Letters and passageways: the summer of ’98, south of France

I went back to that summer I spent in the south of France, to recall what I could from my journals, letters, and photos. They resurfaced with the news of a friend who’d died, I’d last seen there—and played on my mind hiking for several days with Brad. It had been 20 years now since I climbed Mount Rainier. Ten since I started this blog. Twenty-one since I lived in Collioure, that small condo on the beach.

The apartment was modest, but the view was not. A small deck opened to a beach below, with waves lapping at the shore. Beyond, glimpses of the small town, the old clock tower, boats in the harbor. I flew out of JFK on June 1, a one-way flight to Barcelona with my two cats. I met Laurent for the first time: he said the airport was closed, the workers had organized a protest, and young soldiers were now standing by with machine guns. Laurent offered me a cigarette and said the bad winds are coming too, and laughed.

My mom and John had bought the condo at the recommendation of John’s friends Rob and Paul, who were trying to find property there themselves. Laurent’s mom was a realtor but Laurent spoke better English than she, was my age, and became our guide to the region. John described Laurent as a French Robert DeNiro, though larger, with thick eyebrows and Catalan features. Laurent dropped me off at the apartment and helped me inside with my bags, promised he’d call soon and we’d go out. I have girls for you, he said.

I set to writing in my new space. I’d been living in Seattle for a year and they’d offered me a new job at Starbucks, where I’d been working at the corporate headquarters. But I declined because I worried that a real job would demand too much of me, and I’d never take the time to write.

In addition to the condo in Collioure, my mom and John had bought a new house in a small village called Port-Vendres, one town over. They were going back and forth every 90 days between France and Pennsylvania, and had trouble finding caretakers. I offered to look after the house in Pennsylvania over the winter while they got the new house set up in France. When they came back in the spring, I’d take their place in France, and wait for them to return. They agreed, so I shipped the cats, a handful of books, my cassettes and clothes back east, and moved to the house in Pennsylvania a week before Christmas.

The problem with my writing then (one of the problems) was that I didn’t have anything to write about. I was 27, with only a handful of life experiences. The other problem was that I didn’t know how to talk about those experiences, my voice got in the way. It tried to make up for inadequacies by drawing too much attention to itself.

John worked on getting me writing gigs through his network of musician friends, the first with a Puerto Rican friend César Díaz who’d played guitar with Bob Dylan, and wanted my help writing an angry book that would expose “the real Dylan.” It would detail stories of Dylan’s ego and how he mistreated the band. While touring in Spain, César had found a bullfighter’s costume in a thrift store and worn it on stage one night. It was in the traditional, flamboyant style with gold sequins, but drew too much attention away from Dylan, who ordered César off stage and made him take it off. Dylan then found a similar costume and wore it himself, the next night.

I didn’t care to write an angry book about Bob Dylan and the project never got off the ground. In fact, all I really wanted to talk about with César was my favorite Dylan albums. The book never got written, and César died four years later.

Another of John’s friends wanted to write a book: Bill Lawrence, a German guitarist and designer who needed help with his memoir. I went to Bill’s house for a coffee (effectively the interview), and met with him and his young wife, who served us. He smoked nonstop, with two packs of cigarettes he arranged on the table and then rearranged, like playing cards. The packs of cigarettes were like our modern day fidget devices, he continued turning them at 45-, and 90-degree angles, just so.

Bill said, So you’re a writer. Tell me what the word radical means to you.

I did my best to define radical, but didn’t get it right. I’d already lost the gig.

Radical, Bill explained, comes from the Latin, “from the root.” I am a radical, he said, turning to the sky: I tear things out of the ground, from the root.

No paid gigs panned out for me, so I spent most of my time writing letters and bad poetry. I used a manual typewriter I’d bought in Seattle: would draft a poem and then rewrite the same poem on a new piece of paper, hoping I’d get the thread right so it sounded done. I could hear when something sounded wrong, but often didn’t know how to fix it. More than anything, my typing improved. That helped my perceived value from the temp agencies where I applied, when they’d test my word count per minute and remark how high it was, for a male.

Moving to France, I thought, would help my writing. Somehow, just being in a foreign country could transform me. But the typewriter got damaged between JFK and Barcelona, the carriage slightly bent, and the words trailed off when I reached the right margin. It had the look of a stroke victim’s mouth, sagging to one side ever so.

I went back to my journals to reconstruct what I could from that June. I sound hopeful, but lonely. Laurent made time for me, with the occasional night out at the discotheque, by introducing me to his small group of friends: Marie-Pierre, David Bernadas. And a similar group of friends who belonged to my mom and John. The political writer Jan Gilbourg, in exile from his native Sweden for writing damning stories about their government: now in fear of the Swedish SÄPO breaking into his Port-Vendres study, stealing his manuscripts. Hard to separate Jan’s paranoia from reality.

Or the eccentric Canadian couple Allanah and Gregory, who buy, renovate, and flip French farmhouses. Gregory, independently wealthy, part of the Fischer-Price family enterprise. Allanah, a budding mystic or psychic with a lazy eye, who flaps her hands and rolls her good eye back in its head when she’s divining, seeing.

I can’t make out the scraps I have left in my journal and I’m missing a crucial piece, a “daily planner” style notebook I used to jot down details from each day: what I ate, who I saw, where I went. The names of all those small towns. I’m going through our garage, through the closet, through all the caches of journals and notebooks I’ve kept over the years. I feel like a thief going through my own things. When I find notes from that era, it leaves me sad and disassociated from who I was then, forcing me to rethink who I am now.

I sit inside the protective halo of a tree mostly dry, outside of the rain. But after a time it rains first on my chair, then my legs, my chest. The cat sharpens her claws on the wooden hot tub cladding. The rain softens to a gentle hiss, and smells nice. Soon it stops and the frogs start in, volleying back and forth from their hiding places, the kind of sound you’d expect from new tennis shoes crossing a gymnasium floor: squeak, squeak, squeak. The dog clambers across the patio to my side, click, click, click.

We let the hours and days pass out of us this way, and so, our lives. Old letters, passageways to empty rooms, abandoned towns. The faint sound of their voice still coming through in the ink. Folded, sealed, carried “par avion,” stamped with a date. The former box of checks converted to a tiny treasure chest decorated with ornate wrapping, containing all the small keepsakes an old girlfriend saved from our time together. Movie tickets, mementos. I can’t look at its contents now but can’t throw it out, either. Perhaps it’s true, the root of all human suffering lies in our attachments.

The sound of the cottonwood leaves is a dry rasp, a shuffling of papers, a field of dried corn husks, a broom’s brush. The past. The swooshing sound of the now, the coming nightfall, and falling leaves. The sense that all of this will recombine again, and again.

By my window, a golden fox just passed by. I grab my phone and run outside barefoot, but it’s nowhere to be seen. Only the sound of a leaf snapping off a tree. I will keep looking for that journal, I think. I just can’t let it go.



Categories: writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

22 replies

  1. “More than anything, my typing improved”
    Some choice lines here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Letting go”, he sighs.
    It has a mystical air; moving waves that cleanse via loss.
    Loved all of this, Bill. Except the leaf snapping off. Too much mortality there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This one didn’t show up in my reader, maybe too many tags? But how did everyone else find it then. This seems very measured and intentional, I guess that’s part of the new analyticalicism you mentioned. I made up that awful word but won’t use it again. I can relate to almost everything here, especially the old things you can’t look at but can’t throw away either. I was just digging through such a box last week. When I was overseas, I thought about those boxes and discarded them in my mind, happy to never see them again and not caring what was lost. Now that I’m back with them physically, can’t do it. Not yet anyway. I think this is going to post anonymously, but it’s me, Not Walt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi “you!” Thanks for this, yeah didn’t know that about the tags. Is there a limit? Funny about you and those boxes…that physical separation of actually letting go of it, as it drops into a larger box, is taken to another hole, buried…officially dead at that point, kind of…thanks for reading W.


      • The limit is either 14 or 15 (not sure which) and the punishment is not showing up in the reader. Not sure if two-word tags count as one or two.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, good to know. I think what happened is I made an edit like a minute before it was scheduled. That’s another violation, fair enough.


    • Oh, and most importantly “anonymous,” thanks for inspiring me to write it, for better or for ill. Going to work up some more from the same timeframe.


  4. keep looking, sounds like your’e already remembering a lot in the process –

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Normally, when an old-time typewriter has a stroke (or a lot of them) it’s a good thing.

    You must have some solid journals. I can barely remember anyone from transient events of years past, and in the big picture they’re nearly all transient.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dave, transient is a good word for it…my journals don’t hold up so well, so I’m trying to go by memory. Which feels a bit like a fiction, kind of fun but very hard. Not sure I have the stamina for it, will see…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had the same problem with “voice” in my 20s. Plenty to say but the way I said it was screwy. You’ve definitely found your own sweet spot where voice is concerned now, dude. 👍

    Liked by 1 person


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  3. Letters and passageways (4): Cathar country | William Pearse | pinklightsabre
  4. Letters and passageways (5): trial runs | William Pearse | pinklightsabre

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