Diomedes and Glaucos

In an episode of the Iliad, Achaean warrior Diomedes meets Trojan warrior Glaucos on the battlefield, and for some reason, they start comparing their ancestry (ten years of battling the same people, you’d think it might have been a good idea to start trying to talk to them, but well). That’s when they realise that Diomedes’s grandfather welcomed Glaucos’s grandfather in his home once, and as such, their families are bound by the laws of hospitality. They decide to be friends, swap their spears as a sign of recognition, and stop fighting for the rest of the war.

I went to my cousin’s wedding last weekend. In the past fifteen years, I must have seen her twice at most, though both times with great pleasure (she’s a lovely person with adorable children, so that helps). There, in Paris, I met with plenty of family members I had not seen for years, some I had met only once before in my life, some not at all. Yet all through the day, there was a permanent sense of recognition. Many people I spent the day with were virtually strangers, people I had last seen so long ago that I would never have recognised them if I had encountered them on the streets. But they didn’t act like strangers. We spent a long evening talking about everything, introducing ourselves, catching up and saying over and over how happy everyone was to be here. And in truth, everyone was happy.

I suppose that this is what family has always been for. There are close relatives, the ones we see or ring when we can. And then there’s a whole flock of cousins, great-aunts and all those people whose connection to you you’ll give up explaining after half a minute of ‘He’s my cousin’s husband’s sister’s fiancé — wait a minute — my cousin’s husband’s cousin’s fiancé — well, my cousin, of sorts, all right?’. Though you don’t share your life with those people, you still share something. It’s not a question of being close, or of knowing much about one another, because usually we don’t. It’s not a question of knowing if we actually like one another, because for a short while, there is something that makes us like one another anyway, and that thing is our knowledge of shared kinship. Being part of the same family means that every now and then, you have a great excuse to be kind and to be happy to spend time with complete strangers.

And whether or not we will meet again in the next twenty years, that’s a beautiful thing to have.

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.

Ripples in the sunset

Walking on the Old Port back from my flamenco lesson threw me back to the last time I saw my brother in person: the same milky water with the bare hint of motion of the ships, the same smell of tar, but none of the hugs and tears and receding violin as the ship sailed away. Six months already, and more to come. My brother is in Brazil now, just back on the ship after exploring the Amazonian forest. Here, the first rains of autumn are already coming, although as always, summer clings as long as it can.

They did meet with whales, eventually. But the only one that collided with their ship was a newborn calf which had just emerged from a cloud of blood in the water, and it swam away unhurt. Although the hull is painted bright red, it must still look like a mother whale, somehow. That is a sight I would like to see before I die.

Last time I dreamed of my brother, we were walking together on an iced-over bridge, hanging over a cold, white torrent. I stayed safely inside of the railing, but he stepped outside on the ice with his camera, to get a better picture of the deathly cold landscape. I kept walking, afraid that he would lose his footing, and panicked when I heard the loud crack of ice falling off the bridge and into the river. But when I looked up, I saw that my brother had safely reached the bank, and was taking pictures of the ice in the water.

And sail into the sunset

Three weeks ago, my brother departed on schooner Sonate as part of a crew of five, for a round-the-world trip that may not bring them back until next year. They left from the Old Port of Marseilles, on a white-skied morning with just enough wind to flap in the sails. There were two hours of hesitation and near-stillness in the harbour as families and friends took coffee on the deck, the stocks of fuel were replenished and a hundred little details nobody could see except for the sailors were fixed. Then they navigated out of the harbour, motor growling, sails unfurling little by little until they glided past the levees. Then they took out their violins and accordions, and sang a goodbye song which said something about a harmonica, even though none of them had one. They sailed very close to us one last time, waving their hands. With that, they were gone.

There are few real goodbyes left today. Usually, you hug and kiss and almost walk backwards as you leave so as not to lose one precious second together, only to storm back through the door five minutes later because you forgot your coat, blow a hasty kiss and go. Or you follow people through a window pane when they go through security at the airport, feeling vaguely stupid as you look at each other in the eyes but can’t hear anything and wonder how long the awkwardness is going to last. As soon as you’re out of view, you exchange a couple of text messages, or skype each other as soon as an internet connection becomes available. It’s goodbye, but watered down.

As that ship grew smaller on the horizon and we grew further apart with every passing minute, we knew there would be no turning back, no forgotten mobile phone in the car. It’s not the first time I’ve hugged my brother goodbye. He’s left before–to Antarctica, to Norway–and I’ve left too, and we’ve ended on opposite sides of the globe quite a few times. One year will just barely be the longest time we’ve been without meeting. And yet, there will be no skyping out on the open sea. He’ll have no solid ground under his feet for a while. I trust the sea, and yet there’s something more poignant than I imagined about a ship putting wide golden waters between you and your brother.

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Before he sailed away, he came to visit my school and tell my students about his travels and his future work on sea life. He told them about young albatrosses dying of hunger after being unwittingly fed plastic scraps by their parents, about chemical pollution and the gigantic plastic maelstroms twirling at the center of the oceans. But what one of my students really wanted to know about was the whales.

‘What will you do if a whale crashes into your ship? Will you sink?’

‘Well, there are very few whales left today,’ my brother said. ‘It’s very unlikely. They also have a sonar to help them swim, so they won’t crash into us unless they have a big problem. If it does happen, we’ll sink. But then it would also mean fate is after us and we’re meant to die, so there’s no point worrying about it.’

I’m not sure this is what she expected to hear, but she was still all ears for the rest of the conference.

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A few days ago I dreamt of a river, frozen over and quite still under the snow. But when the current broke again, the ice went away one chunk after another, and under there in the deep, large shadows were revealed, monstrous, quiet catfish placidly weaving under the ice.

They swam away, in one slow swarm, huge slithering shapes too large to pay attention to us.

I hope the whales swim clear of my brother’s ship.

Life in the trenches, living on

A hundred years ago, soldiers were dying by the thousand in the trenches of World War One. By many accounts, it was the most dreadful war the world had ever known: brand-new, horribly destructive technologies, untrained civilians suddenly shoved into a uniform and asked to murder strangers, the unimaginable conditions of life in the trenches. Even today, in France, it is known as the Great War. The trauma was so great and widespread it transformed an entire continent.

In times of horror, people cope however they can. In the trenches, some had found a particular way to get their minds away from what they were experiencing. They gathered empty bullet shells, obus casings, any scrap of metal they could find on the battlefield, and they made it all into pretty things. Some made planes from oblong brass bullets. Others worked obus casings into vases. Some others fashioned toys and engagement rings for children and fiancées they would perhaps never see again. Others, ever practical, used the tools they could find in the trenches to carve everyday objects: mugs, spoons, butter molds.

Some of this art has survived today, but not everybody knows its origin. Some people think that those objects were made after the war, when someone eventually thought of something to do with all that brass and steel lying around. Apparently, that’s not actually true for most, as I learned in a completely random way, when visiting a castle that had a temporary exhibit of trenches art. There were little model planes which still showed the shape of the bullet they had been made from, like tragedy resurfacing through temporary comfort…

… Vases of a strange, somewhat impractical shape, made from hammered obus cases…

… The rudimentary tools soldiers had at their disposal between battles…

… all gathered in a small stone room, as dour as French museums know how to be.

My grandfather was born during the Great War. He was part of that special generation we learned about in history classes, the generation that almost didn’t exist as fathers and husbands died by the score in pointless battles. His father fought in the war, and died shortly after of tuberculosis, only a few years before penicillin was discovered. Little is known about him.

But in the place where he lived, there were vases, tarnished brass with a strange, impractical shape:

… and it is a strange thing.

I don’t think I will ever know if my great-grandfather made those vases during his time in the war, or if some other poor countryman had fought away the boredom and dreariness of the trenches by fashioning them. I will never know how they felt, hammering away at the brass, turning deadly devices into pretty things–homely things, unsophisticated things, but they have leaves and flowers and living things encarved on them and it will never matter if art critics never thought them worthy of notice. Now those vases sit on the corners of our bookshelves. Whatever they hold, a brief moment of joy against the misery, the hope of a gift for a family back home, a deadly weapon against boredom and not against men, the survival of a man I’ve never met but whose genes I still carry, they are precious. They are a memory carved in brass, even if the key to decode that memory is lost forever.

And maybe one day, if everything is lost, we can still carve something out of the tools that destroyed us and let it live on, to whatever life will come next.