Sunday, March 20, 2011

Scrooge dans le Marais

Back in San Francisco, I almost never dream. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I never remember my dreams. Other than the most banal kind, like being stifled by giant marshmallows, and waking up to find all four pillows on the floor, and the cats looking alarmed.

When I'm abroad, it's an entirely different matter. In Spain, and in Argentina, I'd go through these phases, usually about a week long, where I would have the most extraordinarily vivid dreams, interspersed by periods of difficulty sleeping. These generally coincided with stages of exceptional progress in my language ability, so I usually welcomed them, figuring it was just the brain's way of dealing with an unusual step up in the subconscious learning process.

Here in Paris, the dreams started right away on my 3rd night here. This doesn't necessarily contradict my previous theory, as I do feel that I've been on a very steep French learning curve almost right since I arrived - I'm frankly amazed at how much better I am doing already. The dreams are generally not unpleasant, though often quite confusing, tending to mix random minor worries (e.g. about the renovations at home, that none of the checks I wrote before coming away will bounce, that my friends and kitties will be OK while I'm gone) with odd, non-contemporaneous incidents from my past, with a dash of the highly surreal. For instance, there was the one last week where my sister, my parents and I were in the family car (the same Ford Anglia that was featured in the second Harry Potter book, but without the ability to fly**), headed for an exciting Murder Mystery Theater dinner. Which turned out to be hosted by my cousin Geraldine in Dublin! Somehow we had all managed to age 20 years in the journey to Geraldine's house. That sort of thing.

Things got really weird last night, though. Downright Dickensian, in fact. Maybe it was the goat-cheese that I had with dinner. You be the judge. All that was missing was the introductory vision of one of my former Genentech colleagues, clanking in chains by the chimney. After watching a documentary on the life of Coco Chanel, watching a video that Brad had sent of my completely renovated apartment back in SF (it's SPECTACULAR, but that's material for a different post), and reading a very sweet, encouraging e-mail from Paddy, I retired to bed.

Whereupon I proceeded to have a series of three remarkably vivid dreams. The first was immediately recognizable as a not particularly imaginative retread of one of the old Indiana Jones movies - "Indy and the Temple of Doom", IIRC. I had stumbled across this ancient cult, somewhere in francophone Africa, where children of the neighboring villages were disappearing etc etc. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after much uncharacteristic swashbuckling, and the appropriate deployment of French verbs I didn't even know I knew, I managed to save the day and woke up, very pleased with myself. All that was missing was Boris, as my trusty sidekick. Shades of Tintin, perhaps?

It was 2:45 a.m. I padded to the kitchen, poured myself a glass of mineral water, and went back to bed. Time for dream # 2. This one had a distinctly more James Bond feel to it. I was somewhere in the Caribbean, President Obama was scheduled to come for a state visit, and somehow I stumbled on the arch-villain's lair. They were plotting (in French, naturellement) to assassinate the President. More swashbuckling, much tortured French translation, but eventually I saved the day, and the President. "De rien, Monsieur Obama." Time to wake up again.

4:00 a.m. Back to sleep. Time for the most interesting dream of the three, whose origin is surely directly traceable to that sweet e-mail from Paddy. This time I am wandering through the Kafkaesque bowels of some enormous business, or possibly a government enterprise. Initially, the setting is 20th century - I appear to start out in the mail room, which morphs into some kind of paper recycling center. There are endless conveyor belts to be navigated, and big batches of paper continually threatening to knock me over. A constant drone of machinery, with the background hubbub of human voices, but not a soul in sight. Eventually the scene morphs into what I imagine the bowels of the state bureaucracy might have looked like in Moliere's time, and I become conscious that I have an appointment to keep "avec mon destin". I try to hurry, but realise that I am trapped in the kingdom of "fonctionnaires sans pouvoir" (powerless bureaucrats), whose help I will need to enlist to get to my rendezvous with destiny. It becomes clear (in that dreamlike way) that I will have to pass through three doors, and deal with three different bureaucrats. (What is it with "3" and the subconscious?)

The first bureaucrat is immediately recognizable as the personification of one of my own major weaknesses - it is "le flemmard*", or Laziness. Barely able to keep his eyes open, he forbids me passage. But I know that all I have to do is to stay alert, and outwait him. Eventually, sure enough, he dozes off, and I grab the key from his desk and pass through the first door.

The guardian of the second chamber is another old enemy - "lachete", or Cowardice. In quavering tones he bids me halt, and informs me that it is too dangerous to proceed. I disagree, we wrestle for the second key, and finally I prevail.

Emboldened, I continue on, only to fall victim to the third of my signature weaknesses - inflexibilite (stubbornness). Time after time I go down the wrong path, ignoring the voices of my friends who are offering me good advice. It's only when I finally quiet down and listen to what others are telling me that I have the good sense to choose the right path. I find the right door, where the bureaucrat welcomes me and gives me the key. I go to open the door.

And wake up, to find it's 5:45 am, time to write this blog entry while everything is still fresh in my mind.

Let me just say, that for sheer entertainment value, the subconscious beats out virtual reality any day of the week.

I am wide awake, blissfully free of cold symptoms, and raring to go. What a life!

Votre Scrooge du Marais.

*: I have absolutely no conscious knowledge of this word. But apparently it lives somewhere in my subconscious.
**: Maddeningly (to me), I kept saying "Put her in fly". My mother, long dead before HP was even a glint in J.K. Rowlings's eye, was not amused.


  1. omg

    You were channeling my National Endowment for the Arts vs. Congress dreams! But then you were off on your own, m'dear, battling for happy balance.

  2. Viewed in the harsh glare of the midday sun, these dreams somehow seem (a) hopelessly derivative and (b) almost laughably transparent. The symbolism could hardly be more heavy-handed. Beating the enemy with nothing but my willingness to deploy irregular French verbs, indeed! But they were quite vivid at the time. And I do think the Scrooge set-up was pretty amusing. Reading "Jane Eyre" at dinner probably played some role as well.

    I did manage to identify the mise-en-scene for the last "battling my inner demons" dream - it was taken directly from the 1973 Ingmar Bergman film version of "The Magic Flute" (the part toward the end of Act I where Tamino is trying different doors in the Halls of Truth, as he searches for Pamina). A film I've watched dozens of times on video while doing my rowing machine exercises. Sadly, my subconscious appears quite incapable of coming up with new scenarios, and is forced to recycle pre-existing material.

    Should any of my family members be reading this and thinking - "he's finally gone off the deep end" - please don't worry. I am not losing it. I'm just apparently going through this phase of very vivid, moderately amusing, dreams. C'est tout!

  3. What's behind the door in your third dream? I think you should totally read Jane Eyre at dinner!!

    I can't believe you remember those dreams so vividly. Is your conscious mind catching up with your subconscious? ..which I imagine would be exactly opposite of 'losing it'.

  4. Ah, but I think the point is not so much what's behind that third door as the realisation that it's there for the opening, provided I don't let my inner demons hold me back. It does seem to be true that whatever process my brain goes through when I'm in the language-learning stage somehow makes the barrier between my conscious and subconscious minds more permeable.

    Things have calmed down on the dream front since I've stopped reading the Brontes after dark!