donderdag, oktober 07, 2004

Dinner parties

There are people you know whom you find uninteresting, but who for some reason seem to like you, and who ask you to go and do things with them. You try and brush them off, but, like a puppy with a stick, they are unrelenting, and at some point you cave and accept their invitation.

We all have this experience from time to time. It is like stepping in poo. Most of the time you manage to avoid it, but occasionally you can't help stepping in some. However, there's not a lot worth complaining about. It's happened before. It'll happen again, and it's only a temporary annoyance anyway. You wipe most of it off on the grass and then flick the remaining shitlets out from between the grips in your sneakers with a thin stick.

But here in Brussels, I seem to be stepping in shit all the time - and I'm not referring to the continental indifference towards picking up after pets (which is a very real phenomenon, and not merely the imaginings of your xenophobic uncle).

I have a small number of French-speaking friends, but, while my French is improving, when I speak the language, my personality disappears in the same way that it would if I were possessed or zombified. I am an Anglophone zombie. People speak to me politely for five to ten minutes, and then, because it's tiring and not especially interesting, they then excuse themselves and speak to someone who can use more than three tenses in the language - in exactly the same way that I was nice for five minutes to exchange students in high school but then went back to my friends, off to behind the portables to figure out how to smoke. I don't begrudge them their conversational exit. I know how boring I am in French.

However, Brussels, much like Amsterdam, is teeming with expats. Now, you may think that the sort of people who become expats will inherently be interesting people. But you would be wrong. They are the same Eurail fratboys that travelled around Europe or Southeast Asia in their early-to-mid twenties in order to get as drunk as they did back home, but with an exotic backdrop; they're just now slightly older. They all studied Finance or Commerce or Business, or whatever it was their particular university called that glorified-group-project-and-embarrassment-to-the-very-ideal-of-post -secondary-education that is learning how to become a middle manager. They may be English or American or German or Swedish, but they all speak decent international business English - that sarcasmless, slangless, soulless version of English that has no passport, but no poetry or pop cultural references either.

What this all means is that while most of the time I am stumbling through in French with locals, and genuinely enjoying it despite its frustrations, I keep meeting these young, corporate Anglo-ninnies and being invited out for beers or to dinner parties with them. Eventually I run out of excuses and end up at exactly the same dinner party I was a few weeks ago, with the same inane conversation in marketese and the same Chris de Fucking Burgh and Eurythmics (or, retch, The Rasmus) on the stereo.

I can almost sit back and, like a grade school theatre teacher in the wings with the marked-up script in hand, watch the conversation like an end-of-year recital, knowing exactly how the conversation set pieces will play out, which topics will follow on from earlier ones.

But I don't sit back. I am charming. Or rather, I do charming. I can do charming reasonably well. I don't mean to sound full of myself - far from it: I hate the whole act. But it's an act I've got down like a street performer. There's the facial elasticity, the bon mots, the self-deprecation, the amusing tales well-recycled, well-rehearsed, that, because I have moved around the world so much, I am in absolutely no danger of repeating to someone who has heard them before.

And, above all, there is the avoidance of any topic of substance, such as literature, independent music or film, and - most especially - politics.

There is no point in discussing music with these people for the most part because they will, from their eleventh birthday to now, have only ever listened to or enjoyed music that they do not have to seek out in order to hear. I'll not say that they only listen to top-forty, because it's not as simple as that, and I'm no snob: there are top-forty hits I appreciate. But for me, music is something you work at, something you investigate and explore. And I feel the same way about film and literature and, well, just about everything in life. The division is not some Berlin Wall between popular art and independent art - because the Beatles and Shakespeare were popular as well as being 'good', and there's also a lot of indie music that remains indie for a very good reason. However, these Commerce grads are as identical in their musical/film/fashion/literature/art tastes as their personalities are identical. And, by and large, they know nothing of what exists beyond the corporate culture they are spoon-fed. So there is no point in talking about any of these topics with them, because they will always say: "Who? I've never heard of them." And so you are reduced to a sort of lowest common denominator of conversation - what everybody has heard of. So we end up talking about Finding Nemo or something.

But then, at some point, someone will regale us all with some tale about how atrocious customer service is in the Benelux. So I will trot out my story about trying to buy gloves at an H&M in Amsterdam, which I've told a hundred times and is always a hit - but I know where this is going, because the round of customer service anecdotes always gives way to accounts of bureaucratic fubars. Always. You can see it a proverbial mile off.

And a story about a bureaucratic fubar will always, always lead to some ignorant folktale about a union.

So then Mr. Charming has to take his leave. Or rather, Mr. Charming will say 'Yeah, but you have to understand that...' I will try to keep up the Mr. Charming demeanour and jokiness, while still putting forward the basic righteousness of trade unionism. And then, because I will have demolished what was supposed to be an amusing little narrative that would have been followed by something between guffaws and polite snickering, thus ruining the tennis match of insipid anecdote followed by vacuous chestnut followed by fatuous parable, the Alpha Male at the table will counter my argument with the typical illogical, counterfactual defence of privilege they always do, but, because they are no longer attempting to take part in the antiseptic banter and adding to the general mood of sociability but instead attempting to re-establish the petit bourgeois ideological uniformity that existed just minutes before, the larking about is largely gone.

I then have no choice but to point out the inconsistencies in the fellow's position, in as whimsical fashion as I can, mind, and the smiles return.

But I have still said something that somehow they don't quite agree with, no matter how waggishly I have said it, and so, after cleaning up the wine that has come out of her nose from laughing at the same time as drinking, one of the women will then ask a question along the lines of: "So you think that…?"

And I say, yes, actually, and this is why.


I will joker it up a bit again, but it's clear by now that I am Not One Of Them. The rest of the evening will proceed cheerfully enough. Perhaps phone numbers and cards will even be exchanged. Other times there will be a bit of a ruckus - especially if a member of the Swedish haute bourgeoisie who attended a British boarding school and is now a metals trader and is named David is there (the particular occasion I refer to here was a result of our clashing perspectives on the shooting of three protestors in Gothenburg in 2001 by the Swedish police during the anti-EU/anti-Bush demos. He was for the pigs. I was not. There was not much room for mirthful compromise at that point, even for the sake of the dinner).

Anyway, I'm a little sick of the whole charade.

One of these days I will catch myself saying something along the lines of: 'If I am to be honest, actually, Elsa, ha, ha, you should know that I am a Marxist and I believe in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the state, violently if necessary. No, I'm not joking. And, quite frankly, I find your witless, meaningless, leaching, bourgeois lives to be boring beyond redemption, and, Come the Glorious Day, should I find the lot of you blindfolded and up against a wall, I will not plead with the presumably over-zealous young Jacobin holding you captive to show you mercy, but instead happily volunteer for the opportunity to put an end to these sorts of conversations forever.'