Today was an object lesson in why Canadians don’t plant anything in the ground before Victoria Day (May 24th) weekend. It’s May 15th and actual flakes of snow fell out of the sky. Not enough to accumulate, but still. Being … Continue reading
I seem to have skipped over the part where I explained that I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, so let me step back and do that now. On Tuesday I hopped on a train and got off in a completely different country just over two hours later. I love Europe.
The night before I left London, my dad called me from Canada to sort out some mail that arrived while I’ve been away. We ended up reminiscing about a trip we took to Paris when I was eight. My dad wanted to show my brother and I the wonders of the Old World, which is an admirable sentiment, but he got very upset when we were most excited about the moving walkways in the airport. May I repeat, I was eight years old and my brother was six.
During this conversation, though, he managed not to yell at me about that (again), and I started listing some of the things I remembered about the trip. We rented an apartment near the Pompidou centre. We saw Napoleon’s tomb. We broke the washing machine in the apartment and flooded the bathtub. We visited the palace of Versailles. My brother and I both got strep throat.
I think because of that conversation with my father, I’ve been trying to recapture some of the experiences from when I was a child. I bought a bottle of Orangina, because my brother and I drank that the whole time we were here. It didn’t exist in Canada at the time. Neither did KinderEggs, which we also loved on that trip.
The Pompidou Centre is the Paris gallery of contemporary art. (When I was eight there was a giant boat that had knives unfolding (as in: they moved, folding and unfolding) from it like a swiss army knife as part of an installation on the ground floor. That is one of my clearest memories. This year, there is a wrecked car surrounded by caution tape.) Inside, they have an extensive collection, including Picasso, Chagall, and Kandinsky, among many, many others. The outside of the building is notable as well, with all its technical guts on display. All the heating ducts and plumbing pipes and gas lines are on the outside of the building, colour-coded for ease of identification.
Despite a long day of walking on Thursday (I did three separate walking tours of Paris during the day – more on that later) I insisted on schlepping across to the Pompidou centre before heading home just so I could walk around the outside of it. We stayed in that neighbourhood when I was eight and I feel like if I just closed my eyes for a second I might be able to retrace my steps and find our little apartment. (I asked my dad if he had a record of the address anywhere and he laughed at me.)
When I was eight, my dad wrote the address and phone number down on a piece of paper – in case we got lost or separated, I could tell a police officer where I belonged – and I zipped it into this little side pocket on my pink running shoes with the velcro straps. I distinctly remember I never took that paper out, even after we got home. Sadly, though, the shoes are long gone.
I didn’t find the apartment, although I think I figured out roughly what direction it was in. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had found it, but it felt important to try.
This next part I probably shouldn’t even admit out loud, but we’ve already established that I’m a geek. I had a huge fondness for the television show Highlander back in the day, and it was set in Paris for about half of every season. So there are a few places in Paris that are indelibly linked in my mind with that show. The Seine near Notre Dame where the barge was moored, the church of St-Julien-le-pauvre that was Darius’, and the bookstore Shakespeare and Company.
Shakespeare and Company is a tourist stop in its own right (and it is so crowded this week they have someone stationed at the door to control the flow of people). It is famously linked to Earnest Hemingway and James Joyce and the Lost Generation in Paris.
In addition to just being a wonderful English-language bookshop, it hosts talks and readings and events. There are a couple of different writers’ workshops based there. And I hear they also offer crash space in exchange for two hours’ work a day at the shop, although I have no idea how you would go about arranging that.
And it is just a stunningly beautiful shop in its own right – warren-like, crammed with books to the very ceiling, supported by ancient, pitted wooden beams, with a library upstairs full of chairs and cots for sitting on, and even a tiny writing cubby. (There is even a picture of the eponymous Shakespeare, framed and hung out in the air shaft (..?), visible through a window at the top of the stairs. The frame has a little ledge on the top edge to keep the rain off.)
But I will always love it because the Watchers owned it on Highlander. Hey, it’s the little things that make me happy when I’m so far from home.
Confession #1: My friend J moved to London a month before I did, so I was not entirely alone when I arrived. (She made the far more practical choice to enroll in teachers’ college in the UK rather than my wing-and-a-prayer approach.)
Confession #2: I am a geek.
My social life, for those first two months in London, revolved around a pub called Pages. This was the first (and only) scifi pub I had ever encountered, with Star Trek-themed decor and a model of the Starship Enterprise hanging from the ceiling. I believe that during the week it was a relatively normal place, but on Saturday night, it belonged to the geeks.
£3 got you in the door, and if you didn’t turn up early – particularly on Buffy-themed nights, called Nos (Nosferatu) Nights – you wouldn’t get in at all. Inside, some folks were in costume, others were just dressed up – my friends had a distinct goth flavour, with corsets and lace, chainmail and vinyl. We were there to hang out with people who loved the thing we loved, to be geeks together in a safe space.
We were also there to watch the newest episodes of scifi TV shows, played on bootleg discs mailed from North America. These episodes wouldn’t air in the UK until months, or even years, after they aired in the States, and going to Pages was the only way to see them. (This was back in the infancy of the internet, before iTunes or streaming or pirating.) When you’re passionate about something, patience is not so much a virtue.
It being a bar, there was also booze, which helped me to be a little less awkward. And once the episodes were over, they jacked up the music and we danced until the end of the night. I sprinted for the last tube home more than once – London is a giant, sprawling, international city, but even on Saturday night the tube shuts down before midnight.
A decade later, I still miss Pages. I still think there should be scifi pubs just like there are sports bars. In fact, I think there’s functionally very little difference between the two. There has never been another social space where I have felt so accepted, so at home.
I grew up in a small, conservative private school. My graduating class had only thirty-nine people in it, and I’d known about half of them since I was four. I left that school very well educated but socially… challenged.
I lived at home through university, so I never had the explosion of self discovery that seems to happen in that first year out in the world. But, free from all the expectations and assumptions of high school classmates who had known me my whole life, in university I began to slowly unfurl.
I realized that I was probably gay, or at least bi. (The moment when it clicked that being a lesbian didn’t make me something else, but rather explained who I had been all along was an epiphany. It was freedom. But that is a story for another time.)
I also began to read about paganism, and Wicca in particular, and found it fit my worldview much more closely than either of the organized religions I encountered as a child.
(I felt bad for my parents sometimes – rather than outright rebellion, I just grew progressively stranger.)
I met J during this time, and she was the first friend I had with whom I felt safe to explore that side of myself. (Not sexually, just for the record. J and I never dated, or ever wanted to.) Back in the dark ages of the Internet, when the online world was just taking its first steps beyond CompuServe and AOL, we used to hang out on the same mIRC chat room. (It was devoted to the television show Babylon 5.) In addition to both being scifi geeks, J and I also shared a love of theatre, and books, and travel. Years of not fitting in at school conditioned chameleon tendencies into me, and spending time with someone so much closer to who I was on the inside was a profound relief. I didn’t have to hide nearly as much.
As I mentioned above, J moved to London a month or so before I did. Shortly after she arrived, she spent the weekend at a science fiction convention and made friends with all the most interesting people there. (J is very much NOT an introvert.) When I finally turned up, J couldn’t wait to introduce me to them all.
Exactly one week after I arrived in London, there was another convention. It was for a show neither of us watched, so J and I didn’t go for the whole weekend, but J insisted we turn up for the dance on Saturday night.
It was too cold to wear my party clothes for the long schlep out to the hotel by Heathrow airport, so I packed them in a bag to change into when I got there. Once I was all dolled up, though, I ended up with a heavy bag of everyday clothes slung over my shoulder as I hovered on the edge of the crowd.
The dance hadn’t started yet, and people were just milling. J disappeared to say hi to another group of friends, and I ended up by myself, surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were all very nice and welcoming – J had told them all about me – but they were also cooler and prettier and more confident than me. I felt painfully awkward. I’m not good with new people and I don’t do chit chat well. I perched on a chair on the far side of the table from everyone else, listening to conversations about people I didn’t know, and tried to look nonchalant. I felt like the dorkiest dork in the world.
It was easier at Pages, though. In smaller groups, and with a shared passion for Xena to start us off, I got to know these new friends. I got to see them geek out just like me, not just about tv shows, but about books and theatre. Most of them were pagan in one way or another. And a majority of the women identified as bisexual.
They were my safe space. I was still shy and I was still awkward, but I had such freedom to explore. I tried on so many different pieces, just to see how they fit. I wore leather trousers and metal bras, lacy goth, and revealing cyberpunk. I wore too much makeup, or none at all. I drank rum coolers and danced to cheeseball pop music. I played pass-the-icecube in the pub late one Saturday (mouth to mouth, with a little kissing, until there was nothing but a melting sliver on a cold tongue), with half a dozen other girls – no boys allowed – just because it felt good.
Saying goodbye to those girls, walking away in the middle of that exploration to go on tour with the circus was a shock to my system. In retrospect (and with huge irony, given the story of how I got the job) it was the worst possible timing.
“You know the funny part about this line? If you’d asked pretty much any of them, they’d have said the same thing about everyone else. [We] had a long talk about that once. And none of us ever realized we were the “cool kids” at Pages and at the cons until someone from outside the group told us. We were just being who we were and dressing how we wanted to. Perception is a funny thing.”
On her blog, Jodie Llewellyn posed the question “When did you start writing?” and invited her readers to answer. I suspect my answer is going to be on the long side, so I’m bringing the question back here.
The short answer is: I don’t actually remember.
I do remember being nine years old and writing a project on the arctic fox for my grade four class. My teacher that year had held up my notebook to the class to shame me over the state of my handwriting, and as I was laboriously copying out my text for the project with a blunt pencil, I thought, “how can I be a writer when I hate handwriting so much?” I have such a clear memory of that. Apparently I already knew at age nine.
The first story I remember writing was the year I was thirteen. I sat in the little office area my mum had set up in the unfinished basement of our house and wrote on her old typewriter about mermaid girls who lived in an underwater country called Flamania. I found that typed page recently among my old notebooks full of writing, but didn’t reread it. Again, the memory is so clear. I remember the weight of the typewriter keys as I pressed them, and the smell of the basement, and the exact shade of brown of the floor joists above my head.
When I was fifteen I started writing fan fiction, although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I was a Star Trek geek that year, and read all the tie-in books, and I decided I wanted to write my own. I wrote to Pocket Books to inquire about this possibility, and I was so proud when they mailed me back the author guidelines. I felt like I was being taken seriously. I would bring my handwritten pages of fan fiction to school to share with my best friend Sara, and she would write me notes in class about all the things she thought should happen in the story. Sadly, we never finished it.
By my late teens I knew that I wouldn’t be a writer as my primary career, but I also remember standing at the top of the basement stairs and telling my dad that no matter what else I did, I would always write.
Last year, I took a couple of continuing education classes in creative writing, more than twenty years after that first story I wrote on my mom’s typewriter. Those classes provided the right information at the right time, and I felt something shift in my writing. I feel like I took a step from being an aspiring author to being an emerging author. I don’t know that this is a meaningful distinction anywhere but inside my own head, but it meant a lot to me. My confidence in my ability has grown.
In the last six months or so I’ve been sending out my stories to magazines, online and off. So far, I’m collecting rejection letters, but one day there’ll be an acceptance in the mix. And I’ll have another milestone to remember.