Jack is our second friend, as well as our Anglican priest. God's gifts to him include height, volume, and charisma. The fact that he was the dean of a college at Cambridge for over a decade—and by natural extension, of course, that he used to ride out on the fox hunt every Saturday morning, and captained a rugby team, and ate dinner alongside Stephen Hawking for years—sounds extraordinary on paper, but spending time with Jack helps one to see just how much it makes sense. He is the sort of person who seems to be made of tea, biscuits, and tweed. At his apartment a couple weeks ago, I thumbed through his hardbound 500+ page doctoral dissertation, written in French. Seeing it in my hands, he said "it is possible, boys," with an upward inflection on the last word, as British as the Queen. I laid it down on the coffee table, afraid its weight would break one of the wooden legs.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was also a Cambridge don
Last night Jack picked us all up in a Mini Cooper and drove us to a house in the countryside of Wallonia, where he is taking care of the dog and cats for a few days while the house owner (a Dutch writer) and his family are away. We sat in front of a stone fireplace for tea and wine, and after answering the door to a group of trick-or-treaters (in the Belgian countryside, who would have thought?), we ate dinner in the kitchen. The house was huge, all wood and brick and cut stone, painted in warm colors and stuffed with candles and old books. After we finished off a loaf of bread with Bruge cheese and salmon, Jack fried steaks with an egg on top for each of us. In retrospect, I am quite sure that I hadn't eaten that much protein in the previous two weeks combined, a fact to which my visibly-increased muscle mass seemed to attest today. Unfortunately the effects were only short term and I didn't take any pictures of myself for proof because I am meek.
I have new culinary experiences here every day
After dinner, Jack treated us to a very special bottle of liqueur; it had been a gift from a congregant at a church in France where he worked for several years while completing his PhD. Illegally distilled and bottled in the early 80s (according to the handwriting on the yellowed sticker-label), the clear liquid burned from the throat down into the chest, but not before releasing a confusing blend of fruit notes and bits of partly-dissolved cork. Apparently they drink it by the mugful in the region where his church was.
It was now after ten and we were only on the cusp of the real business of the evening. After another pot of tea, we transformed the finely-appointed living room into a finely-appointed war room for our game of Axis and Allies, the special promise of the night made possible by today's holiday. We unfolded the board, placed our armies, and breathed out whatever blessing the aroma of peach-flavored rubbing alcohol could bestow upon our violently opposed purposes before goose-stepping into the spring of 1942.
Jack become a more reckless Joseph Stalin, I played Winston Churchill with steely-eyed confusion, and Dan took upon himself the venerable mantle of FDR. Across the table from us, Berthold commanded huge numbers of Panzers and Wehrmacht infantry with an amiability that astonished all of us while Jeremy presided over the empire of the rising sun. He chuckled to himself frequently and made no secret of the fact that he was keeping secrets from us. Berthold benefited from Jeremy's well-tested knowledge of the game, but the hapless Allied novices had to figure things for themselves. This does help to explain an opening Russian offensive.
Here I tell Dan a joke while Jack reconsiders his decision to attack on his first turn
By the end of the war, Los Angeles had fallen to the battleships of the Japanese, most of Europe had traded hands multiple times, Moscow was still holding fast as Moscow is wont to do, and the sun was just barely starting to rise outside. The Axis powers had won the day, but apparently a new day was already forcing itself upon us so there was no time to mourn the outcome. Jack drove us back, and we returned to our building at roughly the same time as a number of high-endurance partiers. Berthold retrieved his fold-up bicycle from our apartment and pedaled home.
Getting into bed at 6am this morning, I willfully emptied my mind of strategy and alternate history just long enough to think, "is this really my life?" Getting out of bed in a groggy haze a few hours later, I willfully suppressed my thesis anxiety just long enough to think, "well it sure isn't anyone else's."