People had started to joke about when we would leave.
“This is the last day,” we kept repeating.
“Yes, really now.” The knowledge that nobody really wanted us to leave made it all the more harder to say goodbye. Good thing Julien would take us with him, leaving us no choice. “You might like it now,” he said. “But it would be different if you stayed.”
So flee the shelter for the storm before the caves collapse // Zack Hemsey – No Man’s Land
Benjamin (where the B stood for bearded, beefy and manbun, aka Sara’s wet dream) had even offered for us to come to his mountain house with him, but that would have to wait ’til June.
“This is how my Dad did it too,” I assured her. “He met my mom and then went travelling. And then he came back and it was raining and he got wet and that’s how I got born. Well, ten years later.”
The last day we wanted to give to Cyrille. He was going to the waterfall again and we would pick him up at the train station piano. We walked through the dark underground tunnel where the platforms branched off. I stopped and pointed to a flight of stairs. “Up here.” We could already hear the piano. It stood to the side of a passage, in front of a large glass wall on whose other side people were smoking and waiting for their trains. Cyrille sat with his back to us on the small stool, his fingers rushing over the keys. Neither Sara nor I said a word. We leant back against the staircase and watched and listened. Through the windows I could see the reflection of the Alps gleaming off the building opposite the station. Cyrille played. And played. Language barriers did not exist in music. I could feel what he felt. I heard softness and sadness and sunlight filtering through leaves. I heard the mountains and the smiles of strangers, the taste of clementines and the feeling of hands holding each other. People walked past, carrying pieces of the music with them wherever they were going. I thought about everything that had brought us here, all the kilometres we’d covered, the people with whom we’d stayed, the coincidences; all of it that amounted to this moment in time where we were leaning against a staircase in a train station in Grenoble and listening to Cyrille play the piano. He stopped, turned around and smiled as if he’d known we were there the entire time. Of all the moments, this one was perfect. I knew right then I would keep it, distill it, inhale it, write it down.
“Thank you,” I said to Cyrille and wiped my face with the end of my sleeve. “For playing this.”
“Thank you for listening,” Cyrille said.
The waterfall was a little out of town. We got there by riding the tram and walking for half an hour and I tried to remember the way so I would find it again once we came back and it was warm enough to swim. I climbed a rock in front of the waterfall and let the spray drift in my face. The place had something ancient about it, in the moss that covered the rocks and the wild garlic that grew by the side of the river. I held my palms up and listed all of the things I was grateful for, said thanks for every wish we’d been granted the previous weeks.
We harvested some of the wild garlic and made our way back down, but stopped in the middle of the path where the forest broke off and revealed a view of both the city and the surrounding mountains. We sat down without needing to agree to. I lay down on the path, my head cushioned by a comfortably shaped stone and looked up at the trees, how they were swaying, how birds had made their nests in them, how the light made a bright green blanket of them. I felt caught. The same feeling I’d had in December after hitchhiking from Freiburg to Kassel, where everything had gone wrong: I’d been stuck in a traffic jam for hours, I’d been dropped off in the wrong town, I had no way of calling Leon, and despite everything I’d ended up where I needed to be in the end, comfortable, warm, secure in Leon’s bed. Like the universe was holding me in its palm.
We were hungry after that. Or at least Sara and I were. Cyrille told us some pseudoscientific stuff about raw food diets and how he didn’t get hungry anymore. I looked at his sinewy, thin frame and took everything he said with a grain of salt. One time, he had eaten a lizard he’d caught in the woods, while participating in some sort of survival week.
“Did you kill the lizard yourself?” I asked. But no, it had still been alive when he ate it.
“I only ate half of it,” he said, “but I don’t remember what happened to the other half.”
We didn’t see any lizards around, or felt like biting off their heads, so we took a tram back to the city in search for a supermarket.
“We can try to dumpster-dive here,” Cyrille said, pointing to what had to be the iron fortress of supermarkets. The waste bins were secured behind three metre high walls topped with barbed wire, no footholds, no nothing, the whole thing clearly visible from the street. What a madman, I thought, but conceded that he knew the city best, and that I was too hungry to pass this up. We snuck around to the other side of the fortress to where we were less visible and propped a rusty metal beam against the wall. It had nails sticking out of it.
“I can try to get over,” I offered, not very convinced by myself. Cyrille let me put my foot on his shoulder until I managed to stand on the beam. My hands could just reach the edge of the wall from here but I had never been able to do a single pull up. Defeated, I climbed back down, trying not to impale myself on the nails.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do it.”
This time, Cyrille tried. Despite his frail body, he pulled himself up the wall and swung across the barbed wire, flashing us a view of his private parts. We could have known he wasn’t the type of person to wear underwear.
“I will try to push the food underneath the door on the other side. There are large bags in my backpack.”
Already the food came shooting out underneath the metal door. Carrots and nets of clementines and plastic containers filled with blueberries, and packaged meat.
“Is it smart to take meat?” I asked. We stuffed everything in the bags and watched Cyrille climb over the wall again.
At the squat, people fell on the meat like starved hyenas.
“Thank fuck,” Blue said. “I haven’t had meat in ages.” She threw one of the steaks into a pan. Food at the squat was usually vegan. We were happy with the clementines and some bread and cheese that we ate with the wild garlic.
Exhausted from the day’s events, I withdrew to our room. A bunch of Argentinians had arrived at the squat, one of which had The Eyes™ and Sara was busy talking to him in a mix of Spanish and English. I seized the chance to be alone and mentally prepare myself for leaving. This is how Cyrille found me five minutes later, sitting on the bed and playing sad songs on my phone.
“Can we talk?” he asked. I was too curious to say no.
“How are you feeling?”
I grimaced. “Ah, I don’t know. A little sad about leaving. But I also know it’s the right thing to do.” Sara and I had agreed on this.
“Why?” Cyrille sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Because it’s the hard choice.” Staying, we had reasoned, would have been easy. There was nothing we would have to do but not do anything. We had a place here. We didn’t need to pay rent. We would learn French and fight this squatter’s fight with people we liked. It was too easy. We knew that there were more places and more people still waiting for us along the way, just as, had we never left Cecilia and Ioannis’ place in Belfort, we would never have come to Grenoble.
“I don’t understand,” Cyrille said. “If you want to stay, stay. Do what feels right.”
“Leaving feels right,” I said. “Just because it’s a little painful doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”
Our conversation was slow moving, caused both by the language barrier and Cyrille’s way of turning every word over in his head. He picked one of my pen cartridges up from the table and twisted it between his fingers.
“I have also been having trouble to leave Grenoble.” He told me he had a friend with whom he’d like to go travelling, but his friend was never ready.
“I would like to spend more time with you,” he said. I remembered what he had told us on the tram. That he’d like to ‘share affection with us’ but was also hesitant ‘because we were leaving’.
“We’ll come back to Grenoble on the way back to Germany,” I said.
“That’s not what I meant,” Cyrille said. “I meant I would like to go travelling with you.”
“When would you like to to travelling?”
“In a few days.”
Oh. This was something I had not expected. I needed to talk to Sara.
“Well,” I said. “We will go to Cevennes tomorrow. But maybe we can keep in touch and meet up somewhere depending on where we’re all going.”
“I would like that,” Cyrille said. He was sitting on the edge of the bed. “I think I would like us to touch now.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I don’t know whether I want to hug.”
I held out my hand for him to take. “Is this OK?”
“Yeah.” He took it. He really is a little like a wild, shy animal, I thought. But something about us had made him drop his caution a little. He pulled his hand back.
“I don’t know whether you know about my disease,” he said.
“I told Warren earlier, I have a very infectious disease of my skin.”
“I don’t know what it’s called in English. In French it’s gale. We had it at the squat in November.”
“But you got treatment?”
“Yes but it was not good for my body so I stopped.”
“And you still have it?”
“I think so. It itches, but now I use my pee on my skin.”
“And that helps?” I knew that pee was supposed to be good for a lot of things but it was no magical cure for, say, scabies.
“Oh my god, is it scabies?” I asked.
“What’s scabies? I don’t know.”
“Is it mites? Like small spider-like animals that go under your skin? Are there small red dots? Close together?”
I had gotten scabies once and a strong paranoia concerning hostels right along with it. I had stayed in London for a week, the third time I’d attended Maggie Hamand’s creative writing course. The hostel’s name should have warned me off: Surprise Backpackers. It should have been called “Backpacker’s Surprise”.
“Yes,” Cyrille said. “What is it called?”
Here was Cyrille, running around with untreated scabies and peeing on his skin, living with ten to fifteen other people. Irresponsible had never looked so innocent.
“You need to go to the doctor’s,” I told him.
“If it doesn’t get better from the pee.”
I shook my head. It wouldn’t get better. When he left to go to the kitchen, I poured disinfectant over my hands, feeling both righteously paranoid and guilty while I did it. Don’t take that risk, I told myself. Then I told Sara.
“Oh, yeah. He told me but I didn’t know it was scabies.”
We stood next to each other in the bathroom and brushed our teeth.
“I don’t want to travel with him,” she said. Now that I knew he had scabies, I didn’t either. “It’s not just him, you know? I wouldn’t want it to be anyone else either. I mean, sure, we can meet other people and meet up with them, but this trip is about you and me.”
I nodded and spat my toothpaste in the sink to have room to talk.
“Yeah, and we also know each other pretty well by now. Whatever the other one is going through, we notice and we can talk about it and we understand. It’s a bit like being alone. I can sometimes be alone win you, like being just by myself. If there was another person, we wouldn’t have that. We would never be alone. It would be exhausting.”
“Oh god, yeah,” Sara said. “And it’s also that this narrative is about us. Because we come from a similar place and we have similar questions and we can support each other in that.”
“I’m glad we agree on this.”
Now that we were truly leaving, we felt a little daunted again by the prospect of having to hitchhike, about putting ourselves out there far away from everything that was familiar, had become familiar.
“Major Uncertainty reporting for duty,” Sara said, lying in bed next to me. “Do you think the people here will think of us?”
“They will. Yeah. I think so,” I said.
“I’ve already started to romanticise this place in my head,” Sara said.
I thought of all the people out there in the world who might or might not be occasionally thinking of me.
“I think of people all the time,” I told Sara. “I even think of Milena sometimes, still. Isn’t that weird? I have no idea what she’s doing now or where she lives, or whether she’s still thinking of me. But she must be. I mean, she thought of me those eight months when we had no contact whatsoever.”
“Yeah, she must be,” Sara said.
“Isn’t that weird? That there are people out there who must be thinking of you sometimes, the same way you think of them.”
“Yeah that’s weird.”
“I wonder if Fool still thinks of me.”
“He must be.”
“I’m not so sure anymore,” I admitted. “It took him two months to reply to my fucking email and he only checked them ’cause Cups told him to. You know, and I think my reply to that he didn’t even read, ’cause he was at a public library and that was also two months ago now. And maybe he only checks his emails once every 3-4 months if no one pressures him. So he doesn’t even know I’m travelling now. And if he cared at all, wouldn’t he be curious to know whether I replied? Wouldn’t he check?”
“True,” Sara said.
I went on: “Thing is, I’ve told myself over and over with different people that some are just like that, that they’re too busy or they don’t like to communicate via technology or whatever, that I just can’t know what’s going on in their lives, and it doesn’t mean they don’t care. But now I’m leaning more towards believing that you can sense if this is important to the other person, right? And then you would make an effort to communicate, unless you don’t want to get their hopes up.”
“True,” Sara said.
“Ah, now I’ve made myself feel like shit,” I said. “Remind me to never be like that. To never be so unreachable that the people who love me start to project all sorts of shit on me and feel small. I don’t want to leave them wondering like that.”
Day 27, April 14
Julien woke us up at seven o’clock.
“Let’s leave at eight,” he said.
“You’re kidding,” we said. “Let’s leave at nine.” We hadn’t even packed yet. And forgotten how much stuff we owned or how it all had ever fit in our packs. Julien laughed at us.
“You shut up,” I told him. “You don’t have a tent or sleeping bag.” In fact, shouldn’t we make it to Cevenees within a day, he’d benefit from our insane luggage and share the tent with us. But we needn’t have worried about that. Julien had told Sara how to get to Cevennes, so we went separately and planned to meet up in St. Jean du Gard, where some kind of Hippie festival was happening. If we were lucky, we might hitch a ride directly with some Hippies. It was only a matter of seconds before Julien got picked up, we followed shortly after. I had never hitchhiked at this pace before, we never had to wait for more than ten minutes to find another car. Five hours later, we were in St. Jean du Gard, a very small town in the middle of nowhere, that was currently getting overrun by Hippies. Our last driver hadn’t quite believed us when we said we weren’t going to the festival. For all intents and purposes, we fit right in.
“It’s good to have a cover,” Sara said. “Normally small towns like this are super suspicious, you know? But here they’d just look at us and think: yeah. Psh. Hippies.” She flailed her arms. Now where was Julien? We had met him twice while hitchhiking, once in Bollene his car came through where we were just getting picked up, then in Alès. He couldn’t be far, but Sara started to worry. We were a little out of practice at being uncomfortable and stranded but there was nothing to do but wait and sit on a wall next to the street, eating the last of our buns and watching the Hippies arrive. We didn’t know how to get to Berquet by ourselves. I took a look at the map again.
“Julien told me the house is located between Lasalle and St. Hippolite.” I pointed it out to Sara.
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said. St. Jean du Gard was to the north of both these towns, and we could’ve gone straight to either one of them. From here it looked like it would be another 22km.
“Why would we have gone here if we can’t even walk from here?” Sara asked.
Finally, Julien’s car came down the road. A long haired Hippie in a leather vest had picked him up in Alès.
“You made it!” I shouted. He sat down on the wall with us.
“Okay, so how do we get to Berquet?” Sara asked. Julien squinted at her.
“You want to go to Berquet now?”
“Wasn’t that the plan?” Sara asked.
“To go to Berquet.”
“I’m not go there,” Julien said. “When I say I go there?”
“This week? You said come to Cevennes. Come to Cevenees. Let’s go together,” I said. He held his hands up and laughed defensively.
“I don’t say that.”
It turned out he was only here for the festival, that he would visit a friend in St. Hippolite afterwards, to where he invited us along, but not really, as she didn’t have any space.
“If you’re not going to Berquet,” Sara said, “how are we supposed to find it?”
Julien shrugged. “I don’t know. Call them.”
“We tried,” I said. “No one picked up. Didn’t you say you’ve been there?”
“Yes. It’s between Lasalle and St. Hippolite. Sorry. I can’t help you.” He made it very clear the whole ordeal was more than annoying to him, then he disappeared to talk to his friends. His actual friends. Another of his friends was coming the next day, maybe she could drop us off at Berquet on Sunday, he said, but that was all he could do for us.
We had found the camping grounds next to the small river that ran through the village, and plopped down on a picnic table.
“So I guess we’re staying for the festival,” I said. This was why we had the tent after all. We hadn’t used it ever since we’d quit the Chemin de Saint Jacques. Camping at least was free. The festival was not. But most of it didn’t seem to happen inside anyway but right there on the street and in the camping grounds. Everyone we saw was either playing an instrument: guitars, violins, drums, bagpipes (!), or they were juggling. To add insult to injury, all of these people were over the top attractive. Long, beautiful hair, braids, dreadlocks, beards, laughter and sparkly eyes left and right. It was almost an assault, you couldn’t walk ten steps in St. Jean du Gard without having your ovaries exploded. And in all of this, the only person we knew was too busy desperately avoiding us to introduce us to anyone.
“I don’t get it,” Sara said as we put up the tent. “He was so excited for us to come on Wednesday and he kept saying: when we’re in Cevennes we will do this and we will do that.”
“And now it’s like he’s ashamed of us,” I added.
Sometimes we caught him glancing over. Never did he invite us to join the group he was sitting with. Then, he came and handed us his guitar. “I should not have this right now. I’m too drunk. Can you put it in the tent?”
We took it. Mainly, I was relieved to have something to hold on to and play madly sad songs on. So sad that some Hippies walked over and gave me a pity-hug and told us to cheer up before trailing off again.
“Let’s take a walk,” Sara said. The hills called for her. This time when I tried calling Berquet, I got through.
“We’re friends of Julien’s,” I said, not sure that was even true anymore.
“Where are you from?” Daniel, who had taken the call, asked.
He snorted. “Ja, ich kann halt auch Deutsch sprechen, ne?”
He gave us directions on how to reach the house. After I hung up, I turned to Sara, laughing. “His German. Did you hear that? It was really funny. It sounded a little ghetto, you know what I mean? Man, I really wonder how that dude ended up in an anarchist collective in France.”
“Good thing we know how to get there now,” Sara said. We didn’t need to rely on Julien anymore. His betrayal stung hard, however. Without his friendship, this place that was teeming with potentially interesting and obviously gorgeous people felt exclusive and unbreachable to us.
“Let’s just hide in the tent,” Sara suggested. There was music everywhere still. Life and party spirit. But none of the energy could reach us in the headspace we were in.
“I can’t believe he just dumped us in some town we’d never be in if it weren’t for him. And now he isn’t even going to Berquet. What the fuck,” we kept repeating. Hopefully, the next day would be different. We switched our headlamps off and listened to everyone else having fun, until we fell asleep and I had creepy nightmares of a crazy man stalking around the campgrounds and shouting threats. I watched him move through the thin fabric of the tent walls. He was holding an axe. He came closer. Eyes fixed on the tent. He brought the axe down on the tent. I woke up, found myself still in the tent and for a minute wasn’t sure whether I’d been dreaming or not.
Day 28, April 15
Everything was worse in the morning. We both woke up depressed. Neither of us wanted to exit the tent. There were people outside. Beautiful people. I felt the ugliest I had felt in months. Also, my piercing had gotten infected overnight. The weather was grey and overcast and the only place to wash was the river, in full sight of everyone else. Somehow, I managed to crawl outside, determinedly avoid looking at anyone, and stick my head into the icy water. It would get better, I told myself.
It did not get better. Not with coffee, or with breakfast, or with lunch. We kept walking around, watching people dance in the streets, and kept being mad at both Julien and ourselves.
“If I weren’t depressed right now we could just go over to the jugglers over there and talk to them.”
This was the most frustrating part. That I knew I could have done it, had done it before, had my mood been working properly. Moreover, I was sure the sticky mark of how I felt was clearly visible in each of my facial muscles refusing to move. No one would look at us and think: Those are two interesting looking people I want to talk to.
No one but the girl with the buzzcut. I’d caught her looking at us when we brought groceries back to the tent, then when we had lunch on the picnic table between the trees by the river. She looked over again, to where we stood by the river bank.
“We should talk to her,” I said. “It would be so easy. Just tell her we like her hair, or, I mean, her lack of hair, tell her we used to have the same haircut.”
“Yeah, but I can’t right now,” Sara said.
She looked over again, separated from her group of friends and came walking down to the river.
“Oh god. She’s coming here. Don’t tell me she’s coming to talk to us.” I caught her eye. “Yep. She’s coming to talk to us.”
I watched this gorgeous woman steer towards us, smiling, a beer in hand. Then, she stumbled over a root. Fuck, I thought. Thank you, root. Thank you. I had begun to think this encounter would leave me thoroughly flustered by her flawlessly descending the hill to grace us with her coolness. But no, she was just human. Now did that make it better or worse? She caught herself and grinned sheepishly. I grinned back.
“Bonjour,” she said, stopping in front of us. She had the most delicate face, blue eyes, a hint of blonde stubble on her head. Also, she had some serious guts. “You are very beautiful,” she said. “I saw you and I thought I want to talk to you. The beer is for you.” God fucking damn.
“You are beautiful,” I said. “I really like your hair.”
Her laugh was quiet and bright, like birds chirping. She knew just enough English to hold a conversation, to tell us her name was Celine and to invite us over to her group of friends. I was beginning to think I probably had some very powerful friends in high places who for some reason had set stuff in motion to get me a lot of things I didn’t really deserve. Celine kept offering us food and drinks. Her boyfriend, a tall, beautiful man with a haircut straight out of Vikings waved at us from half inside their tent. There were Lea, Gustave, and Salome, who spoke perfect English, was a traveller herself and involved Sara in a discussion about future anxieties to which I listened with half an ear, the other focused on Celine who told me that she and Jibi lived in a community in Ardeche called ‘Joyous’.
“Sometimes there are just too many options,” Sara told Salome.
“But you don’t have to pick either of them,” Salome said. “You just have to pick one to do first, but you can actually do all of them. I think the mistake is thinking you can only have one thing, or trying to fit everything in all at once.’
Sara shook her head. “How are you so wise?”
We got to know more people, some of them even spoke German, others invited us to stay at their flat in Toulouse in case we passed through. Sara got a marriage proposal from a weird old dude who wanted a German passport.
“We will go into the town now to hear the music and drink beer. Do you want to come? And then maybe later we will drink some mushroom tea. Would you like mushrooms?” Celine asked. Sara and I looked at each other.
“Uh. Not for me,” Sara said.
I shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.” Maybe this was a good environment for having that experience. The people were of a good sort, we were outside, the sky was clear and starry. On another note, I knew how sensitive I was. I postponed my decision.
The town was lit up with lampignons and drunk faces. We found a bar, got beer, and sat down on one of the walls. Gustave and Lea tried to teach us French, but I was too busy watching Celine and Jibi. I was confused. There was some exchange passing between the two that stayed indecypherable to us, not because we didn’t speak French but because they had a language entirely of their own. Jibi pressed Celine against his chest, kissed the top of her buzzed head and called her ‘Mon Amour’. The tunnel in his ear was decorated with the same triskele that was tattooed on her arm. I had a few ideas about who they were and what they were about, each more outrageous than the next.
When Jibi went to fetch more beer, I sat down next to Celine on the wall.
“How long have you and Jibi been together?”
“Are you monogamous?” I asked her. If she was surprised, she didn’t show it.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know what I mean?”
She smiled. “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s complicated.”
“Ok,” I said.
“I’m not. It’s complicated, too.”
She looked at me again. “Do you like men or women?”
“Both,” I said. “And you?”
“Me too. I love people.”
I smiled. “So you’re pansexual, too?”
“Yes.” What a neat coincidence. “I would like you to come visit us in Ardeche,” Celine added.
Oh, I thought. “I would like to visit you.”
If she had kissed me right then, I wouldn’t have objected. But she didn’t, and I didn’t, and we hadn’t asked how complicated it was.
“I need to talk to Swords,” I had told Sara just a few hours ago, while we suffered multiple attacks on our eyes and ovaries by hot, juggling Hippies. I remembered we’d talked about the possibility of seeing other people while I was gone, remembered that I had said I hoped I wouldn’t be attracted to anyone new, that I had my hands full, but now that reasoning seemed reckless and little thought out. What had I been thinking? That in four months I wouldn’t run into a single attractive person? Well, technically she wasn’t single.
“The fuck do I do about this?” I asked Sara. She shrugged.
“Depends. If it’s more important to you not to hurt him, you’ll do nothing. People do that, even if they’re not monogamous. But in any case, you should talk.”
It was getting late and everyone was tired, too tired to drink mushroom tea. We all hugged next to a tree, a pile of warm and human around me, these people I hadn’t known less than twelve hours ago, then we said goodnight and wandered off to the tents. The music was still on on the mainstage, someone frantically playing the violins, but this time I didn’t fall asleep with envy over it, but a nice warm feeling of being amongst happy people.