In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the heroine tries to force sleep on herself by taking a cocktail of pills. Spoiler alert : this updated Sleeping Beauty experiment doesn’t go as planned, and she’s worse off than before. Still, the idea of pure rest and uninterrupted slumber, was so seductive, especially at the beginning of quarantine – which for me, was nearly three weeks ago – when I fantasised about sleeping through this time of isolation, and waking up when the bars and beaches were an option again.
Of course, work was always going to get in the way, as well as my body, which does not have the biological capacity to feed itself or manage its own waste without me being a conscious player. In that first week of quarantine, though, my sleep did change, as my body was responding to increased levels of melatonin from the lack of daylight. It became heavier and more continuous at night, and featured vivid, sometimes frightening dreams of the sea I was missing. One dream saw two giant mating stingrays leap out of the ocean and attack me, while another saw a killer-whale/shark hybrid zooming around La Concha bay like a speedboat, while I watched from the window of GU, the swanky nightclub that looks like a ship. Later, I noticed that the sea creatures took on the navy and white colours of police uniform, and were perhaps an animalisation of the authorities who barked at me when I was walking too close to the sea, on the way back from the grocery store. Dreams of ocean attacks aside, waking up later in the mornings, going to bed earlier, and collapsing onto the sofa for an afternoon nap, was blissful.
Alas, it was not to last – my body’s since become used to the lack of daylight, and now I’m back to having a lot of kinetic energy (it feels like having a spring up my arse) throughout the day, a second wind that gets me out my evening slump, and light broken sleep in the night. My boyfriend’s doing better at rest and relaxation. When I met him, he said that if he were an animal, he’d be a bird, because he’s curious and would like to fly. I was impressed with this answer, especially as previous boyfriends had said they’d be bears – a conventionally masculine choice. Anyway, as it turns out, the current boyfriend has an inner hibernating bear. Quarantine often has him passing half of the day horizontal, either asleep or listening to music and podcasts, until work, the news cycle, or a really good olive oil causes his bird self to fly back.
Though quarantine continues, and some report that they’re losing track of the days, there are enough spectacles to keep us out of bed and on our toes – especially given that Pedro Sánchez likes to spring his life-changing announcements on Saturdays! FOMO, is another culprit in keeping us awake – checking on people and trying to keep their spirits up, is a full time job outside of the usual full time job. So no, those of who are blessed enough to be healthy, can’t sleep through it. Though when unconsciousness comes to give us some relief from our frazzled minds, it’s welcomed.
This is yet another chapter of my confinement diary. I learned how to turn my phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, so this is a combined phone and laptop production.
When Lina came to the room happy, when she came from just having seen Aidan, those were the nights when the other women drummed their fingers and tried to drown out her glee.
I met Lina in Lisa Taddeo’sThree Women, a book on the private lives and loves of three American women.Aidan is the truck-driving, high-school boyfriend who Lina cheats on her husband with, and the women, participants in her therapy group. The women are at several removes from me, being American, in a different time zone, and in essence, five black squiggles on a flat white page; but their reaction gets under my skin, just the same. Why are they sympathetic towards Lina’s marital sorrows, but intolerant of her glee when she finds an imperfect solution to the problem?
Taddeo’s interpretation is that the women were angry that Lina wanted more than her nice house and family. Lina didn’t just want to tick the boxes of a happy life; she went brazenly after ecstasy and excitement, two transgressive states with origins in the pagan world. Ecstasy, which comes from the Greek,ekstasis, relates to being outside of one’s proper state; while excitement, which derives from the Latin verb excitare, similarly has connotations of being provoked beyond the normal bounds of behaviour. The possessor of ecstasy and excitement can often feel immortal, while those in her presence fret like bewildered pigeons, all too conscious of their impending doom. I wonder, did the women want to bring Lina down, curb her excesses, to be better able cope with her? But we’ll get to their reaction later; first, we ought to turn our attention to Lina’s unabashed joy in the presence of intimates who seemed unable to handle it.
Taddeo, who worked on multiple case-studies of desire, says that she handpicked the three women in her book for their willingness to give complete and honest accounts of their intimate lives; subjects who were cagier, fell away like failed suitors, or were only mentioned in passing. Whereas historically, honest women have been contained, both in behaviour and speech, neither seeking, nor reporting transgressions, Lina’s honesty is synonymous with advanced truth-telling.In a world of subterfuges and highlights reels, Lina’s candid accounts of the kind of sex she enjoys and the gruelling lengths she goes to get it, when her noncommittal lover, is for the most part, spooked by her passion, imbue her with a likeable integrity. Taddeo’s third-person closed narration, which dovetails with Lina’s perspective, encourages the reader to identify with the protagonist, as she reports emotions that are ripe, painful and difficult to articulate. By describing Lina’s experience in unflinching detail, Taddeo enables readers to find parts of themselves in the specifics of one honest woman’s story.
One woman who would have not been honest enough to make it into Taddeo’s book, was her own mother, an immigrant to America from Northern Italy. This beautiful woman, who Taddeo knew more as an object, than a subject of desire, warned her to not let anyone, especially other women, see her happy, because if they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.Having lived in a climate of political instability and economic precariousness, Taddeo’s mother could see the meanness in others, (and arguably herself), in a way that Taddeo, who was raised in American abundance, could not. Taddeo’s mother’s worldview, was one of scarcity, where every woman was out for herself, rather than supportive of her sisters; one woman’s gain, was the others’ loss. The words of this woman from an older culture than Taddeo’s, sent a chill of recognition through me. Though I’d never heard them uttered explicitly, the people who raised me, acted as if they were true.
In the Greek Cypriot culture of my parents and grandparents, envy, the brutal fact that we don’t want others to have things that we want for ourselves, was kept at bay with a series of rituals. New televisions and glowing school reports coexisted with hanging glass eyes and clay pots of smoking bay-leaf. Older people, especially, moderated compliments, with I don’t want to put my jealous eye on you. I’ve always thought that this statement outs envy before it has time to settle in the well-wisher’s heart, and so kind of lets them off the hook. Still, the recipient touches their hair self-consciously, aware that whatever has been praised stands to be taken away from them.I’ve seen enough sunglasses, earrings and hefty, acoustic guitars go missing, within hours of a compliment, to fear that there’s truth in this. Like Taddeo’s mother, I see how other pendant things – happiness and romantic love – stand to be taken away days, if not instants after someone’s seen you’ve been lucky.
When it comes to talking about love, I’m closer to Taddeo’s mother, than I am to Lina. Even when I know I’m being good and sisterly by sharing; when I experience some relief from unburdening a full heart, it can feel like I’m talking against my own consent. Strangely, this doesn’t only result from a fear of things being taken away; there’s a lively part of me that takes pleasure in discretion. Secrecy around love, is in my ethnic and cultural DNA. I grew up on stories of girls hiding their boyfriends until one of them metamorphoses into a ring-bearer; of window-escapes and clandestine meetings. Don’t get me wrong, much trouble and heartache was caused by hiding, but the stories of escape were exciting, (that pagan word again), and shaped my romantic imagination. The counter-phenomenon on TV, where shows like Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City discussed and dissected relationships ad infinitum, was entertaining, but not enticing. It had nothing to do with what I felt was a natural way to hold love and desire. Rather than saying I’m happy, I prefer a mischievous glow that travels from inside to out; the extra energy I have for people and projects. The ecstasy is a shift in my internal chemistry, rather than one that comes out in revelatory speeches, which others can scrutinise and drag through the mud.
When a friend recently revealed her flimsy sunglasses affair to me, I was the one who had to try not to scrutinise, to not be like the women who listened to Lina. Inevitably, though, my friend’s blind obsession made me and her other confidantes both stern and matronly. The indigestible panic came out in the guise of looking out for her – concern, mediated with reproaches. The love object was pronounced a suave, two-timing manipulator; which by all available evidence, he was. I even felt tearful at the thought that this man was cheating on his girlfriend, an unknown woman, who was to my mind, being abandoned. I judged the truant pair for the chaos they were causing, for their carelessness towards the unknown woman, who became the primary object of my empathy. However, reading Taddeo’s book made me feel uncomfortable about experiencing my friend’s passion as a threat. Could I not relate to this honest woman as I had to Lina, see that she was like me and not an Other?
I resolved to co-exist with my discomfort, to not banish or ritualise it away, but to see it for what it was, fear of scarcity and loss of control. I’d realise that my friend and I were cut from the same cloth and that her appetite for excess was part of me too. Accepting that the desire to have more, to feel immensely, was part of life, I could search for a healthy outlet. And when I found it, how I’d express my joy and who I’d tell, would be up to me.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019
This is not a post about San Sebastián, not even close. You will learn nothing about pintxos, nor fiestas, nor beret-wearing grocers who try to sell you jellied hibiscus and tomatoes that look like arse cracks, when you’re just trying to eat an ice cream. No, sorry, we’re going deep inside my mind, via fairyland – specifically the legend of TheSleeping Beauty.* Which is a different story, when you focus on the fairy gifts at the beginning and don’t rush ahead to the bit where a foolhardy Prince takes a look at a century of thorny weed-growth and says: “I’m not afraid of that […] I shall penetrate the hedge and free the beautiful Brier-Rose.”**
So now that we’re done swooning over our unsqueamish Prince, let’s get back to the presents. At the christening of their long-awaited daughter, the King and Queen set out twelve golden plates, for the twelve young, pretty fairies in the land, in the hope that they’ll cast their wishes on the baby princess. The first eleven fairies do fall over themselves to deliver beauty, nimbleness and even the voice of a nightingale. For me, the first eleven gifts represent the primary virtues of childhood and youth. When someone is still so new to the world and inexperienced in it, seemingly natural charms, such as straight teeth, musicality and a thirst for knowledge, have the aura of divine blessings. The dreams of first youth, such as the wish to be an astronaut, a rock star or a parent of six, are auguries of untried potential and so also go in with the first eleven gifts.
In the Grimm Brothers’ version, this redeemer is known as the twelfth fairy, but I think of her as thirteenth, because she’s the last to speak, after the mean enchantress. She also merits an odd number because she’s exceptional, in that her magic is responsive rather than immediate. She promises that the princess shall not die, but fall into a deep one-hundred-year sleep (and then be woken by a prince, in Perrault’s version of the story). Importantly, the thirteenth fairy can’t take away the curse – not completely – but she can soften it, so it is a temporary, premature death and not the final one. The thirteenth fairy’s gift is ultimately resilience and hope.
It’s hard to know from this passage if the “mischievous gift”, is the spindle’s prick itself or Beauty’s desire for it. As with the ills that befall you and me, is it our fault or the fault of some external, beyond our control? In most cases, it’s difficult to point the finger at either. The Grimm Brothers even write that Beauty “was attracted to the old woman, and joked with her”; which makes me think that the witch was the only one in the castle who was any craic… Anyway, after Beauty’s fall, as with Pandora and Eve and all the other patriarchal myths that punish women’s curiosity, chaos ensues and all that’s left, is hope for a new beginning or just another chance.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about The Sleeping Beauty, the eleven precocious gifts, their extinguishment in a kind of death and the redemption on awakening. These motifs seem to be in the air for me and the people I’ve grown up with, (or am still growing up with, depending on how you look at it). Some of our early gifts, which were granted at birth; some of the dreams and commitments of our first youth, are being taken away. Things that once looked inevitable, are no longer possible, or at least not in the original way. There is waiting; new ways that must be found around thorny obstacles. One image of latter day Beauty has stayed with me in particular: a still-young woman, who has lost her life as she knows it, stroking her loyal, remaining cat and talking about the books on the shelf of her new house. They’re not her books, nor ones she’s chosen, but she can see herself wanting to read them. This is resilience; this is waking up into a different reality and going along with that as though it’s the original plan.
And what of Beauty’s sleep in itself? What does that represent? Mid-twentieth-century psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim found a parallel between Beauty’s sleep and female puberty. Teenage girls, he observed, were introverted and even sleepy, as they underwent a time of “quiet concentration”, while they learned how their changing bodies functioned. Bettelheim’s ideas have an outdated ring to them, especially as female passivity/ sleep is juxtaposed with active pubertal “manhood”, vis à vis the hedge-whacking prince. Needless to say, there are active rites of passage in female puberty and, anyone who has ever met or been a teenage boy, knows how much testosterone exhausts them…
But what’s interesting in both Beauty and Bettelheim, is how after the initial anxiety of bodily or psychic disturbance, a period of rest and passivity follows. Transformation must be allowed to take place on its own, without too much interference or activity. That’s why I’m inclined to follow a practice I saw at my grandparents’ chapel and take all the broken hearts I know, make a mould of them in wax and ask for them to be kept safe while they grow whole again.***
* There are innumerable versions of The Sleeping Beauty legend, but my interpretation of the story comes from a mix of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm versions. Seventeenth-century, French court fabulist Perrault’s version features a palatial castle, elegant manners and noble rhetoric. On the other hand, in the German authenticity-grubbing Grimm Brothers’ version, speech is cruder and the natural world features more prominently. Best of all, at the beginning of the tale, the Queen finds out that she is pregnant because a talking crab tells her.
** I know, this is grim(m), but it made me giggle.
*** This practice of making a mould of ailing body parts in wax and praying for them to be healed, takes place in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
San Sebastián is technically a city – it has a cathedral, its own local government and a self-sustaining economy. But in terms of scale, it is more like a small town, having neither the large distances, nor the anonymity of London, my previous city.
Human beings and even dogs, who accompany their owners day and night, are distinct figures here. As you walk about the city, you’ll see a person once, notice them the second time and by the third, their face and habits, will become clear in your mind. As a result, the streets are filled with characters, rather than an animate blur. Things and people enter your consciousness in the singular – the jazz club of Donosti; the other Greek girl in Donosti; the Mick Jagger of Donosti. Logically, you know that there’s likely to be more than one other Greek girl in town, but when two different people have mentioned the same girl to you, she seems like the only one you could speak your mother tongue with. Similarly, there could be 19, 119, even 1119 guys in San Sebastián with a Jaggerish way of getting through women, but the place is small enough to give the one you know a reputation. The same epithet wouldn’t work in London, not least because the real Mick Jagger lives there.
Did I mention that you’re always meeting people you know here? It’s not like London, where your friends are far and you’re losing people as soon as you find them. When you’re new in town, the frequency of spontaneous meetings makes it easier to build on connections. Plans change as a result of these meetings: let’s do something now, or in an hour? But planning for next week? Forget it. Who knows what everyone will be in the mood for so far into the future?
But there are downsides to Donosti’s human scale, like passing the local busybody or the guerrilla grammar corrector (she exists!) when you’re in a rush or just not feeling up to it. For these occasions, it helps to master the travelling Kaixo (hello). I’ve been told that a skateboard helps with this, but if you don’t have one, you can adopt the posture of a skateboarder: snap your head around long enough to deliver the greeting, but keep your feet angled forward and most importantly, moving, to signal that you are not stopping to chat.
Donosti’s not a great place to make enemies. It’s not like in London, where once you cut ties with the arsehole, they get sucked into another orbit and there’s a good chance you won’t see them until three years later, when you’ve both forgotten. No – here you should expect to bump into that person at any time, including the worst time. Be prepared to meet that guy who you blocked, to look him in the face and tell him that you don’t want to receive his desperate messages anymore. And your ex? They’re not just a painful figment in your head, but a three-dimensional being, who passes through the same few streets as you, moves on right before your eyes. Still, as in all cities, people here go out of their way to lower the probability of meeting their ex; they stop going to certain parts of town, sometimes depriving themselves of the only X/Y/Z in Donosti. One man knew that his ex’s movements were limited to the road between home and work. By avoiding that street, he managed to turn the city into a place that didn’t include her. When an ex’s routine is less predictable, though, you have to rely on the travelling Kaixo – see above.
London may be a fashion capital, but there’s less pressure to look good when you’re not constantly running into people you know, or even people who recognise you as a distinct character. As you are seen, so are you judged – this is especially true in towns where people actually see each other. I wonder if this is why pharmacy shelves are loaded down with expensive hair products and everyone looks presentable most of the time, even on occasions where you wouldn’t think it was necessary. I’ve always seen beaches as carefree, let-loose places – the wind will do what it likes with your hair, so why bother styling it anyway? But walking on La Concha boulevard on a Sunday, is a singularly old-fashioned experience – congregations of black, Basque berets, fur coats and glaring shades of lipstick come your way. It’s the kind of scene I’d only previously witnessed in early twentieth-century fashion plates; an attitude that you make yourself beautiful for the Belle Époque surroundings and the people who have to look at you.
After 6 months in San Sebastián, my own sense of scale has changed. Being able to walk everywhere and seeing people I know in the streets, has become a habit. Tomorrow I’m moving to a house in Antiguo, a place I think of as the Monaco of Donosti, for its nearby mountain, wildish beach and grand, witchy buildings. The distance from the centre is about that between Big Ben and London Bridge; in other words, walkable for a relatively fit person. But my feeling is that I’m going very far.
I’ve been living in Donosti for 5 months now and it feels like time to reflect on the difference between what I thought the experience would be and what it actually is. Prior to moving, my ideas were guided by a number of myths about swapping one culture for another. Some of these myths were travel clichés – gross generalisations that I’d normally think I was too smart to fall for, while others were simply assumptions I’d made because I didn’t know any better. Here are just 5 of them:
Myth No. 1: New place, new me. You’re lying if you’ve moved and say that you haven’t bought into the myth of a new start. Chances are, if home felt like a place of boundless opportunity and contentment, there would have been no need to leave in the first place. But while I think it’s great to plan a better life in your new location, don’t assume that the act of moving in itself will automatically remove old problems and make you immune to whatever was so trying at home. Even though your troubles didn’t buy the Ryanair ticket to Biarritz for September 15th; by October 15th, you’ll be certain that they baeged onto the flight with you.
For about a month, I was under the illusion that I’d become this bold, carefree creature, who worked from cafes, swum in the sea and was constantly meeting new people. Then one by one, traits that had plagued me in the old country started resurfacing: shyness, commitment-phobia and worst of all, anxiety. From these demons, in the end, there was no escape; only a decision to be made: did I want to be challenged at home in a frantic metropolis or here, at the beach? Luckily, for me, that was an easy one.
Myth No. 2: My previous life will vanish from sight – When I went home in December for two weeks, a funny thing happened – I slid into the routines of my old life so seamlessly, that the one I’d been making in the past three months seemed unreal. I picked up right where I left off with friends and family and was worried that I’d feel at a loss when I returned to San Sebastián in January. However, one Vueling flight later, I slotted back into the life of three months, feeling neither homesick, nor sad.
You see, the London I experienced in December wasn’t representative of the city I left in mid-September. It was Christmas and friends who had moved out of town and scattered around all parts of the world, came back to visit; which all meant that I went home to a place that exists fleetingly. Although the London of 2015-16-17 is no longer around, my connections to people from those years are solid. Skype, Instagram and WhatsApp mean that messages can fly back and forth as often as they did in London. These past weeks, especially, when I’ve been convalescing from a broken ankle and unable to socialise as much, I’ve felt that I’ve been living a double life, with one foot planted here and the other in the world of not-here connections. People who’ve lived abroad for longer than me, say that this type of duality is normal, especially in the first few months.
Myth No. 3: I can get away with a basic command of the language. Yes, you can. Get away with a hundred words of Spanish and ten of Basque. Hopefully, you’ll have enough vocabulary to buy bread and talk about the weather. You may even meet some English-speaking locals or British expats (don’t you know that the modern rendition ofRule Britannia is that Britons never never never shall be immigrants?) and form an Anglophone friendship group.
Even with the best intentions you could slip into this culturally evasive state, because learning a new language takes time, investment and energy. I’ve found that just three hours of what is meant to be a fun night out in Spanish, can tax my brain as much as six hours of a dry academic conference in English. Misunderstandings are rife, I don’t understand half the jokes and if I lose focus for even two seconds, I’ve about as much chance of catching up with the conversation as I do with a mustang at a gallop. While I’ve improved through day-to-day interactions and the patience and generosity of friends, I’m coming to accept that if I’m not to sound like a foreigner forever, I need to boost my formal grounding in Spanish and this means one thing – committing to language lessons!
Myth No. 4: I have to say yes to every invitation. If you’re a freelancer/digital nomad like me and you arrive in a city without knowing many people, you’ll be on the look out for language exchanges and hobby-based Meet Ups. Overall this is a good move, because whatever the pretext, you can guarantee that these are places where people want to meet each other. In my convalescence, swimming, yoga and Pintxo-potewere all out, but if I wanted to, I could still go to a language exchange for every day of the week. There are the general Spanish-English exchanges; a French group and of course, my small but select bilingual ‘book-club’.
And yet, because language exchanges can be as chaotic and exhausting as they are social, I’ve learned to apply the advice I once read in a guidebook for Istanbul : you have to be in a good mood for the Grand Bazaar; be prepared to haggle, laugh and in general, make conversation. Just as you have to be pretty relaxed to tell a Turkish spice-seller that you don’t want to buy a bag of cumin with your saffron for the nineteenth time, you have to be feeling sprightly and patient enough to be able to answer the same questions about yourself, every time you meet a new person at a language exchange. Rather than commit to things routinely out of some false sense of obligation, I’d rather do less and give more.
Myth No. 5: Setbacks are a sign that I should give up and go home. Before I made the decision to come to Donosti, I went through a superstitious phase when I kept asking whatever Great Being is out there to give me a sign. Of course, truly desiring to go and only needing that final confirmation, I spotted every shell, horse and star that I asked for. And now that I’m here, I’ve had some wonderful new adventures and I’ve met people I would have never found back home. However, I’ve also had set-backs and disappointments: those I became close to moving away, sponge mattresses, accidentally offending people, misjudging character, oh and that old chestnut, falling off a horse and breaking my ankle. Do these obstacles mean that I should give up and go home or set my sights on some new promised land? For me, the answer is no – because I’ve learned that fluctuations are part of life, wherever you are. Even without having to ask for a concrete sign, I instinctively know there’s more for me here, that the time to go would be when I stopped seeing the opportunities.
Bottom line, after 5 months in Donosti, I’ve learned that you should only move to a new place if you’re excited about the possibility of making a full life there; a life that will have its share of challenges as well as pleasures.
This is now one of a series of many posts about moving from London to San Sebastián. If you’ve moved recently or are thinking of moving, I’d love to know which parts resonated with you? Also, did I miss anything out?
‘It’s in depictions of the monstrous that artists have the most freedom,’ says choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra, after a performance of his work TORO: Beauty and the Bull at Sadler’s Wells on April 25th. TORO inhabits a vulnerable zone where the human meets the animal; the staged meets the authentic. Danced by Marivi Da Silva, the Bull is a male animal in a feminised body. Hair drawn back in a reed-slim ponytail, breasts restricted by a harness, Da Silva’s bondaged torso is counterbalanced by an explosive net skirt, which gives her the surging motion of masculinity.
The Bull and spiky, translucent Emma Louise Walker, who is cast as a configuration of Beauty/ Girl/ Prostitute, are preyed upon by alpha males who seek to conquer and depreciate them. The men – crotch-potent stereotypes – are both lusty and automatic. They gyrate, violate and suppress; they get carried away; crow like the cocks they are. The animal realm is never far away, even for these would-be standard-setters; in the second act, the same dancers are cast as voguing dragimals, harnessed at the face and mouth, their arms wind-frittered wings.
The dance piece’s narrative is inspired by the 18th century French fairytale Beauty and the Beast. However, it’s the fairytale as Pons Guerra has read and dreamt it. Growing into a gay man in Spain, the thirty-year-old choreographer was often made to feel monstrous for his preferences. In his interpretation of the classic fairytale, he identifies both with the Bull and the prostituted Beauty, who is subdued by a sexualisation that’s forced upon her.
Pons Guerra wouldn’t be the first gay male thespian to explore his own experience through the feminine – Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire, claimed that his heroine Blanche DuBois was him in drag. And yet, when a woman in the audience, who couldn’t help but see Walker’s Beauty as a representative of her own sex, asked about what she truly wants, Pons Guerra admitted himself clueless as Freud. ‘I don’t know much about female sexuality,’ he said with a laugh.
While Beauty’s body has been scripted according to Pons Guerra’s narrative, or at a distance, the original fabulist, Madame de Villeneuve’s; in its passive, feeling state, it is open to as many interpretations as there are viewers. At the beginning of the performance, Beauty is supine, legs apart, in a pose my yoga teacher would call dragonfly. Superficially it’s a receptive stance, open to the gaze of the audience who are still arriving; however, her eyes are closed. She’s asleep; in denial, even as the men pulse about various parts of the body.
It’s easy to read Beauty’s initial sleep, her writhing around, awakening with an ambiguously gendered Bull as non-heteronormative sexual awakening. She’s repulsed by the marital straightjacket that awaits her in the Second Act. The bridal gown is wispy chiffon, but as it alights on her shoulders, it may as well be deadly nightshade.
There’s more to Pons Guerra’s interpretation than explorations of sexuality. As a child Pons Guerra was sent to bed on a diet of bedtime stories where the beasts had non-white features; perhaps those from the Spanish colonies in South America. To Pons Guerra’s richly storied mind, the alpha males are conquistadores and map makers, uncomfortable with ambiguity. A strident brass score highlights their sense of entitlement, gilds their violent struggles. Like a colonised subject, the Bull is an entity they can never fully understand, define or control.
Still, any sense of a linear narrative or morality in Pons Guerra’s work splinters into an erotic carnival of animal movement. It asks us as viewers to define the beautiful and the monstrous for ourselves and then, on a deeper level, to ask whether we have the right or the capacity to distinguish between the two.
I should have seen the signs when my flatmate showered with the bathroom door open – twice. The steamy pink flesh and torrent of water weren’t about what you think. They were a defence of territory. Him taking back the flat for himself. He’d decorated it for that purpose a long long time ago, with sub-letters coming, dropping their revenue and going.
My other flatmate decided she was leaving a month earlier. More bang for her buck elsewhere and contributing factors she said elliptically, in a manner that might procure symptoms of guilt in anyone ever disposed to them. All those campaigns to occupy the living room with her posse from a previous flat-share, did little to make her feel more at home. And in less than a month after her announcement – the morning of the second open showering incident, I was to be evicted, leaving my flatmate/landlord to be king of his castle.
‘I’m turning 36,’ he said, ‘my dad needs somewhere to stay in town; things are getting more serious with my home-owning girlfriend. I’ve enjoyed living with you, but it’s time to be living alone.’ My immediate reaction was acceptance. ‘Okay,’ I say, knowing that as a sub-letter without my name on the tenancy, there is no way I can put up a case for staying. I swim for a while in conflicting thoughts – on the one hand, the social dynamic in the flat, building works and even a few intrusions have meant it hasn’t felt like a home for a while; on the other hand, it’s the beautiful place where I’ve lived and even worked for a year and a half. The local area and community fit me like a glove. I wait for some feeling of grief and like a ‘due’ 214 on a bus-stop flashboard, it’s imminent but not here.
I think how leading up to this there were squabbles and resentments about heating, food, use of living room space. Always the kind of things that won’t matter in 5 years time, or even in a month, but enough to ruin your day or even your hour. Everyday things: you might come home expecting to eat something and find it gobbled, an electric heater burning unaccompanied. But then the regular heating starts working again, making fights about electric heaters obsolete; you buy a new jar of peanut butter and hide it better this time. There are distractions – someone goes on holiday, someone starts seeing someone new, someone’s working late. There’s ease where the friction used to be – for a while – until the next inevitable conflict.
I’ve always thought of myself as a stealth warrior. You can get so angry about these everyday things and then that resentment takes up the energy that could be used for bigger picture dreams. So my strategy was to make my bedroom into a sanctuary and focus on long-term goals, whilst tiptoeing round piles of dishes that weren’t mine, Hurricane Sandy mood-swings and the light that creeps through thin curtains. ‘That place isn’t right for you,’ a friend said. ‘It’ll do for now, until I finish XYZ,’ I replied, though I did buy some gorgeous dark green curtains. But then, when on the day of my eviction I fall over and scrape my knee, come straight into contact with the feelings I was protecting myself from, I realise that as humans, we’re not merely idealist entities, but creaturely too.
Just think how often people complain about how their colleagues, partners and housemates are using space, compared with how little they complain about their character. No one really cares if you’re a bad person in the abstract. We’re more like cats, judging people most for banging doors, having bitchy resting face, or taking our food. Most importantly, if someone is staking a larger claim on your home than you, you might feel un-homed. Like you can’t quite land. And this inability to fully rest inevitably affects how you work and play.
Though it wasn’t my plan, I’ve been forced to put my creaturely needs at the centre, expect more from whatever home I find next.
Swearing, not caring, an old lady staring. Shhhhh! or we’re going to get thrown out. This is the one place I can work, I can’t afford to be blacklisted. Collapsing into giggles; profanities and talk of gardens, grandchildren to run alongside one another, just as freelancers and retirees do this Tuesday morning in a North London cafe.
This is mischief, the lighthearted naughtiness that makes daily life bearable. Mischief is free as long as you’re open to it; though it has led a certain Charlie Chaplin, a certain Ann Summers to serious wealth. Mischief consists of acts that disrupt the hierarchy. They can be minuscule – the Prime Minister running through a field of wheat or bold – Pussy Riot or the Pussy Grabs Back posters from the Women’s March.
Mischief is often seen as a front for not being able to protest verbally. When British women were campaigning for the vote at the beginning of the previous century, they fell into two camps: by-the-book suffragists lobbied; militant suffragettes attacked paintings, police-men and the King’s Horse. The former were praised for their methodical tenacity; the latter criticised for proving that women were irrational and therefore unfit to engage with politics. But there is no denying that mischief has energy, emotion. It laughs at the perpetrators of injustice, divesting them of their sovereignty; it unites campaigners in body and spirit, gives momentum to their cause.
Mischief lurks everywhere, even in the most tragic situations. Hypothetically speaking, at your grandmother’s funeral, you may look up from your grief and find the liturgy is horribly out of tune; the cats in the cemetery piss and scratch themselves; the gravedigger’s crack smiles over his jeans; the morticians make her look like Endora from Bewitched. And watching over it all, the Great Lady herself, half enjoying the fuss we’re making of her, half standing back to let life continue.
*By Marisa Nicole Morena. No website currently available
Everything in Paris is twinned, it seems. There are companions, long-sought matches and doubles from different points in time and space. I find an illustrated reworking of Beauty and the Beast in a graphics shop, which tilts the original, so that Beauty is as sweetened by the Beast, as he is by her. Her charms are obvious, a face of Garbo-like symmetry and intellect; his, soft fur, a pleasing largeness and a great capacity for love. Reading in French, where both words are gendered feminine (la belle, la bête) you can’t help but think that they are cut from the same cloth, are equally vulnerable, receptive and hunted.
During my visit, I make other matches. An accordionist is on my heels in that first transition from the Eurostar to the Metro. A serenader, he arches around the wheels of my suitcase and plays – what else? – Edith Piaf. Flattered and embarrassed, I put down my book and listen. The trouble is, I haven’t a single pièce, only a virgin fifty euro note, which I’m not quite ready to hand over. He shrugs disappointed, when I confess the inevitable. I crane my head in shame and vow that I will be prepared when I meet his match. Who incidentally, is on the Metro the very next day, crooning out her pain in the long notes of a Spanish ballad. Emo as the cloudy Monday, this balladeer slouches obstinately in the doorframe. She ain’t serenading anyone; in fact, gives the impression that she’d be singing regardless. Her mannish leather jacket and greasy chignon – and are those tears streaked down her cheeks?- make you think her lover threw her out about an hour ago, and she swiped his leather jacket for the running. Half-wondering whether it’s truth or Method, I’m ready with my pièce this time.
On the Metro another time, I spot an unmistakeable profile – that of Edgar Degas’ sculpture,the little Dancer, aged fourteen. As bronze as the original, with the same kinaesthetic awareness, she boards the train with her sister. They file off to the available seats on either side of the carriage; dressed in plaid shirts and ripped jeans, they almost blend in. Other passengers and an aisle are in their midst, but they remain choreographed into the same routine. Torsos tipped forward in a preparation pose, their feet identically turned out in first position. The woman sitting next to the sister gets up and leaves. In a flash the Little Dancer is beside her- though she doesn’t appear to have been looking. They don’t converse, at least not in words. A bloke enters the carriage, with a sturdiness and milky pallor that I’d pin-point to about Yorkshire. Equally white is his shiny I-phone. And even before he notices, before his eyes twinkle, as though to say ‘Noo luv, not ‘avin’ that…,’ her sister, about a hair of an eyebrow lifting, ‘Him?’ The Little Dancer wrinkles her dainty nose, ‘Nah, not my cup of tea,’ as though they’re just two teenage girls judging a stranger’s attractiveness. But a survival instinct grips them and when the next station arrives, they scarper.
Just as sisters will always be compared, so will two cafes on opposite sides of the street. One, named for the lore of tea leaves, is world famous, enjoying Trip Advisor fame and local acclaim; the other named Les Rosiers for the street where it stands resolutely, less so. The Lore has an Astaire-hipped host who bounds up and down the queue telling people how long they’ll have to wait, down to the minute; the Rosiers, a lone balding waiter with a towel thrown over his shoulder. Laptops are unwelcome at the Lore: to sit there, you’ll have to be truly part of the cafe, engaged in consumption, conversation or something equally atmospheric. You are made oh-so-tactfully aware that your body occupies a precious space, and that it plays a role in animating that space – or else here’s the cheque. Weirdly, it reminds me of a socialist play I once read, where the moral was that those who farm the land are its rightful owners; though we are about as far away from an Eastern European potato field as it gets. Anyway, not so the Rosiers – which people hit upon for the most imminent need, or greed for that matter. A student hunched over her laptop, knuckles camouflaging with a white espresso cup; a pair of new lovers holding hands over the dredges of a dry coffee pot and a rotund-bellied gentleman gobbling a ginormous triangle of pie before his wife catches up with him and smacks an insulin needle into his right arm. Atmosphere’s a funny thing – like love, or that exasperatingly Parisian cliché, je ne sais quoi, it finds those who don’t seek it too hard.
Even in a city of doubles, some entities remain unmatched. For example, the garments that never walk the streets. Paris boutiques are flocked with dresses more confected and shapely than patisserie tarts. And yet, you never see their like on actual bodies around town. No Parisienne would ever appear so obviously ornate. Who are these magpie-teasers made for? Are they there just to draw the eye and fly out to export?
In the beginning there were two sounds: the Charleston and the chorus. The Charleston was the spring dance rhythm my great grandma played on her piano; the chorus, heavy Greek lullabies that other relatives sung to me until I cried. The first animated my hips and knees; the latter made my throat lumpy.
There’s no question that music moves us, whether to feeling or inertia. Pop songs especially, are infinitely reproducible through lyrics sung in the shower or a beat tapped into the ground. Each song has al/chemical properties, though reactions vary wildly from person to person: the same few bars of a Stones song might make Lia in Florence feel mellow, and prime Mark in Sydney for confrontation.
My fascination with these fluctuations has led me to create an anatomy, of where songs catch in my own body. This entirely subjective map has been conceived from top to toe by someone who loves music, but has had barely any formal training in it.
THE TOP: BEGINNING OF ANATOMY
Medial orbitofrontal cortex, anterior insular and toe nexus
Some music appeals to my intellect and imagination – it lifts me to my toes as though forcing an escape from gravity. The medial orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insular in the brain are responsible for the recognition of visual, musical and even mathematical beauty. Mon Amie la rose, a troubadour-style lyric about a young girl’s love for a rose, by the French singer, Françoise Hardy, has the symmetry of a perfectly balanced equation. The austere monosyllabic rhyme of ‘rose’ and ‘chose’ (thing); the gliding assonance, ‘la lune cette nuit/ a veillé mon amie/ moi en rêve j’aivu/ éblouissante et nu‘* creating gentle echoes throughout. It has a nocturne’s softness to it, and yet for me it is a wakeful, morning song in a long tradition of love-flower lyrics.
Hypothalmus, brain stem and eyelids
Childhood memories of boredom, nausea, usually in the car, being driven somewhere. Greek songs playing on the radio, every word drawn out so it has the lifespan of… oh – at least a guinea pig. The eye imagery -the beloved described in terms of the singer’s own pair- a continuum from song to song. You might have a chain of: ‘mi mou thimoneis matia mou‘ (Don’t be angry my eyes); tha kleiso ta matia (I’ll close my eyes); thalasses mesa sta matia sou (seas in your eyes) ; ta begalika sou matia (your firework eyes). Pressing my own eyelids into a car-upholstery-scented dream. Gravity to my scalp, beneath that the hypothalamus responsible for sleep and nervous functioning. If I’m especially unlucky, the savant driver will rouse me to give an account of the singer’s usually miserable end- alcoholic, penniless and eaten by fleas. But the savant doesn’t think the stories are depressing; merely factual. Moreover, the sonorities that induce sleep in me, move them to courtship or nationalism; nostalgia about seaside rendezvous and the smoking they gave up; a slipped through appreciation of their proximity to the Middle East.
Cheeks, front of throat, skin
‘Johnny, Brooklyn born and bred/ Put ideas in to my head/ Can’t remember what he said/ But I know it wasn’t true…’The uneven honky-tonk rhythm, clatter of rhymes – plus one anomaly, in Caitlin Rose’s New York is laughter incarnate. I feel my skin stretch and smile. Then, there’s Stevie Wonder and The Carpenters, 70s tunes that diffuse like filmy bubbles, trapping sunshine.
Back of throat, sinuses, tear ducts
In a previous life, I think I was an Irish immigrant, displaced to America. I say this, because certain Irish ballads and their folk descendants invoke the saddest memories I’ve never had. Imagine- trying to explain to my then boyfriend the compulsion to go to Connemara (home to the best Irish balladeers, according to Colm Tobín’s Brooklyn );why tears were streaming down my face when a pub quartet sung about Danny going to America and the beeoooo– tee-full Ten-nes-see Waltz. The lone trills of the singer’s voice, the dactylic rhythm (one stressed accent, followed by two unstressed), a fatal dance in itself. In Ireland, a white-haired man sang a hot jagged rendition, but this version by folk-country singer Emmylou Harris has a stoic melancholy.
Music paced expansively, so that a tree could branch within you. Good for healing injuries, physical and emotional. Beyonce’s Hold Upliterally holds up the succession of breaths, procuring a swaying sense of tranquillity.
Rock and roll is attuned to the heartbeat. ‘I don’t know why my heart flips/ I only know it does…’ Buddy Holly sings. The first time I heard Everyday, it was drummed onto the kitchen table by a boy in a green t-shirt. And I’ve not found a better echo of the human heart, or marking time. Then there is the accelerated heart-beat, in Dusty Springfield’s urgently percussive Anyone Who Had A Heart, which squeezes an excessive number of words into a musical phrase. The refrain ‘Anyone who has a heart would take me in his arms and love me too/ You/ Couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me like you hurt me and be so untrue’ creates a discomfiting sensation of skipped beats and breathlessness.
Nirvana drags you along to relentless rhythms, a narcotic wrap around your hips; unexpected corners that flip your stomach. Belly dance music also awakens hip-stomach energy, throwing serpentine figures into the air around your body, before you’ve even begun to move. Phrases crashinto one another like waves- a fairytale embellished with each passing night.
Finally, beat and a manifesto lyric delivered tongue in cheek- every foldable joint in your body an accordion pleat. Probably jumping up and down, a mirror image of the over-privileged daddy’s girl in the Pulp song, who wants to be like common people.Or perhaps, the boy judging her.
THE BOTTOM : END OF ANATOMY
Of course, there’s songs that flush through; don’t catch at all. And these intrigue me just as much. Linda Ronstadt, a folk singer who grew up on the musically fertile US Mexico border, once said ‘if I didn’t hear it by the time I was ten, I won’t be able to sing it with any authenticity.’** I half agree – memory has an important function, but so does imagination and the epidemic of new rhythms.
*’The moon this night/ Has watched over my friend/ I saw him in a dream/ Dazzling and naked.’