je suis tarte au riz

Deep-dish rice pudding? But way so much better...

Deep-dish rice pudding? But way so much better…

Verviers (Ver-vee-ay), a town 20 minutes from where I live, is best known as the home of tarte au riz, (tart-o-ree) a traditional Belgian cake that combines rice pudding, a dash of cinnamon, and a delicious crust. You can get a tarte au riz in most every bakery; but locals will tell you there is something special about the proper tart, from Verviers. It’s a little bit moister, a little bit better: the real thing.

While I was teaching tap dance here in Liege on Thursday night, the police were working hard all over Belgium, and in Verviers apparently interrupted a major terrorist operation ready to explode at any minute. The cops killed two suspects, wounded and arrested a third, and by the time I was done with my tap classes I had three messages waiting for me, wanting to make sure that me and my family were OK.

Which came first?

Which came first?

I love hearing from my friends, for whatever the reason, but since the odds are way greater that I will perish in my car than at the hands of a terrorist, I wonder why no one calls or writes when I get home from my trips to tap class, or the grocery store, or most recently a school performance last Tuesday. Both Stephanie and I were sick, the show came early on a morning following two nights of horrible insomnia, and neither she nor I had any business driving. But drive we did, sleepy in the morning and sleepy in the mid-afternoon when we made it home. There were no messages congratulating us on being alive when we dragged ourselves back in the door.  (Thanks, Dad, for the reminder about auto-safety…)

After the horrible assassinations at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, the search for the killers recalled the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The day that greater Boston was ordered to ‘stay inside’ (thank goodness I have forgotten the official name for this) was terrifying, or at least extremely unsettling. I had a screaming fight on the phone with my best friend, who was determined to go about her business as usual. I called her every bad name in the book, convinced of my righteousness and my acting as a ‘good citizen’.

When it turned out that one gunman was dead and the other had spent his day hiding inside a boat, I felt stupid: we had all stopped everything so that millions of dollars in military and police equipment and personnel could be engaged. Even worse, the bomber got caught because we were all allowed to go outdoors again, and the guy whose boat he was in, saw the trail of blood, and called the cops.

A dreamy tart, indeed

A dreamy tart, indeed

So as the story in Paris was unfolding last week, I went off to Friday’s French class, and found myself having a little flashback to the Marathon bombing. Shockingly, my French teacher did not give a rat’s ass about two terrorists holed up in a printery in Paris. She dismissed the whole thing. ‘What?’ she asked with a little extra innocence, ‘some people with some ideology blew up some other people because of their ideology? And why am I supposed to care about that? ‘

I was horrified, righteously convinced that she was missing a big moment in history. But then the guys committed ‘suicide by cop’ and their accomplice got killed after taking his set of hostages, and the world began to mourn, grieve, and identify with Charlie Hebdo. Stories, testimonies, radio, TV, press galore, a world united by the unquestionable right of a free society to blaspheme.

First Bite

First Bite

Belgium, it turns out, has Europe’s highest proportion of radicalized citizenry; that is, Belgian citizens who have committed to wage jihad. The threat of imminent terrorist attacks is real. European countries have already begun to pass laws that recall the USA Patriot Act, which in the quest to ensure freedom completely trampled over the average citizen’s civil liberties. A free press is unquestionably vital to democracy.

But so far no one has come up with an organized plan to send 10 year-old girls into their tap classes in order to blow up atheist hoofers of Jewish origin.  I might live in the hotbed of radicalized Islam—the terrorists and I get great social services—but I am still a lot more likely to die en route to teach a time step, or to pick up a tarte au riz, than because I live 20 minutes from Verviers.

creamy goodness

creamy goodness

Disturbingly, I find myself on the wrong side of the free speech argument.

I believe deeply that people should be able to say, think, write, draw, and dance however they please. But I also know that inflammatory rhetoric and nasty words have consequences. Someone could have spared me a lot of pain and professional repercussions if they had just taped my mouth shut during my 20’s and taken away all my writing utensils. Should the consequence of free speech be death? Never.

But, just because you CAN say something, does that in any way mean that you SHOULD? I do not think that publishing images of Muhammad is a particularly meaningful way to spend one’s time. And, in the context of a war on terror and a jihadist movement, now featuring executions, beheadings, and death threats, what is the value of inflaming terrorists, or just insulting the great majority of plain-old Muslims who really don’t appreciate the imagery either?

Has our need to defend free speech come to mean, ‘Entitled wealthy people with advanced degrees have a responsibility to piss on people we don’t agree with?’ Where on earth is the humanity in that?

Not the first or the last, but the best bite, for overall form, taste, and relationship to coffee temperature.

Not the first or the last, but the best bite, for overall form, taste, and relationship to coffee temperature.

Anyway, just a week removed from the bloodshed, I was more excited than usual for tap classes. In the context of real tragedy, little things like a weekly tap class can really lift, focus, remind, and restart the soul. This week, a year into my career reset in Liege, 50 tap dancers came through the doors for classes. I found myself approaching my French teacher’s point of view more quickly than I could have imagined: what on earth am I supposed to do living in fear and worrying about my trip to the health food store? I’m swimming in a sea of bad time steps here, people.

While you may have never heard of Verviers until this week, I know it for two reasons: I taught a masterclass there last year on a floor so simultaneously hard and silent that it may rank as the single worst floor I have every tried to tap dance on; and if you want the best version of a tarte au riz, the closer you get to the town, the better they get.

And because I guess every American has internalized the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’: je suis tarte au riz!




Two articles really caught my eye this week, very thoughtful responses to the terror raids and the public response, and the links are included here. Especially illuminating is the first piece, from Australia, which makes the point I felt but could not articulate: the playing field–as far as social context and free speech– is not a level one by any means.

‘…the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the powerful and their guns.’
Corey Oakley,

The second piece cites a writer in the New York Times, Saldin Ahmed, whose op-ed came up with this gem:

‘In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful.”
Saldin Ahmed, New York Times

Walk and Roll

Strolling and 'strolling'!

Strolling and ‘strolling’!

On Sundays, Belgians walk. Along routes clearly marked by colored stickers, in lengths of 5 kilometers (3 miles), 10k, or 20k; old people, young people, families, walking groups; organized as most everything Belgian in a French version and a Flemish version—Belgians walking.

Founded in the late 60’s, Marche Adeps could not be a simpler, or more wonderful, idea. A quick look at the website for this coming weekend shows more than 10 locations to choose from, in Wallonia alone. That means that on a Sunday in late October, there are probably 2 dozen places organized for Belgians to get out and walk.

Not too long before he's walking on his own.

Not too long before he’s walking on his own.

The routes are laid out in advance by volunteers: you simply head to the welcome point, pick up a paper with directions, and begin to walk. In general, the color-coded stickers along the way make the xeroxed instructions unnecessary. You walk along through a town, along a path, through fields, in a forest, in suburbia, and keep an eye out for the red, yellow, or blue stickers that correspond to to the length of your chosen walk.

The blue stickers lead us on our 5k walk

The blue stickers lead us on our 5k walk

The walks loop back to the starting point, generally a restaurant or a school cafeteria, that offer a special Marche Adeps menu: how great is a walk in the country knowing at the end you can have the famous tarte au riz–delicious creamy rice-filled cake– or boulet frites—meatballs and fries—or a fantastic Belgian beer.

On Sunday after finishing a little home-improvement in the morning, we leave the house just after noon, drive 20 minutes, and arrive at the Moulin de Broukay, a former mill and activity center–including a summertime jazz festival–that serves as our starting point. The Marche Adeps website has a ‘stroller friendly’ icon, so Steph, myself, and the not-yet-one-year-old Felix park the car, and walk and roll toward the welcome-table.

Somehow the sight of a guy and his horse pulled up to the first table at the restaurant does not compute, and I neglect to get the photo. But there are horses and riders all over the place, and people on bicycles, and a range of ages from infants to upper 70’s, as we follow the blue stickers on our walk.

Not a lot of room for bicycles....

Not a lot of room for bicycles….

The stroller-friendly walk begins flat–along one of what Stephanie tells me are a famous and well-organized series of interconnecting bike paths in the Dutch/Belgian region of Limburg–passing through fields with corn and cows, and then a small village, before turning up a significant, steep, not friendly, hill.

Félix first en-COW-nter!

Félix first en-COW-nter!

At the top of the climb, the walk continues on a farming road, and the gravel and mud seem at points downright hostile. No matter, on a beautiful, clear, October afternoon, the fields give way in the distance to a massive quarry, and even the electric towers seem majestic.


If you look at the map, Bassenge sits on several borders: at the divide of Flanders and Wallonia, the two largest parts of Belgium (don’t forget Brussels—capital of the European Union, or the small German-speaking region) and within a few kilometers of Holland. This only matters when you say hello to people along the way: you might speak French, they might speak Dutch—and if they speak Dutch they might be Belgian or Dutch–and while it is a little confusing how to say a simple hello, no one seems bothered.

In a country that is largely urban, you are never really very far ‘off the grid’. When I drop Félix at his Belgian grandparent’s house, the nuclear reactors of neighboring Huy loom large a mile away across the river; a walk through the idyllic countryside means that fields, cows and the power infrastructure share space.

No one in the family even notices the reactor towers anymore!

No one in the family even notices the reactor towers anymore!

We walk past a small store specializing in potatoes—the Belgians love their potatoes fried, but in general, they just love their potatoes and have access to a great variety—with all the varieties named. In utero we had dubbed the fetus ‘bintje’ after the first ultrasound convinced me Steph was carrying a potato; a friend in Brussels immediately emailed a list of potato varieties, and so before he became Félix, he was just another potato.

Belgians love their potatoes, in many varieties....

Belgians love their potatoes, in many varieties….

Anyway, nothing spectacular, just a well-organized walk in the Belgian countryside on a beautiful day, with a shared plate of boulet-frites and a couple of delicious beers, as the bikes, horses, and afternoon walkers pass by.

Boulet-frites and beer for us, and bananas (ok, and frites) for him!

Boulet-frites and beer for us, and bananas (ok, and frites) for him!

Time Travels: Stockholm Tap Festival 2014

Josette Wiggan, Michelle Dorrance, Joseph Wiggan, Derrick Grant, Chloe Arnold, Michela Marino Lerman, Nicholas Young, Sam Weber, Jason Samuels Smith, Guillem Alonso, and myself--alien invaders of the space-time continuum!  Photo Iselin Jansen, courtesy of the Stockholm Tap Festival

Josette Wiggan, Michelle Dorrance, Joseph Wiggan, Derrick Grant, Chloe Arnold, Michela Marino Lerman, Nicholas Young, Sam Weber, Jason Samuels Smith, Guillem Alonso, and myself–alien invaders of the space-time continuum! Photo Iselin Jansen, courtesy of the Stockholm Tap Festival

Maybe it was the moon-shaped Globe arena–‘the largest spherical building on earth’–that lit my hotel room, the other-worldly gathering of nearly 300 tap dancers and colleagues from 30 countries, or the Easter dinner turned all-night Star Wars costume party: at any rate, the first intergalactic tap festival just happened in Stockholm, Sweden and a jam session on Mars cannot be far behind.

My festival began sweetly, with 15 people gathered in a gymnasium to learn my worldly tap dance hit, Cappella Josh. They are Finnish, Swedish, Austrian, German, British, Scottish, Brazilian, Swiss; ranging in age from mid-20’s to 75. I have enough festival experience to know that 33 hours later, when they return for the third and final session, their brains will be toast, their feet will ache, and they will be largely incoherent. The next night when we gather to finish learning the choreography, a long-lost friend of mine nearly sleeps on her feet in a far corner of the gym.

For me it is the ‘flashback’ festival, with students I first met 20 years ago in Austria, 10 years ago in Helsinki, last month in Berlin: a Croatian woman approaches me and asks if I was the same Josh who judged her in the North American Tap Dance Championships 15 years ago in Las Vegas and Boston, and thanks me for the cassette of recorded remarks which she found helpful, and still keeps.

Intermediate-advanced learning the first part of my choreography to Tenderly.  Photo by Iselin Jansen courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

Intermediate-advanced learning the first part of my choreography to Tenderly. Photo by Iselin Jansen courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

Run by a lovely trio of low-key guys—Jonas, Andrew, and Larsa—and housed in a cultural centre in Årsta, just next to Stockholm, the festival defies categorization and summary. A six-day workshop, with masterclasses and regular classes for 6 levels of students, themed classes taught by professional dancers who attend the festival to network, party, and seek inspiration; a nightly performance showcase with jam sessions, a cutting contest where both amateurs and professionals battle for supremacy and free tap shoes, an all-styles dance battle where hip-hop, tap, and contemporary dancers face off, a midnight cabaret, and a faculty concert in a historic downtown theatre; a feeding frenzy with daily lunches in two seatings for more or less 200 people, and an Easter dinner turned aquavit-laced singalong; and throughout a nightly party beginning around midnight and ending between 3 and 6 am.

The trio and their staff of volunteers have laid down 600 square meters (American translation: a whole lot) of flooring in two gymnasiums, a movie theatre which doubles as the lunch room, and the cafeteria and assorted classrooms in a nearby school. A theatre and an actual dance studio have no need for additional flooring, and so the dance classes and events spread out over at least 10 rooms in four buildings.

Full disclosure: if it happened after midnight, I missed it. By all accounts the midnight cabaret was a festival highlight, avant-garde performance art mixed in with tap dancing and all sorts of performance delights. The Star Wars party ended the next morning in full daylight, and featured a light saber battle, the live head-shaving of Paola, Barcelona’s inimitable mistress of anarchy and joy, and a conga line of everyone at the party. Never having been a fan of things that happen late at night involving alcohol, I was happy to escape with my early-to-bed companion the fantastic Sam Weber. We shut down the hotel bar midway through our first beer on Saturday night at 11pm and felt like some wild middle-aged partiers. I was nonetheless very sorry to miss the festival cabaret.

While the faculty was largely American—except for the Spanish genius Guillem Alonso—the students formed a global village. My favorite conversation took place in the hotel lobby, where some dancers from Norway discussed the various difficulties of reading, writing, and speaking Swedish vs. Danish vs. Finnish. I turned to Sam and said, ‘and they’re discussing all of these languages in English,’ and we shared a hearty laugh about just how sad America is with regard to foreign tongues.

I spent my time in the classroom teaching Cappella Josh, and concentrating my 8 technique classes on beginners through intermediate-advanced dancers. With tap technique at such an incredible level, I was happy to stay away from the advanced and professional groups. In general these days, the less people know, the more fun I have teaching. The more people know, and the more their vocabulary is built upon physical and technical degrees of difficulty and ‘tricks’, the less I am interested in working with them.

Nothing delights me as a teacher more than activating legs and minds.  Especially when it's the oldest advice in the book: pick up your knees!  Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

Nothing delights me as a teacher more than activating legs and minds. Especially when it’s the oldest advice in the book: pick up your knees! Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

But give me a group of people working on flaps, shuffles, and time steps—and especially an international group—and I am happy beyond belief. The lower two levels at the festival were super curious and thirsty, and they also happened to be the most proportionally Swedish of the festival. The local scene in Stockholm is still small, primarily beginner/intermediate, and wonderful. Two more advanced Swedes appeared in my choreography workshop, and what a pleasure to teach the 75 year-old Monica the entire Cappella Josh in three lessons over two days. I hope I can be that hip, fit, and able 25 years from now.

To be featured on stage in the historic Sodra Theatre, downtown Stockholm, with an extra-terrestrial lineup of trail-blazing tap dancers is an honor, humbling, and wild. My own ‘greatest hit,’ with ukulele and kazoos, has had finer moments, but the forgiving crowd of tap junkies seems to enjoy it, and I use the only Swedish I picked up along the way: “Hey!” The virtuosity of each artist is mesmerizing, and the group groove and jam at concert’s end is total pleasure. Fearing what might happen in the last encore, I stay offstage as my colleagues finish the show with the fastest version of the BS Chorus I have ever seen.

I fumbled around with my Ukelele One-Man Band--not at all happy with this version--but the crowd didn't seem to mind...Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival.

I fumbled around with my Ukelele One-Man Band–not at all happy with this version–but the crowd didn’t seem to mind…Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival.

At some point I walk into a gym after Joseph Wiggan’s class, and there are four little girls dancing what I assume to be his material, like machine-guns. Late for my intermediate class, I ask the girls to move along. They stay put, and keep up the barrage. I ask them again, more forcefully, to leave—tough to do when I realize they speak hardly any English. Unable to kick them out, I realize: they are here for my class! So skilled, so young, so tough.

Returning to the hotel the next night under the glow of my artificial moon-arena, a man with a thick Russian accent approaches and says, ‘How was your day?’ I do not know this man, and assume the worst: the Russian mafia has put out a hit on me. ‘Fine,’ I say, preparing to meet my maker. ‘You teach our daughters,’ he continues, ‘they say you are very good teacher.’

Somewhere, in a galaxy far far away, a three-headed alien wakes from much needed sleep, dreaming up new ideas for next year’s sixth spacey edition of the Stockholm Tap Festival, before heading off to a jazz jam to trade with the band: Joseph, Andrew, and Larsa, may the fours be with you!

Français pour non-Francophones

Français pour non-Francophones photo by Juan-Pablo

Français pour non-Francophones
photo by Juan-Pablo

Our Koreo-Belgian French teacher assigns the American and a Vietnamese to divide the class into teams, and I go Romanian right off the top–she has a killer memory. Next up the Iraqi–because he just gave me a ride to class–and then the Turko-Iranian, herself an English teacher. I go Romanian again—hilarious, smart–then Portuguese—smart, friendly, and hot–and then the Iraqi hisses the last pick my way: Columbian.

My super friendly, sharp, PhD candidate counterpart picks Chinese: brainy and studious. Then he goes Vietnamese–clearly sentimental–followed by another heady Portuguese, then our tiny Philippine friend who brings the candy to every class, and rounding out his team with a pair of Romanian guys, friendly fellows who won’t make the linguist’s circle but who typify our funny warm band of adult Franco-wannabees.

Missing are a pair of Siberians who had their first baby over the weekend, their Belarusian ally, three hilarious Spaniards, the Israeli who won’t shut up, my Vietnamese friend’s Vietnamese wife, the Syrian, the super-friendly dude from Sierra Leone, a quartet of Moroccans, the Nigerian and the Guinean guys who haven’t been seen for a while, the teenager in the head scarf who speaks so inaudibly that we have mostly given up trying to hear her, and two African women who arrive late, beam hostility, and depart early.

Last Christmas my Belgian family began chanting le chouchou, le chouchou—literally ‘darling’ but in this case something like in grade school when we used to shout ‘teacher’s pet, teachers’ pet’–as the youngest of all the cousins scooped up gift after gift. I picked up the chant in French class for Santi, a Spaniard from Valencia here for half the year whose combination of smarts, accent, humor, and lack of ego clearly made him a favorite of the class and of Madame B. Now that he is gone we taunt each other with le chouchou—I actually turned red when Balthasar excused an error in my speaking, and Javi from Barcelona tossed a well placed chouchou bomb my way.

Madame Balthasar—our wonderful, acutely intelligent, sympathetic, tease of a teacher—tells the 60-plus students at the beginning of the year that by the end we will be a group of some 20, and her prediction has come true. We the survivors have passed a three-hour mid-term written test, worked our way through 5 units of material including how to introduce oneself, navigate tasks of daily living, rent an apartment, get around town, go shopping, share a meal, conjugation in the present and passé composé, ins ands outs of masculine and feminine nouns, an endless variety of irritating pronouns and prepositions, all while attempting to pronounce this most unspeakable of languages.

We are the United Nations of French Classes, lacking only an Aussie and someone from the North or South pole for full continental representation, bonded together for the 2013-2014 school year by a twice-weekly adult education 240-hour method in beginner’s French. Some students speak French already, but having learned by ear can’t really read or write; they push the class along with wonderful language skills and true feel for the spoken language. Some of us work the books, learn the rules, study and push the academic part: our accents suck, we speak badly and hesitantly, but we can read, conjugate, and parse.

Some of us are forced by the Belgian authorities to take this class as part of promotion sociale, sent to class by the local Liege social services office to learn French in order to receive unemployment benefits, in the hope of finding employment and integrating into society. Mostly we are normal working people between the ages of 25 and 50: nurses, nursing home aides, teachers, high-tech gadget-bearing freaks, academics, hairdressers, cooks, factory workers, and at least one tap dancer.

My friend from Nigeria and I walk home sometimes together, our progress noted in conversations which over the course of five months have switched from all-English to mostly-French. He dropped out last month, after getting a better offer from the department of social services: now he gets paid a monthly stipend for attending daily lessons in a group of 10 students. Olubenga beamed as he told me the government was actually paying him 100 euros a month to learn French.

Madame B. plays the guitar and loves pop music, and last night an exercise involving subordinate clauses led to a discussion of Le Bossu de Notre Dame—always great to add ‘hunchback’ to your vocabulary in a new language—which led directly to she and my buddy Quanh humming a few bars of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Not one for pop music and especially not Disney— Walt ratted my grandfather out as a commie to the House Un-American Committee–I have to admit that the Belgo-Koreo-Vietnamese musical minute was nonetheless touching.

Why is it so hilarious to hear a non-native French speaker say, unintentionally, I took care of an apple, I understood my arms, or to greet a piece of fruit—hello, a melon—or the classic I fucked 10 times instead of ‘I lay down…’? We witty people in our native tongues have all taken turns attempting wit in French; it is not uncommon for us to utter something so completely incomprehensible that even the all-knowing Balthazar is speechless. When Q. changed a single letter, from place to plage, so that the windows on the courtyard suddenly looked out over the beach, the uproarious laughter made it seem like we were drunk at a comedy slam.

At certain key points in our linguistic journey, someone’s frustration hangs them up on a grammatical landmine, and it is then that the answer from Madame Balthasar remains invariable: ‘Because it’s French,’ she will sigh, apologetically or occasionally perturbed, but always sympathizing with our collective plight, angst, and desire for understanding. Questions lead to funny sidebars on expressions and aphorisms, and slowly we accumulate nuance as we mainly clobber the poor language. The road to true French takes a lifetime of study–we are after all mere debutants–but I am already looking forward to next year, because I will not give my tongue to the cat.

Félix’ Navidad 2013!

Not only tap dancers and families but the rest of the modern world descends on Barcelona for New Year's!

Not only tap dancers and families but the rest of the modern world descends on Barcelona for New Year’s!

If the Christmas ‘shitting log’ defecates a t-shirt for your infant son, and the hostess of the party explains that the figure on the shirt is a boy who gets eaten by a cow, and farted to freedom, you suspect your Spanish may be rusty, and then you realize you’re in Barcelona. In a culture where a figure taking a shit—the caganer–is an official part of every nativity scene, it only stands to reason that every child’s beloved Patufet is rescued from inside the cow by feeding the cow enough fibre to force the little man’s evacuation.

My trip here begins for the third year in a row with the Molins’ family celebration of Nadal (Christmas), highlighted by the most Catalan of rituals: the children beating the shit out of the Tió de Nadal (Christmas log, also called the Caga Tió, or shitting log)—a piece of wood which has been fattened up with nuts and dried fruits in the days before Christmas so that it will bountifully poop out presents for the family. The kids gather around the log, beating it with sticks as the family sings the Caga Tió and after the gifts–hidden under a discrete bolt of fabric–are gleefully distributed, the kids return to the bathroom to clean the imaginary shit from the sticks, while the grownups dutifully reload the log with another round of presents. When the presents are gone, the kids remove the cloth only to find a roll of toilet paper.

Mireia Font, friend for more than 20 years...

El Timbal’s Mireia Font, friend for more than 20 years…

More than 20 years ago I stumbled into Barcelona to teach a tap workshop at El Timbal, fell in love with the dancers, the city, the food, and Catalan culture. Between classes that very first year, a brilliant contemporary choreographer threw me on the back of his motorcycle and blasted me up to Montjuic to look over the city while eating lunch and having coffee. Over the next 8 years I taught 10 sweaty, intense, loud, hilarious, 2-week-long workshops, and deepened my love for the place and the people. Three years ago as my marriage was dissolving I met a woman who would become my second wife, and now we are here with our two-month old baby Félix. It is a city that occupies a profound spot in my heart and my experience of the world.

The brilliant David Batlló, taking time out from working on his new show.

The brilliant David Batlló, taking time out from working on his new show.

The young dancer Guillem Alonso–who connected me with that first workshop–grew up to become a brilliant practitioner of tap dance, a successful world-touring artist, and founder of one of the largest schools for tap dance in Europe. My workshop this year at Escola Luthier is not the biggest I have had, but the beginners are sweet, the intermediate group brings a great enthusiasm and work ethic to the room, and the advanced class conquers my ‘High Heelberman‘ ragtime dance in three sessions, rocking the room at the end of the third class with clarity, hilarity, gusto, and a cameraderie notable even after 25 years of teaching.

Self-motivated tap dancers work it out while the teacher sneaks around taking photos...

Self-motivated tap dancers work it out while the teacher sneaks around taking photos…

If the lyrics to When You’re Smiling suddenly involve something about ‘making pee-pee’, you know you’re in Catalunya. Dixieland is alive and well, as the Gumbo Jass Band plays four family concerts in the Caixa Forum auditorium. A one-hour workshop before the concert pays off in more than 50 kazoo-wielding kids joining the band at concert’s end to sing, riff, and, fantastically, improvise together on Saints Go Marchin’ In.  Coincidentally, three kids bring their horns which match the band’s front line—trombone, clarinet, and trumpet—and the trombone is actually as tall as the little guy who plays it. My Catalan is good enough to know that the lyrics to Baby Won’t You Please Come Home have also been abandoned, to reflect the fact that kids hate spinach, but love macaroni (Macarrons), sausage (Botifarra), and dessert (postres).

In Barcelona in 1993, tap dance was already well established. My classes were full of professional dancers with excellent abilities, starved for the chance to take something like a company class. There were musical theatre dancers, concert dancers, dancers who mixed contemporary dance with tap, dancers who had been child-stars: in short, an active, healthy, vibrant tap scene hungry for input. The Méndes brothers, Rafa and Lluís, were just beginning their 20 year run of original productions with percussionist Toni Español in a company called Camut Band, and I remember seeing that first show–a macho, funny, intimate, conversational take on tap involving dancing on huge drums, djembes, kitchen tables, and ribald theatricality.

Ho hum, another casa de Gaudí...

Ho hum, another casa de Gaudí…

So seeing Sonoritats, the new show from Camut Band, 20 years later, is quite a treat. Two musicians, six exceptional dancers, and one singer—who I last saw in my tap class 15 years ago!–come together to create multi-dimensional soundscapes, involving tap dance on metal sheets, a wooden stage, electronic platforms, a moving set of stairs, modern dance, live vocals with some electronic tricks, keyboard, drum set, homemade electric bass thingamajig—apparently the subject of the singers doctoral presentation–percussive clay pots, and astro-turf.

The most beautiful and surprising moment of the show involves Guillem with accomplished dancer and choreographer Sharon Lavi dancing soft shoe on the strip of artificial grass which stretches across the front of the stage. Behind them, two dancers–long-time pro Maria Bossy and exceptional newcomer Estefania Porqueras—move silently and rhythmically, accompanied by piano and drums. The moveable staircase serves alternately as dance space, tableau, set for the clay pot solo, and spot for a wonderful solo from Sharon.

You know you are in Catalunya when the greatest sand dancer—one of the finest tap artists—of the modern generation takes a turn on plastic grass. Guillem’s solo uses the sound of the plastic grass with a decaying delay effect, and turns into a duo with Toni Espanyol playing the homemade bass-thing. Tap dance on artificial turf with the drummer playing a bass which looks like a quadruple-long shoe box? That is an image that I won’t soon forget.

Camut Band's new show, Sonoritats, a feast of sights and sounds

Guillem Alonso atop the stairs in Camut Band’s new show, Sonoritats, a feast of sights and sounds

Everywhere we go, we lug Félix, who experiences at barely 8 weeks old a number of firsts: his first tap classes, music concert, tap dance show, Catalan Christmas, escalator ride, moving walkway, security check, airplane ride, tapas restaurant, subway ride, and meeting some of my favorite Barcelona people—the brilliant ball-bouncing tap dancer David Batllo, and dear Mireia Font who hired me for all those years in a row—along the way. He doesn’t really scream until the car ride home from Brussels airport, so we stop and feed him, and at home he spends about an hour totally inconsolable, before falling asleep.

We have spent two days in feverish preparation to import as much Catalan goodness as possible back to Liége, buying three types of manchego, chorizo, ham (pernil ibéric), tuna, bread, turrón, red wine, brandy, assorted vegetables as we get home on when all stores are closed, and ¾ of a kilo of my real obsession, pimientos del padrón. Little Félix freaking out cannot ruin our feast, and we take turns holding and carrying and calming him as we enjoy the tastes and memories of the wonderful week.

The only tragedy was we couldn't bring it ALL HOME!

The only tragedy was we couldn’t bring it ALL HOME!

I am upstairs in the bedroom working up a rage at the stupid fireworks outside my window, which have gone out of control, and getting ready to go tell those kids to shut the f**k up, when I look at the clock: 00:08, or 8 minutes into 2014. We missed it! I shout downstairs to Stéphanie, ‘we missed it,’ and she calls back, ‘missed what?’ We laugh and enjoy a moment that new parents everywhere can surely understand, and the new year is that much sweeter with the little man coming along for the ride.

Luggage, or baggage?

Luggage, or baggage?

American, dreaming?

The author in front of Liege City Hall with his new ID.

The author in front of Liege City Hall with his new ID.

The police officer feigned horror: “An American? Moving to Liege? But we all want to move there!” My wife Stephanie assured the officer, responsible for making home visits to confirm the stories of new emigrees in my neighborhood, that her American husband had in fact relocated to Belgium. But he could not quite get over it: “Is he SURE? Did he THINK about it?”

His reaction, it turns out, is pretty much the norm. Sightseeing and shopping downtown with my Mom and Pat a week ago—using my horrible French to translate—the small talk led to the same reaction. “Married to a Liegoise?” exclaimed the optician, while laughing, “Catastrophe!” A native of Montreal, it turned out, his partner in the shop was his wife of 30 years, also a Liege native.

The welcoming cleric at St. Paul’s Cathedral told us about the stained glass, and the art exhibit, and some other historical facts that went by rather quickly in French, and smiled broadly when I was outed as a new local: “The Liegois are intelligent and very nice,” he smiled, before rapping his knuckle against an enormous granite column, “But they have a head like THIS! No?”

We made a pilgrimage to a Belgian textile designer, Ariane Lespire, whose work is selling in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. My mother had a picture of her scarf, and it turns out her workshop is not only in Liege but on our daily bus route. We poked through the whimsy of hats, scarves, and other adornments, while chatting with the designer and congratulating her on the MOMA gig. “MOMA,” she said, “It’s a nice place, no?” As we were leaving, she shook her head and laughed at the notion that an American had actually come here to live—the third person of the day to echo the same sentiment.

Most recently, the fruit store guy got in on the act. Working quicker than any psychiatrist you will ever meet, it took him about one minute to learn that Stephanie and I had met in Barcelona, were expecting a baby, that I was learning French in a local continuing ed. program, and that I had relocated from America. “But we all want to go there!” he said. “You know, the American Dream!”

While the locals obsess about the American Dream, I have been getting Belgian: in addition to regular consumption of gaufre de Liege (Liege-style waffles, not to be confused with the Brussels version) and boulet frites (meatballs in a sweet sauce, served with piles of fries), I have a Belgian Identity Card, a student ID, a bank account, and health insurance.

Each time Stephanie pulls out a 50 euro note ($62 US dollars, more or less) to pay for the gynecologist visit/ultrasound to check on the baby, I feel like I am on Mars. I called Cambridge Hospital early in the pregnancy to find out about the cost of an initial exam and ultrasound, and not only was the person in the billing office unable to quote a price, he was unable to understand my question, and the hospital never responded with a quote. A little googling reveals an average cost for a single pregnancy ultrasound in my old zip code–without accompanying doctor visit–at $1300. Multiply that times the six ultrasounds we’ve had here so far…

Perversely—and I write this as a long-time and fervent supporter–Planned Parenthood, which seemed the obvious call as we were planning our parenthood, offered us no medical support at all. A lengthy discussion with the Boston headquarters suggested that our only option for an ultrasound there was to go in and pretend we wanted to terminate the pregnancy!

In Liege in our first visit the GYN doctor very clearly summarized her fees for following the pregnancy and delivery. She estimated the total for her prenatal care, delivery, and hospital charges at 2,000 Euros ($2800), against an American total of more than $16,000. Last week, in an intake visit with a midwife at the delivering hospital, the very helpful sage-femme (wise woman!) went over a booklet the hospital provides, a comprehensive guide for new parents. Imagine my shock: there in black and white was a whole section called ‘How much it costs.’

Perusing the xeroxed cost-list of having a baby, I could no longer listen to anything the midwife said. I just stared at the page, at the prices which seemed surreal: for example, $188 for a shared hospital room for four days, including a medication supplement. The annual premium for our health care is 120 euros for Stephanie, myself, and soon the kid as well. $168 per year for a family of three. We purchased an expensive ‘single room supplement’ which costs twice the price of the actual policy, and will allow us privacy during the hospital stay (and which we will cancel after the birth). Still, including the supplement, total annual cost of health care coverage for three: $530/year. (By comparison, for the move to Belgium I had picked up an international catastrophic care policy, premiums approximately $1000/year, with a $5000 deductible. Bye, bye, catastrophic care…)

I had my first doctor’s visit yesterday, with a dermatologist who examined me, confirmed a diagnosis, and charged 40 euros ($52). At the pharmacy, the three medications he prescribed came to a total of 9 euros and change, which S’ discount card brought down to 5 euros ($7). The fee I paid the doctor, as well as the 50 euro payments for each GYN visit, are partially reimbursed by our Belgian health care. So while we do not have 100 percent coverage, we have access to health care that is comprehensive, affordable, priced transparently and in line with real wages and salaries.

Meanwhile back to the American Dream: the Republican fringe is threatening to shut down the US government in a last-ditch effort to derail universal health care, and the Koch brothers have mounted a perverse and insidious ad campaign to try and sabotage the system by convincing young healthy people not to enroll in the new health plan. The same politicians have also rallied to cut food assistance for the needy, and staunchly defend the right of every citizen to carry a weapon. Can there be a more cynical public policy in the world? Starve ’em, let them get sick, and shoot ’em.

I am sitting here in Belgium thinking that a significant portion of the US population has been lobotomized; or rather, would have been lobotomized, if the costs were known and the procedure affordable.

(click here for a brilliant op-ed from Britain’s the Guardian on gun control).

(click here for a NYT piece detailing one man’s trip to Belgium for a hip replacement.

Great Feasts of Feet

Big, tasty, and served with an amazing vinaigrette.

Big, tasty, and served with an amazing vinaigrette.

On this eighth and last day of my summer teaching tour Gerard prepares steak frites a la maison—steak, french fries, and a tomato salad with sublime vinaigrette—and afterwards, sleeping seems the only option. Refreshed after a red-meat-and-red-wine induced blackout, I plan my last day’s classes; after classes tonight in Brussels I will hop the train at Bruxelles gare centrale back to Liege. It is a tossup at this point if I have spent more time tap dancing or eating grand meals in the last week, but the overwhelming hospitality of my hosts in Regensberg and Brussels has greatly enhanced my time in tap shoes–of that I am sure.

In historic Regensberg, Germany, the workshop weekend begins with saltimboca, prepared by Annette and Peter with gourmet simplicity gleaned from years of cooking and traveling in Italy. I am dispatched to the garden to pick one last sage leaf which sits atop the veal cutlets and prosciutto; served with roasted potatoes and a simple salad, the elegant meal sets a fine standard for the week to come. A single class on Friday night with the intermediate group is a good way to ease back into the classroom after a few months without teaching; Annette has asked me to teach this group Buster Brown’s Laura.

While the steps in Busters opus aren’t that hard, the tempo makes the dance difficult. Thanks to the ‘amazing slowdowner’ all tempo problems can be solved, and after some initial grunts and groans, the class takes to the challenge. Over the three days they learn half of the dance, I teach Annette the rest between sessions–and leave it for her on video–so she can finish the project with them in the fall months. It is a good feeling to leave a piece of classic repertory with a community, to know that small pockets of tap junkies will have such good food for their feet.

It is, however, difficult to understand as a teacher why some people will pay good money for a workshop and then refuse help from the teacher with whom they have come to study. At one point I take a step toward the back of the room to help one of the group learning Laura–a woman I have seen a few times over the years–and she actually RUNS AWAY FROM ME. It is such a shocking disruption to the calm and sweet setting of the class that I pantomime an ‘escape route’ back to the front of the class, hugging the walls of the studio in order to stay as far away from her as possible. By the time I get back to the front of the room, we are all laughing.

My German skills having reignited pretty quickly, I spend a few minutes with the two teenagers in the group praising them for taking a workshop with only their second teacher, and impressing upon them the importance of having as many teachers as possible. It is fairly philosophical stuff, and inspirational, and I feel good that my language skills have enough nuance to be able to communicate deeply with the young people. As I finish my motivational discourse, one of the teens responds, in English: ‘Can we take a picture with you after the class?’ Later, Annette says, ‘that was the highest praise of all. Imagine if they didn’t want to take their picture with you?’

Annette and Peter cook incredible meals every day—including an authentic Italian eggplant parmigiano that really makes me regret everything about American parm as I have known it. Another meal includes enormous artichokes, and pasta with pesto fresh-made from garden basil. The food, always paired with spectacular wine. At some points over the weekend I wonder if I will be able to emerge from my ongoing food coma to teach any tap dance at all.

Annette has also requested that I create a fifth section of my waltz to the tune Tenderly, so in between luxury meals and the luxury accommodations of Regensberg’s nicest hotel, I also have the luxury of plenty of time in a studio with she and her two best dancers. Over two two-hour sessions we review the material she has taught to them, and I give them the new steps fresh-made on the train ride from Nürnberg. Feeling like a king with a pair of tap shoes is not really my normal working sensation, but I would say this: I don’t mind it at all!

It has been a while since I traveled in Europe in the summer. Trains are jammed, backpackers are sitting on the floor as nearly all seats are reserved, and on the first leg of my journey I couldn’t even board the car where my seat was reserved as piled luggage blocked the doorway. My 7-hour trip from Regensberg to Brussels turns into a 12-hour ordeal as I arrive on the platform in Frankfurt just in time to see a woman beating on the doors of the departing ICE train as it pulls away without us. The Deutsche Bahn employee behind counter number 12 doesn’t believe that my late train was late enough to cause me to miss the connection; this puts my German to a more serious test and I come up with, ‘Excuse me, but I am not an Olympic athlete.’ She reissues the ticket, huffing all the way, and I arrive in Brussels an hour before my first class begins.

Even gourmands have their limitations:  two words that should never be combined are 'fleisch' and 'salat'!

Even gourmands have their limitations: two words that should never be combined are ‘fleisch’ and ‘salat’!

Gregoire Vandersmissen has offered me his own summer workshop this year, as he knows I am looking for work and trying to establish myself in my new home. Gregoire could not be more generous, offering contacts and support and this much-needed week of work. His Fred Academy in Brussels is a bustling dance school with many teachers and styles of dance; he generously shares his space and his students with me and his years of knowledge about running a non-profit in Belgium with Stephanie. The workshop is a five day, three-level affair; from Monday-Friday, 3 one-hour classes each night back to back beginning at 6:30.

From Sunday in Germany to Monday in Belgium I find myself in tap classes speaking English, German, French, Dutch, and Spanish. On the second night in Brussels my beginners are bugging me; faced with a little difficulty and an awkward step, some of them are acting like babies. The dissent gets fiercer, until I have had enough. In French I manage to say, ‘I am not in agreement with your mentality at this moment.’ This breaks the tension, and I refocus the collective energy on the specific tasks needed to learn the simple step. By the next night, that step is a winner, and the energy in the class is fantastic.

There is a certain stiffness that will prevent an adult recreational dancer from ever moving beyond ‘beginner.’ Little lessons on bending the knees, animating the legs, and picking up the feet, pay huge dividends. After some basic work on time steps the beginners were grooving, musically and physically, and for some of them years of collected tap tension was released, at least for an evening. The pain of one bad tap sound so inhibits people from moving freely that they are unable to move at all, and the stiffness just makes the whole problem worse.

I do not understand why people teach adults that a ‘step’ can only be done correctly on the ball of the foot. Everywhere I go I find adults falling all over themselves unable to balance on the balls of their feet, unable and unwilling to put their whole feet on the floor. In Brussels my beginners class looks at me like they are children, and I have just told them there is no Santa Claus, when I ask them to use their whole foot to stand rather than the toes. The goal with adult beginners is to get people comfortable moving, making sounds, and creating rhythms. None of these people walk around on their tiptoes all day long, so why should they have to do it in tap shoes after a long day at work, especially when it looks and feels so terribly awkward? Did I miss the memo that outlawed the flat foot on the floor?

My third day in Brussels, I walk in the heat for nearly two hours: after buying a train ticket at Central Station I pass through the Grand Place and over to the Brussels Canal, along an amazing row of ethnic food warehouses with enormous vats of olives and preserved lemons, and finally up the Boulevard d’Anvers where I score a newspaper. I have to walk, after Gerard’s fantastic lunch of roast pork and an eggplant-tomato-cheese casserole. It is my second fabulous eggplant dish in 5 days, and marks the midway point of this eating orgy occasionally spelled by hours in tap shoes.

The classes in Brussels are fun. The first two levels turn into technique-camps, with exercises and steps all geared toward swinging skill building. The third level works on the waltz, and is a mix of good amateur dancers and wonderful professionals. I am reminded, constantly, that a dance only looks as good as the people doing it, and several times over the week Gregoire and Sharon really make the dance look beautiful. It is a long dance, and rhythmically nuanced, and the brief moments of glory fade into the background as rhythm-fatigue plagues the group. By Thursday night both higher level classes have had enough, and unusually for a workshop setting, I simply review and review and review the material of the week, and teach nothing new.

Five days of the intensive turn out to be, well, intense. I see skills improve daily in the classes, but by the fifth night I also see brains swimming in too much rhythm, tap-overload-syndrome clearly an issue for people who normally dance once a week. With a soupçon of new material for each level, and a lot of gentle review, the week ends quietly and undramatically, classes end at 9:45 and I walk the 10 minutes to gare central.  Peanut butter on crackers, delicately prepared on board the 10:35 to Liege and served with a little bag of potato chips, ends the 8 days of feasting.  It is a sweet feeling just after midnight when I unlock the door to my new home.


Here at the gulag:  moving morceaux de béton, studying French, even practicing tap dancing...

Here at the gulag: moving morceaux de béton, studying French, even practicing tap dancing…

If it ain’t Baroque….

Two days after moving to Liege I found myself in a small town, Hannut, in a small concert hall in what seemed to be a school. The room was hot, and with jet lag I fell asleep immediately–and repeatedly–although Stephanie would squeeze my thigh to wake me back up. The guitar-led quartet was wonderful, original compositions and interesting arrangements. After a Coke to perk myself up at the ‘petite pause‘, and with the door open to let some fresh air in for the second set, I fared much better. During intermission S.’ friends all began speaking French, to me, and to each other, and I felt the familiar nightmare of being basically unable to understand, speak, or respond intelligently. A sympathetic young woman talked to me in English about her doctoral studies involving the vocal chords, and how her boyfriend refused to follow her to Cincinnati for her post-doc. I did not follow any of the guitarist’s introductory remarks, which seemed quite dry but elicited a lot of laughter from the crowd, except for one particular song, involving ‘Brazil’, ‘Classical’, ‘Samba’, and ‘Baroque’.

Sarcasm (comes easy in every language)

I can’t reliably speak or understand very much without slow, sympathetic speakers and listeners, but when it comes time to make fun of my new wife’s theory of why dark closets with extra space are healthier for clothes, I can ramble on in French for a few minutes. Who knows why sincerity seems so much more difficult? When it comes to vulgarity, obscenity, and mockery, my French is improving by leaps and bounds.


As two workmen settled in to my new backyard to destroy some bricks and get rid of some plexiglass overhang, I scampered down into the center of Liege for an exercise walk. After buying lemons and black pepper in the grocery store, I walked for another hour before heading toward the massive and famous staircase–the Montagne de Bueren—that leads up toward my house. I tried to count the steps, largely organized in sections of 9 or 10 with at least one set of 11—but after 100 I lost track. At the top an old timer was just finishing the climb and taking a rest on a bench. Recognizing the massive trek in my limited French I gasped, ‘Beaucoup,’ and he offered up a number I didn’t understand. I asked, in French, “WHEN?” The great thing about language is that context is everything, the old-timer knew what I meant–‘How many’–and he didn’t miss a beat in answering, ‘about 360’. (Maybe he said, ‘370’; Wikipedia puts the step-count at 374.)

Man with Dog

As I begin my trek to the grocery store in the rain, a man smoking a cigarette and walking a small white dog begins to chatter at me from across the street. I have no idea what he is saying, and my ‘panic’ button goes off, so rather than mutter ‘Sorry, I don’t understand’–which may deepen an interaction with this stranger, who seems, well, strange—I try to walk faster. He keeps chattering to my back as I disappear around the bend. Was he strange, or just speaking French?  I am the stranger.

Yuppie Survival

I plan the 6 mile round-trip trek in the rain to go to what we call ‘le BoBo‘ (Bourgeois Bohème) so that I can get the organic meat for my meatballs. Determined not to let moving to the rainiest part of Europe depress me, I am thrilled to have my first opportunity to use my new rain poncho. At le Bobo I manage to order two kinds of cheese, converse about which goat cheese is made from pasteurized milk, order ¾ of a kilo of the ‘haché melange‘ of pork and beef, and complain in a friendly manner to the cashier about the world’s flimsiest plastic containers for olives. Really, I have been in a lot of gourmet paradise stores all over the world, and never seen anything as stupid as a self-service olive container that dissolves in the shopping cart BEFORE you get to the checkout. I consider yuppie entitlement about bad olive holders a fine sign of progress for my French.

One week in…

Since landing last week in Belgium and beginning to settle into Walloon life, I have had two evenings with my new and wonderful in-laws, one ultrasound appointment with S.’ obstetrician to check on the progress of the baby, one dinner with a pair of Stephanie’s classical music colleagues, one jazz concert narrated in French, two solo trips to grocery stores (including an extended shopping conversation in the wonderful store on my street run by the friendly madame who empathizes deeply with my linguistic travails), made coffee for a guy working on the house, and listened to some hours of French radio. Most notably after some hours of listening to French and trying to understand anything, I am exhausted, but even in just over a week I can tell a difference in my comprehension.

The talking is still horrible, the pronunciation a wreck, but one thing is clear: if you want to eat, you will learn the language.

Joyeux anniversaire

I have never been a big fan of my birthday, but birthdays come whether you want them or not, and today I am 47. I am homesick and missing my friends and family terribly, but after two weeks the ‘immersion program in French for life’ is really working. I have had simple French conversations with strangers in the last few days, and my comprehension has grown exponentially.

This week I have dubbed my new home ‘the gulag’ and spent much of the last few days clearing the backyard of a considerable mound of concrete rubble. It irritates me to no end that morceaux (piece) properly refers to fromage, chocolat, and also, sadly, concrete rubble. French-speaking Belgians, famed for indirectness, seem to have developed an entire lexicon around ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘frankly’; I have listened to great portions of conversations consisting of elaborate arrangements of oui and non, with copious doses of franchement (‘honestly’ or ‘frankly’). At times so many people are throwing in doses of ‘honestly’ that it begs the question: if honesty and frankness need qualifiers, are most conversations here lies?

For my birthday I get a day off from the gulag–no moving of ‘morceaux de béton’ (pieces of concrete)–although S. and I will make a trip to the town dump to get rid of stuff we cleaned out of the attic. We continue to get the house ready for the arrival of my stuff from America and for the little baby boy coming our way in November—the doctor last week having deftly located the pénis, or bite (cock) with the experienced wave of the ultrasound wand.

There is a little garden house buried deep in my new backyard, just tall enough to stand in and just big enough for my 4′ by 6′ bamboo tap mat. So I have got a seasonal practice room up and going, and with a little wifi speaker have music playing as well. I have been getting back into dancing shape for some workshops beginning next week in Regensburg and Brussels. This week I will be working on some new choreography. No one talks to me in French while I am dancing. Honestly, it is a relief.

Boston Marathon 2013

Boston Marathon 2013 began like every other, runners and fans in peaceful common pursuit. photo J. Hilberman

Boston Marathon 2013 began like every other, runners and fans in peaceful common pursuit.
photo J. Hilberman

The bombings at the Boston Marathon were cruel enough. But the calls for citizens to become the eyes and ears of a new ‘Security States of America’ blame the victims and insult the very openness that makes us who we are. On NPR, a military trainer talked about how when a person goes out for a walk in their neighborhood they should, casually, also keep an eye out for ‘suspicious activities.’ For my money you can start with notifying the authorities that more than 20,000 people chose to run more than 26 miles—for most of us, running a marathon is a suspicious activity indeed.

Increasingly, in modern urban culture, making eye contact and talking to the people around you are suspicious activities. But at the Marathon, it’s what happens: I spent three hours watching the Marathon around mile 24 on Monday, and got to know three different stories of the people I had simply decided to stand near. Two Midwestern women, one young and one middle-aged–strangers to each other–were waiting for their fiancee and husband to run by, and an elderly Canadian couple waited for their son to come by in his 11th Boston race.

The crowd at Boston, famous worldwide for enthusiasm, lines the entire course and dedicates a good portion of lung power–sometimes enduring truly disgusting weather conditions–toward cheering the runners on home. We scream for the wheelchairs, the breathtaking elite front-running men and women, the fast, the not so fast, and then the throngs of people who by mile 24 and the fourth hour look suspiciously like ourselves–frumpy, pained, off-kilter, and maniacal—except that they are in the middle of Beacon Street with numbers on and ultra-bright shoes, and we are banging noisemakers and cowbells as the police keep backing us off of the course. They write names on their jerseys, and we scream: ‘Go Army’, ‘Attaboy, Ken’, ‘Looking good, Mom.’

Three teenagers—any group of teens, immediately suspect–push in front of the short, anxious, Midwestern fiancee: rude crowd behavior anywhere. They edge onto the course and begin trying to high-five the hypoglycemic saps who are stumbling onward. I nearly intervene, but something stops me. The lankiest teen begins reporting how many ‘high fives’ and at some point he is up to 30. The runners love it! I watch in amazement as high-five after high-five comes from the runners to the three teens, who are howling with laughter. They are partying, and their party is giving energy to the runners.

We are all partying, and giving energy to the runners, and getting energy from the runners. It is one of the truly beautiful days of the many marathons I have watched, a little cold at times but mostly sunny and dry—a glorious Boston spring day. Two of my three new friends from out of town see their people run by–the husband actually stumbles over for a kiss—and they do what all the ‘support personnel’ do: hop on the ‘T’ and head down to the finish line. I am hoping to watch the fiancee greet her husband-to-be, but after three-and-a-half hours I decide to shove off, on my bike, and leave that chapter unfinished.

Riding through Kenmore Square—the first time in 25 years I have dared to take this route—I encounter the largest frat party I have ever seen. Thousands of college kids drunk in the streets and nearly incoherent, stumbling over to the lightly-barricaded median of Beacon Street, screaming for the runners: group binge drinking is a behavior I have found suspicious since I was a teenager. But at the Boston Marathon, it’s just another part of the course, not far from the historic finish on Boylston Street.

The Marathon divides the city into North and South for most of the day. You can get around the race by driving 30 miles West, or right downtown. I ride a few blocks past the finish line and circle back to to meet my friend Kathleen for coffee. On the way I see a few people wearing the familiar mylar blankets, given post-race to avoid hypothermia, and the spectacular 2013 blue and yellow participant’s jackets. I offer congratulations from my bike, and weary but content runners smile or say ‘thanks.’ I cycle past parked buses with the runner’s clothes all bagged and waiting for post-race pickup.

After coffee, cycling home, throngs of out-of-towners either led or trailed by a marathoner, are jaywalking. As a biker, the thrill begins to fade back into a more normal sense of my city: these people who don’t know where they are going, or how to cross the street, they are like one big suspicious activity. I don’t notice the transition, but the good cheer of my inner marathon-watcher collides directly with the jaded, 25-years-in-Boston traffic curmudgeon. Great job, runners, now get the hell out of my way!

Out of the crowd, down a relatively empty city artery, and over the Mass. Ave Bridge. From the bridge, Boston on one side, and Cambridge waiting for me, the city is most glorious: river, trees, skyline, sun, boats, a few Marathoners walking back to their hotels, pedestrians, bikers. And then: BOOOOOM! The blast is unbelievably loud. I have been waiting all day for the Air Force Thunderbirds to fly over, which normally happens around 11 AM, and think it must be them. A quick sky check reveals nothing. People on the bridge stop and turn and look back. I keep riding.

Home, I hit Google to see who won the race, and the computer is buzzing with ‘explosions at the marathon.’ Without a TV—to some people not just suspicious but unfathomable–I have to phone a friend: I call Pat and ask her to turn hers on. She begins a series of gruesome reports, which just get worse as day fades into evening. I need ice cream and companionship, so I pick up a pint of chocolate and head over to my mother’s place to watch some TV.

My phone rings. My student, Joan, is calling to say she is OK, but not sure she will make our lesson in the morning. She begins to weep as she tells me she was standing in front of Marathon Sports, directly where the first bomb exploded, waiting for two friends to cross the finish line, and walked away only minutes before the blast. She heard the boom, the screams, saw the people running, began to run herself, until she was safely home, a few blocks away. She doesn’t know why she walked away when she did, and she wonders about the people she had just met: in that instant they have gone from new Marathon comrades to the injured, the dead, the amputees.

Joan loves the sweet frozen dessert substance from Tasty D-Lite. I find that totally suspicious: how many chemicals have to go into a flavor list that is longer than the phone book? How can you get a dessert that has basically no calories, and why is that desirable? Did Tasty D-Lite, with their scientifically engineered and expertly portioned dessert substitute, save her life by providing the exact right amount for her to finish, marking a moment for her to leave the scene?

Joan is back in tap shoes the next morning, we are hard at work on Carnell Lyons’ two-chorus Paddle and Roll. After a sleepless night, and with a brain that has not stopped churning, she is smiling when the hour-and-a-half is up. Tap dancers know: it’s like meditation, the quiet, peaceful state the brain finds after making all that noise.

At lunch yesterday with a friend, a marathoner sits gingerly at the table next to us. Instead of my usual ‘congratulations,’ offered for 25 years, I ask, ‘Did you finish?’ Nearly 5,000 runners had the surreal experience of being unable to complete the race, more than 25 miles in. He says, ‘Yes’. Then I ask, in the race parlance, ‘First Boston?’ Again, ‘Yes’. Before two days ago, the marathoners were simply high-achievers engaged in a suspiciously obsessive pursuit deserving congratulations, now they and I and the city and the injured: we are all survivors. I mumble half-congrats, half-apologies, and he keeps saying, ‘I’m leaving tonight.’ Me and my lunch date, we live here, we’re staying. And the dead?

Yesterday, I take a long walk along the Cambridge side of the Charles river, spending some time in contemplation of the city I have called home for all these years and am about to leave. Boats are sailing, runners are out, traffic is backed up in both directions over the Mass. Ave Bridge. With each siren’s wail I wonder if it is just ‘normal’ emergency sounds, or if it relates to terrorism.

I walk back through Central Square, Cambridge–a hotbed of suspicious activity at all times day or night. A small Asian woman walks toward me carrying a box, out of which emerges a plastic Christmas tree with lights on it, and I think: Christmas tree bomber? Should I alert someone? As I stare at her my eyes go into Dunkin’ Donuts, where a woman is dipping soft sandwich rolls into a Tupperware container filled with a tomato-meat sauce: isn’t that illegal, bringing sloppy joes into Dunkin’ Donuts? And even if it isn’t illegal, isn’t it disgusting? Should I go into Dunkin’ Donuts and tell the manager that there is a woman with an alien meat substance and immigrant bread, sitting in the window for all the world to see?

Every day last week the US news was filled with domestic terror, shutdowns of community colleges with suspected gunmen, mass stabbings, hostage situations. Yesterday as the main news focused on Boston, another college shutdown due to alleged gunman snuck under the radar. The killing-spree has become the new normal, and it is pretty clear that the maniacal defense of ‘our right to bear arms’ has created a new pathology, a breed of killers with warped minds and easy access to munitions. I find the zealous defense of our right to buy and sell unregulated assault rifles one of the most suspicious activities of all.

Meanwhile, just after the bomb blasts go off in Boston, a bystander tackles a man of Saudi descent who was running from the explosions. The Saudi gets hospitalized, interrogated, his apartment gets searched, his roommates get questioned for hours, and several days later it turns out: he was doing what everybody reasonable person on Boylston Street was doing, running for their lives. Fleeing an explosion with dark skin, a suspicious activity?

I remain horrified by Monday’s Marathon bombing, but equally horrified at the thought of a populace composed of citizen vigilantes–untrained, fearful, and increasingly armed people who nervously scour their personal domains for ‘suspicious activities.’ Terrorists win when the population gives in to fear.

About one thing there is no doubt: Boston will beef up security and the amazing Marathon will continue to be the region’s greatest day of the year, for years to come.

And I will keep on tap dancing, maybe the most suspicious activity of all.

Speaking in Tongues

C'est tres dificil!Photo P. Baleine

C’est tres dificil!
Photo P. Baleine

Not knowing the language of the place you are can have the effect of making a person feel stupid beyond compare. I noticed this on my first solo travels twenty years ago, after a few weeks in France without being able to communicate anything of importance to the people I met—at the jazz festival, in the market, new friends—I felt like the dumbest person on the face of the earth. Then it dawned on me, as so many obvious things ‘hit’ us sometimes: I wasn’t dumb, but not knowing the language really made me ignorant.

I walked around Paris for a week trying to get bottled water by walking into a store and saying, “O”, without a single success that didn’t finally involve me pulling the water out of the case myself. At the small hotel in Toulon, the absolutely bizarre waiter at breakfast refused to serve the musicians who were staying there—even though we were the only guests, and we all gathered together at the table at the same time every morning—unless we walked into the kitchen individually and uttered the words, “Petite dejeuner.” Then we would get stale baguette, butter, jam, and a small coffee–but only after the magic phrase. At least I learned my first words, and more or less my last, words of French, and figured out that language was not really something to ignore while traveling.

On early trips to Germany age was a dividing line: people under 30 might speak some English, but people older than 30 probably didn’t. To get the best bread in the world from any of the old women who staffed the incredible bakeries, it was clear that I would need to learn German. I bought an out-of-date primer from Schoenhofs in Harvard Square—one of the best stores anywhere—and used my time off on the road to study.

“German: How to Speak and Write it,” by Joseph Rosenberg, turned out to be a classic of the genre, and in it’s old-fashioned, sexist, beer-oriented stereotypical scenarios and dialogues, was way more helpful and appealing than any of the ‘modern’ methods I tried and discarded. The new methods had you pronounce all 27 direct and indirect objects, and then said, ‘Now use them correctly in sentences.’ Rosenberg showed a glass of beer, and asked you: ‘Is the glass half full, or half empty?’

A particularly horrifying scenario showed a beautiful blonde woman and a brunette, face pock-marked by spots and looking bad. The dialogue between two men read, “Do you see that woman? Isn’t she beautiful?” “Which do you mean, the blonde or the brunette?” “Oh, the blonde is beautiful but the brunette is ugly!” I had great pleasure sharing this passage with my dark-haired colleagues over the few years I traveled with the book, but even as the sexism and stereotypes were painfully transparent, the book was an amazing guide to learning German. After some extended tours, while working through the first hundred pages of the book 4 or 5 times—I never came close to finishing—I had a decent level of conversational German at my disposal, that has only gotten better, slowly, over the years.

The strange thing about coming and going from a place regularly is that every time I leave Germany for home my German is at a good and comfortable level, and every time I return to Germany it is almost like I have never spoken. But after a few days, or a few weeks, there is a moment when the language-faucet is turned back ‘on’ again, and German comes tumbling out of my mouth. I determined early on that German was way too complicated to ever speak correctly, and that it was either ‘bad, conversational German’ or ‘No German at all.’ So it is not exactly poetry that emerges, but I have no stress in restaurants, stores, train stations, post offices, and most importantly, those delicious bakeries.

Sometimes on stage German has come out of my mouth almost as though I were fluent. I have emceed shows without ever resorting to English for more than a word or two. Sometimes, the stress of the moment makes it seem as if I really can’t speak at all. The savvy performer adapts: on the recent show in Mannheim, after only a few days in Germany and mostly speaking English for the four days of rehearsal, I tried to speak some German into the microphone and nothing comprehensible emerged. I greatly reduced my speaking at the microphone and mixed in a lot of loud, slow, English.

Along my travels, I have picked up some Dutch, although learning a language where the pot flows freely may have played a role in limiting how much Dutch I have ever remembered. But I can more or less follow Dutch conversations. I have also learned some Catalan, from all the time in Barcelona, and some random phrases in from Swiss and Austrian German. From three fantastic summer workshops in Helsinki and a small town nearby, I can still say ‘Good evening, ladies and gentleman,’ and the Finnish equivalent of ‘Bon apetit.’ Spanish takes a few days, but returns to some level of fluency when I am there. I credit the early trips to Mexico where my mother says I could ask for ‘tortillas with peanut butter’, and Ellen Finkelstein, my fabulous Spanish teacher for three years beginning when I was 13.

As my life has taken a romantic turn with a French-speaking Belgian, I have had to confront a two-decade phobia of French. Back at Schoenhof’s last March, I picked up the Assimil French with Ease for English speakers, and began a slow, painful course of self-study. French, for a person who speaks Spanish and German, has some serious pronunciation issues. Many letters appear on the page that are never, or sometimes, or only in specific instances, pronounced; and figuring out the ‘whys’ of pronunciation has at times seemed like it might be a lifetime study quite separate from actually just understanding the words. When the book introduced the letter ‘t’ as a part of the language only used to make things ‘sound right’, my studies almost ended in protest. As an who artist creates things only because they ‘sound right’ I was not amused at all that an entire lexicon might do the same thing.

Anyway, all anti-French biases having slowly been worked out of my system, there have actually been a few small moments of triumph. Late one night when Stephanie said something that set me off, an obscene and hilarious monologue came out of my mouth that seemed like it might never end. We were both shocked. Her classic response–“So NOOOOOW you speak French”–has become a relationship theme. Meeting her parents has been frustrating, although her mother speaks some English and we get around in German a little, but communications between us have been limited.

But in January, after a few weeks of French-immersion in this Wallony city of Liege, we had dinner together and I was able to understand the conversation for most of the night, and speak rather normally, and be understood. Her father was amazed that after speaking basically no French in our previous meetings, it appeared that I could speak some French. I was ecstatic. Two weeks later, after 8 days working in Germany and Holland, the French tap had been firmly shut off and I sat glumly with her mom and dad and watched as they leaned in closer, trying to make any sense of the ill-pronounced mumbo jumbo coming out of my mouth. NOOOOW, two short weeks after my triumph, I no longer spoke French.

Yesterday I forced myself, for reasons of geographic awareness and to overcome my xenoglossophobia of French, to go on a solo mission into downtown Liege. The lifelong need for good coffee and good food can absolutely trump neurosis, and I can report absolute success in the coffee store, where I asked for and received espresso and decaf-espresso, ground for stovetop espresso-maker; and in the health food store, where I even managed to spell Stephanie’s last name in French for the frequent-buyer discount program at the cash register. OK, so I got a little lost carrying my kilos of groceries back up the endless hill to the house, but at least I had my Iphone handy and didn’t have to ask directions…