|Not Brazzaville Beach|
It's getting on two years since we had a holiday, and *that* was a snatched week on the Kent coast (above), where we took our laptops and spent a goodly portion of each day looking for cafes with wifi so we could keep up with our lives.
We did do some good walking, and drank some good beer in some good pubs, had a sandwich in Sandwich, and I re-read The Crimson Petal and the White... so it was a break, but mainly of the relative-calm-before-the-enormous-storm kind. It was the week we put our house on the market, and nothing has been the same since.
We used to be quite good at holidays, but they take time, planning and cash. All of the above disappeared into the vortex of our decision to join Lancaster Cohousing... a weekend of meetings every month, with train fares and finding places to stay, selling a house, moving to the Interim Bungalow, project commitments, trying to spend more time up north and less time down south, failing, trying to manage two lives ... it's not very sustainable, and it's completely exhausting.
When I look back I wonder if we should have made the break sooner, but then we had our own place in Oxford, and good friends all around, and we knew how everything worked. We didn't have much fun in our temporary northern accommodation, and anyway you don't leave Oxford lightly, not if you've loved it longtime. But then I also wonder if we should have taken it more gradually, moved in slowly, instead of basically camping in a house full of boxes with no internet, no washing machine, no transport, in the middle of a building site with a postcode that didn't really exist. In the end, we felt that would have just prolonged all the above agonies. We were absolutely in accord that we should just get on with it, so we did. But shit, it was hard. We were very tired.
And we still are. There hasn't been any respite... if anything the reverse. I've had more work travel this year than ever before -- I'm not proud of this, carbon footprint-wise, and it's probably a one-off, but in the last 12 months I've hauled my arse to Boston, New York (same trip, and I did get the train between them...), the Netherlands, Cambodia, the Netherlands again, and Tanzania. I also go to Oxford every six weeks or so to catch up with people in the NGO X mothership, and to Lytham every week - to spend time with my mum while I still can, and to give my dad, who is too sensible to drink alone, a reason to open a decent bottle of red and take a little time out from the main event.
We live in a peaceful, calm, warm, comfortable house which I do not regret for a moment moving to, which has felt like home since the moment we stepped through the door, and which has a view of the mighty River Lune which I could look at forever. I knew the first time I stood on the footpath near what became my house that this was the place I wanted to live for the next part of my life. But unlike the house, many aspects of living here are not yet peaceful, calm, warm or comfortable, and some may never be. If I had what I have come to think of as my usual resources, which have seen me through life pretty well so far, I think I'd be relishing some of the challenges that living in an intentional community can bring. I know how to represent myself, and I know it's not all about me.
But I don't have my usual resources, they have disappeared into a swirling vortex of lost certainties. I'm pretty sure I still know who I am, but quite a lot else is All New Here. My head is so full it might burst. And it's a long, long time since I had one of those weeks where you can't remember what day it is and all you have to think about is which book to read next and whether it's too early for lunch.
Enter Brazzaville Beach, which M borrowed from the library. It lay on the top of the book heap in the bedroom for the couple of months it took him to get around to reading it, and I have become a little fixated with it. Not the novel, but the place. And not even really the place, as the place in the book is a fictional beach which is nowhere near the real Brazzaville. The real Brazzaville does have a part of it called Brazzaville Beach, but that's not really a beach.
But none of that is really the point. The point is that Brazzaville Beach is a place that's as far away as it's possible to get. They do things differently there. It will be hot, and the food will be strange. There will be mosquitoes and poor sanitation. You will keep your wallet, which will be full of brightly coloured notes with elephants on them, which you need thousands of to buy a beer, zipped into your trousers-with-many-pockets. You will feel like the whitest person in the world, and you will seek out breezy seafront places to drink that beer, which will come in large, slightly wonky brown bottles. The sun will drop out of the sky like a stone at six in the evening, leaving a jet black sky covered in unfamiliar stars. You will sleep with the noise of calls to prayer and barking dogs competing with the air conditioning, which will go off with the electricity several times a night.
It will all be a bit scary at first, but you will gradually work out how to read situations, and make friends with taxi drivers and waiters, who will find out what you like to eat and where you want to go, and tell you about their families. If you stay long enough, you'll rent a house and start buying food at the market and sending your washing to the laundry. But you'll never belong there. You'll always be insulated from how life really is, and there will be a space around you that will stay empty, that you can use to think about which book to read next and whether it's too early for lunch. And the rest of the world just gets further and further away.
That is the space I want, and the more different everything else is, the easier it is to find. I have no actual great desire to go to the Republic of the Congo, but I have a feeling that a week in Devon just wouldn't cut it right now. There's no imminent likelihood even of that, to be honest, so we battle on, relying on the odd yoga class and the odd bottle of single malt to provide their different forms of respite. I haven't read the book myself yet -- novels remain a form of escape, as they always have, but somehow I want to keep this one till I really am on Brazzaville Beach, wherever that turns out to be.