Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The Irish girl says everyone is beautiful. "I suppose everyone has something beautiful inside them," I say, because it's evening and I've had a drink or two and I'm feeling expansive and generous, as if I'm finally about to become someone I'd actually enjoy being.
"No," she says, firmly. "I mean everyone is actually physically beautiful."
An old man walks past, leaning on a walking stick, his face collapsing in on itself and disappearing or preparing to disappear.
"Even him?"
"What exquisite eyebrows," says the Irish girl, with genuine longing.

Where are we? We're not in Spain. The signs are a jumble of oddly placed consonants, and the shopkeepers frown with deliberate incomprehension at carefully enunciated Spanish phrases. At the hostel, I get into an argument with a dreadlocked American who insists he's a traveller, not a tourist. "A traveller is someone who suffers," he says. "I walked through the desert for three days. The sand nearly blinded me. A tourist wouldn't do that." I instantly dislike him. All around us, people are flirting, kissing, drinking. A tourist is someone who takes pictures; a traveller is someone who wants to go home.

The Irish girl has an Irish friend who seems to have somehow got stranded in Barcelona. He's not in touch with his family; the embassy has given up on him, he says, looking shifty. "I don't have any money," I say, stiffly. The Irish girl laughs and suggests going for a beer - she probably thinks he's beautiful, too. By his account, he's dropped off the edge of his life, a feat as easy as missing a couple of flights. I make excuses and leave to go and look at the unfinished cathedral. Later that day, I see the Irish exile on La Rambla, mixing with off-duty mimes in their heavy make-up, released from silence, smoking and slapping each other's backs.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


The summer after the summer that ... gets back from interrailing, accidentally overdoses and dies, I win an interrail ticket in a competition funded by the parents of another dead child, in memory of their son. My winning entry is a clutch of really quite terrible poems about - well, not much. I am 17 and a right pain in the arse, in ways that are not fully explained by hormones or bereavement. Me and a friend of mine bicker our way around Europe, doctoring the handwritten dates on our tickets so the trip lasts an extra two weeks, and ending up penniless and food poisoned in a sleazy hotel in Paris, where every night a man knocks on the door next to ours and pleads over and over, in a reedy old man's voice, "Philippe, où sont mes lunettes?"

Nearly eight years later I visit Paris again, with a group of Swedish architecture students in search of inspiration. We walk around the city for hours taking pictures of alarmingly modern buildings. The walls of the Arab Institute are made up of steel apertures which contract and expand with the light; the new National Library is four skyscrapers facing a spruce forest sunk into the central well of the building. The architects crouch and take pictures, and one of them explains that the trees were flown in from Norway. "If they'd been planted here, they'd grow straight up towards the light," she says, and in fact the trees are leaning every way but up, shored up with wires strung from one fragile trunk to the next.

A friend from university is living in Paris with his French girlfriend. A friend of theirs is visiting from Berlin, on tour with her new band. When we arrive at the venue - "the least Parisian bar in Paris", says my friend - it's already packed with ecstatic fans who know all the words. I'm tired, I've been walking around all day, my feet hurt, and I've decided I hate what I'm wearing - a second-hand dress I sewed together badly when it split in the middle. People push and sway around me, singing, transported. There's a girl in the band wearing boxing gear, skinny jeans and a very severe, peroxided fringe. A good haircut is the secret to a truly successful life; I've never had a good haircut. The lead singer starts to tear up his clothes and throws the long black and white ribbons that once were his jacket into the crowd - lines of fabric snake over our heads, a network passed hand to hand. I can't bring myself to reach up and take hold. The girl with the fringe looks out at us all, suddenly human, unable to conceal her happiness.

Monday, November 13, 2006


I've been talking to my Milanese boyfriend online for nine months - long enough to have a dual nationality child, had we ever slept together, which we haven't. He visits me in London. He's put on weight. I've put on weight. We both looked better on webcam.

We met in Tanzania, where he was working as a safari guide and I was in search of a fantasy of east Africa, or trying to impress my father, or trying to impress myself. We were in a restaurant, I was glowing with happiness, he laughed at all my jokes. For the next nine months we sit at computers in various different parts of the world and show each other parts of our bodies on little webcams. He hates London, but is so proud of Milan that you'd think he'd built it with his own hands: the cathedral, the fashion, the food. I buy a cookbook and read about how to make fresh pasta, as if reading about life on an alien planet. I can't afford the fashion. I don't care about the cathedral.

I persist in loving him anyway for several months after I know I can never love him at all, for the sake of something abstract: romance, or consistency, or nostalgia for things that never happened. He tells me you can walk everywhere in Milan. "So walk," I should have said, but didn't, because even the saddest and most pointless love has some small weight in the world. When I last spoke to him, we found we had nothing to say.


They put my uncle's face on a stamp. He is a philosopher of freedom, equality and public transport, and last year he served all three by putting on a helmet and zooming through the tunnels of Brussels on a motorcycle, his ginger beard stirring in the wind. He leans forward into a better future, but meanwhile he's a thin, sparse man, all joints and ironic smiles: the air of the present doesn't sustain him. He turns down a second helping of quiche; he doesn't partake of the almond thins. He reminds me of a character in an Asterix comic, a yogi from India who ascetically turns down all food at a lavish banquet, accepting just one caviar egg which he balances carefully between finger and thumb.

My mother and my aunt go shopping and argue. "When I was born, she said she wanted to cut me up and flush me down the toilet," says my mother, holding a dress up against herself in a dressing room mirror. Ancient animosities still fester. In his underheated study, my uncle considers the task of saving Belgium from itself: its two warring languages, its inconvenient borders, its imposing EU buildings just around the corner. Downstairs, my cousins chase each other around the table wielding cutlery, and grow up to love each other. My mother thrives as the little sister, looking younger and more beautiful by the day.

In Dar es Salaam I date a Belgian carpetbagger, a salesman of advertising space and hope. My affections are divided, or at least uncertain. We finally sleep together the night before he leaves for Venezuela. C'est la vie/leaver dea as slaaf. I miss the cities of Europe, their smell of brick and cold water. The Belgian carpetbagger texts me from the airport with a compliment and an email address. I never write.