Belga

I go to Belgium, for a week, on a travel junket for food writers. In the breakfast rooms of their hotels I read the news online from my computer, which is all about how Michelle Obama hugged the Queen, and then how the Queen permitted it. Then what she wore, what Carla Bruni wore, who ‘won’. Few news sources seem able to parse the G20 discussions. Photos are scrutinized relentlessly and there’s so much red in the headlines on Huffpo it seems like everything is a catastrophe. It makes his G20 appearance read like it’s another Katrina.

I keep thinking of a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss, who, it turns out, was born in Brussels. The quote from his Tristes Tropiques, his comment about how a culture’s dreams of its future are shown in the decorations of its women.

Palin’s wardrobe, Michelle Obama’s, Carla Bruni, Hillary Clinton— every outfit is treated like it’s an oracle.

I feel tired of the idea that this is the news from the country where I’m from—embarassed, like I’m on a porn site in public, instead of a news one. I’m tired of how much of the news is from people saying that the Obamas did this or that “wrong”, which reads to me only like people who don’t realize Bush still isn’t in power. I’m tired of being angry. I think of what my agent said to me last year, when I was freaking out about the election.

“You know who you’re going to vote for, right?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“So, stop reading the news.”

At several points on the trip, I check in from the hotel I’m in and the news aggregating sites I use just look like ways to turn newspapers into a fight club, with commenters leaving crazy angry comments for pages, and in the process, generating page views for the aggregator site’s ad rates. It’s as if you subscribed to a magazine that included a mask you could put on and fight your neighbor with, over what the content means. Anonymously.

And when I get home, and pull my print magazines from my mailbox, I remember this. I imagine my professor neighbor waiting to leap out at me, his face covered in a Mexican wrestler mask.

After reading the online news for a few days, I take to reading the Financial Times. I have come to like print again, to like reading something I can’t click through and that when I’m done, I fold it and recycle it, or use it to line a box I’m shipping. Also, though it is terrifying to read Business news even when it’s not a crisis—for how they talk about people and life—you know more about the world if you read it.

The many trips I’ve managed to make this year to Europe start to make the last year seem like some kind of oscillation, like I’m not traveling as much as having a year split between here and there. I look at it on the screen of my computer, rendered into flat pages of its current events, and can’t believe I have to go back and live there, where it seems like everyone would just be shouting all the time.

I love Belgium, it turns out. I had no idea what it was, going into it. It’s another of these European countries that were carved out of different ethnic territories that had little relation to the national boundaries put up around them, and so there’s a modern dissonance between self, place and ethnicity. Ethnicity is personal, nationality is taxes, self is self. And with the arrival of the Moroccans, the Flemish seem distracted from their grudge against the Walloons.

In a strange way, it feels like me.

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3 thoughts on “Belga

  1. Jane Kokernak says:

    I am so glad that you made this observation about the press coverage of Michelle Obama, Carla Bruni, and Hillary Clinton’s clothes and tied it to the Levi-Strauss quote. (Even the New Yorker published a short, admiring piece on the “meaning” of Michelle Obama’s arms!) I’ve tried to say, in the company of intelligent people, that I am tired of the celebritizing of the Obamas — to me, we should be observing the seriousness of their qualities, ethos, etc. This, apparently, makes me “no fun.”

    Thank you for noticing this, for saying something.

  2. Lenore says:

    At a certain point in October, I think I followed your agent’s advice. Being in Europe made me feel extra powerless to change things, for some reason. My compulsive nytimes.com tics started to wane.

  3. angelle says:

    whoa. so my feeder stopped feeding me your posts. i was wondering what happened.

    news is terrible yet fascinating. it’s impossible at times not to be sucked in, despite the knowledge that the media is never “objective” the way good journalism is “supposed to be”. it’s hard to stop.

    when i’m abroad i realize how much better cnn international is than the cnn we get at home. i come home and wish somehow they would offer it as a special separate channel. you know, just one little offering since they’re already offering us 5 different types of mtvs and 4 spin-offs of discovery.

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