Heading back to England in a few days!
France has been very lovely – genuinely, this might be my favourite country. It’s got flaws like anywhere else, but something about this place just sits right with my senses. Walking through town and it smells like bread and then it smells like trees and then it smells like petrol on warm summer air, and people are outside underneath shady awnings enjoying the company. And people are slim and dress casually and they look fresh-faced and healthy, somehow, even though the French diet is mostly cheese and cigarettes. The grain on buildings is earthy, and paint cracks on old shutters closed against the sun. There’s something very tactile about France; there’s less of a disconnect between people and nature. Little towns look like they grew on vines or were carved from the hills, instead of being tipped off the end of a conveyor belt hugged in bubblewrap. I like every knackered doorway and wrought iron balcony. I want to roll around in it.
It’s been great to spend time with Seth in Avignon. He really is a best friend, and I’ll be sad to leave. We laugh basically non-stop, at anything, and he laughs at my black moods when anxiety and frustration creeps in – which, somehow, disperses them immediately. When I’ve had the unluckiest, shittiest afternoon – one filled with work failures and mosquitos and gone-off bananas – I arrive outside Seth’s apartment all ashen-faced and miserable and he just cracks up at the sight of me and then I can’t help but crack up too.
Despite the loveliness, I decided to head back to the UK on the 3rd of June rather than stay for another month because I’m eager to settle somewhere and establish more of a base. Because of Brexit, I can no longer stay in France (or Europe in general) for more than 3 months without a visa, and so although I know I’d have a very lovely June here, ultimately I’d just be prolonging the inevitable: a return to the UK and the search for a home. May as well get cracking.
I’d like France to be my home one day, that’s certain. But there’s no rush there. I have plenty of time to figure it all out. For now, Manchester makes sense. Charlie lives there, Jack is moving there, and it’s only an hour from Leeds, where my family are. That’s really important to me these days – seeing more of the people I love most. It’s been a decade of gallivanting, and at the end of it I feel pretty happy now to relax a little and get to know my own country once again.
Seth and I both have Mondays off work, and we’ve been taking boys’ trips out together in our free time. A week ago we went to explore Provence in Seth’s van, on a hot, sunny day with storm clouds giving the horizon a pretty glow. We explored an old cave at the mouth of a river, and looked at water mills that still function and are used for making paper. We watched a man taking the paper sheaves and pushing them through a giant iron press, spun by the water mill via a complex series of cogs. Seth explained it all to me. That’s another of the many reasons I like him: he knows a lot about the world. He doesn’t know anything about celebrities and gossip and internet trends, because he doesn’t care in the slightest – but you can point to any tree or bird and he can tell you what it is, and if you show him a wooden spoon and say ‘how is this made’ he can tell you in great detail. He’s interested in anything that flows or creaks or blooms, anything you can carve and hew into something useful – and it makes me interested in those things too.
After the water mill we drove off across the gorgeous lavender fields of Provence, past orchards and rows of cherry trees, freshly picked but with a few berries still lingering in the higher branches. We drove to a rocky outcrop on a hill, overlooking sweeping endless farmland and poplar trees and little farmhouses in the distance, and the left of our view was occupied with the town of Gordes, which begins with a church on a hilltop and comes cascading down with vines and trees and beautiful sandy-coloured homes, all the way to the bottom where it merges with the farmland. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything in the real world that looks so achingly close to my personal image of heaven. We sat on the cliff and Seth pointed out an almond tree, and we counted the fruit on it. Then we climbed back in the van and drove on as the sun cut through the high storm clouds, gold on black, with that shade of light that makes the greens below seem to glow.
We drove to a town with a hundred fountains, and we parked up down a medieval sidestreet and found a place to sit and have a beer. It was raining very lightly and everybody was beneath umbrellas, but we sat without and enjoyed it. We went home in the evening, and it was a good day.
Monday just gone, we took another boys’ adventure day, and this time headed to Nîmes. We’d been at a party on Saturday night – Clara’s sister – and everybody wore fancy dress and we all sleepover, and I slept on a blowup bed in the garage. Yoan and Matteo and Tristan and Clara were there, which made it the biggest Toku Iwi reunion I’ve had since Australia. Four months at that place was enough to bond everybody forever. I enjoyed talking to Yoan and especially Matteo. He’s thinking about having children with his girlfriend soon; he says he feels ready. I told him about my own life. It was nice to feel like we’d both grown up a little.
That said, I still got drunk at the party and I dyed my hair pink, because Cecile, Clara’s sister, had a can of pink spray paint. So on Monday, as we drove to Nîmes, my blonde hair still showed a faint shade of lilac.
It was the same weather as the previous Monday: gold sun, storm clouds over the hills in the distance. This time, however, the storm clouds rolled our way as we parked up. I was dressed in salmon coloured shorts, white pumps, and a floaty light-coloured shirt, as that morning it had been sweltering and I’d pictured us sitting in sun-beaten squares sipping coffees all day. When the heavens opened, then, I was unprepared, and soon soaked to the bone as we made our way into the city.
We’d heard there was a festival taking place that weekend in Nîmes, and I was excited to see a little music and try a few food stalls. As we rounded the corner and gazed up at the giant Roman arena that is the centrepiece of the city, however, it became clear I was mistaken. All along the broad main road through the city, closed off to cars, were boisterous pubs and booze tents, and giant speakers stacked atop one another playing techno. In the lashing rain dozens of topless men were dancing, rain slick on their doughy torsos nipped in at the sides by belts, and girls in lime green crop tops smoked and drank beneath specially erected gazebos. People were hollering and dropping things, and paper cups and cigarette butts ran in rivers down the street.
It was the last day of the festival and a bank holiday, and there was nobody clean or sober in the city. Every bar we ducked into to hide from the rain was filled with the musty fumes of drunken bodies covered in rain, steam rising, and harsh drunken barks of laughter filled the air between wild eyes and loose, twisting mouths. People hurried down alleyways, either topless or wrapped in transparent cagoules, and rain fell from overflowing gutters to slap against the smooth ancient flagstones on the streep.
“What the hell have we walked into?” I asked Seth, as we bought sausages from a wet tent.
We explored the city, with Seth wrapped cosily in the waterproof hooded jacket he’d thought to pack, and me with teeth a-clatter as the hairs on my arms stood on end and my hair slicked to my forehead and my shirt clung to my midriff.
“Hope for the best, prepare for the best, was it?” said Seth, in response to my wailing. “Surely you can’t be that cold?”
“TAKE YOUR TOP OFF,” I howled back.
We had a beer in each of three bars, and then went to visit the Maison Carrée, a beautifully preserved Roman temple that looks like the Pantheon in Rome. We climbed up the stairs to sit beneath the columns out of the rain, and at the top we found a symphony of teenage goths smoking weed and listening to iris-expandingly intense electro from a little speaker. All of them were wearing black and one of them wore a choker and one of them had no eyebrows and white hair.
We tired of the strangeness of Nîmes and made our way back to the car, stopping off for a taco in a kebab shop. Seth told me I would love the French tacos, but I did not love them because they are incredibly dense and mostly filled with chips and are not at all like the Mexican tacos I learned to adore so deeply. In the kebab shop a television screen showed a French daytime TV show on which an aged Mick Hucknall was being interviewed, with the host speaking in French and Mick Hucknall responding in English, which was overdubbed back into French. He was wearing sunglasses, despite the programme taking place indoors. He looked like he didn’t really understand what was going on and like he very much wanted to be elsewhere.
“How was that then?” asked Seth, as we waited at the bus stop to go back to the park and ride. “Would you have another French taco?”
“No,” I replied, with such speed and conviction that Seth lost his breath laughing.
Back at the car park the van wouldn’t fit under the maximum height bar to exit, so I had to climb out and stand on the back bumper to weigh it down more evenly, clinging on gingerly as Seth inched beneath the bar. Then I hopped back in and we drove home, and on the way we talked about some serious things and some silly things, and like always, we laughed a lot.