July 10, 2019
The artists are invisible but not the art. I try to track the names and words spray-painted as art images all across the train route, but not many repeat. The fact that there’s so much graffiti in France is all the more interesting because it occurs in Nîmes but not in the wine country, land of vines and white cows au pasture. Perhaps family, purpose occupy the energy it takes to climb atop roofs and take night climbs to spider one’s alias as artwork on shadowed underpasses, and on the unsuspecting walls of labyrinthine buildings, occupied and not. I thought the graffiti would lessen once we left Paris, but I see it all along the high-speed route, almost without interruption. Only green spaces, absent edifices, remain sans text. Soft carpet of a small sea seventeen minutes from Narbonne, thin strip of sand, sparse but marshy inlets of Canal du Midi. Graffiti in trackside junkyards of Montpellier, abandoned beachside edifices on the way to Béziers, in a trainside junkyard and on brick fences ringing an empty field before reaching into the grit of Sète and holding. And needless to say, adorning wrecked train cars in varying stages of completion and abandon. What does graffiti have to do with passage, with travel, with transience? What does resistance to or disgust with graffiti have to do with wanting things to stay the way they are?
July 12, 2019
Graffiti on monuments in France—
Those without power want to be remembered too.
July 15, 2019
The streets into Montpellier shrink and age concentrically until they open up for the electric train snaking through, and drivers caught unaware—read: drivers like me—can be led back out of the highly peopled maze by a random cyclist in sunglasses who manages kindness despite almost being hit. A true citizen, with one English sentence: Don’t panic. Apparently in France, you can drive on city rail tracks; they’re sunken into the streets and circles lead you out. Straight lines are for highways, Americans, even the straight streets here lean eventually into curves, then circles, map as kaleidoscope. Returned to the main street facing the highway with a wave, I park next to a glassy high-rise and catch my breath. It’s hot, my son is hungry, we need to walk, to move our bodies without mechanical interference. We find a café a few blocks away near a public pool, and it’s past 1400 so they’re cleaned out of most sandwiches, but luckily still have croissant and one pain au chocolat. And water. Lots of water. I order in French but the owners, a couple, know I’m American. I bet it’s more the residue of panic than my accent that gives me away. Probably it’s both. Either way, we’re grateful for the cool air and sustenance. We all eat, speak quietly, breathe. When I can’t stand to sit any longer, we go back into the heat to find an ATM for toll cash, find where we parked, fix the settings in the navigation to avoid the streets on our way to Arles, to stay on the highway until we arrive.
Peregrination: Reading Continuity
Today on the train to Lyon, just past the Italian border, I witnessed French police detain a Senegalese man and his aged mother, who was blind in one eye and used a cane. I wrote six pages as I tried not to weep, as I tried not to rage at the old French women across the aisle making jokes with the conductor afterward, about something else, but who could laugh after that. I’m too exhausted to type my notes up. Maybe tomorrow. For now the policemen’s voices, as they perused the man’s passport, echo: C’est toi? The skepticism. The determination not to let them through—
July 27, 2019
The origin stories at the Musée des Confluences coupled with Eternities made me think again of Brand’s comment, how she says “too much has been made of origins” (69). Surrounded by enough artifacts, living or preserved, understanding becomes more concrete. Access to knowledge dissolves the petty geographies we use to define ourselves, the enforced cultural separations of peoples. We are all just trying to tell our stories, to be accurate, to stay alive. Correction. Replace “to be accurate” with “to dominate” in too many cases. Domination requires the absence of accuracy, the sinister invention of hierarchy when it comes to who can provide that accuracy. Trust. We’re back to that.
Interesting that the museum places modern inventions alongside ancient ones, and alongside the minerals used to create things like telephones and cars. At first, I felt like it was a reach. But okay, I’ll buy that we are part of inventive continuity. We are.
There are a lot of dance videos accompanying the African artifacts. I wonder if African museums have videos of Europeans dancing in their museums. That will be my next trip, climate (political and weather) willing, after I finish getting my son through college. A fiftieth birthday present to myself, perhaps—Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. Maybe Morocco will come sooner. I don’t feel the urge to go to Egypt. I’ve known too many Egyptian men and how they talk; it seems like a place for men to explore somewhat freely, and women to escape.
I am thinking about ease and force. All the determination I’ve cultivated and now I’m unlearning my habit of forcing things. Imagining and experiencing ease, a slower pace, conclusions arrived at naturally versus aggressively investigated and planned to the limit. As sparkling as it feels to slow down, I worry a little about lost momentum.
A month into our travel and the European countryside looks as common as Kansas plains. The lone edifices, ancient or not, occupied or not, among vineyards and fields just breathing space before our next stop. We’ve seen so much we didn’t expect. In rereading Baudrillard’s America on the train, an exercise in stopping and starting, I keep coming back to the paragraphs about MOVE:
In Philadelphia, a radical sect named ‘MOVE,’ with a bizarre set of rules, including one forbidding the practice of autopsy and the removal of rubbish, is cleared out by the police, who kill eleven people by fire and burn down thirty adjacent houses, including those (the irony of it!) of all the neighbours who had called for the sect to be removed.
This, too is a clean-up operation. They are getting rid of rubbish and patina, getting back to an original state of cleanliness, restoring. ‘Keep America clean.’ And that smile everyone gives you as they pass, that friendly contraction of the jaws triggered by human warmth. It is the eternal smile of communication, the smile through which the child becomes aware of the presence of others, or struggles desperately with the problem of their presence. (33)
Baudrillard neglects to mention race; perhaps he felt unqualified to examine it, perhaps he mistakenly believed it held no relevance to the policing of a nonconformist population inhabiting a place. Poetry to me is not the smile or the struggle, not the policing or the violent act of destruction. The poetics of this experience resides in the exclamation (“oh the irony!”)—what we feel in the moment of grasping, trying to capture that feeling in an image or a sentence. The poetics of trust is the act of trusting that feeling and its manifest expression. Rightness and wrongness lose the weight of the absolute in the face of acknowledgement of feeling, and we then must make a choice to surrender to the authentic feeling, or smile—wear the mask, as Dunbar wrote.
I know my son masks his misery, often, and even his exuberance in order to move through the world without triggering policing attention to himself. I love him so much. He’s so brave to do this world traveling with me; he didn’t want to, but in the end the promise of pleasure (food) won out. Writing a poem is like this action: risking the wound. Risking the wound for the sake of pleasure, beauty. I hope this trip has gathered acknowledgment of that courage more closely to his conscious mind, his intuitive heart, to his creative practice. He’s been writing on the road, too, a novel. Today he tells me he’s on chapter four.
On the SNCF train to Girona
The places we pass in the countrysides of Italy and France have enough dilapidation to qualify them for squalor. But we romanticize it as ruin. In Rome and Milan, I hear they say “Throw a rock, hit a ruin.” They build on top.
If that’s the case, they should resettle the immigrants they harass to build on top of the emptiness. There is room to rectify the mistakes of empire.
We’ve found our way back to Spain. I’m out for a walk alone, not for long because I’ve taken my braces out, but I went up the Avenida, turned left and passed the tourist Game of Thrones spots but found no croissants. So much of my life in Europe is a morning hunt for croissants. I’ll go back, pass the busker guitaring by the €3 throne posing station. Perhaps I’ll take one later, tomorrow maybe, when I have cash; perhaps not. It doesn’t feel like why I’m here anymore. There’s peace in this very old city, beauty, but also the workers busy supplying the demand, edifices being structured. I hear German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Catalan.
I notice that I get more strange looks when out alone. The thing of the body I cannot escape, no matter what I wear or how I do my hair or where I am. To be honest I’m ready to go home. I feel like I am withering from lack of understanding, but it’s not true. I understand too much. But I am not used to relying only on feeling, informed intuition, and research. I miss the security of language, my language, however false that familiarity might be. And I am a tourist. I cannot imagine the courage of an immigrant, forced to the foreign.
A music festival is coming to Girona tonight. May I be made at ease enough in myself to go out and enjoy it.
Why do origins make us think about the future?
Maybe it is too late for us. Arctic fires, mass shootings, rapey demagogues, concentration camps, police violence, deadly heat waves, mass migration due to climate change. Maybe the world as we know it is ending and we have to change our lives accordingly or be ready to die—maybe there’s no maybe about any of it.
July 31, 2019
When, after the 2016 election, I said to the holocaust survivor (whose memoir I was helping to transcribe and edit) that America felt like 1930s Germany, she didn’t agree. She came to America believing in the dream, having barely escaped a nightmare, and wouldn’t believe her experience could be replicated. She’s twice my age. What did I know? We don’t talk anymore because she wanted me to spend my every spare moment helping her publish the book, but then wouldn’t listen to my suggestions. I wonder what she thinks about America now.
August 2, 2019
My oldest sister had a heart attack yesterday, causing a bad fall. They say she will be okay, but it will be a long recovery. It is hard to write.
I have mostly avoided cathedrals on this trip, but we went inside L’Église de Saint-Ouen, or Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, since, according to the plaque outside it, this church is the site of the declaration of Joan of Arc’s innocence—the place where clergy cleared her of charges of heresy. It is technically an abbey, and the first religious site visit since our first trip to Girona. The gothic sharpness of the towers outside, the vaulted sweep of the naves inside, the stone saints and kings lining the walls, the lit prayer candles, the gigantic black Cavaillé-Coll organ adorned with angels and filling the room and our bodies with a deep and vibrating and uplifting sonic manifestation of worship—I felt unspeakably moved. I smile (oh the irony!) at the thought of a Muslim praying for her loved ones in a 14th-century Christian cathedral. My son said he could understand religion now, faced with the very spiritual grandeur of this church. I couldn’t stop looking up. Then, after a silence, my son said: look down. The stained-glass windows had thrown rainbows onto the stone floor, staggered rectangles of color and light at our feet.
August 3, 2019
My sister’s head has 14 staples in it.
August 4, 2019
I am in the Musée des Beaux Arts, the Braque/Calder/Miró exhibition room. Braque’s paintings are super dark—contrast of color and texture, subject matter and style. Les Oiseaux Noirs: 1956-7, blackbirds on black cloud shape on blue sky, roughened with clumps of blue paint and hints of white underneath, no glaze. This is postwar so he’s let blue in. The wartime still lifes, though: gray, grave, harsh. The birds look like the heads of axes in both periods.
I am also thinking of the photos of the artists on the beach and driving a Bugatti. It all seems so glamorous, but I don’t particularly care for the glamour—old news, boring. I am interested in just being able to work. I am jealous that they were able to do their work. I want a studio so badly I can taste it. I had to come here to figure that out, right? Spend all these thousands? I could’ve spent it on a tutor for my son and (oh the irony!) studio time. But education and permission are expensive.
This trip has changed our lives in many ways—food and its importance being the primary change, and related, taking time for pleasure, finally appreciating the value of it. I am writing but it is not a great pleasure anymore. It has become work and I am a good worker. What if I was good at pleasure? I would like to try that. I don’t know how, but I feel like art is the key to that. I know that by next year this time I will have studio space.
I feel stronger here. More in tune with my body and with my son’s health needs. I am going to be overwhelmed with to-dos when we return, lots of doctor and dental appointments and getting him ready for school, finding time to finish this dissertation, going to see about my sister (who is now awake and able to speak in a whisper), and getting my apartment ready for my mother to stay. I am so glad to have had this time to write and reflect outside of familiar sights, outside of my language. I am not really ready to process all of these emotional changes, but I am ready to be unafraid to continue.