Jenny Watson
DOOR Frederik Willem Daem
01-12-2015

After two months of wandering I realise that I’d do well to decide once and for all that I can only have one home. A place where I can be myself without having to talk about myself. Previous destinations in which I’ve sought refuge in the past few weeks: Den Haag, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Leuven, Antwerp…

A list that will keep on growing and whose nominees only have provisionality in common. The city as a transit zone, which if it carries me anywhere else certainly won’t lead me home.

For a long time I believed – at the moment I no longer know what I believe – that a person could also be a home. That everything surrounding that person was excess baggage and that the presence of that person was enough to turn any surroundings into a home. The concept of “home” could also be reduced to something material, like in a beer advert I remember from my youth, in which someone declares that wherever he lays his Stella is his home. More often than not, the protagonists in those adverts are male: testament to this is the slogan of another beer brand, which puts its faith in the words “men know why”. Even though I’m pretty knowledgable when it comes to beer, and I reckon I do know why as well, I’m glad that I’ve decided that my home from now on will just be a location.

More specifically the city in which I was born, grew up and thereafter spent a quarter of a century. The same city upon which I turned my back when I was still utterly convinced that a home need not consist of anything other than an individual. Now that I can no longer/am no longer allowed to call that person home, she calls to me again. The sirensong of her sirens, a terror threat of the uppermost level.

At home at the moment it’s difficult to tell the difference between protection and occupation and one of my fellow countrymen once wrote a poetry collection about the latter, with experimental typographical features. Recently I received the reproach that I should be less cryptic in my references when its already clear who or what I mean. So in this case, just for her: the poet’s name is Paul van Ostaijen, the city in question Brussels.

Home is everything in and around a pentagonal square where businesses of all types are being told to close their doors. Life can’t help but pass by more slowly; it’s going to grind to a halt whether we want it to or not. In the streets men walk shrouded in camoflage gear, which defeats its purpose by standing out against concrete, adverts and everydayness. Over their shoulders they carry weapons that are longer than a child’s arm and they drive around in trucks with anti-aircraft guns. The birds keep to their nests where it’s safer.

Meanwhile I’m two thousand kilometres further south in a city where I flick by accident onto a Belgian politician subtitled in Portuguese. And their news report about her. I can’t understand most of it so I change the channel and the inactivity no longer goes hand in hand with the same sense of guilt. Even in tragedy there’s something like acclimatisation, pain that becomes part of the daily routine.

So often everything is easier said than done.

-FWD

Alle vertalingen van Jenny Watson
01-12-15

After two months of wandering I realise that I’d do well to decide once and for all that I can only have one home. A place where I can be myself without having to talk about myself. Previous destinations in which I’ve sought refuge in the past few weeks: Den Haag, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Leuven, Antwerp…

A list that will keep on growing and whose nominees only have provisionality in common. The city as a transit zone, which if it carries me anywhere else certainly won’t lead me home.

For a long time I believed – at the moment I no longer know what I believe – that a person could also be a home. That everything surrounding that person was excess baggage and that the presence of that person was enough to turn any surroundings into a home. The concept of “home” could also be reduced to something material, like in a beer advert I remember from my youth, in which someone declares that wherever he lays his Stella is his home. More often than not, the protagonists in those adverts are male: testament to this is the slogan of another beer brand, which puts its faith in the words “men know why”. Even though I’m pretty knowledgable when it comes to beer, and I reckon I do know why as well, I’m glad that I’ve decided that my home from now on will just be a location.

More specifically the city in which I was born, grew up and thereafter spent a quarter of a century. The same city upon which I turned my back when I was still utterly convinced that a home need not consist of anything other than an individual. Now that I can no longer/am no longer allowed to call that person home, she calls to me again. The sirensong of her sirens, a terror threat of the uppermost level.

At home at the moment it’s difficult to tell the difference between protection and occupation and one of my fellow countrymen once wrote a poetry collection about the latter, with experimental typographical features. Recently I received the reproach that I should be less cryptic in my references when its already clear who or what I mean. So in this case, just for her: the poet’s name is Paul van Ostaijen, the city in question Brussels.

Home is everything in and around a pentagonal square where businesses of all types are being told to close their doors. Life can’t help but pass by more slowly; it’s going to grind to a halt whether we want it to or not. In the streets men walk shrouded in camoflage gear, which defeats its purpose by standing out against concrete, adverts and everydayness. Over their shoulders they carry weapons that are longer than a child’s arm and they drive around in trucks with anti-aircraft guns. The birds keep to their nests where it’s safer.

Meanwhile I’m two thousand kilometres further south in a city where I flick by accident onto a Belgian politician subtitled in Portuguese. And their news report about her. I can’t understand most of it so I change the channel and the inactivity no longer goes hand in hand with the same sense of guilt. Even in tragedy there’s something like acclimatisation, pain that becomes part of the daily routine.

So often everything is easier said than done.

-FWD

16-11-15

The beach is an hour’s walk and I decide to go there because I hate the beach, will never reach my destination precisely because I hate the beach.
A shopping arcade along my route is closed off for the arrival of the saint best known here and at home as De Sint. It’s raining and blowing a gale as it has been for the last few days without interruption but that doesn’t reduce the fervour. Children wait with parents under umbrellas and watch badly decorated floats trundle past. The shrill songs of a Piet band boom from loudspeakers. They go “it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s all going to be good” and we believe them. The procession trails on with the tempo of a gastropod and stretches back beyond the shopping street, which is easily half a kilometre long. I see no sign of Sint. I do see little donkeys with baskets, surreptitious adverts, mandarins, smart phones, white people with black-painted faces that are supposed to suggest soot. The Zwarte Piets are dressed up as firemen even though they aren’t putting out any fires and there’s no siren in the little train. One lone Zwarte Piet manoeuvres himself through the crowds on a Segway. There are children for whom the world still holds wonder; there are people today who look through the eyes of those children. Have I mentioned it was raining?
I’ve been here four days now. Sometimes it feels like longer, sometimes shorter. My clothes are scattered over a red armchair. There’s a desk which is separated from a shower by means of a window and provokes fantasies. In the meantime I’ve started to call this city home, even while I still can’t imagine that. Den Haag a name I only know from news reports on the radio. A location in a by-line and a place where problems of global importance are supposed to be solved. I can imagine that last thing as easily as I could the blockade in the Waasland Tunnel in the news report. But hey, I do know the route from the hotel to the theatre with my eyes closed; find Schlemmer – where we celebrate good outcomes and David Vann dances on what appears to be amphetamines – between the two. Vann nods at me and for some people this recognition of their existence is enviable, the child kissed by Sint. In this illusion created by an organisation, with the help of prizes and subsidies, literature has allure and an invisible hierarchy comes into being where spotlights make people into heroes. For the duration of this state of exception I am recognisable to them.
It is still raining oppressive hopelessness when a vacuum grants breathing space to the appearance of a transplanted writer. He has the flair of a British pop singer with an entourage of teenaged-girl’s hearts, an appropriate dapperness but above all a familiar accent. Sometimes strangers need nothing more than an unaffected opening sentence in order to know what they will mean to each other. After claps on the shoulder, anecdotes, a shared employment counsellor, a Brussels suburb, current events, an invitation to come to Athens, the sentence: “it came to me in a dream.”
It’s the little things that give me the courage to do the same tomorrow as I did yesterday and carry on drudging frantically in this great, inconvenient whole. Slaves to experience, we walk bent under the weight of our past. The end…
Cleaners replace bed linen and empty plastic rubbish bins. Doors close behind backs with a click and the unreal ambition that they might one day by opened again by the same person. In the lobby people fib to each other: we’ll keep in touch, I’ll e-mail you, it was a pleasure, good luck. But just as in literature the stories are meant and believed. I’m not looking for anything more.

14-11-15

Even more meandering in two parts.

(1) In times of tragedy people find their back to one another, lick each others’ wounds and forgive previous transgressions. That’s how it was with my father and, in light of a less than spotless recent past, how I hope it could one day be with me…

I decided yesterday afternoon (13/11) to open my piece with this. It was an opening that stemmed from my brother’s report that “they” had broken into my mother’s house. The house I grew up in and where my youngest brother had been woken that night by the dog the intruders were trying to shut up in the downstairs toilet. His words: it was a gang of gypsies that’s been roaming around, good job I was ill and home to chase them off.” Along with any feeling of safety and security, they also made off with some jewellery. I dared to call that tragic. A bitter thought.
Because meanwhile a city is on fire, or so the newspapers say. They’re talking about a massacre. About how our world will never be the same again. Opinion makers are using what’s happened to spread solidarity or sow disunity. People write declarations of support, Parisian friends let it be known that they are safe, walls go up. One person tweets, addressing the people who blame the “refugees” for the attack, says: “do you not see that the perpetrators are the very people the refugees are running from?” Everything gets favourited. In the city of lights people come together to warm themselves on each other and the still-smouldering fire. The smoke takes on the shape of anger, concern, incomprehension, perseverence. We can’t go on, we will go on!

Fourteen hours earlier: it’s just after eleven and I’ve been stretched out for a little over an hour on a carpet covered floor. A British singer-songwriter, whose first and second names start with the same letter, has been singing a song about a solitary man whose kingdom is of this earth. It all sounds familiar and I decide that I’ve had enough of melancholy, that it’s been a good evening so far.
With a simple soul who said the words, “My first wife always called me pet, when I think of her my eyes get wet” and moved everyone in the room. With Keven Barry, who taught me that writing short stories is a lot like tightrope walking. Every sentence, a step on the rope. The least misstep makes the situation seem irretrievable for the writer, as well as for the reader. Me: Philippe Petit.
In the space between two theatres where things are loaded and unloaded, I smoke defiantly. Next to me an American about my age is pacing up and down. He’s just been onstage, doing what the internet calls indie folk. He’s worried about a band he’s friends with who have been taken hostage along with their audience in a concert hall with Chinese architecture. The perpetrators were wearing bomb vests and carrying Kalashnikovs. The number of dead is rising exponentially, doubles to reach three figures. I look around and see men and women, old and young and here is there, there is here. An attack on sport, on going out to eat, on having a chat, on art. On camradery and carefree escapism.
Just like the rest of us these people wanted to celebrate the end of the week, but many don’t even make it to the weekend. It’s set to be the bloodiest attack in ten years, I hear, and I feel stupid because I can’t even remember what happened back then. We all keep on drinking and there’s another poet on the stage, then a writer with an equal liking for Scorsese, Kerouac and Presley. After that I dance as if nothing is bothering me and try to tell the difference between friends, acquaintances and colleagues.
In a hotel room Drake is playing, and social media tells me that ten friends in Paris are unharmed. I’m yet to hear from two others.

13-11-15

“All my boys are fighters like Manilla, all my boys they want to make a million.”

It’s the first thing I’ve heard here that’s in my native language. Accompanied by a pretty uninspiring beat; you could just about dance to it. It’s emanating from a shop called Rox, which sells cheap women’s clothes I can only presume are fashionable. I don’t belong here but I stay standing in front of the window, in expectation of something that definitely isn’t coming; analyse the lyrics. Do I try to picture the way boys fight in the capital of the Philippines? Or is this a textbook example of the way people speak variations of the same language, the way meaning gets lost in translation, as the American poet once said of his own craft? Manilla in Southern Dutch –Flemish is apparently a pejorative… – becomes Mandela in Northern Dutch and makes the message of the song a touch more intelligible, even if no less strikingly trivial.

I’m lost.

On the steps of the hotel boys were drinking beer and passing joints around according to the outcome of word games. They’ve taken over the Spui, know where they need to go to feel at home. This is how man organises his life. By making choices and defending them with arguments that guarantee peace of mind. Creatures of habit. I eat Burger King and not Maccy D’s because…. Because I’m used to it. Back home in Brussels I hung out in Sint-Katelijne Square because …. Because once upon a time someone started to. And now I’ll never stop.
There, then, in a time that seems not so long ago as it most likely is, I had much the same hobbies as the boys behind the Mercure Hotel, in which from the square below I can see the light in my room shining, five up, second window from the left. If someone wanted to, they could make the argument that nothing much has changed and that most of my life still consists of killing time in the company of friends or alcohol. Still I know that I’m different from them now; I no longer enjoy that same freedom from care. I have decisions to make. What’s my aim? How can I quell sadness? Where will I set up my base of operations in Den Haag? What will become my Stanny, my Au Laboureur, my De Raaf? Where shall I make a last ditch attempt to build my nest?

There’s a Grote Markt here, just like in Brussels. They share the same features: cobbles, heated terraces, legends, heritage, draught beer, the list goes on. Here, on the square whose name sounds so familiar, I drop anchor in a pub called September, which meets with my approval because the Grolsch there tastes just as bad as the competition’s and the ninth month is the one in which I was born. This year I got nothing but junk for presents so I treat myself to an oyster since here they cost less than a pils. I buy a pils too to wash down the oyster and ask myself what people think when they see me sitting in the pub that meets with their approval, the others with their disapproval. Who is the man who keeps his hat on, who eavesdrops, who isn’t waiting for anyone and doesn’t seem to have anywhere to be? He radiates a peculiar reserve. “His choice”, they decide almost immediately. One that he defends with irrefutable arguments like “yes it is” and which, for sake of convenience, we just have to accept.

06-10-15

Everything is black and blue and it looks like this charming note has the potential to become a – none too substantial – suicide note. Something airy and romantic, about tracks left in flesh, a man and a horse, a desert and rattling, Tantalus or Sisyphus. In the past, this individual has asserted that he’s repeatedly ventured onto same topic. The examples of this are legion. They lie handwritten on a cupboard, have been published or lost to posterity. In happier times he’s sometimes joked: the finite nature of love, my old hobby horse. The only subject left to take up (or in this case cock up) at the moment – now that necessity has overcome decency. A creeping malady which has doctors stumped. Their fearful diagnosis: same old, same old.

One of them says: but every beginning of an end is necessarily a new beginning too, but this individual can only think of her friends – who are his as well after all. About the way they judge flightiness and the way he is doing his utmost to disregard everything, as if a horoscope had predicted it to them in advance. Not now, then tomorrow, next week for sure.

This individual finds comfort in the things which will are still there for him: a city which he reaches fast or slow depending on the train, a dialect he’s fluent in, friends who understand him, or say they do, but how can he ever be entirely convinced that they aren’t only saying so because they gain a sense of security from a logic that often contradicts itself.

When she calls, he sometimes lets the phone go on ringing needlessly only to then answer already-answered questions. How he’s doing, what’s going to become of them, where he is, where he’s been. This individual has never said so many I don’t knows and fears the children’s game with folded paper, hats on fingertips, a number and a colour that predict a future with a swimming pool, a child or a girl in the class who you’re going to marry because the fold dictates it be so.

She concludes that this individual has put everything into a balance only to weigh it according to two different scales. Are they not fighters? A strange breed that keeps flying the same ragged standard showing a patched-together heart… With only the unavoidable waiting on a new adversary. Meanwhile they warm tepid coffee up in microwaves, savour the aftertaste of a vague ambition for more.

An image pursues him of a pedal-o in the middle of a lake. A couple this individual knows well, even while he is totally removed from them. A canoer races past them and casts a shadow that creeps over the ridges that make a valley a valley. A sun – then there were still two.

One of them sparkles in a piece of jewellery that is being stroked by the finger in question. He plays a song that he will never be able to listen to again and six months later she informs him that she’s going to pawn the thing and he hopes that she’ll buy something pretty with the proceeds that will become dearer to her than he has ever been able to be.
This individual cannot go back.
On the front page of a newspaper, yet another scientific discovery to be investigated more thoroughly next to the coffee machine, between presentations. He is required once more to be among people, colleagues this time, and he gesticulates, laughs too loud without knowing it, is at first shy, then a chatterbox, if not a motor-mouth, and in the best case scenario comes across as genuine. This individual swears never to touch this topic again. Lies.