For Mom & Dad
Oscar Wilde famously said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read [on] the train.” Well, rereading my diaries recently was about as sensational as a trip to the supermarket for eggs. But, needing to fill my new monthly column with words written mostly by me, and wanting to find the most . . . convenient way to do it, I realized that all I needed to do to hit my word count was reproduce some of the scribblings made on my meanderings around this sad, absurd, beautiful, litter-strewn McWorld.
I’ve kept a diary on and off since I was ten, but the oldest diary I have with me is from late 2016, when I was working in France. And this is where I will start.
Thanks to a job recommendation from my wise and well-travelled cousin, James, whose connections are wondrously far-reaching, I spent one year and a few moons working as a maintenance guy on a gigantic chateau close to Paris. This million hectare megacastle was owned by an absurdly wealthy Russian oil baron with a taste for million euro horses and the finest French cheese. Not that I ever met him. He hadn’t visited his chateau in years. But a year-round, 500-strong staff was needed just to keep the place from going to ruin. Hence, my brief and wobbly career as a maintenance man. Wobbly because the sum of my maintenance/practical experience before arriving at the chateau consisted in having grumpily handed tools to my dad when he fixed things during the summer holidays of my angsty adolescence.
These first entries are reflections from the last few months of my stint at the chateau, and I have peppered the piece with photographs I took during the writing of this diary.
I changed some names and used poetic license with some details where necessary. And there are no photos of the chateau itself, and none of the horses either: billionaires love privacy agreements.
I must quickly thank David Sedaris, whose diaries, published together as Theft by Finding, were an inspiration and a riot.
Yesterday I went to Paris to catch up with Anna, Monica, and my Berlin brothers (Gunni, Matze, Fritz and Jonas), who had come blustering into Paris for the weekend. It was another crisp, clear winter day and so I walked from Gare de Lyon to the 6th Arrondissement, where I was to meet up with them at some little hole-in-the-wall bar.
I walked along the Seine, which was bark-brown and flowing rapidly. A police-boat zoomed past carrying three slick-haired, broad-shouldered policemen looking like fat proud seals fishing for criminals.
The sky was eggshell blue and the mild winter sunlight splashed and glittered on the brown river and over the city. There were a lot of joggers on the left bank where I walked. Some were kitted out in the latest cross-fit gear, but I saw one guy bizarrely jogging in jeans and a sweater, carrying a baguette like a baton. Maybe he was just running late for a lunch date. Then I passed under a bridge and in the dank, piss-reeking shade sat a homeless man holding a bottle of red wine in one hand and a white teacup in the other. Around his feet gleamed broken dreams and bottles.
The Seine flows like an artery through the heart of Paris. I passed the Île de la Cité and the Notre Dame, where tourists flocked and flapped by the thousands before they stormed off to the Eiffel Tower to hang their holiday fantasies like Christmas decorations on that big steel tree.
I left the river bank as I neared the 6th and I strolled down several narrow side streets that were full of those tiny boutique shops selling nothing but ornate lampshades, for instance, or doorbells, or little handcrafted puppets. How do they manage to stay in business? Surely their rent is a gajillion euros a month.
All around me were suave bescarved & bespectacled bourgeois Parisians taking their small designer dogs for Saturday afternoon strolls. None of them seemed particularly interested in popping into the puppet shop.
There were brightly sunlit puddles in the streets and sidewalks from last night’s rain, with cigarette butts floating in them from last night’s revelry, and a smeared baguette against a curb. Paris is always somehow both fancy and slightly derelict at the same time.
I had a great time with my friends. We tossed time and memories from one smile to another, always laughing; bright golden beer fizzed and disappeared down the back streets of our tales; music spilled from the bar out into the Paris night. And when I finally stepped back into the street, the almost-full moon hung in the dark sky like a lemon-yellow, pockmarked & imperfect piece of cosmic pottery on display in the boutique shop window of heaven.
Tonight I realized that you can be a million miles from home, but when you have close friends around it’s like a having a little misfit family of your own.
Fromage-sur-Seine. Nov 6th 2016.
I’ve been in France for almost a year but I still get many similar-sounding nouns mixed up. Today, one of the horses came down with some kind of horse-flu and vomited near the main entrance of the estate. I offered (in French) to help: It is good. Me, I am going to search for a whale to clean this up, I announced. To my un-tuned ear the difference between baleine (‘whale’) and balai (‘broom’) is hazier than a mind in the grip of a camembert-induced food coma.
But things are easier now than when I first arrived. I had absolutely no prior experience of the French language. I was determined to learn it as quickly as possible, but my confidence raced ahead of my skills and resulted in many verbal spills. One day, not long after I’d arrived, I decided to practice my French by engaging in chit chat with one of my colleagues in the busy cafeteria on our lunch break. I waltzed casually up to Marie, who was seated at a long table with most of the other managers, and said (in French): Marie! Your new coat! It is very good. It is blue. I love you.
Again, we’re talking about the relatively small difference between j’aime (‘I love it’) and je t’aime (‘I love you’).
After my utterance there was a split second of stillness and quiet, in which the words I LOVE YOU seemed to float like a big red banner above us, and then the managers all erupted into the kind of violent laughter experienced by anyone trying not to laugh due to the food or drink in his or her mouth. It was all bulging cheeks, shuddering shoulders, faces red and creased with laughter, duck fillets flapping on plates, forks clattering to the floor, coke streaming out of nostrils, and tears being wiped from the corners of eyes with white napkins. I think one old guy might even have been choking on his green beans. As for me, I grinned massively: the universal grin of utter ignorance in the midst of a joke you’ve been the butt of: an iron grin that made my cheeks ache.
But Marie was very gracious, once she’d caught her breath, and while the managers began to simmer down and resume their lunch, she explained my faux-pas to me, like a patient mother explaining to a toddler why it must eat its greens. I went back to the table where most of the younger employees were seated, and I grinned through their jibes and giggles and the rest of my crème brulee.
Fromage-sur-Seine. Undated entry.
Today I cleaned thick black horseshit sludge from a clogged drain for four hours in the rain.
I seem to spend most of my working days thinking about how tired I feel. Then at night I get into bed and I can’t sleep.
Fromage-sur-Seine. Nov 9th 2016.
So tired today at work I could hardly speak. My French was terrible. Even in the relaxed rapport I normally have with my Australian colleague, Jake, I couldn’t express myself fluently: ‘Jake, it is good. We go, finish other job with tools, we finish good, tidy. Then lunch’. Jake looked at me with a face that said, ‘please stop speaking like a Neanderthal’.
Jake and I were wildly overconfident in our French in the first few months. Our boss, Pierre, would give us instructions to repair a fence and we’d say, Yes, yes, we understand! And then we’d rush off to dig a new flower bed.
I was tired all day. Got home, had dinner, fell into bed, couldn’t sleep.
Fromage-sur-Seine. Dec 1st 2016.
It snowed today. When I finished work and walked up through the domain towards the staff quarters, the trees looked like they were covered in thick white wedding-cake frosting. And the huge, moss-covered and turreted stone buildings were hiding away amongst the trees like big shy animals.
I feel like I haven’t slept in weeks. It puts my thoughts and emotions into a tumble-dryer of confusion. All day I had a lump in my throat. Every aspect of my life seemed absurd and futile. Here I was: 27 years old, digging holes in a foreign country, with vague hopes of writing books of poems and making a difference in other people’s lives, but with no concrete plan for my life. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not ingratitude. I’m infinitely lucky to be here, to be alive. I just don’t know where to go from here. I feel like I’m running out of time to make something of my life.
I called my dad in the afternoon. He has bigger and more complex problems of his own right now. But still he put down everything he was doing to listen to me. And when I was done berating myself for being selfish and fearful and lazy and lonely, he quietly told me he was proud to have me as his son.
And now I realize I have been ungrateful, thinking of nothing but my own doubts, dilemmas and flaws, stacking my problems up in my mind until they block out the light and the view. And I swear I’m going to try harder not to forget my how lucky I am to have my mom and dad and sister.
Fromage-sur-Seine. Dec 11th 2016.
It was a beautiful winter day. The azure sky was littered with white scribbles of cloud. And then at dusk those same scribbles piled up in the west and burned gold and pink as the sun embraced the bank of clouds in a rage of apricot and flame, before smoldering to embers on the horizon in the brief twilight, and then purpling into dew and darkness.
I’ve seen all four seasons in this place and the skies are always so vast and picturesque here, at dawn and dusk. It’s something I’ll always remember about my time here.
Some lines from Tony Hoagland come into my head:
. . . I can feel
the washed-out scarlet of these winter fields
becoming an ingredient
of my personality . . .