Greetings from the Year Abroad I am now conducting from my bedroom: a year abroad insofar that it is no longer a Year, but a strange, shapeless vortex of timey wimey stuff, and abroad in the sense that it’s not abroad, but is in fact a suburb in North Yorkshire.
What have I been doing, I hear you scream, longingly, wistfully, hysterically, from the kitchen table that is now the centre of your universe? Well, fellow virus hosts, my concentration has been so evaporated by All This What’s Happening, that I feel unable to continue without the ballast of two lists:
What I’ve been doing:
Spending the equivalent time period of a London Heathrow – Perth flight, on twitter. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. This is not a wholesome activity: you do not need five portions / day. However, I have successfully increased my following by 5 people, to (as of today) 202.
Listening to a playlist called ‘Upbeat Glee Songs 2010’ on Spotify, while going for runs, and having very strong solo reminiscences about my life as an 11 year old. Ah, lynx deodorant in very small spaces.
Cooking quite a lot. My main technique is to banish your any parents from the kitchen, in order to avoid ‘helpful advice’. What they don’t know about your potato peeling method won’t hurt them.
Being subjected to online classes from the ENS Lyon. Turns out that French grammar really only was bearable when not the primary source of entertainment, and even then, it was only acceptable when smothered by brie.
Just sort of staring into space, mainly thinking about Wimbledon.
Devising a skincare routine so elaborate that at its grand finale, daylight has receded, and the Earth has completed its rotation around the sun. Entire companies have gone bust. Novels have been written. My skin is gleaming.
What I haven’t been doing:
Seem to have avoided writing the short story collection / play / film script / novel due to bedazzle the world. Instead, I have been picking up my pen, then staring out of the window, thinking about Angelique Kerber’s loss in the second round to Laura Davis.
Selling my Depop clothes. Which you can browse here, for very reasonable prices (@florosity)
Reading a book from every francophone country, like Danny W. I will however be following his progress on twitter.
Yoga, because the long peaceful parts don’t make sense to me, even though it’s probably a really good time to do yoga.
Enjoying quality time with a comforting pet, because my Dad is ‘allergic’ and my parents ‘work full time’ and so we ‘can’t have a dog or a cat’ even though I have asked, with huge politeness, since the age of 5.
Actually seeing my boyfriend, because Matt Hancock is my relationship guru, and He Hath Spoken.
It has taken me a very long time to get around to writing all of this (the readers wonder how it could have taken more than 10 minutes to write this rubbish) because, as I have mentioned, my concentration is reduced to that of a hyperactive gnat on Ritalin.
A strong desire to have some kind of ‘take’ on all this also held back the creative flow you have just witnessed. Should I do anger? Relentless positivity? The wisdom of an ancient philosopher? Really, nothing seemed to work, because I have not been able to settle into any one mode of being, so little do I hold control over how I act. In fact, all I’m feeling is a strong desire to stare out of a window, and think about Serena Williams’ two-handed backhand return.
Since we’ve all been temporarily prevented from travelling further than ‘another government-mandated walk around the block? Well, it’s not as if I’ve got much else on…’ , I thought this would be quite a useful poem to think about. It plays with the excitement of travelling, at the same time as it questions its necessity, and ends up reflecting on writing. No, I haven’t written a literature essay in a while, and yes, that’s it.
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams hurry too rapidly down to the sea, and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion, turning to waterfalls under our very eyes. – For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains, aren’t waterfalls yet, in a quick age or so, as ages go here, they probably will be. But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling, the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today? Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres? What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around? The tiniest green hummingbird in the world? To stare at some inexplicable old stonework, inexplicable and impenetrable, at any view, instantly seen and always, always delightful? Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too? And have we room for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
But surely it would have been a pity not to have seen the trees along this road, really exaggerated in their beauty, not to have seen them gesturing like noble pantomimists, robed in pink. – Not to have had to stop for gas and heard the sad, two-noted, wooden tune of disparate wooden clogs carelessly clacking over a grease-stained filling-station floor. (In another country the clogs would all be tested. Each pair there would have identical pitch.) – A pity not to have heard the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird who sings above the broken gasoline pump in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque: three towers, five silver crosses.
– Yes, a pity not to have pondered, blurr’dly and inconclusively, on what connection can exist for centuries between the crudest wooden footwear and, careful and finicky, the whittled fantasies of wooden cages – Never to have studied history in the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages. – And never to have had to listen to rain so much like politicians’ speeches: two hours of unrelenting oratory and then a sudden golden silence in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at home? Or could Pascal have been not entirely right about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society: the choice is never wide and never free. And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be? ‘
And so we enter the event I am calling ‘The Second Fucking Time I’ve Had To Flee A Country On The Year Abroad.’ (TSFTIHTFACOTYA for short?). It’s all happened pretty quickly. On Friday I sent an e-mail to the company I was supposed to work for in Beaune, in which I (oh, innocence) wondered whether I would stay in France or try to book a flight home. If only the Goddess of Hindsight had the gift of time travel.
After several stressed out calls from Jake, and some considerably calmer ones from my Dad (I only take advice from the men in my life – in the midst of the breakdown of society, it’s important to support the Old Ways.) I just carried on with wilful blindness to the developing situation. It was only when Faith told me that she’d booked last minute to go to home that I started feeling a little uneasy, and made an EasyJet purchase, hands shaking.
Almost all of the flights had already sold out, of course, and we were lucky to get onto one for Tuesday evening. This brought momentary relief, which was only to be supplanted by more fear as Macron announced further restrictions in France.
For anyone unfamiliar with the way the French President has decided to go about things, let me inform you now. We wait all day for some news, some guidance, anything – then at 20h on the dot he solemnly sits in public broadcast and delivers increasingly strict measures, with the all the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy, and all the human empathy of an incoming cyborg. We then scramble to make sense of the consequences of his decisions: when he says ‘tous les voyages, tous les déplacements sont annulés’, does that mean for foreign nationals? Does that mean flights?
Faith and I were returning from the supermarket (long queues to enter; only allowed in a few at a time; perhaps half the stock already gone) when we bumped into an intendant at the ENS. As we opened the door to re-enter the accommodation block, he made contact with a stern ‘Vous faîtes quoi ici?’ We stuttered that we were international students, that we were just buying some food, and going back to pack. You won’t be able to leave, he told us, with a Gallic shrug that seemed to rise from the depths of the indifferent earth. You’ll be locked into the accommodation. We’ll even close the gardens. Impossible, impossible, impossible. No flights, no transport, nothing from tomorrow onwards. We said that we thought the flights were continuing, and ended the conversation as quickly as possible, both feeling a little sick.
But inside, as we started chopping vegetables, another dramatic message came: another Cambridge MML student (in Paris) telling Faith that the borders were closing in 12 hours, and that tonight was the final chance to get out. She had bought a Eurostar ticket for a few hours’ time, having previously planned to stay in France. We panicked, then realised there was literally nothing we could do: we didn’t have a car, we couldn’t take a train to Paris, Lille or Brussels for the Eurostar that late, our flight was still planned. So we ate dinner, planning to watch Macron’s speech later.
We had just finished dinner (a confusing attempt to finish up panic-bought food) when he announced that France was to go into full lockdown. I had expected further restriction on movement, but he seemed to imply a total suspension on all flights in and out of the country – I felt so anxious I could barely understand his fairly simple French. I ran in and out of the kitchen, as we five girls called our parents, and tried to understand what he had said. After a few messages, one of my french flatmates (already at home with her family), sent me a message on our group chat, telling me that this shouldn’t affect my planned travel to the UK.
Still, I felt anxious, and barely slept the next night: I kept on imagining the flight was cancelled, that I would be stuck in my room for two weeks. I knew this wouldn’t be terrible, just boring; but the urge to be with my family beat stronger and stronger.
We wondered if we should go to the airport that evening, but decided against it, and booked a private transfer for the next morning. All went smoothly, and as France goes into confinement totale we have made a little camp of suitcases here, with all the other tourists for company. There are a few soliders wandering around with guns, which is a bit disconcerting.
It would be very difficult to get back into the city, with all movement forbidden, and in any case Faith and I have already handed in the keys to our rooms. So the flight has to come, and we just have to wait for it. But we’ve already been waiting – in this strange, sickening suspension – for days, and I just want to leave. Twitter broadcasts of global apocalypse don’t exactly help, so I’m trying to avoid social media.
Anyway. Hoping we’ll get on the flight at the end of this rubbish day, and if anyone wants to talk (whether you’re also waiting to leave a country, or are at home, or trying to get there), I’ll be here for several hours. And Faith just asked out loud if she could catch corona virus from her own hair, so we’ll definitely need someone else to talk to.
Not even thinking yet about just how sad it is to have left France early – but I’ll be back. It’s just au revoir for now.
You’ve probably noticed by now how it’s all gone a bit Exodus, that the newspapers have become great harbingers of doom, and that the world’s generally on an off-day. Coronavirus (for it is she) has spread to France, which is now the 2nd most infected country in Europe, and the ENS has closed. Plus no gatherings over 1000 people (so I ask again that my group of admirers disperse), and we’re not really supposed to travel.
The responses from Cambridge (my home university) and the ENS Lyon (my Erasmus university) have busily reinforced national stereotypes. Our President at the ENS sends anxious daily missives with strong dramatic flourish, every point made, expanded upon, underlined, accompanied by a counter-argument.
On the British side, the tone is so unassuming as to be the email equivalent of a bashful Hugh Grant half-smile. The MML department is playing hard to get: so coy. The only e-mail we’ve had was from a few weeks back, a demeure note to tell us that they’d be in touch.
As public services shut down, and social life circulates down to just two men standing in a park, wondering where everyone went, the matter of choosing my quarantine country becomes more pressing. Being a temporary resident of a country makes any potential quarantine more difficult, as the concept doesn’t stretch to merry channel hopping – in fact, some would say this kind of behaviour is to be actively avoided. Eugenio didn’t get this memo: his eyes light up gleefully as he describes his trips between Italy and France -worryingly whilst making drinks for us.
It’s an odd decision to make as a temporary resident, as this period is marked out for French Life ; but the desire to be family, friends and my boyfriend is, naturally, strong. In order to decide, I’ve been compiling a mental list of each country’s pros and cons, which I will copy here:
+ Speaking French, saving money on ticket home, living in the ‘Gastronomic Centre of France’ (or ‘of the world’, if you’re from Lyon and are quite bold in your egotism), wine, cheese, general soaking up of frenchness by osmosis (by this i mean non-sexual , sartorial leering at chic women in cafés), better healthcare system, Macron’s piercingly blue eyes, other students around. Still have quite a lot of food left in the fridge, as a result of lightly excessive stockpiling.
– I’m not actively seeking to catch coronavirus .
+ ‘Loved ones’ bla bla . Cheddar. Free meals, with opportunity for additional parental financial extortion.
– Brexit Britain, Farage, Johnson, etc. Being legally obliged to sing happy birthday while handwashing. Monolingual life.
Guess I’ll just wait and see.
The coronavirus has also made me understand just how low my ‘standards’ of ‘hygiene’ can fall. Yesterday, Izzy looked at me with just a little pity as my ENS card fell out of my mouth (where I was storing it) and onto the floor, whereby I just picked it up , and popped it straight back in, corona-infected gravel and all. Faith, Robin and I are extremely relaxed about sharing food : this very morning, as Robin prepared to catch a flight back to the Netherlands (sorry, did I mention how cool and international my friends are now? If you want to stay a part of the inner circle, you’ll have to pick up at least one more nationality), we had a lot of fun sneezing and coughing on each other, and eating each other’s sandwiches. This is part of a masterplan to infect Robin, and so enter into joint quarantine together – just to, like, hang out.
Yesterday I got very excited for about half an hour by the prospect of £200 ‘corona cheap’ tickets to Buenos Aires; then read today that South America is preventing Europeans from entering. If only they’d done the same 600 years ago …
My experiences in getting a) a parasitic infection, and b) getting stuck in Bolivia during a national crisis have helped me to become more resilient in this situation. Living just over La Manche from home feels less dramatic than the distance between South America and the U.K: should everything really go badly, it’ll still be fine to get home.
I realise I’m being a bit flippant with all of this, so yes: disclaimer – I know i’m young and healthy and privileged etc. In spite of this good fortune, I am still feeling a bit ticked off. France is a wonderful place to live, and I’ve been waiting to come here for so long – I really hope I don’t have to cut my time here short. However, I do have some back-up plans: volunteering in Calais (I thought I would go this summer, but working now would mean I could go for longer), finding au-pair or babysitting work in France, writing the YAP, and possibly going home for a bit – my parents and boyfriend were supposed to come at the end of March, which is now looking uncertain. I’m not especially prone to homesickness, but I always want to see them.
Other languages students are in the same limbo of quarantines, breaks from work and university, cancelled flights, worried parents: it’s been easier talking about our thoughts and options together.
And finally, I’ve adopted the attitude of my 89 year old step-grandmother. When my mum called the other day, to ask about arrangements for her 90th birthday next month, she squashed any thoughts of cancellation. Of course not: I want to see my family ! Twice-widowed, trilingual, a child during WWII, and a former expat in cold-war era Vienna, she is not panicking. Neither am I.
(n.b. I wrote this while I was quite tired, so some of it might sound like I was smoking something fruity. I wasn’t.)
For Part 1 at Cambridge, we studied the nouvelle vague classic, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7h. This film, which follows Cléo through her day, represents time as an elastic quantity, in which hours lengthen and shorten as we experience them. Varda marks the passing of time in Cléo’s day through occasional flashes: sometimes, an hour in Cléo’s day takes twenty minutes in the film, sometimes five. It is a human rendering of time, which never quite ticks along with quite such regularity as the clocks record – as anyone who has waited for 5pm to come around at work or school, or has felt surprised by ‘how time flies’ will know.
The Year Abroad has progressed in this weird warping of time. In both Bolivia and France, the first fortnight felt like several months, with so much to complete, so many people to meet, a new culture to absorb. And yet whole weeks then pass at a speed of hours, leaving you wondering how a month or two have passed. Preparing to go home, minutes and hours stretch without shape ahead: counting down the days as you accumulate them, with the prize the promise of friends and family at home.
Looking through my calendar yesterday, I realised that I am now almost exactly halfway through the Year Abroad. The speed at which the days have disappeared make looking back to the start of the year, to the stillness of late summer. There is no longer a point fixe: in Bolivia it is now Summer, in France it is sunny and spring like, in England it is snowing. The one-hour time difference between France and England is little in comparison to the 8- hour, but both mark separation between countries. Even in this era of instantaneous communication, where a Skype call creates contact over thousands of miles, the passing of time is a reminder of the distance that displacement – dépaysment – creates. And so it is sunny in France and snowing in England,
This displacement often feels like several dislocations. The version of me who stood in the Chilean desert, eating cactus ice-cream, or flew in the teleférico in La Paz, feels unconnected to the version of me at home in York, or on the familiar train to visit my boyfriend in Newcastle; and the version of me, working in the library at Cambridge, feels like another lifetime, another person entirely. Travelling fragments the self, even as you come to deepen your self-knowledge through the experience.
The cliché that you ‘find yourself’ through travelling does not, for me, quite capture this process. The self who leaves on the plane or train, from whatever lifestyle or background you know, is yourself: but in the slow, often testing, experiences of your new life, you discover some bits, develop others, and suppress or forget some traits or neuroses. In a different landscape, the unthinking routines, likes and dislikes of your previous life are no longer just there for you to continue. Instead, you have to consciously choose whether to re-invite these practises or people back into your new situation. Did you really like that TV programme, or that friend, or did you just engage with it or them because they were there, and you never had any reason to question your involvement? Moving to a new country forces you to re-assess your interests, and also brings a whole new culture to play with.
It’s the equivalent of putting old clothes in storage, and buying new ones to try out: you realise that you do miss that old jumper, but actually prefer ankle-boots to flats.
Simple conversations allow you to analyse your own culture. Someone raises a stereotype – that English people are reserved, for example – and you wonder if this is true; if you are reserved in contrast to your new country, or if not, why you don’t identify as such. Is it because you have found that you enjoy the more direct style of your new home? Or maybe the experience has proved that you actually you are perfectly happy not talking to anyone on the tube.
As Montaigne put it in his essay, ‘On The Education of Children’, where he recommends that young people travel abroad to open their minds and form their judgments:
‘mixing with men is wonderfully useful, and visiting foreign countries … to bring back knowledge of the characters and ways of those nations, and to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.’
Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.
It’s much easier to learn, absorb, digest the language in the country where they speak it
Long bus and train journeys really let you think
You can get money from the MML faculty if you have to escape from a military coup in South America, if you ask nicely
It’s hard to be funny in a second language
People from England rely on humour to communicate roughly 60% of the time. This is a mixture of laugh-out-loud, bawdy humour, irony, sarcasm, self-deprecation, doing a ‘bit’ with your friend/ comedy partner, and you won’t realise how much you use this until you lose the ability to do it.
People aren’t intrinsically more interesting because they come from another country. However, becoming part of an international community means you meet people who are generally open-minded, sociable, and adventurous, so it’s easy to believe that the grass is greener.
It’s also easier to do small talk when you can just list different types of food you like in your country, and count this as ‘cultural exchange’
In many ways, you might just revert to the conversational prowess of an inquisitive toddler, as you ask a lot of questions, like ‘What are you cooking today?’ and ‘Do you have classes?’ and ‘Do people like Blackadder in France?’.
Travelling gets easier the more you do it. Both in the practicalities (checking bus timetables, reading directions) and in the psychological aspect (it’s not as scary as it seems. Ok, well, Bolivian buses are still pretty scary.) .
Should also point out that I’ve had a pretty great time so far – largely because the people I’ve met have been wonderful. So much of my improvement in French is due in large part to my flatmates, who defy every stereotype about ‘the French’ being rude ; and so much of my general happiness has been due to the lovely friends I’ve made in the past term. Lyon is a beautiful city and lets you slow down, enjoy good wine and coffee and food, as well as providing a pretty much endless array of diversions.
Challenges such as: anemia, ant infestations, banking bureacracy, unhelpful administrators, lack of Wi-Fi, malfunctioning phone contracts, and Erasmus documents – and much more beside – have been largely overcome – though they have all been A Bit Too Much at times. (And by ‘times’, I mean ‘most of all the time’).
Anyway, I’m posting this, a week after starting it (how am I ever going to get back to the productivity machine of the University of Cambridge ? ) from the gloriously grey UK – specifically Newcastle, where people don’t glare at you in the street if you have a ladder in your tights – and am glad to be back for a bit. Also trying to not Freak Out Unhelpfully about Corona Virus. À très bientôt.
When in Gaul, do as the Gauls do. Something like that. Last weekend we found an opportunity to prance around like it was 47BC, in the little town of Vienne.
After some confusion over where we were meeting, how to get from the ENS to the station, then how to get from the metro to th e platform – never travel in groups of more than three people – we successfully boarded the train with just a few minutes to spare. Friendly talking was at a minimum, as a consequence of the energy exerted in our pre-journey journey, so I spent most of the twenty minutes staring out of the window, imagining what the countryside would like look like were it not full of concrete.
We walked from the station to the town centre as airy morning sunshine drew light, slowly, onto the stalls of the Saturday market. Farmers from all over the region were selling row after row of cheese, wine, and bread, all proud and perfect in the little square. Such was the power of the produce that the (only loosely banded) group accidentally disbanded somewhere between the tapinades and pâtisserie, and so our stroll descended into a lightly sweaty, unplanned game of hide-and-seek. (Don’t try to do anything in a group of more than three people).
Eventually, we reconvened by the Jardin de Cybèle, a small park containing the ruins of two archways, a public forum, and a small stadium, marked by the broken tiers of seating. Looking at the faded structures, it was hard to imagine how 800 citizens could once have gathered here – how it could have been a great hub of life and for the living – it was now so calm, just metres away from the busy market.
The group (re)meeting largely consisted of us all saying ‘Yeah, sure, that sounds cool’ and ‘Yeah, whatever you want’ – statements that, it has been scientifically proven, have never led to any practical decision being made, ever, in a group of more than three people. However, the discussion did provide an opportunity for the only guy present to speak loudly over every attempt at a suggestion; so it was one to the patriarchy, nil to the success of group outings.
Eventually, Robin and I just started walking off, which turned out to be the best solution. As pale golden sun grew into the heat of midday, we explored the town a little. Firstly, the very impressive Temple of Augustus and Livia – a huge 1st century Roman temple, bearing down with ancient imperiality on the cheerful checked tablecloth cafés below. After this, Robin and I found a small place for lunch, just to the side of the Cathédrale St-Maurice, and by the river. This restaurant was just the kind of easy place that should exist on every street: just a few dishes, one waiter, some wine, and a cheap plat du jour. We shared white wine, poulet rôti with frites, and îles flottantes for about €8 each in the shade of the cathedral.
Vienne was an important episcopal seat over in the early Middle Ages, with several Kings, including the rulers of Burgundy, offering the church their patronage. Several important Archbishops, such as Guy of Burgundy, took it as their seat. The cathedral took over 400 years to be built, with the large Gothic structure built over a Romanesque foundation, itself the site of a sanctuary dating from the 5th century.
Having covered most of the town, we walked up to the hill to the Gallo-Roman theatre. Although undergoing building work at the moment, the theatre was very impressive, stretching to fit over 13,000 spectators in its still largely intact rows.
From Belvedere de Pipet church the whole town – Roman, Medieval, Modern – opens below: an mosaic of terracotta roofs through which the rivers Isère and the Rhône gently unfold. Half-standing hillside ruins bake in peace in the heat.
Back in the town centre, we split up again; as I was taking an earlier train than the others, to meet my mum in Lyon that evening, I went to the Musée des Beaux Arts et de l’Archéologie. This was a peaceful set of rooms in the centre of town, holding a range of artefacts from the different layers of Vienne’s history.
Back on the train, and back to the twenty-first century in Lyon.
I decided to go to the Alps. Although I have been in Lyon for just over a month, my life here so far has been steadily horizontal – far from the breathless climbs that pushed through every day in La Paz. Skiing was pretty much out of the question; despite my parents paying for private education for seven years, and going to Cambridge, I’ve so far successfully avoided hurtling down slopes with nothing more than high-tech toothpicks to guide me.
Hiking was also not a good idea. My battered old Nike trainers peel at the prospect of just a five minute stroll to the library, let alone tackling the highest mountain range in Europe. As usual, then, I jumped on the cultural-city-visit bandwagon (or more accurately, a €2,99 Flixbus from Lyon Perrache) to zoom off – ski-free- to the mountain city of Grenoble.
Grenoble lies in the shadow of the Chartreuse, Vercors, and Belledonne mountain ranges, whose vast rock bases rest among metal and concrete suburbs, as the peaks crest into the lace-white clouds above. It is not just a city, but an ever-evolving series of urban projects: from influential Capital of the Dauphiné in the 11th century, planned socialist utopia and Olympic Winter Games host in the 1960s, to the scientific research hub of today, it has also become famous for its glove and hydropower industries : all this while existing side-by-side in the ancient peace of the Alps.
Tired from my sleep-free night (does that make it sound less exhausting?) and bus journey, I wandered straight into the old town. And wandered around in circles, because both the téleéférique to the mountains, and the museum, were closed, and in doing so I had become so hungry as to have lost all ability to make any decisions. Fortunately the Resistance and Deportation Museum opened before I could walk in and out of another boulangerie without buying anything , in a hazy low-blood sugar panic.
As I’d just visited the Musée de La Résistance in Lyon, I had some background on the movement, but was interested to read more about the Alpine history. During World War II the Alps became a central focus for liberation, resistance, and military desertion attempts, due to the borders with Italy and Switzerland. Networks were established to help Jewish refugees out of Nazi-occupied areas into neutral Switzerland, and conscripts trying to avoid fighting for their invaders would seek refuge here in the snow and thin air.
When I managed to reach the mountains in the cable car, I also visited the Museum of the Mountain Guards, which detailed the battles fought between resistance and German troops in unimaginably difficult conditions: passes considered unclimbable became sites of military victory for the soldiers, even against heavily entrenched German soldiers. The intimate knowledge they held of these ranges led to their fighting in Afghanistan against the Taliban, in the tough landscapes of the region.
Up above Grenoble I was able to visit the 18th-century Bastille fort, built to defend Grenoble from the Kingdom of Savoy. Manmade caves built into the mountainside allowed soldiers to attack and defend with ease, the mountain transformed into both weapon and fortress for the city below. The grassy patches of land now hang still and silent in the imposing presence of the mountains, and it is hard to imagine the blood once spilled.
Back in the town, I went to the Musée de l’Ancien Évêché, a former bishopric at the centre of Vieux Grenoble which is now devoted to the archaeology of the region. It held an eclectic range of items from Roman pottery, to luxurious 19th century silk gloves , and was quite beautiful in the golden sun of late afternoon.
As I’d managed to see everything I had planned, I waited for my bus in Pan & Ce, a grand old café just out of the city centre, all dark wooden floors and polished glass mirrors: I had an espresso and a walnut tart (made from the local walnuts, which is apparently A Thing), read my book, and generally had a lovely hour.
Away from the Alps and back to Lyon after a very fun day.
There are several reasons for visiting Belgium. Mine fall into two categories: Food (see – frites, moules, waffles) and Nice Old Things. This time, however, a third motivation presented itself: Following my Boyfriend Around Cities While he Makes Notes on 19th Century Statues for Some ‘Interesting’ Historical Project. Plus waffles.
For attractions which elude me, my boyfriend (a history student at Newcastle) has devoted a significant chunk of his brain to studying Belgian history, and decided to travel to the country to carry out ‘research’ for his dissertation. Seeing an opportunity to annoy him in the same terrain as well as through passive-aggressive online jottings, I tagged along (plus, I really wanted some waffles.)
Due to the train strikes and the general costs of moving to another country, I took the cheap option of a ten-hour night bus from Lyon to Brussels. This was a refreshing, restful, and well-equipped ride, or at least would have been had I just returned from a remote desert island full of poisonous ants. Nevertheless, I made it to the Gare du Sud old school style – without Google Maps, due to lack of charging ports – and was successfully reunited with post-Eurostar Jake.
The list of historical sites was somewhat relentless, but allowed us to see much that the city had to offer. On the first day, we visited the Grand Place, in all its gaudy golden glory; the Palais Royale, where we had a very earnest conversation about our plans to obtain EU citizenship; the spacious Parc Du Cinquantenaire, and finally a quick glance in the Broodhuis – the Gothic revival building that housed the city’s bread market.
Lunch was at the kind of over-priced hipster café that Jake loves and I resent, and we also shared a waffle at a café near the Grand Place. The afternoon was spent at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, where I went to a lovely / wacky Magritte exhibition, and Jake to something for his dissertation. Due to my lack of sleep from the overnight bus, I became slightly delirious and starting seeing floating hats and coffins around the city centre.
Our AirBnB was a beautiful art deco house, tall and narrow with stained-glass windows in a jewelled palette of colours. There were also two cats (my favourite bit) and a huge selection of Belgian beers (Jake’s favourite).
The next day we took an earlyish train to Courtrai,about 80 minutes from the capital. Courtai was one of the richest cities in Flanders back in the 14th century due to its central role in the wool trade, and was also the site of the (apparently very important) Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. Although the city is somewhat unassuming on arrival, its historic centre is pretty and well-preserved around a cluster of streets; and the stout bridge gates have stood heavily over the river for centuries.
We visited the Courtrai History museum, which was interesting to Jake, and slightly pointless to me. I may have had it on the wrong setting, but the audio guide seemed to consist of a lot of shouting in Flemish. Then I became very cold (Belgium was almost freezing at all points of this trip) and we set off towards Ghent.
The beauty of Ghent’s historic centre is built largely on its centuries of wealth, due to the textiles industries developed in the city. Its canal, slips like silk through the medieval centre, sable stone buildings frozen in time. If only it were a few degrees warmer…
Gravensteen castle thrusts with imperial magnificence over the narrow streets, and the Gothic cathedrals – St. Bavo and St. Nicolas – spike the cool grey landscape.
Jake took photos of buildings that I will be filing under ‘Some Cold Statues’, and we wandered around enjoying the streets. Although we tried to see the spooked-lamb version of Christ (the Ghent alterpiece in St. Bavo’s cathedral), the queue was so long that Jake would have missed his Eurostar had we attempted it; instead, we popped inside the castle (too expensive for a tour, unfortunately) and visited the Fine Arts museum. This boasted a great collection of Belgian works from across the Early Modern period as well as some more contemporary movements. Dinner was frites, which I had been (literally) dreaming of since booking my bus tickets.
Back to Brussels for the evening, where we ate pizza and chocolate in a very stylish apartment. Sunday was the day of our departure, and we set off on our eco-friendly bus + train travels, back to France and England.
According to internet sites of varying reliability, it was Napoléon Bonaparte who first said ‘If you want a thing done well, do it yourself’. Though presumably he said it in French. Such a statement makes sense within the context of French administration, a vast and knotted series of systems designed to never let anyone into France who is not a) French; b)a wizard; c) a corrupt forger of documents.
One of the only Erasmus students at the ENS Lyon who is ‘sorted’ with bank card, housing etc., was born in Lille, and developed a lucrative fake ID-card business at school, for 15 different countries. This seems like a useful technique for carrying out basic registration tasks in this country.
Over the past 10 days I’ve spent hours trailing from corridor to corridor, room to room, dagger-eyed secretary to dagger-eyed secretary. It’s a love-hate relationship, but without any of the love part.
In order to get a bank account, you need the housing insurance; in order to get housing insurance, you need to have a room; in order to (legally) have a room, it needs to be registered; in order to be registered, you need a guarantor; in order to have a guarantor you basically need to be French and already resident in the country; in order to be already resident in the country YOU ALREADY NEED ALL OF THE ABOVE. Let alone: getting wi-fi access for your room, updating the main student card without a French bank account, and receiving post when denied a postbox.
Perhaps this is fairly standard – it is pretty difficult moving to any new country. What is really outstanding is the attitude. Firstly, no problem is too small or too simple to be considered entirely unsolvable. Almost every simple request is met with a deep shrug, eyebrow raise, and expression of rueful acceptance, as you are informed that ‘Ce n’est pas possible. En fait, c’est hors de question. Ce n’est pas possible, ça’. Often the activity seems very much possible and within the grasp of anything with a functioning respiratory system.
Sometimes (for example) you need the form signed as soon as possible, and you are sitting across the desk from the secretary who can sign it, and you need the form to be signed to receive Erasmus money, and yet she cannot sign it, because ce n’est pas possible. You may resort to begging, such is the extent to which the system has degraded you. This will not work. She is signing it on Lundi après-midi, and that is now God’s will, and nothing – no reasoning, no polite request – will change this. (You doubt there is a God, because surely He would not have invented French bureaucracy). There is another form to be signed, but this must be sent to another department, even though you know this woman will never sign it, because she has not replied to your emails for a month. And also because ce n’est pas possible.
The other response is to lecture you on all the faults you have ever possessed, and all the many ways you are incredibly stupid for ever believing you might be able to join the gym, given with a thorough analysis of the terrible character of the British. Waiting for one secretary at the ENS to finish her 10-minute presentation of my incorrigible stupidity in incorrectly filling out a housing form, I wondered why she couldn’t just take out a bilingual dictionary, and flick through to V, vers (m): maggot, worm, and indicate that this was a fitting description of myself. It would have been quicker, and would have involved considerably less eye-rolling.
Joining the gym is my next goal. In order to do so, I have to buy a medical certificate of health from a doctor. Foolishly, I thought this would be possible to do through the on-site medical centre, and so posted my personal health form (plus 9€ ID photo, not forged) through the boite à lettres outside; unfortunately this request was met by the same sad shrug. However, in order to make a Doctor’s appointment, you have to have slay the Nemean lion, the Lernaean Hydra, and to capture Cerberus, guardian of the gates of the underworld.
I actually travelled York – Lyon by train, but it sounded better with the alliteration. And although both Yorkshire and London firmly believe themselves to be at The Centre of The Universe, even I must concede that London is probably (marginally) more globally important. So London will be where the journey starts.
After a 1st class train journey (!) down to London, a 2nd class hostel stay at YHA St. Pancras, and a 1st class meeting with my friend Maisy, it was a bright and fresh day when I started my Eurostar journey. Just a quick saunter (saunter time: 4 minutes) took me from my over-crowded room to the station, where I picked up my tickets and waited for the train.
St. Pancras is one of the most rah stations in the U.K., where it is legally binding to wear coats and scarves of at least 50% wool and / or cashmere. It’s therefore one of the more challenging spots to play the game ‘Are They French, or Just Posh English?’. Everyone has swishy hair, trench and peacoats, and does a lot of relaxed striding, and well-off Parisians (i’ve noticed) have a tendency to copy ‘le look anglais’: bouclé hair or tweed jackets. It’s la mode à la Prince Charles. French people often repeat the lie that they all benefit from an in-built radar for detecting fellow français; this isn’t true.* All you have to do is wear a large scarf and a cool attitude, and they’ll believe you’re 5ème arrondissement through and through.
After thinking about all of this for a bit, I made it through the very relaxing security, and onto the train. I’ve only been on the Eurostar twice before, and I’d forgotten just how huge it is: 1/4 mile. Apparently engineers have to bike up and down to work on the carriages.
My seatmate and I exchanged looks as we both whipped out our copies of The Guardian, and it was in this pleasant spirit of the Echo Chamber that we sped along the roads of the Southern Coast. I bought a sandwich equivalent to a term’s worth of university tuition fees, and stared (without any profound thoughts) into the blackness of the Channel Tunnel. Googling how the tunnel stays up was not reassuring, as it brought up an article about a collapse between London-Belgium a few years ago.
Suddenly the train burst into daylight, and we were in France. More specifically, I was asleep in France, and nearly missed my stop at Lille. Usually this wouldn’t matter: you use common sense, and catch the next mode of transport back to your intended destination. On the Eurostar, however, missing your stop can land you in another country entirely – 1 point to carpe diem, nil to your sense of capability.
In Lille I launched myself and my three-tonne bags on to the next train heading south, and three extremely crowded hours, had reached beautiful Lyon.
Although I chose to go by train for environmental reasons, it was immensely more pleasurable than travelling by plane. Whipping through the English and French countryside, all the way from grey Northern England to golden Southern France, was exhilarating, and I simply watched the changing skies for hours.
It’s also a great privilege for a Brit from Brexit island to pass through countries so freely, to fly through the colours of the landscapes, all while feeling the great vastness of this mass of land, so full of play and possibility: so unlike the disjointed displacement of the plane, where there is little sense of geographical progression, of the swallowing up of miles and miles of land in your journey. Travelling through the continent is an experience I’m hugely excited for in the next six or seven months here.
If you are not to become a monster, you must care what they think. If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them, and so become a monster of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy that is the way of liberty? From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them; they are to you as sunlight on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except as monsters like yourself, pitiable because unforgiving.
~ Wendell Berry
My thoughts, tonight, are with those who have been most affected by a decade of Austerity Britain, and the EU citizens our PM has rejected.
Starting from the end, I liked the final phrase: ‘as monsters like yourself / pitiable because unforgiving.’ To be unforgiving is negative, causing us to so lose our humanity that we become monstrous. It is hard to avoid turning into a monster, as the first two paragraphs outline. Even a willfully empathic imagination (‘you must care what they think’) which may bring you closer towards those you hate, likely simply ends with the sad conclusion of you taking on the hatred of your new affiliation : ‘and so become a monster / of the opposite kind?’
How do we avoid this state? or, in other words, ‘from where then / is love to come – love for your enemy / that is the way of liberty?’ The possible answer follows: ‘from forgiveness’. Forgiveness leads to freedom: ‘they do / free of you, and you of them’. Or so it seems. The next image, that of ‘sunlight / on a green branch’ suggests that the group you hate remains as integral a part of your life as the sun that allows the living plant (the ‘green branch’) to continue to grow. This could be seen as a pleasant image – the blossoming and strengthening of life through discourse and discord.
Two strange thoughts spring from this poem: 1, that empathy might lead to further hate; 2, that the people you have opposed, and forgiven, are a vital part of life’s development, even when you have parted ways. It is not a poem of dogma, in spite of the repeated ‘you must not’ , but a poem of slightly unnerving reflection; that we are all monstrous, and that these monstrous qualities leave us inexplicably intertwined with our supposed enemies.
Enjambement reflects this odd coupling , with the ‘you’ of ‘you must not’ combined with the ‘them’ of the ‘think of them’ in the line ‘you must not / think of them’ both joined and split across two paragraphs. These pronouns use the language of populism: ‘you’ that of a leader whipping up supporters into a frenzy, through seeming intimacy, with ‘them’ referring to a generic group of anonymous people – different from us or you, and for some reason our opposition.
As a voter and human being, I’m as liable as any to seperate the world into those categories of ‘you’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’, possibly to comfort myself that Iwill ‘not become a monster’. In my case, the far-right and racist groups would be ‘them’, the monsters. It’s hard to understand those you disagree with, and Berry doesn’t offer a clear solution to build bridges – except to suggest that to forgive might just squash the monster within us.
This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb: The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches, Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course; They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes, But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, Her climb is done. Down towards Glasgow she descends, Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen. All Scotland waits for her: In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks, Letters of joy from girl and boy, Receipted bills and invitations To inspect new stock or to visit relations, And applications for situations, And timid lovers’ declarations, And gossip, gossip from all the nations, News circumstantial, news financial, Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in, Letters with faces scrawled on the margin, Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts, Letters to Scotland from the South of France, Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands Written on paper of every hue, The pink, the violet, the white and the blue, The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring, The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring, Clever, stupid, short and long, The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep, Dreaming of terrifying monsters Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh, Asleep in granite Aberdeen, They continue their dreams, But shall wake soon and hope for letters, And none will hear the postman’s knock Without a quickening of the heart, For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
Anyone who was anyone in York around 2006 would have found themselves, at some point, in the Train Poetry corner at the National Railway Museum. Here , at the giddying heights of mid-noughties Yorkshire tech, you could press a selection of three buttons, put on a greasy black headset, and spend a few minutes in the company of a locomotive-themed poem. Toot toot!
This is where I stood listening to Night Mail, by Auden. I was probably feeling a little smug, because it was a poem that I had already heard the previous year, at the advanced age of 5. Dad, in the dual role of literature academic / father, had read me some of the best bits of Auden’s poem, and told me about the real system of night trains. After this, we would send ‘Night Train’ letters each evening before I went to bed, and I can remember staring at the ceiling imagining the pages trundling away along the tracks: ‘Down towards Glasgow she descends’ is pretty far away from suburban Birmingham when even a walk to the post-box is a stretch for small legs.
It’s possible that we didn’t actually send the letters. I remember one flying off to Hull, for my Grandad, and one to Darlington, for my 7-year-old cousin Lucy (now 22), but I think that halfway through the week Dad switched to ‘Night Train Emails’, i.e. him sending work emails at 7pm and me watching, entranced. (Regular e-mail sending still wasn’t a big thing in our house in 2005). He also omitted to mention that the Night Train didn’t carry the post anymore, leaving me to happily believe until around two years ago that all letters were still transported by rail.
This poem was my first real engagement with poetry, and it’s a fantastic place to start if you want to have a bit of fun with the form. Read out loud, the stanzas move at such a pace you can hear the whistle of the pistons, the high-pitched hoot of the horn, the slow thick chug of steam. It whizzes you past the Scottish, in a blur of images: ‘Letters to Scotland from the South of France / Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands’, drops you in the quiet homes of private lives : ‘In the farm she passes no one wakes / But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes’, and revels in the great lattice of love and despair the post carries and is carried by: ‘The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,/ The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,’
Just as the strangeness of e-mail had intrigued me, strange too now is the world that Auden conjures. The train he depicts, which pushes on with such force, ‘Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes’, would crawl along slowly now; and the flurry of letters, whose quick poetic delivery to the reader reflects the excitement stoked by these engines, is nothing in comparison to the instantaneous messaging to which we have become accustomed. Far from the heady days of these gleaming machines, now the Night Train would be considered quaint, an inefficient novelty. So time passes, and excitement abates as expectations expand.
In spite of the constant delays and cancellations and overcrowded carriages, in South America I actually missed the trains here: the solidity of travel, and watching the countryside blur past, a canvas of browns and greens and blues and (mainly) greys. The prospect of being met on the platform, transported from a goodbye hug on one platform to a wool-coated welcome on the next. Even weak tea in a cold waiting room feels like holding a felted hand: familiarity. Now, en route to Cambridge and London (via, joy of joys, Stevenage), I am enjoying the jolting journey just as much as I look forward to the destination.
(Disclaimer: Noting that anyone with a bit of free time is pretty lucky, and that many people, from CEO banker wankers to security guards on night shifts, don’t usually find themselves unexpectedly back in the suburbs due to political crises in South America, with too much time and an excessively restful sleeping schedule)
Having cut short the Bolivia trip, I find myself back home with nothing to do. Well, not nothing to do. I’m here until I go to Lyon for around the 8th Jan, and my list so far consists of:
Seeing my boyfriend, at his university during term time and in our home city during his vacation
Visiting friends in Cambridge and London, and possibly going to other universities / going out into town when my friends are back
Reading for and writing the Year Abroad Project – this counts for a part of my final mark, and is an 8000 word essay
Finishing the two videos I was making in Bolivia
Going running, cooking, reading, sleeping
But basically, not very much. Immediately I feel a familiar sense of guilt: years of doing the whole high achieving, A*, multiple extra-curriculars, active social life shebang, means I inevitably suffer a bit of identity loss whenever there’s a blank in my calendar. Both at school and at Cambridge I would get (over)involved in a huge number of activities, and it would be rare to find myself with absolutely nothing to do for half an hour or so. Usually I’m happy with this state of things – student journalism, politics, music, sport, friends, going out, theatre / comedy, charity or volunteering projects, are all great etc. etc. – but it only works on the basis that term ends & I can go home and stop. Unfortunately, I’ve been informed that adult life isn’t arranged in neat 8 week terms, and so I am trying to learn to live in a vaguely sustainable fashion.
I’m trying to not locate myself in the same circle on the Venn diagram of life as someone like Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, who sleeps for about 4 hours a night, in order to maximise his output. Happily, we have seen a backlash against the fetishisation of the valuable life as the productive life: for example, the viral essay by Jenny Odell, ‘how to do nothing‘. And yet still my various social media feeds are clogged up with ‘How to Get More Done: 22 Productivity Tips from an Entrepeneur!’ In real life too people spread the gospel, moaning about how ‘unproductive’ they’ve been, as if it is reasonable to compare yourself to a 1-person Ford’s Motorcar Factory, or doing the casual ‘Oh SOOOOO bUsy! humblebrag.
Much of the time, this busyness is also pointlessness. I recently heard the phrase ‘busywork’ for the first time:
n.Activity, such as schoolwork or office work, meant to take up time but not necessarily yield productive results.
n.active work of little value, performed merely to occupy time, avoid boredom, or to look busy.
But the person who used it to me (eyes gleaming) seemed to say it with pride.
Making yourself busy all the time means there is a lot of white noise in your brain, which often blocks good judgement. It’s hard to work out what you ‘really’ want to do when you are constantly distracted. I realise this may only get harder, especially for me as a woman, if I have children one day. (The Pram in the Hall stuff). The little dopamine kicks that come with ‘achieving’ lots of little daily activities get you hooked on being busybusybusy, while what you’re really interested in rests just beyond your reach. Here’s a list of things that you can’t do in a day (or very well in a day):
Read a long book
Learn a language
Bring a child to gestation (because technically you can have a baby in a day)
Write a novel
Maintain a romantic relationship
Develop a meaningful friendship
Make a documentary
Have some kind of scientific breakthrough
Master French cookery techniques / set of phrases for when cookery goes wrong (hein! my poulet is burning)
Life in Bolivia was (for me) slower. Although I did a lot of travelling in South America, it was at nothing like the frantic pace of studying at Cambridge. I read 26 books in three months – not because I was rushing the reading, but because I had so much time. There’s not much that’s good about a country descending into proto-civil war, but it does give you a lot of time to read. Most weeks I would talk to my boyfriend for 90 minutes every day, or at least every other day, because of all the time – a happy relationship and reading, what more could you need? Adopting ‘la hora Boliviana’ has made me feel less enslaved to a timetable, more relaxed about the clock. If it’s important to meet someone on time – they’re a busy, or you’re catching a train – then I’ll keep making an effort, but I’ll be less frustrated with myself if I am five minutes late to a lecture, or to meet a group of friends. Nobody’s going to die!
Starting this blog has also been a surprisingly good antidote for Productivitis. I feel no sense of obligation in writing it, and have been careful to not set any particular goal or expectation for myself; I’m doing it because I write already for pleasure, so a bit of this might as well go somewhere. At some point I might look into monetising it, but I feel wary of this – will I then feel a duty towards professionalism? So far, it hasn’t been especially formal or well-researched, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. We’ll see. At least at the moment I have time to think about it.
As I attended the kind of school where you call teachers by their first name, it should be of no surprise to you that there are printed-out poems in the staff loos, for reflection during excretion. This was where I came across Cope’s most famous poem, the Orange:
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange— The size of it made us all laugh. I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave— They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy, As ordinary things often do Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park. This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy. I did all the jobs on my list And enjoyed them and had some time over. I love you. I’m glad I exist.
— Wendy Cope
It’s such a cheerful and simple poem that I won’t go into much analysis – it’s written to be read straight off, as easy as peeling an orange; it’s a poem to be shared, just as the narrator gives out the segments to her friends. This is not a cryptic text, full of complex allusions and challenging syntax, but a poetry of openness and generosity with the reader. My favourite two lines were ‘As ordinary things often do / Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.’ I like the full stops which break up the narrator’s thoughts into short phrases, in combination with the enjambement between the 5th and 6th lines; together, it creates a dreamy feel, as if she is so relaxed she does not even try to string full sentences together.
My other favourite line was ‘And enjoyed them and had some time over.’ It stands at one syllable longer than the other three lines in the stanza, luxuriating in the slow, peaceful day the narrator describes.
I was thinking of a message I could extract from the poem, but it all ended up sounded a bit cheesy on paper: you should enjoy small moments, love makes the world a happier place, we can transcend the mundanity of everyday living (the jobs on the list) and try to see the beauty of friendship and peaceful contentment. It is all of these, but it’s just as pleasant as a reader to copy the narrator, and simply enjoy the present offered to us: the poem itself.
The second poem is ‘Two Cures for Love’.
Two Cures for Love Wendy Cope
1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter. 2. The easy way: get to know him better.
This takes the form of a list, like you might find in a women’s mag, where the same generic advice is printed and reprinted every day (break all contact with your ex, play hard to get, buy lingerie), or like you might jot down in a personal diary à la Bridget Jones. No.1 seems like the standard dogma (don’t see him), and No.2 the more emotional path: get to know him better. It sounds as though the narrator is deciding what to do, and so has written out this list : see him or not? Noted down on paper, the list also becomes a short narrative, the transition between ignoring him and giving in to the stronger feelings of developing intimacy.
The title, ‘Two Cures for Love’ references an ages old poetic interpretation of love as a sickness, for which there can be cures both practical and symbolic – take this herb, or free yourself of your chains, as in the popular medieval allegory The Prison of Love. Even though on first reading the poem might appear postmodern, it is still part of an ancient tradition of love poetry.
As a love poem, it is pleasingly pragmatic, while still capturing the agonies of emotion: there is no going on and on about the stars of his eyes or the civil war of your heart (though of course that’s all great too). ‘Don’t see him’ implies an uncomfortable, self-imposed rejection; ‘Get to know him better’
It can also be read as an instruction to the reader – follow your own instincts, and don’t overcomplicate the situation, as much other poetry (and pieces of advice, often unsolicited) would have you do. Its brevity and syntactical simplicity mirrors this suggestion. Sometimes love really is that simple.
I asked for an anthology of Cope’s poems for my 21st birthday, and it was Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis that sparked my interest in reading poetry for pleasure. As much as I enjoy reading and analysing poetry for weekly essays at Cambridge, where I study French and Spanish, I found it hard to just read poetry for the sake of reading poetry. In such an intense academic environment, it’s difficult to zoom out and appreciate literary texts for what they truly are – an attempt to communicate something with an imagined reader. Cope is highly skilled in being able to really talk with the reader, in a language that anybody can understand.
The second moment of Poetic Epiphany was that: poetry doesn’t have to be difficult to understand. I really enjoy the process of untangling meaning from this or that reference, of working out poetry in another language, of slotting together potential interpretations from the web of rhythm, vocabulary, and structure, but sometimes you also want to just play with poetry, to enjoy it like a sitcom or piece of cake. There’s no reason why not – it’s a form of entertainment, like TV, another way to lighten up the often challenging passage of our lives. The linguistic freedom of poetry, particularly in English, lets writers bring out this lightness, as the strictures of Plot and Character need not be quite so heavy as in fiction or theatre.
This isn’t to imply it’s easy to write such entertaining and direct pieces – have you ever tried stand-up comedy? Cope rhymes perfectly, which is a serious challenge in unrelenting anglo-saxon, and conjures up clean, self-contained narratives within just a couple of lines of detail. Not only does she construct the nuts and bolts of poetry with ease, she understands and entertains the reader. It’s not Dante, but it’s home.
After a few weeks of protests in Bolivia, following the national elections (and Morales’ subsequent ‘victory’), I decided it would be a good time to leave the country. A few events motivated this decision: 1, airlines had cancelled several international flights; 2, protester were blockading access to the airport, and 3, the Year Abroad administrator (my former Director of Studies / Supervisor Tim Chesters) at Cambridge had sent me an e-mail saying ‘I think it would be a good idea to get out as quickly as possible’ – which, translated from ‘cautious English academic language’, means ‘FUCKING RUN FOR THE HILLS’. So I sent a polite e-mail to STA Travel, and had my flight changed. Simple!
Or not. It’s taken 3 days to get to Madrid airport, where I am currently, and I can’t say I’d give my recent travel experiences a 5* on TripAdvisor. I’m feeling extremely grateful to be back in Europe and monitoring developments in Bolivia by Twitter, rather than actually experiencing them. If you haven’t followed events – perhaps due to the depressingly scarce coverage by English-language news outlets – here’s a quick overview of the past few weeks.
Quick Political Summary in Bullet Points to Keep Your Concentration:
Evo Morales ‘won’ the election on the 20th October
Everyone started protesting, on the basis that he very likely hadn’t actually ‘won’ in the actual sense of ‘winning’ but more in the sense of ‘being massively corrupt’
Protests developed over the next few weeks. The city of Potosi went under a 24-hr blockade; blockades sprung up across the country; police used tear gas (even nerve gas) against protesters; many hundreds were injured, and at least 4 people died (officially). Protesters burnt civic buildings and fought with police in the streets. Several places were cut off entirely, and in cities of particularly intense fighting, such as Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, people found themselves unable even to leave their houses.
The OAS (Organisation of American States) and UN backed an audit of the election
It was found that Morales had committed fraud
This sparked further conflict, as protesters demanded his resignation.
The police committed mutiny and joined the protesters
Morales resigned under duress / was asked to step down by the military (this is why some people who don’t have access to good information on the situation are calling this a ‘military coup’.)
Protests intensified as Masistas (supporters of Morales / members of ‘MAS’ ) came to the cities to protest, especially coming to La Paz. Intense conflict as sniper groups positioned themselves at key roads, to attack protesters travelling. There were some truly shocking stories of rape, abduction, and abuse.
Over the weekend, protesters in La Paz started burning and civic buildings, shops, public areas and residential zones. Citizens formed neighbourhood protection groups, and sirens would sound in the event of danger.
All in all, a sensible time for a gringa to leave. I made it to the airport at a good time: blockades had temporarily come down, as the police had joined the people. Soldiers were patrolling the airport, it was much busier than usual, people were being prevented exit, and several flights had already been cancelled; however, all seemed pretty quiet, considering. I booked into the basic hostel and tried to get some sleep – I’d arrived at 2pm, to avoid evening / overnight protests, and my flight was scheduled at 4am the following morning.
Although the airport was very safe, I still felt uneasy. Following twitter and the news throughout, I could see the protests growing more intense, and around 8pm protesters drew around the airport; I watched clouds of tear gas forming, from a café inside, as the soldiers controlled the situation. When it was announced that Morales had resigned, cheers and shouts of ‘!Viva Bolivia, Que viva!’ resounded through every gate.
At around midnight, groups of Masistas took to the streets of La Paz, burning and looting. I couldn’t sleep, and lay there refreshing twitter for updates, distressed to see this beautiful country experience so much violence. Still no airline employees had entered, and flights were being cancelled by the hour. It was no great surprise when I received an e-mail saying my flight too was not to land.
Groups of anxious travellers (pretty much all European, US, Argentinian and Chilean tourists) gathered to discuss options: there were none. It seemed to be that the information desk staff had been chosen under the criteria of 1) possessing an IQ of approximately zero; 2) Entirely lacking any charm or interpersonal skills; 3) knowing pretty much nothing about any airline or flight departure.
Anneli called me to give an update on what was happening in La Paz, which sounded pretty awful. Resigning myself to a day of waiting, I settled in a café and watched a gruesome film about Yossi Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) getting lost in the Bolivian Amazon (would recommend, but probably not when you’re already feeling very anxious about not being able to leave the country…). Flights kept on getting cancelled, and LATAM (my airline) still hadn’t arrived at the airport. Fortunately, the situation fostered a great sense of companionship amongst the travellers, and everyone came together to navigate our various attempts to get home.
As the conflict outside the airport died down around the early morning, more and more people arrived, and soon the central hall and cafés were full of people trying to leave the country. At around 4am, some airline staff arrived (for BoA) and everyone rushed to try and get on the next flights out. Around 8am, I eventually managed to buy another flight, this time to Madrid via Santa Cruz (usefully found by my boyfriend back in the U.K. ): this involved printing off $500 from 8 different ATMs (which were starting to run out of cash), and exchanging all my Peruvian soles, Chilean soles, bolivianos and euros for the ticket.
Inevitably, this flight was also cancelled. Fortunately, it was rescheduled for the late afternoon, and as I’d already dropped my bags off, and the airport exit was still blocked, all I had to do was wait. Wi-fi was down across Bolivia, so it was hard to access information, but there was still a real spirit of solidarity amongst everyone waiting for flights. At around 4pm, I went through security, to wait for the Santa Cruz flight.
The flight was the first of 4 flights to Santa Cruz, ours being the link to international connections to Miami and Madrid. As it was delayed, and delayed, the atmosphere felt tense: everyone had already been waiting for more than a day, and had lost a couple of flights already. Not being able to leave, it did feel like we were trapped. When the three domestic flights to Santa Cruz were all cancelled, nerves increased; when our flight was cancelled, everyone stormed the desk in a big hoard. It would not be possible to go leave, said the employees, it’s too dangerous. You just have to wait. No, we’re not re-scheduling the flight. Everyone got angrier and angrier: we’ve waited for more than a day here, we’ll miss the connections, we’re trapped here. Eventually, the staff were forced into re-organising the flights, and exhausted passengers went to wait in a second boarding hall.
Our flight was to go through Cochabamba, then Santa Cruz. It didn’t seem possible – how could four flights be organised into one? When the plane landed, it was a fight to get to the front, to secure seats; luckily, our group just made it. The same situation happened in Cochabamba, where hundreds of people had also been waiting for well over 24 hours to leave. Somehow, the flight left, and arrived at Santa Cruz, where I boarded the connection to Madrid at around 3am. It was delayed for a while longer, then set off.
What a relief to finally leave! Though the flight was cramped and had no entertainment, I felt so grateful to have been offered a passage out of the country. I called my parents and Jake, as due to the wi-fi problems I hadn’t been able to update them on boarding the flight. Once at the airport, I collected my trusty rucksack, which somehow had not been lost in spite of all the cancellations and changes, and checked into an airport hotel. When I passed through airport security, I fainted in a slightly dramatic way, and when I came to and the guard asked me where I had come from, I kept on telling him (to his confusion) that I’d come from Madrid. He also had to pick me up with the handle of my bag, as it was so heavy I couldn’t stand up by myself. Reading that back makes me laugh – I must have looked like a pathetic and very tired tortoise.
Now waiting in Madrid airport for a delayed RyanAir flight, it is strange to look around and see everything that was so familiar to me back home. So many shops, stuffed with products from so many brands; so many swish machines, services, and designer goods. Having been in Bolivia for 2 1/2 months, it seems faintly ridiculous to see rich Europeans trying on £2000 watches, while in the country that temporarily adopted me people fight on the streets for their democracy. Landing in Spain, I kept thinking (in a somewhat incohesive, sleep-deprived way) about how the colonisation of the Americas by this country had led, in large part, to the political chaos and poverty experienced now by Bolivia.
It’s deeply depressing to see the difficulties of the ongoing crisis, and I sincerely hope it can be resolved; however, there seems to be no obvious solution, and the country remains divided. The interim president was found to have tweeted her distaste for ‘indios’ (a highly pejorative term describing the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, who make up more than 60% of the population – though practically everyone is at least descended from these groups), and Aymara people, having lived through centuries of conflict and colonisation, won’t easily give up a fight. Politically, the opposition to Morales is not unified, and there’s still a significant amount of support for the ex-president.
Later I’ll be able to reflect better on the wonderful time i had in Bolivia; but for now, i’m just glad to be going home !
What is the internet trend that most annoys you, Flora? Glad you asked. After Men Explaining Things To Women on Twitter, and People Oversharing Online, I do find my fists clenching at one particular theme of clickbait content: Youtube videos and blogs with titles such as ‘How I learnt Italian in 1 month!’ or ‘How I became fluent in 15 languages in 2 years!’. Usually such bold claims are accompanied by a picture of said self-proclaimed polyglot gazing (with a dreamy yet intent expression) into the green void of the duolingo owl, or flicking their hair in the foreground of an #artsy Berlin wall.
Apps such as Duolingo, Memrise, and Google Translate too make language learning appear seductively simple: just click here, let this word flash up 4 times a day, and you’ll be fluent in a month.
Even otherwise sensible academics seem to have bought into this notion, beyond the internet universe. I study Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge, reading French and Spanish, and it is claimed that we will reach ‘near-native fluency’ by our fourth and final year of the course. For students or professionals taking standardised language tests, ‘C2’ is the highest achievable grade, marking total fluency across the board. Surely, then, reaching it means that you find yourself
This is, of course, rubbish. I took the Erasmus+ test last week, as part of my application to the ENS Lyon, (one of the Grandes Écoles in France), and was pleased to receive a C2 grade. I also know that I am certainly not fluent in French; nor do I expect to be ‘near-native’ fluent by the end of my degree.
Becoming truly fluent in a language does takes more than a few weeks and months: in fact, it takes more than a few years, unless you live in total linguistic immersion. Learning a language for pleasure, work, or romance is the labour of a lifetime, and you will likely never reach full native fluency. Many of those who do achieve this are literary geniuses: Beckett, Achebe, Smith.
Perhaps I’m being a little negative. I would say it is possible to have a very high level of linguistic fluency, without being ‘perfect’.
Using the word ‘fluency’ is misleading. If I were Master of The Languages, I would say ‘fluencies’ instead. This would better capture the varying levels of ability a speaker might have across different language skills: you might be able to read a page of a 20th century French novel without looking up a word, or watch a full Almodóvar film without subtitles, but stutter when trying to reply to a friendly question in your target language. Personally, I can understand the majority of conversations in my target languages, read and comprehend a range of texts, but still have difficulty in expressing myself sometimes in conversation.
Different people vary in their disposition towards gaining these fluencies: a quiet, studious speaker may be highly advanced in reading literature in their target language, while an extrovert may speak well and confidently, but tire of endless grammar. Language learning is more intimately bonded to personality than any other intellectual discipline: not only do you learn a language, you also live it.
Cultural fluency can only be learnt by living in one of the countries of your target language. A friend of mine is Danish, and lives in Brussels: she is fluent in Danish, and English, as well as having a high level of French. However, during her first term at university, she found herself missing the punchlines to jokes, and misinterpreting the nuances of everyday conversation: she said it took her the rest of her first year to really learn how to understand English, as spoken by the English (specifically the obnoxious and intellectual peacocks that are Cambridge students), rather than ‘just’ speaking it with linguistic fluency.
It was relatively easy for my friend to have become a polyglot, due to her language environments. Linguistic environments also limit your capacity for fluency. If you’re a long-term language learner in a largely monolingual culture, it can be frustrating to see people from other countries quickly pick up multiple languages throughout their lives. The fact is that it simply is much easier for a German to learn English, or a Swede to adopt Norwegian; when bilingualism is embedded in your country’s culture, politics, education system, and economy, it is not so hard to become fluent, as in monolingual cultures such as England, where self-motivation, advanced educational levels, and good luck are essential factors for developing fluency.
It’s also worth remembering that language learning is stimulated by very different circumstances, and the particular demands of each situation will influence progress in the target language. Falling in love with a speaker of another language; working in a bilingual office; studying languages formally at school, university, or evening classes; learning the language because you have just moved to the country; reading or watching films to explore the cultures of your target language – all of these scenarios will affect the speed at which you gain fluency. The most efficient language learning seems to come from long-term relationships, where you have moved to the country of the target language – but even then, there are people who have not reached ‘near-native’ fluency even after decades-long partnership in their partner’s country.
The facile promise of instant, fluency is a sign of the times. In this age of instantaneous gratification, it is difficult to grasp the concept of the slow, hard slog necessary for language learning; at a time of extended quantification within our education system, it is hard to comprehend the nuances of the different fluencies of language learning.
As hard as language study may be, it is also a joy, allowing you the privilege of entering new cultures, countries, and relationships; learning a new language allows you to reflect on your own culture and mother tongue, and even to explore parts of your personality and interests that are not so easily opened by your native country. And if you choose wisely, you might get to eat some great food too!
What sweeter news is there than hearing your flight has been rescheduled from a reasonable 7AM to the middle of the night? I relish nothing more than waking at the witching hour, and so it was with a merry and well-rested heart that I flew to Lima. Fortunately, I was able to share my joy with my mum (henceforth known as Sal), as I got into her hotel room at 4am.
Using a forklift to stretch my eyes open, we took a slow taxi to the old town. Founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro (in a fairy bloody fashion), the peaceful squares, cathedrals, and government palaces of this ‘City of Kings’ make this historic centre a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ornate wooden balconies extend from imperial, wedding-cake buildings of rose, cream, and pale lemon, most dating from the viceroyalty era. Buildings range from original 16th century constructions, such as the Archbishop’s Palace and the House of Aliaga, to French-inspired 18th century churches and houses, to the more recent 20th century developments, which slip in neatly in neo-classical elegance.
We ate in El Condor, one of Lima’s oldest bar-restaurants. Standing in polished-oak grandeur since 1905, waiters drift around slowly, like honey-soaked bees, and food is simple: thick jamón sandwiches, cerveza, jugos de fruta. This rest prepared us for our first travel challenge together: catching the bus back. Although approximately 9million of Lima’s 11 million – strong population seemed to have joined us, it was a speedy triumph. Dinner at Mama Lola: novo andino fusion of Italian / Peruvian cuisine, and the first of many pisco sours.
Sunday took us to Cusco, via another early wake-up. After crepes for lunch at the museo del Café, just off the central plaza, we set off for some sight-seeing. In the afternoon we went to Korikancha, considered one of the most sacred buildings of the Inca Empire. As with many Inca sites, it is now combined with a Catholic cathedral, the Santo Domingo church, but was originally devoted to the worship of the Sun God. Inca ruins are still largely intact, and you follow a circuit around the central courtyard of the Colonial church. Squat, powerful Inca walls of clever interlocking patterns are broken by neat, slanting window-holes, all placed at the exact same positions in the walls, so you look through a long tunnel of space.
Our tourist trip continued into the main Cathedral, and a Jesuit Church in the Plaza de Armas, both decorated with subtle, tasteful amounts of gold:
A quick stop in a café overlooking the square, then dinner in a colourful organic restaurant, accompanied by more Pisco sours.
We spent all of Monday in Cusco, visiting museums in the morning. The glorious Museo Precolumbia boasted vast stocks of exquisite Inca art craftwork, divided by material: oro, plata, madera, textiles. The Museo Inka was more scrappy, but had a room of carefully preserved Inca mummies, and bright collections of rainbow-coloured grains.
Hoping to visit some Inka sites in the afternoon, we set off in good faith to the tourist office. No, you have to go here, said the woman at the desk, stabbing towards a ‘Free Information’ sign a little way up the road. If nothing more than rather inauspicious outside, the interior was a cave of sadness.
Face furrowed in a dark, damp corner hidden away from the sunlight of the street, a man greeted us with a glare as we enquired about nearby tours. Eso no será posible, he growled, looking as though he was deciding the most painful way to murder us, preferably in a way that would make it seem as though it were our fault. Could we visit it by taxi? No. Bus? Very difficult. What time does it shut? (What time will they shut up?) Eventually, we negotiated a tour around the nearby Inca sites. Be back at 2.40, came a voice from the jowly depths. We didn’t stay to find out what would happen to us if not. A light jog back to the hotel, with pleasant 35 celsius degree heat and a relaxing near-vertical incline, we returned before our deadline (Sal is a teacher, after all), passports, soles, tourist tickets, and IDs in hand.
Our tour guide met us by the Santo Domingo church. It soon transpired that we were in the presence of a man a few trapezoidal niches short of a temple wall. He appeared to be attempting a Guiness World Record for the fastest bilingual speech per minute, troubling himself not with explanations or reflections on the wonderful sites we visited, but rather deploying the (not) tried and tested technique of ‘Pointing at things’ and ‘saying Who Knows what Happened Here? Not Me’. It was as if the Inca Ruins had been a great scene of crime, and he was the accused perpetrator in court claiming his total ignorance. Sal rebelled several times and simply walked off when she got bored or frustrated, and also managed to incite me into doing the same. (Obviously I’ll be writing a full letter of concern to Bootham School, signed Concerned Observer).
Guide aside (though it was so difficult to put him aside, as his monotonous stream of imperatives would follow you at every turn – mira, venga), the sites themselves were of great interest. Sacsaywamen, Moray, Chinchero, Q’engo, Puka Pukara.
Our guide successfully delivered us back to Cusco an hour late, where we had a dinner of udon noodles, wine, and sweet potato crisps.
Another bright and breezy dawn rising to worship la Pachamama / catch the train was worth it, as our beautiful Machu Picchu train journey took us through quite sublime landscape. The train track twists through a lush valley, where steep mountains of jungle loom from either side, and a little river pushes through ancient ruins, over whose stonework and centuries-worn steps the grass now grows. Snow-capped peaks glance through the milky air of the cloud-forest.
Stepping off the cool train into the steamy humidity of Machu Picchu, our guide, Julio, met us at the gate of the station. We dropped off our bags with a man from our hotel (which delighted Sal beyond measure, as she had been using this event as an excuse to use the word ‘bellboy’ approximately 10 million times on the journey, with a faint sense of noblesse oblige).
A bus takes you to the base of Machu Picchu, and from here it is a short, steep walk up the mountain. The path is rocky and the climate stiff with wet heat; but the sheer beauty of the views cuts through any discomfort. A few steps around a corner, and suddenly that great, self-contained, near-perfectly preserved site reveals itself to you. From every angle it is magnificent: the vast, arrow-headed mountains soar over the jewel-like ruins, dignified in stony silence on the ground flattened over generations of labour. Thick stone walls make up the skeletons of houses, storage spaces, and temples, the grey structures tracing the foundations of this lost society.
We spent the whole morning here, weaving through the former streets and plazas. It is divided into two main areas: the agricultural terraces, neat lines carved into the sloping mountainside, where crops of corn and potatoes would grow; and the urban area, where the daily business of trade, worship, and family life would thrive. A further sector is the Royal Terrace, a series of well-built houses for the nobility. PArticular highlights include the House of the Condor, where two ovals and a flat stone structure make up the body of a condor in flight, and the
The architecture of Machu Picchu is highly advanced, and there is more information on it here. Irrigation systems allow for waste removal and a constant water supply, and buildings of firm triangles, constructed without any concrete or cement, are held together by the neat patterns of stones, carved in quarries just beyond the residential area. It feels like walking through pages of an unconventional mathematical textbook.
After much exploration of the sites, we took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, and rested.
On the second day, Sal and I returned for an independent wander. We blagged our way into the Casa del Sol, perched on the top of the hill, where the remains of a great sundial mark where the time once passed. Gently nudging llamas out of way, we also took the narrow path to the sun-gates, which perches vertiginously in the sky, looking over the main site. Our walk finished with grenadilla and maracuya ice cream before a quick visit to the museum, and a hot 25 minute walk back to town.
A lovely lunch of pizza, with a waiter who performed magic tricks, then the beautiful train back to Cusco.
On Thursday we caught a colectivo to the nearby town of Pisac. Thwarted only briefly by another person seemingly determined to both a) be in heavy contact with tourists, and b) devote life to annoying, confusing, and detesting said tourists, we were soon on our way across narrow mountain passes in our little van.
Delicious lunch looking over the central mercado, where women walked around with baby lambs under both arms, and vendors hawked their products. Pisac is known for its impressive Inca ruins, so we took a long, hot walk around the site. Carved into the side of a mountain, the houses are largely intact, and the area is much quieter than Machu Picchu. The Temple is particularly cool.
Here, one of us felt a bit funny and heavily implied she had heat stroke. One of us was accused of being slightly heartless, due to not believing in heat stroke at 25 degrees celsius.
Dinner in the artsy San Blas district, where I persuaded Sal that it would be perfectly legal to have just starters for dinner, that the tourist police would not descend upon us. As it was Halloween, the plaza de armas was crammed full of people, police, and spooky costumes.
Friday was the tragic severing of the umbilical cord, as I flew back to La Paz, and Sal to Paris. What an incredible week.
Two mystery messages arrived in my university inbox today, passed on via two of my close friends studying languages at Clare. They read:
This is a collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting exchange. It’s a one-time thing and we hope you will participate. We have picked those we think would be willing and make it fun.
Please send a poem to the person whose name is in position 1 below (even if you don’t know them).
It should be a favourite text/verse/meditation that has affected you in difficult times. Don’t agonize over it.
I thought of Dream Song 14 almost immediately. Well, after trying to remember the title for half an hour, and emailing my Dad with the subject line (‘Poem about boredom with a dog in it?!). After all, it was Prof JB (Dad) who had introduced me to the poem in the first place, in a conversation that went like this:
Me (Age, 14) : I’m BORED
My Dad (as wise as time itself) :
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, we ourselves flash and yearn,
Me: (Unfazed by such dramatic and unsolicited literary interventions)
I went to look up the poem, by John Berryman, and read it several times.
I liked it a lot. Life is boring, a lot of the time, in spite of the passionate burnings of Great Literature and Valiant Art. A alien visitor from a far away planet would be forgiven for believing Earth to be a place of endless yearning, romance, and epiphany, based on a brief skirmish with our plays, books, artworks and desires; and in the intensity of one’s own moments of ardour, it’s hard to imagine that the heart and hormones will ever settle down again.
For a poet to remind us that life is boring is doubly sacrilegious. A poet is often presented as a super-human figure, whose work and self transcend the ordinary day-to-day to act as a medium for all human sensibilities and sufferings: think Ronsard positioning himself not just as a flawed, horny old man, but an eternal lover for the ages. ‘To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.’ wrote Robert Graves in Horizon magazine. And yet here is old John Berryman telling us that not only is life generally a bit dull, but that he – a poet no less – is ‘heavy bored’ too. Where’s the magic? Where’s the mystery? Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, he’s pushed over the screen, and revealed the Wonderful Wizard to be nothing more than an ordinary man.
It’s not, however, an entirely pessimistic vision of the world, as the playful third stanza reveals: even though the ‘tranquil hills, & gin’, are ‘a drag’, the reader can enjoy the simple pleasure of the picture of a dog, who takes himself and his tail away. The broken syntax of the last lines ‘leaving / behind : me, wag’ has no clear meaning, but listening to Berryman read, it seems sounds almost like an encouragement – wag, run off. I picked this up because the verb form of ‘wag’ is otherwise not linked to a subject. Perhaps it’s deliberately ambiguous, to create an engagement between the reader and poem. In the previous stanzas, we have temporarily set aside the ‘plights and gripes’ that make up a good deal of literary work, and so perhaps we ought to set aside a conventional literary criticism here too.
By inviting the reader to see art and literature as dull, Berryman sets up a humorous moment of reflection. His poem, set down on paper and bound in a volume of poetry, would fall under the category of literature, which supposedly bores him. And the poem itself is likely the product of a momentary ‘flash and yearn’, a temporary inspiration that ‘we’ (Berryman included?) all experience from time to time, as well as being the export of the ‘inner resources’ he claims not to have. Even announcing his boredom forces the reader into engaging with the ‘plights of gripes’ that have been boring the poet.
The imagine of the dog comes into play here. Just as a dog chases his own tail, never quite reaching his own back-end, and goes off to cheerfully sniff other dogs’ bottoms, so Berryman shows himself running in circles: he yearns from time to time, but still finds himself frustrated by those cultural products of others’ yearning (books, art); and within the cycles of boredom and flashes, he writes poetry, which will go on to frustrate his yearning/ flashing readers. It’s not a surprise he describes himself as having no inner resources – it all sounds mentally taxing.
I won’t cement down heavy conclusions. The reason I chose this poem for the e-mail chain was because I took, and take, comfort in the ambivalence the poet expresses toward works of art, and towards his own inner life. In a world where advertisers and life coaches shove mindless positivity as the cure to all ills, it is more interesting to slip into this less resolute mind-swamp. And who doesn’t enjoy the wagging tail of a happy dog?
Note: Am thinking of writing about poetry on this blog, perhaps once a week, as an antidote to literary analysis as a part of my degree,and for fun: all suggestions welcome. It’s not Serious Criticism™, so I’m not going to go any deeper than ‘line’ and ‘stanza’.
Note 2: Also just found out that John Berryman spent two years at Clare College, Cambridge, where i’m studying – I probably shouldn’t use the words fate or destiny in relation to this blog post, but you can if you wish.
‘There is a risk that demonstrations will turn violent at short notice. You should avoid large crowds or public demonstrations and do not attempt to cross blockades.’ read the Gov. UK website, in the ‘Safety and Security’ section for Bolivia. I read all the guides several times, making sure to prepare for any eventuality, and felt ready: I’d check the tread depth of tyres before getting on buses, would religiously update myself on the weather forecast, as if doing so could prevent sudden landscldes, and I knew that I’d always, always avoid big protests, even if they seemed valuable or exciting.
I didn’t really think, however, that I’d go to bed hearing shots from the explosions of petardos in the plaza just a ten minute walk from my house; or that my friend would have to wait for an hour, trapped in the Languages School where she was teaching, before being escorted by police back to safety; or that we’d wind up effectively on house arrest. Or that people would be killed.
A good deal of my shock is due, of course, to my upbringing in a safe, wealthy, Western European democracy, where the worst protests experienced in my lifetime were the short-lived Tottenham Riots of 2011. Here all is tinged with a sense of violent uncertainty. La Paz saw one of the largest protests in years, with one Reuters witness estimating the crowd at 100,000; in Sucre and Tarija, protesters set fire to ballot boxes; and in Santa Cruz, the centre for government opposition, there are plans for a general strike. Now citizens are rushing to empty supermarkets and ATMs (which is also what we’re about to go and do now…)
The developing crisis in Bolivia has been covered by several news outlets, including (in English) the BBC, the FT, and AFP, but if you haven’t been following the events – and most people won’t have, given that Bolivia largely falls under the radar of the international community – here’s a quick summary:
Evo Morales has held the Premiership for 13 years and 9 months, and critics have accused him of having illegally extended his democratic mandate, when he ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek an unprecedented fourth term. Criticism increased recently over his management of the devastating fires in the Bolivian Amazon.
The election of the 20th October saw him go head to head with his main political opponent, Carlos Mesa of the Revolutionary Leftist Party (FRI). Mesa is more popular with wealthier cities and particularly in the oil-rich South. After the near-silent period of purdah on election day – curfew of 9pm on the 19th, all transport banned, cessation of all commerical activity, outright ban on the sale of alcohol, so that people can’t vote while under the influence – protests broke out as soon as the ballots stopped being counted at 83%.
It is unclear why this happened; Morales claimed it was due to the remaining ballots being from very rural areas. Fair enough: Bolivia is a sparsely populated country, and people live in areas as rural as the jungle, the mountains, and the almost empty altiplano. But this should not have happened – the international Supreme Electoral Tribunal was organising the counting, precisely in order to avoid any manipulation or ambiguity. Protesters have highlighted poor handling of the ballots: papers abandoned on a street in La Paz, and boxes left uncounted in Tarija.
Early Wednesday morning Morales declared a state of emergency. We took this as a cue to buy food and take out money, and it was strange to see the peace and calm of the outside world as we wandered down to the Hipermaxi, just metres away from the vast and dangerous protests of the previous night. Living in a country in crisis as a temporary resident is strange: I have my return flights booked, and beyond cultural interest in the country, have no attachments to keep me here. And yet uninvested as I am, the developments here are still profoundly worrying to me.
Firstly, the crisis demonstrates how fragile the institutions democracy can be. I’d always imagined the scale of democracy to be, essentially, an opposition of Stalin vs. Sweden: total control and dictatorship in contrast to total openness and civic understanding. I realise now just how simplistic this is, and note that Bolivia rates only 5.70 on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. This indicates it is run with a ‘hybrid regime’ a cross between an ‘Authoritarian Regime’ and a ‘Flawed Democracy’. For comparison, Britain sits at a reassuring 8.53 (‘Full Democracy’) and Chad at 1.61.
Secondly, Bolivia remains, for all its economic growth of the past decade, a country wracked by poverty and slow development. Scarcity increases desperation, encourages movement towards radical politics, and resulting political strikes exacerbate the financial difficulties of ordinary families here. As cities such as Santa Cruz and Sucre, and areas such as the Zona de Sur in La Paz, grow in wealth and prosperity, social tensions grown with the increasing economic disparities with industrial and poorer areas such as Uyuni (where strikes I experienced earlier trapped 10,000 tourists in the September blockades), Potosí, Oruro, and El Alto.
It is an alien politics to me, one of violence, grief, and hatred. Brexit Britain is nothing in comparison to this: ours is a nation that still organises peaceful manifestations, and whose leaders, however flawed, are able to sit around the table with their counterparts. Here, parents say goodnight to their children before going to protest at night, with instructions on what to do should they never return. My ticket home is worth more in any currency than many Bolivians would make in a year, and it will be hard to leave this country that has been so welcoming to me, in the knowledge that life is only going to become harder in the next few months: already, the phrase ‘guerra civil’ comes quickly to conversation, and fear spreads as fast as the anger.
You’ve been locked in a conversation for over half an hour, during which time you have been blessed with the knowledge of: your interlocutor’s detailed opinion on their own hairstyle, the many times they have been wronged by their mother, and their disgust for that genre of music, and many more details about their own worldview and life experiences besides. Or they’ve just told you that their boyfriend is ‘too handsome to be a model’. Perhaps it is that you find yourself on a journey in a confined space with the limited air circulation shoving the tang of cheese and onion crisps from the man two rows down, as the person behind you uses their feet to convert your seat into a handy percussion instrument / torture device.
“People will kill you. Over time. They will shave out every last morsel of fun in you with little, harmless sounding phrases that people uses every day, like: ‘Be realistic!'”
What It Is (2009)
Whatever the situation may be, you find your fists clenching, your eyes rolling, the angry sweats seeping through. Why can’t they just think? Why can’t they just be reasonable? Suddenly you can’t focus on anything else: their hideous face and personality shoves itself into the forefront of your mind. Such intense feelings of resentment are exhausting and pretty unhelpful: if you’re turning round in the library every 3 minutes to shush the sniffler / cougher / whisperer behind you, chances are you’re not getting much work done; and, by relocating your personality to the derrière of human nature, you’re also probably becoming the butt of the joke yourself.
How do you solve this problem? I present my failsafe method to you now: mentally write every annoying person you encounter into your own, personal sitcom, to be replayed on loop to yourself, and to trustworthy family and friends. It doesn’t have to be developed into an actual script, although light-hearted irritation with the rest of the world does seem to be the basis of most comedy; it’s just a very efficient way of transcending the situation, maintaining your cool, and supplying entertainment to sympathetic pals and relatives at the pub or over dinner. ‘And then she actually said…’.
With this trick, all irritations melt away into comic potential. The stoner who patronises every movement above a comatose state with ‘Yeah but just be like more chill man’, the self-made Agony Aunt who advises: ‘Just get over it!’, and the friend who never quite manages to ask about your day: no longer are they sources of grievance, but rather unwitting actors in a 5*-rated 30 minute episode.
Sometimes of course, we must dismiss such irritations as cultural differences. Every time a Bolivian driver slows down on the road (seemingly to let pedestrians pass), just to quickly rev up as I start crossing, I have to remind myself that it’s not a case of thoughtlessness, but rather another set of road rules. Or when a German or Dutch person orders you to carry out their instructions for you, in what might be interpreted as a brusque manner, it’s easier to just dismiss this as a cultural-linguistic quirk, and likely one which translates badly into English, rather than feel offended by perceived rudeness. (And anyway, the generous usage of English as the lingua franca really should negate any ill-will on your part).
As evidence of this point, one study brought a group of Southern and Northern Europeans into a smallish room, and tracked their interactions over a period of time. During the conversations, the Scandis, English, Dutch and Germans retreated uncomfortably, as Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians tried to get within nose-rubbing distance of their new friends. This both proves definitively that All Stereotypes Are True, and shows that we should enter into cultural exchanges with a generally open mind. (A Good Thing).
So if you want to avoid racism and xenophobia in your sitcom, it’s sensible to think about the cultures you already know. This won’t limit you – even if your knowledge of the world is limited to the island of Sark (population: 600), you’ll still be able to find at least 300 people to populate your ever-expanding cast of irritants.
It’s likely your new comic target has already done a good deal of the work for you, in constructing their easily satirised character. The problem here is that their irritating qualities might appear too much of a cliché to be believed; and this is frustrating, because many people are totally happy to live their lives as perfect and very amusing stereotypes. For example, in the jungle I recently met a white woman with dreadlocks, a vest emblazoned with the words ‘Love’ and a peace symbol, who was planning to take ayahuasca and who spoke of wanting to ‘just like I don’t know have some good vibes in the world’. At the same time, the good vibes didn’t extend to her giving me a hand when I dropped several items in the muddy bottom of our boat, or indeed managing to talk about anything or anybody other than herself. Unfortunately, as funny as the Hypocritical Hippie is, shown on the big screen it would present as a lazy caricature.
In creating your sitcom of the mind, take care to not become a parody yourself – that of the petty, aloof cynic, who greets everything with a raised eyebrow and a superior smirk, like Alceste in Molière’s Le Misanthrope (or most 21 year olds with humanities degrees and a strong sense of their own brilliance). When treating others as a spectacle, it might be you who ends up as the most spectacular fool.
Keen to absorb the local cultures of my adopted country, I developed a parasitic infection. What better way is there to take in a country, than by literally ingesting and secreting its lifeforms? It’s merely compensation for the generosity extended to me by my host nation, becoming a host for its inhabitants.
Getting a parasitic infection wasn’t right at the top of my Bolivian bucket list, but I did enjoy visiting the swish Clínica Alemana: as the NHS crumbles and burns, it was surprisingly pleasant to pass a day in what looked like a very clean hotel containing several medical instruments. Apart from the gruesome symptoms, of course, on which I encourage you not to reflect. Naturally, I milked the parasite for all the human sympathy it was worth, and appreciated all the kind messages sent (in exchange for just a little inter-continental harassment from me).
Having injected several hundred thousand ‘good spores’ into the system, I took myself off to the Bolivian Amazon – obviously a sensible decision. I was still feeling distinctly queasy on as I swallowed the final supply of my medicines in the airport, but decided to ignore my gut instinct and set off anyway.
Ever since I first read ‘Bloomin’ Rainforests‘ in primary school, it’s been a great ambition of mine to visit the Amazon : a desire piqued in recent months by the news of the devastating fires in the region. (Yes, I’m aware I took The Plane Of Hypocrisy. If you want to question this then I will arrange a Skype call in which I will tell you in detail about the physical symptoms of my illness, and you can consider whether or not you would have taken a 20hr bus on dirt roads and perilous mountain passes in such a condition). Bolivia is an absurdly beautiful base from which to explore the jungle; it’s the most biodiverse area in the world, remains less developed than its neighbouring countries’ forests; and, crucially, is much cheaper. (If you want to make any comments on my being tight-fisted in a developing country, I can offer you a follow-up Skype conversation, with pictures).
If you’re keen to contribute to the climate crisis, you could find a worse way to achieve this than taking the flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, the little town at the edge of the jungle. It’s an epic journey, which soars above the mountains and forests, dipping so low as to glide through snow-capped peaks, and to offer a view of the Beni river winding through acre upon glorious acre of dense jungle. On exiting the plane you are soaked the thick, humid air; temperatures rarely dip below 30c. I cannot stress enough how sweaty you will be on this trip. It will disgusting; you will just have to embrace it.
My first day in Rurre was spent preparing for the jungle: I bought a swimsuit whose cup size bore about as much relation to mine as a mango to a tangerine, organised my trip with Indigena Tours, and got the ATM to work by discussing every element of my recent hospital trip, until it spat out the necessary Bolivianos as a means of shutting me up. As for night-time entertainment, I rejected my medically-advised white diet in favour of calamari and white wine at Juliano’s, and then, back in the hostel, listened to a Tunisian man describe all his Dengue Fever symptoms, with added moans for effect. Ah, a fellow connoisseur of microbial Bolivia.
9.15 AM swung around, and I was collected en moto for the first of my two tours: the Pampas. This is a vast area that stretches across Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil; the fertile lowlands are home to a huge number of diverse wildlife populations. In Bolivia it is accessible by the great ríoYacuma, where caymans sun themselves before slipping into the water, and haughty capybara ignore camera-wielding tourists. Our guide navigated the boat through the mink-brown river for three or four hours; heavy rain brought out suspicious, and batted away mosquitos. As well as the ever-present caymans and capybaras, we were lucky enough to see yellow spider monkeys, herons, turtles, squat white potoo birds, pink river dolphin and much more besides: my favourite was the Hoatzin bird, or what I called a Quentin Blake bird, a funny rainbow-coloured affair, with tufty hair and an indignant squark.
As we were all pretty drenched in the boat, it was good to reach our lodge – wooden, raised thatched-roof huts, through which the night air gloriously soaks sleep with the scents of the jungle – and eat. Once the rain had stopped, we were able to take again to the river, and spotted caymans in the dark, the sinister glint of their white eyes bright in the pitch blank night.
The next day begun with a fresh walk around the wetlands behind the lodge, where we looked (mostly unsuccessfully) for animals feeding in the lagoon. Caymans lay low in the mud, and birds stalked in genteel fashion amongst the rushes. Given that the highlight was finding a dead cobra, it wasn’t the most fruitful of explorations, but felt refreshing nonetheless.
Because I had decided to make life more difficult by myself by squeezing the equivalent of two 3- day tours into 4 1/2 days, I then had to make my way from the pampas and into the jungle. Luckily, the tour agency had arranged the journey: I got a lift to a local camp, where it was promised that ‘Jimmy’ would look after me. When Jimmy had materialised from his nap, he took me (and a few others) back to Santa Rosa, at the tip of the Beni, and from there I took a taxi back to Rurre. In Rurre, my second tour guide chugged me across the river in a sleepy little dugout canoe. This was an exhilarating ride: we soared across the Amazon, vast mounds of jungle mass looming from every side. After 90 minutes on the boat, we reached our destination: a cove where golden sands sink into trees, and you are swallowed by the great green throat of the jungle.
A short walk from the beach was my new home: an idyllic scene of wooden huts in a small clearing, with hammocks to one side, and a central dining area. This was a lodge managed by locals, run by the irrepressibly cheerful Ramón, who acts as a link between his family and neighbours in the jungle communities and touristy Rurrenabaque. A dinner of plátanos and fish, and then again to bed, lulled to sleep by the jungle chorus of ribbets, croaks, rustling, and birdsong.
On my second day, I took a 6 hr trek in the jungle, led by a local guide. This was as almost as physically challenging as it was beautiful: climbs so steep you have to crawl, tiny paths cut by sheer vertical drops, intense heat. The plants and trees were bizarre; one stood poised on raised roots, and moves two metres every year. They provide solutions to every medical problem, whether it be infertility, burns, or stomach pain, as well as causing quite a few challenges – the sap from one particular tree can turn you blind.
Here there were fewer animals, but we were still able to see monkeys, butterflies of every colour, and giant ants that could paralyse. By two thirty I was dehydrated and pretty tired.
During the day, we visited a couple of the nearby communities, and made sugar cane syrup with a mangle-like contraption; this is fermented to make alcohol, and sold at the Sunday market in Rurrenabaque. We also looked inside the local school, built recently; two teachers have to commute by boat from Rurrenabaque every day. There was a small shop just selling Paceña beers, which we drank as the sun dropped slowly, like a pebble through thick, lazy oil, drenching the sky with violet and burnt sienna.
At night time we returned to the jungle, which was cooler but just as full of life. We would often stop to sit and listen to the sounds, so loud your ears, brain, eyes vibrated with the chirruping and singing and hooting. Again, activity on the ground was stymied by the heat of the day, but the experience was entirely magical.
I was genuinely sad to leave the Amazon, and if anyone reading this is in the position to visit, I highly, highly recommend it.
La Paz is great. Really, it is. Unless you count the noise and the pollution and the cars honking and the graffiti and the 3,600m altitude and the occasional whiff of urine – then you might decide you need a holiday.
Ingredients for a successful break usually include some or all of the following: food, sun, at least more than 50% oxygen in the air, pleasant streets to wander, a few easy distractions such as a museum or gallery. After asking round our general Bolivian acquaintances, we decided that the relaxed city of Cochabamba would be the place to go. Located in the very centre of Bolivia (and by extension, for all you longitude / latitude lovers, pretty much exactly in the centre of South America), it rests at a relatively easy altitude of 2,500m, offers easy access to national parks and a handful of attractions in the city; and, most importantly, is considered the gastronomic capital of the country.
Even the bus ride there felt fairly relaxed. Yes, my standards for ‘r&r’ have significantly decreased since moving to this continent; but surely anyone would enjoy an 8 hour bus journey winding through steep mountain passes? No? Well, if not, at least we could enjoy the luxury of a fully paved road. In any case, I have started to look forward to these long journeys as uninterrupted stretches for reading, and finished Hard Times just as we pulled into the bus station.
The bright blue doors of our hostel, ‘ Hostal Jaguar’ was an easy 10 minute taxi ride; arranged around a sunny central courtyard, it was a clean and comfortable place to stay. We had arrived just as the sun began to sink into the shadow of early evening, and so made way to the central plaza for dinner. On the way we stopped off at the Catedral de San Sebastian, a gold and white Colonial construction that looms over the shady Plaza Principal. No time for holy thoughts though, as we were collectively chatted up by a 17 year old cleaner whose confidence in the U.K. or U.S would have led to a Ted Talk or establishment of a dodgy political party.
After the attempted group seduction, we carried out the tried and tested techniques of Finding Somewhere to Eat on Holiday: walk around, feeling increasingly as though you would be perfectly happy to indulge in some light cannibalism; bicker over the authenticity of various establishments, shove Google Maps reviews in each others’ faces, get stuck in the middle of a busy road while still staring blank-eyed at said reviews, then return to the first place after all. It works every time, and is a great bonding experience: it was a shame we didn’t have any allergies or dietary requirements to make matters even more interesting.
Mikuy had Bolivian food and South American cocktails and a 4.2 / 5 * rating on tripadvisor, but took so long to bring our orders that we were practically back on the bus to La Paz by the time of our meals’ eventual arrival; however, we did like sitting in the peaceful courtyard, and only heard a few shots fired in the background of a small environmental protest. Back to the hostel, then out again to the far superior Casablanca, a bar full of students and a cocktail menu that would take several ecstatic weeks to drink through. A slightly delirious walk back.
The next morning, what better way to wake up than a brisk hike? As we leapt out of bed with vim and vigour, we were somewhat disappointed to find our walking options limited – by unspecified ‘dangers’ of the national parks, and the continuing fires. After much sad head shaking and ‘acá, no. Eso es peligroso’, the hostel volunteer sent us off (in the wrong direction) to the more touristy Parque EcoTuristico Pairumani. It took two trufis and a confusing walk through a crowded market, but all was worth it as we reached the park: fresh air, a tumbling river through which you could see every pebble and twig, the scent of pine.
We wandered around for several hours, and even made it to the cascada, in spite of a fairly scary looking sign noting that we alone were responsible for our lives in this area, and should we be moronic enough to venture there and fall off and die, we should probably apologise to the rangers for any inconvenience caused by our premature expiration.
Back in the hostel, we found ourselves unable to move until dinner. This was to be found at muela del diablo, a funky outdoor Italian place, where we shared great pizzas and socialised with Real Life Bolivian People.
The second day was spent exclusively in Cochabamba. In the morning, we visited the Casa de Simón Patiño, one of the only rich people in Bolivian history, who owned, besides several tin mines, a pleasant yellow mansion:
Then on to the exhausting ‘La Cancha’ (covered market), the largest market in South America. It was a maze of shops, streets, and vendors: as far as you could see stretched rows upon rows of stalls, selling everything from shoe laces to baby rabbits in boxes, to cheap Chinese phones and every possible type of fruit and vegetable the continent has to offer – tumbo, chirimoya, pitaya – with your ears ringing from the bellowed refrains of every peddler and pitcher. After a couple of exhausting hours, we lunched on chorizo sandwiches, jugo de maracuya, and fritanga in Sucremanta, a restaurant just out of the noise of the market.
In repentance for the cocktails of the previous two evenings, we devoted the afternoon to the visitation of the Cristo de la Concordia. Modelled on the more famous Rio landmark, it is the tallest statue in Latin America, and dominates the valley from its perch in the mountainous landscape that surrounds the city. You take a slow cable car up the steep mountainside, and watch as the valley of houses and streets becomes tiny below.
As an atheist, I was surprised to find myself struck and even a little humbled by the drama of the construction: the expression is serious and dignified, and to look up towards the top of the statue, against the wide sky and craggy peaks, fills you with vertigo and a certain sense of insignificance. Many cochabambinos had dressed up for the occasion, and everyone was desperate to take the perfect shot with the Cristo.
Our food this evening was in a hipster food – truck market. I wouldn’t want to say I’m getting slightly bored of the Bolivian menú del dia (sopa, carne con arroz y verduras, fruta), but I did dine on stir-fry with all the patience of a pig at a trough.
On our final morning in Cochabamba, we took a guided tour of the still-active Convento Santa Teresa. It is a perfectly preserved nunnery that dates from 1760, austere in its white stillness. Being a nun might have been a better option than forced marriage or destitution, but it still doesn’t sound like an absolute riot of pleasure: the nuns were locked in a boiling hot room if they broke silence, in which several died; they weren’t allowed (and still aren’t) access to a doctor, until the final rites, and there was one room, of exquisite floral wallpaper, where the sisters had used their own blood as paint. Now, the youngest nun is 70, and the oldest 89, but all are apparently going strong. Teresa of Avila herself was quite the woman: she sacrified a life of nobility and wealth for that of the convent, and wrote about her devotion to Christ with such rapturous fantasty that her critics believed her to have been possessed by the devil.
Free of the constraints of the holy life, we took the bus back to La Paz.
Again I found myself awake before 6am – but this morning I was on time. Guided by the light of the Inca Gods and the services of Vicuña Travel and Tours (‘Follow me in the social network’), we were soon bumping up and down the roads of La Paz.
Three bus changes and a certain amount of motion sickness later, we reached our first river crossing. From a little wooden boat we watched our bus float across with greater dignity than its rather epileptic road mode. From here, it was a bumpy one-hour journey to the town of Copacabana (no, not the one in the song.) Copacabana seems to have been designed entirely by a meeting of South American tourist companies (‘how many gringo restaurants can we fit onto one short coastline? Do you think 150 + tour buses might be too many buses for one historic plaza?’). Still, we didn’t complain about the ‘lack of authenticity’ as we chowed down on fresh trucha y papas in a lakeside café.
The boat from Copacabana to the Isla del Sol was longer, at around 90 minutes; it further lifted spirits, even from within the bowels of its underbelly. Beyond us lay mile upon mile of perfect azure water, our journey but an infinitesimally minute speck in its mindbogglingly ancient three-million year lifespan. It is one of only twenty ancient lakes on the planet, and has been held as sacred at the centre of Inca and Quechua culture for thousands of years. Little islands break the horizon, and snow-capped mountains peak beyond.
The Isla del Sol is considered to the be birthplace of the sun in Inca belief, as the sun sets over the island. It rises steeply from the shore of the lake, its earth corrugated by the ancient grooves of pre-colombian agricultural techniques. Again, there does exist a thriving tourist industry here somewhat at odds with the isolation of the place; but for all the disruption of tranquility, the sight of sweating tourists walking up hills with 50litre backpacks never fails to entertain. Especially pleasing when your elegant and sweat-free writer was one of those backpackers sudorosos but a fortnight ago…(n.b to MML faculty: a month ago. I have, definitely, been working for a whole month and not just two weeks. I promise).
As well as backpackers and paceños on guided tours, any short walk around the (practically vertical) paths brings you into contact with a) haughty llamas, b) actual people trying to go about their day without contact with said backpackers / tourists, and c) criminally cute small children holding bored baby llamas (daintily dubbed llamitos), asking for a few bolivianos in exchange for a photo. Capitalism thrives – my favourite was one girl who offered ‘un fotito para tres bolivianos‘, then whispered with menace, ‘es cinco bolivianos por acá‘, gesturing at her five-year old financial rival a little way down.
We continued on clambering through rock and dust; each turn offered spectacular vistas of that vast blue scene, which seemed to stretch on all the way to the Andes. You can pick out the faint outline of Peru to the east, and further islands scattered around. Our exploration of the island finished in the Inca temple ‘Piko Kaina’. It is constructed with mechanical precision, with neatly carved windows creating exquisite pictures of the landscape outside; and slits in the stone through which rays of light shine and intersect.
On the journey back to Copacabana we were able to sit on the helm of the boat, which was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in South America so far: the wind gently brushing, the half-imagined islands rising, the sea the sea the sea beyond and around and lapping into eternity.
Then a long bus journey back, during which I wrote my last will and testament in my head (given that it would have been illegible if i’d tried to write on paper), considered song choices for my funeral, and apologised for all the white lies I’ve told (see: MML faculty, above) in preparation for what felt like my imminent arrival at the pearly gates.
Back in La Paz, not with St. Peter, I fell asleep in my clothes.
I’ve made a resolution: I’m no longer using the following – stress, stressed, I feel stressed, stressed out. `Walk down any street in the world*, and you’ll invariably find at least 17 people on any street saying (often unsolicited) justhowmuchworkthey’redoing and justhowstressedtheyare. They’ve got 25 projects to complete before breakfast ! 5 families and 16 nieces and nephews to care for ! 6 social media networks full of adoring fans to attend to! No wonder they’re feeling the stress slowly limit their oxygen supply, a boa constrictor of cortisol.
Obviously I do get it. It’s the modern world, isn’t it? We have to work to live, and live to work. Well, I say ‘we’; I’m still a feckless student, and haven’t been sucked into the whole Capitalism Construct Dome yet. For me, insurance, bills, and the housing ladder are still but an amusing alternate universe, where real adults run around like headless chickens between one and the other, possibly exclusively for the amusement and disgust of those who still get ID’d buying alcohol. No, I am speaking entirely for myself – like a good narcissistic millenial.
Life at the University of Cambridge (o hallowèd halls) makes students particularly likely to Say They Are Very Stressed All The Time. Myself included. Generally, these statements make for pretty dull conversation, and don’t help anyone achieve anything much ; unless the aim was to reinforce this feeling of ‘stress’, by its articulation. Repeating feelings as if they were facts – ‘I am stressed’ – tends to consolidate them, bringing the swirling flotsam of the mind river into solid brick and mortar statement. Such a declaration also turns an abstract quality, stress, into a rather depressing characteristic of one’s personality. By banging on about your stress all the time, you start to understand yourself as a person whose personality is predicated around stress. You also become a person who constantly talks about being stressed all the time, a personality type which overlaps with the kind of person who is generally left alone in the corner at cocktail parties.
Now for the etymology bomb. ‘Stress’ is of Middle English origin, denoting hardship or force exerted on a person for the purpose of compulsion: it is a shortening of distress, and is derived from the Old French estresse ‘narrowness, oppression’, itself based on Latin strictus ‘drawn tight’. Back in 1936 stress was chosen by endocrinologist Hans Selye to express biological stress, which he defined as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. This definition came from years of doing the kinds of tests on animals that would make vegans feel a little queasy and yes, probably blog about feeling stressed.
Our friend Selye studied the physical responses in animals to uncomfortable stimuli: swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus, gastric and duodenal ulcers. None of which sound like good dress-up themes for a 21st birthday party. However, to Selye’s dismay (presumably) the anxious citizens of the world soon stole and warped his precious interpretation, using ‘stress’ to refer to vague physical and / or emotional states that they perceived as the unpleasant results of an external agent – an overbearing boss, say, or an immediate deadline.
Linguistically, it is a fairly standard shift, not dissimilar to saying you are horrified when there is actually little in the way of ‘horror’, or ‘ecstatic’ when you’re not in a state of mystic absorption. It is nonetheless a little misleading to imply you are in danger from gastric ulcer due to some mean old scientist poking around in your cage, when really you’re just worried about an upcoming test.
In which case: say how you truly feel. Rather than yanking down the word ‘stress’ from the celestial dictionary as a blanket, cover-all term, it’s more useful to sit and identity what it is you are feeling. Tired? Anxious? Sad? These problems can be unpacked and perhaps even solved; whereas the vague, dull experience of ‘stress’ remains unarticulated and unspecific. For one, I’m usually* hungry.
Another helpful part of Selye’s definition is that it emphasises the role of an external agent in stimulating one’s physical unhappiness. If we too remember the importance of recognising a cause that is independent to us, we can put our energies to condemning those foreign factors. Instead of just looking inwards and feeling this ‘stress’, we can observe the force which produces it. Politically, this means organisation against unjust systems and oppressions: racism, sexism, austerity, war. For women in particular, such an insight is an act of feminism, so conditioned are we to self-blame, self-doubt, self-decry. This is one of my Dad’s messages to me – Blame The Patriarchy. Of course this applies not just to wider political movements, but to smaller problems too: a dodgy workplace, a teacher who sets too much work. Look out of your cage, and stare down the source of distress square in the eye.
*I was tempted here to say ‘in New York City’ or ‘Oxford’, but as we learn in school, it’s bad to promote stereotypes. Even if they’re true.
Well, I’ve achieved what very few have managed before me, and reached the grand age of 21. 21! Only a few months ago I was 12 (etc…), doesn’t time fly (etc.,..). My birthday celebrations started a full month ago on my fake birthday (August 24th), when Jake took me on a surprise birthday trip to my home city, Birmingham; and when we went out for dinner with my surrogate – brother Zachary & the Adamsons; and had another peak yesterday, when Lottie messaged me a Happy Birthday from Perth. Those Australian Eastern Standard Time guys know how to party, 12 hours ahead.
As an early birthday present this morning, I gifted myself a minor Existential Crisis, around 6am. It’s a little ritual I like to carry out every year – holding the motion ‘This House Believes The Subject Has Not Achieved Enough For Her Own Stringently High Standards Yet’ in my brain. The vintage debate of 2006, for example, ended with my conclusion that all was well because I had memorised the landlines and home addresses of my 26 classmates, and although I had not yet managed to swindle a kitten or guinea pig off my (cruel) parents, I had successfully started a campaign (largely based around 6 Flavian Grove, York) against ending sexist stereotypes used in advertising children’s toys, and I had used the sentence ‘I’ll meet you in the rudiments of the foyer’ when organising a social arrangement with my Dad at the University.
So far, so sickening, so predictable. Now I’m in La Paz, I’m at my 3rd year at Cambridge, and I’m in the kind of romantic relationship where I’d consider counting the individual eyelashes of my boyfriend a fascinating pastime, so hideously in love am I. I’m lucky enough to have lots of friends and also the best parents ever. If I were an Ancient Roman / Victorian / Mormon, I’d probably have been up since 5am doing the mangling with 17 children and a prolapsed rectum, so women’s lib has worked out pretty well for me as well.
Anyway, enough self-indulgent chat. La Paz has been chaotic and exciting these past two weeks, and I’m still having a fantastic time here in spite of the intense pollution, and the general illness produced in my weak Western constitution. On the 20th September we turned up to the La Paz Climate Strike Protest:
Bolivia finds itself in an increasingly difficult position regarding the climate crisis. As a poor country, it has fewer resources to defend its population, economy, and environment against the impacts of the crisis. It is likely that the highest regions (La Paz, the altiplano, Potosi etc.) may lose access to water in the next few decades, as glaciers melt; and the agricultural sector, which provides a livelihood to a great proportion of Bolivians, will face great challenges.
The Bolivian Amazon is still burning : millions of hectares. It is entirely devastating. At the march the intensity and energy burned throughout the centre of La Paz, shutting down the streets, with a near-constant stream of shots in the background.
On a more superficial evening, we ventured out into the La Paz night on the 22nd. A new acquaintance, a biology PhD student here, had invited us to a club/ bar called La Sede downtown: so jacked up on singani and sushi, we headed down for a boogie:
It was less a ‘club’ and more a ‘small wooden room with a sound system’, but a good time was had by all nonetheless. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Bolivian guys there much less inclined to sexual pursuit / harassment than in the U.K – or perhaps that was more due to the Biology PhD vibe? A few hours and a cramped 7-person taxi ride marked this first Bolivian night out, and we were tucked up in bed by 4am.
Exploration of La Paz. Finally, I find myself capable of navigating this street-signless city, and have discovered its wonderful teleférico system. (According to ever-reliable historian and knower of facts Thomas Griffiths, La Paz was the pioneer of the cable – car system in an urban environment). The teleferico is swish and stylish and magical, lifting you far above the cheerful anarchy of the streets high into the sky, where you can enjoy the lofty voyeurism of a bird.
I have now visited two museums, both excellent: the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales, (15 rooms of highly creative and unique Andean instruments – boy can those guys find versatility in a piece of wood); and the Museo Etnógrafico, which displays the costumes, masks, currencies, handicrafts, and ceremonial decorations of the many indigenous groups of Bolivia. These artefacts were entirely wonderful, and will remain being so undocumented in the museum, as I was apparently too cheap to fork out 20bs for photo privileges.
Feliz Cumpleaños to me, and thank you to everyone who has made my life so fantastic so far. And thank you very much to my mother for birthing me.
After a pleasant few days in touristy San Pedro, it was time to venture into the wilderness. Hostal Rural helpfully booked a three-day tour with Tambo Loma Expediciones for me, and at 6 am the following day I found myself in a jeep en route to the Bolivian border.
This excursion, which stretches to either 2 or 3 nights is a popular trip from San Pedro or Uyuni, and takes tourists across the Chilean desert, into the Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve in Bolivia, and ends in the salt flats near Uyuni. It covers landscapes that are mind-bogglingly sublime, almost extraterrestrial in their strangeness.
In a jeep with 5 other young Northern Europeans (4 Germans, 1 Finn, and me), we were driven first through the burnt-brown chill of the desert, our car a speck against the awesome sand dunes. Although the sky shone bright and blue beyond, we cocooned ourselves in alpaca knitwear as the temperature hit sub-zero.
This arid landscape transformed into a circuit of lagoons as we climbed higher, each boasting a distinct colour produced by their varied mineral contents. In a a somewhat underwhelming spurt of nomenclature, these were named Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, and Laguna Roja. Such intensity of colour made clear contrast with the pale-grey mountains which stood jagged in the horizon, and sharpened the deep palette of the sky as it drifted from cerulean to peacock blue.
At the highest point of our journey (4900 m altitude) I was struck not just by the bizarre lunar terrain of hot springs and geysers, but also el soroche : altitude sickness. What good luck to get this over with before I reach La Paz, I did not reflect, as I lunged out of the jeep to be sick. Outside geysers belched hot gas, and the stench of rotten egg did not particularly help the situation.
During the descent the nausea subsided, allowing me to enjoy the final stop of the day: our desert-shack accommodation. In spite of the (literally) freezing night and the lack of electricity, it was a long and warm night of sleep.
Day Two took us through the craggy formations of the Siloli Desert. Here, strange ochre shapes have formed over millennia, carved by time, water, and wind. In the sudden heat of midday we clambered over rough steps and dusty ridges, with tufts grass springing between the boulders. These are used by several indigenous cultures to be woven into boats and rooves, as our guide explained.
Continuing onto the wetter lands of Sora Bofedal drought gave way to a spongy earth of moss which drew llamas to graze around rock pools. As much as these funny creatures fascinated us, they regarded us only with the haughty suspicion not unlike that of a waiter serving in the 6ème arrondissement.
Just down from these small herds the waters of the Laguna Secreta lapped and glimmered in the breezy sunlight, with families of patas negras bobbing in this hidden lake. Tired out from the journey, and ready for lunch in the nearby settlement, we just sat and watched this scene.
Past the villages of San Agustín and Julaca lay the dazzling white salt flats, and from there our accommodation for the second night: the Hotel Tambo Loma, which my guidebook informed me to be illegal.
The previous evening had been spent discussing routes around Uyuni, as the protests had not yet stopped, and the town was on lockdown. Eventually, it was decided that we would not be able to stop off in Uyuni (where my flight was booked to La Paz, buses having been advised against) & so a more circuitous route was planned. These new plans in place, our third day was cut a little short; we did manage however to visit Inca Huasi island and spend more time on the salt flats.
Inca Huasi island is in the centre of the salt flats, which used to be vast lakes. Cacti stick up between every rock, and at the top there is a plinth used for the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth). It was once a volcano.
We spent a couple of hours on the salt flats, and got lots of fun pictures : the flat landscape allows for a lot of play with perspective.
Next stop: La Paz, my home for the next three months.
A slick 7 hour bus journey from Valparaíso was passed in the greatest luxury (USB port? Reclining seats? A coffee machine?!) and I arrived in the coastal city of La Serena with relative ease. As in Valpo, you find a city that is both beautiful (old buildings, many churches, street art) and incredibly busy, polluted, and loud. This (again) made me feel quite hesitant at first, wondering if I had come to the right place. A couple of hours of orientation and a coffee helped me to settle, and I started to enjoy the city. It is much much smaller than Santiago, and more easily navigated than Valparaíso, and as the second oldest city in Chile has many interesting streets to wander.
As I had arrived relatively late in the day (around 7pm), I set off to find somewhere to eat – turns out one bread roll is not the most sustaining of meals over the course of one whole day. This proved tricky: the first three places I looked for were all shut, and I was directing myself one-handed, as I was also talking on the phone. On the brink of giving up, it was a great pleasure to find La Casa del Guatón still open, where I dined alone, cheaply, and well on eel, white wine, and corn bread. A quick night time stroll around the centre and straight to bed. Got sexually harassed staying in a room with two men in their 30s due to lack of single sex dorms… not recommended for the bucket list.
(Hostal El Punto politely upgraded me to a private room when I explained, and here I write now in the solace of my own DOUBLE BED!)
Day 2: The old town and Vicuña
Tried and failed to book myself on a tour to see the nearby Parque Nacional Fray Jorge (lack of interest among other hostellers here meant the tour operators were not keen to take just me…sad). Instead, I went to explore La Serena itself. People wander softly around the shady La Plaza de Armas, and shout and honk horns on every other street. Went into a few churches, and then took the long, heavily polluted Main Street down to the Avenida del Mar, which opens onto the beach.
Turning away from the grey chill of the grey sand, I returned to town. The Museo Archeologico was my next stop, just off the Plaza de Armas. Several interesting artefacts were there: pottery, a fossilised wooden canoe, hunting tools. Unfortunately, their origins and provenance will forever remain a mystery to me, as there seemed to be almost no information on the displays. The main reason for my trip had been to see the Moai statue on display here – but this was not available to view. Following the forest disappointment, the unpleasant beach, and the groping, I was feeling distinctly un-chipper as I practically dragged myself down to Café Bocetto on Balmaceda. Alas! here too I was met with closed doors and shuttered windows.
The Elqui Valley beckoned, and I hopped on a bus to the nearest village, Vicuña, hoping for more excitement further afield. An hour-long journey of speeding and swerving around narrow mountain passes and across deep lakes soon restored my spirits as I headed into the land of Pisco. Vicuña is a pretty little village, nestled amongst dusty mountains, and is the birthplace of poet-diplomat Gabriela Mistral. Here I visited the creepy crawlies in the Museo Entomológico, and the central Plaza de Armas.
It was a lovely place to visit for a few hours, and I might book a hostel here for one night, to visit the observatory more easily. The air was so clean and the landscape so beautiful.
A long day spent wandering around La Serena, before booking a stargazing tour at the Mamalluca observatory, 15 minutes from Vicuña. In the total blackness the stars appeared high in the clear sky, and a great white domed observatory loomed into the total blackness of the sky. We saw Saturn and two moons, tiny dots of light, and a perfect tiny Jupiter with its ring, clear and bright like a stencil in the darkness. After the planets, we observed two star clusters : the treadure box, and Antares A.
Outside we used a periscope to capture a perfect reflection of the moon. By naked eye we could see individual crates and seas.
Quick bus back in the Chilean night.
The next day – last day – I ran to the station and got the last ticket to Calama. Then looked around the market in La Serena and did a few boring things like booking the next hostel. Was able to meet up with Eileen, a fellow Cambridge MMLer in the afternoon for lunch at Lighthouse Coffee Company on the beach, a hipster micro-chain which serves good coffee and bagels.
My mood dipped on the 15 hour bus to Calama, which was just me and 80 Chilean men; I did not enjoy this journey AT ALL. It was the longest so far and I had a guy half asleep on me who was obviously a stranger to deodorant. Further confusion while having to change bus station at 6 am (va a Antofagasta, they all said, unhelpfully, without bothering to tell me this was a street rather than the town).
‘Representation of self is drastically changing. And of course on Facebook it’s all embellished, stylised selves anyway. But my popularity on the internet has to do with the fact that all of these fake selves somehow recognise each other and have some unifying sensory organ for authenticity.’
– Werner Herzog, in the Guardian, 2016.
Your first objection might be that I do not have popularity on the internet. Rather, I have 63 followers on twitter. But I do feel sharply the lack of any good self-representation online, my other social media being, frankly, kind of boring. My solution? Write a blog, stake a claim, buy my own name as a .com domain. I am a fairly self-assured person in real life and it seems reasonable to be like myself in my online persona(e) as well.
Yes, my desire to impress prospective employers is part of the motivation: hi, New Yorker editor (s), try not to spill cointreau on my keyboard while you offer me a contract?! As that most predictable of student organisms, the arts student/ aspiring journalist, I know I have to ‘show my passion and commitment for writing’ & I have the benefit of no editorial restrictions here. Plus nobody wants to see kilometres of tear-stained diaries from 2014 as proof of my interest in jotting stuff down.
For several years I’ve used fear of blogging as an excuse to not start a blog; the endless bold sentences to add emphasis, the hyper-casual chat, the buckets of passion spilt over every web page, the ENDLESS affiliate marketing courses, the monetisation of one’s personal life, hobby & relationships. Some fussy and dictatorial online social media guru, with a long-term lease in my frontal cortex, spends a lot of time telling me I’d be legally obliged to adopt this style, should I ever try my luck in the blog-o-sphere. When I devoted more than 15 seconds analysing this, I came to the profound conclusion that, oh, erm, I guess I can write however I want, because … NOBODY IS READING THIS YOU BIG-HEADED PEACOCK.
The actual trigger for the creation of this blog was my mum’s suggestion that I write a blog on my year abroad, to bring joy and entertainment to the masses.* I’m working for two small NGOs in La Paz, Bolivia and then studying in Lyon, France and plan to travel around as well. If I’m totally uninteresting, at least these places will excite.
I don’t have a grand theme for this as such, so posts will be based on topics according to my curiosity / voyeurism, and repeated assurances that No, I Haven’t Been Bitten By a Mosquito Yet.
I really appreciate your time and attention.
*the masses being a) my Dad, a.k.a Prof JB; b) the assorted family friends and relatives he peer-pressures into reading florabowen.com, c) approx. 2% of my instagram followers and facebook friends.
I’ve been cooking with citrus and lemon a lot recently. A quick squeeze added green vegetables, oven-cooked fish, yoghurt dips: will it do add anything good? we don’t know, but let’s do it anyway, as it makes me feel like a freewheeling tv chef.
The squeezing and sauté-ing and chopping has made up large, salted chunks of my days in the past few weeks, time when I would otherwise have been seeing friends or speaking French. Preparing meals is a mixture of precise technique and instinct, and both take up space in a mind that twists and turns. Feeling sad? Cook. Experiencing nameless dread? Bake. Missing friends? Lay the table.
Eating may be an essential act of nutrition, but it’s also an effective opportunity for procrastination. You can hide the fact that you’re avoiding necessary tasks under the hunter-gather guise of ‘providing for the family’. The tasks I’ve been avoiding are largely French, and fall into the subcategory of Online Exams. Last week – you’ve guessed it – was end of term exam week at the ENS.
Online exams are not nutritious, and they are not an essential or loving form of nourishment. Although language learning is also a mixture of methodical application and intuition, its weight comes heavier than a mayo-loaded potato wedge. Language study is a time machine and a boat: it takes you back to the country, across time and across the sea. Sitting down to complete the set devoirs, I would feel like i’d eaten an undercooked mussel, because I longed to be in Lyon again – before all of this. And just as dusty curry powder is a poor substitute for fresh coriander and cumin seeds, so those dry lists of vocabulary (pierre: roche, gravelle, bloc) consumed alone, and without the seasoning of life abroad, leave a certain biliousness in the stomach.
Reading and writing may be all right in a sunny mood, but on a duller day such activities force you into grating analytical mode, as the mind drifts from the questions on the page to interrogation of the surroundings. Like I was in some sadly and strangely personal auction, I felt my zest for life sapping away: Going, Going, Gone!
It takes a lot of energy to analyse and to be analysed, and frankly it feels a lot easier to return to stirring and slicing, to let the stickiness of slow-cooked onion to push out The Bad Thoughts with Nice Shallot Reflections.
So life is hard at the moment. But whenever I feel down, I just take out the grater, with an orange or a lemon, and add the zest back in. Everything feels a little brighter dotted with the colours of coral and dandelion .
Yes, I’ve opened and closed and reopened this draft most days – without managing to write anything. All the usual anxieties of blog-writing (will people think I’m a narcissist? illiterate? boring? will future employers condemn me on the basis of total foolishness?) have combined with the self-consciousness of pleasing others. A good deal of lockdown animosity has arisen from inequality, which can basically be summed up as The Garden Division:
Stock Character A: ‘Look at those horrid people, going out for a walk with their family. Don’t they know how irresponsible they are?’
That family: ‘Stock Character A has no right to tell us what to do – he lives in a castle. Or at least that’s what we’re assuming.’
Government advert: ‘STAY AT HOME AND PLAY IN YOUR GARDEN THIS WEEKEND’
Everyone: ‘Stupid out-of-touch government. Don’t they realise some people don’t have gardens?
Everyone else: ‘People who don’t stay at home are so selfish.’
At least that’s the kind of dialogue available online, and in the media.
As a result of this type of conflict, I felt worried about describing my own situation online, anxious about a portrayal as a little middle-class princess in the palace of the suburban garden. I thought about writing about the meals I’d cooked, the routines I’d developed, but deleted posts, trying to avoid being dragged into those online debates – which pit poorer against richer, happier against sadder, part of a tribe against solo-householders. Let alone any mention of those still working ‘on the frontline’. Perhaps I should put some kind of ‘privilege disclaimer’ on the blog: what’s the right way to behave? It all feels oddly self-shaming sometimes, and in that sense, not particularly helpful to anyone.
It’s likely that I just spend too much time online and reading opinion articles; but regardless of source, I’ve learnt to feel guilt for every aspect of my existence. Guilt for private school, for being white, guilt for Cambridge, guilt for the garden.
My life is the dream of my ancestors’ upward social mobility, and of the hard academic slog carried out by the past two generations. I know I’ve used my privilege more than others in my position, but is it enough? I try to educate myself on all possible forms of oppression, and to let this guide my behaviour. I’ve always wanted to be a writer: should I give this up, to make space for those less privileged than me? I already give donations to useful organisations – what percentage of income should you give, and is this ‘effective altruism’? Perhaps this entire blog is just an exercise in smug, privileged narcissism. (it’s not what I think, but I worry that others, some day, will tell me how thoughtless I’ve been for showing off.) I work as hard as I possibly can, to maximise what I have inherited, as a result of my family’s hard work, but I don’t think it will ever be ‘enough’.
At the end of my first term at Cambridge, my Director of Studies / French supervisor congratulated me for my literature essays. I felt very pleased, and then quickly guilty again. I said thank you, and tried to excuse myself: ‘Well, my Dad’s a literature professor, so – ‘ My supervisor looked confused. He wasn’t there writing the essays, was he?’ Obviously not. But what if privilege held the pen? I know how hard I worked in school, and university, but I also know that I have been lucky to have a family who love me, who read to me as a child, and who valued my education. Reading opinion pieces and social media threads online makes me view this fortunate upbringing as the sole reason for any limited success I may have had.
Anyway, that’s all unhelpful. If you’ve read this, hopefully you can see I am aware of how lucky I am. All I want is interesting, diverse cultures of work / play / culture. For everyone to be able to make the most of life. The individual has a limited sphere of influence in truly redressing economic, social, and racial imbalances : for global impact, it’s also up to governments, legal bodies, and institutions. Not just little middle-class girls sitting in the garden.
(If anyone wants to give me advice on all of this, I’d be grateful on what I should and shouldn’t say).
(The following was commissioned and accepted by the Literary Review for the August 2019 issue, however was not published.)
Robert Appleyard is an unusual protagonist for a contemporary novel. The sixteen-year-old son of a miner, he treks across the Yorkshire moors to Robin Hood’s Bay one sunny summer not long after the Second World War. Benjamin Myers’ book, ‘The Offing’ is in one way a straightforward rags-to riches-story set in rural Yorkshire. But it’s a story too about the relationship between the unnamed narrator and the mysterious Dulcie, a celebration of literature, conversation, and la dolce vita.
As our narrator roams picturesquely over the Yorkshire hills, he wanders into the realm of all that is shorthand for sophistication: wine, poetry, winding conversation. Meeting Dulcie, a woman who speaks in sphynx-like twists of curiosity, he is nourished body and mind by her supply of apples and aphorisms. Over a period of coming and going to the house, he reads and drinks long into the night with her, slowly and self-consciously developing into an homme de lettres, complete with glass in hand and sack of adjectives to boot.
Yet this is not a comfortable world: even in the rose-scented, lyrical sunsets, the reader is to be surprised by the slow uncovering of Dulcie’s past. At the heart of this tale, for all its delight and play, is a grief that has been suppressed by decades.
Questions rise and remain unanswered: did she really once flit amongst literary circles? Was she in love with her shadowy poet friend? Or is this narrative, like her beloved books, another tale to mesmerise her new pupil? As the unlikely friendship develops, so does this former life unfold.
This plot is located in the middle of a social mobility tale: ‘it (poetry) had just been one more way of keeping the working men and women in their place’. It’s literature and wine on one side of the divide, poverty and ignorance on the other. ‘Dimwit debutante spawn of diplomats, aristocrats, old-money dilettantes and those jug-eared, buck-toothed royals who flounce about flaunting their family names as flagrantly as their crests and signet rings’ are set in contrast to the miners and working-class Yorkshiremen who express themselves through fighting (‘the only language they understand’).
Grand statements are delivered with ambitious flourish. Dulcie’s manner of speaking delights in ambitious use of language: a fox is described with ‘The acrid funk of a vulpine interloper’, drunkenness rendered ‘despite the nullifying effect of the drink’ Description is at its best when the text delicately evokes the sensory landscape of the post-war North: ‘the stale lingering stink of tobacco smoke, hair oil, decaying English teeth and damp woollen coats’.
Appleyard notes that he once viewed poetry as ‘a way of complicating the simple’, and at times Myers could benefit from remembering this, as the style can disrupt the reader’s engagement with the plot: it attempts to soar before it can fly.). Good food is here equated to good literature: both nourish. But just as the simplest food of the novel is the tastiest, so too could the prose use some stripping of ingredients, to greater enhance the central relationship and intrigue.