The confinement diary: self-isolating by the book

 

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In her new memoir, Rebecca Solnit compares books to stars, owing to the time-lag between the original idea in the author’s head, and the moment, many years later, when the reader gets hold of it. She explains how readers engage with what the author was passionately immersed in long before, sometimes only because of the time it takes a book to be written, edited, printed, and distributed. When you think about it, the time-lag between writing and distribution, makes the possibility of a reader finding a book relevant, or interesting, a chancy business. Perhaps this is why some people give up on books; they want to consume content with a smaller space-time lag, stories that are more directly relevant to today’s world.

As for me, reading continues to be the ultimate form of relaxation, a break from the news cycle and worry. I don’t mind the time-lag between the authors’ pre-quarantine freedom and my confinement; if anything, I marvel at how scripts from a star-like distance can illuminate present conditions. Since entering quarantine, on March 16th, I’ve read the following:

A Line Made By Walking, Sara Baume (fiction 2016, ordered pre-quarantine)

Actress, Anne Enright (fiction 2020, ordered pre-quarantine)

Recollections of my Non-existence, Rebecca Solnit (memoir 2020, ordered pre-quarantine)

Untamed, Glennon Doyle (memoir/ self-help 2020, ordered in quarantine)

Handiwork, Sara Baume  (artistic memoir 2020 preordered pre-quarantine/ published during quarantine)

The Seas, Samantha Hunt (fiction 2004, ordered pre- quarantine)

The Professor and the Siren, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (fiction 1957, ordered in  quarantine)

Watching: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name, Directed by Saverio Costanzo. Based on the books by Elena Ferrante

Certainly, nothing on the list was intended for a quarantined readership; even if four of the books have 2020 publication dates, with Handiwork by Sara Baume coming out as late as March 26th. There’s no denying that words land differently when you’re self-isolated, and only allowed out to buy groceries. For example, the recurring metaphor of the unlocked door, in Glennon Doyle’s self-help memoir about reclaiming female wilderness, was intended as an inspirational call to witness the option of leaving unsatisfactory situations and roaming free; these doors, they’re not even locked, she promises. However, from the position of confinement, when governments and our own consciences are forcing us to lockdown, the unlocked door trope feels nonsensical. I can’t help but think that if Doyle were writing her guide for a quarantined world, her metaphors, and even her thoughts would have been different.

But, on the other hand, reading Untamed, and my other feminist memoir – Solnit’s – during this time of pause, presents a kind of chrysalis for new ideas to take hold and develop. Interestingly, both books provide a physical example of these chrysalises: it’s young Solnit’s writing annex in an African-American neighbourhood in San Franscisco; it’s the room/womb at the bottom of Doyle’s house, where her sister hid and regrouped after the explosion of her first marriage, and emerged as a woman with a vision. Such places cut off from the ordinary flow of space-time, enable reflection, planning, and practice on a small scale, as far as the limits of the confined world permit, before our horizons expand again, and life with all its distractions rushes in. Solnit and Doyle have inspired me to be moved and act on behalf of causes I care about, something I wasn’t doing enough of before quarantine. Both women write persuasively about how my good, and that of humanity, are at the deepest level, inextricable; and this has never been more apparent than in quarantine, where it’s an almost symmetrical effort to look after my well-being and that of others.

Small, interesting worlds. All the books I’ve loved during quarantine have them. I don’t want the sweeping narrative that boomerangs me from one side of the planet to the other; I want writing that makes me excited about what I can experience now, from my little studio space and sea-view balcony. Sara Baume writes how the birds I want to see, the birds I want to recognise, are the ones that live – or visit, or get lost – in the places where I live. These words are a comforting companion to the obligatory constrained perspective, the forced slowing-down of confinement; they’re an invitation to look again, to begin a breathless search, for what’s near and elusive. There’s so much I’ve missed, by not paying attention; so much to catch up on, if I start.

Baume’s Handiwork, is also pattern for life and objects in a microcosm. She assigns different stations to the house where she and her partner live and make things; where distinct tasks such as gluing, cutting and painting, have their proper place. Though I have a tendency to work in all parts of my studio, I made a quick doodle of the space, and the types of making that could be specific to different areas. Even as a fantasy, it gives me the reassurance of a real plan.

While Baume’s book reads as a map for life in quarantine, others on my pile bring me what I’ve most missed – my beloved sea. These past few weeks of intermittent sun, the sea has been my forbidden fruit – even Zurriola, the wavy, made-for-surfers beach, which is the only one I’m able to see these days, has lately resembled a turquoise lake. The sea is a break from the small places, the sense of making do with restricted possibilities. It’s turned up in Solnit’s memoir, in the second chapter that takes a break from her life and catches a bus all the way to Ocean Beach, where she can see the Pacific and eternity. It’s tempted me in di Lampedusa’s peacock-coloured Sicilian waters, in the Ferrante screen adaptations, where the island of Ischia with its pornographically blue waters is a break from the square confines of the dusty neighbourhood.  The signorina must go and rest on Ischia, the signorina is too exhausted, the heroine’s mother mocks.  Italy, only the width of France away, and suddenly inaccessible, is another forbidden fruit. I think enviously how that sea, that sand, those swimsuit frolics are real; that they’ve been captured on film, and that beautiful place goes on without me, without any other human visitor.

Closer to my current experience of the water, is Samantha Hunt’s novel, The Seas, where the inhabitants of a Northern American seaside town, have been turned odd by looking out to the ocean. Passages like this – the street was dreaming it was the silver asphalt of fish scales – draw the tide up to my stone balcony, and make me see everything as sea-matter; for example, an escaped cellophane glove dragging across the concrete, becomes a dozy jellyfish. On a metafictional note, I even had a drip from my bathroom ceiling, to match the mermaid heroine’s predisposition to leaks, and only now, has the balance of wet to dry been restored.

 

The confinement diary: birdbrain

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My balcony has filled up with sand. Barely three arm-spans long and one arm-span wide, it’s a space I’d taken for granted, using it only to dust the sand off towels, and take a gasp of air when working up to deadlines.  But today, on the balmy fifth day of quarantine,  I’m out here,  looking at the sea, which continues,  in spite of everything.

Five days into confinement, I have never felt so powerless as a human being, and fancy trading in my body for a more avian form.  The seagulls, pigeons, and chubby little brown birds, who hop all about this city, and whose name I never bothered to learn, are free to go, gather and take zig-zagging paths, unquestioned.  They’re also (as far as I know) completely immune to coronavirus. Their smugness is evident in song that is ever chirpier and shriller: it’s spring, the days are longer,  and this time, there are far fewer humans to disrupt the party.

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I am an animal too, of the corralled variety. For the first time on my balcony, I’m properly paying attention to the beings living opposite: the man with binoculars facing the ocean, the  gym-addicted smoker who wears superhero pyjamas, the older woman in her pink bathrobe, the girl decking out the table-cloth, making the pigeons scatter. We’re all guided by instinct out to the sun, to glance warily at each other,  because after all, we’re strangers ( and this is the Basque country, not Andalusía). Every night at 8pm, we clap and cheer for the health workers, and are united by something,  that as of a week ago, affects us all. In some ways, we’re forced to copy the birds, who never had any illusion of being in control, and pardon the cliché,  flock together. It’s by remembering the others in my species – those who are strange to me, as well as familiar, that I can be accepting of the current restrictions on my freedom, a policeman bringing me back in line; when I take that extraneous step on my outing to the grocery store.

Right now, it’s time to be a roosting bird,  and clean the sand off my balcony, which nowadays isn’t just a spot of airy relief, but an extension of my nest.

This is my second post about being quarantined in San Sebastián.  As this situation will continue indefinitely, it likely won’t be my last 

The confinement diary: a tiny phone production

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The first morning, I wake up to the sound of the rain. It’s louder than any human imprint, be it footsteps or motors. The birds are still singing, because talkers will always talk. I’m grateful for their company: it makes the beginning of quarantine less apocalyptic.

When I pull up the blinds, and look out over the balcony, there are amply-spaced figures, holding black umbrellas, on one of a handful of designated missions: work, acquisition of food or medicine, caring for the vulnerable, or taking out the bins. I’ve been saving my own food trail for about 4.30pm, so that it’s not over too quickly, so I don’t run into the panic buyers,  because I like the buttery texture of the light. It’s weird to have to choose between one time of day and another. I imagine that my favourite hour – sunset-into-twilight – will have to be sacrificed, for the sake of getting enough Vitamin D, especially as the days get longer, and the 8 pm supermarket curfew takes place in broad daylight. Will it come to that? Most people predict that the current regime will last more than the anticipated two weeks – that it could go for months, even.  My morning beauty routine doesn’t account for any of these changes: I’m still putting on sunscreen first thing, even though I’m not sure I have to.

Though I look forward to my outings, and make sure I buy in comically small amounts,  so that I’ll have an excuse to go again tomorrow,  I don’t exactly enjoy them. They are not meant to be fun, anyway. For one thing, the police have sectioned off not only the beaches,  but any part of the promenade that’s purely recreational and couldn’t double up as a route to a primary convenience. Still, yesterday when I was walking on one of those double-purpose roads, there was a strong smell of weed – and given that all I could see in front of me was a police car, the smoker must have been in hiding.

But the most striking thing,  in this city of couples and cuadrillas (gangs of 5+), is the solitude of those who walk the streets. Only one person is allowed to walk the dog; enter a shop at a time, and once inside, people must be at least a metre apart. Things which I took for granted, only as long ago as Friday – such as walking down the street, hand in hand with my boyfriend – would now be viewed as germy and suspicious. It’s surreal; at this stage, I’m too overwhelmed by the novelty of it all, to be despairing.

At home, in the nine waking hours before my outing, and the six after,  I have no shortage of things to do. There’s the arm-length document of projects, while I wait for my next piece of work to come in, the Spanish grammar I need to consolidate,  the limbering stretching sessions I force on myself, every few hours,  and my flat,  which being white and small, always makes cleaning for me. Also, a friend and my dad, want to add another item to my list: that I figure out how to use my mobile to get internet on my laptop, so I don’t have to do everything on this tiny phone. I’ve told them I will, when I can’t get away with it any more – as if I need more homework! As with before quarantine,  I fail to check off all the items on my daily to-do-list, and feel the same anxiety about my lack of productivity/super-humanness.  Then I berate myself for focusing on these tiny, selfish things; remind myself that they’re nothing in the face of this global health epidemic, the people suffocating to death.  I know that in the grand scheme of things,  it wouldn’t matter if I stayed in bed for a while, watching self-isolation memes. It’s just that I can’t allow myself to – in a situation which is completely out of my control, my mind latches onto the things it can shape and invent. It insists on shaping and inventing.

This is the first in a series of posts about being quarantined in the beautiful city of San Sebastián! I did have a life before this, as my previous posts will testify. Incase you’re interested, the above pic is from a Starbucks mural, at a time when I had free movement. 

 

 

Honest women and their opposites

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The role

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’s Three 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.

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The pet 

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.

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The feed

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

Resilience, or, the thirteenth fairy

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Which order do these things go in? Me, storyboarding, 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 The Sleeping 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.

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It was the best of gifts, it was the worst of gifts. Adapted from Errol Le Cain’s illustration for Thorn Rose (1975)

However, ‘bad’ gifts – like that frightful temper of your’s – also get thrown into the mix. In The Sleeping Beauty, the giver of the unwanted, but unfortunately unreturnable gift, is an obscure, haggard fairy, who is not invited to the christening because she is suspected bewitched or dead and they don’t have an extra golden plate, anyway.  This is poor judgement on the royal couple’s part, because she storms in as soon as the first eleven fairies have bestowed their boons and says “because you did not invite me, I tell you that in her fifteenth year, your daughter will prick herself with a spindle and fall over dead.”

This harshly-worded curse – in the Grimm Brothers’ version, at least – will wipe out all the previous eleven gifts before they can fully come to fruition in the young princess. But there’s one good fairy still, who hasn’t rushed to make her wish, because she takes one look at the uninvited fairy and “guessing that some mischievous gift might be bestowed upon the little princess, hid behind the tapestry […] Her intention was to be the last to speak, and so to have the power of counteracting, as far as possible, any evil which the old fairy might do” Already, she senses trouble brewing ; that our Beauty will need more than the glamorous trinkets of the first excited fairies to survive whatever’s coming to her.

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This chick will save you.  Adapted from Errol Le Cain’s illustration for Thorn Rose (1975)

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.

The fatal prick is inevitable, for Beauty, as it is for all of us, sooner or later. You cannot remain full of untried potential and your gifts and dreams must come into contact with the imperfect world. On her fifteenth birthday, Beauty’s exploring an undiscovered part of the castle and encounters an old woman who is spinning flax. The spindle, a novelty  (phallic) object, which has been officially banned from the castle, enchants Beauty and she approaches it with curiosity. What could it be?  Could she have a go on it?  And then, according to Perrault, “partly because she was too hasty, partly because she was a little heedless, but also because the fairy decree had ordained it, no sooner had she seized the spindle than she pricked her hand and fell down in a swoon.”

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What could it be? Adapted from Errol Le Cain’s illustration for Thorn Rose (1975)

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.

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One means of surviving Boris Johnson’s time in office. Adapted from Errol Le Cain’s illustration for Thorn Rose (1975)

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.***

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The medieval version of Clear Blue. Adapted from Errol Le Cain’s illustration for Thorn Rose (1975)

FOOTNOTES

* 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.

About a bull

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 to  bullfighting 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. 

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 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.

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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…

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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.

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*Unless you’re the manada reading this, the person you’re kissing should want to kiss you back.

Una yogini en Donosti

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Una tarde lluviosa encontré mi amiga, Carla en un bar en la Plaza de la Constitución. En todas partes la gente estaba bebiendo y fumado, pero nosotras estuvimos allí para algo mas raro, hablar de yoga. Carla es una instructora de yoga de la Ciudad de México. Hice su formación en San Cristóbal de las Casas en Octubre 2018 y se mudo a Donosti en Enero 2019.  Yo conocí Carla a Pintxopote en Abril, y pienso que es una de las personas las mas encantadoras y inspiradoras en la ciudad.

¿Carla, como descubriste yoga?

Mi mamá era yogini. Y empecé mi practica copiar sus posturas que me parecieron muy naturales. También me enseño sobre el descanso y la alimentación. Me encantó!

Después de la universidad viví un tiempo difícil y probe muchas terapias distintas. Con el psychoanalysis que es una terapia de palabra, me perdí en mis historias, pero con yoga que es un reconocimiento del cuerpo y mente, encontré un espacio para dejar que el ser se manifieste.

¿Y en tu opinión que somos?

En el nivel esencial, somos todos parte de lo divino. Nuestro cuerpo es un templo y tenemos que respetar este espacio para actualizar lo divino en nosotros mismos.

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Donosti tiene una cultura muy fuerte de gastronomía y esta llena de bares. Mucha gente trasnocha y se despierta tarde, algunas veces con resaca. ¿Te parece que sea un buen lugar para practicar un estilo de vida yoga? 

Si quisieras alcanzar a una iluminación completa tendrías que vivir fuera de la ciudad y seguir una rutina diaria muy estricta. Yo no querría vivir una vida muy ascética, y eliminar cosas. Soy yogini y otras cosas también en el mismo tiempo, y pienso que Donosti es un buen lugar para practicar yoga, porque tienes la naturaleza en la ciudad. Una parte muy importante de yoga es la respiración, y aquí puedes respirar el aire poco contaminado. También hay muchos productos frescos en Donosti, ye por eso, es posible alimentarte bien.

Cuéntame de la primera vez que estuviste en Donosti.

Hace 8 años que visité Donosti con algunas amigas de México. Me enamoré con la ciudad, con su belleza perfecta. Unas amigas se aburrieron y quisieron ir a Pamplona. Y yo pensé que si estas personas no pudieran ver la belleza de ese sitio, tendría que encontrar nuevo circulo! 

Cuéntame un poco sobre tu trabajo aquí en Donosti.

Estoy trabajando en dos ciudades muy distintas en la costa Vasca. La primera es Irun, una ciudad árida cerca de la frontera. Irun hay una población muy diversa con muchos inmigrantes. Allí la gente, a veces, no puede ir a yoga por que les faltan recursos económicos.

Sin embargo, Donosti es una ciudad llena de abundancia. Enseño en el Centro Sherab en la calle Aguirre Miramon. Es un estudio muy cálido y tranquilo y muchos estudiantes se apuntan a las clases.

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A Carla le gusta pintar en su tiempo libre

Me dijiste antes que no viajabas ligero. ¿Que llevaste contigo cuando te mudaste a Donosti? 

Me llevo mis libros de filosofía y historia del arte, y también, una memoria con fotos de mi vida en México. Es importante para mi de conocer que puedo volver a la Carla de antes, si lo quiero. Hasta ahora, no le he usado, pero me da tranquilidad que puedo hacer lo.

¿Que planes tienes para el futuro? 

En un mes me voy a Bélgica con mi novio, que estudiara un Masters. Allí intento enseñar clases, pero también encontraré otro trabajo para tener mas recursos económicos y vivir bien.

Esta entrada forma parte de una serie sobre mi primer año en San Sebastián. Es mi primera entrada en castellano, por favor disculpe los errores y el Spanglish! Existe también en inglés!

A yogini in San Sebastián

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I meet my friend Carla on a rainy Thursday evening in a cafe on Plaza de la Constitución, the closest thing to European-style square in San Sebastián. Though we both have colds we keep our plastic macs on and sit in the sheltered terrace with everyone else.  People around us are drinking and smoking and at 9:15, the night is so young it could be a foetus. On Friday the sun will rise late, as it does in this part of the world and those with hangovers even later.

Carla and I have come to discuss a topic that seems a million miles from where we are: yoga. Carla is a yoga-instructor from Mexico City and one of the most fascinating and insightful people I have met in San Sebastián.  As she sips her tinto de verano, a mix of red wine and soda water, she tells me that she doesn’t see this party-loving seaside town as an unlikely place for yoga. First of all, she’s not of the school of yoga that prescribes a restrictive lifestyle and has accepted that while some yogis get up to meditate at 4:30 am, here in Spain it is fine to begin her morning routine of tea, yoga and breakfast at the more civilised hour of 8:30 am. Moreover, the key element of yoga is respiration and here, in San Sebastián, she can breathe in clean air and enjoy the experience of nature in the city.

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Carla recharges by spending ample amounts of time in her room.

The first time Carla visited San Sebastián  was eight years ago, on a European tour with some friends from home. She said that she was enraptured by the city’s perfect beauty and even had the sensation that she was on tierra santa, or holy land. When some of her friends got bored and wanted to move on to flashy bull-fighting hub, Pamplona, she seriously considered changing her social circle; if they couldn’t appreciate the beauty of this place, what on earth could she have in common with them?  Being someone who is anxious every time I leave San Sebastián, just in case something happens to prevent me from coming back, I can relate to Carla’s extreme sense of connection with the place. And we’re not the only two people, who without having a drop of Basque blood, feel this way; it’s like the city bewitches certain travellers and makes them want to stay.

Carla got the chance for a longer spell in San Sebastián in January, when she secured a teaching placement in two studios along the Cantabrian coast. One studio is in Irun, an arid town on the border with France, which has a strong immigrant population. There, the space is modern and clean-looking and though the classes are adequately attended,  the locals’ main obstacle in coming to yoga, is economic. In San Sebastián, on the other hand, she teaches at the Centro Sherab, a cosy, richly coloured space, complete with Buddhas and wallhangings. The room strikes her as oddly wintry for Donosti’s beachy climate, but she says it feels very secure and protected from the noise of the city.

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Carla came to yoga very young, as a little girl in Mexico City, who followed in her yogini mother’s footsteps. Doing the poses felt natural to her and yoga became a staple that she could rely on, when later in life, she hit upon troubled times. Whereas she found that talking therapies such as psychoanalysis caused her to regurgitate the same stories, a yoga practice, which Carla sees as the ultimate union of body and mind, held space for her true being to manifest.

And what is our true being? I ask her.

We are all part of the divine and our body is a temple that acts as host, she replies.

Having felt the benefits of yoga for herself, Carla decided to become an instructor. In October 2018, she trained in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, where she gained a more complete understanding of yoga and met masters whose teaching guided her when she set up in San Sebastián three months later.  In addition to her acquired wisdom, Carla brought several prized possessions with her, including an album of memories. In its pages, are photographs of her family and of Carla when she was small. She tells me that it’s important to her to have the possibility of connecting both with people from her life in Mexico and ‘la Carla de antes’ (old Carla). However, nearly six months into her stay, Carla has not felt the need to open the memoria. Perhaps that’s because she feels so grounded here.

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When I took a class with Carla, I found the practice a nourishing slow-flow vinyasa ( a style of yoga that involves the rhythmic transition between poses). Holding the poses for longer than I was used to, was both physically and mentally challenging, but I left the class transformed – both energised and more relaxed.  As a friend, I know Carla as a warm and open person and while this comes across in her teaching, as she adjusts students’ alignment and practices the poses alongside them, you also sense that there is a part of her that is sealed off from the class and in communication with the divine. She tells me that it’s important to have boundaries with students, so that the relationship between her and them does not become an overly egotistical or even sexually charged one. She is there to guide students to access the divinity within them, rather than be a pinnacle for their desires.

Sadly, Carla won’t be in Donosti for long. Her next stop will be Belgium, where she’ll accompany her longterm boyfriend who is doing a Master’s there. Carla intends to learn French and teach some classes, but she’ll also take up other work to ensure she has enough to live well on. She says that it’s important for her to have recursos (resources) as well as her dream job.

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Carla loves to paint in her spare time. Since moving to Donosti, she’s been experimenting with new colour combinations.

 

This post forms part of a series about my first year in San Sebastián. I fancied a change from writing about myself the whole time 😛 Feel free to like, comment or share! Click here for the Spanish version of this post and here for a wildcard I picked out at random.  

 

 

 

 

 

Relearning beauty, Latin-style

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A discoball that’s sprung up under the boardwalk in the past week 

I’ve been looking at my body all wrong. At least for the place I’m in, the people I’m meeting. Thinness and the style of clothes are secondary. What’s first is inhabiting your animal form, speaking and transforming through it.

I’m learning that beauty is more a projection and a feeling than an entity bestowed or withheld at birth. This, after a lifetime of Cinderella stories, which teach that a women’s beauty is intrinsic, an entity to be discovered and declared by others, usually men, but also fashion-arbiters and the media.

According to these myths, any woman who claims beauty for herself is presumptuous, because somewhere along the way, both the despots and the Cleopatras of this world realised that owning one’s beauty was a form of power. If women owned their personal beauty, then they might not have such need for the approval of men, their circle and wider society – they would have fewer doubts and use their strengths, both physical and intellectual, to get what they wanted. And that might just change the world. 

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Habladores preparing to samba 

Having swallowed the patriarchal juju, I used to think that women who owned their beauty were intimidating and even grotesque, like the evil queens in fairytales or beauty pageants. Wanting to avoid what I considered to be the most complete form of ugliness, I decided that I would only be beautiful when someone told me I was; whatever advantages I had in my body, I would put into the hands of others.  I played the Cinderella act well, but with the cost of disassociating from my body and any kind of power I might gain by taking ownership of it.

Here in San Sebastián, a half-sunny, half-wet Basque city with a prominent Latin American population, I’m seeing both beauty and bodies differently. The Latinos who have come here to work and study, have infected both native Donostiarras and those of us from elsewhere with their music, their dance and that untranslatable word, sabrosura, whose meaning hovers somewhere between deliciousness and love. In high heels and low, wetsuits and party frocks, Latinos and those they’ve Latinised, own their beauty.  Not in a pretentious way, but in one that means they are comfortable in their own skin, enjoy food, music, movement, contact, display and attention. They have an enviable sense of the body as an earthly home, one that can nourish and keep them safe, but can also express their personality, feelings and desires. Their beauty comes in numerous shapes, sizes and colours and is generous, sunlike in illuminating the attractiveness of those around them.

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A little less conversation, a little more action…

Of course I shouldn’t idealise Latin culture, where both machismo – the cult of the chauvinistic male and plastic surgery are rife. Like their European counterparts, Latin/ised women bewail the 6 kilos that have snuck up on their thighs since moving to San Sebastián and even men feel under pressure to have that instagrammable tableta de chocolate. But while static bodily ideals exist, the beauty and the hunk are just a starting point. If you’re beautiful, so are others.  What are you going to do with your beauty? What are you going to show and share with us?

From my outsider’s perspective, showing and sharing are vital in Latin culture, where people communicate more through the body and its five senses. I used to think of music, food, dance and sports as diversions from the important matter of discussing thoughts and feelings, but now I’m learning that these bodily, being things can themselves be the point of connection. Sensitive and restless, by both nature and nurture, for me, living through the body, is full of altibajos. Sometimes it feels grounding and sensual and other times, I find it limiting or even scary, when I can’t express myself through it, or my personal boundaries are being tested. But little by little, I’m learning what’s right for me, given who I’ve been and who I’m becoming.

This is one of a series of posts on moving to San Sebastián. I’d love to know what you thought of this post and how a change of culture also affects how you feel in your body. 

GLOSSARY

hablador/a/es/as: chatty (adjective)

sabrosura: untranslatable word that hovers between tastiness and love. Somatic intelligence coach Chen Lizra translates it as physical self-love, meaning pride and love of one’s body.

tableta de chocolate: literally translates as a bar of chocolate, although the meaning is more six-pack, abs

altibajos: ups and downs

 

 

 

Yankee productivity and the Spanish lifestyle

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Still life with cup and lipstick stain

Catholics have more parties and are better at them.  You realise that Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII and other architects of the Reformation, have a lot to answer for in demoting the Saints and depriving Protestant nations of occasion cakes in bakery windows, four-day fiestas and novelty styles of getting tipsy in the evening. Then there are the Spanish national holidays – which are days of protest for conscientious Basque separatists and a break for everyone else;  the regional city ferias which are full-on singing, dancing costumed parades.  And to crown it, impromptu days of disruption – protests, marches, strikes, the procession of floats, banners and loudspeakers through blockaded streets.  Even on a regular day, the light’s stretching out to nine thirty already,  the evening won’t begin until eleven and finish before two, if not five. Chicos, I’ve been told that I live in the most reserved part of Spain…

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Go with the wind

And in all of this, I’m trying to work freelance as a writer and  complete a book project. I have to find peace, focus and enough hours, when the current seems to be going another way. My writing, an eccentric, solitary buoy, when my surroundings are screaming at me to be in the moment, to conform. Thou shalt flamenco in the fish aisles at Gastropote on Thursday and fiesta on a Friday night, because your housemates are going to make it impossible for you not to. And even if you had the idea of taking your laptop out to the furthermost rock, it’s a flimsy intention in the face of this new tribal part that’s grown in you, calling you to do what everyone else is.

Control over one’s life, one’s time, is one of the great Anglo-American myths. Work hard, set goals and you’ll get there. And in Britain and America, at least, society conspires to help you: work and play are scheduled and everyone seems to be aiming towards something that is not yet here.  It feels okay to not go out on Friday, because you’re working and know that others, behind their walls are doing the same. Having been nurtured in this future-orientated environment, I’m comfortable, if not happy in it. Making lists, crossing items off, aiming and reaching the goal or not. Feeling devastated when I miss and when I achieve, it’s straight onto the next.

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Cross-currents

Control is really fear in disguise. If I do this and this and this, then that scary thing won’t happen, this brilliant thing just might. Here in Spain, the feeling of less control, is double-edged. It can make me panic that I’ll never get anything done, due to the lack of uninterrupted time or cultural know-how. There are also the added responsibilities I’ve taken on, to feel at home here – like learning grammatical Spanish, dancing on my heels and to a beat, rather than on my toes and in my head. All these ‘extracurriculars’ are less about achievement than presence.  The art of showing up and being in my body, is something I’ve never mastered, mainly because I’ve been busy hiding behind work and ideas. Here, in the land of the ever-present, I’ve learned that ideas don’t count for anything, if they don’t have a bearing on this moment – or – the time it takes to cook and serve up a meal.

But knowing I have less control of how the days will turn out, how people will react, in a weird way, takes the pressure off. I’m seeing all the elements, besides me, that lead to an outcome and am learning to let myself off the hook.  I can relax, aim from a loving place, through encouragement, rather than criticism. And celebrate every ten thousand words written, every passage edited to today’s idea of perfection. I set goals for the week, rather than the day. A week is long and the quiet spaces appear naturally, where you didn’t expect them.

Because to impose an Anglo-American style of control on life here, defeats the point of being here. Because in every single one of these diversions, are things to I have to learn – how not just to think and write, but to connect and be material.

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Czech books, London display, Spanish mood

This is one in a series of posts on my first seven months in San Sebastián.  If you’ve not read it, have a look at my previous post: Bootcamp with a balcony. Thanks to everyone for all the support I’ve received so far and if you liked this post, feel free to like, share or comment.