Presque Mais Presque Pas
Because my partner is French, lots of people ask me if I’ve read “Almost French” by Sarah Turnbull. I have, and so has the better half, and naturally we like it. It is the type of witty chatty heartwarming story with just the right smattering of anglophilic froggyphobia to make for knowing chuckles all round.
But part of me just wishes that the suave frog who swept her off her feet in Eastern Europe had been a woman, or if Sarah had been a male Turnbull instead of a female. Then the story would have been set in Bondi, Darlo or Tamarama and not the dreary Seizieme or the pulsing Sentier. It’s not that I’ve got anything against hetero love stories, hell no! It’s just that if I was a man, or if my partner was a man, then my story would be more like Sarah’s and the other straight friends with French lovers and less like my own.
The reason why I’m typing this in Sydney and not in France is because of homophobia. Whenever my beloved Belle Mere’s jokes about the sauvagerie of the Anglos gets a bit much I remind her of this fact. France does not recognise gay and lesbian relationships. There is “pacs”, but this counts for nothing. The immigration categories are quite simply married, divorced, widowed, or celibate. France is certainly behind its EU partners in this fact. If my better half obtained work in the UK, Germany, Netherlands or Belgium I could travel and stay as her partner, but her parents are in Paris. It would be nice if we could spend more time with them than the three months we usually spend every couple of years camping in their home, acting like overgrown adolescents. Australia, deeply reactionary in many, many things, still has a system for enabling gay and lesbian partners of Australians to settle here permanently. It is still about ten times more difficult and stressful than for heterosexual marriage, but it is possible. And after four years of joined at the hip scrutiny, my partner was granted Permanent Residency and we are now enjoying the adult freedoms of separate bank accounts and separate holidays that I thought feminists had established as a basic right before I was born.
My partner is returning to France for two months and while she is away I’m going to write and remember the past six years that have brought us to this point. This is to be the full unexpurgated version of the greatest love story in the world. The shorter version got submitted to Department for Immigration and read out at our wedding 3 years ago, but this is the whole meandering drippy bit. It’s sure to feature plenty of that quaint interculturality that everyone loves to laugh about, coz I exaggerate everything heaps. I’ll pay for it later I’m sure. I’ll write different bits as I remember and hopefully this will build into a reasonable memoir. John Howard is using homosexuals as his latest whipping boys for the next wedge politics based federal election so maybe the chances we’ve had won’t be around for much longer.
I met the love of my life in a smoky bar in the Marais six years ago. I was strolling back from a failed visit to the Pompidou and read a sign “club privee pour les femmes”. It was my first visit to France and I was still amazed that French was actually separate language to Spanish and how little I understood. Anyway I wandered in, sat down with a beer and looked around. I’m not used to going into dyke bars, and was much less comfortable when I was younger and had long dreadlocks. I saw a table of “jolly English lavender ladies” and feeling too self conscious to join in started writing in my notebook.
Lots of people keep travel diaries but I reckon mine must be the most boring ever. Writing for me is kind of like doodling for other people. When I’m nervous, I sit and write streams of consciousness into notebooks. I’m often nervous when I travel so I write lots. Kind of like “I am sitting here writing this with a blue pen that I bought for 2 francs at franprix on the corner of rue blah and rue blah blah. I also bought a baguette, and a banana and a lion bar. In all I spent a total of 12 francs. This beer that I am drinking cost 35 francs, and I had a coffee this morning for 10 francs and I bought a demi pain for 8 francs so today I spent 75 francs and I can spend 25 francs more and I’ll have to get a demi verre of beer if I buy another one and finish my baguette for dinner, because 100 francs is my daily total and that is $25.00 and I’m already spending 100 francs a night at the hotel. Right now in the pub people are playing pool around me and there are 4 women at a bar and three women at a table behind me and a small dog in front of me. The signs on the wall say blah blah….” You get the picture. It’s kind of like the internal monologue of rain man. Riveting stuff. This is why I’ve been so reluctant to keep a blog. My diaries are Painfully boring. I seem to need an audience (even imaginary) to generate a narrative.
Anyway I was scribbling away, and even mentioned the approach of the one who changed my life forever. She thought I was drawing her, and wanted to sneak a peek. I think I did do a couple of scribbly sketches of dykey bums bending over the pool table. One must have been hers, but I think I noticed her tits first. No-one ever told me at school that if you look at women’s bodies involuntarily and not men’s that you are probably a lesbian. I guess St. Josephite nuns have rules against passing on that sort of vital information, and actually I wasn’t looking at anyone with sexual interest while I was at school so if wouldn’t have helped me anyway. Adolescent sex was for me a bloody nightmare. It was for most people I knew except for one girl in my class. She had a steady boyfriend from year six, and did lots of flirting on the side. She left school after year ten and I think they got married soon after. When her kids hit highschool she broke out of her childbride confines and ran off with her brother in law. It was a town scandal, poor thing. By comparison I’ve got nothing to complain about. Needless to say I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t anything. Just really sexually frustrated. Come adolescence I fled to the city and broke out and had a fair amount of luck and quite a few mishaps with men. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was attracted to women as well. It took a hell of a long time for me to actually sleep with one. This was due far more to my own social ineptitude than lack of courage. I did try, but I failed. No-one ever says that in coming out sessions or advice columns. They speak about courage, and integrity and conquering internalised homophobia and being true to yourself and your desires. No-one ever says that picking up chicks is REALLY REALLY hard. I reckon that’s why lesbian couples stay together for so long. I also reckon I’ve got no time for straight girlies whingeing about how hard it is to pick up men. Take a walk in my blundstones baby, guys are easy. When I finally dragged some winsome wench into the sack, my early fumbling efforts weren’t much to write home about, unless my family were some uber-rich freaky Christians prepared to fork out mega bucks if I could let myself be cured of my deviance. No-one ever says that either. Gay sex is meant to be the best ever. Well, often it’s not. Like travels with a sausage, life in salmon land can have its ups and downs as well as its ins and outs. Anyway by my mid twenties, I’d done straight, I’d done dyke, I’d done mardis gras. I was pretty much into the polymorphous perversity mantra of the late 90’s. Hell I wasn’t turning anything down. Let me think about it. Nope. Nothing!
So I guess the above explains the nervousness. I knew that real lesbians would know I wasn’t one of them and would steer clear. So I concentrated on my imperative of cultural tourism and scrawled away. When I found myself being chatted to by a small shaved headed thickly French accented baby dyke I was bemused. When she offered to buy me a beer I was grateful. When she said she was doing her PhD in Lesbian literature, I raved about Jeanette Winterson, and when she said she couldn’t play “err, ziss sing err, we err, call le Boillards” I took it to mean she couldn’t play pool, and I knew right then that something absolutely unique was happening to me. A dyke in a dyke bar was admitting that she could not pay pool. Suddenly I knew why I was in Paris. This would never happen in Sydney. Paris! The intellectual haven, where even baby dykes talk about Virginia Woolf and admit they can’t play pool. About then I remember some trashy Madonna song “holiday” coming over the sound system and then she sidled up to me and we started kissing. Oh sigh! Oh soft mouth and musky scent! Oh! small rounded limbs and fierce fondlings! Oh! Snogging on that Harley Davidson outside! Oh Sapphic bliss!!!
Even though my 100 franc a night hotel was around the corner, my directions got muddled and we wandered off into a balmy summer evening with Anna giving me a guided tour of Marais and Les Halles, and Le Pont Neuf (I think). Then it was 2am and I realised that I was locked out of my hotel. So we ended up catching a cab, with some guy who called her Monsieur as we snogged in the back, and I got my first glimpse of the Arch de Triomphe. We alighted somewhere near the Champs Elysee (which means elysian fields and looks nothing like a Poussin painting) and got in her car and she drove me to a suburb which I tried to compare with Sydney but I couldn’t. It was full of weird 50’s high concrete bungalows, a bit like a film version of Ionesco’s “rhinoceros” that I saw on TV once. And there we spent the night, on a foldout bed in the loungeroom. Anna said her Dad was home upstairs and she didn’t want to disturb him, and we had to leave first thing in the morning before he got up. I had visions of that scene in “trainspotting” and somehow convinced myself that maybe she was seventeen.
After we shared a coffee and parted I was kind of nonplussed. I was glad, but not overwhelmed and I was more concerned that lack of sleep and a mild hangover was going to ruin my appreciation of museums. It did, and I vowed not to call her that night, but then at dinner, decided to call her and schedule another meeting the following night, once I’d had some sleep. When we met again something magical happened and suddenly I didn’t give a shit about the museums. I remember her dropping me off at the Louvre, where I allowed myself three hours to wander in one of those shagged narcotic hazes through endless marble halls of American tourists and ancient sculptures. I ran into one of my friends from art school and blabbed crazy euphoric squeals as his face turned green and puckered with jealousy in front of me. Luckily some valley girls and a gay boy turned up and joined in the conversation and echoed my coos and sighs. Yeah. The Louvre.
So this magical affair went for four days, and I had connecting flights from London and art school back in Sydney. So I couldn’t delay my return. We parted over really crap coffee after Gare du Nord, which I was convinced was just like the Monet painting (Of Gare St. Lazare). We’d found a whole crate of madeleines the night before which we were giving to gypsies and with which I intended to survive my last 48 hours in Europe.
It gave the whole farewell a kind of gritty postmodern Proustian air. I cried at leaving her. She tried to make me laugh. We both promised to write to each other and I actually wrote something less than excruciatingly banal in my travel diary.
What I found out years later was that while I was convinced I had met the love of my life (how do you know? You just know!) and was torturing myself with the thought that we’d never see each other again, she was feeling chuffed at scoring a summer fling and looking forward to the next lay! She didn’t believe that I would write to her, I couldn’t bear not to. Every word, every thought, every sensation I was living with her, imagining telling her, wondering what she would thing or say or do. A wiser cynic would dismiss it all as silly infatuation, but I really believe that there are certain experiences where we are challenged to follow our hearts and find ourselves. Falling in love with Anna gave me this chance. Sexuality was no longer a matter of an intellectual construct or a social ploy or quick libido fix, something profoundly deep within me was involved this time. I remember the first time I had sex with a man when I returned to Sydney, and I burst into tears. The sex wasn’t particularly crap or distressing, just a paler shade of beige after living in dayglo. I cried at the thought of never touching her again, never smelling her, never feeling this way about anyone ever again and being able to share it. After the initial disappointment casual sex resumed its normalcy as a fun social activity, a bit of a transgressive release and whatnot but I knew that with Anna I had found something absolutely precious. So I wrote, and she wrote back, and we kept writing each week and the letters got longer and longer and crazier and crazier and then she announced that she was buying a ticket and coming to visit me! A dream come true!
To be continued next time.