Week 11 - The Devil You Choose...
The search for the perfect place is doomed from the start, isn't it?
I was running late.
If I am honest, this was not an uncommon occurrence. Now and then, I have been known to run early, but the deadline-chaser in me enjoys the thrill of leaving things till the last minute (for better or for worse…).
I was running late, and the metro ticket gates had decided to conspire against me. My single use ticket, first not wanting to leave its warm pocket in my bag, then all but refusing to go through the one slot it has been designed for, rubbed salt in the wound by being choosing rejection. DSSSST! The lights flashed red, the gates refused to open, and I stepped backwards, apologising profusely to no-one in particular - je suis desolé - embarrassed, searching through my bag for another ticket. I’m sure I have one in here…
An voice called from across the barrier. An aunty was speaking French (obviously), a little too quickly for my comprehension (naturally), and was waving around her metro card (purposefully). I wasn’t sure how I could help, so settled for a fumbling explanation of why I was holding up the line.
I’m looking for my ticket - je cherche… mon billet… I stumbled. The short woman nodded, gesticulating furiously, but not unkindly.
You want me to use your pass?
She nodded again and handed me her personalised metro ticket through gaps in the barrier.
Paris is a Big City. One thing I have learnt about big cities in the decade since I left my Small City hometown of Brisbane, is to not expect kindness. Well, actually, that might be overly cruel a framing. In Big Cities, everyone minds their own business. It’s the unspoken sardine-life pact. My nose might be in your armpit on the tube and it’s not even rush hour, but we will not acknowledge each other’s existence. The anonymity might be cold, but it can also be comforting, if you want to lose yourself in the crowd. C'est-à-dire (all that is to say), I was not expecting kindness that afternoon.
Unexpectedly, that small moment of shared solidarity in the Big City of Paris whisked the air from my lungs.
I wished I knew how to say ‘thank you’ more eloquently than just, merci, merci, merci beaucoup, merci.
I wished I could have asked her about her day, made her tea, learnt about her life.
I wished for much in that moment, but I was running late. Merci, aunty. Merci.
Perhaps there is a place for me in this city, I thought, as I slipped through closing metro doors. It was almost like that aunty’s arm through the barrier silently gave me permission to be here, to dare call this city home, even just for a day.
I found myself in conversation with an unusual new acquaintance recently, an older woman, a banker, Black, and who like myself, has lived a fairly nomadic life. As she has spent time in the US, the UK and France, I asked for her counsel. Where was the best place for a ‘woman like me’ to live, I asked?
Her wry smile was audible through the line.
It’s the devil you choose, isn’t it?
What do you mean?
Well, in the US it’s all about work. The ceiling is so much higher for a black woman in the workplace, because work is a language they understand. But outside the workplace, it’s effectively segregated.
She spoke of communities united through the quest for capital, and little else.
The UK on the other hand, she continued, is much better socially. London is an international city. But work, forget it. Their hierarchies are so entrenched and old school.
What about France?
She laughed, again, this time full throatedly. Oh, forget about France.
To my own surprise, I found comfort in that admission. I’m not completely sure why. Perhaps because there was no pretending, no false promise. It almost re-framed living here as a fun game rather than anything more serious (for now, at least!). The question of France aside, the conversation served to add texture to what I had been chewing over internally for some time now. The question of place.
Where did I want to live? Where is the ‘best place’ for someone like me? Where do I ground myself? It isn’t even a question of ‘home’, because I don’t feel so activated by the question of home, per se. It is more the question of where I choose to belong, where I go to find the ‘conditions for success’? As I learn more, I keep coming back to that idea: it’s the devil you choose. Pick your poison… right?
But of course, even the ability to pick one’s poison is a choice most don’t have, and I am not blind to that privilege. In fact, it’s not a choice I fully have either! My life over the past few years, like many other diasporan kids, is a series of stressful and expensive visa applications, embassy appointments, and lawyer invoices. I am in Paris for the duration of my residency, and then after that, only time - and the embassy - will tell. The fact that I can even get a look in is thanks to my Australian passport. My Sudanese documents, the little green book embossed with Arabic text, opens no frontiers. I might want to choose somewhere, and they not choose me. Alas, the desire for residency, as in love, is almost always unrequited.
Nothing drove this home to me more than Tal Amiran’s recent short documentary, Dafa Metti (Difficult). The 15 minute short shares the ‘hopes and fears of the migrants selling souvenirs in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower’. It’s powerful, stunning, and heartbreaking. I encourage you to watch it.
Harassed by police, stepped over by tourists, and in constant fear of deportation – such is the daily grind for the Senegalese migrants who scrape by selling trinkets at the Eiffel Tower. Their lives, so often overlooked or treated with contempt, are chronicled by the UK director Tal Amiran in his powerful, confronting short documentary Dafa Metti (Difficult). Amiran gives voice to these men to tell their own stories, revealing how conditions back home pushed them to make dangerous journeys to France, and how, even after arriving in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, their lives often become more precarious still.
While pondering the ‘right’ choice, it is always worth the reminder that it’s only by luck - or fate, Allah’s will - that I even have one.
What I’ve read this week: I inhaled the darkly comic novel, French Exit, by Patrick DeWitt. I hear it is being made into a Netflix film, but I reckon the book is better. I delighted in its prose. From the 2018 Guardian review:
“My plan was to die before the money ran out,” says 65-year-old Frances, whose beauty and eccentricity have enthralled Manhattan for decades – most notably when she found her husband dead in bed and went skiing rather than calling an ambulance. “But I kept and keep not dying, and here I am.” A friend has a vacant Paris apartment; so off she goes by cruise liner with her son Malcolm, a “lugubrious toddler of a man” whom she neglected as a child and now stifles as an adult, plus a bag stuffed with her last €170,000 and a recalcitrant cat called Small Frank.
Also worth reading this short piece on the stunning silence from Australian media on the second anniversary of the Christchurch Mosque Massacre.
What I’ve watched this week: Continuing on the French theme, Glasé, a dark French crime series. Bit creepy, to be honest. I’m not quite sure about the French countryside anymore. According to my thorough Netflix-watching research, it feels rather full of murderers.
What I’ve listened to this week: This podcast on the deadly K2 expedition, and collision between capitalism, ego, and the still-dangerous reality of climbing 8000+m tall mountains. (Frankly, I feel like there are enough dangers at sea level. I don’t know why anyone goes looking for them at oxygen-depleted altitudes, but each to their own!).
Oh, and another humble reminder that my latest novel, LISTEN LAYLA is out! Click here if you’d like to check out the book or buy a copy. I would be most grateful.
Thanks for subscribing and reading this week’s edition of Diasporan Diaries. Please, comment with thoughts, questions, critiques…and share if it resonated. I have been loving all your comments and emails!
Much love, strength and safety to you all.
I keep writing but not posting and lose my words! Ahhh well. Will write a response soon. Much love💜🙏💜