What I’ve failed to write

131 days ago life took a weird, sharp turn after a few months of my driving it erratically in and out of course. Because I am prone to think of my life as a movie or perhaps as a series of pilot episodes in shows that never get aired, I failed to realize that maybe real life was happening. And I have a problem with this. My mind anticipates all kinds of scenarios, dramatic dialogues and plot twists, failing to see what’s right in front of me, failing to hear Caetano‘s warning that life is after all real and skewed. I insist on other melodies, I insist on not getting tired of hoping that one day I will get to be everything.

My homeless heart
Wants to keep the world
In me

131 days ago we coincided in space and time; he told me I was making him travel, I didn’t realize he was making me come home. For once, life was not about being the rebel in a made up cause, it was not about coming up with the perfect character for the occasion, it was not about trying to be perfect, it was not about packing and going somewhere trying to find whatever is needed at the moment to feel more alive. It was about staying. I didn’t know that to stay took a special kind of courage. I have spent well over seven thousand days of my adult life being adventurously brave, going everywhere, doing everything, preferably on my own. Along the way I collected all the clichés of falling madly, deeply and foolishly in love, of getting married and divorced, of hurting and getting hurt and feeling that I have committed the worse sin my twelve years of Catholic, yet somewhat liberal, education helped me identify, I have wasted my time and have, of course, ended up being wasted by it. Staying, in the same way as getting older, is not for the faint of heart. Staying means you have to face life as it is not as you think it was meant to be.

131 days ago I begun to understand what years of fictional manipulation have done to me, how they have created the most unrealistic expectations and contributed to an almost complete emotional disarrangement. In the midst of my inability to deal with what was happening, I have read these wise words:

Your deepest beliefs about seduction were carefully crafted by high-capitalist strategists. Lust and fantasy are opiates of the masses, easily manipulated into shapes that human animals fall for, over and over again.

I have never really taken advice columns very seriously, probably because I tend to be a bit of a snob, but every single word Heather Havrilesky poured into her column of February 28, struck a chord and I understood that yes, it was really about surrendering to reality with no futile embellishments. And still, 131 days were not enough to learn that the assumptions one makes about one self and others are also created by all the nonsense around you and that they are not real. For 131 days I have promised myself, almost everyday, that I was not going to fall in that trap, I was going to let life get real because it might not be the most glamorous or exciting place to be but you have at least a chance of not seeing life disappear without getting to live it. But, self-sabotage is a powerful force, “a way of avoiding that moment of showing up, of facing potential loss, of being strong enough and courageous enough to surrender to the unknown — but also, to surrender to the goodness of ordinary human beings.” 131 days ago,  getting hurt living my fictional life was easy enough to deal with because fictional feelings tend to be overtly dramatic but shallow.

Getting hurt in real life gets you broken.

References

Caetano Veloso, O quereres, Coração Vagabundo

William Shakespeare, Richard II 

Bette Davis

Ask Polly 

An ill fitting week

I wore this dress on Monday and the whole day I felt as if was in disguise. I thought I looked like a twenty first century flapper when I checked myself in the mirror before leaving the house, but the minute I got to work I looked as if I had borrowed the last available dress left in someone else’s closet. And that someone definitely didn’t  have a lot in common with me. I didn’t buy this dress. It was a gift from my mum who probably never abandoned the hope that, in the right outfit, I would look like a pretty girl. This dress is too pink for me, it’s either too short for me or I’m too tall for it, I am also too old to pull something like this off. Not being a mother myself, I am left with a daughter’s perspective on this strange relationship that sometimes infantilizes me in order to, so it seems, avoid confronting the inevitability of time.

Mondays are never easy and I have a horrible cold and the medication is making me feel like I’m living underwater and the weight of every single thought is too much to even consider taking any kind of action.

TUESDAY

I bought this jacket in Vietnam in November 2014. A text message received while I was in Hanoi let me know that my great aunt had died. I was there for work and alone and while I can’t really say that I have always depended on the kindness of strangers, I have found that sometimes, strangers make the best friends and know exactly what to do and how to help.

Stray people brought together by chance

WEDNESDAY

I have a weak spot for chinoiserie and I absolutely adore these pants. I think I bought them some twenty years ago and they have never made it to the error category.

I felt a lot better today. After work we went to Java, the usual hang out before theater, for dinner. The TV was showing the aftermath of the Westminster attack. The coffee shop was crowded and we are all seating at an uncomfortable closeness. The gentleman next to me is wearing a brown jacket and turns his head often in my direction. Maybe he’s getting irritated at the proximity. No, he starts talking about the news. I try not to engage. I studied political science and I have no idea how to comment on the historical, sociological, or political contexts of what we are staring at. I find it difficult to rationalize barbarity. He’s British. He goes on about foreigners and political correctness. For twelve years he served in the Royal Navy, like his father before him. His eyesight started failing. He’s now a civilian. He was born in Cornwall and grew up in Scotland, now he lives in Manchester because he can’t afford to live in London. He’s been in Portugal for two weeks on vacation, this was his last night. He’s wearing a black t-shirt with some very graphic expression of discontent written in Afrikaans. I’ve never been a big fan of clothes that are too explicit in doing your talking for you. We have to go, the play starts at 9. He says goodbye kissing our hands and thanking us for the company and patience. Whatever was said, I realize I missed that accent and the blue eyed frankness I have lived with for four or so years of my life.

The play is a Portuguese – Belgian co-production spoken in French, Portuguese and Flemish with subtitles in English and Portuguese. I like the set and love the wardrobe when Anna Karenina is the woman inhabiting them and their actions. Still, it’s difficult to focus on anything either than the text. Forty years apart in Lisbon and Antwerp two couples fall out of love, question the normal life people manage to live and read Anna Karenina in French. One of the characters hasn’t read it. He actually thought about reading War and Peace but there were too many pages.

How she dies. It’s not supposed to be about this particular written death but about how literature changes or makes us change our lives. So the author says in a number of interviews.

But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second car. And exactly at the moment when the midpoint between the wheels drew level with her, she threw away the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the car, and with a light movement, as though she would rise immediately, dropped on her knees. And at the instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. ‘Where am I? What am I doing? What for?’ She tried to get up, to throw herself back; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and dragged her down on her back

 

THURSDAY

Last week there was a promise of an early Summer that has vanished during this week as temperatures dropped some twenty degrees and the news reported closed schools because of the snow. Not in Porto. I miss my second ballet class of the week and go to a conference on culture and citizenship. Friends and experts come together to pay tribute to the Poet. To Poetry. There’s a painting exhibition in the room. There’s this painting, A homage to Gaugin, it’s called, and there’s this amazing figure of a woman that could also be a man painted in the warm colours that live in Tahiti. It keeps me  from listening to most of what is being said.

FRIDAY

A lavender morning turned into a cold rainy afternoon. I took half the day off to seat at a open rehearsal of Macbeth at the national theater. They only started rehearsals on Monday so this is still the table-work phase of reading and exploring the text and the characters. There’s an English literature professor and expert in Shakespeare who has been invited to talk about the play, and the text, and the differences between the English original and the Portuguese translation. And there he was, academia at it’s very best, rethorical mighty with all its seductive power. And the words go on for five hours and I don’t feel tired or bored. There’s nothing more fascinating than being the witness to personal passions. Not to me, at least. The catastrophe of getting exactly what you want in life. Those who choose to loose everything and those who do. The fantasy of being whole and the prison it creates. And Sartre who could be very pedantic but also very intelligent.

We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

In 2012 I did a course on Shakespeare at the University of Oxford. This was how I fell in love with Macbeth. My final essay was on the question of agency. My somewhat lazy conclusion stated that “Macbeth’s hamartia is not his ambition, as this is a character flaw, but his miscalculation of the personal consequences of assassinating Duncan and the inner torment that leads him on a murdering spree in the frantic desire for peace of mind. It is this tragic error that ultimately transforms his life in an empty mockery”. I’m often surprised and ashamed when reading what I have written.

SATURDAY

On Saturday I decided to revisit the rive gauche intellectual in me, ratty cashmere sweater and all.

Saturday is flamenco class day. I decided not to miss this one and take me and my cold for another session of trying to emulate Lola. It is not an easy, if at all possible, task to be a Lola. Either a fictional or a real one.

The rest of my Saturday is spent doing adult stuff, washing, and supermarket shopping, and other uninteresting errands. I sold a white Betty Barclay jacket. It’s going to Boise, Idaho.  At the end of all this I go and see Ana present a book on American cuisine. I’m only there for moral support. Cookbooks are basically useless at my house.

It took five songs of the weird (I like to think about it as eclectic but I suspect it’s just weird) driving playlist on my iPod to drive home:

Everybody knows

The famous blue raincoat

For once in my life

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon

Guilty

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I suspect rive gauche intellectuals didn’t care much for glitter ballet flats. Shoes off. I’m not going out, I decide that watching This Property is Condemned on TV is a much better option.

SUNDAY

Daylight saving time began at 1 AM. Outside it still looks like Winter.
I go to the only cinema we have downtown, one of the two movie theaters that is not a multiplex. Popcorn free zone, what a bliss. The movie is Aquarius with Sonia Braga. Two and half hours lost, gone forever. Such a grand actress deserved a much better movie. Great soundtrack, though.

I get home to this

 My next door neighbour is a sweet Lady.

References

Tolstoy

Tennessee Williams

Aristotle

Mozambique 97

In August 1997 I travelled from Brazil, where I was on vacation with my parents, to Maputo where I stayed for a while with an uncle who was working there at the time. These are pages from my travel diary.

After six days in Porto Alegre, a city I was quite familiar with during my teens and early twenties, I flew to São Paulo to get on the flight to Beijing which had its first stop in Johannesburg.

At Guarulhos I waited,  trying to read Raygun magazine’s special issue on Cinema and Music.

I think my mistake was that I thought you could live the things that you acted. But I realized that that wasn’t the case. Then I realized that I would be better suited to try to do that but without an audience. To pretend I was in the movies all the time, basically. And to try to create a narrative flow out of actions, and sequences and events.

Will Oldham in that Raygun Magazine

My mum made me promise I wouldn’t get out of the airport in Johannesburg during the six-hour-long layover. I did. I took a taxi and Philly drove me downtown to Museum Africa and drove past Ponte Tower and took me to Ellis Park and the flea market in Gateway and told me I should walk around Carlton Center and I remembered that my mum used to talk about this place. There were people playing chess on a gigantic board. I was born in Johannesburg. How could I not go out?

I arrived in Maputo at night. My uncle, my aunt and my cousin picked me up and drove me home, a big apartment in Avenida Albert Lutuli, overlooking the Aga Khan foundation from the living room and the car park on the Polaroid from my bedroom.

I went to Mozambique to do research on forced labour migration. Most of my first weeks were spent at the library of the Provincial Culture Centre in Rua do Bagamoyo, former Rua do Araújo in the also former “red light district” of the former Lourenço Marques.

The long balcony of the former brothel was where I spent my smoking breaks. Across the street there was a Pensão (I suppose a hostel by now) and the life of the Dutch couple staying there became also some sort of voyeuristic break. Under the balcony, every day, the same lady selling matchboxes danced to her own rhythmic section when she got bored.

This how research turned mostly into contemplation of life by the Indian Ocean.

Every morning I would pretend to be a morning person and go downtown at 6.30, have coffee at the Scala or the Continental and wait for the library to open while marvelling at the long line of men and women getting their shoes polished. We are proud of our shoes, Professor C. tells me. Most of us only have one pair, most probably handed down, we have to keep them looking new.

Before my aunt and my cousin go back to Portugal we go to Nelspruit to do some supermarket shopping. It felt like the old ritual of crossing the border to go to Tui or Vigo in Galicia for the same purpose before there were “free markets” and you could buy the same sort of things on the Portuguese side at the border. We get to Ressano Garcia and there are long lines of people and cars to cross to Komatipoort. I walk around amazed at the chaos of this mythical place that I knew only from books. It’s dirty and crowded. On the other side, I don’t have to wait, my passport is South African and everyone thinks I am American because of my accent. Nelspruit looks like a giant supermarket where people buy giant tins of butter. I had never seen a tin of butter before. We spend the night at a lodge near the Kruger Park and go visit the next day. There’s no diary entry for this. There are hundreds of photos and boxes of photographic slides (!) I still can’t find the words to tell anyone what it felt like.

My aunt and cousin return to Portugal in time for the start of the school year. I stay on with my uncle and Olga who worked as a cleaner and cook at the flat and was now a single mother of two after her husband left. We had fun together. There was a fabric warehouse just around the corner from our flat and we often went to buy capulanas and play dress up. With my uncle, there were a lot of arguments about how to “behave in Africa” and how to deal with “things you know nothing about”.

Outside, there was still a whole world to be explored and a lot of bureaucracy to deal with when trying to get authorization to see archives. The upstairs neighbour who owned the liquor store in Avenida Josina Machel tells on me because she saw me walking home. It’s not appropriate. Apparently.

I spend two days reading labour legislation at the Ministry. The intern there just got a scholarship to go to Holland to study for a Masters degree. He’s happy is not heading to Portugal to do that. I then move to the National Film Institute. I had an amazing two weeks in this place just watching movies and making friends.

Everywhere, I am surrounded by words and images and words and images that always have some sort of political meaning. And writers, and artists and liberation activists and foreign journalists that have stayed on after the colonial war was over. And Italians that have become African and don’t even speak Italian anymore. And generous souls that have shared pieces of their lives and changed mine.

Re-living these pages I am, sometimes, amazed at what I have written. From quotes of Ruth First and Margot Dias to somewhat futile accounts of every little detail of every walk around the city, every coffee, every encounter.

I didn’t want to risk missing a thing. I didn’t want to risk losing the memory of the place and of the people.

Re-living these pages, I am really sorry that I haven’t kept the habit of writing travel diaries. Re-reading some of these pages, I realise they are actually a script for the adventure movie of that African winter.