1999 - Saloni Mediterranean
Liz Suda lives in Melbourne, works in a community based adult education program, writes professionally on adult literacy and education themes, and is an occassional writer of poetry and prose, with good intentions to do more of the latter.
Art meets Sleaze in a Mediterranean Dreamscape
by Liz Suda
This story was read at Saloni Mediterranean, March 18, 1999.
I'm walking through the streets of Toulouse on my own, late at night, coming back from friends, footsteps making confident sounds on the cobblestone street, bolstered by the red wine still rolling in my stomach. There's not much light and it's been raining. I can still feel the warmth of Mike and Claire's place, but the night air is clearing my head and I realize the absurdity of what I have so blithely agreed to do in my Beaujolais haze. Voicework on training manuals for pilots of the new Concorde. They need a female voice for a bit of variation, stop them from drifting off in their simulators.
I'm laughing at the thought of it. I can't see myself locked up in a soundproof booth cooing instructions to Concorde pilots, like I'm some kind of expert, but it's work that pays. Once you've been paid for working in a place, you can say you're staying, not just passing through, not just another backpacker. You make a little mark for yourself on the landscape, when you spend money that you’ve make in a place.
We'd come to Toulouse all those months ago in search of the Vendanges, wanting to unite in toil with the French peasants - to celebrate the bountiful earth., squash grapes with our feet, earn a meagre keep and eat Baguette and Fromage with home made wine. We wanted to embrace history, culture, art - absorb the stories of the village water wells. Live inside a French impressionist painting for a while. Live the dream.
But the season was almost over. We'd stayed too long on the beach at Nice inventing songlines for the itinerate voyeurs, imagining places we were yet to see, creating picture postcard illusions of the movie we wanted to view from the inside. Marseilles to Morocco for hash, Cairo to Israel for the Kibbutz, Brindisi to Greece to Crete for oranges in the spring, then on to Toulouse for the Vendages- plotting mythical trails through a Mediterranean dreamscape.
The Pyrynees Mountains drew us away from the sea to Toulouse, an elegant town with a welcome sign that read Toulouse, Ville D'art. We were ready for some art after the sleazy gigolo culture of the Cote D'Azur - the endless procession of leering Romeos looking for a little entertainment with the foreigners. A wink here, a pinched bottom there, that merry dance. We thought Toulouse would be different. It wasn’t. We tried to look through them so we could see the art, like we weren't really part of their movie. We kept trying to pretend that as tourists we were somehow inoculated against any real danger. Hitching rides, sleeping under bridges, on beaches, dodging unsavoury types, all spiced up the mythical travelling tales; each close shave absorbed into the mythology "Tales of omnipotence". The conquest was to overcome all fear. Night fear is the biggest challenge because it feeds on darkness.
When you're walking at night on your own down short cut alleyways, you have to act like you belong in the place. Like your footsteps have worn into the cobblestones over the years. Like you're not scared of anything. Like you've got a place to go where there are lights and friends who are waiting up for you. You have to feel like that to pull it off without looking nervous. It's a technique. Act invincible and no one will dare touch you. Your aura of strength will repel them like an impenetrable shield.
The wine is wearing off so I have to focus on the nagging flashing light on the edge of my consciousness. Don't hurry too much, keep the breath even, walk with purpose, straight face. There's a movement out of the shadows of a doorway on my right. A figure appears before me, all navy blue. It's a man. He's standing right in front of me, his face pale and blank in the darkened alleyway. His lips move slightly as his voice softly hisses "Tu veux?"
He's speaking in French. I have to try and switch my brain back to this language that I'm only barely fluent in. High school French, lots of conjugating of verbs, not much conversation. "Tu veux" - is that voir - to see or is it Vouloir to desire or want? Conjugating verbs in a dark alleyway when a stranger is standing in your path might seem a little strange but it could make all the difference to my answer. To see is not the same as to want necessarily, and to want is not the same as to see.
I'd learnt this lesson before. There'd been another occasion where I'd been caught off guard. I'd come out of a brightly-lit farmhouse one evening, looking for the nearest bush to have a pee behind. My eyes not yet fully adjusted, I’d stepped into a clearing and found myself falling down a steep slope. I grabbed for whatever I could. When my hands caught hold of a can and my fingers sank into a plastic bag full of a squelchy substance, I realized that I'd fallen into the rubbish tip. My mind froze. How do you call for help in French? "Monique! Pierre! " I called out pathetically. I could hear voices but they couldn't see where I was. I was over the edge, down the hill, out of sight. I couldn't remember the word for "to fall". Ah yes, tomber. That's right... but it's past tense... so it's..."I have" but no...I think they say, "I am " for tomber... so it's "Monique! Pierre! Je suis tomber!" Everyone started laughing. I just clawed my way up the slope trying to think of the French word for "Where did that come from?"
But this is different. This is dark–alleyway–potential–danger scenario. Tu veux must mean, "Do you want." Whatever it is, I should probably say no. He looks into my eyes then he looks down and says it again "Tu veux" It's a question. I look down. What he is stroking in his hand is all pale and soft compared to the hard glint of his open zip. I say in my best French "Non Merci. Bon soir" and side step him quickly, trying to look invincible. By the time I get to the flat I know he's not following me. I bolt the door and my body finally relaxes enough to start shaking uncontrollably.
Where did he come from this artiste of Toulouse – from out of the doorway, from the shadows of the village of art? From a world outside of this movie I'm scripting in my head, the Mediterranean dreamscape. It's a place of illusions that lulls you into a false sense of security, with its blueness and lightness, it's adoration of sensual pleasures, it's luscious textures, scenic beauty, the whiff of Morocco. It teases you with the possibility of belonging, being part of it, when really it is mocking you. Playing games with ridiculous exotic birds, who are unprepared for the flight. It's all part of the French mystique, the romantic mythology. I see it all for what it really is and I'm not real in it. I'm just passing through, leaving a trail of flimsy dreams and joint butts, sleazing out of tight situations to get from one town to the next, playing chameleon across the borders. I'm even prepared to support the flight of the Concorde for the price of a cheap room. All in the name of… "je ne sais qua". Art?
The red wine is now just a dull throb in an otherwise cold and sober space. The Mediterranean dreamscape starts to look a much deeper and darker bleu.
© Liz Suda, 1999.