Last year it was lovely Lagrasse that granted all our wishes; this year it was Barcelona’s turn to give us the bathroom, parking space, wifi and hotel printer for which we collectively yearned. Mister Christopher was waiting for us in the hotel cafe, and he whisked us away to lunch at a nearby taverna, a meal that immediately eclipsed anything I had eaten in France (Vichysoisse, melon cream with jamón Ibérico, duck confit on mashed pumpkin, Crema Catalana.) Afterwards we walked to the Arc de Triomf, with an extended layover at a playground on the way and a pause to obtain excellent ice cream; through the park to El Born, the cast-iron-and-glass Victorian marketplace with Roman ruins in its basement (a long argument for Catalan nationhood); swiftly through the gorgeous Gothic Quarter to Flax & Kale for a very good dinner.
Today we met up with the Moores and visited La Sagrada Familia (another long argument for Catalan nationhood). I last saw the building in the 90s when it was roofless and bare, and I fell instantly and hopelessly in love with it. Since then it has been roofed over and consecrated. I walked through the doors in the Nativity façade, stopped dead and pretended I wasn’t blubbing. The rainbow stained-glass windows, the soaring, branching vaults, the curvilinear forms. It was like the first time I saw redwoods, or the kelp forest. A choir sang in my mind: O Holy Night, Gloria in Excelsis.
We spent hours in the basilica, climbing the towers in the Passion facade (Rowan: “Woah! This is AWESOME! Claire, Julia: look down!”) and exploring the museum in the crypt. I have to learn more about Gaudí and about the Catalans. When we had finally exhausted ourselves, we found a fantastic Extramaduran place around the corner for lunch (jamón Ibérico, tortilla de patata, pimientos de padrón, more paella than we could possibly eat). Christopher met us there and said: “So how was the cathedral?”
“It was okay.” I said, and we all looked at each other and started to laugh.
O Paris, my friend.
You continue to be outrageously beautiful and interesting.
See you again soon.
The unexpected highlights of Paris this year were Sainte-Chapelle and the Pantheon. At the top of the servant’s stairs into Sainte-Chapelle I stopped for ten seconds, struck entirely dumb. A jillionty tonnes of stone are transformed into a soaring volume of space, filled with the rainbow light of stained glass. I knew the first part of the story from Waugh’s Helena and the True Cross: how Constantine’s mother had travelled to Jerusalem to find the relics of the Passion. I hadn’t known that Emperor Baldwin went broke and sold the Crown of Thorns and assorted True Cross bits to Saint Louis in the 13th century, and that Louis brought them to France. In doing so Louis was trying to combine spiritual and political power, heavenly and earthly crowns, and so the Sainte-Chapelle has the hybrid vigor of a place both sacred and imperial.
So too does the Pantheon, but the other way around. It was originally conceived as a church but consecrated, in the end, as a secular memorial to great men of the Republic. It has become another way for France to assert what it believes itself to be in the durable languages of stone and human remains. We took a tour around the dome and the view of Paris was beyond anything; between the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse we saw a Montgolfier-style tethered balloon levitating its tourists. Down in the crypt we all separately found Marie Curie and were, to our mutual surprise, moved. She was interred there on her own merits, the first woman to be so honoured.
It’s what I meant when I talked about choosing our own ancestors: in my case, Saint Jane Austen, Saint Harvey Milk and Saint Octavia Butler. The future is a nation we build with our hope and the work of our hands. It derives its power from our beloved dead.
I realized just before our flight that we would be landing half way through the matinee for which we had tickets; proof if proof were needed of just how badly I needed a break. I called Grant and woke him at 1am to explain, and somehow by the time we landed he had cajoled the theatre into exchanging our cheap-ass matinee tickets for tickets to the evening performance. Grant’s impossible to describe. He’d be one of my favourite people on earth even if he hadn’t introduced me to Jeremy; as it is, he is responsible for most of the great joys of my life.
Our hotel was a stone’s throw from St Pancras. Grant met us there and took us to one of the restaurants on Battlebridge Place, the newly developed expanse of public space between St Pancras and Kings Cross. Miss Jo came to meet us and so did Kirsty, so there I sat in the warm evening with my kids and some of my dearest friends, my Mardi-Gras-and-Burning-Man-crossover friends, bewilderingly happy. Kirsty and her friend Sacha joined us for the show, Lin-Manuel’s other musical, In the Heights; great fun.
As we walked back to our hotel we stopped at the large birdcage covered in rainbow LEDs, and Julia swung on the swing inside.
The next morning we hit in quick succession the British Library Reading Room (pages from Leonardo’s journals, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen’s writing desk and Persuasion in her handwriting), the Wellcome Collection (Napoleon’s toothbrush) and – our overwhelming favourite – the Grant Museum of Zoology, with its quagga and thylacine skeletons and its dodo bones.
Still jetlagged, I dozed off on the Eurostar and woke having no idea what country I was in; southern England looks a lot like Northern France. I had slept through the Channel tunnel! Arriving in Paris by train is infinitely preferable to flying in. We took the Metro from Gare du Nord and walked from Odeon to our apartment.
We travel like such nerds. Picking up where we left off last year in the Louvre, I noticed myself noticing things. Last year, feeling crosser, I was outraged at the self-congratulatory imperialism of places like the British Library and the Louvre. This year, humbler and more grateful, I thought: Yes, and; England and France robbed the world but in their museums, we-the-colonised can look at the things once kept only for our foreign kings. I love palaces made over into public spaces. I love the children in the Grant squealing over the jar of moles, and the black women among the Egyptian antiquities, their hair in cornrows exactly like the people in the friezes.
Dark times etc. Here’s what’s working right now to keep the panic attacks at bay (note effectiveness may cease at any time without warning):
…the only way individuals can become sane about race is by plodding stubbornly on through the insanities.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
Also, her belly is floof. Consider:
I have rare blood, O neg, the universal donor. After Orlando I went to give blood and was turned away because my heart was racing (it was the day Jo Cox died; I wanted to say “Haven’t you read the news?” but the poor nurse was just looking out for me.) I’ve since had an EKG and everything’s fine with the ol’ ticker except, of course, that it’s broken. It was broken before Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas; it’s shattered now. God in whom I can’t believe, please help this suffering country.
At the same time, I’ve been flattened by a vicious cold. All I can read is Helen Garner and Joan Didion and Diana Athill and this NYer piece on hospice, and all I can watch is Angels in America. It feels like 2005, when the black water drowned New Orleans, or 2003, when Baghdad burned. Baghdad’s still burning. I cling to these words of Roxane’s:
We have to do better than all this “the world is coming to an end.” The world is not coming to an end. The world is changing.
In whatever small way I can work towards justice and peace, let me work.
As a fan of sunbeams and meadows, I am very much in favor of Mt Tam.
Some of our short roommates share my enthusiasm for these landscapes.
Others find the whole California thing kind of tacky and overdone.
…the primary national interest is physical occupation, and science is the loophole through which the necessary infrastructure can emerge.
If there was no war then thousands of Aborigines were murdered in a centurylong, continent-wide crime wave tolerated by government. There seems to be no other option. It must be one or the other.
This is the double burden that those who are traumatised must carry. First the trauma, and then the inability of language to describe it.
Her ghost is in my body.
Ronan already knew he was a weapon; but he was trying to make up for it.
A fresh new irony in my life is that I have become fascinated with Aboriginal rock engravings, 20 years after leaving Sydney where they are present in magnificent abundance, 25 years after graduating from the Department of Archaeology where John Clegg taught and a year after John Clegg’s death. I never could see the precious things that were right in front of my face.
This one’s a little hard to make out, but it’s a whale shark, its nose pointing to the left, two eyes on the white patch of rock, and a fish inside it, its nose pointing down. It’s on the cliffs above Tamarama, on the spectacular walking path from Bondi to Coogee. We walked up there one late afternoon as the sun set behind the city and set the sky on fire.
The next two turned out beautifully – we found them at blazing high noon – but the shaming part is, they are part of an incredibly rich field that is walking distance from my childhood home, on a track I regularly wandered down, but I didn’t even notice that they were there until shortly before I left the country for good. They weren’t signposted as they are now, but also, I just wasn’t paying attention.
I remember a visitor from England saying very snottily that he couldn’t live in Australia because there wasn’t enough history here, compared with where he grew up. I wish I’d known enough to drag him to this place and point out that the people who made this art lived peacefully on this land for 40,000 years before there even was an England.
Murri stockman Herb Wharton wrote:
The old tribal elder who had spoken before said that he did not trust people who could leave the place where they had been born, to go to another country. For him, for all of them, their land was their mother, a sacred place. No matter what injustices they had suffered, nothing could ever break that tie with their own land and with the Dreamtime. Yet every one of this boat mob had left his own land.
I am boat mob twice over – my English mother, my exile self.
This site was the hardest to find and the most beautiful. Again, it was a few metres off a bush track I knew well, where I used to let my Arab horse Alfie stretch out and gallop; almost exactly halfway between my godmother’s house and that of Jeremy’s Aunty Jan. The kids were incredibly patient as I searched and searched for the obscured beginning of the footpath, and uncomplaining about the spiky grass and prickles they endured along its length. When we finally found the site it was as obviously holy a place as any church.
It’s believed to celebrate a successful hunt; that’s a spear between the kangaroo’s shoulder blades. I think your family of choice includes ancestors of choice as well. You choose which writers and painters and musicians and activists you want to emulate, and which you don’t. I recognize the people who made these images and the people who work to protect them. I acknowledge them as parts of myself, debts to ancestors I never knew, a motherland that will not leave me no matter how often I leave it.
We’ve been talking a lot about presence and absence this week, hardly surprising with Mum and Dad’s ashes in boxes under the TV. Last year when I was tying myself in knots trying to figure out how to organize this trip, I ended up sending mail to my brothers and sister saying look, all I really want is a beach holiday somewhere so that we can drink Bailey’s and play mah jongg and scatter Mum at sea like she wanted. My brother suggested this place and so here we are.
The pictures do not do it justice. On the land side the garden is thoroughly overexcited with hibiscus flowers and rainbow lorikeets and needs to take a calming breath. Climb over the dunes and Diamond Beach is a long wild golden crescent of sand with perfect emerald rollers. The sea is indigo near the horizon and the palest, clearest green where it covers the sand like mercury across glass to make a mirror for the sky. At night the Milky Way is a river of light.
It doesn’t matter that we never came here with our parents. It is every beach holiday we ever had with them and each other. We are all trying to show up and be in the moment for one another and although I was joking when I tweeted a shadow-selfie with the caption “the artist is present,” I am noticing for the first time Abramovic’s double meaning: being present is the art. Don’t just do something, stand there.
Our parents were flawed humans but they left us in no doubt that we were loved. They dragged us to kite festivals and hot air ballooning weekends and zoos and observatories and science museums and Indian and Thai restaurants (pretty exotic in the 1980s). Even though we’re atheists, even though the ashes are not even really the last of them, just more of what they left behind like clothes, even though there isn’t really any such thing as closure, it feels okay to be together here in this beautiful place. At sunset we’ll let them go into the sea, and we’ll build a big fire on the sand, and we’ll sit around it and laugh a bit and cry a bit while the Southern stars come out.