I think I’m getting back to my former pace with writing. Whether my progress will withstand the work/university/life balance remains to be seen, but for now I am doing better than I have been for a while.
And, as ever, I’ve been doing most of my penmanship to a soundtrack. Here are a few of my current favourites.
1. TENDER – Illuminate
I like a mellow tune, and a voice-over when its use is effective. A little bit sultry, a little bit sad, I think this one is good for writing after dark, or about hot summers in which bad things have happened.
2. Maroon 5 Feat. Future – Cold
Sometimes I need a repetitive song that makes for pleasant white noise in the background when I’m really into the swing of a scene, and this catchy piece does the trick. It’s trashy mainstream pop at its trashiest, but sometimes you need a song that isn’t too distracting.
3. Feist – My Moon My Man
I don’t know where I was when this song came out, but I’m glad I’ve discovered it now. This song has a dark, moody vibe. I think it’s not just good for writing, but for being awake in the small hours, surrounded by the mysterious sounds of the night.
Et voilà (no, let’s not talk about my French…), I think that counts for a post.
Okay, so I’m an anorak, but I love the Russian classics. They’re so moody, dark, and brooding. They have bleak, harsh settings. And (most importantly) they have miserable, self-absorbed characters, all of whom wear their torments beautifully.
I think it’s high time I shared my favourites, so here we go…
1. War & Peace – Leo Tolstoy
There’s no list about this branch of literature which can fail to include Tolstoy’s most famous work. War and Peace lives up to its reputation as one of the longest books out there, but it’s an epic everyone who is serious about reading should try to get through. Really it’s got everything, be it love, death, religion, revenge, pride, evil, righteousness, faith or whatever else you’re looking for. It’s just hands down one of the best books ever written.
2. A Hero of our Time – Mikhail Lermontov
My favourite ever book. Yes, you read that correctly. This is the one book I’ve ever read which nothing has beaten. It’s a short one, containing five novellas about the anti-hero Pechorin, a man who has essentially spent his life ruining his own existence through vice, apathy, and his inability to connect with his emotions. The concept is quite simple, but the depth of feeling this book manages to convey is just perfection.
3. Oblomov – Ivan Goncharov
In some ways similar to the above, Oblomov is the story of a eponymous man who has inflicted his own moral self-ruin through apathy. His circles are much more domestic than Pechorin’s, and the plot is considerably less dramatic, but its still one of the best books I’ve encountered.
4. We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
It’s hard to believe this book was written in 1921, because it reads like a much more modern text. This book is, I think, far less famous than it should be, since it is the forefather of 1984 (and, I think, the considerably better novel of the two). It is, as many dystopian novels only try to be, truly disturbing, gritty, and chillingly believable.
5. The Zero Train – Yuri Buida
A far more recently published work, this short novel makes the list for being one of the most beautiful texts I have ever found. Even in translation this book has a poetic rawness that brings every sensation it contains to vivid life. Somewhat surreal, but piercing, this is a harrowing portrait of life under Stalinism. Short, but sharp.
And that’s the list. I’m always on the hunt for reading suggestions in this genre, so please feel free to leave some in the comments!
I’m now living on the other side of Paris, in a house, which is every bit the antiquated (somewhat dilapidated) writer’s retreat I was hoping to find. Complete with a creaky stairs, dark wood furnishings and a spider or two, it vaguely reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle.
And that’s to say nothing of the rambling garden that sprawls out the back. There are grapes and plums, plenty of trees, and a handful of cats who sit by the little pond.
At night I can hear the rumbling sound of the trains heading into the city, and the view from my second floor window is wonderful – white buildings poking up through the greenery on the hill.
I’ve lost a housemate, but gained three more. My landlady is French, green-fingered, and a genuine hippie, and I share the upstairs with an Indian PhD student. There is also an Italian who lives in the basement, and they are all lovely.
In other news, I’m going back to work in a few days, which is just as well, since my financial state is a sorry one. I am not (yet) truly poor, but I have been reduced to frugality, and the bad exchange rate is not helping me when it comes to the monstrous sum of my tuition fees.
But that being said, there are far worse places to be without means than the city in which to be a penniless artist is something of a lifestyle.
I have also visited my university for the first time, and it is tiny, but also rather pretty. The thought of going back and studying gives me mixed feelings. I’m half dreading it, especially from a social angle (I was never much good at choosing the right friends last time round), but also I’m hoping it will reinvigorate me into some kind of disciplined writing schedule.
At the moment I’m being a bit of a flake with my own novel, forever promising that I’ll finish this scene and edit another, and really not achieving much. It will be good to go back to having the structure of a curriculum, but it will be a shame to give up the freedom of life without deadlines.
Last night I went out in the city, and walked home from the station in the early morning light. There was a thunderstorm just as I arrived back at the house, so I sat on my windowsill and watched the white cracks split across the sky. Wearing a disheveled pair of smart trousers and nursing my aching feet, I felt lucky to be awake at just the right time.
I’m in Glasgow, holidaying. I’ve done all sorts of exciting things, like climbing The Lighthouse for an aerial view of the city, visiting Kelvingrove Park (I wrote a poem there, like a brooding misery no one should ever aspire to be), and walking Sauchiehall Street from end to end.
It’s been fun, but soon it will be time to go to Paris, and I’m in really quite a terrible state, having spent the past few days holed up in my friend’s flat whilst she works.
I’ve been house-hunting, and my goodness it is an awful, exasperating task.
Having trawled the sites, and sent an obscene number of requests for viewings, the only thing to do this afternoon is see who comes back to me. I feel burnt out, and really not at all ready to start university in less than a month, but if there’s one thing truer than all the rest, it’s that time waits for no one.
Tonight it will be cocktails, a third round of planning the wedding my best friend’s boyfriend has yet to propose, and goodbyes, again.
I think I must be getting quite good at them, by now.
Tomorrow, in the company of my little blue and green suitcase (more stylish than it sounds, I assure you), I’ll be off, back across the Channel, and into my first autumn abroad.
Like, aaah! How is it here already? How is my French still so bad? But there’s no time for theatrics. It’s time for me to grow up, and buckle up, for whatever lies ahead.
I really, really want a distinction for my MA thesis. And I think it’s feasible, but it means I’ve got to get organised. So tomorrow afternoon there’ll be no relaxing after the flight. I’ll be landing in Paris like a storm, and going to get things in order.
Wish me luck! Perhaps I’ll update soon, if this blogging streak continues…?
I’ve just left my family and childhood home behind me, and though I’m not quite back in Paris, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stretch of distance, and its effects on me.
I haven’t experienced homesickness in any chronic sense – at least not yet. I seem to miss things most when I have just left them, and then as a pang, rather than a pining. Give me a few days to settle into being away, and I’m invariably fine.
But that doesn’t mean I never think of what lies back across the ocean. Here is a list of the things that I miss most, excluding the obvious ones like friends and family. Any other expats out there, please feel free to add your own in the comments below!
1. Brambles and country lanes
In Paris, walking is my favourite pastime. Pen and paper in bag, sometimes in the company of a good book, I like to wander, on long walks without destination, in no particular direction. I used to do the same thing when I lived in England, but since my local area was semi-rural, my strolls took place on riversides, or through miles of fields, where I would pick blackberries and sit under old trees watching sheep mill over the grass. I miss the British countryside, with the sound of the wind rustling through the hedges, and the blackbirds with their quick bright eyes.
2. The weather
I came home hoping to experience a downpour, and all the other various extremes of the crazy British weather. Paris has been, in spring and summer, the definition of a holiday destination. It has been lusciously warm and sunny, and I can think of only two occasions during my whole four months there in which things have swayed. In short, the weather in Paris is consistent, predictable, and boring. I miss the unpredictable nature of the British skies, and the way they dictate frantic spontaneity on rare days of good weather.
3. The sea
This one came as no surprise to me, because the ocean is one of my great loves. I like to write about it, read about it, be in it, on it and beside it, sucking in lungfuls of brine. In Paris I can tell that I’m further from the shore. The air is different, and the wind less wild. I didn’t visit the beach that often when I had easy access to it, and I regret that as an opportunity wasted. One day, when I’m white-haired and my sight is failing, I envisage that I will take a little cottage on the coast, and listen to the waves every night as I fall asleep.
4. British men
Whaaat? Deanna, you can’t be serious. But for all that I never predicted this, I am. It has taken going away and being surrounded by men from other cultures to make me realise that I value a cultural connection. French humour is not the same, and as diverse the selection of potential lovers in Paris is, it’s not a context in which I enjoy my foreignness. Culture and language create extra walls beyond the many I already struggle to climb when it comes to relationships. Sad, but true, is the admission that I live in the City of Love, but don’t anticipate much romance before I return to the UK.
5. Rubbish food
Sometimes you just want to eat dirt. Not literally, but something of equivalent nutritional value. In Paris, finding something that isn’t beautifully garnished, seasoned and sauced is a challenge. British food is awful, but I do kind of miss that, along with lots of other little things that I didn’t really notice until I’d left them behind.
I have been summering at home. My stay in England has been idyllic, and something my finances really cannot sustain.
Before arrival I stuffed my schedule full of people, and have spent my two weeks flitting about like a bat trapped in a sheet in a desperate attempt to see everyone, everywhere.
I have been to London, walked three miles in a windstorm down by the coast, and toured the south in search of a sandy beach summer that never occurred. I went to the Ritz for afternoon tea, spent some valuable time with the best South African woman in the world (I’m not modest about the quality of my friends), learned how to put up wallpaper, and after one too many celebratory lunch the weight I lost over the past four months found me again.
I also caught up on what I missed whilst I was away, like my brother’s spontaneous decision to grow a beard, and invitations to two weddings! One next summer, and one the spring after. I am ludicrously excited on behalf of my friends, and have already planned what to wear and who to bring as my plus one (I may be many things, but unprepared for a formal event is not one of them).
Really, if I’m quite honest, I’m not ready to go back to Paris just yet. I’ve seen most of the people I wanted to, but only once or twice, and it isn’t enough. Much as I love my Parisian life, it’s not a life in which everyone can visit me, and sometimes reunion makes a second parting all the harder.
And for the record, I was so completely right that coming home was going to be weird. The feeling was quite unnerving, because it was a new emotion I had never experienced before. A thousand tiny changes have occurred in my absence, funny, insigificant things which do not matter, but at the same time, mean a great deal.
The closest likeness I can draw is the frustrating feeling of finding a perfect sitting position, then moving and being unable to achieve the same satisfaction.
But there’s no time to get quite comfortable, because already my time here is coming to an end, and it’s time for me to head north, on to Glasgow for a week of frolicking about and helping my friend move house. As I will be, when I eventually arrive back in Paris.
New families to work with, and uni to attend have necessitated a move across the city, so September is really going to be a new start for me. Paris: mark two.
For now, I have to pack. Maybe I’ll write from Glasgow. Maybe I won’t. Either way, bon été à tous (what’s left of it, anyway). Life goes on, and I must go.
Progress is slow for me at the moment. I’ve been doing quite well with regular blogging, but my novel is moving forward with all the speed of a legless zombie in the mud (I’ve been watching too much of The Walking Dead).
I had a new idea, for a short story, however, so I’m going to have a stab at that tomorrow on the coach home.
I’ll go in armed with a few new tunes for inspiration, and here they are.
1. Allie X – Paper Love
A super-catchy, zesty piece. I think it makes an ideal soundtrack for badass ladykillers, or badass killers, doing what they do best.
2. Rebecca Ferguson – We’ll Be Fine
Considering what an amazing voice this woman has, she is so underrated. You can find both jazz and pop in her albums. Often her songs have a mellow quality, but this is among her more energetic pieces. I find it very uplifting.
3. Porter Robinson & Madeon – Shelter
Given the monster view count on the official video of this song, I think most people have heard this one, but sometimes the mainstream isn’t all about the money, and jewels break through the surface of mediocrity to be recognised. The official video is also a real treat, if you like having your heart broken.
4. Kronic (Feat. Leon Thomas) – Rendevouz
I’ve had this song on repeat for two days, so it would be unfair to keep it to myself. I really wish I knew places where music like this was played, because this is one for dancing. I’ve been using it to imagine chase and fight scenes.
It’s time I went and packed, but hopefully I’ll soon have a story to share. I’ll keep you posted!
As I mentioned in my Amsterdam post, I’m going home in a few days. It will be the first time I’ve been in the UK for more than a weekend since I moved to Paris. I anticipate that it’s going to be one of the strangest experiences of my life.
I have a friend who emigrated when she was younger, and she says that the oddest thing for her was not the going away and finding a new country different from her own, but the fact that for all that her experiences abroad changed her, she arrived home to find the place where she grew up completely unaltered.
My family and my homeland are certainly not vacuum-packed, and I’m sure that there are things which have shifted since I’ve been gone, but not my room at my parents’ house, or the old streets of the city where I studied and worked, and which is so familiar to me that I can close my eyes and walk the high street from end to end.
I’m going home to a city which has started to forget me, but which remains stamped on my character like a iron-wrought brand. I think if there’s an appropriate time to reflect on my first four months of Parisian life, this is it.
It’s nothing original to say, but I’ve learnt so much. I’ve made a friend not just from another culture, but another continent. I’ve danced by the Seine under the light of the moon. I’ve worked with children, some of them terrible, one of them the loveliest little boy, who made me feel better about everything. I’ve had my first date with a foreigner, and I did it in French. I was misread, and got fired, something I never imagined would happen to me. I left my friends in the UK behind, and in doing so I found out just how much I am loved. I forgot who I was, but then I started writing again. My life in Paris has not been perfect, but it has been my life, to live selfishly, with passion, and in complete freedom.
The most important lesson has been one about myself: I am stronger than I thought.
Paris, like all big cities, is a place where dreams are made or broken, where every day someone finds inspiration, and another person gives up. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum during the past four months.
It’s really difficult to admit that you’re on the wrong path. Harder still when you’ve spent time and money, and made greater sacrifices, just to get so far. But I was not where I was meant to be, and I see that now. I wanted to become a writer because I thought that would be enough for me to express myself. I know now that it isn’t, and I know also that before I wasn’t brave enough to admit what I really wanted to do.
Of course I’m going to continue writing until I’m dead or dribbling, but my aspirations have changed. No longer is writing my be-all-and-end-all goal, and my motives for lifting the pen have changed. These day, I want to use my writing to humanitarian ends, by writing serious novels that aren’t just about action and romance, and by making a switch from a creative career into the hard, analytical world of law.
I’ve been slow off the mark. I know that. 22 is not the ideal age to discover what it is you really want to do. The next couple of years are going to be tough, not just in terms of catching up academically, but also adjusting to exams instead of coursework, providing for myself financially, and proving myself as worthy of a law career as those who knew it was what they wanted from the get-go.
But it won’t be impossible. Paris has given me the confidence that comes with independence. It might take me a while to get there, but in a few years I will be working in London, and hopefully around the world. I just have to maintain my conviction, work hard, and see it through.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m grateful, for being here, living this life, and having the chances I’ve had. My French is getting there slowly, and though I’m still as useless as I ever was when it comes to men, I am freer than I ever was. I have managed, at last, to ‘find myself’, and experience all that cliché gap year personal growth that has made some for cringey writing, and a better relationship with my own soul.
City of vice Amsterdam may be, but it is also a city of tulips, painters, boats and bicycles. It’s a place I was always curious to visit.
Amsterdam is smaller than Paris, and far quieter. There are only a handful of metro lines, and the inner city is connected by a series of trams. The expected bedtime is earlier than you would think, since both these forms of transport stop running at 00:30, but there are night buses which will get you home if you came to party hard.
I didn’t visit for the drugs, or for the prostitutes in any carnal sense. I took the trip with a friend, and considered it something of an intellectual venture (albeit with drinks). I wanted to see, and to learn, and to fill my head up with something new before going home for the summer.
We stayed in a hotel at Bullewijk, which is about twenty minutes from Centraal Station by metro. A word to the wise: don’t try to find decent accommodation in Amsterdam on a budget. Unless you’re willing to share a room with ten teenagers who stink of weed, you’re not going to get anything cheap.
Financially, we were pretty much ruined before we even arrived in the city, but after eight grueling hours on the coach we scraped together enough to buy our 72 hour passes. Transport here is charged by the hour, rather than by distance, or destination. (The price is more expensive than Paris, but still a slashed reduction compared with London).
Our first night out was spent at Leidseplein, a picturesque square which houses an assortment of bars and restaurants, as well as the ever-present Irish pub and McDonald’s which no city I have ever visited seems to be without. Food in Amsterdam can be quite pricey, but there are good deals, including unlimited spare ribs for less than €10, which appeared to be something of a local favourite.
Another note on food is that bakeries, which are situated on just about every street, make a good port of call. There are a variety of European and specifically Dutch fancies, like walnut pretzels, goat’s cheese pizzas, and tartlets in every flavour.
On our first morning we navigated our way to the Van Gogh Museum with a pastry sitting in just the right spot to see us through to lunchtime.
It started to rain. We’re talking a torrential downpour, for which I, sans umbrella, was woefully unprepared. Our plans to visit several museums during the day were quickly scuppered when we realised that there are no admission concessions for young people and students in The Netherlands. In fact, after reluctantly parting with €17 each, we resolved that some serious accommodations would have to be made.
Expensive as it was, however, the Van Gogh Museum is an impressive place, featuring not only a selection of the artist’s masterpieces, but those of his contemporaries, his inspirations, and those who have followed his artistic legacy. There is also a large collection of Van Gogh’s letters, and the museum provides deep insight into him as a person, as well as his growth as an artist over the years of his short, brilliant career.
It was also our first introduction to Amsterdam’s sexual side, since Van Gogh was himself a frequent purveyor of ladies of the night, and they are featured in several of his paintings, including the Japanese-inspired picture above. Van Gogh’s infamous ear even wound up in the hands of a prostitute, when he gave it to her.
Somehow I doubt she appreciated it.
We decided to make a better attempt at having a night out on the Friday, and after traipsing about a variety of clubs we settled in Escape, at Rembrandtplein, and danced the night away, together with a multitude of international tourists and a handful of the elusive local youth.
It’s quite sad to admit, but I think at the mere age of 22, the discotheque has lost its intrigue for me. It was fun, and I won’t deny that I love to dance, but I find it hard to understand how I once thought nightclubs could be gateways to romance. I think as you get older you start to realise what a gulf there is between sex and love. Nightclubs are a good place to go with friends, to dance and let loose, but they are full of bad behaviour, and in Amsterdam most people you find out after dark are, unsurprisingly, stoned.
After a late start on the Saturday we took a boat tour around the city’s picturesque canals (A UNESCO World Heritage site) with a jolly South African captain, and then made our way to the famous Red Light District to see what there was to be seen.
It is a strange place. Really that’s the only way I can describe it. The openness of it is in such sharp contrast to the conservative values of my native England that I found it quite shocking to see the women at their windows, dressed to the nines in their latex and seven inch heels. I can’t imagine what people in my grandparents’ generation must make of it.
There’s a small interactive museum, styled as the brothel it once was, which offers a frank, honest appraisal of Dutch prostitution, as well as an overview of the situation in different countries around the world. I came away not sure what I thought, but with a newfound respect for these women (male prostitution does not seem to be a matter of such open discussion).
They clearly take some pride in their work, and maybe legal prostitution isn’t the most morally upright thing in the world, but I don’t believe it’s that wrong, either. Certainly there is something extremely admirable about the Dutch and their commitment to eradicating trafficking and the other, often unspoken, horrors of the sex industry.
Ruminating on the day’s experiences and unusual sights, we took the metro back to the hotel, freshened up, and decided to make the most of our last night in the city. We went out to a bar near Leidseplein, and discussed the weekend over an obligatory Heineken whilst other tourists danced around us.
In the morning there was time only for one last pretzel before we arrived at Sloterdjik and boarded the coach for the long drive back to Paris.
I wish, I think, that I had visited Amsterdam when I was eighteen, instead of 22. It’s a delightful city, in which the old brushes up against the new in the most elegant fashion, but these days I’m not as wild as I used to be, and I no longer have an adolescent’s rent-free disposable income. Certainly there’s a lot to see in Amsterdam that I didn’t get chance to – the Anne Frank Museum and Rembrandt’s house to name but two.
I think one day I’ll go back to Amsterdam and investigate it further. Certainly it would be no challenge to spend a whole week there and explore the pretty little streets and the dark canals, but not yet.
For now, I have to get ready for my next adventure – after four months living in Paris, I’m going home next week. But that’s a topic for another post.