And sometimes artists do (geo)politics too

I pull back the little ticker on my Hello Kitty first generation fish eye film camera. Shane is fidgeting in the corner, shuffling back and forth from one foot to the other, looking at notes on his miniature phone screen that is sure to give us all eye problems in a few decades. I walk up to the one of the two circle windows in the door. I wait for the woman distributing exam packets to turn around and look into the camera. Click.

An hour later, I’m listening to Sufjan Stevens outside those doors, fidgeting on my own, waiting for Shane to come out so we can go get a drink together.

Sujet:

Donnez un exemple de crise ou de tension politiques liées à des contestation de frontières. Vous en expliquerez le contexte et en présenterez les acteurs en une dizaine de lignes.

Dans un paragraphe argumenté d’une page recto environ, vous analyserez l’enracinement de l’islamisme jihadiste au Proche-Orient en éclairant la diversité des facteurs qui ont mené à la situation actuelle.

Did you understand that? Are you French? If the answers to both of those were no, then good. Because before this past weekend, and definitely this semester, I would have had no idea how to answer either of those essay questions that were on our Géopolitiques de la Méditerranée exam at Sciences Po. But in the past 24 hours, I’ve finally clicked everything together from this semester in this class, about water, petrol, oil, gas, Syria, Iran, Irak, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Kurdistan, Cypress, West Bank, Gaza Strip, Greece, the involvement of America, Russia, the UK. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the exam grading, I don’t know half of what there is to know about this, but I do know enough now to not feel spiteful towards the news channel. I know how to talk about terrorism, fear, violence and not speak out of my ass like Donald Trump. The only problem is that we learned it all in French.

For example, I think I might have been the only one who didn’t know for about a month and a half that Cisjordanie (which I thought I just didn’t know) is just The West Bank. Or that neither Shane or I knew that Chypre was Cypress. Or that alaouite, a minority branch of chiisme, is not à la huit (in the style of the eights?)

We got wine, and coffee, four of us, at our usual place, Happy Days. I have two more exams to go, but today was really the end of my academic time here in Aix. I said goodbye to one of my friends in the class, and have been avoiding seeing friends so as to avoid having to say goodbye to anyone. I’ve said goodbye to many things, and I am still not getting any better at it.  I think about what we’ve learned in this class, about the flow of resources, the lack thereof, the flow of migrants and refugees, and what it must be like to learn how to say goodbye to so much more. It is a privilege to say goodbye knowing you can say hello again someday.

Four days left, and I think I’m going to ask my host mom to bring up my suitcases tonight so I can start packing. Funny how the act of packing is a distraction from thinking about leaving. I’m not leaving yet. I’m not leaving. I’m not.

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I’ll write in French when I’m nostalgic for France (Oh, wait, already there now)

This was the first Denis Roche photograph that caught my eye at the Pavillon Populaire au Montpellier. I sent it to a friend, who responded with, “I can’t even see her,” and perhaps that is what I first noticed.  I’m trying to figure out how we disappear, where we begin to fade into the background or just fade completely out of the picture. I’m trying to figure out if I will start disappearing from here. The past week I’ve spent most of my time reflecting and writing about El Camino, which I was revived into thinking about after my discussion with Brahim about it. he taught me a new word that I fell in love with: “décroissement,” a) the waning of the moon or b) the ralentissement (slowing down) of pace of life.

I’ve been taking photos of distances lately, far off things like:

I wonder what it is about diminishing perspective that is so fascinating. As I described about what I thought of walking, “I register it in terms of perpetually diminishing distance, the way a harmonic series as n approaches infinity goes towards, but never reaches, zero.” For the past few weeks already, every so often the phrase “I can’t believe we’re leaving so soon” comes up in conversation like a sentence filler or a pause in thought. I still cannot believe we are leaving so soon, because until we do, I’m not sure I will believe it. To me, we we will always be walking down the hallway of a harmonic series.

I am sitting next to my host sister in the living room, and it is a strange feeling, to be next to someone who will sleep in the same apartment as me tonight, but who will leave early in the morning before I wake up for her Christmas break. When I wake up, she will be gone, and unless I return, or she decides to miraculously visit Hong Kong or America, there is a very small chance I will ever see her again. It is strange to say goodbye to someone before they leave. I am determined to come back to France, to go to Montpellier next summer because I would really love to be in France again, and because I’m kicking myself for not having chosen to stay longer when I still could. But I wonder how much of that is because I really don’t want to say goodbye, because saying “I’ll be right back,” is easier than saying “I might never come back,” even if deep down, I know that I might not be back for sure.

It is wonderful sitting here, looking at this, knowing home is right here, where I am. I’m hoping it will stay, this time.

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Hello From The Other Side

It’s been so long since I last wrote, over a month, the insanity of which is that it feels like I just got back from vacation and was uploading photos of my time with Sofi. I’m not even going to try to recount the past few weeks, because it won’t even skin the surface and will only make me sad to be leaving. Today is the 3rd of December and I leave in less than 17 days back for Hong Kong. This past Monday, I was sitting in my 9 am class, bemoaning the early morning as habit has taken on, and suddenly I felt my stomach turn inside out: one and a half week left of classes, a few days of finals, and we’re off.

I remember leaving for El Camino, sitting on the airplane thinking how fou it was to be leaving on a trip alone for a month; sitting on the plane on my way back to New York after I was finished, my stomach tightened with tears as I realized why I was feeling so lonely – because I had never been travelling alone, all throughout the Camino. The same has happened here; I’ve made friends, been with a wonderful family, seen so many things, and the thought of leaving that is devastating.

So yesterday, I decided, on a complete whim, to take some time off for myself, to be alone. I finally figured out why I love travelling alone so much: I took a BlaBlaCar from Aix to Montpellier, and had the most wonderful conversation in the car with the driver, Brahim, and the other passenger in the car, Romaine. We talked about teaching, languages, ecology, El Camino, time, modernity, everything. It was incredible, meeting people just by chance in this way. This morning I grabbed coffee with Brahim and he took me around to two lovely museums for photography and one that used to be a university laboratory, and we took a walk in the Promenade Peyrou, which was gorgeous, and so tranquil. I spent the day yesterday walking around Montpellier, going to the Musée Fabre, seeing a show, Charlotte Salomon, at a local theatre here, writing, reading, walking, talking to the Japanese lady at the tourist office, meeting new friends and people – that’s the best thing about travelling, and alone. I had been so overwhelmed by this anticipation of leaving, anxiousness of departure, that I had no idea how to enjoy being here, right now. One of the things I have come to learn but will never be able to fully understand, is how the French can maintain friendships without ever really trying to see each other: you can be best friends with someone and have no idea what they’ve been doing for the past two weeks until you see them again when you both happen to be free, and that’s okay. For me, there is a constant anxiety of how to maintain friendships and relationships, and I’m learning to let that go. At least that’s what I’m telling myself that so that one day I will know to come back and think of this still as home.

I would love to be in Montpellier next summer. I have no idea how to make that happen, but I’m sure I will, judging by the fact that apparently badgering people into employing me has worked in the past. It’s ironic because Hong Kong and Yale are both places that I’ve come to think of as homes, but the idea of leaving, of going back to anywhere else is terrifying. I was sitting in the tram just a half hour ago, reading my book on the Mediterranean, when I heard a huge crowd of voices load onto the tram. I received a phone call from a friend, which I picked up and I spoke briefly in French. I looked back and saw a crew of men and women, one of whom was wearing a jacket with the Canadian flag, talking and laughing in English. I turned back a little and saw a little old French men smiling at me, as if to say, I know, those North Americans am I right? I’m not French, let’s just make that clear. But if I thought being stuck between Hong Kong and America was confusing, being here on this hiatus of identity makes it almost impossible to go back to myself, it seems.

I’ve been trying to take more photos. I’ve stopped documenting my own face as much. I’m hoping I remember all this as well as I have experienced it. I am desperately trying to write about it. I am giving myself the space to go back and live it a little more before I go. I am hoping it does not forget me just as I will be holding onto it.