It’s hard to turn away and pretend nothing bad has happened. Paris and Beirut have suddenly become close next-door neighbours in a little village, instead of being names on a list of ‘must-see’ places, very often with the gaps filled by the concepts of cost and time, between us. I hope everyone you know is safe. Whether the news is blasting it or not, there is always something unpleasant happening in a few places all at once.
Social media and the whole interwebs have been around long enough that many of us have genuine connections online: people with whom we have never met (and might meet one day) but can have a great convo with, people who are on similar paths with us, but we might not talk to much. But wow, what a great journey they’ve been having!
We collect people, some of whom we may have had some fun adventures with, while traveling for a few short but meaningful days: the parting inevitable, the connection unavoidable, and the enrichment unmistakable. Whether as a visitor or local, we reach out and wonder about people we know.
A girl from Bordeaux who taught me to say “pourquoi tant de haine; moi qui suis si gentille!” (why so much hate, when all I have is love) in perfect (ok not really) French, as we cleaned the surfing backpackers’ in Raglan, NZ (Karioi Lodge), in exchange for accommodation and closeness to legendary world class left-handed waves, immortalized in The Endless Summer. Except I was really in a place where I was not even confident enough to walk out on the little rocks and jostle around other humans, to put myself in the sweet spot to catch a wave.
Me, nursing a broken heart, in a country I moved to. No job, no money, no happy ever after with that handsome chef, a ridiculously long and unfruitful (ah, to the untrained eye, but wow was that training tough) PhD attempt, with a head stuffed full of cotton candy dreams of art and ocean, trying to call myself an artist. It’s hard. Nelly, a gorgeous and bubbly ‘Frenchie’ teacher on her world discovery journey, on her break from her teaching job. Something in me brought out the kind, encouraging teacher in her, as I went about trying to fulfill my one-painting-a-day 100 Days project (which was highly ambitious and therapeutic). After such a long time of feeling completely worthless and like a failure and not even realizing it, to be watered with some witnessing and recognition was like a soothing balm, like water for my thirsty soul. Except I didn’t know I was thirsty. Until then.
Nelly told me on Facebook that she’s sad but alright. I’m glad. Also, I forgot to mention to her that on an evening out for dinner in Bali with two newly-made South African surfer friends, plus two long time childhood primary school friends (and science-fair partners. Yes, it was super fun) who made time to fly in from Singapore for a catch up, and a Parisian French couple who happened to be assigned our table in the busy restaurant: I told them the phrase that Nelly taught me and they burst out laughing, and it may have brought about a round of delicious lychee martinis for the whole table. One half of the couple told us about his “painful” job dealing with famous musicians, and the other half was (or, is?) the PR manager for Hermès in Paris. He entertained us with stories of waiting lists, anguished threats, and demands for the Kelly, and how he found the Kardashians to be smart and actually really lovely. I sound frivolous often, although I’m actually really trying to illustrate a snippet of how people meet and connect in life, in what seems the most random and haphazard ways.
Nathalie, who lives in Paris, and whom I nicknamed “Grumpy French Girl” for a while, is alright.
Her connections are alright also. Her innate priority is for a sense of normalcy, as her home was stunned into a stifled silence while under siege.
We met while backpacking and she saved my sorry butt when my station wagon, aptly colored and textured (from living by the sea) to be named “Mr Whale”, decided to burst a gasket and crack its radiator on the side of a busy motorway, all in the middle of pouring rain. I was lucky to have a traveler friend, a young Swedish artist-at-heart with me, as we brought my whole life in the belly of Mr Whale, with my driver’s window down (it gave up, too) and California’s annual rainfall coming through my window. We were on our way to the exhibition for the people who had completed the 100 Days project. I didn’t have 100 paintings, but I had a hundred days of stories and some art on paper, surfboards and walls, that came from it. I had picked the day to move from Raglan, up north to look for work, on the day of the exhibition as it made geographical sense. The very kind lady boss of the backpackers, Erin, had paid me some money for a hand illustrated logo meant for the local sustainable eel farm. That became my fuel money.
We got picked up by the police. The guy was very excited about helping me load my surfboard, artwork and a backpack into the police car, and he delivered us to the gallery for the exhibition, amidst throngs of All Blacks fans in Auckland for a game, while we stepped into the gallery of classy creatives, in full derelict mode ourselves. Emma Rogan, creator of the 100 Days Project, said she knew everything was going to be alright when she saw us walk in, worried nobody was going to turn up for the exhibition. The turnout for her event was the polar opposite from “nobody showed up.”
Nathalie had come to meet us from the Coromandel, having left Raglan a few weeks prior, to attend the exhibition and also help me move my things, and we decided we were going to go up north to Kerikeri together, to find some farm work. I was definitely needing some clams for my new vehicle-to-be (now my mobile surfgirl cave), before I started my new PhD project down where I am now, at the Leigh Marine Institute. Asa, Nathalie and I slept in conditions more cramped than two people sitting in the same seat on a cheap flight, thanks to my stuff. I was no backpacker traveling light. I was a person who found herself moving (and hence decided to have adventures) in the midst of trying to settle down somewhere, with art supplies I needed. Three of us slept in her van on some suburban side street, and after Asa wisely went on her merry way for her own wanderings, Nathalie and I survived each other through a very flooded tent (van was full) on a campground, in the middle of a relatively mild winter (compared to the Antarctic, say), and we even had a duck lay an egg in front of her van the next morning.
We also made it to the Kerikeri backpackers where we waited another three weeks, before there was hip and back-breaking work on a zucchini (courgette) farm, and we took off with the other zucchini girls to a nearby natural sulfurous hot spring, and sipped beer and sighed our aching bones and muscles away when we could. Our bikinis didn’t survive the mud and sulphur, but our spirits were intact. We even survived each other on the Cape Brett walk, a torturous and literally breathtakingly beautiful hike. You were either always going uphill or downhill, and after a while you realized there was no relief coming up. The next stretch of trail was simply going to be hurting a different part. I had worn a pretty floral dress, cleverly layered with windproof jacket and sensible shoes, and went on a sparkle and optimism assault, an iron-clad will to enjoy the hike. I’m sure along the way I had irritated her a fair bit.
Sometimes focussing on what makes you feel good and free and happy can feel like an outrageous defiance against those who want to spread pain and fear. And on less dramatic days like a simple, moderately challenging, stunning hike, it makes more sense to try to enjoy the day than point out every ache and pain.
We are but human. After the initial shock of what has happened, and seeing post after post on social media I am starting to feel a bit numb. If I think too hard about it I feel helpless. Nelly and I both agree that the other phrase she taught me was sadly perfect too: mais c’est de la merde! Which at that time I used to name a painting of a piece of old popcorn on a rainy day in. I believe there is strength in turning away from all this, and take heart and believe in the greater good of humanity. It is there, and it is in all of us. I think even more than ever, it is ok to feel saddened, and use this as an opportunity to really sit down and appreciate every little thing that is working in our lives.
I definitely appreciate you being here, take care of yourself, stay safe, and more than ever, do what you need to feel good and happy. After all, that good juju you’re sending has to come from somewhere.
Keep writing down your hopes and dreams, and remember that they do come true. Also, surf when you can.