perform’ together. Chance is that they will all remain silent, as a matter of mutual respect. A difference with attention grabbing kids, that revel in competition.

Somewhere close to the place where I lived and took the bus years ago now, lived a young man. I could never figure out where exactly he resided and that’s no coïncidence. His main game was to surprise and frighten people, then act innocent or run away before they could even respond. Unsurprisingly, he chose easy victims, like old or disabled people. He was pretty athletic, but would never disturb the professional runner in my former street, who was of course much faster.

He liked to imitate my hampering walk. Once he ran like a rabbit before my feet and speeded away laughing before i grasped what happened. Or he laughed boisterously from behind a hedge as if someone just told him a terrific joke. But humans are perfectly able to distinguish real from fake laughter (I once saw a video about that; laughter is an intriguing phenomenon). His was clearly fake.

His hair and clothes looked neglected. Not that deliberate ‘artistic’ disregard. But really stoned. Once I saw him rolling over the street right before the bus arrived, scaring the hell out of the driver. Then he started to spit slowly on the floor before his seat. Supposedly unobserved. He clearly got worse by the day. I no longer see him, because i live somewhere else. Outside of his territory. But I wonder sometimes how he’s doing. It’s hard to imagine that he still lives ‘unguarded’.

Most weirdos I know about look stable. As if their cracked mental state were set in stone, adding a specific colour to the streets. But his was far from stable.

Stable however was his desire to disorient and frighten others. And that might be so with all weirdos. Not necessarily frighten, but certainly control their reaction. To petrify responses, by petrifying themselves. The results are comic pieces of street theatre, flowering the asphalt.

I think deep down weirdos want to be with other people, but somehow their strangled mind got in the way. What’s left is a one-way street. Full of noise, bawling, raw humming, intimidating, imitating and scaring people. They have a structured arsenal of demeanors at their disposal. Though they are cynical in the fond and far from stupid, realizing that whatever they do will only drift them further apart from others. Getting back in business is notoriously hard. I’ve seen some try.

In any case, that’s how I came to understand them. I might be naïve, not being a doctor in psychiatric illnesses. But being part of ordinary streetlife (at least when not dangerous to themselves or to others), ordinary people like me inevitably cross their path and can either try to ignore them or become fascinated by those figures who somehow fell from the normalcy bandwagon. Though I won’t approach them. Communication is a no-go in both directions.

The guitar player is the most stable weirdo I know of. He played for pennies for as long as I can remember. I saw him first when I took the bus for school as a kid, looking over the shoulder of people perusing a magazine for luxuries. I saw him once in our capital city. He clearly visits many places – or visited; I have no idea whether he’s still ’at work’ or alive even.

Nothing about him ever changed. Always the same unshaven appearance, shabby costume, cheap guitar, jerky way of walking, instrument in his left hand. Kind of a failed Charlie Chaplin.

Nor did his act ever alter. There was nothing musical about his performance. He always spewed out exactly the same noises at exactly the same jagged speed. Devoid of melody, chords, progressions, rhythm. He started to hum with a raw voice after what must be the intro, until the last sound of his act, exactly the same amount of seconds later. So far removed from music that I was surprised sometimes he didn’t keep his guitar upside down. I know little about mental illnesses, but no doubt he was a borderline musician.

Did that man have an example? Someone he genuinely admired and tried to emulate? I doubt it. Where did he come from? Somewhere from Northern Africa I guess, but I might be wrong. Did he ever gain something? I never saw anybody give him a penny. You could read the disappointment from his face when he got nothing, walking away with his guitar between his legs. Over and over.

Where did he live from? Certainly not from begging. Neither from ‘gangmoney’; he clearly worked on his own. He must get an alimentation for the severely mentally disabled. Like most ‘weirdos’.

But most fascinating about him was his immutability. Rhythm, appearance, clunky way of moving; they all seemed to be grafted in stone. His unwavering persistance had something admirable, yet pathetic.

And always that grim face. Humming and stuttering. Never a smile. It occured to me that weirdos never smile. A genuine smile requires a fleeting touch of two faces and minds; a brief opening to another world. Something that’s alien to them. They know no other world.

I’ve seen a woman a few times whose face was constantly distorted into something that’s hard to call a smile. As if she was stuck in the middle of a horselaugh, with a grotesque gap between her lips, revealing about all her teeth. On top, she had a very plump unattractive figure. I couldn’t be sure however that she wasn’t simply suffering from a severe physical anomaly. It looked like she could hardly speak. Again, I could not ask.

What is communication? It strikes me that we have no incontestable positive definition for many significant terms. Communication, love, beauty; it’s always easier to tell what they are not. Yet we are rarely mistaken about their presence. And weirdos, I think, understand that too.

Then the preacher. He always wore the same heavy brown coat, talked loudly, gesticulated heavily. Despite his prominent voice, you couldn’t understand a word. He always turned up somewhere quite sudden at a distance.

Though he never intended to surprise or annoy anyone. He seemed too occupied with himself to mind about such things. Telling stories. About what I could not figure out. Old and new testament parables? That’s what it looks like. But maybe he was simply relating things that happened to him, recently or years ago. Or things he read about. Were his stories structured or rather a bunch of juxtaposed fragments? Always the same or different and growing? So many questions, but I will never ask him, though I’m curious.

I never heard him start or end a story. He always seemed in the middle of one. Just like the people he crossed in the streets were always in the middle of going somewhere. As if he upholds passing significance. A rocklike voice that glides past you.

But why did he preach? Why did he talk to an empty audience? Why did he want everybody to hear him but no-one to listen? And always these gestures. As if he needed to feel the space around him. Often simply turning his hand. Though he could act as if cutting his throat, in the heat of what must be one of his more barbaric stories.

There’s a bartender in a nearby café that remarkably looks like him. My guess is that it’s his twin brother – I won’t ask. But understandably they avoid each other, at least in the open. I feel a current between them however that never ran entirely dry. At least that’s what I hope. He’s a good man.

It sometimes feels like weirdos live through a screen, playing a role in an infinite movie that no-one watches till the end. Everybody has long left the room.

I think that ‘safe’ weirdos are mostly allocated by psychiatrists in and around cities. They need people around them, if not to get integrated in ‘normal life’ (chances are slim), then at least not to escalate in the other direction. The loneliness of an isolated rural life (as far as that still exists) would kill them, and make medical control more difficult. Better for them to be noted and ignored.

There’s a woman whose trademark is a mobile rack full of luggage she always drags behind her while leaning on a cane, slowly wobbling forward with effort. Her black hair looks old fashioned but always tidy with a brown hairpin. She’s not unhandsome, at first sight.

As if an old and disabled woman was forced to leave her house and took with her all essential belongings. As if some force completely overthrew her life. As if a great injustice had been done to her

She played that role. She clearly didn’t need a cane. She was going nowhere; took the bus from one stop to the central busstop at the railway station back and forth. Two places where she could sit and embark on her rant, yelling to everyone and no-one in particular about the injustices the rich are doing to the poor.

They all have such easily recognizable trademark. Was her imagery based on something that happened to an acquaintance? That’s what it felt like to me. As if her mind got stuck somewhere in the past, buried in a hole she never got out, or whirling around in a porcelain closet.

I sometimes wonder where weirdos have their act from. It’s one of those well-conserved mysteries. They stick to it forever. It’s who they are.

Most weirdos are heavily clothed, wearing a cheap woollen coat that can stand bad weather. They have only one piece of garment. Putting it on must be part of their daily routine. Better to have something too warm than something too cold. I guess that’s why you don’t see them when it’s too warm. And certainly not during heatwaves, when almost everybody in fact prefers to stay inside. I wonder what their life is like during these weeks.

I’ve noticed moments of normalcy here and there. The preacher sometimes sips his morning coffee at the terrace of the old-fashioned bakery in my street. I’ve seen him talking a few times to what must be a confidant. Well, talking … more like nodding in agreement.

I once saw someone give information to the woman packed as a mule that travels to nowhere. She smiled and responded but clearly wasn’t at ease and crossed the road as soon as possible.

And the agressive young man once tried to talk with me while waiting for the bus. To be honest, I didn’t feel at ease, gave smalltalk answers to his smalltalk questions and soon enough the bus arrived.

Despite rare moments nearing normalcy, what they completely lack is empathy, or at least the ability to respond empathically. I’ve seen people falling on the bus – whose stops and starts can be shockingly harsh – or having difficulty passing them on the street. They don’t care. They don’t move. People shouldn’t step out of their assigned role.

My overneighbour was no weirdo. In contrast with the others described here, he deliberately eschewed all situations that might force him to interact with other people, sometimes by arrogantly hopping out of the elevator and into his flat.

It took more than a year before I realized who lived there. For a while I thought it was a man that actually lived a floor above mine. I knew nothing about him, but that he had a reputation for weirdness and reckoned that man qualified for this role. Anonymous citylfe does strange things to people, turning some of them into themselves, deliberately shutting the door to others.

Confusing moments. When I saw him for the first time coming out of his door, I actually thought the man living above him lived there and a stranger must have entered his room. I felt surprised and afraid and asked him: ‘Who are you? You are not the man living there!’ Now he felt surprised and afraid: ‘So you saw someone else coming out of my door?’. There we went, circulating frightened feelings for a while. Till it dawned to me that I was probably mistaken. I never saw anyone there after all.

That must have been his only talkative moment. He came right back from the hospital where he got treatment for throat cancer (I could actually see a cut in his throat) and probably must communicate for his own sake. After that, he fell back in his usual reticence and propensity to avoid contact. How cynical that for a while throat cancer must have prevented him to speak!

Later on, nobody saw him for months. Then I heard a neighbour say that he died. Shrugging his shoulders, he couldn’t care less. The city is fixing his flat, probably to sell it. Nobody cared, but when you think of it, it’s sad.

Is weirdness a kind of runaway loneliness? Not the loneliness that we sometimes seek; the void we need to be ourselves and make new things. Not the lonelines that occasionally falls over us and feels depressing. Not the temporal dodging of daily communication to find deeper ways to be ourselves.

But the genuine inability to be in touch with others. It’s a disability that scares me. Because who knows for sure it’s miles away from the void I need to grow?

Categories: My work, poets, Stories

A slightly different angle (8)

Somewhere in my street is a youth hostel. A small building the format of a simple house, but prominent, with bricks painted black.

The atmosphere below is peculiar. Dark and solid but playful. The reception desk faces the entrance at one side and the bar in the back. The entrance-side is a plank with coffers stacked beneath, an old piano that many visitors feel tempted to probe, some prie-dieus and tourism books. The bar has some wooden black tables and chairs and worn Louis Quatorze fauteuils.

I never saw the rooms upstairs, but I heard someone complain recently about the heat inside during the last and seemingly eternal heatwave. There is no airco like in most hotels, nor ventilators (they got stolen by customers). But prices are cheap.

A fake giraffe outside signals that the hostel is open for anyone (customers can always take the backdoor). And when the weather is nice, some folding tables and chairs stand outside, coloured like those delicious Dutch sugar sprinkles (they call it ‘hagelslag’) that remind me of camping vacations as a kid.

It’s my favourite place to spot life in the street. Young people here and older folks in the outdated bakery nearby with a terrace bordering the busstop. The communist’ grey beton hospital in front that for some political reason has never been in use (except the upper floor for – o irony – the depressed). A view on one of the many churches in and around my street, morphed into a cultural centre, and a building that once must have been some kind of farmhouse.

I revel in its multicoloured ambiance. Africans, Asians, Middle-Easterners; sometimes very beautiful women. I also see all walks of life; students, workers, families with buggies, elderly and disabled people with crutches or wheelchairs. The main street nearby, with mostly women gazing at shop windows, feels monotonous in comparison.

A bit further up there’s a community house for black people of a region unknown to me. Discussions inside sound always heated. It’s not the kind of place where you could walk inside and ask questions; I would definitely feel like an unwelcome intruder. With warm weather, they loiter outside.

Somehow, the youth hostel reflects the variety of my street. Young people eager to explore the world, located in the middle of what feels like a microcosm.

Categories: My work, poets, Stories

Four short poems about her.

 

Citylife

 

The city a chicken

strutting plumage.

 

Feathers 

moult unnoticed.

 

 

Either everything or nothing has a purpose

 

Nihilism is a relief 

from too much meaning

swerving around. 

 

Her hands tremble.

 

 

Risotto

 

She glances at cookbooks

the epitome 

of starting a home.

 

 

Lovely Ariadne 

 

Streets hiss

corners kiss.

 

Direction 

 

lost.

Categories: My work, Poetry, poets

A slightly different angle (7)

Not far from the curiosity shop, there’s a hotel. Not a charming place, rather a tin box in an impersonal chain of hotels. But after so many good espressos and teas in their plastic lobby, I came to love the place. The tin box might annoy you, but the staff and some of their regular clients turn it into a breathing space. 

The staff is a fascinating breed. Receptionists work in shifts, among them a tall and sturdy Romanian guy, quite intimidating to the janitors – all of them tiny Phillipino women. Deferent by nature, they are the ideal cleaners. They don’t easily wreck their back. Small giggling circles well up whenever they take a break. The technician is Iranian. The manager is ‘homemade’, of course. These must be about all the visible jobs. 

Even more intriguing are the types of visitors. Many people stay in the hotel because some family member needs the local hospital, a place renowned in and around Belgium. Some need to be there frequently, for long-term treatments, regular follow-ups, or recurring illnesses. Stress, anxiety, desperation, hope, relief, tears and smiles, they all traverse the bar and its wonderful staff, that often receives thank yous and hugs for its spontaneous support. ‘Part of their job’, they would say smilingly. But I’ve seen many eyes blinking later. For some patients and their family, the hotel became a second home. Sometimes their final home.

There are the many conferences and meetings going on in and around my city, organized by universities or companies. Some have a bad reputation and avoid to pay, toying with an awkward logic; sales people get a fee whenever they attract many people to the hotel, hence they are keen to attempt so – whether the company pays or not. 

Inescapably, the hotel figures in criminal activities. People entering with a wallet stuffed with 200 euros are suspicious. Drug dealers hide there sometimes. The police often turns out to be lame, prefering parking fines above serious matters. I hear the staff often grudge. 

Then there are the sexual clandestine dealings. Hookers that avoid interaction with the staff, let the client take care of everything (and pay). Horny people that sneak in and want to use the restroom as carnal palace (I wonder whether they go to the restroom for males or females). For some reason, that always makes me think of one of Chagall’s flying couples. Of course, cameras detect their furtive run. A resolute knock on the door bends pleasure into shame.  

A friend of mine knew the place before it became a hotel. It’s not that old after all. Though buildings in stone tend to look eternal. 

Categories: Stories

A slightly different angle (5)

The coffeehouse is cozy. Noisy sometimes, when too many students feel like a latte at the same time. But cozy at best. There’s a doner kebab resto across the road, with that typical gigantic revolving spear of meat.  A child plays at the window in the room above, before-behind the curtain; the window half open, the child protected by a cast-iron balustrade. 

Belgian balustrades are discordant things. Solid iron decorated with flowery motifs, neglected by passers-by. Futile efforts to please. A bit like the black-and-blue stalks of Matisse’s Red Room that overflower tablecloth and wall, infiltrating the mind of maid and viewer without their knowledge. Neglected things are always there. 

In summer, I imagine the sun throwing long shadows in the room behind the baluster. Below, a woman waters some flowerpots at the yard in the back. On dark winterdays, I don’t see the door to the yard. A flatscreen usurps all attention. It must be trite inside. Sometimes I see a man serving there working out in the gymn. Strong, sturdy, a bit grumpy. Shadow-boxing is his favourite pastime between two exercises. 

There’s a square behind the coffeeshop. One of those neglected spaces. It’s no more now than a parking place and a church out of use. No doubt city developers will discover it within ten years, if not there are plans circulating already. Plans for yet other cozy places.  

Categories: Stories

A slightly different angle (6)

I pass a curiosity shop almost every day. I rarely look inside during the day, as it faces a busy busstop. But at night, when it’s closed and internally lighted, it’s a fascinating and ever changing constellation of curiosities, most of them long out of use, while some have never been employed. 

One of the showpieces is a phonograph with a megaphone as speaker. The megaphone looks like an autonomous instrument. Kind of a horn with an orchestra inside. 

Another is a massive wooden propellor with two blades. Taller then the window, it poses aslant. I had to look up ‘propellor’ to see that wooden propellors have actually been in use. The thing looks so solid that the idea of it cleaving through the air feels a bit eerie. 

There stands the bust of a dog with a helmet, glasses and scarf, as if driving a motorbike or luxury cabrio. Next to a bust of Beethoven, with that head designed for busts. There lies a marble crocodile (it’s probably another – cheaper – type of white stone). There walks a wooden mini-elephant. 

Rotating globes, with a light bulb inside, became collector’s items too. And mammoth atlasses too large to keep in your hands. One had to lean over them, as if supervising parts of the world; a posture that became otiose in digital days of swiping and zooming. 

A box with a glass cover with colourful butterflies. Insects in jars with chloroform, frozen in action and still slightly frightening. Lugubre yes, but probably once – maybe still – coveted by biologists. 

A video of Verdi’s Trovatore lies there for ages. It looks cheap, but that’s the music I actually imagine in that room, ringing through that megaphone.  

It’s a thin line between things that once have been in use and things that never had a function, between reality and phantasy. Like seeing a house and wondering what happens inside. Like viewing a street and figuring out its actions. Like capturing all travails that keep citylife going. 

Like … I’m zooming out. The globe is a curiosity shop after all. Most fascinating when it’s closed. 

Categories: Stories