À La Recherche du Brooding Perdu

Published on July 30th, 2010 in: Culture Shock, Music |

By AJ Wood

When I was 20, I was crazy to get out of Los Angeles, the Valley, and all I had grown up with. Being a French and English major at college, I honed in on an escape available to me: enrolling in a program for university students to teach English to French school children in France. Applications were made in stuttering French, time was spent wondering, and then, I got my escape: I went to France, to the smallest town I had ever been in (where cows outnumbered people) to teach French. But: I was 20, and an English Major, which means I was a navel-gazer and I brooded. And I certainly did that too: I brooded in pidgin French: Je brood, tu broodes, nous avons broodé souvent.

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Montmartre
Photo © AJ Wood

Within a week, I was chain smoking at cafés, sipping espresso while furiously journaling. Within two weeks, I was reading Albert Camus in the original French. Within three weeks, I was teaching ten-year-olds how to introduce themselves to others in English. Within four weeks, I was anxiously scanning the television listings for anything “en V.O.”—”version originale”—which was the indication the film was in English with French subtitles.

The ABC News (which was broadcast in the early a.m. on the more worldly TV station) became a lifeline to the real world, or at least the world I could understand. Any foray into spoken English—no matter how broken or incomprehensible—was a mini-vacation for my brain, which was nightly exhausted from the constant stream of U.N.-style simultaneous interpretation going on in there.

When there was nothing on TV to watch in English, I would take refuge in the radio—specifically, the modern rock radio, where a good portion of the songs were in English. English, totally unedited, full of un-bleeped F-bombs! Rage Against The Machine made impassioned pleas to melon-farmers, only they didn’t say “melon-farmer.” It was the first time I had heard Radiohead’s “Creep” with the “so F-bombing special” intact and not substituted for “very”: it was ear-opening, yet still sort of awkward. Knowing that none of the native French grew up with the F-word being THE WORD, it didn’t really have the same weight for them. In the same way, I could have yelled merde at the supermarket, and not really felt like I was doing something taboo.

Anyway, quite often one British band would come on singing what I took at the time to be the exact existentialist isolation I was feeling. Every time the song would come on at random, I would try to remember even more of it, so enraptured by its beauty I could not even bother to parse out the rapid-fire DJ French which would follow which would tell me its title or the artist.

“We all face the same way,” the singer sang in his raspy, desperate brand of voice, “still it takes all day. I take a look to my left; pick out the worst and the best.” That spoke straight to me, as I sat at the café watching people pass by, unaffected by them yet affected by that lack of affection. I was 20, in France, and this was something deep.

I pictured the narrator of the song creating a poetic collage of what you see as people walk down the street, each phrase saying some Great Inner Truth into which our omnipresent narrator had insight: “Another office affair. To kill an unborn scare. You talk dirty to a priest; it makes you human at least.” These were indecent personal glimpses into all these people; I mean, “is anyone going anywhere? Everyone’s got to be somewhere.” That is deep. That is real. That was indeed me.

He goes on, singing the pain of these people he sees: people behind in their loan payments fighting with creditors, people with mysterious things in the trunks of their cars, people putting on airs. Ironic dichotomies by the dozen: waiting tables for a crook, writing a primer in reading, a prostitute. This was la vie: and he was killing me slowly with his chanson. I mean, come on, it’s as plain as the nose on your face even though your capitalist, heterosexual, normal-ass world-view can’t account for this: Everyone HAS to be SOMEwhere. Poetry!

stereophonics traffic

Then, a year passes and I go back home and pre-Google-Googled that the song is by Stereophonics and called “Traffic” and soon after, I got practical and got a haircut and I got a degree in computer science and, well, life does actually really happen. The real kind, and not the romantic yearning of a life I dreamt of when I was 20. And with that passing of time came a certain embarrassment over the 20-year-old me, poring over journals in France like it was all such an imposition to live there. The older me found that younger me to be immature and naive. This new view was no doubt helped into fruition on by the fact I had moved on to reading Ayn Rand . . .

So, I’m now 30: older, wiser, thinking of where I was a decade prior, feeling like I’m not 20 and lost anymore, and I have a new iPhone. Let’s—from the wireless convenience of bed—order that song I used to know ten years ago: because I can!

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