Storytelling Geography: Loneliness, Liminality and Transplantation.

a place is a story, and stories are geography – Rebecca Solnit

I find the word ‘uprooted’ in my mouth surprisingly often, but it’s an imperfect simile if there were never roots in the first place. ‘Rootless’ is closer to the truth. I’m perhaps more like algae, or mistletoe, slipping into pools and spaces that do not seem to be instinctively mine, but are the only places I belong.

I have always valued and mythologised place, perhaps more so than people who take their settings for granted. I’m beginning to question this act of storytelling, blame, romanticisation, or instant nostalgia, and trying to understand how it intersects with my restlessness, itinerancy – and loneliness.

It’s easy to blame landmasses for a feeling of not belonging, but I’m increasingly convinced loneliness has a more complicated relationship with places, and the other people in them. You can be cripplingly lonely in a bright and blaring bar, or in a plywood-walled apartment so small you can hear three friends breathe, just as easily as on a lost and snowcapped hill. I know this. I know it often.

I’ve never been afraid of movement. I was born an expat: no clear sense of geographical belonging determines my déménagements – a ménage being a home or a household. I don’t understand what it would be like to long for a country in the clear, specific way I long for people. Which country should I long for? The one my parents happen to hail from, the one I was coincidentally born in, the one I grew up in and fled? The one I have the most scattered friends?

‘Trust in landmasses, not people,’ my friend Helen and I used to say, a little glibly. Strangely, I meant London, for which I longed from the shores of Lake Léman, in the rippling shadow of the Alps. What a landscape to romanticise the city from! Our catchphrase seems flawed: surely the London I longed for was a metonymy for its people? After all, I had hardly spent any time in the physical city. But there is an important separation between landscape and place – and the difference is self, and the difference is storytelling.

Rebecca Solnit writes about this in The Faraway Nearby. ‘Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.’ I navigate by them, yes, these stories of place, but are they the right stories? How do those stories change? I’m twenty-five. I’ve moved places where I knew no-one four times now: Cambridge, Edinburgh, the Cotswolds, Geneva. I moved to London in January.

 

And London is the crux and the zenith of this line of questioning. For here I am in this gorgeous, mad city I wanted for years, and something is still terribly out of sync. It feels somehow uncanny, in the Freudian sense: familiar, and yet utterly alien. (I always thought the root of the word Unheimlich, and the absence its strangeness pinpointed, was ‘home.’) Something is wrong. This one was supposed to be easy. This one was supposed to last. Yet still I am haunted by this painfully familiar sense of being in the wrong place. Yes, I’ll admit it’s partly heartache – longing clearly for a lover who isn’t here – but it’s more complicated than that. The revelations about people and place (the myths we build about them, what we expect from them) are quite painful – and fascinating.

So: loneliness feeds anxiety, and anxiety feeds sleeplessness, which feeds exhaustion, which feeds the first two. The walls in my attic room in Limehouse are thin, and the ceiling is glass. It is not a far shot from camping, despite the flowered fabric I’ve stretched above me, and the bookshelf, and the teacups. In the light from the warehouse windows, I can see barbed wire, the rush of the DLR, a single fig tree. I watch my neighbours hanging up their laundry. House of Limes, Isle of Dogs. I try to calm my heartbeat. I try to sleep.

Downstairs, the studio is pleasant. We have a cat, two latte frothers, Le Creuset skillets, firsthand hardback Murakami and Heidegger. In the courtyard, there are punks with mandolins and a swing jazz collective. We are nice, creative people, who have prioritised the ability to buy gin and parma ham over actually having a ceiling. But it is not as easy a transition as I had envisioned. In the day, I crave sugar and write. In the night, I wake in the cold yowl of traffic and burst into tears.

So it’s partly the heartache, and partly that my own storytelling is failing – some of those metonymical people have disappeared and, besides, my myth of London had involved settling here for a few years (this one was supposed to last). I’m increasingly unsure. But still. Here I am at last in the city I longed for for years, where there are bookstores and grimy bars and musical folk and many, many dear friends. How can I possibly be lonely?

What I mean is: I’ve come to believe that my loneliness has very little to do with people. Instead, it stems from not being in phase with a place, from a sort of terrible and recurring liminality in which the self does not intersect as one had anticipated with: – one’s myth or previous construction of the place, – the reality of a place.
Hence the uncanniness. This time in London, it must be that somehow, my vision is skewed; doesn’t fit into the myth I carried here with me. It must be that I have changed, or cannot change in the direction I would need for it all to fit coherently, creating happiness or at least a sense of belonging.

 

This goes a long way towards untangling something I have wrestled with for a long time, which is: how can I be so often lonely when I have so many wonderful people in my life, sometimes even in the same geographical location? No, the panic that spurs me onwards has much more to do with some strange, confused idea of places, and with my own permanently liminal status within them.

I think of my move to the Cotswolds two years before, and the visions I nurtured – the glorious, hilly countryside. Greenery! Old stone! Little pubs! Landmasses are not to blame for the warping of one’s vision of them. Are landmasses to blame for loneliness?
I spend my first week alone in the farmhouse belonging to my new employers, an unknown, ancient house in a strange place. On the first night, there is a thunderstorm, and a selective power cut renders me unable to switch on any of the lamps – I keep switching the bulbs from room to room, to no effect. It is nightmarish. I pour myself hot milk, honey, a violent dose of rum.

In the fields outside, a man swings a flashlight beam. I meet him one day, in the lanes, and calling me ‘love’ he explains he is scaring away foxes. A few months later I’ll meet a man who explains that the flashlight beam can also serve to freeze the animals, all the better to blow their brains out with a shotgun. But there are no shots in the dark that first night.

I have no money, to the extent that I miss a friend’s wedding because I can’t afford the train. I try to make this amusing, as I wait for a transfer from my wonderful father to save me – forage wild mint and crush it into pesto; steal eggs and peas from the fridge. On a long, desperately hot walk to the next village, I cram my mouth with elderberries out of thirst. Later, my stomach cramps, and I learn that the stems are mildly poisonous when raw. Still, they’re lovely on ice cream. I watch Merchant-Ivory films in hopes of feeling pastoral.

The house is miles from anyone. I try to take advantage of this by blasting La Bohème on tinny laptop speakers and singing along at the top of my lungs. It feels artificial, somehow. I get self-conscious. What if the fox man prowls by? Besides, there’s not a great deal of fun in doing this alone. I pour myself cider and tweet about it. No-one replies.

The pattern is this: I move, I am afraid I am not in the right place, I plan the next move. I’m like an imperfect graft, one that doesn’t quite take – wild rose vines springing free, taking over, failing the domestic. It’s flawed, and it’s hardly restful.

The myths of the Cotswolds quite quickly crumble in the face of the people I truly meet there – alcoholics, adulterers, aristocrats, Europhobes. Being as how it preexists the move there, a place’s myth will necessarily be incorrect. An inability to shift the myth to fit to the real place as it is experienced: that creates loneliness.

 

When I move to Geneva, it is to escape. I fling myself across Europe with the zeal of a nineteenth-century novel heroine going to take the sea air. Yet the city isn’t quite the immediate antidote I’d expected. Old women wear furs. A single gin costs fifteen francs. The streets are silent on Sunday. Again, something is wrong. My heart sinks.

The myths here are different. I skew the city, easily fitting it into this mould: Rolex, caviar, cocaine. I stumble into the images and people that mirror my misery, the way a newly-learned word appears everywhere. There is a reason I do not instinctively turn to Merchant-Ivory here: the myth that is jarred is not the Cotswolds-myth. I suppose I should turn to Heidi.

Yet it is not all miserable liminality – in any place, some parts of me fit. The blessed obverse of this state is that people and places can bring me immense comfort, when it all does line up right. I sleep in the cobbled old town, listening to a fountain. I swim in the lake, in the morning before work, blissfully alone in the shade of the Alps. I’m speaking the language of my childhood for the first time in six years. We drink rosé on the old places. Somehow, I am only conscious of what is missing; what I haven’t found yet. If Geneva does not provide it immediately, it must not be here.

It doesn’t occur to me that the missing elements could be in me, or are not being constructed and could be – in my reading of the city, in my failing to seek out what I need – blinded and blinkered as I am by my idea of the place. But the myth of a place failing me is still a myth that gives strength: it is far easier to uproot than to try and ease or change a failing transplantation.

People are unpredictable: they move and must be found. Sometimes our established stories about a place have us seeking out the wrong people, or failing to look beyond what we already see. The problem is, when you don’t have a clear reason to be somewhere, it’s hard to understand why you should stay. Yes, I’ll grow to love the lake. I’ll grow to miss the lake. I swim, drink tea, write letters to my friends who will, I am starting to understand, always be scattered. I make new ones, brilliant ones – it takes time. I find the grimy bars. Eventually, I no longer feel alone. It occurs to me that I could do this anywhere.

But I still leave, because I’d planned to; because I still believe I must be happier elsewhere. Sometimes it almost feels like a form of cognitive dissonance: I want to be less stressed, I want to be more settled; I move. Worse than that: I leave because I think some other place will hold the solution. I wonder, in these moments of worry, what it is I’m looking for, in this life of forward movement, loneliness and instant, perpetual nostalgia. What great and terrible stories am I telling myself? Are they helpful?
For this storytelling textures and colours the nature of loneliness in a particular time and place, which may go some way towards explaining the instinct to blame, and to flee.

 

Somehow, that is changing. I no longer believe flight is the key to being at home in a place; that I will one day find the myth that fits me and the place perfectly, arrive in its heart and be absorbed into it without adaptation. I will have to give up, at some point, seeking a myth of ready-made home and anchoring. I will have to learn to construct it myself. I must be a better grafter, fitting the wild rose scion of myself into the rootstock of place, that cannot be merely mythical. That must be real.

Writing this piece I sometimes wonder if it is simply an elaborate attempt to convince myself that place is not to blame – specifically, that Geneva was not to blame for my loneliness there, since I am moving back this weekend. ‘Back’ is not quite right, though: I am moving forward, and I am moving for a reason, which is love. He cannot be my myth, though: I must be sure I can build a new sense of Geneva for myself, on my own. I will learn. I will not be afraid.

The change cannot always be of place: what must change is the story. I must change the way I root and uproot. This isn’t an argument against movement: on the contrary. It is an argument against loneliness. I must construct my own home, find my own people, storytell my own comfortable metonymies. My experience of a landmass is in my hands. I know how to transplant; I must learn how to create new compasses and architectures. Wherever it takes place, it is my story to tell.

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Neutrality and its Nonexistence

I’ve been amused, intrigued and confused for some time by a significant discrepancy in the fight for gender equality on two sides of the linguistic border. The fight is the same, the battleground is the same, but the positions chosen are opposite. Thus:

On one side of the Channel: a deputy at the Assemblée Nationale was recently sanctioned for refusing to use the correct formulation ‘madame la présidente’ – his snide defence being that this is a modern aberration, even grammatically incorrect. He was fined. Madame la Présidente Mazetier’s decision was broadly applauded by other women at the Assemblée, and broadly booed by conservatives.

‘Madame le président,’ as used by that deputy, is perceived as an insult: it implies that ‘president’ is a masculine term for a masculine role, like a woman shouldering her grandfather’s tweed jacket*. The logic is this: if French women in politics are having a hard time being called by the feminised form of a word, this comes from a history of there being no need for it. Thus, the gendering of ‘madame la présidente’ is logical, a natural indication of progress.

Anglophone women, however, have taken the exact opposite route; hitting back hard against the use of terms like ‘actress’ or ‘comedienne.’ Why should there be a gender-specific term for exactly the same job? they ask. The argument is that feminising the word weakens it, creating an unnecessary ‘ladies-only’ subset. Why shouldn’t they wear their grandfather’s jacket? It looks fucking great on them, actually.

My objection – which presumably comes from my francophone education – is: why should that carry negative connotations? Why should the feminine form be a weakening? Doesn’t this play exactly into the ideology we’re trying to undermine? Ladies-only should surely mean ‘brilliant; often possessing vaginas.’ What does that have to do with seriousness?

I understand that the cultural divergence comes from the defence that ‘actor’ or ‘writer’ are not masculine terms, but neutral ones. (Thanks, Maya.) I have complicated, conflicted feelings about this. It’s a prickly issue, neutrality. Like equal pay, everybody with their heart in the right place presumably agrees it would be ideal. In the meantime, we’re not there yet. So what do we do?

Ideally, one should be able to wear the patriarchal jacket if one wants, and be taken equally seriously in a summer dress and heels, whatever one’s gender.* Now, how to turn that dodgy metaphor into a bilingual grammatical system?

In France, feminising terms has been chosen as the more radical act – and it has progressed against the stern advice of the Académie Française, ancient guardians of correct language. (They have a Commission for Neologisms, fyi.)** The Académie’s guidelines indicate that they are here to ‘destroy the illusion according to which a “feminised” grammar would help advance the position of women in society.’

But wait. Une grammaire féminisée, you say? I’m so in.

It seems to be that there are serious advantages to this fluidity and transformation.
‘Sage-homme,’ for instance, is relatively accepted as the masculine form of midwife, where English seem to have settled for the rather confusing ‘male midwife.’

However, back to the English argument: as the Guardian and Observer’s joint style guide puts it, “actress comes into the same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, ‘lady doctor’, ‘male nurse’ and similar obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men).”

Thus, historically, words like ‘authoress’ and ‘écrivain,’ in their opposite grammatical ways, carry the same weight: of harkening back to an era where women trying out the trade were dilettantes, in their undertaking of a male job: either made to exhibit their femininity as a weakening or obliged to pose as pseudo-men. There’s the jacket again: English women were forbidden from wearing it, Françaises were forced to wear it.

These ancient approaches are obviously stupid, and clearly obsolete. But what do we do now? Language is only so flexible. I mean, all you have to do is cross the Channel, and ‘comedienne’ is sexist or ‘président’ is sexist. Where’s globalisation when you need it?

One would think that the English-speaking world would have the edge in this fight, since its newspapers issue pro-equality guidelines and the idea of gender-neutral education doesn’t spark riots in the streets (and then get knocked from the school curricula). But I don’t know. I’m drawn to the French approach, partly because it necessitates a remoulding of language, rather than a melting of the feminine into the neutral. It seems radical. It seems positive.

In theory, at least. I’m exploring, not advocating. Still, as a writer, une écrivaine, and a feminist(e), I reckon it’s worth thinking about a positive feminisation of language, and how a feminine grammar could be a good thing. Until then, I’ll be wearing that old jacket, and a dress too.

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* I am aware that using ‘jacket’ as a ‘masculine’ garment and ‘dress’ as a ‘feminine’ one is deeply flawed – but the trouble is, we are dealing in old sterotypes about roles here. It bothers me, for instance, both literally and metaphorically, that while most women are now comfortable wearing men’s jackets, not a lot of men are comfortable wearing flowered dresses. Do you see men stepping forward, asking to be called comediennes? Exactly.

**For context, it must be noted that the French language is overwhelmingly biased towards masculine (or, the Academie would argue, neutral) gendering. If just one of the nouns used in a sentence is masculine, the plural becomes masculine. Thus: ‘Où sont Julie, David, Samantha et Florence? Ils sont allés à la piscine.’ Thus, there can be no grammatical neutrality, such as that claimed in English: there is an odd friction of gender in saying ‘madame le président.’

As a lily among thorns: on fucking, sleeping, and constructing womanhood in Sleeping Beauty and Jeune et Jolie.

A close friend has started working in a strip club  – as a waitress. The men want what they can’t have, she tells me. They tip us well. Maybe they’ll ask me to be a dancer, she says. I don’t know.

Isn’t that a slippery slope? I ask, naïvely, or joking.

She is twenty. She knows what she is doing, with her body, with her life. Why wouldn’t she? I was thinking about this as I watched Jeune et Jolie and Sleeping Beauty last week. 

The two films have a lot in common, and leave a strange impression if watched in quick succession. Both are defined by blank protagonists, Lucy and Isabelle, and a neutral narrative voice; both present intelligent meditations on age, empowerment and the possibility of being lost. Both gracefully tackle the filth and fear tied to their subjects, as well as flashes of beauty – without either shying away, or leaving anything black and white. Both raise a lot of questions about womanhood, growing up, and the ambiguities of sex work.

At times, the vision of the male gaze, desire and sense of entitlement is utterly vile, but far more compelling are the young women’s visions of themselves – or lack thereof, or fluctuating construction thereof. They shift, these women. They are young and complicated. We change our minds as to whether they are self-aware, mature, empowered, conscious. Sometimes we think of them as almost children, swept up in tides beyond their control. Other times we watch them act completely and utterly deliberately. Why does this chill, or thrill us?

The central question is one of agency, and how it relates to power and disempowerment. Death features surprisingly prominently in both films – the closeness of eros and thanatos, I suppose. Impotence and old age play the foil to the protagonist, in her sexual power, empowerment, and, possibly counterintuitively, her apparent powerlessness. Both women have men die in bed with them. The line between petite mort and death is a heartbreaking one; it plays a large narrative role in both films.

On powerlessness: both women are soft, frail, childish. This is part of their appeal. They are students. Isabelle is startlingly underage. Yet both flex the muscles of their new sexualities hard, and with skill. Unflinching, exposed. This is not Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sara makes men toss coins for the right to take her to bed, keeps the banknote after doing coke in a swanky bar bathroom; Isabelle flirts with her father-in-law, smiles hard as she fingers her young boyfriend. Her best friend thinks she’s a virgin. Isabelle choses the name of Lea for her career alter ego; Lucy is given Sara. 

How do young women create themselves, project themselves? How do they fluctuate? How permanent are these constructions?

I follow a few very smart sex workers on twitter, and watched a fight unfold a while back on the question of whether dancers were or could be engaged in sex work, either in their day-to-day work, or on the side. The women were disagreeing: one dancer defending her black-and-white artistic work, using but not selling her body; another dancer admitting to moonlighting on both sides of the line, accusing the first of whorephobia; a third sex worker hissing at this ambiguous middle ground. The lines are not clearly drawn. They rely only on deeply personal choices – and language.

It’s a question of semiotics. So is this one: there was an interesting debate around the trial of the footballers who allegedly had sex with underage prostitutes. They weren’t paid, the footballers said (to paraphrase). Maybe given champagne, a handbag, taken for dinner and to bed. They weren’t prostitutes, he protested. They were starfuckers. They wanted it.

Slippery semiotics: starfuckers, hookers, dancers, sluts. 

The opening scene of Sleeping Beauty shows her volunteering to have a plastic tube inserted down her throat into her lung. Apart from a cigarette burn, this is the worst physical act shown in the film, though the threat of violence hangs over the whole. She gave consent. She is being paid. Later, we watch a man pick up her sleeping body like a limp doll; another shoves his fingers in her mouth, whispering abuse. Difficult questions are being asked, about the nature of violation, free will, remuneration, and abandoning control.

She is unconscious. In French, the word ‘inconsciente’ also means ‘reckless’ – ‘qui ne mesure pas les conséquences de ses actes.’ Does she know what she is doing? 

Why wouldn’t she? Both women are deeply aware of their bodies’ power, and yet seem to be separated from them as well. They deal in illusions: availability, sentiment, acquiescence. ‘Why not?’ Lucy says to the offer of a line of cocaine. Their faces almost never betray emotion. They are quiet, and polite. Are they doing what they want, or what they are told? Who is objectifying, or being objectified? 

The question of responsibility looms large over both films, in complex forms: Clara, the beautiful, coiffed incarnation of the thirteenth fairy from the tale, preparing the drugs with a tea whisk; Georges, the elderly man who continues to see Isabelle after learning she is underage, caressing her back, pouring her champagne. Lucy has an absent mother; Isabelle a difficult one, but no external characters are really involved in the two women choosing their paths. The films have no intention of staging why they do what they do. We are allowed very few glimpses into either woman’s psyche. The question is either haunting or irrelevant. 

Both films place a heavy amount of dramatic emphasis on the idea that the women don’t need money. If you take away the end-goal, what does the act become, or aim for, or mean? We can’t help but wonder why they do it, if the banknotes are burned with a lighter, or stowed away in a drawer; symbolic, unneeded.

Is this simply a kind of arthouse glamourising? Are we too easily fascinated by this apolitical, ahistorical, too-carefully-neutral presentation of a sex industry without a sting? I think there’s more to the angle than that. For me, what this narrative device does is lay bare the question of control, consent, availability. Taking money out of the equation makes us question its role. Why would we be chilled at this portrayal of women utterly in control of their sexuality? 

The major question the films raise is one of… ontology? Teleology? What and why is sex work; what and how is the erotic; what and when is womanhood. Whether our actions define us; whether it matters when and why these women do these things.

None of these queries are answered. We want to understand, and these women don’t let us. Their facial expressions run a dull gamut from empty to hiding surprise to vaguely smug. Their bodies are flawless, revealing nothing. As women, they are mysterious, and yet unpolished; in flux. They often seem somehow absent. Is what they do what they want? Is it who they are?

I am twenty-five. The girl at the strip club is twenty. Isabelle and Lucy are seventeen, maybe twenty-two. They are learning how to be women. How do we feel, the films ask, about the way they are choosing to do this? 

Earl Grey, lamb kidneys, white sheets.

I don’t talk enough about the good days. It’s hard to write an upbeat blog post without sounding like you’re showing off, it turns out.  However, the driving forces of this one – sunshine, optimism in chaos, strong Earl Grey – are hard to resist. So I’m persevering. I’ve written enough melancholy. Time for some grateful joy.

So, I started to make a list of all the best things that had happened since I moved to London, and found myself overwhelmed (although, to be honest, the top item was ‘I went to Berlin.’) I felt very lucky. Sure, this city has been treating me well, but it’s the people I know here that are truly exceptional – and the food and drinks they provided me with. I’ll love these people no matter where I end up wandering, but I’m enjoying the geographical ease of eating and drinking with them. In no particular order.

Giles took me to Yalla Yalla, weaving our way through the sex shops. We ate warm houmous with shawarma and lamb kidneys roasted in sharp pomegranate molasses. A basket of flatbread, a carafe of wine. We talked about dreams of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel. We discussed hiking across Iran. 

Lizzie made me spaghetti bolognese on Valentine’s, and for the first time in years I wasn’t sad at all. We ate so much chocolate ice cream. I fell asleep in her bed. 

James took me to see Coriolanus, feat. Tom Hiddleston’s peen in a thin white sheet, and then I nearly got free mocha cake because the waiter in Foyles dropped it on the countertop but I was too shy to accept.

Roxane fed me a few times, but the most notable event was the utter Roman binge that was her birthday. Rachel brought approximately eight million cookies. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many cookies. 

Laura and I went to a Turkish restaurant and ate endlessly – houmous and roasted aubergines and stuffed chicken and halloumi and olives. We talked about the complications and wonders of mind-body dualism, and bisexuality, and death. I wrote a lot in my diary on the way home. 

Lucy took me to Mishkin’s – a Jewish deli with an alcoholic twist. We drank ice-cold cucumber and basil Hendrick’s martinis and talked about love, freedom, geography.

Caitlin treated me to Earl Grey and lemon cake at the Science Museum. We wandered around, looking at old airplanes, laughing in the face of biological determinism. 

Katy made me an Elodie-themed meal, after notes that her husband George left in the back of the military biography he was reading. The starter was gin and tonic, for England, followed by avocadoes, for… the colonies? The main course was hot dogs, for America, and baked camembert, for France. The camembert exploded. Dessert was Lorraine whiskey. It was brilliant. 

Colm provided cheese; a lot of cheese. We watched a vampire movie and something about scoundrels and then had wine gums for dessert. 

Helen and Edmund made me something delicious, now clouded in a haze of distant gin and tonic. Chicken? Definitely chicken. We talked about Verdi and travel and looked at pictures of dogs. We stayed up late. I made chocolate pots with brandy. 

John cooked the boeuf bourguignon all afternoon, served it up with potatoes dauphinoise. We got drunk and listened to choral music, like we always do. His guest bedroom is white, luminous, blinding if you have a headache. The bed was clean and soft. He made scrambled eggs with cream, and mugs of tea. 

Those were all brilliant, brilliant days.

Four lovers and the gifts that made me cry.

9. The lilacs were fresh and filled the air with their sugared scent. It was a huge bunch, an armful still wet with rainwater or dew; I have never been so embarrassed in my life. His mother picked them in their garden; he carried them in a supermarket plastic bag. You could hardly see his face through the leaves. I hung the bag on the coat hook under my jeans jacket and hid on the school stairs and my best friend Lucie found me and didn’t understand. He was a pretty boy with dark lashes and a taste for geology; I was a mud-covered little creature with thick glasses and hair cut by my mother. We were fierce intellectual rivals; the last time I saw him he drank nearly as hard as I did. Sadly, our romance slowly wilted and fell apart when he convoked me to his house to try to kiss me. By then, we were eleven, he reasoned. Despite owning a leather jacket, I wasn’t ready. I fled. Lilacs are still my favourite flower, though.

13. Some cut-glass earrings and a scrawled card with a picture of a French horn came in the post that Christmas. He was a brilliant musician; he later got a piercing and moved to New York. The previous summer, though, he asked three other girls to the ball at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. And me. The card said I love you. He asked me out beneath the dry heat of the pine trees and we danced less than the requisite foot apart and nearly kissed. I thought about him in my sleeping bag, later. Oh, Elodie, my mother the horn-player stroked my hair, is it because you don’t remember him? I laid my forehead on the cold glass panes of the door glumly. I did remember the boy with the French horn and the Spanish eyes, but I certainly didn’t love him. Being as thirteen as I was, the world was probably going to collapse like a rotten orange because of these earrings he had sent all the way from Michigan. I hid them in the back of the bathroom cupboard and tried not to look at them. They’re probably still there.

15. This one sent me a box of broken biscuits. I mean, I’m sure they were unbroken when they were posted. They smelled like nutmeg and stale butter. I was fifteen, he was twenty-eight. We met on the rocky beaches of Eastern Spain, at my best friend Camille’s holiday home. He was her cousin: he had part of some kind of literary PhD, he knew about Chinese philosophy, he looked good in a white shirt. We never even touched, apart from an allegedly-medical massage during which I got the worst sunburn of my life. That summer I grew taller and got contact lenses; on that holiday I found out my mother was ill. The apartment block was a bland white square on the dirty, glittering sand, but it was covered in night-blooming jasmine and the paella across the street was incredible. He was a poet. There were a lot of cut-open apples and pig’s blood in his work, but then mine was all full of moths and waterfalls. Our blistering correspondence culminated in those biscuits, then dissipated. And by that I mean that I ran away from him at a party – he was wearing a black turtleneck and looked twice my age. But by the time the biscuits came, I could already barely stand the sweet, spiced smell of them.

22. It was just a lily in a box. I was older then, but dead flowers still apparently ring some deep, sad chime for me. If you love me, give me a book or a bottle; something that will last, or something we can share. I was on my way to catch a train; I am always halfway somewhere. It was late, I don’t even remember the event, was it a Valentine? He and I used to run away to the beach or the theatre for Valentine’s, or have some kind of elaborate dinner in a secret restaurant, so that doesn’t seem right, but then we were very far away a lot of the time. I still have the chocolate rose he got me for our first. But this was a white lily and I was at home during the lost year of my scattered quarter-life. It was a lovely gesture, but the flower was late and it was crushed and I was leaving. Maybe it was Easter. I put it in a vase and it just slumped, so wet and white, and there was no-one to comfort me. I loved him so. Then I went and got on the train.

Fox, gold leaf, parakeets.

It all started rather glamorously, eating a cupcake topped with gold leaf, bleeding on the carpets of the ambassadorial residence. Crying at Manon and wondering if I should move to Berlin, which is cheaper.

Inspiration was revived at a poetry reading in the attic of Ben Jonson’s house. Later, they argued about the texture of whale blubber. In the scriptorium, I was all like I’M A POET; also happy.

Leicester Square: rain-soaked, attempted to eat Japanese noodle soup using only metal chopsticks. Failed. Later, was empowered by Amy Adams’ retro tits. All those sequins! Moriarty from Sherlock was in the lounge, eating wine gums, I think. Rain, rain,

South: found a fox sleeping under a bench in the rain. Drooled over Google maps of Iceland while pouring shots of Brennivin, apparently known as The Black Death. Ghostwrote three and a half chapters of a novel. Stayed warm in bed and skyped Vietnam. Those were good days, too.

Got blisters on Brick Lane. Got blisters in Hyde Park; also muddy. I don’t know how to walk a dog. The lights on Camden Lock are beautiful in the rain.

Above all, a series of excellent old friends, reminiscing, arguing about Tolkien, hating their new grey hat, absolving me and pouring me one last drink.

Do not underestimate the appeal of reduced grapes, or fourpacks of Strongbow, or lunch for £2.54. It almost makes up for the absence of mountains.

Ate veal pancreas. Started reading Eco in French, slowly. Eventually, someone called me ‘Elixir’ and offered a ‘temporal room.’ On Nightingale Grove, I took it. Strangely, there were bright green parakeets in the trees by the library, mistaking it for a temple?

Well, there’s not very much heating but I can hear trains in the night.

Flamethrowers, Birds Singing, Thursbitch.

I liked these! Maybe you will too!

The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner

Land art, sexy communists, motorcycles. Yes.

Thursbitch – Alan Garner.

A poetic oddment of a book. Definitely merits a second reading. Dreamy, bizarre prose about eighteenth-century English architecture, shamanism, and hiking in the rain.

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht

Half-harsh, half-beautiful magic realism. Strong and subtle.

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Another slim and strange novella, this one a piece of dark, woodsy Americana. A one-breathless-Sunday-morning kind of book.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

This one had me staring darkly out of the train window on an otherwise idyllic hiking holiday with Amanda Block. Brilliant and disturbing.

I didn’t like this! Maybe you did! Sorry!

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Pompous, obvious and boring, like a shit Greek intersex Rushdie.

Garbage fires are beautiful: five fragments of a month in Nepal.

During the blackouts, shops are lit by single candles: oranges, cough syrup, silk scarves soft, bright and eerie. The goat butcher on the hill up to Dhapasi, Kathmandu, is my favorite – something about the raw mess of slaughter and sales, the flies, the noise of bone-thin dogs and children playing while he hacks away, somehow seems to sum up the glorious madness of the place. You get used to the dusty jostle of the roads, and eating pomegranate seeds by the fistful from wet tin bowls.

Solitude is complicated. This alleged ‘finding’ of self people told me would happen when travelling is starting to seem to have less to do with laying the bricks of a brilliant, sharp new me and more with making peace with the flawed woodwork of the old one. Or: anxiety gnawing holes all the first week. Where the fuck is she, this beautiful new me? I have to remember how to breathe.
So I go down to the market in Basundhara, kicking through black antlers and crumpled foil wrappers. I haggle for a kilo of little oblong greening tomatoes; a bag of dry, muddied onions and carrots. I smuggle a bottle of red into the kitchen, thick and cloying. I put on Stars and cut vegetables. I drink a cup of wine and dance with the knife. There she was all along.

We make it back down into the velvet valleys of Sinuwa by dinnertime. Hot-showered, we drink hard with our guide and porters, sweet dark Nepali rum that leads to cloudy rakshi – a dull, rough rice wine in a plastic bottle. We beat them at cards. One last Surya menthol smoked up at the stars reveals lights on the hill, which turn out to be a lone Korean surrounded by crushed gold cans. He doesn’t speak any English but teaches us to shout and throw hollowed bamboo sticks across the table. We beat him, too.
The next morning we cross loose suspension bridges with a herd of donkeys. They are hung with loud bells and smell like shit.

Chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic. Smog stains the stars red in Durbar Square, and the smoke lines your lungs with grime. Shrines are carved and tangled into treetrunks. Everywhere ashes and marigolds. The homeless clamber into a lineup, bright-eyed and impatient. Soon the zinc vats of dal, bhat and vegetables appear, boiling. We have spent the afternoon chopping and peeling, squatting in the dirt, chewing hard green lapsi plums – so sour they make water taste sweet. Kneading unleavened bread dough. If you don’t pour oil over your hands, the iskus squash melts your skin to a crackled brown.
Eagles dip and gyre, vast and ragged. Monkeys lope across the whitewashed palace, slow and sinister above the blinding columns. We try not to spill burning liquid on the thin, dark fingers holding out banana leaf bowls. So many say thank you.

I can’t breathe in the orange and marijuana groves, the sky a piercing blue. It is day one of the trek. We can’t see the mountains yet; they are hard to imagine – impossible to dream that, on the glorious, Tolkienesque descent from the foot of the Annapurna peaks, we will leave behind icy bridges, vultures, the distant crumbling sound of glaciers. That by day five I will be breathing sharp and deep. I won’t want it to end.
I can’t do this, I think, lying on a stone bench, cramming dried apricots down my throat. A fingertip drawn across my face comes away white with salt. There are seven hours of stairs to climb. I swig cold iodine water. I look up into the hills. I peel and eat a sweet, green orange. I breathe in.

Afterlife of the Author: on re-reading my mother’s novel.

 

When I was about nineteen, I found a ten-year-old maple sweet in the bottom of my pen-drawer, and the catch of sticky sugar in my teeth slammed me straight back into the heart of a long-forgotten holiday in Canada. I don’t mean it was a clear transition. It wasn’t hypnotic. It didn’t feel real, exactly. All that happened was that a powerful but vague emotional memory slid into the bottom of my stomach without warning, like a riptide. (I haven’t read Proust but I understand the madeleine operates more gently.) In any case, I grabbed this wave as best I could, held it in place and fed it, supplemented it with actual images of events. That nameless feeling gave some sort of emotional warmth to the scenes I then recalled: walking along lakeshores studded with pine trees, throwing up lemon pop on a whale-watching boat, my mother dancing to Les Négresses Vertes at the border.

The ache of revisiting my mother’s novel, The Feasting Season, operated in much the same way, and may be just about as hard to convey to someone who can’t just climb inside my head. I hadn’t read the book in about six years; certainly not since my mother passed away. It’s still wonderful to me, but in a more complicated way than when I read and read it as a teenager. The feelings it conjures up are as powerful as they are vague, like the ghosts of emotions that used to be attached to people or events but now navigate on their own, unattached to anything mapped or memorable. They’re uncanny feelings.

Meg, the main character, is not my mother. I know this. However, she has two children and she lives in a farmhouse in rainy Lorraine which, in my mind, cannot help but be the house I grew up in. (I find myself clinging to that worn-out trope about first novels.) Whatever the trigger, I found myself crawling through the pages like a silverfish thinking ‘We are those children, we are not those children.’

I read, hungrily, feeling along the back of the drawer for bittersweet treasures.                 ‘This old farmhouse feels too big when the kids go to sleep.’                                            Does it, Mama? Did it really?                                                                                                      I mean – Meg.

I know Meg is not my mother but it’s hard not to wonder. She wears vintage silk dresses with aplomb, she loves garlic, she cries at the kitchen table. Meg has a terrible weakness for intellectuals; one that comes to bite her in the back when she marries a dastardly Oxbridge Brit. ‘I’ll never forgive you if you marry a man like Nigel,’ my friend told me, dead serious. I laughed – there’s enough Meg in me that I could see it happening. (Note to future me: don’t.)  They all blur, in my experience of this fictional work: me, Meg, my mother; the author Nancy Coons.

It wasn’t just the content of the writing that got to me, though, but the memories of its creation. All of it is still so real to me. The ink crawled with the ghosts of typos I caught, the dinnertime conversations where we endlessly discussed plot. Our family ate roast rosemary chicken and pigeon in blood sauce and daube niçoise just like the ones Meg cooks, as we talked over the specifics of Meg’s family life. I remember how the book’s editor and agent felt like people we had around on a regular basis, although they lived thousands of miles away.

My mother was a journalist. She went to all the places in the book: they are real. We went to some of them with her: Aigues-Mortes, the coast of Bretagne, the rice paddies of the Camargue. We hiked up to the pictographs at Mont Bégo. We ate oysters in Arcachon and raspberry pastries in Cluny.

The house I read in the book is our house, I cannot help it. I know the book is set a token hundred kilometres west of the town I grew up in; the house in the book has a basement. Still. I know that barn. The gendarme’s képi and the worn WWII jacket are real. They are markers of reality. My mother wore them whilst she was writing the damn book. The feeling is like an opposite of Sartre’s nausea: to me, these objects are meaningful. Of course, to any other reader it is just a house. It is not my house. They cannot see that kitchen, or that képi. Does that make a difference? Does it matter that this ghost of my mother haunting the book exists only in my head?

‘This old farmhouse feels too big when the kids go to sleep.’ Did she get lonely, my mother, out there in the country? Or is she just telling us Meg did? My sister and I are not Kate and Cloey, but we inhabit them. They bear our markers. Our feet were blackened with dirt from running around an old farmhouse barefoot, just as theirs are. We must have smelled of yeast when we were babies; how many other babies’ necks did N. Coons, author, bury her face in? We definitely wore pyjamas she tried to throw away. What was it like, being our mother, all those years ago? We have so few ghostly markers of how she might have felt about motherhood left to guess from.

I’m a sort of New Critic at heart, which makes this all a difficult train of thought to experience. There isn’t anything inherent in a text but what you can see in it, my rational mind whispers. But here I have to admit it is different: in this particular novel, I can see so much that maybe isn’t really there for another reader. As I said before, it’s uncanny. The taste of a madeleine, the roar of a steamboat whistle, the sting of stubble burn: everyone experiences these things differently. For some, they are heart-wrenching. For others, they are unknown or meaningless. What to make of this? Like any writer, I often wrestle with the question of how much actually makes it onto the page. How much of the emotion, context and truth that back a fictional story make it across to the reader? In the end, you never truly have access to anyone else’s experience. Still. It’s hard not to wonder.

I can try to separate myself from my own characters, but I cannot separate my mother from Meg. It doesn’t help that I don’t know, or can’t remember, the separations. It’s been six years. Did she like to suck the coffee from sugar cubes? I was too young to drink coffee with her more than once or twice, although I remember how it thrilled me when she bought me my first espresso. Was this coffee-lover’s gesture a fictional marker, or a part of herself? I honestly don’t know. What if she did do it, and I just never saw? What if she did when she was younger, and then outgrew it?

I know this particular ache has little to do with reading fiction, and more to do with the sadness that here is a whole life of my mother’s that I will never access. Reading her fiction now is a little like fumbling around in the depths of her pencil drawer: most of the sweets won’t ring any bells at all. In fact, it’s a lot like going into her jewellery drawer now. Every piece used to have a story: her mother’s pearl pin and silver scissors shaped like cranes; an origami broach from an artist friend. The pieces are still there, some of them with new stories: most of her black-and-white ‘80s pieces I now associate with my gorgeous sister, for instance. As for the rest, the stories may be lost, but their ghosts remain.

There will always be unanswered questions, but fiction leaves a little room for speculation: I like the shadow of the thought that my mother may have hidden a younger self in Meg – who was, after all, twenty years younger than her author at the time of her creation.

Because there is still one more thing that happens as I thumb the pages of this copy: I catch the ghost of feelings from my younger self. How it felt to read about falling in love when I never had; when I was twenty years younger than Meg myself. How it felt to have these miniature insights into parts of my mother a young girl can’t really understand.

Reconnecting with something once-beloved is painful and fascinating for the sparks of ancient self it ignites, or leaves impressions of. Not just because I identify with it, or because I remember it being written, but something simpler. Wordless, incoherent imprints of the way a scene felt come in tremors; tiny, visceral clenches of sheer and ancient emotion, so long dormant that they no longer have any meaning.

So those are three things I found: odd memories of the book being written as a family object, the traces of my wonderful, unknowable mother as embodied in her fiction, and long-forgotten sketches of my own teenage past. I think these can be separated, although I am not sure. The important thing is that they are mine, mine alone and cannot be taken away, sullied as they may be by bitter Amazon half-stars. And so I keep reading, chewing those ancient sweets as if they might reveal the details of lives we may have never really lived, Meg, my mother and I.

Halloween in France: a socialist fable

When I was a small child growing up in rural France, nobody we knew had heard of Halloween. Much as many families worldwide have ceremonies, like watching Neighbours or taking ayahuasca, All Hallows’ Eve was our private, sacred American family secret. At dusk, we’d light candles and get dressed up, i.e. throw together something outrageous involving some rags, a couple of belts, some vegetables and some stolen lipstick and, well, sit around BEING AWESOME. Feeling Halloweeny. (And spelling it the goddamn American way.) I can’t say I’ve quite outgrown it, even though Halloween these days is more likely than not to involve flaming shots of dubious liquid and making out with some pupil-dilated individual covered in (hopefully fake) blood.

But back to my story. This innocent era came to an end circa 1996 when France discovered Halloween. That’s right, discovered it. And immediately went on to claim they’d invented it. ‘allouin became an old Celtic holiday. Samhain was definitely totally, totally French. (Don’t bother questioning it. Pick your battles. Say, Arthurian legends.)

Anyway, so Halloween was French now. And, sacrebleu, the French were going to do it right. (Disclaimer: nobody says sacrebleu. Ever.) To be honest, you can kind of understand them. Up until then, the most exciting thing you could do ‘round that time of year was pop round to the tombs of your ancestors for a bit and water the fake flowers. A celebration of prank-pulling, sheet-wearing and E-numbers was a vast improvement. Suddenly, our childhood’s training came into its own. Overnight, my sister and I were crowned Halloween Queens, mostly because we seemed to be able to pronounce it. The hideous polyester vampire shirt with the GIANT plastic gold cross was cool. (In the latter days of our reign, the costume choices available to my sister and me expanded to include the cheesiest spandex, sequin and plastic things my grandmother could possibly find and ship to us, poor deprived children living in what she must’ve assumed from my parents’ dispatches on the subject was pretty much a Third World country.) For the first time since our friends discovered we didn’t really know about Claude François orles Worlds Apart,’ we were ahead of the trend! We had fake blood! We had fake cobwebs! (OK, that’s a lie, my parents drew the line at paying to put fake cobwebs in a house as full of actual cobwebs as our own.) We had plastic witch fingers which made your fingers smell horrible for days! We made pumpkin soup! (According to a bemused neighbour, French people don’t really eat pumpkin; it reminds them of the war.) I think one year we even had American Halloween candy – cue my parents despairingly trying to explain to us why candy corn was a thing, in one of those dreadful moments when they realised they had raised Foreign Children. We set up a giant zinc tub from the garden in the middle of our kitchen and organised apple-bobbing! (There’s just nothing like mashing your face into the side of a cold metal tub in the pursuit of healthy snacks, is there.) That was the best time. Our five friends loved it. (It was a small village. Shut up.)

But our reign ended rather swiftly the next autumn when the socialist government* had us decapitated** (*school)(**sent out a note). ‘Le trick or treat,’ it announced with little American-import spider Clip-Arts, would be organised by the school. It would, of course, be well-supervised. By every single teacher of the school. And of course, for safety’s sake, the children would proceed en masse.

Pas de tricks!’ the whichever teacher wrote the note jested, probably after looking up ‘tricks’ on whatever people used before Google.

My parents were outraged. What kind of barbaric country was this? What would they do with all the sporks, eggs and toilet paper they had laid in? (Joke. I have never sporked anybody’s pelouse.)

And then the reality of what was implied by ‘en masse’ sank in.

That is how we ended up with an army of close to eighty sugar-high little French kids between the ages of 3 and 10 swarming in a fairly orderly fashion through the streets of downtown Faulbach (population: 200). To these people, the rules of trick-or-treating were clear. No time to chat or have costumes cooed over or guessed at. To be honest, most of them were wearing Scream masks anyway. No, this was to be a cold, semi-military operation.

The chant we had decided on was the francophone ‘un bonbon ou un sort!’ – ‘a piece of candy or a spell!’ which has got to be pretty much the world’s most awkward English-to-French translation since ‘Jaws’ became ‘The Teeth of the Sea’, and was also, incidentally, a gross misrepresentation of our aims. We basically raided and pillaged the entire village of Faulbach. The parents and teachers fronted this army, and politely requested that every household hand over every sweet in their possession, like some sort of hideous reverse Jamie-Olivering, whilst children squabbled and howled in the background. Mothers poured two or three entire bags of sweets into our vast wicker baskets and binbags. Grannies scuttled back into the kitchen and tipped in whole bowls of oranges. Mechanics shrugged and gave us their family’s entire stash of chocolate. Some tipsy dude gave us a bunch of aperitif biscuits. Many kept their doors shut, presumably shivering in their basements, clutching their last cans of cassoulet. It was carnage.

This socialist-junta-style Halloween did not end there. The parents lugged our haul (I’m 95% sure we had a wheelbarrow) back to the head of the PTA’s house, where they carefully distributed it equally between every single one of the children. Even the slackers. Even the ones whose costumes were just a big coat. Even the ones who had just bought their masks from Carrefour. Everybody got their allocated twelve toffees and seven hundred gummy bears and two mini pizzas, or whatever. It was completely bizarre and kind of awesome.

There is a moral in this for all of us: the French also invented pumpkin soup.

Ed. Spoke to my Dad on the phone shortly after Halloween this year (2013) – there is indeed a wheelbarrow, and they still use it.