Friday, 18 July 2014

Identity, belonging & cheap hotels

I was a film extra for fifteen years and did a lot of costume drama, period and sci-fi. What was fascinating was how the costumes - and to a lesser degree the settings - changed our personality. We identified with the clothes, we became our characters. To the point, even, that all the guards, all the uniformed characters, would sit together at the same table for lunch. We all have our rituals, and these rituals give some roots and solidity to our sense of identity. We make tea or coffee in a certain way, drink it from our favourite cup. We have our breakfast in a certain way, in a certain place in the house, we even dress in a certain order. And, obviously, we also surround ourselves with things that are of our choice, that are familiar and make us know, without a doubt, that we are who we are, and are where we are at. But when we stay in a hotel room, or are guests in someone's house, all of that goes out the window. I am choosing here to talk about cheap or average accommodations and not luxury hotels, because I am interested in the quirks and in how we adapt or react. For instance, last week I was in a hotel room. It wasn't too bad, quite decent and clean. But the sheets felt damp. Why? Were they really damp? I touched the walls and they were dry. And it was cold. I am always cold, but at home I have all my blankets and central heating. Here, I found a heater and after a mighty struggle I managed to turn it on. Then I proceeded to make myself a cup of tea. I had brought my own tea, just in case. The kettle didn't fit under the tap, so I filled it with tiny glasses of water, one at a time. The cups were tiny too. I felt really clumsy in my attempts to create a routine that fitted all this stuff that wasn't mine with my personality. But my personality was already changing. The irrational part of me was trying to figure out, "Who am I? How did I end up in a room with damp sheets, silver wallpaper, and very small cups? Am I this room? Is this room a result of me? And what sad me would end up living here?" As a foreigner in a foreign land for nearly 30 years, I have always been very interested in the feeling of belonging. What makes you feel that you belong? Familiarity? Purpose? Acceptance? In that hotel room, I started feeling that belonging is when your rituals feel right. I was learning my environment already, adapting to it, and transforming it, so that my rituals felt more real and familiar. I quickly adapted to the kettle and the small cups. I put my ipod with guitar jazz radio in an empty drawer to amplify it, and wrote. Writing always feels comfortable, and profoundly me. "This hotel room," I started to think, "is not my story, but it will become my history, part of my past, yet it's not an interaction on equal grounds. My input, the music, the tea, cannot quite overcome the old blue carpet, the damp sheets, the small cups." I wondered if in order to feel that we belong we need to be on equal grounds in the giving and taking. Because my irrational me could not make sense of how I ended up there, I lost part of my history, and started fresh, like an explorer. I tried to find more ways to personalise my space, I bought a vintage dolly and a small red penguin that I put on her lap, almost like a Mexican apparition, and then started making some very rough collages (I had no scissors) of the stuff I had come across during the day, gluing everything on paper shopping bags. I would then hang the handle on the bathroom door or the closet's. Soon, a bizarre sense of belonging formed, not the me who is writing in my flat now, but another me, with less history, who had blended into an affinity with the place, and struck a decent compromise between mild squalor and creativity. Perhaps creativity is the number one ingredient that makes you belong.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Points of view

By chance, I came across an article my father wrote in 2002 about the view from our Genoa flat. The view was indeed amazing, over the greenhouse with its palm trees, the whole city and, on a clear day, the sea. To the left there was a castle. Throughout my youth, I used to look from the window, at the grey slate roofs and the castle, which, against the setting sun, sometimes looked like a skull. I loved that flat, and it will always be in my heart. So, holding back the tears, I read my dad's article, curious and scared to learn how he felt about the place. It turned out - and actually I should have remembered - that, while I, in my room, was looking ahead, at the buildings, the castle, and the sea, my father, in his study, was looking through his bay window at the winding road. And while he was looking and thinking of all the years gone by, of his ghosts from the war, he was also waiting for me to come home. This image, this different point of view, the looking ahead and the looking to the side, made me suddenly see a different person, not my father, the all-knowing, the powerful, the wise, the giant, but a man, a mortal, with all his insecurities, fears, and sorrows. As I don't have children, I never really think of what it must be like to be a parent, of how mysterious a young life must appear. Mysterious and worrisome, fragile, yet in need of space and trust in order to grow. Being a rebellious, exploratory and dreamy child, I must have appeared particularly mysterious to him, while he pondered on how to be a good father, looking at the winding road from the bay window. Sometimes, out of desperation, he would make me sit on the couch and read to me from the Ecclesiastes, 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:, A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted...' He was hoping to slow me down, to make me wait until I was more prepared. But the time was right, it was the right time for me. Now, I like to think of this sense of time as an intuitive clock, that has its natural speed, its right time for things. Even though my fast clock was cause of concern for my father, back then, I followed its rhythm, like a dog on a walk, sometimes running, sometimes stopping to investigate a scent or a movement. It was only later in life that I started fighting against my clock, wanting to learn things faster, to work harder, more and more, in order to get to that place that is supposed to be my destination. But my intuitive clock thinks otherwise, 'To everything there is a season... a time to get and a time to lose.' The journey will take the time it needs to take, for how valiantly I fight against windmills. I am glad I didn't know that my father was not omniscient when I was a child and needed to think it was possible to have control over our own lives. And I am glad that my intuitive clock has shown me a different version of my father today, today that I am the same age he was then, when he sat on his chair and read me from the Ecclesiastes. There is indeed a time for everything.