“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert L. Stevenson
Better to get on with it before habituation kicks in, which if you don‘t remove yourself far enough from you regular habitat can happen awfully fast. The fun of course, of reporting about other places and other people back to your native tribe [switzerland in my case] is to come up with a way of gently stereotyping this new biome in a way that suggests that you‘re cosmopolitan, witty and some-other-positive-attribute about your new cultural environs. One still has to sort of pigeonhole and overly generalize in a way that would give even the most mediocre of undergrad Anthropology students the howling fantods but you do it with a view to the larger end: communicating experience from one human being to another, an attempt to make sense of your on-going, suddenly sharpened existential crisis, known otherwise as „travelling abroad“ or „dealing with mosquito bites“.
National cliches come in damn handy if one is operating at the global-market-international-airport-paperback level of success but otherwise they leave an impression of being terribly overcooked. Instead I have opted for what I here call „urban monotypes“ [if the whole city consisted of such folks it would wither to little human husks blowin in the streets]. So, let me type away before I become so much of a Montpellierian [the temptation is to write Montpellerine, which unfortunately is even further removed from whatever the correct form might be] that everything would seem perfectly normal and entirely unfit for extended brain-raking.
First of all, the train trip was entirely underwhelming. Unfortunately, I expected my soul to be stung by the sublime – no such luck. The Lucerne–Geneva lag I know well enough and you might have experienced it for yourself at one point or another: bursting through that little bit of mountain and onto the slopes down to Lake Geneva on a petulant summer day, seeing the lake spread out below and then its far coast rising sublimely towards the distant Alps, is one of the more spectacular views Switzerland holds on tap. Indeed, a few female teenagers travelling in the same coach burst out in the loud aspirated sounds of admiration seeing this show for the first time. Sticking a smile on my face, as I remembered my first jaunt to Lausanne 19 yrs back, for a skinny, lovable, stone-crazy Cameroonian girl name of J. [A gps of the mind wouldn‘t be half bad; one could avoid getting side-tracked all the time in Dirtwater, North Nostalgia, and just stick to the central argumentative autobahn.]
After Geneva, the sight from out of the train very much reminded of travelling to Rome. For long stretches the vegetation [trees and shrubbery mostly] was so dense and darkly green that there was not anything to even look at. Other than green. Instead of the blue screen of death, it was a massive green screen, of life, one could say. But visually it was definitely still just death. Whenever this screen lifted there were not middle-earthish jaw-dislodging vistas but only hills covered in similarly dark green trees, which made for boring sights. Even thinking about writing about this sight had the effect of a pro-depressiva. But a bit of landscape description is compulsory for writing about one‘s useless travels from L to M and back again.
So, voila. …de fil en aiguille the green montony flourished in my head with the golden plastick-bells and winged babies of a religious epiphany: Europe is flecked with primordial vegetation, inbetween, for incredibly large swathes. Its territory runs untamed in all-out evolutionary struggle: plant versus plant, plant versus insect, insect versus mammal, and so forth. Plenty of cooperation and symbiosis too, I grudgingly admit, even if it doesn‘t suit this nice little picture of survival of the most adaptive population I‘m lazily trying to paint here.
The point is, if any of our asses [survivalists, you are excepted] were dropped 20 clicks south of Geneva and not on a street and without a machete to hack away at the frantic greenery, none could likely bring it for more than a handful of days. No kidding, no hyperbole, dear comrades. By constantly sitting in cities and sitting in buses or cars or on bikes that move across basically very thin roads, we arrive at the faulty conclusion that we live in a supremely civilized environment. This is correct as long as we keep to this tightly constricted spatial matrix of beloved negentropy. But, Jesus Bloody Christ, once one travels just a little to see what lies beyond, one knows it is bush country. Again, a biologist or survivalist would only smirk at such remarks and point to the heartwrenching decrease in biodiversity, etc. But the thick vegetation beginning south of Geneva spoke a different language, as far as my naive eyes could tell.
Best to state up front that Montpellier is a beaut: the maze of alleys in which nestle uncountable bistros, bars, restaurants, specialty shops that make up the ancient Franco-Roman core of town are a perfect endroit for any well-heeled tourist/consumer to empty their wallets in blind abandon. And very good too, for the pauvre chômeurs to make a home on this very latitude where the environment goes easy on one, at least in terms of night-time temperatures. Different story when it comes to insectoid predators…
Perfect place to splurge, whether you‘re looking for a last-ditch birthday present or some outlandish French dish (e.g. un rayon de Mini-Hamburgers). Too bad je suis sur la paille, as they say. Which is not so bad actually because apart from all types of anti-mosquito chemicals [the whooping-cough inducing lotion to fend the fuckers off, the ointment to faintly alleviate the psychopathogenic itches, the scary fine-print containing tablets to redouble the efforts of the histaminically outgunned ointment] and copious amounts of both your regular joe eau de minerale [diablement petillante, translating as, out-the-wazoo sparkly] plus massacral mounds of Taboule [the cheapest, most convient nourishment on offer], I hath need of nothing else. I might be a sad sack but not sad enough to come all the way to southern france just indulge in a bit of shopoholism.
At the same time, it seems important not to get too casual and laid-back and anthropologically emic about this whole experience… I am after all in a territory called Languedoc–Rousillon, which sounds nothing if not brain-punchingly exotic.
Even given the light-stoned, warm-weathered, vagrant-figures-alleviating [for the rest of la Grande Nation, I assume] beauties of Montpellier, what first sprung to my mind or punctured my epidermis, was a different aspect. The principle based on which numerous aspects of this city seem to work is this:
1) Imagine an activity or structure.
2) Imagine an efficient or even just humanly sensible way of arranging this activity or structure.
3) The opposite of this is what Montpellier provides. With diabolical relish.
I am perfectly aware of starting off my closer range exploration of this city by complaining; but complaining appears to be, not only an adaptation to the local mental modus operandi but also the cognitive activity most closely corresponding to constantly wanting to or actually scratching a mosquito bite. Against all better knowledge. So let me back up this intermediately disingenuous claim that Montpellier is a ville firmly taking a stand against [un-]common sense with a few laughably anecdotal examples.
On my second morning, in search of cheap way to break my fast, I entered a bakery I had spotted the day before but had been on the fence about. Having chosen my pastry [a croissant made from, I must assume, 98% butter 2% flour], I stood across from the bakeress and held out a few coins of small change. For a while. Because I then realized she wasn‘t actually making any effort to remove the monnaie from my grubby hand. This reminded me that skin-to-skin contact between consumer and clerk-e in France is punishable by Guillotine. Thus I put the four coins down on the counter, hoping to coax her into the ancient ritual of win-win hard-currency-for-product-exchange. Instead she shifted two steps back. Had I failed to pronounce some mytho-magical formula that would make the few centimes acceptable to her, divest them of my unearthly affiliation? Had I infuriated her Penates with my heathen accent? I had no clue. Then came her cryptic declaration „Nous sommes ici.“ [We are here.]. Why a bakeress uses the royal „we“ is beyond the tattered remains of my ethnological expertise. But even on a empty stomach I was somehow able to get it through my head that the ontologically ominous statement was in fact a request on her part: We are over here. You are over there. One of us will have to make a move and we‘re the ones with the goddamn croissants.
Off I moved all the way along outside the counter and back to where she lingered by the cashier machine, covering the distance she had just covered [away from my cash-holding palm] multiplied by six or seven. There was a brownish little plastic quadrangle for me to deposit the money in; because if 10‘000 customers stick their saussisons in there every day that is considerably more hygienic. I did. And a minute later I bit into the most buttery croissant between here and the land of milk and butter, clearly imported from the latter. So that is one: the perverse lenghts gone to, to avoid epidermal contact during commercial transactions.
Two is more straightforward and confusing. It maybe illustrates an perverse preference for doing things in a gluteus-en-arriere way. The elevator at the mediatheque [the French showing off their awareness of the fact that you can pick up more diverse media than just a book at the library and, safe to assume, distancing themselves from a Teutonism (Bibliothek)] takes you from the Rez to the third floor so that whenever the call of nature wins out over the call of cramming, you can zoom down from the main study hall. Having a restroom on the same floor as the main reading room would betray a ridiculuous lack of sophistication. Now, in the spirit of interactive learning, what is the only… part… of the elevator you could consciously, gratuitously complicate? Correct, the floor display. Thus the 3rd floor, the top most, is shown as the lowest on the diagram, followed by the second floor, shown as the second from the bottom. But this reversal of order, contra-rational as it is, is not enough. If you have the Rez-de-Chaussee as the Groundfloor, following that, rather than just beginning with the 1st floor, some francopathic spanner could be thrown in the works, right? Yes, the Entresol [which would make sense if the groundlevel at the front of the building were different from the one at the back, which it patently isn‘t]. Thus you end up with a diagram making an absolute hash of the floor order. It should be easy enough to figure out, as you only have to mentally flip the plan and account for the peculiarity of the Entresol but the sheer wanton arbitrariness of it has a paralytic effect on one. On me. It took four or five seconds to mentally straighten things out, until a little Humpty-Dumpty in my head proclaimed: „Down is the new up!“
And then having arrived up/down there the narrow free floating balustrade 40 meters above the library ground floor was just a casse-toi to all people scared of heights. A stretch of it is in generously spaced, wooden lattice-work so you can see the vertiginal vertical at every step, if you so choose. Nature called me back down/up soon enough. So point two is: Keep it complicated.
Point three is a person rather than a structure. People here have imbibed the infrastructural idiosyncracies of Montpellier and made them part of their behavioral repertoire. After I exited the toilet right, all I wished to do is clean my heands off of the few negligible…flecks…. of urine that had somehow landed there.
You know, at the end of the business session, when you conscientiously waggle your dong in hopes of extricating those last few millitres you wish not to sully your boxers later on. Because of the odors this might cause later and because it‘s also just in bad form, super-ego-wise speaking, if you haven‘t yet crossed a certain age threshhold. But then, damnable Uretral tract, some of those recalcitrant droplets fly off onto your furiously shaking fingers before you can steady yourself, achieving the precise opposite effect of what the whole shaking-off business was all about. Now you need wash your hands [possibly following those exacting instructions above the bassin, which everybody knows for a fact, should only apply if you‘re about to perform open heart surgery but have gained woeful acceptability due to vastly inflated public phobias concerning global pandemics; thank you Outbreak, good work Contagion, way to go The Walking Dead!] And there are two basins, so there shouldn‘t even have been an issue. But this guy – this guy. He had both his feet planted in front of the left sink but then leaned over hard to starboard, contorting, to wash off his hands in the Eastern-most of the two of the lavabos, effectively, uneffectively occupying both.
[Drinking a very high percentage mojito and watching wimbledon at a bar, might change the writing for the even worse, from here on out, if such is even possible.]
The large mirror allowed me to give him a long hard stare, what hiphop-informed folks know as an ice-grill. However, leaning hard right and washing his delicate hands was all the preoccupation the man needed. He took his goodly time, indeed hosing and shrubbing down for some unimaginable surgery as far as I could tell, steepling his fingers in complex lavatory motions and the like; occupying both basins all the while. He even briefly glanced in a way that suggested „If you wanna bring it, then fucking bring it; punk“. To which I replied with a diplomatic, appeasing smile that translated as „Well, you‘re managing to occupy two lavabos for no good reason and the library is about to close up shop. However, you are in keeping with this city‘s spirit of all-out complication. Seeing there is nothing really at stake other than the immortal cleanliness of our hands, I forgive you, comrade-in-existence, until you have removed your hands from one and your feet from in front of the other. Cheers.“ My gaze at times can be significantly more elaborte than my tongue, or fingers for that matter, I‘m saddened to report.
Suddenly he was gone, evaporated into thin air; I must have blinked. Smiling, yet again naive, I approached the faucet; as if here were a subservient, chrome-necked business partner I had been in touch with for a long time but never actually laid eyes upon; as if things, in regards to humans, were of a decent-meaning disposition. My hands were certainly flushed clean but within those same first three or four seconds, to all of my tellability, so were my pants. The stream shot out so hard and fast that the dropleture splashed all of the surrounds. Sometimes, as a penis-endowed member of the human species, one is afraid that while washing les mains, some splashes will alight close by the zipper, creating the most unfortunate impression that one‘s stream was not aimed aright: „Ah, check out smart pants. Mec done pissed himself. Hahahaha, hihihihihi, huhuhuhu“, followed by much general guffawing with all the exhilaration of being the emitter, rather than recipient of, all-around-dreaded humiliation. Why one would ratchet up the water-throughput rate to that of a hydroelectric plant is as inacessible to me as was the bakeress‘ royal „nous“. This be Montpellier.