The idiot sponge

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 08.06.2018

To Americans, there is one variety of expatriate more villainous than any other. He usually lives in Paris, lyricising every urban stench into a perfume and taking long, contemplative walks which are very slow because he is too awestruck to bear being rushed. He worships culture, which to him is a feeling rather than actual knowledge of music, mode, or mythology. After just months abroad his pronunciation goes wonky, which is the final, telling symptom: he is a snob. Ah, it would be so nice to push him down the stairs.

We might term this unfortunate figure an “idiot sponge” because he fancies himself absorbent of culture and society, while being in truth nothing but an idiot. He needs a good squeeze, to flush out his pretensions, but sadly this cannot be done. Worse, he persists. In fact, he is quite old, at least a century, as he turns up in a Canadian newspaper from 1902: in a so-called modern fable published in The Daily Colonist, an artsy flirt called Alec goes to “Paree” (the spelling itself already mocking him) and returns with even his dimmest shades of character utterly stultified:

“One Year in the Home of Art had weaned Alec away from the Simple Joys of the Middle West. He was all the time hollering because he could not get Garlic in his Food. He wore a Velveteen Coat and smoked Fumigato Cigarettes and read French Novels.”

“Father looked him over and went for the Ax, but Mother talked him out of it.”

In my own history

A hundred years later, distasteful as it is to admit, my own young self got trapped in this very fable. Picture, if you will, my Midwestern university town on a hot May afternoon, shaken free the dusts of winter. Students are picnicking merrily in the park, and all worldly cares have been massaged into the dim euphoria of buzzing bugs and springtime heat.

There I am, sitting in this masterwork, but only in body. My mind has been dimensionalised by travel, suspended by worldliness. To me the scene is simple, pedestrian—my peers’ levity is attributable to their possessing a doglike state of unenlightenment. Charitably, I crave their stupidity but, alas, am thwarted by my own sophistication. There is simply too much culture burdening my psyche to care. Angrily, I spread brie on a cracker.

I have returned home from abroad.

From the outside, a snob is a snob. But inside the idiot sponge, there is a tiny world in the brain, a busy city of fiction pulsing to the beat of divine possibility. Mine had the shape of Dublin, as that is where I had been, and it had everything: history, ceremony, mythology, and best of all human creatures wholly unlike me, simply by being Irish or Belgian or Italian. My fictive city was a layered, dark, thick fantasy realm, where one flourish of detail suggested a thousand more trembling under the surface. I loved it. It wasn’t Dublin, but I loved it. In it, nothing was embarrassing, everything made sense, everyone had roles. Even sneery Irish bus drivers and the European flu became rosy, formative agents of subplot in the greatest story imaginable: mine.

In hindsight

A decade later, at a wedding cocktail in Luxembourg, I meet a Luxembourgish idiot sponge just home from Toronto. He composes himself to me as an inhabitant not of the country but of the world, slipping French into his English and English into his Luxembourgish. As we sip Crémant, I have to steady him when he nearly faints, so disgusted is he by his own wretched ability to identify the drink’s make by its taste alone. From this he extrapolates several mortal flaws innate to all Luxembourgers.

I recognise this character, of course, but he gives me pause. I reflect. The idiot sponge is indeed idiotic, perhaps because he always manages to defeat himself, to get trapped in an image that only he can see. Not that travel is without value, of course, but for us idiots it isn’t really about travel, i.e. the plainspoken merits of a faraway place, as much as it’s about newness. Newness is a commodity. Newness, if you wrap it tightly around yourself, could maybe serve as a rich coat of personality—and a certain vulnerable type feels like he needs one. This is why Alec hollers for garlic, why I still kind of revere Guinness, why my little expat buddy coos over how progressive Canadians apparently are. You’re scared to leave because it means removing that coat of context, so you strike a deal with yourself: you will forever remain a citizen of this novel, dizzying metropolis, and return home only as a visiting protagonist bearing news of a place where everything rhymes.

But in time, and with luck, you deconstruct that little city. Nobody else ever saw it or understood it anyway, so your being its esteemed mayor means nothing.

Now and then, however, you might allow yourself a guilty flourish of romanticisation… when there is a strange rainy light, for example, and the bends of Luxembourg’s old city lanes appear like medieval phrases, telling of a world I can never know…

Jeffrey Palms
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