Home from home: writers abroad

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Often seen as the last golden years of travel, the interwar years witnessed a boom in travel writing. The end of the war meant restrictions on tourism were lifted and a new generation of bright young bay–deckers emerged from the shambles of the war armed with tobacco & necktie, pen and notepad.

Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia recounts a journey made from Sicily to Sardinia with his wife, Frieda. Very much like Gertrude Stein, Lawrence problematically strived to capture the “essence” of the places he visited —i.e. the Sardinians are such and such, and the Sicilians this and that.

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This of course raises one key aspect of travel & expatriation: the difference between being there and being there.

The traveller who is there, so to speak, is the ideal traveller. They will let the country they visit influence them in unsuspected ways and bathe in their newfound culture. More often, however, it’s just easier to carry your emotional and cultural baggage with you wherever you go.

If like Lawrence, you’ve already set shop with a typewriter and a pack of Lucky Strikes a few hours upon your arrival in sensual atavistic Sicily, ready to capture its soul on paper, well, it’s safe to say to that you belong to the second category of travellers.

But, if like Lawrence, you have already set shop with a typewriter and a pack of Lucky Strikes a few hours upon your arrival in sensual atavistic Sicily ready to capture its soul on paper, well, it’s safe to say to that you belong to the second category of travellers.

The twenties and early thirties saw the formation of literary salons and movements – or ‘movemongs’ as Pound was to call them – scattered across various European cities. The Modernist giant and world traveller Mina Loy for instance reached various stages of artistic maturity throughout her travels and encounters with artists across the globe.

In Paris, Loy frequented Stein’s mythical salon, where she was exposed to the likes of Picasso, Ezra Pound, Joyce, and Djuna Barnes. Later, in Florence, Loy underwent a short futurist spell and dated the Italian poet Marinetti, who was the founder and leader of the awkward Futurist movement. Growing increasingly uncomfortable with her boyfriend’s aggressive views and misogyny, Loy eventually moved to New York where she met the Greenwich Village crowd and composed some of her best work.

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Her several expatriations meant Loy was able to meet many of the key vanguards of her time and draw from their techniques. Much admired by Pound, who described her as one of the very few American writers “who [could] write anything of interest in verse”, Loy was pushed to literary experimentation by her peers. Travel also meant that Loy was familiar with the condition of dislocation, which much of her work treats.

Meant to disorientate the reader, Loy’s poems were logo-poeic, which means that they focused on language rather than context. Particularly concerned with layout, Loy’s poems play with typography and spatial arrangement. Her poetry contains breaks and spaces where there shouldn’t be. Line are cut off in the middle of words, and there’s absolutely no regular use of punctuation or capitalisation. 

Forget structure and story telling. Loy writes about modern life, and modern life is confusing. Loy’s poems feat. lots of unfamiliar words, specialist jargon and puns. The work’s difficult to navigate, which is just like travelling: nothing is familiar and our expectations are persistently undermined.

Towards the end of her life, Loy underwent a different kind of dislocation – a financial one. Settled in Manhattan, Loy visited the Bowery, an impoverished quarter of New York, and focused on writing about her homeless neighbours. ‘Hot Cross Bum’, whilst retaining the key modernist techniques she acquired through the course of her travels, envisages alcoholism and complete destitution. Years later, Loy passed away alone in Aspen, Colorado: rootless perhaps, but a damn good writer too.

Loy passed away in Aspen, Colorado: rootless, perhaps, but a damn good writer too.

 

First published in River’s Edge Journal on Jan 17th 2014. Republished on mathildefrot.com with some edits in Feb 2016.

 

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The Story of an Expat

I come from  a ruthless rootless family of French expatriates. But papa isn’t a diplomat; papa is a CFO at a French car company. He’s spent his whole life working. They send him to factories and to selling points abroad, where he’s given three-year contracts. Papa usually doesn’t know where he’ll be sent next.

Papa’s papa was a baker, and he too spent his whole life working. Papa’s papa would wake up early in the morning to knead the dough and bake the bread. Then papa’s maman would go to the shop and set it all. My papa went to school, and now here we are.

Growing up, I followed my parents abroad. I went to international schools in the countries where we lived and I developed the hybrid International school accent. It doesn’t sound American. Nor English. It sounds like nothing. It’s neutral. Like a tepid glass of water.

I boarded on my first flight at the age of about three months. It was headed to Casablanca, Morocco, where I stayed for three years and was put under the care of Arkïa, a bossy, overweight, entrepreneurial woman with a strong business acumen and an indefatigable robustness. We’d hang out in the wet kitchen and watch Egyptian soaps, usually the kind featuring dramatic Arabic music, women with blue eyes shadow and purple lipstick liner, and drama. And violins. Lai-lai-lai-lai–ah (etc.)

After Morocco, I moved to Malaysia, and then Switzerland—and then France, and then England. And then I moved back to Morocco and back to Malaysia. And finally I left the ever-shifting family nest to go to university in London.

I recall a dinner party in Algiers, where, freshly returned to my parents’ home from university for the Easter break, my head full of ideas, I brought up Edward Said. I talked about neo-colonisation. I talked about money.

The host, lead expat of a major petrol company, replied, “Yes Mathilde, we exploit Algeria. We exploit it in that we help bring out its potential. We come here as immigrants to cultivate it. We make it grow.”

Thankfully expats such as myself are dying out. As it stands, there are fewer expats now than there were thirty years ago. This is because companies are increasingly relying on local professionals to build their workplace. A local professional will be cheaper to employ and paid for with local currency, and most likely, he or she won’t be needing you to pay for the kids’ hefty education fees at an international school.

I possibly ruined my first romantic relationship by telling stories of my childhood. The memories of the places and things that were gone to me.

The chilly fries after school in Malaysia, the school bus rides home with Aunty Jacky.

The sound of Chinese soaps on the radio.

Arctic air-conditioning inside and tropical weather outside.

Keeping the large glass windows in the living room open when it’s monsoon season and letting the scents of trees and flowers and humidity inside.

Milo cocoa powder.

Feeding my cat Tino with Kiri cream cheese and Chergi strawberry-flavoured yoghurt.

Leaving a glass of Diet Coke on the kitchen counter and seeing thousands of ants crawl into it three minutes later.

The smell and sight of street food in Kuala Lumpur.

Dipping a roti chanai into curry sauce and washing it down with chai.

Using a banana leaf as a plate.

The infinite variety of street harassment abroad. Being called a gazelle in the streets of Casablanca.

Going to buy cheap cigarettes with the maid. Forming the oddest closest bonds with people and then never seeing them ever again.

The cries and animation of street life in Petaling Jaya.

Swimming in Penang. Camel-back riding. Sleeping in a “one-thousand and one stars hotel”— a tent in the desert

Reaching puberty in Malaysia.

Having my first period in a hotel room at the Meridian and smoking my first joint in the empty swimming pool of a villa in suburban Casablanca.

I have a whole bunch of memories. But moving around every three years to a new country, I quickly realised that no one wants to hear about childhood stories— especially the ones that are hard to relate to – and in the end nothing stays. Or at least nothing that we can touch.

Originally published in Asymptote Blog on April 13th 2015. Republished on http://www.mathildefrot.com with slight edits in Feb 2016.