The Big Change

LandscapeThat day, at 8:10, as every day since years, the man appeared at the metro stop. As always he carried the same briefcase under his arm and he had the same look on his face. At about 8:17 the subway train arrived and he got in, as always in the second but last wagon. Since it is one of the earliest stations of the metro line, there are always enough seats free, so we can always sit. As always, the man sat down on the bench near the door where he got in.

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I am in the metro, therefore I am

We can assume I was in a metro train. Right from the start I felt suspicious. For one thing, because of the other passengers in the train. They already were a dead giveaway about what was going on. For one, all of us looked the same: indistinct, underweight, sexless creatures were we, hardly more than arms and legs – two of both – each sitting in elementary chairs and looking in the same forward direction.

Also, we started at station A. Too bloody obvious. Certainly, after a certain “x” amount of time, we would pass station B. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce at what time we would arrive at station C.

But what really made me understood all (where I was, who I was and why) was when I saw the ping-pong table in our wagon. It could not have been more obvious. Two passengers, as sketchy and sexless as the rest of us started to play and since the train remained its constant velocity – not slowing down, not speeding up -, the game proceeded as it would have if the train had been at rest.

Next, I noticed huge clocks next to our heads indicating the local times. The train moved at high-speed and when I looked out of the window, I saw one long platform moving past. On the platform, on equidistant intervals (or so it seemed), identical looking characterless figures stood observing us, and all of them were looking at enormous stopwatches they carried with them.

Yes, then I understood and I was filled with sadness because I knew I was going to die soon.

We were all going to die, as soon as we would arrive at station C and the problem of our arrival time would have been correctly calculated while taking into account all kinematic laws (first Newton, then Einstein). And then, with a final flourish and a flourishing finale, the teacher in front of the class would erase the blackboard and us (the train, the passengers, the ping-pong table and me) out of existence.

There is a world going on underground

It was just another morning, and as usual, I took the metro. I found an empty seat somewhere, without looking around. The metro stations passed by while I was still dozing in a morning haze but after a while something started to disturb me. I opened my eyes and saw what it was: someone was staring at me.

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Las Vegas, or: How to make a fool of yourself without dying in the attempt (4)

As a Ph.D student in physics, I went to a collaboration meeting in Boulder, Colorado in the U.S.A., and took an extra week off for driving around the neighbouring states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona,… I had rented a car which, like most American cars, had an automatic transmission which made it much easier to drive for hours on end without getting tired. At least, without getting tired of driving. I did get tired of the radio stations which in those places only played country music and sermons. In the end, in Flagstaff, Arizona, I bought two tapes, one of Bo Diddley and one of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and listened to those instead. Much better. And of course, if I say “Flagstaff Arizona”, Chuck Berry fans will already have thought of route 66, which indeed I drove on for a few miles although it is not really used as a main road anymore. Other things I remember: a Navajo guide in Monument Valley who asked me, being a physicist, to drop a nuclear bomb on Washington, bookstores that served tea, music shops that sold guns, and a tacky dancing where a married wife tried to hit on me but got stopped by her brother-in-law, and endless roads, endless roads, just like in the movies. And, of course, I remember Las Vegas.

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How to make a fool of yourself without dying in the attempt (3)

I am not a great talker. I don’t really enjoy it. And I don’t see why people would make the talking process take longer than strictly necessary. Why say: ‘Yes, I agree with you’ if you can just as well say: ‘yes’? Or – indeed – why say anything at all, if you agree anyway? As you can imagine, meetings at work are a torture to me, telephone calls are life threatning and my choice to live in Spain (a country that lives for two things only: eating and speaking, preferably at the same time) was, in this respect, maybe not well thought through.

However, the problem existed also in the Netherlands, and to show it’s not only a matter of  being a grumpy old man, it existed as well when I was young.

I was about 14 years old and I was invited to the home of a friend. Actually, we were not really very good friends, and I am not sure we even liked each other much, but anyway, we were class mates and I was at his place, in his room. We were playing some very complicated board game, involving dice, ships and special bonus cards and it was my turn. I was thinking very hard about what was going on and then his mother came in with tea. She said: ‘hi’, and I answered: ‘hi’, and she said: ‘I have brought tea’ and we both said: ‘thank you’, and then I went back to the game, trying to figure out the rules and what I was supposed to do. Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, she kept on talking but I did not pay attention. Only when suddenly there fell a silence I looked up and saw on their faces that some kind of answer was expected from me. My thoughts were still elsewhere and I said: ‘Yes, goodbye’ and turned back to that bloody game again.

It was the embarrassed laugh of my class mate that told me that I had done something wrong. I looked up, suddenly blushing heavily but it was already too late. ‘Yes, goodbye!’ his mother snapped back and then went out of the room, closing the door with an exclamation mark. Unable to think of ways to fix the situation (apologize, jump out of the window) I just pretended it hadn’t happened and we went on playing the game.

I don’t remember how I got out of the house. If it hadn’t been on the 4th floor, I would have sworn I did jump out of the window.

(versión en español)

Sí y No

(Disclaimer: I am not sure the following is only true in Barcelona or only in Cataluña or in entire Spain.)

There seem to be various ways of saying  (yes) in Spanish:

  • Sssss.   In case of a very strong truth, where the speaker is not entirely sure that the person he speaks to is aware of this truth. Also applies in the case where there is a clear disagreement and the speaker really wants to emphasize that the answer is, indeed, .
  • sÊh. It has to be a really short e and a hardly pronounced h on the end. The s at the beginning is not really there at all. The entire thing hardly makes a sound really. It is used affirmatively, in cases where someone has said something clearly true and the speaker only wants to express his complete agreement.
  • Si. All other cases.

There are also two ways to pronounce no (no): 

  • T-t-t-t-t (move one finger from left to right and back). Equivalent to ni pensar o ni te ocurre, in other words: no <expletive> way, don’t even think about it, out of the question, absolutely not!
  • No. All other cases.

The Sentence

‘The only real pleasure of writing (and reading) is repetition,’ the Writer pondered. Repeating the same situation, the same idea with only slightly different words, is what makes writing (or reading) the most pleasurable. There is no greater pleasure than reading (or writing) the same thing over and over again, with only little changes in the wordings.

And, as a matter of fact, not even a change of words is necessary. Why not simply repeat the same sentence over and over again?

‘When I am famous and I can do whatever I well please, I will do that,’ the Great Writer mused. ‘I will write a book with the same sentence repeated over and over again.’ It would be a book with, over and over again, the same sentence. It should be a simple sentence. Nothing fancy. A simple sentence without any coy cleverness or fake fanciness.

The man took off his hat when he entered the shop… ” (The man clearly should wear a hat, to give it a touch of the archaic.)

“The man took off his hat when he entered the shop, greeted the shop girl, and asked for half a loaf of whole wheat bread, in slices.”

Maybe it could be “the smiling shop girl“, but that would be already pushing it, because why would she be smiling?

The book, about 278 pages long, would only contain that same sentence. Over and over again. What a pleasure would it be to write it! What a pleasure would it be to read it! Its title would be “The Sentence“. The Dutch translation would even be nicer because “De Zin” would mean “the sentence”, “the meaning”, “the sense” and “the desire”.

He would read the entire book, sentence after sentence and in the end would turn over the last page and read the last line: “The man took off his hat when he entered the shop, greeted the smiling shop girl, and asked for half a loaf of whole wheat bread, in slices.” And then he would close the book and then open it again and start all over right from the beginning. No other book would be necessary any longer.

It would be the book to end all books.