Welcome back to Planet France. As you may remember if you read the last installment—and I'm not sure how many of you there were; maybe four?—I have previously described the circumstances in which I became an exile from my native terrain, i.e., the tweedy bustle and vegetarian Indian restaurants of an American East Coast metropolis, and came to live in northern France. I believe I also mentioned my childhood dreams of being Marco Polo; the invaluable inspiration my emigration project received from the U.S. government's penchant for renaming food; and, to round things off, the start of my list of Curiosities and Wonders, by which I mean the particular details with which I live day to day in this strange new universe. To date, these have included some revelations about the true nature of French fashion (spike-heeled sneakers and blond dreadlocks), a slow habituation to public-transit strikes, and a set of alarming discoveries about Northern French food, several of which involved rabbit.
This time, I thought I would like to describe for you a little more clearly where I live. I would like to tell you about it specifically and precisely, so you can visualize it for yourselves or find it on a map. It's true that I don't exactly live in Marco Polo country—Lille is a little short on deserts and singing mysteries—but still, when you're listening to anyone's story, it's nice to be able to point to a spot on the atlas and say "YOU ARE HERE." Don't you agree? It gets you right into the story; it's simultaneously homey and exotic. At any rate, it's always nice to know where you stand.
As we have previously established, I live on a planet called France. This place bears a number of resemblances to the rest of the known world, but it also has fundamental differences. The differences exist on just about every level you can think of, including the rather abstract one of cartography. (I love the word "cartography"! All by itself, it makes me think of fifteenth-century explorers charting eccentric coastlines, and the mutability of a world before bird's-eye views and satellite imagery. Anyway, whether your metaphors tend to yaw toward the past, or tilt toward the future—and mine do both—the bird's-eye view's a good place to start. Anyone approaching an unfamiliar planet gets that before anything else, after all.) So let's start by considering the map, shall we? You can learn a lot by examining the territory from above.
Planet France, on the map, is divided up into about approximately one zillion tiny chunks. These chunks—which, of course, are really just arbitrary governmental divisions—are called départements. Each chunk covers approximately the same amount of land, forms a partially self-contained administrative region, and, for the sake of reference, is equipped with a name and a two-digit number from one to ninety-nine. (By the way, the departmental numbers, which are known as codes départementaux, are basically arbitrary. Actually they're assigned quasi-alphabetically, with the result that, for instance, the department of Ain (01) sits right next to Rhône (69), which in turn borders Loire (42) and Isère (38). Not very useful if you're thinking of the map as a map and not a list of names.
(The codes function more or less like ZIP codes do in the U.S., except that apparently in France everyone is supposed to at least kind of recognize all of them. In reading my students' C.V.'s, for example, I've noticed that when someone mentions the name of the small town they're from, they'll put the code départemental after it in parentheses, like this: "Gooseville-in-the-Boonies (34)." It's supposed to clear things up. I suppose the two-letter codes that Americans use must seem similarly arbitrary and impenetrable to them ("Moosehead Flats, AK"). Nonetheless, I can't help feeling that our system has at least the virtue of referring to names. It reminds me of all the time I spent in Cambridge on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, getting hideously lost, because instead of names all the buildings have numbers. That's just one campus, though. France is an entire country.)
People here seem to feel connected with their codes in a way that I find a little strange. My département, for instance, is Number 59— I know this because it's in my postal code, so I write it every time I address an envelope—but I can't really say I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Last year, I kept overhearing my students making jokes involving the number 62. I spent a long time puzzling over the possible meaning of this (pot joke? teen film? some French interpretation of a Kama Sutra position?) before it was explained to me that it was actually a post code. They were making fun of the people who live in the département next door.
Since I come from a country that's divided into fifty chunks of arbitrary size, with population disparities and border eccentricities that, even the most stalwart patriot must admit, have been the cause of more trouble than they seem worth, I feel that I ought to be impressed by the ruthless logic with which France has been sliced up into morsels. But somehow it's hard to warm up to the idea of départements. This is partly because, to an American, they seem slightly too small to be useful. (I suspect that's my chauvinism speaking: as the French would remind me, we Americans like everything big.) But it's also because départements don't bear any relation to real historical or cultural boundaries. France—like so many other European countries, with their deceptive modern air of having been unified nations forever—actually hangs together in biggish cultural regions, whose borders are rooted in the medieval past, when they used to have exciting names like the Duchy of Normandy and the County of Toulouse and the Kingdom of Navarre. But apparently when Napoleon came along around 1800, he felt it would be safest to keep everyone from feeling too proud of their former kingdoms—and possibly developing an itch to re-create them—by carving the country up into flavorless chunks. Insofar as there hasn't been civil war since 1870, maybe he was right, although it didn't stop the French from getting rid of Napoleon.
(I'm pretty sure the history I've just told you is true, by the way. I heard it from a bus driver back in October, while we were hanging out in the Place de la République waiting until it was time for him to start up the night bus and drive me home. No matter what you say about France, you can't claim people aren't interested in politics.)
At any rate, départements have dispiritingly boring names. They're generally named after piddling rivers, or hills, or some other arbitrary geographical feature—another idea of Napoleon's, according to my friend the bus driver. When you look at a whole bunch of départements together, though, you get what's called a région, and this is where you can start to see the outlines of the old warring kingdoms. It's also where you get the names that are rich with cultural or geographical significance—Normandie (Normandy), Bretagne (or Brittany), Aquitaine, Pays de la Loire (the Loire Valley with its storied ch'teaux), and, of course, the Côte d'Azure and Provence. A general rule of thumb: the name of a département refers to geography, while the name of a région refers to culture. Put them together, and you've learned something about where you are.
The département and the region I live in are both called, simply, "Nord." This translates, with an equally piquant simplicity, to "North." That's a description of the geography and the culture, and now you know something about where I am.
I realize this sounds practically polar, although in truth that's far from the case. When you hear the word "North," you might imagine something seriously boreal, all glaciers and biting wind: an abstract and iconic North, something hardcore and Philip Pullman-style, full of polar bears, aurora borealis, fur-lined jackets and hip-deep snow. In fact, if you ask a French person from down south—from Marseille, let's say—what they know about winters in Lille, they are likely to give you just this impression. The French believe deeply in the North-ness of Nord.
But this North—le Nord as I live it, my own personal North—turns out to be quite distant from this ideal. It's much further from it than is, say, Michigan in winter, or even Boston, where I'm from. Lille has what's known to our English neighbors as "Channel weather," which means simply that it's cloudy a lot, and that during the winter months we sometimes get a one-day dusting of snow. As a Bostonian, I found this much less impressive than I'd been led to believe. Last year I spent most of December stalking about in the kind of wool jacket I would have worn in Boston at the end of October, my hands thrust into my pockets, waiting for winter to set in. My relief was matched only by my embarrassment when I raised my head in early March and realized I'd missed it.
To understand the emphasis people put on Northerliness here, you need to know that the French believe their country is shaped like a hexagon. If you look at a map with this in mind, you'll find my region in what is indeed the northmost corner. It's jammed in somewhere between Dunkirk and Belgium, its coastline bulging out toward the British Isles at Calais, just before the English Channel takes a sharp right toward Holland and turns into the North Sea. (For this reason, the Nord is often described collectively with the département next door as "le Nord-Pas-de-Calais," or "the North and the Calais straits," which has the twin virtues of being specific and of using too many hyphens.) In the context of the hexagon, we are in fact a distinctively north-reaching thumb of land, and there have been times in the past year when—faced with bureaucratic hassles or cultural barriers—I have taken a certain imbecilic pleasure in visualizing le Nord as being the upmost, outflung finger on an upraised fist, giving a cheerful "fuck-you" to the rest of France, to Europe and (why not?) to all the rest of the world.
(Of course, it's debatable whether France is actually hexagonal. You hear the concept here all the time: radio weathermen, for instance, will greet the morning with "It's raining today over most of the Hexagon"—a phrasing which never fails to make me feel like I've moved to an alternate universe, probably Flatland. But looking at an atlas shows that if the hexagon exists, it's much less well-defined than, say, the boot of Italy. Personally, what the map of France most reminds me of is a squishy and under-baked gingerbread man who has just been caught in the act of starting to run away toward the east. You can see it if you squint your eyes a little while looking at the map: his left foot is in Provence, with the knee raised up to somewhere just below Switzerland, while the Pyrenees range forms his other stubby foot and Brittany is his back arm, flung out carelessly toward the Atlantic as he heaves to. All this raises the question, of course, of why France should be running east, since it is known to have no particular love for its newly admitted neighbors in the European Union—whom it regards as suspicious economic interlopers—and even less for Turkey. I racked my brains over this question until I suddenly remembered that, of course, just on the other side of the Atlantic lies the United States. And then I knew I had a plausible solution.)
I like my region, but I am sorry to say that the people of the North have a slight problem with self-esteem. I used to think this was innate neurosis—and I do know from neurosis—but over the past year, I have changed my mind. Now, I attribute the problem to the fact that the rest of the country seems to view the North as being . . . what's a polite way to put this? . . . the bowels of Hell. I realize this sounds strong, and I was a bit surprised to learn it myself. But it's undeniable that, if you take things from the French perspective of any point south, apparently the North has something badly, I would go so far as to say hideously, wrong.
I got my first glimmering of this before I left the United States, when I talked about my projects with people from France. They perked up when I said that I was going to visit their country, of course, but as soon as they heard exactly where, they would give an ill-concealed flinch. "You're going to the North?" they said—sometimes in those words and sometimes in others, but always to the same effect. "But why?"
I had the chance to further my observations after I got here. I spent last year living in a foyer international—a sort of government-sponsored cross between a dormitory, a housing project, and a YMCA—where I had neighbors from all over France, across Europe, and around the world. In the course of conversation, a pattern emerged. Foreigners from other continents—Africans, Asians, South Americans—seemed contented enough in Lille. (Canadians, for some reason, were ecstatic.) From Europe, I met many Germans, Dutch, and Britons who seemed unfazed by their situation. Europeans from more southerly countries—Italians, Spanish, Portuguese—were often less sanguine, and when I pressed they frequently expressed a certain unease about the weather (damp) and the food (too bland).
But no one, and I mean no one, was as critical of the North as French people from the South. The attitudes I encountered ranged from patronizing to bleakly grim, hitting scornful and truculent on the way. The ultimate expression of this feeling came from a young man from Marseille, the great port city far to the south, on the Mediterranean coast. This interesting individual had a habit of wearing a baseball cap backward and of ejecting, with comical Frenchness, the words "Ma foi!" every six seconds. He also seemed to have taken a strong and immediate dislike to me and to everything else in the city.
One afternoon, in the communal computer room, I asked him what he thought of the North—how he was getting along, and if he was planning to stay. He gave me what I can best describe as a peculiar look, and then said simply and with utter finality: "Putain, le Nord, c'est l'enfer." Which can be translated as: "No fucking way! The North is hell."
It's possible that this should not be construed to stand in for the opinions of all French Southerners, or even of everybody from Marseille. But I found his answer so memorable in its eloquence, in its ring of absolute certainty, that I am tempted to take it as the last word on—well, on something. On the strength of a received opinion, perhaps. What can you say in answer to a comment like that?
I found this vehement negativity frankly surprising, because from an outsider's perspective—say, that of a confused American—it's hard to see what the problem is. An American, looking around, might conclude that she'd simply found herself in a rather flat, damp, misty green piece of the Low Countries—admittedly overcast in winter, but equipped with a charming array of stepped gables, cobbled squares, and artisanal beers to help the population cope. Really, you can imagine worse places.
And yet the rest of France feels an inflexible hostility toward this place, to the extent that—such is the power of popular opinion—the Northerners themselves seem to have absorbed these dim views. When I first arrived in Lille, I found conversation with local people confusing, because on the one hand they seemed fiercely proud of their region, and on the other they kept apologizing. They also played a sort of "gotcha!" game with me, which I have since learned is played with many fresh-faced foreign arrivals. It involves the local person first running through the standard questions—"Why did you come to France? Do you like it here? How are you adapting?"—and then suddenly firing out: "But why exactly did you come to Lille?" The newcomer, stammering and blushing, tries to get out of the situation without causing offense, and is finally forced to explain that actually her employer, university, or teaching program has assigned her to work here, and she didn't really have a choice after all.
The funny thing is that the interlocutor, instead of getting upset, simply nods and sits back with a satisfied expression, as if to say: "Ah-hah! I knew that'd stump you." Apparently, the thinking goes, no one ever chooses to come to Lille.
Naturally enough, I have been keenly interested in finding out exactly what the French think is so awful about le Nord. Over the course of a year, my research has led me to four conclusions. To the best of my understanding, the rest of France is disturbed by the North for the following reasons:
a.) The landscape is too flat.
b.) The North used to be a coal-mining region.
c.) The winters are reputed to be sunless and miserable.
d.) We're too close to Belgium.
Now, there is only so much you can say to accusations like this. Belgium, for example, is a geographical fact. It cannot be denied. Lille is, as it were, within spitting distance of Belgium. By train or by car, it takes half as long to get from here to Brussels as it does to Paris, and at its nearest point—about fifteen miles away—the border is close enough that people frequently drive over into Belgium to run their errands. (They generally go to buy tobacco, which is taxed at a lower rate, or to go shopping on Sundays, when French stores are shut; which seem like the only good reasons I can think of for doing your shopping in Belgium.)
In fact, this whole region is considered a zone transfrontière, where so many people live on one side of the border and work on the other that there are special train schemes and insurance plans set up for them. The situation is actually such that many towns are themselves divided, with one half lying in French territory and the other in Belgium. This is the kind of place where it's possible for someone to tell you—as I was told in the transfrontière town of Comines last autumn, where I had gone visiting for the day to see giants—"Getting to the town square is simple. Just follow this street, turn left at the lights, and cross the little bridge, and in a few minutes you'll tomber sur la Belgique: you'll fall upon Belgium."
It's also true that much of the North used to be a coal mine. The first veins were discovered here in the eighteenth century, and soon mining had become the major occupation of the working class. (Emile Zola's 1885 novel Germinal, about miners' lives and tribulations, was set in this area. Everyone tells me I should read it; apparently it's terrifically depressing.) By the middle of the twentieth century, the mines snaked under one-twelfth of the region and brought up thirty million tons of coal a year. They've all been worked out now—the last mine closed in 1990—and the local economy seems to be coping reasonably well. But the centuries of mining have left their legacy. What used to be the main industry of the North is remembered in miners' slang words in the local dialect; in a peculiar strain of cultural nostalgia; and, of course, in the hardened perception, everywhere else in France, that the North is a wasteland of blackened slag.
The nostalgia thing is quite interesting, actually. It surfaces as an ambivalent attachment to a past which no one really wants to have back—mining wasn't all that much fun—but which makes people sentimental anyhow. I hear it sometimes in the music played on the radio. ("In the Norrrrth," wails the chorus of once song, "the earth was made of coal. I never saw the sun. And I was happy!")
I plan to explore this phenomenon more fully one of these days, probably with a visit to the Historical Mining Center of Lewarde, which—according to my French-produced guidebook to the region—is located inside an actual disused mine. You start off looking at exhibitions about the lives of the men, women, and horses who worked the mines, as a lead-up to the highlight of the visit, when you strap an actual miner's lighted hat to your forehead and are led down into the bowels of the earth by—and this is the kicker—an actual former miner. Their profession has been phased out, and now they're paid to show people what their only-recently-disappeared lifestyle used to be like.
The whole thing sounds like a fascinating mix of authenticity, sincere emotion, and a serious element of the surreal. This, of course, makes it interesting. How could you not want to visit such a place? How could you not want to see sights like the huge lump of coal in the anteroom, which, according to my guidebook, "an elderly former miner recognized during a visit as the block he had excavated for the Universal Exposition of 1937"? Of course you want to see it. And you wouldn't be alone. According to the tourist pamphlet that I picked up somewhere, the Historical Mining Center of Lewarde is "the largest mining museum in France, and the busiest site museum in our region, welcoming approximately 150,000 visitors per year." That's a pretty high level of interest for an abandoned coal pit, when you start thinking about it. I don't know exactly what it says about the North, but I'm sure there's something in there.
The third accusation against the North is that it's flat. I'm afraid this is also true as charged. There's a reason this part of Europe is called the Low Countries, after all. ("The Low Countries," of course, is a broad geographical and cultural term that once referred not only to the present-day Netherlands, but also to what are now Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France.)
In the entire Northern region, there are only three places qualified as "monts," which is a word I once understood to mean "mountain." I accompanied a colleague and his family on a field trip to one of these places last spring. We went to the Mont des Cats, which has nothing to do with felines but instead refers to a tribe of fifth-century German invaders. After a gentle drive up to the hilltop monastery—which features monks in cassocks and a crowded boutique where you can buy cheese—I stood looking out at the view, which was not so different from that on the ground, and said rather timidly: "You know, this doesn't look like a mountain to me."
My colleague laughed. "It's not!" he said. "It's just a hill. When people call something a 'Mont' around here, they mean it symbolically."
"You have to see things in perspective," said his wife. "A hill takes on much greater importance when there are only three."
When I got home, I looked it up, and learned that the Mont des Cats stands only about 158 meters—or 520 feet—above sea level. This makes it fifty-six times shorter than Mount Everest. I thought you might be interested to know that. While we're on the subject, and since I got a little caught up in looking things up in my encyclopedia, I will also mention that this makes the Mont des Cats thirty-nine times shorter than Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in the United States, and thirty times shorter than Mont Blanc, which is the tallest mountain in France and the highest point in the Alps. Perhaps all this goes some way toward explaining why French people from other parts of the country—like, say, the parts that include the Alps—view the North as hopelessly, paralyzingly, steamroller-over-a-pancake-style flat.
This brings us to the last black mark against the reputation of the North. That would be the winters. The North, supposedly, has sunless winters, reputed to be completely without light for months on end—which is due not to polar darkness, for which we are much too far south, but to the overcast sky. People from other parts of France will tell you this with the air of someone recounting a gruesome murder: something horrifying which, nonetheless, fills the speaker with a certain glee, either because he's still alive, or, in the case of the weather, because he doesn't have to live in the North.
The Northerners themselves can be alarmist about this. For instance, I had a bad moment this past October. I had been walking with an elderly lady of my acquaintance along a tree-lined path near a farmhouse in the Lille suburbs. It was a pleasant autumn evening, with little clouds floating like splotches of spilled paint on a luminous purple sky. My companion stopped abruptly, looked up at the sky, shook her head and said, "La mauvaise saison arrive": "The bad season is coming."
Well, tell me if this wouldn't alarm you. All the more so given that the French adjective "mauvaise" can be translated as anything from "mildly irritating" to "evil." I couldn't help myself: my imagination started painting a "wicked season" on the way, well beyond anything I had ever known. I imagined a cloud-front rolling in like a tidal wave. I imagined a giant wolf appearing to swallow the sun whole, as a chorus of women's voices rose in mourning and the sky turned bloody red behind the poplars. I imagined a cloud of witches and bat-winged familiars flowing into the sky and blotting out the sun, like in some particularly alarming Renaissance religious painting. (Actually, I think I had one in mind. It might have been Lucas Cranach the Elder's Melancholia, which is a pretty good embodiment of what I imagine when "the wicked season" fills my dreams.)
In practice, things aren't quite as bad as that. It is, however, true that in the midwinter months, Lille gets very little sun. The city's not exactly dark, since the cloud cover lets through plenty of illumination, but there's virtually no direct sunlight. In the morning, the sky starts out dark and overcast and gradually brightens to a brilliant white, and stays that way for about seven hours. Later, as the afternoon draws to a close, it turns slightly pink, then dims to blue, and then goes grey and brown and black again. It's like living under a thick pane of frosted glass. You're never really sure where the sun is during the daytime, and at night there are no stars. Once again, the cloud cover reflects back the city lights, so there's always a vague luminescence on the horizon, but the atmosphere is strangely oppressive. Out in the country, I can only imagine how black things must be.
To a Bostonian like me, this is profoundly unfamiliar. I suppose there are parts of North America that have skies like this—Vancouver, maybe, or Seattle—but in my city, the strong midwinter cold is accompanied by frequent clear blue skies. Where I grew up, winter means sunlight throwing harsh tree-branch shadows on the frozen snow, or ice gleaming on concrete. Here, things are more blurry and grey. Sometimes it's very beautiful: fog and mist lie low in the mornings over the cobbled city streets, clinging to the streetlamps and wrapping around the brown willows or the still-green cypresses in the park near my house. After a while, though, it just gets depressing. You can understand—almost—how someone from a Mediterranean climate might start to go slowly mad.
The thing I find strangest about winter here is that nothing has a shadow. In the daytime, you can see perfectly well in the street, but the light is diffuse and seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. You get to the point where you forget what a shadow looks like. On the rare occasions when the sun suddenly breaks out from behind the clouds and bathes everything, for a few moments, in light, you feel disoriented, staring at the familiar trees and buildings and trying to understand why everything suddenly seems so strange and different. And then you realize that you've seen seem those strange black reflections before, and look at the shadows with a sense of wonder, as if everything had suddenly turned bright blue.
I've never thought so much about shadows as I do in Lille. I feel like I have more sympathy now for Peter Pan, who got completely freaked out when he temporarily lost his and couldn't cope: it's a creepy feeling, not to be carrying it around with you. I've started to think of my shadow as a seasonal thing, associated with summer, like shorts and ice-cream cones: "Oh, yes, in a couple of months it'll be shadow season again." What's both impressive and depressing is that, due to the relative mildness of the weather here, flowers start blooming earlier than I'm used to; the first crocuses and daffodils should be out by the end of February. But the sky will be overcast till the end of April, so I'm going to have to wait longer than that to get my shadow back.
The other disturbing winter phenomenon is that, every time the sun pokes out its face, the city's parents go into some kind of super-high gear and explode into frenzied activity. Within ten minutes of the first sunbeams, it seems, they have bundled their children up in coats and scarves and hauled them out into the public parks, where the pale-faced little creatures bask in the unaccustomed glow, converting it into energy which they promptly expend by bashing each other on the head. Walking in the park on such afternoons always makes me think pensively of Ray Bradbury's short story "All Summer in a Day." Do you know this story? I'm sure you do. "All Summer in a Day" is set on the planet Venus—the kind of Venus that people used to feel free to imagine, before science ruined the party by informing us it's uninhabitable—in which the planet's perpetual cloud-cover only lets in the sun once every seven years, and all the schoolchildren on the planet run outside to soak up the warmth and light for those holy few minutes before it closes again.
On winter afternoons, in the park, this story is often and gloomily in the front of my mind. I can't really decide how to feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, I am glad that Lille's children don't have to wait seven years for their sunlight, but I'm also sort of disturbed that a place like this exists on Earth at all.
As far as places on Earth go, the lesson to be drawn from all of this is, I think, this. (I've been trying to find lessons in it for quite a while, as you may have guessed. It's not so much that I like to moralize as that thinking about the reasons people hate where you live can be a depressing pastime, and I figure I should be able to get something out of it.)
The lesson is, I think—and I'm afraid this isn't funny, but it does make me think—that in certain ways the world is still as unstable as it was back in the long-gone exploring days, when cartographers drew coastlines that never agreed, and no one was sure how many continents there were, and over in the corners leviathans blew waterspouts in a matter-of-fact way. Our maps are much better now, but that still doesn't mean you know what a country is going to be like before you stand in it, and our ability to see a distant place is blurred by clouds of preconception—the further away it is, the thicker the fog seems to mount. This is why one person, say a northern snow-accustomed American like me, can look around and find myself standing in a soft green country, while someone from the southern coast stands two feet away in an Arctic wilderness. He's mentally comparing the world around him to the Mediterranean, while I'm thinking of riding my bike beside the frozen Charles River in sub-zero weather at dawn, swathed in three scarves against the cold. The result is that my personal North is different from his, indeed unrecognizable. When he opens his eyes and looks around, what he sees is a North that's really polar, glaciers and whipping winds and the whole nine yards. To me it's mild spring rain.
I suppose this is obvious, but like many obvious things, it feels suddenly important when you start to apply it to yourself. If even something as supposedly fixed as the compass rose is subject to human mutability, what does that mean for the world; for travelers in the world? Is there no such thing as absolute direction? Why is it so hard to figure out just how far North I am?
I had meant to take up the list of Curiosities again, but the list of Complaints turned out to take up too much space, so they will have to wait for next time. Up next: a few positive things about the North, including Beer, Regional Dialects, and the Giants that Reign In McDonald's, as well as a brief but piquant reference to the Spoon-Throwing Festival of Comines.
I wish you all good weather, and more sunlight than we have in Lille. if I were to give you the same advice as that I give myself each time I go out the door, it would be this: don't forget your hat, because it might rain any moment, and do remember to keep your eyes to the ground for the first flowers of spring.
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