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.
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.
For a while, I looked on the Sanfermínes with hostility. Named for the pudding-shaped Bishop of Pamplona, San Fermín, these 8 days in July have become dedicated tobullfighting and partying. Bullfighting – in case you didn’t know – is a sport in which a matador (read, killer) confronts a bull and with some ritualised swishing of his cape and prodding of his sticks, agitates and fights it to the death. Partying here can be equally brutal – in the féria of 2016, a girl of eighteen was raped by a gang who called themselves as the Manada (wolf pack). Given insufficient evidence that the girl’s relations with the Manada were non-consensual, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. When in Bilbao last year, I heard shots fired into the air to mark the start of the bullfighting season, it only confirmed my prejudice that the Sanfermínes were a celebration of macho aggression.
I never thought I’d actually go, but when a group of friends said they were, I went along, unable to slake my curiosity about this event that I was predisposed to hate. We planned to take the 7:30 pm bus to Pamplona, party all night and leave at 8.30 the next morning, after the running of the bulls. The week leading up to our adventure, I collected more San Fermín horror stories – pickpocketing, brawls that broke out at the drop of a hat and stumbling tourists gored by bulls. As I tied the red pañuelo I brought from the bus station around my neck, I wasn’t expecting to have fun, just to survive.
Contrary to the awaited temper-raising 38 degrees, Pamplona was surprisingly cool when we arrived and there was even a chance of rain. There was time to watch the sunset from a high terrace; time to notice variations on the white shirt, red necktie and belt uniform – most striking were the necklaces of toy monkeys and t-shirts spattered with red paint or wine, to mimic blood. There was even time to go to the main square and seek out the city’s delicate Hemingway motif – the hotels he stayed in, La Perla and the other one, that got turned into a crappy bar. I think Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises/Fiesta, was where I first learned about the Sanfermínes. I enjoyed the book when I read it eight years ago, but it didn’t imprint much and I certainly never thought I’d make it onto the set.
Soon enough, it got dark and I realised that even now, at the beginning of July, the nights were starting to draw in. And what we had ahead of us, was a night that had to last until the 8am running of the bulls. Nights this long become an adult version of Disneyland, where everyone can get their wish, at least when it comes to music and ingestibles. Yes go the long way round that anecdote, follow this marching band and imitate the folk dance; yes, back to the Hemingway square because there’s live music and that’s better than recorded; yes to a TP (tactical piss) stop; yes to finding an ice cream; yes to still another drink, even though its warm and going up in price by the minute. Yes to anything, everything that will wage a war on sleep. We won’t get that till we’re back on the bus to San Sebastián.
After a while, things get grubby, walls stream with human sewage, people are drunk and irritated with craving. It’s advisable to find someone to kiss*, not least because it makes the time go faster and you look up and the one-percent rain prognosis has come true, which itself precipitates – excuse the pun – a discussion of what a one-percent chance of rain actually means…
By which time it’s blue-eyed dawn, swallows are making dizzying circuits around spires, pastry shops are open and people are queuing up to watch the bull run. We stand behind a row that has already formed and the only view of the track is between a stranger’s legs. So I look above for a while, at the sleek, ambassadorial crowd who stand on balconies they’ve paid 1000 euros for. I feel sick as I contemplate what will happen – the people running and the terrified, sacrificial bull set after them.After a while, I see a rash of human limbs, but no quartet of furry black legs. ‘We have to go’, says timekeeper, ‘or we won’t make the bus.’
Two of my friends maintained they saw the bull; two of us didn’t. So for me, it remains as mythical as the minotaur, this charging creature that provokes against its own will. By 8:30 am, sleep-deprived and unnerved by such phenomena as a hot air balloon landing soft as thistledown, an incongruous patch of green in dried yellow grass, I wonder if the festival could function as well with the simple idea of a bull and no animals being harmed.
*Unless you’re the manada reading this, the person you’re kissing should want to kiss you back.
Get into the sea, breathe in the salty humidity, stick your head under, blow bubbles. Bring up the gloop and spit. No matter that it’s April in Northern Spain. This is Doctora Aczuarte’s prescription for a cough, sore throat and wavery voice.
Doctora Aczuarte’s, is my second water cure in this town: on removing my cast, I was told to undertake baños de contraste and swirl my healing ankle for five minutes in hot water, before plunging it in cold. The idea was that the water’s resistance, would reintroduce mobility to my cast-stiffened ankle. It was a notion foreign to the Anglophone internet, but appropriate for this Belle Époque seaside town, which has traded in the medicinal properties of water, since the nineteenth century, when aristocrats and royals headed here for their health, wearing bathing suits so hefty, it’s a surprise they didn’t drown. You can see a remnant of this aquatic health culture today, at La Perla thalassotherapy centre, where bathers immerse themselves in salt water pools, wearing turquoise cloth swimming caps and severe expressions. Sometimes seaweed or sponge enters the water, but no-one acts like it’s anything extraordinary. The contrast of voluptuous water and convent-like sobriety gives proceedings a ritualistic, medicinal air. A place for jumping around in a jacuzzi, La Perla ain’t.
In literature, water is often used to tame and discipline women of unruly body and mind. Take for example, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, where three sisters are forced to perform torturous underwater activities in a pool, in order to be able to withstand an invasion of their island, while Lila in Elena Ferrante’s The Story of A New Name, is prescribed swimming by her gynaecologist, who says that she needs to get stronger in order to conceive. I’m to resume my old hobby, winter swimming to get rid of my cough, a surreal, embarrassing reflex that makes me forget the previous moment, that important thing that I, or someone else was saying. Estoy tosiendo (I’m coughing), I have to tell pharmacists, doctors and everyone I meet – all the while blushing, trying not to think about what English word toser sounds like. I mean, coughing is Anglo Saxon and guttural, almost onomatopoeic, but tosiendo, is more sibilant, like you’re renegotiating your liquids.
So, Playa Ondaretta, the small beach off the famous La Concha, is my destination for health. I approach the water, first from the rocks, where I can see the shape and size of the waves objectively, then the rippled sand, finally the place where the tide meets my toes. The afternoon of my first swim is bright and beamy, with the odd drip of rain that pings off my shoulder blade. Unlike La Concha, which has extensive shallows, Ondaretta will gulp you whole. As the water-level reaches my belly button, I retrieve my hair, which is thick as a muscle and liable to soaking up the entire Cantabrian. On a count of three, I’m in. Everything moves quickly in water this cold. Breaststroke towards Santa Clara island and on my back, to the castlely-looking Palacio Miramar. Flip over again, stick my face in the water and blow bubbles. There’s coughing resistance, a feeling that I can’t breathe and then, at last, air.
This is just one of a series of posts about moving to San Sebastián from London. Head to my blog home page to check out my other posts and I’d love it if you would like, comment or share.
It was Ferrante’s rusted safety pin that did it – the one that could give you tetanus if it pierced your skin while you played with it. The death-dealing prick at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, is a Sleeping Beauty curse and the same one my grandmother feared. When Elena Greco, Ferrante’s narrator, says that she grew up in a time when children died, lost eyes and limbs – not to mention teeth – it’s a familiar story, even if it’s mine by inheritance, rather than by firsthand experience. Elena’s poor, tight-knit community in Postwar Naples, is one where you live in intimacy and suspicion of your neighbours – they might do you a favour, but they can also ruin you. We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us, Ferrante writes. No-one in my extended Greek Cypriot family spoke these exact words, but I heard enough iterations of this sentiment to know that it was true.
My cousin, who I saw on a recent trip to London, testifies that Ferrante’s world of fearful convictions existed for our mothers and grandmothers. They’d witnessed not only the fragility of the human body in its poor, undernourished state, but colonial oppression and war. Even when life around them changed, they’d not quite felt the horrors pass, or maybe they saw them take on different forms. As we grew up, the rusted safety pin became a heroin needle, that we’d somehow be tricked into using. (Our grandmother could never believe us capable of direct misdemeanour) These days, my cousin laughs at their fears, though she wishes that they’d allowed her to discover life for herself, rather than telling her what to expect of the world.
My grandmother’s world, her ways, come back to me in flashes. Reading Ferrante, who was my work assignment and constant companion the two weeks I was in London, felt like haunting my ancestors’ minds. Though I grew up with the tall buildings and city grit, the hum of the tubes, I can’t help but feel that Ferrante’s Naples taps into a more essential part of my past. Elena’s feelings about the island of Ischia, could be mine on the Cyprus of my grandmothers: The island faded, lost itself in some secret corner of my head. As the years pass and I grow more distant from my now late grandmothers’ memory, I worry that I have lost their stories; but all it takes to refind them is the trigger of another, complementary narrative.
I’m far from the only person to stumble upon their own story in books. I recently read a New Yorker interview with young Irish writer, Sally Rooney, who says I feel extraordinarily connected to (Henry James‘) novels, like my whole life is there. And I still have so many of them left to read! Makes me feel very lucky. Rooney’s comment, in its allusion to novels, both read and unread, references the past and telescopes into the future. I wonder what she means by finding a whole life in the complex, psychologically acute American writer. Does she mean the actual incidents of her life, or rather, her mental and emotional experiences? Does she expect to find more and more of herself in the James novels she is yet to read? And would it matter what order she’d read them in – if The Portrait of a Lady, a young woman’s story, was left for her to discover at 52 and she’d managed to get to The Ambassadors, a more mature novel, at 17?
For me, Ferrante seems to document a whole life before I existed. The time before their birth is an important concept to Ferrante’s heroines Lila and Elena. The before is an invisible mystery and yet underpins the structures and expectations of their neighbourhood. Lila and Elena’s own tale fills the gaps in my before, helping me to understand and perhaps imagine, things about my family that were never articulated. I am living out my cousin’s wish, discovering and creating impressions, instead of reading obediently.
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?
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?
‘I’m a little Greek…’ It’s a line from the lips of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra that accidentally resonates with me. As the daughter of Greek Cypriot immigrants, who grew up in quintessentially English South-west London, and hangs out with mainly British and international friends, I’m slightly Greek too. There was a time when I was more Greek, as a truly bilingual child, who went to Greek school and holidayed in Cyprus. But then when my maternal grandmother, a lady who nurtured any Hellenism I had, died, I immersed myself in other languages and cultures. In them, I sought freedom, the chance to be someone other than who my family had in mind. Nationalism- Greek, Cypriot, English, I found rather naff. Why would you want to be a flag-flying Aristotle or Shakespeare-quoting loony by default when y0u could choose to adopt the teachings of Seneca or Anais Nin? If anything, I saw my identity as European: multi-lingual, versatile, open, but post-Brexit, I wonder if that’s still valid with my British passport.
Still, probably because I’m not a true Greek, I find real Greeks, (the ones who quote Plato, smoke cigarettes and listen to London Greek Radio), fascinating, especially how they behave in public. Though my Greek has stagnated at the level of a lisping child’s my ears are still fine-tuned for the lingo. And do you know what? Greeks are always discussing the scene in front of them; they’re looking at me, scrutinising you. You can’t help but be drawn in.On the train, a girl asks her boyfriend whether he finds you attractive. After staring a while, he responds diplomatically for a Greek, by diverting the question: ‘Why is she eating chocolate? Is it necessary?’ ‘She’s on her period!’ (This actually loses something in translation, because in Greek it’s a one-word explanation) To this day, I wonder if my blush at being thus spot-lit,revealed that I understood. I wonder if they would have even cared… I was probably one of many curiosities in their day.
Yesterday, when I had an hour to myself in an Austrian café in Angel, my thoughts were diverted from strudel by the arrival of a hipstery looking bunch. They hovered outside the café a while, warming up the scene all cigarettes, denim, leather, hair gel and orange-red lipstick (gender dependent) . The swagger; the dynamic gesticulations; the brillantine gloss on their brand of hip : what other nationality could they be?* True to form, their conversation turned to the café: the food, the atmosphere and most of all the clientele. Who were they? What were they doing? Were they worth anyone’s attention? They noticed the trendy couple on the blind date, the homelier ladies who tea, me as I sat doodling in my battered blue notebook. The girl said she’d like one like that, to write down her thoughts. The guy wondered what I was writing about so furiously. I blushed again, signalling that I had understood, but this time sat up straight, produced elaborate flourishes on my gs and ys, draw intricate marine-life inside a greetings card.If I was being so openly watched, I would be part of the spectacle, play up to the role of ponytailed Sunday scribbler. I think how these people know, to misquote Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, how to ‘be in the café , and of the café’; to treat it as a glamorous watch point, and not a convenience or escape.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a little Greek, so I too observe, analyse, eavesdrop, but more quietly. I write about the all-seeing Greeks, the tea-going brigade who point to a gooseberry tart behind glass, claiming that ‘with all that cream’ it resembles birthday cakes in Poland, before retiring to a table, plunging out of the present and laying into a much-hated, absent colleague. Most of all, my attention is caught by the couple to my right on the blind date, their imbalance of vitality.** On one side of the metaphorical see-saw is a pulpy female in tropical brights; on the other, a stoic, pallid male with Buddy Holly glasses, immaculate khaki shorts and white socks. Her enthusiasm could power a merry-go-round; I imagine that she’d balance a spoon on the tip of her nose to impress him. He’s stringent, unyielding as the elastic in his perfect ankle socks. He has a dry American accent and asks her if she’s read anything by Ian McEwan.She answers saucily- one book was okay; another, disturbing. He shuffles slightly. Does he want to get the bill, she asks. He must have work to do. He does want to get the bill, he’s meeting friends. Her face drops to her phone screen though her tone continues to be breezy. I’m saddened, concerned that her bubble has burst, that she’s been rebuffed because she’s not his type. I imagine that he thinks his type is sullen, lank-haired and probably French because he prides himself on being a romantic.
*Cutting la bella figura is important to Greeks. And beautiful is tightly laced and manicured. Whenever I go to Cyprus, my cousins lament that I’m too grungy. My hair is un-straightened and un-curled. I’ve only brought a Boho-Brits-abroad suitcase of shorts, jeans and faded floaty dresses. When we’re getting ready to go out for a drink in town (in a casualish bar mind, I don’t own anything flashy enough for a Nicosia nightclub) everything is scrutinised, rejected and eventually something is accepted so that I don’t have to go naked.
**Once upon a time there was a café in Covent Garden called Notes or 1001 Blind Dates as my friends and I thought of it. Providing a chic, understated experience of wine, candlelight and vintage James Bond, Notes was the meeting of many a Tinderella and her Prince Smarmy. This crossing of expectation and reality, that provided hours of entertainment for everyone involved, has now been replaced with a Korean fast-food joint. Due to rising rents I think…
‘You know the Bowery Hotel?… if you walk about a block South there is a laser hair removal centre that’s very hip. I did the waiting room,’ quips Greta Gerwig’s Brook to Lola Kirke’s Tracey in the film Mistress America (2015). Five months after its release, Mistress America has stayed in my mind for its zany account of someone who restlessly chases after new beginnings. Brook, the central character of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s modern screwball comedy, is a 30-year-old multitasking dynamo with fingers in many pies. She’s a freelance interior decorator, specialising in the City’s ancillary spaces; a maths tutor and a spin-class leader. When Brook meets 18-year-old Tracey, an insecure college student and her future stepsister, she’s about to launch Mom’s, her most ambitious project yet. Mom’s will function as an eatery, hair salon and sanctuary for frazzled Manhattanites. But when investment from Brook’s absent rich boyfriend Stavros falls through, and she is sent on an unlikely hunt for funds via a fortune-teller, her arch-enemy and an ex-boyfriend, Tracey suspects that Brook maybe headed for ruin. Whilst remaining on sisterly terms with Brook in person, Tracey, an aspiring writer, turns this to her advantage, by penning ‘Mistress America,’ a story where the central character Meadow is a scarcely-camouflaged Brook. With the inexperienced sagacity of an eighteen-year-old, Tracey pathologises Brook for her combination of hare-brained schemes and lack of ‘follow-through.’
Brook might fall into martial arts trainer George Leonard’s definition of a ‘Dabbler.’* According to Leonard, ‘The Dabbler approaches each sport, career opportunity or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He loves the rituals involved of getting started, the spiffy equipment, the shine of newness… The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the puer aeternus, the eternal kid.’ The Dabbler, Leonard considers, will never achieve mastery in his career or relationships because he finds the inevitable plateau that follows the initial spurt of excitement, unbearable. He is unable to plough on with his work when he’s not making obvious progress and gets bored and frustrated easily. Dabbler characteristics are anathema in martial arts and anything else where progress is slow and achieved with persistent hard work. But isn’t Brook required to be a Dabbler of sorts to thrive in the modern metropolis? Isn’t it her ability to abandon failing projects and find new ones that enables her to get by?
If we strip back the screwball glamour of Brook’s eccentricities, her character and lifestyle are hardly unique. She is essentially a young woman with abundant ideas and energy, who has been trying to not only survive in New York City, but contribute to its status as a hub of urban innovation. She has thrown herself into numerous projects, which have flash-in-the-pan satisfaction and limited currency. By the time she haphazardly conceives the idea for Mom’s, she is ready for a more substantial commitment, which will liberate her from having to expend her energy on finite enterprises. Living in London, a city, which like New York, is a shiny jewel for magpies with artistic skills, education and ideas, I have met many variations on the Brook theme. As someone with myriad eclectically-financed projects on the go, I’m a version of Brook. Her trajectory through niche commissions, part-time jobs and wild-goose-chases for funds, feels both hilarious and authentic.
Post-recession, I would even argue that those who have forgone the cover of a corporate graduate scheme or other equivalent stability, have had to show Brook’s level of versatility (and charm), in order to earn enough to survive, or to ensure that they collate the diverse portfolio of skills needed for an ever-changing job market. When short-term contracts and one-off commissions are the norm, even if you do want to stay in one role and achieve what Leonard terms ‘mastery,’ you have to move on. Or maybe your dream-job, that you’ve trained all these years for, is about as hard to come by as snow in June, (or December for that matter), so you’re taking baby-bird steps to get there, via serial loosely-related fringe roles. Maybe you’re doing your dream job anyway, and don’t earn a living wage, so you have to scavenge for something that pays. Maybe mastery in one thing isn’t that important to you and you genuinely enjoy trying different types of work – is that a valid reason for self-flagellation? Whatever, the causes, ‘Mistress America’, with more hats than the Mad Hatter and more wiles than Katharine Hepburn’s Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938), is no mythic unicorn, but a real modern type. Interestingly, the original 1930s screwball comedies with their untoward plots, physical humour and scrappy heroes who were capable of improvising their way into and out of trouble, were made in an era of mass unemployment following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Gerwig and Baumbach should re-invent a version of the genre for our own age of precarious employment and economic uncertainty.
I realise that this is an odd Winter Solstice post, but it resonates with what I’ve seen, heard and felt this year. There are beginnings everywhere, but how can we tell which ones have mileage and which ones will lead us on the quest for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And if they do send us on a leprechaun path is that such a bad thing?
*George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).
The lady and the tramp aren’t real, but they’ve followed me my whole life. The lady is to the manor born, the tramp is a wanderer, dispossessed of any nicer quality. I can switch from one to the other in seconds, with the lilt of my steps, the carriage of my neck and head, the tone of my voice. And so can many of you.
The charm lies in what the anthropologist Marcel Mauss termed ‘techniques of the body,’ skills like one’s mode of walking, handling objects and people, that are not natural, but learned through everyday social interactions. These bodily techniques create an illusory social presence. For women, alongside their behaviour, these corporeal traits have long informed how they are judged, which narrative category they fit into: Lady or Tramp. Will they be contained within social expectation, or drift on the margins? This is the question that surrounds the heroine of Henry James’ nineteenth-century novella ‘Daisy Miller,’ and unfortunately, one that still defines how women are perceived today.
The lady is above all moderate, distant and admired. She entered my life when I was around 5, in my mother’s advice to avoid clashing colours and prints, and soon after that in my grandmother’s admonition that my cousin and I couldn’t tear the fluff off blankets and throw it at people from the pulpit at church, because we were ‘ladies’ now. The lady is always on her best behaviour, wanting to please and placate, not make a scene. She’s convenient in those social situations when you don’t really want to be there, just float above things on your good manners. She’s always watchful, of herself in the glass, and of other people. Who are they, and what are their intentions towards her? Because of her extreme choosiness, fussiness if you will, she comes across as sensitive and vulnerable. These impressions are enhanced if she is actually petite- as I am. There are times when my ability to pass as a lady has kept me safe from the worst that people can do. One man told me that a lot of women could ‘take it’ – his, shall we call it errant love?- whereas I was ‘delicate’, could be easily damaged and therefore had to be protected. Did these ‘tough’ asbestos-skinned hussies really exist, or whether they were a convenient invention for this man? I was suddenly put in touch with some inverted nineteenth-century system, where my apparent fragility became my strength. My ability to be read as a lady was an unfair, guilty privilege, but could also shroud me from experience and isolate me.
The Tramp is a nomad, who rubs up against the world in as many ways as she can. As a little tramp I pretended to be orphaned, and trailed around my other grandma’s garden barefoot with tangled morning hair, in her electric-shock inducing, nylon nighties. These 1960s satiny relics, coloured in lurid shades of pistachio and confetti pink that had long died out, liberated me from my navy blue and polka dot uniform and made me Queen of a slatternly kingdom. With nothing better to do, I daydreamed and played solidly until noon, when I was taken on some educational outing or other. The tramp is giddy with freedom and permissiveness- she strews her possessions (and other people’s) around her in meandering disarray, masterminds pranks that she may not get away, with and appears not to care what you think. She gives into the impulse of the moment, using her present vitality and her future death, as an excuse. She spills a lot- laughter, tears and the occasional obscenity.
At best, she’s mysteriously creative, like Emily Bronte who trekked across the moors, sparred with dogs and wrote a melodrama beyond the capacity her meagre life-experience, or as in touch as Juliette, Brigitte Bardot’s character in And God Created Woman, who repeatedly kicks off her ballet shoes so that she can run better, love better, feel the warm ground beneath her feet. At worst, she’s the heroine of that Rolling Stones song, Backstreet Girl, a slave to her passionsand socially marginalised. She’s too ‘common and coarse’ to be part of the singer’s ‘world’, but there when he fancies having her ‘around.’* Folded into the song’s lulling cadences, is the dismal fate of ‘some chick’ Mick Jagger knew, someone who strayed right into the trap laid for her by narrator. I’d like to think that in the style of many a tramp, she escaped and found a way to tell her own story, in her own words
Lady and Tramp stories are continually re-interpreted and re-invented for a new age. I recently saw two London exhibitions that inadvertently referenced the subject.** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery pays homage to woman who bought some trampiness into static notions of ladyhood as she continually evoked the Cinderella narrative of rags to riches, whilst retaining the rag-girl’s waifishness and pluck. Hepburn’s appeal lay in her enormous doe eyes (blue, not pitch black with twin globes of reflected light, as some photographs suggest) which gave her a vulnerable, expectant look, and her encyclopaedic range of expressive movements: ungainly coltish strides and tumbles metamorphose into dynamic spirals and gaited runs, and back again. Like many revered 1960s icons, Hepburn projected a tramp-like pep and emotional freedom, whilst having a proverbial briefcase of ladylike tricks to fall back upon. In Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), she plays a prostitute, but holds herself like a ballerina, while in Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957) her awkward adolescent persona is a mere shell for the sparkling, gracile woman inside. Trampiness here acts as a spice, something that can be delicately added to a textbook lady for flavour and interest.
The Foundling Museum’s The Fallen Woman exhibition tells the stories of women who strayed from Victorian ideals of female chastity and then as a result of a pregnancy, were found out. The success of these women’s petitions to have their illegitimate babies adopted by the Foundling Hospital depended upon an all-male panel’s judgement of the mother’s virtue. The letters exhibited, demonstrate the pressure to prove that the pregnancy was a result of chance, violent encounters with the unnamed ‘F’ who ‘would have his will.’ While there is no doubt that many women were raped, not every sexual encounter results in pregnancy, and some accidents were a consequence of prolonged consensual affairs. As exhibition curator Lynda Nead has explained, evidence of the mother’s sexual agency or desire, was completely eradicated from the story. Instead, the mid-nineteenth-century paintings on display, obsessively meditate on the luminous swell in the woman’s drapery, which barely conceals her bump or bundle. The shamed women were repeatedly portrayed braving the elements in flapping cloaks, so unlike the insect-shaped upholstery that their respectable peers wore. Here, the journey from lady to tramp seems a formulaic game of consequences. But it’s important to remember that each experience of straying was unique, and that some women subverted the paintings’ prescriptions in their flights from convention.
The lady and the tramp are close, so close, that they sometimes turn up in the wrong places . The lady has embarrassed me at edgy parties, where she stands ballerina-erect, preciously wrinkling her nose at the weed on the football table. The tramp arrives half an hour late, breezy and provocative to a sober meeting with work superiors. In these situations the lady and the tramp feel less like personas than perfumes, diffuse, concocted and potent.
*Mick Jagger, who wrote this song in 1966, said the ‘French cafe style’ melody and lyrics about some ‘chick’ he knew, came easily. Its strangest line goes: ‘Please come right up to my ears, you will be able to hear what I say…’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWrPuehVrWc
** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/hepburn/home.php
The Fallen Woman http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/fallen-woman/