Marseilles by night, not at its greatest

A few days ago, I found myself stranded in Marseilles at night, after the bus I was supposed to take turned up full. Not a problem; I could always hop on a rented bike and make my way back to the train station. The streets were mostly empty of cars at that time, although lots of people were still leaving bars on foot. I couldn’t follow the traffic, and so I ended up fumbling a little to find where I was supposed to be riding, and that’s how (as I later discovered), I failed to notice the traffic light.

I rode about a hundred metres before a police car slowed down beside me. I didn’t realise they were stopping for me at first, and I just ignored them. It was only when the man on the passenger seat angrily shouted at me to stop that I realised there was a problem. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what it was.

‘What do you think I’m stopping you for?’ he shouted. ‘To look at your legs?’

He let me stand there completely puzzled for a couple of minutes before he deigned reveal that I had ridden straight through the red light – which I hadn’t seen, having come from the wrong side of the road. When it became obvious that I truly hadn’t seen it, he didn’t relent. I should have taken a taxi if I was in ‘that state’, he said. I was putting myself in danger, I deserved to be fined, and later at night when I took off my makeup (I wasn’t wearing any), I should really take the time to think about what I’d done. After a couple of minutes, I tried to cut him short by telling him that I had my walet with me and was ready to pay the fine, since I’d obviously made a mistake. That was not what he wanted; he told me one more time how irresponsible I was, and then drove on.

I then cycled all the way to the train station, pausing at every light (as I always do, at least when I see them) and watching other cyclists gleefully ride on every time the light turned red. I missed my bus by just a couple of minutes and had to wait for half an hour before I could finally go home.

The part that nnoyed me about this incident was not that this policeman stopped me. He was right to do so; I’d made an honest mistake, but it was still a mistake. I’m fine with the fact that he shouted, too, although I have absolutely no illusions about it – if I had been a man, I’m positive he would not have taken the risk of entering a shouting match. But what was the need to mention my legs? Or my (visibly non-existent) makeup? To imply that I was an irresponsible party girl who should take a taxi instead of riding home on her own? I’m quite certain that in this case, he would have done better to hand me a breathalyser. Instead I had to stand still and bow my head through five minutes of angry lecture that eventually made me miss my bus home.

I know that policemen are understaffed and that they put up with more aggressiveness than they should on a daily basis. The thing is, that’s the story of my life, too. I’m a teacher. I put up with bullshit all the time. Do I start shouting at students even when I don’t genuinely think they deserve punishment? No. I punish them when I need to and give them a friendly warning otherwise. And I certainly don’t humiliate them based on their gender.

I know that these people didn’t know about me. They don’t know that I’m one of few cyclists in the area who actually take the trouble of respecting traffic regulations, instead of acting like I’m some sort of cross between a pedestrian and a car and therefore I get a free pass everywhere. They don’t know I’ve grown up around here, and therefore I’m always careful whatever the lights look like, because I’ve seen so many drivers fail to heed them anyway. But still. I’m doing my best, all the time. One of the reasons I don’t want to drive is that someone has to use public transports, if we want to get rid of the dictature of cars one of these days. Very often, it’s a pain in the backside to wait for the bus or take a bike when it’s late at night and I’m tired, but I still do it. And I insist on going wherever I want at whatever hour I want precisely because I’m a woman and I’m tired to hearing that I shouldn’t be allowed to go out on my own because of my gender. And the one time I make a tiny mistake, what do I get? A humiliating dressing-down by strangers who call me a drunk bimbo and tell me I shouldn’t be allowed outside on my own, and who tell me I should shell out for a taxi, all because the city can’t be arsed to have enough fucking buses circulating at night.

 

Rappers on the bus

Got stuck in traffic yesterday, so badly that it took us an hour and a half to extirpate ourselves from Marseilles. Fifteen minutes after the ride started, two blokes behind me started chatting each other up. Well, chatting each other up in a ‘bro’ sort of way, I mean: becoming friends, all the while carefully mentionning their love of pretty girls just in case there was any ambiguity, in a way that reminded me of what so many women do when getting acquainted with a man–mentioning The Boyfriend as often as possible in case someone accused them of sending mixed signals after the first 94827 mentions went unnoticed.

Funny how so many men sound the same when trying to get into someone’s good graces. ‘Chatting up’ often amounts to a long, very long sales pitch. What they do now. What they’ve done. What they like. What they are like. There are questions interspersed in the middle of course, most of the times (after all, most men are reasonably competent when it comes to social interaction), but they’re not the focus of conversation. What they’re really here for is try and get out as much information about themselves as they possibly can. That’s how I learned that both these young men were rappers, that one of them MC’d for a crew with a name in the form of a disreputable pun about a famous landmark in Aix, that they both were very proud of drinking like fishes, partying like there’s no tomorrow and shagging like rabbits (but only girls, remember), that one came from the Alps and was recently back from Paris where partying had wrung him dry, that they loved travelling, especially to faraway, exotic places, that they wrote very deep shit, man, that they knew the value of keeping calm and carrying on even in the direst and most exhausting circumstances like their bus being late, and that one of them was performing this very night. I also leaned their names and the name of their crew, which I subsequently googled because I had nothing better to do (I considered adding one of them on Facebook just for giggles, but I’m not that stalkerish). They talked quite loud and, entertaining as the conversation was, I considered politely asking them to shut the fuck up at some point because I’d had a long day too, when one of them exclaimed–

‘Look! Over there! A rainbow! Crap, it’s behind the building, you’re going to miss it. No, no, it’s back! Look!’

And that’s how they started talking about how cool rainbows were and comparing the best rainbows they had seen in their lives in the most impressive locations. They still had the same teenage world-weary tones, but they were talking about rainbows. Just like that, they went from annoying to endearing. I suppose I’ve been spending too much time around teenagers…

That Internet being the wonderful thing it is, here’s what the first one’s music sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZLt5bJIz94

Presidential

First presidential election I was aware of: 1995. France’s longest-running president, François Mitterand, is retiring. This is the time when I learn about the difference between right-wing and left-wing, about the environmentalist party (that was still a thing in France back then), and about the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who became a big name in French politics by barking like a mad dog about how evil foreigners are and how we should re-establish the death penalty. We’ve just learned about the French Revolution in class, and I’m fascinated with politics. I put the ballot in the enveloppe myself. I’m ten years old, and a few weeks prior, after my teacher ripped off a page from my copybook for not having used the right layout, I’ve written ‘They cut off trees to make paper’ across the page before handing it to her, which left her speechless. I’m confident we’ll manage to change the world. After all, we already did, once.

Second-ever presidential election: I’m seventeen, six months shy of my majority. I can’t vote yet, but when they announce that Jean-Marie Le Pen has arrived second, and will run against Jacques Chirac for the title of president, I decide to do what I can. I go on marches and rallies against the National Front, in a purely symbolic attempt to remind everyone that most of our country is still not okay with voting for a neo-fascist. In my school, someone has printed out a picture of a mass grave in a Nazi concentration camp, plastered it to the school wall and scribbled ‘Do you really want to vote for the man who denied THIS?’ (among other things, Le Pen was a notorious Holocaust denier). In the end, Le Pen is soundly defeated, and everyone breathes out a sigh of relief.

The next elections are far less eventful. A new concept has been introduced: the ‘useful vote’. People are told that if they don’t vote for a candidate from one of the majority parties, they will scatter votes and somehow this will magically result in having a member of the Le Pen dynasty make the second round of the election again. At uni, I’m a member of the environmentalist student union. Other, bigger unions loathe us, not because they disagree with us, but because we ‘divide student votes’, according to them. They brilliantly exert democracy by ripping off our posters at election times and harassing us at meetings. Two more presidents are elected. They reach unheard-of levels of unpopularity. Everybody talks about the economic crisis, about insecurity, and later, terrorism. Of course there are still far fewer victims of terrorism and insecurity than, say, domestic violence or alcoholism (not to mention traffic accidents), but then have electoral debates ever been rational? Never mind, we vote. It’s still a democracy, or so we’re told. And there are still people who want to change the world.

2017. Emmanuel Macron, a centrist-liberal who wants to change absolutely nothing to the current economic system, is elected. Nobody knows why. Most of those who voted for him did so out of the conviction that they had to ‘vote usefully’, meaning that you have to vote for the person the polls tell you will be elected, or else you’re not on the winning team or something. Apparently someone changed the definition of ‘democracy’ while everybody was sleeping. Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie who proudly upholds the family tradition of raging fascism, gets one third of the votes. One third.

I still want to change the world, I really do. I teach my students about human rights and women’s rights and I teach them how to recognise plants on school trips so that hopefully they will learn what biodiversity means, I buy organic food, I mend my clothes, I take public transport all the time, I avoid taking planes, I’ve chosen to work part-time because I believe that excess individual wealth is a source of both social inequalities and environmental disaster, and it’s useless to have political principles if you don’t live by them yourself. I try to do my share. It’s tiny, but I’m doing what I can. I want to change the world. And I know I’m not the only one.

But for God’s sake, people. We need your help out here.

The Island Girls

I posted this story a few years ago on melimuses, a Livejournal community created after the publication of Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month. One of the challenges was to write stories, in the spirit of pastiche, inspired by various sorts of honey. I thought of a rare sort of honey made from the flowers of arbutus trees, trees with clusters of white flowers and red berries that grow around the Mediterranean. Having recently come back from a holiday in the place this story references, I wanted to put it back up. It is loosely inspired by a legend about the islands in Hyères, or Golden Islands, although I have no idea how ancient this ‘legend’ actually is.

They were four maidens, swimming in the tideless sea. They were maidens, but they were turned into islands.

Pirates from Greece and Barbary often swooped on the kingdom, yet the king let his daughters swim in the high sea, alone. His warriors liked to watch them from their ships, glittering like nereids, and hoped to catch a peek of their naked breasts, yet the king let them swim. It was said that the maidens could swim so fast that their hair turned into seaweed and their arms into foam, and if you tried to catch them your hands would close on sea water, and you would only hear their laugh.

One day the king heard bells, and saw foreign sails on the horizon. He ran to the shore and heard his daughters playing. The enemy sails were approaching and he called out to them, Swim back!

They dove into the waves and darted to the shore. They were so far, the ships so close. And what king believes folk legends about seaweed and invisible girls?

So he prayed that the gods would spare his daughters’ honour. And all the time they swam, desperately. One, the fastest of all, was almost touching the shore. But her father prayed on. Soon the gods heard him: for the honour of a king’s daughters, they can be moved to act. One by one the girls froze. They swelled and rose in the waves, their bodies breaking, screaming in agony, engulfing the pirates’ ships in their death of rocks and salt. For they were dying; and the swiftest one gave one last cry to her father and clung to the shore and her arms turned to sand, and her pleading tears gathered in a bitter pool between them.

They’re maidens still, stranded in the deep sea. But they grew fruitful: like Daphne gave men her laurel leaves and Arethusa her sweet waters, their rocky limbs bore myrtles and arbutus trees. Summer or winter, they flower, green and fragrant with pines, shrub oaks and heather, and centuries have made them drowsy and appeased. Yet how could they forget how their father prayed on, when they called to him for mercy? How he gave up their lives while his warriors feasted in the port? The gods made the arbutus trees bloom with chaste white bells in their honour, every spring. But the islands couldn’t forget, and when the flowers turned to fruit, their berries were prickly, hard and tart, and bright red, like the blood the maidens never got to shed.

So the gods sent the bees and told them to turn the flowers into the whitest, sweetest honey they could make. But the bees knew how the maidens had been wronged, and thought that men shouldn’t forget. They harvested the thick white honey so the gods would be pleased, honey whose first taste was sweet on the tongue. Only after came the bitterness: a choking taste like poison, coating the throat, stinging the palate, yet mingled with such delicious softness that it is impossible not to taste it again, and again, until it is so bitter that the eyes fill with tears and the throat contracts into speechlessness, so strong is the taste of grief long forgotten, so pungent it made even the gods cry.

Thus the bees keep the memory of the island maidens.

Letting the desert in

I know the news may be properly shocking, but there it is: Trees are not our enemies.

Trees are not dirty. Yes, sometimes they produce pollen or fruit, and if you park a car underneath, it may get dirty. Sometimes they are even home to birds, and birds–the horror!–defecate like any other animal. Sometimes they grow roots under the asphalt and bend it a little. It’s not convenient when you carry a wheeled suitcase or pram, I’ll grant you that. Some people even call it dangerous. People could fall and everything. And there’s the shadow, too, it’s not like we can afford to waste an single sunray when we spend our days locked up in offices under artificial lighting, can we? I understand.

Recently, I’ve heard talks to:

Suggest that we destroy the shrubbery around the building we live in to create new parking space.

Suggest cutting trees that ‘threaten to fall any moment’, also around our building (I’ve yet to find out which trees that would be, as they are all perfectly healthy).

Cut off most plane trees in the city centre–as a matter of fact, I had to get up early last Wednesday to protest against their (unadvertised) destruction. The city council argues that they are hopelessly damaged by parasites and could fall off any day. When pressed to prove why trees were so dangerous, they had to produce an example of a tree falling and killing a little girl a few years ago, in a city not our own. If one death every few years makes trees dangerous, I wonder how we can still live around cars.

Cut off the main branch of a venerable pine tree that is guilty of creating a little shadow in the neighbour’s garden. Despite being planted north of said garden, at a respectable distance.

I’ve also learned that the reason why most plants have been left to die in the school yard is that they were too costly to water.

I have news. Something that kills one or two people every few years in a country as large as France cannot be considered a danger, especially since we don’t seem to consider that all the deaths from pollution and road accidents don’t represent a significant danger either. Trees make cars dirty, yes, but… seriously? Have we even paused to wonder how ridiculous we sound when putting forward such arguments? Cutting a tree because then it will be easier to have a nice shiny car, really? I mean… I’m not even sure how I could argue against this one. Unless some people live in a parallel universe where clean cars save lives, I don’t even see what this has to do in actual reality.

Here is what trees do. They provide shade. They cool down the temperature in summer, incidentally helping reduce deaths from heat waves. They provide a home to birds and insects, including pollinisers. They smell good. They make people feel less stressed. They are beautiful and they make people proud. They’re quietly working to clean up our mess by absorbing carbon dioxyde. They prevent soil erosion. They give fruit.

My mother and I recently watched a documentary about the southern end of Patagonia, where, at some point, a man from Punta Arenas thus reffered to his father: ‘He did what any man should do in his life. He planted a tree, raised a child, and took part in social activism. That’s all.’

What anyone should do with their life indeed. As for those who call to destroy trees because they disliked the sight of pollen stains on their cars, how will they make up for it?

It’s a godless world. And it’s perfect.

After coming back from Tierra del Fuego and thinking about it a lot, I realised one thing. In our culture, there are many works that describe the sudden revelation that there is a God in the universe. It’s said to be a glorious thing, finding faith, pieces coming together all at once, sudden understanding, purpose and meaning found. Even lesser spiritual experiences are described as wonderful moments.

The opposite, realising that there is no God, or starting to doubt, is almost always portrayed as a grim experience: thinking there was someone with you and realising you are alone in a cold, empty universe that doesn’t care. I’ve yet to find a book or a film where the protagonist faces the certainty that God doesn’t exist and is not instantly distressed. Yet that is exactly what happened to me over there.

All right, not exactly. I’ve never believed in God. Unlike what our culture at large seems to believe, I’ve never imagined that there was a special spot for God or spirituality in my brain. It’s not that I’ve replaced God with materialism or a blind belief in science, or that somehow, my atheism has become some kind of faith to me: it’s just that everything I believe or value fits very snugly together in my head and leaves absolutely no space for any form of religion. Actually, I don’t even think of religion much, except on the (sadly more and more numerous) occasions when the media thrust fundamentalisms of all sorts in my face. But I did think about God on the Beagle Channel, although not in the way we’re taught to expect.

When we sailed between glaciers on the channel, everything was pure alien splendor. Everything existed quietly, outside the sphere of human activities, and we could have tried as hard as we wanted, there was nothing there that told us humans had any reason to be the centre of the world. It was a world for dolphins and albatrosses and tiny rayaditos fluttering on the shore, not people. And that was fine. A bit unsettling at the very first, but you get used to it, very quickly. And in that place so perfect by itself, how could one believe that there could be a God? How could one believe that one being could have orchestrated something so complete it didn’t need anything from humans? The idea of God seems trite when petrels whirl around you. A petrel doesn’t need a god. It doesn’t need an explanation, or an origin story. It is too perfect for anything that could be imagined by humans.

And that was fine. Being more certain than ever that we have no creator and we’re just going our merry way in a universe that doesn’t care felt comforting, not distressing. Who needs meaning when you can have perfection? I’ve been struggling to write although I would love to write pages upon pages about this place, simply because it’s a place that exists beyond words, a place where you don’t need words. The world is so much more precious when you’ve seen what perfection it could contain. The idea that it is a mere creation would taint it. I couldn’t doubt now that God doesn’t exist, and that is fine. It’s great.

It’s perfect.

From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.