Portraits of America #6: The Girl Who Loved People As They Are

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This is a drawing of me by my just married friend ε.

We have the same age. 1983 was a good year for babies.

We met at Brighton University when we were 22. We both had more cheeks and less hair. She was studying painting and I remember her saying: “I think my painting needs hot pink. That’s what it needs.” I don’t know why this quote stayed in my head all these years. She had asked me to write on a little paper a line from the movie Amélie that she was obsessed with: “Je ne suis la belette de personne” (“I am no one’s little beaver”). Years after, she was still carrying it around in her wallet.

She generally is a multi-talented girl, like all my friends. But to me, her main skill in life is her propension to love people as they are. It threw me off in several occasions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her talk bad about anyone, which certainly doesn’t mean she’s naive or candid. When someone would make me want to slap them in certain situations, she would simply say: “This is how he/she is.” She is the incarnation of acceptance.

I owe ε my last American autumn tour, as I traveled to Chicago for her wedding, shortly after some guy had tried to set the airport control tower on fire. It took ages to get there. I’ve been to very few weddings in my life, because the people in my circles don’t get married much. They are outsiders, single or broke. It was my first close friend’s wedding.

I therefore was a maid of honour for the first time, with the bunch of my fab American friends that goes by the name of “Whore House”. We are an army of strong women, thus spoke the bride.

We rehearsed a little bit before the ceremony. The bridesmaids had to walk two by two down the aisle. I was wearing my rainbow fake fur coat (the one all over this blog) above my maid of honour gown to keep me warm in the autumnal Illinois weather. A few moments before we were all going on “stage”, ε, in her vintage elegantly sober bridal dress, looked at me and my crazy outfit and told me: “I want you to keep your fur down the aisle.” -“Are you sure?” I asked with astonishment, because it was so anti-wedding and I was afraid of ruining the chic of her ceremony with my extravaganza. She was. This is you.” She wanted me to look like myself, even under solemn circumstances.

Who else on earth would have let me do this? It meant the world to me. This is NOT anecdotic.

Many contradictory thoughts crossed my mind at top speed. A series of flashbacks of many ordinary instances of my life where I was asked, advised or suggested to change something in my outfit or in myself unraveled in my head. Past memories were colliding with present gratefulness.

I grew up in France and I spent half my life hearing comments about what I wear – and implicitly, about what I am and how I live. Invariably, whatever adjective was picked, it would be preceded with “too” : too provocative, too casual, too mismatched, too ruined, too original. What could have been great compliments always turned into reproach.

Clothes and style are way deeper than the importance we want to grant it. It is the way you present yourself to the rest of the world. My appearance shows exactly who I am, I’m not putting any costumes or characters on. Surface can be deep. “Skin is the deepest” said Paul Valéry (“Le plus profond, c’est la peau”).

I’ve always lived with the feeling that people wanted to “fix” me. Anything “too much” is suspicious, problematic and has to be brought back to regularity. France is very much like that, at least. No wonder I left when I was 18 and 2 weeks. No wonder I still feel I can only blossom and explode in America. I am still much of a misfit in my homeland, but I’ve tamed it now.

ε & my American friends always encouraged me and helped me embrace my true nature. They made me feel comfortable with my originality. They laughed at my character instead of being annoyed or envious. They never thought that my differences had to be corrected because they were “wrong”, they made me believe that it was my beauty and my diamond. I’ve run for who I am a thousand times more since they’ve been in my life.

Oh man. It takes so long to feel accepted. It may be a lifetime battle. But some exceptional souls give you a little lift along the way. I certainly won’t forget what ε did for me.

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Portraits of America #5 : The Jazz Player of Chicago

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In my last 5 Rhythms dance workshop in Philadelphia, I met π, a man born in 1942. We paired up on an exercise where we had to tell each other our father’s life story.

π‘s father had the most extraordinary existence and he gave me the authorization to share it here.

His name was Harvey Brown. He was born in Chicago somewhere in the 1910s in a family where all the men were alcoholic. He therefore had to bring financial support to the household from an early age. This was the era of the birth of jazz. Harvey began to play music in the first jazz clubs of Chicago with his little brother who was going blind. He soon had to be his brother’s protector on top of being a family breadwinner.

To a background of Prohibition and Al Capone atmosphere, Harvey got involved in peripheral activities with the mafia, wiped floors in a printing shop where they were forging notes.

Harvey was a very charismatic man, handsome, clever, narcissistic, a womanizer. He could get whatever he wanted. He was also an entrepreneur who could make everything with his hands. He was some kind of self-taught prodigy. He wasn’t given the chance to study so he read all the volumes of the Encyclopædia Universalis to gain knowledge. He learned drawing and magic by himself and used to perform magic tricks during the intermission of his jazz concerts. His magic skills enhanced his charisma and hypnotic aura and helped him obtain what he was aiming for.

But the ghosts of alcoholism were chasing him. When π was about two years old, his mother threatened his father to divorce him if he didn’t stop drinking. Harvey remained sober till the early teenage of his son and was a good father.

He was caught by his lineage demons after that, and drinking led him to ruin. π didn’t get into detail when telling me how things ended. His admiration for his father still sounded intact despite the fall.

Harvey left three boxes of souvenirs to his children: one for his jazz player career, one for his magician career, and one for his business career.

Back on (Am)Trak

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I’ve been feeling edgy for months. Constantly on the verge of collapsing over the last 2 years. Maybe more. Maybe since birth. I was born sitting on the edge of something that could go either way – marvellous or terribly wrong. I wonder why I picked that number in the lottery of life. I’ve grown to tame it and not want to trade it, cause my downs are as ugly as my highs are pure shots of bliss.

I can’t remember of a time when I wasn’t emotionally drained. Probably somewhere in 2011. And before that, it was in the early years of my life. I’m responsible for it as much as I’m not.

I like living dangerously. Or for my own standards, it is just “intensely”. But I am also assailed by waves of “me against the world”, and I’m really not hunting for that part. It seems to be my nature to stand against the current, and the more I try to conform, the more my nature grows thicker and my life becomes more challenging.

In 2009, my nerves broke. I couldn’t sleep despite exhaustion and before I knew it I was yelling in the middle of the night for too many reasons but none in particular. I remember the physical sensation of it, on a specific spot at the bottom of my skull, on both sides. I sometimes still touch it with my fingers. I literally heard my nerves tearing apart from the inside of my head. This episode impressed me very much, because it was the first time that my body was winning over my will.

Shortly after, I went on my first significant American tour for 9 weeks. Getting lost in America then became my reset button. I remember approaching life very differently throughout that trip. I wasn’t wearing any make up at all so people could see through me more. I became more humble from realising that I could lose control of my own body and introducing myself with a nude face contributed to quit playing games. “This is who I am without the doe eyes” style.

I got on my first Amtrak journey that summer. Toronto-Buffalo-Chicago-Kansas City. I crossed the US border on a rail bridge above the Niagara Falls. Two and a half days alone on the train, no phone no distraction no nothing. Just my bruised thoughts and the immensity of American landscape. It restored me.

I’m back at that exact same place. I was very close to cancel this whole American Autumn tour. I wasn’t sure I was going to wake up to get on that plane until 3 days before, just because it is scary to feel collapsy when boarding for an adventure full of unknown, full of minutely reinvention. I barely know where I’m going to sleep for half of the trip.

I got on the train 2 hours ago, departing from Chicago for a 19 hour journey to New Orleans. I am sitting next to a green-haired teenager reading “The Exorcist”. She’s also going all the way to New Orleans so the train steward told us: “You are each other’s best friend till tomorrow!” I smiled politely. I’ve never been to the South of the US and I’m excited to wake up in a different state and soak in novelty. My senses will be aroused every minute willing to absorb everything.

I was afraid at the thought of getting on the train when I woke up this morning, given the uncertainty of the outbound. I didn’t have a clear accommodation plan, just a friend of a friend. Lying in bed, I was making some strategic thinking. Maybe checking in a motel when getting off the train in Louisiana and sleep for 48 hours? Just to do something I never do and because my body is asking for mercy.

It finally turned out differently in the last few hours. I got an American phone number and magic operated. H put me in touch with her movie set friend κ², who lives in New Orleans. (H was meant to get on that train with me and we were going to brainstorm some clever creative ideas to put her movie script together in order to get her on the women directors workshop at the American Film Institute. We are amongst the wittiest, coolest and most badass blondes that I know (that’s presumptuous to say so but it’s kinda true so I don’t care) so when we team up artistically it is fireworks. But H was offered a last minute job in Japan shooting a documentary on some Japanese people singing Johnny Cash in cow boy hats, so she’s off to Osaka in 3 days and the clever brainstorming will happen via text messages.)

I’m anyway going to crash on her friend’s couch for the week and we will go on NoLA adventures when he’s not working on his movie set.

I’ve just received a text message from him. He’s setting me up with 2 other people. Looks like I’m going on a friendship blind date tomorrow with a girl working in a dress shop in the French quarter, before ringing a door bell somewhere of some artist guy I don’t know for coffee.

Adventure is finally kicking in!

Getting lost on Amtrak is always a winner.

October Is For Whores

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I’m starting a new American chapter at Newark Liberty international airport, New Jersey. I don’t even get excited any more when I pass the immigration test or see my first American flag cause I feel like I partially live here now and I’m just going home, away from the mean people. I already screamed 15 times on the inside “I love Americans!” shaking my forearms like an idiot (also on the inside).

I could furtively see my beloved NYC skyline when touching the ground. I blew a kiss to “my” Empire State Building cause I’m going to dance the 5 Rhythms in its face in 11 days.

The new Alt-J (‘This is all Yours’) will be the soundtrack of this trip. My favourite line of the entire album is “I’m gonna turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”. Whoever comes close enough to me next in life is going to hear that and I’ll pretend I invented it.

My flight is delayed and I’m eating a Manhattan chowder. I’m kind of bummed cause I returned a Vivienne Westwood dress to buy a second flight to Chicago that lands earlier, and I’m now stuck Vivienneless with 2 tickets for planes landing at the same time. Dadaist drama. Clever budgeting.

I’m transiting to Chicago where my Whore friends – this is how we call each other – already gathered. A member of the family is getting married on Saturday and we are all punk maids of honour. I’m the last one to arrive, and also traveling the furthest distance, so I will have a prodigal son moment later today when I get my collective welcome hug. They told me to get my body ready for squeezes. That’s exactly one year that we saw each other altogether, the 5 of us, after the Route 66 fun.

October is for Whores.

This group of gals is very special. I would even say “exceptional”. I met 3 out of 4 whilst studying at the tragically bad “Dance & Visual Art” department at Brighton Uni. We ended up living 4 peeps in a bedroom for two. That’s how we got so close. They went back to America after 6 months so I dropped out of Uni in a particularly theatrical manner. Good times.

We are a bunch of arty slashers, so we all are pretty hard to describe.

α is a filmmaker/puppet maker/ random stuff maker/yoga teacher/ event organiser at an architects firm living in NYC.

ε is the bride to be. She is a Chicago-based painter/pie maker/former best nanny in the world and has now a variety of jobs that I’m losing track on.

α3 is a painter/caver/photographer/life manager for all of us and also does business in her spare time, selling some kind of paint that makes your old furniture look like stainless steel. She lives in Saint Louis, Missouri. All that she does is hilarious (but that could generally apply to each one of us.)

H is a filmmaker/camera operator/photographer working in LA. She hangs out with the red carpet people but giggles about it the same way she giggles at everything else.

And there’s me, the European refugee, the only one who was not born and raised in the Midwest. Like most of the groups I’ve belonged to, I’m the only foreigner/accented. This said, even when I was hanging out in Paris (where I was born) with a bunch of French, I was told that I sound Belgian.

I sometimes wonder if there are any  people who speak like me? It is so much part of my identity now – the mixed influences “citizen of the world” twist. (I hate this expression).  I’d like to meet someone like me at least once to team up with another odd-one-out. We would have a long conversation tainted with the different shades and tones of our various life experiences.

Next fall is H’s 30th birthday. Another hot Whores gathering in sight.