Tell Me of These Rustications, A Play In One Act

HelsinkiSkyline
In fair Helsinki, where we lay our scene.

Living in Europe has a lot of benefits, but one of the most under-rated has to be watching people from different cultures attempt to navigate each other. If you’ve never watched two Europeans have a contempt-off, you haven’t lived.

Presented here for your delectation is a scene  I was lucky enough to witness in person 1, while waiting in line at the Helsinki Tourist Office.

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Tell Me of These Rustications, A Play In One Act

(Scene: The Helsinki Tourist Office in late afternoon. THE WOMAN approaches the counter. She is wearing a purple and black Lycra biking unitard and speaks with a French accent so thick it may be termed “Fraunch.”  She is sweaty and her short, curly bleach-blonde hair clings to her face. She is perhaps 40 years old, but sunscreen has never touched her body, not even once, and so she looks like an old satchel that’s been left in the rain.

She is met at the counter by THE MAN. THE MAN is in his mid-50s and has short gray hair and modest pair of man-boobs. He is wearing a red polo shirt that is one size too small for him. His accent is Finnish and lilting. He stands with  his hands in front of him, palms down. His hands bob up and down as he speaks, but his wrists never move above his nipples or below his waist, as though he is playing an invisible pipe organ or attempting to high-five a ghost octopus. 

WOMAN: (Not asking a question.) A room for 5 persons.

MAN: And what hotel have you booked?

WOMAN: (With great indignation.) There is no booking. Please. I am tired!

MAN: And you would like to be making a booking now?

WOMAN: 5 persons. And 5 bikes.

MAN: Well, it is Finland-Sweden games this weekend. It is very exciting.

WOMAN: What?

MAN: Oh, yes! It is like Olympics! But just for us! And Sweden!

WOMAN: Rooms?

MAN: Oh there are no rooms. You see, because it is games.

WOMAN: Nowhere? Could you look for me?

MAN: Well, perhaps there are rooms in Jrjfljjkjlj 2, but not here.

WOMAN: And where is that?

MAN: Perhaps 50 kilometers south.

(At this, another man, LITTLE BUDDY, pops out from an office behind the counter, as if summoned by the mention of Jrjfljjkjlj. He is young, bearded and slight of frame. He is wearing a horizontally striped shirt and vertically striped trousers.)

LITTLE BUDDY: No, it is 60 kilometers east.

THE MAN: (Shrugs.) South-east. 55 kilometers.

WOMAN: But I am so tired! (She leans forward across the counter to show how tired she is.)

MAN: (Smiling.) Yes, but games. No rooms.

LITTLE BUDDY: What about the rustications?

WOMAN: (Looking up, with an edge of desperation.) Tell me of these rustications.

MAN: (To himself.) They are quite rustical.

LITTLE BUDDY: You have tents, yes? Tents go with bikes.

WOMAN: No tents. The rustications is outside?

LITTLE BUDDY: Yes, outside. Perhaps someone can rent something.

MAN: (As if making an innuendo) Or… to share?

WOMAN: (With great suspicion.) How far to these rustications?

LITTLE BUDDY: (Shrugs.) Perhaps 30 kilometers.

WOMAN: But I am tired!

LITTLE BUDDY: (Coming around the corner.) There is a bus. I will show you.

WOMAN: But bikes!

LITTLE BUDDY: Yes, bus for bikes too.

WOMAN: Five persons!

MAN: (Philosophically.) It is a big bus. And a big forest.

(LITTLE BUDDY puts his arm up around THE WOMAN’s shoulders, and manages to shepherd her around to the back office without actually touching her.)

JESSE: (clapping wildly) ENCORE!

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If you’re a reality TV producer and you want to make a metric ton of cash with minimal effort, European travel offices are the place to be. I’d never watch a show about hillbillies who raise toddler beauty queens to repossess pawnshop storage lockers from ducks3  but I could watch Europeans make nonsensical passive-aggressive asides to each other all day long.

 

  1. I’m not making this up, except for my line at the end. I didn’t actually say anything. I just stood there with my mouth open, trying desperately to remember why I’d even come in there.
  2. I can’t remember the name of the town he mentioned, but it had like 6 Js and no vowels in it.
  3. Or whatever TLC is about these days.

In Budapest, where the art waits to meet you

When people say that a piece of art is “accessible,” they’re usually saying it’s easy to understand1. But a lot of art is inaccessible in a much more fundamental way: either locked up behind museum doors or put up on a high pedestal, far from the grubby hands of the masses.

Of course, the public is rarely cut off from art entirely. Street art is democratic and accessible, but it can be ethically problematic 2. And then there’s public art, the murals and statues local governments install to make their towns less drab and depressing. Most public art is only public in the loosest sense of the word — and much of it is terrible3. Does a third-rate bronze statue on a high column really make a city a nicer place to live?

Budapest is the exception. It’s filled with compelling bronzes placed at eye level. You can walk right up and touch them or sit down beside them. But their accessibility is about more than just a lack of barriers. Many of the statues have a wonderfully familiar quality. They draw you in, as if the bronze itself is giving you permission to come and say hello. You want to sit down with them, as if they’ve been waiting there for you this entire time.

Here’s a gallery of some of the statues Blair and I saw there — but the city actually has many, many more that I either didn’t see on my trip or didn’t have a chance to photograph. Many cities have an approachable bronze or two, but I’ve never been to a place that embraced the concept like Budapest. These statues do more than break up the monotony of concrete buildings. They make the place feel alive with characters.

  1. Whatever that means.
  2. I’ll get around to writing about street art at some point, I swear.
  3. European public art is no better or worse than American public art when you look at it as a hits-to-misses ratio. But when European public art fails, it can nosedive into a hellscape of unimaginable kitsch. When American public art fails, it’s merely banal and unremarkable. I’m not sure which is really worse.

Beware Britons bearing burritos

Another failed burrito quest.  At least the portions were generous.
Another failed burrito quest. At least the portions were generous.

London is best food city in Europe.

Which isn’t to say that British food is the best. It’s not 1. But that’s the point. Paris has wonderful French food, but little else. Rome has great pasta, but heaven help you if you want pierogi. Meanwhile, London is filled with people from all over the world, with all their culinary greatest hits in tow. And London is so far culturally removed from the rest of the country 2 that traditional British food becomes just one note among many. London is a city without a cuisine and so it is a city of all cuisines. No matter what you crave, London can satisfy your appetite — unless you want burritos.

After two years of searching, I’m ready to call it. There is no great Mexican or Tex-Mex food in London. I’ve checked high-end restaurants and street-food vendors and everything in between. I’ve been in the ballpark a couple of times, but those near-misses just remind me what I’m missing. I’ve reconciled myself to a burrito-less lifestyle 3 for the time being. But that hasn’t stopped me from wanting to understand the problem.

At first, I thought it was an issue with specific ingredients.

  • Back home, Tex-Mex places always use long grain rice, which stays fluffy and separate. Here, they use a medium grain rice that’s much heavier, less aromatic and turns to paste if it isn’t handled right 4.
  • Salsa in the U.K. is sweet instead of spicy and acidic. Back home,  it adds heat and balance to a dish. Here, it’s just chunky ketchup.
  • Their spice blends are milder.
  • They try to pass crème fraîche off as sour cream.
  • Corn tortillas are always way too thick 5

But those are just nitpicks right? They should be easy to fix. And we live in an age of global supply chains. How hard is it to get the right kind of rice?

how to mexSo maybe the issue isn’t about product. Maybe it’s about talent. Maybe it’s unfair to expect talented chefs from Mexico or the Southwestern U.S. to move all the way to the U.K. to ply their trade. There is an ocean in the way, after all.

I was really happy with that theory until I went to Sweden. The tacos at La Neta in Stockholm are legit — and the people making the food are a long way from home. Since then I’ve had good (and sometimes even great) Mexican food in Hungary, France and Lithuania. Those places are all farther afield than London. So it’s not just that no one can be bothered to make the trip.

This isn’t a problem of produce or immigration. It’s about education. As much as I hate to admit it, most of the things that bug me about Mexican food in this country are probably intentional. Mexican food is unfamiliar and a little intimidating. Many Mexican restaurants still hand out little brochures explaining what all this crazy North American fare is and just how you’re supposed to go about eating it. Even Doritos are marketed as an exotic treat.

mexeduThere’s a popular chain of burrito places here that proudly proclaims their food comes “from Mexico via San Francisco to the U.K.” It’s like a game of telephone. Mexican flavors must be dialled down and brought into line with local expectations, just to get people to give it try.

I choose to take heart in this. Maybe with time and a little exposure, better Mexican food will be able to find a foothold here.  And if not, I can take comfort in the fact that I’ll be back in the U.S. in a year, and all of this will be like some kind of nacho-less nightmare.

  1. Though I maintain that British food is much, much better than most people give it credit for.
  2. Think about the relationship between New York City and the rest of the U.S. and then exaggerate it a bit for good measure.
  3. Actually, that’s not true. I still give it a go every once in a while, because I’m a glutton for punish. And burritos.
  4. It is never handled right.
  5. I realize that this list makes me sound like a food snob. I promise I’m not. I can appreciate low-brow Tex-Mex. Heck, I even crave Taco Bell sometimes. I don’t care if a dish is authentic, as long as it’s tasty — and British burritos just aren’t.

Tintern Abbey

And when we say that we know what we mean — set it down in stone and walk away — the story does not end.

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Tear the roof off and it reappears, wider now, enclosing the arc of grass and rock and river. Burn the books and the words leak out, silence men and they never stop echoing. Words not for speakers, prayers not for answers, echoes not for hearing — but for moss and wind and stone and sky.

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Here is the outside come in. Here is the window that is the world, the silence that echoes, the fire that has no flame.

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Shouldn’t be hot to the touch, then? If energy has a present and a future — why not a past? A memory. A song. A story. A secret. Shouldn’t it be boiling here? How can you stand it? The veins of the place, stretching out like lines of magma into the heart of the earth and rising up again through your fingertips and into the air.

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Trace a finger along the arc of stone and shiver. The spark of like-meets-like along a conduit. The shock of being recognized in a crowd. The sound of your own name.

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Is it conceivable, then? That there was a time that is not this place? Or a place when you did know what you are? That even you forgot you — before you were remembered?

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Kneel here. It is stranger than it looks, the thing we sing to, less unknown than unknowable. That it grows stronger in the silence, louder in the stillness, closer in the banishing. Argue and it waits. Turn and it finds. Fall and it catches.

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All of that and none, none of that and then some. And who are you? And why did you come here? And now that you’ve come , what measure of you can leave? No stone is forever, anymore than violets, but nothing said is unsaid and the name rolls forth forever.

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