The question of what makes something European is as challenging as it has ever been – and the notion of who is a European often delightedly so, as we bootstrap up in this age to a greater sense of shared existence. There are migrants of all types across, into and from Europe, expatriates and guest workers, refugees, children of mixed heritage, and members of every stripe, both those who stayed and those who left, are rediscovering lost ethnic, religious and national roots, or discovering new ones; the many millions of exceptional lives which make up today’s Europe certainly challenge traditional ideas of Europeanness.
Author Philip Kobylarz knows some contours of this conversation. He’s a second generation American of Prussian decent – his parents spoke German, Polish, Swedish, and Russian at home. He has lived in Marseilles, finally in the hamlet of Les Goudes, France; his writings speak of a mind let loose back in Europe, searching for itself, gauging difference – and peizing what beauty it finds.
Recent work of his appears or will appear in Connecticut Review, Basalt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, and Poetry Salzburg Review, and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco. His collection of fiction, Now Leaving Nowheresville, has also been recently published, and his book-length essay Nearest Istanbul is forthcoming. He currently resides in the East Bay of San Francisco.
In this month’s Trafika Europe Corner, we present two sketches by Philip Kobylarz, one portrait and one more landscape-oriented – “Lost and Found” and “Rooms Never without Views” – snapshots of a place at once both near and far away.
LOST AND FOUND
There is a house, what I consider to be a “house” but what is really a premier étage– a large apartment that is located above shops that line the street. There is nothing above this type of dwelling, no third or further floors. The door is on the street which opens to a hallway with a long winding stairway leading to the loft like multi-roomed residence.
In one of the rooms (a total of nine) there is a door behind the door. This door has not been opened for thirty years. The room itself is a monumental coffer, a reliquary, what the family refers to as a fouillis (a mess). It exists in a similar form in probably thousands, tens of thousands of incarnations, just outside the realm of history.
In America, one might have an attic, a cubbyhole, but in France an entire, once livable room is preserved for the past’s relics because days gone by deserve their own private enclave. A chest of priest’s vestments in perfect condition from, no one knows for sure, 1920s? Newspapers in yellow bundles that crumble apart rotten communion hosts. They detail events of world wars and the deaths of presidents. Boxes of dolls from many childhoods of at least three generations of women. Life size babies with disconcertingly human eyes and coifs of horsehair. A tin container containing medallions of religious belief: blue jewel Marys, crosses with green serpents entwined, other crosses with ornately tortured Jesuses in tears of blood, and simple Celtic-like crosses aged in bumpy accretions of tarnish and mold-obscuring silver plating. A find to excite even the staunchest of atheists. Boxes of postcards from such places as Lourdes, the Pyrénées, Corsica, Paris, Nice, Menton, Tunisia, Algiers– Europa Exotica. The photos they contain are monochromatic, very dark, and their flipside contain cliché ridden, vicissitudinal details written in a most elegant, feminine script not even then worth reading. Some of the postcards show scenes of the city when it was a rural, uncluttered, undeveloped metropole.
Armoires riddled with insect tunnels and stocked with decades of old clothes that, unfolded and held up to the torso, seem to have regenerated into style. Another spice tin full of old coinage. Coins minted of real silver but owning to governmental changes, they have been devalued into only a fraction of their worth. Mostly five, ten, and fifty franc pieces that look priceless. Drawers replete with skeleton keys that no longer open anything not even the drawer they’re in. They are striking in their burnished gold patinas, length and heft. Having kept one on my key chain, and transporting it to the states, others often ask me if it “real”.
Two very odd photographs of two children hamming it up and dressed as an angel and pitchfork wielding devil. No one recognizes the children.
A series of photographs of a handsome Vietnamese man in military uniform standing next to what looks like his brother or close friend.
Behind a steel trap door that blocks where there once was an opening of a fire pit, yet another rusty cookie tin that when opened is alive with what was once someone’s set of teeth. A ghastly thing to find. They are immaculately fringed in solid gold bridge work. The matron of the household congratulated me on this discovery. When I told her that these disembodied teeth my cause me nightmares she said, “That’s silly, they can’t bite you anymore.”
Buried under bags of wool that was once used to stuff mattresses, a bronze statue of St. Louis sleeps. He is crowned and holds another in his outstretched hand, his other is on the hilt of his sword. He wears a coat of mail, an armor vest emblazoned with a cross, and dons a magnificently large cape. Humidity has colored his eyes green.
Portraits, solemn and leering, of Jesus and Mary, in decorative wooden frames obliterated by hungry insects. The two have big round eyes that calculate my every move.
A wooden bust of an African beauty. On its underneath, she reveals herself to be of Madagascar descent.
Another tin container that contains recent money. With a little prying of the lid and of the matron, the money is revealed to be that of the baker’s wife (the bakery is directly below). It is a mere forty dollars that she will most likely never see again. She was hiding it from her husband.
The last item to be recovered from the past is a fifty pound bag of coffee beans dating from the distant past. The beans are contained in a cloth potato sack and are of an exceptionally light, vanilla color and etched in black capillaries of their former essence. Most of the beans have been dotted by insect tunnels. The matron insists that they are still good. My only reply is that I would like to renege on my request of a traditional afternoon café.
The dust in the room is so chokingly thick and putrid that I blow traces of it from my nose for up to a week after the cleaning. At one point during the perusal, the billowing clouds almost made me vomit. The asthmatic cough garnered by the exploration, or rather exorcism, remained for two days. It comes back by feint of memory anytime I enter the room.
By scrubbing the ancient tiled floor and re-stucco-ing its walls and putting up a fake ceiling of thin wood beams and panels, the room is once again made habitable. The refurbishing took nearly a month of hard labor. The matron agrees it is much more useful now and that she’ll use it only to store herbs to be dried as she approaches with a tray of apéritif and, trailing behind, bundles of thyme, rosemary, heath, and dill collected from local hillsides. Out of her house dress pocket spill albino coffee beans.
ROOMS NEVER WITHOUT VIEWS
Ladies that walk knowing that they’re being watched, or wanting to be, not even caring the age or attractiveness of the onlooker. Women who dress not for the world, but themselves, elegantly.
Men who strut in a self-confident, almost pugnacious gait. The phrase for it is rouler les mécaniques. They measure each step knowing they have a point to prove and are completely justified in their convictions. Boisterous, brazen, they hold open doors for the opposite sex and for the elderly. They have irrefutable positions concerning the upcoming trends in weather.
Children who in restaurants behave impeccably well and who never ever bring gigantic plastic toys into the dining establishment. On the street they joke, they play, they sing dumb songs, and at any given moment might break into an impromptu game of soccer, thus claiming the street their playfield.
Tiny dogs that urinate and defecate at will and who have total control of the human at the other ends of their leashes. Old ladies who act as, as it were, bathroom valets for their pets, cleaning up after them, and in some not so rare cases, performing doggie hygiene with kleenex.
People who fill street corners, especially those with bakeries, on Sunday mornings with the cheery din of gossip, neighborhood happenings and rumor, while they use baguettes as informal conversational aides emphasizing their brilliant points of observation with symphonic flourish.
Market owners, fish vendors, bar patrons, opening their businesses while whistling or singing who by sheer force of personality and belief in the relevance of their chosen professions encouraging a devoted following.
Cicadas and frogs congregating in forgotten remnants of farmhouses that these outskirts once contained, now residences, murmuring a jeremiad of the days of old.
City workers who discuss intimate details of their wives’ families histories so that passersby might substantiate their vocal positions on the matter at hand and offer a nod of empathy.
Shopping carts stolen for the treasures of ten franc pieces they once held in confidence. Parked in abandonment.
Billboards, ever hanging, always featuring a beautiful man and woman engaged in anything other than hawking the product suggested for sale.
Young men and women hauling boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables sometimes offering a taste of one to be eaten whole on the spot as an enticement to the delicacies within their bamboo-lined stores.
Standing placard advertisements for a delectable array of ice cream and frozen treats that lie buried in tabletop freezers in Lotto stores or even Tabacs.
Sandwicheries that display real life plates of food that will be freshly made not instantly, but within lengthy hunger-filled minutes, promising meat and lamb expertly grilled.
A clean trickle of water washing the history of the day into a wave of ripening sea.
Have you seen our journal of European literature? Trafika Europe showcases new fiction and poetry in English translation from across the 47 countries of Council of Europe, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. Check out our quarterly journal free online, and enjoy with us the amazing richness and variety of European literary voices.