Looking back, looking forward

The words, the single units, are overpowering scents of cheese. To my ear, the sentences are most troubling. They're occupied provincial markets. Other times, they consist of warring articles and prepositions, hooting at one another as if they're busily competing to reach the coast.

There’s only a few weeks left on this leg of the journey. The ‘journey’ that started on November 27th, changing sterling at a hidden bureau de change on the mezzanine level bordering London Bridge. A day later I was in Marrakech, and a couple of days after that, I heard London Bridge was yet again the site of a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack.

There are days when 2018 feels the more recent history, and late 2019 feels distant. There were days I ambled around Marrakech’s L’Hivernage, Kasbah and Gueliz neighbourhoods and had such a sketchy image of 2020, that to claim now the year has turned out differently to how I had hoped would be disingenuous.

There was a simplicity then, which I feared would be hard to reclaim when lockdowns were mandated throughout Europe.

Yet in recent weeks, I’ve seen people appearing to calculate an altogether different risk, which is that to stay locked indoors and to spiritually retreat, would be to upend life more than Covid itself. Perhaps a new complacency has emerged, meaning while restaurant staff wear visors that wouldn’t be out of place in a George Lucas film, nearly all their customers forgo wearing a mask. It’s random who chooses to apply the hand sanitiser at the entrance to boulangeries and who doesn’t; where proprietors decide to take umbrage.

A stroll late at lunch and you see dozens in Port Vendres sitting outside bars, picking at olives with their sticks. They sip Catalan wines syrupy and thick like brandy, but without any obvious act of remembrance for what’s just passed. But that’s my faulty outward perception. I’m sure people are worried, about the local economy if nothing else.

It’s hard to remember the situation in April, when fears of catching the virus, or, older relatives catching it and later suffering from it, were all-consuming. I dreamt of children as vectors and dreadful fates. In those first weeks here in Port Vendres, the roads were a spectre of irreversible decline in French seaside resorts. Since the lockdowns eased a couple of weeks ago, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to see traffic picking up; people going for their morning constitutional walks.

That said, there was a preciousness to seeing streets emptied of polluting lorries and noise polluting motorbikes. Since, cars and bikes have returned and have been skirting the cliff edge. We’ve walked to Collioure and back, and one custom I can never quite fathom is whether or not to offer a friendly ‘Bonjour‘ to passers-by. Most pensioners, and working age adults too, smile mirthfully. Some say bonjour, but it’s arbitrary who chooses to do this. Deciding whether you ought to be the one to offer the morning or afternoon greeting takes up a surprising amount of head-space.

I used to be ever so good at speaking French. Mrs Vinsen taught me for my A Levels. She offered me a week’s homestay opportunity to practise for my oral exam. The homestay was organised with friends of hers’, Annelise and Sylvain Koskas, a homely experience in Nogent-sur-Marne, on the outskirts of Paris. These days, I (mostly) switch off when my partner speaks French, save the occasional word here-and-there when he suggests preparing dinner heating up cannelés in the microwave.

I read French in newspaper articles and yet when I listen to French people speaking, the sentences seem occupied like provincial markets. The words, the single units, are overpowering scents of cheese. To my ear, the sentences, though, are most troubling. They consist of warring articles and prepositions, hooting at one another as if they’re busily competing to reach the coast.

Spanish hardly presents an easier challenge. We may yet return to Spain in September, but when I listen to Spanish people in conversation, I simply can’t keep up. Their sentences seem crowded with vowels that battle like patrons for tapas. As soon as Spanish speakers (from Spain, not Latin America) enunciate a word, however simple, their vocabulary slips down the windpipe, like cervezas and langostinos slirped and slipped down thirsty throats.

But I do love being abroad. I rarely miss Britain, although I do miss friends. I’m one of Theresa May’s dreaded ‘citizens of nowhere’, less a compass and more a suitcase. I’m sure once I next visit and there will soon need to be a visit with all the havoc a family member’s partner is causing, London’s brutal charm will draw me in. It always does. London’s home and little more needs to be said.

But Britain seems parochial to me as it did when I last spent an extended period abroad. I suppose I miss (decent) Indian food, the occasional Sunday Roast in a fire warmed pub, theatre and museums, world-beating galleries and its plentiful parks. I don’t miss how pedestrian so much of it feels, its charmless identikit high streets and Americanised shops. The rows and rows of houses, flats and building sites but so few places around which neighbours can converge, in squares, let alone cobbled back streets with people selling market wares.

So few street names that resonate or which honour women and men; so few statues (these days, there’s fewer still) with flags draped that you take pride in as they flip in the wind. So much of Britain is beige to me.  A beige vacuum bag that constantly fills and needs weekly emptying of all its dust.

I’m swayed by politics. My partner is a French national, my nephew is too. To live in the United Kingdom, they’d need to fulfil new requirements, (as indeed Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s logic forces me to face up to here in France, and in Spain, or wherever we hope to end up).

I’m not oblivious to problems that exist elsewhere. Many people in France remain upset and angry with Emmanuel Macron, who as far as I understand people’s perception of him, remains the emblem of elitist Parisian contempt.  I ask them who they see as the credible choice at the next Presidential election in 2022. They complacently consider abstaining in the second round, trusting he’ll still beat le Pen, but they want to make sure by a small margin – only just.

Spain is fractured on regional and federal lines. There’s unnecessary spats between centre and Catalunya. I’m not referring to questions of Catalonian independence here, but the politics of blame surrounding the management of the Covid outbreak (which incidentally aren’t isolated from questions of Catalonian independence). There’s Murcia and Andalusia with their leanings towards Vox, and cosmopolitanism in the capital and Barcelona, at odds with how older and less educated Spaniards reconcile the country’s future with its past.

But my, there’s colour along the Mediterranean: shades of peach. Turquoise and emerald greens. Sunsets lit in caramel that smell of rose. Seas that wave with their olive oil smiles and fields that jig in the wind to a strawberry dance.