L’Avenir in Provence

Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who gave us deconstruction, says that the true future is that which is to come unannounced — l’avenir; that is to say, the future we plan for with schedules, programs and calculations is only but a piece of the future. The programmed future is foreseeable. L’avenir, instead, comes to us unexpectedly. The Other arriving without us having foreseen it. The unpredictable is therefore true, the truth, the real future.

Out to Lunch

We — Nina and I — planned a week in Avignon, in Provence, France. We arrived from Amsterdam on the TGV as scheduled — a smooth 6hr high speed ride, a quiet ride. We made our way from the gare to the Centre Ville without a hitch. The taxi let us out at 35 rue Louis Pasteur, our pre-arranged studio — so we thought.

Hidden inside of every plan — perhaps at the center — of every schedule and calculation, as if waiting, perhaps even dormant though anticipatory, with one eye open, is the consternation, the sudden jolt, the fire that spews from a dragon’s mouth when the unknown, that which we did not plan and foresee, suddenly overwhelms all space. L’avenir. This is what happens when you realize that 35 rue Louis Pasteur is not the studio apartment you rented, rather it’s a family home. Where are we? What happened to our plans and calculations? Whose world did we enter?

When you find yourself in a place unknown, you come to realize that you’ve entered someone else’s reality, someone else’s sense of what’s to be.

On the other side of the looking glass, standing across from number 35, there we were, two people, suitcases and backpacks in a future we did not plan for. We were out of sorts; we didn’t have the calculus to compute its logic. It was too foreign, the signs not yet evident.

A condition of l‘avenir is the disruption of all logic. Illogic, when aggravated by the adrenaline that ignites when between what was to be and what will be, creates the most dastardly images.

We were ripped off. We’re homeless. What do we do now?

On long trips, mishaps are expected, particularly if one goes abroad and tries to engage a culture. There is anticipation, desire, want. In that moment where the anticipation is supreme, it’s easy to forget things. While still in the states, I forgot to set my cell phone to *228, ensuring cell service in the EU (that was resolved with Verizon’s online help and I got cell service a week and 1/2 into the trip). I had no cell service — I did have WiFi — in Avignon. Perhaps this was the American beginning of l’avenir for us — a small mistake, on the surface, that grew in magnitude, starting a chain of challenges, unknowns to come.

Stranded on 35 rue Louis Pasteur, communicating with our landlord — something previously done online — was key. I left Nina behind and went looking for a phone. Near the center of the center ville I found a phone in a place that sold time on computers and telephones. I called the landlord. No answer, only a voice. I left a message with our predicament. I waited and called again. Nothing. I walked back to Nina, a 5 minute walk at a clip, and reported. We could tell what each other was thinking: where would we stay the night? In July, you see, when the festival in Avignon is going on, rooms are booked solid. There are no rooms. Shit. We were sweating in the stifling Avignon heat.

Are we sure we’re in the right place? Double check the paper work, a folder I always carry as back up that contains reservations, addresses of important locations, names. It’s the right address. No, it’s not. It can’t be. No studio here.

On my third call, the landlord answered. He was standing on 30 rue Louis Pasteur, waiting. He had evidently given me the wrong address. Ah. Ah. Voila. But that was the beginning of the unknowns to come.

While some of us vacation and get away to actually get closer to ourselves, understand ourselves in more intimate ways to better understand where we have been and where we are going, in this case, meeting up with our landlord, in the confusion, we neatly slid into his conflicts, the problems with his world. This move completely disrupts any reflection that one may be moving towards. We were thrust into the machinations of our landlord’s uncanny world.

Dragging our bags 100 or so meters to 30 rue Louis Pasteur — literally 100 meters because the street numbers converged at 1 at a plaza and began again — the landlord, Francis, explained to us that the studio apartment we pre-paid for had no water. It wasn’t ready. He then told us that he booked a room for us in a B&B 15 kilometers away in Cavaillon. Would that be okay with us?

In the hot, ugly orange and claustrophobic studio apartment on the street level in Avignon’s center ville — heat you could cut with a knife and dank — a B&B with a piscene was a welcomed solution. And since this was unforeseen, said Francis, he threw in his vehicle so that we could get around Provence until the apartment’s water was returned to order. A day, he said, and everything would be fine. Nina and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders: what choice is there?

We were being lead, not leading. Like life, a journey or reprieve away from the usual requires that you succumb. That’s the thing about l’avenir, I think — at some point succumbing to the presence of the Other is necessary. Which involves trust — trusting that you’re in some sort of whirling pool and there’s no way out. Instincts even become something one questions. You have to trust that the schedules and formulations you’ve previously done are pliable enough to adjust to the new world you find yourself in. Ironically, this doesn’t distance you from your introspective journey, rather it brings you closer to yourself and, most importantly, to the person you’re traveling with (here, traveling is of course metaphorical, as in traveling through life’s strange journey).

The B&B in Cavaillon was glorious. We were given the prize room — a suit with private bath and AC. It overlooked the courtyard on one side, the luscious back of the house and pool on the other. George, the owner, was a delight; he spoke English very well, too, and helped us with our French. He provided an itinerary of where we should go in the Lubéron valley region. And we breakfasted on homemade prune and orange jams, croissant, and fresh breads, fresh squeezed orange juice and strong coffee in large cups — almost the bowls one sees in French movies.

L’avenir can bring fortune. We adjusted quickly, and off we were to the villages in the Lubéron. George was our host for two nights. But as much as George is the consummate innkeeper — gracious, affable, kind and considerate, finding comfort and happiness watching his guests relish in his leisured country life in Provence, Francis is harried, non communicative, and overwhelmed with his role as an innkeeper and, he told us, landowner of apartments in Paris. George tries to live a life whereby planning, scheduling and calculating are privileged — thus when l’avenir inevitably overwhelms all other considerations (such as Francis putting out an S.O.S. to all innkeepers in the area asking for any room, any room at all to house these two travelers I’ve made homeless), he is ready — or at least better able to determine options amidst the consternation caused by the unknown, the uncanny quality of the unforeseeable. Francis lives in l’avenir, a life spent reacting to the unexpected; it is a life taxed by the unknown’s voracity, thus it’s not your life, but, rather, the conditions that rear when no plans are exacted. It’s a life of putting out fires since l’avenir is always smoldering — until ignited: plan after plan always in an ongoing deconstruction of the unnatural state of un-grace that defines Francis. Where George is grace, Francis is chaos.

In my experience, age now 57, humans are two: graceful or not. Nothing else. From this grace, or the ungrace, stem a whole host of realizations, understandings and complexes about life itself and how to lead it. The graceful do not succumb; they are pliable. The non-graceful, for them, life is always difficult; it comes with difficulties first, not beauty. For the non-graceful, exacting beauty and wonderment from life is almost impossible. It’s always dark. The graceful always find light somewhere, soft, rounded corners, not edges. The un-graceful is edgy. Simply moving in space is hard; being with people is hard. Listening is nearly impossible. It’s as if in the un-graceful, narcissism has been disrupted, where the graceful is assured of his narcissism. Again, as Jacques Derrida says, there’s no such thing as no narcissism, only degrees of narcissism.

Francis’ 18th Century Inn, I’sle sur la Sorgue

On the third night we were scheduled to be in Francis’ B&B, which is in I’sle sur la Sorgue, the most delightful town, the antique capital of Provence, boast the locals. Through the center of the town streams the Sorgue, it’s source up the mountain a ways in the Lubéron. But as delightful as the town is — and we, Nina and I, will return here; it suits us well — that is how un delightful Francis’ B&B is.

We were greeted by 2 barking dogs — a Doberman, old and stiff, and another nondescript dog, a cross between an ant eater and a Siberian husky, a small one. This dog smelled like no other I’ve ever smelled before — urine, sweat, dirty, all in one odiferous mass of energy that rubbed up against your legs. Lick. Lick. Lick. His thick hair was wet and gave off an odor of sewage. In the pebbled courtyard, several dog poops signaled danger. And in the deep July heat of Provence, the courtyard was steaming with the animals’ remains of their day.

What kind of unforeseen worlds can come from conditions like this? In George’s world, we were let into something soft, something that said that attention to our wants was nurtured; in Francis’ world the signs suggested that we had entered into the place of the unforeseen, a place inhabited solely by the affinity to problems Francis and his wife, Cathy, seem to have. This world is selfish. Guests are, at best, secondary, and a kind of despair becomes the organizing principle. Gestures are heavy, labored. Small things, such as breakfast, are not celebrated as a time to get to know one another, as it was at George’s, rather it was haphazardly thrown together.

Sitting in Francis’ and Cathy’s living room and dining area, both of which smelled of dirty dog and urine, the animals circling, discussing our future stay and constant movement without our luggage, still in the non-working apartment in Avignon, Nina and I, separate and then together, came to parallel conclusions about how to live these days. We adjusted. We traveled the Lubéron. We dreamt about a house here, a house there, the children, embraced our unforseeable future and the time we have together, fleeting, and dug into our senses.

We had to — the apartment in Avignon never came together. We ended up wasting a day traveling the 40 minutes or so, in heavy traffic, between I’sle sur la Soruge and Avignon so to then wheel our bags, finally, out of the apartment and back to the stinky yet beautiful 18th Century inn. By that time Francis had flown the coop: mysteriously one morning he left before sunrise, leaving his wife and the housekeeper to fend for themselves. And did I mention that Cathy is in a cast up to her elbow? Yes. Croissants were left in paper bags, bread placed in a basket, coffee left in a carafe for us to tend — that was breakfast. But we gracefully made our way, had a glorious send off in I’sle sur la Sorgue — dinner at La Romantica restaurant, glorious, followed by Pastis and red wine as we listened to a very funny rock band that played American Muzac. The town was full, celebratory, as it should have been on July 14, France’s day of celebration for its incredibly powerful history.

The lesson of l’avenir is simply — and with difficulty — to try to find grace in the unforeseen, the uncanny, since this is what’s being asked of us — to find the grace that lies within in our grasp, that beauty that belies resistance and is always already there inviting our deconstruction, our way of prying ourselves from what is not natural so that we don’t have to feign a naturalness that is not existent anyway. This is the story of our unexpected stay in Avignon.

Amsterdam Redux

She said, “You Americans, you live to work.” She let it sink in, her eyes wide, a grin across her face. “The Dutch, we work to live,” she said.

The simple, straightforward statement the landlady of our Oud Suid apartment, Marnie, uttered gave me pause. We work to live. What distance those who live to work must travel to reverse how we engage the world.

In Amsterdam, at a very young age, a baby in arms — no, let’s start this again, better yet: in vitro the child begins to enter the rhythms of the culture. It comes to her through the mother as she pedals gracefully, back straight and head upright. She negotiates the trams and the pedestrians, the traffic lights and, most dangerous of all, the tourists, always an unpredictable menace whether on foot or on a bicycle.

This is Amsterdam

By the time the child is one, her hair curly and blond and her skin is butter fresh and can sit upright without help, she moves from a pouch held over the mother’s shoulder, where the child has been cradled in her trek across Amsterdam for some time, to a seat straddling the bike’s crossbar. Perched like a lookout on a ship’s tall mast, the child takes in her world — the intricate web of bicycles coming and going almost effortlessly, the unifying laws of humanity that enable this choreography to blossom as if it’s somehow a spirit laying just beneath the surface for the child that the mother compels forth with her always steady pedaling. The wheels turning and turning rhythmically, balanced and subtle. The child learns this grace before the child can even say a word, utter a complete sentence, learn about more institutionalized versions of grace. Before the child has a full idea she can grasp and articulate — an I want thought — she has already apprehended the gospel of Amsterdam’s intricate dance.

Before the child can reason, she is already Amsterdam; that is, before she can lay claim to her beautiful blue eyes, control the contour of her curls, she is Amsterdam first. She has become before she becomes; she is both who she imagines she is and who she’s been imagined to be. The history of Amsterdam is in this handing over of its elegance and nature, quietly but resolutely, parent to child on bicycles. Eventually the child straddles a smaller bicycle, head proud, back straight, the handle bars arched like a curvaceous”U”, the edges that loop towards her held in her hands. She has learned to solo. She is safe in the stream, a songline unifying all in Amsterdam — rich, poor, foreign, and different working in unison so as to not compromise the flow, the energy. If you’ve allowed Amsterdam’s vibe into your sense of being, then you know that from this point, on this bicycle, the child has learned grace, pride and manners; she’s learned to be honest and direct; she’s learned to speak with confidence. It’s then that the child can say, with conviction and without reservations, I am Amsterdam.

I Am Amsterdam

I am Amsterdam, the perfect logo seen all over the city is simple, clean and direct. And it’s no wonder since this logo has come to life in the culture that practically invented advertising and design in the mid 1600s. I am Amsterdam points in two directions: back to its history, the Golden Age that created wealth, stability, art and culture by devastating the weaker countries and colonizing the spaces on the map still uninhabited by men with gunpowder, building a world order through violence and oppression — the methods to come that would likewise build other great powers; and it points forward to the tolerance and affability that, out of necessity, has grown out of the bleakness of the Golden Age as a way to embrace others with humility, the different others that want to come to its northern port and see for themselves, experience possibilities, experience being left to one’s devices to survive without judgment. Experience the patience and tolerance that is a natural outcome of having to compensate for creating a magnificent culture from conquest and colonialization, slavery and oppression, great violence and violations of human rights. The Dutch feel the weight of the anvil on their backs; they are responsible for their history and their destiny.