The Travel Diaries #5 (Day 16 – 20)

April 3, Day 16

What struck me immediately about the squat was the smell, especially on the staircase where all storeys intersected and it mixed into a potpourri of woodsmoke, laundry, weed, dogs, cats, dreadlocks, food and people. It smelled like all of my favourite places back home. The sun was shining outside and we had breakfast on the balcony, watching the punks and their dogs in the yard downstairs. I wiggled out of my boots and held my feet out into the sun. A surge of gratefulness went through me. This was a city, one that had people, that had a scene. This was a city that had a mountain on every street end. We could see the Alps from the balcony. 

We ambled through the city with Libi for a bit, listening to her travel stories about how she’d been on the road for 8 months, travelling from Israel to South America and through Europe. This was her last week before she’d catch a flight back home from Paris. She was only 23 and had spent 4 years working for the military. Now she’d study to become an engineer. Everyone seemed to study engineering, whatever city we went to. Around lunch, we met up with another couch surfer who hadn’t been able to host us but wanted to hang out. He was working, but we were welcome to drop by at his seed shop and chat. 

“What the fuck is a seed shop?” we wondered. I didn’t think weed was any more legal in France than it was in Germany but I also couldn’t imagine Marco working in as shop that sold flower seeds. 

“There is a gray area,” he explained from behind the counter of the tiny shop we found sitting next to a sushi restaurant. “We can sell the seeds as long as we put this little sticker on it that says ‘for display’. So people are not supposed to grow them and if they do, it’s not our responsibility.” He grinned. “It’s very clever.” He explained the difference between indica and sativa to us, let us have a look at the different strains and their funny names and happily answered all our questions about the seed business. 

“Critical cheese?” Sara said. “That’s the best name. Period.”

We didn’t want to keep Marco from work for too long, and he’d recommended we check out the park around the corner. 

“We can hang out there tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll bring some friends who play the guitar, you can bring your Ukulele.”

“It’s a date.”

I texted Cups that night, longing to hear a little about what was going on at home, feeling a little left out, even while knowing that was a stupid feeling. I was out here, having adventures. And still, the people I’d sort of come to think of as my family were having gatherings without me somewhere else. 

“Can you see the moon right now?” I asked. He could. We were both looking at it right this minute. The thought made me feel closer to him than I had in a long time. This night, I read Sara the rest of the divorce chapter. I didn’t cry.

April 4, Day 17

It was interesting how many different people lived in the squat, for entirely different reasons. There was a family of refugees from Romania, three children of varying ages, some people who were new to squatting, others who’d been doing it for twelve years, people who were in it for politics, people who were here because they had nowhere else to go. 

“It’s always like this when a lot of people come together. Everyone has their own problems,” Clement said as we were sitting in his car on the way to his favourite lake, where he wanted to take the first swim of the year and had offered to take us along. Clement was pale and thin, hiding behind baggy black shirts, a hat and a pair of sunglasses that made it hard to tell what he actually looked like. Parts of his fingers on the steering wheel were yellow from holding a few too many cigarettes.

“It’s very hard. I don’t get along with many people.” One part of his hand was scabbed with blood and raw skin. When I asked him about it, he said he’d gotten into a fight with someone at the squat and got so angry that he punched a wall. 

“But that’s what the punching bag on the roof is for,” I said. 

Clement shook his head. “No, that’s where she was. I had to get away.”

He worked as a school chaperone and educator, if we understood him correctly, fighting racism and sexism in schools. 

“Excuse me, but I’m, how do you say, cynic. I’m very cynic.”

I guessed there were two kinds of cynics: those who got bitter and stopped trying to change anything, and those who stayed kind and would never give up. But could the latter really be considered cynics? 

We parked the car and walked to the lake. Everything was green here except for the mountain tops: you could see where spring was climbing up the mountains and where it had not yet reached. I undressed and took a dip in the water. Clement had already swum to the other end of the lake. It was brutally cold, so cold that it hurt, and then my limbs went numb. I climbed out again and sat down in the sun. I wasn’t that hardcore. Not while sober. 

On the ride back, Clement kept talking about the squat and its group dynamics. He didn’t seem to get along with anyone, really, but to face this fact with a strange sort of empathy for other people’s life stories. 

“They’re all very different,” he said. “Some of them take heroin, there are a lot of syringes lying around in the garden.” He put on a song about addiction by Keny Akana, who apparently used to live in Grenoble for a while. “I like this song,” he said. “I don’t take heroin but I’m also an addict, so I understand. I’m sorry this is not a very optimistic topic.” We rounded into the driveway. “No need to apologise,” we said. There really wasn’t. On the contrary, I admired Clement’s honesty, his refusal to small talk. This, and his kindness of taking us to the lake with him. 

Marco was waiting for us over at the park. He had brought a whole bunch of friends who each had brought at least one guitar. One of them, Brian, taught me a few more chords on the Ukulele. He wore glasses and a ridiculous bowl cut, but this cute exterior belied the fact that he was a drug dealer. Or maybe it didn’t. He was new. And not being very smart about it. Firstly, by telling everyone who wanted or didn’t want to hear about it, secondly by having clients call him on his regular phone, thirdly by draining a whole bottle of Jägermeister to drown the paranoia this caused him. 

“Maybe you should get a second phone, a cheap prepaid throwaway one for business,” Sara suggested. 

“You’re right, I should,” he said. I was busy vandalising the park, leaving little messages in permanent marker for Swords to find when he moved here in five months. 

“So what are the two of you up to?” Vincent, another one of Marco’s friends asked when we were sitting in the grass and munching on potato chips. Sara and I did our little sketch that had, over the past week, become kind of a routine for us. Oh you know. We started on the Chemin de Saint Jacques, but it got too boring and now we’re on the way South to work on some farms. Yeah, we dropped out of uni to go travelling. 

I recognised the look on Vincent’s face by now. He was 22 and doing his masters in engineering, a field he neither really liked nor wanted to work in. 

“How long have you been studying?” I asked. He blew up his cheeks.

“Five years?”

“He seemed a little distant,” Sara noted when we walked home. I shook my head. 

“No. He was being shy. He didn’t know what to talk to us about.”

“But why?”

“‘Cause he thinks he’s boring and we’re way too cool.” 

“Noooo.”

“Yes, face it, dude. You’re one of those people now.” 

I remembered this party that we’d gone to the last night before setting out, a house warming party with a bunch of students. Law, teaching, Maths. We had felt it there already. The gap. How removed our lives had become from them, even though only a year ago, we had been entirely the same: studying, working, nesting and believing we had an idea of where we were going. We would go to parties and talk about the incompetent teachers we had, how messed up the university system was, what funny thing our bosses had said. This party, we had gone to in our hiking clothes, the only ones we had. Our heads were filled with stories of famous hikers and rock climbers, or the benefits of smart foam mattresses compared to blow-up ones, and the giddy excitement of burning down a life that wasn’t working out. 

That look Vincent had been wearing, I had recognised as longing. 

“I noticed something about this way of travelling,” Sara said as we rounded into the street where the squat sat. “We’re pretty privileged, you know? If we were two men going about the city with their huge backpacks, if we looked Arabic and if we had beards, we wouldn’t pass everywhere this easily. Same with the squat. We’re coming through this space and it’s very cool for us but there are people like Alex’s family, who actually depend on this space.” I nodded in agreement. 

“I don’t know how to feel about this,” Sara said. 

“Well, it’s good that we’re aware of it, I think?”

“It is. And I feel like I’m becoming more and more aware of the areas in which I’m privileged, and also the ones in which I’m disadvantaged,” she said. Being friends with Sara had the same effect on me. She had taught me so much about colonialism and feminism that I was beginning to think she might be responsible for at least half of my education in those subjects, the other half made up of the Internet and two good uni seminars. 

“I wish there was a subject in schools just called Intersectionality,” I said. “And it would cover everything from feminism to racism to colonialism to social movements.” 

Maybe in an alternate universe.

Day 18, April 5

The weather wasn’t as good after. Much to our luck, museums in Grenoble had free entry, so we went to check out the archaeological museum that put you right on top of an excavation of a church that had been there since Roman times. Before, the Celts had inhabited the area around the Isere, withstanding the Roman Empire for a bit until they too had to surrender. 

“Imagine these mountains when the Celts lived here,” Sara said. “Just imagine what the landscape looked like without all of these houses.” I imagined. It was epic.

Days passed quickly now, with two hours spent just walking from the squat to the city centre and back again. I wondered just how many hours of walking this trip would add up to, had we been counting. Slowly, we got used to all of the faces at the squat. Alex would ask us to teach her words in German, Max would collect the escaped kittens with us that seemed to wait only for the moment she left her room to roam and explore, Petit-Clement would acknowledge our presence silently and sometimes run into us on the roof when he came to train on the sand bag, Blue would hug us and make funny faces, Fabe would offer us food, Cyrille would observe us like a shy fox through the undergrowth, Jerome would throw us an unimpressed look over whatever book he was reading, Anna was almost never there. There were more people whose names I never learned. When we came home, some of them were sitting around a bonfire in the yard and invited us to join. We had cups of tea and guitars. This is what I wanted, I thought as I sat there and played a few chords. This was pretty much what I’d imagined travelling would be like. I hoped I would never get used to it. But in some ways I already had. It didn’t surprise me that these people got by fine without a fridge or heating their rooms. I’d known that with Leon and Jonas. It wasn’t new to me anymore to get food from the waste bins behind supermarkets, or to look for a pair of shorts in the free shop downstairs, where I found one that was absolutely made for me and traded it against a functional shirt I’d never worn on this trip. It didn’t shock me that people had trouble with the police or that some were going to be on trial for establishing this squat. I wasn’t inconvened by sharing space with other people, or by the broken sink, or the peeling wallpaper. I had become a completely different person than I had been a year before. 

Day 19, April 6

One of the museums currently featured an exhibition on mountains in comic books through the ages that, had I been able to speak French would have read like a BA paper, showcasing what the mountains signified for each comic and how they were used to support the narrative. 

I’d begun to feel restless, daunted both by Sara still being sick yet refusing to stay in, and the fact that we still didn’t have a farm to go to. My phone rang when we were grocery shopping. One of the farms we’d contacted was finally getting back to us. I went outside and picked up. There was a man on the other end, asking me to explain the situation I’d already explained when I left him a message. He spoke German, but seemed to be calling from his car, the SAT NAV constantly talking over him. Reception was bad. 

“So, we’re looking for a farm to volunteer at,” I said. 

“This is not a farm, we are an ecovillage.”

“Yes, I know. But what kind of work can we do?” The description online had been quite vague. 

“Do you craft?” he asked. 

“Craft?” I scrunched up my nose. What was this, Kindergarten? 

“Yes and paint fences maybe. It depends.”

Depends on what? 

“You should have a look at the website,” he added. 

“It’s all in French,” I replied. 

“Maybe you can translate it –” the connection broke off. Sara and I sat down with the pot of ice-cream we’d bought. 

“Should we go there?” I asked, spooning ice cream into my mouth. It was on the way South. South, our mantra, our general direction, the only one we were remotely sure we were going within all of the confusion we called our lives. 

“Well, it’s the only one that replied and wasn’t booked out,” Sara said. It was all the universe was giving us. Maybe it was supposed to be, and they would have Internet, which would make it easier to look for other farms. We went back home to cook. It was a real problem to find cheap food in this city, even more so if you wanted it to be vegetarian, and I’d sort of given up trying to be strictly vegan for the time of the trip. 

“How are all of these pizza places always closed?” Sara asked. We’d passed a whole street of pizzerias, one following the other. “How do they even keep in business with all of that competition? Man, people in Grenoble must really love pizza.”

That evening, the squat showed a movie trilogy about the Balkans. We understood less than half of it, but we’d invited Marco who translated a little. The dude from the ecovillage called again.

“Hello? Yeah we would like to come. What? Sorry, can you repeat that?” Reception was so bad that I hung up and resorted to texting. He called again. We went outside.

“I tried to call you but a man picked up,” he said. 

“That was me,” I said.

“No, a man picked up and he barely spoke German.” 

I raised my eyebrows at Sara. A man who barely spoke German? I knew my German was bad, but that bad? I didn’t feel like explaining to him why exactly I didn’t sound fluent at my mother tongue on the phone, but he wouldn’t let it drop. 

“Did someone take your phone? Are you at a commune?”

“No, I had my phone with me the entire time.” 

“Weird. I swear a man picked up.” 

I rolled my eyes. 

“You are two girls, really?”

“We are two women. We are 24.”

“What was your name?”

“Ronan and Warren.” 

“Are those German names?” 

“…no. Irish.” 

“Are you from Ireland?”

“No, we’re from Germany.” I looked at Sara, exasperated. 

“Are your parents Irish?” 

“No.”

“But you have some relation —?”

“We have relations to Ireland, yes.” I gave up. I was liking this dude less and less. 

“Okay. There are some things we have to talk about if you want to come here. You need to purchase a membership card for the year which is 10€. People here have their own apartments and they need to be members, even if you only stay for a week, that’s the law in France.” I was confused. This wasn’t how WWOOFing worked. When we checked the website, we pieced together that we were also expected to pay for food. 

“This isn’t fair,” Sara said. “We are offering them our labour and are supposed to pay for it?” There went the only plan we had. We returned to the showing room and I lay my head on Sara’s shoulder, exhausted. Soon after, we excused ourselves and went to bed. The moon was unnaturally bright, the streetlamps outside orange and garish. I couldn’t find a good position to sleep and I felt sick with uncertainty. What the fuck were we doing? Part of me longed for home, for people I knew, for something, anything that was familiar to me, a place where I was already established and we didn’t have to explain who we were or where we were going. I missed Cups, and I missed Swords, and the fact that I’d promised not to made it worse. I did miss them. I wanted to be held, and kissed, and fall asleep next to them, not worrying about anything. I felt small in my sleeping bag, too thin to withstand being thrown around by the universe. I’d told Swords that I missed him, but it had been an admission of weakness neither of us expected from me. This wasn’t me. I wasn’t weak. I didn’t miss people in the way that made me aching and sad and touch-starved. But in truth, I was also a liar, if I pretended otherwise. You are allowed to be weak, I told myself. You are strong in your weakness. No one expects you to be strong all of the time. You are human. I held onto this thought like a safety blanket. 

Day 20, April 7 

We spent the morning sitting in the café that had free WiFi and looked up more farms we could apply to. One half of my brain went through various descriptions and discarded them as potentially unfruitful, especially if they didn’t have a phone number, while the other half composed a text to Swords to tell him how I felt about not being strong. Rationally, I knew he would understand. I knew that my vulnerability was safe with him, that it didn’t mean he would think of me as needy or small. Emotionally, I needed to see him say it. I was right. He understood. He wasn’t disappointed. He knew his image of me was flawed in its flawlessness, and maybe it was good to see that this wasn’t all of me, that I was complex, human, and thus flawed.

“You’re making the Swords face again,” Sara said, observing me over her coffee glass and laughing silently. She could always tell. 

“Why, what does it look like?” I’d asked her once.

“Stoopid. Like a cat that just stole some cream and is very pleased with itself but trying to hide it, but you know, there is cream all over its face.”

We called a few farms: only one of them currently had vacancies. It was a safran farm in the Pyrenees. No safran grew at this time of the year, so all we’d be able to do was weed the fields. 

“We could do that,” we said. Our standards had sunk pretty low. We rode the city bikes we’d picked up at the train station along the river to the mountain that M had described to us the day before. He was an IT student who’d come to the movie screening and told us about his and his friend R’s secret camp in the forest where they were trying to build a house. 

“How did we hike 22km two weeks ago?” Sara asked as we hiked up the steep slopes, shirts sticking to our bodies. That morning it had been so cold that we’d thrown on a dozen layers of clothes, now it was positively cooking, the black asphalt not helping. 

“I don’t know, man.”

The camp was well hidden, but M had given us a good description. Amidst the trees sat a white beer tent, stone steps leading down from the old wall we had circumvented. 

“Hello?” I called, not sure anyone was home.

“Hello!”

Four people sat on chairs and a mattress inside the tent. M, R, and two friends of theirs. A tiny black dog was sleeping on the mattress, blending so well with the environment that I almost squished it accidentally. M and R barbequed a few potatoes, using a piece of fence they had nailed to a wooden frame as a grill. We talked about activism, G20, climate camps and the forest occupation in Bure, where they’d gone a month before. 

“I know some people who went there.” 

It turned out they had all met. I grinned. This was the right place. These were my people, and we had found them. We exchanged email addresses to keep in touch for future actions, and made plans to see each other at the presidential banquet in the park the next day. The city looked bright to me all of a sudden, ripe with possibility, full of people I considered my tribe. Never in my life had I thought ‘I want to learn French’. Now, it annoyed me every day that I hadn’t. 

We cooked dinner for the squat and sat in the kitchen, watching the coming and going of people, dogs and cats, feeling strangely at home. There was a new face at the squat that evening. His name was Julien, and he was a self-proclaimed vagabond. Everything about him reminded us of a Hobbit, from the tousled brown hair under his flat cap to the patch of hair on his nose and the reddish beard to the plaid shirts and suspenders holding up his brown corduroy pants. He had a guitar he carried everywhere and the sparkly, mischievous eyes of a Merry or Pippin. 

“You want to go to farm?” he asked us in between offering us a tea he’d made from a questionable purple flower and munching on some pasta. “You should go to Cevennes. There is a collectiv with how many anarchist. I always go. You can have how many fun.” 

Sara and I looked at each other. “Where is it?” 

“Do you have map? I can show you.”

It sounded better than a safran farm at least, and Julien had this easy, light manner that made it hard not to trust him. He reminded me of Leon back in Hamburg when I’d sat on the roof of our flat with him and played chess, and he’d told me about hitchhiking through Canada. Only good things came of that. 

Sara and I agreed that following some mad clue we picked up in Grenoble made the most sense as a narrative. 

“If we just went to some farm we found online, we wouldn’t have had to come here,” I said. 

We read a bit of Cheryl Strayed, and got to the part where she meets up with other hikers at a stop on the trail, and, before going out to dinner with them, reflects on her attractiveness, and how she used to enjoy her femininity from the day when as an eleven-year-old girl, men started catcalling her. It gave her a sense of power.

“Ugh,” I commented. 

“Yeah, that’s not power, dude,” Sara said. The fact that now, as Cheryl Strayed had been hiking for weeks, foregoing all the maintenance society had taught her the female body required, and her body had reached its most natural state, she felt decidedly unattractive, only proved Sara’s point. The fact that when women did not conform to the expectations that were put on them, to look hairless and manicured and artificial, society did everything to shame them and put them back in their place, made the notion that femininity equalled power ridiculous. Power was freedom of choice. We did not have freedom to choose how to feel about our own bodies. It was a slow, arduous process of unlearning the hate geared towards every leg hair, armpit hair, upper lip hair, roll of fat, birthmark, mole, in other words: everything that naturally belonged to our bodies, that wasn’t airbrushed, photoshopped, surgically altered, or torn out or shaved. I did not choose to hate my body. I never chose to shave my legs. When I was thirteen and it was Spring, and I wore a skirt to school, a boy walked up to me and told me I was gross, that my leg hair was gross, and that I needed to shave it. I did. That was not power. When I was nineteen and had the smoothest, most naked, perfect legs, and guys would whistle as I passed in my red dress and long blonde hair, that was not power. 

“I think the thing about body hair is that it is so human,” Sara said. “And a lot of men don’t like to be reminded that women are human. If they’re not, that makes it easier to abuse and objectify them for your own pleasure.” It made sense. Just as soldiers dehumanised their enemies, gave them names like Gooks, Tommies, Pigs, to make it easier to kill them, like the Nazis had described Jewish people as parasites, women were called sluts, skanks, bitches, female dogs, decidedly not human. Decidedly other. Fucking alterity, I thought. I looked at the ceiling where the yellow wallpaper was peeling off. In this light, shapes sprang out at us. 

“It’s like in the Yellow Wallpaper,” Sara said. “Now I’m scared I’ll see an angry woman in the wallpaper.”

“She wouldn’t hurt us. We’re feminists. Look. That totally looks like a vagina.”

“You’re right.” 

We laughed. Ceiling-vagina benignly smiled down on us.

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