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Entries in kara vanderbijl (70)

Wednesday
Aug072013

In Which We Have A Brush With Beauty

Manual Labor

by KARA VANDERBIJL

We stayed with a lot of strangers when we returned to Southern California for the summer after our first four years in France. It was as uncomfortable as you can imagine, with moments of gut-squeezing anxiety, like when your suitcase looks the same as every other suitcase on the baggage claim carousel. 

Our first hostess was the sort of woman who flapped around the house in an expensive, colorful kimono and made margaritas before lunch. She also preferred that we fold down the duvet before sitting down on a bed in one of her many guest rooms. Naturally my mother and I were slightly reluctant when she invited us to join her at her favorite nail salon one morning. It was in a stucco strip mall; across the parking lot was a Starbucks and a Cold Stone Creamery. On the other side of a newly-paved street and a stretch of landscaping so young the saplings were still braced — sat another nail salon, Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery. Mom parked our rental car and we flip-flopped our way into the salon.

We leaned against the counter as we waited to be assigned to both a chair and the unfortunate human squatting in front of it. In a small alcove, the ladies had erected some sort of crude shrine in which a fat Buddha stared benignly at a pile of day-old donuts. My head began to spin. It was perhaps the acetone or that season’s newest shade. Mom and I got French tips, which we laughed about, because in France they call any kind of manicure “American nails”, just like they call French braids “Indian braids”.

Years ago, I read a children’s historical novel about China. One of the minor characters was an old man who had never cut his pinkie fingernail because it was a symbol of his wealth, the fact that he never had to do any manual labor. It grew in on itself, curled and brown.

This fact about ancient China is passed around like an urban legend, a sort of disgusting anecdote that amuses and impresses. What's funny to me is that although they are less physically repulsive, we still cherish these status symbols. We still like having an extra $30 to burn so that it looks like we spend all day sipping mimosas over brunch, gripping phones and flipping perfect beachy waves. It's like, have you ever done the dishes? Rolled out a pie crust? Picked up something? I don't understand the desire to look like someone who has never stepped off the pages of a lifestyle blog. 

Is there only beauty in the immobile, the indestructible, the unchipped? 

From an early age, I became obsessed with a picture book about the demise of Pompeii that the local library left at child’s-eye view. The images filled my thoughts. I was not afraid of volcanoes (there were more important things to be afraid of, like rattlesnakes in the backyard and earthquakes) but I was fascinated with the images of the people who had lived in Pompeii, the people who had without warning been torn from their pleasures.

Vesuvius left only traces: lewd sketches above doorways in what used to be a brothel, large paintings of penises in inner courtyards. The residents of Pompeii died with eating utensils in their hands. Locked in an embrace. Curled up into themselves, hands over their ears.

For a few years, I considered the merits of living by what I came to call the “Pompeii test”: I would only do things that would be instantly recognizable if I were instantly encased in molten lava for all time. Had a volcano magically erupted in Southern California on the day my mother and I were getting manicures, archeologists would have found us thousands of years later forever locking hands with the nail technicians. “Look,” the archeologists would say, “these women were comforting one another in their last moments,” or, “Look, these women were performing sign language” or “Look, these women were handing primitive tools to one another.”

It isn’t remembering Pompeii that keeps me from getting manicures these days, though. I feel unlike myself when I walk into salons featuring the same peach-colored walls, faux Grecian columns and flat-screen televisions playing daytime soaps. Women with perfectly straightened hair in yoga pants read fashion magazines while they get their bunions rubbed, then walk out gingerly in rhinestone-covered sandals. I have nothing against these women, but I am not one of them. I haven’t brushed my hair in a year.

It is fascinating to me that we develop beauty products that completely deny the ever-evolving, ever-moldable aspects of our bodies. We take our live fluid hair and fill it with products so it won't move. We dutifully hydrate with special creams to prevent wrinkles that we know we'll get anyways. To me, this is a lot like closing the curtains on an ocean view and plastering them with pictures of motionless waves. 

Something must be said for allowing yourself to be ruined and ripened by your environment.

A few weeks ago I listened to a woman in the bus complain about her most recent manicure over the phone. She expressed disdain for the salon and called the technician who had performed the manicure a string of adjectives I wouldn't even assign to my worst enemy. I snuck a look at the toes peeping out of her T-strap sandals. They were painted a trendy neon orange. I couldn't pick up any visible flaws, except that she had none.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about insult to injury. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Will We Ever Be Friends Again?" - Ida Maria (mp3)

"I Just Need A Hug" - Ida Maria (mp3)

Wednesday
Jul172013

In Which They Cover Our Faces With Tissue Paper

Insult to Injury

by KARA VANDERBIJL

I am always a little surprised to discover that I have a body. Soon after I’d moved to Chicago, someone brushed my arm on the train and I almost cried because I could not remember the last time someone had touched me.

In the summer I bruise easily. The backs of my calves bloom with purple-black spots at the impact of bike pedals. Now, on my thigh above my knee, there’s a yellow-green spot from when I walked into a drawer that I had opened just moments prior. It’s disappointing, as an adult, to discover that you cannot pass unseen or untouched as easily as you did when you were a child.

I would rather reveal a deep, humiliating secret than have somebody invade my personal space. In the city, there are degrees of closeness. A certain touch in the train is formal, compartmentalized into what we refer to as “rush hour”: the slow sludge movement of hundreds of people trying to squeeze through doorways and turnstiles, through the curled spaces between other humans.

Even if they never reach the same physical proximity as these commuters, someone who means harm can be detected almost immediately. The bodily threat hangs pungent in the space between us. I remember a strange boy putting his hand on my knee when I was in high school, but perhaps he just lifted it from his own and began reaching towards me.

“Don’t touch me,” I warned.

I’m taller than almost any other woman I’ve met, and of a serious, unsmiling disposition. On the street, men whistle, but I don’t know what they’re whistling at. These hips? These breasts? I spent years trying to wish them out of existence, not because I was ashamed of them, but because the fantasy of being admired for simply my mind held an undeniable lure.

When a boy I liked in high school kissed me on the cheek one morning in the hallway before class, I felt it all the way down to my toes. I wasn’t kissed on the mouth until later, long after most people my age had already lost their sense of physical wonder. It was a little bit like being picked last for a sports team, except I was great at it right away, like my body knew things that my mind didn’t, answers to questions that have circulated since the beginning of time.

I took to water like a fish, not afraid of its depths like most children but terrified of the man-made box it was in, the feats of engineering that drained it and filled it and filtered it. When I was seven, I went swimming alone in the deep end by myself. I slipped underwater and reached down to touch the bottom of the pool, near the drain that I feared so much. As I let my body float to the surface of its own buoyant accord, I closed my eyes. My right cheek struck something sharp. I surfaced, bringing my hand to my face, and opened my eyes to see blood covering my palm and running down my arm. I’d gashed my face open on the ladder. At the hospital, they covered my face with tissue paper as they stitched up the wound with a needle shaped like a fish hook.

I forgot to drink water during my freshman year of college. I woke up in the middle of the night sometimes so parched I’d search the whole room, in the dark, trying not to wake my roommate up, for enough change to go buy a bottle of water from the vending machine. Sometimes I couldn’t find enough change and I had to wait until breakfast. The water in the bathrooms tasted metallic, with a twist of chlorine strong enough to make me reminisce about entire Southern California summers spent in the pool. It was a cocktail of childhood, of living in a place I’d lived in before after I’d lived in a place that obliterated all other places for me. My body was the only constant between here and there, and it has never been constant.

I bit my nails for years. Never until they bled, but close. Now, when I see someone on the train with badly bitten fingers, my stomach turns and I have to look away. I wish I could remember how I stopped, or why when I’m taken almost completely out of my body by a book or a film, I resume the old habit.

Eating a lot, and eating well, has always moored me to the physical. But it’s a transient activity. If only I could pick up some sort of tic, a discomfort that would constantly remind me of my body. If I could tap my toes obsessively. If I blinked more than the usual amount. If I possessed one superhuman sensation, even at the expense of another. I realize that these wishes are nonsensical, even offensive. But the desire to change, mutilate, or enhance one’s body has been around forever. It is simply the desire to be a body that we are also proud of, instead of this paradoxical creature that we happen to be but cannot always identify with.

My thighs are touching again. I’m wearing a sundress and the humidity makes my legs stick together uncomfortably. When I’ve felt unbeautiful, I’ve known deep inside that it is simply a result of my own feelings, not the physical reality of me. I’ve always thought more about what I could give to people in terms of my presence or thoughts; giving my body to friends or lovers to embrace and study seems foreign and bizarre even now. I enjoy it with the same wonder as I enjoy pondering a new and difficult concept.

We copyright them sometimes, but in truth, our thoughts are universal. Once you share an idea with someone, you’ve put it out into the universe, and you can’t take it back. Our bodies are the only things that truly belong to us, truly are us. Even in our most intimate physical sharing, we remain separate. You can pass an idea off as your own but you cannot pretend to own somebody else’s body. It’s the part of us that keeps us from becoming truly universal, perhaps from fully belonging.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about a Provence state of mind. She tumbls here and twitters here.

Photographs by David Drebin.

"Strep Throat" - Georgia's Horse (mp3)

"A Long Ride Home" - Georgia's Horse (mp3)

The debut album from Teresa Maldonado is called The Mammoth Sessions.


Tuesday
Jun182013

In Which We Look Casually For Jellyfish

Provence State of Mind

by KARA VANDERBIJL

When I tell people that I once lived in France, but not in Paris, their faces fall a little bit. It is as if I had announced that I once met Beyonce’s cousin, only they are not sure she even has a cousin. So when they ask, “What was life like in France?”, I know they do not really want to hear about my life in France; that would be as uncomfortable as a magician explaining his act while it is in progress, cheap truth overlapping the alluring illusion. People embrace a certain mythology about a place, and they want to hear it told over and over again. They want to hear silly stories about snobby mustaches and striped shirts and cowards running away from German soldiers. They want poodles and snails and Amelie Poulain and ooh-la-la. They want to hear how many times you have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

“None,” I reply, “I’m afraid of heights.”

“So where, exactly, did you live?” Their lips pucker in disappointment.

“The south,” I tell them, “In Marseille.”

+

Most people believe that the entire country of France was born in Paris like a dark blot of ink, losing color and definition as it eventually seeped in all cardinal directions. But before there was even a nation or a Paris to speak of, the Phoenicians settled into a tiny seaside port called Massilia. Here the Mediterranean, lapping at the limestone cliffs, was turquoise or cobalt depending on her mood. The hills smelled like rosemary and thyme. Far from powder or perfume, the original settlers were swarthy, olive-skinned, feasting on fish and dark strong wine. They were pirates.

Later, after the city had grown, after they’d dressed her in churches and cobblestones, Massilia festered with the plague and with Roman trade. Napoleon loved her and planted a fortress and a palace like kisses on her seductive cliffs. She sent volunteers to the Revolution lustily singing an anthem that was later named for them. She sent fish, and olive oil, and lavender wrapped in brightly-dyed fabric. She sent immigrants fresh off the boat from North Africa and her salty perfume up the Rhone. She sent us long sun-dappled summers and an August sea as warm as bathwater.

+

Marseille is known for a hearty fish stew called bouillabaisse. The dish contains at least three different kinds of fish, all originating from the sea around the city. It is a very strong, almost pungent dish, but done well, it’s complex, hinting at luxurious saffron and herbs of Provence. In the very old days, fishermen returning to port made the stew in a cauldron of seawater, using the small, bony fish that wouldn’t sell as well at the market, using simply sage and garlic to flavor it. As time went on, more ingredients were added, and bouillabaisse moved off the street into some of the most prestigious restaurants in the area.

The stew embodies the brine-soaked city in a way that nothing else can. It’s a melange of sights, smells, and cultures. It has its little moments of deep luxury, but for the most part, it is full of people and things you wouldn’t necessarily look at twice, that wouldn’t go for the asking price at the market.

My parents first visited Marseille in the summer of 1997. They had been accompanying university students on a voyage abroad, spent mostly in northeast Lyon. Marseille was blisteringly hot. A prolonged trash strike had littered the cobblestone streets with mounds of refuse that crawled with rats. What should have been a short day trip lasted three, thanks to the high-speed train service going on strike; with no change of clothes, my parents smelled no different from the leather-skinned old men who sat at the Old Port all day smoking, swearing, selling fish. My mother must have tried to make the best of it; she always does. In the end, she told my father,

“I will never raise my children in this city.”

Three summers later, we moved there.

+

Marseillais French has a distinct twang. The further south you go, the more the language transitions from a closed, nasal delivery to one of exuberance, vitality. Passions and tempers run as hot as the weather. At the same time, nobody relaxes as well as those who live in the south. France as a whole knows and enjoys and strives after pleasure more than any other country I have ever visited, but in Provence it is a religion. It is not difficult for this to be true when the the food is so fresh, when the weather is so good, when the sea is so blue.

The older inhabitants of the city are the best expression of this. They’ve been here for years. They vacation in nearby Spain or Italy, leaving the French language and food behind but never straying far from the coast. They are an unbridled expression of bliss and simple goodwill. On the beach the men wear Speedos and the women go topless. Their skin is like wrinkled brown leather; rolls of good-natured flesh overlap the nylon of their bathing suit bottoms as they sit, decked in gold necklaces and communion bracelets, on their towels with their grandchildren playing nearby. They laugh heartily from the belly. It’s a terrible and terrific sight. You cannot help but admire their spirit as much as you disdain their bodies. And why this disdain of their bodies? We all grow old and flabby. Why should the young and beautiful be the only ones to enjoy the freedom of their bodies?

+

My parents were friends with a couple who had both been working in the same French bank for many years. Both of them had accrued ten weeks of vacation time per year. Ten weeks. That’s a fifth of the year. That is two and a half months of time during which their place of employment pays them to do whatever they want, as long as it is relaxing, as long as it doesn’t take place in the office. You say, “And then people wonder why the French economy is in the toilet,” and I don’t disagree, but I also say, “The American economy is in the toilet. And we’re enjoying it a hell of a lot less than they are.”

+

The scrubby limestone cliffs on the coast smell like rosemary and thyme. Rosemary means “dew of the sea” in Latin because in many places this little plant requires nothing other than the humidity carried to it by the sea breeze to live. I grew up similarly. It was enough most mornings to walk out and smell the salt air in order to be reassured of a greater order and purpose. Even when she churns in discomfort at the hint of a storm, the Mediterranean is much less frightening than any ocean. Twice my mother has been gifted with special waters: the first time, a student brought some of the Dead Sea back to her in a used bottle. Another time, a friend visited Lourdes and bought a small vial of Mary’s blessed liquid.

We looked casually for jellyfish and other creatures as we floated during the summer. I swam to a spot deep enough for my lower body to be in cold water and my upper body to be in warm water. I knew I was two people, one who had always been in the sea and the other who was just visiting.

+

I really dislike the idea that becoming more like a certain culture and less like your own will be better for your health or well-being. There are pros and cons to every mindset and way of doing things. You must learn to take the best of the worlds you inhabit and create your own culture. That’s why it is such a wonderful thing to be able to live in a foreign country when you are young and your mind is still elastic. If you can only see things that are different when you’re traveling, whether you think they are “better” or “worse” than what you are used to, then you must exercise your ability to see people as needing and wanting the same things across time and space and simply trying to get them in different ways.

Over the past few years my bookshelves have taken on a few “cultural self-help” books, as I call them: thin, brightly-colored volumes that aim to introduce Americans to foreign cultures, to expose what differentiates them from their peers overseas and to teach them how to be more.... whatever it is that the author deems is missing from the American way of life.

Even some expat memoirs fail to delve deep into their cross-cultural experiences. It is always more interesting, more sensationalist, to tell those you’ve left behind how foreign, how different, how difficult to understand everything is. These travel pieces are interesting but they are limited to a sort of crude voyeurism. Let me see how I can paint a picture of this people in a way that makes them seem backward or odd or fetishized.

I have often fallen into the pitfall of portraying my experience this way to people. I have fed into the stereotypes that, while they are not fully untrue, do not encompass the French people or their culture. If I were to tell the absolute truth I would say that it was no different for me to live in one country or another. I think that it is possible to live outside of the culture you live in, even if you never leave it. It must be possible to constantly renew your experience so that you are taking the best of everything you know and don’t know and making it apply to your life.

+

The French are fiercely jealous for their language and culture. In the south, the constant mixture of nationalities and backgrounds causes friction. It’s not unlike the immigration debate here in the United States, except that it takes place in much smaller streets and neighborhoods and cities. The borders between minorities are thinner and less defined. In a port city like Marseille, most quartiers combine the flavors of each culture. The melting pot lets off a strong fragrance of blurring identities, of old colonial tensions. You’ll eat a croissant for breakfast and couscous for lunch.

+

In France, I was resistant to being known as “the American girl”, and now that I have returned to the States, I am resistant to being known as “the girl who lived in France”. Yet it is difficult for me not to fall into easy patterns, to embody the things I loved about my experience overseas in order to differentiate myself from my peers. It is the hook in my personal history, the thing many people refer to as “the most interesting part of Kara’s story.” On an objective level, I don’t disagree with this statement. Next to many, I had a rogue childhood, a home built out of moving boxes.

But I believe the most interesting part of your story is what you choose to do with what you have experienced. It is the one state of mind you adopt after you have visited all of them. You plant your flag there in courage or cowardice and you wait for the crowds to come visit. It is the country you make of your heart. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Before Midnight. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Cannons" - Youth Lagoon (mp3)


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