Transitions

My gaze stuck to her retreating silhouette like a bluebottle on a piece of meat while I was still getting to grips with what my friend had just told me.

I was on a fag break, chatting to said friend outside the Film Museum, when this gorgeous creature walked up to us. Both exchanged pleasantries; small talk ensued. I remained a bystander, intrigued by the cleavage and the curve-hugging mini skirt, the rather heavy yet carefully applied makeup and the long dark hair. When she’d resumed her walk to wherever she was headed to, my friend turned to me.

“So,” he asked, “what do you think?”

I can’t quite remember what I replied, but it most probably was something positive – and noncommittal. After all, it’s not like we’d had a long, meaningful conversation. What I do remember, though, is what followed.

“That was a man”, he said, clearly waiting for an awestruck expression to appear on my face.

I obliged – and not because it’s what he expected: I was genuinely impressed. What I had just seen simply didn’t compare to the drag queens I usually came across in bars. Then I thought back. All right, the voice had been a bit husky and yes, there had been something slightly masculine in his/her features. So maybe if we’d spent a few hours in each other’s company… but we never did. And as this had been the briefest of encounters, the artistry had worked its wonders on me.

Eventually, my friend explained that while this person had kept his manhood, he/she had also breast implants and lived as a woman. She worked in a different city, offering services to people (mainly men) with very specific tastes. I smiled, my curiosity titillated.

That was twenty years ago.

 

Today, I find myself wondering if this kind of freedom, i.e. that of being who we want to be, will carry on existing in the coming decades – or years, even. How long before fingers are pointed at people who made non-conformist choices, whether these choices pertain to their gender or whether, more generally, it involves their lifestyle? How long before the pitchforks come out, for that matter?

There’s no denying that the zeitgeist has taken a turn for the worst since the aforementioned meeting and that tolerance is slowly departing from these shores. The general consensus these days seems to favour ‘smallness’ in every possible sense of the word: the confines of strictly defined states and cultures, the ever-tightening bounds of what’s viewed as acceptable and normal. Expanding one’s horizons, whether literally or figuratively, isn’t necessarily considered something to aim for anymore – a consequence, I guess, of the all-pervading, increasingly populist rhetoric fed to us by mainstream media. Dislike and wariness of otherness and diversity as a way of expressing dissatisfaction, that’s how it appears to me. And it looks like history is repeating itself once again.

 

Yet if we managed to rid ourselves of narrow-minded, constricting and bigoted notions, then the idea of alienation would become irrelevant. If there were no more borders, if we no longer had clearly defined countries and individuals were free to broaden their view of a home, then the whole concept of exile, too, would become irrelevant.

We would all be part of one same world, hopefully rich and diverse. The irony is, of course, that we already live in the same world: we share the same planet. We’re an integral part of its ecosystem. And we all share the same gene pool.

Borders, frontiers, dogmas, preconceived ideas… they’re our doing. Our invention. And for what purpose? Protection of what we’ve claimed as ours. Protection from what we deem inappropriate and, consequently, threatening.

So today more than ever, I wish that, if I were some socialite snob, I could say “But darling, that’s so passé!”

Advertisements

Legal Alien (2)

On Friday, the 24th of June, I woke naturally at 6:20am, as I often do. And while I was waiting for my coffee to brew, I listened to the radio.

As I slowly started to make sense of what was being said, I was overwhelmed by a growing sense of disbelief – then, as the outcome of the referendum was confirmed, plain shock. That morning, I woke up in a different country. We all did, Brits and non-Brits.

I, together with many others, didn’t feel quite so welcome anymore. And even though I found reassurance with friends here, the feeling hasn’t entirely gone away – I don’t think it will for a while. Though I still am, for the time being, a “legal” alien.

It turns out that a lot of people used the referendum to cast a protest vote, putting two fingers up at the establishment by opting for Brexit. Surely, if one wants to protest, one does so in the streets. Not here though – not in Britain. Instead, they’ve given voice to a narrow-minded, nationalist minority. Yet I’m sure that, like me, these individuals who are dissatisfied – angry, even – with their government, find it hard to believe that people would want to be held within the borders of a country, would seek to restrict everybody’s movements, including their own, for the sake of appeasing some primeval fear. A fear fuelled by the kind of populist rhetoric plastered on tabloid front pages and used by racist/xenophobic organisations. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the referendum result was cheered by far-right parties on the Continent, but it was chilling nonetheless. Then, in the days that followed, “incidents” were reported.

Did those people who sprayed graffiti and shouted insults at non-British citizens suddenly feel it was okay to do so? Did they think that, because of the outcome of the referendum, it had somehow become acceptable to “air” their toxic views? If so, then the consequences of this vote are even worse than I feared. And one has to wonder: will our society become the kind of place where acts of xenophobia are shrugged at, sanctioned even?

I’ve never been very happy with the way Europe turned out, with its heavy bureaucracy and eurocrats who are entirely disconnected from the people they represent. Yet even though it’s become akin to some abstract entity that fancies itself an empire of sorts, we mustn’t forget the reasons why it was created in the first place: to ensure lasting peace throughout this part of the Western world. Today though, the British vote to leave the EU has set a precedent. And seeing the current overall dissatisfaction with governments, it’s likely that other countries will follow suit. And what then?

Imprint of a conversation

One thing I’ve always loved about big cities is the number of unexpected gardens and rooftop terraces. Unexpected, because they’re mostly invisible to passers-by in the street.

My sister lives in one such big city and yes, it just so happens that there’s a rooftop terrace outside her flat’s kitchen. A shared terrace, at that. Or at least it was shared until recently, with an old lady called Suzy who lived next-door and who, when the weather was pleasant, would often wander over to the kitchen door to say hello – as opposed to crossing the landing and knocking on the flat’s door.

One summer when I was visiting, I found myself spending some time on my own at my sister’s place. When Suzy realised this, she said: Come and have a glass of wine at my end of the terrace this afternoon. I gladly accepted her invitation, not only because I had always enjoyed her company, but because I’d rarely had the opportunity of a more private chat with her.

She had been an actress all her life, which meant that there often was a touch of theatricality to her everyday gestures and speech – something I remember fondly. And although she was well in her eighties then, she was still performing. In addition to her regular plays, she also had a one-woman show where she would treat her audience to stories from her life. Some were funny, some were quirky and, seeing as her entire family had to flee during the war, some were about exile.

That afternoon though, she told me one I hadn’t heard before. It was about a conversation she’d once had with someone and which had led her to form a theory of sorts. A theory which we, in turn, debated, sitting in the sunshine, sipping sweet wine. It revolved around the idea that the Earth functions as a near-closed system, constantly “recycling” as it were the matter it’s composed of… and how this could potentially affect us.

From the air particles we breathe to the atoms that make us who we are, these fractions of matter are all as old as the world. Atoms, and even the smaller particles that constitute them, are constantly being rearranged. Consequently, bits of the matter we are made of may have once been part of a whale, a tree, a sparrow, a tulip… or another human being. The same goes for all the things we ingest.

Her conclusion went something like this: No wonder some of us sometimes feel a close connection with places we’ve never visited or people we’ve never met before. If some of the particles that make us were once part of something or someone else, living in a different part of the world, wouldn’t it make sense to feel such connection, such nostalgia even?

Those words stayed with me, nice and snug in a corner of my mind. Clearly remembered on occasion, as happened a few weeks ago, during an evening spent chilling in good company. At some point, someone mentioned reincarnation. To which I replied that that would imply the existence of souls – something I’m not sure I actually believe in. What I am inclined to believe though, is some form of memory carried by matter, whether trapped in the walls of a house or in the particles that constitute our genes. If we follow the above reasoning, then the matter we are made of comes, most probably, from all over the world. Doesn’t that, somehow, turn the whole idea of exile into something quite obsolete?

No Countryside for Old Species

I’ve witnessed quite a few floods. Not that I actually went looking for them; I simply happened to live there where, at the time, they occurred. One of those places was Oxfordshire. The Thames would burst its banks and spread… and spread… until water became the main feature in the landscape. River boats and barges drifted away from their moorings, their occupants often needing rescue if the rising waters had caught them unawares. Ducks and geese were paddling among the trees, unconcerned – and unaware of the touch of surrealism they were adding to the scenery.

 

For a long time, I considered the British countryside as a place that was well-preserved and where wildlife was allowed to thrive. Not quite untouched, yet in better condition by far than what I had known growing up. A place where the necessity of diversity was recognised.

Then, I came across an increasing number of articles and books on land management and its effects, as well as on re-wilding. And I realised this was a misconception. After reading George Monbiot (his articles and, more specifically, his book ‘Feral’), I felt sad and found myself longing for the ancestral forests that used to cover these islands. Forests where moss and lichen and ferns grow on living trees and where the fallen ones slowly morph into another state of being. The kind of forest a strip of woodland near my home provides a glimpse of.

But more importantly, I was shocked to find out how, over the centuries, entire swathes of land had been turned into virtual deserts. Ever since our ancestors moved in, cleared the trees and left their cattle to graze the land. Until recently, I’d assumed that, through the changes our species had instigated, one ecosystem had replaced another. Different, yes, but no less diverse. I was far from imagining the degree of diversity depletion that had ensued. The indigenous species that upheld the rich web of life were driven to extinction to make way for those few that would sustain us in the short term – that would satisfy our immediate, selfish needs. And screw the consequences.

Today, those consequences are staring us in the face. We’re realising, too late, that the woodlands and other natural habitats which we destroyed were actually protecting us, preventing floods on the scale we’ve recently seen by slowing down and absorbing rainwater upstream of our towns. Because we can’t accept the natural world as it is. Because we cling to the century-old illusion that we can and do control our environment. Because we are so arrogant as to think ourselves better than any other living creature.

 

So one could say that, as a species, we had it coming. All over the world, we’re starting to experience the backlash from the impact we’ve had and are still having on the planet. And sadly (though not surprisingly), those who end up bearing the brunt of the consequences, who end up virtually homeless, are often the poorest among us – whether in this country or on the other side of the world. It’s the same story everywhere.

I have to admit I’ve always been struck by the awe-inspiring power of water suddenly running wild. There’s no denying there’s a certain beauty in the devastation it causes, the same way war photography can be beautiful in spite of the horrors it depicts. Water as far as the eye could see: that’s the image I’d like to remember, rather than that of sewers regurgitating their contents. It’s not just because of the sight and the smell of said contents, but because it reminds me of the endless misery endured by many. I do feel for those affected, but I’m afraid I have little sympathy for our species as a whole.

Eco-Car

My car belongs in the forest. Or rather: the forest seems to have taken a liking to it. No wonder, really, since it sleeps outside all year round. It endures every kind of weather without even a shiver. So far, anyway.

First, there’s the small colony of spiders. I noticed them a few years ago in the wing mirrors. They’d set up home in the space between the actual mirrors and their casing and would spin their webs from mirror to car door. And no matter how often their webs got torn apart every time I drove away, the next day, there would be new ones. I couldn’t help but admire their resilience. Yet there was more: after about a year or so of blown-away-then-rebuilt webs, I noticed that said webs would often survive a short drive. They were sometimes a bit tattered, but they still served their purpose. I looked closer: the shape had changed. And that’s when it occurred to me that maybe, my eight-legged friends had found a way of weaving more aerodynamic webs. Not such a wild idea, actually, as this became a regular thing. These spider webs were increasingly resistant to the car’s slipstream – this much was obvious. And it wasn’t hard to imagine this particular skill being passed down generations of arachnids.

Then, there’s the moss. Not just the velvety green film on the inside edges of the car doors, but the actual fluffy growth more likely to be found on trees and rocks. The kind which, as a child, I used to see as a miniature forest. I even found yellow-green lichen, gently stretching its small lobes across the painted metal.

Add to that the dust, grit, dried mud and dead leaves that inevitably found their way inside and yes, I had to admit my car was in dire need of a good clean. To be honest, I shouldn’t have left it that long, but I wasn’t keen on the idea of scrubbing and pulling out the moss growing from between the window frames – and I was reluctant to disturb the spiders. Yet it had to be done.

I waited for a dry day, took out a bucket of soapy water, sponges and rags, and un-spooled the hosepipe. When I got to the wing mirrors, I found myself apologising to my loyal little tenants for destroying their home, secretly hoping they would return soon. Then I uprooted most of the moss, pinching it between thumb and finger, and I threw out last year’s leaves.

But I left the lichen growing around the base of the radio aerial.

The Country of Square Bread

I used to wonder why people here have so many hot drinks in one day. And it took me a while to figure it probably had something to do with the weather – that frequent damp chill in the air. Because a nice cuppa warms you up from inside, doesn’t it? Other details puzzled me too. Like the overall politeness of people, even when they were more or less telling me to piss off (needless to say I didn’t get the message at first). And then there was the bread. Perfectly square and packed in a plastic bag. Again, it was only after a few months that I realised those slices were made to fit in a toaster. That’s what the bread was for: to make toast.

This was nearly fifteen years ago. Today, I can’t see myself living anywhere else. My home is here. Yet it didn’t always feel like that. Not the first six months anyway.

Because visiting a country as a tourist is one thing; moving there to start a new life is quite another. Firstly, the way we are welcomed (or not) is different. As tourists, our presence is generally appreciated (unless we arrive by the coach-load which, let’s be honest, can come across as rather “invasive”); we’re showing an interest in the local culture, are spending money, contributing to the economy and, perhaps more importantly, we’ll go back to wherever we came from. We’ve got a return ticket. But when we have a one-way ticket, our arrival and subsequent stay may be perceived in a more negative way. It all depends on the economic and social climate of the moment, as well as our own attitude. Clearly, we wouldn’t get very far, even under the best of circumstances, if we didn’t make at least some kind of an effort.

Secondly, our own experience will vary depending on the nature and intended duration of our stay. I can’t speak for others, but I distinctly remember how it felt to me: a kick in the teeth. It hurt – at the time. Until I acknowledged a few things and learned to adapt to my new home and everything that came with it. Because the distress I experienced during those first few months was rooted in my own perception of things. And the details I mentioned earlier didn’t have much to do with it.

Drawn to this country since I was a child, I visited many times before deciding to make it my home. I carried in my mind a certain “image” of it, a certain atmosphere which I expected to find. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, let alone define it, but it was clearly not there. Because it was an ideal. Something akin to a picture-postcard pretty kind of view.

I struggled. Eventually, I tore up that slightly saccharine postcard. Reality caught up with me and I accepted it – I even grumbled (and still do) at all the things that aren’t quite right. My point is, I came to love this island for what it is – and not the image it sells to the tourists.

Today, I’m drinking all kinds of tea, coffee and other soul-warming beverages, I’m likely to be offended when people don’t queue or are plain rude, I value politeness and am expecting others to read between the lines… but I still refrain from buying square bread. I bake my own.

Restricted Movements

I can hardly bear to listen to the news these days, let alone watch it. Good job I don’t have a telly – haven’t had one for the past twenty years. As for the radio, it tends to stay off. Still, news from the outside world has a way of getting in. And today, more than ever, it feels like a form of pollution. Pollution that reeks of fear. The information we are fed is likely to make us uneasy, anxious even, and the way it’s served to us only exacerbates these feelings. It plays on a population’s basic fears, so much so one sometimes wonders if there isn’t some political agenda underlying the media’s choice of topics.

I still read the papers though and, a little while back, I came across an article on how the number of people applying for British citizenship had risen sharply. All because of the upcoming referendum. That got me thinking: what will actually happen if Britain leaves the European Union? And more specifically: will I be asked to leave? Where would I go? Definitely not back to where I came from. That’s never been an option – for personal reasons I won’t get into here.

Then, the refugee crisis was suddenly on every front page. As though it was a new thing, as if people hadn’t been fleeing their country for years. The issue had simply been put on the backburner of our minds, until some aspects of the crisis became news-worthy. In short, the drama had reached western borders. And as usual, governments acted in complete insensitiveness, more concerned about their voters’ reaction (those same voters who read the scaremongering, xenophobia-encouraging papers) than about their duty. Reducing those poor souls knocking on their door to something less than human. It makes me sick.

It also made me reflect and put a number of things into perspective. I have always considered myself extremely lucky to be able to enjoy a certain freedom of movement, whether it’s to roam the streets of a city at night or, more generally, to travel. And of course, I don’t live in the country where I was born, where I grew up. I’m an expat. That’s the word. Yet today, I’m waiting for the subtle switch to the term “immigrant”. They’re only words though – but words emerging from a specific perception of reality, bound to a given situation. Soon, we could all end up being labelled the same way, whether we’re expats, immigrants, both legal and illegal, refugees. We may all end up with a mark that reads something like ‘unwanted foreigner’.

Yet when my little voice cries out “I don’t want to go back there”, it feels inadequate – ridiculous. For it pales to triviality when compared to the plea of those who want to go back to where they feel they belong and can’t, those who have lost everything. So from now on, whatever worries nibble away at the edges of my world, I shall keep to myself.

Bright Nights, Dark Days

Night is for sleep. We’re not nocturnal. It’s a biological fact. That doesn’t mean though that we all do sleep once the sun’s gone down. A lot of us have no choice but to stay awake at night. Some people work night shifts. Others are kept awake by one or other kind of noise, whether originating from their surroundings… or in their own mind. But there are also those of us who are out at night because they want to. Because they like it.

There’s definitely something special about being outside while the good citizens are safely tucked in, whether it’s out in a forest, on a beach for a spot of night swimming, or in a big city. I find that the latter in particular elicits a sense of otherness. Perhaps because roaming the streets at night is something most people are uncomfortable with – scared of, even. The odd car driving past, perhaps slightly slowing down before disappearing into the drizzle, becomes a potential threat. The same goes for the man walking on the opposite pavement, his footfall echoing. I suppose we’ve all seen too many movies. Though I’m not saying that walking alone at night through a city is safe, only that fear can easily reach irrational proportions – even more so at night. Yet there’s no denying the poetic beauty of those hours, the quietness – and the solitude that provides space to think. Also, that’s when one gets to see (or sense) something of the underbelly of reality.

Then there’s a different kind of night-time wanderings, as it were: insomnia. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been funny about sleep. There are times when I can drift off just about anywhere… except in my bed when I’m supposed to. Sometimes I’m so restless I can’t sleep at all and I need to resort to various stratagems to knock myself out. But even that only works for a short while and more often than not, I find myself waking up in the small hours and unable to go back to sleep. I just lie there, thinking I’m probably the only person awake for miles. It’s a lonely feeling, though not necessarily a sad one. Sometimes I’ll be annoyed, yes, either because I know tiredness will inevitably follow or simply because I want a few hours of oblivion.

Yet over time, I’ve learned to not get too worked-up about it. Either I let my mind dwell on whatever it fancies, or I just listen to night’s whispers – those little noises that sometimes feed into our dreams. The occasional creaking of joists or floorboards, the low humming of a fridge, the click-clicking of pipes as the heating comes on, cats arguing in the garden, their yowling disturbing a bird’s sleep, rain tapping at the window and gales rubbing against the walls. Familiar sounds, creating a sense of cosiness…

So much for elusive sleep. For there’s the opposite extreme, too: those dreaded times when I struggle to stay awake, when sleep has become the only escape – not only from the outside world, but also from my own life, myself. Because I can no longer bear any of it. Not then.

Those are days wrapped in shadows. And we’re supposed to be awake during the day, right? That’s the expected behaviour. Except that when one is feeling that low, it no longer matters. The only thing that does is finding a safe place to curl up and wait for it to pass. And it does pass, eventually.

Emerging from a depressive episode is such a strange feeling though, as if one were coming back from a long and nightmarish trip… reacquainting oneself with the world, sometimes asking to be let back in. But it feels good, not only because of the small victory of having pulled through, but because of the reclaimed freedom. The freedom to wander about. Even at night.

Runaway Memory

Her voice sounded clear and cheerful on the phone. Perhaps because I still see her with my child’s eyes: no matter how many years have passed, I cannot perceive her as an old lady. I guess she’s a bit of a fairy godmother.

I wanted to hug her and, for a moment, erase the distance. But since crossing land and sea, there and then, would’ve been rather impractical, I wrapped myself in the warmth of her voice instead.

As always, she asked me about my life – and I told her, the way I would tell a mother. Then, I returned the question. Again. How was she? Or, more to the point: how were they?

That’s when her husband came into the room, wearing a winter jacket. I heard them talking, though I could not make out his words. I thought: they’ve still got summer temperatures over there. We’d only just started talking again when he returned, this time wearing one of her jackets. She suppressed a giggle before gently scolding him.

We attempted to resume our conversation, but then he came closer.

“Is it Mum?”, he asked.

“But darling, Mum died twelve years ago”, she replied.

A moment of silence, then the same question and the same answer were repeated, followed by an uncanny noise in the background.

“Don’t cry”, she said. “Don’t cry.”

Something in her tone reminded me of an adult addressing a little boy. She switched back to her usual voice though when she returned her attention the phone, telling me she’d have to cut it short.

It’s as though part of his mind has exiled itself from the man he used to be, leaving only random and often childlike fragments of personality behind. His memory resembles an exploded landscape, torn and frayed chronology strewn among the rubble. There are days when he no longer recognises his beloved wife.

Thoughts on pain

The way I relate to physical pain has changed over time. Needs must. Admittedly, some might say it’s a pretty fucked-up relation – I don’t care. I know what works for me. This shouldn’t suggest though that I’m into some form of SM. I’m not. But I have been pondering the matter a lot lately. Not that said pondering made the pain go away, but it’s helped me distancing myself from it.

One day I realised that, to me at least, different types of pain have different colours, like some sort of variation on synaesthesia (the most common type being when letters have their own distinct colour). Migraine, for example, is a murky kind of black, whereas inflammatory pain comes in a range of reds. Searing pain, on the other hand (such as caused by a deep cut, for example), is white. Come to think of it, even the word ‘searing’ is a blinding white with black edges. And I found that considering pain as something that could be visualised as a colour allowed me to take a step back. Or at any rate, one first step back.

The second step, so to speak, had something to do with a documentary I watched over 15 years ago and which made a lasting impression on me: “Sick. The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Super-Masochist”. I had never really forgotten about it, but what I took away from it has gradually found a more prominent place in my mind these past few years.

The film recounts the final years of the life of Bob Flanagan, who suffered from cystic fibrosis. Not only was the man in constant pain, but back then, the life expectancy of anyone with cystic fibrosis was below 20 years. Yet he managed to live to the age of 43. Obviously, improved treatments helped, but what he demonstrated in this documentary was that he’d found a way of dealing with the pain (i.e. by wilfully subjecting himself to more pain), as well as how, ultimately, these masochistic practices helped him live a longer and more fulfilled life. Some may find the film gruesome and sickening – I admit there are scenes which are hard to watch – but above all, it’s extremely moving. And personally, it did open my eyes on a few things.

Today, I’m finding it rather useful. Because Bob Flanagan was right. There is a way which doesn’t involve painkillers. What it does involve though, is acquainting oneself with pain and thus, in a way, tame it. It becomes a sensation (like many others) which can be observed. Furthermore, if it’s inflicted in a context of consent, whether by oneself or by another, trusted individual, it can become something different altogether. Perhaps because then, there’s an element of choice, of freedom – of pleasure. And as far as I’m concerned, I’d rather choose my pain.

I’m aware this sounds counterintuitive and that it’s likely to draw remarks implying that I (and others) should have no place among normal, healthy people. At that, I’d be inclined to laugh. ‘Normal’ doesn’t exist. And suffering, whether physical or mental, already sets one apart anyway.

Countless people have to put up with one or other form of pain, as though they were saddled with a constant yet unwanted companion. And more often than not, it shows. Others will notice. Others who, in turn, will show pity. They mean well. But that doesn’t make it any less wrong. I, for one (and I’m sure many would agree), don’t want anybody’s pity. Understanding, yes, and empathy. Possibly compassion. Not patronising, diminishing pity. For not only is it insulting, it casts out the one who is pitied. Trust me, pain is alienating enough as it is; there’s no need for that extra push towards the margins.