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Oh, Say Can You See

Oh, Say Can You See


A myth about America’s discovery suggests that although the smaller boats in which the Europeans approached were quite conspicuous, the massive ships anchored on the horizon were largely invisible to the Native Americans. Knowing something amiss, so goes the myth, a Shaman or Chief stares into the distance for many hours until the ships finally materialize. He then describes them – literally – into existence for his tribe. This tale implies that what we can perceive relies on what we already do perceive, that the possibilities of reality rest on our existing perceptions of that reality.

Frankly, the myth always seemed farfetched at best and crazy at worst, until, in reverse form, the phenomenon became my reality. I found myself in foreign lands that were indiscernible. More specifically: I flew into Belgium and couldn’t see crap!

When first in Ghent, I bought groceries at a teeny-tiny shop where prices were high and choices were few. I thought surely there must be more, um, corpulent grocery stores with more affordable products and variety, and upon further reflection, surely there are other shops too. For weeks I pounded the urban pavements in search of any kind of shop, especially a grocery store bigger than a shoe. It was a conundrum.

Now, most people try to demystify foreign places. If they are presented with a conundrum, for instance, they resolve it with logic. I visit places, however, and go with the flow; for me all things are possible. I don’t attempt to resolve anything... seriously. If gravity doesn’t seem to work properly in Belgium, for example, I might raise my eyebrows, I might even say “hmph,” but I’ll quickly determine Belgians have special gravity and be on my way. In other words, it is this willingness to allow for anything that keeps me from seeing everything. If Belgian folk buy groceries out of a shoe, or any other sartorial item for that matter, I may find it atypical, but I’ll go with it. So, Belgians eat small. Fine. Full stop.

Because of my willingness to accept even the most bizarre of impressions, to allow terrestrial mystery, it takes time for the mundanity of life to present itself. But it ultimately does. In the end, Belgians do shop, and groceries out of a shoe is no more common than groceries from Carrefour. In the end, shops revealed themselves to me, and sizeable grocery stores mocked me with their unexceptional frequency. Ghent in all its glory became essentially detectable. Ooh, look at the ships!

If I were a Shaman or Chief, my tribe would have fired me by now.


Johanna Wagner,

Visiting Lecturer UCM



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