Thoughts on London

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I was in London last week. This is where my family lives and it’s always good to change environment every once in a while but London isn’t my home town. I grew up in the home counties so going up to London was reserved for shows, exhibitions or school trips. These days it’s Christmas, elections and the film festival that seem to call me back most often, so every visit to London feels like I’m walking around in the space between the end of one chapter and the heading of the next. Some strange mix of the political atmosphere, my family being together and my internal state sets the mood for the months to come until I board another Eurostar.

Every time I go to London they change something. I feel like I can never get my bearings. Leicester Square, like Les Halles, has been under construction for as far back as I’ve known it. This time I noticed that what used to be my favourite ice cream place to go between film showings had gone out of business, but on closer inspection it wasn’t even an ice cream place. I’d missed an entire iteration of that small piece of real estate without ever noticing. When I went in February I saw a new £5 note for the first time. These notes are now the only ones in circulation and the pound coin I grew up with is gone. I used to collect every unique design of coins and I remember the public outcry that the bimetallic £2 coin was garish and too like the euro. Well, if you wanted garish the new pound coins are dodecagonal and bimetallic. So now our currency looks even more like the euro. I never collected euro coins, even when I used to leap on any foreign currency my Dad would bring back from travels. They just seemed dull and brassy. The new pound coins are based on thrupenny bits, which was the first ever coin I ever had in my collection but lost one day at primary school and have never seen another since. It’s one of those things that I lost so long ago but secretly hope will turn up one day despite being about five house moves and eight schools away from reality, like my old blue mp3 player or my Prisoner of Azkaban Top Trumps set. They’re not particularly valuable things and I wouldn’t have a use for them if I did find them but I miss them anyway.

Sometimes I don’t know if it’s London that changes or me. I could post photos from previous trips back and I doubt anyone would really notice the difference. The overall London spirit has been going since time immemorial and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Yet for me each visit is inexorably linked to very specific times and specific people. When I look at my friends each time I go back I notice the haircuts we have or haven’t had and how much further and further out of touch I’m becoming from their reality and the reality we shared. The updates are short but significant. I wonder how quickly I’d get left behind entirely if I somehow couldn’t make it back one year or how different our relationships would be if I’d stayed.

Culture Shock.

If I hadn’t moved to France I would write the year like this:

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And everyone would understand. End of story.

However I moved to France and, I’m not too sure when, at some point I started writing 1s like this:

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Instead of like this, how I always used to write them:

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So now when I write the year it looks like this:

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And if I write quickly no one can understand the difference between the 1 and the 7. So now I have to write the year (and any number with a 1 and 7 in it) like this:

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I hate those bars on sevens. I’ve always found them phenomenally ugly and swore I’d never switch over to using them like all the silly French people. Guess I’m laughing on the other side of my face now.

My phone got stolen a while back and on my new phone I never installed the English keyboard so now when I try to put apostrophes in words they get interpreted as accents and I say “wére” to people on a regular basis.

More often than not, when I write a question, I find myself going back to delete the extra space between the end of a sentence in English and a question mark instead of having to go back and add it in in French. I had to go back through this blog post and capitalise the nationalities where I forgot they were meant to have capital letters. I also had to go back and check that non of my Q’s or A’s were mixed up because I now switch between qwerty and azerty keyboards. This makes touch-typing a password, or anything at all, nigh on impossible, as anyone who borrows my computer knows.

I had to write a presentation for my English class a few weeks back and found myself searching for an English translation of my French idea and the grammar getting all mangled in the process.

When I go to London I get all the discomfort of the unfamiliar without the joy of discovery. People laugh when I call the tube the metro and I forget how early the tube shuts so I find myself walking and being really thankful for the LOOK LEFT reminders when I cross roads.

Over 90% of my interactions now happen in French and one of the biggest problems my close friends deal with is knowing whether I’m in a good enough mood for them to correct the errors that pepper each sentence. Some of them address me in English and I reply in French so no one is speaking their first language anymore. Sometimes I refuse to speak English because I’m too tired to translate but sometimes I can’t express anything I’m aiming for in French.

A summary of a series of odd events and circumstances that lead to 2017

There we go, another year that we can all cross off our calendars then try to describe as a whole as if there were any relevance to calendar years apart from the psychological idea of a new start.

But that’s what I too am doing on this cold January morning. For me 2016 seemed to rush by in a never-ending sequence of train windows and changes but somehow I appear to have landed in 2017 on my feet with signs pointing up (although we wouldn’t want to jinx anything so let’s say signs pointing at like 45 degrees from the horizontal just to be safe).

This is not to say that 2016 didn’t try to finish me off. Beady eyed observers will notice the flagrant absence of blog posts for most of November and December. This is linked to a farcically long series of events and circumstances that have sapped my energy and start with delays on a parquet floor that prompted two months of not being in my actual apartment.

It all started when I wanted to experiment with gluten-free flour and made myself a cake. The cake cooked slower than one would expect and so I had to check on it every few minutes. This involved the unreasonable act of walking across my floor. Now, I live in an old building. The floor was old and it made noise. We’d put rugs down but the noise was still very very annoying. This day I discovered that it was not only us that found this noise annoying. My downstairs neighbour appeared just as my cake was actually cooked to tell me to stop making noise. I explained that I was just walking but this seemed to be to no avail. I promised to be softer on my feet and I truly did make an effort.

Cut to a few weeks later and I have overslept my alarm for an 8AM class. I will freely admit that taking an 8AM class was a mistake in itself and I plan to never do it again. However, the situation was still that I had an 8AM class and it was 7:35. I live 15-20 minutes away from Uni depending on transport. I therefore was not paying a lot of attention to my footfall as I raced around trying desperately to find clothes and books in minutes I did not have. My neighbour did not appreciate this at all and appeared at my door banging and shouting, arguably making more noise than I considered any floor/ceiling could ever make.

After some soul-searching it was decided that the floor would have to be replaced. “It will just be four weeks and we’ll stay nearby so nothing changes”, said my mother. “ok”, said I. “Can’t believe she bought that pack of lies”, said the floor fitters to each other.

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“We don’t have the wood. There is a shortage of French pine at the moment.”

“We’ll have the wood by Tuesday then it’ll be done by the end of the week”

“Oh did we say it was a delivery problem? We meant supply problem. The wood has not been sourced yet.”

“It’ll be done by next Thursday/Wednesday/Saturday”

Four weeks quickly became five, which extended itself almost instantly to nine weeks. At one point they sent a workman over who did nothing but eat lunch then leave so they could say they’d had someone on the job. This meant that I moved into a hotel for the last two weeks of term. One of which was my finals week. I don’t know if I blocked all of this out of my memory or if my mind just stopped recording due to stress and lack of sleep. It’s about 50/50. (oh yeah, did I forget to mention the thing where I moved countries on my own at age 19 but also hate change. Yeah. Stay tuned it gets less self-aware later.)

During my exam week a pipe burst in the ceiling of the apartment where there was no floor and flooded half the building as well as knocking the lift out of action. Ok.

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Once I had finished my finals I (less than twelve hours later) went on a break to Berlin with a friend. This trip had been planned for a good while and although it fell at a time when I didn’t really feel like travelling I was glad as soon as I got there to be doing something new and different. There were two missions in our heads for this trip – bars and Christmas markets (both of us had previously been to Berlin and checked off the rather more worthy and sombre attractions). We did both, fortunately for us, we picked the evening when the Christmas market got attacked by a terrorist in a truck as the only evening we didn’t spend in said Christmas market. I think the moral of the story is not to travel with me I am clearly a bad omen.

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My next stop was to head to London for Christmas. Upon my first morning in my family home I awoke in a panic with no idea where I was. I put this down to the fact that this was the fourth or maybe fifth bed I had woken up in in the last month, none of which had been my actual bed. All official sources say I spent eight days in London. I do not believe them. Quite apart from three of those days being Christmas and therefore feeling like they were beamed from another dimension I just simply do not remember that time containing five normal days. As I packed myself off to return to Paris on the 30th of December I still did not feel like my feet had touched the ground since October.

I opened my apartment front door, having taken the lift (now repaired, but still flashes up that it’s passing floor 96 in between floors 1 and 2) half expecting it to vanish into thin air as soon as I opened it. It did not. I breathed, I sat down. I slowly felt myself relax and actually be able to see and appreciate the things around me. I even did some walking around. It was the most chilled hour of my life. Then I heard a knock on the door. I ignored it, not wishing to restart the cycle of wishing I could have a flying carpet just to become less acquainted with my neighbour. The knocking came back much louder accompanied by the shout “It’s the firemen”.

You can’t really ignore firemen. If you don’t answer they break your door down and having locked myself out once I know how much those doors cost and it’s not pretty. “Do you know your downstairs neighbour? He’s not been heard from.” (we very quickly established that they were talking about my other downstairs neighbour, not the one who disliked the floor) “can we use your balcony to see how we can get into his apartment?” The firemen looked from my balcony, wished me a good evening and ten minutes later a firetruck with one of those huge ladders like you see on TV appeared in my road. The firemen kicked in the window just below me and then left without telling me anything of what happened. The next day I heard the piano music that neighbour always listens to floating up to my apartment. I really don’t know what to make of the whole scenario.

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That’s it. There’s no real conclusion to this. It was bizarre. Life’s looking less bizarre and stressful but who knows really? See you around more often in 2017 blog readers!

It’s taken two damn years…

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This week when I looked in my post box there was an envelope.

But this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, was not just any envelope.

This envelope had the little green words “carte vitale” printed on it.

I opened it, awaiting another hurdle, another form to fill, or the declaration that my application had been refused because the wind had blown over a gnome on a tuesday in march and the circumstances were as such not conducive to my receiving a card.

But no.

I have a Carte Vitale.

I HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE.

I feel like a hacker that has finally broken into the pentagon.

This means that next time i get myself into an improbable situation like being mugged or getting concussed I can let France pay for my stupidity instead of me. This also means that I can complete the inscription process for the association I have been part of since last October (the official inscription form for me at the moment reads ‘no social security number’ as if I didn’t exist. But all that has changed now. I am counted as an actual physical human being living in France who can get payback on medical costs! (said like that it doesn’t sound so great). This battle is over.

However in a cruel reversal of fate I still don’t have a student card. I was going to write a whole post about adjusting to my new university but I looked at the draft I had saved and frankly I feel like it sums up the state of bewilderment when confronted with a new environment better than anything else I could write:

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Theatricals

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Trust me this picture is as weird to you as it is to me and I’m in it.

I think a great test of whether or not you could truly love doing something as a job for the rest of your life is to do it for a really long time every day and see if you want to run away screaming. Unless it’s your life’s passion this will most likely be the case. I know from experience that weeks of four films a day in uncomfortable cinema seats, 12 hour shoots and 18 hour editing marathons as well as endless paperwork have not turned me away from my film-based dreams. Theatre, however, is a different story.

A lot of people seem to think theatre and film work must be similar environments. I mean I suppose both are entertainment mediums and involve actors so there are undeniably things in common. Personally, I feel the relationship is more like the one between the two very definitely opposite and differently formed sides of a coin.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really like theatre. The distinction I’m making here is that I don’t think I could dedicate my life to it (but then I’ve got such problems being consistent that I’m too scared to buy a plant in case I get bored of it – so this may change) For the last six months I’ve been surrounded by more theatre than I ever could have expected. Granted, a lot of this was because I was filming and editing live theatre performances (which, by the way I recommend as an experience to any aspiring director) It’s a strange task that puts you halfway between crew and spectator. You have a job to do but that job involves watching the performance and, if the performance is good, it’s relatively impossible not to end up enjoying it and being moved like any other audience member. In two months I had filmed seven different student plays ranging from the bizarrely provocative to the sublime and at least twice was brought to tears by what I was seeing. There were some truly amazing shows in there that I would otherwise never got an opportunity to watch.
During this time I’ve remembered or maybe rediscovered a lot of things that lay dormant since my amateur theatre days. Because yes, I too, had a time when I performed on a stage. I wasn’t a revelation, I was far more interested in the lighting box and bossing people around. Besides, my theatre group wasn’t exactly the Cambridge Footlights but I’ll be damned if we didn’t have fun. There’s a joy in the backstage that doesn’t exist in any other place. My first discovery was that if you have to ask “am I allowed to go there?” the answer is no. Within a professional working theatre me and the shooting team quickly found our boundaries. The auditorium? Free rein, even with a red rope across it. Stage manager’s box? Fine, so long as the stage manager’s in there. Offices and equipment store? Basically our terrain. Green Room? NO. Are you INSANE? The ARTISTES are in there. Enter at own risk or if invited specifically by a friendly company member.
My next foray into theatre land has been a little more prolonged, and I’ve had the pleasure of being witness to, if not entirely part of, a rehearsal team and residential from the very start of a theatre project. I’m working on the video-projection for a production and so I was invited to the residential to see the production come together. (If the director happens to be reading this, yes I am actively working on this, yes it is slow, I am more than aware). I was thrown in at the deep end to the world and habits of actors. I was once very in touch with this atmosphere and even good at the kinds of games and physical exercices that are used as warm-ups. Somewhere along the line, however, all of this became associated with the feeling of a very specific time and place and being younger. I was almost shocked to find that there are people to whom this is still normal, everyday life. It certainly resembles nothing I currently know.
This whole theatre immersion came to a head when I spent two consecutive nights at theatre events, the first of which was an introductory presentation of the most recent play from a famous French theatre director. It was an opportunity I couldn’t quite believe to be able to attend and I listened attentively to everything said, excited to be hearing it at all. The next night I went to see that old theatre group of mine (by my calculations I spent over 10 hours on trains that weekend – someone remind me why I thought moving was a practical long-term arrangement?), or at least what the next generation of them has become. They’re far better now than they were when I was there and I was moved to tears by a show for the third time in six months. The group is now directed by a friend I had while I was there. The play I’m working on in Paris also happens to be directed by a member of that same group. My experiences and impressions of backstage life are pretty inextricably linked to that little local theatre. While I’m very happy to see these plays or even be involved in as much as I can, this recent theatrical immersion has mainly served to inspire and point me back towards a cinema and a camera, equipped with new skills friends and ideas that I wouldn’t have got from anywhere else.

Place de la République.

I think I have been to Place de la République six times. Potentially I’ve passed by or passed through a couple more times but I only actively remember six occasions and for reasons that will shortly become evident the place has taken on quite a weight of symbolism for me. The account that follows is all true, but tinged with memory, symbolism and things and people that later became more important to me than they were at the time.

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The first time was the 8th January 2015. Our history teacher let us out of class half an hour early so we could go to the protests in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims. This was the day I had to very quickly learn the words to the Marseillaise. I was there with a particular friend who we will call A who I didn’t know too well at the time. After I left (my accommodation had a curfew) she sent me a video of herself later on at the top of the statues. Everyone was climbing them that evening and she smoked a cigarette looking out at the protest. I never made it to République during the march on the 11th. There were too many people.

Nine months then passed with me having absolutely no need to go to that part of Paris because the next time I showed up there was the 14th of November 2015. Obviously this was an awful time, but I found it touching to see that everyone had spontaneously come together and that, more importantly, we knew where to go because we’d all already been there to stand together. I went with one friend who had to leave Paris the day after and didn’t want to miss the sight of all the candles. Simultaneously, A texted me to see if I was around – so I agreed to meet her at République. Knowing that A would forget, I took two tealights and a pack of matches with me so that we could add our candles to the glowing mass gathering around the base of the statues. You couldn’t get very close to the statues because there were already so many flowers, candles, paintings and messages all over. While she was lighting a candle a photographer snapped a picture of A and she ended up in an English newspaper with the caption “young women mourn at Place de la République.” I guess I must technically be in the photo in the black shadows since I was standing right behind her. Across the square stood the wooden boards hiding a small construction site with a huge graffiti “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” in silver on a black background.

Later in November I was meeting some friends in a bar that was close by. I decided to walk around the whole statue to see all the tributes and messages. The whole affair had been formalised a little, the dead flowers and faded pieces of paper taken away. What remained were messages of defiance and support graffitied on the stone and a ring of empty glass candle holders with occasional paintings, laminated photos and a huge part of the base taken up with victims names. I made it a habit from then on to walk once around the statues every time I went to République, partly out of respect, partly out of a fascination to see how time would change and wear away all these things written and attached to the statues.

On the 14th May 2016 an English friend was visiting Paris and Nuit Debout was still in full swing. I had been busy and hadn’t yet gone and he was only there for a few days so we dropped by. I called a French friend who knew Nuit Debout like the back of his hand and we had a look around and a drink. I remember my English friend being surprised that there were still so many messages relating to Charlie Hebdo on the statues and I shrugged and said “we covered the whole thing, how were we to know we’d be needing all that space.” In huge words on the statue the words “thou shalt not kill” stood out strongly. I found the whole thing horribly depressing for a reason I couldn’t quite make out; later I came round to thinking that it was wonderful that there was something positive and fun being associated with this place, instead of it becoming a sad place that only held the memory of terrorism. Now there was music, a falafel stand and a faint smell of smoke that didn’t seem entirely to smell like cigarettes. All in all I felt like maybe the people were being a bit over the top about it but they were taking back this place to be somewhere positive.

In late May I went back to République to meet a friend before we went to the theatre. This girl, M, started out as A’s friend and so I knew her quite well but I think this was the first time we met up without A. In fact, I had to text A to get her number since I was early and she was late. I texted her that I’d meet her next to the lion –it’s a pretty obvious meeting place, given that there’s only one lion and quite a large square. Besides, I liked the lion because it was the centre of where the last remaining flowers and candles were and it was somehow humbling to see that they were still there, fewer but still many and still a strong memory. I noticed that the wooden boards had become a café, called Fluctuat Nec Mergitur. I watched a kid try to teach himself a skateboard kick for five minutes solid. He did not achieve it. Then I saw a great production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

30th June 2016 – A had got into a highly selective school so naturally a celebration was in order. I was busy during the day so we proposed to meet at around seven at République since it is, after all, a good place to go out at night. I got there at about five past, walked around the statues. I saw that some parts of the friezes had been spray-painted gold and I found it cool. Parts of the “thou shalt not kill” had been painted over. Nuit Debout seemed a memory, the sign was still painted as “Place Commune” instead of “Place de la République” but there were very few stands still up and instead a temporary skate park had been installed at the far end of the square. I texted A to propose that we all meet at the lion. As I said, it’s an easy meeting spot. An old lady next to me was relighting every candle that still had a wick and praying from time to time. A lot of the names had fallen off or been ripped off. I suppose if they’d been ripped it was a little disrespectful but I was in a good mood so I felt like it was just a necessary part of the rejuvenation. Yes, the past would sometimes be taken away violently but there would still be the memory and it would get less painful. The candles would still be there but the graffiti would become unrecognisable. All the scars would heal over and calm down. I’d had a great day. I was proud of A, I’d found a jacket in a lost property free-for-all that I really liked and the sun had finally come out. I was listening to a new album that was really good and just at that point a feather was falling, not in a swerving arc like they do normally. Somehow it had ended up on its point in mid air and was being caught and spun by the wind while upright. It must have taken a full two minutes to fall and I’d never seen anything like that before. I had my phone out waiting for a text anyway and so I took a selfie while I waited.

Then I got mugged. I’m not sure of the exact series of events but I ended up on the ground and I think I got kicked. When I got back up I had no phone, wallet or headphones and a cut on my face that was pouring blood into my eye and mouth. It was a group of about five girls around my age that beat me up. In the struggle they ripped off my sunglasses but I grabbed them back in some glasses-wearer instinctive fear that they were taking away my sight. As it happens I was wearing contact lenses, but I’m glad since I really love those sunglasses. My iPod somehow made it from my pocket to my bag and stayed there paused at the point where the headphones had been ripped out for a couple of days. A group of strangers then surrounded me offering advice, tissues, disinfectant wipes and to call the police. All of these were done and a couple of them led me into the Fluctuat Nec Mergitur café to get myself cleaned up and gave me a glass of water.

My friends arrived later. One of the people who helped me went out to find them while I cleaned myself up. A told me later that she had tried to call me since I wasn’t by the lion and a strange old lady told her to be careful with her phone in this neighbourhood. We figured out from our descriptions later that it was the same lady who had been relighting the candles. I spent the rest of the night in A&E with A, M, and three other good friends who had all meant to be spending the evening celebrating with A. Given the circumstances we made quite a good evening of it and I’m sure we lightened the mood for a few other waiting room inhabitants that night. One group of girls had sent me to hospital and another group had stayed with me until I left.

I haven’t been back to République yet but I will. For me the overwhelming memories are not my most recent visit and never will be. They’re scrambling through a bag to find a pen to hold to the sky last January, sitting in sad silence with A next to the candles last November, watching my English friend and French friend get along like a house on fire despite neither priding themselves on language skills and mostly, how I felt sitting next to the lion watching that feather thinking that, yes, bad things happen, but they fade in time and become just a small part of something bigger and better.