Nonfiction

The Healer, drawing by Sandy Morris

Flight

As friends in different parts of the world plan their long-awaited trips away after more than two years on home ground due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, I find my traveler’s light has dimmed after a lifetime of being in motion. I don’t think about traveling now, though I suspect my feet will itch again eventually. At present, I am simply pondering how travel has shaped me since childhood. The introspection hasn’t come intentionally, but sneaked up on me during the long months of being housebound. To travel is to go on a journey from one place to another over some distance. I have gone from one place to another time and again, sometimes internally, sometimes physically. Each journey has shaped me. Now, my reflections most often pull me back to my first journey, the start of my odyssey. It is as if the trips in between were not really journeys. They were diversions, mere island hopping, while the ocean only grew wider by the nautical mile and deeper by the fathom. 

 

My first journey was a flight, although it was wingless. A getaway, an escape, it started with a world atlas that had fallen behind volume four of a full set of the 1960s French edition of the Encyclopaedia Universalis, purchased by my mother on a monthly installment plan. Working-class households with aspirations spent hard-earned cash on appearing educated back then. The atlas that set me on my first escape was one product of unpaid bills, scorned school report cards, and the heavy weight of tacit family shames in my parents’ chaotic house. The atlas had long been my static slideshow of longed-for breakouts. It had a less subtle companion, a world map from a special newspaper edition that I had cut out and kept above my bed to plot my next move, one pin at a time. The map was my freedom beacon. The atlas would be my launcher. 

From a young age, I understood I needed to leave my parents’ house. I knew there would come a time, sooner rather than later, when I would run out of air and give up my voice to the wind, when my skin would no longer protect my emerging sense of self, and I would have to get away. Fight or flight would no longer be a theory from my high school philosophy classes. Eventually I would be pushed too hard against the wall to stand up again. 

The week before my wingless flight that would pivot on a night-time cross-Channel ferry trip, I emptied my measly savings account at the post office. I knew the clerk would ask: “What do you need the money for, girlie? Your mother’s short again?” I told her, the lead village gossip, that I needed the cash from my part-time job as a dog-walker to buy a hush-hush gift for my oldest sister’s impending wedding, in case the woman decided to blab to my mother or father, in case they paid attention. But I didn’t plan on attending the wedding. My sister saw getting married as her way to get out. I had other plans.

When I returned to my parents’ house, I pulled the atlas from its hiding place to set my plan in motion. The pages of the cumbersome book were of flimsy, cheap paper and were slightly damaged at the corners from my numerous thumbings. The binding was dry, its glue cheaply made from the bones of horses stewed in small isolated rendering plants dotted across the countryside, factories instantly recognizable from the stench belching from their tall chimneys. One of them was close enough to the small community where I lived that I could not forget its existence or its purpose. The rancid air smelled of fear and death. 

The pages of the atlas showed a world with newly created fault lines. Countries were slipping away from one another, separated by more than oceans. I turned to the central pages with their undivided world map. The entire world claimed the oversized double page spread, as it should. It was my favorite spread, affording the widest opportunities to dream. By some fluke of low-quality printing, the map’s washed-out green stains of French colonialism had started to leak carelessly into the raw rashes of imperial British pink. On the African continent, the French Congo seemed to bleed into Anglo-Sudanese lands. Neither watery pastel color acknowledged centuries-old thefts. Who selected the cartographer’s color schemes remained a mystery now that monks were no longer in the cartography business, but I realized those colors reflected a world that couldn’t change fast enough for me. It was the summer Saigon fell off its faraway country’s chart and renamed itself; the year American soldiers who had foolishly followed their French counterparts into battle there flew back home maimed and defeated, though their leaders might have led them to believe otherwise. Looking at the vast world, I recognized that the globe was too broad an escape plan for a teenage girl, and I flipped to the map of Europe instead. Back then, Europe was still aiming for a sense of economic community, but was quite some way from being a union. 

At that point, I recognized, without needing to acknowledge it, that travel could be about fleeing from something. It would take me years to understand that flights could also be about moving towards hope. 

Back then, I had plenty to flee from. In my parents’ house, I stared at the page with Europe still edged by Soviet Russia and quickly shut my eyes tight to launch myself into my first journey into exile, my right index finger moving over the map and finally landing off the eastern coast of Scotland. All I knew of that country was what I’d read in the Victorian novels I loved, by Sir Walter Scott. I had never crossed Hadrian’s Wall on my previous sanctioned school pen-pal exchange trips to Britain. Now my fifteen-year-old finger set my course. I would run away to the northeastern edge of Britain. The watery rim of a country protected by Robert Louis Stevenson’s bleak lighthouses seemed the right place for a romantic teenager in freefall.

Clueless and without a compass, I thumbed my way along French roads with a bright blue backpack pressed against my skinny shoulders and dark brown desert boots on my feet. I took a few clothes and five books that mattered to me. Five was a random number. It might have seemed a fair weight to carry on my back—just enough to keep my feet on the ground, light-weight as I was then. I was headed north, as far north as the atlas map had told me I should. I was headed to Scotland.

Decades later, on another flight, the recollection of that escape surfaced unbidden as I sat thirty-five thousand feet in the air on a transatlantic journey. People like to say the past is the past. But for me, at least, the past has always had the power to short-circuit the present. On the plane, my head heavy against the aircraft’s porthole, I remembered a porthole from thirty years before. It was on a cross-Channel ferry that reeked of drunken vomit and over-cooked fries, a nocturnal ferry favored by long-distance trans-European truckers on the night crossing from Boulogne to Folkestone. This was the mid ‘70s, decades before Boulogne lost its sea-route to the fancier Eurotunnel that managed to link France and England more than a century after Napoleon attempted the feat and failed. A midnight sea crossing with the lowest foot-passenger fare on any of the Channel ferries back then. I had walked on just before the walk-up ramp was pulled in and the giant bow doors were slammed shut. The ship’s crew was rushing about readying for departure. The commercial and vehicular traffic was the shipping company’s bread and butter. 

In an era before security checks made people scared of one another, before teenage girls traveling alone raised eyebrows, no one examined my ID papers or my backpack. The general mood of indifference had been my ally since I had set off that morning. I had hitchhiked from my hometown in northwest France to the water’s edge that faced the white cliffs of England. No one had paid attention when I walked out that morning. Running away from home was so simple when no one cared. I didn’t know it then, but my parents didn’t inquire about my whereabouts until someone else asked. They concocted a cover story that boosted their status in the village where they lived and hid their parental neglect as artfully as ever. 

It was a rough and frightening crossing for a solitary teenage girl. I spoke to no one. Drunk men wolf-whistled through missing teeth from their bar stools or leatherette loungers. Some whispered obscene invitations each time I went to the stinking bathrooms. Others shouted in French or English, or other European languages I didn’t speak. I was hungry, by then having been on the move for a whole day. I managed to pilfer left-over vinegary fries from tables left uncleaned. I didn’t know when I would eat next. I could never stomach the smell of malt vinegar afterwards. 

I disembarked just short of my birthday, entering Britain by showing my French identity card and a letter of passage my parents had written the year before to allow me to work as a school-aged nanny with an English family over the school holiday. The border guards did not seem interested in the out-of-date parental waiver. At age fifteen I was launching my new life. 

Tired, I found my way to London and to the right intercity train station with daily departures for Scotland by asking for directions in my high-school English. I spent a chunk of my savings on a one-way child fare to Aberdeen, the final stop on the east-coast line. The railway clerk who sold me the ticket said the journey would take twelve hours. It took fifteen. One hour for each year of my life so far. I ignored the diesel fumes seeping through the corridors as we trundled across Britain. I ignored the stale sandwich smells drifting from the on-board bar.

I met a drunk Scotsman whose version of English bore no resemblance to the English I knew. I tuned in to his Scottish burr. He grew drunker and weepier as the train made its way through east-coast cities and towns I had never heard of: Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Dundee… each name taking me farther from the country of my birth and from my home town. The man wept as he told me of the teenage daughter he had deserted as an infant. Seemingly to make up for his neglect, and perhaps to demonstrate his parenting skills, he taught me how to roll handmade cigarettes with one hand. We smoked them in silence by an open window. The man liked to talk. I said very little. I had too much to say. I smoked hand-rolled cigarettes for the next twenty years and kept my own counsel for longer. For decades, if anyone asked, and plenty did, I made up different stories to avoid telling how an adolescent French girl had ended up in Britain alone.

Aberdeen proved to be a bleak granite city on the fierce, windswept, forlornly beautiful coast of Northeast Scotland. My traveling companion and surrogate parent had left me at Dundee. It was raining when I walked along the streets of what would be my new hometown. It seemed to me that it rained for a long time. A long time of hunger, cold, and isolation. The years taught me that the wide Grampian sky never held more than one color at a time. It could be the deepest blue, the most leaden grey, or the purest white. The only exception was the extravagance of the Northern Lights, flashing like invading spaceships over the coastline. It was always a large sky. It became the sky of my exile. The sky where my first flight had brought me.

 

 

Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities
by Judy Wells
Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities is a vibrant memoir of travel poems centering on Judy Wells’ appreciation of well-known European painters, architects, writers, and musicians associated with great European cities. Her poems explore artists in France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Spain, from Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse, and Balzac in Paris, to Velázquez and Goya in Madrid, and Gaudí in Barcelona. Wells interweaves her own personal life into her poems, which illustrate her creative responses to her travels at different times—from young adult in France to older woman confronting aging in Barcelona. Her poetry encompasses various poetic styles—lyric, narrative, and surprisingly for a book on European travels, haiku. Night at the Musée d’Orsay   If the curators knew I, a moth, was in the Van Gogh room they’d be shocked! But what do they expect— I love light and I’m particularly attracted to a painting of stars—globs of light reflected in a river.   I’ve sat on top of these yellow blobs and survived though I can feel the heat of these stars right through the paint. Light bulbs are cold by comparison though I’m not singed by Van Gogh. I’m transformed and waves of ecstasy wander through my wings.   I rest on Van Gogh’s stars all night. In the morning I flit to a cottage and settle on a deep blue iris. The tourists think I’m part of the painting. I laugh. I’m just a moth with grand taste. Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, and www.regentpress.net

Bios

Véronique Béquin lives and writes poetry, short stories, and nonfiction in Canada. She has lived in France, Scotland, and England. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Contemporary Verse 2, Sinister Wisdom, The Midnight Oil, Scapegoat, and IO Literary Journal among others. It’s been shortlisted for the Hippocrates poetry prize, the Bridport, and the Wasafari Short Fiction Prize, and has won the Alice Munro Short Story prize. Her writing is often inspired by themes of loss and by her experiences as an LGBTQI2S+ writer.

Sandy Morris, a native New Yorker, moved to Greenwich Village in the 1960s. With recognition and support from other artists, her work was shown in New York galleries, and since she moved to California, has been featured in galleries and shows in San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda Counties, and has won awards in juried exhibitions. Her pen, ink, and pencil drawings usually start with no preconceived idea — just drawing a straight or curved line or two.  From there, her imagination takes over as she builds upon the piece. Her works range from the whimsical to the political, to depictions of the emotions, and everything in between.

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