Your Side of the Ocean
330 · 24 May 01
K's Choice: Almost Happy
I don't travel very often, but recently events conspired such that I was away from home for parts of five out of six weeks. The first three trips were short: in early April my sister and I dragged our parents to New Jersey for a family outing to see the New England Revolution open their MLS season against the MetroStars; a couple weeks later I went to North Carolina for a long weekend to visit friends and see the Boston Breakers, the new women's pro soccer team, open their season against the Carolina Courage; the week after that I had to go to Orlando for a couple days for a business meeting. But the big trip, just a few hectic days after I got back from Florida, was a genuine week-long vacation to Europe.
"Vacation to Europe" probably implies a little more scope and ambition than this particular trip actually entailed, especially if for you it conjures visions of island-dotted Mediterranean cruises or epic Continental rail transits, but there were trains, my path did touch three different countries, I disembarked in four different cities speaking three different official languages, I spent two different currencies, and I went into eleven different record stores, so I suppose it was slightly sweeping. And since my last two overseas trips began in, ended in and only reluctantly strayed from London, this one was an adventurous step for me. London was involved, but primarily this was a trip to Belgium.
Why Belgium?, one might reasonably inquire, especially if one were aware that despite having been to the general European area four times previously, I still had yet to visit Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia or Eastern Anything. It had not, after all, spent any appreciable time on my standing list of places I haven't been and ought to go (which has been headed by Barcelona ever since Emily Bezar's line about Gaudí's mezzanines), and all guide-books to the region seem to begin with some variant on "Many people dismiss Brussels as ugly and uninteresting, but we had a somewhat better time than we anticipated when we found out all the good guide-researching slots had already been taken" and go downhill from there. The fake explanation for my presence is simple: I am working my way through the nations of Europe in order by median altitude above sea-level. I've been to Holland, this time I went to Belgium, next time I'll complete my Low Country circuit in Luxembourg, and I'll finish up, many trips hence and several years into my retirement, by climbing the Alps.
The real explanation may not be any more credible. My very-old friend David (I mean that we've been friends for a very long time, not that he's extremely aged; we are the same age) is an art-historian by trade (well, "trade" may not be the right word here...), and last summer he married another art-historian named Sally, completing a union with impressive academic credentials and a truly breathtaking lack of economic clout. David studies early photography. Sally's field of expertise is, I've learned to say with affected nonchalance, "Northern Ren." "Ren." is short for "Renaissance", of course, and I hope I can save you the embarrassment of blurting out any comment along the lines of "How can a time period have a North?" "Northern Ren" refers to the art done in Northern Europe, during the Renaissance. I.e., just about everything that's not Italian. Yes, I know, there's something odd about being a Renaissance art scholar and avoiding Italy, like being an obsessive popular-music critic and not owning any Beatles albums, but Sally's particular sub-field of doctoral sub-sub-specialty is the narrative paintings of the fifteenth-century Flemish artist Hans Memling, who worked in Bruges, where two of the four paintings around which her dissertation revolves still reside, and last year she won a Fulbright grant to go spend nine months in their vicinity, so the couple obligingly decamped for Belgium, and there they've been. I had threatened to visit them, and in the end just barely managed to fit the trip into our schedules a couple weeks before their return.
It was David's considered opinion, after having spent eight months in Belgium, that the country was worth exactly four days, so I booked five as a mild rebuke for his cynicism. I suspect I could have held out through seven, if there were something riding on the figure, but five was also fine. We spent three of those tromping around Brussels itself. As a milieu for acquisitive ADD-style American tourism, Brussels is not too stunning. The subways smell, all the cars are too small, there's some interesting architecture but it's not very organized, the art museum has a great room of Magrittes and then a whole lot of stuff by people you've never heard of and won't wonder why you haven't. The parks are nice enough, but probably no nicer than the parks where you live. The beer is apparently global-destination grade, but I don't drink. There's a monstrous football-field-tall galvanized atom they built in the Fifties and keep up on the remote chance that it will ever become cool again. So far, no.
But I hate tourism, and I like cities, and Brussels seemed to me like a perfectly decent place. Were I to live there, something would have to be done about the lack of Mexican food, but I was certainly thoroughly entertained for most of a week, and largely by the most mundane details. Here's a top ten, in a sort of associative order:
1. David and Sally's apartment. First of all, instead of one normal-sized elevator, like an American apartment building would have, their building has a bank of three adorable mini-elevators, each of which holds two people comfortably, and three people with some perhaps-unanticipated intimacy. The elevators have no interior doors, so as they go up and down you have to avoid leaning on the moving front wall. There are buttons for floors -2 through 10, with 0 being the ground floor; David and Sally, however, live on floor 11. To reach floor 11 you ride the elevator to 10, get off, walk down a darkened hallway, open an unlabeled door to what looks like a utility closet, climb the hidden staircase behind it, turn two corners, ignore the pervasive smell of fish, and enter what appears to be the last door in Belgium. Inside, the apartment initially seems normal, until you look for the bathroom and discover that it has been installed in two parts, a toilet room and a sink/shower room, the doors of which open directly into each other so there's no good way to get from one to the other without a large banging sound to announce your movement. The shower has a small ventilation portal that appears to have been carved through the brick wall by generations worth of scratching with blunt cereal spoons, a tiny tunnel to freedom. The sink taps cannot be turned off, because their landlord is so paranoid about being ripped off by plumbers that he'd rather pay the excess water bills than have them fixed. In the kitchen, the door of the refrigerator opens the wrong way, so that you have to flatten yourself against the wall in the corner before opening it, and the counters, although you might not notice immediately, are set at the correct working height for creatures no taller than four foot ten.
2. The supermarket. Although my guide book didn't specifically suggest this, the very first thing David and I did when I got there was go to the supermarket, and I highly recommend making it a common arrival practice. I was operating on extremely little sleep at this point (I'll have to get a lot more blasé about trips to Europe before I'll be able to sleep on the flight over), so my judgment might be questioned, but basically everything about the supermarket struck me as hopelessly cute. The brands we don't have are all hilarious; the brands we do have, whose packaging must be printed in both French and Flemish for them to be salable in Brussels, are even sillier. They sell milk unrefrigerated, in those funny rectangular boxes. I could probably have spent two or three hours there, just happily wandering up and down the aisles trying to guess which were the French names for things, and which were the Flemish ones. This particular store had a self-checkout system in which you carry around a little bar-code scanner, scanning things as you put them in your basket, and then on the way out you just return your scanner and pay what it says, and they trust you not to take a bunch of other stuff you didn't scan. I assume there's nothing distinctively Bruxellois about this arrangement, but I'd never seen it before, so to me it's part of the sleepy, trusting charm of Belgium.
3. Hatchbacks. Hatchbacks, especially small hatchbacks, are painfully uncool in the US. Everybody in Brussels drives them. Virtually the only sedans I saw in the city were the taxis, and the sinister black Mercedes the EU diplomats are driven around in. And small. The EU limousines, conspicuously larger than anything else on the streets, are just normal-size cars by US standards. My Golf, about the smallest car anybody tries to sell in the US, is a full-size family car for Brussels. VW has an even smaller model they don't tell us about. Ford has a squat, blobby car called the Ka that makes a Festiva look like a Country Squire. Mercedes and Audi both have wonderful, tram-like little things. And the master of all cars, in a complete inversion of the American hierarchy, is the smallest, the Smart, a sparkly plastic two-seater made by Mercedes and Swatch that in America would barely qualify as a golf cart. In the US I feel bad every time I see some harried drug-company shill in a JC Penney's-sale business skirt trying to wrestle a carton of anti-allergy samples out of the trunk of her battered Metro in the parking lot of my office building; in Brussels I saw Austrian money-market tycoons in hand-tailored two-thousand-euro Milanese suits barking orders into cell-phones while barreling down cobblestone Rues with their elbows poking out of buzzing Honda Logos.
4. Trying to speak French. I had two years of French in high school. I also had two years of German in high school, one of them overlapping with a year of the French. I took a year of Swedish in college, and I watch a lot of soccer on Mexican television. These things combine to make me smashingly helpless in any language but English. But I do remember a lot of individual French words, and the thinnest possible tissue of grammar with which to try to connect them, and I felt self-conscious about being the guy chattering breezily in a foreign language for a change, so I stubbornly insisted on trying to communicate in French. Mostly this consisted of pestering David with inanely elementary questions about our surroundings, which he patiently responded to in English, except if we were in Flanders, in which case he would remind me for the twentieth time that they don't speak French in Flanders. I could sometimes make headway with printed material, especially in Brussels where the Germanic origins of the Flemish words often provided an extra clue, but if anybody spoke to me, it was hopeless. I believe I successfully negotiated four improvised informational transactions in French, two of which required me only to say "Oui". The third was at a restaurant where David and I were getting crêum;es, and after he ordered his with chocolate and whipped cream, I muddled through "Moi aussi, mais non chantilly", which means approximately "Me also, but no whipped cream", although with a little preparation I could have improved "non" to "sans", for "without". The fourth, and arguably my crowning linguistic triumph, came when the owners of an emerald-green Smart parked on the sidewalk near David's apartment returned to it while I was in the process of taking its picture. "Je t'aime votre auto", I enthused, momentarily proud of myself for using the formal second-person possessive "votre" instead of the familiar "ton", until I realized that I'd just said "I love you, your car" (using the familiar "you", to boot). "J'aime votre auto", it should have been, but frankly they probably knew what I meant before I said anything.
5. The Plattenspieler. I can't actually remember what this thing was called, and it surely wasn't "Plattenspieler". We saw it in the player-piano room at the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels, and it looked like a grandfather clock with, instead of the clock part, a huge metal disk with spiral patterns of holes in it. Intellectually, I think the disk must only have been the scripting mechanism, like the paper-rolls in a player-piano, but David and I couldn't see any sound-producing component other than the disk itself, and the recording on the audio program sounded so metallic that we were forced to conclude that the metal platter was somehow generating the noises directly, like a distant combined ancestor of the phonograph record and the loudspeaker, and the idea of composing music by metal-smithing an enormous, resonating, perforated brass disk was insane and compelling.
6. Boston rock. I have no idea whether there's some particularly strong Boston-Brussels link, or Boston bands are huge all across Europe, but I was thrilled to see a wide array of Boston records in all the Brussels shops, including a prominent end-of-aisle display of Sheila Divine CDs at the Virgin Megastore. Apparently the Belgians like fake Irish rock from America. Either that or they were just having fun by staging a little Singles homage at my expense.
7. Ongelot. My first night in Brussels, we went out to dinner at a low-key, but elegant brasserie, and David and Sally were being good hosts by translating the menu for me. Whenever I'm faced with an unfamiliar cuisine, I like to confront my fear by ordering the strangest, most frightening thing on the menu, the thing that nobody but the most grizzled natives would ever contemplate, and Sally pointed out a traditional Flemish eel preparation that seemed to qualify nicely. When it arrived, though, it looked suspiciously non-eel-like. In fact, it was clearly not eel, nor any sea-dwelling relative. It looked good, though, so I shrugged and ate it. Beef, was my guess, probably some sort of roast, but David and Sally had fun inventing unsavory possible translations of the dish's name on the way home to their dictionary, a pastime I found more amusing myself once I remembered for sure that the words for "horse" and "dog" are both very definitely not "ongelot". In the end we didn't really get a conclusive answer. Eel is "anguille", but all we could get for "ongelot" was "good cut of meat", with a maddening unspecificity about species.
8. Frites. The Belgians claim to make the world's best fries. I was inclined to grant them the honor already, as the best fries I'd ever had prior to the trip were at a tragically short-lived Belgian-fry bistro in Harvard Square. I'd need to do more extensive testing to make an authoritative statement, but the ones we got from a much-decorated frites stand in Brussels were definitely the work of talented craftspeople. The Belgians are not very secretive about the secret of their frites: they fry them twice. That's it. They fry them once, they let them cool a little bit, and then at the point where you would, if you were anybody else, serve and eat them, they fry them again. Arterial catastrophe, culinary genius.
9. Waffles. You have probably had "Belgian waffles": they're just like normal waffles, except the pockets are deeper. Well, those are a horrible, mean-spirited, ignorant joke. Actual Belgian waffles bear no resemblance to the thing served under that name in the US. Belgian Belgian waffles are made from dough, not batter, they glisten with caramelized sugar, and they are vended on street corners as snack food, by pretty girls who sing while they flex their waffle irons. The girls hand the waffles to you half-wrapped in slips of thick paper, and smile mysteriously to themselves as you turn away, like a nation of coltish baker-sprites from the Hans Christian Andersen version of that Raymond Carver story, holding the fractured souls of Europe together.
10. Chocolate. It's probably just as well I don't live anywhere near Brussels, because it's not clear my metabolism could take it. Again, I'm not qualified to supply an informed opinion, but both Wittamer and Pierre Marcolini, whose ateliers sit opposite each other in the Place du Grand Sablon, purport to be the finest chocolatiers on the planet, and after sampling their wares I believe their claims to be plausible. Without a doubt the best chocolates I have ever eaten are Wittamer's heartbreakingly fragile crème fraîche pralines. The second best are probably the Wittamer truffles, with Marcolini's throw-away chocolate/wafer bark barely third. I don't usually even think of myself as a chocolate fanatic, per se, but the harrowing empty moments just after eating one of those Wittamer chocolates were as close as I've ever come to what an addict's craving must feel like.
It's not that far from Brussels to Paris, and I've never been to Paris, but somehow visiting Paris for the first time on a perfunctory day-trip seemed wrong, so David and I opted instead to concentrate on covering Belgium, figuring neither of us were too likely to ever return. So one of the days we went to Antwerp, which is glitzy and fashion-conscious in a kind of generic, pan-national way, but which has an excellent zoo. I will not soon forget the hyperactive anteater dashing maniacally back and forth in its gloomy enclosure, nor the small case teeming with horrific giant cockroaches from Madagascar. At one point I complained about the lack of okapi, just because I like saying the word "okapi", and a few minutes later I was startled to realize that I'd just spotted an okapi out of the corner of my eye, down a side-path. (I'm not sure whether I was more surprised that they have okapi in Antwerp, or that I can identify one from too far away to read the sign.) Our other side-trip was to Bruges, which is sort of Europe's answer to Colonial Williamsburg without the actors. It's cute, but I think I prefer weird-snack-food cute to well-preserved-antiquity cute. There's a 366-step bell-tower in Bruges, though, that all visitors to the city are required by international law to climb up, and it's well worth the trip, in my opinion, as much because the chimney-like spiral stairs are so cozy as for the view from the top. But the stairs are narrow enough that two people can pass only if one presses themselves into a corner, and the belfry itself is small enough that it felt a bit overcrowded with the six or seven of us who were up there at the same time, so when David and I met, on our way down but still very near the top, a group of at least three dozen shrieking school children on their way up, we were very glad to have missed sharing it with them. A little lower we passed an elderly Asian couple on their way up, and shuddered at the ordeal they were in for when the school group had to pass them on their way back down. And then, a little lower, we hit a second school group on their way up behind them. We doubt that old couple was ever heard from again.
Between David and my arduous sight-seeing (or maybe, in our case, site-seeing) schedule, late European dining and jet lag, I didn't have many free moments in Belgium. I bought the only two Belgian records my advance research had come up with, but didn't even get a chance to listen to them until I was on the Eurostar heading to London. Five days in Brussels, two in London, that was my week. The declared rationale for the London leg was record-shopping, but it's a little more complicated than that. I've made trips to London in 1992, 1994 and 1997, and to Amsterdam in 1993, and over the course of that period the international music awareness and supply problems have mutated significantly. In 1992 I went with long lists, and discovered records I didn't know about by some of my favorite bands. Each trip the lists have gotten shorter, and the discoveries have become more obscure. This time I might not have had a list at all, if one of my importers hadn't just botched an order of stuff I should have been able to get from home, and for the most part the discoveries were either out-of-print CD-singles rescued from clearance bins, or else live albums and similar miscellany by bands on the fringes of my awareness that I only didn't know about because I hadn't thought to look. I still bought forty-nine CDs of one sort or another, but that's fewer than I came back with in 1992 in raw numbers, and probably an order of magnitude fewer if scaled to my buying rates then and now. We are very close to the point where I no longer need to go to London to buy records, and if weird European progressive-rock ever becomes even ten percent less uncool here, that will probably close the last gap.
But that's just what I can point to. The real thing I go visit in London is a ghost, or whatever you call a ghost of something that hasn't been, either not here or not yet. In a way I go to London to walk around the record stores, and need to have things to buy just because that's what I do in record stores here, and it's critical that I walk around those record stores the same way. I go to remind myself of a possibility I choose to retreat from. I don't ever want to forget the subjectivity of paradises, and the way I have chosen to capture that sense is by clinging to the idea that there is a place to which I am in some deeper sense better suited than the one where I live. Whether I mean this literally, or literarily, I'm not sure and probably can't know. I feel, when I'm in London, that the city and my nature are profoundly aligned. I feel some of that in Cambridge, too, that's why I live here and not in Dallas or New York, but Cambridge is still America, in all the ways I abhor. Of course, I can afford to drastically oversimplify England, since I'm only there a few days every few years, but it doesn't matter how right or wrong I am, because I'm not moving there. I hate so much about the US, but it's my country, and it's too late to get another one. I will stay and fight the battles I can. I cannot adopt someone else's culture just because I prefer it, or prefer what I imagine it to be. I go to London to be reminded of ways in which things can be different, because knowing what's possible is the first step towards effecting change.
But if all I wanted were object lessons in subtle cultural variability, I could go somewhere different every year. Going back to London isn't just socio-cultural tourism, it is also a spiritual rite. My record-store circuit is ordered by personal history, not selection. I ate dinner at what I'm pretty sure is my favorite restaurant in the world, even though this was only the second time I've been there. My first two trips to London, I went with my then-girlfriend, the same with Amsterdam. These last two, I've gone alone. And my first night, this time, after I dumped the day's CD haul back at my hotel and wandered out into Soho, I felt as lonely as I can recall ever feeling. Desperately, painfully, irremediably lonely. I do have acquaintances in London, but no close friends, and I'd intentionally not tried to meet up with the casual ones. I don't know that I'd anticipated exactly this pain, but I knew there was something waiting for me on the trip that I needed to jealously protect. And standing there in Wardour Street, as I do once on every trip, where the A-bomb would have been in the Jam song, I felt physically fine, but psychically close to blackout. I felt like I'd come to London as a dead-end, and the way out entailed answering the question I most often use music to try to silence, which is, in one of the phrasings: Am I, under the banner of self-examination, pretending to plumb my loneliness for what it reveals about my understandings of myself and of truth, but actually just perfecting loneliness as a solipsistic art? I want to believe that I write about loneliness because it's a powerful emotion, and a force in a lot of people's lives, and I won't be lonely forever so I need to learn as much as I can about it while I am. But maybe I'm bricking myself into my own tomb. I walked down to Leicester Square to watch the crowds, and thought "What the fuck am I learning here? This hurts, and there's nothing mysterious or complicated or insightful about the pain, I'm lonely. I've deliberately gone, by myself, to the one place on the planet where I can feel most at home and simultaneously most thoroughly isolated, and of course it hurts, how did I think it was going to feel? Isn't there some more productive way I could have spent this time? I should have signed up for a cooking class, quit my job, started a band, learned French for real -- anything other than this obtuse, masochistic retreat. There might be a hundred answers within a hundred feet of me, but I've come with no way to carry them home. I have assigned myself an untenable quest. What kind of person would do that to themselves?"
And in this state, feeling close enough to breaking that I can't go anywhere but through, I do the worst possible thing, which is that I walk back to my hotel, go up to my room, get out my CD player and put on the saddest record in the world. It's one of the two I bought in Brussels, Almost Happy, the fourth album by the Belgian band K's Choice. K's Choice had a minor hit in 1995 in the US with "Not an Addict", from the second album, Paradise in Me, but Cocoon Crash, in 1998, didn't capitalize on it, and Almost Happy remains unreleased in the US a year after its Belgian release. I didn't like "Not an Addict" when it came out. It was an anti-drug song from too intimate and knowledgeable a perspective, and I was in an especially addiction-intolerant phase and didn't want to hear compassion. But I later ended up with a copy of Cocoon Crash, somehow, and loved it. It seemed like an heir, to me, to the redemptive emotional legacies of Belly's King, Sleeper's The It Girl and the Leslie Spit Treeo's Chocolate Chip Cookies, to bruised, weary magnificence. Sarah Bettens' voice hovers permanently on the brink of tears, the band at once expansive and claustrophobic, as if when they push away the walls the sky will fall. By the time I went back and bought Paradise in Me, I was almost too attuned to the haunted self-awareness in "Not an Addict", and the lighter-hearted songs, like the nostalgic popsicle ode "Mr. Freeze" and the bitter "My Record Company", seemed to me like they were avoiding something.
Almost Happy avoids nothing. The calm, swelling "Another Year" is a portrait of paralysis, but wistful where a less sympathetic voice might have been indignant. "My Head" is skittish and gauzy, and sounds charming enough until you realize that it's about the impossibility of understanding each other. "And you don't know what I meant by that / But it's sweet that you tried." "Live for Real" is a shimmering lullaby, Sarah's double-tracked harmonies over a muted kick-drum heartbeat, an oblique guitar figure and some wispy piano tendrils. "Somewhere" affects a jarring folkiness somewhere between Shawn Colvin and the Indigo Girls, the memoir "Home" a staticky blues drawl, "Tired" a Tracey Thorn-like hush. "Always Everywhere", a requiem for the singer's mother, is what Dar Williams might be if she could sing like Amanda Kravat, or Amanda if she could write lyrics like Dar's. Gert Bettens takes lead vocals for the tense, questioning, Elliott-Smith-ish "Shadowman", which blurs into noise over the rosary incantation "Oh, if you're coming down to rescue me, / Now would be perfect". "Favorite Adventure (The Wedding Song)" is sincerely uplifting, and even comes up with a reason for weddings I hadn't thought of ("If you ever fear / Someday we might lose this, / Come back here / To this moment that will last, / And time can go so fast / When everything's exactly / Where it's at / Its very best."). "All" may be the most quietly terrifying song here, a delicate folk-guitar arrangement of a diary confession as harrowing in its routine imprisonment as Tori's "Me and a Gun" is in its violence. "I know you don't belong in this room, / But you're here now / So what can I do?" "All that you are is / A wall between myself and me." Or if that isn't it, it's "Almost There", the a cappella bonus track, which starts out like a mournful funeral ode, but then turns, first against God ("You died all alone, / And I no longer pray, / 'Cause if there were a God / He'd have let you stay"), and then against the living with the frightening plural in "So tomorrow I'll burn / Our house to the ground / And we'll join you up there".
But those aren't the two songs that threaten to destroy me. The first is "Almost Happy" itself. "I don't know what you want, / And you don't know / So what's the point of asking?" The drums tick, the bass pulses, the guitar riff switches notes only when it has to. Crescendos arrive, when they do, like fragments of the ones in Live's "Lightning Crashes", cathartic but choked. "You're almost happy," Sarah sings, "Almost content, / But your head hurts", and the nearness is torture, the headache too subtle to justify the necessary revolution, but too persistent to ignore. The other one is "Busy", the single, jittery and grand like a cross between "Inbetweener" and "Where the Streets Have No Name". "I'm losing all of you / To future plans and obligations", she says to an unnamed audience. "I guess that's what you do / When life's about your next vacation".
And there, in a flash, I see the hairline fracture in the catacomb wall that might conceal the passage back. It would be worse any other way. It would be worse if my vacation was a denial tactic, a theme park or a cruise ship or no time to myself. This isn't loneliness, it finally occurs to me, from amidst London's swirl. These are hopes and hatreds and faiths. It isn't being here by myself that weighs on me, it's knowing that the more you realize you want, the more you allow the emptiness to touch you. I come here to be reminded that the impossible and the sacred are mirror myths. I come here because temples have to be far away or there's neither pilgrimage nor mystique. I've picked these curving streets, when Berlin or Kansas City or Rio would have served, for whatever confluence of reasons; all that matters is what happens when I stand in them. And what happens isn't, a momentary lapse notwithstanding, despair or surrender. Sarah Bettens may sound like I feel, sometimes, running out of light, but she still gets through the songs. The first stop on my record-buying route is always Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, and for some reason I always have to go back again, at the end. The second time, it doesn't matter if I buy anything. I do, this time, a new Frames album I didn't notice before, but it's not important. What's important is the ritual of leaving. As I walk down the steps, out into the garish lights and snarled traffic, and pick my way back up Shaftesbury and Long Acre to the Fielding, I am walking away from the center of the universe. Maybe Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus is a dumb place to imagine the center of the universe, but they're all dumb, so pick one. Maybe yours is around here. Mine is in London, and I've been to it four times and learned at least four new things. The first time, I learned it exists. The second time, I learned that you can't make the wrong person into the right one by taking them there. The third time, I learned that one of the reasons you visit the center of your universe is to leave some pieces of yourself there that you don't have the strength to carry with you. This time, I learned that growing up can hurt a lot, even when you thought you were done with it, and you can't see how you changed, and you get home and everything seems weirdly familiar. But something is different here. Something has been jarred loose, and I don't yet know what did it, or what it is, or what is possible for me tomorrow that couldn't have happened before this trip. The mistake we always make about epiphanies is thinking that knowing when they happen is the same as knowing what they are. We want blinding, self-evident insight, because who has time for research? An epiphany that takes time to decipher smells suspiciously like simply working things out the hard way. But that's fine. Slow doesn't worry me. Short quests are for small souls. Of course we dream of things that might not exist, but should, and then try to overlay them on what we find around us when we wake up. Our dreams are the maps of our cities, not vice versa. Which is why we have to come home again to get lost, and why we share our sadnesses, like treasure charts, or like fables of what was left when we once stopped fearing our own hearts.