Summer had arrived. True to what we’d been told, Grenoble got two days of spring until the heatwaves hit. I could finally wear the high waisted shorts the universe had thrown my way that, in combination with my blue tank top, made me look like an anime character from the eighties. I was starved for sun, first drinking it up on the roof, sitting on one of the dirty rugs that covered the gravel and trying in vain to catch up on my writing, and later at the Paul Mistral park. We locked our bikes onto a fence and surveyed the surroundings. People had put up a free clothes shop on a laundry line between the trees. There was a booth for printing t-shirts, tables to decorate masks for demonstrations, a bookshop, tables holding food and in between it all, people playing guitars or sitting in circles to discuss politics. A bit further off, people were juggling and whirling pois around. We saw a few people from the squat scattered all over the place. Everyone seemed to know each other. We claimed one of the unoccupied picnic tables, over challenged by the amount of people we didn’t know.
“Let’s just sit here until someone comes to talk to us,” Sara said. “Yeah, that’s gonna work,” I said. But I was also content to sit in the sun and watch for now. A few moments later, someone from the squat walked over. He was wearing a faded pink shirt that hung loosely from his fragile shoulders, a skirt that ended below his calves, and his hair untamed, framing his wild eyes. Sara had once noted that he looked like a startled animal escaped from the woods.
“How are you?” he asked us, sitting down in the grass. Whether we had slept well, how we felt at the squat, what our names were.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“It’s Cyrille, but you can call me Carlita.”
“It’s a women’s name.”
“OK. Which pronouns do you prefer?” I asked.
“He, she, they, something else?”
“Oh, I don’t care,” he said. “And you?”
We used men’s names, but we didn’t care either.
“Sometimes I don’t understand,” Cyrille said, “with why people care. I don’t think I am a man or a woman. Some people think I am a man and that’s OK and some think I am a woman, and I haven’t decided what I prefer. But I am not attracted to men.”
“Oh, but that’s different,” Sara said. “Gender and sexual orientation are two different things, you don’t have to like men to be a woman.”
Cyrille considered this. He had a quiet, thoughtful way of speaking, slow as if each word were carefully weighed before it made it past his lips, to which he would hold his thumb in a pose of utmost concentration.
“One time,” he said after a minute or so of silence, “I watched a man playing the piano. There is a piano at the train station that I sometimes go to play. And one time there was a man playing. While he was playing, he was very beautiful.” He smiled. I could imagine it.
“Music can make people incredibly attractive,” I said, thinking of one specific concert, long hair and seven guitar notes that had etched themselves into my brain.
“How long are you staying?” Cyrille asked.
“Not much longer,” we said. We were worried about overstaying our welcome and taking up space that wasn’t ours to claim.
“Don’t worry about it,” Cyrille said. “I can’t speak for everyone but I am sure that you are very welcome to stay and I can ask the others how they feel.” He smiled in that tentative, guarded way of his. “I think I’ll go look for my friend now.”
We watched him leave. “Do you sometimes feel like you can see the cracks in people?” Sara asked.
I nodded. “Sometimes.”
“I just want to take all of those people and mend their cracks,” Sara said. It made me think of Japanese pottery, broken and put back together using gold paste, more beautiful than ever before.
We ran into M as we went to have a look at the schedule that was painted on a big plastic sheet hanging from a tree. He wanted to introduce us to his friend V, a girl who had been in Bure as well. Her English was perfect, and she told us how she’d met all the people we knew from Freiburg.
“What do you do, do you study with M?” I asked her.
“No, I’m still in school.”
Whoa. People like that always intimidated me a little. Unwillingly, I had to think back to what I’d been up to at seventeen. How I’d wanted to join Greenpeace and be politically active, and how instead I’d been locked up in Japan, hanging onto every of my English teacher’s words about how activism was useless anyway. He’d tried, he’d been arrested a few times. I’d watched my optimism evaporate like the smoke from his cigarettes dissolving in the air of the small and dingy café we’d been sitting in.
“You go ahead. If you wanna be an activist, by all means, try it. I’m too old for that shit. I did my duty.” Now, he enjoyed all the best modern civilisation had to offer. A safe job that didn’t make him happy, a wife, building dioramas to pass the time, chatting up 20-year-olds in Maid cafés, watching swimsuit hentai and impressing isolated 17-year-old German girls with tales of his youth. He wasn’t old enough to be a cynic. He was 45. I wasn’t old enough.
Paul, I wish I’d never listened to you. I could’ve been here so much faster. I looked around at my people, at Blue training with her Pois in the distance, every muscle in her body moving fluidly, and thought two things: Firstly, it didn’t matter. I was here now. I was pretty happy. Secondly, I was very, very gay.
Day 22, April 9
Nothing much happened. Thank fuck. Sara was still sick and it was hard enough to get her to take some rest. She was always afraid she might miss something important. Today, too, Cyrille had asked us to come to a waterfall with him, and she felt terrible about having to say no. We spent most of the day on the roof in the sun.
Day 23, April 10
I woke up desoriented. It was less about where I was or what time it was. I knew it was Monday, we were in Grenoble. There was certainty in the small things, such as that there would be dirty dishes in the sink, the LIDL would have pizza for 99 cents, we would have to return our city bikes and there was snow on the mountaintops. The chairs on the balcony had both broken down and now we sat there with our coffee and cereal, squeezing our butts against the small area of chair that was left, and I was acutely aware of all the things that were not certain. I was not certain about where I would be living four months from now. How to make ends meet. Whether I wanted to be in Freiburg, or in Germany at all. How to finish my novel. How to maintain my relationships. How to be an activist. I was acutely aware of the combined weight of all these cardboard boxes that were sitting in a cellar outside of Freiburg, that I had said I’d pick up in autumn. So much stuff. How did I still own so much stuff? And if I decided not to stay, and instead spend my Winter somewhere in Spain or Portugal or God knows where, what would I do with those boxes? And if I did stay, how would I pay rent? How find a flat?
“Dude, you’re spiralling,” Sara called me out. I had probably been staring into the dark swirls of my coffee mug for the past ten minutes, not noticing what was going on around me.
“Funny, usually I’m the one with the future anxiety,” Sara said. “But really, we don’t have to have this figured out now. We have four more months to figure it out.”
“It doesn’t worry you?” I asked, scratching the paint off the already rusty railing. “I just can’t help going through all the scenarios, all of my options and ideas, and freaking out about it.”
“Well, I have a few ideas but I know I don’t have to decide yet.”
“I think I would really like to live in Edinburgh. I mean there is a master’s programme for creative writing there, but even without that, and I’m not sure I want to study writing anymore. But then it’s like, what do I do there?”
“And how do I earn money? Oh you know what I would like to do? The ghost tours. They do these historical ghost tours there and tell you stuff about the city. Man, I would really love to be a feminist ghost tour guide.”
I threw my hands up in the air. “There you have it. Feminist ghost tour guide and writer in Edinburgh. How do you have this shit all figured out already? Three weeks in and you have it figured out.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. It’s pretty obvious you are gonna move here.”
“Here? Grenoble? What makes you think so?”
“It’s like Freiburg.”
I considered this. Yeah, I liked it here. But moving here? To France? In all my future visions I had sort of tied myself to Freiburg, with plans to hitchhike to Grenoble once in a while. That was before the trip. Now, I was less and less sure what kept me in Freiburg in the first place, if I had no more uni, no job, no flat, Swords would be down here and everything about Cups was just as uncertain as my whereabouts. The coffee we’d just finished swirled around in my gut.
“I wonder how Fool deals with this,” I said. It was hard to imagine now that he had been the one who started this, put this idea to go travelling and WWOOFing in my head, and didn’t even know about it. We’d known each other for 17 waking hours, and yet he’d been the last match I’d needed to burn the rest of my life down.
“You need to stop romanticising that dude,” Sara said.
We went to the train station to return our bikes. After, I walked around the city barefoot. People stared.
“How does one stop romanticising?” I said. We were looking for a supermarket that had coconut flakes and soy milk. It was our last day and we wanted to bake a cake to say thanks for having been able to stay at the squat. “You know, if I had a chance to really get to know him, all would be easy. It’s just that I don’t get the opportunity to see him live as a real person outside of my head. And so he becomes more of a concept than a person. Concepts are fucking indestructible. Remember how I pined for Milena for eight months without a single word from her?”
“Oh god, don’t remind me.”
“But it’s the same problem. You get so much room to project all the shit you would like to see. And all the shit you would not. And everything is larger than life, but probably not real, but you have no way of telling.”
I imagined Fool somewhere on Tenerife, climbing trees, building sheds, digging trenches, and surfing, his gloriously tan feet firmly planted on a green surfboard. In my imagination, he was always happy, the sun was always shining, and his feet were the tannest feet on earth.
“Yeah but that doesn’t mean you have to be with that person, right? You said that yourself. If you can’t be with them, be them. At least the parts that you like,” Sara said.
“Cannibalise the people you love,” I added.
“And it doesn’t even matter whether it’s true in the end, whether they are like that, ’cause you are one fucking amazing person.”
We had found the coconut flakes and soy milk, and, coming out of the store, stumbled into Cyrille.
“How are you feeling?” he asked Sara.
“Better. And you? Were you able to sleep?”
“Okay. Yes. Better.” He blinked at us. “I asked some people at the squat and they all said you can stay. It is not a problem.”
“Ah, man. That is very kind.” We meant it. We kept standing there. Both Sara and I felt there was more to say, more to listen.
“Lately has been very hard for me,” Cyrille said. We nodded. Silence spread. I knew a depressed person when I saw them. Found them, again and again. Or they found me. It was a sort of instant kinship.
“You are a very warm person,” I told Cyrille. He smiled.
“Thank you.” Silence returned. Then, he said goodbye. We would see him at the flat later.
That night, Clement and Julien went to the lake again. Against better judgement, we jumped into the car with them. Clement noticed after a few minutes and rolled the window back up.
“I am a smoker. You are sick. Not a good combination,” he said to Sara. When we got back, she noticed, too. Her throat was aching again. She felt terrible.
“So, I guess we’re not gonna leave tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll get you to a doctor’s.”
“But we already said goodbye,” she complained. “We even wrote a goodbye letter.” It was true. We’d left our email addresses and phone numbers and vowed to return on our way back to Germany.
“If you’re sick we’re gonna do a damn and hitchhike to Cevennes tomorrow.” That, and I hadn’t even yet managed to reach the collective and figured out where exactly to go. They never picked up the phone.
Day 24, April 11
Sara was worse when we woke up the next morning. Throatache, headache, blocked nose, exhaustion. Petit-Clement gave us directions to a doctor that he said spoke English. We walked there, got into the waiting room, and out again with a bag full of medicine.
“You know what’s funny but also not?” Sara said.
“This was a doctor for undocumented immigrants.”
“Yes. And they asked me for my social security in the beginning and I was like: whelp, don’t have that. But now I think they meant health insurance. And they thought I didn’t have health insurance. But they also knew I wasn’t an immigrant. So they said they will treat me but that I can’t come back. And that I need health insurance. They asked whether my mom knows I don’t have health insurance. And they were all very nice but now I feel terrible. They gave me all this medicine for free.”
“Oh man. But we didn’t know.”
“Yeah man, if I’d known I wouldn’t have come here, obviously.”
I shrugged. “But feeling guilty now doesn’t really help.”
“That’s what I do. I feel guilty.”
“Just accept it as a gift, dude. That will be a better way of honouring it.”
At the squat, everyone knew by now, they asked Sara how she felt, brought her tea, and water laced with essential oils. Benjamin explained that the pizza places we’d seen belonged to the Mafia and were actually just a front for their other business. He proceeded to play the guitar in the common room and throw Sara meaningful looks in between songs.
“What, me?” He blushed.
Lying in bed later, I reminded Sara of what we’d felt like when we arrived to Grenoble more than a week before.
“Sometimes it’s like you put your wish out there, and the universe goes: Your request is being processed. Please hold the faith. Your request is being processed. And then we got so much more than we wished for. Remember when I said if we could just find my people, we’d be fine? We found them.”
“I just noticed something,” Sara replied. “They are my people, too. I’m not searching anymore. The place in my heart that was a question mark now has faces.”
“Goddshitdammit,” I said. “Did you just make that up? Do you just come up with quotable shit like that from the top of your head?”
I cried. Of happiness, of course.
Day 25, April 12
Julien had made it his mission to introduce us to the Vagabond life. On Wednesday, he explained to us how to fare-dodge on the tram, showed us how to juggle and from which shop to best dumpster-dive fruit, as we roamed the city with him that now opened entirely new possibilities for us. Julien almost never paid for anything. He had no money. He owned the clothes on his body, what fit into a small backpack, and his guitar.
“Where do you live?” we asked.
“Nowhere. Everywhere. I go to Grenoble, then I go to Cevennes, then I go to Gap, then I go to Grenoble.”
A woman stopped us in the street. She looked to be in her late thirties, wore a business outfit, a pale blue blouse and sunglasses.
“It’s so good to hear English. Where are you from?” she asked.
“You don’t hear a lot of English?”
She was from Serbia and would return there soon. “I can’t wait to get out of this country,” she said. “It’s really hard to live here.” She turned to Julian and the two started speaking rapidly in French. She got angry. He got annoyed. Finally, with a shrug, he wished her a good day and walked away. We followed awkwardly.
He shrugged again. “She has how many opinion about squat and people and she think all people take drugs and have family problem.” We could see that this enraged him. Only that morning, Petit-Clement had showed us an article in a newspaper describing the squat as inhabited by militant extremists, but that had been more funny than anything else. Now we knew who the man had been that we’d waved to from the balcony as he got out of his car to take pictures of the squat.
The three of us refilled our water bottles at a park fountain and sat down on a bench. A few punks and homeless dudes came by to talk to Julien, one of them offered him a grease-stained bag of fries he pulled from his backpack. His teeth when he smiled were black.
“No, thanks,” Julien said.
“Did you know them?”
“Some of them. These people always have trouble,” he laughed. “But I love them. I really love them.” I wondered whether Julien also felt like there was some beauty in broken people, whether it was because we saw our raw edges mirrored in each other. Without trying to romanticise homelessness, maybe it was the recognition of each other as human. These were people with feelings and experiences and stories. There were people they loved and people who loved them. I wished I’d been able to understand what that woman had said to Julien, for there to have been some way to question her judgement. It was based on ignorance after all. If we made an effort to really see each other, Sara and I told each other later, alterity could go fuck itself.
Julien and we made plans to leave together on Friday, to hitchhike to Cevennes together and stay for a week at the collective we still weren’t exactly sure about what they actually did, whether they had a house, or what we would be doing there. But Julien reassured us that he had called them, that there were even Germans there and that we were welcome to visit.
At the squat, we made a huge bowl of couscous and carried it up to the roof, where we ate with the others. Even the couple from the van parked down in the street was there. They almost never came out, only sometimes and arm poked out of the door in the back, to feed the dog that spent most of the time chained to the van and lying in the shade. If anyone here shot heroin, it was them. The woman’s eyes were sunk low in their sockets, her lips chapped. I remembered the first time my mother had pointed an addict out to me, a girl hovering in a doorway somewhere near the central station in Hamburg. Their eyes were the same, smudged with makeup from the previous days. When I sat down on the edge of the roof and looked at the mountains, trying to imprint their shapes and colours onto my brain so I would not lose them, the woman came over and asked whether I was OK. She was wearing a sunflower yellow dress.
“Just a bit sad, we’re leaving soon,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Don’t be sad.” She hugged me and kissed my cheek.