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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
16: Border crossings

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

Kela et Paul aux pays de Jeanne d'Arc et Tintin

"Geez, Paul, I thought you said your French was improving! Are you sure 'glace' means ice?"

In fact 'glace' means mirror, 'glacé' means ice cream, and neither means ice cube, but I didn't yet know this in December 2001, which is probably why Kela and I kept getting strange looks from the bartenders as we wandered the timbered-house streets of old Rouen asking for ice cream and mirrors, when all we really wanted was ice with which to chill the warm Normandy cider we'd bought at a corner store. While you can find cider at any grocery in France, you can never find it chilled. Finally we gave up, perched on the edge of a sidewalk, uncorked the cider and drank it tepid with our lunch, followed by a tour of the tower where Joan of Arc went up in flames (Kela's mom had chosen this exact moment to telephone her from Maryland; I couldn't understand what they were arguing about, as it was all in Chinese), a former sanitarium for quarantined victims of the Black Plague still decorated with skulls, and coffee on the terrace of a bar overlooking the docks on the Seine, served with sugar cubes in packages decorated with the flags of the various United States.

Kela had arrived in Paris the night before. "I should warn you I don't even have a guest bed yet" I'd told her when she called from Antwerp to say she was thinking of coming up for an African dance workshop. "That's okay; I'll sleep on the floor!" As we sat around chatting, Kela in her blue down coat, she seemed to my ears to be shouting everything, but it was probably just that I'd become super-sensitive to our own loud American voices after my downstairs neighbor, a crotchety middle-aged female French university teacher, had rushed up to my apartment and banged on the door one night when I'd had the temerity to cough, and I was afraid of another international incident. When you're an American in Europe, you get used to Europeans asking you not to shout.

Our relationship was never tepid. We'd met shortly before we both left New York for Europe, Kela to re-locate her dance company in the hopes of getting better funding and, with her companion Mike, to set up a kung fu studio in Antwerp. For the equivalent of $1,000 -- half the price of Kela's tiny Chelsea railroad flat -- they'd found a four-floor castle on a square facing the State House and overlooking a fountain of a Flemish hero on a horse, not far from the Scheldt River once painted by Victor Hugo during one of his various exiles. I called it the Castle because of its gothic front. "It's all fake," Kela said. I still loved to perch on the window-sill of her large, high-ceilinged living room cum dance / kung fu studio overlooking the square, the fountain cascading water onto the cobblestones, the many flags rippling from the eaves of the State House, slowly sipping and getting buzzed on a St. Bernardus 12 (10 percent alcohol) as the picture of the jolly monk on the beer label lifting a foamy glass got fuzzier and fuzzier.

Sometimes I'd venture down to one of the dozen friteries on the square to pick up fries accompanied by a curry mayonnaise dip. "Just fries and dip?" Kela once said disappointedly, looking down at my basket as if I was a wimp and shaking her head. "That's nothing! Vincent" -- her lanky, long blonde-haired Belgian assistant kung-fu teacher and friend -- "always gets the super-duper-special with three dips plus steak and gravy! You're in Belgium, Paul! Live it up! Fat forever!" Of course I had to try it. I'd compensate for the calories with a healthy morning jog down to the Scheldt, along an elevated boardwalk which led, at the end of the quay, to a dead, graffiti-splattered missile that children played on. One lunch-time I took my frites + curry dip + steak + gravy down to the maritime museum whose winding stone stairway overlooked the Scheldt and ate them under an engraved tribute to the Canadian and American forces which had liberated Antwerp from the Germans. Our forefathers had liberated Europe; would it liberate us?

"Sorry for the dishwashing liquid," Kela had sighed when I visited the Castle for the first time. "There's been a hitch in getting our residence papers approved, so we can't access the money we deposited in the bank. We have all of $2 to our name, which has got to last for at least two more weeks, so we just keep adding water to the detergent. You'll just have to conserve dishes and glasses by having more frites and beer!"

I arrived on Christmas Eve, and Antwerp was a Christmas wonderland, with booths set up in the square selling hot mulled wine or grog for $2 and fresh fried herring for the same. "It's a lot more pristine than Brussels, that's for sure," I complimented Kela on her choice. I'd done a day trip to Brussels in October and found it much more ramshackle than Paris, an architectural mish-mash, though I did enjoy the informality of eating mussels doused by a glass of Riesling purchased from a stand outside a school.

"Brussels! Don't say that name!," Kela reacted with a shudder. "Bad things happen in Brussels! I parked in front of the P.A.R.T.S. dance studio there last week and when I came back my car had been towed. I think I was guilty of parking a car with Flanders license plates in a Wallonie zone."

"But I thought Brussels was in Flanders?"

"Unless you're in the Francophonie section. That's where bad things happen to Flemish people. And people who live in Flanders. And cars with Flemish license plates. Right Omie?"

"Omie" was Kela's nick-name for Mike, a short but muscular New York native whose Queens accent belied his street smarts. From his present position, sitting placid Buddah-like on a pillow before a computer screen, you might not guess he was a fourth-degree black belt. ("Mike tries to avoid getting into fights," Kela once told me. "He realizes that his hands are lethal weapons. Once a Belgian in a bakery tried to give him guff, and Mike just looked at him and asked, 'Do you know me?' The guy walked away.") Before answering Kela, Mike took a sip of his espresso, which he always brewed by adding a dash of cinnamon to the spindle. ("Mike says he has to order four Belgian espressos to equal one American-sized coffee when he has it at a cafe!" Kela'd reported to me.) "Kela," he finally said, still looking at the computer screen, "maybe it was because you tried to speak Dutch to them that they gave you such a hard time getting your car back. You shoulda just spoke English." (On another visit, after we returned from an onerous evening-length William Forsythe 'ballet' with lots of talk, Kela laughed and said, "Boy, it's a good thing we didn't bring Mike. This was one of those shows where Mike says they should hand out the rotten tomatoes at the door!")

"Sheesh, I can't figure out where you're supposed to speak what in this country!" Kela threw up her arms in exasperation before calling to the white poodle she was baby-sitting. "Vien ici Mathilde!" "French," she explained, indicating the dog with her thumb. Earlier, ordering a paper cup full of herring at one of the Christmas booths, I'd tried to speak French, thinking it more respectful than insisting on speaking my native language, and the older man behind the counter just frowned and answered in English, "Have a nice day."

On Christmas Day, accompanied by Kela's brother and sister in law, as well as Mike, we drove two hours to Bruges. "Did you know Bruges is the capital of doilies?" Kela shouted back from behind the steering wheel. "But the belfry is pretty cool." And indeed, after taking a walking tour of the intimate winding canal -- and the doily shops which lined it -- we climbed the 366 steps of the famous belfry to get a view over the terra-cotta roofs of the town. "It looks like a real Christmas-ville!" I said. Bruges had four times the Christmas booths of Antwerp.


In fact we'd arrived just in time to hear 2 p.m. toll and ring all around our heads, our feet vibrating from the reverberations of the large and sonorous carillons.

Kela and I would often have this problem over the next several years as we struggled to transcend not only our respective new foreign cultures but our individual psycho-histories, the cacophony in our own heads making it difficult to hear the other.

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