STORY – Māori, Free Wine, Nowheresville

Being a sometimes nice guy, I got roped into driving two friends to the middle of nowhere in West Flanders for an obscure celebration and free wine.

The drive was an hour and a half from Brussels, and in this compact nation, such a drive could easily end me up in another country, going in any direction except the North Sea. This day’s destination was a teeny town called Nowheresville, Belgium that few go to except by mistake or deliberately and morosely.

The plot-line was that this village was twinned with some equally teeny town in New Zealand where one of the people in my back seat was born—teeny because maximum 800 citizens (another Nowheresville on the other side of the globe). She had been specially invited by the local New Zealand embassy as a true representative from the place. The twinning connection was due to many young guys from this New Zealand town had come over and died during WWI battles right near this tiny Flanders village. So the cities had decided: Let us be international twins in memory of.

It was now thirty years on and time to celebrate with real live Māori based in London who were coming over to dance and fete. “And there’s free wine sent in from New Zealand.”

Now civic celebrations in municipal halls usually sap my will to live, and this municipal hall that took ninety minutes of dark skies and windy roads to get to was tucked away on a side street with major parking problems. The building itself had little personality pop nor any architectural zing. Upainted bricks with a roof. Inside the bricks were painted white and went up three stories high, ending in unpainted cross beams. Basic and hollow and a wind was coming in from somewhere, in addition to the continually opening and shutting front doors.

A wide stage had been constructed of the easy click-it together type. There was no backdrop for a pinch of atmosphere, nothing modest or tasteful on the stage that might announce a moderate idea of celebration. Post-modern functional ugly was the effect that was sought and richly achieved. True, there were travel posters of the two towns hanging inside and out with huge chunks of sticky tape splayed across their corners to hold them in place. A number of long push-together tables ran lengthwise from one end to the other. Blue crepe paper had been laid on top with cheap ashtrays decorated with beer ads holding the crepe in place. There were worn wooden benches without backs lined up along both sides at each table.

The couple I had hauled over staked their right to some table space. Sitting down, looking around, doing a slow 360° sweep of my head, I saw everything of interest to see. Done. Over the next hour local people wearing good stabs at fancy dress were arriving in mini-droves, with faces determined to have excellent fun. There was no heating, and people, after settling, bundled back up as the doors opened, closed, letting winter wind find a new home in my bones.

An hour later, free wine was finally made available and my friends went hunting, returning with bottles they set on the table before us. Gulping began. As I didn’t drink, I sipped some fresh fruit juice lukewarm straight out of a tin can.

After another hour, the Māori dancers were introduced by the New Zealand Ambassador, a short, dapper man with the right kind of Ambassador hair, meaning it stuck in place and was plenty frothy. He told a long story about Maori traditions and what they were about to sing and dance about. Then somebody took over the microphone and told it all over again in Flemish. I sat there sipping water—I’ve always been fearless in mixing my drinks—evolving from melancholy to forlorn. Although the point was to celebrate the memory of the brave dead and the symbolic twinning, it was all rather rural, earnest and minor.

Some musicians began hammering on drums and the Māori came stomping out half-dressed, their chests exposed, and seem to give it their all. They made big eyes and stomped their feet and turned down their mouths, tongues came out horribly, and they slapped their chests and thighs, although no one played rugby. Songs alternated between aggressive shouts and gentle, sweet-voiced tunes. After fifteen minutes, I got the idea. After every song, they stopped and the Flemish guy barked over the tinny microphone explanations concerning the meaning of the song, the words, the dance. I sat back and wrapped my coat around myself as the festivities wore on, a chill spreading along the bricks and through the hollow hall. Without alcohol in my veins, the spread was quicker in me than in my friends, who seemed rapt at the goings-on, filling their glasses with more free wine, a different vintage.

Once the show was completed, village people gave the dancers a standing ovation. The dancers were nice, professional, and that was it as far as the day’s entertainment went.

As the evening came on, New Zealand meat was brought in from a BBQ outside. Slabs flopped onto paper plates, which were placed on the random wine stains that had begun appearing on the crepe paper. Children ran around the now empty, rather sad stage. They frolicked, and one girl came forward to imitate lewd dance moves she must have picked up from music videos. She gyrated her hips, and thrust out her non-existent breasts, coming off as a spastic Lolita. She spun and stuck out her butt in the direction of the audience. It was spell-binding, illicit and weird. No parent stood up the say, Cut that out! Older men looked; women kept chatting among themselves.

There were a few upright stands against one wall of the room with photocopied newsprint. I wandered over. The clippings concerned both towns, their history, their meaningful intertwining. After ten minutes browsing, my curiosity was satiated, if not spent.

The hall got chillier as the night drew on, and I hugged the coat around me more tightly. My friends snapped at each other, as their marriage bounced along. They made blurry parental comments on the greatness of having kids. I had none.

The drinking went on, and on, and somewhere in there the Māori sang another song, but slumming it. They gathered around a table, just for the heck of it, and the song was one of the gentle ones, thankfully. It went on and that was nice. Then the local mayor, showing he was a good sport, got out his bugle and began playing a version of “When the Saints Come Marching In”. I had already hugged my coat about me as tight as it could go.

Driving home in the the winter night with my now well-drunk friends, I was requested to pull over to the side of the motorway. One friend opened his door, got out, leaned against the motorway railing and out streamed New Zealand wine on the Flanders landscape, like so much spilled blood from all those years ago.

The rest of the trip was dead quiet, as they had both passed out in the back seat, celebrations completed.

It had been eight hours of my life, and it took me a while to get warm again.

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5 Responses to “STORY – Māori, Free Wine, Nowheresville”

  1. Peter says:

    A slice of Belgian life- and you can’t slice it too thinly! Did your friends read this?

  2. Well, they are divorced now, and only one follows me on Facebook, but not often. We’ll see if he sees. And deal from there. Sober apologies were given on bending knee afterward…

  3. Cara says:

    This an amazing story !!! When did you write it?

  4. Gilly says:

    All I can say (besides the fact that this is a superb, New-Yorker-worthy piece of writing) is NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED! What the F were you thinking volunteering yr services?!?!

  5. @Gilly I thought I was doing a friend a favor, and that maybe just maybe it would be an experience of interest. It has given me something to write about (kiss for the compliment), and now I’m having lunch with the guy. Needless to say, I haven’t alerted him to this post. Yet?

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