YOUR BODY IS JUST SITTING THERE

My family left Europe generations ago, fleeing from anti-semitism and economic oppression. For an American, that kind of suffering can feel (literally) far away, a part of the distant past. Returning to Europe as a student, however—first to France and now to England—makes it feel very recent and visceral. With ‘YOUR BODY IS JUST SITTING THERE’, I wanted to think about what it means to be American and Jewish in Europe, a place my relatives were desperate to escape from, and the intimate, physical ways in which alienation and exile manifest themselves.

1.

mostly i do not think about my Polish relatives and your Polish relatives

& who took up residence in whose houses but

sometimes, then, i do
think about it

2.

there was a memorial for it
( )
in berlin but no bodies

hundreds of gravestones and no bodies
was that the joke

german children kept playing
on the stones so i knew
at least something was still alive

3.

now it is Sabbath &
i continue to work

4.

remember when we were in the orchard
when i was in the orchard

it makes me so sad to
see the last light turned out

5.

what does it feel like
he asks
to be beautiful?

mina loy: ‘Beautiful
half-hour of being a mere woman
[…]
Understanding nothing of man’

6.

i talk about studying in france,
forget to mention
how i was cold for weeks
in july in the south

how the missing,
my host mother said,
made me cold

i wore sweaters—
i wrote about blue fingers—

how i lost my sense of taste,
avoided food,
then went to morocco

8.

i don’t miss new york but i miss something
or something misses me

9.

your body is just sitting there
raw exchange value
the way
your body is just SITTING THERE

10.

it is Sabbath &
i continue to work

Les Flaneurings d’une Fille à Paris

Thoughts of love gather like dust in the attic of my mind and won’t be swept away. They cower like cobwebs in the corner, between boxes of broken promises, seeking shadow and shade at the first sight of dawn. Since love has knocked on my door and so often ran away, it is hard to believe that it really exists at all. It seems not everyone can hold a needle nor has the patience, never mind the skill, to sew a heart up so full of patchwork as mine, but French men don’t love like English boys do.

Sometimes monsieur and I don’t understand a single word of what each other says, and in some situations this proves useful. The language of love is different in each land, and communication difficulties create a helpful catch-net for the overspill of an over-eager heart. I’m allowed to call him ‘mon bien-aimé’, which is ‘my beloved’, after just one month because my palms have never felt the weight of these terms of endearment before. It’s a good excuse. These words are suddenly pearls that I’m scared to drop, placed in the palm of my hand I stammer and shake, the light they reflect is blinding, it scatters too far and falls short at my feet. I explain that it’s the fault of the French professor for forgetting to verse us the art of love, that we never had any lessons on how to address someone to whom we are attracted with amorous intent. This is followed by the innocent if slightly intentional hint that the only words of this kind that I know are ‘copain’ and ‘copine’, which happen to be boyfriend and girlfriend. At any rate, it worked. I’ve bagged myself a beautiful French boyfriend, a moustached connoisseur of cheese and wine who brings me croissants back from the boulangerie. I’ve never been so spoilt, though he insists on teaching me how to ski and eat snails.

In his arms, my heart is a beast raging out of control, thrashing its weight against the bone-white barbed-wire cage of a chest, but the futility of words frustrates me, particularly with the impossible task of trying to share it all in a foreign tongue. If I pick a flower and pluck each petal I will find out if he loves me, or if he loves me not, but l’amour à la francaise is much more advanced. Each petal that is picked brings love into blossom or bloom: “il m’aime un peu, il m’aime beaucoup, il m’aime passionnément, il m’aime à la follie, il ne m’aime pas de tout”. Whilst the English version may be bog-standard and boring, I either love you or I blatantly don’t, at least it is built upon the concrete structures of certainty that won’t crumble as soon as the sun comes out. As the hammer of my heartbeat threatens to rip through, tearing skin to shreds, my heart burst its banks in one sharp gasp: “C’est possible.” I am a bomb waiting to explode, burning from the inside out, a fire in my throat from the embers of words I never spoke: “C’est possible … que je t’aime.” If I have learned anything it is that the heart cannot be tamed, so don’t force it into hibernation.

When it is time to return to England, I wake and weep silent tears at his shoulder, trying to drown out the hum of his heartbeat though it can still be heard. The promise of love unstitching itself from my heart, again, I hadn’t anticipated that I would be this sad. It is like the sky has cracked and all the stars have slipped through. I wish I could stay. I wish I could sew the words “c’est possible que je t’aime” into a blanket, and wrap it round him to keep him warm through the winter. Sadly, the moment never lasts long enough, it flutters from the hand. Whilst I will return to Paris in just over one month, as after all, many more months of my year abroad await us, it feels like a lifetime and I will miss him every day. In any case, he takes me to the station and promises to be waiting on the platform when I come back.

My Year Abroad: Working in Paris

For what seems like the majority of second year, the big question of the Year Abroad was like my own personal raincloud, constantly following me around and opening on up whenever the spectre of ‘next year’ was mentioned. Even though I was certain that I wanted to work and earn my way through the year, there were just too many question marks for my liking—what kind of job? Paid or internship? Italy or France?

Applications were sent off, telephone interviews stumbled across (may have used the excuse of ‘bad reception’/feigned a coughing fit on more than one occasion) and finally – on the day of my Italian oral in the first week of Easter Term—I was offered a job in Communications at HEC Paris, a business school just outside of Paris (emphasis on the ‘outside’). With a monthly bursary, free accommodation and the promise of hours and hours on Facebook, I was sold.

I wouldn’t be lying if I said that my Year Abroad was one of the best years of my life. My job was varied and challenging, with real responsibility and end-of-the-day satisfaction—I worked on the new MBA website, managed the social media accounts and worked on promotional material such as brochures and videos for the program. I was able to work closely with the students (read: I was able to have many coffee breaks with the students) and the fact that I lived on the campus gave me the best of both worlds: a working wage during the day and the student social life in the evenings.

I did salsa and rock ‘n’ roll classes, I attended deep philosophical debates about the meaning of love in French (didn’t understand a word but looked intelligent) and even attended a very memorable hip-hop break-dancing class in an attempt to woo a Frenchman (it didn’t work out). I was a cheerleader in a sports tournament, helped run an international summer school program and interviewed the ex-Vice President of Amazon (he liked my nail polish, fun fact). And you know what? I loved every second.

But of course, the Year Abroad is about more than the work you do. It’s about the things that you choose to do, the opportunities you take and the adventures you have. If I had to give a piece of advice to someone currently on their Year Abroad or looking ahead to theirs, it would be to say Yes to everything (as long as it’s legal); many people find it scary going to a foreign country where you don’t know anyone, but you really do take away what you put in. Go to dance classes, to strange bars in new neighbourhoods, take advantage of your new location to do a bit of travelling – I managed to get to Belgium, Germany, Alsace, Italy, the Loire Valley and even a military academy and I only wish I’d done more. Stay positive, keep smiling and put yourself out there. It’s scary but well worth it; you’ll find it’s not just your language skills which grow, but your self-confidence, too. And that’s pretty priceless.

A Year Abroad in Moscow

The homestay. What better way to truly experience Russia? You don’t want tourism, you want realism. You close your eyes and put your hands in the life of an online company who promise to find you a host and a home for a month. You’ll get better at Russian, and that’s pretty much all that’s guaranteed. You’ll have ‘a Russian experience’, which is a very ambiguous phrase.

And so I move in with Lyubov.

Fiery red hair, gravelly voice: she’s not going to take shit from anyone and she has seven locks on her door just to make sure. She is the most wonderfully eccentric and fantastic woman, and her name literally means ‘Love’. England has the same trend of taking names from virtues too—Grace, Joy, Hope—but they’re all a bit wishy-washy. In Russia they go straight for the jugular.

As soon as I arrive I realise the catch: I’m sleeping in her room. Not with her, which is probably a good thing, but then she’s moved into the sitting room to sleep on the sofa, and that leaves me with a healthy dose of guilt from day one. I never thought I’d be the kind of guy who forces an old lady to sleep on a sofa. I’m learning every day. So I’m in her bed, with its electric-blue satin sheets, the porcelain cats and cherubs watching me from corners of the room, Jesus looking down at me from above my head, tapestries of bears playing in a wood near Smolensk on the walls, and lacy curtains hiding a view of the local karaoke club, where I know that what goes on is definitely not karaoke or they’d never allow karaoke at children’s parties.

I’ve opted to cook for myself, but nonetheless Lyubov insists on making me the odd meal. Again that phrase ‘a Russian experience’ is thrown out there. But it suits me fine for the first few days, because the endless supply of home-grown apples, onions and potatoes from her last dacha visit has limited my designated fridge space to three square inches. And, to be fair, some of her food is quite tasty. The pumpkin porridge is a triumph. But then the red onion and kidney bean mulch needs a bit of work, and cranberries take all the fun out of an apple pie. And I challenge the politest man in the world to finish a glass of kefir without choking and saying ‘I think there’s something wrong with your milk.’

I learn Lyubov’s household rules by trial and error. When you make a mistake, you learn the rule and remember for next time. It’s a lot like grammar. You wash your hands on arrival. You always leave your keys on the hook. Under no circumstances do you put a spoon in the fridge.

Once a week a very small Tadjik mystic comes to tell her fortune. For a modest fee. I know when he’s coming over because Lyubov boils up a pot of special tea. They go into her study and shut the door. I wish I knew what goes on in there but sadly I never will. All I know is that he can only see into the future short-term because he comes every week. And seeing as Lyubov’s fate remains largely the same, he presumably doesn’t have much trouble finding things to predict. He may have fooled her but he knows I’m on to him. I pass him in the hallway as he stuffs his rubles into his pocket and puts on his boots, and he gives me a look that says ‘Don’t rat me out, mate’. The first thing Lyubov said to me when I moved in was that I should always be careful not to get mugged by a Tadjik. I’d point this out to her but it might look cheeky. Also, I don’t want to cross a mystic. He has the power to make my life very difficult: if he decides to sense an evil presence in Lyubov’s house then I’m gone.

When the mystic is gone I ask Lyubov what he said. He told her ‘she should be careful with her money’. The man clearly has an excellent sense of humour.

I live out of my suitcase because the cupboard is full of Lyubov’s things. When the day arrives when it’s all starting to fester and get a bit nasty I ask her if she has a washing machine. She pretty much laughs in my face. She has a friend over at the time and she laughs at me too. Lyubov says something that I don’t fully understand. It probably translates roughly as ‘Man up, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and wash your clothes in the bath.’

As I prepare to bathe my pants and socks, Lyubov comes to my rescue with her secret weapon: a portable, miniature clothes-washing apparatus. It looks like a phone-charger with a black plastic teardrop on the end of the wire, about the size of a spoon-head. Lyubov assures me that it cleans clothes perfectly well. We fill up a plastic tub with water and detergent and tip my washing in. We plug in the contraption and she places the end in the water. I watch it, expecting it to spring to life. Nothing happens. No noise, no vibrating, the water doesn’t move, nothing. Apparently we leave it for an hour and it washes everything. I’m not convinced. I shut it in the bathroom—perhaps it doesn’t like being watched. I look it up on Google and I can’t find any evidence that phone-charger washing machines exist. The Tadjik mystic must have sold it to her.

After an hour the water is brown, which is progress, I think, but the black plastic teardrop still sits there, looking at me smugly and doing nothing. I poke it and Lyubov tells me to leave it alone. I retreat to my room.

In the end the clothes are as clean as any clothes that have sat in stagnant, tepid, soapy water for two hours. It’ll have to do. Now it’ll probably be a week until they’re dry. I sneak a look at the instructions for this magic washer. They’re very long and I can’t be bothered to translate them, suffice to say that if it actually was a genuine gadget for cleaning clothes, we certainly didn’t use it properly. Part of me thinks it was just a washing machine extension cord.

Lyubov used to be a teacher of Russian literature and language. As well as being extremely useful for me, as it allows me to have long chats in about the books I’m reading, which is great all-round practice, it also means she has a few students who pop in and out from time to time for lessons. On one of my poorly-timed hall crossings I meet one of these pupils as she’s leaving. She’s an English-speaking girl, so I make my usual small talk about how badly I speak Russian and how well she speaks English and what I’m doing in Moscow. It’s a nice enough chat, but then I see Lyubov scurry pass with a sly smile on her face and a scheme visibly forming in her head. Curse my natural charm. I tell the girl that my samovar has boiled and escape to the shelter of the kitchen. I hear the two of them giggling conspiratorially in the foyer.

A few minutes later, in comes Lyubov.

‘You know the best way to get really good at Russian?’

Here it comes.

‘Get a Russian girlfriend.’

I laugh it off and tell her that I already have an English girlfriend, which is why my English is so good. That outstanding piece of humour completely passes her by. She asks me if I like the girl and I say she’s pleasant. She tells me that the girl is sixteen and wealthy and I wonder if she’s testing my moral compass. Regardless, next time she comes over Lyubov is determined to make sure we become friends. Who knows, maybe we could go to a museum together? I make a mental note of the day and the time so I know when to be out of the house.

A week on I know she’s still working on that particular scheme so I have to be on my guard. If Dostoyevsky has taught me one thing, it’s that older ladies love to matchmake naive men. But then if it’s taught her one thing, it’s that students murder landladies with axes, so hopefully she won’t press the matter.

Lyubov is wonderful. I’ve got two more weeks with her, so it’s not over yet, but I’ll miss her when I’m gone. She probably won’t miss me because she’ll be glad to have her bed back. I’ve heard her laughing with her friends at my idiotic, bumbling Englishness, which makes me feel less bad about thrusting her into the blogosphere without her knowledge. I’ve gambled and I’m confident that she isn’t a blogger. Even if she is, it doesn’t matter, because this piece is a tribute to how delightfully quirky she is and how much fun it’s been living with her. She’s taught me so much: about Russia, Russian culture, the food, the outlook, the literature, all of it. I feel like I’m her protégé. I’m certainly her fan. You could even call me her lyubovnik*. And when you start pulling Russian puns like that out of the bag, you can be sure you’ve learned something.

* I’m not her lyubovnik.