Itchy feet in Paris

It’s strange to think that I’ve been in Paris for just over five months now, yet haven’t written anything about my life here—at least nothing more than lists and scraps of thoughts. I wake up to the bells of Notre Dame filling the loft where I sleep. I make breakfast and collect my free coffee from the café downstairs, where I am friendly with many of the staff. I do my freelance work; I sit in the sun and talk endlessly with colleagues about what we’re reading and doing. About life. All that talking, and I needed it. Through my words, I have gently stretched and calmed the bits of me that weren’t sitting right.

I listen to the radio, I listen to podcasts. For ten minutes each evening it’s Radio France International’s Le journal en français facile, where two amicable hosts read the news headlines very slowly in French. I listen to Björk’s first album, Big Area by Then Jerico, Sirens by Cats on Trees, and Paris 1919 by John Cale. I flâneuse.

In the Christmas sales, I bought some fancy new headphones. They cost 45 euros and they have a little feature I like: an extra wire port, so that someone else can plug in and listen too. I haven’t used it yet, but I like that it’s there. On Saturday evenings as we close the shop, one of the supervisors plays Saturday Night by Whigfield over the speakers and we—all the volunteers—do the dance I taught them, the one I learned as a child warming up for swimming competitions.

Most importantly, I read. I carry two books in my bag, keep one by the toilet and another by my couch-bed. I have always been able to balance multiple books. Some people find this kind of juggling hard to imagine, but I’m good at compartmentalising. I belong to a book club that meets monthly. I am about to join another. I buy National Geographic whenever I am at an airport. The other day, feeling optimistic, I purchased a slim book in French: King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despontes. There’s a stage adaptation showing in Paris this summer, which I’m hoping to go to. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand most of it.

As I said, I have always been able to balance many things in my life. My mother accused me of never being satisfied, of spreading myself too thinly, of not taking the time to fully appreciate things. But I am a cat, I am too curious, I cannot stop. I eat from the platter of the world, I have a huge appetite, and a fast metabolism. My head is full of The Bridge, Greek heroes, James O’Brien, the Waking Up podcast, tarot cards, E45 cream, the Irish abortion referendum. I digest experiences quickly and I am searching, searching. My organs have caught the winds and they are expanding, sailing, pulling me upwards with them.

This acts as a kind of stopper on my creative bottle. So stimulated am I that I am almost paralysed. This person who prizes mobility above all other privileges has come to a halt.

A colleague who just returned from India read my tarot cards. My past basked in feminine energy, guided by the moon, spiritually fulfilled and always growing. My present was a skeleton dancing on the ground, trying to make sense of what it had burned so it could grow again. My future was a sun-filled sky, a more masculine energy in tarot terms, revealing a flash of direction. My “general” card showed me that I am an empress, in charge of my own future, with a cheeky erotic flair demonstrated by the sly way she pulled up her skirts to reveal an ankle. I took a picture and set it as the background image on my iPod.

When I was 20 years old, I stopped writing the diary I had kept for over a decade. Every day, I had carefully documented my quotidian existence, feeling around for my own voice, never quite comfortable with the (to my mind, American) “dear diary”, confessional style of writing. Much of the time it felt like the fact of being self-disciplined enough to write every day was more important than what I actually wrote. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop, but after a particularly difficult few months, I found I just didn’t have the heart to do it. I couldn’t reach inside myself any more, however superficially. I wanted to ignore or expunge the internal turmoil, not write about it. I thought I’d keep a diary forever, but now five years have passed and I never put pen to paper in that way any more. The clouds that moved in to block me then have never fully gone away.

Sheila Heti spoke on a recent podcast, called Between the Covers, about how drawn she is to the literature authored by gay men in the 20th century. She is compelled by the freedom they seem to have, she said, the stories they could tell—the worlds they could imagine—because of not having a blueprint to follow. I want to live a life without a blueprint, she said. I am inspired by those people. She helped to put a name to what I feel is my own way of living. I don’t feel there’s a blueprint for what I’m looking for, although I am no visionary. I know I won’t find it entirely in Jack Kerouac, Cheryl Strayed, or Sylvia Beach. But I can find enough in them to piece together my own version for the 21st century.

I don’t run from the feeling of escape. Instead, I run towards it, to see what I will find there. It is not something I can repress. Like a cat, I must be free to flee, to leap over walls, to enter gardens, to watch the sunset from the rooftops, to hunt for small treasures.

About four years ago, I started rubbing the ball of my right foot absent-mindedly against rough carpets when I got home in the evenings, relieving something I didn’t notice until it got much worse. The skin thickened over time, trying to protect itself, and I developed soft ridges of flaking skin that look like the lines left by waves as they retreat down the beach. The itching spread. I woke up in the night mad with it. It was so intense that I would rub my foot hard enough along the carpet to burn the skin, this pain being preferable to the intolerable itching. One winter, when I was visiting New York City before heading south to Ecuador, I scratched my little toe with such aggression that I could barely walk the next day. For the next few years, it would flare up periodically like this. It was always worse in summer.

These past three months in Paris have been even more unbearable. Little blisters have developed deep under the skin, which I dig at in fury with my small fingernails. The skin has become infected, weeping and bleeding, spreading not just between my toes but down the soft arch as well. With horror, I am noticing the same familiar itching beginning to bother my left foot, too. Waking up in the night to the unbearable sensation of it, I felt despondent, almost weepy, as I claw half-asleep at my poor sore toes.

Psychosomatic. That’s the word for when your body responds physically to something psychological. All my life I knew there was more out there for me. Itchy feet? Could it really be that obvious?

I read, I read. My head is full of the hearts of others, made open to me through the books they urge me to read, that mean something to them. Life shines at me. Every day I am inspired by the people and the books who inhabit this little space with me. It’s hard to say why I haven’t written much since being here. Intuition tells me that it’s the diary in reverse—just as I became blocked up and frozen, I am now finding out how it feels to thaw. And today, I felt the urge again.


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