Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rest of It

There were some bumps on the flight, but they served me some sparkling water and it was a smooth landing in Bristol. As I approached the customs desk, my mask and snorkel fell out of my backpack (I think I mentioned that I had to hastily reduce the weight of my baggage in La Rochelle? That included putting all my books and snorkeling equipment in my carry-on). I picked them up and carried them to the customs agent, who told me I needed to have filled out landing card.

A few minutes later I walked out to the main concourse and thought about stopping to put my snorkel and mask away. Nah… Enchanted by the absurdity of walking out to meet Matt and his family with snorkel à la main. Matt and his family and girlfriend were waiting in the lobby. I shook Steve’s hand and he asked me if I’d had to swim from France. I raised my snorkel hand slightly and told him that I just wanted to be prepared just in case god forbid.

I wasn’t sure whether to shake hands with the ladies or give them one kiss on each cheek like in France. I think I did the latter with Matt’s mother Sue. Two years of meeting new people of different nationalities had left me confused about what to do with whom. French do the two kiss thing (the bise), British people… shake hands? Finally, Matt introduced his petite amie, Hannah.

My hangover resurfaced upon landing, just in time for the car ride to the restaurant. As that battery acid taste crept into the corners of my mouth I started to worry that I’d have to ask Steve to pull over. What a first impression. Well, I’m sure he’d understand. Still.

Monday morning, I awoke early in the morning and decided to go back to sleep. Reawakening a few hours later. I submitted three photos to a National Geographic photo contest.

We went to the vet’s office that morning. I am leaving most of this one unexplained.

Welsh is a fantastic language. The vowels are round and the consonants scrape past the sides of the tongue in a way that doesn’t sound like any other language I’ve heard. You don’t hear much Welsh in Wales: Apparently the largest percentage of fluent Welsh speakers is kids aged 12 and down. The Government of Wales is trying to establish a revival in the language, which is being met with, as far as I can tell, tepid enthusiasm.

Still the Welsh accent is the most gorgeous thing to happen to English.

Later on, we went to the local Botanical Gardens and my camera ran out of batteries. So, we decided to sojourn to Verdi’s; an ice cream shop, and a Mumbles institution.

Mumbles is a seaside town just next to Swansea. Hometown of Catherine Zeta-Jones. At Verdi’s we had some tea, ice cream and a milk shake and I plugged my camera battery into a wall outlet.

Wednesday night out on Swansea. An evening that was destined to emerge later on in hazy pieces at random moments. Not from the drinking. Just the disorienting, improvisational way we lived it. I didn’t really drink that much. But it was raining and I remember covering my head because it’s my deeply held conviction that when the rain smoothes my hair down against my head I look bald. Ing. Otherwise let the rain come.

I had to get to an ATM. Out into the rain, back into the pub.

“Where is it again?” I asked Hannah. She told me.

There was a dickish guy with an impossible accent to place in line behind me while I held an umbrella for another guy… Polish? Maybe. His friend was asking everyone where we were from, or I thought ‘everyone’ until I turned to see two girls under an umbrella, figures in my quick glance made blurs of pink, black, and fishnet. Just as well, I remember thinking. I don’t want to have the conversation about why a Floridian is here in Wales.

Later on, exhausted at the bar. I hadn’t seen Matt for a while… Glancing around, I saw him standing with Hannah by the bar. As I write this, I feel the cold stab of remorse that I didn’t give him any shit about that – disappearing for… however long. The truth was, I might have done the same, and I didn’t mind. Still… I missed an opportunity. Anyway, Matt: Here’s the shit I should’ve given you.

Honestly though, I was content to sit and cast my eyes around the bar and out the window. I was tired. The bar seats were so high that you had to jump to get on them, and the table was so far from the stool that to lean across the chasm between seat and table to rest your head in your arms left you in danger of falling if you fell asleep. I leaned back against the chair and looked out the window, grateful for a lot of things: To Matt’s parents for putting me up and feeding me, to Matt and Hannah for showing me around Swansea, to Matt’s mates for coming out (although I gather that if they hadn’t come out for my last night they’d have found an occasion). Outside, women walked like weary refugees through the rain in that ungraceful plodding tip-toe that announces a lady in heels. Their skirts and hair clung to them. The effect was comical. Out hiccoughs a laugh: The rain is making a mockery of your designs on grace and sexiness. Still, it makes me cower beneath my jacket, anxiously shielding my scalp from public view. What are you gonna do?

Steve picked us up just before two… what a mensch. We stood around chatting for a few minutes, then the bus pulled up. I went right away to put away my suitcase under the bus so I could stand around for a few more minutes, but the bus driver let me know I should board immediately. Shit. Hasty goodbyes from Matt’s friends… it was really fucking good of them to come out. Then Matt and I were standing there, like last year in Saintes, neither quite prepared for the goodbye. Oh well… Mec, it was real, and we seriously have to do this again. In America. Seriously.

It was a long ride, but mercifully I was able to sleep through most of it. The next morning, I did some things I’m not proud of, and I took to the air only an hour or so late. That was the end of my European adventure.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Last Few Hours in Franceland

I just want to go home and sleep but it’s my last night in Royan. I have to go look at the Atlantic Ocean again from my customary vantage point. There went I on my first full day in Royan, and there I go again now, on my last full day. The romantic in me is a slave to symmetry. So, I’m tired, but I accept that there’s no real alternative, and down to the coast I go. I tell myself there’s no real choice, and there’s freedom in the thought.

I hadn’t really expected to become attached to this place. Royan. In the way that France is beautiful, Royan is not. All the buildings are new, all of them built in the 1950’s and 60’s; decades that were to architecture what the 80’s were to music: Pure indulgence in all the wrong impulses. If you think of architecture as a reflection of the times, you’d have to look on the buildings in Royan with the same uncomfortable feeling that you feel when you find your old, melodramatic poetry scribbled onto pages of old notebooks. You guess it’s all right, but you would not write that kind of shit now.

Still, right now I’m riding through the town in a haze of alcohol (partly) and nostalgia (mostly). Sounds reach me through a bubble, a thin curtain of air that’s following me and vibrating with memories from the past two years. I think of the times I’ve ridden with friends through streets that looked like these. That time we almost had a fight and the fucker attacked with a golf club and we retreated. Then riding home, we found a bike and I carried it with me on my bike in a pointless feat of strength to salve the dull throb of a bruised ego.

I arrived at the coast and called dad. He answered after a few rings. We talked about a lot of things, but one thing really stuck with me. I said,

“Well, I’m here looking out to sea in your direction.”

He said,

“Well, I’m looking in your direction. Well, down at the ground. I have to look down at the ground to look in your direction.”

I had forgotten about that. The world still is round.


Smash-cut to the present. My flight is delayed by half an hour. This is not a terrible thing: I had just been thinking that...

I worked until the morning of my last full day in Royan… Between packing and finishing work and selling my guitar (I sold my guitar) and going out with people I had not really contemplated the fact that I was leaving behind, indefinitely, the country that I had called home for two years.

David and I met Marcus, and then Salah, in town for a last night on the town sort of thing. We started out at the Phare, a bar I didn't know that well on the Old Harbor. Pints and Mojiti. Apparently there's a craze on in the United States called "icing" someone - in other words presenting him or her with  a Smirnoff Ice, which he or she is then required to chug. Marcus iced me, and since I didn't have a Smirnoff Ice to counter his (I don't quite remember the rules) I chugged. We chatted for a while about, as I recall, mostly "guy stuff" and then Marcus took off. Work in the morning. Afterward, David and Salah and I went to another place called the General Humbert's for a pint. We spent most of the rest of the evening making fun of an idiosyncratic hand gesture of the French. Now I wish I had a picture of that. It was a really good evening.

I woke up some time last night and ran into the kitchen and vomited forcefully into the sink. This morning, I woke up with a hangover, which is now technically a tradition; The last time I left La Rochelle I was feeling about the same. If we encounter a lot of turbulence, I will consider myself duly punished, and hopefully chastened, but who can tell?

This morning I got ready to go. Unpacked and repacked my suitcase.

La Rochelle airport is the smallest airport I’ve ever flown out of. It feels better, somehow. I do like the bustle of big airports – specifically I like to find little tranquil pockets to reflect and write – but now I know there’s something more welcoming, or intimate, about small ones. Normal (as the French would say).

My bag was overweight. In the end I threw away my shoes, left two bottles of wine with David, and finally got my baggage down to an acceptable weight. The place was full of English people speaking English to the airport workers. I felt annoyed. I’m not ready to leave France, and I’m not ready to no longer need to speak French. I know that because I feel a need to keep reminding myself that I’m going to see friends soon and get back to my chèrie. Still I know that because of all these other fuckers the workers are going to speak English to me. Well… I’ll keep going in French if they do.

David and I sat around and shot the breeze over cups of coffee. Talked about… nothing special – all the things we usually chat about. Then we left the bar, I joined the line, and David said he thought might bounce. A big hug, and handshake, a check-in, and a security checkpoint later and here I am.

I just checked my camera. The last picture that was taken of me in France was taken by Marcus as I chugged a Smirnoff Ice. Part of me enjoys that, but most of would prefer that I had a different last picture. So here’s me typing this:

To this truly beautiful country, and to the people I’ve met while living here: I miss you already, and I’ll see you again soon.

The plane just arrived. I thought: This is the plane that will kill me. I’m a nervous flyer. It’s weird though: The same part of me that is horrified of looking like a fool in public wants to know whether this is the plane that will kill me. So that I’ll be able to think as I’m falling “Yep. I knew it.” I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to be cynical about it. I’d like to somehow know in advance, so I wouldn’t be finding out and wrong-footed in front of everyone. Of course, I know that in the event of a crash landing my little seat on the plane would be the most perfectly anonymous place in the world, as terror tunneled our vision and we came to care so much more about our imminent death than about what the person in the seat next to is doing. I wondering if everyone is isolated in this way when they die; preoccupied with the fact of their death, a process that it is innate in us to avoid.

Anyway… time to get on the plane!