Posts tagged ‘memoir’

Coming Home

The sun was coming up over the horizon as my plane came in for a landing – over Rome, because Alitalia had been the cheapest way to get back from New York to Amsterdam. I had some time to kill before my next flight, so I found the one open coffee bar and stood with the few half-drowsy morning travellers and ordered a cappucino and the Italian equivalent of a brioche. Everything was so ridiculously cheap (even at the airport) and equally delicious, and I spent a moment fantasizing about an exotic future life in this most exotic (to me) of European capitals, but I knew it was just that –a fantasy– because, despite the old saw about all roads leading to it, Rome would never, I knew, be my home.


January 15, 2010 at 11:32 am 2 comments

Bated breath

Chatted with a friend yesterday about a mutual acquaintance who is joining the Peace Corps. We both mentioned how, to us, this choice seems odd: how the Peace Corps seems an anachronistic remnant of the Cold War, the “soft” approach to diplomacy (“winning hearts and minds”) to complement the hard approach (“bombing brains and bodies”). How there’s something uncomfortably imperialistic about it, about the idea that all these “natives” need to “rescue” them from hardship is a 22-year-old liberal arts student with a Lit. degree and no remotely relevant experience; analogous to the “Mighty Whitey” trope in film and fiction, also known as What These People Need Is A Honkey.

“At the same time,” I said, “I envy these people their ability to believe in something.” Our friend’s belief in the American Way and its relevance to completely different cultures, while deeply problematic and sort of shockingly naïve, allows him to go out into the world and accomplish something. It’s analogous to religious faith: as with many deeply religious people, his unquestioned, blinkered “faith” is a source of strength. And like many religious people, he’s a genuinely good-hearted person.

“Myself,” I went on, “I don’t have that kind of faith – not in a chosen people and not in a chosen country. I used to sort of “believe” in literature, but even that has become problematic for me in recent years. I guess I don’t know what I believe in, anymore, not really.”

“Hmm,” said my friend, after a pause. “I guess I believe in breath.”

And I thought that was as good an answer as any.

Pic by Adriana Petit via here

January 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm Leave a comment


My father told me to stop leaving half-empty beers around the house: “It’s 48 dollars a case, the least you can do is finish it.” I’m like that with cigarettes, too: halfway down the stick, and I’m burned out (but they’re not). I even keep two ashtrays, one for the sad, shrivelled, definitively burned-out butts; the other for the halfsies, the failed attempts, the ones with a few drags left.

Today I tore the nail on my right ring finger and started paring down the others to match, but halfway through I lost steam, or got sidetracked, or thought of something else. Now the nails on my right hand are cut close to the flesh, while the left hand… didn’t get the memo about what the right was doing. Can I tell everyone I’m a guitar player?

It’s like a bad joke, or a bad metaphor for, like, our modern condition and… stuff. Or like a scene from Benjamin Kunkel’s novel, Indecision– a great book, but I never finished it.

December 28, 2009 at 6:58 am Leave a comment

In the bathroom, Oct. 16

The international office of Leiden University resides in the old house of the Counts of Holland, a sort of miniature fairy-tale castle (complete with turrets, battlements and dungeons) which subsequently served as the town prison. The inevitable jokes aside (about administration as a form of torture, etc.) I find something uplifting about this fact: the old inner partitions have been hollowed out; only the façade remains; iron bars replaced by enormous panes of glass. As if the very site of history could be transformed, with time, into something useful, hollow, innocent (transparent).

I have this thought from across the street, sitting in a bruin café whose mounted photographs attest to its continued existence in 1960, 1920, 1910. In this last picture the burghers of the houses surrounding the square have come out to pose in the street; some of the boys wear knee-length britches; one has wooden shoes. It is easy to imagine them pushing open the door of the coffeeshop with its warped, antique panes, or standing around the bar counter with its peeling (green) paint and countless knots, reading the Volkskrant with greater ease than I am today as I try to decipher the sense of an article on “the modern relevance of the holocaust.”

In the bathroom I am overcome by a sudden sense of peace and security – a baffling sensation until I realize that the curved walls of the narrow room, its sliding door, and the distant hum of conversation perfectly recall the feel of lavatories in certain (old) trains. “Nothing so soothing as the transitory,” I think. But what am I here in Holland if not transient? Then I realized: security comes from either total rooted– or total rootlessness, from the château or the high-speed train. Whereas I am somewhere between these two: here, but not for long. (But aren’t we all?)

I’ve erased all my previous blog entries, which I wrote –after all– before “coming here.” But tomorrow this current writing will be before the “there” à venir: every writing is passed. Alongside the desire for some sort of total, historical journal –pages upon pages documenting what I was and what I’ve become– lies another: not mounting pages but one page, continually erased and rewritten: the illusion of a fresh start. Illusory because we cannot, of course, erase history; we can’t even redeem it; but perhaps (like these classrooms in old dungeons) we can learn to live with/in it.



October 18, 2009 at 12:19 am Leave a comment


Bennett Carpenter
Leiden, Netherlands

Random musings about literature, art, politics and (occasionally) my life as a graduate student in sunny Holland. Click on the pic for more about me.


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