Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Axis and Allies and the Best Night Ever

My roommates and I have made two friends here in the past month. Berthold is a Dutch medical student working at a hospital here in Leuven; his English is excellent and he's been so kind as to start helping us learn how to speak Flemish, so that we might at least know how to distinguish the times when people are swearing at us from the times when people are just enthusiastically greeting us and asking us what our names are and how we are today.

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." 


  1. aahhhhh i love this quote. "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.""

  2. This made me chuckle at several points as well as miss face to face communication with you. I am so glad to hear of your adventures and developing friendships.

  3. Emily: Thanks! You are great and I can't wait to hang out with you again someday.

    Leanna: Thanks! Maybe sometime soon we can skype it up, and have a simulacrum of a face-to-face conversation.

    Jeremy: Tanks! Also, I deeply appreciate the Red Alert 2 reference!

  4. Marty. Hello old friend. I, like Emily, was entertained by your final quote as I have also on many occasion pondered that very circumstance. And like David at the dentist, I always wonder if it will be forever. There's a whole mess of philosophy in the answer to that, so instead I just lay back and give life a smile. Sounds like you're having quite the time. Although I never have played Axis and Allies, I respect the notion that people are willing to submerge themselves in that very...poignant?...event. Maybe someday. Anyways, your writing is great. I sincerely hope you keep having very good days.

  5. Anna! I am so pleased that we found each other in the blogosphere. Man. I still have the orange traffic cone from the best day ever that we spent in Chicago with your friend from New York back in 2006... 2007? Eh. 2006 or 2007. But yeah, it's covered in permanent marker quotations that run the gamut from "urgency!" to "size 32/34" to "the ferris wheel!" and so forth. Hah! What an amazing day that was.

    Anywho, you are great, and who knows when we might see one another again, but regardless, it will be a wonderful time. We can play my new favorite game; it is called Axis and Allies and it is a ton of fun, even when you lose.