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le degré zéro de l’europe

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I am lucky enough to have travelled lots in my life, and because I’m so lucky, I am unlucky enough to be getting a little jaded with the whole affair. Especially now that it takes 1.51 minutes to get into the thick of what used to thrill me the most, and what used to take 7+ hours of flying, jet lag, airport transfers, etc.

I have my own subscription to the International Herald Tribune now. It comes in through my mail slot at an hour that is either very very late or very very early, depending on whether I’m sleeping or working at the time. (If you want, roll to the ten minute mark of this… Unfortunately, that’s not who brings my copy…) I read it on the Underground on the way to work each day. We used to devour it, each and every word, on trains and in train stations. We’d split it into parts to share. Now, some days, and despite its cost, it goes  unread alogether.

So I have developed a resistance. It was bound to happen, and again, it is in a sense a luxury to have such a problem. The only thing that does the trick now is the taste of a sort of abstract and unmarked europeaness. I visited one of the cities that does not make the guidebooks last weekend – we were visiting a friend who was there for a month. Population about 250,000 – not far off the city that I left behind in the US to move over here.

There is almost nothing of note to see in this city. A new Calatrava train station that’s quite wonderful, but not yet open. Everything else, from what I can tell, in the tourism line are only regional curiosities – unremarkable cathedrals, an enormous staircase up the side of a hill, some lovely bridges over a lovely river. Even the public art, the statues, seem to be drawn from a catalogue of generic statuary – the sort of works that a computer would pick if it were decorating a town of this size.

All that said, I loved it. I loved the flat fronted, 1960s apartment buildings everywhere. I asked my host if the district I was in was heavily damaged during the war, either of the wars. But it wasn’t – it was just empty and then filled. We ate breakfast at the same cafe each day, and ordered the same set order. There were chain stores, but unremarkable ones – mostly midmarket eurobrands that I’ve never visited. There was a bus system, and a Füssgänger Zone, and an aquarium. There weren’t many banks, and supermarkets were hard to find. In general, in cities like this one, I find it amazing how little retail there is in the residential districts. People must walk downtown for nearly everything. Park with a playground by the river, a few semi-trendy restaurants (“you can go to this one in the capital too!”)

Everything at once ancient and modern, fixed and modular. People rode bicycles, drunks sat on benches with cans of local beer. The last night, we kept the kids out too late at a cafe and they were rowdy, and we bothered a middle-aged guy, fat and with a nicely trimmed beard, who was reading a journal called Critique while he sipped a beer and wrote notes in his notebook. We were a little drunk and we wanted to say, but look, we do what you do, but in the metropole. Cut us some slack. There were brothels by the train stations, and I looked but I couldn’t see them on the way back.

Of course some of the facination comes of a crusty europhilia that every american has and sophisticated ones try to lose. Cute cafe – what a breakfast, with the hock of bread and confitture and, mmm, wonderful little cheeses and butter and some coldcuts of meat (we are near germany, aren’t we?) But there is also something a little more interesting than that – something that falls under that fascinating word fadeur that so preoccupied Barthes – and preoccupies me now. There are lots of ways to come at the issue – the most direct route would be to think about middleway social democracy, the cold war, what to do with the Calatrava train station, and the like. But for now I wish that I could spend not a life but a few years there, and if I did, I would wander thinking what is the minimal action? Shall I take a bus? Shall I take my daughter to the park? I should eat something simple and drink something nice, but in real moderation. I must live within bounds, aim for nothing more, because my life should match its environment. I shall read Critique at the cafe and write in my notebook and try not to glare at the tourists and their noisy children, but I will glare anyway, just once or twice. And you see, you see, it would be unsustainable. It would miss the point. I am where I belong, unfortunately, fortunately. London, perhaps, is suiting me all too well.

There were old people, and not all that many young people now that I think of it.  There wasn’t an art museum, I don’t think – at least not that I saw. It was hard to buy a Herald Tribune, but easy to get the British papers, which was fine, really. There was however a tourist, taking notes in his notebook, thinking the phrase le degré zéro de l’europe over and over and over again. But he did not take photographs, only looked.

(NB: I borrowed this person‘s photos for this piece…. They are truly lovely… I will start carrying a camera someday, but I really do prefer to use the images that others have taken, for reasons that I think are relatively implicit in the piece itself…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 30, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in europe, generic, simplicity

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