Canterbury Tales: Winter Olympics in Brussels

Depending on where you stood in the kitchen, you could be overwhelmed by the smell of baked beans, sausage and a variety of spices, comforted by the scent of pasta, sauce and grated cheese. Or, if you were unfortunate enough to meander towards where I was sitting, you’d catch a whiff of the powdered “chicken noodle” soup I had just heated up for myself with tap water in the microwave.

I was staying at the Hostel Van Gogh in Brussels, Belgium on a Sunday night. It had been a long, snowy day for everyone. I myself had gotten lost for three hours, several miles from the hostel, in the middle of a blizzard but that’s neither here nor there.

It was maybe 8 or 9 o’clock and exhaustion was evident on the faces of the twelve to fifteen us that were there. A television in the upper corner of the steamy room was on, blaring an advertisement in Flemish and no one seemed to be paying much attention.

After a few minutes the Polish twenty-something sitting next to me got up and flipped through the channels, stopping when the Olympic logo appeared onscreen. Ski jumping was on. Within a moment, the room became silent except for the hissing of a tea kettle, everyone’s eyes were fixated on the Austrian jumper adjusting himself on the bench at the top of the ramp. As the jumper streaked down the ramp and propelled himself into the air, stiff as a board, our eyes followed him, all the way until he landed on the far side of a red spray-painted line in the snow.

As I glanced around at the people I was surrounded by, a few Australians, an Italian, a French couple and a group of Koreans, everyone’s faces held the same expression – utter cluelessness. No one had any idea what just happened, why the Austrian’s face was buried in his hands, and what he was receiving points for. Wasn’t ski jumping a distance event? Whoever went the farthest won, right?

Upon further research I learned that wasn’t the case. “Style” points are awarded for whoever is the most stiff and that sort of thing. But that’s beside the point.

The epiphany I had while engulfed in the putrid cornucopia of scents at the Hostel Van Gogh was a matter of commonalities. Of course the Olympics signify the coming together of myriad nationalities in spirited competition, all in the name of national pride.

But for those of us in that kitchen, it represented something much different, something that crossed the boundaries created by culture and language – obliviousness. None of the six or so nationalities in the room knew what the rules of the competition were and we all knew that no one else knew what was going on. Nevertheless, we stayed in that room for another hour, watching jumper after jumper.

The exact reason we all stayed, in essential silence, save the occasional whisper between friends, escapes me. But my best guess can be summed up in an oft-used cliché that apparently transcends cultures, genders, languages and religions: Ignorance is bliss.