Thursday, 25 August 2016

The trouble with bikes

Another week on and we are on the Île de Ré. This is a beautiful - although a tad overpopulated in August - island, all hollyhocks and terracotta-roofed shacks with shutters in Farrow and Ball colours, local markets in every village offering the best of French produce on your doorstep and people sat outside bars at all hours drinking the local wines. Ramshackle shutters and rusty bikes. It's idyllic. Just wait till I find my camera cable to show you.

And I've been facing a demon. The other thing about the Île de Ré is that almost everyone goes around on a bike. Now it's a shameful thing to admit, but I only learned to ride a bike about 5 years ago, at a time when the eldest child started talking about it. I had a vision of us learning together, and then family bike rides, whirring along together happily, and certainly not the reality where the family whirred off and I clanked to a halt, beaten by a complete lack of confidence and an inability to believe I could actually pass anyone without crashing into them or falling off, the afternoon ending invariably with hot tears of fury and my poor bike being thrown onto the grass in despair.

Over the years people have tried to persuade me that I could overcome this; just a bit more practice and I'd be there. I'd love to believe it. It's true that I often look upon cycling friends with some envy, but it's in the same way as I feel envious of birds for being able to fly: they're just a different species to me. The world of feeling safe on a road, of being competent enough to lift a hand off the handlebars to indicate, is a million miles away. And actually that's fine. I've had years and years of skirting around biking conversations, of making up excuses, of finding a different way of getting about, and so the thought of being mobile on something two-wheeled feels utterly alien.

But the images I saw of this place, this beautiful island, persuaded me that I really needed to come here, and that the ideal thing to do what be to hire a tandem, as well as bring the children's bikes. It is too big an island for walking, and it would be too slovenly to drive everywhere. So we have a big beast of a thing, a masterpiece of archaic French fabrication, with enormous fat saddles and a rather nasty French superiority complex. Before I'd seen it, I had visions of growing to love it, our trusty steed, but I'm not sure this is happening. I wish it had a name, but like farm animals heading for the slaughterhouse, I'm not sure it would be wise.

It is in so many ways an abusive relationship: why would I ever fall in love with something that every time it looks at me, it reminds me of my failure and ineptitude... this contraption with its smug bell and smirking handlebars laughs in my face, clipping me with something sharp every time I try to manhandle it, and then looks away coyly, denying all knowledge. Every day, no matter what I do, it brands me with the Mark of Idiocy for all to see, a right calf black with oily chain marks; some days I look like I've been run over. And then there's the constant physical abuse. Every evening, shifting position tenderly on the sofa, I remember that this is the pain I had in my mind when I recently translated the sentence about examining for bruising and lacerations in "how to care for rape victims" for a French charity. This is clearly not a love story.

And yet I have to admit that were it not for this two-wheeled, two-seated cantankerous beast, there are things I would never have seen or experienced, and the joy of a cool breeze on a 33-degree day as we are freewheeling so fast that the children get out of earshot is hard to beat. I've seen acres of grapevines, with birds of prey hovering overhead, waiting for something interesting to eat, such as a rabbit that races across the path ahead. I've been on cycle paths with eery still salt marshes on either side, and nothing else for miles. I've passed shacks overlooking the sea masquerading as restaurants selling just one thing, with tables and wineglasses set out around their own oyster beds. I've been to every branch of La Martinière, the island's top ice cream producer, officially ranked among France's top 5 ice cream makers, and tried everything from local melon, to raspberry and red pepper, to caramelised potato flavour (although all my bravery was used up on the bike so I didn't have any spare for the oyster and caviar ice cream). And there is a joy about having cycled 12 miles and therefore feeling entitled to order up a big plate of fruits de mer for lunch to give me strength for the journey home.

Maybe it's not all over for the bike yet. Although I do need some similar incentives to make me want to keep going when I get home.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The same but different

I’ve left a cable at home. Only a very short cable of little consequence, but it’s not with me, and I feel a little lost without it. It’s the cable that lets me download photos from my camera to a computer, so that I can put them on here or put them on Facebook. It makes me feel a little dislocated that I can’t do that, but it also forces me to be a little more balanced and to remember the important stuff of life. But being the vacuous, self-absorbed person that I am, I can’t let a holiday go by without mouthing off in some way about it to anyone who will listen, and so, after a breakfast on the beach of boulangerie brioche, unctuous salty Breton butter, raspberry and black cherry jam, I sit here typing, in the hope that my words can conjure up the pictures I wanted to show you.

In any case, so far the photos I’ve taken are nearly identical to the ones I took this time last year, so here by some internet magic are a few glimpses. Some things have though changed. We thought we’d never be able to come back here after the old man died last year, but one of the daughters has taken on the mantle and is busying herself with letting the house out and slowly renovating it. Some new furniture has arrived, and some fripperies: new light fittings, a clock, coat hooks and some splashes of bold modern art to replace the fading prints of dark floral still lives, semi-religious portraits and holographic landscapes. The art would work, would fit in perfectly, except that it clashes terribly with the wallpaper that hasn’t gone yet.

Worryingly our perfect house, this house of my dreams where I hope to spend every summer for eternity, this secret house that I’ve always told people about without giving away too many details, in case they book it when I want it, is now on Airbnb. This makes me feel a little sullied; don’t they know it’s my house? I don’t want to read what other people have thought of my house. I don’t really want to believe that anyone else has ever stayed here. I remember once years ago feeling indignant at the sight of a German hair gel tube in the bathroom bin.

But apart from this, life goes on. This time it's only for a week as we're being devils and trying something new next week, adding a sense of urgency to our love of this place. The sea comes up and goes down; my early morning swim revives me and when it’s too hot, or I'm frustrated with stubborn children, a dip makes me feel calmer. I wander alone through the water, hermit crabs and unknown creatures racing out of the way, leaving a trail of sand-disturbed cloud in the water; I float on my back looking up at the cloudless sky. We have the mornings to ourselves, the beach a magical secret, and then French people of all ages come along after their lunch, from 3 o’clock onwards, to leave at 7 o’clock when their dinner beckons. The beach is a great equalizer: all in swimwear, no bulges disguised, all of us unable to walk elegantly over the narrow shelly section on the way to the sea where we wince and hobble. We spend all day outside, the salt drying on us, making a lick of the lips after a juicy peach all the more surprising. I have a simple lunch of bread and cheese then realise that I've got seven different sorts of cheese on my plate. The langoustines are still great and the cakes still more buttery, sweet and salty than the cakes anywhere else. Life isn't bad.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Life, death, positivity and talking

I often wonder why I write a blog. It happened at first because I wanted to sell some art and it was a shout for publicity. But it's evolved over the years and became a more random unravelling of my thoughts. I sometimes do it just to get something off my chest and work it through (very occasionally not having a clue of the ending when I start typing) for a bit of catharsis: for example my European rant recently. Sometimes it's because I've made something to eat that's been so good that I want everyone else in the world to make it too. Sometimes it's more of a diary. Sometimes it's pretty pointless. A holiday story. An excuse for a photo. Sometimes I imagine that I'm talking just to certain people. Sometimes I forget that other people may read, and am embarrassed when people I don't know very well talk to me about it. Sometimes it's just for me, but it's fine if you want to read it too. The truth is that I never know who reads it, and I'll never know who thinks it's rubbish, and who likes it. And actually that's fine.

I've thought about this more often recently. Last week I found out that a fellow translation student had died of cancer. It sounds sad, and of course it is, and I was moved by the news. Which is understandable until I tell you that I never met her. Never spoke to her. Never even exchanged emails. But she - and until I came on the scene, only she - had made use of the university's translation MA blogspace. She too had used it in different ways, over the course of several years: sometimes to discuss theorists and talk about how frustrated she was with some of the theories on translation being argued over, sometimes to work out a structure for an essay or a learning log, sometimes to voice her fears on returning to academia after years away from it. From her comments it was clear she was a little bothered that nobody else joined her. And after a couple of months I did join her, just the once, writing a little frippery, carefully avoiding anything academic to ensure I didn't end up looking stupid in front of any tutors, but instead going for a piece about how, in my limited experience, linguists tend to be rather quiet and, like her, bemoaned the fact that on our university online forum hardly anyone types anything, wondering how annoying I must be to the quiet ones. She agreed in her next - and final - entry, a few weeks later, and urged everyone to 'feed back, emote, speak, ponder, mull over, chew the cud...', and like me, talked about the awkwardness of feeling that you are doing a lot more talking (or writing) than anyone else.

After the news of her death, it turned out that quite a few people, including me, wrote emails or comments to the tutor and most said the same thing: that they had read her blog, and it had been a very real source of comfort, of inspiration and hope in a dark hour when you have a deadline looming.

I wonder if she knew that?

I've said it on here before, and I'll probably say it again, but the end of the school year always feels like my New Year's Eve, my time to take stock and think about how far I've come. Often - as with New Year's Eve, it feels a maudlin time of 'another year gone, nothing changed' but this year I feel more positive than I've felt for a long time. After a fulfilling year studying, I now spend my spare time weaving words together in voluntary translations for a French charity, deep in the details of severe malnutrition, refugee crises, epidemic management, gender-based violence and how to examine and interview rape victims. It's sometimes gory and gritty, but here in my lovely warm house, surrounded by all the food I could ever need, and people who care for me, it's made me feel more fortunate than ever before. And I want to tell people about it. I feel like me again. And one of the things I'm thinking about more and more is that we need to acknowledge the good things more, or nobody will know how good they are, until it's too late.

It's good to talk.