Hi, I'm Lee. I'm currently walking from Madrid, Spain to Kiev, Ukraine on foot. Click here to learn why.
Subject: Le joli mai.
My first destination in Paris was neither Sacré Coeur nor Notre Dame, nor any other church or imposing landmark. It was Shakespeare and Company, a Left Bank bookstore and "foul rag and bone shop of the heart" that also serves as a rent-free halfway house for writers and would-be writers. I entered and asked whether the owner, George Whitman, was still alive. I was happy and relieved to learn that he was.
George, 92 years old and lucid as ever, granted me an interview as he lay in bed. He once spent two years traveling on foot in Central America, and he told me some of those stories of unpassable swamps and mulligan stews. "If I'd have kept a diary I would have written a better book than Kerouac or any of those Beat guys," he said.
Instead, George opened his bookstore some 50 years ago. There are beds upstairs, and if George likes your story you can sleep in the bookshop for free for a few days, or sometimes a few weeks. Everyone who stays must write a brief biography of his- or herself. George has thousands of these little biographies. As a fellow collector of other people's lives, I envy him.
The motto of Shakespeare and Company is this: "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise."
I love this sentiment. During my trip I've already met so many who must share George's belief. Last week in Etampes, for example, I entered a bar at night and asked for the nearest hotel. A fellow called Jean-Pierre Amour (yes, his real name) told me the hotels there were too expensive and I could, if I wanted, sleep on his couch for the night.
My instincts told me his intentions were benign, so I accepted.
Back at his house he cooked us a couple of steaks to eat. "This is a good beef steak," I said.
"It's not a steak," said Jean-Pierre, "it's an entrecôte."
I'd never heard this word, so I looked it up in my pocket dictionary. There I found this:
entrecôte (n.): steak.
This I showed him.
"Your dictionary is terrible," he said.
After I interviewed George I met another fellow at the bookstore. His name is Philipe Coupet and he somehow manages to blend the personalities of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jerry Lewis.
"We are all puppets of the stars," he told me, staring out the window. "The only thing in life is to eat and sleep".
He told me of his life's work: painting, composing "subliminal music", making short films about dancing potatoes. "Ninety-five percent of mankind is not finished in the brain," he said. "They are unfinished masterpieces. If you open the television from 8pm to 11pm you will see how the public thinks."
Philipe then added, "If you visit the markets near closing time you get the best prices on vegetables and fish."
I found a certain demented genius in Philipe's aphorisms. My camera, as I interviewed him, shook with my suppressed laughter. And I have only admiration for a man who can tell me "The best moment is to sit by the Seine when the sun is out. You get all the diamonds on the water and become the richest man in the world."
My friend Nick came down from London to see me in Paris. It was a good few days of coffees and sunshine.
Nick and I walked up the steps of the Institute Français to take in the view. As we set up a tripod shot, a man who could have passed for a cleaned-up Charles Bukowski approached us. "My name is Boris," he said. "I sing Elvis Presley."
No further explanation was neccessary. I rolled tape, and Boris sang his heart out. I complimented his voice, and his expression, pictured below, may serve to illustrate his pride:
I could happily spend a few years resting here, but I have to keep walking. Tomorrow I begin my walk up North toward Belgium. The beautiful May is here, and my hat and gloves and fleece jacket are gone.
I am happy to have been here, and I am happy, most of all, that I still have new countries and months of walking ahead of me.
And finally, my thanks to the newest Fellow Travelers: Harry Swanson, Hannah Swanson, and Raul Lopez.
Subject: Wit of the staircase.
First, a Paris postscript: I was prepared to leave the city immediately after I posted my last update, but its gravity kept me within its orbit for one more day and night. I wanted to see the Catacombs before I left, and this I did.
The sobering effect of walking through a literal labyrinth of bones, comprising the remains of tens if not hundreds of thousands of dead Parisians, was dulled only a little by the popping of tourists' flashbulbs. I saw one Italian girl grab a skull and hold it up to her own head. She pulled a grim face and her friend took a snapshot. Whether it's worth desecrating human remains for a funny photograph is not for me to say. I just hope the light turned out right.
At the exit I met a friendly man from Madagascar, who searched our bags as we surfaced. This struck me as a tad paranoid, until I noticed three skulls sitting on a shelf nearby. "You caught people trying to steal those?" I asked. "Yes," he said. "Just from today. The people have no respect."
I left and bought some maps, a crêpe, and a coffee, and passed some time watching an unusually-good jazz trio play on the sidewalk. It was now well into the afternoon, and I decided against heading north to fight the suburbs with so little daylight left. So I returned to the Shakespeare and Company. There my troubles began.
The reader will remember Shakespeare and Company from my last entry. The owner himself, George Whitman, had invited me to sleep there a few days when I spoke with him. I had stayed elsewhere the last few days, but didn't think it'd be a problem to come back and take up his invitation for one more night.
George mightn't have minded me being there, but his store manager did. Let us protect his anonymity and call him Nonathan. Nonathan was Irish, an aspiring writer, and, judging by the fineness of the peach fuzz he wore on his face, younger than I am. Someone had evidently told him that his chances of becoming the next James Joyce would be helped if he hammed up his accent and spoke like a character that might inhabit the Disney cartoon version of Dubliners.
"Close dem dere doors! Put dem books over dere!" This is how he bossed the kids who helped him close the store at night. "We're closin'!" he told me. I told him I'd intended to stay there.
I already knew Nonathan disliked me, because of some words we'd exchanged in the shop earlier that night. My walking stick had been hanging from my bag at the wrong angle, and so was a bit dangerous. Nonathan pointed this out, and I apologized and fixed it, but the guy wouldn't let the matter go.
"Who've ya spoken to about stayin' here?" he asked me. I told him George and George's daughter, Sylvia. The other occupants of the rent-free hotel vouched they'd seen me before.
I thought the matter closed. Nonny left, and five of us went upstairs where we quickly fell into pleasant conversation. Forty-five minutes later, Nonathan came back.
"I need ta speak t'you!" he said. I followed him into the next room. "Get yer 'tings. Yer not stayin' here. I spoke to Sylvia and you lied to me! Ya didn't asked to stay here t'day! Get yer tings and go! NOW!" This was one in the morning, by the way.
I tried to calm the situation. Told him that I didn't know I had to re-ask for permission to stay that day after having been invited earlier in the week. "I don' care! I'm sick of people abusin' this place! Y'know we've already got too many people here, and it's a fire hazard!" (A bureaucrat has no greater friend than the fire code.)
I gathered my things. Non stuck around to make sure I left. "I don't have time fer dis," he said. "It's my girlfriend's bert-day t'day." As he locked me out into the night, I thought of a riposte, moments too late:
"You can't do this to me," I would have said, "I'm an angel in disguise! I'm an angel in disguise!"
But small matter. A nice American girl called Brooke tipped me off to the location of a cheap hostel, where I grabbed a few hours sleep before moving on the next day.
In Bellefontaine I met with considerably more hospitality. I asked directions of a woman and her family as they got out of a car. I could tell she was friendly because she kept walking toward me as I spoke to her. Most people, when approached by a stranger, will either stop moving or walk backwards. "Come into the house," she said. "Take a drink of water."
The woman was Pascale, and the house was her sister Martine's. There were many teenagers there -- their kids and their kids' friends. I don't think I'd been around that many teenagers since high school. The invitation to water soon became an invitation to dinner, and later to a place to sleep on the couch that night.
"The children are having a little party tonight," Pascale told me. "Maybe you want to go with and meet people your age." I accepted, expecting perhaps a low-key back-garden affair with soft white lights. Instead, we drove to the middle of a dark field, where people in their teens and twenties drank from bottles of Rum on car hoods. I'd thought only American kids did this.
The next morning, I coaxed Martine into playing the large drum kit which stood in the corner of the living room. "Okay," she said. "But I am not a professional. I need the music in my ear when I make the drumming."
Cue Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Martine rocks house:
Days later, I found myself lost in the forest. Lesson learned: do not try to cross a forest of any size without a map. I had the ubiquitious white-red GR waymarks, but those are little help when it's nearing dark and you're desperate to find civilization.
I walked for hours without meeting man or beast. At one point I think I saw a tree fall without making a sound.
I fell into hallucinations. Imagined delivering my last words to my videocamera, to be remanded to my family along with my bones, picked clean by squirrels.
"Look," I said to myself. "Doesn't that tree look like it's grown little arms? And then used those arms to grab some leaves and cover its own nudity?"
"Yes," I said to myself. "It does."
I found a small road that went due East. I gambled it would eventually deliver me from evil. This it did.
The next few days were a lot easier, since I had only to follow the path alongside a canal from Noyon to Saint-Quentin. I'm not going as fast as I once was. I guess I lost some momentum when I stopped in Paris. But I'm getting there. I'm about three days from the Belgian border, so this should be my last envoy from France.
My time here ended well. I met a friendly lock-keeper named Le Guen, who showed me how canal locks work. (Somehow I'd never seen this before, despite growing up next to a town called Lockport.) I was impressed. The man himself, hard at work:
I commented on his shirt, pictured above. "Guiness is good for you!" he said, switching to English to say the slogan. True to form, we repaired to his house next to the lock and drank a pint each of the black stuff.
Le Guen told me I should seek out the Cafe Français when I got to Saint-Quentin, and that's where I am now. Arrived last night and the owner, Jean-Pierre gave me a free place to stay upstairs. He's up there now making a seafood lunch for us.
If not for him, I'd be drying out my tent right now after getting rained on all night. And if not for my new Fellow Travelers Nicole Miller, Thomas Marlow, and John Conway, I'd be short my walking-around money this week. Thanks much to all of them.
Should I read anything into this graffito that I saw yesterday?
I hope not.
Lunch is on. Until Belgium.
Subject: Asked and answered.
What do we know of Belgium? It is North of France, yes, and rumored to be the capital of the European Union. Beyond this, even modern science tells us nothing of this strange country. For our mutual edification, I've crossed the border and composed this brief baedeker based on my findings.
1. So what's with the statue of the naked kid?
That is Manneken-Pis. He is the symbol of Brussels. My host and guide Anne Robertz told me the story of Manneken-Pis as we walked around the city. Once upon a time, she told me, some ambitious Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Brussels. He got so far as setting fire to what must have been a cartoonishly-long wick, when a little boy saw it. The boy extinguished the fire with the only water he had. For this he is justifiably immortalized in bronze.
It must be the most-visited spot in the city. From the traffic I saw standing by Manneken-Pis for twenty minutes, I can tell you that Japanese Tourist behavior has spread far beyond Japan's shores. People flock and remark on little M-P in every language imaginable, and then snap photos of themselves standing by him.
I imagine these people returning home with these photographs, showing their friends and family. "You see that statue-kid taking a leak?" they'd say, "I was there."
2. They speak French in Belgium, right?
Yes and no. The lower half of the country speaks French, and the upper half speaks Flemish. (I'm told this is as closely related to Dutch as American English is to the Queen's variety.) There's also a small part, annexed after the First World War, where they speak German.
This linguistic schizophrenia can be confusing. The big towns have two names each, and signs are only bilinguial in the capitol. So if you're walking across Belgium, remember that Antwerp is also called Anvers, Leuven is also Louvain, and Mons is also Bergen.
I suppose English cuts this Gordian knot, and when I first arrived in Brussels I went to an acoustic rock gig at a bar where all the songs and proceedings were done in that language. I spent a great night there with my new friends Anne, Esther, and Thomas, the last of whom performed his excellent downbeat folk songs at the show. Esther and Thomas missed their train back to Ghent, so the four of us laughed through the rain back to Anne's place where we crammed into her prison-cell-sized apartment to sleep.
The result is that my French, which I'd sharpened for the last fifty-some days, must now go back in the drawer with the rest of my rusted cutlery. English will suffice for Holland and Germany, so I shouldn't need to gesticulate too wildly until Poland.
3. What typifies these people of Belgium, these "Belgians", if you will?
I'd asked the same question of Jean-Pierre of Saint-Quentin (mentioned in my last entry). He stared off and told me, in his voice that he seems to have borrowed from Tom Waits, "In Belgium, they eat lots of fries. Lots of snacks."
This was oversimplying. The Belgians don't just eat fries and snacks. They also drink beer.
Lots of beers, beers flavored with peach or cherry, beers double or triple the strength of other beers, beers brewed specially by trappist monks. In Nivelles I met an American girl called Becka, who's here for a semester abroad. She couldn't tell me too much about the local geography, but she did tell me a lot about the beer. She handed me a small brown notebook. "This is my beer journal," she said.
I flipped through it. It was an exhaustive diary of the beers she'd consumed and her capsule reviews thereof, with such observations as "a bit cloudy, somewhat metallic-tasting" and "quite bitter -- but when you're getting 12%, who cares?"
I've had an opportunity to try a few myself, not because I'm spending my limited budget on booze, but because the people here have been giving me free drinks whenever I tell them I walked from Madrid. The Belgians, we may conclude, are a welcoming lot.
5. How is the night life in Brussels?
I trust the reader can answer the question on his or her own after contemplating the following image, taken tonight at the city's annual Jazz Marathon:
It was a pleasant week of straight forest walks and farm roads up to here. Back in France, I met with a good run of hospitality. Gregory of Bohain took me into his home, but expressed reservations about me as the night wore on.
"You won't steal our television set when we're sleeping, will you? Promise?" Later, as I got ready to sleep on the couch, he told me I should instead take a spare bed in the same room where his grade-school-aged daughters slept. This struck me as a peculiar arrangement of the man's priorities. I thanked him and took the couch anyway.
The next day I met Delphine, Andée, and Marios, pictured below. I stopped at their house to ask for a drink of water and ended up taking coffee and biscuits and even some generous and unsolicited donations to my fund, offered right out of their wallets.
This family had what they claimed was "the oldest cat in the world". By the looks of it, I'm inclined to believe them. Twenty-one years old, they told me. It was as thin and frail as my own dear Kitty, who died just before she turned nineteen. After I had pet the cat, Delphine told me "You should wash your hands. She is smelling now."
Perhaps the greatest luxury this trip has so far afforded me is the time to think. I have a lot of that out here, you know. I now know what Herzog meant when he said he "walks through whole novels and films" when he travels on foot. Ideas for screenplays and documentaries I'd left half-baked before are now turning a golden-brown, and images and scenes suggest themselves to me without effort. There is something about the combination of stimuli and solitude that makes walking so inducive to these thoughts.
Whatever happens with More Shoes, this walk will have given me ideas for more films than I could make in five or ten years.
My thanks to new Fellow Travelers Marjorie Olsho and Benjamin Olsho. They're both related to Ken Olsho, a Fellow Traveler I've never met who periodically sends me haiku he's written inspired by my journey. My favorite so far was based on my time in Paris:
alive with Shakespeare
I leave you with this image, an everflowing fountain of chocolate that leaves passersby aghast:
When I next write, I should have already crossed another border into Holland.
Subject: Vloerbedekking again.
Even as I travel on foot, there are those who try and talk me out of it. When I ask the locals for directions to nearby places I'm often told, "It's too far to walk. Take a bus."
One woman, after I asked how I could best walk to a town some 15 kilometers away, gasped as loudly and dramatically as the heroine of a melodrama would gasp when she sees the hero's been shot.
Drivers sometimes stop their cars, roll down their windows and ask where they can take me. I often feel rude to refuse.
But refuse I must, because I'm convinced I'll miss something if I go any faster than my own feet can carry me. A dance-hall full of retirees in the middle of the day, the skeleton of an umbrella that resembles a modern-art mobile, a spider spinning his web in the corner of a cross in a military cemetery, a baby sticking its hand out of the mail slot of an apartment on the sidewalk. Just one of these moments or images can make the day for me.
And this week, in the Belgian village of Putte, I found myself somewhere I certainly would have missed had I been taking buses and trains. It's called Kamp 1944, and the first sign I saw of it was a real-life U.S. battle-tank set up by the roadside. I immediately took my camera out, switched it on and moved toward it.
Kamp 1944 is an attempt to recreate a United States Army camp that would have been used in the Second World War. About thirty collectors and enthusiasts from Putte put it together for a few weeks every four years. They all dress in Army regalia and assume ranks, too, like "Chaplain" and "Private First-Class".
It was the camp's Quartermaster, Alain, who gave me the tour. Dozens of authentic jeeps and tanks, hundreds of demilitarized original guns and bombs, and mannequins decked out in real gear made to assume war-time poses. Mannequins holding rifles in guard towers, mannequins ducked down in foxholes, a lady-mannequin washing the soldier's laundry, a mannequin in a hospital bed with both of his mannequin feet lying amputated and bloody in a bowl nearby, and even a replica Nazi airplane crashed down into the pond with a dead Nazi mannequin floating next to it.
"When the children come to see this," Alain told me, "they are only interested in the weapons. Bang bang, boom boom, showtime. It is a little bit shame. But we try to keep the memory alive."
We came to another display. Inside a tent, a mannequin dressed in concentration-camp garb, with a yellow star sewn on to his shirt to indicate he's a Jew.
"I do not explain to the little children what happens to this man," said Alain. "If I do, the children do not sleep this night."
The tour was a little surreal, and I ended up staying in the camp until dark, taking dinner in the "mess hall". The Officers told me I could plant my own tent on the property. "Put your tent in the little forest back there," said P.F.C. Robin, "That is where we made the battle of the Ardennes last time. We didn't make it this time so there's room for you."
Robin helped me put up my tent. "Your tent is exactly the colors of the Belgian flag", he told me. I'd never noticed it, but he was right. Compare:
I hoped nobody would see me with the tent laid out on the ground like this. Degrading the flag would probably have gotten me dishonorably discharged, and I would have had to walk on in the dark.
I'm in Holland now. A gang of rainclouds tailed me all the way from Belgium, hiding any evidence of the sun and hitting me and other innocent bystanders with all the soaking wet ammunition it had.
But small matter, because I've now got the consolation of something Holland is famous for. (No, not that. And not that, either.) I mean, of course, bicycle paths. They're everywhere. They're fast and safe to walk on. Thank you, Holland.
You know, I talk to everyone, and so I feel I've met a wide-enough cross-section of the population here to say that racism is very widespread in Europe. Sure, there's racism everywhere. But the way in which people bring it up in polite conversation with me, a stranger, still catches me off guard. Every problem in Europe, they say, is caused by immigrants. The Moroccans ruined this, the Turks that, the Romanians the other.
"You live here one year and you'll see", one young guy told me in a bar last night. "It's the Moroccans. They stab you. Watch them. They come up in cars with twenty people in them. They get out, you look at them and you say one word. For example, you say 'Sunshine'. And they'll stab you. Okay, maybe you can fight off one or two, but what about the other eighteen?!"
I don't debate. I'm not here to figure out Europe's problems. I'm just here to watch and listen.
On a personal note, my sister Fallon got married yesterday. Yes, and I wasn't there for it. I had considered flying back for a day or two, but something about that didn't feel right. (Prior to my trip, my friend Lyle put it best: "It'd be like running 13 miles of a marathon, stopping to take a taxi back to your apartment to eat and have a nap, then taking the taxi back to finish the marathon.")
I'm told it was a beautiful ceremony. My congratulations to her and to her husband, Erik.
It's not the first thing I've missed while out here. Last week, my sweetheart Gwendolyn graduated college and got her nursing pin. I would have loved to have been there for that, too.
And I'd be lying if I told you that I never wondered, while drifting off to sleep, whether my trip was worth these sacrifices.
Too, this is the first week since I started the site that I received no new Fellow Traveler donations. So I'll use the opportunity to make a Poppy Appeal to popular kindness. If you've been reading the site and considering a donation, now would be an excellent time to do it. My offer is the same as ever: if you donate $20, I will put your name in the credits of my film and send you a handwritten postcard.
It is only by the graces of my current Fellow Travelers that I've been able to make it this far, almost the halfway point of my journey. And it is only with more help from generous friends and strangers that I will be able to finish without begging, borrowing, stealing, or worse offenses, such as using high-interest credit cards.
I'll close with this anecdote. Yesterday I came to Eindhoven and stopped in a cafe to ask directions. I noticed a lengthy Frank Zappa quotation painted on the walls:
Information is not knowledge
So I fell into conversation with the owner about it. "Frank Zappa is the only musician in my entire life," he said. "I love all his albums equally." Zappa is my favorite recording artist as well, and this I told him, thinking I'd found a friend. We talked a bit more and I thought I'd stop there and have a coffee. The man's mood instantly changed.
"I can't have that big sack in my shop," he said, pointing to my backpack. I told him I intended to put it on the ground of the by-no-means crowded cafe. "No," he said. "You must leave it outside." Stunnned by this bit of rudeness, I left without further word.
It depends how far North I go before I fade East, but my next post should probably be from Germany. The World Cup begins there next month, and so all the world will be converging there for the games. This cannot be a bad thing for my film.
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Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
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writing, photographs and video all rights reserved, etc. etc.
Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
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writing, photographs and video
all rights reserved, etc. etc.