I promise, after this, I will stop going on about Cannes in January. The sunshine, the sea air – the fact that you can eat an ice-cream on the beach in the middle of winter (pistachio, since you asked, and if you ever want to buy me one). Just a few points, about travel, and identity, and the politics of ‘going abroad’.
The cultural stereotypes are impossible to ignore, of course. As someone primarily raised in England by Francophile parents I had always assumed France to be a place of elegance, sophistication and general loveliness. Wine tasting in Burgundy – lavender fields in Provence – bistros in Paris – name a tired-out tourist experience and I’m sure that we’ll have tried it.
What interests me the most about these shorthands, though, aren’t the surface enjoyments of them, but the allegorical readings they give us of our own lives and behaviours. The privileged position of the traveller as outsider, and the freedom that gives a person to see themselves through a variety of changing lenses, is a precious thing. How we insert ourselves into the largely imaginary landscape of the ‘foreign’ country, the conscious and subconscious changes it makes to us – whether we leave them behind or take them with us – wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend a year travelling and writing about it?
Every trip away feels like a chance to try on another version of my own skin: “Who would I have been if I had grown up here?” “How would my life change now, if I was to stay?”. To take the example of France, the two strands of the stereotypical and personal: the caricature of French as the language of love, of excess and sensuality – but the personal affection and meaning attached to Ravel and Debussy, Colette, the Left Bank feminists, the glories of French opera, the demi-monde and its link to queer culture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was in Paris when, as a teenager, it clicked that, for me, romantic feelings weren’t tied to any one sex or gender. That some of my most inspired writing has been completed across the Channel, or that it’s the place I save up to go to so that I can ease a bruised and aching heart (and ego).
So, for this most recent trip, the best part wasn’t running along the sand, or the civilised nature of a formal French breakfast – it was the chance to wander through the city and fantasise about how things could be different. Because, if I lived in Cannes, my cynicism and spikiness would obviously melt into an attractive and somehow affectionate world-weariness. Instead of being incapable of passionate feelings I would have not one, nor two, but a whole handful of lovers – we would stay up every night, discussing literary criticism and drinking red wine, and everything would be light and easy and a little bit wistful. Lyrics would just come, I could get back to work at the piano nocturnes, and it goes without saying that I would be far, far more beautiful than I am in London.
Even to have one place to go to to ponder your options would be glorious – but the chance to keep moving, keep experimenting? New York makes my brain work harder – I want to have been better at art, smarter at the theoretical aspects of expression. The Deep South is about history, and music, and a deep and painful link to the land. Russia for philosophy, theology – Italy for the voice. That obvious link between personal and topographical exploration makes it so much more than a frivolous luxury, without wishing to deny how expensive it can be, and how classist that makes it. That we can make that link-up, between an external cultural difference and an internal state in the process of change – it goes beyond experiencing humanity in its different forms, and into exploring the self as a divided entity – the stranger within, and the gaze turned inward to the gaze.
The limits we put upon people’s ability to experience this make me profoundly angry, and I’ll try to gather something together for another post: sizeism, ableism, racism, transphobia and the like. But for now – wow, it was good. And now, as I promised, I’ll shut up.
A familiar face, a foreign place, I forget your name
I like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away.
R.E.M. Good Advices