Strangers in the Tavern

The regulars at the counter of the Fog Island Tavern were talking about Abbé Boulah — their mysterious but currently absent friend. Or was he really a friend? His name was often mentioned in their conversations — rambling discussions that roamed wildly across all territories of human knowledge, whether they actually knew much about a given subject or were just speculating or making up stuff. And their tales were spiked with quotations and sayings attributed to him — that often sounded as if they had made them up as well. Or the entire concept of Abbé Boulah. Not that he was portrayed as a man of superior wisdom or intellect, — at least some of these people did not display the reverence one would expect for such a figure. But it seemed that he had a distinctly different perspective on most of the subjects they had discussed — perhaps because of his origin, which was a matter of contention; nobody knew exactly where he was from — or his travels that exceeded that of most of the others. Not even travels by themselves, — some of the regulars had certainly visited more foreign countries. But they had done so as tourists, while Abbé Boulah, it seemed,  had been staying in many places while growing up, or as a refugee, or working for some time in one place or another.

Now the professor was launching a  theory about this.  “He’s a professional stranger. That’s why he likes to hang out here in this Tavern — not a golf course clubhouse, for example.  He’s not a member of the ‘in’ crowd anywhere.

–    “He’s a regular in here”  Renfroe objected.

–    “Yes, but he’s not what you’d call a ‘regular’ regular.”

–    “You don’t make sense, Al” said Renfroe. “How can he not be a regular when he’s a regular?”

–    “He’s a regular in the sense that he comes here quite a bit. And yes, we know him. But he’s still a stranger. I think the reason he feels comfortable here is that it’s a little like a sailor’s tavern in a seaport.”

–    “What difference does that make? A tavern is a tavern.”

–    “Oh, there are differences. Some taverns only accommodate regulars:  the place where ‘everybody knows your name’.  But seaport taverns are different. By definition, there, everybody is a stranger.  Sailors are strangers everywhere. And they seek out places where that’s okay.  Where it’s okay if you don’t know the subtle rules and conventions of the ‘proper’ people in each place,  the subtle clues about the social fabric of ‘society’ there — whether it’s nobility or well-to-do middle class, or a lowly miners or loggers’ community.  You come in without preconceptions about the people you’ll meet, and they have no preconceptions about you.”

–    “Does that mean  there are no rules you need to observe in these places?”

–    “No, no, quite the contrary!  There definitely are rules, things you do and other things you most certainly don’t do. But the rules are very different.  I’m not sure anybody has studied these unwritten rules properly, at least I’m not aware of any such studies.  But we know some of them instinctively, don’t we?”

–    “Do we?  Why don’t you give us some examples!”

–    “Well, some of them are quite obvious, aren’t they?  First of all, you don’t have a ‘regular’ place — you squeeze in wherever there’s room:  you can’t claim a specific territory.  The ‘regular’s table’ — which almost every tavern has, and it ‘s usually quite clear from its shape or position which one it is — that’s not where a stranger sits down when he first comes in. You don’t push anybody…”

–    “Unless you’re already drunk and there’s a crowd of drunken bullies with you…”

–    “Right. Even for those situations, there are unspoken rules, though.  For example, if you really want to settle a disagreement with a fight, you do it outside.  But such people usually are ‘regulars’ — they feel they have some superior rights in a place. Their turf. As a stranger, you don’t insult anybody — because you don’t know who you’re dealing with.  Any discussion or conversation is strictly neutral, nonpartisan:  the weather is the preferred startup subject everywhere because it’s so neutral, you can’t blame anybody for it, even inadvertently.”

–    “Yes, it would be interesting to write up the code of rules of taverns for strangers. But that can’t be why you’re saying Abbé Boulah is a stranger — he’s been here too often for that, hasn’t he? After a while he becomes a regular, won’t he?”

–    “No, I think you’re right. He is kinda strange sometimes” said Renfroe. “Not mean-like or anything, just weird, like he doesn’t have a clue of what’s going on, or he wants to put you on. I can’t tell the difference sometimes.”

–    “Could it be that some of the things people are saying could be understood in many different ways, from his point of view, perhaps they are really understood in different ways in the places he’s been;  so he’s really confused about what somebody is trying to say?  Don’t forget:  he didn’t go to high school with you guys. So all of those high school rituals and jargon and memories you are throwing around, he just doesn’t know what they mean. And then he gets back at you by pretending he’s taking it in some totally different way, like it might be seen in some other place. To make you as confused as you are?”

–    “Are you saying he does that on purpose?”

–    “I’m not sure. Sometimes it feels that way, yes. But I think it’s more of a defense mechanism. Which even can come across as cynical?”

–    “I think you are onto something” said Vodçek from behind the bar, polishing his glasses. “Yes, a stranger is often perceived as a little cynical — having seen many countries and listened to their national hymns, all of which proudly proclaim the unquestioned superiority of their turf and society above all others, he is not sure whether to feel sorry for all those folks and their ignorance or self-imposed blindness,  or for himself for not being able to share their enthusiasm for the patriotic cause.  He has been listening for too long to Georges Brassens singing about ‘les imbéçiles qui sont nés quelque part’ (the imbeciles that are born somewhere) and ‘je suis la mauvaise herbe, braves gens’ (I am the useless garden weed, you proper folks..)  and imagines a tavern where he could hear Georges sing. But even there, he would remain a stranger. That attitude makes him avoid engagement.  He will offer comments, advice, however tentative and noncommittal, but no commitment to place, cause, group. We’ll be gone soon, he thinks, don’t count on any long-term obligations, let’s just focus on making the present tolerable. Enjoy a little company before heading out again into solitude.

–    “He has made many efforts to become a part of something, some cause, some community. But every time something happened that set him apart:  some trace of an accent, some dumb question about a stupid idea that should have been accepted unquestioned, even little proposals for improvement that were just a little too unusual — and therefore strange, even though nobody could argue their merit — it’s just that they, well didn’t quite fit.  So he is making a career of it.”

–    “But that is really a form of chickening out, isn’t it?  Is that what he does?

–    “It can be seen that way. And the stranger knows this: the despicable refusal to make a commitment, to take responsibility for something. But it’s also a form of protection. The ability to not understand, or to pretend to not understand, lets him escape the blunders of the respective community whose strength of common purpose, their strength in numbers, blinds them to the stupidity of their aims. And he tries to  pre-empt the inevitable rejection that is sure to follow any attempt at joining such a cause for the sake of joining: it will be perceived as fraudulent, as insincere, even when the stranger has persuaded himself that this time, he will give it his best to become one of them.

–    “So the tavern where strangers can meet is where he feels comfortable. He will always feel awkward in formal occasions of any particular place:  he will not know the accepted manners and will commit many a faux-pas, and be embarrassed by this. He will not know the rituals these people engaged in during their high school years. An all this will inevitably reveal him as a stranger, as someone not to be completely trusted.”

–    “You are right; Now that I think about it,  I can’t really see Abbé Boulah at a black tie benefit for all the hi-falutin’ bigwigs in the country club. No matter how much they act as down-to-earth good ol’ boys.”

–    “No, Renfroe, the place for the stranger is the lowly tavern where the sailors come in to get drunk.  They drink to forget their homesickness — or to forget that the home they are pining for, also long ago has rejected them as strangers. The strangers will never talk about this openly, but they will sense and understand it as the undercurrent of all the boisterous stories they tell each other.”  Vodçek eyed his customers while polishing his glasses. “And I have heard some stories…”  He trailed off, lost in memories.

–    Then he recovered from his reveries, and concluded:  “The best tavern is the one run by somebody who is himself a stranger and who understands this. He understands that all these strangers now have several places for which they are homesick, and that these places never really were their home:  what they are homesick for are the dreams they once had that they might be at home there. Some of the drinks he serves are meant to vaguely remind them of those places. Or dreams.”

–    “You almost make me feel sorry for these folks, like they are victims of some unjust fate or something — but aren’t they really being that way intentionally?  Tricksters, stirring up trouble, meddling where they have no business getting involved?

–    “Perhaps they serve an important larger purpose — like the old court jesters:  making you look at things differently, questioning your assumptions, poking fun at your serious pompous, pretentious truths and principles?  Or just telling us not to take ourselves so seriously? “

–    “I’m not sure that’s Abbé Boulah, really — that last one reminds me more of our friend Bog-Hubert here, eh, Vodçek?”

–    “You’re right, Bog-Hubert doesn’t take things too seriously.”

–    “Hey,  speak for yourself, don’t put me in those labeled boxes.”

–    “Sorry, Bog-Hubert, don’t take it seriously.  But Abbé Boulah is serious, at least at some time. Too serious, often making people uncomfortable in the process.  Bog-Hubert does that too, but in a different way, at least he makes us laugh at him, and ourselves.  With Abbé Boulah, you never really know whether he’s serious or just trying to be funny like Bog-Hubert.”

–    “Oh yes, he’s serious most of the time, but he’s learning to use jest and humor for his serious purposes, and secretly laughing at himself all the while as he realizes how futile it all is.”

–    “Are you saying he thinks it’s futile, Bog-Hubert? You know him better than most of us? “

–    “Oh yeah. But he can’t let it go. Me, I gave up really trying to save the world long time ago. Now I just try to have a good time, and maybe helping others have a good time too, even if they have to be tricked into it.  But Abbé Boulah, I think he’s still like that old mythical Greek guy rolling the boulder up the hill.”

–    “You mean Sisyphus? “

–    “Right. Sisyphus, that’s the one. But Abbé Boulah, he’s laughing his head off when the boulder rolls down, scattering the goats and scaring the living daylight out of the pompous pathetic peripathetics strolling up the hillside paths admiring the view from above.  Before he goes down to roll it up again.”

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